DVD reviews
May 2008

 

 

All reviews by Loey Lockerby


There Will Be Blood (2-Disc Collector’s Edition)

There Will Be Blood is the kind of movie you recommend and warn people about at the same time. Paul Thomas Anderson’s bold tale lacks the narrative beats and payoffs of more conventional films, but it’s definitely worth the challenge.

A loose adaptation of the 1927 Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood details the rise and fall of tycoon Daniel Plainview, played by a spectacular Daniel Day-Lewis. Plainview claws his way to the top in the early 20th century at the beginning of the California oil boom. He feels a deep bond with the land, and can only tolerate other people so far as he can manipulate them.

The one exception is his son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), for whom Plainview has genuine affection. He can’t love the boy as much as he loves his ambitions, but the relationship brings out what good qualities he has.

His interaction with opportunistic minister Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) has the opposite effect. They’re a great deal alike, devoted to their causes, but more concerned with promoting themselves and, ultimately, defeating each other.

Anderson brilliantly captures the twin American obsessions of religion and capitalism (which were arguably at their most insane during the film’s time period) and how those interests overlap, then devour each other. He never blatantly compares the era to today’s world, but his portrayal of self-destructive avarice is universal. Plainview and Sunday often seem like two sides of the same person, and they each represent much larger ideas.

There is a great deal more to There Will Be Blood — Anderson and his actors have crafted something so unique and thought provoking, you may find yourself analyzing it months after you see it. Unlike most movies, it’s one you won’t want to forget.

Extras: Research materials and silent films on the oil industry, which show just how meticulous Anderson’s efforts were; some good deleted and alternate scenes; sadly, no featurettes or commentaries, which would no doubt have been fascinating. (R) Rating: 5.


Juno

This could have been a disaster. Filled with quirky characters and self-consciously hip dialogue, Juno has the appearance of a movie that will try too hard and fail. There are plenty of those out there.

As everyone on the planet knows by now, nothing about Juno fails. From Diablo Cody’s Oscar-winning screenplay to the smallest supporting performance, it works on every level, only rarely slipping into the preciousness that so often curses the genre.

Ellen Page gives a star-making performance as the title character, a self-confident teenager who discovers she’s pregnant. The father is her friend Paulie (Michael Cera), with whom she has engaged in only one fumbling sexual encounter. After deciding to have the baby, Juno breaks the news to her parents (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney), and finds an adoptive family in the form of tense yuppie couple Mark and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman).

That’s about it as far as plot goes. The fun of Juno comes from all the little touches that build on Cody’s script. Director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) gives the movie a lived-in feel, putting the characters in environments that resemble actual homes and neighborhoods. The way everyone talks may be a bit unrealistic, but they’re completely authentic in every other respect.

This not only makes the dialogue more funny than annoying, it also allows sincere emotion to break through. Juno is precocious, but she’s also kind-hearted and vulnerable, and Page can go from smart aleck to sweet and back again effortlessly. It’s not just her film, however, as nearly all the characters get at least one scene that makes you wish they were real and friends of yours. That may be the most important of Juno’s successes.

Extras: A fun, freewheeling commentary by Reitman and Cody, who also comment on a batch of great deleted scenes; gag reels; screen tests; a goofy “cast and crew jam” music video. (PG-13) Rating: 4.


Charlie Wilson’s War

A hard-drinking, cocaine-snorting, womanizing Congressman is an unlikely movie hero. Tom Hanks playing that congressman is even more unlikely. He’s never a hundred percent convincing, but thanks to the tag team of Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin, he doesn’t really need to be.

Nichols and Sorkin direct and write, respectively, this adaptation of George Crile’s non-fiction book, and it’s quite a story. Charlie Wilson was a Texas representative who hadn’t done much except party and get re-elected until 1980, when he saw what the Soviets were doing in Afghanistan. Fired up by these atrocities and encouraged by Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), Wilson used his connections to fund a massive covert operation to arm the Mujahideen resistance fighters. With the help of frustrated CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Wilson got the Afghans enough assistance to drive the Soviets out, but couldn’t prevent the ensuing chaos that led to the Taliban and, ultimately, the rise of al Qaeda.

That last point is clear throughout the film, although Nichols and Sorkin don’t hammer at it. This is more of a snappy political comedy than a cautionary tale, and both men are in their creative element. The story moves smoothly, despite the complicated backroom intrigue, and Sorkin’s dialogue practically pops off the screen.

Hanks launches into the role of Wilson with gusto, almost making you forget that this is the guy who played Jim Lovell and Forrest Gump. Roberts and Hoffman are more ideal for their roles and all of them seem aware that this is one of the best scripts they’ll ever get.

Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, Charlie Wilson’s War is too short to offer much depth or insight. If it were fictional that would not be a problem, but a true story whose consequences are still costing lives deserves at least another half an hour.

Extras: Two making-of features, one on the film’s production and another on the real Charlie Wilson. (R) Rating: 3.5.


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

It's hard to imagine a more daunting cinematic task than telling a story through the eyes of a paralyzed man. Yet director Julian Schnabel not only takes up the challenge, he soars with it.

Schnabel blends two seemingly contradictory approaches in adapting the late Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir. The first is grounded firmly in reality, as Bauby's life is rendered with careful attention to detail. Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric) was the editor of French Elle magazine, a jetsetter who literally had it all, until a sudden, massive stroke rendered him unable to move. Stuck in a hospital and nearly suicidal, Bauby found hope by teaming up with a speech therapist (Marie-Josee Croze) to compose a book about his experience. By learning to blink as she pointed to letters on a tablet, Bauby painstakingly shared the world he now inhabited.

To go inside that world, Schnabel uses his own background as a visual artist to remarkable effect. Scattered memories, dreams, even impressions from Bauby's limited eyesight give the audience a subjective sense of what this man had left when so much was lost. This filmmaking style, combined with Bauby's refusal to feel sorry for himself, gives even the most painful scenes an astonishing, poetic dignity.

Amalric has a nearly impossible role, limited to conveying emotion with a single blinking eye (the flashback scenes must have been unbelievably liberating). With the help of Schnabel's imagery, he gives Bauby a personality even when he's trapped in a body that won't move. Much of what we learn about Bauby actually comes from other characters, including his ex-girlfriend (Emmanuelle Segnier) and his father (Max von Sydow), who provide some of the depth that might not be there otherwise.

We never quite get to know Bauby as a complete person, as Schnabel's technique occasionally overwhelms the story's emotional impact. Even when it's not entirely involving, however, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly remains fascinating and (perhaps more importantly) inspiring.

Extras: A thoughtful, in-depth production featurette, plus another one on the movie's visual style; a commentary track by Schnabel; an interview he did with PBS host Charlie Rose. (PG-13) Rating: 4.


Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.


              
              
                 

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