Dillon Freasier (great!) and Daniel Day Lewis (... BIG!) in "There Will Be Blood."
The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (my former homies) have announced their collective choices for best achievements of 2007 and... well, for now, I'll just say that I doubt most of them would even be on my short list of runners-up for this year. (I haven't seen "Sweeney Todd" or "Diving Bell and the Butterfly" yet, though.) I'm glad that some honorees are getting recognition: Milestone Films, Sarah Polley, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (from "Once": music as dialog/acting), Jack Fisk (to whom I will always be grateful for, among other things, the prom in "Carrie," the house in "Days of Heaven," and pulling the lever in "Eraserhead" -- yes, that was him), "Persepolis" and "Ratatouille" (tied for best animated feature), Vlad Ivanov (for negotiating the trickiest of roles) and a few others. But I know how misleading these group-ballot things can be. LAFCA's list does leave the impression that they felt "Blood" (and, perhaps, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") tower the rest of the year's releases. I wonder if that's really the overwhelming majority opinion, or if it's another case of second- or third-choice consensus carrying the day. Too many of these seem like Academy-style picks to me (Most Noticeable Acting, Most Obvious/Intrusive Score, etc.). More about that later on in the month...
UPDATE (12/10/07): LAFCA member Robert Koelher writes to Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere: "I've cited to both Anne Thompson and David Poland the various fictions they've written about re. LAFCA's awards, namely that our pick for 'TWBB' had to do with going against National Board of Review (Anne) or the Academy (David). And now you say we were generally flying the contrarian flag. [...]
"By a wide margin, LAFCA felt... that 'There Will Be Blood' was the best American film of the year. That's all. No chess work, no calculations, no triangulation -- nothing but a matter of taste based on seeing more movies over the year than anybody else.
"And Jeff, the group judgement was based -- with perhaps no exceptions, since there was simply no time for most or all of us to view it more than once -- on a single viewing of 'TWBB.' It's a great movie on the first viewing."
[NOTE: In my post I did not surmise that LAFCA was intentionally striking any groupthink contrarian pose. I know from experience that it doesn't really work that way -- and, besides, LAFCA is the first crix group to vote, so what's to react against? But I wondered about the margin of victory, a legitimate question regarding the results of any balloting or committee decision-making procedure -- including the Oscars. Koehler's letter helps clarify that. I'm glad to know I disagree with some genuine majority sentiments rather than some statistical flukes. I disagreed with some choices when I was a member of the group, too -- and I don't know anyone who didn't, from time to time. It's a group of critics, you know....]
The LAFCA 2007 awards:
PICTURE: "There Will Be Blood" RUNNER-UP: "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood" RUNNER-UP: Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood" RUNNER-UP: Frank Langella, "Starting Out in the Evening"
ACTRESS: Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en rose" RUNNER-UP: Anamaria Marinca, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Vlad Ivanov, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" RUNNER-UP: Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone" and "Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead" RUNNER-UP: Cate Blanchett, "I’m Not There"
View image The negotiation.
When it comes to grim accounts of healthcare issues and bureaucracy in Romania, photographed in long takes with a hand-held camera, the 2007 Cannes Palme d'Or winner "4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days" plays like a screwball comedy next to last year's relentless three-hour endurance test, "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu." (A test, by the way, that I failed.) That's not to say it's any less harrowing; it's just shorter and, in my view, less distractingly theatrical. (The cinematographer is the same -- Oleg Mutu -- so the difference may be in the director.)
Here, the long takes (sometimes entire scenes) don't keep reminding you that they're being filmed by somebody walking around with a camera. The work is steady, controlled, disciplined. And, like several impressive films at this year's Toronto Film Festival (including "No Country for Old Men," "Chop Shop," "Persepolis," "Paranoid Park") it chooses just the right moment to cut to black at the end. (That's a favorite device of mine, and it seems to be quite popular about now.)
As you may know, Cristian Mungiu's film is about an abortion, which virtually guarantees it will be "powerful." But what makes the movie work is the portrayal of the characters: Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), the central character, helps her passive-aggressive roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) arrange for an illegal, hotel-room "probe" procedure performed by a cut-rate black market abortionist who goes by the name Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov).
But this isn't just another story about women victimized by men in a repressive and bureaucratic political system (although it is that, too). The most infuriating character in the whole piece is Gabita, who is so irresponsible and "helpless" that she deliberately puts Otilia at risk again and again, by forcing her to take all the risks except for the actual procedure itself. You wonder how the weak and utterly blank Gabita ever even survived to reproductive age, and whether she would have done anything at all if Otilia hadn't stepped up to take responsibility. (Gabita seems like the type who would just give birth and then walk away from the baby -- whether in the hospital or in an alley somewhere.)
This in no way excuses the ways Mr. Bebe exploits the situation, but during a painful, protracted negotiation in the hotel room, your sympathies are -- for a while, at least -- more with him than Gabita. She has failed to follow any of his instructions (meeting him in person, reserving the room), which makes him justifiably distrustful in a country where performing an abortion carries a stiff prison sentence. But he eventually crosses a line, from understandable paranoia to cold manipulation of the situation.
"4 months..." is a sharp political commentary about free-market forces in a socialist bureaucracy where nearly everything is regulated by the government. In certain respects, Mr. Bebe is simply an entrepreneur, a man who identifies a need and fulfills it to make a profit. Pure capitalism, supply and demand. Meanwhile, the government keeps its citizens' social, economic and private lives wrapped in a binding of red tape.
I'd love to see a Bordwellian Average Shot Length analysis of this film. Fortunately, the long takes don't call attention to themselves. One such shot at a dinner table, during a birthday party at the home of Otilia's boyfriend, is composed with the boyfriend's mother on the left, Otilia in the center, the boyfriend slightly behind her, and his father on the right. Olilia has just left Gabita in the hotel room after the abortion. She doesn't want to be here, and she's thoroughly distracted. The conversation and activity (eating, smoking, drinking) go on all around her, and she remains relatively immobile in the frame. She is in the action, but not of it, and the camera communicates her distress and unease with subtle effectiveness.
"4 months..." is an impressive film. But it does not reflect well on the Cannes jury that it was chosen for the Palme d'Or over the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men." That seems almost inconceivable. One is a good movie; the other very nearly defines the essence of movies.