Sunday, December 21, 2008

Compulsion (1959)

Compulsion, based on the Leopold/Loeb murder case and directed by Richard Fleischer, is a tight little movie whose performances by Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman and Orson Welles elevate it above some less-talented bit players and conventional surroundings. It was the last film Welles made in Hollywood for some years, and though he enters an hour into it, his performance as a Clarence Darrow-inspired lawyer is unforgettable.

Though the film opens and closes like a rather cheap thriller, and offers some fairly uninspired camera work, it is in fact a successful piece of anti-death penalty propaganda and character study. The story concerns the fascinating personalities of two college students, Steiner (Stockwell) and Straus (Dillman), whose particular psychoses ignite only in the presence of one another. Straus is arrogant, spoiled, and whimsical, while Steiner is serious, obsessed with Nietzsche, and desperate for an "intellect" to attach himself to and be led by. Both have genius IQs and neither seems able to fit into the society of their peers, albeit for different reasons. Stockwell is particularly effective here, anticipating Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates in his quiet good looks and social anxiety--not to mention the oddly affecting quality of the unreformable who cannot seem to help himself. Interestingly, the film contains a character who embodies a segment of the audience's misplaced sympathy for the man, a sympathy I share despite recognizing the stupidity of it.

The film makes the interesting choice not to show any of the action; the heinous deeds performed by the pair are either off-camera or aborted when we do see them. According to Frank Brady's biography of Welles, this was done to help the anti-death penalty tenor of the film. But watching it, I was entertained by the way the movie doesn't show us what the boys did, but lets us know immediately that they're the culprits. We're watching the fall-out, and propaganda aside it's effective and arguably more interesting than seeing the violence itself. One certainly cannot accuse the filmmakers of sensationalism, at any rate, and it's likely that this film would have been unable to present the deeds in any other light.

In that same vein is Welles' performance as the lawyer brought in to defend Straus and Steiner. Though his physical presence made it impossible for Welles to disguise himself effectively, his performances are varied and nuanced, ranging from hammy (Trouble in the Glen) to blustering (The Long, Hot Summer) to sympathetically corrupted (Touch of Evil), all in one five-year period. In Compulsion, he's subtle, sweaty and unkempt, quietly delivering a masterpiece of oratory that reminded me of his radio performances. There is no trace of bravura in his performance, though it is a bravura performance.

Knowing that there is a trial at the end of the film should be no deterrent to your enjoyment; there is plenty to be surprised by here, even if most of it is lent by the real-world circumstances that have been adopted (and, I am certain, altered). Even so, the film lays them out in a workmanlike fashion, with touches that raise it above that level to add it to the list of movies I'm surprised I hadn't seen before. Read more!

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Sometimes, a film requires a review to make sense of it, or to examine what the reader, and subsequent viewer, ought to get from the film. But in this case, I'm not certain Aguirre needs sense imposed; it's an experience, a nightmare played out in slow motion. You might not even know you're dreaming until you wake up.

From everything I can find, the making of the film was just as bizarre and nightmarish as the film itself. Part of this was due to the volatile relationship between director Werner Herzog and star Klaus Kinski, and part was undoubtedly due to it being shot with some spontaneity on location in the jungle of Peru. The story concerns a splinter group from Gonzalo Pizarro's search for El Dorado, sent off to find supplies and, if possible, the City of Gold itself. Floating down river in a raft, things quickly go awry for the group of soldiers, native slaves, and two women (the mistress of the leader, Ursua, and Aguirre's daughter). Aguirre, though he refrains from taking control in name, moves among the men like some cross between Richard III and Kurtz, hunched and brooding and seemingly arbitrary in his ever-more-grandiose plans. It's unclear whether Aguirre is the wrath of God, or is experiencing it.

The secret to this film, I think, is in how quietly Herzog deals with events and moments that, in another director's hands, would have been show pieces designed to rope in the audience. Herzog never does; the long takes are anti-climactic but add to the sense of realistic unreality. In the meantime, human nature is on full display, as ugly as Herzog can make it. But he does not let us get too involved. The film is cold, distant, and never exploitative. I was astonished by two more things when I saw it: that I had never seen it before, and that it was made in 1972. It's a gorgeously filmed movie, but requires some patience; while it is never boring, it is not Hollywood's romantic historical adventure. Klaus Kinski's bizarre performance is indescribable, and the film hangs together so well that it is indeed an escape, albeit to a place one does not wish to visit. At least not permanently. Read more!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Tomorrow is Forever (1946)/Prince of Foxes (1949)

In case you haven't noticed, I'm on an Orson Welles kick. Here are some less-than-full reviews so I can get this out of my system, and you won't have to suffer as long.

Tomorrow is Forever (1946)
Tomorrow is Forever is a postwar melodrama Martin Guerre-with-a-twist that was apparently designed to make mothers feel better about having let their sons/husbands go off to war. The story concerns Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles, happily married for about two minutes before Welles ships off in a too-tight uniform to fight in WWI. Welles is blown up, and Colbert gets the fateful telegram informing her of his death.

But Welles is not dead--he's laid up in a hospital, his hands non-functional and his face swathed in bandages denoting terrible disfigurement. He won't tell the doctors his name, for the sentimental reason that he does not want to saddle his wife with this wreck of a man.

Twenty years later, on the eve of another war, Colbert is happily married with two sons. Her husband one day brings home an Austrian chemist, who recognizes Colbert right away because she has not aged at all but is apparently unrecognizable as Welles, disfigured as he is by horn-rimmed glasses and a beard. (Incidentally, the age makeup here is probably one of the better technical accomplishments of the film, for he looks a lot like the older Welles but smaller.) He's also sporting a new name and Austrian accent, as well as a tiny blond Natalie Wood--a girl he's adopted after she saw her family killed in front of her. Conflict erupts first as Colbert's son--a young man Welles is mathematically certain is his own, born after his supposed death--demands to be allowed to join the RAF so he can fight the Nazis, and later as Colbert begins to suspect that Welles is Welles.

There's some interesting tension provided almost entirely by Welles' acting as he attempts to connect with his son, who has no idea his father isn't his father. The unequal conversation is somewhat moving, as is Welles' general situation. However, the film also calls for a lot of ridiculous speechifying about the need to let young men make decisions and the duty of and to mothers and Welles' character's absolute refusal to admit he's her husband--aside from stating that if he were such a man, he would not tell her so, because she's happy and has a family and it's all for the best this way. The plot is artificial and melodramatically patriotic, and Colbert gets rather hysterical except for the parts where I found myself wondering why she wasn't reacting more. However, Welles stands out as the only thing worthy or interesting in the picture, and oddly enough the least heavy-handed.

Prince of Foxes (1949)
This is one of several movies Welles acted in (without directing) in Europe in the late 40s, while intermittently filming Othello whenever and wherever he could. As a film, it's rather dull and uninspired and written apparently by random, and to my eyes Tyrone Power is a wooden and altogether inexplicable leading man.

Welles, however, turns in what might be an overly energetic performance except for the fact that 1) he's playing Cesare Borgia and 2) the rest of the film is so boring you're fairly aching for some scenery chewing and lament the bulk of the time he's not on screen. Welles' slightly campy, overtly smarmy, and ultimately totally charming Borgia is exactly why he gets criticized for "hammy" acting, but I see no more appropriate place for it than here. Then again, what a lot of people call "ham" I think should be more rightly considered "charm" in the right hands--early William Shatner, for instance, is not the man of endless parodic ellipses but does twinkle almost manically with delight a good portion of the time. Don't we all know charismatic people like that? Ah well, it's probably the case that what one finds charming, another will find grating, and vice versa.

Borgia is so smoothly, uncomplicatedly, and happily evil that he might be ridiculous, and perhaps he is. But he's also tremendous fun. Welles' performances reads like a man who's doing everything he can to amuse himself--in a better movie, it might detract, but in this one, it at least means there's something amusing us. (This scene is the centerpiece, really--keep watching to the end, it's worth it.) He also looks surprisingly fit in tights.

Radio Plays: Les Miserables, Dracula, A Tale of Two cities, Treasure Island, Rebecca
Welles' radio dramas--directed, acted, and frequently adapted by him--were a staple of late 30's radio. Welles' innovation was to adapt the material as faithfully as possible using a viewpoint character to tell the story--often voiced by himself. The result was an intimate hour of radio theater that did not always get to the heart of the material but always evoked some of its quality. With his Mercury Players around him, Welles' created seamless dramas with innovative use of sound and narrative that he later translated to film technique.

Briefly, I will say that listening to hour-long truncations of the works I am familiar with work better than those I am not, aside from the annoyances created by the leaving out of key plot points (there's a lot of fat to trim in Dracula, for instance, but leaving out the fact that Rebecca was dying in the eponymous work renders the ending nonsensical), but the attempts are admirable. It cannot be easy to reduce A Tale of Two Cities to such a time frame. Welles plays, respectively, narrator/Valjean, Dr. Seward/Dracula, Sydney Carton/Alexandre Manette, older narrator!Jim Hawkins/John Silver, and Maxim de Winter. He does each admirably, and the works in which he appears as multiple people do not suffer from it, for he disguises his voice well enough to get away with it. His Valjean is particularly memorable (the very well done series focuses on the Valjean/Javert angle, cutting most everything else, and featuring a regrettable performance by Welles' then-wife, Virginia Nicholson, as the older Cosette) as is his de Winter, who ought to have been immortalized on film due to his perfect capturing of both the vulnerable and commanding sides of his nature in a way the other three men I've seen (Olivier, Brett and Dance) have not. Read more!

Journey Into Fear (1943)

Journey Into Fear is an odd hodgepodge of a film, a mashup of elements that may have, under different circumstances, coalesced into more than the sum of its parts. As it is, the potential is clear, the elements themselves promising, but the end result is a bad thriller made entertaining through no fault of its actual subject matter. Written by Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, who also starred; directed by Norman Foster, who didn't read the book; and peopled with Citizen Kane veterans and Welles' touches of atmosphere and mood, the film also bears the scars of Production Code interference.

The story, in as much as it matters, describes an American engineer's (Cotten) involuntary entanglement in foreign intrigue. On a brief business trip to Istanbul with his wife, Howard Graham is soon whisked away to a cabaret, where he meets a mysterious dancer (Dolores del Rio, at the time romantically attached to Welles) and is almost murdered. He then finds himself on a whirlwind journey out of the country, prompted by Welles' police chief Haki and not allowed to see his wife. Graham spends most of the rest of the film on a steamer, with eccentric characters all about, any of whom may be the assassin or a double agent, and one of whom is the dancer, Josette. The film ends with a standard climactic chase involving windows and ledges, and is over almost before you can figure out whose side everyone's on.

With a plot like that, the film's overall quality and enjoyment could go either way. In this case, it goes both—as a film, it's too confusing and quite shallow to be good, though as entertainment there is enough to keep one going, as long as one doesn't think too hard. Cotten plays his typical, absolutely clueless American (think Holly Martins from The Third Man, only far less capable or interesting) but the side characters make up for him. Welles' police chief is larger than life and ambiguously helpful. The denizens of the boat are bizarre characters with quirks who feel the need to corner Cotten to tell him about them. And the assassin, a Mr. Banat (I'm not giving anything away, he's viewed in the first scene), never speaks a line yet exudes a peculiar menace. A short, round little man with glasses, at first glance he seems the least dangerous person in the lineup. But he's heralded by a phonograph playing a scratchy old French song, which sets him up in the first scene and then recurs to great effect on the boat. There's also a scene where the camera lingers on him eating dinner across from Cotten, who is now convinced the man is trying to kill him, and it's somehow both absurd and suspenseful. The film is physically very dark, and mostly shot in the low interiors of the steamer, making it a suitably claustrophobic and noirish film, if not pretty.

The problems with the film are not all due to the writers, cast and crew. Many can be traced to sensitive foreign relations during the war and a desire on the part of the studio and the Hays Office (precursor to the MPAA) to remove anything that might be deemed offensive, either sexually or nationalistically, from the film. Names were changed, ethnicities blurred, and in general confusion about who was who reigned to the point where the director admitted to often not knowing what was going on. But even apart from these problems, it plays like a film that was meant to be quick and fun, not anyone's masterpiece or comment on society. As such, it doesn't fail as much as it might have and it's worth it for thriller fans and Welles completists. Read more!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Jane Eyre (1944)

Jane Eyre is not my favorite adaptation of Jane Eyre, nor is it a strictly faithful one. It relies heavily on its “literary” merits, demonstrated by passages of typed exposition that do not actually appear in the novel (though large parts of the dialogue do). Its 96 minutes necessitate gross cutting of major subplots. And at no time does anyone look remotely like they're outside, in England or anywhere else. But there is much to love about this version, and in many respects is beautifully done.

One of the things I love most about it is, unfortunately, one of its chief problems. That is Orson Welles. As Rochester, Welles throws his considerable weight about Thornfield much as he probably did on set, playing the brooding Byronic heartthrob to about 11. It's not that this is a particularly bad way to play Rochester; there's something rather charming about his own awareness of his complete self-absorption and his dramatic flair matches the high-contrast, gothic atmosphere gorgeously provided by the cinematography and Robert Stevenson's direction. The problem, however, is that Welles so completely dominates the film that it should have been called Edward Rochester. Joan Fontaine's saintly Jane, aside from what might be my favorite young Jane and a few flashes of “spirit” early on, is no match for him as far as our attention is concerned. Despite the similarities, I always considered Jane to be a little more interesting in her own right than the second Mrs. DeWinter, whom Fontaine had played a few years before. Her Jane impresses Rochester with her quiet assertiveness in the face of his pouty ill-temper, then has little to do for the rest of the film but moon about after him despite the fact that Welles seems to make it clear in every scene how much contempt he has for his supposed intended, Blanche Ingram, and how much he values the company of his ward's governess.

Considering the lengths the film goes to to insert a male role model into young Jane's life who teaches her what duty means, this is likely neither Welles' nor Fontaine's fault, but merely the result of my looking back from a more egalitarian position at a film which is perfectly content with a relationship in which one party saves the other through her quietness. I am also likely spoiled by the 2006 miniseries whose longer running time allows for more subtlety and whose actors are able to convey a more complex and motivated relationship.

A few other things mar the film: Welles sounds like the jaded middle-aged man Rochester should be, but due to pressure to present the moviegoing public with a leading man, looks all of his 29 years. The narration informing us that Rochester is a nice man and everything will be okay is completely at odds with the operatic shadows and Bernard Herrmann's score, and it feels as though it was inserted for fear the too-short courting period wouldn't earn the relationship we're supposed to see blossoming between them. But long exchanges between them remain intact, Welles and Fontaine perform admirably among some absolutely gorgeous black and white scenery, and overall it is a satisfying movie, albeit probably not as much for the purist. Read more!

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

After Citizen Kane failed to reach audiences (for various reasons) in 1941, Orson Welles set out to make an even better film. Thus began the tortured pattern of Welles’ relationship with Hollywood, as he negotiated away final cut, had forty minutes removed without his consent, and was in South America on another project as an upbeat ending was tacked on. The film was The Magificent Ambersons, and as charming and tight a family drama as it remains, one cannot help but wonder what it would have been if it had remained in his hands.

The film concerns the fortunes of the Amberson family, large fish in the small pond of Indianapolis that is getting bigger with every new road and automobile. It takes place in the decades around the turn of the last century, when ladies wore velvet and silk and a foolish, intoxicated mistake on the part of a young man could get him jilted and his girlfriend married off to a more sensible fellow. Cut to years later, when Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton) returns no longer a foolish young man but a successful automobile manufacturer with attractive young daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) in tow. Isabel Anderson Minafer (Dolores Costello), her husband Wilbur, and utterly spoiled son George (Tim Holt) are still in town, still Ambersons, and unaware that everything is about to change.

The film’s message about industrialization and the march of progress is decidedly ambiguous, but more to the point are the interpersonal relationshps that are revealed among this old guard family through their renewed relationship with Morgan and his daughter and the diminishment of their importance. And given that at the present time one is looking back at a period film directed in 1941, it’s surprising how delightful, unstilted, and punchy the film is. The dialogue (adapted by Welles from a Booth Tarkington novel) is snappy and delivered in a naturalistic fashion, often overlapping (a particular favorite is George’s frequent disgusted rendering of “oh my gosh!”). The camera moves about the Amberson mansion like another character, frequently in long tracking shots or playing with the characters’ positions through different levels of the house. Welles’ narration (only his voice appears) is sometimes interruptive but generally spot-on, and Agnes Moorehead’s Aunt Fanny is a complex (if shrill) portrait of an unmarried woman past her prime. While some of the technique looks old-fashioned to our eyes, other aspects of the cinematography and directing are arresting and fresh, and overall it’s a neat piece of filmmaking that is, amazingly, unavailable on DVD in this country.

Financial troubles dogged Orson Welles throughout his life, most likely because he was a man who wanted to go his own way yet chose a medium that requires major backing to produce. While no one will ever know if the original cut was better (even he thought it needed some trimming, but RKO took control and all the cut footage was destroyed “to save space” before Welles could get his hands on it) the film as it exists bears the scars in the holes in plot that make some of it hard to follow. Watching it now, it seems clear to me that Welles (as far as movies were concerned) should have lived later, and it's probably a testament to his directing (and Stanley Cortez's cinematography) that even the studio version holds up as well as it does. Read more!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

When it comes right down to it, the superhero as a concept is a troublesome being. Useful when s/he's under control, a benevolent para-law enforcement agent, exercising great responsibility over their great power. But in the end, we're still dealing with a group of people outside the law because there are no laws which can touch them, and precisely there to combat those villains the same laws can't touch either. Superman, for instance, is tolerated because everyone knows he's a boy scout who will do no wrong. But isn't it taking a lot on faith to assume that this godlike being isn't going to figure out that we're all inferior?

The Dark Knight takes a lot on faith as well, but the fact that the film is about the murky relationship between the public good (as dictated by those in the know) and ethics and vigilantism and chaos says a lot. Batman is still the hero, but it is acknowledged that he may be the sort of hero no one can own up to, that may well be morally reprehensible, that may in fact be contributing to the lawless streets of Gotham City. As in the Arkham Asylum graphic novel and the animated series episode which put Batman on trial for creating Arkham's denizens, the film is aware that there's a problem here, even as it shores up Batman's continued necessity in a diseased world.

While he'd most likely disown both, I can't help but observe that Nietzsche inspired both Superman and Hitler.

For a summer action movie, The Dark Knight is pretty self-aware and addresses some tough issues. It's basically action (which it is completely worth taking advantage of the IMAX experience to enjoy) with archetypes, and while it would be nice to have something which could accomplish that with actual characters, I think that's asking a lot of a corporate property summer blockbuster like this. Which is to say, this movie succeeds far more than I felt I had any right to expect from a franchise, and that made swallowing some of its inadequacies a lot easier. There were the requisite technological absurdities (an expansion of the “enhance!” trope you might be familiar with from any number of cop shows), a silly Batman voice, and some far-fetched physical feats. But then there was also (do I even have to say it?) Heath Ledger's Joker.

Praise has already been heaped, and it's well-deserved. This was not a casting decision I'd ever have expected, and Ledger had pleaded his case to director/co-writer Christopher Nolan before the script was even written. This is the scariest Joker I have ever seen (though the effect was not as acute on second viewing) and while it's certainly possible to prefer the more lighthearted incarnations (Mark Hamill's in the Animated Series should be classic) this reinterpretation is an achievement, taking the character to a place that is not only unique but integral to the film. This Joker and Batman are two sides of the same coin, which makes the inclusion of the Harvey Dent plotline, who is both sides of the coin at once, especially relevant. Thematically, the nearly unbelievable self-awareness of the Joker (and his lack of an origin story) culminate in his abuse of Dent.

The Joker's admission that he is an archetype, an agent of chaos, along with Bruce Wayne's inability to define just what the Batman is, leaves the film with an ambiguity that keeps both the legend of the superhero and his troubling ethical legacy intact in a way that, I believe, finally serves the material well. Complaints about its “relentless sadism” and moral deficits miss the point; if you're disturbed by a Batman which admits there's something wrong here, you should probably stick with the fully deputized, establishment, daylight Batman and Robin of the Adam West series. Superheroes are a fantasy which, when translated into the real world, starts to look a lot like fascism.

This movie is not perfect, nor did it change my life. But far more than its predecessor, Batman Begins, it addresses the inherent issues that have always plagued this character, and for that I am overjoyed.

Read more!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Juno (2007)


Like most of my reviews, this one is behind the times. Even more so, I think, because of the critical reception this film got and the accusations of “backlash” one might feel inclined to make towards what I am about to say.

I did not like Juno.

For those who haven't seen the poster, Juno is about the eponymous pregnant teenager (played by Ellen Page) and her decision to keep her baby long enough to give it up for adoption. A lot of talk has circled around whether this makes the film pro-choice or pro-life, and I'm not going to touch that because I don't think that's especially relevant. (I will say, however, that the string of recent “unwanted pregnancy” comedies in which no one seriously entertains the thought of abortion may be telling, but that's an issue for another day.) This is not my problem with the film, even if the ultimate abortion comedy will always be Citizen Ruth.

My problem with the film is that I felt that every single choice made in it, from slangy dialogue to cartoon opening to Cat Power was designed to take every hipster in the audience by the shoulders and say, “This film is for you, buddy. See what I did there? Those Chuck Taylors? That Thundercats reference? Don't you feel validated, now?”

The problem is, none of it was done very well. The references were off, and most of them didn't fit the characters. Apart from everyone talking the same artificial way, they often spoke without getting their facts straight. If Juno is such an old school punk aficionado, why is all the music Belle and Sebastian and Moldy Peaches? Why does a supposedly Japanese comic open on the right? Why in the world would Juno yell “Thundercats are go” when that was the Thunderbirds catchphrase?

It's “Thundercats, HO!” For the record.

Because, you see, you could put me in that nebulous hipster category no one owns up to. I wear Converse and (fake) vintage tees. I have the glasses, and a messenger bag, and every Belle and Sebastian CD, and I got all the references. That was exactly why I felt coddled by this film. People like me, people between the ages of Juno and Mark, are supposed to relate to both of them. Juno's old for her age, and Mark's young, and from that I think we're supposed to feel hip that 1) we can relate to teenagers and 2) yuppie parents can be hip, too.

This isn't to say I don't want films that speak to the ironic pop-culture saturated downwardly mobile geek I know I am. But I want it done right. From what I've read of interviews with the filmmakers, the music, color scheme and accessories were all carefully thought out, which highlights the film's self-conscious indie-incompetence and makes it of a piece with the preponderance of songs on the soundtrack that consist of lists of things sung in a monotone. Is there anyone in this movie who isn't a collection of quirks?

All that aside, and despite the vitriol, I didn't hate Juno. But the things I liked about it—Ellen Page in a hoodie, some of the music including the Belle and Sebastian song that always makes me cry, the curious and often untouched reality of a young girl not understanding her appeal to an older man—were sandwiched between so many appeals to my quirky sensibilities that I felt manipulated. The line is difficult to draw, but I think it lies between genuine characters portrayed with pop-culture savvy and pop-culture savvy (or attempts at such) portrayed as characters. And this might have been moot, had I walked into the film without the burden of Oscar noms weighing on it. As a small film, it would have passed muster as an afternoon's entertainment and provided flares of unexpected delight. But such is hype. Read more!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Innocence (2004)

Rarely has ambiguity been so gorgeous. Innocence is, perhaps predictably, a French film made by people who, not so predictably, like David Lynch. Or at least the visual/sonic atmosphere of David Lynch. The film takes place almost entirely at a mysterious, sylvan school where girls from about 6 years old to puberty are secluded until release, like the butterflies so often evoked. The story, such as it is, opens with a new arrival being delivered in a coffin, greeted by the other girls, and inducted into their color-coded system: in each house, the youngest girl wears the red ribbons, the next youngest orange, and so on up. The adults seem to be there to serve and teach the girls; no punishments are meted, but an enormous stone wall blocks the outside from view.

Viewers expecting all this to coalesce into a narrative will be disappointed. It's more a study, and it might be unbearable if it were not one of the most beautifully photographed and sound designed films I've ever seen. Everything about it is aesthetically perfect, and yet, despite a suggestive quote and Lolita-like photo of a girl's legs on the DVD cover, non-exploitative. I was prepared for the rampant sexualization of the prepubescent girls (remembering Brooke Shields in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby) but amazingly, the camera is merely an observer, not a voyeur. This phenomenon is highlighted during an episode in which the girls are being watched, the contrast striking simply because the audience, for once, is not implicated. The difference is subtle, but plain, and that is an accomplishment in itself.

It's not that the school holds no threat, or that this idyllic life should be read as genuinely utopic. I kept waiting for the secret that would reveal the school for what it was, and while there were dark hints it never happened: the sinister feeling of the woods after dark, the strange concentration of nymph-like, but not nymphet, children, was chilling enough, not because of what lay outside the walls. My conclusion, for the film holds none, is that the state of innocence is sinister in itself, completely apart from what lies in store for the innocent once she is exposed to the real world. Perhaps it is not reality we should fear, but the attractive/creepy connotations of the blithe, childlike state. (I can see many other possibilities here, some more concrete than others, but prefer the reading I mention.)

Whatever it is, unless you are willing to put in two hours for a payoff as unstructured as this, you will not enjoy the film. As narrative, which is what we all expect, it fails entirely and in fact judged on those merits has major structural problems. As a meditation, a visual event, it is breathtaking, and if you are willing to ask something different from your movie watching experience you should attempt to find your own meaning. And let me know. Read more!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

There Will Be Blood (2007)

For most of Hollywood's output, the task of director falls to someone perhaps more aptly described as Entertainer, someone whose job it is to string together the elements of story into something a wide audience will enjoy. But There Will Be Blood reminds us of the great joy that can be had when a Director strings together these elements in service of the story first, audience to follow as they will.

I have enjoyed P. T. Anderson's previous films, but a certain perceived self-consciousness in his style kept me removed from them emotionally. Blood is devoid of many of his quirks which, enjoyable as they are, in their absence give this particular film a leaner, more “classic” style. Gone is the huge cast, the interweaving stories, the intertextual popular soundtrack. This is the story of one man, and a sociopath at that, playing unerringly by Daniel Day Lewis. (The one complaint I have about Lewis is that his cinematic reclusiveness, while perhaps refreshing in the sense that he is not overexposed, may in fact have had the same effect by overdetermining his presence in any film he's in.)

The cleanly-told story find parallels in Citizen Kane, Kane's inspiration Hurst, and the story of the West's activities in the Middle East. There's a moment where Plainview (Lewis) sells a small town (whose land is good for virtually nothing but goat-herding and oil) on his schemes by telling them that he's going to bring them education and roads, and I could not help but add “democracy” to his litany. Plainview is also, in a sense, the Devil, a view enforced by what I think is the most significant single shot in the film: a long take of Plainview's face, streaked with oil and blending into the black night behind him, as he watches his own derrick burn. The flames dance in his eyes as he seems to revel in the destruction even as it represents a loss, both financial and personal.

The film, as the above indicates, is beautifully shot. Nothing distracts from the desolate, 100 year old landscape. The soundtrack is bizarre and brilliant, and its seamless construction makes it a pity that, because it is not entirely original music, it cannot get Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead) nominated for an Oscar. The acting, too, is fantastic; Lewis is the obvious one here, but the revelation is Paul Dano as brothers Paul and Eli in a performance so committed and skillful it makes me wonder what the film would have been like without him, as it almost was. There are some child actors who do amazing jobs here as well, especially a baby who, in one long take on a train with Lewis, acts so perfectly I had to wonder if it was a puppet or something.

Like his other films, There Will Be Blood is about people it is difficult, if not impossible, to like, but Anderson pulls it off. I would argue that this one offers what I hope is a new era for him as a director, in which he will continue to succeed at doing this without the quirks which may have mitigated audience reaction in his previous films. It is starker than Magnolia or Boogie Nights, even if it is more beautiful. Films like this are expensive and time consuming to make, which is a pity, since it really makes me wonder what cinema might look like if more actual Directors were involved. Read more!