Thursday, January 24, 2008

There Will Be Amazement

[Possible spoilers ahead]

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - For weeks now, my choice for the best American film of 2007 had been the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men. A metaphysical vision of a universe in which death stalks us all and people either rage against it or despairingly accept it, No Country is not only one of the most brilliantly made films I've ever seen---every shot, cut and sound effect is just about perfect---but also one of the more genuinely resonant of our current national malaise. It's also probably my second-favorite Coens film (behind The Man Who Wasn't There), and, as I tried to argue in a recent post, certainly a lot more soulful and serious---and appreciably less snarky and condescending---than the backlash (headed by the likes of Mr. Dave Kehr and his taste for linoleum floor tiles) suggests. It really floored me at the time, and I predicted in that earlier post that it would probably make my top 5 of the year...

...until I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, a little movie entitled There Will Be Blood.

Let's put it this way: There. Will. Be. Amazement.

And struggle.

And ambivalence.

All I know is, no other movie this past year has gotten me wrestling it---as much with its successes as with its shortcomings---as much as this one. Certainly not No Country for Old Men, as great as it is.


I finally saw the film a couple of weeks ago and staggered out of it stunned---mostly by its ape-shit final scene---yet not quite sure whether I had seen a genuine masterpiece or just an impressively made, overreaching attempt at one. (As Boogie Nights and Magnolia proved, the latter is an area Anderson is very much familiar with, for well and ill.) And yet I had certainly seen something.

Now, even with a film like I'm Not There---which is so dense and complex by its very design that it pretty much demands multiple viewings (whether one feels it's ultimately worth the effort or not)---because of real-world concerns like saving money, I'm usually content to simply wait for the eventual DVD release to revisit a film I've been puzzled by in a theater. So There Will Be Blood marks a first for me: the first time I've found myself so challenged by a film that I've paid to see it twice on a big screen. The argument I had over the film in my head so overwhelmed me days afterward that I felt I had to see it at least one more time to decide where I stood on the film.

What bothered me about the film the first time? Well, as much as I couldn't help but marvel at Anderson's sheer confidence and Daniel Day-Lewis's amazing tightrope-walk between stylization and caricature, there was a feeling that lingered in me of something missing on a dramatic level.

There Will Be Blood has been described as an epic, and it is in one sense: much of the atmosphere in the film has been heightened from mere realism to near-Biblical allegory. This story has ambition and retribution on a grand scale. But if you expect an epic drama to also have a reasonably large cast of major characters and feature big character arcs, then the film might come off as rather half-baked. This film is basically all about Daniel Plainview, the greedy capitalist who isn't above hypocrisy and manipulation to achieve his riches, and Anderson trains his focus almost solely on him, at the expense of anyone that might complicate Plainview's ruthlessness and pessimistic point-of-view. When he, in a rare moment of soul-baring candor, utters to someone, "I look at people and I see nothing worth liking," I couldn't help but be bothered by the fact that, up to that point, we hadn't been given much of a clue as to why he would feel that way toward his fellow man. None of the townsfolk is shown to have done anything particularly duplicitous to Plainview---with the exception of the young preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the townsfolk are mostly easy, religious pushovers who don't know any better. In fact, we don't hear or see much from the townspeople in general as to what they ultimately come to think about this man who has taken over their community for his own selfish ends; the only indication we get as to possible unrest comes from Eli, when he blows up against his father for letting Plainview trample all over them (and Eli may well just be taking out his embarrassment at being publicly humiliated by Plainview the scene before). And of course there's Eli himself: Anderson sets him up as Plainview's nemesis throughout the film, but it's more of a battle between two selfish individuals---one more one-dimensional than the other---rather than between good versus evil. In short, There Will Be Blood, as viscerally gripping as it is, felt rather one-dimensional itself, lacking the complexity and richness of, say, Orson Welles's more humane portrait of a capitalist run amok in Citizen Kane, in which many different character bore witness to Charles Foster Kane's various sides. As filmmaking, it's indubitably tops---Anderson's use of long takes and wide shots is particularly masterful---but in other ways---in emotional range, in its critique of capitalism---it felt disappointingly limited. Perhaps once again Anderson had bitten off more than he could actually chew---that his skills as a filmmaker couldn't quite overcome limitations as a dramatist.

And yet...that last scene---in which Plainview, who has just lost a son (not physically, just mentally), turns Eli's preacher-man schtick against him as ruthlessly as he pillaged properties for oil---really got to me in a way that made me think that perhaps I was looking at the film in the wrong way. When Plainview starts crazily taunting Eli and shouting things like "I am the Third Revelation," I got a genuine chill in my body---the feel of a man's own personal religion, money/power, reveal itself in full, revelatory force. Maybe Anderson has made a film that should be seen as something different from the standard historical epic---a genre known for dramatic arcs, novelistic details and broad canvases---and thus should be taken on its own terms rather than on what it doesn't have---thus, by extension, what it's not. Maybe it's not your typical historical epic at all---maybe it's more of a religious horror movie in which the religion being examined is strictly a secular one. Anderson's vision became so apparent in that astounding final scene that I began to wonder if my criticisms of the film after that first viewing were, in fact, results of failures of imagination on Anderson's part at all. Instead of dwelling so much on the characters it doesn't explore, for instance, would I be able to accept the movie on its own terms and perhaps come close to embracing it wholeheartedly?

That was the rationale behind Viewing No. 2---whether I could put aside my misgivings and simply go with the movie's flow. After watching it a second time and reflecting on it more, I think the answer is a still-qualified yes.


The best way, I think, to approach There Will Be Blood, then, is as a kind of character study/horror movie with perverse religious overtones. It is historical only in the sense that it takes place at the turn of the 20th century. Really, though, it takes place in Paul Thomas Anderson's feverish vision of a wide-open Hell on American soil, in which profit is the new religion and land is there mostly to be taken. Thus, the visuals---brilliantly shot by Robert Elswit---complement this vision: wide shots of the American landscape, darkness that shrouds faces in hard shadows, night scenes that blaze fiery orange on the sides of the wide (2.35:1) frame. Adding to this otherworldly feel is Jonny Greenwood's dissonant, Penderecki-inspired score, lending menace to the visuals with buzzing strings and rattling percussion that suggest some kind of apocalyptic chaos on the horizon. Then there are some of the film's images: a baby being daubed with oil on his forehead; a low-angle shot of Plainview holding up a hand filled with oil, in preacher-like fashion; a long shot of an oil fire whose flames fill the night sky. See a pattern? Oil is the lifeblood of the main characters, and oil thus informs the substance of the images. (A man who is killed by Plainview is even buried in a pit of a liquid that, if it's not oil, might as well be, as gooey and viscous as it seems when the body rolls into it.)

In such a context, then, perhaps one can accept the relative two-dimensionality of the characters---no one necessarily expects richly nuanced characters in Bible stories, and the major characters of There Will Be Blood are likewise conceived and performed on broadly. Not that this approach makes the characters mere thesis positions: P.T. Anderson has always been known for his generosity towards actors, and both Day-Lewis and Dano find nuance and human detail to flesh out their parts. Listen to Day-Lewis declare "I have abandoned my child!" in a fake-baptism sequence---fake because Plainview, up to that outburst, clearly doesn't mean what he says---and the sense of shame in his voice is apparent, even as he tries to mask it as his usual conniving. Other such details abound, but the point is: even in a film as bleak as this, its characters rarely feel like mere allegorical stick figures---not to me, anyway. We're probably not meant to sympathize with any of these people, but neither is the film so distant that it becomes a cold or inhuman experience. It's both detached and passionate. Stanley Kubrick---one of Anderson's many and varied influences---was able to pull off this tricky combination often, notably in A Clockwork Orange, which focused on a mostly reprehensible protagonist and dared us to take him seriously as a human being. Of course, Kubrick also made that job a bit too easy by making many of the characters around him grotesques (thus making it easier to sympathize with him as he suffered revenge after revenge in the film's second hour)---but that didn't make the film an implicit endorsement of Alex's violent past any more than P.T. Anderson's focus on Daniel Plainview makes There Will Be Blood a celebration of ruthless capitalism. The tone is too detached to be complicit, the violence too shocking. Plainview may be unlikable in many ways, but he's so convincingly human that you can't take your eyes off him---even when he, in the end, achieves his ironic triumph by beating an opponent to death.

What does the movie add up to, in the end? The best way I can explain it right now is: There Will Be Blood depicts the quest for money and dominance, at the expense of love and human connection, becoming the prevailing religion of the land. Original and profound? Not exactly, I suppose. And yet I take to hear Roger Ebert's famous saying: It's not what the movie's about it, it's how it is about it. The force with which Anderson put over this dark vision is astounding enough that it might fill you with a profound sense of despair, mixed in with exhilaration---despair over the senseless tragedy one has just witnessed, exhilaration at the skill with which the filmmakers have enacted this tragedy.

I don't think I'm done with this movie quite yet, because the more I think about it, the more my initial misgivings fade away and the chilling, amazing whole remains. That doesn't meant there still aren't problems I have with the film---at times, I still wish Paul Thomas Anderson had gone the extra mile to fill in blanks like the other townspeople or the source of Daniel Plainview's misanthropy. And, of course, I reserve the right to perhaps change my mind on this film later on (which I hope doesn't get me labeled as a flip-flopper). The more I reflect on it, though, the more they seem to matter less and less in the context of what the movie actually achieves. Besides, let's take Pauline Kael's oft-quoted maxim to heart: "Great movies are rarely perfect movies." I'll take freshness, revelation and passion over absolute perfection, at least in this particular case.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Way Too Young

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This afternoon I was all set to type out that entry about There Will Be Blood I've been promising, when this news broke.

I first heard about Heath Ledger's sudden passing when I saw this blog entry on what is normally a TV-related blog. At first I thought it was a joke. Then I read on, realized that it wasn't, and said "Holy shit!" out loud in my empty bedroom.

Earlier this week, Brad Renfro died, and I barely felt a thing about it except "too bad" (as insensitive as that may sound). I hadn't really heard much about him in the past five years or so, so while I felt it was a shame he died so young, I couldn't say it viscerally shocked me or anything.

But Ledger's Way too young. Not only that, he seemed to have a good solid acting career going, making interesting choices (like Brokeback Mountain or, most recently, I'm Not There), and probably would have had a few more great performances in him yet.

Alas, looks like it is not to be.

I'm not really good with this kind of stuff---I haven't really had to deal with serious grief yet over a loved one's passing, although I've certainly felt humbled and saddened by the untimely deaths of others---so, in Ledger's case, allow me to just bear witness to his work.

To be honest, I wasn't really a rabid fan or deep admirer of Ledger's acting---not that I disliked him or found him overrated or anything, just that I never really familiarized myself deeply with his range of performances. Still, I think one look at his performance as Ennis Del Mar, the cowboy who represses his homosexual urges in Brokeback Mountain, and you could see genuine talent there, and maybe the possibility of carving out his own kind of niche as an actor/star.

Any flashy actor could have adopted the kind of mumble that he did, but Ledger, with palpable heart and empathy, pushed it beyond mere vocal mannerism and sold it as the discomfort of a deeply macho man---a cowboy, really---who finds himself struggling with his love for Jack Twist on the one hand, and his fear of the reprisals he might suffer if he ever expressed that love in public on the other. Quibble however you want about the worth of the movie itself, but his portrait of repressed passion was actually quite moving---you could sense the self-repression, and that made his emotional outbursts all the more powerful. A performance worthy of comparison to Brando, as a critic at the time of the film's release suggested? Well, perhaps Ledger, more accurately, did Brando somewhat in reverse in that film: Brando put his passion out there on the screen for everyone to see, while Ledger kept that passion purposefully bottled up.

That kind of deeply empathetic performance from any actor at such a young age would certainly bode well for any actor's artistic career, as far as I'm concerned.

Damn, this kinda makes me want to watch Brokeback again. Didn't think anything would make me revisit that film, but there you go. (Funny how life is sometimes.)

Anyway, it's deeply regrettable news, and because it so startled me, I felt I had to write something about it, even if I'm not enough of a Heath Ledger fan to have anything insightful to add about him as a person, a personality, or an actor.

So I hope this suffices somewhat. At least he left us, in Brokeback Mountain, with a tantalizing sense of the kind of emotional depths he might have been capable of again in future performances.

Requiescat in pace.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

And the Rip Van Winkle Award Goes to...

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I deserve what critic James Berardinelli recently called "The Rip Van Winkle Award."

Apparently for the past few months there has been some kind of "viral" marketing campaign on the Internet to promote this new monster movie called Cloverfield.

Where have I been???

I check YouTube every day, I read film blogs, and yet I've barely heard a thing about this movie until this past week. I had no idea it had built up such a massive amount of hype.

I vaguely remember seeing a trailer for a first-person monster movie without a title months ago (maybe preceding Superbad), but I guess it didn't intrigue me enough to find out about it. I also vaguely remember catching a TV ad for it, but it didn't fascinate me then either.

Now that I've discovered all of this way after the fact, should I feel ashamed that I've apparently become so disconnected with pop culture that the Cloverfield hype machine passed me by entirely? Have I become that insulated in my own little world? (Because of the bountiful of repeats that have come about as a result of the writer's strike, I've pretty much steered clear of TV for the past few weeks---yes, even with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert back on the air, because apparently I'm no longer getting Comedy Central, and many other channels, from the tuner that's installed in our family HDTVs anymore...and likely won't for a long while, unless my mother suddenly decides to become less of a cheapskate and allow us to get cable. Maybe Comcast has gotten wise to HDTV tuners picking up their signal or something, and have started blocking certain channels.)

I actually had a bit of trouble sleeping last night worrying about the implications of this...

And as for the movie itself...since I somehow didn't allow hype to get me to see it on Friday night, should I even bother to see it at all? I highly doubt I'm missing anything, especially with films like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Persepolis still to see (not to mention There Will Be Blood to chew over some more).

Whatever man. I'm probably not the only one (just maybe the only one in my age group).

Go Giants!

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Dark Side of the (American) Force

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - New article of mine up at The House Next Door: a review of the new Alex Gibney documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, a startling and sobering but still rather one-sided look into torture as it is currently being practiced in interrogations by Americans against suspected terrorists.

It's worth checking out, for sure (and I didn't mention the graphic footage of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse that figures prominently in parts of the film---not pleasant, by any means, but probably necessary to see uncensored to get the full impact of the institutional breakdown that occurred in that scandal), but my gut feeling is that Gibney, as methodically, passionately and convincing as he argues against torture as a terrorism-fighting tool, isn't presenting the whole nuanced story here. (Perhaps he simply wasn't able to---perhaps he wasn't able to get the key interviews that might have added to a more satisfying sense of the other side of the debate---but maybe a recognition of that shortcoming would have been nice; at least Charles Ferguson, in last year's superb Iraq War documentary No End in Sight, was honest enough to let us know who he wasn't able to interview.) I know documentaries aren't required to be objective or evenhanded, but is it too much to ask for at least a recognition of nuance or gray areas even in a topic like torture (which, admittedly, most ordinary people seem to have turned against, especially with the recent scandal over those destroyed CIA interrogation videotapes)? There's so little actual "fair and balanced" in the news media, and, as impressed as I was by the film, it ultimately seemed nearly as pat as a Michael Moore documentary (even if Gibney's methods are preferable to Moore's). But that's just me; again, on its own terms, the film is probably essential viewing, so feel free to take my review with a grain of salt.

Also, head's up: I'm currently working on a piece that will attempt to document, in exhausting detail, the various thoughts that have been invading my head ever since I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's stunning (and I genuinely mean that; by the time the end credits started, my jaw was figuratively on the floor) new film There Will Be Blood. A new American masterpiece for the ages? I'm not so sure about that (yet), but no other film last year has challenged me quite like this one---not No Country for Old Men (which, though brilliant, There Will Be Blood, to my mind, handily supersedes in ambition and impact, though not in technical perfection), not even I'm Not There (which I'm starting to think I might have overrated, although I'll have to sit through it again to make sure). Certainly no other American film in 2007 has both delighted and frustrated me in almost equal measure. Let me put it this way: this film so disturbed me that, for the first time ever in my movie-going life, it provoked me to go see it a second time to confirm my initial impressions. Is a third viewing on the horizon? More to come...

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A Look Back at Things I Discovered in 2007

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - New House Next Door blog post, this one a look back at music, movies, and books I discovered for the first time in 2007.

Already I remember things that I forgot to mention in it (Seinfeld complete and uncut on DVD, Pierrot le fou and La Chinoise on the big screen), but I think my post, overall, sums up my year in artistic (and not so artistic) discoveries nicely. Enjoy, and hopefully I'll have more discoveries to share with you all on this blog.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year To All, and To All a Good 2008

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Yeah, the substance of this post is basically in its title.

And I don't have any cool New Year's Day-related pictures to post here either; only thing I could think of was to go to Google and search for a picture of a poster from a really bad 1981 slasher flick entitled New Year's Evil that I remember seeing chunks of during my days as an infant (psychologically/relatively speaking) filmwatcher. (There was pretty much no gore in it, from what I remember---which, those days, meant that it probably wouldn't interest me.) Too bad all the snapshots of the poster are all really low-resolution.

Of course, I worked at The Wall Street Journal today, since even the international editions have to put out a paper tomorrow. Not a big deal, really...except for the fact that last night I hung out with a few friends, from both Rutgers and from my high school days at East Brunswick, and stayed out much later than I had planned---I was at home in bed by 2:30 a.m., whereas usually I'm pretty strict about going to bed at around midnight if I have to go to work the next day (have to be in the office by 10 a.m.). So getting up this morning was a bit, uh, problematic, to say the least. I did drink and did get a little more than buzzed last night too (thankfully, a friend was able to take me home in one piece), but that turned out to be not a big problem this morning, since I drank a good deal of water before I went to bed. (So no headaches or hangovers for me.) Only the lack of sleep posed a bit of a problem during work (I nodded off quite a few times after Asia locked-up for good at 1:30 p.m.). That and a faint odor I detected that I think came from the sneakers I wore today---the same ones I wore last night while walking across the alcohol-stained floor of the bar I was at. In other words, I think there might have been a bit of a beer smell on me, although definitely not from any part of my body, clothes or breath (I showered last night before I went to bed).

Anyway...hopefully my next post will be a more formal entry looking back at the life of Kenji in 2007. Exciting, huh? Short version, I suspect, will be: all in all, 2007 was a pretty interesting, fun, and perhaps promising year. Details to come soon, I hope...