Monthly Archives: January 2008
Ben Affleck doesn’t necessarily establish any gifted visual style with his directing debut, however, Affleck the Screenwriter and Affleck the Actor ensure that the movie succeeds swimmingly as a murky morality play. The film is an actor’s showcase and they get plenty of room to maneuver, with standout performances by Ed Harris as an embittered cop and Amy Ryan as the living embodiment of the worst white trash would-be mother on the planet. Where Affleck earns his artistic stripes is by asking hard questions with moral ambiguity and not dishing out easy answers. This is an above average crime thriller that uses its lower class Boston setting as an additional character. There are only a handful of relevant flaws, like Michelle Mongahan’s character being pointless except to cry, and a mystery that clever moviegoers will have figured it out early thanks to the economy of characters and some shifty glances. The missing child mystery allows Affleck to explore some very dark places and non darker than the human soul. Affleck may not dazzle with visual prowess, but the man sure knows how to tell a damn good story and direct actors to award-winning levels. Give this man another movie.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Is anyone more polarizing in the film world at this moment than writer/director Paul Haggis? He takes a far subtler approach to exploring difficult subject matter this time, and the lack of histrionics makes the message far more serviceable. The film begins as a mystery, with Tommy Lee Jones investigating the disappearance of his son who was supposed to return from Iraq. Then the film transforms into an examination on the hidden, psychological costs of a war that continues to backslide into incivility and chaos. Jones gives a terrific taciturn performance, expressing so much sorrow with his hangdog expressions and sad, soulful eyes. There isn’t a moment in the movie that feels trite or contrived, and its conclusion is surprising in how subdued it plays out, which makes it far more emotionally troublesome. The title is in reference to the location of the famous biblical battle between David and Goliath. Is America Goliath? Are we David? I can’t honestly decode all the metaphors in this solid slow burn anti-war flick. Haggis is bristling with things to say but effectively buries them below the surface so that the viewer is not beaten over the head but yet left with many significant questions. And what police investigation, even in a war away from home flick, would be complete without a visit to a strip club?
Nate’s Grade: B+
A smart, suspenseful, terrifically acted corporate thriller, this movie hums along with great precision thanks to a deeply articulate screenplay by writer/director Tony Gilroy. The acting trio (George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton) delivers sensational performances muddled with doubt and weary, nervy complexity; each comes across a full human being in what could have come across as a dull Law and Order episode. I don’t understand why Gilroy plays around with the film’s timeframe, because he spends nearly ten minutes at the end in a suspenseful car chase where we already know the outcome. There is a murder that is played against Hollywood convention; it’s quick, grimly efficient, and scary in how soon it’s all over. Michael Clayton is a first-class movie that respects the intelligence of an audience.
Nate’s Grade: A
This movie continues to grow on me every day after I saw it. Writer/director Brad Bird yet again impresses with a deceptively simple story that manages to hit big themes in organic ways. The comic possibilities are fully realized with the setup of a man and a rat teaming up to be a great Parisian chef. There is a jubilant spirit alive and well throughout the film, and it’s difficult not to get swept up in the wit, the wonder, and the magnificent visual feast.
Nate’s Grade: A
This unanticipated sequel to the 1998 film that put Cate Blanchett on the map is pretty much the same setup from the original go-round. Once again, Elizabeth is trying to assert her authority, once again Catholics are plotting an assassination to place Elizabeth’s good Catholic sister on the throne, once again Elizabeth pines for a man she cannot have, this time in the dashing form of Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen). Everything is cranked into overkill, which means there are plenty of speeches and plenty of bellowing. The romantic triangle between Elizabeth, Raleigh, and Elizabeth’s most beloved assistant to the Queen (Abbie Cornish) is a waste of time and does not dignify any of the three. The camerawork ranges from awe-inspiring to maddening, with the director relying on bird-eye-view long shots and always throwing some object in the foreground to obscure the action. It gets old quickly. Blanchett gets to suit up with armor and ride a horse around, but this Elizabeth redux leaves much to be desired. If they ever kick around an Elizabeth 3 in, oh, 10 or so years, hopefully they can move on to a new story structure while I watch the aging queen through a lattice 300 feet high.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Katherine Hiegl is a likeable enough actress. She got her big break in 1994’s My Father the Hero, which had the exceptionally gross premise of having an adolescent’s father posing as her European lover to score the guy she’s really got her eyes on. The most memorable moment of the movie was a 15-year-old Heigl strutting around in a thong bathing suit. Her resume got better with a steady stream of network TV shows like Roswell and Grey’s Anatomy, and then she broke into another level of stardom thanks to the runaway success of [I]Knocked Up[/I] where she carried Seth Rogen’s baby. Then she told Vanity Fair that she felt Knocked Up was “sexist” and that the women were portrayed as shrews and that the men were fun-loving dudes (I must have seen a somewhat different movie). She’s entitled to her opinion, but what seems very odd is that Heigl’s follow-up to her breakout role is 27 Dresses, a romantic comedy about a woman who is a perennial bridesmaid and yearns for her own perfect wedding when her life will be complete.
Jane (Heigl) busies her time helping others to have heir ideal weddings. She has contributed to so many wedding ceremonies that she has amassed a closet full of 27 bridesmaid dresses that serve as trophies. Jane is in love with weddings. She is also harboring a crush on her boss (Edward Burns, wooden as always) that seems to be going nowhere. Jane’s younger sister Tess (Malin Akerman) comes to visit and immediately hooks up with Jane’s boss/crush. Jane’s wisecracking best friend (Judy Greer) is quick with a quip and declares Tess to be some very negative terms. Poor plain Jane is also taken aback when she meets wedding columnist, Kevin (James Marsden), whose fawning words about weddings are like poetry for Jane. He turns out to be a cynical guy who feels weddings and marriages are “the last legal form of slavery.” When Tess gets engaged to the boss man, wedding responsibilities fall upon Jane and Kevin is right beside her, ready to trade barbs about romance and perhaps start one of his own.
27 Dresses hews pretty close to the familiar romantic comedy formula trappings. Opposites attract, bickering will lead to romance, and then true love will overcome all misunderstandings, that’s a given. Another given is the fact that we will get a montage of Heigl trying on all 27 titular dresses. 27 Dresses also includes the wisecracking best friend who has no purpose of her own but to comment on the troubles of our heroine with stark bluntness. Once again, this is the type of film where one character has some earlier, negative opinion or statement that resurfaces late to bite them in the ass after they have learned how flawed and shallow that original opinion was (otherwise known as the 11th hour misunderstanding). One party has a personal epiphany and runs to catch the other party leaving by some means of transportation (I’ve seen boats, taxis, motorcycles, barges, but usually they run to catch a plane). And then there’s the sing-a-long; oh what romantic comedy would be worth its salt if it didn’t include a group sing-a-long to some older tune that just united everyone in spontaneous song? 27 Dresses uses Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” to rock out a beer bar. Really, “Benny and the Jets”? Rocking out a bar? And it’s not even a gay bar? Hmm. 27 Dresses is rather predictable from the first frame onward, but familiarity isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for a strictly genre movie.
I’ve seen plenty of romantic comedies and I like to judge them fairly, so I use my patented cute-to-cringe count whereby I take stock of the number of times I smile, laugh, or find a moment, line of dialogue, or even choice of song that leaves a favorable impression. I then compare this figure with the number of times I want to roll my eyes, check my watch (if I had one), vomit, or any piece of dialogue or moment that feels so saccharine, so unbelievable even in the rom-com universe that I want to laugh derisively. The final tally for 27 Dresses was somewhere in the middle but I’ll admit it skewed closer to the positive “cute” side of the spectrum.
The acting overall really helps to make the most of the formulaic material. Heigl seems destined to thrive in the rom-com genre; she has an every girl appeal and seems apt making funny faces of seething indignation (take note of the amount of times she uses food in her mouth for comic effect). She seems like the heir apparent to Sandra Bullock movies. Her chemistry with Marsden is ripe and they bring out good thing in one another with their playful give-and-take. Marsden has a terrific smile (seriously, the man might have the best choppers in the industry) and is suitably dreamy but he also has an enjoyably droll delivery. Akerman plays a spoiled brat well, though she isn’t given the opportunities to flash her rather skillful comic skills that she displayed in The Heartbreak Kid remake. Greer is a top-notch scene-stealer and deserves her character deserves her own movie. She has the most fun role to play but Greer sinks her teeth into the character and delivers a juicy performance that feels slightly naughty, uncensored, and carefree.
The movie falters when it trips up in maintaining believability. There’s an extensive scene in a Goth bar/club where the costumed extras are acting like… costumed extras. It’s the least believable Goth club I have ever seen in a movie, not that I was expecting Hollywood fluff to pain an accurate picture. It’s just wall-to-wall stereotypes, but not only that, they’re distracting and lame and dated stereotypes. Then Jane marches outside to scream to the heavens an expletive-filled rant about her bad luck when, ut oh, right next door to the Goth club is an old couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. What? Grandma and grandpa Old People celebrating their marriage vows next door to a Goth club? This incongruous setting takes a long, long while to set up one very blah joke that could have functioned anywhere. Realistically, the joke is that Jane is swearing unbeknownst to others, so why even have it next to the world’s crummiest Goth club? If you’re going that route, why not have grandma and grandpa Old People dressed in tacky Goth apparel as well? This may become my most nit-picky criticism of all of 2008 but it really stuck in my craw.
A better example is how the film handles Jane’s bratty sister, Tess. For 90 minutes we bare witness to Tess being a thoughtless, self-absorbed, lying, horrible human specimen, and then the movie tries to change strides. In the very end, it wants us to open up and look at Tess’ life and realize that she doesn’t have it so awesome because she was fired and dumped. Oh my, that must be perfectly excusable then for her rampant inexcusable, me-first behavior. If 27 Dresses has an antagonist in its midst than Tess is that bridezilla. The movie plays her bitchiness for comedy but then wants an audience to forget every whine and betrayal because, woe is her life, Tess wants to be happy. Tess remains an unsympathetic twit from beginning to end, no matter how hard the movie and its soft piano score try to change your mind.
The fact that 27 Dresses thought it could throw in some contradictory evidence at the last minute to make an audience forgive Tess is very telling. It showcases that the film has a hard time grasping the realities of characterization; Kevin is cynical about weddings because he was stood up at his; Jane must focus on making others happy because she is afraid of focusing on her self; Ed Burns is a douche. That isn’t necessarily an indictment on the film per se, just my honest opinion. 27 Dresses spells everything out in bold statements that hit like anvils, like when Kevin’s news editor congratulates him on his front-age story ridiculing Jane: “Hey, you got what you wanted, right?” Gag. The movie is too lockstep with the genre’s clichés that it doesn’t push hard enough with its characters, so we get plenty of intermittently cute moments but cute moments that will be easily forgotten and stored away like one of Jane’s hideous bridesmaids gowns.
27 Dresses is more or less par for the course in a genre littered with sappy clichés and cookie-cutter characterizations, and yet the movie possesses enough charm to outdistance its lapses in believability. The acting ensemble help make the movie enjoyable in parts, especially the chemistry between Heigl and Marsden. 27 Dresses passes the time but you wish that Heigl, Marsden, and especially Greer would be teleported to a better movie. One free from bitchy younger sisters, bar sing-a-longs, giddy dress-up montages, and Ed Burns. Did I mention that his character is a douche?
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Internet can be a scary place, no question. There’s plenty of weird crap in wide-open world of the World Wide Web. There are sites devoted to teaching people how to make bombs in the privacy of their own kitchen. If you can name a fetish, chances are there’s a pay sex site already built for it (I tried “clown porn” and was not disappointed, and by that I mean that I found a site for it and WAS deeply creeped out). According to the ongoing Dateline specials, everyone wants to “talk” to adolescent girls while they’re home alone. In short, the Internet can be a scary place. Untraceable, a barrel-scrapping genre movie, taps into our fears of the unknown in cyber space.
Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is a member of the Portland, Oregon office of the FBI. She specializes in tracking down cyber criminals and bringing them to real-world justice. There’s a new Web site called “Kill With Me.com” that invites anonymous users to serve as executioners. The site creator creates death traps that increase in deadliness the more users click onto the site; so a man bleeds out faster the more people that want to catch a glimpse of it. Lucky for the FBI, the cyber killer is doing all this nasty business in Portland. Marsh and her cyber assistant (Colin Hanks) try finding the location of the IP site but, somehow, it skips around the world and cannot be pinpointed. The victims of the site are specifically chosen, and Marsh is struggling to put it all together. Then the cyber killer begins stalking her and lets others join in on the fun.
Untraceable is rather hypocritical in nature. It wants to titillate an audience but then shame them for embracing the titillation; the movie is purveying the same crap that it derides. The premise of a digital age serial killer that transforms murder into an online democratic act sounds nifty. Plenty of insightful questions generated by this premise like the nature of exploitation, media, and the culpability on the account of the insatiable viewing public. It’s too bad, then that Untraceable just uses the premise as a jumping off point to create a half-assed Saw. The movie is mostly concerned with reworking the familiar tropes of the serial killer genre, this time with some extra dashes of torture and Saw-style death traps. But the movie doesn’t fully commit to horror so much of the gore is implied. The extra attention to torture seems timidly tacked on to the framework of a thriller, likely grossing out the older folk that came to the movies thinking they were going to watch Diane Lane assert justice on this new fangled Internets thing. The movie has a vague fear of technology and computers and seems programmed to scare people that don’t know any better, namely the people who think computers are bigger toasters.
The script by relative neophytes is where the movie treads water. The villain is revealed fairly early, like a half hour in, and this revelation does nothing to help build tension. The culprit responsible for the laughably implausible death traps is a gangly eighteen-year-old twerp (Running with Scissors‘ Joseph Cross; yes that kid). I understand that in serial killer movies the villain usually takes on some form of supernatural abilities, like the ability to be everywhere and never be seen, or the ability to draw super strength at opportune times. When Untraceable apathetically reveals its villain the movie seems like it’s already giving up and conceding, “Okay, this is the big bad dude and he weighs about 110 pounds soaking wet. We know he could never outmatch anyone that is over five feet tall.” Marsh’s home life is also given obligatory screen time, including Marsh’s mother keeping watch of the home, but it never matters. In this world, birthday parties just get in the way of FBI manhunts.
The film also requires character to act inexplicably stupid at a moment’s notice in order for the plot to hum along. Marsh is such an expert on cyber crime, and yet she doesn’t bat an eyelash when her young daughter downloads a mysterious computer program sent to her by a “friend”? Never mind that this FBI expert logs onto the “Kill With Me” site on her home computer, allowing the killer to hack into her computer and look through all her personal information and cyber dirty laundry. The worst lapse occurs after our tech-savvy killer has effectively hacked into Marsh’s OnStar computer system in her car. The engine shits down and the car slows to a halt. Marsh leaves her car to use a roadside telephone to tell another cop that the killer has hijacked her car. The cop on the phone advises her to be on alert. Right after she hangs up, the car’s engine and lights become operational once again. Marsh trots over to her car, whose door had been open since she left, and simply hops back inside without checking the vehicle at all. She is swiftly tazed and kidnapped by the killer who was routinely hiding in the back seat. It’s not like a trained FBI agent would be able to miss the inescapable sight of somebody hiding in a tiny backseat with little room to crouch. I can excuse smart people making stupid decisions, but when a movie like Untraceable has experts not following through on situations that require their expertise, then it comes across as contrived. Really, a cop wouldn’t even peek in the backseat?
Lane holds her own, and even that is an accomplishment for something so rote. She’s an actress easing into her forties and finding a new tap of talent. Frankly, she should have won the Best Actress Oscar for 2002 with her fabulous work in Unfaithful. That movie came out five years ago, and yet the Diane Lane in Untraceable looks so much older. I think the filmmakers were trying to make her look more harried by not applying makeup or utilizing soft focus. You can see her wrinkles and her age, and these are all well earned for a great actress, and Untraceable wants to maker her look her age in a time where Hollywood seems to dump out an actress’ business card once she hits 40. I just thought that was interesting, but the most interesting facet of this entire movie is that the actor who plays the head of the FBI team (Peter Lewis) looks remarkably close to 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. It’s uncanny. If Huckabee ever plans on contributing to a filmed biopic of his life, then Peter Lewis should be on his shortlist.
Untraceable scrapes the serial killer genre for some form of life. The novel premise gives way to predictably lackluster thrills and gaping plot holes. Lane saunters around with a gun for two hours, mixed in with some extended sequences of torture, including one that involves hundreds of heat lamps. Look, I know I’m no cop, but couldn’t someone simply trace the massive electric bill this guy is generating? It’s just sloppy police work all around. Why? Because the movie requires giant lapses in judgment so that it can continue. The world can be a sick place, but has it always been this way? A better movie would dig deeper; this movie just wants to fry a cat and call it a day.
Nate’s Grade: C
I can think of no movie that has come out of virtually nowhere to build tremendous hype like Cloverfield. Before the summer of 2007 this movie didn’t appear on anyone’s radar whatsoever, and then came a teaser trailer before Transformers. The tease was nothing but party footage of well-wishers when, all of a sudden, explosions are in the distance, people are fleeing, and the Statue of Liberty’s severed head rolls to a stop in a street. Bam. Release date. Nothing else, not even a title. All of a sudden the world had an insatiable appetite for everything Cloverfield. Mega-producer J.J. Abrams had done it again. In one fell swoop he took control of geek nation. I never expected Cloverfield to live up to the massive hype, but this modern monster movie delivers more bangs than whimpers.
The first twenty minutes of the film introduce us to our cadre of yuppy characters. Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is leaving for Japan to take a business promotion. His friends throw him a surprise going away party to celebrate and wish him the best. Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), start videotaping the party. Jason hands off the taping duties to Hud (T.J. Miller) who, thankfully, has a much steadier hand. Hud walks around the party gathering interviews and he zeroes in on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), a gal he’s been nursing a crush on. Rob is nervous to see if Beth (Odette Yustman) will come to the party. Beth and Rob are long-standing friends that took the plunge and had sex a couple weeks prior. Now Rob is hoping for something more but Beth isn’t on the same page; she brings a date to the party. Interrupting all this twenty-something relationship drama is a giant monster attacking New York City and dropping little baby monsters to scurry the streets and feed.
While not entirely unique, Cloverfield is certainly a reinvention of the dormant monster movie. By seeing its gimmick through to the very end, the film gives a perspective rarely seen in movies that involve cataclysmic disasters. Usually films that involve space aliens, monsters, or some form of incredible destruction follow the people in power, the Army generals, the politicians, the President of the United States as he solemnly looks out his office window and says “God help us,” under his presidential breath. Cloverfield, however, eschews all of that. This movie is all about people caught on the peripheral of a disaster and just trying to survive. They have no idea what’s happening, they have no idea when they will be in danger, they have no idea where to go, they have no idea how long they have, and they definitely have no idea what it is that’s obliterating the city. The film dares to place us in the shoes of ordinary civilians as they document the fantastic. The “found footage” concept and the ordinary perspective are interesting though some will quibble that staying inside one point of view is too limiting for the scale of Cloverfield. This film is more than The Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla; this movie is a collective manifestation of the nation’s 9/11 anxieties. Cloverfield is the first 9/11 disaster movie. The shock and confusion of the situation take on even more resonance by triggering some of the same emotions many experienced on that fateful day in 2001. And yet Cloverfield doesn’t feel exploitative or disrespectful as it draws upon our 9/11 memories and fears, which is saying something substantial about the filmmakers’ skill and the remarkable healing power of time. Some images are unmistakable, like a white cloud of dust that blows through the city and also helps to shroud the monster. People scamper around the city yelling for some kind of explanation when some character, offhandedly, says, “Do you think it’s another terrorist attack?”
The film is also got some fabulously frightening moments that are not related to 9/11 anxiety. Cloverfield is a great, old school horror movie on top of a subversive social experiment. Talented writer Drew Goddard has had experience building tension on some of TV’s finest shows, like Buffy, Angel, and Lost. Now with his debut screenplay, Goddard cranks up the suspense and creepiness to maximum effect. Part of the horror is trying to find meaning in the madness but another equally enjoyable part is walking into perfectly executed classic horror moments. You will be on edge about what could possibly be around a corner. Our band of survivors decide to walk through the subway tunnels and discover that Hud’s camcorder has night vision; sure enough, you are waiting with baited breath for the second that night vision is shifted on and something pops out in view. There’s a distinct difference between cheap jump scares and spooks that, as I say, earn their boo. This tunnel scare is catapulted to frightening from the ominous buildup that comes from seeing hundreds of rats running away. When I saw the fleeing rats, I knew something very bad was coming from behind. The structure is clever as Goddard gives us back-story on Beth and Rob via the original footage of them canoodling that cuts in here and there. Goddard earns his stripes with a script swiftly paced, filled with genuine scares, and smart enough to keep an audience laughing with gallows humor at key moments (“Okay, so our options are… die here, die in the tunnels, or die in the streets.”).
You the viewer are in the middle of the action with this film and there’s no getting out, no distancing yourself from the chaos, no watching men in lab coats and military uniforms dissect the situation over large boards. The gimmick of Cloverfield is flawlessly executed thanks to director Matt Reeves, who spectacularly resurfaces from movie jail after writing duds like The Pallbearer and Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. Reeves explores some dark territory of his own but never breaks the tenuous tone needed for the movie to succeed. The movie is constructed with many long takes and it never exposes its secrets. I watched spellbound by the artistry of maintaining the illusion from beginning to end. Watching the Brooklyn bridge collapse from the inside is exciting and terrifyingly real. Reeves and Goddard smartly decide not to show their monster for as long as possible. Catching glimpses of a shadow or the flash of a tentacle-like appendage are enough to register goose bumps; the human imagination will always be more capable of engineering horror. Eventually the film does give its monster the proverbial close-up and the giant, skyscraper-sized beast looks a little familiar in design (think Vin Diesel sci-fi movie).
Cloverfield is a well-executed genre movie with a clever concept that is fully realized. The constantly bouncing and roving handheld camera might make an audience queasy, but the perspective of the end of New York City as brought to you via YouTube is stimulating and a comment on our self-absorbed culture. The film works as a finely tuned fright film elevated by its stylistic concept and the filmmaking skill to pull it off. Cloverfield being “found footage” and evidence from the Department of Defense doesn’t exactly bode well for the characters onscreen, and the film dispatches them with cool malice. No one is safe and no one can stop what’s coming. If that doesn’t sound like the perfect summation of 9/11 fears, then I don’t know what else is.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most gifted filmmakers working today, bar none. There Will Be Blood is only his fifth film and marks a radical departure from his intimate, inter-laced character dramas. Blood is an epic in size and scope and has been blessed with numerous awards and vehement praise. Critics say this film is one for the ages. My anticipation was fed to unhealthy proportions thanks to the hyperbolic praise and Anderson’s track record of audacious visionary cinema. There Will Be Blood is certainly audacious, and not just with its bladder-testing running length. This lethargic throwback to 1970 filmmaking exists for the purpose of a single performance and neglects other important tenets of storytelling. At 158 minutes, I can safely assume for many that there will be boredom with There Will Be Blood.
Our first glimpse of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is in the pit of a hole. It’s 1898 and Plainview is chipping away at the earth looking for scraps of silver. His meager beginnings set the stage for other mining prospects when, on the hunt for silver, he discovers even bigger riches – oil. Thanks to the advancing automobile age, the world has a thirst for oil that knows no bounds and makes Plainview a wealthy man. He’s an unscrupulous business figure that trots around his “son” HW (Dillion Freasier) as one more angle to fleece gullible townsfolk out of their property rights. HW’s father died in a drilling accident when he was a baby and Plainview has looked after him since.
One day Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) enters Plainview’s office and is willing to name a prime piece of land that oozes oil. Plainview agrees to pay Paul his sum and heads out with crew to Little Boston, California. The small town is easily enamored by Plainview’s promises of riches and prosperity. He purchases as much tracts of land as he can and begins drilling for that valuable black liquid. Eli Sunday (also Dano) is Paul’s twin brother; he wishes to build a church and become a prominent religious figure for his town. He sees the oil as his ticket to a throng of adoring congregants that will do his bidding. Oil is struck and several parties vie for dominance.
I fear that Blood may be too languid for its own good. I’m all about allowing a film to take its time to establish a world and the people that inhabit it, and to its credit Blood spectacularly recreates turn-of-the-century America and the craze for oil. The cinematography and production design are stunning in gorgeously recreating a bygone era with such dusty detail. The film is packed with evocative imagery that will linger in your memory, like a burning oil derrick that feels like someone just drilled down to hell. The mixture of smoke, fire, and oil set amidst the hazy twilight is a remarkable sight. Visually speaking, this movie is close to flawless.
The nascent plot is what hampers Anderson’s Blood from reaching masterwork territory. The focus is on a misanthropic man who despises people and wants only to seclude himself, and yet he has genuine affection for his son until Daniel feels betrayed by his ambitions. I understand that the movie is a far-reaching character study, and Daniel Plainview is a fascinating and ferocious character, a perfect yet perplexing combination of greed and ambition, but I feel like Anderson has spent so much thought on his characters and forgotten to write a story around them. The silent, early portion of Blood gives us a quick summation of how Plainview rose to fortune and power and it’s rather compelling how much story comes across with no words of dialogue. This wordless pattern seeps into [i]Blood[/i] and there are stretches here and there where you may not hear a wisp of dialogue for, oh, 15 minutes, but by this point the movie is beyond setting up its storytelling universe. Again, I have no issues with the use of silence to convey meaning and metaphor, but it feels downright neglectful for Anderson to have concocted such intense, lively portraits of people and then to encase them in a void of speech.
Significant human interaction is kept to a minimum and I couldn’t help but feel that the movie was uncomfortably coasting without conflict for too long. Blood sets up Eli Sunday and Daniel Plainview as rivals, two men intent on grabbing power and the upper hand. The film takes a winding path to set these players in motion but I was encouraged that now, finally with two adversaries pitted together, the film would kick into another level and showcase a violent struggle worthy of a titan like Plainview. I recall every summary I read of There Will Be Blood noting that Eli is the thorn in Plainview’s side for many years and that their feud took up the bulk of the labored running time. This does not happen at all. Eli drops out for long stretches of plot and is forgotten unless Anderson feels that the character needs to be shoehorned back into the central drama at arbitrary points. This is no battle either, it’s all one-sided; Plainview handles Eli without breaking a sweat. With this in mind, I’m puzzled at how the conflict between Eli and Plainview was supposed to take center stage. Anderson had such wonderful potential to paint a doomed rivalry that eclipsed both men, but instead the external conflict only appears whenever Anderson desires some new sounding board for Plainview. That means that Blood can go for what feel like entire acts before it appears that conflict will be introduced or elaborated upon. There is a vacuum of story here and Eli Sunday, as written and performed, is far too submissive and easily beaten to present any formidable challenge.
Why present characters at odds if you’re not going to push them further? Why write such vivid and amoral characters if you’re going to have them sit out or stay still? Plainview is the star of the show, I get that, but that isn’t an excuse for underwriting every single other character in an entire 158-minute movie. There are no intriguing character dynamics in this movie. Eli Sunday is forgotten. HW presents the closest insight into the humanity (what’s left) of Plainview, but the character is treated like a mute doll and when HW unexpectedly leaves the story so too does the only significantly interesting emotional relationship. Anderson establishes that greed comes in all shapes and sizes, be it an oil tycoon or a false prophet feasting on the coffers of his congregation. There is great thematic tension between the spiritual and the material but it never comes to a head. I kept waiting for confrontation but what Blood kept dishing out time and again was willful stagnation.
The extended ending forces a marginally contrived final reunion between Eli and Plainview but it doesn’t feel like any sort of payoff. The brutish and abrupt finale will cause many to scratch their heads and say, “That’s it?” until their scalps bleed. It’s a rather unsatisfying end for a film that boasted such grand ambitions.
The musical score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood certainly wasn’t bad but it definitely did not mesh with the movie. Greenwood’s score consists mostly of a cacophony of violin strings buzzing about like a swarm of angry bees. The score seems to have a life of its own, intruding upon the scene at whim and upstaging character dialogue at times. The mixture of shrieking violins and some heavy percussion makes the movie feel less like a costume drama and more like a horror movie. The score seems to percolate and signify approaching danger. The score is also overly redundant and feels unnaturally paired to There Will Be Blood. It’s a marriage that doesn’t ever match.
Day-Lewis doesn’t act often in movies and when he does it’s usually something special. His performance in Blood is outstanding, and it better be, because the film is built exclusively around his performance. He is an angry man bent on crushing opponents and making sure no one else gets sight of success. Day-Lewis is an immense talent and can dabble with multiple emotions with sheer, sightless subtlety. His distinct manner of speaking is finely attuned, though sometimes I felt like I was watching the world’s longest, and best, Jack Palence impersonation.
The other actors fall victim to the one-man show nature of the narrative. Dano comes across as miscast. He seems too youthful and ineffectual for the role. When he’s beaten and bullied his voice goes into a high-pitch squeal that is not becoming for the character. Dano’s acting takes the empty characterization one step further and removes any audience empathy.
Going by the repeated slam that Anderson is less a visionary and more a regurgitation of homage, if Boogie Nights was his Scorsese movie, Magnolia his Altman movie, Punch-Drunk Love his French New Wave movie, then There Will Be Blood is his Kubrick movie. It’s a plodding, challenging, and idiosyncratic movie that hits universal themes like family, greed, desire, and vengeance but does so in a small-scale story that feels intimate and epic simultaneously. The movie is dripping with artistic integrity and breathtaking filmmaking ability; however, it’s also a crushing disappointment. Anderson is a gifted writer/director with few contemporary peers, but he strands such vivid characters in a dessert of storytelling. There is little external conflict and the characters feel neglected or too easily forgotten. The focus is one misanthropic man but the film shortchanges him by not supplying additional substantial characters or conflict. Perhaps There Will Be Blood will stand the test of time and be the classic or landmark that critics are wetting themselves to declare it. It’s just simple economics in my mind: a character study cannot fully resonate without a strong network of supporting characters and/or lasting conflict. I have never been let down by a Paul Thomas Anderson film yet but I suppose there’s a first for everything.
Nate’s Grade: B-