Saturday, September 27, 2008
In his 83 years of life, Paul Newman voiced a animated car, played a mob boss, a pool shark, a hockey player, a cop, an angry youth and most importantly to me an outlaw named Butch Cassidy. He was an actor, entrepreneur, race car driver and philanthropist. One of the people in the business that actually seemed to enjoy their career and want to use their influence for the good of others not just to get himself ahead.
Paul Newman was a great actor and a good man and he will be missed; luckily for us the characters he played will live on forever.
Recommended Viewing: Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and The Sting
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Then, about a month ago, I watched Gone With The Wind for the first time in something like 16 years. After watching it, I was struck by the realization that David O. Selznick was doing something with that film that few filmmakers do anymore. From the outset, he had one goal, and that was to make a great film. This might not seem that important, but think about it for a moment. When was the last time that you watched a current movie in which the filmmaker's aspirations for greatness were apparent in every frame? Can you think of any? Can you think of one?
It seems to me that Paul Thomas Anderson has been following Costner's advice throughout his entire career. I don't think he's ever done a project in an attempt to score a base hit with a solid film. Just about every film he's ever made has been a swing for the fences. This is something that I admire a lot, because, like I said, so few people try to do this anymore. I've seen three of Paul Thomas Anderson's films so far, which amounts to 60% of his output. Each of these films has been unlike any other film I've ever seen.
One thing that strikes me about Anderson's work is the sense that he doesn't seem to believe in doing anything small. For example, in each of the three films of his that I've seen, the characters are larger-than-life, filled with conflicting emotions that would crush a lesser person. It's to his credit that he's been able to cast actors for these parts that have found a way to transcend the material, instead of being overwhelmed by it. In addition, in some cases, the actors that he's cast have been, on the surface, very unlikely choices. However, I think that he tends to be right on the money.
Magnolia (2000): This film is probably, to this point, the most archetypical Anderson movie. He approaches the material in a way that is reminiscent of the style of a filmmaker like Robert Altman. Like that legendary director, he takes a group of characters (played excellently by a terrific ensemble cast) from vastly different walks of life and places them on the screen almost like a chess player moving the pieces around on a board. It's particularly fascinating to watch to see where the character's lives do and don't intersect. What's equally fascinating is that the film's action takes place within one twenty-four hour period, and, within that period, instead of adhering to standard constraints of "reality," Anderson does something completely different. When the film begins, for the most part, things seem normal. The action (and, concurrently, the tension) rises as the film continues until, at the film's conclusion, I felt as though I'd entered a strange new world, where the rules were completely different. Seriously, if I were to tell you what was the climax of the film is by printing it here, you would not believe me. This, however, is a good thing. Far too many films settle for using conventional plot devices and conventional endings to the point where there is little surprise when a film arrives at its conclusion. Even the use of a twist ending, unless it's superbly executed, doesn't really create that much surprise. This is why the climax of Magnolia works so well. It serves as a means to challenge our ideas of what is possible within the confines of a film, that, despite its quirks, probably, until the climax, was such that a viewer would probably think that they had it figured out. A little bit of transcendence never hurt anyone anyway.
Thematically, Magnolia has a very interesting story to tell. By my interpretation, the film is primarily about forgiveness and, more specifically, what people can and cannot forgive. One thing that I find very appealing about Anderson’s approach to the subject is related to the arc of one of the characters. (I will refrain from divulging which character in order to leave you to the joy of finding it out for yourself.) This character is speaking with another character about why someone hates him. The second person seems to have an idea as to why this is possible, but forces the first person to say it for himself. What’s ingenious about this moment is that Anderson, instead of merely having the character admit to his past transgression, has him say that he doesn't remember if he's done it or not. He truly doesn't know whether or not he needs to be forgiven. This makes the moral dilemma much more compelling. In the film, Anderson never says what really happened with this character, and that is to Magnolia's benefit.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002): First and foremost, this film stars Adam Sandler. Yes, that's right, that Adam Sandler. What's more, he's excellent as Barry Egan, an emotionally challenged young man who, one night, calls a 900 number to have someone to talk to, only to have it backfire beyond his wildest imaginings. Unfortunately, by summarizing Punch-Drunk Love this way, I have made it seem like either a thriller or a wacky comedy. Here's the great thing: it's both, and more. In some ways, I felt like this film was a throwback to a more traditional type of Hollywood romantic storytelling. One of the things that makes Punch-Drunk Love different from other Anderson films is that, with Barry, he's created a singular, sympathetic character. In Magnolia, for instance, there are a vast multitude of characters, most of whom are sympathetic in some way. In this case, though, by concentrating on one character, the film's focus seems to be a lot tighter. The film's theme, one person learning how to take charge of his own life, is nothing new, but the joy is in Anderson's stylized approach, the performances by Sandler and Emily Watson, and the sense of discovery. After watching Punch-Drunk Love, I don't know why Sandler would want to work with anyone else.
There Will Be Blood (2007): This, I think, is the crown jewel in Paul Thomas Anderson's body of work. The film works on every level. What's really fascinating is that, on many levels, There Will Be Blood is a standard epic film that takes a character, places him in a period of history, and follows him for several years. On the other hand, if this film is "standard" in any sense of the word, then I'm Doris Day. The best way that I can describe There Will Be Blood is as an epic film on steroids. All of the genre conventions of the epic film are present, but the way that they're presented makes for a wholly original experience. For example, the score was composed by Jonny Greenwood, a member of Radiohead. Most epic film scores usually make liberal use of the string section to play sweeping melodies. Greenwood, on the other hand, uses the orchestra in entirely different ways. The music is at once jarring, unsettling, and pulsating. The one thing that truly makes There Will Be Blood "work" is the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis. Already known for his, shall we say, "intense" performances in films like In the Name of the Father and Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis gives, I think, the performance of his career. Everything about his character, Daniel Plainview, is overstated. Plainview's battle for control of the oil deposits of a small California town causes his social inhibitions to come to the forefront in often violent ways. Day-Lewis commands the screen in a way that few actors this side of Marlon Brando ever have.
Thematically, on the surface, There Will Be Blood would appear to be about the nature of control. I think, however, it goes a lot deeper than that. In my estimation, Plainview's struggle with Paul Dano's Eli Sunday is nothing less than the story of the United States of America. Plainview represents extreme capitalism and Sunday represents religious fundamentalism. These two forces have been in play since the formation of our republic, and their relationship receives a fascinating treatement in this film. Interestingly, one of the film's posters alludes to this. It features the following tagline" "When ambition meets faith . . . there will be blood."
Many people have criticized the film's ending, which I will not divulge here, as being too far out of left field to be effective. I disagree completely. As is the case with Anderson's previous work, the ending here serves to do what he does best: pull the rug out from under the viewer. I don't really think that the film can end any other way. Is it strange? Yes. Does it come as a surprise? Without question. Is it necessary? Absolutely. For me, the ending makes the movie. It comes with a kind of apocalyptic finality that is unforgettable. Originally, I picked Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country For Old Men as the best film of 2007. There Will Be Blood made me change my mind.
Paul Thomas Anderson's work challenges me like few films do. I truly appreciate his courage to swing for the fences time and again. In a world where far too many films have no lasting value beyond the ticket stub, Anderson is one of a small group of filmmakers that strives to create real art each and every time. For those of us who are in love with the cinema, we couldn't ask for anything more.
Recommended viewing: Magnolia, There Will Be Blood.
There are three excellent contributors to this blog, and we have vastly different bends on the films that we watch. One of the best ways we thought we could all form a more cohesive batch of content for this arena was to start a monthly feature where all three of us focus on one subject but get to approach it from any angle we wish. For our inaugural "Feature of the Month" we settled on one prolific writer/director, Paul Thomas Anderson.
Paul Thomas Anderson is a difficult filmmaker to try and pin down to a simple definition; he makes films that are epic in a whole different way than we are used to defining the word epic as it applies to cinema. He doesn’t make films like Lawrence of Arabia that are period pieces of a giant, sweeping nature; instead his epics focus on the average and seemingly mundane members of society, characters that are in extreme situations but when it boils down to it they are just like you or someone you know. Each and every one of Anderson’s films is completely different, new, original and never what you expect. However, there are some things that tie his films together; his films are defined by characters looking for family or a sense of belonging, and a life changing event.
Hard Eight is probably the most “typical” of all of Anderson’s films, but he establishes his theme very strongly from the opening of this movie. The relationship between John (John C. Reilly) and Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) is what defines this movie; though they are not blood related they have a father/son relationship that is just as strong as if they were biological family. John emulates Sydney in every way possible from drinking the alcohol he likes, to learning to gamble the way Sydney does – he has allowed Sydney to fashion him into the man he has become. What the audience doesn’t find out until the denouement of the film is that Sydney came into John’s life because of an event that changed both of them, an event that only Sydney knows the truth of: Sydney killed John’s father.
Anderson followed up this gambler drama with the story of Dirk Digger in Boogie Nights. This film follows Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) who is recruited into the porn industry to become Dirk Diggler, and he is folded into the make-shift family headed by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). Dirk has a purpose and place to belong finally, but slowly and surely this family falls apart through the years because of another life altering event (though this one is slower than some of the others) – the inclusion of video in the porn industry.
One of the most complex movies ever made would have to be Magnolia which is one of Anderson’s absolute masterpieces. To include all of the relationships or those seeking them in this post would take far too long, but I do not think that you can deny that this film is about those bonds and the events that shape the characters. This film has many kinds of relationships focusing primarily on lovers and parent-child relationships. Everyone is looking for some kind of attention, love or respect out of the people around them, and this time the life changing even is so varied that it is hard to pin down as there are different ones for each character, but it is symbolically shown through the rain of frogs at the end of the film – life will never be the same for these characters.
Punch-Drunk Love is possibly the most simple story Anderson has ever told. Barry (Adam Sandler) is part of a large family but feels isolated and seeks love so that he can belong, he finally finds this he believes in Lena (Emily Watson), but not before being blackmailed by the phone sex line he used to endorse to get his sense of belonging. His life changing event comes in a car crash the involves he and Lena that is caused by the “henchmen” of this hotline. This event makes Barry finally take charge of the life he has built and force it into the position he wants to be in.
Anderson’s latest epic is the awe inspiring There Will Be Blood which is the only film I can imagine that he could have made to top Magnolia in scope and beauty. This film focuses on oil baron Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) and his son; Daniel has adopted his son after a tragic accident kills one of his workers. Daniel has his family and his success until his life changing event occurs – an accident on a oil rig harms his son and takes his hearing. Daniel then becomes incapable of dealing with his family and his business and this sends his life into a spiral that completely changes things for him; this lasts until the end of the film when his son tries to be independent with his father’s blessing and Daniel strikes out and cuts his son off from his life, unable to accept that his son does not want the life he has fashioned for him. However, the story does not end there. Daniel eventually gets his revenge by destroying the person who helped start his chain of events the charismatic preacher (Paul Dano) from the community most of the film takes place in.
While Anderson may have one theme that seems to define his work I greatly enjoy him as a director because I think that on some level his films are beyond definition. They simply hold something in them that defies convention.
I am extremely intrigued to see what Anderson does next because I have a theory about his catalog of films so far. I think that he’s emerging into something new for his films; I’m not sure what it looks like yet, but I think There Will Be Blood was the first step in the next phase of Anderson’s career. In a way similar to Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet & Moulin Rouge!) I think that in all Anderson’s film’s leading up to There Will Be Blood he was using variations on the same style, and now he is emerging into something new; I think his theme is being refined, and his style evolved. His next film will be one to watch for.
Recommended Viewing: Magnolia & There Will Be Blood
Monday, September 22, 2008
It seems to me that Disney's had this move planned, or at least in the back of their heads, for quite a while. What's worse is that the replacement program is a significant step backward. Siskel and Ebert always seemed to have a firm grasp not only on the nitty-gritty details of the film that they were reviewing, but also where that film fit into the big picture of cinematic history. Even after Gene Siskel's death, despite their different dynamic, Ebert and Roeper continued in this tradition and offered criticism that almost always seemed similarly well-grounded. Even though I've disagreed with Siskel, Ebert, and Roeper in the past, I can almost always respect their opinion and their reasons for holding it. The new hosts, Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, aren't nearly as effective. Instead of breaking down exactly why the film does or does not work, they use broad terms to express their "reasoning." Look, if I want that kind of so-called "criticism," I'll ask some of my less-movie obsessed friends for it. Back in 2005, when Ebert and Roeper were reviewing Woody Allen's Match Point, Richard Roeper wasn't content to just say that Scarlett Johansson's performance didn't cut it for him. He showed a clip that demonstrated exactly why he felt as he did, and then contrasted that with a second clip that displayed what he thought was a better performance (by the terrific Emily Mortimer). Then, when Roger disagreed about Johansson's acting chops, he didn't just say that he thought she did a good job, he referenced a specific film that he thought she'd been very good in that Roeper hadn't mentioned. The two Bens, on the other hand, in addition to their use of generic adjectives, have a stupid feature called "The Critic's Roundup," where they get the feedback of 3 additional critics. Why? Are they admitting that they're not capable of in-depth criticism on their own?
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Baz Luhrmann: Set to Screen: This is a limited time podcast brought to iTunes because of Baz's upcoming film Australia. Baz has an introduction to every video podcast and each features an inside look on some part of the production.
KCRW's The Business Podcast: This podcast is basically The Hollywood Reporter light. It focuses on the news worthy items of Hollywood not the rumor inducing things. Usually the host will interview someone in regards to a big Hollywood topic; he has interviewed everyone from the presidents of SAG & AFTRA post the AFTRA contract, and film directors.
Movies You Should See: I adore this podcast, it is always entertaining. Movies You Should See is created by several Brits who pick a film and discuss that film and anything else film-related that happens into the conversation. I have to say that thus far my two favorite episodes are Jaws where one of the boys talks about how he thinks the film's subtext is about America's fear of Britian invading again, and the Superman podcast where they pointed out things about the first movie that even a Superman geek like me could laugh at.
Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir: This tends to be one of my favorite film podcasts. I am a freak and I enjoy this podcast because it is an intellectual, in-depth discussion on one film and how it affects the body of film noir. Because of this podcast I have discovered a lot of great films that are very obscure and I have to say that I enjoy this podcast partially because I usually agree with the authors.
Seen Unseen Movie Reviews: This can be an entertaining podcast, but it's about 50/50 - which the name kind of implies. The concept of this podcast is they review recent releases, but only one half of the team sees the movie so the other bounces their thoughts about the movie off of an unbiased member of the viewing public.
The Hollywood Saloon: I greatly enjoy this podcast; it is the guilty please of podcasts and of all the podcasts I listen to they by far have some of the longest episodes ever. They merely pick a topic and discuss it in great and usually humorous (if you're a Hollywood/film feak) detail. My favorite episode is ROUGH CUT #7 - Roland Emmerich...Why?, followed closely by Kiss Kiss, SHANE BLACK.
Watching the Directors: I think the name implies most of the important things about this podcast. In each episode Joe & Melissa the husband and wife duo pick a director that has at least 5 films in their catalog and break down the goods, bads, and uniqueness of said director. This podcast is now retired, but I reccomend downloading the old episodes.
Watching Theology: This podcast is again by Joe & Melissa. Again this is another defunct podcast, but it is worth finding. Joe & Melissa approach a film from a Christian perspective and break the film down to see a religious bend for the film.
All of these podcasts are available on iTunes and I also reccomend checking out Podcast Alley.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
1. No talking during the movie. If you can't figure out the plot, it's probably because you were talking five minutes ago.
2. Turn off your cell phones. The whole point of going to the movies is to escape reality for a little bit.
3. Don't leave during the movie. If you can't hold it, you shouldn't have gotten the Large $10 drink in the first place. You'll miss an important plot point, have to ask about it, and in the process, remind me once again that reality still exists.
SIDENOTE: I believe that these rules should also be followed when watching a NEW movie at home, with the addition of one (watch it with the lights off - and no distractions, such as homework, laundry, or cooking).
I want to use this first post as an opportunity to explain how I feel about and categorize movies. It will be crucial to remember this when I express opinions about films in the future.
Many people criticize me for liking everything that I see. My general response is that "I can't help it if I make smart choices and don't see stupid movies." But the truth is that I have a wide range of taste, and generally see movies for entertainment value. If it meets what I'm looking for, I'm usually satisfied. Overtime, I've become more critical of movies. I'm not sure if this is from seeing a ridiculous amount of movies, or simply from the fact that I finally took classes on them in college . . . but most likely it's a bit of both. Regardless, I've come to the conclusion that there are movies, and there are films. The later is what I hold in higher regards.
It's hard to explain the difference between the two. But basically, I think that films have more developed characters, and a more artistic or at least deliberate view of the world that is being explored (whether it be color choice, how a shot is blocked off, or editing style - which tends to be my favorite).
The best example of this difference is BATMAN. The original by Tim Burton is a great superhero movie. BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT are great superhero films!
Trailers are my favorite short films. A good preview usually means that I'll see the movie. And a good film usually ends up in my collection at home. I don't usually watch them when I buy them . . . I just can't imagine not having a copy.
Ok - that is a good intro to me. There will be more from me in the near future.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Luc Besson makes films that stand apart from the rest of the crowd; they are audaciously visual, exaggerated and never quite what you expect them to be. If you have never seen a Luc Besson film I highly recommend viewing one – they are unlike anything you’ve ever seen out of an American director. The story and the visual elements of his films stand out far beyond anything you would think possible in a traditional Hollywood tale and Besson is anything but traditional.
Besson’s career was born out of the French cinema du look movement which placed the visuals of the film above anything else including characters and story; the movement had no political ambitions and no clear motives, it merely wanted the stun the audience with gorgeous pictures running at 24 fps. When this movement was popular in the 1980’s and early 1990’s Besson was one of the primary directors of the movement and it both defined and refined how he interacted with the visual medium that is film.
Besson became a director of exaggeration; while he concentrated more on his story and characters than some of the other directors in the movement Besson greatly enjoys the exaggeration of both the visuals of his films and the places he can stretch the story itself.
His first international hit was the offbeat spy film Nikita about a strung out young woman and the life that is created for her because of her addiction. When she follows her boyfriend into a robbery all of her peers are killed and she brazenly kills a police officer; from there her own death is faked and she is brought into a secret agency where she is given the ultimatum that she can learn and be trained as an assassin or she can be killed as she is already dead on paper. Nikita is put through an insane series of events that is only equivalent to My Fair lady on crack as she is refined into a proper lady and a trained killer.
Nikita is bathed in the bright colors and absurd story arch’s that Besson seems so intent to concentrate on. Nikita herself is the first quirky and powerful woman that Besson seems so intent to concentrate on and the film bridges the divide between his time in the cinema du look movement and his own move to American cinema; Besson creates the prototype for the rest of his films that follow.
Four years after Nikita Besson burst into American film again with his next powerful female in Leon, known in the U.S. as The Professional. In Leon the female is still the driving force of the film, and the world was introduced to a twelve year old Natalie Portman as Matilda.
Leon follows professional hit man, yet mild-mannered citizen Leon, who lives in a seedy apartment building down the hall from Matilda and her family. When Matilda comes home one day to find her family has been slaughtered and the murderers still lurking she convinces Leon to take her into her apartment, pretending that she is his relative. Matilda convinces Leon to keep her hidden and as she learns what he does for a living is able to convince him to train her as his apprentice of sorts both to protect herself and because she wants to avenge the death of her little brother. This film also has one of the most delightful villains in recent history, Stansfield played by Gary Oldman.
While Leon doesn’t have the same crazy color scheme and intense visuals as his earlier films, Besson takes his exaggeration to the story instead as each character in the film is a bundle of contradictions that could never exist in reality: Matilda is a revenge seeking 12 year old girl in love with Leon, Leon is a quiet, simple minded hit man whose drink of choice is milk, and Stansfield is a strung-out corrupt cop who commands the respect of half the police force. This film was so controversial because of Matilda alone that it had to be edited down in the U.S. as the MPAA did not think audiences would respond well to her character.
The final example of Besson’s exaggeration and his last English language film, is the cult classic The Fifth Element. This film is perhaps the definition of an exaggerated film in both terms of visual style and story. In this film Besson tries his hand at science fiction and lands firmly on the side of style over science. Again, Besson uses a strong, unique female in LeeLoo played by the then little known outside of modeling Milla Jovovich. LeeLoo is the sudden surprise that lands right into the back of disgruntled Korbin Bernstein’s cab and catapults him into an ancient problem and forces him to fight between the girl, the government, and a mysterious alien force; LeeLoo herself is a mystic creature who was created as “the fifth element” or security for the planet but has never learned a thing about humanity until she lands in Korbin’s life, and proceeds to kick, pummel and scream her way out of every scenario until she is finally used for her original purpose – saving the planet.
Besson made several more films, each with his classic exaggeration but has since announced his retirement from film directing. Luckily, Besson’s films will always remain relevant as they speak to the individual plight of human beings and they will always remain a visual treat.
Recommended Viewing: Leon - the international version, not The Professional.