Sunday, November 23, 2014

There Will Be Blood

Towards the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 film, There Will Be Blood, there is a shot that descends from the bright sun-washed Californian desert into a dark long hole filled with oil. Below, is Daniel Plainview. This is where the movie begins, in Plainview's "heart of darkness." Daniel Plainview is not a man, not in the traditional sense at least. He is a demon, a devil, a fiery being whose origins unknown. It is not wholly unbelievable that he was simply begat by the bowels of the Earth, thrown forth in some vicious gushing of oil. Daniel Plainview cannot be a man, for he is far too ruthless to be anything other than supernatural. A god made of anger, gristle, fury, and determination. He is the ultimate personification of all of the greed and evil in America, a build up of pure corruption. Yet, one cannot help but feel a sense of respect for the character of Plainview. He is a "bad person", yes. But, he got to where he is all on his own. All of the oil wells and land and money he has procured, he has procured himself. One looks at him with the same fearful admiration they would of Adolf Hitler. A man of unconscionable evil, but he's worked hard to get all that evil. One of the greatest actors of our time, Daniel Day-Lewis, portrays the character of Plainview. With a role like this, many other actors would make the character campy. Day-Lewis makes it one of the most intense and horrifying performances I have ever seen. It is a fact that he is great here, an indisputable one at that. It is a performance so good, people often overlook the other fantastic elements of the movie. There Will Be Blood, after all, is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. A filmmaker who I firmly believe is one of the best, if not THE best, person working in the movies today. There Will Be Blood is his masterpiece. A masterpiece, coming from a man who has made such films as Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and The Master is an extraordinary feat. The filmmaking on display in Blood is comparable to the best work of Stanley Kubrick. I do not make these claims lightly. Anderson began his career making brilliant character ensemble pieces. He frequently referenced his directing heroes, people like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. With Blood, he proves that he can make a film so purely his own. He also proved he is a true genius with filmmaking. I struggle to think of any other filmmaker who not only fully understands the human condition and how to write it but also how to film it. With There Will Be Blood, Anderson has cemented his name in the history books. At its very core, the film is about good versus evil. The pious preacher Eli Sunday (played by Paul Dano) up against the violent oil man, Daniel Plainview. In any other movie, good would prevail because goodness always rises above the evil. Yet, in real life that is not always the case. Eli Sunday may be a man of god, but his hands are far from clean. In the end, the most godly man does not win out, but the man who is most equipped. In some sense, There Will Be Blood is a perfect argument for Darwin's "survival of the fittest theory". The film takes place in between the years 1898 and 1927. An epic expanse of time that ends right at the edge of national disaster. The Great Depression. The events take place on the brink of a collapse. An apocalypse. At the end of the movie, Plainview (who at this point is near insanity) begins to scream "I am the Third Revelation! I am who the lord has chosen!" This line might be more than just ramblings of a man gone mad. Plainview is the harbinger of  the end. A horseman riding a steed made of oil, evil, and greed. He is the lord of his wide desert expanse. The very end of the film is the ultimate summation of Plainview's insane determination. It is the American Dream, like it or not. It does not come with a majestic waving of the flag over a bright blue sky, but with a bowling pin smashing down on a man's head. This is America. This is Daniel Plainview's America. Anderson does not point his finger at capitalism or at corruption in this country, he simply shows us it and laughs. With There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson has more or less crafted a perfect film. I have seen the movie three times now and I can say that with the utmost confidence. It is a cinematic landmark that will be remembered for a long time.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Whiplash review

Pulsing, coursing through like a river after a hurricane. It keeps going. It is in a constant state of on. There are no downbeats. You cannot take five. In or out. This is Whiplash. This is cinema. And it dares to ask "What drives a person? What makes one crack?" When someone's skull is constantly pounded, metaphorically speaking, how long before they throw their hands up and go to the head injury ward? How long before they have had enough? Even more so, why go through the torture? Is it worth it? I imagine Damien Chazelle, the director of  Whiplash, only has one answer. Yes. Whiplash tells of one man's arduous journey to be the best he can be. Bloody fingers, psychological abuse, and car crashes are not even enough to get in his way. He is an all-devouring bulldozer made of confidence and pure musical talent. A warrior of the auditorium. The first shot of the movie, we see Andrew (Miles Teller's character). We see him through a doorway at the end of a hall, he is drumming. The camera pulls in. His drumming becomes more intense. This is his story, we know this from the start. Chazelle could make this story lengthy and complicated, filling up space with flashbacks and unneeded fleshing out of things that are damn well fleshed out already. A much less talented filmmaker would buckle in some of the more intense scenes. In one of the film's many intense moments, Andrew is center stage playing the drums. One slip up and his musical career is finished. Like Andrew, Chazelle powers through. He keeps things short and too-the-point. Chazelle does not lean on cliches or try and add on more. Economical is a good word to describe it. He does what needs to be done. Whiplash is Chazelle's directorial debut, and reminded me quite a bit of different director's film debut. Reservoir Dogs, weirdly enough. Both movies are exceedingly well-written and trim out the fat. Conversations are snappy and good, but they don't add in unnecessary odds and ends to pad things out. Every scene needs to be there. It can be flashy and showy where it needs to be, but not anymore than that. The flashiest and showiest part of the film is J.K. Simmons' teacher character, Terence Fletcher. A brutal, abusive, scary monster of a man who dominates the screen like he's King Kong when onscreen. Under less adept and much shakier hands, Simmons would be overdone and completely take over the film. At times it seems like he will, but Chazelle knows what he's doing and will always bring the camera back to Teller. He knows what story he's telling, and he'll make sure he's telling it right. What Chazelle also avoids doing is making Simmons so completely evil that he becomes nothing more than a rallying point for Teller's character. A symbol he is not. The teacher is unfathomably brutal. A fireman's hose of anger and insults. Yet, he thinks what he's doing is truly right. He thinks he's a good teacher. A guy who will push his students to be the next greats. This is a man with drive and feeling beneath his skin. He's still evil, but he is more than just an angry face to root against. Hey, even Hitler had emotions. It's just whether one chooses to acknowledge that he did. Chazelle understands fully, and that's one of the many reasons Whiplash succeeds. The film is lean, exhilarating, with one of the best endings I've seen in a while. It's not perfect per se, but it's good! There are all the right cogs, gears, and buttons for a good film. All that's needed is a talented engineer to put it all into place as a fully-functioning machine. Luckily, Whiplash has a damn good engineer.  

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Birdman review

Watching Birdman is equivalent to watching a plane crash. Things and people of great stature colliding in a fiery inferno of ego and madness. Like the plane itself, these people are not aware of their folly. They go on and on with their self-destructive manner, not realizing the damage being done. Yet, it does not come across as some violently sickening act of destruction. It is much more of an apocalyptic waltz. To quote Pynchon "it is not a disentanglement of, but a progressive knotting into." We are watching the fall of the Roman Empire, but from our perspective it looks like the emergence of the Persians. A phoenix rising from the ashes-fitting. The subtitle for Birdman is "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance." A joke on both the characters of the film and the audience. In some perverted way, their is virtue to be found in the depths of ignorance. It's just not the kind anyone is looking for. At the end of the movie, the main character Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), seems to have gotten everything he has wanted throughout the film. In reality, he's actually gotten the opposite. His ignorance and bullheaded stupidity masquerading as celebrity have made him the antithesis of his goal throughout the film. In some ways, it is a very depressing film even if it does not present itself as so. It is an indictment of show business while simultaneously being a celebration of it. Doing so in a way that is not hypocritical, but admirable. These characters are self-obsessed and theatrical lost puppies who come onto the scene screaming and raving in carefully practiced speeches because they have all lost the ability to just act like regular people. Maybe they aren't regular people, but a race of space aliens who landed on Earth and used E! news, Vanity Fair, and the biography of Corey Feldman to learn how to act like people. Even the movie's most "honest" character, Riggan's screw-up drug addict daughter (Emma Stone), has her lapses into self absorption and vanity. This a film steeped in utter madness. A loud and infectiously exciting barrage of drums accompanies the movie. In Riggan Thomson's most insane stretches of being, the constant beat of drums thrums along with it. The score reflects all of the character's neurotic and constantly frightened personas. One of the most present and important characters in Birdman is the camera filming it all. The director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, has made a very bold and audacious decision to film all of the movie in a series of long takes, edited together in a way that makes it look like the entire film is in one endless shot. The main plot of the film revolves around Riggan, a washed-up actor who once played a superhero in a series of successful superhero films (very reflective Keaton in real life), who is now vying for artistic merit with a Raymond Carver short story he has adapted and will act and direct in. The method of using the constant long takes and tracking shots that Inarritu has adopted here is supposed to make it look like it is a play itself. The actors don't film one close-up and then have a smoke break, they are constantly on. This reflects the vain theatricality of the characters in the film. They live their life like they are in a play: loud, wordy, flashy, and full of dense dialogue. A directing decision that could have devolved into a tiresome gimmick is used for real artistic value here. The wonderfully awe inspiring decisions on Inarritu's part and the ace work of the actors can easily make one forget about the film's noticeable flaws. The script has some rough edges. There are a few jokes that don't quite land and there are some lines that feel incredibly mean-spirited and misguided. There are times when it seems like the screenwriter feels worried the audience won't get the message he is trying to convey and that he must continually expound upon what he's trying to say tirelessly. Those particular moments made me cringe. Yet, when stacked up next to the rest of the movie, they seemed minuscule and not even worth mentioning. My only true problem with the film was its ending, which I won't spoil for anyone. Let me just say it could have (and should have ended a few scenes earlier). Besides all that, Birdman soars higher than Superman on helium. It is a massively entertaining meditation on show business, madness, and the deformed sick elephant we all call "fame." Anyone who scoffs at the current state of Hollywood, pointing out the mind-numbing barrage of formulaic superhero pictures that gets pumped out every year, certainly isn't wrong in doing so. But you only have to look so far as to Birdman to know that there is hope for cinema yet. Do not despair common folk, Keaton has landed and he is here to help.