Tuesday, January 1, 2008

There Will Be An Oscar...and Another Viewing

Paul Thomas Anderson. He is America's greatest, most audacious, most consistently brilliant contemporary filmmaker. He's so good, he's in a category all his own. It's not even like he makes films that are pretty good or even great - every film he's made has been a masterpiece. His first feature, Hard Eight, might be smaller in scale, but is no less a masterpiece. Boogie Nights - come on, it's amazing. Magnolia is pretty much the reason I went to film school. It was the first film that made me weep from its sheer beauty. And Punch-Drunk Love - what a radical departure, and how genius. I think Punch-Drunk Love might be my favorite PTA film, but it's a really hard call. I do believe it's his most effective combination of every aspect of filmmaking - color, sound design, production design, score, acting/casting (Adam Sandler can act!), script, and overall concept. So these films are like four Citizen Kanes. Most directors don't even achieve one.

2007 brings us his most challenging and audacious film yet - There Will Be Blood. Before I get into my feelings (and it might just be me stalling, because I'm still trying to work out my feelings), let's look at what he's done here. He's made probably the most uncommercial film possible. He's been passed over so many times come Awards season, and he's angry about it. Is he arrogant? Is he a jerk? No question. But if anyone has a right to be, it's him. With this film, it's like he's stopped trying to invite people in at all. It's his giant, pardon my language, "Fuck you" to everyone who ever dismissed him. This is a film that will challenge even his most loyal followers, and he has a lot of them. I saw this at a preview midnight screening, and it was sold out. It was pretty amazing to be in the audience of a sold-out PTA film.

What I admire most about him is exactly that audacity. There's another Anderson, Wes, who I love, but he never challenges himself. He makes the same film over and over again, and it's getting really old. No one can accuse Paul Thomas Anderson of being boring or of compromising his vision. He's a pioneer. All of his films are so unbelievably different from one another. Naturally, he's an auteur, and thus has a style that is instantly recognizable, but he's always trying something new. So here comes There Will Be Blood, loosely based on Upton Sinclair's Oil! (and I bet it's very loosely based, as in hardly anything from the original material is in the film except for the fact that it deals with oil). When I first saw a trailer, I didn't think it looked interesting at all. It was just some guy wandering around barren landscapes, talking about oil and complaining about how much he hates people.

And then, as time passed, and I saw a new trailer, I was fascinated. I just got more and more excited about it. I was giddy. It suddenly looked amazing, and I couldn't wait. I trust Anderson implicitly, so I knew I was in good hands. Sigh. Have I stalled enough? I really don't know what to say about There Will Be Blood. I admit there is some disappointment in my reaction, but I think that's partially my fault for building it up so much. He's like my third favorite filmmaker, after Alfred Hitchcock and Preston Sturges for crying out loud, so my expectations were high. That's impressive company. I know, 100%, that There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece like every other film he has made. There's no doubt in my mind about that. I'm just not sure if I like it.

That's so hard for me to admit. I wanted so badly to love this film. I wanted to come out of it riding high on my magic carpet of cinema. But I didn't feel much of anything when I left. That's especially strange because I was riveted throughout the entire 2 hours and 40 minutes of it. Okay, I thought the beginning was a bit slow, and I found myself just a tiny bit bored at moments (slow doesn't have to mean boring - see the beginning of No Country for Old Men). But I was really into the film. The scope is majestic. The cinematography is staggering. It was actually shot where No Country for Old Men was shot, and it's not nearly as pretty as that one. But There Will Be Blood isn't about pretty. A lot of it is very bright and glaring, almost washed out looking. It's effective, because it does leave you feeling cold. Jonny Greenwood's score is extraordinary. I think this is the first time Anderson didn't use Jon Brion to do the score, and a departure was necessary for this material. It reminds me a lot of Bernard Herrmann. It's simultaneously beautiful and unsettling, and perfect. Like I said, I don't know how much Anderson used from the Sinclair book, but I bet not much. The script is great. Anderson is one of the best screenwriters ever. And the acting - you can't ask for better acting. But more about the acting later.

So, all the component parts of the film, taken alone, are great. But somehow, I think it's a bit lacking when you put it all together. Something is just off for me. And I can't put my finger on it. The more I think about it, the more I love certain scenes. I love so much about it, but I'm still reluctant and confused. I know it's genius. I know it's a masterpiece. I know it's a phenomenal piece of filmmaking. But I don't know what it all means. Maybe I don't get it yet. I definitely want and need to see it again. I feel like this is a film I'll grow to love. I appreciate it immensely now. I just don't love it. It's so inaccessible. I'm mentally blown away by it, but I don't feel much, and that's rare for a PTA film. I've always instantly connected to every film, emotionally and mentally. Everything always gelled together. It's like this film is a giant, amazing, complex puzzle, and it's just missing a couple pieces. Or maybe I'm just missing them. It's just so weird for me, because I was so involved with it during it, and it's just this aftertaste that's getting to me. I mean, even right after it, I was just perplexed. How could I react so strongly during it and feel so empty after?

It's actually pretty upsetting. I don't want to be this conflicted about a Paul Thomas Anderson film, because I worship him. It's difficult to be honest about this. Hell, it was hard to be honest with myself. I kept trying to convince myself I loved it and was just blown away by it. But I was blown away by it while watching it! And I'm still blown away by so many parts of it. Why isn't it adding up? Why?! It's so frustrating! I guess this is just part and parcel of being so passionate about film. It is brilliant, it's certainly one of the best films of the year, but recognizing that it's amazing is totally separate from how much I liked it or connected to it. So this is my initial reaction to it. I'll say that my rating is pending. I want to see it again as soon as it opens. I plan on writing more after a second viewing. Maybe it'll all click. Maybe midnight wasn't the best time for such a heavy film. Maybe everything will align next time. I hope it will. But I don't think this is a film you can love like you love Magnolia or Punch-Drunk Love. It's an angry film, made by a very pissed off filmmaker. I think there's a lot of Paul Thomas Anderson in the character of Daniel Plainview.

All right, I have to talk about the acting now. Everything you've heard about Daniel Day-Lewis is true. He's really that amazing. I mean, take all the hype you've heard about his performance and multiply by about a billion, and that's the kind of level you're looking at here. I was going on and on about Marion Cotillard in another post. Daniel Day-Lewis almost made me forget about her. This is unquestionably the performance of the year. If he doesn't win the Oscar, it's definitive proof that the Academy hates Paul Thomas Anderson. There's just no other reason that he could not win it. He makes Daniel Plainview a monster, and a seductive, powerful one at that, like the best villains. There's the part at the end of the trailer, where he says, "I can't keep doing this any longer with these...um...people" and then laughs. That 15 seconds is an acting class in itself. He would make this a 5-star film for me. He's completely immersed in this character, like nothing I've ever seen. He's ferocious in the way he attacks this role.

Day-Lewis has so much power and can yell and be hugely dramatic in the really loud scenes, but he's also so subtle and equally terrifying in the quietest of moments. His face is a canvas. It's a work of art. It's mesmerizing. It's like a road map to Daniel Plainview's warped, evil mind. There's always about five different emotions going on at once. There are just layers upon layers in his face and performance. He acts with his whole body and soul. I honestly think he's the greatest living, working actor. Period. There's no one better. I watched an interview with him today, and the difference is astonishing. He's British (living in Ireland now), and he just sounds so refined and has the most sophisticated, wonderful accent. He's very clean-cut, incredibly humble, intelligent, and almost shy. The accent he uses in There Will Be Blood should get an Oscar of its own. They should invent a new category for it. It's that distinct and interesting.

I kept going back and forth between the interview and the trailer for There Will Be Blood. It was astonishing. I can't believe that's the same person. It's unreal. It's not even just the physical transformation. It's not like, oh, they just slapped a moustache on him and there he is. It's how he wears that moustache, how he sneers and snarls beneath it. I mean, the physical transformation is amazing. It just proves how deeply he gets into the character. His whole body just morphs. I can't see a trace of Daniel Plainview in him. I've included a couple pictures so you can see for yourself, but for a really interesting exercise, go find an interview with him about There Will Be Blood on You Tube and then the trailer, and compare. It's fascinating. HE blew me away. There's not one wrong step. It is a flawless performance, one of the greatest, not just this year, but in the history of cinema. I am in awe of Daniel Day-Lewis.

The rest of the acting is also great, as in all of Anderson's films, but I want to talk about Paul Dano. He plays a really irritating Bible-thumping faith healer. He's totally getting ignored because of all the talk about Day-Lewis. But he really holds his own against him. I mean, he has to face off with Daniel Day-Lewis, and he never flinches. Dano is really awesome in this role. Every scene with the two of them was my favorite scene. It was just electric chemistry. Those are some of the best acted and scripted scenes I've ever witnessed. These are the reasons this film is so genius (it's sort of coming together more as I write). Maybe these reasons are enough to overlook what might be lacking. I don't know. I just have to see it again and find out. Anyway, Paul Dano should get an Oscar nomination for supporting actor. It's tough, though. If he's up against Javier Bardem, I'd give it to Bardem by a hair (Get it? Hair? Bowl cut? Funny stuff.), but Dano definitely deserves the nomination.

So this is a really long post. I'm not surprised. I knew it would take awhile to get my thoughts and feelings out, but I'm glad I did. I still don't feel fully satisfied with There Will Be Blood, but I've got time to figure it out and decide how I feel, and Paul Thomas Anderson is certainly worth it. For him, I've got all the time in the world.

Film Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)
Daniel Day-Lewis: ***** (How would you represent "infinity" in stars? That's how many he would get. He deserves his own scale. And he almost made me give the film itself 5 stars, but I had to hold back for now.)

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