Wednesday, September 24, 2008

There Will be Blood

An ocean of oil under the grownd ready to erupt with tremendous force. What a great dramatic image.

I'll gladly be the first to stick up for the movie. First of all, you should understand that to me to compare a movie to The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now is very high praise. I guess the issue of how "exciting" these films are depends on one's definition of excitement. For me, it's thrilling and extremely entertaining to watch the friction and tension between Plainview and Sunday unfold such as when Plainview denies Sunday the chance to bless the well at the ceremony. It's a small thing I guess, but I loved it, I think I laughed out loud, not because it was funny but because I could feel incredible tension brewing. Actually it begins before that when Plainview first eats with the Sundays, and Eli isn’t fooled by the quail hunting front Plainview poses, and you can really see the blood boiling under the mustache.

Jason described wishing the film’s tension and characters had escalated as the film progressed. I don’t know why our experiences were so different watching, but that’s exactly what I felt happened. The thing is, Plainview isn’t just a one dimensional character, he has many aspects to his bizarre personality and he goes back and forth between the man who sees nothing to love in humanity to the man who really seems to want a meaningful relationship with his son and fake brother. The most telling moment in the film is his celebratory dance when they discover the ocean of oil under their feet at the same time little H.W. is going deaf in the arms of strangers. He’s made his choice already but even in his twisted view of the world, he knows this isn’t right which causes him real guilt when facing accusations either real or imagined that he is a neglectful father.

One day, I’m going to come to you in the middle of the night and cut your throat!

As for the ending, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s full of resolution. We see the conclusion of two very important relationships in his life. It’s not a very pleasant resolution, but why would it be? This isn’t A Christmas Carol, this man didn’t learn anything. He embraced the “competition” in him and clung to his view of other human beings as not worth loving. He chose a very isolated life looking for gold and oil all apparently to prove something to others--to gain advantage over them or whatever. Along the way he stumbled into fatherhood which should have proved to be very gratifying in the long run. But raising the boy always took a backseat to that original pursuit and at the film’s end when he’s achieved that success and now has nothing to pursue, he looks around and finds his son no longer wants to be associated with him. So he throws him out and disowns him. That’s how he treats family. Unfortunately for Eli Sunday, his enemies don’t get such kind treatment. In addition to Plainview getting his fortune and success, he ultimately also gets his revenge. He humiliates then kills Eli. We are left feeling very empty and dissatisfied emotionally which is exactly how we should feel. This character devolves into essentially and animal--worse actually because animals don’t kill for revenge or fun. He lets evil overtake him. It’s a powerful message that doesn’t give a happy feeling, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have resolution and dramatic power. I for one was very happy to be in Paul Anderson’s hands for 2 ½ hours watching this wonderfully rich psychological movie unfold in completely surprising and unexpected ways. I had a nearly identical experience the first time I saw his masterpiece Magnolia.

On a side note, didn’t you all find it odd that when Robert Elswit accepted his Oscar for best cinematography he said they were all just standing on the shoulders of Lewis’s performance. It’s an amazing performance no question, but I felt like all the attention on Lewis overshadowed P.T. Anderson’s incredible direction.

Also, I will write a comment on Badlands soon, which, spoiler alert, I also love.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

There May Be Blood, but There's No Ending

by Jason Pyles

“Yes, the devil is in your hands, and I will suck it out.

Now, I will not cast this ghost out with a fever, for the new spirit inside me has shown me I have a new way to communicate: It is a gentle whisper …

Get out of here, ghost. Get out of here, ghost. Get out. Get out of here, ghost.
Get out of here, ghost. Get out of here, ghost. Get out of here.

Don’t you dare turn around and come back — for if you do, all of the armies of my boot will kick you in the teeth, and you will be cast up and thrown in the dark and thrashed back to perdition.

And as long as I have teeth, I will bite you. And if I have no teeth, I will gum you. And as long as I have fists, I will bash you — now get out of here, ghost. Get out!”
--- Eli Sunday

I love watching loose-cannon characters in the cinema. You just never know what they’ll do next — and when they do it, we’re always shocked, but not surprised. Daniel Plainview is one such example. A better example of a true loose cannon, however, is Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas” (1990).

I acknowledge the well-known fact that “There Will Be Blood” is an adaption of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 “Oil!” novel, but Plainview should have been a “looser cannon,” more like Pesci.

I know, I know — review the movie they made, not the one they didn’t make — but this observation correlates directly with the film’s foremost flaw. Here is the problem:

Plainview is a character who is overcome by his passion and obsession of being “an oil man.” Indeed, his preoccupation with his career leads him to madness by a flaxen cord. As we watch this man quickly slip off the deep end, we get the sinking feeling that his acts will escalate. And they do. But Plainview’s insanity should have been physically manifested exponentially, because he becomes exponentially crazier than when the movie begins in 1898.

In other words, he should have really gotten nuts, like Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito character in “Goodfellas” does. If the character would have blown himself up (figuratively not literally), then the movie would have actually gone somewhere and we wouldn’t be left with this unsatisfying ending.

Yes, one could argue, that the ending reflects the empty, miserable dissatisfaction that Plainview had with his own life. Perhaps. But the concluding line “I am finished,” then a black screen just doesn’t do it. “No Country for Old Men” (2007) does a similar thing. Both films are adaptations. Both films were nominated for Best Picture last year. The latter won.

This sans-closure ending is a novel trend (double entendre), hip to the 2000s. I guess, of late, we tend to regard the tidy, convenient happily-ever-after endings as a decades-old, clichéd convention, which they are. No, life usually doesn’t unfold that way. And that’s fine, but “There Will Be Blood” begins with such promise, it needs to keep that promise. I was enthralled by the painful and dangerous depictions of the first 20 minutes. I was hooked. But then the movie meanders out of focus into insignificance. It doesn’t escalate as it should; instead, it peters out.

But still, I very much admire “There Will Be Blood.” In fact, I am often impressed with Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. His “Punch Drunk Love” (2002) was just about perfect, almost a pure masterpiece. Unfortunately, I find myself at a loss for words on how to accurately describe why I admire Anderson’s movies, such as “Punch Drunk Love” and “There Will Be Blood.”

Call it simple-minded, but I am a sucker for a movie that convinces me that its world is real. If a movie is realistic, it’s already half won me over. And high praise belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano for their performances. I appreciated those two counterpoint characters. I love how, on the surface, they seemed to represent clear-cut, black-and-white, good and evil. But neither was a likable or admirable or good character. In fact, I found the zealot preacher Eli Sunday pretty much despicable. Usually, I was rooting for the oil man. Also, I loved the ominous, uneasy soundtrack. It heightens the dread of the loose cannon.

It’s a well made film, no doubt, but “There Will Be Blood” is like an unfinished railroad track: It doesn’t go anywhere.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Andy's post - There will be blood

Andy's post:

I hated this movie. All the boredom of a drama where nobody dies, all of the distaste of a film that glorifies the bad guy who you hate. The only solace I have in the film is that the oil baron will ultimately get his comeupins when the authorities look into the preacher's murder, and that the preacher himself got the ax.

It was a beautiful film, and I'm not surprised it earned best picture, but it had about as much entertaining value as "The Deer Hunter" or "Apocalypse Now." Sorry to all those of you who loved it. I'm not a worse person for having seen it, but I didn't see anything profound or interesting about the film, or at least nothing that comes to mind about which to comment. The acting was great, I guess.

I do really like movies, and I don't consider myself one of those people who feel like they have to hate all movies to have valuable opinions about them....

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Wherefore art thou, guilt?

What would Juliet have done if Romeo had taken out a few more Capulets and an assortment of others who just annoyed him along the way? That was one of the questions to run through my mind as I watched Badlands, in which two crazy kids get into some misadventures outside of the backseat of a car.

But what sets Kit and Holly apart from other couples (Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde, Syd and Nancy, etc.) is that they just don’t seem to be that fond of one another. Sure, Kit’s rampage starts because he wants and cannot have Holly, but their chemistry is minimal onscreen. She comes across shy, awkward, inexperienced, and wanting to be nothing more than the naïve girl she is. And Kit…well, the closest he comes to offering a dove of peace is handing a white chicken over to a friend he later shoots (Cato).

My theory? Holly’s involved far more than the film ever lets on, but since the dead can’t talk, Holly’s the one to get the voiceover and the power to guide our gaze.

There are plenty of examples of unreliable narration. Holly has a tendency to go on and on in flowery terms about her relationship with Kit, but the most we ever see of their intimacy is some uncomfortable kissing. Most of the time we get a mismatch of purple prose overlapping the stark setting and all the waste depicted: garbage, littering, Kit’s tendency to eat a piece of fruit and then toss the rest of it. She cries a bit when her lover shoots her father, but otherwise she acts like a curious child around other victims. She doesn’t run, doesn’t intervene. But we’re supposed to assume her innocence.

Perhaps one of the most telling sequences is the one in which the film fades to sepia tones like a newsreel. Holly regales us with the news back home of their infamy, their reputation, even how her old teacher talks about her while the National Guard is being called out on the manhunt. Her manipulation of what we see is echoed toward the end when she says she doubts Kit really had a flat tire. Voila, we see him shoot out his tire, check his hair, put on a hat, check his pulse, and stack some rocks so he can have a landmark where he was captured.

What we see is Kit’s guilt. What’s suspicious is Holly’s utter lack, even if she asks if her dead father is going to be dead. Oh, and poking the likewise dead Cato with a stick? Creepy.

There has to be more to this dull teen than her Southern belle vacancy. The sheer implausibility of the characters, as discussed by Jason, can in part be due to the fact that we have flawed narration. As the saying goes, history is written by the winners. If marrying your lawyer’s son can be considered a victory of any sort.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Quick Shout-out

I just wanted to note that today is one of our contributor's birthday: Happy birthday, Casey Hicks. And ditto to your twin sista.

Also, happy birthday to Oliver Stone, Tommy Lee Jones and it would have been Fay Wray's birthday, too.

Enjoy "There Will Be Blood" this week, everybody.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bad Lands - Andy's post

Karl and I watched this movie a week and half ago, and I've struggled about what to say about the film. I didn't care for it, and my comment to Karl when we were finished was, "well, I'm sort of upset that I didn't fall asleep earlier in the movie."

Jason - your comments were great. And I appreciate your emails giving me ideas about what to say about the film. I get your point, and it's well taken.

My problem with the film is that the characters, in my opinion, are completely unrealistic. Here's my perspective. My youngest three brothers are adopted, and each of them have severe fetal alcohol syndrome. They have all suffered from impulse control problems, and one of them has had a difficult time understanding consequences of his actions. Also, as a criminal defense attorney, I see lots of adults who have failed to figure out life.

Sheen's character, although almost amusing, was completely unrealistic. So was Spacek's. Both kids were far too removed from reality and consciousness to functioning at any level. Spacek's character had no history of trouble, and although her father was extreme, nothing leads me to believe that she didn't love her father.

I'm not saying that kids don't act without thinking, but we are to believe that some great period of time went by as the characters create a "Swiss Family Robinson" type living situation by the riverbed, and I don't buy it. The story on which this (and other similar sprees) film is based occurred in a comparatively short period of time. This makes sense because even irrational and impulsive kids come to grips with their actions after a period of time.

I also didn't buy that Sheen's character would shoot his tire at so he could get caught. I didn't see his character as enjoying the lime light. He just wasn't daring enough.

I hope I haven't stepped on anyone's toes, but I just didn't like the film at all. I saw "Bonnie and Clyde" about four weeks ago, so admittedly I'm comparing the two films. In fairness though, I didn't really care for "Bonnie and Clyde" either, although the character development made more sense to me.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Not Bad (at All) Lands

by Jason Pyles

I love movies that could actually happen but shouldn’t. Life’s full of things like that. Freak accidents and weirdoes abound. Take the spelling of “weirdoes,” for example. It just doesn’t seem right, does it?

And so is the saga of Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargus, two kids that appear to be dumber than a hoe handle.

The opening shots of “Badlands” are telling. We see Holly sharing her bed with an animal, a big dog. Foreshadowing. After she meets Kit and is discussing the encounter with her father, we see her sitting to the left of the screen with a huge sign pointing in her direction that reads “BAIT.”

What makes the movie for me, right off the bat, is the dialogue, particularly Kit’s verbal oddities, such as “I’ll give you a dollar [if] y’eat this collie.”

Or his hilarious grasp for the obvious: “Somebody dropped a bag on the sidewalk.” Then, a second later: “You’re a redhead!” We quickly get the impression that Kit doesn’t think too much; no, whatever pops into his head falls out of his mouth immediately. Not only does he think out loud, he behaves out loud, too — like when he shot his buddy Cato and regretted it soon thereafter.

This character development lends credibility to Kit’s nature. He’s obviously a zero, so we’re not all that surprised when he starts shooting people and burning down Holly’s home. And we only wince a little when Kit dreams up brilliant ideas like this one:

“You know what I think? We should crunch our hands with this stone. That way we’d never forget what happened today.”

This guy is an idea giant.

“Badlands” pays attention, though. It has some echoes of justice, like when Holly’s father mercilessly shoots her dog as punishment, then the same thing befalls him. The only thing I didn’t “buy” about this movie was Holly’s reaction (or lack thereof) to her father’s murder, but it turns out, that element was apparently true to the events that inspired this story. As I said, “ … things that could actually happen but shouldn’t.” (I guess the other hard-to-swallow- element of “Badlands” is the elaborate jungle-home that rivals the Ewok village. I don’t think so.)

It’s undeniable, though, that “Badlands” closely mirrors the story of Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, “Badlands” was released just six years after Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Indeed, “Badlands” was actually quite tame after the groundbreaking violence (for U.S. film) depicted in “Bonnie and Clyde.”

And again, in 1994, we have “Natural Born Killers,” Oliver Stone’s critique on how the American media glamorizes and “celebritizes” notorious menaces to society, like serial killers. We get a little bit of that, too, at the end of “Badlands.” Perhaps this movie influenced Stone.

We also get other neat touches that show us that Terrence Malick, the writer, producer and director of this film, cared about this project: For instance, how many movies have a stereopticon? Or a Dictaphone? Or a message-carrying balloon? Or the burying of a time capsule — as well as a serial killer?

No, there’s really no point to this movie, other than the dramatization of the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree of the late ‘50s, upon which “Badlands” is based.

For those who are interested, according to the Lincoln City Libraries Web site, Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate are still, to this day, considered Nebraska's most notorious mass murderers. Their horror story began when Starkweather, 19, killed a gas station worker in December of 1957. In January 1958, Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Fugate began an eight-day murdering spree that started with the murder of her family, and eventually led to 10 deaths before they were captured outside of Douglas, Wyoming. Starkweather was convicted of murder and executed at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in 1959. Fugate was also convicted and her initial life sentence was commuted to a 30- to 50-year sentence in 1973. But in 1976, after serving 18 years, Fugate was paroled and eventually resettled in Michigan.

Truth is stranger than fiction. But you see what I mean? This kind of stuff — and worse — could happen, and does happen. (Someday we should discuss the merit, if you believe there is any, in depicting such atrocities of humanity in film. I believe there can be merit in such depictions.)

But if I had to identify a point to “Badlands,” and what makes it intriguing, is the shocking nature and unexpected turn of events associated with their adventure. It’s like Holly says in her voice-over narration, “It all goes to show how you can know a person and not know ‘em at the same time.”

Or, like Floyd "Mac" McClure of "Gates of Heaven" said: "When I turn my back, I don't know you, not truly. But I can turn my back on my little dog, and I know that he's not going to jump on me or bite me. But human beings can't be that way."

I suppose that's true to some extent. I always expect the end of "CSI" to reveal some monster, but the murderer is always just a regular-looking human being. Maybe the only difference between us and a criminal is at least one really bad decision. Yes, we unpredictable humans will surely supply the cinema with an everlasting source of subject matter ... and the justice system with never-ending clients.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Sorry. I'll be back next week for my pick, "There Will Be Blood," by far the best film of last year.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

You Betcha!

I don't intend to spark a political conversation, despite my death penalty comment in the previous post and what follows here:

Of those who watched Rep. VP candidate Sarah Palin's speech Wednesday night, were any of you reminded of "Fargo's" Margie Gunderson and "Minnesota Nice"? That's what her accent and delivery reminded me of.

"He's still my guy."