Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Recently Seen...

There Will Be Blood (2007) D: Paul Thomas Anderson

After a year of hype, I finally got around to seeing this one. I’ve never been a big P.T. Anderson fan, but this movie did prove to me that he is a hell of a technical filmmaker. Nearly every shot is perfectly composed, and the score, by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, manages to hit just the right note of absurd menace. The only problem, then, is Anderson’s script. Just like every film he’s made so far, it starts out strong before taking a nosedive and becoming outright plodding in its second half. I can still remember seeing Boogie Nights and wondering what the hell had happened to Anderson’s story when it reached the scene at the drug dealer’s house more than two hours in. The same thing happens in There Will Be Blood when Kevin J. O’Connor shows up claiming to be Daniel Plainview’s brother. It immediately seems out of place, and after a truly useless thirty minutes it becomes clear that his character has only been inserted into the story to serve as an audience for Plainview’s “I hate most people” monologue. That’s just lazy writing, especially in a two-and-a-half hour long movie.

I will jump on the bandwagon and say that Daniel Day Lewis is superb here. I completely bought his character in every way, and he certainly deserved the Academy Award he got, if only because he manages to inject meaning and ironies into his performance that are completely absent in the writing. He certainly blows Paul Dano’s sniveling faith healer out of the water every time the two have a scene together, and for better or worse, he does feel like a great American character. But he’s always bumping up against the shortcomings of the story. Anderson seems to be trying to make a big statement here, but I don’t know what it is, and I’m not sure he does, either. We get an ambitious, greedy oil man, and a smarmy false prophet, but I don't see what one has to do with the other. The film's tagline is "When Ambition Meets Faith." But isn't the character of Eli Sunday just as ambitious as Daniel Plainview? And Plainview, in his capitalist sort of way, certainly has faith in himself and his ability to succeed. So what, then? Is this film a statement on the shortcomings of capitalism and religion? On the hollowness of worldly pleasures? Is it a parable about the sacrifices made in the name of progress? Or how a man can be consumed by his own ambition? Anderson shows us parts of all these themes in varying degrees. The problem is that There Will Be Blood doesn’t have anything new or interesting to say about any of them.

If... (1968) D: Lindsay Anderson

60s-era English school kids rebelling against the establishment can become an odd metaphor the violence of the present. That’s the way most Americans, with thoughts of school shootings all too fresh in their minds, are bound to read Lindsay Anderson’s classic Angry Young Man film. In reality, If... isn’t actually that fixated on violent young people (I’m not too sure the shootout that closes the story even really happens-- it might be yet another one of the fantasy sequences that populates the whole of the film.) It’s more about class structure, insurrection, and the way values are so often sacrificed in the act of revolution (to change society one has to be willing to employ its methods-- which here means violence). It’s impossible not to read the film in the context of the May ’68 student uprisings in Paris, but I think Anderson was concerned with a lot more here than being topical, and the film's target is nothing less than the whole of the English social structure.

The style of the film is a bit perplexing (I spent the better half of it trying to decipher the relevance of the seemingly random shifts from black and white to color, only to read afterward that Anderson had experienced trouble trying to light certain locations and had used the black and white merely out of utility), but Malcolm McDowell seems born to play the role of Mick Travis, and you can see here the blueprint that has been followed by a number of British actors over the years. I’ve little doubt that this is the film that convinced Stanley Kubrick that McDowell could play Alex in A Clockwork Orange. As for Anderson, he started out making documentaries, and you can see that style at work in the film’s first hour, which documents the dreary life of the school as though it had been filmed by Grierson or the Maysles Brothers. The film then takes a shift toward the surreal in its second half, and ends up feeling oddly like a Bunuel movie. This dissonance manages to be one of the its strong suits, and helps to set the scene for the truly bizarre final half hour that has to be seen to be believed. If... is certainly one of the stranger films I’ve seen in a long time. I felt oddly removed from it while watching it, even alienated, but afterward I had the distinct impression that I’d seen something great.

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) D: Walter Salles

There’s not all that much plot in The Motorcycle Diaries. Two friends meet, take a motorcycle trip through South America, and then part ways. It would be unspectacular, if one of the two didn’t turn out to be Che Guevera, the famed revolutionary (and t-shirt image). The odd thing is that Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera play out the story as though they have no knowledge of the history surrounding the main character. Indeed, nothing in Ernesto Guevera, played with astounding sympathy by Gael Garcia Bernal, suggests that this retiring, asthmatic young man would one day be the spokesman for an entire revolution, serving as the voice of a philosophy and leading armies of guerillas through the jungles of Bolivia. Outside of a few throwaway lines, the only uncommon aspect of his character is his extreme honesty-- a trait that the script annoyingly allows to be pointed out by nearly every character he encounters. But even this is excusable, because The Motorcycle Diaries works around the friendship of the two main characters and the amazing scenery they encounter as they ride (and often fall off of) a beat up motorcycle across the continent (this film has been described by others as one giant travel ad for South America-- and they’ve definitely got a point). I can confidently say that this is one of the most manipulative movies I’ve seen. The film haphazardly shoves images of downtrodden communists, oppressed Indians, and postcard-like shots of Macchu Picchu and the Argentine countryside down the viewers’ throats, just hoping to get an emotional reaction. The surprising thing, then, is that it so often succeeds. As a love letter to youthful exuberance, adventure, and friendship, The Motorcycle Diaries manages to be emotionally affecting at the same time that it’s intellectually and politically implausible. And sometimes, that’s perfectly alright. There’s not really any “there” there, but thanks to Salles’ languid pacing, a sweetly melodic soundtrack, and truly moving performances from Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna as his best friend Alberto, The Motorcycle Diaries manages to achieve an almost perfect kind of sophism.

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