Jan 28, 2008

There Will Be Speech

I did not watch the SAG awards last night because I was busy watching a very sad and interesting Chinese film called Still Life at the IFC. But I did learn through the blogs today of Daniel Day Lewis' winner's speech at the awards. It was a gracious, if a tad rambling, speech in sincere admiration of his fellow nominees, and the power of other actors to "regenerate" him and us. So far, so good. And then he mentioned that Heath Ledger regenerated him and quoted a couple of the movies in which he thought Ledger was great. I saw the Ledger part out of context and I thought, please don't shoot me, that my beloved D.D.L., whom I have pined for ever since My Beautiful Launderette and A Room with a View, who I forgave even despite Last of the Mohicans, was accruing brownie points for his Oscar. How cynical of me. But then looking at the whole speech, it seems that he wanted to acknowledge the sad loss of the young actor. So I take it back.
But, and now please refrain from sending a lynch mob to my door, I don't think that poor Heath Ledger was that great. I thought he had great moments here and there, like yes, in Brokeback Mountain, even though he mumbled through the entire movie. I don't think he was as great as Ryan Gosling is great, (since they are more or less the same age, it is an apt comparison). I think he probably was on his way to becoming a very interesting actor, a Brandoey kind of actor, with a lot of intensity, poor thing, but I really object to disproportionate cheesy praise doled out just because he died.


I finally saw that infamous video of Tom Cruise talking about Scientology like a man possessed. Besides the undeniably creepy factor, what the video confirms is this: TC is a blathering fool. No more, no less.
If he wants to believe you have to pay a "church" hundreds or even thousands of dollars for them to tell you what is wrong with you, hey it's a free country, and as P.T. Barnum wisely said, there is a sucker born every minute, indeed. I believe in Barney Rubble. So what? But at least Cruise should learn to put two thoughts together, and to speak in understandable, coherent sentences. I think the church should be suing him. One look at this baby and you will run from a Scientologist as fast as you can.
It turns out that Scientology is nothing but a cult for insecure actors. Phew!

Jan 21, 2008

Apichatpong Now!

Double feature yesterday at the Anthology Film Archives, braving sub zero temperatures to find out that one of my fondest dreams has indeed come true: the venerable Anthology Film Archives now has comfy seats! Very good comfy seats, which means we are going to be patronizing this wonderful temple of cinema much more frequently now that we don't have to worry about an impeding risk of sciatica or neck pain.
The reason for coming out in the Siberian cold was the films of Thai filmmaker Apitchapong Weerasethakul (a name that becomes much easier to remember and pronounce once you see his movies). I had heard marvels about him, but was unfamiliar with his work.
We saw Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century.
In short: he's great: Intimate, tender, human and magical; romantic, erotic, funny and wise. And slow, but the density of the slowness is delicious, like floating in water. Apitchapong does not follow conventional narrative structures, but the stories get told, rambling back and forth between memories and the present, little moments of existence, lived and remembered. Something wondrous always happens. It's not wondrous like in Harry Potter, at 346 millions of dollars the computer generated minute, but it can be a woman in the night with the tail of a tiger or a young Buddhist monk who wants to be DJ.
It is a different way of making movies and of looking at the world through film. One of his concerns is the uneasy, surreal tension between modernity and tradition. In Tropical Malady he tells the story of a gay romance of unrequited love with exquisite tenderness and depth of feeling. The second part of the movie is this amazing folktale of a ghost tiger in the forest, who needs to devour people to bring them into his dream world. It is many things: a metaphor for the passion of unrequited love, or of any love that burns in someone's heart; a retelling of a beautiful myth, the dream of a soldier. It is gorgeously shot in near darkness, in the jungle and it is stunning. and still sinking into me with its dreamlike, wondrous quality.
Syndromes and a Century is also divided in two parts, sort of. The first one takes place in a small provincial hospital and it is light and lovely, almost pastoral. Then the setting is changed to a big hospital in a big city and the same things happen to the same characters (an old buddhist monk complains of being possessed by chickens, among other things), but in this big place things become more impersonal, more detached, more clinical. It is an astounding film that oscillates between the quirky and the meditative, the quotidian and the transcendent.

Jan 17, 2008

Thank You, Writers

Because of the writers strike, there may be no Grammys. Maybe even no Oscars.
This is the best news ever.

Unsung Great Performances

By request of my lovely friend Katya, I hereby say it:
Josh Brolin is really good in No Country For Old Men. He really is.
So is Tommy Lee Jones.
So is the entire cast of Juno, not only Ellen Page.
I will not cease to remind ye that Christian Bale is fantastic in Rescue Dawn.
Paul Dano deserves mighty second banana accolades for There Will Be Blood.
Wei Tang, the talented young female protagonist of Lust, Caution, is also excellent in a very good role.

Jan 16, 2008

Paul Dano

The BAFTAs got the supporting nominees right. Paul Dano should be in there for There Will Be Blood. Enchilada regrets the error.

Jan 14, 2008

Golden Globes: Burst Balloons

I think it is downright wonderful that there was no Golden Globes telecast. Too bad for some of the nominees and winners, like Marion Cotillard, who could not work it in front of the cameras, but overall, this is the best thing that could happen to awards season. Simply put, we will not be exhausted by the time the Oscars roll around, if indeed they do. And perhaps the Academy voters will give fresh thought to their ballots instead of just aping whatever was awarded in the Golden Globes.
Having said this, here are the people I'm rooting for.
Some categories this year, like Best Picture, are pretty formidable. To me, it comes down to There Will Be Blood, which should unequivocally win, vs. No Country for Old Men, which is overrated but will probably win. I hope Michael Clayton makes it to the nominations for Best Picture. I really liked that film. I loved Rescue Dawn, by Werner Herzog, but I think I'm in a rather lonely place.
Atonement won the Globes because it is romantic and European and grand. Academy members better vote for something proudly made in the USA.
Cate Blanchett is a marvel as Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, but I am rooting, hoping and praying for Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton for best supporting actress. A very close second is Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone. In fact, if it was up to me I would give Ryan and Swinton a tie. It has happened before. Blanchett has won too many times, give it up!
Best supporting guy is going to be Bardem, and why not, we adore him and he deserves it, but my fave is Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton. Steve Zahn in Rescue Dawn deserves a nod.
Best actor will go to Daniel Day-Lewis, even though this may be the hammiest piece of acting that actually worked ever. Clooney was great in Michael Clayton. However, as I have said before, if Christian Bale is not nominated for Rescue Dawn I will be very upset and will storm the barricades. If it was up to me, he'd get the bald man.
Best Actress, go Julie Christie! Angelina Jolie deserves a nod for A Mighty Heart. It is interesting that supporting women is a crowded field of great contenders but main banana, not so easy. There are not enough good roles for women, you know the kvetch. Ellen Page, of Juno, should be nominated but not win. Maybe when she's Julie Christie's age.
Best Director, my choice is PT Anderson, and also for adapted screenplay. He's a long shot, alas.
It's between Les Coens and Schnabel, who was great, until I saw There Will Be Blood. Tony Gilroy, who wrote and directed Michael Clayton deserves a nomination both for directing and screenplay. Great, classy job.
So does Tamra Jenkins for The Savages, on both counts, though I didn't like the movie. Let's be patriotic and have an all-American category for directing.
When Oscar time comes we will continue blathering about these and other categories as if it indeed mattered.

There Will Be Blood

This is the movie that deserves the awards as best American film of the year.
It is certainly a very idiosyncratic, original film, completely different in scope, ambition and execution to anything that has come out of this country in a long time. This is a spare, uncluttered, enormous film and its creative choices are bracing.
For starters, the creepy Gothic typeface of the title, the unsettling score by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, and the lengthy wordless opening already signal that we are in for something out of the ordinary. The opening reminded me of the beginning of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet instead of primates discovering weapons, here we have an enterprising American, Daniel Plainview, played with electrifying totality by Daniel Day-Lewis, singlehandedly mining for silver in the inhospitable landscape of California.
The film is based on Oil!, an Upton Sinclair novel; another sign that there is something big and fearless about this endeavor. Novels are adapted to the screen all the time. Almost forgotten novels by almost forgotten American writers with socialist leanings is a different story.
There Will Be Blood is the saga of the rise and fall of Daniel Plainview, an oil prospector at the turn of the century. It is the saga of the birth of modern America. Of ambition and achievement and progress and the moral squalor that comes with unchecked greed.
And it may be the most gorgeously uncluttered period piece ever filmed. It is a big movie, with big people and big expanses, but it is spared down to the bones. There is only the parched, mineral earth, the lonely men inventing things as they go along in the West, the big sky, the rickety wood structures of the first primitive oil rigs, the shiny black goo that sprouts from the dry land. Everything looks hardscrabble and bare: it has a biblical feel to it. In the fantastic production design by Jack Fisk there is nothing to distract from the powerful story of self-interest and faith colliding.
In this morality tale, Plainview comes in conflict with the young pastor of a bare bones splinter evangelical church, played with gusto and guts by the very talented Paul Dano. These two rivals are just two sides of the same coin: shameless American hucksters.
Plainview buys land cheaply from poor farmers with promises of roads and education and a concern for family: he lies. The relevance of this movie to our sorry lot today is sterling. You can almost hear in Plainview's speech the usual bromides of current politicians and corporations alike. The seductive "democratic" sophistry of American self-interest, couched as progress, existed from the very beginning and it hasn't changed much. Now it's called spin and P.R. And indeed there is progress in the scraggly little town, but the personal price and even the communal price end up being too high.
As for faith, Pastor Eli Sunday (Dano) speaks in tongues and casts out the devil in his parishioners' bodies with great dramatic flair, but he is also a lying fake. And in his insistence on interfering with business, and profiting from it, one cannot but be reminded of the way in which the religious right has grabbed the Republican party by the balls and keeps on squeezing. And then there is the main culprit, oil, which should send shudders of recognition down our collective spines.
I will not go into the details of the plot. I advise you to settle into the movie and let its stately rhythms unfold. Your patience will be amply rewarded. This is not a sentimental movie, and it is not a screed or a holier than thou liberal sermon. Plainview is a complex character, so is Pastor Eli. Nothing is plain good or evil. There is much ambiguity. The movie and the characters' motives will remain in your head long after you leave the theater. But what I most admire is the texture and the tone of the film. The drama is basic, elemental, as are the human motivations, as is the landscape, as is the production design, the music, the almost monotone palette of the fantastic cinematography by Robert Elswit, and of course the spare, powerful and economical script by the director, Paul Thomas Anderson. The power of the movie comes from from this puritanical restraint. Some of it reminds me of Dreyer, as in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Strong and emotional and bare. This is the directorial work of the year. Alas, since it is not a feel good movie, but a sad and somber tale of crazed ambition, most likely others will win the popularity contest.
As for the actors, Daniel Day-Lewis turns in a completely over the top performance but it works because Plainview has to be larger than life. He embodies American achievement in all its contradictions, and it is not a pretty picture. Plainview is a great, eccentric character and Day-Lewis chews the scenery with huge gestures but also with a cunning mind, a melliflous voice (he sounds just like Richard Nixon), total charisma. You can see Plainview's mind working, which is something this gifted actor does really well. He lets you in the workings of the character's mind. Plainview is a pioneer, an admirable can-doer, a man who will more or less behave as long as things go his way; but he is also a ruthless, nasty misanthrope, and a stubborn unbeliever. Paul Dano is excellent as his nemesis, the equally focused, ambitious, histrionic pastor. Their scenes together are a sight to behold. Powerful, brutal, unsettling and even funny. The best scene in the movie takes place in the church. Plainview sells his soul, not to the Devil, but to God, in whom he does not believe. Anything for a buck. Pastor Eli basically shoves the religion down his throat. Sound familiar? It will make your blood curl.
I am forever grateful to PT Anderson for putting this capitulation to hypocrisy on the big screen. Even better, Plainview's rejection of the false pieties of certain clergymen is not meant to be interpreted as a moral judgment. In fact, he's all the more heroic for resisting them. At least he is true to himself, until devastatingly, he is not. However, this one trait of his doesn't seem particularly American. Americans seem to have endless sympathy for religious manipulators.
The moral of this epic morality tale is that when confronted with self-interest, morality does not stand a fighting chance. It's a pretty serious indictment of the ways of this country, if you think about it.
If you will not stop at anything in the name of progress and ambition and free enterprise, then you will destroy your soul.