Talking Movies

May 1, 2018

From the Archives: There Will Be Blood

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives finds my sceptical review of the greatest film performance of all time in a work of staggering genius.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar winning saga of oilmen in early 20th Century America opens with a dialogue free 15 minutes. In them, Daniel Day-Lewis’ monstrous capitalist Daniel Plainview scratches in the ground for gold before striking oil for the first time. Every critic worth their salt has jumped on board the ‘Hey let’s compare 2001 and There Will Be Blood’ bandwagon and so will I. Comparisons to the opening sequence of 2001 are, indeed, apt. Both sequences showcase a director more intent on confirming their auteur status by showing off their long tracking shots than on actually telling a story or giving a proper introduction to the characters. It is not coincidence that the scores of both films are given such praise, oftentimes nothing else of value is happening.

Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s score is tremendous. He early on uses a very 19th Century style of lush Romanticism that stretches harmony to breaking point before settling into a more modern dissonant and percussive mode that conveys the energy and darkness of Plainview. There are sequences when Greenwood’s use of pure percussion with gradually added staccato strings overshadows the boring visuals it scores. The problem is that screenwriter/director Anderson is so deeply in love with his pointless tracking shots (see Magnolia…) that it works against his storytelling. Major themes are flagged and then never engaged with. You keep waiting for the film to kick up a gear, then realise it’s never going to interrogate God versus Mammon, or do more with charismatic charlatan preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). The final half-hour is terrific but it sees the film veers towards deranged comedy including Day-Lewis’ infamous delivery of the line “I drink your milkshake!”, which is, by itself, worth sitting through 157 minutes for.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance could never justify its hype as one of the finest in the history of cinema. The surprise is that it’s not even the finest of his career. His Oscar seems to be an apology by the Academy for not recognising his terrifying turn as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. The first sign that something is rotten in the state of Daniel comes with his first speech, delivered in an accent suspiciously like his 1870s fop Newland Archer, from The Age of Innocence. Later he starts phrasing like Anthony Hopkins before finally edging towards Sean Connery’s accent.

This film is a classic example of the dangers of hype. Seen blind Day-Lewis gives an accomplished performance in an overlong film that meanders badly but has some wonderful set-pieces of oil accidents, deranged greed and religious mania, with a number of truly memorable exchanges between Plainview and Sunday. Seen after all the Oscar hoopla you downgrade a respectable 3 star film to 2 stars. This is worth seeing, just disregard the hype.

3/5

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February 24, 2018

A Bluffer’s Guide to Phantom Thread

Life is too short to watch the films nominated for the Oscars, but how else can one join in on conversations about the films nominated for the Oscars? Fear not, for here is your manual for being in the know.

Not having seen Phantom Thread should not stop you indulging in in-jokes about it, or making obscure references to scenes to cut out from the chatter people who also haven’t seen it, but haven’t read this piece either. There are three obscure things you simply must do. You must say, “Ah Fitzrovia, all shot on location there, as you recognised I’m sure” and then sigh wistfully, leaving your listeners discomfited at their lack of Old London chic. You must praise Brian Gleeson’s upper-crust English accent, and compare it to Day-Lewis’ cut-glass accent in 1985’s A Room with a View. You must impress upon people the extravagance of Paul Thomas Anderson hiring a 1950s red London double-decker bus for an entire day, only to drive it past a window, out of focus in the background of a shot, for two seconds; and then crush them by saying “Ah, yes, but it is indispensable. Phantom Thread isn’t just set in the 1950s, in that scene for those seconds it embodies the 1950s.”

Now then, quotable quotes; some of which are damned hard to work naturally into a conversation unless you find yourself in a kitchen or eating breakfast. If you do find yourself near some food, clatter the cutlery about, and make a noisy show of scraping your knife on toast; and then mutter “Entirely too much activity at breakfast” or “It’s like you rode a horse across the room” with a knowing wink. To completely dispel any doubt that you have no idea what you’re actually referencing then deadpan very seriously, “If his breakfast gets upset he finds it very hard to recover for the rest of the day.” To chide someone, shush them away, and then bark “The tea is going out, but the interruption is staying right here with me”. To exit in high dudgeon, say “There is an air of quiet death about this house, and I do not like how it smells”. If all this is too much to remember you could just offer to cook someone your famous mushroom omelette and then degenerate into helpless laughter.

So far so good, but you can layer your faux familiarity further. You should comment loudly on the omnipresence of Jonny Greenwood’s score and say that it puts one in mind of Shostakovich, but then of course the driving strings of Plainview’s theme in There Will Be Blood owed much to the 2nd movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, allegedly depicting Stalin’s ruthless energy. And then add in that a new note struck by Greenwood this time was the gorgeous piano cues, reminiscent of Debussy at his most gorgeous and minimal. As a feint you can feign ignorance if you think people are getting suspicious, note that you don’t fully (feign ignorance, never admit to ignorance) understand the purpose of the Clockwork Orange reference when Daniel Day-Lewis drives in the countryside at night. But then trump these sceptics by saying that this move’s ‘milkshake scene’ is surely the ‘asparagus scene’. Compare it to Pinter, compare it to Mamet, compare it to Le Carre as a joke because Day-Lewis raves about spies, and then seem to struggle to remember the words “You know that I like my asparagus cooked in butter and salt, yet you have cooked it in oil. Were the circumstances different I might be able to pretend to like it, but as they are I’m simply admiring my own gallantry for eating it in the way you prepared it.”

Now you are in the know. Go forth and bluster.

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