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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January 9, 2014

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen directs his first feature without Michael Fassbender in the lead, and the result is a more straightforward but very powerful film depicting slavery.

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Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a prosperous man in upstate New York, much in demand at local dances for his skills as a violinist. He is also a free black man in the politically divided America of 1841, but after a trip to Washington DC providing music for a circus-owner (Scoot McNairy) he wakes up to find himself in chains about to be transported to New Orleans to be sold to whatever Louisiana plantation owner buys him. Viciously whipped for protesting his free status he is further brutalised by slave-trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti) for not adopting his slave name of Platt, but he is bought by humane plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who recognises his intelligence. However, conflict with vicious overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano) leads to Solomon being handed over to drunken and maniacal plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), where Solomon finds himself embroiled in the struggle between Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson) and Epps’ slave mistress Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)…

12 Years a Slave is a remarkable film in which McQueen brings his distinctive visual aesthetic to bear on Three Kings scribe John Ridley’s adaptation of Northup’s shocking memoirs. The casual brutality of the slavers towards their victims is shocking, and McQueen’s camera is as unflinching as always in observing it, from the fixed-position long-take that observes Solomon’s first beating, to the already infamous and almost unbearable climactic long-take with a camera roving around Epps, Solomon and Patsey during a prolonged vindictive whipping. If Hunger was almost an installation about bodies in decay, andShame about bodies in motion, this is about bodies in torment. A decanter of whiskey is casually thrown into a slave’s face, a wound is ripped open with a scratch of nails, runaways are lynched besides Solomon, and Solomon himself is left hanging from a tight noose for hours while most of his fellow slaves strategically ignore his plight. This lacks a sequence where the mundane becomes transcendent, probably because of the subject; the closest we get is fire dying away at night with Solomon’s hopes.

The way McQueen’s camera silently observes the slaves being treated like livestock is more condemnatory than any polemical dialogue. Ridley’s script inserts a subtext into certain scenes about the insecurities and fears of the slave-owners, hidden behind their racist bluster, which makes even Fassbender’s vicious bible-thumping alcoholic more complicated than he first appears. Teabits sings about killing runaways to the new slaves, but is terrified of being shown up as an engineer by a slave. Epps’ wife is horrified at being replaced sexually by a slave, while Freeman breaks up a family because the daughter’s father was a master and this white blood increases her sexual desirability and price. Garret Dillahunt’s fallen overseer notes that masters must convince themselves the slaves are not human or repress their guilt. Ford tries to be good in this system, while Epps exploits it mercilessly and perhaps self-destructively. Regrettably amidst this intellectual subtlety Hans Zimmer’s key motif is instantly recognisable from his Inception score…

Steve McQueen is due a disaster, but so far he is proving to be something very rare –a film director who only makes masterpieces.

5/5

October 12, 2012

Ruby Sparks

The directors of Little Miss Sunshine return with a comedy-drama cross between Pygmalion and Stranger than Fiction that fails both as comedy and as drama.

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a former literary wunderkind who set the book world alight with an epic novel when he was 19, but has since produced only short stories and is in analysis trying to crack his writer’s block. Dr Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) forces him to write about a woman who likes Calvin’s dog Scottie, as an exercise. Calvin starts to write about Ruby (Zoe Kazan), a girl in a dream who likes Scottie but is also very combative verbally. Soon he has written half a novel about her, and then she physically appears in his house as the perfect girlfriend conjured up by his imagination… Calvin think he is losing is mind, a conclusion heartily endorsed by his obnoxious sports agent brother Harry (Chris Messina). But a startling encounter with a literary groupie (Alia Shawkat) proves Ruby’s real…

Ruby Sparks is terribly unfunny, especially when set beside 2006’s Stranger than Fiction. There are good lines at long intervals, but only an amusing sequence where Ruby becomes insanely clingy actually lingers in the memory. Despite the fantastical set-up this is a game played with the oldest deck of rom-com cards. The man knows something the woman doesn’t, he wrote her, he doesn’t tell her, they fall in love, she finds out, they break up; can he make a grand gesture to win her back? Who cares? Ruby never sparkles enough to convince as the ideal woman, and Calvin isn’t remotely a loveable everyman. Chris Messina’s role is an empty cipher and he can’t showboat as all the script gives him are tiresomely predictable crude sexual remarks. Gould is tragically underused while Steve Coogan barely registers as Calvin’s pompous rival.

Instead of gags we’re given endless psychobabble masquerading as insightful drama. An awkward visit to Calvin’s mother (Annette Benning) and step-father (Antonio Banderas) is excruciating, especially as its sole (contradictory) purpose is to allow Ruby shrink her creator as ‘controlling’. Unfortunately Ruby hasn’t noticed that Calvin’s mother has been completely reshaped by her new husband, while the analysis buzzwords spouted by Ruby are almost identical to the self-justifying nonsense proffered by Lila (Deborah Ann Woll), who callously left Calvin weeks after his father’s death. Ruby Sparks is this week’s second release starring a couple, one of whom wrote the script, but this lacks even Hit and Run’s good heart. This is a quite insulting attempt to examine the male psyche by a female screenwriter who thinks such scrutiny means accusing men of not appreciating women.

By the end you’ll wish Calvin would just type ‘A grand piano falls on Ruby, the rope attached to it leads to an anvil that falls on Calvin, Road Runner appears and goes meep-meep’.

1/5

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