There Will Be Blood

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

2007

While IMDB classes There Will Be Blood as a drama it very much had the feel of a Western to me and as you all know that spells disaster for me. Add to that Daniel Day-Lewis as the protagonist and the film basically became a write off in my opinion. I’m by no stretch of the imagination a fan of Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s often lauded as one of the great actors of Hollywood, largely due to his ability to completely lose himself in any character he deigns to portray, but I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Indeed I saw a lot of echoes (or should I say foreshadowings as this film predates his latest Oscar-winning performance in Lincoln, 2012, Steven Spielberg) of Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln in the character of Plainview. And I wasn’t overly enamoured of either performance. “The notoriously selective and methodical Daniel Day-Lewis gives an indelible performance as antihero Daniel Plainview – who turns nature’s resources into his own bounty, regardless of the cost to him and the world.” (909, Jonathan Penner, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

There Will Be BloodGiven that the oil business is a highly competitive one, especially at the turn of the century during it’s infancy, not a lot really happens in the film. There are of course a couple of fairly awful accidents that serve the double purpose of being visually exciting and moving the story on. The first accident serves to establish Plainview and his character. Let me tell you it’s not a positive introduction in my view. While some may view Plainview’s adoption of the child orphaned as a result of the accident as a noble act, one undertaken out of a sense of guilt at having been the foreman/owner of the mine at the time I see it completely differently. He does not adopt that child out of the goodness of his heart but rather as a calculated move. He doesn’t see this child as the vulnerable thing it is but rather a tool to use to aid his own agenda.

I suppose you could argue that my view is somewhat of a strong one in light of Plainview’s reaction to the second accident and I do believe that by that point he will have formed some attachment to poor HW. However once the extent of the damage to HW becomes obvious he is quickly shipped off. And while it is for his best, as he learns to live with the ramifications of the accident, when he returns Plainview has little time for him.

Like I said not very much happens although I suppose you could argue that the film is less about any narrative but rather the decline of Plainview. And yet he doesn’t seem to be an overly greedy person. He is definitely a master at manipulating people to get them to part with things at a much reduced cost with no promise of any profit but it’s only at the tail end of the film do you see any sort of material wealth that Plainview has amassed over the years.

I’m going to confess that it did take me a while to work out that Paul Dano was playing twins although both performances were, as usual, filled with a quiet power that I’ve come to expect from Dano.

Penner says that “There Will Be Blood, his excoriating study of greed – and the both constructive and destructive powers of competitiveness and ambition – is a stunning achievement by the still-young writer-director.” (909) And yet the only bit of the film that really captured any of my attention was the few scenes involving ASL (American Sign Language) as that particular means of communication absolutely fascinates me. Aside from that I found the film somewhat anticlimactic and overly drawn out – to the point that I don’t think I could actually tell you what happened at the end of the film is you asked me to!

Winchester ’73

Director:Anthony Mann

1950

 To say I’m not a fan of the Western genre is a gross understatement. In fact it is the one genre that I struggle to watch – it always feels like a chore to watch a Western. Even Michael Fassbender could not keep me interested in a Western (Slow West, 2015, John Maclean), which if you knew me and how much I love Fassbender gives you some indication how insufferable I find the genre. As such it’s always with some trepidation that I approach a Western in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (and lord knows there’s a lot of them in there!!) I know, I know, I should go into every film with an open mind and no preconceptions but I just can’t seem to do that with Westerns.

“The Westerns these two men made together are unusually bitter and starkly beautiful, with fascinating overtones of moral uncertainty.” (249, Ethan de Seife, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Despite this rant Winchester ’73 wasn’t quite as insufferable as the other films in this genre I have watched for this blog. For one thing it was relatively short, coming in at just over 90 minutes. But more importantly there was some sense of an actual plot and very little brooding or posturing. And probably my favourite aspect was that while there was a damsel, as expected, she wasn’t so much in distress. In fact she was more than capable of looking after herself which in my opinion is a much better representation of women in that time. After all the Wild West was a tough place and living there couldn’t have been easy – sissy pampered prima donnas wouldn’t have survived in that period – no problem for Shelley Winters’ Lola. “The cast is extremely strong. Shelley Winters is excellent, and the supporting players include such versatile character actors as Millard Mitchell, Stephen McNally, Will Geer, and the incomparable Dan Duryea.” (249)

Winchester '73James Stewart is charismatic as Lin McAdams, who is very clearly the ‘White Hat’ or hero of this piece. He is quietly commanding without becoming dull and brooding like so many other leading men in Westerns. “His character, Lin McAdams, is an unusual hero – somewhat tentative, even if he is the film’s moral center.” (249)

IMDB gives the following synopsis for Winchester ’73 : “The journey of a prized rifle from one ill-fated owner to another parallels a cowboy’s search for a murderous fugitive” and it sums up the narrative kind of perfectly. The much desired rifle, the titular Winchester ’73, is really the driving force for the narrative, going through numerous owners, while Lin’s hunt for a dangerous fugitive (or Black Hat) takes a backseat for the majority of the film before taking the lead during the film’s climax.

There was remarkably little melodrama which made the film so much more enjoyable for me – that and the lack of painfully obvious, and thus frustrating, musical cues of themes. All in all while I can’t say honestly that I will watch Winchester ’73 again it turned out to be the most engaging Western I have watched for this blog. Maybe I’ll even give Slow West another go on the back of this experience.

À bout de soufflé

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

1960

Breathless

“Whether through accident or design, Godard’s low-budget, on-the-fly shooting style produced remarkable innovations.” (370, Adrian Martin, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

sjff_01_img0006I first watched À bout de soufflé  for my film degree as part of the history of film module. And it turns out that while I cannot speak any French I can actually understand an awful lot of it, meaning that I didn’t have to rely wholly on the subtitles in order to follow the narrative. I still watch À bout de soufflé  in my spare time even all these years after being a little Fresher at university and enjoy it every time.

It’s true that not very much happens in the narrative but really that is kind of beside the points. It’s not so much what is actually happening in the narrative that makes the film so memorable but rather how that action was captured and conveyed. It was indeed groundbreaking in the visual cues especially with the choices of cuts in editing.

The jump cuts were kind of ahead of their time and created an instantly recognizable aesthetic and rhythm to the film, even if they are somewhat jarring the first time you watch the film. I love that the film is in black and white – I think it enhances that feeling of Parisian chic that is very much an identifying tone of the film.  

There s a definite James Dean air to Michel – the tragic anti-hero – and he plays the part perfectly. He completely sees himself as a hero of the silver screen despite in reality being a petty criminal. On the other hand the female lead irritates me as she lacks any depth or identity away from the protagonist. Despite being the focal point for Michel she brings very little to the film. You cannot deny that she manages to look ‘tres chic‘ effortlessly though and not just the typical Parisian chic but coupled with the super stylish simplicity of the 1960s.

“Eschewing direct sound recording and using total postsynchronization not only led to an Orson Welles-style speed and inventiveness in the dialogue delivery, it also paved the way for a radical sound mix in which one can no longer spot the difference between ‘real’ sound happening within the story and sound imposed by the filmmaker.” (370)

While the  aesthetic of the film is, a sI have said before, instantly recognizable I think the reason I keep returning to À bout de soufflé over the years is the language. I love just listening to it. The dialogue is wonderfully fast paced as expected with French and there is a beauty to the language when spoken naturally that lures me back every year or so (generally after our annual holiday in France when suffering from withdrawal systems!)

À bout de soufflé is probably my favourite foreign language film – it’s certainly the one, of a very few foreign language films in my dvd collection, that gets watched multiple times. 

I suck I know …

I seem to spend my life apologizing for being rubbish at updating my blog and yet here comes another one. Real life kind of took over with a new job rearing its head along with rehearsals for a new show and more recently the 2015 Rugby World Cup (the only world cup that matters in my view!) which has come to dominate my free time despite England’s somewhat disastrous performance (the less said about that the better!)

Although I had a couple of months downtime between ending one contract and starting the new job and good intentions of making a dent in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die this sadly never came to fruition and instead I ended up trying to get my room back into something resembling a living space (following an epic leaky roof this time last year – and I’m still not completely unpacked though the end is in sight thank goodness!)

Magic Mike XXLWhile I have watched a couple of films for the blog I must confess I have been rather lazy when it comes to actually writing up my thoughts on them. I have still been watching films, though not with nearly the same frequency, and have seen some truly awful ones (50 Shades of Gray, 2015, Sam Taylor-Wood), some that are so bad they’re good and guilty pleasures (Magic Mike XXL, 2015, Gregory Jacobs) and then some beautiful films like Macbeth (2015, Justin Kurzel). 50 Shades of Gray50 Shades was always going to be a difficult film as the leading man, Christian Gray, is going to be so different in everyone’s head (mine’s Michael Fassbender by the way) so I wasn’t surprised when I found the film to be somewhat lack lustre. I think Jamie Dornan is a wonderful actor, just not in this – he is in no way the Christian Gray I had envisioned and I found that bizarrely he lacked any sex appeal. The ages are all wrong too – Anna looks much older than she is in the books and way older than Christian where as Christian looked much younger than his description in the books … and yes I’m aware this is me confessing to having read the books, well the first one at least. All in all it just didn’t work for me and I still can’t believe it was as popular as it turned out to be. The creative talent behind it did not rate warrant its box office success!

MacbethAnd then on the flip side I recently saw Macbeth which is breathtakingly beautiful – and not just because Michael Fassbender is the doomed Scottish King though is did certainly help. Macbeth seems to have been received extremely well on the festival circuit and by the critics and I can understand why. I’m not sure though that it will do as well in its general public release. Now I’m a fan of Shakespeare and will quite happily sit through any of his plays but there are many who would be put off by Shakespeare which is a shame especially in this instance. I particularly enjoyed Fassbender’s portrayal of Macbeth as a man suffering from PTSD – it’s a refreshing new take on the character and yet one that makes a lot of sense. He is entirely commanding as Macbeth and as usual I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He dominated every scene he was in. On the other hand I was somewhat underwhelmed by Lady Macbeth but then I’ve never really enjoyed any of Marion Cotillard’s performances and I also don’t like the character of Lady M either. But the true beauty of the film is its stunning cinematography – beautiful shards of light filtering across the scene and glorious moments of slow motion all serve to make the film visually arresting. And yet it is these elements that I fell in love with that I think will result in Macbeth struggling in the general release. It has a much more defined artistic feel to the film that I’m not sure regular cinema goers will necessarily appreciate … I am well aware that I may be doing a great injustice to the intelligence of cinema goers here. I thoroughly recommend seeing Macbeth is you can as it is most definitely a feast for the eyes.

High-RiseI also had a brilliant experience recently during the London Film Festival where thanks to some random man in the crowd in Leicester Square I unexpectedly ended up getting to see High-Rise (2015, Ben Wheatley) It’s a fantastic film though I was so frazzled by actually getting to go in and see a film at its premiere (completely underdressed of course as I had come straight from work on dress down Friday!!) that I think I didn’t quite appreciate it as much as I could have. There were times when I was hit with a sense of vertigo that was somewhat disquieting but completely fit with the tone of the film. The cast is full of heavy hitters with Tom Hiddleston leading the charge – I was amazed at the number of people at the premiere that had absolutely no idea who he is but I digress – and ably supported by Jeremy Irons, Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss and James Purefoy. It was wonderfully dystopic with a depiction of the lowest level humanity can descend to, all shot in a seemingly timeless aesthetic though I do think it was meant to be set in maybe the 1970s or 1980s. I definitely intend to watch the film again in order to fully appreciate the nuances in it.

Hopefully you’ll forgive my laziness and continue reading – I’m certainly aiming to update in the near future with the reviews of the films I actually managed to watch during the intervening months.

The Act of Killing

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

2012

The Act of Killing“[…] The Act of Killing is a shocking, surreal, and stunning original documentary in which resolutely unrepentant former members of Indonesian death squads are invited to re-enact their crimes in the style of the movies they love.” (931, Jason Wood, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Jason Wood has got this spot on – The Act of Killing is shocking and surreal while at the same time one of the most stunning documentaries I have seen in recent years. It’s such a surreal film that I was constantly having to remind myself that it was actually a documentary rather than a drama and the events being portrayed were events that had actually taken place. The acts committed by these death squads were horrific and their re-enactments only make them more so. I knew nothing about the Indonesian genocide so it was kind of a learning curve for me to watch and my view is probably warped seeing as my introduction to the history of the subject comes from the perpetrators.

“Proud of their deeds – which included the burning and butchering of entire families – and never punished, Anwar and his pals are delighted when Joshua asks them to re-enact these murders for a documentary” (931) I couldn’t quite get my head around the subject matter. You have large groups of men going around re-enacting the horrific crimes of their past and no-one seems to be batting an eye. I know all films, including documentaries, are edited to tell the story that the director wants us to know but there seemed to be a remarkable lack of any distention among the rest of the Indonesian people. They seem okay to go along with this bizarre filmic experience but then this could be due to the fact that the former death squad members still wield an immense power over their every day lives. There is a real sense of the mafia around them – with visits to local shops demanding money in order to fund the film, the owners handing it over without question. The whole film is a bit strange but things really get weird when they begin production on the re-enactments. For some reason one of the men, Herman Koto, always ends up dressed as a woman in these outrageous costumes – and he actually makes quite an attractive woman!

I was horrified by the laid-back and casual approach everyone had to discussing the mass murder of an entire country of people. It was really quite disturbing to watch at times. Not only were the main group happy to discuss their crimes but they were also all so proud of their actions. The first part that really turned my stomach was watching Anwar Congo demonstrate his new, more efficient method of cutting off someone’s head, at the same site where he did indeed remove a number of people’s heads. Anwar and Herman are the two people Oppenheimer focuses on and the audience gets to watch the moments when their actions finally seem to sink in. Throughout the film Anwar’s appearance changes a number of times,as he routinely dyes his hair in an attempt to look younger and how he looked during his time with the death squads.

Anwar Congo The Act of Killing“[…] as the reconstructions are played out, Anwar finally feels stirrings of unease and remorse.” (931) The change in Anwar is the most, dramatic isn’t the right word because it isn’t dramatic in any way, but maybe profound is more accurate. It made for uncomfortable viewing for me, as I didn’t want to feel any sympathy for this man who had so callously dispatched people, and enjoyed doing it at the time. But there were moments where you couldn’t help but feel for him. The first real moment you see an awareness come over him is during a re-enactment of a beheading in which he is the victim. He literally put himself in the shoes of his victims and finally had some sense of what it must have been like. I say some sense because even then he knew he was safe and that nothing was going to happen to him whereas the reality for his victims was the complete opposite – they knew without a doubt that these were their final moments on earth and nothing they could say would persuade Anwar to release them. At the end of the film we see a completely different Anwar – no longer is he the cocky aging war criminal but rather a sad old man who ages before your eyes.Anwar Congo

“Oppenheimer eschews historical context or archival footage, instead focusing on a few individuals as they gradually come to recognize the abhorrence of their crimes.” (931) The Act of Killing is an incredibly powerful documentary and well worth watching even if only in acknowledgement of the horrific acts the Indonesian people were subjected to, from the mouths of the perpetrators themselves. But it’s not by any means easy viewing and nor should it be – you have to keep reminding yourself that these are real people who really inflicted this kind of suffering on their fellow countrymen. I highly recommend it to anyone … and the companion piece The Look of Silence, told from the perspective of the victims and the surviving family members.

 

Wall Street

Director: Oliver Stone

1987

“In an age of bombast, where the money men of the world’s financial sectors were the rising stars of a new form of capitalism, Oliver Stone was perfectly suited to direct a story about the rot at the core of a very big apple.” (744, Ian Hayden Smith, 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die)

Wall Street 1987It took me a couple of times watching Wall Street before I could begin to form an idea of what I wanted to write – and I’m still not entirely sure what it is I have to say about it, so bear with me if this post seems a bit haphazard. Wall Street is one of those films that has an instantly recognizable quote – “Greed is Good!” – that you feel you know even if you haven’t seen it as everyone knows the basic plot etc. which is probably why I took so long to get around to watching it.

It’s not a film I particularly enjoyed but then I don’t particularly enjoy watching films with either Michael Douglas or Charlie Sheen in and Wall Street obviously  has a double whammy. And than there is the subject matter – the corruption at the heart of the financial sector, fat cats getting fatter through illicit means. Not only do I not have any reference for that world – as Hayden Smith says “It reveals little of how this world works, but feeds us enough so as not to be confused.” (744) – but as everyone knows (unless they’ve been living under a rock for the last few years) we’re kind of in the midst of a tenuous financial situation pretty much world-wide. So yeah, watching a film about bankers using illicit means to ensure they get richer without the worry of blame should it all go wrong is not really my idea of fun given the current climate.

I find almost every single character in Wall Street abhorrent! The only character I have any sort of respect for is Martin Sheen’s – as Bud Fox’s long-suffering father. I do enjoy watching the interplay between Martin and Charlie Sheen in the same fictional relationship as their real life relationship. Carl Fox is the only person in the entire film who has a modicum of decency and more importantly retains it throughout the film. Bud even has a go at him about his morals and his views and yet that is ultimately what makes Carl the most likable character and the moral compass of the film.

Everyone else in the film has serious character flaws. Bud is weak, gullible and unhappy with his lot in life – the perfect target for the very unsavory Gordon Gecko. I mean yes he does come to his senses but it does little to redeem his character and both he, and the audience, isn’t given any time to really grasp the magnitude of his actions. Darien Taylor, played by Daryl Hannah, is shallow, superficial and has, like everyone else in this film and its world, questionable morals. This is most evident when once things start going downhill for Bud she abandons him as the money is almost certainly about to run out. She’s an awful role-model to women as she perpetuates the gold-digger image!

And then we come to Gordon Gecko – the awful spider at the centre of this web of deceit and lies manipulating not only the stock market but all the people around him too. Gordon Gecko is probably Michael Douglas’ most recognizable role. He is deplorable and only sees people for how they can be of use to him. He is a master at manipulating people but particularly Bud Fox. There isn’t anything that redeems Gecko in my eyes and he gets everything he deserves. 

While watching Wall Street I kept comparing it to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Martin Scorsese) and I’ve come to the conclusion that I much prefer Scorsese’s portrayal of banking in the boom of the 1980s. Indeed if I had to recommend just one financial film to a friend it would be The Wolf of Wall Street over Wall Street despite the latter being seen as on the great films of the 1980s. I think that is because there is a humor and levity to The Wolf of Wall Street that is missing from Wall Street.

Lincoln

Director: Steven Spielberg

2012

“The Washington of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a world of collusion, compromise, and self-interest. The political sparring is brutal, with the lower chamber of Congress resembling a gladiatorial ring where legends are forged and vacillation can destroy a career.” (929, Ian Hayden Smith, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I can’t help but think Ian Hayden Smith waxes lyrical about Lincoln – and overly so at that. I don’t agree with much of what he says. It’s a long and somewhat boring portrayal of a pivotal time in history.

Lincoln“Daniel-Day Lewis is astonishing as the sixteenth President of the United States. Like Oskar Schindler in Spielberg’s 1993 Holocaust drama, we first see him from behind, hearing his voice before seeing his face. By the time we see him in close-up any trace of Daniel Day-Lewis is gone.” (929) I’m not a fan of Daniel-Day Lewis and that could have … what am I saying? It does have … a lot of do with why I find Lincoln to be one of the most boring, turgid and pointless films Spielberg has ever made. And I have a real bone to pick with Hayden Smith’s statement that by the time we see Lincoln all trace of Day Lewis has been removed. Mainly because it’s still recognizably the actor but more to the point we only ever saw still footage of Lincoln as he was assassinated before moving pictures came to be. So to say he has the characteristics of the 16th President is basically a fallacy – what we have is an actor impersonating other filmic examples of one of the most famous men in American history. Who knows what he was really like and how he moved? It’s all an interpretation. And yes while I know that all performance (and not just those on film) are just interpretations I think the thing I have an issue with is that Hayden Smith is lauding Day Lewis’ performance as being true to the person, and there is just no way that we could possibly know if that was true or not.

“The impact of one term in office and the grueling toll of a drawn-out civil war is visible in his face and physique, but when countering opposition to his plans he erupts with passion and fire.” (929) There is no denying that Lincoln made a huge impact on the landscape of American history in a very short space of time – there is a reason he is still one of the most recognizable Presidents so long after his tenure (and not just because he is now intrinsically linked to John Wilkes Booth, due to his assassination!) It’s actually a pretty interesting time in American history and yet it is still somehow a bit of a snooze-fest of a film unfortunately. The thing that interested me the most was the fight for the abolition of slavery taking place against the backdrop of the civil war raging at the same time.

And then on top of that you have all the interpersonal dramas taking place, which lend the film a much more human feel. You see the struggle of Mrs Lincoln to come to terms with the deaths and tragedies that have hit her family while at the same time being a public figure thanks to the nature of her husband’s job. Sally Fields does a tremendous job as Mrs Lincoln. I love her and her performance is one of the few things I enjoyed about the film. It’s so raw and vulnerable, yet at the same time she has this core of strength in her that makes her the equal of her famous husband.  Joseph Gordon Levitt is the poor set-upon eldest son of the Lincoln’s, desperate to be doing his bit in the civil war and yet unable to due to the strings his father pulls in order to keep him from harm.

Tommy Lee Jones in LincolnTommy Lee Jones is memorable – and not just for his laughably atrocious wig – but more for his usual grouchy self. He doesn’t hold any punches with his views and opinions and is one of the fiercest supporters of the bill for the abolition of slavery. The reason being is shown in a very touching moment towards the end of the film following the successful passing of the bill. The film concludes, just as it was starting to get interesting for me, with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln although you do get to see some of the emotional fallout from that event before the end credits roll.

“[…] Spielberg’s consummate drama is a reminder of why Abraham Lincoln is among the most revered figures in U.S. political history.” (929) I do agree that the film is a great reminder of why Lincoln is still remembered throughout, not just America, but the wider world too. And for something other than being the first President of the United States to be assassinated. Spielberg puts all of Lincoln’s achievements on display so that there is a record for the younger generations to embrace the man’s legacy. But for me, personally it was not a great film and is not one I will be revisiting – but by all means do not let that put you of watching Lincoln.