25 January 2008

There Will Be Blood

“I’m going to bury you underground.” “I’m gonna come inside your house, wherever you’re sleeping and I’m gonna cut your throat.” “I told you I was going to eat you!” From these words, we can clearly see that Daniel Plainview means business. That business is oil, the oil industry of the early 1900s, in fact. But to boil “There Will Be Blood” to just another epic film depicting some bygone era would be a gross misunderstanding.
The film is as emotional and reflective as director P.T. Anderson’s other great films, “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love.” But combined with that is an indictment of capitalism that’s as relevant today as it’s ever been. And at the center of it all is the oilman Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who is at once a family man, a community leader, a criminal, and a monster.
He starts out scratching in the dirt for silver and gold but eventually builds up an oil empire across the Southwest. His son, H.W. Plainview is always at his side, at first. Besides him, however, Plainview keeps all people at a distance. As he confides to one person, “I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.”
To watch Day-Lewis make the transformation from grizzled prospector to refined entrepreneur to the end result in the film’s final harrowing moments, which I will say little about, is one of the greatest cinematic experiences of the last few years. He delivers no wrong choices, no missteps; indeed it is as flawless a performance as I’ve ever seen.
This character is shown to us through the skillful lens of Anderson’s epic vision. Few directors know how to move the camera as well as he does, and the cinematography is always engaging and engrossing. Anderson knows how to use both short and long cuts to great effect, and so brisk montage is coupled with lengthy meditation to craft not just an interesting story, but an experience all its own.
There are so many other elements of the film that I could go on and on about. There’s Anderson’s script, based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, that is filled with dialogue that will be remembered for years to come. Or I could discuss Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s unique score which truly deserves the oft-used label of “haunting.” And there are the other performances, which are notable perhaps not for their own virtuosity, but for the ability of each actor to hold his own against the force of nature that is Day-Lewis.
It may seem like I’m on some sort of high with the way I’ve been gushing, but it’s all true. It is rare to see a film where all of the people involved are at the top of their game. It is hard to imagine any of them topping themselves. But they never outdo each other. It works as a great fluid union, sweeping us along with it. That’s how you make the best film of 2007. That’s how a classic film is made.
All of this is enough to make a great film, but then you have the ending, which truly cements it in your memory. Without divulging any plot details, I found it strange how the audience reacted differently both times I saw it. I don’t know if there’s a right way to react, but I know that it is the only way to end that movie. The madness to which it descends is delivered with such gusto by Day-Lewis, that no matter how we react to it, there is a part of us that becomes truly afraid, not necessarily of what is in front of us, but that it might be inside of us, too.

22 January 2008


Heath Ledger
Cowboy, Clown, Star of Electricity

19 January 2008

The Orphanage (El Orfanato)

It’s a credit to the filmmakers of “The Orphanage (El Orfanato)” that it takes so long to figure out just what is going on. We’re not sure if the reason for Laura’s son Simon’s disappearance is supernatural or the work of a creepy old woman. We’re not sure if Laura is crazy or if there really are ghosts in her childhood orphanage that she has now bought. And, as viewers, we’re not always sure when we should be apprehensive, which is more than a little disconcerting.
It helps to have such a command of atmosphere in the face of a rather cliché story. Laura, played by Belén Rueda, moves into her childhood orphanage to open a home for kids with special needs. Her son, displaying that rare sense of the supernatural that all children in horror films apparently have, starts to play with a new imaginary friend named Tomás. He soon disappears, and Laura and her husband Carlos begin a frantic search lasting for months.
Possible culprits include an old woman who used to work at the orphanage, or a supernatural sinister force embodied by the spirits of children. At the risk of giving too much away, I’ll go no further, but suffice to say that it’s not exactly a story you’ve never seen before.
Other ubiquitous scenes include the visit of a medium, played by the linguistically versatile Geraldine Chaplin. Monitors and microphones are hooked up, and the others watch as she makes her way through the spiritual realm of the house, encountering the ghostly forces within. But of course, there are skeptics, and soon Laura is left alone.
The last thirty minutes of the film are its strongest part, and Laura’s struggle becomes much more personal and intimate. We get some answers to the puzzle, but not all of them. Even so, the film features one of the only times I’ve felt truly satisfied at the end of a horror film.
Despite the tired story, the film is very well made and well acted. The cinematography creates just the right mood, without overly relying on darkness or fog to make us frightened.
Also, I suppose we should be thankful every time we get a decent horror movie that doesn’t rely on torture, films that are more like Hitchcock and less like “Hostel.”
One of the producers of the film is Guillermo del Toro, the man who brought us last year’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.” This has sparked many comparisons between the two, but I don’t know if I would go that far. This film is less like that dark fantasy, and more like a cross between “The Ring” and the all-but-forgotten “Legend of Hell House.”
Overall, it’s admirable and more than decent, especially if you, like me, feel it’s been a long time since a horror film was made that didn’t disgust people. It may not go so far as to be an homage to classic thrillers, but at least it reminds us, in some vague way, about the subtlety and class of the best films of the genre.