Now Playing: Robyn Hitchcock--"Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl"
There Will Be Blood (2007): I liked Boogie Nights. I didn't like Magnolia to the extent that I had no interest in seeing Paul Anderson's next, Punch-Drunk Love. As for There Will Be Blood, I'd actually read the novel on which it's based, Upton Sinclair's Oil! (1927)--a lively account of one man's rise in the California oil industry of the early twentieth century. As the novel was so good, I was more than a little curious to see how There Will Be Blood turned out, and I now forgive Paul Thomas Anderson for Magnolia. Good Lord. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a geological surveyor turned oil prospector, strikes it rich as an oilman in 1902 and develops a burning need to expand his empire among various southern Califnroia homesteaders. One such, nascent preacher Eli Sunday (the marvelously creepy Paul Dano), sees Plainview's greed as a means to jumpstart his own evangelical domain, and Plainview finds himself confronted with an unexpectedly growing family, namely his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) and his long-lost half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor). Various streams of greed and rapacity flow together to create a hypnotically compelling drama that actually seems short at two and a half hours (as long running times are a particular pet peeve of mine, that's saying something). I was riveted throughout, thanks to the performances, the photography, and especially the music (mixing Brahms' stirring, outdoorsy Violin Concerto with austerely menacing chamber-pop courtesy of Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood), one of the most memorable scores I've heard this decade. It reminded me, of all things, of Visconti's The Leopard (1963), in that it seems like a prefect match of style and substance. The loveliness of the southern California landscape (much of the oil well scenes, apparently, were filmed in Texas) provides the perfect backdrop to the elemental struggles that, despite the possible present-day meanings (e.g. the conflict between evangelicals and big business in modern American conservatism, the dangers to American and world society inherent in the oil industry), remain at the film's center--greed and a debilitating obsession with family. Day-Lewis is mesmerizing as he starts to doubt the loyalty of his own "kin" (they aren't sufficiently "part of him") and amasses wealth and property for no apparent good reason. He's a "hero" who proves the bankruptcy of his own grandeur--by film's end, he's rich and powerful, but doesn't seem to have much to show for it. It's all hollow majesty. The whole thing's unforgettably conveyed in the most memorable scene: an oil derrick suffers a gas explosion and burns in the night, watched by Plainview, who resembles nothing less than an overgrown Nibelung, oil-stained and bathed in the fiery glow from the flameburst in the middle of a dire California night. Another plus that struck me is how the "historical" aspect was softpedaled. Lesser directors would have tried to "immerse" the audience in the 1910s (when the bulk of the movie takes place) with spoiling dollops of period detail, but that doesn't happen a whole lot here--for instance, Plainview and H.W. share a meal in a restaurant that, were it not for the clothes, could easily exist today, with all interior shots and no constant takes of masses of extras in period clothes swaming about outside with Model Ts buzzing back and forth. It's good to see the viewer trusted to remember that the movie technically takes place in the past. The movie's visual austerity lends it strength. I haven't decided yet whether the wobbly climax can be counted an instance of directorial indulgence or not, but the rest of the movie's so damn good that I may decide not. Magnificent, and the best movie of 2007 (like I've seen that many).
Juggernaut (1974): One of my favorite directors, Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night, The Knack and How To Get It, How I Won The War, The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, Robin and Marian, etc.) takes on the 70s disaster movie. Time Out has a fantastic review that first got me interested in seeing the thing, and I really enjoyed the shit out of it. The ocean liner Britannic sets sail from Britain to the U.S. with a genuinely empathic gaggle of people on board: the world-weary captain (Omar Sharif), a relentlessly upbeat recreation officer (Roy Kinnear), a plucky mid-Atlantic divorcee and adulteress (Shirley Knight), a steward of Pakistani derivation with amusingly (and intentionally) shifting accents (Roshan Seth, in one of his earliest roles), an American mayor (Clifton James, best known as "Sgt. Pepper" in the first two Roger Moore Bond movies but also a respected character actor and frequent player in John Sayles flicks like Eight Men Out and Lone Star, a harassed mother of two (Caroline Mortimer), and sundry others, even Gareth "Blake" Thomas as a truculent Liverpudlian mechanic. This ain't the Pacific Princess. The weather's all dingy and grimy and things constantly go wrong in that great early-seventies-British way that I can't get enough of--among other things, the gyros won't work, ensuring that the ship rolls back and forth, causing mass seasickness. As if that weren't enough, Porter, a shipping company executive (the inhumanly ubiquitous Ian Holm), gets a call from a shadowy character named "Juggernaut," who's unsportingly placed seven bombs aboard ship, their defusing dependent on his being paid half a million pounds. A (probably inebriated) bomb squad gets called in, led by Fallon (Richard Harris) and Braddock (David Hemmings)--I make the first observation not as a mockery of the late stars' well-known offscreen lifestyle; it's implied that these guys seriously knock it back. Parachuted near the ship, most of them make it in, and from then on it's a battle of wits in order to defuse the bombs (joined by Anthony Hopkins as a detective trying to find the bomber before they explode) and confound the mysterious Juggernaut. I loved pretty much every minute. Having seen a few disaster movies in my time, I was carried away by the unusual directorial vision. Lester obviously cares about his characters enough not to turn them into caricatures or saints, and the effect is marvelous. The witty script at times seems like it's packed full of bitchy zingers, and the action really makes one wonder who'll survive. As for the acting, I really think some of these people give career-highlight performances. Sharif never head a terribly iconic or convincing role after Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago (not to say he wasn't good in anything--check him out in the mid-80s NBC miniseries Peter the Great or 1967's offbeat Wehrmacht murder mystery--!!!--Night of the Generals), and he's excellent as the man who has to share his ship and career with a mad bomber, a bomb squad, and 1,200 easily-irritated passengers. Kinnear's Kinnear, but his role has a little more depth to it than in stuff like Help!, the Musketeers movies, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Knight has some particularly good moments, and I should probably see more of her work--she apparently plays someone on Desperate Housewives these days. The supporting cast on land is just as good and really kind of spoils the viewer (among them Cyril Cusack, Ken Colley, Freddie Jones, and Julian Glover), but the big story here is Harris. The man's obviously a terrific actor, but I can't think of any one else of his caliber (even Michael Caine) who's made so many god-awful flicks (Orca, Tarzan the Ape Man, etc.). I even liked Michael Gambon better as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies. In Juggernaut, his heroic yet mildly alcoholic and probably self-loathing Fallon manages to barely carry the movie (his performance makes the film's climax that much more nailbiting), and with that cast, it's really saying something.