Oil Milkshakes

There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis’s latest Oscar-ticket item came to our local Laemmle this week.

If you’re not a Paul Anderson fan (Boogie Nights, Magnolia–not Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil), this movie probably isn’t going to be the one that wins you over. A lot of people (notably Kevin Smith) razz Anderson for his long films, but I personally wouldn’t categorize them as vanity pictures. Though epic in length, his two San Fernando Valley-based movies paid off by building to satisfying dramatic conclusions.

This movie lacks the drive of those films. It’s basically Daniel Plainview’s life at four different periods in time. His character goes slowly mad (and murderous) over that time period but there’s no coalescing of dramatic point in the end (say as compared to Magnolia’s lyrical embrace of coincidence or Boogie Night’s plucky Dirk Diggler’s optimistic return to porn stardom).

And, of course, since it’s Mr. Anderson, when a guy walks from point A to point B, you’re gonna see him walk from point A to point B, no matter how long it takes. Long, languorous tracking shots somewhat reminiscent of Kubrick are a mainstay, and it’s actually pretty refreshing compared to the constant jump-cutting that infests a lot of modern film. An interesting thing about this approach is that Anderson films characters approaching or going away from things–often the most challenging part of any encounter–where other directors just cut directly to people talking, then cut away when it’s over. It’s rather effective–but it’s obviously not for the impatient, and there’s a lot of it here.

Anderson doesn’t fill up his film with chatter, either. At times, the film was evocative of a silent movie, a sense that was underscored when one of the characters goes deaf. (The music played into this as well, but more on that in a moment.) Of course, Anderson picked good actors, and he gets great performances from everyone (like Kevin O’ Connor as Plainview’s brother and Dillon Freasier as Plainview’s son), but this is mostly The Daniel Day-Lewis Show.

And Day-Lewis delivers, as usual, and he’s probably more effective than your average superstar, as he doesn’t suffer from the sort of over-exposure most other successful film actors do. I saw Daniel Plainview, not Daniel Day-Lewis. And a lot of things that might’ve been hack–for instance, a leg injury in the first scene causes Plainview to limp through the rest of the movie–struck me as brilliant in Day-Lewis’ hands. Instead of dragging his foot or turning it out lamely, Lewis walks with a sort of limp that suggests his hips and back are almost fused. It becomes part of his character, like the deformities of Shakespeare’s Richard III.

No, one of the reasons Anderson could afford those long tracking shots of people walking is that Day-Lewis can walk and act at the same time. And probably chew gum. He certainly kicks ass. And spawned an internet meme: “I Drink Your Milkshake!”

Now, about the music. The music was very dissonant, very-silent-era-nobody’s-talking-so-we’ll-use-music-to-set-the-tone. I found it…overblown. In truth, the movie is about tough people, but the industry they’re engaged in is not particularly sinister. (Nor, despite the title, does the movie have anything in particular to do with Upton Sinclair’s Oil! or his socialist tendencies. Thank God.) But the very act of the initial digging is accompanied by music that might’ve fit in the opening to The Exorcist.

There’s a certain irony in that we actually get little insight into Plainview’s character. The music tells us something bad is going on, or lurking under the surface–something really, really bad–but Plainview actually seems to undergo a slow corrupting transformation, far subtler than the music. Then, curiously, in the final act, the music just plain stops.

Thing is, I thought about the music a lot, and that’s usually not a good sign. Incidental music’s effect is supposed to be more subliminal. At the same time, I’d be hard pressed to say I didn’t like the music, and even with my composer’s ears on, I’m not sure how I would’ve done it differently. But I think it might’ve been more effective to start with something sedate but traditionally harmonic and then build to the whole hell-bound thing.

At a whopping 2:38 running length, I was surprised that the boy liked it as well as he did, though the whole oil drilling stuff was quite interesting and–as mentioned–Day-Lewis can act. But then I’m probably more surprised that this film is sitting at #16 on the IMDB all-time list.

So, maybe I’m wrong: Maybe this is the Paul Thomas Anderson movie you’re going to like. (It is just one story instead of many inter-connecting stories, but did people really have trouble following Boogie Nights?) But I’d be surprised.

Kicking The Bucket List

Actually, I’m not gonna kick The Bucket List at all. As the credits rolled last night, I was shocked: I just saw a good Rob Reiner movie! A new one!

I mean, the guy made seven good movies in a row in the ‘80s: This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing (cute fun, if not great), Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men. That’s a hell of a string. The middle four are classics and each in a different genre: coming-of-age, family/fantasy, romantic comedy and horror. And, of course, Spinal Tap is the mother of all mockumentaries.

Damn. It looks even more impressive now.

Then came North, with Elijah Wood. But he rebounded, sorta, with The American President and Ghosts of Mississippi. Then some shorts, a documentary, a TV sitcom and three dogs in a row! The Story of Us, Alex & Emma and Rumor Has It.

Reiner has resisted doing a sequel to Spinal Tap, reportedly because he doesn’t like to repeat himself. Maybe he’s easily bored, and hence the genre switching. Dunno. But here we are in 2008 and he made himself a new sort-of Sure Thing. It has the most in common with that film, I would say than his earlier films.

It’s a buddy picture. It’s a road picture. It’s an old-fart picture that doesn’t use old-age humor as a crutch (as seen in Matthau and Lemmon’s last movies, as well as the President movie where James Garner fills in for the late Matthau.) It’s funny in parts, but not hilarious, and really not very wacky, which is how the commercials portray it.

It’s also touching and sentimental, occasionally maudlin, loaded with clichés and has gratuitous Morgan Freeman narration.

But damn, you have to be trying–hard–not to be moved by Freeman and Nicholson who are absolute powerhouses without stage-grabbing or scenery chewing. It’s not surprising to me that the critics panned it: Like Reiner’s other great work, it’s just classic movie-going fun. Not shallow, really, but completely unpretentious. Even when the movie goes to the top of the Himalaya’s, you get the feeling that you’ve just seen a nice story, not an “important” one.

And unlike many of today’s hot directors, Reiner doesn’t make this movie into some indulgent vanity pic, clocking in at 97 minutes. He doesn’t shout “Look at me! I’m so talented!” Maybe, at this point, he doesn’t have that luxury, but he didn’t do it in his prime either.

So, critics have bashed it and audiences aren’t turning out to see it, particularly–though if I understand the numbers on IMDB, it only dropped 20% in its second week, and has made it’s $40M budget back. It could become a sleeper hit.

It certainly works as a remedy for all the Oscar-nominated films. You can go to the movies and just have fun.

The Kite Runner

I was actually not really amped to see this tale of Afghani woe called The Kite Runner. But, in my own defense, I didn’t know that it was directed by Marc Forster, of Stranger Than Fiction and Finding Neverland fame.

This is the story of a rich boy who is best friends with his servant, a “Hazari” boy who is, in most ways, of a superior character than his master. Hassan is brave, loyal, fearless, and highly protective of Amir, even when being terrorized by the neighborhood thugs. Amir is cowardly, and upon witnessing Hassan’s victimization and doing nothing, tries to drive Hassan and his father away.

This drama is interrupted by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Amir and his father flee to America, where Amir makes a life as a writer. 20 years later, he receives a call that summons him back.

(As a footnote, I’m not sure if it’s the passage of time that makes it permissible, but the Soviets take it in the shorts in this movie, as they did in Charlie Wilson’s War. Apparently, when they invaded a place, they were all about the raping and pillaging. I never saw this kind of negative PR when they were in business, nor in the ‘90s.)

Anyway, this film lands a few good punches, as when Amir’s proud, intelligent, noble father ends up working at a convenience store, or when the family is at a swap meet and runs into a Afghan general. And mostly pretty tight for a running time of over an hour. (It does drag in the middle a bit, as The Boy pointed out.)

Also post-Taliban life in Afghanistan–when Amir goes back after the Soviets have been repelled and the Taliban is in control–is genuinely horrifying on a lot of different levels. It doesn’t seem like we hear much about this, except in the context of how it’s America’s Fault. The Afghanis obviously don’t feel that way (versus how they feel about the Russians, as is made clear several times in the movie).

Contra Atonement, the cowardly character is given a chance at redemption and takes it, even when it can mean his life, his dignity, his safety, his comfort, and for that it’s a far more watchable movie.

Ultimately, I wasn’t expecting something quite this brutal (the implicit violence is horrifying, there’s little violence shown on screen), but there’s no doubting this is one of the best movies of 2007.

As another footnote, the Hazara thing is reminiscient of the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, where the two characters are half-white and half-black but hate their racial differences. Seriously, the Afghans could all tell the difference between the Hazara and the Pashtun, but I sure couldn’t. (The “Hazari” are a Star Trek race, even!)

Crazy humans and their prejudices.

Cinematic Titanic Sinks The Oozing Skull

Well, it finally arrived. And…? And…?

Well, it’s been 20 years about since the Satellite of Love launched. Our beloved crew is older, wiser, and technology has moved forward a lot in 20 years.

Can you go home again?

Well, Cinematic Titanic is like going home and finding things better than you remember them.

Don’t get me wrong: Episode 1 is not perfect, and we all missed the campy set up and in-between sketches that were standard on MST3K. Also, it feels like a first episode in some ways, like the cast hasn’t got their rhythms down perfectly yet.

But in terms of riffs-per-minute? Sheer comic gold. About as good as anything MST3K ever did.

So, how does it work? The five principals (Joel, Trace, Frank, Mary Jo and Josh) sit along the edges of the screen and riff. The resolution is such that you can actually make them out better than Tom and Crow from the original series (but we do miss the puppets). Sometimes Trace will use the Crow voice and it’s sort of bittersweet.

With five people there is a different dynamic, and there’s a lot to be explored there. This first episode, besides being funny in itself, promises greater things.

To spice things up a bit further, there are guest appearances (Stephen Hawkings in this episode), and they stop the movie from time-to-time. There’s a scene in this one where a character has acid poured on his face, and Joel stops it to ask if it’s really necessary. The gentleness of Joel’s character made a great foil on MST3K and it still works here, as the others scold him for stopping the movie. (You don’t really see anything as far as acid being poured on anyone’s face, by the way. The whole show is pretty family friendly.)

At another point Trace stops the film on a close-up of Regina Carroll so he can fix her makeup, after which Frank quips something like “If that doesn’t get us on Bravo, nothing will.”

Oozing Skull itself is a fairly standard “let’s transplant someone’s brain so they’ll live forever” plot. In this case “someone” is the beloved dictator of a middle (far?) eastern country (“Postcardia!” as Trace riffs when a picture of a Taj Mahal type building is shown). But it’s a sort of no-holds barred ‘70s version of the story that includes a mad scientist, an evil dictator, a platinum blonde bimbette (the director’s wife, no less), a disfigured giant, a dwarf, a dungeon, a lab, and graphic-ish brain surgery! There’s also two romantic sub-plots, betrayals abound, and the mad scientist has a pain-ray-gun.

It’s a myth that only the worst movies can be riffed on. (I have a dream of seeing the crew do Citizen Kane.) The movies must attempt a plot, have the right amount of dialog, and if they have no action at all, they can still be hard to watch, riffing or no. Skull is particularly rich in plot and action, just a little confused and more than a little hampered by a low budget.

This makes it a perfect movie for riffing, and riff they do. It’s definitely a multiple-watcher.

If I had but one request, one dream come true, it would be this: Stay clear of the political humor guys. There are a couple of instances where Frank riffs on Bush and, really, it’s not good. Yeah, I’m sure it gets applause when you do it live. But it’s “clap humor”, not real humor, and I’d rather have a dozen more references to Ray Stevens and Ginger Baker.

For $16 (including shipping and handling, with luck to be dropped to $13 for download-and-burn once they work out that out), you could do a lot worse for a night’s entertainment.

Forgotten Gems: Turnabout

I run hot and cold on comedy legend Hal Roach. Well, not on him, per se. He seems like he was a helluva guy, working hard for the better part of four decades in showbiz, making the transition from silent to talkies, and from two-reel wonders to, well, almost to feature-length pix. (If TV had come along sooner, he’d probably have been the first Aaron Spelling or Sheldon Schwartz.)

Yes, if it weren’t for his persistent Mussolini-love, why, he’d be near perfect.

But Harold Lloyd wasn’t my favorite silent guy and Our Gang grated on me when I was a kid. (I can hardly imagine now.) I do, however, love me some Thorne Smith. Smith was very much about a rejection of Victorian morals on the one hand, and an embracing of those morals on the other. Which is to say, he had no use for the scold, the pious or the pompous. It’s easy to see him joining a group like Joe Bob Briggs’ Drunks Against Mad Mothers. At the same time, his characters found unhappiness discarding traditional morals and happiness coming back to them (or something like them) on their own terms.

Which is further to say, his stories involve sex. A lot of it. Not graphic, obviously, but copious.

His stories were really unfilmable at the time for that. And today they’re unfilmable because they reflect a gentility that no longer exists, at least anywhere in the product that Hollywood churns out.

Hal Roach, though, tried and scored big hits by taking the late Smith’s stories and substituting a healthy dose of “screwball”. The result is much less sophisticated, but it keeps a guy out of trouble with the Hayes office.

The most famous of these movies are the Topper series. (Not the least of which for featuring a rising Cary Grant in the role of George Kirby.) But the lesser known Turnabout is also worth a watch or two.

In this story, bickering husband and wife John Hubbard and Carole Landis are switched by a mystical statue (played by perpetual extra Georges Renavent) , who then proceed to wreck each others’ lives (which are, of course, more complex than each gives the other credit for).

Sure you’ve seen it before. As Freaky Friday three times, or one of those ‘80s movies with one of those ’80s Coreys. I think it was a play in Ancient Greece, and they probably stole the idea from the Upanishads.

But surprising, to me, is how a lot of yuks hold up after 68 years. John Hubbard swishes around the Ad Agency he works for while the elegant Carole Landis (just 21 at the time!) squats and sits open legged like a mook. Adolphe Menjou was the headliner, and he’s fine, but not really the star. The ending is an absurd twist on Thorne Smith’s ending, which results in the husband remaining in his wife’s body until their baby is delivered (as punishment for his infidelities).

All very broad, yes. And at times overplayed. Yet it still works. I’ve seen it twice in the past couple of years (on TCM On Demand) and I laugh every time.

The Boy laughed, which says something.

And the beauty of watching a Hal Roach movie is that, even if you don’t like it, it’s not going to last long.

El Orfanato: The Orphanarium

We decided to take a break from the award-bait movies today and went instead to see Guillermo Del Toro Presents some other spanish dude’s movie El Orfanato.

This is what you call a crap-shoot. Famous directors put their names on others’ films I think because they genuinely feel they have merit, or something worth cultivating. Very often whatever that is ain’t there yet. Horror movies may be the worst, and sometimes the directors may have less pure motives than cultivating talent.

The Orphanage was, in the end, pretty good. I mean that literally, too: The ending is solid, nicely spooky and a not disappointing payoff for the build-up. The beginning is too slow and while the shocks that there are are quite good, there aren’t really enough of them.

This is more suspense than horror. In the end, you could argue convincingly that nothing supernatural happened at all, though that’s sort of a bleak way to look at things.

If you don’t mind a slow build-up, it’s good for a watch.

Juno. Not like the city in Alaska.

I caught Juno finally the other night. The writer, Diablo Cody, had a sort-of sex blog for years, which was vulgar and funny, and one of the first blogs I read. (At least, one of the first I read that was called a “blog”; we had these things back before the Internet was a cultural hub. They were called “vanity websites”.) Anyway, nomadic blogger is she, I think she’s currently on MySpace, after having left there and trying blogspot and some other locales.

A lot of the dialogue is distinctly Cody which is good on the one hand, but which I think probably reads funnier than it sounds. And it’s not as edgy or offbeat as it once was: “The Gilmore Girls” used a similar (far less vulgar) style during its run.

But this is nitpicking.

You know, back in MY day, when we did a movie about teen-pregnancy, the girl got an abortion and everyone lived ick-ily ever after. (Seriously, movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Last American Virgin were grotesque. Increasingly so to the degree they reflected reality.)

So there’s a certain poetic irony in the plot of Juno, where the girl starts out pregnant, and it’s really only because she’s something of an iconoclast that she decides to keep the baby. And really, while the movie doesn’t labor the point, it’s hard to pull back from that story without observing that the “safe” option–the one that preserves your reputation and allows you to pretend nothing has happen–is the one heavily encouraged today.

Clearly director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking) and Cody “get” what it means to be transgressive at a fundamental level. It’s not dressing weird, or listening to a particular kind of music: It’s going against The Way Things Are. (This is seen in Smoking as well.)

One of the ways this movie succeeds this season is by NOT eschewing traditional narrative structures, satisfying resolutions, and trying to be “artsy”. It could be a run-of-the-mill film but for its refusal to take any of the easy outs. At the same time, it doesn’t mock you for wanting some sort of happiness, some sort hope or optimism.

So, I liked it. As The Boy opined, it could’ve had a few more jokes. The first act takes a while to pick up. But this is a solid flick.

The casting is perfect by the way, from Ellen Page as the pregnant girl, Michael Cera as her best friend/impregnator, Allison Janney and J. K. Simmons as Juno’s stepmother and father, Olivia Thirby as the best friend, and Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman as the couple who wants to adopt Juno’s baby.

A special nod to the last two: Garner plays a woman on the edge, she’s controlling and desperate, but conveys a seriousness that wins us over; Bateman plays the reluctant father, cool, but chasing his youth (at 39) who forms a special bond with Juno.

This is a movie that’s easy to like and easier to like the more you reflect on it.

Anyway, nice job Diablo et al. I hope to see much more from all of you in the future.