The Essential Series – There Will Be Blood (2007)

Summer is reaching its twilight. The festival circuit is developing buzz as lineups are announced. And the awards season is taking shape. It has been an odd transition period for me, as I’m settling into a position at work and embracing a new apartment. As much as I want to fight out of it, cinema just has not been a top priority for my summer. But things are taking shape and the energy surrounding potential awards contenders are again sweeping me away. This is obviously all compounded by watching a lot of films again. 

My 70mm screening of The Master is what really started things off for me again. Surrounded by fellow cinephiles and local press (Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of mubi.com were in attendance), coupled with the general hype of seeing the follow-up of one my favorite films was nothing short of amazing. As I’m still digesting the picture, I thought it appropriate to look back at the film that spurred my interest in not just Paul Thomas Anderson’s picture, but to cinema in general.

There Will Be Blood (2007) Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Most cinephiles tend to embrace a particular film that changed how they view cinema. These pictures tend to broaden the scope, whereupon the formal qualities and emotional gravity that a film possesses break the glass ceiling of interpretation. They are typically films that widen one’s worldview and possess an intrinsic understanding of its viewer’s emotions. There Will Be Blood was that film for me. The circumstances of my viewing were hardly complimentary. While I appreciated the early screening of the picture, its midnight screening in the midst of a Chicago winter did not bode well for this commuter. But my interest in the picture overtook me.

From its beginning, Johnny Greenwood’s score attacks the senses. With the wide open landscape in full view, There Will Be Blood embodies a tonal sense of loneliness. Contempt and greed may be considered the opportune word to describe Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), but the character’s follies stem from a perpetual state of social abandonment. While I certainly acknowledge the rich capitalist undercurrent found throughout the picture, my most recent viewing of There Will Be Blood afforded me the opportunity to delve into some of the more enigmatic elements of the film. 

While I granted There Will Be Blood a rare 10/10 upon first viewing, I did find a narrative hiccup in the manner pf which Paul Thomas Anderson removed HW (Dillon Freasier) from the narrative. He was then immediately replaced by Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor). The decision remains an awkward point in the picture, wherein Plainview and his estranged brother become business partners. Upon my most recent viewing, the substitution bares a particularly interesting window into understanding the complexities of the Plainview character and provides an additional reading of the title itself.

While some viewers may have been disappointed by the lack of violence and well, blood, as promised by the picture’s title, one could possibly acknowledge the word “blood” in relationship to kinship. Given that Anderson and Greenwood have already thoroughly established the isolation of Plainview’s spatial and cerebral perspective, one can assume the importance of what familial bonds he might have in the continuation of his prospects. While Plainview is deeply rooted in his capital ventures, there’s undoubtedly an added pressure of continuing this upon his death. Provided the fleeting scenes of sincerity bestowed upon HW, I would argue that his greatest priority rests in his kinship to HW. While their relationship is bound by false pretenses, Plainview attempts to mold HW in the ways of the oil business.

Upon their arrival to Little Boston, California, Plainview and HW discuss what to do with the ocean of oil under their feet. They converse as if business partners, both capable of addressing the various moving parts to their industry. The two share an obvious camaraderie, whereupon the aspects of business and kinship are intertwined. Plainview has found his ideal partner, one who he can maximize his capital while insuring a trust and bond between. Basically, HW is a part of the molding process until he loses his hearing following a derrick explosion. Now, HW’s behavior grows erratic and Plainview can no longer shape his child as an image of himself. As the audience viewed Plainview without dialogue in the initial fifteen minutes of There Will Be Blood, HW is left to interpret his father’s actions. Interpretation is not sufficient to molding HW; therefore he is shipped away to a boarding school for the deaf. Henry enters.

Henry’s arrival, as jarring and unexpected as it was, brings the concept of Plainview’s quest for a successor to fruition. With Henry, there initially appears to be a legitimate blood bond that unites them. An absent quality in HW, Plainview accepts Henry with little debate. While there are scenes were Plainview looks upon Henry with skepticism, he becomes distracted by his capitalist ventures. But on the eve of his success, Plainview discovers that Henry is an imposter. Plainview’s violent reaction serves to underscore the singular missing familial component in his life – there’s no one that Plainview can mold because, no matter how close he gets, there will be crucial inconsistencies.

This falls in line with the casting of Paul Dano as both Paul and Eli Sunday. Originally cast for the small role of Paul, Dano was hastily cast for the role of Eli. While a casting made out of convenience, the implications it has on the picture is quite interesting. For one, the two characters share opposite characteristics – one is motivated by capitalism while the other is driven by religion. That’s the dichotomy that is explicitly played between Eli and Plainview, but given their brotherhood, it’s a startling dividing line. Moreso, their appearance plays on the concept of expert molding – a physical manifestation is possible, but to shape a worldview in the same manner that Plainview attempts to mold HW and Henry proves impossible. People think for themselves and it’s there that Plainview’s demeanor and social position cannot impose influence. And much in the same way that Plainview fails to shape the worldview of HW and Henry, Abel Sunday (David Willis) fails Eli in a similar fashion. His son admonishes him for failing to adequately predict Plainview’s intentions – this causes a scuffle between father and son, where son rejects the principles laid out by his father. Worldviews cannot be constructed and displaced from one generation to another. Blood may or may not unite two people, but even if it did, it certainly does not guarantee loyalty.

This scatter-shot dissection into expanding beyond the presumed thematic intention of There Will Be Blood as anything more than capitalism versus religion required multiple viewings to cogently put into words.  But the beauty of films like There Will Be Blood is that there is room for interpretation. There’s no singular analysis of the film – nor will there ever be. The depth of the picture is immense – an ocean of interpretation left for the viewer to dive in and comprehend. 

Thursday Ten - The Best Movies Released Since I Was Born

I initially began writing this column before my vacation. Well, that came and went. And while my procrastination on getting this up may suggest otherwise, this is a pretty important column to understand what I look for in films. What this Thursday Ten reflects are the best films released since 1988 – the year I was born. I’m 24 now and things, least of all my cinematic taste, have changed. I keep all ten of the listed films close to the heart. Selecting ten films and arranging them in order ended up being more than I bargained for though, so as an addendum to my formal list, I have also selected ten other films that could’ve easily made an appearance on a different day.

10.

Margaret (2011)

Being the newest and most recent film on the list prompted me to hesitate – perhaps my one viewing of Margaret was deceiving. But it’s a picture that shook me and continues to call upon my attention months after viewing it. My initial critique on the film noted the problematic pacing of its final act, which undoubtedly reflects director Kenneth Lonergan’s problematic production issues. The scarring and misjudged pacing almost works for Margaret’s benefit, as the complex emotional terrain has been given added affect. The way in which the narrative contracts and expands, all the while balancing everything it takes in, is some kind of marvel. With a Blu-ray release coming in early July, which will include both the theatrical and Lonergan’s cut of the picture, I might have a clearer grasp of how I feel about the picture’s eccentricities. As far as I’m concerned though, Margaret’s the most impressive and ambitious film I’ve seen in years.

9.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Only one Stanley Kubrick film was released during my lifetime, and I didn’t even get to see it until almost a decade after its release. While I may have been too young to have seen Eyes Wide Shut on its opening day, I doubt I would have enjoyed it much. It’s a labyrinth of a picture, one so dense in its construction and so oblique in its treatment of human emotions. Shrouded by a sense of mystery, it’s a film that moves at a daydream’s leisure yet carries the anxiety of a nightmare. As Tom Cruise wanders the streets of New York City, succumbing to the sexual insecurities of being a cuckold, we’re transported to a dark yet culturally exquisite underworld that instills fear into its viewer. There’s a mystery in Eyes Wide Shut, but it’s not the one involving Tom Cruise and his exploration of that shady underworld – it’s the mystery of where the lines of reality and dream are drawn.

8.

The Lovers on the Bridge (1991)

Recalling classic films like Jean Vigo’s L’Atlante and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge possesses the poeticism and goofiness associated with films of the 30s. It’s a lovely throwback that essentially believes in the more confounding and boisterous aspects of love. It’s both rich in sentimentality and melodrama, as its plot delves into the idea of homelessness being an afterthought - especially if you can just dance along an abandoned bridge while fireworks go off in the background. The Lovers on the Bridge is a film rooted in a reality outside our own, yet attains a certain level of grounded resolve – its intentions are noble in the sense that it makes no grandiose statements on love and its uncertainties. It’s simply tells a simple story of people falling in love.

7.

Dead Man (1995)

I saw Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man during my sophomore year of college. Taking a literature and religion course, I was reviewing Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, particularly the Inferno. Watching Dead Man was not part of the course nor did I have any previous expectations that my viewing of the film would correspond to what I was reading. I simply decided to watch the film based on its critically diffusive reputation. What I saw was a film that lingered in its imagery with deft awareness. Richly composed yet formally idiosyncratic, Dead Man not only subverted genre expectations, but also tested formal storytelling techniques. I corresponded this viewing to what I was learning, viewing the odyssey in which Johnny Depp embarked upon as similar to Dante’s descent into the various circles of Hell. When you watch a film at just that right moment, it can certainly leave a last impression – watching Dead Man essentially rocked my impressionable worldview of how films can tell a story.

6.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has the benefit of being viewed at two very distinct times in my life. One part of me admired the film while I was in high school, where I viewed the picture as a serendipitous and supernatural take on the pangs of relationships and love.  As I distanced myself from the picture, only to rewatch it again during my late college years, the film’s density really shined through. The insight on relationships and the difficulty of extended courtship were still there from my previous viewing, but obviously my ability to relate grew as I got older. Unlike similar films that inspire profundity while a youth only to seem immature as I go back to them (Garden State, for example), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind acknowledges that some moments in life, no matter how many times it happens,  will always hurt.

5.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

2007 was a pivotal year in shaping my movie palette. It was an impressive year that highlighted an incredible amount of talent. So much of that year’s output has essentially shaped my expectations and readings of contemporary films. The landmark viewing came in 2007 at a midnight prescreening for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The picture, which was considered a bit of a dark horse Oscar contender, was on my radar for most the year as I was going through Anderson’s filmography for the first time. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love. With a sold-out crowd in attendance on a snowy Chicago night, I remarked on the contribution that a group collective can have on watching a film. Stunned awe for most of the opening runtime, as not a single character speaks over composer Johnny Greenwood’s score. It’s followed by one of the most bombastic performances in contemporary cinema, as Daniel Day-Lewis embodies Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oilman whose ambitions sustain a film with such unshakable intensity. Eerie in tone and at times absolutely confounding, There Will Be Blood abides by Anderson’s incredible formal elegance while subverting narrative expectations throughout. It’s a much more formal and immaculately crafted film than any of his other films, but at the same time, it’s less human, more rigid and ambiguous in its categorization. That, in itself, sets it apart.

4.

Zodiac (2007)

The finer qualities of David Fincher’s Zodiac aren’t just in its precise direction, dense script, or elaborate set design. What Zodiac accomplishes so effectively is its capturing of a universal feeling. Through the obsessive glares of its many characters, the audience navigates through a horrific world. Jake Gyllenhaal embodies the role of an everyman whose festering complacency motivates him to solve a series of gruesome murders. The picture begins and ends with his role in the investigation, but as the everyman, he doesn’t linger on the procedural middle portion. It’s here where our appointed heroes attempt to piece together the various pieces of the puzzle. It’s only with the everyman’s help are they able to get the wheel moving again.

Zodiac, like so many other films that I hold close to the chest, is the sort of film that requires multiple viewings to wholly embrace. Its procedural elements only get more and more interesting with subsequent viewings. And the decade-spanning narrative isn’t immediately appreciated until you understand how time and place play such a significant role to the character’s psyche. Few films capture the obsessive anxiety of a single character – Zodiac achieves this through a macro perspective by empathizing with the boiling anxiety of a city.

3.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

When you’re exposed to so many American animated films with their hyperactive lunacy and recycled plots, it comes to a shock to see an animated film that subverts virtually all those qualities. My Neighbor Totoro was my first exposure to Studio Ghibli and remains a pivotal viewing in my life. It’s a film so quiet in actions and careful to the touch. It’s not about obnoxious characters or saving the princess. It takes place in a grounded world, where two girls live on the countryside with their father. The children’s mother is sick and resting in a nursing home. What I just outlined are three distinct aspects foreign to American animation; father’s are not absent figures, parental role models can have ailing health, and two girls can be lead characters. The fantasy elements of the picture are a consequence of the girl’s imagination – they’re not used to motivate the plot in one direction or another, instead, the giant Totoro is utilized as an observer as opposed to a plot point.

Not every film on this list needs to speak to a larger universal truth. Some of these pictures, in particular My Neighbor Totoro, works for being a film that just makes me happy. There’s joy to appreciate in the craft, no doubt, but its simple narrative and visual sights make for an experience of pure delight and enjoyment.

2.

The Double Life of Véronique (1991) 

Several films over the past decade have embraced a stream of consciousness approach, where the audience falls for the surreal and poetic qualities of a picture as opposed to a conventional framework. But few films effectively compromise their dreamy qualities with a narrative framework. That’s a quality that is solely accomplished in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Véronique. It’s a film that implicitly tells its story through images, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in a quasi-dreamscape.

Part of the magic of The Double Life of Véronique is that it really doesn’t demand clear cut answers. It’s something that one watches for the feelings it evokes as opposed to a narrative – this framework has no bearing on how compelling the picture is as a whole. Having seen the picture half a dozen times, there are still moments that surprise me. I can recall certain scenes accurately, but I still find myself surprised by the inclusion of particular scenes whenever I return to the film. Like a good dream, you forget crucial details almost immediately after waking up. For a film to accomplish the same through its mysterious elegance is no small feat.

1.

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

When the idea came up to make this Thursday Ten, what was going to be number one was never up for debate. This just might be my favorite movie ever. For anyone’s favorite films, one can’t help but find a little bit of themselves in what they’re watching. This is kind of an embarrassing admission, provided that Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is an introverted and socially inept person in Punch-Drunk Love. But there are certain traits in Egan that I can’t help but relate to in his quest for love, acceptance, and happiness. These are the sort of traits that most people obviously strive for. But in Punch-Drunk Love, these qualities carry human heft. Despite the weirdness of some aspects of the picture, it still feels incredibly grounded in its observations on people. People get embarrassed, they lash out, and they get scared.

It took a bit for me to fully embrace the film. Like many who go through Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography, I embraced his more explosive films, such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia before Punch-Drunk Love. But as I’m drifting away from my teen years, I’ve found renewed admiration for this work. It’s all in the confrontation between Sandler and Philip Seymour Hoffman – the line “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine” struck me as particularly insightful in my teen years. At least I can attest to that line now.

Addendum

On Another Day: An Angel at My Table, Everything Will Be Ok, Fargo, Fish Tank, In the Mood for Love, Jackie Brown, King of the Hill, Lost in Translation, Rushmore, The Social Network

Thursday Ten - Best Judd Apatow Productions

With The Five-Year Engagement coming to theaters tomorrow, I thought that this would be an opportune chance to look back at some of Judd Apatow’s filmography. I was first introduced to his work via television, with Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared constructing virtually everything I knew about high school and college life. While his television work never really caught on beyond its cult following, the man has had a sizable influence in several of Hollywood’s contemporary comedies. Along with being a successful producer, he has proven to be quite a directorial presence. Apatow’s greatest talents remain in his excellent comedic writing, wherein he excels in his ability to bridge emotional conflict with various forms of comedy, whether it’s straightforward slapstick or something with a dash of wit. The films selected for this Thursday Ten span the gamut of his talents, whether they’re penned, directed, or exclusively produced by Apatow, they all share a common thread; they’re all very, very funny.

10.

Superbad (2007)  

Directed by Greg Mottola and written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Superbad seemed to have taken a lot of people off guard upon its release. Here’s a film that took the high school arena and presented it under some explicit and raunchy terms.  While the American Pie franchise illustrated this concept, the novelty with Superbad is in how it embraces its overblown masculine bravado with a sense of sincerity. Reportedly written during both Rogen and Goldberg’s formative years, the picture registers as particularly true to how teenagers simply want to be accepted. While Superbad is a bit self-absorbed and obsessed with the male anatomy, it works on the strengths of its comedic material. The Apatow formula of meshing comedic elements with periods of emotional heavy-handedness doesn’t work here quite as well as some of his other films, as the immature, gross-out humor can be overwhelming at times. But it remains a critical work in Apatow’s canon, if not for introducing actors like Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, and Emma Stone to a wider audience.

9.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

Co-written by Judd Apatow, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story essentially mocks every music biopic convention. Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) is a character comprised of virtually every stereotype associated with musicians and their downfalls. But what elevates the basic premise of a parody on music biopics is Apatow’s comedic sensibilities and Reilly’s conviction to the character. For one, the use of Reilly to play both his teenage and elderly self with little more than minor dialogue indicators to differentiate between them is just good comedy. While this may be the sort of role that befits Will Farrell, I found Reilly’s performance to be surprisingly stirring – through the comedic facade are glimpses of sincerity that only Reilly could’ve accomplished.

8.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

Like with a majority of Apatow’s productions, the farfetched comedic nature of Forgetting Sarah Marshall is given universal appeal through its ability to relate with the common man. With this film, Jason Segel stars (and writes) in a narrative about coping with a breakup. Segal, who is a staple of many of Apatow’s films, dating back to Freaks and Geeks, gives a grounded performance so as to allow the supporting cast, which includes Russell Brand, Jonah Hill, and Paul Rudd, to run amok with some of the film’s more audacious material. Forgetting Sarah Marshall subscribes to Apatow’s template almost to a fault, but through Segel’s sharp writing he’s able to take fairly pedestrian material and enliven it with sharp comedic appeal.

7.

Funny People (2009)

Judd Apatow’s third directorial feature is not his best work, but it is an interesting film that attempts to subvert some of the expectations that come out of utilizing the comedic template that he popularized. For one, the casting of Adam Sandler in the title role is of particular interest given the sort of comedian Sandler has evolved (or devolved) into. The narrative also unfolds in an atypical fashion, as it’s halved by two divergent narrative threads. Some of the problems associated with Apatow’s films (feminine subversion, poorly constructed final act, bromance relationships) persist.  But this film diverts from expectations in how Apatow has essentially taken Adam Sandler, the man, and deconstructed his career into a cohesive and entertaining narrative. While Paul Thomas Anderson had a markedly more successful film doing essentially the same thing in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People registers as particularly insightful given the expectations that people had of Apatow.

6.

Knocked Up (2007)

An ideal contemporary romantic-comedy, whereupon the balancing act between masculine and feminine perspectives are at their best, Knocked Up strikes me as Apatow’s finest example of sharp writing. It’s the one film that he has written that I feel doesn’t necessarily need to be cut down. Its masculine perspective is thankfully diluted by a more vocal and persistent female perspective. And its ensemble cast, which includes a triad of stoners hoping to catch Spider Man and a sharp married pair in Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, is perhaps the finest cast ensemble in any of Apatow’s productions. The direction isn’t much to flaunt, but Knocked Up works in its ability to be consistently funny without jeopardizing its universal perspective.

5.

Bridesmaids (2011)

The most recent film on the list remains Apatow’s wholly feminine picture. While its release and marketing treated the picture as little more than The Hangover for girls, Bridesmaids exploits the preconceived notion to great effect. The gender dynamic shift gives the Apatow formula a great deal of freshness, as the arena for crassness is now occupied by women. And for that, it works wonderfully. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Rose Byrne give effectively diverse performances while tinkering with the archetypes developed by films like The Hangover and Apatow productions like Knocked Up or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Given the masculine perspective of almost every film on this list, it was a welcome reprieve to have a film from a wholly feminine comedic perspective.

4.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

From a film with an eclectic female cast to one dominated by white men who fear the presence of authoritative women, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy isn’t a particularly good film, per se. But within the silliness of its plot and writing is an actor who is a capable of illustrating an unwavering conviction to the material. Will Farrell’s performance in Anchorman isn’t typically cited as a breakthrough performance – few comedic performances garner such praise. But it’s an impressive performance given the utter absurdity of the situations the actor places himself in. Uttering lines like “I'm in a glass case of emotion” while trapped in a phone booth or “Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diego, which of course in German means a whale's vagina”, Will Farrell validates his character by making it seem like he really believes it too. Sometimes absurdity can work when the material is funneled through someone who actually has faith in the comic material.

3.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

A crucial film within the Apatow canon, The 40-Year-Old Virgin essentially codified and developed the foundation for contemporary American comedies. It brought Apatow to the forefront as a director and writer, while cementing Steve Carrell, who has largely been known as a television personality prior to this film’s release, as a significant Hollywood movie star. It also propelled the careers of secondary actors such as Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd into leading roles. The script’s lewdness is complemented by an essentially wholesome perspective on marriage and yearning love that brings the whole picture together. The comic notes were particularly novel at the time, as Apatow’s formula elicited both humor and sympathy for a good-hearted nerd who fumbled on every potential sexual conquest.

2. 

The Cable Guy (1996)

The critical dismissal of The Cable Guy is really an issue of time and place. Had the film been released now, wherein bromance comedies have reached a saturation point, I suspect that the picture may take on greater value as a critique on the sort of industry that Apatow had helped create. Central to The Cable Guy’s worldview is an analysis on isolation and yearning for camaraderie amongst men. This acceptance among men is a thematic element in most of Apatow’s features that carries homoerotic undertones – but here, these undertones have far more dangerous implications. Key to the film’s success is a lead performance by Jim Carrey. Following Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls with a film like this, Carrey’s buffoonery is exchanged for something far darker and human. The picture has an incredible ability to ramp tension by utilizing Carrey’s elastic features, as he can range from sincere to insane with a glance. The Cable Guy is by far the most different of Apatow’s features and a clear departure to the formula he’s utilized for the past decade, but the complexities involved here are really impressive.

1.

Pineapple Express (2008)

Pineapple Express is really the epitome of Apatow’s formula, wherein the writing, performances, and direction registers as the most effective. Whereas The Cable Guy complicates bromance films, Pineapple Express embraces the homoerotic undertones with bravado. It’s an interesting conceit that pays off because the individuals handling the material treat it with admiration.  David Gordon Green, who up to this point had directed excellent features like George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Undertow, applied his sensibilities to a genre that requires a bit of depth. Green’s emphasis on the mundane aspects of life work exceedingly well with the stoner script, wherein the two organically coalesce into something funny, poignant, and visually refined.

As much fun as I have with Apatow’s features, there’s a lack of true emotional depth to the pictures that hinder my ability to embrace them on all levels. With The Cable Guy and Pineapple Express, there are efforts to expand and question the superficial qualities of a solid formula.

Thursday Ten: Best Animated Films of the Past Five Years

Apologies for this late installment of the Thursday Ten. Busy, busy, busy…

I have quite the soft spot for animated films. Like most of my generation, I grew up with Disney’s yearly efforts. The serene carpet rides of Aladdin were one of my earliest theater going memories. Beauty and the Beast would get weekly, almost daily, viewings in its VHS form. Their rich hand-drawn appeal and musical numbers are etched into my memory. I would gather with my family and appreciate the simple story-telling. These early film experiences exposed me to how viscerally engaging a film can be. I doubt I was the only one who shed a tear when Simba lifted his dead father’s paw in The Lion King or feel goosebumps when the Beast battled with Gaston atop his castle in Beauty and the Beast.

Eventually the American animated crown would be bestowed upon Pixar. Their 1995 feature debut, Toy Story, would be one of the most revolutionary films of the modern era and usher a change in the way animated films would be made. They eventually reached a renaissance period in the late aughts, with films like Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 engaging both younger and older audiences. Unfortunately, their latest effort in Cars 2 showed the first signs of fatigue from the studio.

DreamWorks is a studio that has played second fiddle to Pixar’s brand name. After some commercial successes and the creation of the profitable Shrek franchise, the studio seems to be more concentrated in garnering critical favor than ever before. They haven’t quite achieved a masterpiece work as of yet, though 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon was their best effort to date. Meanwhile, Japan’s Studio Ghibili releases their animated films on a quasi- biannual basis. Typically involving Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghbili is perhaps the most consistent animation studio going at the moment. Unfortunately, the case tends to be that their films simply don’t get the wide-spread American release that they deserve.

Given the rather dismal state of animation for 2011, I thought it appropriate to look at the past five years for a brighter time. Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but this week’s animated offering of Happy Feet 2 is unlikely going to be the film that reignites my affinity for animation.

10.  Wallace and Gromit in: A Matter of Loaf and Death (Nick Park, 2008)

Wallace and Gromit run a bakery and get involved in a murder mystery. It’s a simple premise with absolutely enchanting results. What Nick Park achieves in all of his animated endeavors, whether it is in the Wallace and Gromit franchise or in Chicken Run, is a rich sense of developing characters. Through simple actions, whether it is Gromit furrowing his brow or Wallace singing along to a commercial jingle, you get a deep-rooted sense of personality and spirit. The fact that Park can achieve this within a 30-minute period is almost as impressive as the absolutely painstaking patience it must take to achieve his stunning stop-motion animation.

9.  Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008)

One of the truly unsung filmmakers of recent years has to be Nina Paley. Her debut 82-minute feature was largely made on her own, as she edited, produced, and animated the whole endeavor. She acutely takes a story from the Ramayana, focusing on the lovelorn relationship between Sita and Rama, and uses the epic to frame her own failed relationship. It’s a collage of visual design, as various stages of the narrative are drawn and animated differently. Sita Sings the Blues operates as both a rich feminist critique on marriage and relationships as well as an impressive exhibition of how various animation methods can be bridged together in an effective manner.

8.  Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008)

Accusations that Ponyo is minor Miyazaki have struck me as a bit odd. But then again, I’ve gravitated toward Miyazaki’s more quiet and restrained efforts. The childish exuberance that Ponyo dives into is of innocence and patient control. What Miyazaki achieves with Ponyo is an everlasting sense of wonder and spectacle, as his vibrant animated sequences are grounded in a close relationship between a child and princess. Akin to Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ponyo retells that story with children, effectively examining the threshold between childhood and adolescence. Mostly calm in tone, the film ruminates over the magic of childhood, with the astute awareness that it doesn’t last forever.

 7.  Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)

Wes Anderson’s first foray into animation proved how incredibly versatile that director can be. In a new realm of filmmaking, the director managed to maintain his stylistic integrity and inclinations. One could have easily been able to tell that they were watching a Wes Anderson film simply based on the droll dialogue, visually sharp set pieces, and incredible art direction. It’s the only kind of film that Anderson makes, and it’s the sort of film that feels so fresh within an animated context. Featuring George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Billy Murray, and Jason Schwartzman, Fantastic Mr. Fox examines youthful indiscretion with a wink – it’s simply the sort of film that really has a good time with itself, and as a result, you do too.

6.  Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007)

I saw Persepolis at a very crucial point in my life, wherein I was deliberating my own goals while delving into the richness that cinema could provide. What Persepolis accomplishes better than virtually any modern animated film I’ve seen is develop a female character on both a universal and abstract terms. Initially taking place in Tehran during the late 70s, Persepolis is about a young girl named Marjane. The film follows her ascent into adolescence and adulthood, wherein she encounters war, death, heartache, and love. While its setting can be difficult to comprehend for those not living in the period, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, paints the world in broad strokes that effectively makes it universal. Very much a coming-of-age story, Persepolis’ uniquely feminist perspective is a rarity in live-action films – it’s virtually nonexistent in the realm of animation.

5.  WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

I tend to gravitate toward films that revolve around the dichotomy of love and loneliness (yikes, what does that say about me!). WALL-E explores that dichotomy so sharply, while juggling concepts of environmentalism and the nostalgic value of media, that it’s a wonder that the film works at all. And while the Pixar crew fumbles a bit in its middle section, there is a persistent sense honesty to the proceedings. With a dash of Charlie Chaplin and 2001: A Space Odyssey, WALL-E marries its cosmic setting with something entirely human – incredible given that it’s lead character is a mute robot. Along with such an incredibly rich visual palette to work with, WALL-E marked a significant turning point in how mainstream animated films have bridged a gap between what is exclusive for children and what has adult appeal.

4.  Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)

For a film that explores a world of suicides, mental disorders, and bullying, Mary and Max might be the most optimistic film on this list. It’s a film that follows the correspondence between a young girl named Mary living in the suburbs of Melbourne and a middle-aged New Yorker with Asperger's Syndrome named Max. Mary and Max is one of the most remarkable examinations of friendship that I’ve ever seen. Max sends a letter out of sheer loneliness, and Mary responds for the same reason. Their correspondence spans twenty years, where Mary grows into womanhood while Max’s health wanes. The two know each other based entirely on their correspondence, where they find a true human connection. The world that director Adam Elliot paints makes use of black, white, and multiple shades of gray, but within this gloom, the innocence and fragility of Mary and Max’s friendship shines bright.

3.  The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)

As we live in Pixar’s age of computer animation, there’s a novelty to watching something as beautifully illustrated as Sylvain Chomet’s sophomore effort, The Illusionist. It’s a film comprised of visual sights, wherein characters don’t utter words so much as merely speak in garbled terms. Based on an unproduced script from Jacques Tati, The Illusionist addresses a time where, as children, we embrace a certain level of mysticism in the world. Concepts of a Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, etc. were embraced at one time or another in people’s lives. But what Chomet beautifully encapsulates in The Illusionist is that there is a line we cross when we realize the reality of the situation, and in so, we’re stripped of a little bit of wonder.

2.  Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, 2009)

The opening sequence to Up has the distinction of being one of those moments where just about everyone begins to shed tears. It’s a sequence that details a loving relationship between husband and wife. Simply thinking about it now has me trying to fight back the tears. It’s majestic and a true wonder in contemporary animation. With Michael Giacchino’s wonderfully delicate score underlining the beauty of the sequence, I recall successfully restraining myself from weeping buckets.

That is until a certain other scene toward the beginning of the final act, that doesn’t get quite the attention that the opening sequence gets. As our lead character Carl (Ed Asner) opens a scrapbook that belonged to his deceased wife, screenwriters and directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson effectively level their audience with a genuine display of love and emotion. Up doesn’t just tell a story about love and friendship, it comes close to viscerally engaging you with the concepts.

1.  Everything Will Be Ok (Don Hertzfeldt, 2006)

There are routines we all experience. We don’t talk much about them, but they exist and we deal with them in our ways.  In Everything Will Be Ok, our lead character contends with those routines, observing with an astute eye the trivial social situations that we get ourselves involved into. The film is clever in its observations, but director Don Hertzfeldt extends the meaning behind these situations by commanding a sense of realism to the affair. There’s something so inherently palpable about the way the stick-figure character named Bill moves through his daily routine.

Upon Bill’s mental breakdown, you get a greater sense of those around Bill. His family comes to his aid, though their intervention is a mixed blessing. In the film’s most touching moment, we see Bill come to grips with his disorder as he questions the help he’s receiving from the one person who seems to care from Bill. It’s a painstakingly true moment, which is all the more impressive given the limitations of the simple animation – the stick figures in Everything Will Be Ok are more expressive than most contemporary mainstream actors.

There’s a subtle sadness to the film’s title that comes full circle upon the film’s conclusion. Perhaps we all venture back into the world of the mundane. But amidst the sadness, Bill returns to his life, knowing more about himself, and in that, there’s a glimmering sense of hopefulness.

Thursday Ten: Horror Films

As I’ve wrapped up my festival viewings and with Halloween fast-approaching, I thought it time to look at some of my favorite horror films. Mind you, the whole concept of what constitutes a “horror” film tends to be defined by the individual person; like a comedy, what’s funny or scary to one person is not necessarily the case for another.

But there’s a certain compulsion we all have as cinephiles to look at the horror genre fondly; as children, it’s almost a rite of passage to watch that film that keeps us up for the night. As our definitions of horror broadens, there’s still that nostalgic appreciation we have for films that rather than plucking at our heart strings, outright go for the stab.

Today’s Thursday Ten focuses on the horror films that don’t necessarily fit comfortably within the traditional definition of horror, but rather cross boundaries that strike a more personal chord. Not a single film here has a vampire, werewolf, or zombie; sometimes fear is best realized in something that’s closer to home.

10.  We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

It’s a fear that I can only assume is a mother’s worst nightmare: what if their child commits an unthinkable crime? Anchored in a reality that is all too authentic, Lynne Ramsay’s brilliant adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel explores the daily routine of a grief-stricken mother as she contends with the fact that her oldest son had committed a school shooting, serving to dismantle her household and make her the community’s social pariah. The film strikes an absolutely nerve-wracking tone with its sound-editing; the sound of school children screaming for their lives haunts Tilda Swinton’s character at every turn, and effectively instills an on-going sense of anxiety that Ramsay maintains from scene to scene.

9.  The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Fear and insanity stemming from isolation; it’s a theme that recurs in several of Kubrick’s films and is most overt in this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. The implications of Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) insanity stem beyond gory hallucinations and a violent rampage; there’s the disintegration of the family unit and even more frightening – the idea that there is a larger omnipotent force motivating him. Marked with Kubrick’s own obsessive attention to detail, The Shining is a landmark piece of filmmaking that is relentless in maintaining an uneasy atmosphere. As the film unites two converging narrative arcs, there’s a petrifying sense that we’re delving deeper into the hedge maze of insanity.

8.   The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)

What, in the end, do we have if not our own identity? The Hitcher questions how we arrive at defining ourselves, as well as how the landscape we identify with can turn its back on us. The Hitcher is as much a parable on a boy’s ascent into adulthood as it is an analysis on violent shift in times. A boy (C. Thomas Howell) is accused of a massive crime spree; he becomes the victim of both a real chase by the police and an existential chase by his demon (represented chillingly by Rutger Hauer). The Hitcher is smartly positioned as the sort of horror/thriller that never attempts to explain the why of it all; the world is not always kind enough to give us an explanation.

7.  Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

Unlike the aforementioned We Need to Talk About Kevin, I don’t assume that this is a mother’s worst nightmare; I know it has to be. It’s the deliberate pacing that makes Rosemary’s Baby so effective; Roman Polanski allows his film to linger as we get accustomed to our central couple in Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. And only then are we introduced to their mysterious neighbors. He lingers on their eerie behavior before we become aware of what Rosemary’s pregnancy means to her husband and those neighbors. It’s not just that Rosemary births the spawn of Satan; it’s that it was an orchestration led by the one she trusted the most. The echoing chant of Hail Satan leaves its mark.

6.  Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)

A relic of my childhood, Candyman was the type of film that I wanted to brave through, but ultimately, its imagery and closeness to home often sent me out of the living room within its opening ten minutes. Even as an adult, the film gives me an uneasy feeling. It could be the accented voice of Tony Todd as the title character. Or perhaps it’s the gruesomeness of how he slaughters his victims. Or perhaps it’s how Candyman is beckoned – say his name five times in the mirror. Or maybe it’s because I recognize the various Chicago locations throughout the film and living only a few miles away gives me chills. It’s probably a little bit of it all.

5.  Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)

Days removed from Repulsion made walking down a dark narrow corridor a test of will. The film is an exercise in paranoia and the extent in which one can be overwhelmed by the confines of a closed-off living space. As part of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, Repulsion is a perpetual example of how eeriness and fear can be induced through the everyday. A precursor to a film like Black Swan, Repulsion unravels as the sort of psychological horror that focuses on the fear of isolation; confined to an apartment, your mind turns against you. The biting of fingernails, the cracks on the ground, , razor blades, and hands protruding through the walls will likely worm their way into your nightmares for weeks.

4.  The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

While the aforementioned Repulsion dwells on psychological horror, The Fly dwells on the physical manifestation of it. The virtues and conflicts of the film are deeply rooted in reality; themes of unrequited love, success, greed, and fears are realized with such grace. The happenstance that the film implements science-fiction elements through the physical transformation of its main character (Jeff Goldblum, in his best role) serves to amplify the horror considerably. As Goldblum decays in front of our eyes, the lingering sense that all he had worked for, the love that he attempts to realize, is slipping away; it is the greatest horror of all. Few films have been able to so effectively contemplate our mortality all while implementing such a gruesome science-fiction element.

3.  2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey stands as my most atypical example of what constitutes a horror film. But it’s a film that instills a great deal of fear and dread into me every time I watch it. This fear typically stems from the overwhelming isolation I derive from it; as the narrative unfolds, the fear of man against machine and the fight against being left behind in the vastness of space is profoundly moving and quite simply, terrifying. Much like The Shining, the setting serves as an immense undercurrent to maintain this sense of isolation. One can even look as the computerized HAL and Jack Torrance as two characters of the same lineage; their descent into insanity can be interpreted as being a product of their environments.

2.  Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)

The recurring theme throughout most of this list is that I tend to respond to horror films that touch upon themes of mortality, conflict in identity, the circumstances of insanity, isolation, and anxiety toward one’s ascent to adulthood. Seconds touches upon all of these themes in one way or another, and does so within a finely scripted and incredibly directed effort from John Frankenheimer. With a nuanced performance from Rock Hudson, Frankenheimer redefines the question of what it means to be human, what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes, and the devastating loneliness and extreme anxiety that stems from it all. The film bares some of the most impressive direction and editing I’ve ever seen in any film, which only serves accentuate the surreal terror on display.

1.  Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

I wrote a great deal about my appreciation for David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac. What makes it stand out from all of my favorite “horror” films is the simplicity in which it achieves its horror elements. Given the procedural nature of the film, there’s this immediate connection you have with every character, wherein you understand where they stand, their traits, and what motivates them. So when you place them in a reality where an unknown assailant is murdering people, you are immediately thrust into their world and feel what they feel. The investigation, the mystery, and the prevailing sense that there is someone out there planning to kill is persistent throughout Zodiac.

Obsession is the prevailing theme throughout Zodiac and it comes from all sides. It comes from the filmmaking, which is so exact and attuned to the details and setting. It also comes from Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) obsession with finding out who the Zodiac killer is eventually puts him and his family at risk.  And that scene, where Robert Graysmith thinks he may have cracked the case, finding himself alone in a basement with his prime suspect, is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in film.

The Essential Series: Zodiac (2007)

The Essential Series

The Essential Series is merely a way for me to account and write about films that hold a special place in my heart. They are films that I believe display an acute sense of filmmaking that provoke an emotional connection. They are also films that I have seen more than once, thereby giving me a chance to reflect on elements that I may have missed in my initial viewing.

Zodiac (2007)

Directed by David Fincher Screenplay by James Vanderbilt Based on Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked

 

Revisiting Zodiac is rarely an occurrence I plan ahead of time. It’s not a particularly uplifting film, but it’s one that grips me every time I watch it – few movies have such an effect on repeated viewings. There’s always something new to take out of it, making for one of the more rewarding experiences in my collection, and thereby prompting me to give it another viewing.

The notion of a serial killer and the terror he inflicts upon a select few is probably the least interesting way to view the film. This is largely because Fincher and company encapsulate a variety of different perspectives that make for an extremely layered and dense experience. Part police procedural, part thriller, part media study, part character study, Zodiac allows the audience to embrace the controlled chaos. It’s extremely smart in its narrative presentation, as the film’s large cast in introduced and fleshed out in compelling and thought-provoking ways. Take the introduction of Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), an important character to the whole of the narrative; he is not introduced until 30 minutes into the film. With him, he brings the police procedural aspect of the story to the forefront, despite the newspaper media characters (Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery) steering the film’s direction for the past half-hour. The two sides, media and law, meet in such an organic way, serving to highlight the precision of the screenwriting.

Vanderbilt, along with Fincher, illustrates an excellent method of lapsing time, wherein technique and writing flourish to create rich characters. In a restaurant, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is late for his date with Melanie (Chloe Sevigny). A bit absent minded, while still maintaining that straight-man gullibility, Graysmith notes that his friend Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) received an ominous tip that will lead him on the outskirts of San Francisco. As Robert discusses the situation with Melanie, they begin to realize the danger that Paul may be in. Melanie is cautiously fascinated by Robert’s conviction, and decides to take their meal to go as they wait for Paul’s call at Robert’s place. The scene wraps with Paul calling Robert and Melanie, early in the morning, with Melanie admitting that their date was one of the most interesting she has had.

Fast-forward, years into the timeline. Robert is now obsessed with uncovering the mystery of the Zodiac. Like Avery, one can trace a similar downtrodden trajectory for Robert. And again, like Avery, Robert’s sense of time and space is disjointed. He has a meeting set with handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill (Philip Baker Hall), and is unaware of the distance between the two. Melanie, now his wife, makes him aware of that fact. As their relationship deteriorates under Robert’s growing obsession, Melanie recalls that first date – it was the date that never ended.

All this, of course, serves to highlight how the film is not focused on the murders themselves. Fincher instead uses Gyllenhaal in his most effective role. He’s obsessive, yes, but also grounded by emotions that are relatable to anyone. The sense of being close to something, to uncovering the truth about something mythical, is the sort of emotional pull that Fincher and Gyllenhaal effectively convey.

Harry Savides’ gorgeous cinematography is not merely icing on the cake, but an absolutely necessary component to creating the film’s incredibly foreboding atmosphere. Savides has displayed a keen knack for shooting California in interesting and eclectic ways – from the hazy Los Angeles in the recent Greenberg to the dimly-lit San Francisco in Zodiac. Interestingly enough, my favorite example of Savides’ technical prowess in Zodiac is in a scene that takes place indoors. Graysmith, believing to be on the cusp of retrieving proof regarding the Zodiac’s identity, meets with Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer) – a confidant of the suspected. Here, the writing, visuals, and direction blend into the wickedly suspenseful. Graysmith follows Vaughn into his basement to retrieve posters that may have the Zodiac’s writing on it. Earlier in the film, we discover that the Zodiac has a basement – basements being a rarity in the California region during the time period. The suspense simmers. The basement is dimly lit, with a storm going on outside that makes every sound reverberate. Vaughn is positioned under one of the few lights in the basement. Graysmith distances himself, realizing that the situation could be more than he bargained for. The storm creates the illusion of foot-steps, Vaughn’s face is barely viewable in the dim lighting, and the fear escalates. So much going on in one scene, all brought together by writing and technique.

The attention to detail, the precision in filmmaking, and the fascinating approach to its already compelling subject matter is enough to make Zodiac a film worthy of praise. The film did not get the attention it ought to have received (it was a minor box office success, making barely enough to cover its budget), nor did it receive acclaim for larger awards bodies. But as I look back on it, rewatching the film every once in a while, I get wrapped up in what it provides – a compelling story with fleshed out characters and the technical prowess to complete the package.

Zoo (Robinson Dover, 2007)

I tend to appreciate documentaries or biopics that expand upon the conventions of their genre- a film like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters layers its narrative with past and present details of its character, while simultaneously flooding the audience with images of the mind. Films like Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish call to question the reality of what is being documented, adding a level of staged dramatics to something that is already imminently entertaining. And with Zoo, Dover does an admirable job in both shielding the audience from a pervasive act while delving into their minds.

The film transcends typical documentary tropes through its extensive use of voice-over and rejection of sit-down interviews. Instead, Dover moves around the world that these people, perhaps characters, inhabit. He restages certain events – others are merely described. In essence the film depicts zoophiles as individuals who are attuned to the environment that their animals are a part of, while having a distancing relationship with the people around them.

Zoo’s lack of prose and inability to have an individual to connect (or reject) makes the film a noble failure. Without a protagonist or antagonist, the emotional ties attached to people are denied. Dover shoots areas in Washington with the utmost beauty, but it ultimately fails to elicit any sort of connection beyond superficial appreciation.

4/10