Finally some of the late-release Oscar nominees are coming to the discount theater; finally my financial situation is resolving itself so I can afford to go see them there. Last week I saw Juno and last night I saw There Will Be Blood. Both were excellent films, although I found Juno to be more enjoyable, just because I prefer light-hearted comedies as a matter of course.
Although, strangely enough, while Juno has since grown on me, I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would while I was actually watching it. For some reason I didn't find it as laugh-out-loud funny as I thought I would; I think this was because a lot of the funniest jokes were in the trailer, so they weren't as new when spoken in the film. While watching it, I inexplicably felt like crying, and I'm not entirely sure why. It is possible that I felt like crying about something else and the fact that I was watching a movie was circumstantial. But I'm not sure. It was strangely touching. As far as appreciating the humor of the film, after the fact, I can revisit the jokes and find more humor in them.
For some reason, it reminds me of Napoleon Dynamite. I'm really not sure why; they don't seem to have much in common except that they're independent, "unconventional" (for lack of a better word) teen movies. Perhaps it's because, the first couple times I watched Napoleon Dynamite, I couldn't really ascertain if it had a point, it was just kind of there. Amusing, yes, but to no purpose as far as I could tell. Now, Juno isn't as "pointless" (again, for lack of a better word) as Napoleon Dynamite, but the two films are similar in that they have no discernible agenda. I have to hand it to the filmmakers involved in making Juno, because it would be so easy to make a "preachy" film about teen pregnancy, but this film is not remotely preachy; it's just a story, take it or leave it. Personally, because of this odd, passive-aggressive political streak of mine, I'm tempted to project all sorts of "messages" onto it, but I will refrain.
That said, there was quite a lot about the film that made me uncomfortable. Obviously if you make a film about teen pregnancy, you're going to have to deal with the reality of teens having sex. This was very tastefully done; there weren't "sex scenes" as such, but there were scenes of implied nudity and foreplay, and while I know that the players involved were legally adults at the time, I was very uncomfortable with watching teenaged characters engage in sexual activity. I was also really disturbed by the characters' cavalier attitude toward abortion. I'm pretty sure that in Juno's case it was a front, but her friend was upsettingly nonchalant about it. Of course, she was also pretty dim-witted, so that might have something to do with it.
So anyway, I don't have much more to say about it. From what I'd read about it, I had a pretty good idea how it was going to end, but in Juno, as in life, the journey is more important than the destination. It's smart and it's sweet without being saccharine; it's realistic yet hopeful. The casting was excellent, and I shall watch the careers of Ellen Page and Michael Cera with interest.
As you may or may not remember, I had misgivings about seeing There Will Be Blood, because I'm uncomfortable with violence in films. But while there is blood in the movie, as promised, it's not as much as you would expect. When I went back and looked at the rating I saw that it was rated R for "some violence", and all the movies that I have found intolerably violent in the recent past have all had two amplifying adjectives describing the violence depicted, one of which is always "strong". The thing about the violence in There Will Be Blood is that most of it is suggested through the use of sound effects, etc. rather than actually being depicted, which I find to be the more classy and artistic (and to me more tolerable) way of doing it.
As for the movie itself, a lot of it was incomprensible to me because so much of the plot (such as it is) was based on economic concerns, which carry little if any meaning to me. However, I did find it intriguing on several levels. I found it to well-written if slightly, ever so slightly, under-written. I could have done with perhaps a little tiny bit more explanatory dialogue. That said, because of the incomprehensible economic concerns of the movie, perhaps more dialogue wouldn't have helped me after all, and I'll say again that it's much better for a film to be under-written than over-written. Confound me if you will, but please don't condescend to me. I also found it fascinating the extremes to which the characters behaved; it was almost laughable, but still believable, and not actually laughable because it's clear that the characters are in earnest, which is frightening.
It's not a tremendously fast-paced movie; I arrived at the theater five minutes late, but it didn't matter because the whole first 15 minutes of the film are mostly just scenes of oil drilling, which is kind of interesting at first, but after a while gets really, really tedious. The first 15 minutes (or the 10 minutes of it that I actually saw) do help to establish some important things about Plainview's character, but when the dialogue actually begins Plainview is making a speech which begins with something like, "I'm an oil man, and unlike some people who claim to be oil men, I've actually dug oil wells," and it just kind of made me laugh, because did you really need to spend that much time establishing his oil manliness? While discussing things that I didn't necessarily care for in the film, I should mention the score, which is really cool and edgy and avant-garde, and which I sometimes felt very effective in supporting the scene, establishing the mood, etc., but sometimes found so annoying and repetitive that I wanted to tear my hair out.
So basically the whole reason I saw this movie was because of Daniel Day-Lewis, because the more I heard about his performance the more intrigued I became (although I also wanted to see Paul Dano, because I loved him in Little Miss Sunshine, and I was intrigued to see him in a period piece). I feel I can best express my feelings about his performance through an intertextual analysis of his performance and that of fellow award-nominee and psychopathic-killer-portrayer Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd. (By the way, when I use terms like "intertextual", do I come across as annoyingly pretentious? Because I don't mean to.) Of course Johnny Depp was my choice to win the Oscar because he's my choice for pretty much anything. I wouldn't be able to say which of the two was the better performance, but Johnny Depp's Sweeney Todd was the more sympathetic psychopathic killer, and Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview was a more charismatic psychopathic killer. It was very strange how drawn I was to the character even though I condemn everything that he did, and even as I was simultaneously repulsed by him. I do have to say, however, that I did feel almost entirely unmixed pleasure when he was standing up to the men from Standard Oil; that was totally awesome. I also loved the voice that Mr. Day-Lewis used for the character; I could listen to that voice all day. I wish he would record audiobooks with that voice; the voice alone earned him the Oscar as far as I'm concerned.
I also immensely enjoyed Paul Dano's performance (or possibly performances, since he played two characters) and I was surprised (though I don't know why particularly) to learn that his (main) character was just as ruthless and manipulative and rat-bastardly as Plainview. I don't know why that should have taken me by surprise, but it did. I do agree that, given a certain interpretation, the film depicts a rather bleak picture of Christianity, but on the other hand I think it's pretty clear that Eli Sunday is a charlatan and a hypocrite, and that doesn't necessarily need to reflect on everyone who professes a Christian faith. As such a person, I find it much easier and less time-consuming to adjust my interpretation of films with an allegedly anti-Christian theme than to get upset about such negative depictions, which I typically find to be a less constructive way of reacting. In the case of this film, I recognize that the faith that Eli Sunday professes has very little to do with my experience as a Christian and my relationship with Christ, so I don't have a problem with it. The final showdown between Plainview and Sunday, while climatic and compelling, was interesting in that I really had no emotional investment in who won. And then I felt it was strange how the movie just sort of ended. It wasn't that strange because there really wasn't that much of a "plot" per se, so the end did have unity with the rest of the film, but it does leave one wondering what happened next, although you can certainly make a plausible conjecture based on the evidence.
If there was one emotional touchstone in the story for me, it was the story of Plainview's son, H.W. Plainview. He is injured in an oil derrick explosion and loses his hearing, and Plainview keeps yelling at him and manhandling him in an futile attempt to communicate with him. Which, apart from being upsetting, was really mystifying at first because I thought, "Why doesn't he just write down what he wants to say?" and then it occurred to me, "Oh, maybe the boy can't read," which conjecture is corroborated by a later scene in which the boy is looking intently at a book which he is holding upside-down. At that point I was forced to wonder, "Well, why can't he read?" to which no definitive answer is given but it is plausible to conjecture that Plainview, being a rat bastard, has never taken the trouble to teach him. To be fair to Plainview, he does do right by the boy by sending him to a school for the deaf, although he does so through duplicitous and unnecessarily hurtful means. That was an interesting scene to me, because Plainview and H.W. are sitting on the train, and Plainview says, "I have to go speak to the conductor," which of course H.W. can't hear, but he gestures to the back of the car, and gets up and goes to the back of the car and then sneaks off the train. Then the train starts to move, and H.W. stands up to look for Plainview, but instead of looking at the back of the car, he looks right out the window towards the town, and sees Plainview and tries to get off the train but Plainview's associate, who has been placed on the train to accompany him, restrains him. But what confuses me is, if H.W. was looking for Plainview, why didn't he first look at the back of the car? Unless he suspected that Plainview was going to pull something on him? I guess he knows him well enough that he might suspect something of the kind.
Before I saw the movie I saw clips from it during the Academy Awards, and I've since seen the SAG award segment on YouTube, and they both showed the same movie clip in which Plainview is about to be baptized and Eli Sunday is trying to get him to loudly profess his sins and get him to say, "I've abandoned my child!" which eventually he does, numerous times. And without the movie context that sounded rather horrible and despicable. Now having seen the movie, I think "abandoned" was a rather strong word. I mean, he did deceive the boy by making him think he was going to take the trip with him, and the sneak off the train, which could certainly be considered an emotional abandonment, but on the other hand, he did act in the child's best interest by sending him to a school for the deaf, and he did leave him in the care of a responsible adult for the trip. When the scene was taken out of context I was imagining some sort of abandonment in the desert to die, which was considerably more horrible than what actually happened.
I was further intrigued by a scene at the end of the movie in which the adult H.W. comes back to confront Plainview, with the aid of an interpreter because apparently Plainview has never bothered to learn sign language (further supporting the hypothesis that he never bothered to teach H.W. to read). Anyway, I was intrigued by sort of a logistical concern in this scene; by his one spoken line I could tell that the actor playing the adult H.W. is actually deaf, which is entirely appropriate, but it took me out of the film a little bit because I wouldn't have thought that if a person lost their hearing at the age of 8 or 9, as H.W. does, it would have had that big an effect on his speech, although I could certainly be wrong about that. It's strange because just now I was doing a little background research on Wikipedia about language acquistion, and it talks about nativist theories of language acquistion, and Chomsky, and critical period hypothesis, all of which I'm somewhat familiar with through studying both psychology and linguistics, but none of the articles give an approximate cut-off date for the critical period; the most specific information given is "after a certain age". This is amusing and frustrating to me; I know that the critical period doesn't abruptly end on a child's nth birthday, but surely, since people have presumably been doing research in this field, they could give an age range.
Anyway, it was a very interesting movie, and I enjoyed in on an intellectual level if not on an emotional level. Beyond that I don't really know what to say. It does seem to be, as one IMDb commentator said, a throwback to the great films of the "golden era of Hollywood," and yet with a decidedly contemporary feel. Unfortunately, the themes of greed and corruption are still relevant and probably always will be, and although I'd prefer to see a hopeful film about the greedy and corrupt being punished, I'm forced to acknowledge that in reality it doesn't necessarily happen that way. And actually, from a certain point of view Plainview is punished because he seems to be torturing himself in his mind and he seems to be increasingly unhinged and despondent and alienated from others, in spite of his wealth.
As I think more about There Will Be Blood, I rescind my opinion of it being under-written, because I realize that the film draws the viewers in by forcing them to fill in the blanks, as it were, which is similar to how audiences have to approach silent films because very little of the dialogue is revealed to the audience. I was thinking about this yesterday because in my literature seminar we watched part of a silent film and the professor commenting about how little of the dialogue is actually revealed through the intertitles, even though the actors/characters are chatting away to one another. I found myself wondering what it would be like to be an actor or a writer in the days of silent films and to know that most of the words you were writing/saying would never be revealed to the audience. It's interesting to think about.