Monday, February 18, 2008

There Will Be Blood, or On Paternal Strife (AGAIN)

Like Antony Minghella, PT Anderson is continually going above and beyond with his preternatural technique as a filmmaker, crafting undeniable touchstones for high-quality modern cinema in the process. And like Antony Minghella, it invariably leaves me cold.

Obviously there's some remarkable thematic back-and-forth going on, and the film's technical flawlessness is justified by a script that bravely humanises bloated plutocrat and wide-eyed faith healer alike. A lesser author would deal in broad strokes of dastardly, crazed, scheming and devout: Anderson's film is at its best when allowing the back-and-forth of ambition and faith to blur each others' edges.

The film takes a turn around halfway through, though: what had been a slow-burning meditation on how the West was won and where it got us ignites into the director's usual sturm und drang w/r/t the trials of paternal angst. It's an easy sort of autopilot, guiding the proceedings to their conclusion; but by that time, the film seems to have forgotten somewhat what it's about.

Day-Lewis' closest performance to this was his swaggering villainy in Gangs of New York. Like this film, that one dealt with an uneasy adopted father-son relationship in the crucible of America, red in tooth and claw; but unlike this pic, Gangs was more on-target the more twisted and operatic it became.

So it's not that Blood's paternity-is-a-bitch handwringing automatically disqualifies it from having anything interesting to say. Many of the most moving moments in cinema - from Night of the Hunter to 25th Hour - have played on the uneasy relationship between fathers and their (often notional) sons. Anderson himself has given us plenty of these moments: in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Hard Eight, Magnolia, and Magnolia.

But take a look at the career of, say, Steven Spielberg. Find the last time the fellow made a film whose emotional undercurrent wasn't structured around this particular tentpeg, and notice just how laboured the narrative can become - War of the Worlds, Munich - in its need to work in the same damn subplot into every damn movie.

PT Anderson is often called the new Altman, by virtue of his large-scale, densely-populated melodramas. But as apt a comparison might be Spielberg: he's the new film-geek's filmmaker. Just as Spielberg used his encyclopedic experience of film to further the medium where contemporaries like De Palma were content to turn out highly enjoyable pictures whose every shot was an open quote, homage, reference or steal, so Anderson sets himself apart from the Tarantinos and Smiths of the modern film-geekosphere by using his technical acumen to innovate rather than ape. But so far, he's jumping the gun somewhat in falling to the same faults.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Walk Hard, or On Parody

Turns out your worst fears (by which your correspondent means, his own worst fears) were unfounded: this movie actually does have more than two jokes. While those two jokes – “‘Cox’ sounds like ‘cocks’, doesn’t it?” and “Walk the Line was overrated, pompous shit, wasn’t it?” – get their fair share of play, Walk Hard is, in fact, more than just a Hot Shots! to Walk the Line’s Top Gun.

While there’s a complement of elbow-to-the-gut referentiality, it’s fleeting. Luckily: referential humour may be the lasting influence of comedy gold from Blazing Saddles to The Simpsons, but it’s also the stock-in-trade of hacks from les freres Wayans to Meet the Spartans.

Walk Hard is on much steadier ground when its target is wide: hagiographical biopics en masse are far more skilfully lampooned than any particular pic. (Yes, Reilly-parodying-Phoenix-impersonating-Cash is that rare simulacrum that surpasses the quality of its target – but to dwell would be smug).

When a scene is obligatory the movie has the good sense to play it as such, but with class. It’s the inversion of the spoof-movie norm: bad parodies play serious lines for laughs, where Walk Hard plays sly meta-comedy like it’s serious drama. This winking respect for trope may be what qualifies it for inclusion alongside, say, Flying High! rather than consignment to the pile alongside, say, Epic Movie.

It never reaches the giddy pathos of A Mighty Wind, and in the final analysis, it’s basically a hundred-minute riff on the episode of The Simpsons where Homer had a barbershop quartet and he met George Harrison.

But to remain funny, and quotable, and not without warmth or quality showmanship, all while borrowing a premise from the show that set the high-water mark for most all of those things? A fella could do worse.

[appeared edited on Flicks]

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Talk to Me, or On The Soundtrack-On-Poster Rule

Proves the old rule: posters that highlight the stellar soundtrack are probably promoting mediocre films.

Tell it to the high, tell it to the low. It was true in the old days when you got gypped on Ninja Turtles 2 cause the poster offered you Vanilla Ice; it was true a few years ago when that damnable Haunted Hill remake had a poster offering you Marilyn Manson; it's true now, when Talk To Me tries to get you in the door by offering you "a vibrant sixties soundtrack". Wake the hell up! Big badge on poster espousing soundtrack EQUALS mediocre movie. It's scientific!

Talk To Me does make a stab at letting the vitality of the Sixties soul music scene provide its claim to a pulse. Maybe this is where it slips up: not only is that soundtrack a K-Tel Best of Protest Sounds compilation at best, totally bereft of hidden gems or tonal surprises, but whenever things get really heavy, the soundtrack just throws up its hands and gives up: "A song that would capture the violent despondence of the nation’s soul when Dr. King was shot? Hell, I got nothing - get some fool in here with a synthesiser, play some Movie of the Week shit over it or something."

But deeper than this problem of faith in its own lifeblood, Talk to Me just doesn't know who it's about. The top billing goes to Cheadle, whose spirited turn is the only thing about the pic qualifying it for comparison with Talk Radio or even Pump Up the Volume. But his is relegated to a supporting role for Ejiofor, who gets the first shot, the last thought, and everything in between of any consequence.

And the problem is that his just isn't a very interesting story.

[originally appeared on Flicks]