It’s been a long time since I did a review on this blog. I didn’t really start Cinema-Rant with the intention of reviewing films as they were released, mostly because I wouldn’t be contributing anything but my opinion. Opinions, as they say, are like assholes. Everyone has one, and there’s plenty on the internet.
But I recently saw Colossal, a film that I don’t think many people have seen. It’s been out for a couple weeks now and so far hasn’t even made back one fifteenth of its budget. It appears to be suffering from it’s hard-to-comprehend plot, which makes sense because when I explain it to people I always get this reaction:
I think it’s the kind of premise that’s very hard to pitch, but I’ll try it again. Are you sitting down? Alright, here is the plot of Colossal:
Anne Hathaway plays an unemployed alcoholic named Gloria, whose reckless behaviour causes her boyfriend to split up with her. With no means of financial support, she decides to move back to her hometown, where she meets up with a childhood friend named Oscar (played by Jason Sudeikis), who offers to let her work at his bar. Needless to say, this doesn’t improve her relationship with alcohol. All good so far?
Good. She then finds out that whenever she stomps through a playground at 8:05 in the morning, a giant monster attacks South Korea.
I know, believe me. There’s really no good way to drop that bomb. Anne Hathaway controls a kaiju monster in Seoul. Check out the trailer if you don’t believe me.
Now it’s my job to explain why Colossal works, and why it isn’t actually that unusual. In fact, it’s actually a very normal story. A ludicrous plot, sure, but a very normal story.
That might have confused you a little. In case you weren’t already aware of this, as I wasn’t prior to film school, plot and story are actually not the same thing. Plot concerns unfolding events, while story concerns character development. I’ll give you a simple example: What is Titanic about?
Well, yes Kate, thank you for your contribution. Titanic does concern the famous sinking of said ship, true. Specifically, it’s about the doomed relationship that blossoms between a rich first-class heiress and a poor artistic drifter upon the titular vessel (bookended, of course, by the subaqueous search for an invaluable diamond). But that’s the plot, not the story. What is the story?
It’s pretty simple, really. The story isn’t about disaster, nor class, and it isn’t even really about love. It’s about empowerment. It’s about strength, perseverance, whichever word you want to use to describe it. The point is that Jack first meets Rose as she’s about to pack it all in and kill herself, but by the end of the film he’s empowered her to say “I’ll never let go”. She’s a totally different person at the end of the film than she was at the beginning. He doesn’t save her, he inspires her to save herself. By the end she’s doing everything she can to “stay on the ship as long as possible”. Ergo, the ship is just a big honking, breaking, sinking metaphor for her life.
And that’s the key! Which characters change and which ones stay the same? Follow the path of the malleable one, and you will find the story. The best part is the relationship between the story and the plot. They run parallel to each other, but they also affect each other. When Jack wins his ticket to Titanic, it causes him to meet Rose and talk her out of suicide. This is the first step in her development as a character. Hence, the plot is changing the story. Much later, however, her new empowered state causes her to abandon her family and search for Jack as the Titanic is sinking. This is the story coming back to affect the plot. Back and forth it goes. You can map it out yourself from there.
Let’s do another one. What is Jaws about?
Oh my god, lady, you’re in the movie and you don’t even know.
No, Jaws is not about a man-eating shark. It’s actually about Chief Brody’s fear of the sea. He’s a city cop who’s been stationed on Amity Island, but he’s yet to go out on the water. The ocean is representative of danger, of uncertainty. All throughout the first half of Jaws, Brody is dodging risk. He constantly tells his children to avoid risky situations. In fact, it’s highly likely that the entire reason why Brody moved to the aptly named Amity Island is because it’s such a safe community, far away from the dangers of the city. When the shark appears, it simply constitutes a dangerous water-based threat that Brody cannot avoid. Once the shark kills Alex Kintner, a child who resembles his own, Brody can no longer seperate himself from his responsibilities and has to literally head out to sea himself in order to kill the shark.
Watch Jaws again with this in mind. Notice how Spielberg so often frames Brody with the ocean hovering over his shoulder, never easing up on him.
There’s really nothing special about this. It’s merely the first layer of film analysis. We can keep going. E. T. isn’t about an alien, it’s about divorce. Star Wars isn’t about lightsabers, it’s about lineage. The Shawshank Redemption isn’t about prison, it’s about institutionalisation.
Go on, you try it. Pick any movie you want and crack it open like a walnut. If it’s any good, it’ll have a clearly defined story at its centre. Have you ever wondered why some films are so basic and disposable? It’s because the filmmakers never bothered to outline what their story was and how it related to the plot. All they have is plot, and pure plot is boring.
Oh, right, I was supposed to review Colossal. Well, all Colossal does is blur the lines between the story and the plot. In fact, it pulls the story into the plot. Thus, we get a literal metaphor, appearing out of nowhere, and stomping through the plot of the film. We aren’t even really provided with a pretext, backstory, or any sort of internal logic. It’s so simple, so meta, so ill advised, and yet it’s kinda genius. It’s like an arthouse disaster-movie drama. When was the last time you watched one of those?
Gloria’s realisation that her actions cause widespread chaos on the other side of the world forces her to come to terms with the destructive nature of her behaviour. She has to understand that she isn’t just damaging herself with her obsessive drinking, but also others. Once you can see that the film is a commentary on the reverberating nature of poor choices and addiction, you’ll be able to understand the film. In fact, I think it’s crucial to your enjoyment of it.
As for the movie itself, I found the first half of Colossal to be messy. The script is clearly unfinished, to say the least. Much of the dialogue is trying too hard to be funny, and wastes a lot of time with redundancies and irrelevant tangents. It sounded, to me, like they had simply shot the first draft. I would have liked more fleshing out of the central idea and less jokey padding.
In its second half, however, Colossal takes a sharp left turn and becomes something much more enjoyable. I can’t spoil what happens, but it immediately ratchets up the tension and gives us a lot more to contemplate. The whole thing builds to a strangely satisfactory ending. I say strangely because it’s not relying on explosions and carnage, but somehow still manages to reach the dramatic pinnacle that’s required in this kind of film. I really loved the ending, and the more I think about it the more it makes the whole movie worthwhile. Some people don’t seem to have understood what it means, so just remember this as you watch it: the film is about characters being forced to come to terms with their own behaviour. That’s all I can say without ruining it.
Anne Hathaway does a surprisingly good job of playing a total wreck. It’s been hard for her to escape her clean-cut princess look. She isn’t quite as tattered in this as she was in Les Miserables, but she’s covering her face with her bangs and sporting oversized winter coats. She’s a fairly believable victim of her own neglectfulness.
Jason Sudeikis is perfectly cast, I think, in his role. He has one of the worlds most harmless looking faces, completely befitting a character who’s so helpful and giving. You’d never expect anything but kindness from him, and that’s exactly what the script has so much fun with.
Go and see Colossal. It isn’t a sequel, a remake, a reboot, or an adaptation. It ain’t a superhero movie or a Transformers film. It’s a totally fresh idea, the kind of thing that’s so hard to find these days. I saw it at the Cinema Nova here in Melbourne and I’m pretty sure it’s available all over America and Canada. As for Europe, this one might take a while to trickle out, but have a google and see if it’s screening somewhere close to you in the coming months.
Alright, it’s been almost two months now since the Academy Awards disappointed me, yet again, and this time they even rubbed some salt into the wound. They straight up lied to me, got my hopes up, and then dashed them. Oh, you cruel elders. You outdo yourselves every year.
In case you somehow, inexplicably, missed what happened; the Academy read out the wrong winner for Best Picture (you know, the most important one!). Faye Dunaway and Warren Beaty announced La La Land as the winner, when in fact the card they were holding was meant for the Best Actress in a Leading Role (hence – Emma Stone, La La Land). Moonlight was the actual winner, and the error wasn’t corrected until three, yes three, producers had given their acceptance speeches, thanked their families, and wept tears of joy. The internet had a field day, of course, and Emma Stone’s reaction was easily the best one of the night.
Compared to the troubles in Syria and the turmoil in the White House, it is of course an insignificant event. For the Oscars, however, it’s just about the worst mistake they could have made. They probably could have killed a nominee backstage and made less of a stir. It was definitely one of the most awkward live television moments I’ve ever witnessed. Naturally, I was cool as a cucumber the entire time.
Shit no! I didn’t know whether to laugh, gasp or scream, so my mouth just hung open and I made gargling noises like that little girl from The Grudge.
Anyway, there’s nothing I can say about it that hasn’t already been said. Let’s instead bring it back to me. How did my predictions fare?
I got about half of them right. 13 out of 26 ain’t terrible, but it’s not great. I could have just flipped a coin. If, however, you switched the television off right after La La Land was announced as Best Picture…then you could say that I got 14 out of 26, which is a majority, which is much more better awesome yay! Tell em’ Casey!
That’s right, I predicted your win, didn’t I? And Emma’s. And there was one more biggie that I nailed. What was his name again?
Oh, that’s right…
On February 26th, 2017, Damien Chazelle became the youngest person ever to win the Oscar for Best Director. He was 32 years and 38 days old. The next youngest is Norman Taurog, at 32 years and 260 days. Hey, a record is a record is a record.
Hence I figured: What better time to explore this premature champion’s blooming career than right after his greatest success?
If you remember, I made a rule about these 12 Auteurs. You can’t be recognised as an auteur unless you’ve made at least three films. Since auteurs are defined by the patterns you can spot across their careers, we need to have a pattern…and a career. One film is an incident, two films is a coincidence, three films is a pattern. That’s my rule.
Damien Chazelle just barely makes this cut. He’s only made two public features, but does technically have three films under his belt. The first one was a Sundance favourite that never got picked up for distribution. It’s called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.
It’s highly unlikely that anyone reading this will have seen it. I had to scour the internet to find it, but it did exist in a few dark corners.
It’s about a couple who split up and, over time, discover that they may have made a mistake. Both characters play instruments, and find that their mutual passion for music is something that’s hard to find elsewhere.
It’s a much more interesting watch in retrospect. Characters, storylines, and even several music pieces have been recycled in Chazelle’s later films. It’s shot on black and white and on the fly, with a documentary aesthetic, similar to the work of John Cassavetes. Everything is handheld, and the outdoor shots are consistently long-lensed. They have an almost paparazzi-like feeling to them, as if we’re secretly watching the story from a distance. Most of this is not stylistic, however, but rather practical. Shots are mostly tight on the actors faces, and I mean tight. That way Chazelle could shoot a sequence on the subway, for example, and not care about all the non-actors looking into the lens.
After Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench had a moderate splash on the festival circuit, Chazelle managed to carve out a short career as a screenwriter. He was able to pay his rent with for-hire scripts like The Last Exorcism Part II and 10 Cloverfield Lane.
He’s described the former as embarrassing, but the latter was a surprising success. It showed that he was able to turn a cheap concept into a solid money-maker. He also wrote the screenplay for a film called Grand Piano, which is about pianist who’s targeted by a sniper during one of his performances, and who will shoot him if he plays the wrong note. All of these movies are essentially entertainment fluff. They’re what Steven Spielberg and George Lucas termed “high-concept films”. In other words, films that can be pitched in 25 words or less. It’s exactly the kind of thing that career writers churn out in order to pay their bills. They know it’s flimsy stuff, but it’s something a studio can easily flog.
During this phase, Chazelle would worm his way out of writers block by scribbling away at his own personal script. It was a small story about a drummer. Once he finished it up, he put it away in a drawer for a while, but eventually threw it out on the market for sale, and it ended up featured on the Black List.
No, I don’t mean he was blacklisted! He’s not a Commie! At least I don’t think so.
The Black List is an annually published survey featuring the most coveted film scripts that remain un-produced. Usually this is because of their unusual nature. Studio heads may love the concept and the story, but struggle to see a marketing strategy. Either that, or it concerns a controversial topic, is too eccentric for its required budget, or can’t find a major star who wants to take on the main role, etc.
Previous notable Black List scripts include Black Snake Moan, Stardust, (500) Days of Summer, In Bruges, There Will Be Blood, Doubt, Never Let Me Go, Foxcatcher, The Beaver, The Revenant, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, John Wick, Spotlight, and Manchester By The Sea. The list is extensive, and I could go on, but you get the idea.
The list began in 2005 as a novelty article, but has since become a source of pride. If your film is on the Black List, it has in some sense “made it”. It’s only really a matter of time until someone strikes the right deal. This is exactly where Chazelle found himself, with dozens of studios vying for his attention. He refused to buckle, citing that the film was “too personal”, and that he wanted to direct it himself. Instead, he struck a deal with Right of Way Films and Blumhouse Productions to turn a small part of the feature into a short film. It was then screened at the Sundance Film festival as a proof-of-concept.
The original can sometimes be hard to find online. It’s being uploaded and removed constantly. Probably, the best place to currently see it is on Vimeo.
Armed with a script to showcase story and a short-film to showcase style, Chazelle shopped around Sundance for interested investors that would give him the funds for the feature while allowing him to maintain control of his work. Four months later, he had what he wanted. Thus, Whiplash was born.
For those who haven’t seen Whiplash yet…please do! Right now! It’s a pretty simple setup:
Miles Teller plays an aspiring drummer named Andrew who will stop at nothing to be the greatest in his field. Unfortunately for him, he finds himself being taught by Terrence Fletcher, a violent grouchy teacher who torments his students and will accept nothing less than perfection. Is he doing Andrew a favour by pushing him to excel, or is he just a psychopathic bully?
J. K. Simmons plays the role of Terrence Fletcher like he’s a a drill instructor, comparable to R. L. Ermey’s performance as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. It won Simmons the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the 2015 Academy Awards, and he deserved it.
Simmons provided Fletcher with a necessary mercurial nature. You find yourself unsure, from moment to moment, about whether he’s going to compliment Andrew or snap his neck. More importantly, you believe that he would in fact be able to snap someone’s neck. He has an intimidating muscular-sinewy look that he strategically reveals whenever he takes his jacket off and shows his rolled up sleeves. It’s really intimidating.
It’s hard to believe that Whiplash is a mere directorial debut, because it’s so confidently constructed. It has very few symptoms of being a novice’s work. It’s stripped down, focused, and has minimal production alterations. The shooting script (available online) is virtually indistinguishable from the finished film. That’s the mark of someone who knows what they want to make and is unflinchingly convinced that it’s going to work.
Chazelle didn’t win his Oscar for Whiplash, but I think he should have. The direction is its prime feature. Here’s what makes it exquisite:
For starters, Chazelle knows how to saturate the film with subconscious, but effective, psychological stimuli.
Pay attention to the room in which Fletcher tortures his players. It’s windowless, enhancing claustrophobia. The walls have a continuous square pattern that mimics the door.
Eventually you lose track of where the door is, similar to a padded room in a psyche ward. It reinforces the notion that there’s no escape.
The walls are dark and unlit. The players, by contrast, are all lit harshly from above. It evokes the pressure of giving a performance under a spotlight, or answering tough questions in an interrogation room.
The colour correction is also important. The band scenes have a notable “golden wash”. It’s almost like the light that’s bouncing off the cymbals, trumpets, and saxophones is actually making the room glow. This choice, of basically bathing the whole frame in brass, is not only aesthetically gorgeous, but also has relevance to the theme. The movie is about focus, about dedication. There is nothing but the music, nothing but the instrument. It fills the room, it lights the room, it is the room.
The cinematography, however, is the more impressive indication of a workman who knows how to use his tools. Whiplash uses wide shots, mid shots, and closeups almost scientifically. When Fletcher allows for a casual and relaxed atmosphere, we are able to breathe within the open air of a wide shot.
When he sources a problem and begins to get agitated, we cut to a mid shot. It’s filmed on a long lens, maintaining physical distance while accentuating a sense of uncomfortable emotional closeness. Like Andrew, we now feel that someone is carefully watching us from a distance, like a predator waiting for its moment to strike.
Then, finally, when Fletcher snaps and begins to abuse Andrew, the two characters are brought uncomfortably close together. The shot tightens extremely, and is now excruciating to watch. He’s too close. He is in our face, our eyes, our ears.
In addition to framing, Chazelle makes excellent use of camera movement.
One of my biggest gripes with modern cinema is the incorrect use of camera movement. Filmmakers will opt to shoot an entire film handheld because they think that gives the project a sense of immediacy. “It adds a documentary-like realism” is the kind of mis-educated thinking i hear banded about by terrible filmmakers. There’s so much of this ill informed tripe snugly wedged under my skin, that I can’t even tell you.
Handheld camera provides one thing, and one thing only: instability. It emphasises the unpredictable nature of the plot, and of the characters future actions. It does so most effectively when contrasted with locked-off shots featured during the calmer parts of the drama. This isn’t rocket science, it’s filmmaking 101, but it seems to elude people all the time.
Well, it didn’t elude Damien Chazelle. It’s clear that he knows the power of decoupling the camera strategically. When Fletcher is relatively calm, so is the camera. There is mounting tension in the framing and in his frustrated behaviour, but we have yet to see an explosion of violence from him. Thus, the camera does not move.
Once Andrew commits the ultimate sin, responding to a question with “I don’t know”, Fletcher reaches the end of his tether. He suddenly lunges at Andrew, and the terror of this is accentuated by having the camera unhook from its support and struggle to reframe the shot. It’s almost as if the cameraman gets frightened, flinches, and has to remind himself that it’s only a performance.
Notice the framing leaves a noticeable void in front of Andrew’s face, visually representing his inability to find the right answer. That space is then filled by Fletcher, showing that he now has to spoon feed Andrew because he’s “too stupid” to figure things out for himself. He also pushes him up against the right side of the shot. It’s a masterful use of the frame.
I know these things seem like minor details, but what you’re watching is in fact the entire concept of directing a movie scene correctly. Chazelle wants to put you in Andrew’s place, to make a war of words as gripping as an actual war, and is using every tried-and-true technique to do so. This is what it looks like when a filmmaker knows their shit!
The importance of camera movement goes even further. It’s used to compliment the music through sweeping dolly tracks and whip pans.
The wind instruments, in particular, are given the smooth professional treatment, appropriate to their nature.
While the drums are photographed more erratically, the camera darting quickly between individual surfaces almost too fast for your eye to comprehend.
And last but not least, we have editing.
Tom Cross won the oscar in 2015 for his editing on Whiplash, and when you see the film you’ll understand why. The pacing is hugely up-tempo, and yet it’s as even and dependable as a metronome. The meticulous cuts serve to synchronise your inner rhythm with the music while never letting you lose sight of what you’re looking at.
All of this is combined to give us the impression of intricate, but impressive, clockwork. If you haven’t appreciated orchestral cohesion prior to watching Whiplash, you certainly will afterwards.
Do not overlook this film, it’s a hell of a moviegoing experience. The final sequence is more gripping and tense than any chase or bomb diffusing scene that I can remember.
Whiplash hit everyone by surprise in 2014. It walked away with stellar reviews, a large profit, and a slew of Oscar wins, turning Chazelle into everyones new favourite prodigy. He was so young, so talented, and yet seemed to come out of nowhere. Where had he been hiding?
Of course then the question shifted from “why should you be allowed to make this?” to “how much money do you want to come work for us?”. Studios jumped at the chance to get their hands into his drawers.
No! I mean his desk drawers. As in where he keeps his scripts. Urgh!
The point is, he now had no trouble getting his next project off the ground. It turns out that what Chazelle had always wanted to do was remake the classic guy’s n’ gals musical, so he did.
I first heard about La La Land two years ago, around the time that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling became attached to star. It was simply described as “Damien Chazelle’s follow up to Whiplash, a modern day musical set in Los Angeles”. It sounded interesting, and I suppose I expected a visually competent musical homage. I wasn’t quite prepared for what I got, however.
Again, if you haven’t seen La La Land yet, what in the hell are you doing? Is it something productive? I hope for your sake that it is, because I’m now going to explain to you what you’ve missed.
There’s been a lot of backlash to La La Land after it came out. It had a great initial response, but then the response to the response started mounting and people were shamed out of liking it. The main criticisms were things like “it’s just another movie where Hollywood loves itself”, and “Ryan Gosling tries to save jazz even though he’s white, so it’s racist”. I understand that everyone is entitled to an opinion, but the simple truth is this: If you didn’t like La La Land, then you’re just wrong. I’m sorry, there’s no other way to put it. If you think the film is racist or a Hollywood circle-jerk, then you’re a nitwit.
Here’s what La La Land is: the best film of 2016!
That’s the truth and I’m sticking to it! Let me explain to all those unconvinced (and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, apparently), why this simple song and dance tribute is such a towering achievement.
But before I do, the plot. La La Land is about two young Hollywood dreamers chasing their ideal careers. Emma Stone plays Mia Dolan, an aspiring actress bouncing from audition to audition, hoping to catch a lucky break. During her tumultuous wrestle with the Hollywood soul-crushing machine, she meets Sebastian Wilder, an idealistic down-on-his-luck pianist. While Mia is hopeful and flexible, Sebastian is cynical and uncompromising. He sees no value in changing your art to fit neatly into someone else’s idea of what you should be. His ultimate goal is to run his own Jazz club, despite the fact that hardly anyone cares about jazz. Mia and Sebastian bicker with one another, and yet all the while share a similar goal. They eventually fall in love, and attempt to help each other achieve their dreams.
Now, from that description, it might not seem like a particularly deep picture. Alright, perhaps it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s a great wheel rehabilitation.
La La Land is a classic fairytale musical appropriated for a pessimistic age. It is, in fact, not full of sugar, spice, and everything nice. It’s deliberately altering the formula and putting a new twist on it.
I’m afraid I’m going to spoil the film during this recommendation, so please go and see it if you haven’t already.
We begin with the title: La La Land. It has not one, not two, but three meaning. The first is clearly referencing the letters L and A, as in the L. A., Los Angeles. No surprise there, but then we get to the fact that it’s a musical, meaning that it’s full of songs. That would be the other meaning of “La La”. Finally, and most importantly, the film is about chasing your dreams. In fact, it’s about possibly chasing your dreams foolishly. When someone is said to be in a state of delusion, they are described as “living in La La Land”. So, right from the start we have a perfect title. It covers both the superficial and the significant.
We then move on to the opening scene, which is a dance number staged during a traffic jam on the freeway.
Forget the fact that it’s an absolutely delightful opening number, and that it’s choreographed and shot all in one take, it’s crucially an opening that cuts right to the heart of the story.
The song is called “Another day of Sun”. It’s about dreams and aspirations, about the unending magic of a Hollywood day. And yet, where is everybody going? Nowhere. They’re stuck in traffic. They’re stuck in life.
Now take a look at the costumes. Although they seem like simple fabrics, it’s the colour scheme that’s important. They tend to consist of solid colours. The dresses, in particular, are missing any kind of pattern or individual variation.
This is not how someone in the real world dresses. It is, however, completely appropriate to characters living in a fantasy world. It’s paying homage to the style of a 60’s musical, particularly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Chazelle has been very open about the fact that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is his favourite musical. The influences are sometimes subtle, but at other times glaringly obvious. The costumes and saturated colours are the first clues.
It has an intentional pop art sensibility to it. It’s supposed to feel like the fashion equivalent of tupperware, because it’s not real, not tactile. It’s a fantasy.
And that sums up Mia’s perspective. When the film opens, she sees the world optimistically, in striking technicolor. As time goes by, the colour drains from her world. The cold emptiness of doubt sets in, and the costumes take on a more bleak and grounded look.
Production design, however, is not the only thing that wavers and alters during the course of the film. The musical numbers, although numerous in the first half of the film, are drastically reduced in the second half. This is a noticeably uneven structure, and it’s deliberate. Reality isn’t a musical, so the more reality creeps its way onto the screen, the less the characters are able to break into song and dance about how wonderful their lives are.
In fact, one of the genius things about La La Land is the specific nature of what it is. It isn’t a traditional musical, and it isn’t an indie romance, it’s both. The film switches back and forth between two completely different eras. When Mia and Sebastian are mumbling their way through a modern day romantic comedy, the cinematography is understandably modern. The camera is close, typically settling for a mid shot or a close up, and is lensed at 35 or 50 mm.
This is what’s known as standard coverage, a “shot, reverse shot” with a wide thrown in for safety. It makes sure that the editor always has something to cut to when necessary, but it also helps invite the audience into the character’s relationship. The wider angle of the lens makes us feel like we’re taking part in the dialogue.
When cutting back and forth in a dialogue scene, the actors are either framed in the centre or on opposite ends of the screen, to maintain what is known as “line of sight” between the two main sets of eyes. Mia is on the left of the screen, looking to the right, and Sebastian is on the right of the screen, looking to the left (or vice versa).
It’s all very standard stuff that you see in literally ever modern movie. However, when a musical number starts, it all changes.
The camera pulls way back, and we now have the entire scene encapsulated in one shot, framed formally with even spacing. This is something that you’ll recognise from any of your favourite classic musicals.
It used to be done this way because cameras used to be the size of plane engines. The studio had to get the most out of a day of shooting, so they minimised the amount of necessary shots and instead resorted to choreographing the camera and the blocking together. However, it does have some other neat benefits.
It allows the audience to effectively direct the scene themselves. You get to choose which part of the action you want to watch at any given moment. Also, it’s frankly more impressive, since the choreography cannot be hidden with snappy editing. There is no editing! The performers have to have perfect timing, or the whole thing falls apart.
And on the subject of impressive sequences, we come to the ending. Now, if you’ve seen La La Land, you will know that in the final act Sebastian and Mia go their separate ways only to be reunited five years later when their lives have grown apart. Mia is a successful actress with a husband and a daughter, and Sebastian now owns his own Jazz club, which appears to be very successful. Mia, one night, finds herself accidentally walking into his club, and the two exchange looks of emotional recognition. Sebastian then sits down at his piano and proceeds to play Mia a song he’s written about “what could have been” had they managed to keep their relationship intact. We get to see this piece brought to life through a fantasy musical sequence which then turns into a medley.
If you pay close attention to the final montage, however, you’ll notice something buried beneath the paint and costumes. Mia is shown achieving all of her dreams, but Sebastian doesn’t achieve his. We see him sitting in the audience of her one-woman show, driving her to her audition, following her to Paris, and starting a family with her. The final sequence is not a fantasy vision of what could have happened if they’d stayed together whilst achieving their dreams. Instead, it’s Sebastian’s way of telling Mia about his regrets. He’s saying that if he could rewind the clock five years, he would give up all of his dreams and achievements for her. That’s how much he’s been missing her all of this time. Considering what we know about Sebastian, and how dedicated of an artist he is, this is without a doubt the biggest expression of love that he can ever give.
And there you have it. La La Land is not a schmaltzy love fest about how magical and important Hollywood is. It’s the exact opposite. It’s about how much it can tear your life apart. That’s what makes it so good! It takes Golden Era romanticism and deconstructs it. What Chazelle is saying is “look, you might be able to achieve your dreams, but not necessarily all of them, and certainly not without sacrifice.”. He even puts the theme of the film in the mouth of his own alter-ego character.
It was right there, in the middle of the movie, and people still didn’t get it.
Now, I have to admit to something. I have an extra love for La La Land because, as I was watching it, I saw an enormous amount of similarities to my all-time favourite romantic comedy, Punch-Drunk Love.
The parallels are uncanny. Both films feature main characters who play piano and struggle to adapt to the changing world around them. They both express their love through their music, and they even wear recurring blue suits at various points in the film, which is a very odd coincidence.
They both fall in love with a feisty charismatic woman who wears solid colours, often red, purple, or white. Initially they resist the chemistry, but eventually the act of falling in love changes their perspective on life, and helps them improve it.
Both films are set in L.A. and make good use of the city’s purple sunset.
Both films are shot on Kodak Color Negative stock, using anamorphic lenses, traditionally known as “Cinemascope”. This is an outdated format, common in 50’s and 60’s musicals. It compresses the image, blows out the highlights, intensifies the colours, and adds those flat blue horizontal lens flares that are so recognisable.
Certain shots are even framed and staged in exactly the same way. It’s eerie!
So what’s going on here? Well, it’s not a situation where one is stealing from the other. Instead, they’re both getting their influences from the same place. Damien Chazelle and Paul Thomas Anderson have both vocalised their adoration of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers pictures. Clearly, there is also an adoration for French New Wave films, like Jean Luc Godard’s A Woman is a Woman.
The film language used in these movies is simply being appreciated twice.
But I’m not complaining. I love Punch-Drunk Love and I love La La Land. Now I have the perfect Valentines day double bill! And so do you.
I know this is turning into an excruciatingly long post. Don’t worry, I’ll wrap it up soon. I just have to say a couple of things about Chazelle himself. Do I sound obsessive now?
The question is simple: What denotes a Damien Chazelle film? What crops up time and time again?
Alright, that’s true. Jazz! Damien Chazelle has become known as the jazz filmmaker. Every film he has made so far has been about the love for jazz and the need to keep it alive. However, that’s a plot point, it’s not a theme. His recurring theme seems to be dedication to craft. He loves to discuss drive and passion, for better or worse. His stories are intensely autobiographical. Andrew from Whiplash and Sebastian from La La Land are both, really, Damien.
Chazelle originally wanted to be a jazz musician, and became frustrated when he realised that his skills were not good enough for a career in music. He later turned to his other passion, filmmaking, but his love of music bleeds into his writing till this day.
Chazelle is also a hopeless romantic trapped within the body of a fatalistic millennial. His movies always aim for a happy ending, but end up going out with a strange quasi-bang. Andrew’s final drum solo is not only a fulfilment of the achievement he’s been working for, it’s also a cheap act of revenge. La La Land shows us the fairytale ending that we all want, and then snatches it all away. It’s almost like Chazelle just wants to see the priceless looks on our faces when the third act goes pear-shaped.
Technologically and stylistically speaking, Chazelle is a traditionalist with a post modern streak in him. He likes to plan and storyboard everything, which is evident in his coverage. He hardly ever shoots anything that he doesn’t intend to use. He loves to utilise rare techniques that border on the experimental. The most noticeable of these are his extended whip-pan sequences.
These are used to imbue his films with kinetic energy. It’s an obvious signature, so look for it in his future projects, because it’s bound to pop up again.
It’s hard to predict where Damien Chazelle will go after being rewarded with the ultimate prize of his career at such a young age. By contrast, Steven Spielberg didn’t win an Oscar until he was 46, and Martin Scorsese didn’t get one until he was 63! Hopefully early success won’t dull his devotion. I want to see a good 30 years of work from this guy, at least. It’s good to know that we’re merely experiencing the “dawn of Damien”, and there’s heaps of time left for him to outdo himself.
Chazelle’s next project is called First Man. It’s a biopic about the life of Astronaut Neil Armstrong. Ryan Gosling has been attached to play the main role. Presumably it’ll look something like this:
No, I’m kidding of course! I’m sure it’ll be a straight-down-the-line drama with minimal jazz and dance intrusion. I’m certainly interested to see how it’ll turn out. For now, I’m going to enjoy La La Land again when it comes out on BluRay at the end of the month. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you know what you’re doing in late April, don’t you? That’s right.
– Rant Over!
Hey everyone! It’s Oscar time!
I know how you feel. Why on God’s green earth should you be obsessed with rich famous people handing each other little gold statues and congratulating themselves, right? I feel like that every year, myself…but then they announce the nominees, the competition starts, and I begin following it like it’s a laser pointer.
Hey, it’s not like it’s any more or less important than football or the Olympics. Don’t judge me!
Truth be told, once you get down to the finish line it can get a bit exciting. Every year there’s the possibility of an upset. Politics is always involved, one way or another. Then there’s a little bit of controversy mixed with racial tensions. This year is jam packed with divisiveness, so it can skew in any direction. I’ll break it all down for you as we go.
I’m mostly not interested in who wins for their own sake, mind you, I just want to test my prediction skills. Remember this: The Academy Awards do not actually decide the best film of the year. I do!
Oh no. I’ve been arrogant now. The pressures on! Here we go.
Let’s get the big one out of the way first. La La Land is going to win Best Picture.
I have to say, the contest this year is far stronger than it has been for a while. Two of my favourite films are actually in the running. That’s unusual. Normally I’m lucky to find just one up there.
I’d personally be happy with either La La Land or Manchester by the Sea taking it home, but Manchester ain’t got a shot in hell. It’s going to be La La Land. The film is, at this point, what’s known as a juggernaut. It’s an unbeatable favourite. So let me tell you how it can be beaten. With…
The Academy found themselves in the thorny nest of controversy last year when their nominations looked like the guest list to a Klan’s meeting. I still haven’t heard a lot of suggestions as to which Caucasian nominees should have been replaced by African Americans, or which “white” films were inferior to which “black” ones, but that didn’t stop people from complaining.
It’s a fair point to make that in an increasingly multicultural country, like the United States, diversity should be represented on the silver screen and recognised on the red carpet.
The problem, however, is that The Academy tends to make its biggest mistakes in reaction to controversy. I’m worried that this year they will snub La La Land, a musical about two white dreamers in Hollywood, and instead reward Moonlight, a film about a gay black man growing up in Miami. I did like Moonlight a lot, but La La Land is just a better film. It deserves to win, and all signs suggest that it will. But if Moonlight snatches Best Picture at the last minute, it’ll be out of guilt and not merit…and that’s a real shame.
The other half of the equation is Best Director. I personally believe that Damien Chazelle will win, and deserves to.
However, the Academy may split the difference and give Barry Jenkins the award for his work on Moonlight. Don’t do it, Academy! Don’t let me down!
Damien is responsible for every shred of La La Land‘s intricate design. He made that gorgeous little musical romance out of pure love and he’s owed an Oscar. He’s a freaky genius. Give it to him! Give it! Give iiiiiit!
Are we done with the controversy? No? Alright, let’s keep going.
It’s been a foregone conclusion for some time now that Casey Affleck would win Best Actor for his part in Manchester by the Sea.
I’m going to stick with this prediction, but it’s become less certain in recent days because of an old story that’s resurfaced about allegations of Affleck sexually harassing a woman on a film set. A lawsuit surrounding the matter was settled years ago, but its resurgence in the press has put him on shaky ground.
Couple this with the Oscars So White controversy from last year, and we could see Denzel Washington swoop in and take his third Best Actor Oscar, for Fences.
This one’s really interesting. For an excruciatingly long time Isabella Huppert was picked as the favourite for Best Actress. There were almost no challengers, until recently the conversation started to orbit Emma Stone for La La Land.
That’s what I thought too, Emma, but I’m hearing buzz.
You know what, good for her. I hope she does win! She clearly put a lot of work into the movie, and has successfully transitioned from cute newcomer to classic leading lady in the span of just a few years. An Oscar would make it official.
I’m putting my chips on you, girl!
And how about if you win we go out to celebrate? You and me? Ey? For drinks?
No need to be sarcastic. Let a man down gently, at least. Jeez.
I don’t think there’s going to be much surprise here. Dev Patel and Jeff Bridges have been greatly lauded for their performances, but Mahershala Ali might as well be Muhammad Ali.
He’s going to win, and that’s a good thing. His very short screen time in Moonlight has an enormous impact. You’ll probably see a lot of him over the next couple of years.
Again, not much more I can do but safely say that Viola Davis will take home Best Supporting actress for her role in Fences.
She gave the role everything she had, to the point where the entire contents of her nose appears to be running down the front of her face.
Alright! Relax! It’s OK. Have a golden statue. There you go, relaaaaax.
This one could go to La La Land, but it’s most likely going to Manchester by the Sea.
A great script, well deserving of the award. No qualms with that.
It would be nice to see Arrival take home the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s an incredible adaptation of a supposedly un-filmable short story. What is the Adapted Screenplay category for if not to honour those tricky medium-transitions that end up successful against all odds?
It’s not going to happen, though. Moonlight is an adaptation of an experimental play concerning personal struggle, and hence it’ll get the award.
That’s alright. It could be worse. Fences could win.
Yeah. If you’ve seen Fences, you’ll know. There isn’t a lot of “adapting” going on.
I love how every year the Academy tries to make themselves look edgy by nominating strange animated features. My Life as a Zucchini and The Red Turtle are this years “look at us, we’re artsy” token nominations. These admittedly deserving films never win in the end, though. It always goes to a big budget Disney crowd-pleaser. This year it’ll either be Moana or Zootopia.
I’m putting my money on Zootopia because it has an intelligently interwoven moral about bigotry. Very topical, and fun for the whole family!
I’m not up to date with the Foreign Language films this year. I haven’t seen any of them.
The only one I’ve really heard good things about is Toni Erdmann.
So I’m picking that one and crossing my fingers.
I would be very surprised is Ava DeVernay’s outstanding documentary, 13th, doesn’t win the Oscar. O. J.: Made in America and I Am Not Your Negro are strong contenders as well, but 13th really hit home with a lot of critics and viewers.
I’d be happy to see it win. It’s an incredibly powerful piece.
Now is when things start to get really hard. I don’t have much information to go on with these next few categories. All I’ve got is logic and instinct. This is what separates the men from the boys. Here we go…
I think La La Land will win for Best Original Score. Not just because it’s a musical, but because it’s a film built on music. The score is integral to the development of the plot, and it also acts as connecting tissue between the large musical numbers.
However, Jackie featured a hypnotic score by one of my favourite composers ever, Mica Levy, and had a tremendous response from critics because of it.
I’m going to stick with La La Land, but it’s a tough call.
I also believe that La La Land will win for Best Original Song. “City of Stars” is just such a catchy tune. Many people have found themselves whistling after seeing the film. I dare you to name any other song from any other movie on this list without the help of google.
You can’t do it, can you?
Aw, I guess predicting these minor categories isn’t so hard after all. I’m starting to like this.
Shit! Back in a minefield again! Christ almighty, this is a difficult one! Fuckin’ Production Design…you’re all the same!
Could it possibly be La La Land again? They do have a lot of great sets and extravagant backgrounds, but how dominant can one film be?
Arrival had a wonderfully designed alien ship. Hail, Caesar! and Fantastic Beasts were both meticulous in their own way. Passangers had a wonderfully crafted sci-fi settings.
Hmmm. I’m going to say Hail, Caesar! simply because of the attention to detail in the period setting.
It’s also a film about the golden age of Hollywood, and doesn’t show up anywhere else in the running.
This one ain’t easy either. I’m going to say…La La Land.
Mostly I’m picking it because of the long single takes. Detectable difficulty is often rewarded at the Oscars.
This really could be anyone’s game. I’m going to take a stab at Hacksaw Ridge because of the complex cutting during the war sequences.
Hell or High Water is also a strong possibility, but so is any of them, really.
For me this is a three way split between Doctor Strange, The Jungle Book, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Doctor Strange has such weird visuals that are unlike anything else you’ve seen. The Jungle Book is stunningly well realised with respect to foliage and animal fur in particular. Rogue One is probably the best quality CGI there is, though.
I’m going to go for The Jungle Book.
I just think it’s the one that will impress the most Academy members.
Who knows which way this thing’s going to swing. I have a hunch that Suicide Squad will get it.
The makeup was well and truly on display in Suicide Squad. Despite being a terrible film, it didn’t look bad. Killer Croc and Jared Leto’s version of The Joker were all created using some pretty complicated makeup application.
Also, It was great to see Harley Quinn realised on screen for the first time. She was a well designed version of the character.
Both La La Land and Allied could take the Oscar for Best Costume Design, but Jackie must be the most likely winner.
Jackie‘s a really boring film, unfortunately, but the way it cuts 60’s footage together with film footage and hides the seam between them through precise costume design is impressive.
Alright, that’s it. I’m not going to bother with Sound Mixing and Sound Editing this time around. They’re not unimportant categories, I just don’t have the time to spend on them. I’m already over the Oscars and they haven’t even started yet!
But there we go, I’ve thrown the ball. Here’s hoping for a perfect strike!
Are you ready to bow down and worship another genius? Come on, it’ll be fun, trust me! Trusssst in meeee…
Alright, I’ll confess. I’m bringing out the Kaa eyes because the next auteur on this list can be a bit of a hard swallow for some people. He’s an auteur for sure (that rhymes, yay), and has had some mainstream success, but there’s definitely a chasm between what I see in him and what some others…well, don’t.
Film aficionados will know this man well. His new projects are always highly anticipated, and often meet the hype. It is, of course…
Paul Thomas Anderson is often cited by aspiring filmmakers as the ideal modern American auteur, and they’ll get no argument from me. He credits himself as either “P. T. A.” or “P. T. Anderson”, but is not to be confused with directors Wes Anderson or Paul W. S. Anderson…just to make things that much harder for you.
PTA is hard to put into a category, there’s no one else quite like him. He’s a bit of a prodigy, making his first successful film at 26. His movies always display unconventional choices that will initially draw some in but push many others away. Over time his movies often gain a following and are eventually cited as great examples of contemporary craftsmanship, not unlike the late works of Stanley Kubrick. I personally find his musical choices, editing decisions, and shot selections to be best described as “haunting”. They stick in your mind, for better or worse, and even if you’re not entirely satisfied with the film, they beckon you to revisit it. For me, these choices just work on a gut level. They’re admittedly totally screwy decisions at times, but they’re clearly coming from a place of true conviction.
If you’re someone who loves digging deep into the roots of a grand tree, then you can see Anderson’s very first film “The Dirk Diggler Story” here. It’s a rubbish mockumentary, shot on a cheap video camera, that would later serve as the inspiration for Boogie Nights. Good luck getting through it, though, because I found little evidence of the PTA that I love within it’s thirty-one minute running time.
Anderson’s first proper short film comes five years later. The story goes that he enrolled in film school and immediately found it repulsively sanctimonious and creatively constricting. As a test of whether the lecturers truly knew what they were talking about, he stole a page from pulitzer prize winner David Mamet’s then un-produced screenplay Hoffa(1992), and handed it in as his own during an assignment. When the page came back with a “C+” scribbled at the top, he immediately defected and recouped his money for the first semester. It would be better spent, he figured, making his first professional short film.
Thus, in 1993, we got Cigarettes and Coffee, a film set in a diner that connects three stories using a twenty dollar bill. It’s not the most exciting short imaginable, but it has a sense of untapped potential about it. That potential was noticed at the Sundance film festival, where producers and filmmakers saddled Anderson up with the necessary means for adapting it into a feature film.
The feature adaptation of Cigarettes and Coffee was originally titled Sydney, but the studio subsequently renamed it Hard Eight. It’s a stylish crime-related drama paying tribute to film noir. PTA himself describes it as “simply imagining a classic gangster character at the end of his life”. It’s not without flaws, but as a directing debut it’s about as good as you could expect it to be. It even has a tonal kinship with Quentin Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs. My favourite thing about Hard Eight is its intriguing premise. It begins with a man named Sydney who approaches a young drifter at a diner. Sydney tell the drifter that if he follows him to a casino, he’ll show him how to turn fifty dollars into a fortune.
From there on it’s best to simply watch the story unfold. Not until the final act do we understand Sydney’s propensity for random generosity.
It’s odd that a film like Hard Eight has been so forgotten, but it’s really worth checking out. The film’s trailer tries to make it look like a rip-roaring casino thriller. It’s not that at all. In fact it takes its sweet time, refusing to give you goodies until the end.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s most popular film, without a doubt, is Boogie Nights. I can’t lie…it’s my favourite as well. Most people will have already seen it, but if you haven’t…consider yourself lucky that you get to watch it for the first time. It’s a speed injected snapshot of the naivety in the 70’s, viewed through the lens of the porn industry. The hilarious quotes, set pieces, unforgettable moments, and general exuberance will win you over from the very first shot. It also has one of the best movie soundtracks ever.
Mark Wahlberg plays Dirk Diggler, a new pornstar talent known for having…the full package, so to speak. Anderson based the character on famous 70’s pornstar John Holmes, but Wahlberg’s performance is its own special thing.
Diggler is recruited by veteran pornographer Jack Horner, played by Burt Reynolds, who turns him into a star overnight. Horner has a fantasy that he’ll be the first person ever to make porno films that people watch for the story as well as the sex. An ambitious idea, indeed. One might even say foolish.
I’ve always thought of Boogie Nights as intentionally fairy-tale-esque. It portrays the 1970’s as a time of suspended consequences. Sex was disease-less, drugs were not addictive, and a career in porn was as valid as any other. HIV, drug addiction, and stigma don’t hit until the 80’s…and boy do they come in full force.
This is why every character in the film appears to be a blithering idiot. It’s completely appropriate to the world they’re living in. A ludicrous statement like John C. Reilly saying “people tell me I look like Han Solo” floats by without question. Of course he does, why shouldn’t he? It’s bizarro, and leaves only you, the audience, to be the integral straight man in a dual reality double act. That’s a stupidly complicated way of saying…it’s really funny.
After the double whammy of a solid debut and a genuine hit, Anderson had the credibility to begin making more serious and thoughtful works. The first of these is Magnolia.
Magnolia is a lot of things, but it’s primarily an homage to Robert Altman’s ensemble films, like Shortcuts. It’s a collection of smaller stories that are all tangentially connected and prefaced by a narrator who recounts numerous wild and unexplainable coincidences. This creates the assumption that every one of these stories will, at some point, interweave in an elaborate way. PTA, however, is not someone you can so easily predict. There is indeed an unexplainable event coming, but it may not be the kind that you expect.
Returning to the subject of Anderson’s “screwy” decisions. There is a recurring image of the numbers 8 and 2 littered throughout Magnolia. The film consists of 10 characters, 8 + 2. Magnolia is an 8 letter word, the 2nd and 8th letters being “a”…and on and on it goes. The references are everywhere!
It makes for a fun little game, no doubt. Have a drink every time you find the numbers 8 and 2 together. Also, here’s a fun tip…once you’ve seen the film, look up Exodus 8:2 in the bible. It will suddenly make sense.
I do really like Magnolia. It had the potential to be dry or pretentious, but mostly avoids that. It seems to be a film constructed from pure emotion, intent on transferring it to you though sheer force. Thus, the camera moves with vigour. It constantly darts and races, pushes in and pulls out. Every player is giving it their all and as the orchestral score swells underneath, a sense of lurking dramatic importance will start creeping into your subconscious. I’ve never fully understood what the film is trying to say, but the experience of watching it is enough for me to recommend it.
I’ve already recommended Punch-Drunk Love as a great Valentines day film. Oh, look at that, we just had Valentines Day again! That’s why I was feeling the cold chill of vast enduring loneliness gripping at my heart. Well, who cares if I don’t have someone who loves me…I have Punch-Drunk Love!
I absolutely, unapologetically, love this film! My experience of watching it for the first time was, in and of itself, a matter of ‘love at first sight’. It is simply unhinged loveliness clumsily wrapped up in a bow.
I’ve described the film before, so I’ll quote myself for expediency’s sake:
“Adam Sandler plays Barry Egan. Barry Egan is a strange man with weird mannerisms and even weirder ideas. He most likely has asperger syndrome, autism, or something similar. He doesn’t connect emotionally with others the way the rest of us do, finding the world to be a big, loud, and scary place.
However, he also has a hidden secret. Inside him he has a hulk-like violent rage, which reveals itself occasionally in a damaging and disorganised manner when he feels threatened. One day, a dodgy crook, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his gang of thugs begin to blackmail him for utilising their sex hot-line, continually exploiting his fragile psychological state. That is…until Barry falls in love, and finds it to be the help he needs in order to channel his emotions.”
Anderson got the idea for the film after reading an article about David Phillips, a man who bought 12,150 cups of pudding in order to obtain 1.5 million air miles. Due to the miles bonus tag being stamped on each individual cup of pudding, rather than the larger packet, he was able to acquire this lifetime supply of air travel for just $3,000. PTA wondered what sort of odd person would go to such trouble just to exploit a technical loophole. He then imagined that person as the lead in a romantic comedy, and Punch-Drunk Love is the result.
I still think Boogie Nights is PTA’s best film, but Punch-Drunk Love is just a hair’s breadth behind it. As strange as it is (and it is strange!), it is in fact a romantic comedy. The story is told mostly through visuals and music, as opposed to dialogue. The soundtrack intentionally flips between chaotic noise and beautiful harmony. If you want to understand the movie, pay attention to when the music changes. That’s the key to understanding Sandler’s character. He cannot handle interactions with other people, especially his seven overbearing sisters, but the world suddenly becomes a wonderfully serene place when he finds something he loves. The first introduction of love into his life comes in the form of a small wooden harmonium that someone randomly leaves on the street outside his business.
There’s no explanation for its appearance, nor the deafening car accident that precedes it. It appears to be handed, literally, to the audience so that we can understand how limited our perspective is. We see and hear everything through Barry’s eyes and ears, and the harmonium acts as a metric for us to understand that filter.
Barry falls in love with his harmonium, and learns to play it whenever he needs the world to be manageable again.
Barry then meets a woman named Lena, and eventually finds that same love and connection in her. Whenever she is present in his life, he is able to function normally, and that is love.
Having experienced this specific feeling myself, albeit unrequited, I find that Punch-Drunk Love speaks to me in a way that no other romantic comedy can. As film and audience we are made for each other. If you’ve ever had a situation where you met that special someone who could make your painful world kind and beautiful, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.
It is most important for you to know that Punch-Drunk Love is not just a love story, but instead a story about love itself. It attempts to boil down what love is and depict it on the screen, crystallized. It’s dangerous, exciting, delicate, confusing, and…the main word…haunting.
The next two films are Paul Thomas Anderson’s unadulterated serious dramas. They’re each worthwhile in their own way, but they’re also slow, long, and dense. I certainly recommend them as films, but don’t watch them on a night when you just want to have some fun. If you’re game for some important intellectual heavy lifting, then you’ll be rewarded.
When I first saw There Will Be Blood, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think of it. I knew that parts of it were great, but others seemed to linger aimlessly. Having watched it a few more times over the years, I’ve come to admire it a lot more than I originally did. I now love it in its totality, and I’m hoping to talk you into loving it as well.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, a ruthless silver prospector who turns his eye towards the oil industry at the beginning of the 20th century. He bargains, persuades, lies, and strains his way through the grimy gauntlet of a booming industry in hopes of building his own empire.
After striking oil near a small Californian town, he meets Eli, a young evangelical preacher who believes that the town’s newfound wealth should be used to fund his church. From their very first encounter, Daniel and Eli are, pardon the pun, oil and water.
Hence we have the classic awkward dance of Americas two core pillars, religion and capitalism. Daniel is a materialist who’s singularly obsessed with accruing money, while Eli is deeply spiritual and preoccupied with attaining power. They despise each other’s nature, and yet they’re both fundamentally the same person.
To make matters worse, they need each other. Daniel cannot get the oil out of the ground without the manual labour of the local inhabitants, all of whom worship at Eli’s sermons. Meanwhile, Eli cannot expand his church without the profits from Daniel’s oil well. Will either of them yield? What compromises can they make without surrendering their entire reason for existing? All we can know for certain is that eventually…there will be blood.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in this film is legendary. It’s often cited as his best and it won him the Oscar at the 80th Academy Awards. The film itself was considered a likely winner for Best Film, but ended up losing to No Country For Old Men.
From a production standpoint alone, the film is undeniably impressive. The white hot Californian desert clashes so beautifully with the rich deep blackness of the crude oil seeping up from the ground, giving the whole film a gritty texture. Anderson sourced early hand made 19th century lenses and attached them to the front of his modern 35mm camera in order to create a unique look that truly invoked the era, complete with blinding lens flares and vaseline smears. The music score by Johnny Greenwood, full of violin bows scratching slowly over strings, is designed to make the barren landscapes and filthy goals of immoral men seem that much less bearable. You’ll be checking under your fingernails for dirt after having seen it, that’s how vile it is. A gorgeously repugnant film, just as it should be.
There Will Be Blood is generally considered, amongst film critics, to be Paul Thomas Anderson’s definitive work. One of the lecturers at my University described it as “the one true masterpiece that can make 2001: A Space Odyssey look feeble by comparison”. I wouldn’t go that far, myself, but I do think it’s a film everyone needs to see at some point in their life. It is a real epic. A rare contemporary film that feels like a classic as you’re watching it. Find it and watch it, please.
The Master is…shall we say… a film that requires repeat viewing for total comprehension. It’s incredibly slow, and to be quite honest…not much happens. It’s really just a character study rather than a developing plot.
The film starts off following the erratic behaviour of Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran. We watch him stumbling around, starting fights, chasing women, and slowly drinking himself to death by creating his own dangerous batch of moonshine. At one point this homemade drink accidentally kills a migrant worker and Freddie jumps aboard a departing ship to avoid capture by the police. Unbeknownst to him, he’s just set foot upon a vessel belonging to a growing cult known as “The Cause”. Its leader is a man named Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and the two men strike up an odd friendship over a common love for Freddy’s “drink”. Lancaster sets his sights on transforming Freddy into a responsible man and valuable follower, but that’s easier said than done.
I know I made it sound plot heavy, but that’s really just the setup. After Freddy joins The Cause, the film wanders about merely exploring the two character’s mutual affection for one another. Lancaster loves and secretly admires Freddy for his rogue nature, while Freddy feels attached to Lancaster for being the only person who has ever truly stayed with him and fought for the redemption of his soul.
“The Cause” is obviously based on Scientology, and Lancaster Dodd is clearly L. Ron Hubbard. Everything from Thetan levels to The Million Year Contract has a fictionalised version in the film, but The Master is not a history lesson on cults of the 1950’s. Do not expect to know more about the inner working of The Church of Scientology after watching it.
What’s impressive is the solid character portrayals. The performances are great. Pay attention to Phoenix in particular.
Watch the way he brutally contorts his face upwards in a permanent grimace, displaying just how much the war has damaged him. Hoffman, on the other hand, does a dependably stellar job of being a warm father figure, but will suddenly snap into a violent rage when questioned.
I haven’t even mentioned Amy Adams yet, who plays Hoffman’s wife, Peggy. Her usual wide eyed innocence is subverted here. Over time she reveals herself to be manipulating Hoffman’s behaviour through her subtle words and not-so-subtle sexual dominance.
By the end of the film, ask yourself…who is the real master to which the title refers?
There’s one other neat fact about The Master, however trivial it may seem. The entire film is shot in 70mm, twice the size of regular 35mm. Add to this that it consists mostly of closeups, and you’ve got yourself a striking optical effect. It’s best viewed at a proper 70mm screening, but the quality comes through on home media as well.
I do recommend The Master, but of course keep in mind that its a slow burn. Think of it like a play rather than a film. Watch when sober and focused, that’s all I can say.
And finally we come to the only Paul Thomas Anderson film that I will not recommend. A sad note to end on, for sure, but I have never been able to understand or enjoy Inherent Vice. It’s an adaptation of the Thomas Pinchon novel, and is a total mess as far as I’m concerned. I was really looking forward to seeing it after the trailer got me all excited.
It looks great, right? Like a mixture of The Master and Boogie Nights. Yeah, that’s what I thought too, but no. I was so bored watching this, I can’t even tell you. Maybe you’ll find something in it that I couldn’t. For your sake I hope you do. And to think that until now Anderson had an unbroken streak in my book. Oh well.
So what makes Paul Thomas Anderson such a lauded auteur? Well, for starters he writes, directs, and even partially edits all of his films. Secondly, he challenges the norm of what a film is and what it can be. Thirdly, he gets astonishing and unexpected performances out of his actors. Fourth, and most importantly, he has an uncanny ability to saturate his films with the precise emotion that he wants to evoke. His stories can appear unstructured or enigmatic, but you always know that he’s in full control. There are no arbitrary decisions.
The themes of PTA’s films vary depending on the story. Hard Eight is a film about regret, Boogie Nights is about naiveté, Magnolia is about death and tragedy, Punch-Drunk Love is an autobiographical romance, There Will Be Blood is about the callous backbone of American industry, The Master is about healing, and Inherent Vice is…well, who the hell knows. What unites them is style and craftsmanship. Anderson is notorious for living and breathing his vocation. He has a fascination with the history of film and film technology. His films will often emulate old obscure titles, both in terms of aesthetic and story.
One thing I’ve noticed is PTA’s love of repetition. He uses it constantly as a way to unearth meaning. Whether it’s Phillip Seymour Hoffman shouting “Shut up” eleven times…
…or Julianne Moore’s quadruple use of the words “too many things” while strung out on cocaine…
…the use of repetition is noticeable in every one of Anderson’s movies. So much for brevity being the soul of wit. Much of the time it’s even right there in his writing.
Other times it’ll be thrown out as a suggestion to help spice up a scene. It’s one of his strange signatures, which I personally love. The most famous example is this scene from The Master, where Lancaster Dodd uses repetition and concentration to extract the truth from an otherwise flippant Freddy. It’s a powerful shift that shows you how impressive such a simple tool can be in the hands of a great artist.
Whatever you think of The Master as a whole, what you’ve just watched is the main reason why so many actors jump at the chance to work with PTA. He knows how much power can reside in a simple scene when the script is perfect. He has, himself, said that he’s more proud of his writing than his directing, a fact that’s apparent in his later work. Behind the scenes footage shows him constantly updating the script. Honing it. Distilling it.
After Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson is probably my favourite filmmaker. Everyone should see his movies. I’m not just telling you to eat your vegetables, guys. There’s so much humanity captured on film here, that it would be a real shame for you to miss it. Anderson puts a piece of himself into every project. You can just feel it.
Strolling down the Paul Thomas Anderson lane is an enriching experience. If you’re someone who typically has disdain for “art” films, then this guy can be a wonderful gateway to more sophisticated stuff. He certainly was for me.
No one has any idea what Anderson will do next in his career. This is a constant. His films often drop into cinemas unannounced, barring the occasional trailer, and are made in absolute secrecy. His next movie, listed on IMDB, is an untitled project about the fashion industry. Daniel Day Lewis has just signed on to star in it. Aside from that, I can only sit and stir in anticipation. Come on, become a fan! Let’s sit and stir together.