Archive for Daniel Day-Lewis

The Cause

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2013 by dcairns

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Well, I meant to see THE MASTER on its cinema release last year, honestly I did. But both Edinburgh Filmhouse and its Dublin equivalent were making vague noises about 70mm screenings, and I decided to hold off seeing it digitally so I could have a rare celluloidular encounter — and ended up missing it completely. So I end up seeing it on DVD.

Where it still impresses. The palette of the film is subtly unlike any other modern movie, though neither is it a pastiche of late 40s cinema. It can evoke that era flawlessly when it wants to, though.

There’s something slippery about Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie-making that defeats my efforts to write about it. With this one I may be closer to figuring out a theory to account for him, though. I think his scenes alternate between bravura passages of pure cinema, like the wordless opening of THERE WILL BE BLOOD, with acting masterclasses designed to showcase how remarkable his performers can be. I’m not convinced there’s any overall concept to dictate what kind of bravura cinema or what kind of acting is needed, other than PTA’s own taste in such things, which makes his process closer to sixties arthouse filmmakers like Fellini than to the seventies American directors he originally seemed to be following (particularly Scorsese and Altman).

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HARD EIGHT is probably the only PTA film to follow a plot, strictly speaking, which means it has the most satisfying conclusion of any of them but doesn’t deliver the open-ended, elusive quality of the subsequent films. BOOGIE NIGHTS concludes with a series of happy endings, but a friend of mine complained that there was no reason or justification for them — it’s just that suddenly everyone’s happy. The problems tormenting them a couple of scenes back are just forgotten, not resolved. Should we see this as a fantasy? Perhaps so — Anderson’s statements at the time that the seventies porno scene could have evolved into a truly adult cinema in which sexuality was explicit but only one element of many suggests that the utopian scenario here is a kind of alternative universe.

MAGNOLIA’s frogs ex machina conclusion is somewhat prepared for by the references to the work of Charles Fort dotting the film’s running time — I tried to explain this to a couple of baffled women afterwards but they simply refused to accept that frog showers were a well-observed real-world phenomenon. Though I haven’t heard of one as catastrophic as the one LA is subjected to in that movie. Desperate wrestling with that film’s sprawling run-time may have resulted in some of the story’s more baffling lacunae, and the success of this may have inspired PTA’s subsequent casual approach to narrative structure. But I’m still at a loss to explain anything about PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. I quite enjoyed it though.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD ends with violence and a slide into self-parody, which both seem like the coward’s way out of a tight corner, but combined together are at least amusing. I think I’d have preferred tonal consistency, since the first two-thirds of the film are seriously compelling. I dunno.

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THE MASTER… may be PTA’s most successful evasion of what would normally be considered his responsibilities. The tone feels consistent, despite enjoying the freedom to vary itself; the tendency to not come right out and say what it means is established early on and stuck to, perhaps taking its cue from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s evasive guru who never seems to finish any of his Deep Insights; the showy acting is particularly showy, but not as exuberantly theatrical as D-Day Lewis’s John Huston impersonation. Beyond that, and admitting the great aesthetic pleasure derived from Johnny Greenwood’s score and Mihai Malaimare Jnr’s photography, with its searing cyan hues, I could do little but list the questions I was left with — I think you probably would have your own.

Marvelous Hairy About the Face

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2013 by dcairns

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Like many filmmakers before me, I have grown a beard. Oh, I denied this at first, claiming it was merely a coincidental gathering of hairs, or insulation for the winter, or a new kind of chin hologram, but there’s no denying it now. Through careful ignoring of my jowl area, I have given rise to a positively Melies-like hair construct.

So to LINCOLN, Spielberg’s hairiest movie ever, hairier even than HOOK, which had Robin Williams in it for God’s sake (“his arm is like an otter” ~ Jiminy Glick). There are all kinds of beards in it. Big beards, small beards, beards as big as your head. Although I note that rather than sporting the full Irish, that strange jaw-fringe, Daniel Day-Lewis looks merely unshaven at the sides, with a tuft on the end of his chinny-chin-chin that’s more like a jazz beard than the half-a-chimney-brush sported by the late president in contemporary portraiture.

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The rest of the fine cast have all kinds of facial appurtenances, from the voluminous side-whisker to the billowing moustachios on perspiring ectomorph James Spader. His appearance excited comment from Fiona ~

“He would still be gorgeous if he’d lose weight. Maybe he doesn’t care.”

“Maybe he’d like to lose weight but likes eating, and doesn’t like exercising, and doesn’t want it all sucked out through pipes.”

“They could make a second James Spader with what they sucked out.”

“A wobblier one.”

“Why would it be wobblier?”

“Well, it wouldn’t have any bones.”

“Maybe they could grow some bones and stick them in and then we’d have two James Spaders.”

But sadly, Fiona’s beautiful dream is as yet unfulfilled. I don’t think they’d grow bones for James Spader. They didn’t do it for Ray Bolger, whose need was clearly greater.

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Oh yes, Tommy Lee Jones — that vast monster — is awfully good, compelling in a way nobody else in the film can manage, entertaining though some are. (For once, Jackie Earle Haley plays a man stranger-looking than himself; Spader is the third actor to be playing a character called Bilbo in today’s cinemas, surely a record; little Gulliver McGrath who stole the show in HUGO is great as Tad Lincoln; David Costabile from Breaking Bad is a delight as always; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, Babe-raham Lincoln.)

John Williams pours on the syrup — maybe less than you’d expect, but more than the film needs, since it’s at its best as a dry political procedural. Janusz Kaminski gives Lincoln his Jesus lighting a lot less than I’d expected. More than I’d like, but seriously, far less than I expected. Joanna Johnston puts David Strathairn in an orientalist dressing gown that must by the loveliest thing that fine, stoic stick has ever worn.

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AMISTAD.

This is a return to AMISTAD territory, I guess. I liked AMISTAD, but it suffered an imbalance — it devolves from an exciting mutiny, with Africans filmed like Jurassic Park raptors (a ballsy but justifiable choice) to a courtroom drama with inevitable anticlimax. Richard John Berry’s TAMANGO is better. It stays on the boat.

LINCOLN’s script by, MUNICH writer Tony Kushner, makes a good fist of the politicking, though some of the film’s pleasures — smug, nasty politicians being bested by shrewd, good-hearted ones — are inevitably a touch predictable. But it works when the movie keeps its mind on its plot, but this being later Spielberg it isn’t altogether allowed to — the film ends several times, each more ineffectually than the time before, long after the purpose of the story — the emancipation vote over the 13th Amendment — has been brought to its conclusion. The film devotes a lot of screen time to Mrs Lincoln, and Sally Field is very fine, but as the movie seems determined to prove Mary Todd Lincoln sane, or at any rate to avoid showing her genuinely irrational (all her hysterics and histrionics seem perfectly justifiable, if extreme), the role isn’t everything it might have been.

It is, of course, largely a film about white men deciding the fates of black men, women and children. That’s the part of the story the film has chosen to focus on, and it’s most successful when it does focus on it. The stuff showing the Civil War is oddly ineffectual, and attempts to build a role for Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley feel a little forced at times, though it’s nice that she has more lines than Kerry Washington in DJANGO UNCHAINED.

It’s too tempting to see the Tarantino and the Spielberg films as the two basic choices open to filmmakers: one a gleeful exploitation movie, the other a respectful, dusty hagiography. But this isn’t so. In fact, the dichotomy is false on its own terms, since LINCOLN, though sometimes stodgy, is never as dull as the longeurs in DJANGO, but even if both films enthusiastically did what it said on the tin, there would be a whole wealth of alternatives. One might be to let black filmmakers tell some of these stories. We watched Charles Burnett’s documentary NAT TURNER: A TROUBLESOME PROPERTY, and despite a meagre budget, its true story was more sensational than anything Tarantino’s imagination has conjured up, and it delved deeper into the issues thrown up by slavery, or any other great evil, than Spielberg’s film. And in less than half the running time of either film.

An Oil Man

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2008 by dcairns

D-Day 

THERE WILL BE BLOOD is so overwhelming on a visceral level that it’s kind of hard to talk about. I will have to see it again.

 Disorganised thoughts:

The opening, wordless twenty minutes have rightly commanded attention. I loved how the first dynamite explosion BLASTS blue sky into the frame, in what feels like the first intense colour apart from blood-red of the single opening title.

If Anderson’s previous work has often danced close to the shadow of Robert Altman, in terms of locations, themes, structure and casting, this one feels more like his Terence Malick movie, with its natural light, landscape cinematography, and indirect approach to plot.

The images of the burning oil well actually seered into my retinas — I’m not being poetic, I literally had an afterimage stuck there, and when I blinked there was a tiny silhouette of Daniel Day-Lewis dancing about under my eyelids. Bastard.

Ere I am JH

I wonder if Day-Lewis’ performance is not only a John Huston imitation (and a damn good one, though Clint Eastwood got quite close in WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART without doing very much) but a John Huston PORTRAIT. It’s not just the accent and voice, but the bandy gait, the cigar, the mannerisms, and the whole WAY of speaking. If the dialogue hasn’t been drawn straight from the Upton Sinclair book (and those in the know seem to agree that the novel is a fairly distant ancestor to the movie) then it’s firstly a very fine piece of consistent and engaging and unintrusive faux-period writing, and secondly a very good encapsulation of the way Huston speaks in interviews.

This might make sense of P.T.A.’s constant screening of THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE during the shoot. Because I’m not convinced the two films have so much to do with each other, but I do think Daniel Plainview has a lot to do with John Huston.

(Refresh your memories of Huston’s delivery with the above.)

He lacks Huston’s twinkle, of course. But both men share a devilish charm, which is seen when Plainview speaks to crowds and seduces them with carefully chosen words and an air of supreme confidence and paternal concern. And Huston’s cruelty is pretty well documented. Asked why he would be particularly mean to anybody who appeared vulnerable or unstable, he would reply, “Their heads are on the block, kid, their heads are on the block.” Which almost makes bullying (the most indefensible activity) seem sort of quirky and whimsical.

While Paul Dano also gives a stunning performance (he should have got an Oscar nomination for his WALK alone), his character doesn’t have quite the mystery of the Day-Lewis monster. He is revealed as a false prophet, and we discover that he himself knows it too. We also discover Plainview’s anti-religious side, without having it actually EXPLAINED to us. We can only guess at its causes, while reflecting that it’s another trait in common with Huston (WISE BLOOD is one of J.H.’s few really heartfelt films).

One thing that’s unusual about the P.T.A. film is the extent to which it forces you to really think about the Plainview character. He has an attempt at explaining himself to Kevin J. O’Connor’s character, but enough of his motivation is left in shadow to make him an urgent discussion point as you leave the cinema. All he can say is that he’s angry, and hates most of humanity, and he seems to regard this anger as an inborn trait he can do nothing about.

Was Huston angry? It’s a theory, at least. Much of Huston’s behaviour seems to have been in defiance of his poor health in childhood. Did the drive and determnation that forced him to repeatedly throw himself into a rapidly-flowing river as a boy, to prove his need to live, bring with it a rage against all weakness — a projection outwards of the vulnerability he wished to destroy in himself?

In the Soup

This psychiatric stuff isn’t really my natural element, but the film seems to force one to it, which is part of its peculiar strength. I’m reminded of André Hodeir’s fine piece on the Marx Brothers (recommended by David Ehrenstein here on the blog), where he comments in passing on the scene in DUCK SOUP where Groucho psychs himself into a state of outrage at the thought of something which hasn’t even happened (“I hold out my hand to him and that hyena refuses to accept it!”). Hodeir observes, “the psychological mechanism of anger is displayed here with great comic subtlety,” and I think the same might be said of Day-Lewis’ whole performance here. As in real life, anger leads to more anger. When Plainview starts to finally unleash it, it can’t be stemmed and even after he’s fully revenged himslef it continues to flood out, with horrible consequences.

Perhaps that’s why he’s so chipper in the last shot — has he finally been freed of a monster that was gnawing his insides?

You can see the Groucho version here:

The moment is 3 minutes 50 seconds in, but the rest is all good too — you can see Charles “Emperor Ming” Middleton reprise his role of prosecutor from Von Sternberg’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (a film which seems to have obsessed Groucho, judging by his further reference to it in HORSE FEATHERS).

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