Posts Tagged ‘Paul Anderson (indie genius version)’

I suppose we shouldn’t make the distinction between an artist’s process, product, and productivity, but I can’t help it I’m afraid. I accept that spending twenty years on a brilliant, perfect novel is a worthwhile pursuit – how could it not be? – but my personal admiration really goes to people who crank out two or three pretty good books or films every year. Perhaps it’s just because my own creative impulse tends towards a long, drawn-out process, deeply influenced by my massive innate laziness. Hey ho. Perhaps as a result of this, I’ve never been a fully paid-up member of the Daniel Day-Lewis fan club, largely because he seems to me to take a rather precious attitude to his job. Give me someone like Michael Caine, who in the Eighties would turn up in any old rubbish just because he liked to keep working, any day.

Oh well. My days of being chased down the street by outraged mobs for daring to criticise Day-Lewis for being so pernickety about his roles may be coming to an end, anyway, as the great man has apparently announced his retirement from acting, following the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. (So much for my hopes of one day seeing him play Dr Doom in the proverbial good Fantastic Four movie.) If this indeed marks the last we see of him, he is at least departing the stage in some style and with a degree of appropriacy.

In Phantom Thread Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a high-society dressmaker in the London of the 1950s. He is the creative spirit at the heart of the House of Woodcock (is Anderson aware this sounds vaguely and inappropriately amusing? Hmmm), with his intimidating sister (Lesley Manville) handling the business and organisational aspects of the business.

Following the successful completion of an important commission, Woodcock goes on a short break in the country, where he encounters and instantly smitten by Alma (Vicky Krieps), who when he meets her is working as a waitress. She is captivated by the attentions of such a wealthy, distinguished and creative man, and soon moves to London to be a part of his life.

However, we are already aware that Woodcock is something of a serial monogamist, having seen him getting his sister to expedite the departure of a previous flame at the start of the film. Once his initial ardour cools somewhat, however, Alma finds living with Woodcock to be increasingly difficult – he is demanding, discourteous, given to black moods, and strongly objects to any disruption to the routines with which he has surrounded himself. It seems inevitable that their relationship is doomed – but perhaps Alma has strong feelings of her own about this, not to mention plans of her own…

Well, as I have mentioned here in the past, I became a lifetime member of the Paul Thomas Anderson fan club the first time I watched Magnolia, an almost-inconceivable 18 years ago, and with Phantom Thread it is a pleasant surprise to come across a film of his which is (after a couple of impressive but challenging-to-watch offerings) genuinely accessible and satisfying. The story is relatively simple, but the film nevertheless raises some complex issues: Woodcock’s talent is undeniable, but does this justify him being quite so callous towards everyone around him? Isn’t this just another story about a privileged man being enabled in his pampered lifestyle by the women around him? At first it seems so, but then things become more ambiguous. The third act of the story sees events take a deeply surprising, and indeed rather twisted turn, but there’s no sense of the film taking a particular moral stand, and it’s never completely dour or heavy – there are regular moments of black comedy, usually courtesy of Woodcock’s acid tongue. Anderson evokes the period setting with his usual skill, and there is a memorable and effective score from Jonny Greenwood, too.

It is, of course, driven along by Day-Lewis, who brings all his intensity and charisma to the role. One can see why he has been nominated for so many awards for this performance; then again, he could wander by in the background of a scene and probably still get an Oscar nod. I find it a little surprising he even took this part, to be honest, given he’s to some extent playing a version of himself – an intensely driven artistic talent, who gives himself over completely to his work, uncompromising with those around him. There’s even a sequence where Woodcock hallucinates the presence of his dead mother, which can’t help but recall the fact that Day-Lewis retired from theatre work after seeing a vision of his dead father while appearing on stage.

That said, it’s not surprising that Lesley Manville has also been picking up nominations for her work as Woodcock’s sister, for she is also extremely good. The thing which is somewhat baffling is that Vicky Krieps has not likewise been showing up on awards shortlists, for the film is largely a two-hander between her and Day-Lewis and she is every bit as convincing and memorable, giving a rather less mannered performance as well. It may just be that she’s effectively a newcomer as far as Anglophone audiences are concerned, and awards are to some extent decided by your body of work as much as any single performance. (Filling out the mostly-British supporting cast are quite a few familiar and somewhat unexpected faces – people like Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson and Julia Davis all make appearances.)

This is a quiet, rather intense film, which does venture into quite dark and peculiar territory as it continues, and this may be why it doesn’t seem to have set the box office on fire – it’s only lasted about a week in the cinemas where I live, which is usually a sign of a movie which is essentially tanking. This was obviously intended as Oscar-bait rather than a prospective blockbuster, but it’s still a bit of a shame to see such a thoughtful and accomplished film failing to find an audience. Well worth seeking out, if you get the chance.

Read Full Post »

Have you ever had that experience when someone or something gives you such a moment of concentrated rapture that it puts you in their power forever after? It doesn’t matter how frustratingly non-rapturous subsequent encounters with said subject is, you are always inclined to cut them some slack simply because, well, you can’t escape that one moment when everything was utterly, obliteratingly perfect.

I’m really starting to feel that way about Paul Thomas Anderson. My big shiny moment with this guy came fifteen years ago, with the release of the extraordinary Magnolia, a film which instantly rocketed onto my list of all-time favourites. (Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve watched it in over a decade: perhaps I’ve just been afraid to discover time has not been kind to it.) That film was enough to make me turn up to practically every Anderson movie since – Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, I’ve been there for all of them, and found myself having to contend with my own bemusement: for all of these films are clearly the work of a master, but a master who seems to be deliberately underperforming.

Nevertheless, I’ll keep coming as long as he keeps filming, because none of these films have actually been anything less than striking and memorable. So it was that I turned up to his latest offering, Inherent Vice, an adaptation of a novel by reclusive American novelist Thomas Pynchon.

inherent vice

Set in Los Angeles in 1970, the story is that of hippy private detective Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (nicknamed thus presumably because he meets clients in the back of a doctor’s surgery), who is played by Joaquin Phoenix. The film opens with him taking on a number of apparently disparate cases: his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) believes her new beau may be in danger of kidnap by his own wife and her lover, a Black Panther hires him to track down a Nazi skinhead who owes him money, and a young widow (Jena Malone) wants him to help confirm her belief that her husband (Owen Wilson) may not be as dead as has been widely advertised. Despite being medicated to the point of semi-consciousness much of the time, Doc sets to work, and discovers strange connections between all three enquiries: namely, a secretive organisation known as the Golden Fang. Between the perils of the cases and the hostility of the local detective (Josh Brolin), will Doc be able to uncover the truth?

Well, normally spoilers would dictate me giving away the ending, but in this case I’m not entirely sure what the ending is. You know how most people don’t remember anything about their lives prior to the age of four or five? I’ve always thought this is because when you’re really young, you’re not aware of what anything around you actually means, so you can’t store it in your memory – in the same way it’s much easier to remember a sentence in English than one in a language which is completely alien to you. Well, in the same way, sort of, my memory of much of the latter stages of Inherent Vice is deeply confuzzled, because past a certain point I had absolutely no clue what was going on. The basic connections of the plot just weren’t there, and I was left with a sequence of scenes in which various characters appeared and had conversations which I almost understood, but which had only tenuous links with the scenes preceding and following them.

A wise friend observed to me that this narrative incoherence is all part of Anderson’s intention for the film, which is to recreate the experience of being deeply stoned without the actual need for pharmaceutical ingestion. I’m not so sure, but it is true that Inherent Vice remains a crazy, distinctive trip. Anderson has assembled his usual excellent cast, including people like Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, and (cameoing) an on-form Eric Roberts, and it’s never actually boring to watch. Phoenix gives another charismatic, hugely likeable performance as Doc, and it’s just a shame that the actual narrative doesn’t live up to those of some other films in the LA private detective genre.

I’m thinking of things like Chinatown and even The Rockford Files (which features an equally amiable anti-hero), but the stoner-on-a-mission plot most recalls The Big Lebowski. This type of story has a noble history, going all the way back to Raymond Chandler, of using the detective genre to say things about the nature of wider society. Much of Inherent Vice is so bizarre and disjointed that it’s hard to tell if it’s attempting to make such a comment: but I suspect the title may be significant. It refers to the extent to which many things are fragile and perishable by their very nature: nearly everything turns to rubbish in the end. It’s a downbeat message for a film which is about characters who mainly seem to be trying to live in the moment. I suppose a further theme is that Doc and his stoner friends, who are despised by ‘respectable’ society, actually have more decency and integrity than the police, businessmen, dentists, and so on. But I am hesitant to claim too many insights, for obvious reasons.

It’s never actually dull to watch, and Anderson displays his usual technical mastery: here he shows a great fondness for the occasional very long take, usually in a two-handed scene. The film is full of wit and incident, and in its early stages is frequently very funny, though it darkens considerably as it goes on, and the ending, to the extent that I understood it at all, seemed rather ambiguous.

Inherent Vice has had some glowing reviews from respectable critics, which means one of three things: a) the press pack contains a detailed synopsis allowing them to follow the plot while watching the film, b) their refined sensibilities allow them to enjoy the cinematography, direction, and so on, without having to worry too much about the story making sense, or c) proper critics are just really, really clever. My money’s on b), to be honest. In any case, I’m reluctant to dismiss this movie out of hand: it has that aura of class about it, for all that the actual narrative is maddeningly obscure, to the point of virtually seeming incoherent. But then again, I’m inherently biased where Paul Thomas Anderson is concerned.

Read Full Post »

Honestly, what kind of a proper bio-pic do you call this? Not a single goatee beard to be seen, no-one gets the matter of their tissues compressed to the point of death, and there’s no mention of Axos or the Sea Devils, let alone the Toclafane and the Untempered Schism. I ask you, whatever is the world coming to?

Oh, hang on: word in from the legal department is that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is – and I think emphasis is required here just to cover ourselves – not supposed to be the life story of anyone, living, dead, or regenerated. Glad we got that sorted out. It is, of course, a high-octane personal drama very much in a similar style to There Will Be Blood.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, who at the start of the film is serving in the US navy towards the end of the Second World War. With customary deftness and economy, Anderson establishes that Freddie is a deeply troubled soul – whether due to his experiences in the service or not is not explored – with a number of serious issues. He drinks, he is socially awkward, and he has a fixation with sex. He is also prone to outbursts of violence. All of this ultimately results in him becoming a homeless drifter.

However, at this point he falls into the orbit of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-styled writer, explorer, physicist and theoretical philosopher. Dodd is the leader of a movement known as the Cause, offering a programme to help people deal with the traumas inherited from former lives (there’s a bit of reincarnation involved, apparently) – which is nevertheless, according to Dodd, rigorously rational. In fact it’s so scientific, it’s like science with an extra -ology! [Cut that out – much too risky – Legal Department]

Dodd takes a shine to Freddie (partly due to to Freddie’s special recipe for cocktails, which includes paint thinner) and Freddie joins the Cause, initially as an enthusiastic follower. But it soon becomes apparent that the relationship between the two men is one of unhealthy co-dependence, and hardly guaranteed to help either of them cope with life’s travails…

Well, there has been some talk that Lancaster Dodd is based on L Ron Hubbard, the sometime SF writer who founded the Church of Scientology, which may explain why Tom Cruise and John Travolta, amongst others, are conspicuously absent from the cast list here. (There have been claims that Hubbard told his peers in the SF community that writing was a mug’s game and the quickest way to get rich quick was to invent your own religion, but this sounds like a shocking calumny to me and I would never believe a word of it [Nice try, let’s see if it works – L.D.]) The film does a cheeky sort of dance on this topic, and Anderson has gone so far to say that Hubbard inspired Dodd, but the film is actually about drifters and seekers in the aftermath of a war, with the cult angle being entirely incidental. Is Dodd (and therefore, really, Hubbard) presented as a charlatan? The film comes very close in a few places, I have to say.

People occasionally suggest to me I should become the leader of my own cult – quite why I’m not really sure, and I’m equally uncertain I  want to know – but having seen The Master I don’t think I have the stamina for it anyway. Possibly I am being over-influenced by Hoffman’s portrayal of the Master, which is the latest in a long line of monumental performances he has delivered in films for Anderson and others. He is quite simply magnetic, and eerily plausible on every level. But he is very nearly matched by Phoenix, who is also utterly convincing as Freddie, albeit in a slightly different way: Hoffman’s turn is one of great subtlety and precision, while Phoenix has a much showier and more physical role. Watching the two of them together in this film, as they frequently are, is spellbinding stuff, although I think – when and if the Oscars are handed out – Hoffman comes out slightly ahead on points.

This is that kind of awards-conscious movie: classy, challenging, and thoughtful. It’s certainly not the sort of film you go to see just to relax and have a nice time – the film is fairly unflinching in some respects. In many ways it reminded me of Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, another burningly intelligent and brilliantly made film built around a great central performance – but one which, for me, struggled in terms of its actual narrative.

It’s the same here, really, particularly the ending – it seems intentionally oblique. Once again, the impression is one of the actors being encouraged to do their thing, with Anderson recording their work with his usual skill – but no real sense of an actual story in mind. Possibly I am wrong and just too dim. And, to be sure, the performances, direction, and photography make this film extremely compelling and satisfying for much of its length. It’s just that, once again, Paul Anderson doesn’t quite deliver the complete package.

Read Full Post »

I don’t know about you, but when I watch a film for the first time, afterwards I’m usually sure of two things: whether or not it’s any good, and whether or not I like it (the two don’t always necessarily coincide: see The Transporter, or any number of Japanese kaiju movies). This isn’t always the case – it took two goes for me to get my head properly around Brazil, and quite a few more to understand where Beneath the Planet of the Apes was coming from. But both of those are films I first saw over twenty years ago, and recently things have been a bit more straightforward.

Well, anyway, recently I sat down to watch for the first time Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 movie There Will Be Blood (NB: title is correct), and at the end I had the unfamiliar sensation of really not knowing what to make of it. Now, I have to confess that my appreciation of this particular Paul Anderson (let us not speak of the other one at this time) is mainly due to seeing Magnolia on the big screen almost by accident one afternoon in 2000. I went mainly on the strength of a glowing review from Dr K, because this wasn’t the kind of film I usually watched at the time – but verily, my mind was blown. It is still one of my very favourite films, and as a result I will make an effort to see anything else Anderson directs. (I didn’t see There Will Be Blood when it came out because I was living in Italy at the time and, due to the dubbing, couldn’t cope with anything that had a more complex plot than Alien vs Predator 2.)

So, anyway – mostly set in the early years of the 20th century, this film tells the story of Daniel Plainview (a characteristically committed and mesmeric performance from Daniel Day-Lewis), a miner turned oilman in the south-western USA. A lengthy, silent prologue shows the extraordinary demands this life has made of Plainview, which goes some way to explaining what a remarkable character he has become. Now prosperous, he is tipped off to the presence of oil deposits in a remote California valley, and heads there to investigate. Attempting to buy up the land without revealing its true worth, he discovers it is owned by the family of a devout young preacher, Eli (Paul Dano) – and Eli suggests Plainview could get the land rights he desires if he funds the construction of a new church for the valley. Not a believer, but relentlessly pragmatic, Plainview agrees to the deal – however, the clash of the two men’s personalities and philosophies will continue for many years to come…

There’s moment, early on, in which Plainview essentially baptises his child with crude oil, and at that point I thought ‘Ah hah, this is going to be about the clash of God and Mammon, the strained relationship between the exigences of the morality of big business and  the demands of a religious life’ – and a very timely and potentially interesting subject for a movie that would be, given it was made when there was a fundamentalist Christian oil tycoon in the White House. I still think I was probably right – the clashes between Plainview and Eli recur throughout the film, each wringing increasingly humiliating concessions from the other as time goes by – but I’m sure if this is really the only, or even main, theme of the movie.

There’s such a lot of other stuff going on – Plainview’s son is badly injured in an accident at the oil well, his long-lost brother turns up looking for help, that sort of thing – which doesn’t have much to do with anything but illuminating the further recesses of Plainview’s character.

And what a character he is. In some ways absurd, in others sympathetic, in still others terrifying, he is an extraordinary creation and having seen the film I can’t imagine anyone else but Day-Lewis bringing him to life so vividly. When he was up for the Oscar he eventually won (deservedly) for this film, I had an – erm – heated discussion with a friend about him as an actor. My friend declared he was the greatest actor in history, and ordered me to consider his track record. I retorted that it’s probably easier to give really good performances when you only do one film every four or five years, and all his parts are a little bit samey – you couldn’t imagine Daniel Day-Lewis playing the lead in a Richard Curtis movie as well as Hugh Grant or Colin Firth, could you? My friend snorted passionately (he is Irish – like half of Day-Lewis – which may explain the strength of his advocacy) and said that Daniel Day-Lewis wouldn’t want to be in a Richard Curtis movie. What, I replied, so being a snob makes you a better actor?

I don’t know, let’s make him do some more movies – Mark Strong probably has a few spare projects he can’t squeeze into his schedule – and find out how good he really is. Personally I would thank Mark Ruffalo for his efforts and blackmail Daniel Day-Lewis into playing the Hulk in the next movie the character appears in. The results would certainly be interesting and it would show once and for all just how serious the great man is about this method business he’s so famous for.

Sorry, I’ve gone off on a bit of tangent there, but I think I’m entitled as it isn’t like the film doesn’t seem to be meandering around a bit either. Day-Lewis’s performance is astoundingly good, as are those of everyone else involved (apart from Dano, featured players include Kevin O’Connor from a lot of Stephen Sommers movies, Hans Howes from lots of minor roles, and currently-appearing-in-everything Ciaran Hinds), and the film is breathtakingly filmed and composed. Anderson has an effortless, restless mastery of form and here he opts for a lot of very long takes and travelling shots that give the film an easy gravitas. There are lots of interesting things going on on the soundtrack, too, courtesy of Jonny Greenwood from some band or other.

But despite the impressive performances and dialogue, the brilliant camerawork and editing, and the compelling score, this felt to me like a good film missing the strong and driving narrative it would need to make it a truly great one. This isn’t a slow film and it is filled with incident, but it doesn’t have a conventional narrative structure or any sense of how it’s going to proceed. Jumps in time happen unexpectedly, and the actual climax – such as it is – comes rather as a surprise.

Could it have been the case that Anderson became so enraptured of Day-Lewis’s performance he just decided to build the film around that? The easiest way to describe the movie is as a character piece, the study of the dissolution of one man’s character due to his driving obsession. It still feels like there should be more to it than that – towards the end it just feels like Anderson pointed the camera at Day-Lewis and Dano and said ‘Go crazy, guys, I’ll just keep rolling’ – it certainly feels more like a masterclass in the outer extremes of method craziness than any kind of structured narrative.

And yet, and yet… and so we return to the questions I discussed at the top of this piece. Was I impressed with the quality of There Will Be Blood? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt – this is the work of masters of the craft. But did I like it? This is a tougher question to answer, and I’m wondering if my fondness for some of Anderson’s earlier movies isn’t influencing me to go easier on him than I normally would. (I remember feeling exactly the same after seeing Punch-Drunk Love, which is probably quite telling.) I think I will just conclude by saying that this is quite a challenging film to watch, and an even harder one to genuinely like (as opposed to simply admire), but in the former case the effort is definitely worth it.

Read Full Post »

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 29th May 2003: 

Principles are important in life. To this day I can proudly affirm that no, I have never rustled cattle, taken a bogus sicky, or impersonated a member of the Polish parliament. But this world is naught but change and I’m afraid that one of the more cherished of these claims is no longer true, because – and believe me, starting the Twelve-Step programme was a walk in the park compared to making a declaration like this one – I have paid to see an Adam Sandler movie at the cinema.

Don’t be too harsh with me, please, because the film in question is not of the same ilk as the stuff that Sandler usually delights us with. This time round he’s in Punch Drunk Love, the latest offering from Paul Thomas Anderson, the man behind Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Both those films were very long and very busy. Punch Drunk Love is not.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a Los Angeles bathroom-fittings supplier. Barry has grown up with seven domineering sisters and as a result of this his screws are wound just a bit too tight. Most of the time he is a quiet if slightly neurotic fellow, but occasionally he explodes into bouts of berserk violence against inanimate objects.

But Barry is about to find an outlet for his emotions when he meets Lena (Emily Watson), a co-worker of one of his sisters. Their romance is, however, made somewhat unorthodox by the oddness of Barry’s life. A harmonium is inexplicably deposited on the sidewalk outside his office, and of course he feels the need to appropriate it. Barry is also involved in a very peculiar scam to claim air-miles from a pudding promotion. And to top it all off he is also being blackmailed by the proprietor of a phone-sex chat line (Philip Seymour Hoffman) he unwisely made use of one night.

There’s really no other way of putting it: this is a strange, strange film. Anderson seems to tear up the rulebook, not just of the rom-com genre (which this arguably is, albeit in a rather strained way), but of cinema itself. He uses long takes for much of the action, an impressive feat in itself given how complex some of the scenes are. A car-crash occurs out of nowhere at the end of a ten-second shot and is all the more startling for it. A repeated trick is to cut from a busy, noisy shot to one of stillness and quiet, or vice versa. The soundtrack reverberates with odd rhythms playing over and merging into one another.

This actually intersects quite well with the story, which has – if you’ll excuse a desperate oxymoron – a kind of surreal naturalism. The kind of things that happen in real life but never normally get shown in the movies do get shown in this one. Stuff happens in the background for no good reason and adds nothing to the plot. A preoccupied Sandler goes on a cross-country trip, carrying his office phone all the way with him. Anderson subverts the usual romance story – rather than showing us two people who instantly dislike each other, but who are thrown together and discover they actually get on rather well, Adam and Lena are smitten from the start – but find life throwing various bizarre obstacles in their way. He even manages the remarkable coup of making it credibly seem that the two leads may not end up together.

And as for the comedy – well, I thought this was quite a funny film, although I couldn’t tell you why, and while everyone in the cinema was laughing at least some of the time, it wasn’t always together. Most of the time this is down to Sandler flying off the handle or committing some odd social faux pas. He’s hugely likeable throughout the film and while his aptitude for broad physical comedy should not come as a great shock, his ability to hold his own in a dramatic scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman should. Emily Lloyd has a slightly tricky, reactive role opposite him, but she turns in another impeccable performance.

It was always going to be a monumental challenge for Anderson to top Magnolia, one of the very best films of recent years, and probably wisely he’s opted to make a film that can’t really be compared to it, or to virtually anything else I can think of either. But its unique style and atmosphere make Punch Drunk Love a considerable achievement in its own right – just don’t expect a film like any other you’ve seen before.

Read Full Post »