For the first several minutes of There Will Be Blood--just a small portion of its 160--there is no dialogue. Then Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) strikes oil. The year is 1898 and as time jumps ahead Plainview is soon no longer struggling to make ends meet. By the turn of the 20th century the oil prospector is something of a traveling salesman in California getting local farmers to give up their land so he can drill with his young adopted son/gimmick (Dillon Freasier) in tow. Until that is he stumbles upon a goldmine: a rural farm teeming with oil just beneath it. He promises to make the landowners the Sunday family as rich as he himself will become as a result. But the landowner’s teenage son Eli (Paul Dano) a highly religious evangelist doesn’t much care for money. In fact he doesn’t much care for Daniel his motives or his ungodliness and looks to cure him of these ills at which Daniel scoffs. The two clash on more than one occasion before not seeing each other for a while. At the end of the movie the year is 1927. Daniel is now a madman oil tycoon/recluse living off of his riches and exploitations stumbling about his oil-made mansion with alcohol in hand. He’s a shred of his former self only much wealthier. In walks his old buddy/adversary Eli who sobers him right up. As complicated a thespian god as Daniel Day-Lewis has always been in his career his acting skill has been consistently and easily the best. Every performance of his is great to the same degree and Daniel Plainview a character unlike any he has ever played is no exception. The actor known for his long breaks between movies and his Method-like transformations is so powerful here that his performance is as responsible for the tone as any of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. Day-Lewis can often be heard delivering diatribes on humanity in There Will Be Blood typically while sporting a devilish grin more disturbing than the film’s most violent scenes. It makes you wonder: Who would even want to go so deep into a character so dark? But the minutiae of Plainview--the walk the demeanor the misanthropy--round out Day-Lewis’ incredible performance more than the spoken words. Young actor Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) is equally intense as Plainview’s pious opponent/lightning rod and maybe more--maybe just maybe his innermost demon. It’s a performance worthy of a Supporting Actor nod but ultimately this is Day-Lewis’ show. There Will Be Blood is the cliché of an auteur fighting for his art as evidenced by its length and obtuseness; otherwise though it is the anti-cliché (and anti-crowd pleaser). For that we can thank--yes thank--Paul Thomas Anderson who as his three other well-known films (Boogie Nights Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love) hinted was probably dying for a film of this limitless grandeur. While Anderson’s adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! could be seen as a veiled allegorical wink to modernism it’s really a story about an oilman the money that his oil hath wrought and the demons that swirl around him and his religious detractors. Anderson the genius writer has conjured up a tale of evil family and greed as well as a religiosity/secularism push/pull that is at once opaque and crystal clear. Anderson the genius director frames a story that is beautiful and horrifying neither of which is ever mutually exclusive. The highly deliberate writer-director clearly values quality over quantity and he got both out of this movie an epic masterpiece in a career so young. There Will Be Blood also has this year’s far-and-away best score from Radiohead guitarist/electronics mastermind Jonny Greenwood which fills in any empty spots of weirdness and/or tension left vacant by Anderson and maximizes such spots elsewhere. Anderson now has shot to the No. 1 spot on the Hollywood-outlaw list with this absolute non-adventure of epic proportions. He is utterly unconcerned with any sort of expectations--from audiences or studios. Hell you could even call it a bit of a f-you to everyone except his fans and cinephiles. Congrats PTA!
In February 2001 a highly regarded long-serving FBI agent was arrested for selling U.S. secrets to Russia over a period of 15 years; Breach tells his story as well as that of the man who spied on him. Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) the now infamous treasonist led a Jekyll-and-Hide lifestyle which the FBI would use to ultimately build up a case and arrest him. But first they needed a young hungry sly and innocent-seeming up-and-comer to gain Hanssen’s trust enough to just barely cause him to let his guard down. That’s where Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) comes in. O’Neill is just what his boss (Laura Linney) had in mind and she quickly clues him in: This is the “worst breach in U.S. history ” with Hanssen being responsible for countless American deaths and dollars and Hanssen’s a sexual deviant. But after spending long days by the agent’s side O’Neill sees nothing but a misunderstood man and wants to call off the mission. However after some more inside info from his boss and manifestations from Hanssen himself O’Neill is onto the cause even if it means putting his life at risk. Playing real-life people is much different from playing fictional characters because real people are extremely complex—neither exclusively good nor as in this case exclusively bad. That’s why veteran actor Cooper’s performance is so riveting and his acting so widely lauded: He lends so much humanity to a character he could’ve portrayed as a true villain. In fact his ability to humanize each of his characters—not only because he looks like an Everyman—is what makes him one of the best most credible actors of today. Whereas we’re supposed to object to Cooper from the moment he opens his mouth Phillippe is not supposed to be disliked. It’s hard not to the way he almost struts his attitude but the Crash star and former Mr. Reese Witherspoon turns in one of his better performances. The real O’Neill might not have looked like a male model but he must’ve been deeply conflicted and consumed by his mission and Phillippe conveys that much. However he still seems unable to hit some high notes. And Linney (Exorcism of Emily Rose) in a limited role adds sheer class and professionalism as is her career trademark. Writer/director Billy Ray will seemingly accept writing gigs for just about any genre (Hart's War Flightplan Suspect Zero) but he apparently has his heart set on nonfiction when it comes to directing. His rookie effort the ripped-from-the-headlines Shattered Glass evoked superb fly-on-the-wall tension not unlike Breach. Which isn’t to compare either movie to a documentary but both are executed rather organically and it speaks volumes about a director’s talent when he or she can pinpoint and articulate the intrigue of a true story as opposed to contriving a gimmick (i.e. camerawork or special effects) from a fictitious story to arouse viewers’ interest. Ray clearly has no interest in tricking viewers at all and yet Breach remains engrossing throughout. It’s the ultimate testament to the success of his no-frills filmmaking. It can be said that neither of the main characters is explored deeply enough but (a) that’s what books are for and (b) such is the constraint of the medium of (taut) film.
Haven is one of those purposely nonlinear films in which multiple stories cross at "random" times and locations only to wind up being inextricably connected to each other in the end (thanks a lot Quentin Tarantino). In this case the two main arcs belong to shady businessman Carl (Bill Paxton) and his teenage daughter Pippa (Agnes Bruckner) and to laid-back fisherman Shy (Bloom) and his secret love Andrea (Zoe Saldana). Carl and Pippa flee to Grand Cayman from Miami when the Feds find out about his deal with cynical British businessman Allen (Stephen Dillane) while Shy has spent his whole life on the island getting by just fine until he falls for the boss's daughter and incurs her family's wrath. Their stories collide on one hot fateful night when tensions stretch to their breaking point and it becomes virtually impossible to tell who's out to get who--and why. Most of the film's characters are fairly one-dimensional but you can't really blame the cast--defiant Daddy's girl slick island shyster gun-toting gangsta crooked businessman poor fisherman with a heart of gold and so on. But because of that--and the fact few of the actors end up getting significant screen time due to the movie's fractured storytelling style--not many of the performances are all that memorable. Anthony Mackie (who also impressed in Half Nelson) does a good job seething with rage and resentment as Andrea's older brother Hammer and Saldana has her moments as a good girl brought down by heartbreak but everyone else seems to be in it more for the island location than the chance to stretch their acting muscles. As for Bloom he continues to prove that while he's good at "earnest" and "vulnerable " while "complex" and "tough" elude him. Making a movie like this work is no small challenge but unfortunately it's one that director Frank E. Flowers doesn't rise to meet. He juggles the interconnected stories awkwardly--after following Carl and Pippa for the first 30 minutes or so the film abruptly abandons them to switch over to Shy with no real explanation on where the other two have gone. It's only much later that the timeline and plot start to become clear but by then the characters' motivations and double-crosses have gotten so muddled that it's difficult to care all that much about how everything fits together. It's one thing to make an audience think a little. Memento and The Usual Suspects are fine examples of head-scratchers that reward you for giving your brain cells a workout. But it's quite another to confuse them with unnecessarily complicated details that don't end up making a difference in the end.
Idealistic Jerome (Max Minghella) heads to the Strathmore Institute to fulfill his lifelong ambition of becoming the next great artist like his idol Picasso. He falls hard for the beautiful art class model Audrey (Sophia Myles) certain she’s the muse he’s always waited for. But Jerome also finds an unlikely nemesis--the clean-cut Jonah (Matt Keeslar)--whose painting style wows everyone including Audrey. Jerome has to find a way to get her attention and make a splash like Jonah. A subplot about a series of murders by “The Strathmore Strangler” hijacks the last third of the film and feels grafted on. Minghella is appropriately sullen as shy underdog Jerome but lights up whenever Audrey is around--and as his golden girl Myles is indeed captivating. But it’s Confidential’s supporting cast that is surprisingly high-profile. John Malkovich is a hoot as Jerome’s laid-back art professor who’s more concerned about getting his own works shown than nurturing young talent. Jim Broadbent rants effectively as a bitter alcoholic failed painter. Anjelica Huston is serene and above it all as an art history professor and Steve Buscemi is the colorful local whose cafe serves as a launching pad for Strathmore grads. Some of the biggest laughs are courtesy of Ethan Suplee (TV’s My Name Is Earl) as a Kevin Smith-esque filmmaking student whose films are funded by his grandfather anxious to see shoot ‘em ups. Director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes previously brought Clowes’ quirky comic Ghost World to the big screen--a terrific heartfelt film with a stellar star turn by Thora Birch. Now Clowes and Zwigoff are team up again to bring another Clowes’ comic Art School Confidential to life. They certainly capture the same tone as Ghost World telling the story with the same hip deadpan wit. But unfortunately Confidential pales in comparison. With a less than appealing protagonist the story just isn’t as engaging. It might be better to wait until Confidential comes out on DVD with all the fun extras.
Hardened by years of brutal but loyal military service special ops officer Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) is assigned to find the president's apparently kidnapped daughter Laura Newton (Kristen Bell). Pairing up with his protégé Curtis (Derek Luke) Scott works diligently with a task force of presidential advisors the Secret Service the FBI and the CIA to find her and through their investigation they stumble upon a white slavery ring in the Middle East which may--or may not--have some connection to Laura's disappearance. The straightforward search-and-rescue mission is soon bogged down in political machinations and the girl's abduction starts to look even more suspicious than it did at first. In fact the mission comes to an abrupt halt altogether when the girl is supposedly found drowned from a boating accident. Scott returns to his quiet life until Curtis shows up and proves that Laura is still alive and most likely trapped in the white slavery ring. In a race against time Scott and Curtis embark on their own unofficial rescue mission--and put themselves at the center of a dangerous conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of the U.S. government.
Val Kilmer probably won't be joining Mamet's dedicated circle of players--which includes Joe Mantegna William H. Macy and Mamet's wife actress Rebecca Pidgeon--any time soon. While it's clear Kilmer took the role to work with the talented writer/director he isn't well suited to deliver "Mamet-speak"--the rapid fire delivery of terse dialogue the writer is known for--and Kilmer looks uncomfortable trying to do it. The gifted actor who can't help but bring in his own quirky sensibilities to the part still hits the nail on the head as steely resolute Scott. But the minute he starts dispensing sage advice--Mamet-style--Kilmer sticks out like a sore thumb. Same goes for Luke (Antwone Fisher) who is entirely miscast as Scott's sidekick. Others in the ensemble however handle the Mamet chores more adeptly including Macy and Ed O'Neill (yes the guy from TV's Married ... With Children) as presidential aides.
Spartan's real problem however is that it's a thriller without much thrill. Mamet's expertise is in creating scenarios within a microcosm whether it's a world of con artists (House of Games; The Spanish Prisoner) salesmen (Glengarry Glen Ross) or even showbiz (State and Main). These Mamet films are even-keeled--almost devoid of emotion. He sets up characters and actions relevant to that particular world so when characters spout lines in Mamet's distinctive style it comes off as perfectly natural. Yet with Spartan Mamet is tackling a bigger grander picture and when his style is applied to the world as a whole it doesn't work. Plus in the thriller genre the audience needs to feel invested in the characters and Mamet's distant unemotional style doesn't lend itself to sending the audience's collective hearts racing. The only poignant moment in the film belongs to Bell as the wounded daughter who just wants a little attention from Daddy and the only truly exciting moments are during her rescue. That said however Spartan proves Mamet still knows how to craft a story. Although the script is at times vague and convoluted it thankfully never falls into any of the genre's usual patterns and it throws in enough twists to keep you on your toes.
Socially inept Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is the only son among seven sisters who torment his insular daily life by calling him "gay boy" and making harassing telephone calls to him at work at the toilet-plunger warehouse he runs in the San Fernando Valley. Barry takes out his frustration by breaking and smashing things or randomly bursting into tears. One day he discovers a potential means of escape in an offer (and this part's based on a true story) for frequent-flyer miles through the purchase of $3 000 of Healthy Choice Pudding which Barry buys by the case eventually racking up over 1.25 million miles worth of air travel. But loneliness is the guest who doesn't leave and Barry bides his time by engaging in a phone-sex service wherein he gives away his credit card number and other information. He ends up being harassed by the woman he calls who turns out to be part of an extortion scheme organized by a dirtbag mattress salesman (Philip Seymour Hoffman). This leads to unforeseen consequences that push Barry deeper into the hair-pulling abyss--until his sister introduces him to Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) who with deceptively simple tenderness in this otherwise deceptively simple love story awakens Barry to his inner strength.
Let's get this over with right now: Adam Sandler kicks ass in this movie. It doesn't matter that he's playing varied degrees of his angry retard from Billy Madison Happy Gilmore and the rest and that here he's solidified those characters into a core of brewing indecisive rage (less the requisite heart of gold). Sandler seems to understand he's representing all the sexually inept basket cases that go through life nitpicking the fine print because they can't get laid. It's also obvious that nobody breaks things on screen like Sandler--but at least here his rage isn't just something that looked funny on paper. When he's tearing the door off the john or screaming himself almost into a stroke during a confrontation with one of his sisters one gets the sense that Sandler is getting in touch with the rage of the inner self. His fits aren't necessarily funny but they will make you laugh. It's long been speculated that Sandler has the talent to deliver the goods and he does it here with a cartoonish walk and punctuated delivery that'll suck you right into the loose wires of Barry's dilapidated nervous system. Maybe this performance won't earn him an Oscar nomination but Sandler's Barry will both give you the creeps and make you cheer him on. Refreshingly Emily Watson plays it straight this time around (as opposed to playing diseased dying or insane)--but unlike Sandler's performance any actress that looks good on a gurney could have done her role. But Watson gives a heck of a lot of warmth to a character that doesn't seem to have much of a story. Philip Seymour Hoffman as the sleazy salesman who operates the sleazy phone-sex service gets to say "shut up" a lot. This role again could have done by just about anyone but it's apparent that Hoffman has become an indispensable facet of Anderson films. So where oh where is John C. Reilly?
Boogie Nights and Magnolia gave us a director who put the cultural absurdities of David Lynch and the detailed broad strokes of Robert Altman in the soup and made us eat it with a gun to our heads. We loved it bestowing Paul Thomas Anderson with awards nominations and a fat paycheck. Punch-Drunk Love (for which Anderson won best director at Cannes 2002) exemplifies the director's knack for capturing the mind-numbing madness of the obvious. With a camera that slinks along hallways and around corners panoramic stills of the Valley's empty streets and grocery stores over-amplified sound effects and a creepy score by Jon Brion Anderson has put together a far more accessible feast than his last two outings. This is a movie you could watch just for the ingenious theatrical movement of the camera. Some of the scenes in Punch-Drunk Love--like when Barry's sister introduces him to Lena and we're barraged with crashes squelched dialogued and chaotic drumming that'll make you think you're having a seizure--are awe-inspiring. Anderson's screenplay loaded with witty dialogue and unexpected heart-stopping surprises is on par with the direction; there are a lot of choice lines especially from Sandler to put on your computer's hard drive.