random reviews, recollections & reminiscings

Monday, January 28, 2008

REEL REVIEW: Rambo (2008) ***

Rambo (2008) poster

rated R (for strong graphic bloody violence, sexual assaults, grisly images and language)
1 hr. 33 min.

written by: Art Monterastelli & Sylvester Stallone (from source material by David Morrell)
produced by: Avi Lerner & Kevin King
directed by: Sylvester Stallone

Let's get this outta the way right from the start. I like the Rambo films. It's not a guilty pleasure either or cuz I particularly like violent films. I like them solely because it's one man taking on injustice and the violent atrocities of man. I'll admit, the character of Rambo become more and more out-of-control as the sequels were released. He became more and more buff, put in impossibly outnumbered combat situations and escaped certain death countless times. The icon of Rambo became crazy with all the political mumbo-jumbo of the Reagan surrounding the second sequel, "First Blood: Rambo Part II", not to mention all the merchandise like action figures and cartoons. Ugh! Everything about the character got out-of-hand. No wonder everyone made fun of Stallone for his muscle-bound, seemingly muscle-headed role.

Still, "First Blood", the first Rambo move was awesome! I was a lil over 10 years-old when I finally saw that 1982 film (unbeknownst to my mother) and it certainly left an impression on me. It was the action but soon after I realized Rambo's sensitive backstory. Yes, I included sensitive and Rambo in the same sentence. Here was a decorated Vietnam veteran, whose war buddies were all dead and found no place or function in society. He was trained by his country to be the ultimate weapon, the perfect warrior, but came to realize he had no place in his country anymore. It was one of the first movies where you saw a veteran at war with his own country. That still is a cool concept for me.

Unfortunately, what began as a franchise of high adventure and sympathy for the underdog and the veteran protagonist became a feral cartoon. Now, 20 years later, "Rambo" comes full circle finding its rightful home in utter bloody chaos. We find John J. Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) in Thailand where he was at the start "Rambo III" working as a boatman and snake wrangler. He's away from America, away from any politics and trying to lead a life of solitude while evading his demons. A group of Christian missionaries find the battle-scarred loner and ask him to drive them up the river to the heart of the Burmese civil war in order for them to deliver some hope to the villagers there. Rambo know better, he knows without weapons the war zone up north will not change despite anyone's good intentions and actions.

Sylvester Stallone in Lionsgate Films' Rambo

Rambo knows this and director Stallone shows us in the beginning previous scenes the atrocities of the Burmese military committed onto their own people. Villagers are mutilated and beheaded while a truckload of villagers are forced to walk in a swampy mindfield while the Burmese soldiers place bets on who might survive. When the movie title appears in blood red, we know that these oppressed people will have their rescuer and the dead will be avenged. But right now Rambo's not budging. He turned down the request of missionary leader Michael (Paul Schulze) which gives his spirited girlfriend (the only gal in the group) a chance to persuade the hulking loner. Either something she says stirs him or he just hasn't seen a cute blonde like Sarah (Julie Benz) in quite a while cuz we next a reluctant Rambo steering the group up the river.

On their way, the group witness how dangerous both the river is and their quite guide, as they see how Rambo deals with pirates. This doesn't sit well with Michael and once they arrive he lets Rambo know he won't be needed on the way back as they plan on returning by land. Returning home alone, a conflicted Rambo thinks about what Sarah told him about making a difference in people's lives while wrestling with what he is, a warrior. When he's visited by a Colorado church pastor (Ken Howard) he knows the missionaries are in trouble. He asks Rambo to lead a group of mercenaries he's hired (wuh?) to the village to rescue them cuz communication has been cut off and we know why. We were shown the vicious Burmese military obliterate the village where the missionaries are, cutting an unbelievable path of genocide. Woman are beaten and raped, limbs are cut off, children are stabbed or shot at point blank and thrown into a fire if their not old enough to join the military. Bodies explode near the missionaries as the try to evade death or capture. Amid the carnage, Sarah and Michael and another missionary are captured and taken away.

This leaves Rambo in a position to turn his back or assume his psychologically tattered solider mentality and launch into battle once again. Of course, it's obvious what he does. He does what he does best and he doesn't allow a band of mouth mercs get in his way. These mercenaries don't know what to make of Rambo until they actually see him in action and then they follow his lead. Yes, once Rambo turns on his military mojo the film goes crazy! It explodes with a hurricane of aggression aimed directly at those clueless Burmese soldiers. Wave after wave of bloody fury assault us as Rambo turns predator in a very dynamic manner that explodes across the screen with all the horror and fist-pumping that is expecting in franchise. Stallone serves up an insane amount of gore in the film's finale (amplified with rickety CGI), and I gotta say I commend him for the the fearlessness of the realism of it all. Sure, it's uneasy to look at, it's assaulting after all. But Stallone has built up the enemies despicable actions enough where you just hold on in your seat and go along with him.

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in Lionsgate Films' Rambo

This is probably the first Rambo movie where you really feel what it would be like in the heat of battle. There's no shirtless, slo-mo shots (thank you!) with Rambo jumping over a gorge with a blasting M60. Stallone is going for the heart of darkness here, exhibiting this decades long civil war that most don't know about on very realistic terms, stunning viewers with real depictions of death and carnage. He's said in interviews that if he were to do another Rambo film, it would have to be socially relevant to some existing injustice. This film doesn't recoil from any of it, displaying a gruesome rain of death and unspeakable acts of violation. It's a bleak perspective and Stallone perhaps distances himself from the mindless body count craziness of the two earlier films by coming closer to authenticity. It still may seem overboard to some, but putting the viewer in the middle of pure hell really drives home a vivid theme about the futility of peace and war. Fighting slaughter with slaughter is exhilarating, but Stallone shows us there's an unavoidable price to pay.

Unlike Stallone's return to his other iconic character in 2006's "Rocky Balboa", this film isn't about healing any old wounds nor is it necessarily a return to the melodrama underneath the first Rambo film. It's not the superficial action romp that most have come to associate with the character either. It seems Stallone is hungry to prove a point this time around, and he unleashes a torrent of violence in a manner that's just plain berserk. It cannot be stressed enough: "Rambo" is a monumentally vicious film. Is it odd to see a hulking Stallone in his 60's run through the jungle like a runaway rhino? Nope. I like the idea of him not being the lean machine he once was and I find that time away from the character can bring an added dimension to the role.
There's a lotta talk about how absurd it is for actors at this age returning to such physical roles but this is nothing new in cinema. John Wayne did it, so did Lee Marvin and James Coburn, why not Sly? After all, coming back to what became such a cartoon character at this age brings about a needed maturity.

It seems that during this considerable downtime, Stallone has reassessed his work as John Rambo and his iconic screen history, and is comfortable raging again in this ruthless exclamation point on a surreal series of films. The film concludes Rambo's mournful journey well enough for me although it was way too short. Still, I'd be fine with it finally ending here. Then again, studio head Harvey Weinstein is quoted as liking the opening weekend numbers, so he might be pushing Stallone for another one. That'd be a mistake but a part of me would be curious. Stallone is far from my favorite actor but I do like the guy. He's funny, intelligent, self-deprecating and humble. I know....you're stunned.

Writer/director Sylvester Stallone on the set of Lionsgate Films' Rambo

The Skinny:
  • James Brolin was attached to play the Col. Samuel Trautman role after Richard Crenna died in 2003, but the role was written out of the script.
  • Stallone originally set out to make this film before Rocky Balboa (2006), but Rocky got green-lighted by MGM, and he had to put Rambo on hold.
  • This is the first Rambo film to be directed by Sylvester Stallone.
  • This is the first Rambo film without Crenna, who portrays Col. Sam Trautman in the three previous films.
  • This is the first Rambo film without a score composed by Jerry Goldsmith, who died in 2004.
  • The most recent installment of the Rambo franchise has undergone many name changes during pre-release, and has been known as the following: Rambo IV, Rambo IV: In the Serpent's Eye, Rambo IV: Pearl of the Cobra, Rambo IV: Live for Nothing or Die for Something, Rambo: To Hell and Back and John Rambo - Mirroring the final installment of the Rocky franchise, Rocky Balboa. This is still the title being used in Germany, France, Spain, Israel and Italy, because First Blood's original title in these countries is Rambo (except in Spain that First Blood was translated by Acorralado that means surrounded). Even in North America, Rambo: First Blood Part II was referred to by most filmgoers simply as "Rambo."
  • The film holds the record with the most kills out of the entire Rambo series, with 236 kills and an average of 2.59 kills per minute
  • Stallone has described the film as "sort of like Beyond Rangoon, but with rocket launchers."
  • This recent Stallone quote cracked me up...."I'm now starting "Rambo" and I'm looking for a young actor to star opposite me. I've been looking for the next Robert Mitchum or Steve McQueen, but the fact is they just don't exist. Tough guys today are getting their hair done at Hollywood hairdressers. Whatever happened to having a beer and scratching your balls?"
  • As for the whole human growth hormone (HGH) Jintropin controversy in Australia, according to ninemsn.com and other sources, when interviewing officers asked Stallone why he took Jintropin, he said: "As you get older, the pituitary gland slows and you feel older, your bones narrow. This stuff gives your body a boost and you feel and look good. Doing Rambo is hard work and I am going to be in Burma for a while. Where do you think I am going to get this stuff in Burma?"
  • The film was shot on location in Burma, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico, & USA and cost a reported $50,000,000
  • "Rambo" opened in 2,751 theaters on January 25th and has grossed $6,490,000 on its opening day. Over the opening weekend Rambo grossed an estimated $18,150,000. It was second highest grossing movie for the week behind Meet the Spartans.

Rambo (2008)
John Rambo (2008) poster

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

3 More Hollywood Deaths

While news is still trickling in about Heath Ledger's apparent accidental sudden death yesterday. Toxicology reports won't reveal much for another 12 days at most. I'm still kinda reeling I guess. I'm trying to keep up with news but no one knows anything yet and at the same time I wonder why I wanna know more. He's dead. No additional knowledge or perspective into the moments leading up to or after will change that. I guess part of the shock that people want to know the whys and hows of events like these.

This news definitely overshadowed any breaking events from Sundance or the Oscar nominees that were announced yesterday morning. It also made me think of some of the other recent deaths in the film and television world. Specifically three actors, two veterans of television and one being another actor who has died far too young.

Suzanne Pleshette (1937-2008)

Husky-voiced actress Suzanne Pleshette died on January 19th at age 70 of lung cancer. She is best known for her role in "The Bob Newhart Show" where she matched wits and sarcasm with Newhart. It was their marriage and interaction which made the show successful for so long. A native New Yorker, Pleshette had already had a full career on stage and screen by 1971, then apparently when TV producers saw her on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, they noticed a certain chemistry between Suzanne and another guest, Bob Newhart. She was soon cast as wife to Mr. Newhart’s Chicago psychologist, and the series ran six seasons, from 1972 to 1978, as part of the CBS Saturday night lineup. I mostly caught the show in reruns where it seemed somewhat dated (especially now) but no less clever and hilarious.

This past Halloween I was watching Hitchcock's 1963 film "The Birds" and realized she was in it. I must have forgotten that she was the brunette that used to have a thing with Rod Taylor's Mitch. Of course, his attention was focused on Melanie Griffith's momma, Tipi Hedron but I kinda liked Pleshette's character over Hedren. After some digging, I found that Pleshette had some say in her character's demise. She told Hitchcock it would look good if her ear was all bloody and hanging off, so he sent her to the prop department. When it came to shooting the scene, Hitchcock had Annie facing the other way, so the viewer never sees the ear, which Pleshette recalled "was part of his delicious sense of humor."

Pleshette had been married twice and mourned the loss of her third husband, actor Tom Poston, just last year. She had married Poston, Bob Newhart's costar in his show "Newhart" in 2001. She was previously married to her "Rome Adventure" costar Troy Donahue, that 1964 marriage ended after eight months. Her second husband was Texas oilman Tommy Gallagher, to whom she was wed from 1968 until his death from lung cancer on 2000. She had been scheduled to receive her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on January 31, 2008, which would have been her 71st birthday.

Allan Melvin (1923-2008)

Allan Melvin was an American character actor who appeared in several television shows and is probably best remembered for his role as Sam the Butcher, Alice's boyfriend on "The Brady Bunch". I also remember Melvin for his other classic 70's role as Barney Hefner, Archie Bunker's neighbor and pal on "All in the Family" and would later have a more prominent role in the early 80's spin-off, "Archie Bunker's Place". Besides these two roles, Melvin also had reoccurring roles on "The Phil Silvers Show" which ran thru the 1950's, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" as one of Rob's old army buddies and he was a frequent patron on "Alice". Melvin also made eight guest appearances on The Andy Griffith Show in eight different roles.

Image:Allan Melvin.jpg

One thing I didn't know was that Melvin worked primarily as a voice-actor after "Archie Bunker's Place" went off the air in 1983. This wasn't any new venture for Melvin though, having voiced such cartoon characters as Magilla Gorilla, the lion Drooper on The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, and Bluto on The All-New Popeye Hour in the 60's. He provided several characters' voices for the TV show H.R. Pufnstuf and the voice of Vultan, King of the Hawk Men on The New Adventures of Flash Gordon. Turns out he had a well-oiled voice and was a great mimic of voices.

Melvin died on January 17th at age 84 from cancer. We'll miss ya, Barn!

Brad Renfro (1982-2008)

Brad Renfro debuted at the age of 12 for his role in 1994's "The Client" with Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. A Tennessee native, he acted in 24 movies and several television episodes since then. A year after his debut, he played Huck Finn in 1995's "Tom and Huck" with Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Then in 1996, he was cast as young Michael Sullivan for Barry Levinson's "Sleepers" based on the novel by Lorenzo Carcaterra. Renfro's character was portrayed as an adult by Brad Pitt. Renfro went on to act in other films, including 2001's "Ghost World" and "Bully" and 2005's "The Jacket" with Keira Knightley and Adrien Brody. He also appeared in an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent and completed filming on the unreleased film "The Informers", co-starring Winona Ryder, Mickey Rourke and Billy Bob Thornton.

Image:The Client.jpg

Much of his career was marred by an unfortunate pattern of substance abuse and occasional petty crime. In 2006, he spent 10 days in jail for convictions of driving while under the influence and attempted heroin possession. It is unknown whether or not his death on January 15th was due to any substance abuse. His body was found in his Los Angeles apartment, after he had reportedly spent the previous night drinking with friends. He is survived by one son, known only as "Y Renfro".

I dunno what happened with Renfro. It seems a cyclical pattern of drug abuse and legal trouble had followed him for quite some time, almost like he couldn't come out of it. He was raised by his grandmother in Knoxville but it's unknown whether he was close at all with any family. I found a lonely quote from him, "Everybody thinks I'm, like, a bad boy. I've had my day, but I just sit at home and play the blues mostly," as well as a plea to his fans, "If you've never tried drugs, DON'T. And if you have, pray".Yet another untimely life was taken far too young.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger (1979-2008)

My cell phone buzzed in my pocket around 3:50pm as I rode the train home from work today. It was my friend Mike. I figured we would talk about him wanting to sell me his 60" HD TV but instead he told me some news that I had expected. Heath Ledger had suddenly died within the past hour. What? I couldn't believe it. I asked for details. Mike didn't know any just yet, the news was just coming in.

I called my wife as I made my way through the snow to my chiropractor appointment and she confirmed. His housekeeper found his naked body laying on his bed, supposedly sleeping pills were involved. How sad. How tragic. I immediately thought of how his daughter, Matilda Rose will no longer have a father. Then I thought of how at 28 years-old, here's a guy who was really just starting to get some incredible roles.

The last film I had seen him in Todd Hayne's "I'm Not There", the film about the many different Bob Dylan personas. Ledger played one of the many incarnations of Dylan and he played it with such ease and comfort. There was no pretension or force in his acting, he just became that role and he was much more versatile than people gave him credit for. Another actor who starred with Ledger in that movie (although didn't really share any scenes with) is Christian Bale. Of course they both have scenes together the highly-anticipated film "The Dark Knight" which will be released this July. Ledger plays The Joker in the rebooted Batman franchise directed by Christopher Nolan. We've only seen clips of him in the trailer but so far (and from what the film's cast has said) his work looks phenomenal. It looks like that will be the last film he ever worked on.


There were two other recent films though, one is out on DVD and another just began filming. I don't know how much work he had begun on Terry Gilliam's "The Imagination of Doctor Parnassus" but I know he had finished 2006's "Candy", where he played a poet addicted to heroin with fellow Australian actress Abbie Cornish ("A Good Year"). Who know what kinda role he woulda played in Gilliam's film. The director always does something interesting and Ledger had worked with him before on the dreadful 2005 film "The Brothers Grimm". It's too bad we;ll never see that collaboration.

I've liked Ledger's work ever since I first saw him in 1999's "10 Things I Hate About You". He had a carefree bravura about him which was attractive. His look was unique. He wasn't quite a pretty boy, although he was boyish he had a sorta rugged charisma about him that made you notice him. After that role, he played Mel Gibson's son in the 2000 American Revolution war drama, "The Patriot" directed by Roland Emmerich. It seemed he was heading in that young action star direction but his next role proved he strived for diversity.

He had a small role as Billy Bob Thornton's son in 2001's "Monster Ball", directed by Marc Forster. It was a strong role that demanded a great deal of emotion as he played a victim of severe family dysfunction. That same year, I also really liked him in the modern take "A Knight's Tale" where he showed not just more comedic timing but also took a successful turn at adventure and romance.


Ledger received an Oscar Nomination for his role memorable role as Ennis Del Mar in Ang Lee's 2005 drama "Brokeback Mountain". He played a cowboy struggling with his feelings for his best friend (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and for me, he was the best part of that film. Where Gyllenhaal's unconvincing performance kinda ruined the film for me, Ledger's delivery seemed a lot more realistic to me. He hooked up with co-star Michelle Williams on that set and they eventually had a daughter, Matilda Rose. When asked about fatherhood, Ledger said, "Matilda is adorable, and beautifully observant and wise. Michelle an I love her so much. Becoming a father exceeds all my expectations. It's the most remarkable experience I've ever had - it's marvelous." That's what saddens me the most, I suppose. Not that we will never see him perform again but that his daughter will no longer have a father.

I'm sure more news of his death will surface but whatever comes out, it doesn't change much. A great talent has died too young and too soon.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My Top Ten Films of 2007 list....and then some!


At the end of the year and the beginning of a new one I always start stressing out. It's not cuz I'm racking my brain trying to figure out what my New Year's resolution(s) will be and it's not due to any holiday anxiety. I don't let any of those bug me. No, the thing that really boggles my brain is the inevitable year-end Top Ten list. Yes, that subjective list that you'll see all over the place where critics complete and publish or blog or proclaim over the air (or podcast....but I guess that's still air. Is it?). I don't rack my brain over the Top Ten books of the year cuz although I enjoy reading books I often wait for a softcover or paperback release. I gave up on trying to compile a Top Ten list in the music category cuz, well....besides a handful of soundtracks, nothing really seems to move me lately.

So, you know where this is going, right? That's right, the year-end thorn in my side is usually the Top Ten Films of the year. I'm reading and hearing everywhere that 2007 was a great year for film. I guess I'll agree with that statement as long as don't look at the box-office grosses for the films of last year. That's something I never really do anyway. It's obvious sequels and giant robots are gonna bring in big revenue and while those movies are fun, rarely are they delivering anything new.

When I make my list I try and remember what I call the "Most Movies" of the year. What does that mean? these are films that I consider the most movies that have....moved me, surprised me, made me belly laugh so hard I wanted to pee, made me cry, shocked me, confused me, made me think, left me wanting more and showed me something unique or different. Hours, days and months may pass and I still can't get these movies outta my head. I still recommend them and I still wanna go back and see them.

Now this list has been very difficult for me. I hate putting films in order. I think they're all great in their own right. But when you make a list, you have to be a slave to it and lay it all down. There are many films that were left off and I'll list those underneath as "notable mentions". Now, those notable mentions don't necessarily mean that I think the films of my Top Ten are better but that just seem to fit my aforementioned criteria more adequately. So without further ado, here is my 2007 Top Ten Film list....

10. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
9. In the Valley of Elah
8. Zodiac
7. Rescue Dawn*
6. Ratatouille*
5. Into the Wild
4. I'm Not There*
3. There Will Be Blood
2. No Country for Old Men
1. Once

The picture above is of my co-worker Eve (on the left) myself (on the right-duh) with Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the stars of "Once" taken November 27th, 2007.

Notable Mentions: The Bourne Ultimatum, Hot Fuzz, 300, Eastern Promises*, Rendition, 3:10 to Yuma, Away from Her*, The Host, Knocked Up, Sunshine, The Namesake, Breach*, Waitress, Stardust*, The Simpsons Movie, Disturbia*, 1408*, Talk to Me, A Mighty Heart and You Kill Me*

* these are films I've seen yet haven't reviewed yet

Okay, so you may look at both my Top Ten and notable mentions list and think I'm missing some movies. You're right! There are certainly plenty 2007 movies I want to see
(I know....you think I see enough as it is, right?) and have yet to see. Here's the long, all-over-the-place list in no particular order....

  • Juno
  • Michael Clayton
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  • Hairspray
  • Enchanted
  • Shoot Em Up
  • Resident Evil 3
  • 28 Weeks Later
  • Persepolis
  • The Kite Runner
  • The Hunting Party
  • Gone Baby Gone
  • The Jane Austen Book Club
  • Atonement
  • 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
  • No End in Sight
  • Sicko
  • In the Shadow of the Moon
  • The Savages
  • Charlie Wilson's War
  • Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
  • Starting Out in the Evening
  • Ten Canoes
  • Control
  • The Wind that Shakes the Barley
  • La Vie En Rose
  • Death Proof
  • The Orphanage
  • Across the Universe
  • Superbad
  • the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
  • Margot at the Wedding
  • After the Wedding
  • The Water Horse
  • Killer Sheep
  • The Lookout
  • American Gangster
  • The Lives of Others
  • Interview
  • Delirious
  • Paprika
  • Black Book
  • The Great Debaters
  • The Darjeeling Limited
  • Dan in Real Life
  • Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
  • Lions for Lambs
  • August Rush
  • Lars and the Real Girl
  • For the Bible Tells Me So
  • Jesus Camp
  • Bella
  • Beowulf
  • My Kid Could Paint That
  • Youth Without Youth
  • The Game Plan
  • Stephen King's Mist
  • The Golden Compass

So what about you....what would YOUR Top Ten be?

Monday, January 14, 2008

REEL REVIEW: There Will Be Blood (2007) ****

There Will Be Blood (2007) poster
rated R (for some violence)
2 hrs. 38 min

written by: Paul Thomas Anderson (based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair)
produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson & Scott Rudin
directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Here's another film that has remained with me a week after viewing and that's why it made it on my Top Ten Films of 2007 list. I saw it because I have never seen a movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis where I wasn't absolutely mesmerized by his performance. This film only supported that statement, the man is an amazing actor and this movie is a quite an experience. It definitely supports the fact that oil and religion don't mix, not today and certainly not in the desolate Northern California landscape of the late 1800's. That's right, the film is about oil and greed and religion and deception. It's a dirty movie where you will feel the grime and dust cake your skin in your seat, you feel the heat just as much as the characters on screen do.

This is a film that demands your undivided attention and does so easily from the beginning. Writer & Director Paul Thomas Anderson starts off with unprecedented form by not giving any dialogue for about the first 15-30 minutes. That's right, no one utters a word but the film still manages to speak volumes on many levels. We're shown a barren desert landscape somewhere in California with the swelling sounds of orchestral strings accompanying the sharp bite of a tool striking the earth. The man is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and he is indeed meticulously chipping away at a wall deep down a man-made well, searching for his fortune. He mines for silver alone, an independent man with no need of assistance let alone words. He has no one to turn to when calamity strikes, and yet he has the will to overcome that calamity in order to stake his claim.

Dillon Freasier and Daniel Day-Lewis in Paramount Vantages' There Will Be Blood

In an unprecedented move, Anderson only uses music amid the sounds of a birthing industry for this opening scene and that's what hooks you in. I sat there finding myself riveted as I'm sure others were in the quiet theatre. I was forced to pay attention, almost as if right from the start viewers are asked to make the decision to become thoroughly invested. Very soon, we see that Plainview is not your average turn-of-the-century entrepreneur who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. No, this is a man consumed by himself, who surrounds himself by those who would believe in him. Yet we see right through the charismatic salesman. Plainview doesn't care about anyone, he even flat out says later on that he often finds himself despising other people.
Years later, Plainview has his hands in multiple wells which has made him a rich man. He travels around speaking to townspeople living in prospective lands with a prop, an adopted a son named H.W. (first-timer Dillion Freasier), who was orphaned as a baby when a collapsing rig killed his father. That may seem like a compassionate act by Plainview but like anything else, we find he has his ulterior motives. H.W. is unaware that Plainview isn't his real pappy, and Plainview exploits his mini-me so he can call his enterprise a family business. This behavior is dealt with eventually as is many other of Plainviews unrepentant ways. We see that a man cannot repent until he actually sees the need to.

The film does play like a work of classic literature in ways I can't really describe, it just has an epic scope. Like any such work, there is an antagonist and what's interesting is that a reader (or viewer) is usually already rooting for a respectable protagonist but not in this film. One night, a mysterious young man named Paul (Paul Dano) appears and tells Plainview he knows where there are untapped oil reserves. He tells Plainview that for $500, he will disclose the location of his family's ranch. Of course, Plainview is soon on the scene and trying to cheat the old farmer (David Willis) out of his property under the guise of wanting a quiet place to hunt quail. The farmer's other son, Eli Sunday (also played by Dano) suspects the real motivation for the purchase, and so their clash of wills gets underway. Hence, we have our classic protagonist in Sunday, a Pentecostal preacher in the small local church. He wants to make sure his congregation--and their spiritual leader--are taken care of but he too is a charlatan with ulterior motives.

So you have two charismatic people at odds with each other who are more alike than they'd ever admit. It's ironic that this is essentially a war between oil and religion....sound familiar? As much as these two characters are continuously at odds one commonality is that money and salvation can change who a person is. There are continuous clashes throughout this film of the material and the spiritual. I'm not gonna get into the specific cause and effects of either of these characters actions but both definitely cause serious repercussions to those around them. All of it is gripping and powerful, as Anderson shows us two men consumed with their own agenda and the misery that comes from it.

The story comes from Upton Sinclair's eighty year-old novel Oil! about an oil baron who engages in a mental battle with a revival type preacher who holds the key to a plot of land with oceans of crude bubbling underneath the surface. Both want control of the gusher, because both are looking to line their coffers. Anderson uses that set up and runs with it, creating an ominous title change that does indeed provide that human life source but also blood from the earth. Oil is the fuel for everything. It powers cars, it invigorates communities, and it compels men to trade their souls for its reward.

I'm probably not the best person to call this film a masterpiece but nonetheless, that's how I see it. The only other film by Anderson that I've seen is his last one, 2002's "Punch Drunk Love". I know some may find that shocking but I knew that "Boogie Nights" was more or less a cover of Scorcese's "Good Fellas" and that "Magnolia" was a take on Altman's "Short Cuts".There's nothing wrong with that but I figured if I'd seen those movies....why watch those? I know, heresy.

Paul Dano and Daniel Day-Lewis in
 Paramount Vantages' There Will Be Blood

A protagonist like Plainview can make or break a film. He's a great literary character that you can't take your eyes off of but you don't like him. What is most riveting as I watched the film is trying to find out why he thinks so highly of himself. Maybe he doesn't, maybe he has his demons, but he sure comes across like a guy who really believes what he's doing is right. An strong actor is needed for this role and I can't see anyone else but Day-Lewis as Plainview. I can't help thinking that this movie would not be nearly as excellent as it is had a different actor been cast in the lead. The entire cast is fantastic, including Ciaran Hines as Plainview's right-hand man and Kevin J. O'Connor as a shady grifter. Dano falters a little in trying to play a convincing older version of himself, but as the awkward and often sinister preacher, he's able to sell the man as both a righteous lunatic and a scheming con artist.

This is by far Daniel Day-Lewis' film. That's who you see this for. He commands every scene with his John Huston-inspired characterization. He's an actor who famously gets lost in the roles he takes and this is no exception. I've enjoyed every performance I've seen him in since I first saw him in his Oscar-winning role as Christy Brown in "My Left Foot". He plays Plainview in multiple stages of life, from a determined young man to the over-confidence of middle age and on into old age, broken and alone with his ego. Though Plainview has the gift of gab when it comes time to pitch his sale, he is most often a man of few, carefully chosen, often biting words. Some viewers and critics see his performance as grand standing and entirely over-the-top. I can see that but Day-Lewis is so captivating that I forgive it and become absorbed by him.

There's also much talk about how the movie ends. While I would never spoil it for those who haven't seen it yet, I can't seeing it ending any other way. This topic isn't unusual though, I hear many discussing the conclusion of "No Country for Old Men" as well. I understand the complaints but I respect both endings for the fact that they remain true to the characters and however a story ends, that's what should matter. Like the Coen brothers film, here's a film that will haunt you for some time. I saw it three weeks ago and I'm still seeing images and discussing it with others. Not many films can do that today.

Daniel Day-Lewis and director Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of Paramount Vantages' There Will Be Blood

The Skinny:

  • Anderson stated that he watched 1948's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre every night before filming this movie.
  • In an interview on the National Public Radio program "Fresh Air with Terry Gross," Paul Dano told Gross that he had originally been cast in the much smaller role of Paul Sunday, Eli's brother, and another actor had been cast as Eli. However, after Dano had already started filming his one scene as Paul Sunday, Anderson decided to replace the actor playing Eli. Anderson then asked Dano to play Eli Sunday (a much bigger role) as well as Paul Sunday, and they decided to change the film to make the brothers identical twins. Anderson asked Dano to play Eli on a Thursday, and filming for the role began four days later, on the next Monday. Day-Lewis, by contrast, had a whole year to prepare to play Daniel Plainview.
  • The film was originally given a 12A rating in the UK for cinema exhibition, meaning that children of any age could see it, with adult supervision if they were younger than 12. In a curious move, the distributors subsequently appealed to the British Board of Film Classification to consider raising the certificate. The BBFC agreed, and the film was subsequently uprated to a more restrictive 15, preventing anyone under that age from being admitted to screenings regardless of parental supervision.
  • Day-Lewis accepted the role of Daniel Plainview as he had been a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson's previous 2002 film, Punch-Drunk Love. According to Producer JoAnne Sellar, the film might not even have been made at all if Day-Lewis declined the role.
  • Anderson owns a vintage 1910 Pathe camera which contains a special 43mm lens. The lens was specially modified to be used in the film as it has very low resolution and can shift colors at corners. Only certain shots of the film used this lens; for example a shot of Plainview sleeping in the train with an infant H.W.
  • The main character Daniel Plainview was modeled loosely after famous oil man Edward Doheny and his characteristics were based on Count Dracula. Doheny's Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills was used at the end of the film.
  • The town of Marfa near the Texas-Mexico border was used to simulate Bakersfield, California. A reason to support the use of the town is that there are many abandoned shafts dug out at the early 20-century. One of the shafts used in the film is a deep shaft, 60-70 feet that connects to a mechanically-dug perpendicular tunnel at the bottom. Other sets like the church where built from there.
  • Anderson planned to have the restored bowling alley (used at the climax) located next to the Greystone Mansion to be entirely painted in white to give some Kubrick symmetry and menacing quality (also a nod to 1971's A Clockwork Orange). However, he changed it to its original state when it was later decided that the bowling alley was to be given away for ownership after filming.
  • Day-Lewis improvised the speech he gives to the citizens of Little Boston, about building schools, bringing bread to the town, etc. Anderson says of this, "It was delicious. It was Plainview on a platter."
  • Day-Lewis used oral histories from the time period to create Plainview's distinctive voice.
  • In the summer of '06, during filming, a photographer snapped an onset photo of a person they believed to be Day-Lewis, albeit with a great deal of physical alterations. The photo appeared used on various film websites and in magazines as an example of how drastically Day-Lewis had changed himself for the role. Upon viewing the film and applying common sense, it turns out, this person was NOT, in fact, Daniel Day-Lewis; it was instead actor Vince Froio, who portrayed Plainview's "closest associate" at the end of the film.
  • According to Anderson, the director and crew were "pretty loose about where scenes would take place." This sometimes meant filming scenes three or four different times in different locations, and evaluating the result each time.
  • Shooting began in mid-May 2006 in New Mexico and Marfa, Texas, with principal photography wrapping August 24, 2006. The first public screening was on September 29, 2007 at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.
  • Daniel Day-Lewis received many awards including a Golden Globe for his performance, and the film has been nominated for numerous Academy Awards, AMPAS and BAFTA awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.
  • Originally, Paul Thomas Anderson had been working on a screenplay about two fighting families. He struggled with the script and soon realized it just wasn't working. Homesick, he purchased a copy of Sinclair's Oil! in London and was immediately drawn to the cover illustration of a California oilfield. As he read, Anderson became even more fascinated with the novel and adapted the first 150 pages to a screenplay. He began to get a real sense of where his script was going after making countless trips to museums dedicated to early oilmen in Bakersfield, CA.
  • He changed the title from Oil! to There Will Be Blood because, "at the end of the day, there [was] not enough of the book to feel like it [was] a proper adaptation."
  • He wrote the original screenplay with Day-Lewis in mind and approached the actor when the script was nearly complete. He had heard that Day-Lewis liked "Punch-Drunk Love", which gave him the confidence to hand him a copy of the incomplete script.
  • According to Day-Lewis, simply being asked to do the film was enough to convince him. In an interview with the New York Observer, the actor elaborated on what drew him to the project. It was "the understanding that [he] had already entered into that world. [He] wasn't observing it - [he'd] entered into it - and indeed [he'd] populated it with characters who [he] felt had lives of their own."
  • According to Joanne Sellar, one of the film's producers, it was a hard film to finance because, "the studios didn't think it had the scope of a major picture."
  • For the role of Plainview's son, Anderson looked at people in Los Angeles and New York City but he realized that they needed someone from Texas who knew how to shoot shotguns and "live in that world." The filmmakers asked around at a school and the principal recommended Dillon Freasier. They did not have him read any scenes and instead talked to him, realizing that he was the perfect person for the role.
  • To start building his character, Day-Lewis started with the voice. Anderson sent him recordings from the late 19th century to 1927 and a copy of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", including documentaries on its director, John Huston, an important influence on Anderson's film.
  • According to Anderson, he was inspired by the fact that Sierra Madre is "about greed and ambition and paranoia and looking at the worst parts of yourself." While writing the script, he would put the film on before he went to bed at night.
  • To research for the role, Day-Lewis read letters from laborers and studied photographs from the time period. He also read up on oil tycoon Edward Doheny upon whom Sinclair's book is loosely based.
  • Anderson tried to shoot the script in sequence with most of the sets on the ranch.
  • Halfway into the 60-day shoot, Anderson replaced the actor playing Eli Sunday with Paul Dano. A New York Times Magazine profile on Day-Lewis suggested that the original actor had been intimidated by Day-Lewis's intensity and habit of staying in character on and off the set.
  • Both Anderson and Day-Lewis deny this claim and Day-Lewis stated, "I absolutely don't believe that it was because he was intimidated by me. I happen to believe that — and I hope I'm right."
  • Anderson first saw Dano in 2005's "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" and thought that he would be perfect to play Eli Sunday, a role he originally envisioned to be a 12 or 13-year-old boy. To prepare for the role, Dano researched the time period that the film is set in as well as evangelical preachers.Three weeks of scenes with Sunday and Plainview had to be re-shot with Dano.
  • The interior mansion scenes were filmed at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, California, the former real-life home of Edward Doheny Jr., a gift from his father Edward Doheny. Scenes filmed at Greystone involved the careful renovation of the basement's two lane bowling alley.
  • Anderson dedicated the film to Robert Altman, who died while Anderson was editing it.
  • Richard Schickel in Time magazine praised There Will Be Blood as "one of the most wholly original American movies ever made."
  • Anderson had been a fan of Radiohead's music and was impressed with Jonny Greenwood's scoring of the film Bodysong.
  • While writing the script for There Will Be Blood, Anderson heard Greenwood's orchestral piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which prompted him to ask Greenwood to work with him. After initially agreeing to score the film, Greenwood had doubts and thought about backing out, but Anderson's reassurance and enthusiasm for the film convinced the musician to stick with the project.
  • Anderson gave Greenwood a copy of the film and three weeks later he came back with two hours of music recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London. The film also contains a Brahms Violin Concerto used as a motif.
Interview with Anderson and musician Jonny Greenwood

There Will Be Blood (2007) gallery teaser

Friday, January 11, 2008

REEL REVIEW: Into the Wild (2007) ****

Into the Wild (2007) poster

R (for language and some nudity)
2 hrs. 20 min.

written by: Sean Penn (from the novel by Jon Krakauer)
produced by: Art Linson, Sean Penn & William Pohlad
directed by: Sean Penn

I made my way out to the movie theater on a numbingly cold December night. The wind was whipping through me on this last Saturday of 2007. I wondered what it would be like to wander off on your own with your only focus being just you and the surrounding natural elements. Familiar people and places left behind, the open road ahead with all it's possibilities of sights and sounds. I was alone (something I rarely do), on my way to see "Into the Wild" a movie based on the true story of a young man who did something similar with the last two years of life on earth.

Back in 1996, the cover to writer Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild caught my attention in a bookstore. It had a cover image of an abandoned snow-swept bus on the top half and on the bottom half it read....

In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25, 000 in savings to charity and abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter

....After I read that, I knew I would someday have to read this book.

What happened to McCandless in-between his departure and his death is just as extraordinary and shocking as his decision to discard his family and friends. This is the rugged territory covered by screenwriter/director Sean Penn in his film which adapts and takes its title from Krakauer's book. The film depicts McCandless (Emile Hirsch) as a restless searcher roaming from one fresh experience to another, be it working the land for a rascally farmer named Wayne (Vince Vaughn) in South Dakota, hitching a ride with a hippie couple Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker) in Oregon, or befriending a lonely old man named Ronald Franz (played superbly by Hal Holbrook) in the Southern California desert.

Along the way, McCandless (who renames himself Alexander Supertramp on his journey) made reckless and foolhardy decisions on his westward journey. He almost got himself arrested, injured and killed with no experience and it seems he's become for today's disaffected youth either a folk hero or a cautionary tale, depending on your point of view. Penn's take on McCandless sojourn is one of a tragic figure, and his film mixes the beautiful with the devastating. Nature witnessed in the film is powerful, communing with it can be rejuvenating; yet, to view it alone is indeed a terrible thing. When reading all this about McCandless, one obvious question continues to surface....Why? What compelled him to come to such a decision? How did all this come about?

Emile Hirsch in Paramount Vantage's Into the Wild

Well, the film gives us a look as to what elements may have contributed to his decision to drop off the grid. We meet 22 year-old McCandless near Atlanta, Georgia, as he graduates from Emory University in 1990. His parents Walt (William Hurt) and Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) are wealthy east coast socialites who want to purchase him a new car as a present and an incentive to go to grad school. The real reason could be that they're embarrassed by the Datsun clunker he drives. McCandless is insulted and refuses their gift, he could care less about a new car. Throughout the film there are scenes that portray his parents as superficial as they cluelessly raise McCandless and his sister Carine (Jenna Malone). In flashbacks, they're seen constantly bickering and abusive to one another yet always prepared with a facade in public. Whether or not his family was depicted accurately is unknown but it does show how this upbringing had a tremendous impact on McCandless' life. He wanted to be nothing like his parents and wanted nothing to do with them.

Having rejected his parents and their lifestyles, McCandless focused his love and attention on the words of Thoreau, Jack London, and other naturalists. This too possibly tainted McCandless. After all, these writers wrote romantic works of natural adventures and reflections but that doesn't mean they necessarily lived them out. Still Chris believed a life living off the earth without material possessions and personal ties could be possible and should be pursued. He wanted to leave society entirely....not just the material trappings of it, but all of it....and commune with the rivers and the forests.

Penn's film cuts between two time-lines which is a smart approach since we see where he is and also how he arrived there. One follows him on his westward journey, kayaking down the Colorado River, meeting hippies and foreigners, working for a time flippin' burgers at a McDonald's as well as a wheat harvester in for Wayne, all with the goal of his "Great Alaskan Adventure". The other time-line is two years later and shows McCandless living in an old bus he's found in the Alaskan woods. He has a rifle to hunt his food, some rice, his beloved books and of course the big surrounding country he cherishes. He's reached his destination and faces the peaceful beauty along with the unpredictable wild.

But McCandless learns the hard way that there's more to inner peace than that. Crushingly and heartbreakingly at times we see him scrounge for food and shelter, often meeting disappointment but sometimes making friends. Hirsch's surrender to the role is impressive, both physically and emotionally. We see the anger McCandless feels toward his parents in his performance, which has led to a disillusionment with society in general....and yet he remains a optimistic, good and decent person himself, more disappointed than cynical. His charisma enthusiasm and drive are witnessed by all who meet him but I wondered if this was the side McCandless wanted them to see. He has a solid moral code about him and it could be his parents' failure to live up to it that has turned him off. With all of these characteristics in mind, you can't help but to like him but you also wonder and worry about him.

Penn's treatment of all this is passionate, ambitious and respectable. It's probably my favorite film he's directed thus far. He takes a lyrical, poetic approach that serves the film well from a visual standpoint. Throughout parts of the film we actually see words and phrases written across the screen, running along with Eddie Vedder's songs and Michael Brook's soundtrack. His weighty baritone provides earthy, folky tracks that temper the romance of absolute freedom with an eerie foreboding. At times, we also hear Carine's voice-over narration, presumably from her diary but Penn also injects some well-needed silence to the film. After all, when you're off on your own in the wild all that can be heard is what's around you.

Cinematographer Eric Gautier films outstanding shots of nature here but it's the performances though that really make this film fantastic. Starting with Hirsch's mature portrayal of the immature McCandless. Vaughn has a decent part as the shifty grain harvester who gives Chris a job. The always reliable Keener is great, playing a woman who is estranged from her own son about Chris' age. He runs into her and Rainey, these freewheelin' hippies, a couple times on his trek. They become replacement parents to him, in a way, and Jan has a conversation with Christopher late in the film that reminds him of the pain his real parents must be feeling after all these months of not knowing where he is. She almost gets him to confront his feelings, to maybe put himself in their shoes but he keeps his guard up and pretty soon he hits the road.

Hal Holbrook and Emile Hirsch in Paramount Vantage's Into the Wild

The most impacting character that McCandless encounters is an 84 year-old gentleman named Ron Franz, an old man Christopher meets in the California desert. Holbrook gives a buzz-worthy performance that supplies the film's needed emotional weight as it comes together as it heads into its final act. Ron was living on his own just fine until he came across McCandless with his backpack. Something in him must have immediately connected to this young man and when he tells Chris a lil of his history we see why. He gives plenty of sage advice, but he's more than just a typical Wise Old Man. Ron can see that someone this idealistic, naive, and unprepared as McCandless isn't going to make it in the harsh world without help, and he's visibly saddened by this knowledge, practically pleading with Christopher to forgive his parents and return to real life. Holbrook's work is a true definition of a great subtle supporting performance.

Sure I can appreciate what we're asked to believe were McCandless' motivations and hurts but his actions were ultimately selfish and irresponsible. The sad part of the film is really the lives that he touched. While he was a charming character and often a delight to be around he could also be a stubborn fool. He resisted the attempts of all those around him on his journey to love him, having determined that such concerns were irrelevant to him. He wasn't rude about it but right about the time that an opportunity would present itself for someone to really get to know him, he'd dodge them. It's not until it's too late that he realizes what they were subtly teaching him all along: that communing with nature can bring tranquility and joy, but it's ultimately nothing if you don't have someone to share it with.

Emile Hirsch and director Sean Penn on the set of Paramount Vantage's Into the Wild
The Skinny:

  • Hirsch lost 40 pounds to play his role.
  • Daveigh Chase auditioned for the role of Tracy, a 16 year-old girl who crushes on McCandless in a place caleld the Slabs near the Salton Sea in California, but lost to Kristen Stewart.
  • Penn once envisioned Leonardo DiCaprio as Christopher McCandless when he first became interested in making the film.
  • The film was shot entirely on location.
  • No stunt-men or doubles were used for Hirsch, including the scenes where Chris goes through river rapids, confronts a brown bear or rock-climbs.
  • Vedder agreed on the spot when Penn called him to ask to do the soundtrack, before he knew anything about the film.
  • Brian Dierker was originally hired as the technical consultant for the white-water rafting scenes. Penn cast him as Rainey after Hirsch suggested him for the role.
  • Penn waited 10 years to make the film to make sure he had the approval from the McCandless family.
  • The production made four separate trips to Alaska in order to film during different seasons.
  • The scenes of graduation from Emory College in the film were shot in the fall of 2006 on the front lawn of Reed College. Some of the graduation scenes were also filmed during the actual Emory University graduation on May 15, 2006.
  • The Alaska scenes depicting the area around the abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail were filmed in Cantwell, Alaska, a town forty miles southeast of the actual site.
  • The production made four separate trips to Alaska in order to film during different seasons.
  • The film was already won various film awards for Penn, Hirsch as well the co-producers. Penn, Hirsch, Vedder, Brooks, Keener, and Holbrook are still nominated for many awards.
  • Director Penn hand-picked Vedder to provide the music for the film. In the film's credits, Michael Brook is actually acknowledged for composing the film's original music (Vedder is primarily responsible for the songs in the film.)
  • Vedder's cover of the song "Hard Sun" (originally written by Gordon Peterson who performed under the name of Indio on the album Big Harvest) features backing vocals by Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney and appears in the film, along with a slew of other folky ballads. Vedder collaborates with Jerry Hannan on the song "Society", written by Hannan.
  • Ironically, my CD copy of the soundtrack was stolen on October 25th, 2007, when my 2000 Honda Civic was stolen. I hope whoever stole it is enjoying the music. Good think I had uploaded it to my computer.
  • Vedder's original compositon, "Guaranteed", has been nominated for a 2008 Grammy Award in the category of Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.
  • Vedder has also received two 2008 Golden Globe nominations for Into the Wild; one nomination is for his contributions to the film's original score and the other is for the song "Guaranteed".
  • Both film and book present compelling portraits of McCandless, but use widely different approaches. One significant change in the film version of Into the Wild is the removal of Krakauer as a narrative presence. Instead, the film is partially narrated by McCandless' own writing (from his journals) and partially by his younger sister Carine (played by Jena Malone).
  • The film also follows a more linear narrative structure, in keeping with the conventions of the media format. The book, in comparison, has much more of a documentary feel, relying directly on interviews, quotations from other sources (such as the books McCandless read), and what concrete facts could be extracted.
  • Additionally, certain plot points are slightly modified to fit the traditional narrative structure of film, as well as to fit time constraints. The film emphasizes and in some cases exaggerates certain aspects of personal relationships that McCandless experienced, including his parents' domestic conflicts and his own interaction with a 16-year-old girl he met in his travels. Other interactions portrayed in the film, however, seem very accurate based on Krakauer's research, including the characters of Jan Burres, played by Keener, and "Ronald Franz" (pseudonym), played by Holbrook.
  • McCandless' story is also the subject of a recent documentary by Ron Lamothe, basically debunking the book and film. Starting in 2005, Ron spent two years shooting and editing his next documentary, The Call of the Wild, a documentary on the self-proclaimed "aesthetic voyager", a filmmaking odyssey that took him through thirty U.S. states, two Canadian provinces, and parts of Mexico.

Into the Wild book cover

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