Sunday, March 9, 2008


There Will Be Blood. How I hated that title when told not to miss it. More like a warning to a first-year medical student than a film. But I went anyhow, and was rewarded with a few really great opening sequences of movie making. A solitary silver miner down a bleak sunless shaft in the California hills pick-pick-picking away at the walls for ore until falling, breaking a leg, he struggles mightily to drag himself to the surface. The drama of his plight captured vividly by cinematographer Robert Elswit. Elswit won an Oscar for this one. Though in that same year (2007), he did equally distinguished camera work on Michael Clayton. For example, the memorable scene with Arthur Edens--ace litigator of Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen, gone bonkers after six years defending the manufacturer of a toxic pesticide--walking down Broadway, a haunted expression on his face, totally lost in the dazzling lights of corporate America.

In Blood, Daniel Plainview (the prospector), goes from silver to oil, and the thrilling scene in which he brings in his first gusher and his son H.W. is injured--the oil turning into an inferno of flame--is riveting. But what makes the action truly spectacular is the compelling music (an uneasy mob of muttering strings that breaks into a deafening dissonant wail) by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead who composed an "unearthly, beautiful score," according to Alex Ross of the New Yorker.

James Newton Howard who wrote the music for Michael Clayton was nominated for an academy award. His score for the legal thriller struck me as no better than C+. So where was Greenwood? Declared hors concours, by the judges, he wasn't even in the running for an Oscar because too much of his music wasn't made specifically for Paul Thomas Anderson's powerful movie. The irony in this case--not unknown in Hollywoodland--is that his Bartokian ostinatos and Pendereckian glissandos fit Anderson's flick like a glove. And so it goes...

Then comes the acting. And the winners in the best acting category for 2007 were Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood), and Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose). The best supporting actors were Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), and Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton). In all four of these roles, the characters they play are under enormous stress. Day-Lewis handles this sort of situation as if it's in his bones. Remember his first Oscar-winning tour-de-force role as the palsied Christy Brown in My Left Foot. And as Plainview, he makes obsession seem as natural to him as his limp.

For her part as Edith Piaf, Cotillard, an attractive woman, underwent a major facial downgrade good enough to win the Best Makeup Oscar for La Vie En Rose, and for her singing she had the recorded benefit of Piaf's actual voice. It wasn't the excellent lip synching that made her raised-in-a-brothel performance as the brash, hard-living, alcohol and drug abusing little sparrow so persuasive, nor her death at 47 so moving. The woman can act, too! In addition to Cotillard's Best Actress Oscar, the French actress made a clean sweep of the Golden Globe, Caesar, and BAFTA awards as well.

Though very different, the psychopathic tight-lipped sinister killer played by Javier Bardem and the successful, socially-adept corporate lawyer of Tilda Swinton are remarkably similar in at least one way--their absolute ruthlessness. In effect, both are exterminators. They'll stop at nothing to achieve their ends. The difference between the two is that hitman Bardem handles his murders personally, and Swinton's Karen Crowder hires the diabolical pro Mr. Verne. For Karen, the elimination of Arthur and attempted murder of Clayton are means to an end, not something she does primarily either for pleasure or profit. Nevertheless, she doesn't hesitate. Or only just long enough to lay out the chic outfit she'll wear to tell the Board of U-North of her sudden recommendation to settle the class-action suit against them, a case that has gone on almost as long as Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

If you're looking for bravura performances, I'd have to agree with the two actors the Academy chose for their major acting award. On the other hand, there was George Clooney. The understated , carefully nuanced, oppressed, unsmiling, damaged character he creates in Michael Clayton is utterly perfect for the role. Though in no way as flashy as Day-Lewis's Plainview, it's a sharply-etched portrait of a good man who goes glumly--almost monochromatically-- through life cleaning up other people's messes. Why? Probably because his boss thinks he's good at it and that's what he gets paid for. But Clayton himself feels he's a failure--as a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a businessman, and a lawyer. Even as a fixer he has his doubts.

Rarely does Clayton get exercised about anything. Until he's sent to Milwaukee to get his colleague out of police custody after an out-of-control Arthur during a routine deposition has stripped off his clothes. "You promised me," Clayton tells Arthur. "You want to go off your medication, fine. But you call me first." Clayton becomes as angry as if he's talking to someone completely rational. That's his first mistake. His second is in trusting his sick friend once again. In a frenzy when Arthur refuses to open his locked hotel door, Clayton kicks it in and discovers that he's fled.

What's so astonishing about Clooney's performance is not these rare emotional blowups. Rather it's how well he listens to the other characters and can, without a word, convey what's on his mind. Actually that's what makes the final slow fade-out of Michael Clayton in close up on the back seat of a taxi so memorable. Frankly, I don't think there are too many actors who could handle it as well.

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