Film Review: There Will Be Blood (2007)

I see the worst in people.  I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need.  I’ve built my hatreds up over the years, little by little…”

These are the words of Daniel Plainview.  He arrived at the small California community of Little Boston in 1907 in search of somewhere to drill for oil.  Accompanying him is his son, H.W., whom he keeps by his side constantly.  Each day, he brings H.W. along to show him the ways of his trade.  Not only is he a slick businessman, but he is also an ambitious one, and everything seems to be going right for him until disaster strikes during drilling one day.  This event is the breaking point for Plainview, who then finds it near impossible to keep his temper concealed.  It is only then that we see the man as he really is.

In a vivid Oscar-winning performance, Daniel Day-Lewis embodies the character of Plainview.  On the opposite side is Paul Dano depicting the foolish pastor who the oil man claims as his enemy.  Both are great performances, but they are not all that captivates those who enter into this film.  The expansive desert setting, the chilling musical score, and the wonderful direction evoke just the right feelings from the audience.  Even though it can be received as entertainment, it is also a great work of art.  If it had not been pitted against the Coen’s No Country for Old Men in 2007’s Best Picture race, there is no doubt in my mind that it could have nabbed the award.

Even without a statuette, There Will Be Blood is an instant classic.  Most filmmakers might have been tempted to make a conventional Hollywood drama or action thriller when given the source material of Upton Sinclair’s Oil!.  I am certainly glad that director Anderson made it the way he did.  His atmospheric epic seems to have taken some lessons in characterization from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s dark, grimy The Wages of Fear.  When considering this, it is no wonder I enjoyed it so much.

Rating: 5/5

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Film Review: Spellbound (1945)

What happens when a paranoid amnesiac replaces an esteemed psychologist as the head of a mental hospital?  This is the question from which the drama of Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound flows.  The film, released in 1945, was one of the first pictures in Hollywood to depict the process of psychoanalysis and it has since been an influence in the creation of such movies as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Memento, and maybe even Hitchcock’s own masterpiece, Psycho.  Despite inspiring some well-known titles, Spellbound has not become fully recognized as a great film.  This is undoubtedly due to the fact that it is not one.  Its major weakness is that it tries to keep hold of the audience’s attention too long while refusing to deliver but one tiny bit of information at a time.  Not only can this make the actors look silly (despite turning in excellent performances), but it also wears down the effectiveness of Hitchcock’s signature moments of suspense.  This was the only problem that I ran into during the entire experience and if it could have been avoided, then I believe that the film might have been as good as the director’s Notorious, which was made the very next year.

The things that are worth seeing in Spellbound are, thankfully, rewarding enough that we do end up without any moments to recall with fondness.  The most memorable of these scenes is a short dream sequence imagined by the legendary surrealist, Salvador Dali.  The addition of Dali into the film’s creative team was not only a wise move for commercial reasons, but it also provided a glimpse of a collaboration between two great artists.  Another notable scene occurs towards the end of the picture when the audience is put behind the gun of a killer.  We are then surprised to briefly see a burst of bright red as a shot is fired.  There are other moments when Hitchcock’s genius appears undeniably present, but there are many scenes that do not contain anything of the such.  Those that are not interested in the director’s talents may instead be entertained in seeing those of the movie’s leading stars.  Ingrid Bergman displays complete versatility here, convincingly playing an emotionless asylum psychiatrist who falls in love with her most intriguing patient.  The other great performance is that of a young Gregory Peck in the difficult role of a paranoid amnesiac.

Hitchcock’s storyline here does stand as one of the more unique plots to be used in his career, and it is not one that his fans should miss out on.  Though I doubt that it will become your favorite movie by the Master of Suspense, I can say that it is a nice vacation from the many adventures that he has brought us involving espionage.  This is good, solid entertainment that contains some scattered moments that Hitch fans will love, but it would not be until a decade later that he would make his greatest masterpieces.

Rating: 4/5

Film Review: The Trial (1962)

Without any flashy effects, The Trial remains the most realistic depiction of a dream that I have ever seen.  If, that is, that Orson Welles meant it to be so.  Although it is not pertaining to the central conflict of the narrative, I constantly juggled the ideas that I had relating to how the film should be received. If it is supposed to have any  applications to everyday life, I must have missed them.

But it is very easy to see how I was fascinated.  The film begins with a short fable narrated by Welles.  The tale is one told by the inhabitants of the world that we are about to visit.  Once we get there, the intrigue from the very beginning carries over to our introduction to Joseph K., played by Anthony Perkins.  The scene begins with Joseph lying alone in his bed.  In any other movie, this would be insignificant, but does Welles mean it as a hint?  Could he have warned us from the start that it is all just a dream?  Dream or not, Joseph never considers the question.  This is real life to him.

We are then gripped by the revealing of a visitor in the bedroom: an inspector whose purpose is to arrest Joseph for an unnamed crime.  It all seems perfectly normal up to that point, but as we see Joseph’s workplace, his friends, and his accusers, his world begins to seem reflective of our dreams…or nightmares.

There is a scene with a wooden shack sitting at the top of a spiral staircase within a brightly lit building.  The police inspector steals Joseph’s clothes.  A man enters a doorway and later exits to discover that the door is now twice as big.  It is really very incredible that The Trial can appear so nonsensical, resembling the films of Bunuel and Lynch, yet still keep a firm grasp on our attention and emotions.

Rating: 5/5

Film Review: The Red Balloon (1956)

For most American audiences the short film is a lost art form that was never found to begin with.  Though films festivals around the world as well as the Academy Awards recognize numerous films in this category each year, the general public hasn’t quite caught on.  But aspiring filmmakers of the craft need not worry, for their time is nearing.

With the invention of the Internet came several resources that made short films a more accessible art.  YouTube is one, users are provided with thousands of videos ranging from home-made movies to the pictures of Hollywood, and independent short films are among them.  (I myself have vitalized the site many times, the first of which I watched Vincent, a six-minute animated short which was Tim Burton’s first movie to direct).  iTunes as well, sells the latest and most successful of these pictures, available for a price around two or three dollars.

So while they may not receive the same amount of commercial success or popularity that feature-length movies enjoy, based on my experiences with both, the average short film out does the average Hollywood picture.  A short feature such as The Red Balloon is one of the best examples of this statement (others are La Jettee, Un Chien Andalou, and even Burton’s Vincent).  This one in particular though, is built quite simply on even simpler ground.

It shows a young, Parisian boy who lives in an apartment with his mother, treks through the city to school each day by himself, and stumbles onto a bright, shiny balloon one morning.  The balloon soon becomes a trusty companion to the boy, so much so that it doesn’t float away when the youth loses hold of the orb’s hanging string.  But unlike many family-oriented films made today, director Lamorisse does not make his film overly sympathetic.  None-the-less, it achieves something like movie magic.

There is some sense of energetic fun buried within the core of the movie, which can only be accounted for by the human-like, care-free movements of the balloon.  The ending, the highlight of the whole half-hour, is a joyous and triumphant sight to behold, but I won’t spoil it for you.  Lamorisse wisely uses as little dialogue as possible, giving it a naive tone that matches its protagonist.  The Red Balloon is light-hearted yet emotional, but above all, it is fully enjoyable and magically transports the audience to the gritty streets of Paris.

Rating: 4/5

Film Review: The Tingler (1959)

During his sixty-three years on earth, William Castle made movies that had no other purpose than to entertain.  The best of his mostly-forgotten works were a series of horror pictures released during the late ’50s and early ’60s.  While they admittedly were not very well-made, their appeal to the audiences of that time made them hits at the box office.  (One of these cheaply-made successes, House on Haunted Hill, even inspired Alfred Hitchcock to make his own low-budget classic, Psycho.)  Castle was not a great filmmaker, but instead, an excellent showman.  The gimmicks that he created for a small number of his films gave the audience an experience in the movies that they had never had before or since.  One such example is his campy horror flick, The Tingler.

During showings of this Vincent Price vehicle, certain viewers experienced short electrical shocks due to small vibrators planted on the bottom of their seats.  Not only did this deepen the audience’s fear, but it also helped to sell tickets.  Thanks to clever advertising, many moviegoers were intrigued to see the new Castle film because it featured the director’s newest gimmick called, Percepto.  Today however, Percepto no longer exists, and those watching The Tingler at home will not have any reason to jump.  The fright that this film inspired of its audiences in 1959 has not survived either, yet there are still reasons to see it.

Despite being completely in black-and-white, there is one one memorable scene in the last half of the picture that displays a small splash of bright red.  This brief image of blood is surprisingly effective.  Perhaps the most significant landmark that The Tingler reaches lies within the scene in which Price’s Dr. Warren experiments alone in his lab.  Earlier in the film, Warren discovered a centipede-like creature called the “tingler” that lives clinging to the spinal cord of every human being.  This horrid creature grows larger at the sign of fear in their host, making it medically possible to die of fright.  At the beginning of his experiments, the doctor does what no other movie character in cinema history had done before.  Warren used LSD for the purpose of experiencing fear and ultimately, the full impact of the tingler.

With a combination of Percepto and a desperate scene in which the tingler enters a movie theater full of unsuspecting watchers, Castle produced interactive entertainment.  His gimmicks and his amusing references to his viewers treat us as one of the characters.  Even though it has many visible flaws, it adds up to a film that B-movie fanatics should not miss.

Rating: 3.5/5