Saturday, February 09, 2008

“And if I have no teeth, I will gum you!” – There Will Be Blood

A friend of mine once watched Barry Lyndon with the mindset that it was actually a single, three-hour long Kids in the Hall sketch. And do you know what? He says that it’s a laugh riot!

I can definitely see how Barry Lyndon could work under those circumstances. Its pomp and aloofness could easily be mistaken for the Kids’ signature deadpan skewering. Ryan O’Neal and Patrick Magee prancing about in ornate costumes and powdered wigs could easily remind one of Scott Thompson’s impression of Elizabeth II. And don’t forget that Stanley Kubrick was known for his warped sense of humor. There’s no way the comedic undertone that runs through the hidden ribbon sequence is unintentional.

Oddly enough, if Barry Lyndon is in fact a comedy in disguise, the film remains the same on a thematic level. The final tragedy of Barry’s downfall coming after a rare moment of actual human compassion becomes even more ironic. It makes complete sense coming from the man who made Dr. Strangelove.

But how well does my friend’s theory work when applied to other films? Turning Kubrick into sketch comedy? Sure. As I mentioned, his oeuvre is full of wry, deadpan jabs. How would another film stand up to such a viewing? What if I were to take a similarly epic, serious, critically-adored tragedy and look at it as one big sketch?

There Will Be Blood is as good of a candidate as any. Like Barry Lyndon, it is a three-hour long historical tragedy with a pristine reputation amongst cineaste types. Unlike Barry Lyndon, TWBB has not had several decades’ time to stew, so I have hope of this becoming the DEFINITIVE interpretation of the film!

Obviously, I found There Will Be Blood to be successful as a comedy. Daniel Plainview’s travails seem downright blustery under the right circumstances. His lack of particular motive for his actions (I know that the TWBB/Citizen Kane comparisons have become cliché by now, but where is Plainview’s Rosebud?) make his obsession a bit absurd. The film never explains what fuels his greed, just that he wants to drink our milkshakes.

Barring that lack of explanation, it becomes easier to gawk as he runs his con on Little Boston. He shows up at the Sunday Ranch and claims that he and his son H.W. are – quail hunting? When he finds the oil he is looking for and explains to patriarch Abel Sunday that he happens to have connections in the drilling business, the ruse seems so convoluted that one can’t help but agree with Eli Sunday later on, when he calls his father stupid.

Furthermore, the lack of sympathy for Plainview makes it easier to view him as a comedic villain rather than a tragic hero – he even has a sinister moustache! As Plainview goes on about how much he hates people and sees the worst in them, he is like a heel professional wrestler, badmouthing the home audience in order to draw their boos. His one claim to sympathy is H.W., his surrogate son, but once he abandons him, both figuratively in sending him away to a boarding school and literally by abruptly walking off the train secretly meant to transport H.W. to the school, that sympathy is lost. Until then, H.W. helps serve as a comedic sidekick of sorts, with the comedy coming from the concept of the young boy being Daniel Plainview’s business partner. Also, Plainview’s later outbursts when he defends his honor as H.W.’s father make him out to be like those white trash husbands that are always seen on Cops because of a domestic disturbance call.

As testament to Paul Thomas Anderson’s skill as a director, even his flamboyant touches work as comedy. Take, for example, the oft-mentioned scene where H.W.’s real father anoints his infant son with a splotch of oil. From the moment the man stoops over a lake of oil while holding a small child to the notion of bubblin’ crude being used as part of a religious rite, the whole scene is funny when you think about it. The comedy goes from the impending danger of the man dropping his child into the toxic substance to deliberately rubbing it on his child’s head. I don’t mean to take away from the symbolic power of the scene, but you do see how funny it is, right?

But nothing in this film screams comedy quite like the character Eli Sunday. Even his first appearance is funny, with the double-take required to realize that, yes, Paul Dano just played Eli’s brother Paul moments ago. Identical twins are, after all, an ancient comedic trope; see Twelfth Night for just one example.

We get comedy gold in just about every other scene from there on out. His sermons are funny, his outbursts are funny, him getting beaten by Plainview is funny, him beating Plainview is funny. Sunday’s high-pitched shrieks and cow-eyed gaze take the piss out of any power he may hold as a man of authority. Dano does not play Sunday as silver-tongued deceiver like Daniel Day-Lewis’s Plainview, but as a petulant child. Hence, the audience is able to see through his rants much more easily, and his maniacal rants-disguised-as-sermons become even more apparent as codswallop. Though really, is there any other way to take his threats to gum an evil spirit into submission?

And it all blows up in the film’s riotous punchline. The film’s coda has already established Plainview wallowing in his fortune like a boozehound Howard Hughes, taking a shotgun to his possessions and waking up drunk in the middle of a bowling lane. I would say that Plainview was falling into self-parody if I weren’t arguing that the entire film is parodic. But in any case, we arrive at the final showdown between Plainview and Sunday, between capitalism and religion, between greed and, umm, more greed. And what does it amount to? Plainview making Sunday admit to being a false prophet, “I drink your milkshake,” and death by bowling pin. Honestly, this scene is straight out of Monty Python. Plainview goes over the rails, Sunday’s sniveling hits its crescendo -- did I mention “I drink your milkshake”? It’s a macabre ending, I’ll admit, but so were the endings to Dr. Strangelove, Pierrot le fou and Life of Brian. And they were also hilarious. It’s perversely funny ending to such a perversely funny film.

I’m finished!


Friday, February 08, 2008

Deeply Superficial Blog-a-Thon

[The Deeply Superficial Blog-a-Thon is over. I'll be typing up a wrap-up post tomorrow. If you didn't get your post in in time, I will continue to update this post. Just leave a comment on it, and I'll toss the link in there. Thanks to everyone who contributed! Here are the links!]

Friday, February 8

After a Thursday with no posts, the Blog-a-Thon came roaring back in its last day. Matt Zoller Seitz over at The House Next Door took a look at five movies that he thought had stunning visuals, even as their dialogue or scripts might have been lacking.

Also, guess what? It was apparently Star Wars prequel day at the ol' Blog-a-Thon. After Matt defended Attack of the Clones, Ali Arikan offers his defense of The Phantom Menace at Cerebral Mastications.

Finally, at Cultural Learnings, SDD contributor Myles McNutt offered his explanation for why NBC is the prettiest network in all of television land. You'll get no arguments from me, sir!

Wednesday, February 6

Bob Turnbull of Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind has an awe-inspiring and impressive collection of screencaps from some of his favorite movies, with plenty of shots he just likes to look at.

Piper at Lazy Eye Theater wrote a lovely ode to two of the cinema's most striking blondes -- Naomi Watts and Charlize Theron. Not only are they talented actresses, but they have OTHER qualities worth appreciating too.

Tiff at Temporary Madness offered up a collection of GQ covers just to show how that eminent American magazine can really show off some of our most handsome fellas. Present company excepted, of course.

Tosy and Cosh offers a list of 20 deeply gorgeous things, including photos and YouTube videos and everything. What's more, you'll get our second and third Sunday in the Park with George references of the Blog-a-Thon, which I'm sure we all anticipated.

And SDD's own Daniel took on the subject of good-looking album covers. There's even a joke about an ill-considered Garth Brooks vanity project! You just don't get to see things like that every day.

Tuesday, February 5

Super Tuesday had most of us scrambling to follow the big political news, but some of us got a moment to indulge in the superficial on this least superficial of days. Here at SDD, I posted some screencaps of the deeply gorgeous The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford from reader and Assassination fan Dustin Wellman.

And Jennifer at Chaos Theory continued to be the Deeply Superficial MVP with a post that's all about the wondrousness of hearts, just in time for Valentine's Day.

Monday, February 4

'Twas a quiet day here at the Blog-a-Thon (not that I blame y'all -- Mondays suck). Fortunately, Jennifer at Chaos Theory has a post on the fashion differences between the guys and the gals of the classic teen comedy Clueless.

And finally, I took some time out to direct you to my favorite of the Super Bowl ads here at SDD. Let's hope for some more posts tomorrow!

Sunday, February 3

Adam at DVD Panache says that Donnie Darko doesn't QUITE match up to Citizen Kane, but there are certainly sequences in it that he can appreciate on that deeply superficial level.

Emma at All About My Movies posts a variety of lovely photos and stills from all the colors of the rainbow. Lots of great things to look at there!

Maul of America's GCCR has a few things to say about Orson Welles' The Stranger, the great director's least favorite of his films but one that's "more interesting than the A game of a lot of other filmmakers," writes GCCR.

And here at SDD, I write a little about the strange appeal of the deeply superficial "Yes, We Can" video in support of Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Saturday, February 2

Dan at Cinemathematics compares the use of black-and-white and color in film and discusses which does what better, complete with plenty of YouTube videos and purty pictures.

Jennifer at Chaos Theory has a thing or two to say about bunnies. Actually, she's got a whole list's worth of things to say about them. She is decidedly pro-bunny, though, to be fair, aren't we all?

Brooke Cloudbuster at Boy on Film muses on why "the pretty" can have such an effect on us and just what role it plays in our enjoyment of films. Also, lotsa links!

At Gee Bobg, Bob himself says that the superficial pleasures of the film "Blue Crush" go beyond what's in the picture above. Honest! (And I agree. That film is just plain fun to look at, even DESPITE the lovely young ladies.)

And here at SDD, Carrie's got one or two things to say about the wonders of shirtless males and how the perfectly sculpted ones can make even the most boring screen entertainments perk up. Also, there's a video from She's the Man, which is the greatest cinematic achievement of our time.

Friday, February 1

Here at SDD, I take a look at five body parts I like on actresses I genuinely find talented. It's not as icky or as sexist as it sounds, I promise!

Over at Mostly Movies, SDD contributor Simon Crowe talks a little about the haircut Felicity got in the second season of that show and how underrated that season is as well.


Lipstick Cashmere Jungle Mafia: A Comparison

PhotobucketWe now have not one but two series about accomplished women navigating the high-end social and professional worlds of Manhattan. Thank goodness Lipstick Jungle and Cashmere Mafia aren't on opposite each other. But if you've only got an hour a week to devote to TV fluff, what to do?

Rather than do a dry point-by-point recap of another episode of Cashmere Mafia I'm going to take the suggestion of our editor-in-chief and put the show up against NBC's Lipstick Jungle, which premiered last night. The shows have plenty of superficial similarities, but different visions of what it's like to be a woman in a fast-moving, mostly male world.

For a Lipstick Jungle roll call, let's start with Wendy (Brooke Shields). Wendy is a movie studio exec whose duties include trying to prevent Leonardo DiCaprio from taking a role with a competing studio and firing a director who has made the hero of his hetero romantic comedy gay. At home, Wendy's husband (Paul Blackthorne) is trying to get a restaurant project going and dealing with some issues about being less famous than his wife. Nico (Kim Raver) works in magazine publishing, she's competing with a male colleague for a promotion and dealing with a boss (Julian Sands) afraid women he puts in power jobs will leave for motherhood. Nico is married to an tweedy academic who seems to have wandered in from another show; no wonder her head is turned by the younger Kirby (Robert Buckley)Fashion designer Victory (Lindsay Price)has a collection flop with potentially disastrous consequences. Consolation arrives in the form of a billionaire (Andrew McCarthy) who may have more to him than first impressions indicate.

The women of Cashmere Mafia have their troubles, but to varying degrees they're all settled in at work. After Mia (Lucy Liu) lands a promotion over her fiance in the pilot, there isn't much at stake over what will happen to any of the characters professionally. I still don't understand what Frances O'Connor's character does, but she makes deals and has her own driver. Wendy, Nico, and Victory appear to have won some respect on the job, but are one ambitious male colleague away from professional reversal. (Or in Victory's case one rival designer)

On the home front, the Cashmere marriage of O'Connor's Zoe to Eric (Julian Ovenden) feels the most lived-in. Lipstick is mining the same territory with Wendy; both marriages involve Type-A partners having a genuinely hard time balancing career, family, and who's the breadwinner issues. Nico's affair with Kirby is born out of genuine sexual frustration; far superior to the Cashmere plotline in which Juliet (Miranda Otto) tries to get revenge on her husband by arranging an aborted hookup with an old business school classmate. That story arc took too long to unfold and felt emotionally hollow.

The one area in which I give a clear edge to Cashmere Mafia is dialogue. No, Aaron Sorkin isn't writing either of these shows. But the Lipstick ladies are too often in a binary state; either struggling for purchase at work or speaking in blunt, position-paper sentences about how women are held to a different standard in the workplace. This may be a situation that will be improve in subsequent episodes, but Cashmere prefers to make its points through behavior as opposed to talking.

The verdict: I'm giving a slight edge to Cashmere Mafia, but more exposure to Lipstick Jungle could change my mind.


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Deeply Superficial Blog-a-Thon: Nudes As the News (The Album Cover-a-Thon)

As online music sales--or lack there of (if ya catch my drift)--have become more and more of a factor in the music industry, the death of the LP has been forecasted…to death. And, really, that’s all well and good. I don’t particularly agree that it will happen like this, but that’s fine. As people have more and more of a choice on how they purchase albums, and what songs they can purchase off of an album, I can certainly see things going this way in the future. I mean, I have no evidence to the contrary. What important element I think we miss in this discussion though, is what--if anything--happens to the unsung heroes of the album cover? I’ve always enjoyed album covers and liner notes as much as the next guy. Sure sometimes it remains…superfluous in nature, but it is the standard! Album covers exist for the same reasons that covers exist on any product for consumption: it adds to the aesthetic value and gives the product a unique identity—or, at least, attempts to do so

So, in the spirit of the superficiality being celebrated this week, I thought I would take a minute to list a handful (JUST A HANDFUL) of what I find to be some of the most beautiful, funny, apt, unique, or just plain ridiculous album covers in all the history of RECORDED TIME (not really). I find that these covers, in all their superficial glory, actually may add to the overall enjoyment of the finished product simply by existing. Also, to heighten the shallow nature being put on display, I’m just going to shut up and post them. No explanation. No discussion. Just look at the purdy pictures, will ya? Enjoy!


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"If you're gonna be a hero, you need to learn how to drive stick.": The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Right now, Sarah Connor Chronicles is really reminding me of Prison Break’s second season. Episodes full of characters travelling from one place to another, a lot of running away from somewhere or towards somewhere else, and scripts which spend far too much attention on exposition and not nearly enough on actual drama. Excluding the pilot, I’ve felt this of every Chronicles episode so far – while the plot has been (very) slowly building towards something potentially interesting, too much action has been devoted to this journey, which is a boring one at that. I’m getting a sense of the show’s wider mythology, but no sense that it can pull off compelling contained storylines.

For instance, this week’s episode chiefly concerned John getting separated from Sarah and Cameron. (That takes fifteen minutes to even happen – first we’re treated to a lot of repetitive bickering between the three principals.) We cut between John in the back of a truck and Sarah and Cameron searching for him, neither strand feeling like any more than a means to an end. I never believed John was in any danger, mostly because he was up against the most short-sighted Terminator ever. The climax, if you could call it that, put a wall and an now-inatimate Terminator between our separated heroes, resulting in maybe one minute of action and a whole lot of standing around. The situation was obviously supposed to be tense, but I felt nothing except frustration.

Meanwhile, Ellison continues to have the most boring job ever. I was barely even listening during his scenes, but I gathered that everyone thinks he’s crazy for pursuing a hopeless case. No surprise there. He had some scenes with Garret Dillahunt, an excellent actor whose presence I had hoped would liven up the proceedings. Not yet – but then he’s only just taken on the Terminator role, so I’ll give him another episode.

However, unless Dillahunt is an arresting enough villain to merit continued coverage, I’m done recapping this show. It’s not nearly as boring to watch as it is to write about.


Deeply Superficial Blog-a-Thon: The Superficial Pleasures of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was one of my favorite movies of last year, a long, langourous look at the weight of celebrity, the inevitability of tragedy and the perils of hero worship that couched all of these themes in a methodically paced revisionist Western. As fate would have it, the movie's full of deeply superficial pleasures too (it's just damn beautiful to look at), so it's a perfect week to revisit the film. Fortunately for you, the film, which was underseen in theaters but managed two Oscar nominations (for Casey Affleck's perfect performance as Robert Ford and Roger Deakins' striking cinematography), came to DVD today. Rent it, gather your friends, and talk about how Brad Pitt -- BRAD PITT!! -- has never been better.

Fellow Assassination fan Dustin Wellman has sent me these screencaps, so click through after the jump to revel in the film's beauty (click on each image to get a closer look). There are spoilers in some of them, but those spoilers are all in the overly literal title.

(That blurring around the edges is intentional. In the film, there are occasional passages where a narrator intones certain facts or theories about the life of Jesse James. These bits are filmed as if captured through the hazy gauze of memory.)

(Yes, that's Zooey Deschanel, who is, apparently, the Deeply Superficial Blog-a-Thon's official spokeswoman or something.)