Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dogfight

I just finished watching Dogfight, this old movie from the early 90's with River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. That was one of my favorite movies back when I was in high school. I used to rent it a lot back then, and watch it late into the night. But I've never seen it on DVD anywhere and it was by chance that I found it on Netflix, so it's been something like fifteen years since I've seen the thing.

I had liked it, originally, because River was in it and I was in love with him. But then I sort of fell in love with the movie itself. It's a very quiet little movie, and it has all these sweet awkward moments. This was also the movie where I first heard my favorite Bob Dylan song Don't Think Twice, It's Alright. That song became an obsession for a while, all on its own (and, like in the movie, my favorite time to play it over and over was at dawn).

But anyway, what was a shocker for me was that seeing it again after all this time brought back this huge tide of emotion. I could only describe it as being lovesick. Kinda like when you find a really old picture of an ex-boyfriend, or old friends that you will never see again.

I was a real romantic sort of kid back then, and I tended to idealize certain people. So it's not weird to say that River Phoenix was one of my very first loves. And I don't mean in that geeky screaming and crying for a celebrity sort of way. I never saw him as a famous person, really. It was more like I grew up with him, you know? I mean, the first time I saw him was in Stand By Me, and we were the same age, so I didn't see him as someone to have a crush on because that would be admitting I liked boys, and I wasn't ready for that (I did, however, have a crush on Kiefer Sutrherland, because he was older and sexy, so it was safe to like him).

Anyway, I'm not sure when my little crush on River started in earnest, but I do know I would try to watch all his movies, because I loved his acting. River always came off as so honest. No matter what character he was playing, he always seemed to be himself. There was this sense of feeling embarrassed by his performance, because it was like this was a guy that was actually going through whatever emotions or situations the movie called for, and sometimes it was almost like you were invading his privacy by watching. The only thing I can compare it to is watching those old Joy Division videos and thinking "Geez, this dude really means all this bleak shit he's singing about, and it's tearing him apart".

Eventually I did read up on River, and the whole love affair took off. I'd never heard of anyone who was so natural and into animal rights (this was before I got burnt out on that shit in college, obviously). I had this black and white picture of him on my wall right next to a picture of The Pixies and a little picture of Plaza Navona in Italy. So every night for years, those were the things I fell asleep staring at. In the picture he had shoulder length hair falling on his face, and he looked like some sad beautiful angel.

He died when I just started college. I heard about it at the mall, while looking at some earrings in Dillards. This guy I'd gone to the mall with mentioned nonchalantly that he had died of an overdose the day before, and wasn't that just the funniest thing, considering that he was a Vegan and whatever? He was about to laugh, but then he saw the look on my face and asked me what my fucking problem was, it was just another dumb actor that died. Then he did laugh, but this time it was directed at me, because my eyes got all watery. I remember feeling weird because I had had a crush on the guy and this was some sort of date, but even though I didn't want him to think I was ridiculous for getting all upset for the death "of another dumb actor" I couldn't help it.

That day after getting home I went to my room and looked at the picture of River on the wall and wondered what the hell to do. Idolize him as another dead celebrity? At the time, his death was kind of controversial, because people saw him as a hypocrite for always talking about living a pure life then dying of a drug overdose like a dirty junkie. But I didn't want to tear his picture down, and I didn't think he let me down or anything. In the end, I was just really sad. He was such a tremendous talent, and he was MINE, meaning someone of my generation, that was supposed to stand for me and people my age as an artist. I guess that's why a lot of people felt let down, but that was so unfair. All I could focus on was that he was gone, and I would never see him grow up with me and see what he would do with characters that would go through the same situations I would go through, years and years later.

That was such a long time ago. It's years and years later, and he is so much younger than I am now, and he'll always be. Not fair. It was so weird to remember what it was like to watch that movie, back when he was alive and I was younger than he was, and I could look up to him, because I did.

Well, anyway. I recommend Dogfight. It's still a sweet, quiet and awkward little movie, and it's amazing the way River could play a character so full of hurt. When he comes back from the war in the last scene, he has this look on his face that is so broken. You can tell that in the four years he was off in Vietnam he's seen and lived a lifetime's worth, and now he's just so tired. Wow. How could he do that? He was something like 19 years old. It was almost like he knew he didn't have that long.

But maybe I'm just being corny, I don't know. All I know is I loved River, and seeing him again after all this time made me miss all the movies I could have seen with him. Funny, I did end up seeing The Pixies live, and I did end up going to Italy and sitting at the Plaza Navona. But I never got to see River Phoenix again. He'll always be just that black and white picture of a young guy with shoulder length hair and a sad look on his face. Another dead, beautiful angel.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Juno

This is one of the movies that from the second it starts, you know exactly what kind of story this is. Juno is walking along in a cartoon world, drinking a gallon of Sunny Delight, to the beat of the goofy sweet All I Want is You by Barry Louis Polisar. With just that little intro the tone of the movie is set, and I found it never missed its own little beat.

The best part of Juno, without a doubt, is its voice. I’m now an official Diablo Cody fan. The dialogue is practically a character in itself! Every line made sense without being too darling or indy cool. I especially liked Juno’s friend, for some reason. There are so many teenaged girls that look and act just like that.

Juno and the teens around her come off as real teenagers. Not one of them looked like a stylist spent three and a half hours on their hair and make-up, ya know? Also, although Juno and her friends were not exactly the most popular people in school, they also weren’t the outcasts another kind of movie would have made them into. Why must teen movies always be so extreme? I don’t remember any one cool person in high school, or any one dork everyone picked on. That just doesn’t happen. Even Juno’s pregnancy was handled realistically. I loved the scenes where she’s walking down the hall with her big belly, and all the kids sort of part down the middle, looking kind of freaked out, but that’s about it.

If I had one problem with the entire story, it was with Vanessa. Why was she so undeveloped, especially when everyone else came off as real? Is Jennifer Garner a really bad actress or what? The only thing I can think was that Diablo wrote this character through the eyes of a confused little girl who saw Vanessa as an idealized female, the kind of person she felt safe giving her child to. I could understand that, I guess. I loved the way Juno would stare at her. It was almost like a crush, really. I wonder why other movies never really play on this theme. Girls idolize older girls the way boys idolize older boys, but you hardly ever see that in film.

Besides that, I really did like the inclusion of Mark and Vanessa. It was nice to see what Juno and her friends could turn into. Mark was such a great character, my favorite of the whole film. He was the first I’ve scene that truly felt like someone of my generation brought to life on-screen, for good or bad. Ours was a generation with very real talent that sort of imploded on itself too soon, so that we all felt a little taken advantage of by commercialization. I mean, remember the models on the runway back in the 90’s, in $800 dollar flannel? Ugh. Mark showed all that frustration with every word he said, every movement he made. He just looked so tired. You could feel how desperately he wanted to befriend Juno and prove he was cool, if only because he sorta got stuck acting like a teenager. Vanessa, meanwhile, was stuck trying to be an adult (did ya catch her standing there in her faded Alice in Chains shirt? Didn’t you think the name of the band was somehow appropriate?)

And then there’s Juno. I love this girl. I love the fact that she’s small. Like, she’s not some ambitious Holden Caulfield character. Hell, she’s not even quite Thora Birch in Ghost World. She’s just this smart kid that likes to listen and play music and has a confused crush on her best friend. It is only the fact that she’s in a grown up predicament that makes her have to think and do grown up things. I love it when Mark and Juno start to really connect, and you’re led to believe they have all this stuff in common. But then he tells her he’s not ready to be a father, and instantly the connection is broken. She pulls away from him with this horrified look on her face and yells “Yes you are! You’re… OLD!!!”

Ellen Page has this amazing face. She was the one good thing about Hard Candy. There’s something about her expression that looks hurt but hopeful at the same time. Her exchange with Vanessa at the mall, and later with her dad, just break your heart.

Michael Cera is good too. Something about the way he’s lit in this movie makes him look like some sort of angel in jogging shorts. But like I said, every actor is really good in this (except for Jennifer Garner, the jury’s still out on her). So when this happens, I can only think that it’s because this is one hell of a good script.

It is unfortunate that practically the whole movie is given away in the previews. Why the hell do they do that? But it’s still worth it to go see it. You walk out happy and with this insane need to buy the soundtrack. Buy it, it’s amazing too.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson is always an interesting director and Daniel Day-Lewis is always an interesting actor, so it came as no shock that this was one hell of an interesting movie. What came as a surprise, however, is how layered and subtle it all was. Even now, I still find it hard to say what exactly the film was about, because all these ideas still come whenever I think about it.

Basically, I think the movie is summed up in the title. I haven’t read Oil! by Upton Sinclair, but from what I gather the movie was only loosely based on the story, so I don’t feel so bad if I totally miss the target when I say the movie is about blood ties, as in family, religion, and, well, violence.

The character of Plainview (played by Daniel Day Lewis) is incredibly multi-layered. He is anything but a “Plainview”. Here is a man who in the beginning of the film adopts a child (H.W., played by Dillon Freasier) orphaned by the death of his father at an accident in one of his derricks. There is a touching moment during the first half hour of the film when he stares at the child as he sits in a little crate all alone and crying. They both seem so alone in the world, and when the child finally grows comfortable with Plainview and starts caressing his face, one is led to believe they have established a father and son bond grown from circumstance and loneliness. This idea is further cemented when years pass and the two work together as a sales team, pitching oil the way old-school door to door salesmen pitched encyclopedias.

But the fact remains that they are not “blood”. Neither, as it turns out, is Plainview’s long lost half-brother, who shows up in the second half of the film just as Plainview is growing prosperous. God, who also makes a play for Plainview (in the form of Paul/Eli Sunday) also comes up empty handed. Plainview does end up getting baptized, but only to further his ambitions.

Speaking of Paul/Eli Sunday (played by the wonderful Paul Dano), here is a character who is almost Plainview’s opposite. Here is a character who has “blood” (a loving family, belief in God) yet he forsakes both his biological father (this is one ugly scene) and, in the end, God himself.

Or is it that “blood” has forsaken Sunday and Plainview? Sunday, so confident in his life goals of building a prosperous church, fails to see how his ambition tears apart everything he already had. Meanwhile, Plainview’s lack of “blood” makes him doubt those who loved him, including a “brother” who was a loyal friend, a community who believed in him, and the “son” that grew to love him.

It’s interesting that the one pure and good character in the entire film is Mary, Sunday’s youngest sister and later H.W.’s wife. She is the only female character in the entire film, and she is also the one the oil derrick is named after. It’s almost as if by naming the derrick after her, Plainview seems to inherently understand that it is not what he does that is bad, it’s the way he goes about his life that is his downfall.

The movie is a beautiful thing to see. It looks great, and the soundtrack works so well that you don’t even realize that the first part of the film has no dialogue. Sound is a character in the film. There is the amazing soundtrack (by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood), first of all. Then there is Plainview’s speaking voice, a thing that needs to be heard to be believed. Day-Lewis got the tone by listening to recordings from the late 19th century, and also from watching Huston’s the The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Finally, there is the moment when H.W. loses his hearing in an explosion. All sound is gone, and it is as if only then can you finally see what is going on with the characters.

Wow, what a film. Anderson keeps growing as a director, quite a feat considering he started out so strong in the first place. But you can see a definite maturity from film to film. From Boogie Nights to Magnolia, to Punch Drunk Love to this (I don’t count Hard Eight because supposedly it was re-edited against his wishes), there is a definite loss of innocence that is just heartbreaking. I look forward to more of his films.