Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Oscars that were: the 2007 Oscars, Plus a Review of "There Will Be Blood"

The 2007 Oscars legitimized 1980s-90s upstarts Joel & Ethan Coen (who's FARGO only managed Actress and Screenplay) with an awards sweep; gave a rare Oscar for a foreign-language performance to Marion Cotillard (her surprise win explained after-the-fact: there was a major under-the-radar publicity campaign being run for her); and gave Daniel Day-Lewis a second Oscar, solidifying the world's belief that he is one of the screen's greatest actors.

The film that was getting the most attention was NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, but had it not been for NO COUNTRY, THERE WILL BE BLOOD would easily have been the Best Picture front runner; the Coens were "due," however, so there wasn't even a whisper of an upset. And certainly, NO COUNTRY received the lion's share of the Best Film awards, but time will tell whether BLOOD will overtake it in the "critical" long run.

JUNO was another highly discussed film (and Best Picture nominee) and had Ellen Page pulled off a surprise Best Actress win, it would have solidified its heir-apparent status to LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE [Diablo COdy's win just wasn't enough]. Instead, what seems to have happened is the "little movie" and the "foreign film" both of which have always been slighted by Oscar have morphed into the runaway success story of 2008's SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. The other little-movie-that could of 2007, ONCE, was given a shot in the arm, when couple and film co-stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, stole the show with their win of Best Song.

ATONEMENT ran a successful Oscar campaign in terms of reaping nominations, but only managed a Best Score win. The film seems to have lasted in memory more for a green dress than anything else. Plus, it has the dubious distinction of being one of the ten worst-rated Best Picture nominees of all-time in Leonard Maltin's annual guide (with a ** rating). And for better or worse, Maltin's ratings have a great deal of historical influence.

The shut-out of the year was Sean Penn's INTO THE WILD. Although it got some attention, it was left out of Picture/Director categories and received no Oscars. Early front runner AMERICAN GANGSTER was shut out of Picture/Director as well. Additionally, Sideny Lumet's first hit in years, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD received no nominations.

The Oscars frequently share-the-wealth, but of interest was the fact that only one movie managed multiple acting nominations: MICHAEL CLAYTON-- all others received just one acting nomination. The last time that this happened was movie year 1935 (with MUTINY ON THE COUNTY, the only multiple acting nominee)!

Veterans Hal Holbrook and Ruby Dee scored their first Oscar nominations and Julie Christie was easily the front-runner for Best Actress (it would have been her second Oscar).

This awards year will also be noted for the fact that all four acting winners-- Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Javier Bardem, and Tilda Swinton-- are all non-Americans. The last time that happened was the 1964 Oscars (Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, Peter Ustinov, and Lila Kerdrova).

What loomed large over the Oscars though was the writer's strike, ending just-in-the-nick-of-time for the Oscars, but spoiling the entire awards season (including the cancelling of the Golden Globes ceremony). The Vanity Fair Oscar party, the au currant place to be after the Oscars, was cancelled as well.

THE CEREMONY was hosted by Jon Stewart, who, barring a major success from Hugh Jackman this year, just may become the go-to guy for the Oscars. He ran the show reminiscent of the old Johnny Carson Oscars, with equal parts humor and class. The show itself was marred only by few genuine “moments” (although there were some). It was Stewart himself (at Gil Cates' request) who engineered the best speech of the night by bringing out slighted ONCE singer-songwriter Markéta Irglová to speak after she’d been cut off unjustly. Both “parts” of the ONCE Best Song acceptances were the highlight of the show. “Make art” said Glen Hansard; “no matter how far out your dreams are, it's possible,” said Markéta Irglová. And the performing of “Falling Slowly” was so charming: love that Glen Hansard used the damaged guitar from the film. The acting winners though all each had a clippable moment: Daniel Day-Lewis kneeling before presenter "Queen" Helen Mirren; Marion Cotillard's exuberant take on Los Angeles being a city of angels; Javier Bardem's speaking in Spanish to his mother (in the audience); and Tilda Swinton's odd jokes about her agent's behind resembling Oscar and something about George Clooney's wearing his Batman costume "with the nipples." Additionally, the use of old Oscar footage (which dated back to the 1939/40 ceremony and Hattie McDaniel) was well played and gave the show the sense of history it always seems to be missing, plus the last vestige of Alfred Hitchcock-honoring occured with art director Robert Boyle receipt of his Honorary Oscar. The Coen borthers speech(es) were cocky and mostly pointless, but, then again, it would have been worse if they suddenly weren’t themselves, just to please “Oscar.”

There Will Be Blood was the also-ran at the 2007 Oscars. Based on the novel by Upton Sinclair, it tells the tale of an "oilman" whose ambitions replace his own sense of humanity. The film starts out in 1898, eventually shuttles to 1911 (where most of the story takes place) and offers a twenty-odd minute coda in 1927-29. We follow the oilman's path in which he has several opportunities to "make good" but who can only see truth in the oil itself, until there is none of it left. Daniel Day-Lewis plays oilman Daniel Plainview and our introduction of him sets up the tone of the piece and provides valuable information about the man.

As the film opens, the audience is struck by it's most unusual score. Reminiscent of the opening music of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, it too creates a sense of the otherworldly. Daniel is almost instantly branded a sinister man, and we come to compare him to the devil himself at various intervals in the movie. In this wordless opener, Daniel is seen digging for silver/gold, by himself. He has an accident and must pull himself out of the hole to reap the benefits of his discovery. Thus the film offers the two main character traits of Daniel: his go-it-alone dislike of his fellow man, and his boundless drive.

We elapse four years and see that Daniel has realized he needs help to reach his goals. Throughout the film we see Daniel's frequent "necessity" in bringing in others (very few at a time) to help him. Daniel strikes oil, then that strange musical score kicks in, with its sense of evil. We see, from above, through an overhead shot, a great pool of oil, it's blackness frightening. Soon thereafter, disaster strikes again.

When we hear the music for the third time-- it's when Daniel (now accompanied by his "son" H. W.-- actually an orphan) finds another rich deposit of oil. When nothing immediate happens there is an eerie sense that this time there will be a series of calamities-- and there is.

Daniel Day-Lewis and local preacher Paul Dano are the whole show in a nearly two-person story. A few important characters come in and out along the way but it is these two who we follow most closely. Both Day-Lewis and Dano give hearty, bold performances. The command of the screen tips to Day-Lewis's favor, but then again, his character is the dominant one anyway.

The film is filled with unforgettable scenes of Daniel's rage against humanity. His dismissal of man is complete when he runs across Dano's Eli-- who Daniel knows to be a false prophet. His early dismissal of Eli's mass is both a blasphemy and a confirmation that man is to be manipulated (and can be) by the stronger among us: "one goddamn helluva show" compliments Daniel.

The epic scale of the film does not overtake its small cast of characters. It's about the charcters; the land, the oil, the rural life is just the background. But it's an often barren landscape and certainly a remote one, which fits with the piece as a whole.

The final sequence of the film has a certain redundancy... the audience could have guessed at this turn of events or an approximation thereof. However, on the surface we have audience-pleasing dialogue, rich with memorable one-liners, and, structurally, various comeuppances to offer a complete (if openended) finale, to forgive the extra length.

On the whole, the movie has a cold detachment. It could be argued that it's coldness is fitting per Daniel's character, but that's far too simplistic. We watch Daniel and Eli as if under a microscope. The storyline is superfluous to the raw character study. The third main character, H.W., has an interesting trajectory but its all in the purpose to show us more of what Daniel is like. This can be said of the brother character, that shows up in the third act, as well.

There Will Be Blood is rich in motifs and deliberate in filmic devices of framing, editing, pace; so much so that it seems endlessly worthy of study. Like a Hitchcock film, it's entertainment value (ponderous as it might be compared to Hitchcock's suspense) will make it a favorite of all future film scholars. It is a movie for which everyone will want to have an opinion, none of whom will dismiss it outright. It's the kind of movie you might buy stock in for its longevity.

There Will Be Blood (2007): An atmospheric if cold character study that holds the attention if not the heart.


Jeremy said...

"There Will be Blood" is one of those films that deserves repeated viewing. I admit I too found it cold at first viewing, I haven't seen it since, but I intend to soon. P.T. Anderson is a director who should not be dismissed. As of now I still think "No Country for Old Men" is the better film, and I also think it's a film that deserves repeated viewing. I think the Oscars last year was one of the best I've seen when it came to entertainment value and also when it came to deserving films that were nominated. This year I found so many of the nominated films too average. I doubt we'll be discussing "Slumdog Millionaire" or "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" in years to come as we will with TWBB and NCFOM. I also agree Jon Stewart is the host to beat.

Oneliner said...

My review of NO COUNTRY is imminent... But I'll say that I give just a slight edge to BLOOD. Although truth-be-told, they were BOTH a bit too obscure for my taste. I did, however, enjoy re-watching them. And I'm sure a third viewing of each is in my future. They will be around for a long time. I don't think I'll ever watch B BUTTON again... It'll be one of those movies that future generations have heard of, but won't have seen. I wasn't huge on SLUMDOG but don't mind it's inevitable Best Picture win-- foreign (or OK semi-foreign) fare gets so little Oscar attention. If Hugh Jackman isn't amazing I hope they bring Jon Stewart back. Last years show, despite the ratings, was really good.