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August 14, 2007
“Things We Lost in the Fire”

Writte by Allan Loeb

“They call it shock but I think it's something else. Something so strong that it registers as nothing. Like the first few seconds of being scalded with boiling water. It's something...well, it's beyond rage -- beyond sadness. And don't take this the wrong way but seeing you made me hate the world. And it feels good to feel.”

“Things We Lost in the Fire” was one of those famous “best unproduced scripts” floating around for quite some time, and it’s easy to see why. Allan Leob’s writing debut (he now has a slew of stuff coming out) is a tight, effective drama, and a potential actors’ showcase of the highest order. It’s awfully confusing that it was ever in development hell. It’s a perfect Oscar contender, reads like a critics’ darling and even though it occasionally does read a little been there, done that, its sincerity and characters manage to help it overcome most of the expected clichés.

The story is broken into four segments: the seasons. We start in summer, watching the Burke family, comprised of Steven Burke (to be portrayed by David Duchovney) and wife Audrey (Halle Berry), and their two children, Harper and Dory, return from a summer vacation. It’s a happy family, and one with a good marriage at its core. The only real issue is Steven’s friendship with childhood best friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), a heroin user for as long as most people can remember. Steven remains his only real friend, and Jerry adores Steven for it.

Needless to say, and I don’t feel it’s a spoiler since the trailer gives it away, tragedy befalls Steven. A desperate Audrey offers Jerry a place to stay in their home, if he gets his act together. She tells him that he was her husband’s secret, and it’ll help her grieve to know more about him. The rest of the script follows Jerry kicking the habit to take care of this second chance he’s been given, while Audrey slowly but surely begins coming to terms with her husband’s death.

There’s a lot to like about this screenplay. For starters, the issue of vengeance upon Steven’s killer is never once mentioned. It can be an obnoxious cliché and it ruins a good many dramas when it is brought into the equation. Audrey, her children and Jerry are all wonderful crafted characters. They avoid indie film pratfalls and melodramatic Oscar screaming, and the result could be a movie that earns all the emotions it evokes from its audience – an increasing rarity in today’s Oscar season.

On a side note, allow me to celebrate the ethnically diverse casting for the film. I imagine Halle Berry sighed quite the sigh of relief when she got the part. Maybe now she’ll turn her career around after a slew of extremely poor choices. If you look at her work since “Monster’s Ball,” it’s almost all embarrassing (save for, maybe, TV’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”). This is a great, baity role for Berry. She never really gets to unleash the hysterics you might expect from such a part, but she does get plenty of great scenes.

And when you have an actress with great material, you could do a lot worse than putting her opposite Benicio Del Toro. This will be Del Toro’s first performance since his extended cameo in “Sin City,” and it’s another strong choice for the actor. Like Berry, it’s a baity role if ever there was one. It’s the kind of part Del Toro can devour in his sleep.

I’ve never seen any of Susanne Bier’s work, but this will be her first English language film. Forgive me for being skeptical, but the trailer does not inspire my confidence in her. Mainly because scenes such as Del Toro and Berry nearly kissing or cuddling in bed never take place in the draft I read. They seem a little too forced and typical from where I’m sitting. Early word on the film seems to indicate such alteration is still in the same vein as the screenplay, so fingers crossed it won’t smack of Oscar desperation.

Overall, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is certainly one to watch this fall, particularly for its two lead performances. Leob’s written quite the delicate debut, and I hope to see him continue on this path and get better and stronger from here on out. An Oscar nomination for his debut certainly would help, and it would be well deserved.

August 08, 2007
“There Will Be Blood”

Written by Paul Thomas Anderson

“The oil-game is like heaven. Everyone is called but few are chosen.”


If you had asked me at the end of 2006 what the best movie of 2007 would be, I would have guessed P.T. Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” Not only has Anderson proven himself, in my opinion, the best of the late-90s crop of emerging filmmakers with the one-two-three of “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love,” but he also seemed willing to stretch himself more than the rest of those filmmakers. He followed two solid epics with a little romantic comedy that could be considered a contender for best of the genre this decade. That Anderson’s next film would be a period piece based on Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!,” what more could a filmgoer want?

A personal pet peeve of mine about the late-90s filmmakers is how scared they all seem to be of adaptations (and of course, working). Look at M. Night Shyamalan, who turned down a project perfectly suited for him in “Life of Pi” because he was against adaptations. Look at the likes of Wes Anderson, who only stretches as far as his self-contained cinematic world seems to allow. I really like both Shyamalan and Wes Anderson, but neither holds a candle to P.T.A. for me. None do, and there’s a good reason for that.

The story of “There Will Be Blood,” epic only in the time it spans, follows an oil prospector, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his adopted son H.W. They’ve set up an oil plantation in Little Boston, California, having bought the land from a small, poor family led by its strange fifteen year old son Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), already a radical Christian preacher. Eli claims to be a prophet, and his church of the Third Revelation has already begun taking off in a frightening cult-like manner.

The story’s main thrust is the battle between Plainview and Eli, and it’s just delicious. Plainview is a troubled man, conflicted but caring in an odd, self-serving way. Eli is charismatic, incredibly intelligent and incredibly conniving. Both are horrifically selfish and greedy, and the back and forth between them will be one of the many joys I predict this movie to offer. Day-Lewis has always been brilliant, and this could be another jewel (and Oscar) in his collection of amazing performances.

Paul Dano, who hit his stride last year in “Little Miss Sunshine,” has the undesirable job of taking on one of the cinema’s truly titanic acting personas. We’ve seen how few actors can handle that prospect; even DiCaprio suffered beside Day-Lewis. If Dano can pull it off, and sell to the audience that this fifteen year old kid frightens a man as wise (and passionately violent) as Plainview, Dano could easily be this year’s Best Supporting Actor winner. It’s a great role, but it’s also incredibly difficult.

The draft of “There Will Be Blood” I have runs about 153 pages. It begins with a stunning, wordless sequence of Plainview rising from nothing to powerful prospector in a mere five pages. If handled as it’s written, it could be one of Anderson’s most stunning directorial achievements – at least, until the film’s stunning finale between Plainview and Sunday. It is the least-Altman/Scorsese-inspired work from Anderson, and thank God for it.

Some have made mention that the film could be considered a part of Terrence Malick’s wheelhouse, but the script doesn’t particularly lead me to believe this is true. It’s an incredibly focused screenplay, one critical event leading into the next. Where Malick’s work is quite poetic and ethereal, Anderson’s script reads like a script with places to go and names to take. One thing I am sure it will have in common with Malick is the stunning technical perfection (just look at that gorgeous YouTube trailer), and I’m sure this will clean up the tech nominations left and right.

Ironically, one place I sense Oscar weakness for “There Will Be Blood” is in the Best Picture category. Plainview, while oddly sympathetic, is a cold bastard a lot of the time. The violence mentioned in the title is also quite gut-wrenching, although not frequent. The “blood” of the title also refers to being washed by the blood of the lamb and redemption, a common theme in Anderson’s work since his debut, “Sydney” (a.k.a. “Hard Eight”). The screenplay’s conclusion is harrowing, disturbing and utterly perfect; it seals the deal that this is a potential masterpiece and a classic waiting to appear on the big screen. But what makes it so great is exactly why AMPAS might not go for it. Although, let’s be fair: look at the Best Picture winners of the last three years: the third part of a fantasy trilogy, a Martin Scorsese gangster movie and, perhaps most surprising of all, “Crash.” Maybe AMPAS is changing and will embrace films such as this and “No Country for Old Men.” One can only pray that they do.

“There Will Be Blood” may very well turn out to be Anderson’s best film so far. And that’s the best part: so far. He’s only 37 years old. May we have decades upon decades of work such as this from him to come. If he continues like this, his name will be right up there beside the heroes he’s emulated in the past. In fact, he may even wind up above them all.