Two Trips (Back) To The Movies: Reviews – “Magnolia” (1999) 8.8.15 and “Short Cuts” (1993) 8.9.15

This was the second film I saw as part of the Portland Art Museum’s tribute to the works of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson titled “The Art of Reinvention: Paul Thomas Anderson & His Influences”. As mentioned in my last review of the last film I saw as part of this tribute – “Boogie Nights” (1997), this great auteur just may be the single most important writer/director to have had as much influence on my developing my own vocabulary in relation to film as an art form. Both “Boogie Nights” and this film, “Magnolia”, have had such a residual impact on me over the years since they came out that even as a I get older and both I and the films age, they still after repeated viewings to this day stand the test of time and are two films that I would still place in my top 10 favorite films of all time. Along with that I should also note that no other director in this history of cinema other than Anderson has more than one film that remains in my top 10.

“Magnolia” still remains the most ambitious work in the films of the Anderson cannon. It’s a sprawling, tapestry woven, 3 hour plus ensemble piece that looks into the lives of a dozen or so characters that inhabit the San Fernando Valley area of California (an area which plays host to almost all of Anderson’s work to date). Many of whom meet by mere “chance” under circumstances that seem purely coincidental. There’s the sleazy, misogynist motivational speaker (played by a career best, Academy Award nominated Tom Cruise); a lonely child prodigy (Jeremy Blackman); an elderly, dying, misanthrope (Jason Robards, in his final performance which seems fitting but also incredibly brave); his cheating, much younger trophy wife (played by Julianne Moore); their at-home nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) assigned with the arduous task of tracking down Cruise’s character; A boozing, cocaine addled young woman (Melora Walters); a long stand running TV show host (Philip Baker Hall) who also happens to be dying as well; a bumbling, lonely, big-hearted cop (played by John C. Reilly in a role that incited the most laughs of all of the film’s characters); and a former quiz kid superstar, now middle-aged and tormented from the years of disappointment that followed (William H. Macy). The various connections between these people and the coincidences and twists of fate that link them, are what drives the rest of this epically structured film.

Along with biblical allusions, “Magnolia” makes no secret of grappling with a plethora of large themes and issues such as the meaning of life, the nature of evil, chance, strange encounters, intersecting paths, and the ties of human connection. To me, what makes such a hugely ambitious film work so well, is Anderson’s ability to portray these themes by staying focused on the minute details of all of his characters’ bruised, tormented, inner lives. While also maintaining an unwavering empathy with all of them, no matter how broken they are. Anderson humanizes the film’s villainous-like characters but doesn’t necessarily side with them, that he leaves for the victimized and misunderstood characters. It’s a revealing portrait of the interrogation of family and it seethes with anger, pain, and sadness. But in doing it’s also presented with an underlying feeling of each of them staggering towards something like hope or redemption. Which why I’ve always referred to it as “the most depressing feel good drama ever made”. And then of course there’s “the scene” that had everyone scratching their head the first time they saw it – the remarkably photographed “rain of frogs” sequence. Which the young quiz kid Stanley/Jeremy Blackman sums up rather nicely – “this is something that happened”, that speaks to the philosophical tone of the film. A sequence that further drives home Anderson’s point that permeates itself throughout much of the film that there are infinite possibilities in life. “Magnolia” still had the same effect on me now, 16 years later, as it did on me in my late teenage years. And this revisit of the film proved once again why I hold both it and it’s predecessor, “Boogie Nights”, as two of my top 10 favorite films of all time. Not just because I’ve formed somewhat of a “relationship” or “identity” with them over the subsequent years since their release. But because I can still see myself within them just as much if not more now as an adult than I could back then when they first came out. And that’s really saying something.

[A+]

Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” seems almost like the perfect film to follow-up “Magnolia” with. As the two share a lot in comparison. So much so that one could say Paul Thomas Anderson took a lot of the same ideas that Altman played with just 6 years prior, but presented them in an entirely different way. Which shouldn’t come as any surprise given that Anderson cites Altman has one of his top 5 greatest influences. I had seen “Short Cuts” years ago on DVD and even though it came out before “Magnolia” I hadn’t watched it until after. That said, it felt like a companion piece in many ways, which is only befitting being in that it was playing as part of the Portland Art Museum’s tribute to Paul Thomas Anderson and his influences. Whose lineup basically each weekend shows one of the seven of Anderson’s films along with the films that both inspired and influenced him most. With this being the only other film playing over this 3rd weekend where they screened “Magnolia” just the day prior.

Like “Magnolia”, Robert Altman’s opus, is also one of the shortest-seeming long movies of the 1990’s, clocking in at just about the same running time as “Magnolia” in just over 3 hours long (but boy do the hours breeze by). And also like “Magnolia” (or shall I be saying “Magnolia like it”?) it follows a rather large plot and character thread that also focuses on the lives of number of different characters living in Los Angeles, where everyone is on the point of cracking up and random tragedies and/or events seem to be taking place among them. Like Anderson did with “Magnolia”, Altman assembles a once-in-a-lifetime cast: there’s the late Jack Lemmon as an estranged father, a young Julianne Moore, a painter whose marriage to her suspecting husband (Matthew Modine) seems to be in the fringes. Another couple’s lives, played by Bruce Davison and Andie MacDowell, is immediately thrown for a whirlwind as they face an unsuspecting event that shocks them with grief. Then there’s the relationship between both the late Chris Penn, a blue-collar worker, and his wife, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who runs a successful phone sex business (which the audience seemed to laugh at every time she was on-screen) and their married friends played by both a rather young and very funny Robert Downey, Jr., a Hollywood special effects make up artist and his significant other played by Lily Taylor. Tim Robbins is equally as great as the sleazy, police officer husband (one can only imagine Anderson’s cop character in “Magnolia” played by John C. Reilly was inspired by this, but written in a much different way) who cheats on his wife with Frances McDormand’s character (who’s ex-husband of her own, played by Peter Gallagher, seems to still want something from her). And then lastly we have the drinking, trailer park couple, played by both the great musician and actor Tom Waits and comedic actress Lily Tomlin, who share some of the best chemistry and scenes together.

“Short Cuts” is an interesting counterpart to both “Magnolia” and also a film that Altman did just a year earlier in 1992’s “The Player”. While being like it, it more or less cuts away from the movie business whereas that film focused solely around it. But both of which probe into the strange lives of other Los Angelinos, with its equally as intricate, inter-woven plot lines and focus on too many characters to count. “Short Cuts” stands out because it is what one would call quintessential Altman as it mirrors the “template” of films like these that he is most well known for starting with 1975’s “Nashville”, which some still consider to be his best work, which I can’t certainly argue against, but the film’s template arguably paved way for other films like it that Altman would go on to explore late into his career like “The Player”, this one, and what would ultimately be Altman’s last film – 2006’s “A Prairie Home Companion”. Altman is somewhat of the master at juggling various story lines among a bevy of different characters (like Paul Thomas’ earlier work) and there is no finer example of this, at least in the humble opinion of this writer, that shows the different, sometimes unfortunate circumstances, that bring seemingly desperate characters together who on the outside reflect a facade but when given access to who they really are on the inside, we get to see something far deeper.

[A-]

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Boogie Nights” (1997) 8.1.15

The Portland Art Museum is showing a career retrospective of a writer-director whose work was single-handedly responsible in my formative years as a young teenager in my quest of developing my own vocabulary of film. THE Paul Thomas Anderson (who I still call by his original name). To others he goes by PT Anderson, or simply PTA. “Boogie Nights” and Anderson’s follow-up “Magnolia” (1999) I consider to be my generation’s “Godfather Parts 1 and 2”. I vividly remember seeing “Boogie Nights” for the first time after taking my first ever film studies class at the age of 16. While I liked it at the time, I could never imagine that over the years, as I got older and grew to understand it more (that and being infatuated with it from a film lover’s standpoint), the impact it would have on me. Like with maybe a dozen or so other movies that I hold in such a high regard as it it’s almost as if, through time and various re-watchings of it, I’ve developed almost a “relationship” with it. One that I mean in the utmost literal sense of the word. As I continue to grow older and time passes it’s become one of those films that when I revisit it from time to time, I get flashbacks from my childhood along with a constant reminder of why I developed such a deep appreciation for film in the first place. This screening of it was one of the most “special” in that it was playing as a retrospective honoring Anderson and his body of work at one of the most state of the art theaters in Portland at an auditorium that sits inside of the art museum. Not only that, but it was my first time seeing it as an adult with a meetup group I started (click on the link below the review for more details). All of whom are big time movie buffs, some even more so than myself, and I was interested to find out if it had the same kind of impact on them as it does and still has on me. Which became apparent with this viewing, my first viewing of it on the big screen since it came out 18 years ago (can you believe its been that long?). After an introduction by the museum’s curator, seated among a half to two-thirds 375-person capacity theater, the house lights went down and a feeling of euphoria rushed over me as I buckled myself in for the next 2 and a half hours. I’m guessing that most of you have seen the picture, whether it was in the nineties when it first came out, or like me, have continued to revisit it over the years.

So I will keep the synopsis brief. The story revolves around the adult film industry covering from the mid seventies through the mid eighties. Through the film’s incredible opening tracking shot through a nightclub we meet the film’s many colorful cast of characters (still in my opinion the best ensemble cast ever assembled on-screen). There’s the film’s patriarchal porn director Jack Horner (played by Burt Reynolds who won a deserving Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for his performance), the matriarchal mother figure and porn actress (Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress Julianne Moore), porn stars Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), as well as a number of others involved in Horner’s production company of X-rated films. Buck (Don Cheadle), Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), among a slew of other notable character actor’s who are interwoven into the story like Thomas Jane, Paul Thomas Anderson regular Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, Luis Guzman, Macy’s wife – real life porn star Nina Hartley (who scenes produce some of the films more funny moments). But at the epicenter of the film is Eddie Adams (aka “Dirk Diggler”) played by the relatively new at the time (at least in the film industry) Mark Wahlberg (still his best performance to date imo). Reynolds’ Jack Horner “discovers” Eddie one day and realizes he possesses “a gift” that could elevate both of their careers in terms of what he could potentially offer the adult film industry. That’s basically the setup. And the film goes on to explore Eddie’s subsequent rise and fall to fame.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is still just as relevant and influential as it was at the time of its release 18 years ago. And I’ll tell you why – first and foremost – it was the film to launch the careers of almost every actor involved in it (with the exception of Burt Reynolds of course). Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, etc. It launched all of their careers and made many of them household names in the years that followed. It’s also the strongest debut from a writer-director (Anderson was only 27 at the time he made it) who would go on to be one of the most revered and beloved filmmakers in the independent film movement (second to maybe Quentin Tarantino). It’s one of the few films that has the PTA’s signature stamp on almost every shot of the film. The second thing I want to point out is that the film’s soundtrack composed of some of the best and most recognizable songs from the eras in which it portrays, really adds a nice component as it makes you literally almost feel like you’re living in the period in which the film depicts. It’s also one of the few films, at least to me, that perfectly represents the “rise and fall” genre of films, even taking into account films that preceded it almost in the decade before it like Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (1980) or Brian DePalma’s version of “Scarface” (1983). As well as it being a critique on the nature of celebrity with Eddie Adams’/Dirk Diggler’s rise in the seventies as a young up-and-comer (no pun intended) to his fall in the early eighties when his celebrity leads up to become a narcissistic bigot. A man so in love with himself that he doesn’t see the world crumbling out from underneath him. It’s a great character study with a spectacular performance by Wahlberg that’s only matched by Anderson’s pitch perfect recreation of the time in which he depicts. “Boogie Nights” has been embedded and etched into my memory forever, and from time to time will continue to pop up as it has over the years as a constant reminder of why I fell in love with film as an art form in the first place. In a film considered by many, including myself, to still be Paul Thomas Anderson’s greatest masterpiece.

[A+]

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights @ Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium

Saturday, Aug 1, 2015, 4:00 PM

Whitsell Auditorium
1219 SW Park Avenue Portland, OR

5 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

The Portland Art Museum is doing a career retrospective of who is arguably one of the greatest directors in contemporary cinema – THE Paul Thomas Anderson. Starting this weekend with “Hard Eight” and ending in September with last year’s “Inherent Vice” along with a number of other different films from some of his biggest influences. Of all of them …

Check out this Meetup →

DVD Review – “Big Eyes” 4.13.15

If you had of asked me a year ago whether or not I’d ever watch a Tim Burton film again my answer would probably have been no. In charting the director’s career trajectory, in the past decade or so, he’s made one “dud” after another. Becoming somewhat of a sell out. The type of commercial director that I usually try to stay as far away from as possible. Sure he’s single-handedly responsible for making some of film’s most iconic films ranging from “Beetlejuice” (1988), to what I call the Keaton/Nicholson “Batman” (1989), “Edward Scissorhands” (1990), to what’s still my favorite of Burton’s films – 1994’s “Ed Wood”. Since then, almost a full twenty years ago, he hasn’t made a single good film other than 2003’s “Big Fish” which I thoroughly enjoyed but mostly because it had that “classic” early Burton feel. He’s the master of the fairy tale and one could easily argue he created his own style and niche within the filmmaking industry. But following that film, he managed to somehow lose his touch, for lack of a better expression. Especially in more recent years with film’s like his atrocious “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” remake (1995) and “Alice in Wonderland”(2010). Amidst a slew of other “family friendly” films which has pretty much become his trademark at this point in his career. But even despite of my admitted disliking of where his career path has gone over these past several years. His new film, “Big Eyes”, looked like something entirely different outside of the current Burton universe that at this point we’ve almost come to expect from the director. What interested me about this film, and which was essentially my sole reason for seeing it, was the casting of its two central leads in both Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. Both actors of whom I deeply admire. Then when I saw that both actors were nominated for Golden Globes in the Best Actress and Actor categories respectively, I decided with some apprehension to give the film a shot.

“Big Eyes” first introduces us to Margaret (played by Adams), a 1950’s Northern California housewife who for reasons that aren’t entirely spelled out, the implication is that she is unhappy in her current marriage, so she moves her and her daughter to San Francisco to start a new life for themselves. Margaret is a painter, and has a certain style in both form and self-expression that is both unique and singular to her. She paints young children that are sad and wide-eyed, eyes that look like over-sized jelly beans that like many artists, she seems to do for the love of the art form itself with no real particular desire for any sort of notoriety. It is by a chance encounter that she meets a fellow artist, a man named Walter (played by Waltz) one day while trying to sell her work. Walter comes across as charming, handsome, and very charismatic. She sees him as being somewhat well established within the art community. And before long the two wind up getting married. Walter takes on the role as art dealer, and encourages Margaret to focus solely on her paintings, and explains that he would like to team up as any husband and wife should on the path to what he sees as major success. Along the way we meet a rival art dealer (played by the always welcomed but underused Jason Schwartzmann), a San Francisco news writer (Danny Huston), as well as a critic for the New York Times (Terence Stamp). The couple’s career really starts to soar and take off. But there’s just one problem. Margaret finds out that Walter is taking credit for her work. And even despite her unhappiness with this idea of him accepting all of the credit from the art world, she continues to paint her singular style portraits, because she sees it, in benefits them both. Financially speaking of course. But as the popularity grows with her work, along does a sense of shame and fear that their “cover up” is not only illegal but a secret that as the film progresses, only becomes deeper and deeper in terms of its deceit and manipulation. Until Margaret decides to take action. Which is where the major plot device and elevation in story begins to take place.

The film contains more strengths than weaknesses but really doesn’t come across as equaling the sum of its parts. I’ll start by saying both Adams and Waltz put in two very fine performances. Both of which I see as totally deserving of their Golden Globe nominations (and earning Adams an eventual win). Though many critics see her win as a sort of “token gesture” in the year of Julianne Moore knowing that her performance couldn’t possibly be topped. To me though, who really shined here was Waltz, who has catapulted himself as being one of Hollywood’s finest, still somewhat new discovery (the guy’s won 2 Oscars since his breakout performance in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” (2009) ). He shows a certain range and depth here within his performance that is a perfect example of their being two sides to every person’s character. As more and more of his true character is revealed, the story itself becomes more and more interesting. A feat only an actor of Waltz’s stature could only pull off. The second thing I’d like to say about the film is like the early Burton films of old, he does an expert job in terms of the look of the film, transporting us right into 1950’s suburbia as he did with films like “Edward Scissorhands”. His use of framing and film composition makes sure that not one shot goes unwasted. Which for me personally was nice to see that he can still make a film that feels “Burton-esque”, utilizing his biggest strengths from a technical standpoint as a director. Which I haven’t seen in a long long time. The story itself is engaging enough and moves along at a steady pace, mainly because of its “can do no wrong” two leads. It had me hooked and genuinely interested in what was going to happen next. That is until the ending, where in my opinion the film loses almost everything that was built up before it, becoming both trite and predictable in its court room scenes of the exposition of the truth. I took into account that it’s based on a true story, but given if this is exactly how the events wound up transpiring, I just didn’t find myself buying in to the way in which the film was resolved. It felt too-textbook and lost steam in its last act. However, that being said, this is somewhat of a return to form for Burton, which reminded me of the days of old in that if given the right material and actors (both Adams and Waltz are dynamite) he can make a picture that still retains the strongest components of his earlier work. This is a movie I’m recommending simply for its standout performances. And if you can look past its mostly predictable and calculated ending , which I couldn’t, you might find somewhat of a hidden gem of a film that hits the mark mainly because of its two strong leads. That even given the the strong work on display, had my eyes rolling as the end credits finally came.

[B-]

A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Still Alice” 2.8.15

A film that has been slowly building throughout all of last year, being shown at many of the major festivals and creating a lot of buzz around lead actress Julianne Moore’s performance. If you had of asked me back in August around the mid-year point I would have told you that Moore would be a frontrunner for the Best Actress categories at this year’s Oscars. Same goes for Michael Keaton. If you follow the film festival circuit like I do throughout the year, you start to notice a pattern where a lot of critics who attend predict months in advance who they think are going to land nominations and in some cases win. And a lot of the times they’re right. I had been waiting for this to come out for months having heard that Moore’s performance was nothing short of breathtaking. That and I’ve always found pictures that depict debilitating or degenerative diseases to be fascinating. Though I can’t really pin down the reason why. I guess maybe because the truly great ones teach me something about the disease that I maybe didn’t know about going into it. That, and in a lot of cases I know that somebody in my family will probably wind up with some sort of degenerative disease, albeit Dementia, or like in the case of this film, Alzheimer’s. These types of films, though they sometimes can be incredibly heartrending, also can act as an educational tool for something that either myself, my family, or somebody we all know will most likely encounter later in life. However, that being said, the real truth of the matter is I saw this film solely based on the fact that Julianne Moore is the frontrunner to win the Best Actress Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards.

Moore stars in the title role as Alice, a linguistics professor who quickly starts forgetting things and convinces herself she has some kind of brain tumor. She is surrounded by her family – her husband (Alec Baldwin), son, and two daughters (played by Kristen Stewart and Kate Bosworth). After she starts to experience lapses in memory more and more consistently, she seeks out the help of a neurologist. Who, after a series of tests, diagnosis her as having early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Not only that, but it turns out to be genetic, and her two daughters also seem to have it as well. The oldest of the two (Bosworth) who is pregnant with twins on the way. Alice’s mental brain functioning starts to deteriorate day-to-day, hour by hour, as she tries her absolute hardest to fight the disease, utilizing a series of tests in which she creates for herself. But as the degenerative part of her disease begins to take over, she begins moving further and further from who she once was until she is barely but a small semblance of her former self.

Let me start by saying what an incredibly disappointing and underwhelming film this was. I really wanted to like it so much having heard all of the accolades surrounding Moore’s performance. And it’s a very fine performance indeed. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I didn’t think she was great because that just wouldn’t be true. Because she really does give it her all in what is an otherwise weak script that gives formulaic a new name. It also did one thing that I can’t stand from movies of this genre and are a complete turn off in that it pandered to the audience and tried to tug at their emotional heartstrings. But here’s the real kicker, even despite watching Moore go through her mental disintegration and battle with the disease and see the effects it has on just about every aspect of her life, I felt a million miles away emotionally. In fact, I don’t think I could have been more detached from Alice’s deterioration. I cared but only at a very surface level. And I’m not desensitized and I do often tear up and cry at movies that either inspire me or that I find incredibly sad. But there wasn’t one point throughout any of this film that I was even on the verge of shedding a tear. This I think mostly had to do with the director’s “Hallmark 8 o’clock Movie of the Week” treatment of the material. Besides the shoddy, uneven script the film is often times shot through a white color filter that makes the images look fuzzy and muddled, on top of the fact that it was a strain on the eyes. Even “if” this was intentional to try to give us a glimpse into the lens of the world in which Alice sees through, this aspect of the way in which it was shot I thought was extremely poor. Sure there are some very powerful scenes involving Alice sharing her secret with the rest of the world. But as previously mentioned, I was so put off by the look, feel, and tone of the film that the emotional stuff never really hit me at all. But what I can say is it’s a pretty bravado Julianne Moore performance that is the meat and bones of the picture. Without her there would be no movie. It’s a borderline great performance in an otherwise mediocre film. That and I think it’s important to point out that if she gets the Best Actress Oscar like many are predicting, it’s going to have to do more with the subject matter that the film depicts than it’s going to have to do with the performance itself. Hollywood voters have a soft spot for portrayals of people suffering or dying from degenerative diseases. As if they think it might be an insult to the Alzheimer’s community at large if they didn’t give her the award. The last and final thing I feel like I need to say, especially in relation to this film, is a great performance alone doesn’t always make for a good movie.

[C]