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 To The Movies (Double Feature): Reviews – “The Stanford Prison Experiment” and “Tangerine” 8.2.15

The Stanford Prison Experiment Movie Poster

The first film of my double feature was one that I listed in my “Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of the Summer Movie Season” section back in June. As someone who has an undergraduate degree in Psychology I find just about any and everything interesting that’s even remotely related to exploring why we as humans act and think in the way that we do. Most everyone I know with even the slightest interest in Psychology knows about the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment that took place in the 1960’s at the ivy league university. An experiment that set out to try to found out whether or not the personality traits between prisoners and guards was the chief cause for the abusive behavior between them. The test itself consisted of one very prominent Stanford University professor, some of his hand chosen colleagues, and a sample group of college students – each interviewed and handpicked prior to the experiment, each of whom were also told very little about the actual experiment itself other than that they would be getting paid $25 a day for their participation in it (not a bad day’s pay for a college student in the 1960’s) and that it would last 2 weeks taking place over summer break. The professor in charge, Philip Zimbardo, and his colleagues then hand-picked 24 students each to split up into 2 groups of 12 – one group which would act as “prison guards” and the other the “prisoners” in the basement of one of the university’s lecture halls that would be made up to resemble a prison. From that point forward for the next 2 weeks they would be put under surveillance and studied by professor Zimbardo and his colleagues 24 hours a day around the clock to study the psychology behind control and the abuses of power. As one unfortunate student (played by “We Need To Talk About Kevin” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”‘s Ezra Miller) gives prior to the experiment – “I hope I get chosen to be a prisoner”. When asked why he responds – “because it sounds like they’d have the least amount of work to do”. Boy could he have never been more wrong.

This was one of those films, at least in the opinion of this writer, that is catered towards a certain demographic. If you’re the type of person who is into Psychology like myself, and don’t discriminate as to whether it explores either the good or bad in people, well, then this movie should be just about right up your alley. It’s a strong, assured piece of work from its young director, 32-year old Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who tackles one of the more difficult topics with a sense of authenticity that I thought the other 2 films depicting the same experiment – 2001’s “Das Experiment” and especially the forgettable and passable “The Experiment” (2010) failed to do right. Where credit should be given first off should be to the film’s amazing cast. Billy Crudup as Professor Philip Zimbardo winds up being a great casting choice. As does some of the experimentees played by a slew of some of the more notable, young and up-and-coming actors in the business including the aforementioned Ezra Miller (always excellent and a scene stealer here), Tye Sheridan (“The Tree of Life”, “Mud”, “Joe”), and James Frecheville (who I’ve literally been waiting to see reappear since his fantastic work in 2010’s “Animal Kingdom”) as well as several other familiar young actors (I name those 3 specifically because they were the highlights of the film, at least for me). Director Alvarez, this being only the third film into his career, should also be given a fair amount of credit for tackling a rather difficult subject and making it seem real. His posterity and confidence behind the lens shows his mastery and commitment to the material. It’s shot almost clinically and sterile, as any movie about Psychology really should be. Evoking the work of Steven Soderbergh, with his use of oblique camera angles and in terms of its controlled style. The story looks like some kind of docu-drama, which is a true testament to Alvarez as a director and his ability to “reenact” the material with such precision as he does. All of the accolades aside, what I feel almost obligated to point out here is that the film is for “thinkers”, people looking to be challenged other than to be entertaining. The little I share with you about how the experiment winds up turning out (if you don’t have any familiarity with it already) the better. But what I will say is similar to how Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” (2012) depicted humans subordinance to authority figures, well this film explores the same terrain and does so in a way that’s more unflinching and shows it exactly for how it may have really unfolded. It’s a rewarding piece of cinema if you happen to be the right viewer. But for all others it may seem like a bit of an endurance test. Not because it’s slow, but it at times feels exploitative (which I think was/is the point), and to see human beings treating one another so poorly is almost a bit tough to watch. This is a feeling and tone difficult to describe in words, but the last time I felt something close to it was with last year’s “Foxcatcher”. This a great depiction of one of history’s most notorious experiments. But it’s an experience that’s more to be admired and appreciated than it is to be entertained by. Unless you’re some sort of sadomasochist.

[strong B]

My second film in my double feature, “Tangerine”, I had been a little bit skeptical of at first, having seen a less than impressive trailer but something that I’ve heard good word-of-mouth about as well as it garnering some great reviews. My reason for my skepticism was that the film’s poster billed itself as having been “a film shot entirely on an Iphone 5”. To me that felt like a gimmick. And being in that I’m an anti-technologist, that in and of itself turned me off to it. Then a friend of mine messaged me recently and asked – “hey, have you seen “Tangerine” yet”…I thought it was one of the funnier independent comedies I’ve seen all year”. It was simply based on this person’s recommendation of it that I decided to give it a whirl. Given that it was playing right at the same time as the film prior had let out.

“Tangerine” revolves around the story of a trans gender woman living in Los Angeles named Sin-Dee. A prostitute who at the beginning of the film is released from jail after a short month-long stint for a drug charge. She meets up with the other main character of the film, her best friend Alexandra, another trans gender woman, who spends most of her time like Sin-Dee does, turning tricks for cash. The basic story line is rather simple – Sin-Dee gets word that her pimp/boyfriend, Chester, has his time during her stint in jail in the company of another prostitute, Dinah, who she vows to find and pay her back for her wrongdoings with Chester. From that point forward we see, well, the daily lives of two inner-city trans prostitutes, as they weave their way in, out, and all around L.A. in their quest to find both Sin-Dee’s cheating boyfriend Chester, and the unfortunate woman who he’s been cheating on her with while she did time for him in jail.

This was a film that had some rather strong components of it but overall wound up being a flawed one as a whole. The first thing that came to mind as I was watching it was that it felt strikingly similar to Larry Clark/Harmony Korine’s “Kids” (1995). Except with an updated, almost contemporary feel that depicted the day to day lives of trans gender people living in L.A. as opposed to teenagers living in New York City. It starts off rather engaging with a hyperkentic style and use of editing that initially reels the viewer in to its story. Also, something should be said for what I called its “gimmick approach”. As a viewer the fact that it was shot “entirely on an Iphone” didn’t once cross my mind. As director Sean Baker does a rather deft job at making it look real and not grainy as one would expect, which I found quite inspiring from a technical standpoint as in this age of film and digital movie making, you can actually film a movie (and do it well mind you) with just your phone. As reluctant and apprehensive as I am to wanting to admit it. It also boasted a great, all-instrumental score of hip-hop, electronic, and otherwise “urban” music, which I thought lended itself quite well to the material and the images we were being shown on screen. Those things aside, It mostly fell flat in terms of its execution and where the story goes with its too main leads. It tries to introduce one too many subplots in its short 90 minutes that don’t seem all that believable or maybe better put, aren’t that engaging. The many subplots makes the ongoing shifts in the film’s tone jarring and simply not all that interesting. Added into the fact that there’s a third main character who is introduced about halfway in, a cab driver on the prowl solely for trans prostitutes (which does actually produce one hilariously funny scene where he unexpectedly pays for a “non” trans person’s services only to find out via “The Crying Game” that she (or “he” as he expects her to be, isn’t really who he thinks she is). But outside of the strong look of the film and glimpse into an otherwise unfamiliar contingency of people, the current trans world, I found it to be somewhat politically incorrect (without trying to bring politics into my analysis of a film), somewhat misogynistic, and also inflammatory against the gay community. As these characters don’t really have much or dimension to them other than that they are “trans gender prostitutes”. Added into the fact that the film’s “climax” (if you want to call it that) feels underwhelming and a bit too predictable as all sides emerge to intersect with one another coincidentally. This is a film more built around a good idea than it was in its execution. Not something I would necessarily recommend, but in some ways something that I could admire in terms of conceit over storytelling.

[C+]

Weekend Recap (Part 1): A New-To-DVD Release – “Tales From The Grim Sleeper” + My First of Two Trips To The Movies – “About Elly” (6/5-6/6)

It was exciting news to me when I heard that documentarian Nick Broomfield had a new film out.Having alfeady seen many of his previous documentaries and liked; the Kurt Cobian/Courtney Love documentary – “Kurt and Courtney” (1998), his probing look into the life, work, and deaths of the Notorious B.I.G and Tupac in “Biggie and Tupac” (2002), and finally, one that he is probably the most known for – “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer” (2003) about the trial of the Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos which that same year later whose story was made into and released as a feature film in the Charlize Theron Oscar-winning “Monster”.

His newest documentary, commissioned by HBO films, “Tales of The Grim Sleeper” (which first aired on HBO in late April and continues to weekly, so get out your TIVO) brings the British documentarian to Los Angeles to try to uncover the truth about the infamous case of the serial killer known as the “Grim Sleeper”, otherwise known as Lonnie Franklin, who terrorized one small corner of the city for almost 25 years and is on trial for the murder of 10 women, but who was believed to be responsible for the death and or various other crimes against 170 more. The question the documentary poses is how could a man, who at the time of his arrest at 60+ years of age, manage to go on a killing spree for twenty five years without having ever been investigated into in all of that time? However many people in the very poor section of his lower, working class neighborhood (if you even want to call it that – 50% of its inhabitants are unemployed) and moreover why almost the entire community knew about it for most of his long 25-year run but never spoke up about it. And in turn asks questions about this section of L.A.’s local police force and why they stayed away and turned a blind eye for so many years to what was actually going on, while on top of that asking us as viewers should they have even cared. You see, Lonnie Franklin aka “The Grim Sleeper” focused solely on capturing, having sex with, and most likely killing young women, most of whom were prostitutes and addicted to crack cocaine. At the risk of sounding apathetic and for someone who values human life, no matter what their place and function within society is, are we talking about “disposable” lives here? That’s just one of the many questions the documentary poses (indirectly as it certainly doesn’t take the stance that the killings were somehow warranted). In typical Broomfield fashion this is another rather impressive, though bleak and at times difficult to watch viewing as we hear countless interviews from ex-prostitutes who encountered the man but somehow managed to get away. If you, like me, are into the “crime” documentary genre, this is something you should eat up as it’s thought-provoking, gripping, and does what only the best documentaries do – show a 2-sided argument that raises many questions, those of which you should be pondering over well after its final credits have rolled. [B+]

Next up we have the latest film, “About Elly” (or shall I say “re-release”, as the film was originally made in 2009 but not released theatrically in the States until just recently), by one of the world’s most renowned filmmakers – Iranian born Asghar Farhadi, who wowed critics, audiences and the Academy alike with his Oscar winning 2011 Best Foreign Language film – “A Separation”. A film many critics consider to be the best foreign film of the past 15 years (and rightfully so). I was almost equally impressed by his follow up, 2013’s “The Past”, another film about the devastating effects on what pivotal life decisions can have on all others involved in them. What I enjoy so much about Farhadi’s work, which admittedly was limited to just the two prior aforementioned films, is that they bring back the true essence of “family drama” and everything that the genre used to do so well. In fact, before being introduced to Farhadi I can honestly say the last high quality family drama that probeed into similar territory, which also happens to be one of my favorite films of all time, was way back in 2001 with the release of Todd Field’s Academy Award-winning “In The Bedroom”. A brilliant and breathtaking film with a deep emotional core that I find myself revisiting almost yearly in the past 15 years or so. Like, “In The Bedroom”, Farhadi’s films, again with the addition of his newest (or again shall I say re-release) mostly exists inside its own universe, tackling a single act and the tragic set of events that follow. As said events transpire in each film each of his characters are revealed, motivations, and agendas are exposed. But many of them are decisions that are steeped in moral values, ethics, and each person’s beliefs, many deeply rooted in a cultural code which permeates throughout each of Farhadi’s films. “About Elly” draws comparisons to “A Separation” and “The Past” in this respect, but rather than focus on a single family, as the other films do, here we find him exploring these same themes but within a much larger group of people consisting of college colleagues who visit the seashore and bring along one of the women’s children’s teachers, the titular character, Elly, who winds up going missing after a critical incident that takes place, and in its examination of events that transpire following, shows the effects it has on each of its characters. Like with all of Farhadi’s films, it depicts how we as people, tend to want place blame on any one other than ourselves, and shows how this can have devastating effects on everyone involved. It’s another impressive, yet minor addition to the Farhadi oeuvre, and while at times it felt a bit slight and overlong, it always was engaging and compelling enough to allow me to recommend it. Particularly because of the flawless acting on display and deep themes in which it chooses to explore. Yet, as someone who considers themselves to be a huge admirer of the director’s work, overall if felt a bit more like a precursor piece to his more recent work, the latter of which ranks among the best that international cinema has to offer. [B]