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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Review: “The Congress” 11.30.14

This is yet another example of a film that caught my attention solely because of the fact that I loved Israeli-born writer/director Ari Folman’s previous effort – 2008’s Golden Globe Winner for Best Foreign Language Film “Waltz With Bashir”. I recently revisited “Waltz” for maybe about the half dozenth time or so and found it to be every bit as mesmerizing as I had remembered it from the 5 or so previous viewings of it that I had seen. Maybe even more so. Part of the reason why I revisit movies is because I feel like I look at them differently with each passing year. That and it’s always a wise choice to revisit a director’s previous work which allows someone like myself to drum up anticipation for their next film. This film in particular highlights this ethos exactly. As WWB is a brilliant film from a multitude of cinematic stand points. It brought an entirely new and fresh approach to the documentary format in that it was shot similarly to what Richard Linklater did with both “Waking Life” (2001) and “A Scanner Darkly” (2006). It presented us with a series of interviews that the director films beforehand then has a team of animators draw over the already filmed material which gives them an almost surreal and dream-like quality. The major difference being that Forman utilized this same look but without the fictionalization of the 2 Linklater films. His was a real life account of a series of different people talking about their experiences of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Which not only gave it a sense of authenticity in terms of how it breathed new life in telling a somewhat familiar war-torn story. It gave me a newfound admiration for how animation could be used to tell a highly effective tale with a deeply emotional center. However, since then, a very seemingly long 6 years have past. And now Folman is back with his next feature that finds him, like many other foreign filmmakers, coming to the United States following an award-winning film of theirs. This plus it boasted a rather impressive cast in Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti, Danny Huston, and Kodi-Smit McPhee in a film that like WWB, brings back this combination of animation with live action footage.

The film opens with a close up shot of Robin Wright’s character, and a close zoom out with an off-screen voice-over by her film agent played by Harvey Keitel. Keitel is debasing her about her career and the many ups and downs it has taken, more recently for the worse. He says that he has come to bring her one last opportunity to do something that might kickstart her career. A move that could give her the same fame and notoriety she received for films that she was in when she was younger. Films like “A Princess Bride” (1987) and “Forrest Gump” (1996). It is quickly brought to our attention that she is playing a fictionalized version of her real life self. Though everyone around her including her son (Smit-McPhee), head of “Marimount” Studios (Huston), and son’s doctor (Giamatti), play characters and not themselves. Wright is being told that in order to save her career, she needs to be copied, or “computerized”, so that she can maintain both her youth and success. She is very apprehensive to this as she seems to be a “technophobe” as her daughter puts it. She’s afraid that by becoming cloned or made into a chip she might lose her sense of self and identity. However, because of her growing older and in need of a career change, she decides to take the offer. She then heads to some sort of scientific division within the studio, where she undergoes said transformation. Then, at this point, we jump 30 years ahead to the year 2033. Where she is about to cross the border from real life to computer life. And after having done so, she’s transported to this world where a number of different events transpire. Most of which revolve around the studio and the societal framework known as “The Congress”. The film takes a huge shift at that point and delves into entirety new territory, as it goes on to explore themes of identity, existentialism, the self, and post-technology. Giving us an inventive glimpse into the future.

I’ll start by saying I felt very indifferent about this picture. There really was so much to like, yet at the same time a lot that I had quite a bit of hard time finding myself being able to get into. First off, as I mentioned above it boasts a pretty incredible cast. Robin Wright is perfectly cast here as the aging star who’s own real life career trajectory is important in terms of the story’s context. She’s also in just about every frame of the film, so almost all of it rests on her really pulling her weight. And she rises to the occasion here providing some very strong work. Also, the animation, which a little more than a third of the film consists of, is simply breathtaking. As was with WWB, Folman and his obviously very talented animation team provide a visual spectacle with animation that makes anything I’ve seen up to this point look outdated. It’s hallucinogenic and acid-soaked imagery is nothing short of dazzling to watch. There’s also a pretty deep emotional core to the film, as the Wright character goes on a journey of self discovery that forces her to tap into some pretty introspective places. That stuff aside, the film feels almost tedious throughout its entire duration. The shift in tones were off-putting. The first third drags and then just when it starts to get interesting, they totally shift focus in the story and we’re presented with this entirely new universe and character arch. That and the animation segment, which takes up about the second third to three-quarters of the film, is a head scratcher and utterly difficult to keep up with and follow at times. It feels overwrought and much too dense for even the hardest of genre fans. Which in the case of this film would be heady Science Fiction. It attempts to explore some really deep existential themes that at times just seemed like a tad bit too much. So for all the incredibly stunning imagery on display here, the film gets caught up in the too many themes in which it tries to explore. And even despite its great cast and voice over work by people like Jon Hamm and Tom Cruise, this is mostly a tiresome effort for director Ari Folman and a disappointing follow-up to “Waltz With Bashir”.

[C]