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: “Calvary” 12.6.14

Writer/director brothers John Michael McDonagh and Martin McDonagh may be 2 of the best filmmakers out right now on the current scene. Unlike The Coen Brothers and more like Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony but catered more towards the intellectually minded moviegoer, they both make their own films as they seem to each have their own unique approach and take on cinema. I was first introduced to the pair by way of brother Martin’s brilliant and often unspoken of “In Bruges” (2008). A film about 2 hitmen, played by Brendan Gleeson and Colin Ferrall (in what I still consider to be the latter’s best performance to date), as they hide out in a small Belgian town called Bruges. Then came the writer/director of this film, John Michael, and his bravura debut film “The Guard” (2011). A crime film about a dirty cop, once again played by Brendan Gleeson, and the detective brought in (Don Cheadle) to help him infiltrate a drug smuggling operation in a small Ireland town. I still consider “The Guard” to be one of the better crime comedies of the past decade that had a knock out, razor-sharp script that proved John Michael had an undeniably gifted knack for writing as well as directing. Then the year following, we got another fresh and exciting new film from his brother Martin in the form of “Seven Psychopaths”. Martin’s second film about hitmen boasted an incredible cast by the likes of Colin Ferrall, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, and Michael Pitt. All 3 of the aforementioned films earned Honorable Mentions spots on my “best of” lists from those years. Enter 2014 and we now have the second film by brother John Michael, fresh off of “The Guard”. One that once again starred Brendan Gleeson, who as mentioned above, has starred in 3 out of the 4 of the brothers’ films to date. I’ve always considered Gleeson to be one of the more gifted actors currently working in film who seems to almost always impress me both in and outside of the studio system. That and he’s earned himself 3 Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor for 2 of the films mentioned above, ironically enough 2 films by different brothers, both of which I already mentioned, those being both Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” (2008) and John Michael’s “The Guard” (2011). Because I thought so highly of all 3 of the films by this writer/director/brother team, who mostly work independently outside of one another, and are a great example of my approach to movie watching ethos, I decided to put this one high up on my list when it came out. Having missed it during its theatrical run, I drew up quite a bit of anticipation of seeing it once it became available on DVD.

The film grabs our attention right off the bat with a man who while in confession conveys a dark secret to the church’s priest Father James (played by Gleeson). A confession that possesses certain ramifications to both Gleeson and one of the other fathers. This sets the wheels in motion automatically straight from the get go as Gleeson then goes on a mission to find out information from other members of the Irish community in which he lives in. Along the way he encounters a multitude of different townspeople. None of whom seem to have respect for the honorable priest, who seems to be ridiculed and mocked in just about every said encounter. Gleeson’s Father James is a troubled, wounded man, who seems torn by his profession. As he is both a servant of the Lord and an a man of principles outside of the faith, who seems to just want to know the truth, regardless of whatever evilness he’s willing to come across while trying to find it. Throughout the story we are introduced to several characters – his suicidal daughter (played by “Eden Lake’s Kelly Reilly), town mistress, writer friend (M. Emmet Walsh), doctor, nemesis (the wonderful, scene stealing Chris O’Dowd from the hit TV show “The IT Crowd”), criminally minded mechanic (played by Jim Jarmusch regular Issach De Bankole), and rather very wealthy but stubborn financial backer of the church. Not one of them seems to have one iota of respect and/or care in the world for Father James and he only finds opposition from his many parishioners who seem to be doubting both their own faith in themselves as well as the Father’s in his own personal quest to seek the truth. A journey of self-discovery that finds him testing his faith in spirituality and religion, both inside and out.

This was a remarkable film from almost every cinematic standpoint. First is yet another brilliantly gifted performance by Brendan Gleeson, who seems tailor-made for this type of material, an actor who seems to be a muse for writer/director John Michael and his brother Martin. In one of his more finer performances to date. He is enigmatic here as he carries weight of this complex and emotionally resonant material on his back. He is the meat and bones of the film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he earns his third of fourth Golden Globe nomination working for this unquestionably talented writing/directing team of brothers. The second thing that should be pointed out is the assured and flawless script and direction by John Michael McDonagh. It’s a landmark achievement from both a writing and directing standpoint. Since the film relies heavily on its script, as did McDonagh’s last directorial effort “The Guard” did. He utilizes his trademark dark comedy and humor to reveal a story that winds up being much deeper than I possibly could have ever imagined going into it. The scenes between both Father James’ Gleeson and his daughter (Reilly) are particularly strong, poignant, touching, and heartfelt. McDonagh makes sure not to waste a single frame here as it features some gorgeous cinematography of both the Ireland coast and countryside. The Mise-en-scene (the setup of images within each shot) on display here is nothing short of dazzling. The lighting radiates across the screen and both it and the film’s framing are impeccably shot. It also boasts a very well put together soundtrack, one in which its music of classic oldies, more traditional Irish folk music, and melancholic piano and string sounds is perfectly aligned with the material. Last, but certainly not least, it does an incredible job at exploring such difficult themes such as questioning faith, morality, the evil that men do, and prejudices about the priesthood. All done with a sense of authenticity and grace that is so rarely done of movie of this kind (an exception being 2008’s Academy Award nominated “Doubt”). While admittedly I thought the first third of the film dragged a bit, I soon came to realize that it was done so in a way only to effectively set up the story and characters. This wound up being a refreshing take on one man’s morals, principles, religion, and faith, that totally won me over and in my opinion is so far is right on par with both the writer/director brothers’ best work to date. Along with a spellbinding performance by Brendan Gleeson. This one is sure to make my list of Honorable Mentions at this year’s end, and just might wind up vying for a spot on my top 10. A sharply written, brilliantly directed, and well acted film. “Calvary” is a phenomenal film that just happens to fall somewhere just slightly below the slew of this year’s best.

[strong B+]