Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, June 26, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)


6. The Master

In 2009, Paul Thomas Anderson announced that he was working a movie inspired by Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard. The film was all ready to go at Universal, when the studio suddenly dropped the project. This was supposedly due to budgetary issues, though rumors persisted that the Church of Scientology convinced the studio to abandoned the film. Which may veer towards conspiracy theory territory but seems pretty believable, considering the shady shit the Church gets up to all the time. Eventually, the film was made by Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures, which would quickly established itself as the go-to production company for critically beloved auteurs. When “The Master” was released, most of the explicit references to Hubbard were gone. The film, however, still generated controversy, mostly thanks to its ambiguous tone.

World War II has ended but Freddie Quell is still not doing well. The former sailor is a raging alcoholic, constantly sloshed, often violent, and primarily focused on getting laid. After running from his latest job, he sneaks aboard a yacht. The boat belongs to Lanchester Dodd, the eccentric leader of a new age religious movement called the Cause. The Cause's philosophy is based around past lives, reincarnation, and confessional questioning sessions called Processing. Freddie is immediately enthralled by Dodd and soon devotes himself to the Cause. As the years goes on, Quell begins to wonder if Dodd is worth following.

Upon release, a hundred articles emerged wondering what the hell “The Master” is really about. Some saw a cloaked biography about Scientology. Others took the film as an extended study of the post-war era. There were even more far out theories, suggesting the movie is actually about acting. “The Master,” it seems to me, is about the same thing that most of Paul Thomas Anderson's films are. The story concerns a broken man, looking for acceptance, understanding, and love. As in “Boogie Nights,” the characters form an odd family. As in “Magnolia,” the protagonist's psyche is deeply shattered by trauma. As in “There Will Be Blood,” a man attempts to build walls between himself and others. “The Master” shows Anderson's continued fascination with these topics.

“The Master” can be especially connected with “Magnolia.” In that film, broken people self-medicated with cocaine and drugs. Freddie Quell doesn't snort or dose but does consume massive amounts of alcohol. Throughout nearly the entire film, Freddie is entirely intoxicated. His alcoholism has reached such depths, that he's actually drinking paint thinner and rocket fuel. Like many war vets in the forties and fifties, Quell can't process his emotional trauma in any other way. He's part of an age where men where tough, never speaking about their feelings. So, instead, they drank and drank. This is the generation of my grandfathers, men similarly traumatized by the war who drowned their troubles in booze. Freddie is just an especially extreme example of this, a man completely consumed by his vices.

Freddie Quell is played by Joaquin Phoenix, an intense actor well suited to Anderson's intense films. Phoenix is very convincing at conveying Quell's alcoholism. He embodies the character's perpetually sloshed status, adding slurred speech, fidgety body language, and ricocheting moods. An uncontrollable rage is Freddie's other defining characteristic. Phoenix's violent fury is frighteningly sudden and frequently unprovoked. Such as when he antagonizes a customer at his job as a photographer, for seemingly no reason. Or when he destroys a commode in a jail cell. Quell has been repressing his emotions for so long that, when they boil over, he explodes. Like a way more violent version of “Punch-Drunk Love's” Barry Egan.

Freddie is also obsessed with sex. In an early scene, some fellow seaman sculpt a naked woman out of sand. They were kidding but Freddie gets a little too enthusiastic expressing his appreciation for the sand-girl. Later, he awkwardly attempts to hook up with a female co-worker, nearly succeeding. After joining the Cause, he outright asks a female crew member if she “wants to fuck.” An elaborate scene has Freddie imagining every woman in the room naked. Yet this is another way Freddie is hiding his true feelings. As much of a horn dog as he is, Freddie actually yearns for a lost love. He's haunting by memories of Doris, the teenage girl he romanced before going out to sea. With this story turn, “The Master” further reveals itself as a story about a vulnerable man doing everything he can to hide his true feelings.

“The Master” was formed from a number of ideas Anderson had lying around. Some scenes were left over from “There Will Be Blood.” Other moments were inspired by war-time drinking stories Jason Robards told Anderson on the set of “Magnolia.” The life story of John Steinbeck informed the film. But, primarily, yes, “The Master” was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Like Scientology, members of the Cause sign billion year contracts. Like Scientology, the Cause is based around people improving themselves through odd rituals based in far-out ideas. Instead of ridding the body of “thetans,” the members of the Cause rid themselves of past trauma through hypnosis sessions that explore their past lives. There's an even more explicit connection. The Cause's Processing is the same thing as Scientology's Auditing. Members confess their dark secrets on tape, which the organization can later use to blackmail them. Through these ideas, “The Master” displays how cults makes members rely on them.

Despite being about a cult, “The Master,” strangely doesn't concern itself much with the mumbo-jumbo Dodd builds his Cause upon. There are only two or so scenes devoted to explaining the connection between past lives and current trauma. Weirdly, Freddie never expresses an actual opinion about Dodd's teachings. His past lives are never explored, he's only hypnotized once, and only partially. Instead of being devoted to Dodd, the new age prophet, Freddie is devoted to Dodd, the man. The two bound over alcohol, joking around with each other. The two yell and scream at each other but ultimately forgive one another. In the end, Dodd requests Freddie's presence and is rejected, a turnabout of what you might expect. Some have characterized “The Master” as a love story between Freddie and Dodd. They're not wrong. Dodd is the only person who forgives Freddie and Freddie, in turn, is the only person who sees Lanchester as a human being.

By now, long unbroken takes are just as much a Paul Thomas Anderson trademark as long tracking shots. The director employs both throughout “The Master.” One stand-out shot shows Freddie's sneaking onto Dodd's boat. In one smooth sequence, he walks down the street, leaps off the pier, and boards the yacht. Yet movement leads to stillness. One of the most noteworthy sequences in “The Master” is devoted to Freddie's Processing. At the beginning of the Processing, Dodd tells Freddie not to blink. Similarly, Anderson's camera doesn't look away, focusing on Phoenix's face as he reveals his darkest secrets. Anderson's visual construction informs the film's themes.

Anderson's scenes of motion and calm increasingly occur inside an extra-wide canvas. “The Master” was shot in 65mm and was shown in 70mm in select heaters., a factoid that receive much press before the film's release. Anderson builds upon the epic visual presentation of “There Will Be Blood” to tell an even more personal story. The wide shots draw attention to how small Quell seems in his world. A reoccurring sequence shows the very blue, blue waters float by as he lays, drunk, on a battleship. As Freddie speeds away from the cult on a motorcycle, he disappears into an ever-widening horizon. In the various close-ups, the cast's faces become landscapes onto themselves.

“The Master” is really built around three performances. I've already talked about how Joaquin Phoenix plums the depths of the human soul, playing a character that is deeply traumatized. How about Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lanchester Dodd? Hoffman plays Dodd as a fully formed human being. When delivering rambling speeches, about comparing marriage to a dragon, he seems to be a stately voice of authority. In more private moments with Freddie, he comes off as chummy, relaxed. However, Dodd also has cases of explosive rage. Most famously, when arguing with a skeptic, Dodd's incoherent defenses eventually degrade into shouts of “pig fuck!” While arguing with Freddie, Dodd also gets vulgar. Hoffman runs the gamut of human behavior, painting Dodd as a complicated, layered man.

The Cause may technically be Lanchester Dodd's creation but, as the film goes on, it seems more and more like his wife is actually running things. As Peggy Dodd, Amy Adams is steely. She is always in control. Her body language is contained and disciplined, programmed to illicit a specific reaction. The control Peggy wields over her husband is displayed during a very memorable moment, where she gives him a very peculiar hand job. Later, Peggy reads Freddie pornography, as a way to break down his resistance. All the while, Adams' performance is perfectly calculated. It seems like she never blinks, she's so totally in control of herself.

“The Master” is a beguiling motion picture. It is built on powerful performances. In some ways, the film is less ambitious than “Magnolia,” as it doesn't asks questions about the universe. It doesn't have spellbinding a main character as “There Will Be Blood.” However, it does perfectly capture a time and place, like “Boogie Nights,” and does tango with some big issues. The film is ultimately not as satisfying as Anderson's other films while still being as brilliantly constructed. A more straight forward biography of L. Ron Hubbard perhaps would've answered more questions. But what we got instead was also pretty cool. [Grade: B+]

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (2007)


5. There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson wanted to make a movie with Daniel Day Lewis. This isn't surprising since Lewis is one of the most desired and critically beloved – not to mention elusive – performers of his generation. Luckily, Daniel Day Lewis was a fan of “Punch-Drunk Love” and wanted to work with Anderson. Anderson would draw from several different sources to make “There Will Be Blood:” An unfinished script about feuding families, detail research into the oil business at the turn of the century, Upton Sinclair's novel “Oil!,” and the lives of oil barons Edwin Doheny and Harry Sinclair. The resulting film would widely be hailed as the best picture of the year. Lewis' performance would be rapturously received. It very well be Paul Thomas Anderson's greatest film.

In 1898, Daniel Plainview goes digging for gold and silver. In 1902, he discovers oil instead and begins a successful drilling business. After a worker is killed, he adopts the man's child as his own son. Nine years later, Paul Sunday comes to Plainview, informing him of great amount of oil underneath his family's farm. Plainview's attempt to buy the land is challenged by Eli, Paul's twin brother and a budding preacher. Daniel buys the Sunday farm but only after agreeing to let Eli build a church on the land. Soon, a rivalry forms between Plainview and Eli, each humiliating each other in their quest for riches, power, and inner peace.

“There Will Be Blood” is a masterwork that touches upon many different subjects. However, it's mostly about Daniel Plainview, an extraordinary character. Plainview's determination is without limits. The spellbinding opening scene, stretching on for over ten minutes, is almost entirely without dialogue. After falling inside the tunnel he dug himself, Plainview drags himself to the surface and into town. This is just one example of how far Plainview will go to succeed. Except Daniel's riches don't make him happy. Instead, it only exacerbates the hate for mankind he already feels. “There Will Be Blood” seems to detail a man's withdrawal into complete misanthropy. Yet it's also deeply enigmatic, raising questions about whether or not Plainview ever had anything but complete disgust for his fellow man.

Daniel Plainview gives probably the most mesmerizing performance of the 2000s. Daniel Day Lewis creates a voice for the character that was immediately a target for parody. Not because it's goofy but because it was so utterly distinctive. Plainview's voice is a gruff bellow, each word carefully chosen. From there, Lewis builds an impressive physicality around the character. Lewis' emphasizes the total discomfort Daniel feels around other people with small, barely noticeable movements. Yet these more subtle touches are in service of an operatic performance. More than once, Lewis reaches for the rafters, screaming, shouting and acting like a complete madman. Because this is such a carefully created character, these elements never come off as hammy or overdone. Instead, Plainview is made into an intimidating, hypnotic masterclass of acting.

“There Will Be Blood” can, perhaps, best be summed up as being about a fight between the two most abused powers in American history: Religion and business. Plainview, in many ways, represents everything wicked about American capitalism. His initial plan is to cheat the Sunday family out of million, planning on buying their ranch without mentioning the oil underneath it. He is ruthless against his adversaries, mocking them in public. He pays more attention to the burning oil well than his injured child. Eli Sunday, meanwhile, sums up everything deceitful about evangelical Christianity. He uses his theatrical skills as a preacher to manipulate his followers. He is just as greedy as Plainview but he hides his greed behind a virtuous public face. Later, he attempts to humiliate Plainview before a crowded church. Both men are totally self-interested. It's up to the viewer to decide which one is worst.

Plainview's son, H.W., provides much of the ambiguity surrounding the character. Does Daniel Plainview actually love H.W.? When he first adopts the boy, he uses him as a cynical marketing technique. With his son by his side, he projects the image of a family man, someone clients can trust with their money. Plainview admits this in the film's final third, disowning the boy. Yet there are other moments that make you wonder. He's affectionate towards the child at time. After H.W. is rendered deaf by an exploding oil platform, Plainview genuinely attempts to communicate with him. Attacking his son seems to be the only thing that actually infuriates him. At the same time, he ships the boy off so he doesn't have to deal with him. An action he seems to feel genuine guilt for. Did Plainview's growing cynicism cause him to disown his boy? Or did he never feel anything towards H.W.? Once again, Anderson's film leaves it up to the viewer to decide.

Family is a re-occuring theme throughout the film. Midway through the movie, a man appears on Plainview's property, claiming to be his long-lost brother. Plainview is skeptical at first but, eventually, seems to form something of a kinship with him. The two even share a swim together. Which is the same moment Daniel realizes the man is a fraud. His reaction seems to suggest that the world constantly disappointing him is what truly drives Plainview towards total misanthropy. At least it would, if he didn't deliver a spellbinding monologue earlier about how he sees the rest of humanity as competition, barely concealing the clear disgust he feels. In time, he sees family as a weight around his neck, something holding him back from the pure isolation he craves.

Paul Dano plays Eli Sunday. Standing up against Daniel Day Lewis' performance as Plainview must have been intimidating. Dano never attempts to out-act Lewis. Instead, he plays Eli as a despicable, squabbling little worm. He strikes the viewer as physically weak. Whenever he raises his voice, it only draws attention to how effete and unassuming Dano seems. This makes him the perfect foil to Lewis' Plainview. The two are similar, two men who put on public persona to swindle people out of money, except for one important detail: Daniel Plainview may feel only hate for the human race but at least he's not self-righteous. Dano plays Eli Sunday as a man who buys his own bullshit, who truly believes he's a prophet of God even if his behavior says otherwise.

The supporting cast has fewer familiar faces in it. Recognizable Ciaran Hinds appears as Fletcher, a business associate of Plainview's. Kevin J. O'Connor plays Henry Plainview, Daniel's imposter brother. O'Connor is soft-spoken, despite the obvious shifty qualities he brings to the part, making him seem possibly innocent even after Daniel uncovers his deception. Yet the unfamiliar names in the supporting cast prove more impressive. Dillon Freasier plays H.W. as a boy. Freasier's quiet intensity, that almost seems inhuman, matches the tone of the film perfectly. After loosing his hearing, Freasier plays H.W. as even more distant from his father. Russell Harvard plays H.W. as an adult. Though his part is brief, he makes an impression, showing the hurt and frustration that must follow being Daniel Plainview's son.

In “Punch-Drunk Love,” Paul Thomas Anderson brought a previously unseen level of stillness to his usually frenetic direction. This attribute is pushed even further in “There Will Be Blood.” Anderson's trademark long shots seem to linger on individual images more. Such as Plainview observing his burning oil well or brooding in a stairway. Or a quiet moment of Plainview and a baby H.W. watching each other on a train. Some times, Anderson's camera seems glued to Plainview's intensity. Such as the trailer-worthy moment where he declares he's “abandoned his boy,” in front of a busy church. Anderson marries his focused, still images to an extra-wide, theatrical visual palette. “There Will Be Blood” is visually similar to the sweeping, technicolor epics of the forties and fifties. This contrasts nicely against its morally gray themes.

“There Will Be Blood's” title makes a promise. The film is not especially violent, as far as these things go. Yet the violence is always treated with an undeniable ferocity. The audience feels the impact of Plainview's fall in the opening scene. When a loose pipe impales a worker inside an oil well, the blow is sudden and startling. H.W. being blown back by the exploding oil well is similarly harrowing. Yet Anderson's saves the most shocking moment for the fierce conclusion. The final confrontation between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday, playing out over his personal bowling alley, is one of the most intense conclusion to appear in a recent film. Lewis' performance rages on like an angry god as Plainview destroys his archenemy, removing any reason for him to keep living.

For “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson would split from his usual composer, Jon Brion, and pair with Johnny Greenwood, perhaps better known as the guitarist for Radiohead. Greenwood's powerful, strange, ominous music is one of the reasons why “There Will Be Blood” is so good. The score is characterized by throbbing, growling, deep strings, casting a disturbing mood. There's a constant, uneasy energy, powered by plucking notes and frantic strings to the music. This is best emphasized during the oil rig explosion scene, where Greenwood's music clatters forward wildly, discordant noise building atop a thrashing, unending beat. Even the quieter moments are awash in nervous repetition. It's not exactly easy listening but it perfectly matches the film, making it better.

The immediate influence “There Will Be Blood” had on pop culture can be seen in how many references it spawned. “I drink your milkshake!” “Drainage!” “I've abandoned my boy!” and a few other lines of dialogue would become internet memes, referenced and parodied all throughout pop culture. Daniel Plainview took his place among iconic film characters. Of course, Day Lewis won the Oscar and every other award he was nominated for. All of Paul Thomas Anderson's films are varying degrees of great but “There Will Be Blood” feels like an honest-to-God cinematic experience, a powerhouse of a movie that overwhelms and lingers in the brain. [Grade: A]

Friday, June 23, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (2002)


4. Punch-Drunk Love

Following “Boogie Nights,” Paul Thomas Anderson said he wanted to make a smaller, more intimate film that would only be about ninety minutes. Instead, he made “Magnolia,” a three hour long magnum opus about the mysteries of life. After that, the director became determined that his next movie really would be much shorter. “Punch-Drunk Love” would team Anderson, a critically adored auteur, with Adam Sandler, the face of lowbrow comedy junk. It probably seemed like one of those examples of a comedian appearing in a serious movie, in the hopes of winning some praise and awards. Yet there was something inspired about the pairing. “Punch-Drunk Love” would alienate Sandler's fanbase and wouldn't make much money. However, it would be result in another well received film, becoming an instant cult classic.

Barry Egan is a lonely man. The owner of a novelty plunger business, he projects a quiet and nervous demeanor. He has been relentlessly bullied his entire life by his seven older sisters, which might explain the fiery rage that sometimes boils inside him, usually leading to some property damage. One of those sisters sets Barry up on a date with her co-worker, Lena. He's reluctant at first but he immediately feels a bond with the quiet, understanding woman. Desperate for someone to talk to, he calls a phone sex line. That business is actually a blackmailing scheme, which soon targets Barry violently. Soon, his growing love with Lean is threatened.

“Punch-Drunk Love” is both a change of pace for P.T. Anderson and it also isn't. On one hand, the film is an effervescent romantic comedy. The film is committed to replicating the experience of falling in love, with all the rushing, uncertain, but swimming emotions that entails. The movie also displays a whimsical side, featuring surreal sights like a comical car crash resulting in a random harmonium being left on the street. This represents a change in tone. Yet “Punch-Drunk Love” is clearly connected to Anderson's body of work. This is another film about lonely people searching for love, acceptance, and understanding. The capricious touches just expands on the dreamlike aspects present in Anderson's other films. Novelty plungers aren't too far away from a rain of frogs, as far as everyday events go. So this is less like a director leaping to a different genre than it is a director putting his distinctive stamp on something outside his comfort zone.

“Punch-Drunk Love” is also a film that reaches me on a very personal level. Barry Egan is an faithful depiction of someone living with anxiety. He's quiet, he mumbles. He's painfully shy and is socially awkward. When he says something weird or odd, especially in a personal social interaction, he gets angry at himself. One very astute scene has him walking away from his date with Lena, chastising himself for saying something stupid. When confronted, such as by his henpecking older sisters, he moves inward. Those bottled up emotions explode sometimes, resulting in intense violence or seemingly inexplicable crying. As someone who has lived with social anxiety his entire life, these touches strike me as incredibly accurate. Barry seems so uncomfortable that you wonder how he lives at all. Which is exactly what it's like.

“Punch-Drunk Love” is unlike any other film in Adam Sandler's nearly thirty year long career as a leading man. Yet certain patterns emerge. Sandler's earliest hits were films like “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore.” In both, he played an overgrown man-child prone to fits of violent rage. Similar characters appear in “The Waterboy,” “Little Nicky,” “Anger Management,” and probably a dozen other films. “Punch-Drunk Love” couldn't be more different from these films in tone and execution. Yet Barry Egan roughly fits the same outlines as the typical Sandler-esque protagonist. By building a very different type of film around this familiar type of character, Anderson has exposed the sadness and loneliness at the heart of Adam Sandler's public persona. Sandler gives a life-like, intimate performance and why shouldn't he? This is simply a more realistic version of the character he's being playing his whole career.

“Punch-Drunk Love” is not a very realistic love story. Lena practically falls in love with Barry after seeing his picture for the first time. A couple that struggles with such anxiety probably has a hard road ahead them. Yet Emily Watson's performances makes Lena seem like a real person. She strikes the viewer as an incredibly forgiving, loving character. She accepts Barry's mood swings, because she understands the emotions at their root. Through brief dialogue, we learn that Lena was an only child, that she has a failed marriage in her past. This hints at Lena's own history as a deeply lonely person. She relates to Barry's isolation, almost intuitively. This is why their love is so passionate, as seen in an oddly funny scene where they describe each other's beauty in violent terms. Watson's performance is one characterized by knowing glances and half smiles.

If “Punch-Drunk Love” was just about Barry and Lena's unique love story, it probably still would've been pretty good. Anderson introduces an element of conflict with the blackmailing scheme. The villains are another large family. There are six brothers and one sister, somewhat mirroring Barry's situation. Each one has greasy blonde hair and spouts profane dialogue. They're also based out of a Utah mattress store, another intentionally absurd element Anderson includes. Leading this group is Philip Seymour Hoffman's Dean Trumbell. Hoffman plays Dean as a totally feckless scumbag, a greasy and uneducated bad guy who makes money ripping people off. Such a slimy, unhinged batch of villains is a deliberate contrast to the nervous, controlled life Barry lives.

The Trumbell clan threaten Barry. They steal his money and beat him up, leading to a farcical chase scene where Sandler makes a bunch of goofy gasping noises. Yet the violence and theft isn't what really pisses Barry off. During a key scene, when screaming at Dean on the phone, Barry reveals that the violation of confidentially is what truly enrages him. It's the same shit his sisters do to him all the time, as they constantly bring up embarrassing childhood stories and shameful secrets. This feeds into “Punch-Drunk Love's” story about a nervous, private person. Well, the other thing that upsets Barry is Lena being endangered. This leads to “Punch-Drunk Love”s” most cathartic moment. With a series of smooth movements, Barry beats down his attackers. It's shot like a Gene Kelly dance routine, Sandler spinning a crowbar like a top hat cane.

It wouldn't be unfair to call “Punch-Drunk Love” self-consciously eccentric. This is an odd movie that embraces its own oddness. Take, for example, the harmonium. The unusual instrument appears in the first scene. A car goes spinning through the air, lands upright, and drops the instrument off. Barry lives it sitting in the driveway of his business. He only picks it up and carries it inside when he feels like it. Yet the harmonium has a deeper meaning. When he's agitated, Barry plays with the keys. When something goes wrong at work, a bellow inside the device breaks, which Barry mends with duct tape. In a weird way, the musical instrument reflects his moods and feelings. What about all that pudding? Inspired by the story of David Phillips, Barry exploits a promotion between airlines and Healthy Choice foods to accumulate millions of frequent flyer miles. Primarily by buying their pudding amass. Mostly, this is a narrative devices, so Barry can fly around the country in the second half. But it certainly speaks to his status as a dreamer who can connect dots others can't.

The visual composition of “Punch-Drunk Love” is slightly different from Anderson's other films. The famous tracking shots are employed multiple times, most notably during that chase scene, where the camera runs alongside Barry. However, the look of “Punch-Drunk Love” is more still. A scene where Barry runs through Lena's apartment complex, trying to find his way back to here, is shown in unmoving, long shots. There are several instances where Anderson keeps his camera still. Such as the lover embracing in the lobby of a hotel. Or the exterior of the mattress store. When Anderson's long shots crop up, they are more deliberate. The scene of Barry talking to the phone sex operator is done in a continuous shot but the camera moves more slowly, prowling around his apartment, drawling attention to the character's isolation and forcing the viewer to focus on their voices.

“Punch-Drunk Love is also distinguished from Anderson's other films because of its use of color. Barry Egan wears a bright blue suit from the first scene. That blueish tone influences other scenes throughout the film, such the scenes in Barry's apartment or offices. The blue tones are often contrasted against a glowing red color, such as Lena's dresses or the soft glow of a restaurant. The film's use of color peaks with two scene transitions. Provided by video artist Jeremy Blake, the film will sometimes fade to collages of blinding, primary colors. Moments like this, combined with Anderson's use of lens flares, helps to capture the dizzy, light-headed emotion the film is pursuing.

Everything about “Punch-Drunk Love” is meant to replicate the wild rush of emotions the film's characters feel. Its music and sound design is another component in this plan. Harry Nilsson's “He Needs Me,” famously from “Popeye,” becomes a reoccurring element in the score. This seems to perfectly mirror the seasick feelings of infatuation and belonging that Barry and Lena find. Jon Brion's score is similarly dreamy, featuring distorted sounds and the organ-like moaning of the harmonium. In addition to the music, the sound design is often intriguing. Sometimes, voices can be heard whispering throughout the film. Such as when the boxes of pudding seem to call to Barry. Or over the end credits, where computerized and distant voices can be heard saying hard-to-hear phrases of love and commitment.

After the tragi-comedy of “Boogie Nights” and the epic melodrama of “Magnolia,” “Punch-Drunk Love” would prove to be a brilliant change of pace for Paul Thomas Anderson. Despite bringing a refreshing level of absurdist to his career, the film easily speaks to the same themes and ideas present in Anderson's other films. It was a good career move for Sandler too. Afterwards, he would go right back to making the kind of movies he always makes. As heavy dramas have continued to dominate Anderson's career, the cult-favorite comedy has become an even more refreshing breath of fresh air. It's a loopy, emotional experience about the power of love. [Grade: A]

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (1999)


3. Magnolia

Following the praise that greeted “Boogie Nights,” the head of New Line Cinema told Paul Thomas Anderson that they would finance and release any movie he created next. Anderson's initial plan was to create an intimate, shorter film. It would be intersecting portraits about a few characters. Instead, the script grew and grew. Julianne Moore would describe the screenplay as book length. It was a deeply noncommercial project. The resulting film, “Magnolia,” would be divisive. Some would hail it as a masterpiece. Others would describe it as melodramatic. Anderson once called it the best movie he would ever be involved with. More recently, he's said it's too long and needs to be cut down. Well, “Magnolia” is really long but it also happens to be an incredible film.

Set in and around Magnolia Blvd in Los Angeles, the film follows a group of seemingly unrelated characters. Jim Kurring is a self-described good cop who wishes to find love. A noise complain leads him to the apartment of Claudia, a woman fighting a cocaine addiction. Her father, Jimmy, is the host of a children's game show and has just discovered he's dying of cancer. The show's latest success, a boy genius named Stanley, has a mental crisis while on camera. The show's producer, Big Earl, is also dying. Linda, his wife addicted to prescription drugs, married him for his money but actually fell in love with him. Earl's dying wish is to be reunited with his estranged son, Frank, who now calls himself T.J. Mackey and runs sexist “pick-up artist” style self-help seminars. Donnie Smith, meanwhile, is a former champion from the kids' show who is obsessed with his teeth and was recently fired from his job. These different people are brought together when frogs fall from the sky.

“Magnolia” begins with a summation of some of its theme, in a way that would presumptuous in most other films. Three scenarios are presented. One is a true unsolved murder case from the turn of the century. The second is a known urban legend, about a dead diver appearing in a forest fire. The third is a hypothetical case that only exist to show different legal consequences. Presenting all three segments together, narrated by actor/magician/Anderson regular Ricky Jay, the film is laying down one of its main points. That “these things happen” for a reason, that chance and coincidence are forces that bring people together. Moreover, that opening sequence is so gracefully assembled that it starts this large film off on a ambitious note.

However, chance and coincidence is just one thematic layer of “Magnolia.” The aspect that truly connects the disparate cast of characters is that each one is desperate for love and forgiveness. (One could probably make the case that a hunger for love and acceptance is the unifying theme in all of P.T.'s films. But I digress.) Jim yearns for a wholesome love, to define a life that strives for wholesomeness. Donnie, while intoxicated, rambles about how he deserves love, how love he has to give. Jimmy's wife wrestles with how much she's willing to love her husband, as does Linda. Yet, before these individuals can love and be loved, they must forgive themselves and others. Jimmy hopes to be forgiven by his daughter. Frank is asked if he can ever forgive his father. If Jim and Claudia can let each other into their lives, they must forgive themselves for their mistakes.

Relationships between children and their parents, especially fathers, is another important aspect inside “Magnolia.” Consider little Stanley. His father, played viciously by Richard Bowen, pushes him too hard. While watching his son on the game show, he casually explains to the other parents about the subtle ways he abuses his son. One of the reasons Stanley freezes up on stage is because of his dad's manipulative abuse. Frank resents his father so much, for walking out on his mother and him once she became sick, that he denies his dad is still alive. As the film goes on, we discover that Jimmy and Claudia's relationship is strained because he might have sexually abused her as a child. He genuinely can't remember if he did or not. Throughout the film, we meet damaged adults who were once damaged children. Actions ripple throughout history and abuse ripples the hardest.

One of the explanations provided for “Magnolia's” vague title is that magnolia bark has been presented as a quack medical cure for cancer. Indeed, cancer is another reoccurring story element throughout “Magnolia.” An early shot brilliantly illustrates Big Earl's disease by flashing x-rays of his cancerous lungs on-screen. Jimmy's need to reconnect with his daughter is spurned on by his sudden diagnosis of bone marrow cancer. We learn that Frank's mother died of breast cancer. If the title was derived from the fabled cure for cancer, other treatments for disease are discussed throughout the film. Claudia self-medicates with cocaine. Linda abuses the medication she receives for Earl's illness. Both Donnie and Jimmy drink too much. Literal cancer seems to be the manifestation of the inner sadness people feel in “Magnolia.” Their use of drug is another desperate attempt to fix the dissatisfaction they feel with their lives.

As an ensemble film, “Magnolia” is stacked with a collection of phenomenal performances. They come in a few varieties. Some of the performances are quietly emotional. John C. Reilly plays Jim as an eccentric man, prone to performing long monologues to himself. Reilly hides Jim's dissatisfaction with his own life by projecting a professional bluster. Yet Reilly gives us peaks at the cop's inner vulnerability and self-doubt. Philip Baker Hall plays Jimmy as a man wracked by pain, both physical and mental. Hall shows the character's frustration and uncertainty with his disease and past. One of the best performances in the film is one of the most understated. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Phil Parma, Big Earl's devoted nurse. Hoffman plays Phil as a deeply empathetic man, dedicated to fulfilling his patient's last wish. Phil is just a nice guy, a sweet, giving man, a refreshingly uncomplicated person motivated by compassion.

If some of the performances in “Magnolia” veer towards the quiet, other performances are far more bombastic. Melora Walters' Claudia probably snorts fifty lines during “Magnolia's” three hour run time. Fittingly, Walters' performance is wired and high-strung, spending most of the film in a highly nervous state. William H. Macy, as Donnie, is frequently rambling. We discovers Donnie's brain was scrambled after he was struck by lightning. Because of this, Macy plays Donnie as an unstable person who veers between a mile-a-minute rambling and deep bouts of melancholy. After being powerful in “Boogie Nights,” Julianne Moore returns with another showstopping performance. Linda is in the midst of a mental breakdown, exacerbated by her drug use and the trauma of her husband's incoming death. Moore plays the role as all emotions, messy and unhinged but deeply, unavoidably human.

As fantastic as “Magnolia's” ensemble cast is, two performers rise above the others. Jason Robards plays Big Earl, a dying man. Robards, at the time, was also dying. “Magnolia” would be the actor's final film. Robards spends all of the film in bed, infirm, only occasionally speaking clearly. Yet one of the most powerful moments in “Magnolia” revolves around a stream-of-consciousness monologue by Robards, about regrets and the length of life. As his estranged son, Tom Cruise gives the film's most iconic performance. That couch-jumping energy Cruise brings to every role is embraced in T.J. Mackey, a sweltering gonad of a human that is always performing. Yet Cruise also displays the darkness often floating under his perfect smile. His status as a heartthrob is subverted, by the disgusting sexism the character spews. As we learn more about his life, the sheer ugliness of Mackey's hyper-macho persona is revealed. Finally, before the film finishes, the character sheds his disguise, revealing the sad, pathetic, weeping, wounded child inside. It's the kind of role that reminds you why Cruise became such a huge star in the first place.

There's an enigmatic element to “Magnolia.” The movie is rift with mysteries. The script is peppered with symbols. The works of Charles Fort, an author who write about the paranormal, are referenced throughout the film. This builds towards the last act, when frogs rain from the sky, a phenomenon Fort wrote about. Yet the rain of frogs is also a reference to the Biblical Exodus, which the film also nods towards repeatedly. The Magnolia flower can briefly be glimpsed in the background during many scenes, another possible hint towards understanding the title. Even stranger, Masonic symbols also crop up a few times. Ricky Jay's character wears a Mason's ring. A key doorway has an undeniable pyramid shape. What do these symbols mean? How do they feed into “Magnolia's” central thesis?

Some have interpreted the Exodus references as being about abused children – slaves of sorts – being freed from their masters, their parents. To me, these objects add to movie's ideas about chance and coincidence. The rain of frogs is what connects the different characters in the last act. If not for the unexpected downpour, their lives would've been different. The narrator argues there are no true coincidences, that everything does happen for a reason. It must be pointed out that the narrator is voiced by Ricky Jay, the same actor who wears the Masonic ring. Which seems to connect the religious allusions and references to the Masonic All-Seeing Eye of God. If the film's symbols are arguing for the existence of a God, perhaps this also connects with the theme of lonely, unloved people. If a higher power is watching out for them, they can't be too unloved, can they? Or maybe the Masonic elements points towards the construction of the universe, that our world is a designed machine where every action has a purpose. I suspect everyone who watches “Magnolia” could come up with their own meaning.

Anderson's direction is also a fine-tuned machine. The trademark long shots are utilized many times. The film begins with an astonishing series of single shot that introduce all the main character, flowing from one scene to the next. Perhaps fitting the Biblical subtext of the story, Anderson also assumes a heaven-bound view, looking down on the characters. One especially notable shot involves a slow zoom in on a character, reeling over a commode. Sometimes, he takes the opposite approach. One moment has the camera peering up out of an open vault, looking up at William H. Macy's character. That deliberate sense of movement, the long shots and slow zooms, is seen in all the scenes. This is another subconscious way to link the different characters.

While writing “Magnolia,” P.T. listened non-stop to the music of Aimee Mann. Mann's music heavily influenced the film, as Claudia was directly inspired by Mann's song, “Deathly.” Mann's music informs much of “Magnolia.” The film begins with her aching cover of “One,” establishing the theme of loneliness. As “Wise Up” plays mid-way through the film, each of the characters are shown singing portions of the song. Which is another way to connect the otherwise unrelated cast members. The film concludes with “Save Me,” a gorgeously plaintive number about people reaching out for connection and love. In other words, it's perfect for the film. When Mann's music isn't controlling the flow of “Magnolia,” Jon Brion's driving, intense orchestral music directs the film's mixture of tone.

“Magnolia” is a sprawling, ambitious motion picture that tackles big themes, fills its run time with ambiguous symbols, and features a collection of brilliant performances. A movie this long and difficult to digest was never going to be very successful at the box office. “Magnolia” just broke even with global receipts. Despite this, the film's critical reputation has only grown over the years. It's now clear that “Magnolia” is a staggering work of genius, a film worth turning over and studying again and again. The director might think its too long but fans of “Magnolia” recognize it as one of the most powerful empathetic American films of the last two decades. [Grade: A]

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (1997)


2. Boogie Nights

Paul Thomas Anderson is fascinated with pornography. In particular, he's interested in the so-called porno chic era. That brief time in the seventies when horny hits like “Deep Throat,” “Behind the Green Door,” and “The Devil in Miss Jones” had the most disreputable of film genres verging towards mainstream acceptance. Anderson's enchantment with hardcore cinema led to him filming a mockumentry, while still in high school, called “The Dirk Diggler Story.” A decade later, that short film would inspire the feature “Boogie Nights.” Initially pitched as a three hour long, NC-17 rated film, “Boogie Nights” would come in twenty minutes under that time and with an R rating. More importantly, it would be the critical breakthrough for Anderson. The film would launch the film career of Mark Wahlberg, still best known as a pop star at the time, and earn multiple awards.

Eddie is seventeen years old. He has dropped out of high school and his home life with his parents is growing increasingly tense. He's also gifted with an enormously large penis. This attribute attracts the attention of pornographic director Jack Horner. Eddie assumes the stage name of Dirk Diggler. Starring in a series of films for Horner, “Dirk” becomes the biggest – rather literally – star in the genre. He forms special bonds with Horner and two of his co-stars, Amber Waves and Rollergirl. Yet the success goes to Dirk's head. He grows distant from his friends. He gets into drugs. The changing nature of the industry makes success hard to hold onto. Soon, the lives of Eddie's and those around him are in shambles.

“Boogie Nights” isn't just a homage to the golden age of pornography. It's a detail rich ode to the seventies themselves. Anderson lingers on the pop culture artifacts of the day. Eddie's bedroom is decorated with posters of Bruce Lee and Farrah Fawcitt. Reed, his best friend and frequent co-star, wields nun-chucks. The fashion is heavy on the bell bottoms, unbuttoned shirts, high waists, cuffs, and pastels. Several key scenes take place in discos. The men sport chest hair and sideburns. Yet Anderson doesn't just dot his film with pop culture signifiers as a cheap way to establish the time period. His genuine affection for these things, through his characters. These detail makes the film's world more real, making its events more meaningful.

The director has, somewhat derisively, referred “Boogie Nights” as a film about “a guy with a really big dick.” Yet the movie's actual theme emerges across its run time. “Boogie Nights” is a story about family. Eddie is rejected by his mother, who believes he's worthless. Maggie's ex-husband is keeping her son from her, due to her pornographic alter-ego of Amber Waves. In lieu of actual blood relations, the two create a family of their own. Maggie sees Eddie as a son of sorts and he looks up to her as a mother figure. Jack Horner is a father figure to the boy, seeing his potential and boosting his dreams. Rollergirl is like a younger sister, with a child-like energy that hides a vulnerable side. Anderson subtly weaves together the meaningful connections these people form in the world of pornography.

The short that inspired “Boogie Nights,” “The Dirk Diggler Story,” was mostly farcical. It was the sarcastic rise-and-fall story of a porn star, told with a straight face. “Boogie Nights” is a far more sincere film but does maintain a sly sense of humor. The way Eddie/Dirk constantly references his 'very special gift” marks the movie as a tongue-in-cheek riff on stories about plucky underdogs who use one special attribute to succeed. Except Eddie's vigor and determination aren't what sees him come out on top. Instead, he's simply born with an extra-large cock. The way the film treats Eddie's endowment with religious awe, marking his bedroom skills as almost supernatural, is done with an obvious degree of cheekiness. It's clear that Eddie has little else to offer. His entire career depends entirely on what's in his pants.

Anderson may approach the story with a certain sense of humor but “Boogie Nights” is grounded by a trio of deeply empathetic performances. Mark Wahlberg, before this film, was mostly known for rapping with the Funky Bunch. After this film, Wahlberg would reveal himself as a sometimes deeply sensitive actor. He plays Eddie/Dirk as strangely innocent. Despite making his living by having sex on camera, Eddie always comes off as an overgrown little boy who doesn't really understand how the world works. Wahlberg doesn't play the part as caricature but as a deeply vulnerable individual, desperate to be understood and find some worth in his life. It's a star making turn and it's a shame that Wahlberg has rarely shown that level of talent since then.

Playing Dirk's surrogate parent figures are Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore. Fallen Hollywood legend Reynolds was reluctant to make the film, didn't work well with Anderson, and squandered the second chance “Boogie Nights” gave him. As Jack Horner, the good ol' boy charm that made Reynolds a seventies icon is twisted in a different direction. The charisma is still there, as is Reynold's atrophied desire to be taken seriously, but the machismo manifests in ugly ways. Such as when Horner fights with Eddie or beats up a frat boy randomly chosen for a porn shoot. Or in the increasingly sexist undertones of his porn films. Moore, meanwhile, is a raw nerve. A key moment has her rambling in a manic fashion while high on coke. Moore exudes everything sad and desperate about her character, a woman who feels like everything she loves is slipping away from her. Yet her potential for love, the humor and strength she has to give, makes it clear that she deserves these things that are so hard to come by.

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the great novelist-as-filmmakers. Each of his movies are filled with background characters that could easily occupy their own movies. “Boogie Nights” fills its margins with fascinating characters. Buck Swope is another porn performer who defies stereotypes by loving country music and dressing like a cowboy. This passion gets him fired from his job in a stereo store. His attempts to reinvent himself, by wearing a Rick James wig, are insincere. John C. Reily's Reed Rothchild is fascinated with stage magic and is seen practicing it throughout. Rollergirl is a high school dropout who is haunted by her failures. Scotty, the sound guy who is played with heartbreaking sincerity by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is in love with Eddie. One especially painful moment has him drunkenly admitting his feelings during a New Years Eve party. These moments fill the world of “Boogie Nights,” any one of them worthy of their own movie. Instead, they are examples of how full and developed the film's universe is.

One such subplot concerns Little Bill, the lights technician that works for Horner. Bill's wife, played by veteran porn performer Nina Hartly, constantly cheats on him. She's very nonchalant about her infidelity. When he walks in on her having sex with another man, she dispassionately makes him leave. At a party, she has sex in public with another man. She doesn't even stop when Bill finds her. The film treats this as a cruel joke. Bill, played with absolutely perfect sad sack weariness by William H. Macy,  gets piled on in a comical way. It's a funny gag... Up until it becomes deadly serious. At the New Years Party celebrating the end of the seventies, Little Bill snaps, murders his wife, her lover, and then kills himself. This marks the very intentional tonal turning point in the film. It's no mistake that this same party is where Dirk is introduced to cocaine. The seventies are over and so are the pornoriffic good times the characters are experiencing.

The extended last third that follows exposes “Boogie Nights'” only real flaw. As the eighties go on, the porn industry shifting from film to VHS forces Horner to sacrifice his vision of a narrative-driven adult film. Eddie has a falling out from his makeshift family, due to his growing ego and growing coke addiction. It's at this point that “Boogie Nights'” darkness begins to induce apathy in the audience. That feeling hits its peak during the moment when Buck stops into a doughnut shop. A robber enters, attempts to empty the cash register, and the entire scene ends in brutal violence. Buck is an unwilling witness. This is the only time “Boogie Nights” overdoes it and comes off as contrived.

Even then, that darker last third has an incredible, stand-out moment. In a sequence inspired by the Wonderland Murders, Dirk and his friends attempt to steal money from a drug dealer. Played with a feverish intensity by Alfred Molina, Rahad Jackson is running on an irrepressible high. The scene is brilliantly scored to a series of eighties pop song, building towards the driving rock crescendo of Night Ranger's “Sister Christine.” This alone would probably be enough to create a jangly atmosphere of nervous energy. Anderson pushes it even further by having a character set off firecrackers throughout the scene. By the time the violence actually happens, the audience is already deeply unsettled. It's not a catharsis. Instead, the seasick feeling the viewer has bottoms out as the worst possible things happen. The sequence is a masterclass in how to build tension and unnerve a viewer, as the story hurdles towards calamity.

In “Hard Eight,” Paul Thomas Anderson displayed an impressive visual sense. The director would build on that style for his second feature. The long takes, characterized by the camera smoothly sliding through a single location, crop up several times. One really impressive scene takes us through a disco club, showing us multiple characters without ever stopping. Once again, that visual smoothness carries through to the film's pacing. Despite running over two hours “Boogie Nights” never seems to slow down, swimmingly transitioning from one event to the next. When not employing his complex editing or brisk shooting, Anderson utilizes a more meta approach. Several scenes in “Boogie Nights” are shot in the aspect ratio, and grainy film quality, of seventies porn films. This further shows the director's commitment to verisimilitude and accuracy, not to mention his love of details.

“Boogie Nights” ends on a happy note. The family is reunited. Jack Horner's porn empire continues. The good succeed. The bad are punished. Yet this positive conclusion is laced with darkness. Anybody who knows the facts about John Holmes knows his late life was soured by crime and drugs, before he died of AIDS. And it's not as if the porn industry was going to stick with film. There's a cloud of uncertainty floating over the final scene. The characters may seemingly be in a happy place now but something worst awaits them all. This implication even continues into the end credits. Michael Penn's music has a circus-like tone that slowly involves into something more sinister. Choosing to end the film when he did shows Anderson's restraint, as he trusts the audience to understand what he means.

“Boogie Nights” would gain excellent reviews, be nominated for several Oscars, and win a multitude of other awards. It would truly launch Anderson's career, marking him as a unique filmmaker with something to say. The script is powerful, the performances are fantastic, and the direction is brilliantly executed. The movie isn't perfect but it is an impressive motion picture, less about pornography than it is about the commonality of people desperate for love and looking for understanding and acceptance. [Grade: A-]

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (1996)


Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few modern directors to be beloved by both critics, each of his films sweeping up awards, while also maintaining a devoted cult following. His picture's handle big, important themes while also maintaining an odd sense of humor and displaying the director's favorite quirks and idiosyncrasies. (He also has yet to win an Oscar, despite making some of the best films of the last two decades, which causes fans to treat him like a scrappy underdog of sorts.) A retrospective for Anderson has been coming a long time but I've kept putting it off. His films are great but they also leave me emotionally exhausted, making them difficult to write about. Well, it's about time I get over that. Let's dive in.

1. Hard Eight

In 1993, Paul Thomas Anderson would release a 24 minute short film called “Coffee and Cigarettes.” The short starred Philip Baker Hall as a character named Sydney, a mysterious man sitting in a diner. Anderson was obviously interested in Sydney. His first feature film would revolve around Hall's character. He even wanted to cal the movie “Sydney” at first. The studio insisted on the catchier “Hard Eight.” The film would garner positive reviews without getting too much attention. Anderson hasn't discussed his debut much since it came out. Yet “Hard Eight” represents the beginning of many of his stylistic and thematic trademarks.

Two men meet for the first time outside a Las Vegas diner. John is a destitute young man who came to Vegas to win enough money to pay for his mother's funeral. Sydney is an experienced gambler. He teaches John some easy ways to quickly win a lot of cash. They become great friends. Two years later, John and Sydney meet again in Reno. John soon falls in love with Clementine, a cocktail waitress and sometimes prostitute. However, the couple's wedded bliss is cut short by a violent event and some foolish decisions. Sydney is brought in to solve the problem. He succeeds but at the risks of exposing his dark past.

“Hard Eight” is about gambling but also isn't about gambling. There's a handful of scenes devoted to Sydney playing Keno or sitting at the craps tables. The title comes from the risky gamble Sydney performs several time with dice. The Hard Eight is a move that doesn't work often but pays off big when it does. This high-risk/big-payout philosophy informs Sydney's entire life. He has a reason for befriending John, for practically adopting him as a surrogate son. It's s risky endeavor but enriches both of their lives greatly. Before the end of the film, Sydney makes another bold decision, one that could go wrong easily. “Hard Eight' is ultimately about the risks we take in life. The risks we take opening our hearts up to love. The risks we take on what we're willing to live with.

“Hard Eight's” opening scene is, frankly, magical. John is sitting alone in his misery. Sydney swoops in, out of nowhere, and immediately goes about helping the boy. John is skeptical at first. He's expecting Sydney to betray him or rip him off. The audience is expecting this too, wondering what Sydney's plans are. By the end of the evening, realizes that Syndey's motivations are entirely selfless. He helps the guy out and expects nothing in return. At the end of the first act, the viewer feels up-lifted. Sometimes people are good for no reason, just because it's the right thing to do.

Eventually, we do learn that Sydney had a reason for helping John. He has a horrible secret that connects him with John, in a very traumatic, personal well. The dramatic tension in “Hard Eight” balances upon whether or not John discovers this truth. Yet Anderson subverts expectations in an interesting way. “Hard Eight” isn't about dramatic revelations changing the way people feel about each other. Instead, it's about what we're willing to live with. Sydney goes to great lengths, doing very dangerous and questionable things, to ensure John never learns the real reason why he helped him. Yet, the film seems to suggest, maybe this was worth it. Maybe we have to swallow darker stuff to get on with our lives.

This shift in the story matches a tonal shift in the film. The early scenes of “Hard Eight” are relatively light-hearted. When Sydney takes John to the casino, the audience shares in his exhilaration. He even wins some money at a slot machine. When Sydney meets a vulgar friend of John's, he calmly asks the man to leave, not enjoying his crass talk. “Hard Eight” isn't exactly upbeat but it's lived-in, charming. That mood changes suddenly when Sydney gets a call, going to John and Clementine's hotel. They've attacked a man, handcuffed him to a bed, and are crudely attempting to hold him hostage. Suddenly, “Hard Eight” is dark and violent. This sudden change is intentional. The audience is not prepared to follow these seemingly nice people into a dark place but we're dragged along because we care about them.

There's a little thing Paul Thomas Anderson's screenplay does in “Hard Eight” that I really admire. During a pivotal moment, a gun is pointed at Sydney. Usually in movies, when a gun is aimed at someone's head, they remain stoic. Action movie tough guys are never intimidated by being in the cross hairs. Sydney, however, reacts like a real person. He immediately starts panicking. He sinks into his seat, hands up, begging not to be killed. He's scared out of his wits, worried about his life. This realistic touch shows how committed Anderson is to portraying his characters as fully formed human beings.

Philip Baker Hall is a character actor that's been active since 1970. He's one of “those guys,” a face you know but a name you might not be able to place. Hall's greatest talent is his ability to disappear into any role, as acceptable as Richard Nixon as he is a random cop. “Hard Eight” taps into something great inside Hall. The character of Sydney is, more often than not, calm. He goes about his plans with a clear head and a quiet humor. Even when the character breaks down and cries, Hall holds onto Sydney's personality as a low-key guy. An important moment near the end has him admitting love over a phone. Most actors would go big. Hall remains tight and controlled, while clearly revealing the emotions beneath the cold exterior. It's a powerfully understated performance.

Years before his teddy bear lovability and massive charm would make him a comedic mainstay, Paul Thomas Anderson was utilizing John C. Reilly's innate humanity to great effect. As John, Reilly is almost child-like. He doesn't seem to know where he belongs in the world. He's emotional, prone to mistakes, approaching conflicts too simply. Yet even when John does something really bad, like smack his wife's mouth, Reilly's deeply empathetic performance keeps him likable. Gwyneth Paltrow similarly captures something innocent with Clementine. She's forced to prostitute herself to make ends' meet. She makes some pretty big mistakes too. Yet she's also capable of immense forgiveness. There's an immense vulnerability to Paltrow here, the soon-to-be-Oscar-winner appearing like a normal person.

“Hard Eight's” cast is small but features at least two other notable actors. Samuel L. Jackson was probably the biggest name in “Hard Eight,” since the film was released after “Pulp Fiction” made him a household name. Jackson plays Jimmy, a would-be hustler that attempts to extort money from Hall's Sydney. Jackson clothes Jimmy in red leather, which constantly makes him squeak. This draws attention to what a slippery, scummy person he is. Jackson, obviously, has no problem playing the shyster character. Also appearing in the film, briefly, is Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman appears as a mulleted casino patron who attempts to beat Sydney at the craps table. Hoffman curses, jumps around, and generally has a blast playing as big an asshole as possible.

Even though “Hard Eight” was Anderson's debut film, his astute visual sense as a director is evident. There's a sense of motion driving all of “Hard Eight.” The director utilizes long-shots and handheld cameras to create constant movement. Yet this is never disorientating. Instead, “Hard Eight” seems smoothly assembled. This fits a story that is widely set on the floors of casinos, where people are always moving around. Anderson also knows when to sit still though. He pauses during dialogue sequences or lingers upon important images, allowing them as much impact as they need. In other words, “Hard Eight” looks incredible.

The soundtrack is provided by Jon Brion, who would go on to score several of Anderson's other films. The music frequently recalls the kind of soft listening you might here in casino lounges, drawing on boozy electric organs. This melancholy mood also draws attention to the loneliness and isolation felt by the characters. Occasionally, Brion's music dips into even darker veins. Such as Clementine's theme, a droning dirge accompanied by a funeral-like bell. Brion also co-write the song that plays over the end credits, “Christmastime” by Aimee Man. This was not only Anderson's first collaboration with Mann but also points out that “Hard Eight” is, technically, a Christmas movie.

“Hard Eight” was a difficult production for Anderson. The title change came about as part of an agreement with the producers, so that the director could maintain more creative control of the picture. Seemingly because of these problems, Anderson doesn't talk about the movie very much. The director has even allowed the DVD to go out-of-print. Despite his reluctance to discuss the film, “Hard Eight” is still really good. It displays how strong the director's writing, visual sense, and rapport with actors was strong even from the beginning. Whatever misgivings Anderson might have about “Hard Eight,” it was the first of several extremely good movies he would have a hand in. [Grade: A-] 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (2016)


16. Elle

In-between 2000 and 2016, Paul Verhoeven only made two movies. Considering he was making a film about every other year for the first three decades of his career, that's a major slow down. Yes, “Black Book” was a hit in Holland and well reviewed internationally but, to many eyes, Paul Verhoeven was semi-retired. Until last year. With the release of “Elle,” Verhoeven would court conversation and controversy in a way that he hadn't in years. The film would generate discussion all over the world. Isabelle Huppert's lead performance would win multiple awards and universal acclaim. Unsurprisingly, “Elle” has been hailed as Verhoeven's comeback vehicle.

Michele, a successful video game producer and daughter of a notorious mass murderer, is raped in her own home by a masked intruder. Michele, at first, seems unchanged by the assault. She is as ruthless as ever at work and in her personal life. She bosses around her lover, belittles her employees, argues with her son, and begins some intense flirting with her next door neighbor. However, her attacker is not done. He leaves vulgar text messages and even enters her house when she's not home. After a second assault, Michele discovers the man's true identity. And then things get really complicated.

“Elle” was going to generate controversy, regardless. The cultural environment of 2017 is more sensitive to the subject of sexual assault than ever before. With Verhoeven directing, a filmmaker with a not always tasteful attitude towards sexual violence, “Elle” became especially contentious. Yet “Elle” grants a rape victim the greatest gratitude: Complexity. Too often in film and television, people who have been assaulted are depicted as weeping victims. Not too mention all the media that uses a woman's rape strictly to motivate a man's story. “Elle” is strictly Michele's story. Moreover, her reaction to being raped is complicated. She goes about her life, yet hides psychic scars. The assault might even awaken something in her. “Elle” is a multi-faceted portrayal of someone living through something horrible. And it deserves major kudos for that.

Some of that complexity is thanks to the director. Michelle is, in many ways, the quintessential Verhoven-ian woman. She's ruthless in her professional life, hard in her romantic and family life, and absolutely determined to succeed. However, I have no doubt that Isabelle Huppert is primarily responsible for making the character come alive so beautifully. Huppert's exterior is chilly. The only vulnerability she shows is a dark sense of humor, an occasional sarcastic aside to her cat. Even after wrecking her car, Michelle remains stoic. On the page, Michelle is almost a mystery. Huppert turns her into a complex, fully formed character. With her body language, a vocal intonation, a glance or a gesture, she hints at the layers within. No wonder some call Huppert the greatest actress alive.

“Elle” was based on a novel by Philippe Dijian. Despite this, the director makes the material his own. In many ways, “Elle” continues the themes Verhoeven has been developing since at least “Basic Instinct.” This is another story about an uncompromising woman and the clueless men in her life. Michelle's son, Vincent, is pushed around by his pregnant girlfriend. He quits his fast food job, despite needing the money. When the baby comes out black, Vincent still assumes the child is his. Michelle's ex-husband, an unsuccessful novelist, is in the grips of a pathetic mid-life crisis, dating a younger woman and desperately trying to stay relevant. Michelle's lover is a complete buffoon, a constantly horny dweeb. Even the rapist is clueless. After being fatally wounded, he asks Michelle “why.” As if she needs another reason to hate him. The film's heroine may be uncompromising, even cold, but the film's men are all totally clueless assholes.

“Elle” doesn't feature the graphic violence of Verhoeven's Hollywood movies. Attitude-wise, it is just as brutal. The film begins with Michelle's assault. The very first scene shows her struggling under her attacker, in an isolated wide shot. Which then cuts to her cat, watching dispassionately and uninterested. This characterizes the world of “Elle.” The later rapes occur just as suddenly, just as unforgiving in their violence. At times, it feels like the universe is conspiring against the protagonist. Because of her infamy as the daughter of a murderer, random people on the street toss food at her. A deer leaping into the road forces Michelle to swerve into a tree, another example of things going badly for her. But Michelle isn't a victim. Only hours after the first assault, she goes to work and oversees a video game cut scene featuring a rather literal mind rape. The world is cruel. She must be cruel to survive it. 

“Elle's” brutality is also present in the way it depicts Michelle's mental state. Outwardly, she shows little sign of trouble. Inside is another matter. During the middle of the day, we are treated to an extended flashback of the opening rape. This is a good portrayal of how random events can trigger traumatic memories. Further on, Michelle has a daydream about the assault going differently. She imagines a scenario where she successfully turned the tables on her attacker. This is also an accurate depiction of the mindset of someone who has survived a traumatic event. That the film cuts between the protagonist's memories and fantasies without warning further shows how an assault can fracture someone's thoughts.

During a dinner party, Michelle casually explains her father's rampage. How he went door to door through their neighborhood, shooting and stabbing twenty-seven people. And, she adds grimly, their pets too. An image of a young Michelle, in her underwear and covered in ash, became the symbol of the attack. No explanation is provided for Dad's killing spree, the same way no explanation is provided by Michelle's rapist. Despite his violent history, Michelle proves stronger than her father. In another example of the film's men being feckless, Michelle promising to visit him in prison prompts her father to suicide. Michelle doesn't have a good relationship with her mom either, an elderly lady who is engaged to a much younger stud. (Who, it's heavily implied, is only marrying her for the money.) Mom insists Michelle visit her father, a notion she rejects. This raises several issues, such as Michelle's reluctance to commit to traditional roles and the question of whether or not anti-social instincts are inherited.

As I said, “Elle” probably would've generated controversy no matter what. Yet one aspect of the script seemed especially contentious. Midway through the film, we discover that the masked attacker is Patrick, the neighbor that Michelle has begun an affair with. Even after discovering this, she doesn't call off the relationship. He helps her out of the car wreck. They have a peaceful dinner. Later, he assaults her again at Michele's insistence, which seems to give her a powerful orgasm. This is another layer of complexity atop “Elle.” Human desire isn't simple. Maybe Michelle is attracted to Patrick because he's different, in a horrifying way, than the spineless men around her. Or maybe it's just another senseless quirk of the universe. The film provides no easy answers, in its striving towards a human-like sense of complexity.

In the lead-up to “Elle's” release, Paul Verhoeven began describing the movie as his “rape comedy.” Which is probably another example of his shock value-laden sense of humor. Indeed, calling “Elle” a comedy is misleading, to say the least. However, one can see the darkest of humor within the film. After a tense conversation, Michelle's mother immediately keels over from a stroke. While mom's in the hospital, Michelle outright asks if the stroke was real or if she's just faking it. As her comatose mother begins to flat line, Michelle is more preoccupied with a malfunctioning TV. That same black humor is present in Michelle's interaction with her clueless son or meatheaded lover.

“Elle” is clearly Isabelle Huppert's film. Still, an excellent supporting cast was assembled. Laurent Lafitte as Patrick has the difficult job of playing a man who is charming in his normal life but, secretly, hides an evil perversity. Jonas Bloquet as Vincent, Michelle's son, also has a tricky role. Vincent must be enough of an idiot that he takes Josie's infidelity without question. He must also have something like an innocent side, coming off as not much more than a big kid. Both actors achieve these goals. Judith Marge as Irene, Michele's mother, displays a weathered sense of humor, having lived a hard life. Alice Isaaz, meanwhile, is perfectly bitchy as Vincent's girlfriend.

Another sign “Elle” is unmistakably a Verhoeven film is the way he litters the story with religious iconography. “Elle” begins around Christmas time. We see the neighbors set up a Nativity, where Patrick's wife comments on how much she loves the image of Baby Jesus. Later, during a party, we see Christmas mass playing on television. This is what spurns on Michele recounting of her dad's murders. All of these references to the Christ child play in contrast to Josie's pregnancy, as she's no Madonna and her child is clearly not the offspring of a virgin birth. I have no idea how this religious imagery plays into the movie's overall themes, other than Verhoeven seeing an excuse to indulge in another of his favorite habits.

Paul Verhoeven's return to Europe has produced some quality films, with “Black Book” and “Tricked” both being very good. “Elle,” however, is sure to stand up as one of his best films. It's a challenging motion picture but in an altogether different way then his other films. It presents a more mature perspective without loosing sight of what made the director special in the first place. Buoyed by an amazing Huppert performance, “Elle” impresses and lingers in the mind, haunting the viewer with the numerous questions – and no easy answers – it raises. [Grade: A]



The critical praise that greeted "Elle" has re-energized Paul Verhoeven's career. His next film has already been announced. "Blessed Virgin" is a fact-based story about a lesbian nun in the 17th century. A story of forbidden sex and religious imagery couldn't be more perfect for Verhoeven.

This Director Report Card has been exhausting at times - covering the RoboCop and Starship Troopers sequels was a mistake - but it has reaffirmed by belief that there's no other filmmaker out there quite like Paul Verhoeven.