Like fellow classmates Quentin Tarantino, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, and Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson was born from the school of ‘70s American cinema. Their teachers include Mr. Scorsese, Mr. De Palma, Mr. Coppola, and, most notably for Anderson, Mr. Altman.
Having released five films in 15 years, Anderson may not be the most prolific filmmaker around, but that matters little, considering the breadth of influence he’s brought to the medium.
He can be flashy (the opening shot of Boogie Nights, the TV studio shot in Magnolia), heartfelt (“Will you help me?” from Boogie Nights; “You need to be nicer to me.” from Magnolia), hilarious (Adam Sandler in a Hawaiian phone booth in Punch-Drunk Love; Adam Sandler in a restaurant bathroom in P-D L), horrifying (Daniel Day-Lewis + bowling pin); and all together masterful.
Anderson’s next project – about a WWII vet who creates a new belief system – is set to begin filming in mid June. The long-delayed film, which many suspect will act as a metaphor for the birth of Scientology, will star Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin I-Guess-He’s-Acting-Again Phoenix. Porn, life, love, oil, religion – who cares, it’s PTA. I’ll be there, and so should you. Here’s why.
Hard Eight [aka Sydney] (1997)
Many don’t know that a mere eight months before Boogie Nights hit theatres, Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight (which he prefers to refer to as Sydney), was released domestically. Despite its edgy script, fluid photography, pulsating music, and the presence of Samuel L. Jackson (fresh off Pulp Fiction) and Gwyneth Paltrow (fresh off Se7en), Hard Eight was a commercial disaster.
Ask Anderson why the movie only grossed $222,000 and he’ll rattle off more reasons than can fit in a DVD commentary. In short, Anderson clawed and battled the studio every step of the way throughout production. This is unfortunate, because the movie – about an aging hustler who takes a down-and-outer under his wing – could have been better than it is. However, Anderson’s trouble with the studio did result in a major plus: from here on out, Anderson refused to make a picture unless he had final cut. And, considering his age at the time (he was 25 when he made Hard Eight) that is rarer than all hell.
For die hard Anderson fans, Hard Eight is a must. It amusingly displays the promise of what is to come. Everyone else can probably just skip straight to Boogie Nights. B+
Favorite scene: I love when a movie tells us how to pull something off, never excluding the slightest details. Hard Eight does this masterfully when Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) shows John (John C. Reilly) how to recycle a small amount of money through the casino cashier until it appears as if he’s spent thousands of dollars.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Sharing the coveted title of the most entertaining movie of the ‘90s, (with the likes of Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction) Boogie Nights begins with a bravado opening sequence (introducing all of the main characters in one extended tracking shot) and spends its remaining 150 minutes high off cocaine-fueled adrenaline.
Set in Los Angeles during the porno industry boom in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Boogie Nights chronicles the highs and lows of a local production company and its wildly popular star, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg, delivering one of the best performances of the decade). The film isn’t concerned with plot, as it doesn’t contain a shred of it. Instead, we follow around Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, never better) and company as they sunbathe by the pool, snort cocaine ceaselessly, engage in casual sex, and occasionally shoot films.
Boogie Nights breaks all the rules. It steals from other films (Goodfellas, I Am Cuba and Nashville are direct lifts), never lets its music conclude (whether it’s the disco-inspired soundtrack or Michael Penn’s score, or both), introduces main characters in the third act (“Todd…Parker!”), never lets its camera sit idle (thanks to the ever-impressive, Robert Elswit), and so on.
It’s a breathtaking film; one that never gets old. In fact, its impact continues to grow and grow and grow and grow and grow and grow. A
Favorite scene: If I was an actor reading this script, I’d be terrified of the confrontation between young Eddie and his mother. On paper, the dialogue sounds dime-store corny (“You’re stupid!” “I’m not stupid! Please don’t be mean to me!”, etc.) But thanks to Wahlberg and Joanna Gleason, the scene plays out like a horrific portrait of adolescent hell. But the kicker, it must be said, is the dolly shot of Lawrence Hudd, who plays Wahlberg’s reserved father. The camera quickly cuts to the parent’s bedroom and tracks left, revealing Hudd sitting motionless on the edge of his bed, listening to his wife berate his son in the next room.
Hudd says nothing, but his face says everything. It’s an incredibly chilling moment that, given the content of the rest of the film, should feel out of place. Thanks to those involved, it remains absolutely vital.
Coming off the critical acclaim of Boogie Nights, Anderson sought to push the envelope further with his next feature. In Magnolia, the envelope isn’t so much pushed as ripped wide open, the result of which should in no way work as a cohesive, three hour film. But it does, magically, and then some.
Taking place over the course of a single day in Los Angeles, Magnolia deserves to be ranked among the very best ensemble films ever made. Any one of its many stories could sustain a feature film, but the gift of Magnolia is that Anderson includes only what is absolutely necessary to further, and enhance, the character’s motivations.
From its exhilarating, urban legend-inspired prologue, to its Book of Exodus denouement, Magnolia is a genuine masterpiece. I can think of no contemporary film that better encapsulates the themes of love, loss, regret, cruelty and forgiveness. If this film is unseen by you, I cannot think of one reason why it should stay that way. A+
Favorite scene: Movie moments don’t get much better than the simultaneous breakdowns of Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore), Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), and Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise). But to be fair, that takes up, what… 20 minutes?
So instead, I’ll choose something more succinct. I’m obsessed with great character introductions in films. Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, Harry Lime in The Third Man, The Joker in The Dark Knight, and the like. So what better way to introduce Magnolia’s best character than to the operatic sound of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra?
With the light cues synching perfectly with Strauss, a silhouette soon appears to uproarious, male-driven fanfare. Soon, a voice speaks: “Respect…the cock.” The crowd loses it. We can’t help but smile.
People love to rag on Tom Cruise. And I get it. Yeah, the dude is kind of a douche and he stars in some shit films. But those haters surely haven’t seen Magnolia. For if they have, they would know that Cruise’s incarnation of Frank T.J. Mackey grants him a lifetime career pass.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Motivated by the need for a complete 180 from Magnolia’s style, and the fact that he loves Adam Sandler comedies, Anderson crafted a simple story about a simple guy with simple dreams.
Barry Egan just wants to be liked. He wants respect from his seven overbearing sisters, a successful business, and, just maybe, the love of a woman.
After a turn of purely Andersonian events, Barry finds himself wanted by an Utahan thug, falling for the girl of his dreams, and scheming to legally rip off a food company.
Punch-Drunk Love is odd. Quite odd, actually. Jon Brion’s music is a never ending romp of delight and mania. Elswit’s overexposed camera displays European-cool tones yet is strangely raw. Anderson’s script is random yet harmonious. And Sandler’s performance is puzzlingly brilliant. The lasting result, like most of Anderson’s work, boasts a love it or hate it mentality.
There are sequences of Punch-Drunk Love that rank among the best of Anderson’s career. It’s a meditative, breezy character study that has all the right things going for it, as long as you’re willing to meet it halfway. A-
Favorite scene: One of the best dialogue exchanges from the last decade goes a little something like this:
“I said ‘Calm down and shut the fuck up’ what’s the problem?”
“The problem is, if you give me a chance to explain, one of your employees, that girl I was just speaking with, has been threatening me, and four blonde gentlemen just… attacked me, and smashed my car, and hurt my girl—"
“All right, go fuck yourself, that shit has nothin’ to do with me, all right? I run a legitimate business here."
“Listen to me… WHAT’S YOUR NAME, SIR? ANSWER ME!”
“What’s your name, asshole?!”
“I’m Barry Egan!”
“How do I know? You could be anybody.”
“You’re a bad person, you have no right taking people’s confidence in your service. You understand me, sir? You’re sick—"
“No no no. SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP! SHUT UP WILL YOU—SHUT UP SHUT UP. SHUT SHUT SHUT SHUT SHUT UP…..SHUT UP!......NOW…..ARE YOU THREATENING, DICK?!"
“You go FUCK YOURSELF!”
(groans audibly) “FUCK! Did you just say go fuck myself?”
“…yes, I did.”
“THAT WASN’T GOOD, YOU’RE DEAD!”
There Will Be Blood (2007)
There Will Be Blood ruined contemporary American cinema. Its pace is deliberately tedious, yet utterly seamless. Its acting is flawless, from the lead actors to the extras in the background. Its music, by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood (with some help from Brahms), is forebodingly game-changing. Elswit’s cinematography redefines how to light a scene and maneuver a camera... in short, There Will Be Blood is cinematic perfection, something that hasn’t been achieved in this country since its release.
Daniel Plainview, as incarnated mercilessly by Daniel Day-Lewis, is a man of few passions and desires. He wants only one thing: to become filthy rich. Human feelings, acts of murder, broken legs, religious fanaticism, deaf children; these things need not deter him. And for two and half hours, we, the viewer, are fortunate enough to watch Plainview do everything in his power to achieve his dream.
If you were to break up every scene individually, and examine them as a collection of short films, you’d have more than dozen masterful sequences at your disposal. The fun (and beauty, and conviction) of There Will Be Blood is that, by placing all those scenes together, you’re left with a feature film of impenetrable importance.
No amount I write here will adequately describe how accomplished this film is. In my original review, I feared that many audience members would either completely ignore the film, or let it be lost on them. Given its modest box office draw ($40.2 million) and not-at-all justified number of Oscar wins (two; Day-Lewis and Elswit), my fears were relatively accurate. But I also made a bold prediction in my initial write-up. I said that decades from now, people would look back and consider There Will Be Blood an incontestable masterpiece.
Initially ignored then regarded as a classic, echoing the impact of Orson Welles’ first feature. That’s a prediction I stand by today. A+
Favorite scene: Bowling alley. Eating steak off the floor like a dog. Drainage. Milkshakes. False prophets. Third revelations. Blowing pin. Heavy breathing. “...Mr. Daniel?”
Not hardly, Mr. Plainview. Not hardly.