Monthly Archives: June 2013

27. Boogie Nights

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Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) is a bitingly funny, boldly crafted melodrama that insists less is not more – more is more.  As in, thirteen inches more.  As in, more characters.  More storylines.  More virtuosic camera moves.  More sex.  More nudity.  More passion.  More grit.  More drama.  More vulgarity.  More drugs.  More everything.  The result is a lengthy, highly ambitious project that unfolds like a Robert Altman film, interweaving a myriad of characters and storylines so that they compliment the material in a comparative and contrasting manner.  This keen approach echoes the half & half structure and provides insightful commentary on themes regarding family and sexuality.

That “family” happens to be a disparate group of filmmakers and artists (or pornographers and porn-stars, if you prefer) who were somehow lucky enough to find each other in the seedy underbelly of the porn world during the late 70’s and early 80’s.  These dysfunctional characters are introduced with a feverish pizazz in an opening that demonstrably puts the “fun” in funky.  This dazzling sequence establishes the environment in such a captivating way that it allows the audience to fully immerse itself in this unsavory, unsettling world.

Helping these matters are the incredible performances lent by the stellar cast, all melding perfectly in their roles.  These memorable portrayals are offered by Burt Reynolds; John C. Reilly; Don Cheadle; Heather Graham; William H. Macy; Julianne Moore; Philip Seymour Hoffman; Alfred Molina; Mark Wahlberg (and many more).  Now, if that sounds like a lot of characters and a lot of well-respected actors, that’s because it is.  Not only that, but they all relish their moments on-screen and turn this eclectic group of what could have been quirky caricatures, into fully developed human beings with depth and complexity.

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Speaking of depth, it is rumored that some of the sex in this film wasn’t exactly “acted.”  In other words, the talent was sometimes totally fucking on-screen.  Like, for real, real.  (Talk about method acting!)  Whether that rumor is based in truth or not is a moot point, because the otherwise brutally honest approach permeates the entire film and the consequence is a certain rawness that may alienate some viewers.  But let’s face it.  Boogie Nights is about porn.  So if nudity, drugs, and vulgarity offend you, then this movie wouldn’t be appropriate regardless of what was shown on-screen or how real the sex was.

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However, if you are able to look past the sex, what awaits you is some very effective melodrama, which contrasts sharply with a steady stream of humor.  The result is a synthesis that is sometimes uneven, but is ultimately held together by a smart score and an exhilarating soundtrack.  This clashing of unlikely elements (the melodrama and the comedy) is further grounded by the forceful performances as aforementioned, and the self-assured direction provided by Paul Thomas Anderson.  It is easy to imagine this all going wrong if it were in lesser hands, especially when considering Boogie Nights doesn’t depend on an overly explicit plot to move the action forward.  Rather, it appears to be character-driven, giving Anderson the opportunity to take his time in developing this myriad of characters and the world in which they reside.  Conversely, this sometimes makes for a slower, more leisurely pace, which may turn off some impatient viewers.  This is precisely why the captivating opening sequence is so vitally important, because it gives the audience a reason to be patient.  Without it, the audience would not be as forgiving, and would possibly be dazed and confused by the start of the second act.  But this is not the case, and while the story sometimes feels stagnant, it is always steadily thrusting forward and the end satisfyingly pays off the patience of the viewer.

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Which brings me to the inflammatory punctuation that brings Boogie Nights to a close.  Of course what I’m talking about is the on-screen reveal of that “one special thing” Dirk Diggler was blessed with.  I mentioned that the end is satisfying, but I feel ambivalent to whether this shocking reveal is the best way to finish off the movie.  In fact, I wonder if the less is more approach would have been more effective here.  After all, some things that are left off-screen make for an even more vivid image in the mind.  I don’t know.  Maybe the shock-factor is the suitable pay-off for a movie that is otherwise raw and unflinching.  In this case, perhaps more IS more.

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26. Blood Simple

Blood Simple poster

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Blood Simple (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1984) marks the first major directorial effort from the Coen Brothers, and while it doesn’t boast the charismatic camera-work and the over-the-top characters found in a lot of their later work, it does employ a spectacular script the Coen’s are now typically known for.  It is tidy and concise, while managing to be riveting and mysterious almost from top to bottom.  It builds upon a concept that is straightforward and primal, with each scene resembling a masterful sequence – with a distinct beginning, middle, and end – that effectively works as a short film unto itself.   In other words, each segment starts off rather slow as it settles in, builds to an ironic twist at the midpoint, and then aggressively moves to an impactful climax which is often another ironic twist.  The majority of the scenes operate in this keen way, and the effect is mesmerizing, especially during the potent first half.

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The second half starts off a little muddled, but once the rhythms take hold, that mesmerizing grip arises again, and the film is able to build to a thrilling finale that is unexpected and memorable.  Mirroring the rhythms of the script are the sharp waves of violence, which are used sparingly, but when used, they are powerful.  This restrained approach echoes through all of the technical elements, complimenting the material quite nicely.  This, of course, includes the photography, which is a whole lot less eccentric compared to a lot of other film noirs.  This is a surprising revelation considering who’s at the helm, but it is a good surprise, because while Blood Simple is dark and shadowy like many other film noirs, it remains grounded in a way that adds to the suspense.  That isn’t to say that there aren’t any memorable images, quite the contrary.  In fact, because the film is so economical in its approach, almost all of the images captured are vivid and serve both the context and the subtext.

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One other tangible difference between the debut effort from the Coen Brothers and their later work are the performances.  Here, they tend not to be as outlandish or bold.  Sure, there’s some quirk here and there, and the characters are well drawn, but the tics and tacks are minimal compared to the audacious characterizations found in their later projects.  Again, this minimalist, restrained approach tends to benefit the material, and the resulting performances are full of intensity and strength.

In general, I would say that Blood Simple is a riveting thriller with themes that are as murky as the shadows in which these deadly characters lurk.  On the surface, the film works exceptionally well and is gripping throughout.  Digging underneath the surface, we’ll find the familiar-Coen-Brother-philosophical-touch that offers the audience something to chew over and to interpret long after the blood has dried.

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