Category Archives: Movie Review

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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25. The Birds

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The first thing that comes to mind after watching The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963) is the question: WHY?  Why a lot of things, but specifically, why did the writer choose to write this story?  I don’t ask this pejoratively; rather, I’m genuinely curious as to what happened in the real world that initially ignited the flame behind this concept?  This certainly isn’t a question I ask of all the movies I watch, but something about The Birds’ totally absurd subject matter really pushes this question to the forefront.  I wonder, for example, if a bird once shat upon the writer?  He must’ve been so infuriated!  Or maybe the writer witnessed a profound incident at a pet store in which a bird was freed from his cage and then pecked the eyeball out of an unsuspecting patron.

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I don’t know what it was, but the result is a paranoid-ridden love story between two characters, each who have serious issues with their mothers (one has no relationship, the other has an over-bearing relationship).  Then, halfway through, this unnerving love story suddenly becomes a survival movie, in which, you guessed it, the birds go wild, and relentlessly start attacking the humans.  Per usual, Hitchcock doesn’t go out of his way to explain why this happens, it just is.  And perhaps this minimalist approach is what prompts the question, “Why?” in the first place.  And perhaps the answer to this question is just as minimal and straightforward as any other Hitchcock film, and that is, there is no answer.  There is no reason.  It’s simply entertainment.  It’s primal and it’s fun.  There’s nothing deeper or more to it than that.  This very well may be the case, but honestly, the distinction doesn’t make a licking bit of difference anyhow.  Because you cannot have context without subtext and you cannot have subtext without context.  Whether intended or not, all films hold a greater subtext (because they exist).  Therefore, regardless of a movie’s quality, the potentiality of a deeper interpretation, one not based on a matter of fact, but of a subjective response to the material— always exists.

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And as far as the context goes, I’d say this: The Birds is a disturbing, well-made, rigidly constructed film, much like an elaborate piece of furniture from Ikea.  That is, a bunch of unappealing parts that when put together very carefully makeup a mostly satisfying whole.  What’s rather surprising is that the most effective sequences are indeed the birds-on-attack scenes, despite the outdated, almost laughable special effects.  Somehow these far-fetched sequences still successfully come across as creepy.  Disturbing, even.

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But again, I just can’t help but ask, “why?”  And why birds?  I mean, is this role reversal more frightening than if it were any other animal?  Could it have been dogs?  The Dogs.  What about killer bees?  The Bees.  I don’t know.  Maybe, viscerally speaking, aesthetically speaking, birds are the creepiest.  Even so, what’s the reason?  Why are these birds stalking this woman as if she’s some sort of poisonous feed?  As I search for a deeper meaning, any meaning, something occurs to me.  The Tippi Hedren character is blatantly wearing a luxurious fur coat in every single scene up until the midpoint.  I should also say, she’s the only character who is ever seen wearing fur throughout the entire picture.  Interestingly, after the midpoint, she is never seen wearing the fur coat again, until the very last moment in the film.  This observation isn’t necessarily a reason or an explanation as to why the birds attack, as it may just be a coincidence, or simply a part of her characterization—but I found this motif to be important.

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Another provocative theme is captured in what is probably the most iconic image of the entire movie, when Tippi’s character is forced into the phone booth by the maniacal birds.  The roles here are ironically reversed, as the uncooperative birds are now in charge and it is us who must cooperate with them.  This reversal is ominously foreshadowed with a piece of dialogue that appears early in the movie: “I just thought you might like to know what its like to be on the other end of a gag.”  Okay.  Creepy.  But from this perspective, one wonders what the birds might represent?  Perhaps they embody the underclasses breaking free.  And Tippi and her fur coat represent the privileged upper classes.  Or, to put slightly more specifically, perhaps the birds represent any minority anywhere in the world.  They represent “the other.”  Or how about this: the birds are the “99%.”  Yes!  Or maybe it’s an anti-fur film.  Or maybe it’s about nothing.

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I don’t know.  There is no answer.  It’s absurd.  It’s all about as absurd as a mass of birds deciding to wage war and cage humans for no apparent reason whatsoever.  After all, “Birds don’t just go around attacking people without no reason.”  Yet it is precisely this absurdity that illustrates, comments on, and reflects the very real absurdity of mankind doing the exact same thing.  After all, if it’s absurd for birds to do these things, shan’t it be absurd for humans too?


24. The Big Lebowski

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The Big Lebowski (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1998) is a ramblin’, complex, ambitious “who-dun-it?” story, in which the answer is ultimately revealed as: nobody.  Nobody dun did it.  Like the Nihilists in this movie, the plot essentially amounts to nothing.  In this Hitchcockian sort of way, the entire plot is merely an excuse to experiment with all of these outrageous characters, most notably, of course, is The Dude, played awesomely by Jeff Bridges.  And while The Big Lebowski feels like a convoluted, plot-heavy film— with “lots of ins, lots of outs”— it’s actually more akin to an intimately detailed character study.

That character, The Dude, closely resembles the tumbling tumbleweed shown in the opening prelude, as he is so easily blown from one escalating plot point to the next, with each subsequent episode mounting in absurdity, containing more outlandish characters, and displaying an increased amount of preposterous visuals.  This tumbling tumbleweed of an apathetic character is exemplified in his own motto: “fuck it,” as well as the place in which the story takes place— Los Angeles.  The Dude is Los Angeles and Los Angeles is The Dude.  What’s most bitingly ironic about this lazy, pacified characterization is that the entire crux of the story depends on The Dude reacting to the inciting incident in a way that defies his very own ethos.

In other words, because of the persuasive abilities of his outspoken friend Walter, The Dude breaks with his usual pacified mentality, and decides to take a stand against what he perceives to be unfair, unchecked aggression.  After all, they peed on his fucking rug!  Adding to this irony, of course, are all of the disastrous, unintended consequences of taking said action, which could have been avoided if The Dude were only to stick to his original “fuck it” motto.  All’s he had to do was let it be, and cope with a pee-stained rug.

But alas, that is not what happened, and I get the feeling— based on the movie’s popularity and cult following— that the story could have been just about anything, and what makes this material work are the supremely detailed characterizations of it’s many zany characters.  I mean, just take John Turturro’s “Jesus” character, for example.  This character is totally ludicrous, and is entirely irrelevant to the actual plot of the story.  He doesn’t push the story forward; instead, like so many other moments in The Big Lebowski, he is simply a digression.  Even so, because the details are as specific and peculiar as they are, and because the casting and performances are so spot-on, these moments and characters not only work, but they end up being some of the most effective, memorable, entertaining parts of the entire film.  Speaking of memorable, the screenplay penned by the Coen’s is so smart, and is full of so many quotable lines of dialogue you will need to drink a spiked “White Russian” just to get them out of your head (not that you would want to).

But putting aside all of the kooky madness The Big Lebowski has to offer, what ends up rising to the top is an hallucinatory morality tale about power, perceived power, and using that power for leverage.  What’s interesting about this dynamic, particularly the way it is framed in this movie, is that the perceived power— whether the source is money, sex, or violence— is merely that: a perceived power.  An illusion.  Its only power if the so-called “lesser” person agrees to give it power.  By feeding it.  And I get the impression that the Coen’s are suggesting that meeting an aggressive act with an aggressive act is what feeds it.  Or, like I mentioned earlier, The Dude’s troubles could all have been avoided if only he were to ABIDE by his original pacifist worldview and life-engrossing motto: “Fuck it, let’s go bowling.”


23. Big Fish

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Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003) is about the importance of imaginative storytelling, and how the quality of one’s storytelling actually correlates to the quality of one’s life.  In doing so, it negates the importance of “fiction” or “non-fiction,” “fact” or “non-fact,” and replaces it with subjective interpretation.  In other words, whether what a person says is a truth (fact) or a lie (fiction) is totally irrelevant, because the very spouting of said words more accurately reflects the person and how he views the world, than whether those words are legitimately true or not.

Take any work of fiction, for example.  Say, James Cameron’s Avatar.  By all means, none of what happens in that movie is literally “true” or “real.”  It’s all made up.  It’s a lie.  It’s a fiction.  It’s a story.  But putting that aside (because it’s irrelevant), what you actually get from that subtext is a crystal clear understanding of what James Cameron’s perspective on the real, actual world is.  That, regardless of what happened to him in his real life, the aggregate of which and his interpretation thereof, led him to the viewpoint that nature is beautiful and should be loved, respected, and salvaged before it’s too late.  Whether you agree with that perspective or think it’s “true” or not is irrelevant, because what matters, and what’s undeniable, is that that perspective exists.

To make myself clear, let’s consider a different hypothetical.  Imagine a young child experiences something tragic.  He loses a parent, or a sibling, or a friend.  Or maybe he suffers a really awful injury.  It’s something tragic.  It’s something we all fear.  Now, how that child ultimately deals with that tragedy is what will become a story he tells for the rest of his life.  Indeed it will be his life.  Because just like it says in this movie: “you tell your stories so many times, you become the stories.”  So, maybe that child’s story is grim and full of ruin and he feels like he can’t overcome it.  This leads to relationship problems and deep sociological issues.  Maybe he turns to drugs or violence or something worse.  Conversely, maybe he tells a different story.  An imaginative, uplifting story in which he learned a vital life lesson, and it motivated him positively and has helped shape who he is today.  Each is a story, and each would reflect a drastically different outcome, but that outcome isn’t dependent on facts, rather, how well that person can tell his story.

I mentioned “fear” just a bit ago, and another important element in Big Fish is the way fearlessness is rewarded.  Ed Bloom’s character (Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney) in particular, is totally fearless.  He confronts the big, scary, bad giant (played memorably by Matthew McGrory), fearless.  He approaches the nasty, frightening one-eyed witch (Helena Bonham Carter), fearless.  He navigates the ominous dangerous unknown trail, fearless.  On and on Ed Bloom operates devoid of fear, and every time he is rewarded for it.  As it turns out, the big bad scary giant isn’t a bad scary giant at all, but the gentlest of humans that you could ever imagine (giant or otherwise).  The one-eyed witch isn’t nasty or frightening, but wise and kind and helpful.  The trail isn’t dangerous or ominous; it’s just full of life with a greener, brighter destination waiting at the end of it.  All of this, not because Ed Bloom is fearless, but because he knows there is no such thing as fear.  It’s an illusion.  It’s a story.  Like this movie, fear is a tall-tale.  But so is your life, so tell it.  Tell it fearlessly, and tell it well, and you will be rewarded too.


22. Best In Show

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Have you ever seen that zany Errol Morris documentary, Gates of Heaven, the one about the pet cemetery and the people who have their pets buried there?  Well, if you haven’t seen it, and if you like the documentary format in particular, you might want to check it out.  But the actual reason why I mention that movie is because just like this movie, Best In Show (Christopher Guest, 2000), it’s central theme is coping.  Yes, Best In Show has an extremely amusing context about a colorful cast of character’s entering their dogs in a competition, but underneath that, it’s really about coping.  It’s about people coping with people, mostly, but it’s also about dogs coping with people.  And ironically, how dogs (or any other pets for that matter) allow people to cope more effectively in the first place.  Basically, there’s a lot of coping going on.

And behind all of this coping is the usual cast of brilliant comic actors who always seem to find themselves in Christopher Guest movies.  Jane Lynch is great.  Jennifer Coolidge is great.  Catherine O’Hara is great.  John Michael Higgins is great.  Michael McKean is great.  Parker Posey is great.  They’re all great.  They all have their moments.  Especially Fred Willard who provides a volcanic amount of humor somewhere after the halfway point.  It’s nonstop and it’s hysterical.  “Tell me, do you know the difference between a rectal thermometer and a tongue depressor?”

But there’s a performance here in particular that I wanted to point out, and that is Christopher Guest’s.  While watching Best in Show it occurred to me— and I could be wrong about this— but it occurred to me that he seems to the most chameleon-like of all the actors in this cast.  By that, I mean, he’s consistently the most unrecognizable.  He seems to disappear into his roles slightly more so than the rest, physically speaking.  Which isn’t to say that the other actors don’t play a variety of diverse roles, because they certainly do.  And it also isn’t to say that Christopher Guest is always the funniest character, because he isn’t, and he isn’t in this movie either.  In fact, his character comes off as a bit sad to me.  He’s very likeable.  He’s cordial and he’s nice.  But there’s a visible tinge of loneliness and sadness throughout, especially in the ventriloquist scenes.  I guess you could say he’s coping with loneliness (aren’t we all), and luckily, at the end of the day, he has his dog to cope with.


20. Beginners

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This movie is about one of the most important lessons of all and that is seizing the day.  This movie is quirky.  This movie is quintessentially modern.  This movie is about coming to terms with who you were, who you are, and who you want to be.  This movie is cathartic.  This movie is playfully inventive which reminds me of the French New Wave.  This movie is charming like Melanie Laurent.  This movie is adorable like that Jack Russell.

This movie is emotionally powerful like Christopher Plummer’s Academy Award winning portrayal of a gay man, who, following the death of his wife of 45 years, comes out of the closet at age 75.  This movie is a celebration of life.  This movie is funny like one of those t-shirts that has an ironic slogan written on it.  This movie is about communication, both verbal and nonverbal.  This movie is about how nothing is permanent, how attitudes change, how styles change, and what is considered acceptable and unacceptable changes as well.

This movie is about love.  This movie is about death.  This movie is about life, love, and death, just like a flower represents life, love and death.  This movie is about acceptance.  This movie is full of small intimate details that speak to everyone.  This movie is about seizing the day before it’s too late, which I already said, and I said it again because it’s important.  This movie is about forgiveness.  This movie makes me cry.  This movie makes me smile.  This movie makes me laugh.  This movie is about not knowing what happens next but going for it anyway.  This movie is about the first day of the rest of your life.  This movie is Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010).