A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #2: Magnolia

d1ad56da-abce-4afe-9f45-79294aede9e3Tune in for episode 2 of A Damn Fine Cup of Culture podcast as Mege and Matt discuss Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, with a quick chat about the chilling, murderous Lady Macbeth and the biopic Jackie by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. Once again, mild spoilers are to be expected, and we may have some opinions on Tom Cruise – so respect the cup, sit down and listen.

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‘Twas the bear that done it: discussing The Revenant

12 Oscar nominations, a budget of $135 million and one very angry bear: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is the revenge flick that’s likely to continue being the talk of this award season. Reason enough to discuss the film one-on-one, like a better behaved Leonardo di Caprio and Tom Hardy, though with less grunting and accents that are easier to comprehend.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

Well, fuck. I remember a few years ago, just around this time, hearing about Heath Ledger’s death and believing it to be some internet-era hoax at first. Yesterday was very similar: I quickly go to check Facebook and see a handful of posts that Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead in his apartment, and my first instinct is not to believe it. He can’t be dead. He’s too good. This is some sad internet joker’s idea of a good joke.

If it’s a joke, it’s definitely one of the worst I’ve heard in a long time – or the Great Big Casting Agency In The Sky decided to up its game considerably, because Hoffman was one of the strongest, most unique and least vain actors to come out of Hollywood. Here’s hoping he’s sitting next to Maximilian Schell right now, going through his lines with that half-amused, half-exasperated half-smile of his.

In Memoriam Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

Like so many people, I first noticed Hoffman on my radar when I saw Magnolia. He’d been in earlier films and had a poignant part in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights that was indicative of the work to come, but Anderson’s Magnolia put him in one of the leading parts, and rightly so. There was something seriously weird about the performance, but not in the quirky indie style that we’ve become accustomed to; there was no trace of that cutesy self-centredness in him. Magnolia: now there’s a film that was almost impossible to act and act well, for all involved. In the wrong hands, its lines would be overblown melodrama. Its too-decent-to-be-true character Phil Parma, among many others, would fall flat. Not so in Hoffman’s hands.

By the time The Talented Mr Ripley came around, it felt like Hoffman had always been there. Even though it was only shortly after Magnolia, I remember looking forward to the film because, damn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of my favourite actors! The part was smaller, but it’s one of the most memorable performances in a film packed with unusually strong performances. And again, that weirdness: Hoffman could turn on the most disturbing brand of camp that shouldn’t ever work, but he made it work – more than that, he made it essential to the character and so right it hurt.

It would be difficult not to go through the man’s filmography and pick scenes from practically every single movie he’d been in; personally I’m partial to his shlubby teacher in 25th Hour, an underrated film and a beautifully judged performance, and he was fantastic in Almost Famous or providing one of the main voices in Mary & Max, but also in uneven and mediocre films like Red Dragon or Mission: Impossible 3. Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is a film that works better on paper than on the screen, but when it works it’s because Hoffman made its central character inject an almost unbearing humanity into a story that constantly risks being tripped up by the meta Chinese Boxes it leaves lying all over the place.

For me it started with Paul Thomas Anderson, so it’s only right it ends with him. I’m sure Hoffman’s performances after The Master were as watchable as everything he’d done, but his Lancaster Dodd is all the proof that’s needed that American cinema has lost one of its most unique, generous and powerful voices – and while we have many indelible performances to choose from, it’s difficult not to be greedy and wish we could have had many more.

Rest in peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

An evening with The Master (1)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was one of the most intriguing films of the last year. As a big fan of Anderson’s earlier movies especially, I’ve been wanting to write about The Master – but it’s such a puzzling work, I decided it was time to bring in back-up. So, for this post and for the next three, I’ll be joined by a occasional contributor and good friend to discuss the film. I hope you enjoy this somewhat different, longer format!

Matt   Thanks a lot for joining me in discussing The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s enigmatic 2012 film. Let’s jump right into the conversation – our first one in this format, so let’s hope we won’t end up at each other’s virtual throats! What I’d be interested in, first and foremost, is how you see The Master and Anderson’s development as a director. To be more specific: I was a big fan of the director’s Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999). When There Will Be Blood came out in 2007, though, I could barely reconcile the film and its director to the earlier work, and the same is still true for The Master. The earlier films have a certain signature style, as do the later, but the styles could hardly be more different. It’s like Anderson has completely reinvented himself as a director. How do you see this?

Mege   PTA stated in an interview that after Boogie Nights, he wanted to avoid being famous for a certain kind of movie, so he knew that his next movie would be intentionally different. But that doesn’t really answer your question, does it? That next movie was Magnolia, and it is not hugely different from Boogie Nights in terms of atmosphere and style. He even uses some cast members and some of the same musical score bits in both. The differences are more far-fetched: Boogie Nights takes place over a few years, Magnolia takes place in less than 24 hours, if I remember correctly. Maybe the real answer is that he is refreshingly versatile.

Matt   Versatile he definitely is – disconcertingly so. To me, without wanting to call them derivative, Magnolia and Boogie Nights both feel like descendents of Altman – they’re very much ensemble pieces of the sort that Altman has done, and Magnolia is clearly influenced by Short Cuts – and Scorsese, in terms of form. There’s an energy in the filmmaking, the cinematography and editing especially, that recalls Goodfellas, for instance. The two films both have sequences that are so relentless, they almost become overbearing – as if Anderson was a talented, personable version of Henry Hill all coked out.

Rewatching The Master, what strikes me about the filmmaking is how those two influences seem to be entirely gone. If anything, both The Master and There Will Be Blood have echoes of Kubrick, who couldn’t be much more different from Altman and Scorsese. They both have a weird buzz, underscored (no pun intended!) by the music, they both feature magisterial, strangely distancing camera work, and visual symmetries abound. You can almost feel the unearthly sort of wonder of 2001‘s monolith in some scenes in Anderson’s two most recent films.

But I don’t want to overplay the “Who’s your cinematic daddy?” game. My main point is probably that while I find recent Anderson fascinating, I have to say I miss the warmth of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Do you find any of the earlier Anderson in The Master (other than Phillip Seymour Hoffman, obviously), and what do you like best about what his work has developed into?

Mege   I’ve never seen it that way, but yes, Boogie Nights and Magnolia both have their tenderness and warmth. While PTA wanted to utterly destroy Jimmy Gator, one of his other aims was to make Claudia Wilson smile. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a heartfelt movie about the oil business. Same with the cult business. There is greed, recklessness and manipulation in both There Will Be Blood as well as in The Master. I also have to admit that, although your comparisons to Altman and Scorsese ring true to me, I didn’t think of any influences while watching, maybe because a PTA is so darned original every time.

This discussion of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master will continue soon; next time we’ll be talking about the film’s two main characters and the performances by The Master‘s stars, Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

In a world…

Alien. Comedian. Magnolia. Psycho. What do these films have in common, other than snappy, one-word titles?

The Onion‘s A.V. Club knows: Coming-attraction attractions: 24 movie trailers that function as standalone works of art. Worth checking out, not least because of gems such as its description of Magnolia as “a sprawling, awkward, almost brutally sincere film”.

Talking of which, I do love that trailer:

P.S.: Was I the only kid who had sort of an older-woman crush on Melinda Dillon after watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A Christmas Story?

Let’s face the oil well and dance…

There’s something weird going on in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Okay, there are many weird things going on – the film is quite confounding on the whole, as it doesn’t present its story the way you’d expect it – but when you watch the beginning of the film, a long sequence without any dialogue, you feel some strange sort of double vision. At least you do if you’re a film nerd like me, that is.

On the one hand, you’re watching a solitary prospector mine for silver in a desolate landscape, breaking his leg in a bad fall, striking it rich – and then, almost by accident, finding oil. On the other hand, the music and the landscape suggest very different images, recalling one of the most famous (and most parodied) scenes of cinema:

There is some sort of weird intertextual thing going on between There Will Be Blood and Kubrick’s movies that is discussed intelligently in this forum post. Beyond that, though, there something eerily ritualistic and religious about the film’s beginning: it’s as if the black liquid gushing from the ground is the harbinger of some new, cruel religion that will require sacrifices. In his way, Daniel Plainview (a disturbing performance by Daniel Day Lewis that is more complex than its detractors admit) is more of a mad prophet than his opponent, the self-righteous yet wheedling Eli Sunday. It’s just that human beings have no place in his religion.

Is it better to rule in Hell…?

I recently re-watched Magnolia, which I still like a lot, so There Will Be Blood came as a surprise. Even Punch Drunk Love, which I didn’t particularly enjoy (or understand), felt more like the P.T. Anderson who made Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Those latter two films were quintessential ensemble movies. There Will Be Blood has barely enough space for one or two characters next to Plainview. It grows out of its central monolithic (if you forgive the Kubrickian pun) protagonist: perhaps the most frightening character in recent film history.

P.S.: Please keep in mind that I haven’t yet seen No Country for Old Men, so I can’t judge the scariness of that film’s Anton Chigurh. His hair’s plenty scary enough, though.

Prince Valiant, the Cleaner

P.P.S.: After Miami Vice used to be the top search term leading people to this website, it has now become “magenta”. So, my heartfelt thanks to one of my frequent readers. Hope you’re getting just as many hits because of me!

A matter of life and death… and Japanese movies

There are a handful of films that give off a glow in my memory, like a candle flame. They’re not necessarily the Assassination of Jesse James etc. etc. or Magnolia type of films. They’re not by people such as Steven Soderbergh or Martin Scorsese. One of those films is Roderigo Garcia’s Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her (great acting in that one, but more than that, the film is amazingly gentle – not soft, mind you, not anodyne, but gentle), which I saw by sheer accident. Another one is Kore-Eda’s After-Life.

I’d been wanting to see the director’s Nobody Knows for a while now, but I only did so yesterday evening. After the very emotional final episode of Six Feet Under (it got to me just as much this time as it did when I first watched it) I wasn’t sure whether a film about four children who are abandoned by their mother and who try to continue their lives as best possible, ignored by the world around them, wouldn’t be too depressing.

The film is definitely not cheerful, and the ending is quite tough in terms of what happens, but there’s something as gentle and comforting about Kore-eda’s direction in Nobody Knows as there was in his deeply spiritual but never preachy After-Life. There are moments of simple joy in the lives of the children. There are just as many moments of joy in the filmmaking: scenes that are both realistic and subtly poetic.

Nobody Knows, by Kore-eda

It’s strange: in a way I feel the movie should get to me more, especially considering the ending – yet somehow I also think that I’d resist a tougher film more. Kore-eda’s work doesn’t do the emotional work for you. It doesn’t tell you what to think or feel. And it doesn’t allow for simple, clear-cut emotions. Yet you have to be willing to be taken along by the film’s flow. I don’t think I’ve seen many films that have this sort of pace; the film that popped into my mind when I tried to think of other movies that had a similar effect on me was Le fils by the Dardenne brothers.

Writing about the film now, I feel I’m only circling around the emotions that it touched upon. I don’t think I’m an inch closer to understanding the effect Nobody Knows had on me. But I think, somehow, that I may be remembering this film, much like After-Life, for a long time.