For Your Consideration: Dec. 12, 2014

There’s many who consider him the best American director working today. There are those who call him an auteur. However superlative you want to get about it, it’s just pretty hard to deny that Paul Thomas Anderson has made some damn fine movies. His latest, out in theaters this week, is an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s comedic, Chandler-ish neo-noir “Inherent Vice”; between an unexpectedly slapstick-heavy trailer and a largely befuddled critical response so far, it’s hard to tell where this one will fall in Anderson’s filmography. But we’ll take any chance to take a look back at some of the director’s exceptional work.

– Ethan

“Magnolia” (1999)

Cast: Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Tom Cruise, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards, Alfred Molina, Melora Walters, Michael Bowen , Ricky Jay, Jeremy Blackman, Melinda Dillon, April Grace, Luis Guzman, Felicity Huffman

Available to rent on Vudu, purchase on Amazon Instant or iTunes, or rent on disc from Netflix

A sprawling assembly of love, loss, chance and choice, Anderson followed up his wildly entertaining Altman-esque sophomore feature “Boogie Nights” with an even more ambitious ensemble drama. One of his most polarizing works thanks to its idiosyncratic structure, blatantly stylized sequences like an all-cast in-character sing-along, and probably the cinema’s first and only case of deus ex amphibia, “Magnolia” is nothing if not memorable, which is more than one can say for most attempts at the “we’re all connected” drama sub-genre. It helps that the actors are all firing on all cylinders, chomping on Anderson’s wild scenarios just enough to keep them from becoming completely overwhelming.

– Ethan

“Punch-Drunk Love” (2002)

Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Luis Guzman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mary Lynn Rajskub

Available streaming on Netflix, for rent or purchase from Vudu, Amazon Instant, iTunes

It seems almost a joke to refer to “Punch-Drunk Love” as P.T. Anderson’s rom-com, but that is essentially what it is; a breezy, 90-minute romance with every element of a crowd-pleaser: shabbily empathetic leading man (Sandler, employing all the best of his generally-buried comedic and dramatic talent); confident and stunning leading lady (Emily Watson, inhabiting the Manic Pixie Dream Girl role but managing to be neither manic, nor a pixie, nor a girl); charismatic and illogically nasty scene-stealing villain (Philip Seymour SHUTSHUTSHUTSHUTUP Hoffman). And for all the narrative weirdness and moody Jeremy Blake interludes, it’s ultimately, bizarrely sincere. When Sandler’s sad-sack, anger-prone hero starts winning, Anderson lets him keep winning, towards an ending that feels genuinely earned because Sandler and Watson have passed some sort of alternate-reality gauntlet.

– Ethan

“The Master” (2012)

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Laura Dern, Christopher Evan Welch

Available streaming on Netflix, to rent or purchase from Vudu, Amazon Instant, iTunes

It wasn’t intentional for this list to serve as a co-tribute to both Anderson and his frequent collaborator, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. But it’s a testament to the ability and vision of both that not a single one of the three Hoffman roles included here remotely resembles the others – after earnest, saintly Phil Parma, to explosive con man Dean Trumbell, we top it off with arguably the greatest performance of Hoffman’s towering career: the enigmatic, paternal, magnetic, manipulative cult leader/pseudo-philosopher Lancaster Dodd. Anderson’s masterful film-length clash between Dodd and Phoenix’s impressionable, unhinged Freddy Quell is as uneasy and disturbing as a horror film, a deep dive into the psychosis of leadership, politics, religion, parenthood.

– Ethan

Reviews: “A Most Wanted Man” and “Frank”

A Most Wanted Man

There were few actors who knew how to work an obscenity quite like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whether he was going for pathos or fury, there was always something so desperately genuine about it when he swore. There was a line being crossed.

There’s a moment at the end of “A Most Wanted Man,” the last leading performance we’ll get from one of the greatest screen actors ever, where Hoffman gets to loose one more of his earth-shattering oaths. The scene is one of the neatest summaries of the work of John Le Carré yet put forward: a single, principled man, outflanked by an intangible, unfeeling system, exploding into a vacuum. Those with power can’t hear him, and those that can hear him are powerless. In Le Carré’s grimy world of spycraft and deception, it doesn’t do to invest in idealism.

Currency in this world is measured by information, and Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann seems a relatively rich man. As the head of an off-the-books German intelligence unit, tasked with combating terrorist operations in Hamburg (the unassuming urban locale where the 9/11 attacks were planned), Bachmann appears to have reached a level of relative success through a complex web of bait-and-switch contacts, allowing some low-level targets to roam free in order to get closer to the big fish. His tactics, however, draw the attention and ire of more blunt, results-oriented colleagues, including, perhaps, the CIA (represented here by a slippery Robin Wright, in fine “House of Cards” form).

So, when a young Chechen (Grigoriy Dobrygin) with potential ties to a radical Muslim cell arrives in Hamburg, Bachmann is given only a limited amount of time to execute his plan: first to find the man (spirited into hiding by a sympathetic pro bono immigration lawyer, played with Teutonic strain by Canadian Rachel McAdams), and then unwittingly turn him into a pawn against a charitable doctor fronting for funders of terrorism. As with many of Le Carré’s stories (“A Most Wanted Man” is adapted by Andrew Bovell from Le Carré’s 2008 novel of the same name), much of the fascination of this film lies in seeing how the sausage gets made: the intricacies of modern intelligence work, with hidden cameras, drop-offs and meetings in abandoned parking lots are carefully laid out, even as the dreadful sense of fatalism hanging over everyone’s heads suggests more than a little futility to the whole enterprise.

Much of that feeling comes from the queasy lighting and dank shadows of director Anton Corbijn’s visuals. The photographer-turned-filmmaker showed a precise command of style and tone in his first two features, the Ian Curtis biopic “Control” and the very Le-Carré-ish “The American,” and his penchant for unsettlingly perfect composition is a good match for the machinations of counter-terrorism. The hyper-competent cast (Willem Dafoe, Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl and Homayoun Ershadi also drop by) play their parts as glorified automatons in this clockwork affair, but only Hoffman really breaks through expected narrative beats, signifying a great nothing with sound and fury.

Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars


Charisma, quite like musical talent, can’t quite be explained. Logically, it makes no sense that Michael Fassbender should be spellbinding even with his entire face covered by a giant papier-mâché head, just as his character’s creative abilities defy much of the traditional motivations that lie behind most examinations of “great artists.” But, “Frank” suggests with black wit and unexpected tenderness, it’s not really for us to explain; inspiration strikes where and when it will, and chasing can be both the source and solace of madness.

Jon Burroughs (Domnhall Gleeson, son of Brendan, previously seen in a brief role opposite his father in “Calvary” and as an endearing Levin in Joe Wright’s up-and-down “Anna Karenina”) plays the Salieri to Frank’s Mozart in Lenny Abrahamson’s caustic comedy, an aspiring musician thrown by chance into the chaos of the off-kilter, experimental, unpronounceable rock band The Soronprfbs. Jon’s utter lack of talent is made clear in a hysterically funny opening sequence, and much of the film’s tension comes from his character’s gradual, grudging arrival at the same self-evaluation. Piggybacking off the obscure but undeniable ability of The Soronprfbs’ enigmatic leading man, Jon slowly morphs from remora to leech, pushing the band to take a big gig at Texas’ SXSW music festival.

What could be a traditional “band hits the big time” narrative is complicated by the emerging truth that Frank is not merely a charming, zany eccentric, but genuinely mentally ill. For much of the film, Jon seems unable to process this, folding Frank’s sickness into his mythology, just a piece of the boilerplate “trauma” from which all true creativity surely flows. That pits Jon against Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Frank’s aloof, stone-faced bandmate, who tries to protect Frank from the public scrutiny she knows will ultimately hurt him. It’s wonderful for art to be shared and embraced, but for the person with the talent, embracing themselves should be the first and foremost priority.

Abrahamson skirts some heavy topics, but with a fresh, funny touch and vigorous pace that keeps “Frank” from ever seeming to revel in its’ characters pain or selfishness. They just sit there, alongside the laughs and lunacy, part of the total package. The unique physical challenge of Frank makes Fassbender’s performance stand out, but Gyllenhaal and Gleeson are also excellent, sparking off each other in Frank’s shadow. It’s also worth mentioning Scoot McNairy as the band’s cagey manager, Don; it’s a curious little role that could have been a throwaway, but McNairy lends him a tragic weight as an eerie, resonant foil to Frank.

The music itself, meanwhile, is as it should be: alternately odd, transcendent, or some combination of the two. The film’s final track hits a sad but optimistic conclusion, leaving the impression that the best art isn’t trying to be intentionally likable, or deep, or unique; it’s just allowed to be what it is.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

For Your Consideration: Sep. 26, 2014

The animation world is still suffering from its “Frozen” hangover, but this weekend “The Boxtrolls” is here to help. From the studio that created “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” this story of an orphan raised by trash-collecting trolls looks funny and sweet, a quirky spin on a familiar tale of outsiders and growing up. With its clunky, earthy look, the movie is the latest edition of stop-motion animation, the awkward stepsister of the hand-drawn or computer animation favored by Disney/Pixar. Stop motion animators have embraced their secondary role, content to explore off the beaten path and tell stories in unconventional ways. The results, like these three movies that paved the way for “The Boxtrolls,” are often just as brilliant, if not more so, as Disney’s princesses and Pixar’s adventures.

– Elaine

“Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005)

Cast: Peter Sallis, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Peter Kay

Available on YouTube, to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Wallace and Gromit might be the best pair in the history of animation. Mickey had Goofy, Bugs had Daffy, but there’s no team quite like Wallace and Gromit. An eccentric inventor and his dog, the two bring delight and good cheer wherever they go, getting into silly scrapes, solving problems with delightful machines, and eating far too much cheese.  First introduced in four short films starting in 1989, “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” is their only feature-length film to date.

From the moment Wallace and Gromit slide down a chute side by side, we know we’re in for a grand adventure. The town’s fast-approaching Giant Vegetable Competition is under siege from rabbits, and there’s no one better to save the day than the pair’s “Anti-Pesto” service. The problem is: they don’t believe in killing the big-eared pests, but are running out of space to keep them, so Wallace decides to solve the problem with “a bit of harmless brain alteration.” This goes wrong, of course, and the rest of the movie follows their whirlwind attempts to fix it, cheese tents, golden bullets, and giant rabbit marionettes galore.

– Elaine

“A Town Called Panic” (2009)

Cast: Jeanne Balibar, Nicolas Buysse, Stéphane Aubier, Véronique Dumont, Bruce Ellison, Vincent Patar

Streaming for free on Hulu (without commercials with Hulu Plus), to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Based on the Belgian children’s TV show of the same name, “A Town Called Panic” was the first stop-motion animated film ever to screen at the Cannes Film Festival – but don’t mistake that for a sign of pretentiousness or even any particular significance. “A Town Called Panic” is pure, simple, inspired silliness. Using plastic toys rather than the clay and puppet figurines more familiar to this style of animation, directors Aubier and Patar recreate the imagination and the lunacy of a five-year-old making up stories on their bedroom floor, rushing from an underwater kingdom, to the center of the earth, to a parallel universe, to the lair of a penguin-obsessed mad scientist. The central trio of Horse, Cowboy and Indian are endearing buffoons – Horse’s flirtation with a local piano teacher is particularly delightful. Not in the least bit logical, but frequently amusing and occasionally inspired.

– Ethan

“Mary and Max” (2009)

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries, Bethany Whitmore

Available streaming on Netflix, for rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes

If ever there was a film to break the perception of animation as a slight, exclusively family-friendly medium, “Mary and Max” might be it. Adam Elliot won an Oscar for his stop-motion short “Harvey Krumpet,” about a man with Tourette syndrome; his feature-length follow-up pushes further into the black humor and drama of mental illness, tackling issues of anxiety, depression, autism, agoraphobia, alcoholism and obesity. Inspired by the Australian Elliot’s own real-life 20-year correspondence with a pen-pal in America, “Mary and Max” follows a young Australian girl (Whitmore, then Collette) who strikes up an unlikely long-distance friendship with a middle-aged Jewish New Yorker (Hoffman). While ultimately optimistic about the value of companionship, forgiveness and patience, “Mary and Max” is completely unafraid of sending its character to dark, desperate places, made all the more jarring by Elliot’s whimsical, if monochromatic, animation. Hoffman and Collette put in sterling voice performances.

– Ethan