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

For Your Consideration: Aug. 22, 2014

Almost ten years after Robert Rodriguez first took us into the hyper-stylized ultra-violent world of Frank Miller’s “Sin City,” the long-gestating sequel has finally appeared. The comic book/graphic novel writer has seen his work mainstreamed through the popularity of “300,” the influence of The Dark Knight Returns on Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and, um, the super-hyped fiasco that was his solo directorial debut (“The Spirit”). But for some reason the noir-tinged psychopaths of Basin City still seem to hold a special fascination; though perhaps that’s not so surprising, considering the very real attraction of the original Sin City. Avarice, danger, sex, glitz: you can get it all in Las Vegas (at least in the movies). This week we’re recommending three films from the world’s center for adult entertainment.

– Ethan

“Leaving Las Vegas” (1995)

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands, Richard Lewis, Steven Weber

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

Mike Figgis’ acclaimed indie was not responsible for the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, nor the depressed alcoholic; but it’s hard to see these stock roles in any modern film and not see the echoes of Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue. Though it embraces the bleak, self-destructive side of Vegas’ flurry of temptation and obsession, “Leaving Las Vegas” still finds some positive energy amidst the desperation and disappointment. It’s not that either character is beyond redemption, which makes it all the more strangely, tragically pitiful that Cage’s struggling screenwriter obstinately chooses to continue down his path toward implosion; did he go to Vegas to drink himself to death, or did he drink himself to death because he was in Vegas?

– Ethan

“The Cooler” (2003)

Cast: William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Alec Baldwin, Shawn Hatosy, Ron Livingston, Paul Sorvino, Estella Warren

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

A twisty neo-noir with a few (slightly gimmicky) flashes of Scorsese-in-“Casino”/dice-fetishist style, “The Cooler” stands out not so much for its story – unlucky Bernie Lootz’s transition from professional jinx to can’t-miss-lover isn’t exactly shocking – but for the exceptional cast, making the most of a traditional setup. Baldwin got the Oscar nod, and deservedly so, for his rough, jaded Vegas old-timer resisting the city’s efforts to scrub away its dirty history; but William H. Macy plays the sad sack titular role with a kind of pathetic, schlubby dignity (Paul Giamatti would be proud), and Maria Bello makes for a pretty believable good luck charm.

– Ethan

“Fright Night” (2011)

Cast: Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Toni Collette, Dave Franco

Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant or iTunes, on disc from Netflix; you can also check out the original streaming on Netflix or Hulu

Forget Transylvania; Las Vegas is the place to be if you’re one of the undead. Everyone stays up all night, there’s plenty of new blood coming into town, and no one stays in town long enough to figure out what you’re up to. That’s what brings Jerry the Vampire (Colin Farrell) to town, moving in next door to high school student Charley (Anton Yelchin) in this remake of a 1985 cult classic. The very fact that our vampire is named Jerry should tell you what kind of movie this is, exuding that special charm of movies aware of their own campiness. Farrell is surprisingly convincing as Jerry, alternately sexy and scary, charming and menacing. To top it all off, David Tennant makes a delightful appearance as Peter Vincent, a sniveling, leather-clad Van Helsing who headlines a Vegas show but is too afraid to actually hunt vampires. Next time you’re packing for Vegas, better bring some garlic.

– Elaine