Connect with us

Film

The Master At Work: Paul Thomas Anderson

His films have reinvigorated American cinema and given hope to an industry that currently falters more than it succeeds

Published

on

In an age where the Hollywood film industry is filled with big budget blockbuster flops, prequels, sequels, and remakes, the word auteur is rarely used. In the late ’90s, before he had even reached the age of thirty, Paul Thomas Anderson had already written and directed three feature-length films, two of which were considered by critics as masterpieces. A unique style of storytelling and key production traits in his films have reinvigorated American cinema and given hope to an industry that currently falters more than it succeeds.

Anderson’s journey into the film industry is an interesting one. After enrolling into the New York Film School he only lasted two days before withdrawing and heading back to Los Angeles with his tuition money. He felt there was nothing they could teach him that he hadn’t already learned through watching hundreds of films. This arrogant attitude towards authority has followed him throughout his career, especially when dealing with studio heads. Anderson was accepted into the Sundance Filmmakers Lab to work on his debut script Sydney (Later to be called Hard Eight) when he met future producing partner John Lyons, “I thought he was particularly smart and one of the most interesting directors who came through there. He had an unusual amount of confidence, even for a director, especially for someone his age. He was very savvy, utterly self-confident”. Anderson’s maturity was evident in Hard Eight. Writing and directing a story about a washed up gambler in his 60’s showed that Anderson was wise above his age.

Anderson’s directing style was defined in his second feature film Boogie Nights. Long takes and a constantly moving camera for which the director is now known were an element used to enhance the energy of the film, a story about the porn industry in the late ’70s. It’s safe to say these elements were borrowed from two of Anderson’s idols, Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. The long opening shot into the nightclub bears striking similarities to the nightclub shot Scorsese used in Goodfellas. A multi-protagonist cast was used to tell the story, a trademark Altman used in his heyday in such films as Nashville and Short Cuts.

Punch Drunk Love (2002)

Several recurring themes that would later find themselves in Anderson’s other films also first appeared in Boogie Nights. Dysfunctional family relationships, alienation, regret, and loneliness were embedded into the screenplay. Having such emotional themes addressed in a film about the porn industry showed Anderson’s skill at being able to get the audience to sympathize with his characters. Never one to let the audience get too comfortable, Anderson also worked the shock value to perfection with several scenes in the film, such as the memorable double murder/suicide performed by William H. Macy’s character and the underage cocaine overdose scene. Both extremely raw but also quite comical. Making a serious actor out of Marky Mark, introducing us to Heather Graham (on wheels) and giving a kick up the ass to Burt Reynolds fledging career all in one film? This director was to be taken seriously.

By the mid to late ’90s every studio in Hollywood was eager to sign the next Quentin Tarantino. The success of Boogie Nights gave Anderson free reign to do whatever he pleased. Mike De Luca, a young head of production at New Line was so keen to keep Anderson on their books that he offered him ‘final cut’ on his next feature, a privilege many directors never come across. What followed was Magnolia, a 3 hour-long magnum opus, a mosaic of interrelated stories about characters searching for happiness, forgiveness, and meaning in their lives. Again Anderson was showing everyday people in moments of crisis and not shying away from intensely emotional moments. Many of the cast members from Boogie Nights returned, including Julian Moore who had this to say about the director during the making of Magnolia, “One of the things that is so wonderful about Paul is his humanity and how emotional he is. There aren’t many people who have the desire or the bravery you need to be that emotional. Paul does that, he really goes there”.

In a surprise casting move, Anderson cast Tom Cruise to play Frank TJ Mackey, a self-help guru specializing in the art of seduction. During a promotional trip to the UK for Boogie Nights, director Stanley Kubrick invited Anderson to the set of Eyes Wide Shut. The night before Kubrick had screened Boogie Nights for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Cruise told Anderson that he loved working with good directors and hoped to work with him soon. That’s all Anderson needed to hear. The role would eventually win Cruise a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and would be hailed by critics as one of Cruise’s best performances.

Magnolia was also a platform for Anderson to showcase his skill with music. After the success of the Boogie Nights soundtrack Anderson was inspired by Aimee Mann’s music during the writing of Magnolia and used 8 of her songs in the soundtrack, having several of her lyrics incorporated into dialogue and filming a music video sequence of the song ‘Wise Up’ where each character sings sections of the song. He also used an original score, which was epic in size and was used masterfully to build tension in climatic moments of the story. The film would go on to win the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival. In an interview after the film’s release, the confident Anderson was quoted as saying “I have a feeling, one of those gut feelings, that I’ll make pretty good movies the rest of my life… but I guess the way that I really feel is that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I’ll ever make.”

In an interview with Film Four in 1998, Anderson commented on how the romantic comedy was being killed by bad filmmakers. He stated that for a long time he’s wanted to make a rom-com in the most traditional way but fuck it up in the most untraditional way. The best way to criticize a movie, Jean Luc Godard famously said, is to make another movie. Punch Drunk Love was born.

In my opinion, this is Anderson’s most complex film. It challenges the audience to consider many things happening within the frame. For example, the positioning of Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan in each shot often cornered and trapped, especially at the beginning of the film. The color choices; blue representing protagonists Barry Egan’s life and red representing what Barry wants. And the meaning behind random events such as the car crash in the opening 5 minutes. In what is a masterful directorial move, Anderson sets up one of the most amazing car crash scenes ever filmed, but instead of having Barry’s character investigate what happened with the crash, he simply keeps the camera and story with Barry, making a choice to stay with this character and asking the audience to do the same. Anderson would win the Best Director prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. In a 2003 interview with The Times, Anderson states, “This one came from my stomach. It’s reference-less. When you start out, you latch onto other styles, to help you get across what you’re trying to say. But this one is mine somehow – and I’m proud of that.

It’s worth mentioning Anderson’s directing skill in being able to get such an amazing performance out of someone like Adam Sandler. Famed critic Roger Ebert said in his review of Punch Drunk Love that “Given a director and screenplay that see’s through Sandler’s persona, it pushes Sandler to reveal depths and tones we may have suspected but couldn’t bring into focus.” While we’re on the subject let’s make one thing clear… If Adam Sandler is ever going to reinvent his career and distance himself from the shit sandwiches he keeps attaching his name to (See Jack and Jill, That’s My Boy, etc…) he needs to either a) Start actually reading the scripts he signs on for, or b) Watch Punch Drunk Love, Funny People and Reign Over Me on repeat for a weekend and realise what a truthful performance of his looks like. And for the love of God please stop doing that stupid annoying voice that makes you sound retarded and was funny maybe once? 

Five years would pass between Punch Drunk Love and Anderson’s next film There Will Be Blood. Based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, it tells the story of Daniel Plainview, an oilman on the ruthless quest for wealth in the oil boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Daniel Day-Lewis won every award under the sun for his portrayal of the lead character, including Best Actor at the 2007 Academy Awards.

The film encapsulates everything that is great about Anderson as a director; His ability to so skillfully direct a story (for the first 14 minutes of the film no dialogue is spoken, Anderson relies purely on action to set the story up for the audience). The amazing cinematography, thanks in part to longtime D.O.P collaborator Robert Elswit. The epic score (courtesy of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood), again being used as a tool to set the rhythm of the film and to drive home emotional moments and climatic points. The brilliant casting; directing Daniel Day-Lewis to one of the greatest ever screen performances. And finally, something that I haven’t yet touched on and that is his skill as a writer; gifting his actors with such powerful dialogue and knowing exactly how to build tension and when to end those long scenes.

 There was another 5-year wait before the delivery of Anderson’s next and most recent film, The Master. Rumors of financing troubles due to the story’s loosely based Scientology themes, as well as casting issues (Jeremy Renner was originally slated to play Freddie Quell), initially thwarted the film’s production. The story of a World War II veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) struggling to adapt to a post-war society and his eventual meeting with a charismatic preacher (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September. The film took home top honors at the festival including a joint Best Actor Award for Phoenix and Hoffman and a Best Director Award for Anderson. The Master proved a hit with critics upon its release in October and was named Best Picture of 2012 by Sight & Sound, RollingStone, and The Village Voice among others. However, the film faltered at the box office, so far only making back half of its $30 million dollar budget.

For an audience, The Master is probably the least accessible film of Anderson’s due to there being no typical narrative progression or no clear character goals. What The Master does is ask something more from its audience, similar to what Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life asked in 2011 which was to let yourself escape from the cinema for 2-3 hours and be taken someplace higher than storytelling. While Malick’s Tree of Life was a study on life, faith, and existence, Anderson’s The Master is purely a character-driven study and one that couldn’t exist without the fascinating portrayals of such troubled characters. This really is a master class in acting and directing.

Paul Thomas Anderson is inspiring a younger generation of filmmakers like the Scorsese/Altman generation did for him. An auteur in the truest sense of the word, Anderson is now considered one of the greatest directors alive today. Lucky for us we won’t have to wait another 5 years for his next film, with talks of Inherent Vice set to start shooting in April. The film, adapted from the novel of the same name by author Thomas Pynchon, is about a drug-fueled P.I detective named Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello and a high profile kidnapping case he decides to investigate. Set during the Manson Family paranoia days of 1969 and with Joaquin Phoenix signed onto to play the lead, this is one film all cinephiles will be counting down the days for.

Film

Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play Reboot: From Magic to Materialism

The message seems to be that in a world without magic, our imaginations are corrupted by mere consumerism

Published

on

I can’t imagine anybody thinking that the recent reboot of Child’s Play is a great film. It has all the markings of a movie that a studio tosses a little money at, knowing that horror is a pretty dependable return-on-investment, hoping that it can last about a month in theaters before moving into the streaming market, where it will get rented fairly consistently by Gen Xers hungry for 80s nostalgia. Nonetheless, it actually isn’t all that bad either. The comedy mostly works, the scares are pretty effective, and production quality makes it all believable enough for a fun night out.

In addition, the way this film re-imagines the original gives the viewer something to think about, perhaps in ways its predecessor never could have. The social commentary here is actually pretty interesting. In fact, as I write this sentence, I might even make the case that the film is pretty close to great after all. There is an important political message buried in this revision of an icon of Ronald Reagan’s decade, and it’s one we should probably pay attention to.

Director Tom Holland’s (the one who isn’t Spider-Man) original Child’s Play (1988) probably remains the superior horror film. For those unaware of the premise, the movie introduced the world to Chucky, the possessed doll that became an instant horror icon, spawning multiple sequels even before this reboot.

In Holland’s original film, Chucky is born when serial killer Charles Lee Ray (the amazing Brad Dourif) is mortally wounded in a gunfight with the police and invokes a Voodoo ritual to transfer his soul to the nearest object, a “Good Guy” doll in a toy store. When Chucky finds his way into the home of young Andy (Alex Vincent), he begins his quest for revenge against the partner who abandoned him and the cop who killed him (Chris Sarandon), murdering everyone in his way.

Lars Klevberg’s 2019 remake completely changes the premise, removing magic from the mix altogether. Here, Chucky (Mark Hamill) is an A.I. powered doll that connects to other pieces of technology produced by the Kaslan Corporation. Think of an embodied form of Amazon’s Alexa. An exploited factory worker in Vietnam, in an act of workplace vengeance just before his suicide, removes all the technological safety protocols from a unit, creating a powerful, murderous A.I.

In both films, murder and mayhem ensue from each premise, but the film’s share a few important themes, and that continuity helps shed some light on what this new film is trying to do.

First off, they both feature strong single mothers. In the original, Catherine Hicks (apparently preparing for her future iconic mother role on Seventh Heaven?) was the hard-working, widowed mother of Andy, Karen Barclay. In the new version, Aubrey Plaza adds some scruff and dysfunction to the character, but retains her dignity, commitment, and strength. The original film undermined cultural assumption about the power (and necessity) of men. Chris Sarandon’s cop is either an obstacle or someone to be saved throughout most of the film. Klevburg seizes on this theme and uses it to his political advantage in the remake.

In addition, the new film retains the original’s emphasis on economic precarity. Both films depict cities under extreme economic hardship. For instance, neither version of Karen can actually afford the coveted Chucky doll for their child and must resort to alternative means to do so. Originally, Karen buys the cursed doll from a homeless man (from a LARGE homeless community). In the new version, she has to blackmail a coworker into not sending the returned doll back for destruction. In both cases, the women are poor and they live in desperately poor conditions: in the remake, the city could be from a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Clearly there is an economic critique in both of these films.

The new Child’s Play uses contemporary tech fear instead of magic

Any good remake should make significant updates, however, and Klevburg’s version introduces several significant changes (in addition to the A.I. aspect of the character).

First of all, Chucky’s motivation is utterly different. Brad Dourif’s Chucky was motivated by criminal insanity and vengeance. Mark Hamill’s version of the villain shares much in common with 2001’s HAL. His motivation is more human, as he seeks Andy’s love and then, later, self-preservation.

The remake also quite appropriately introduces the subject of cell phones and social media as an important theme. This version of Andy is older than the original, and like most pre-teens, he spends a significant part of his life immersed in screen technology. The kids in this film are rather brutal to one another and the only real community that forms between them is mediated by technology: phones, games, and, yes, Chucky himself. Klevburg’s film is absolutely trying to say something about alienation and loneliness and their relationship to technology.

Another change is in the characterization of Chucky’s corporate creator. In the original, Chucky is a “Good Guy” doll, a product connected to a popular cartoon. While certainly the film makes the whole enterprise out to be silly (a kind of parody of the Cabbage Patch Kid craze of the 80’s), the corporation isn’t really responsible for the mayhem. That was all on the demented Charles Lee Ray.

The blame is radically relocated in this version. The Kaslan Corporation immediately takes the role as villain here. It’s public face, the Jeff Bezos-like Henry Kaslan (Tim Matheson), is both pitchman and apologist for the company, which wields a terrifying amount of control into the lives of this world’s people. After viewing this film, it’s hard not to ask “what if Alexa went bad and started…oops.” This is a world in which the corporation controls the very desires of its citizens. 

Thus, it makes perfect sense that, where the original film begins in a store, this one reaches its climax in one. Whereas the first film was a rather simple supernatural revenge film, this one is a large-scale indictment of consumerism. And in the movie’s horrific climax, it is consumers at large, not particular individuals in Chucky’s way, that are terrorized (if seeing gallons of blood sprayed into the face of a screaming child bothers you, this movie may not be for you).

The power that the Kaslan Corporation holds over consumers is in full view in the crowd’s almost orgasmic anticipation for the new version of the A.I doll. This misplaced desire is punished in Chucky’s elaborate, blood-soaked retribution.

The consumerism of this film of course functions in the context of a massive, global economic system. The exploitation of consumer desires and imagination is inseparable from the exploitation of Kaslan’s employees. The horror begins, after all, when a worker in a Vietnamese factory is finally pushed too far by the profit-exploiting demands of Henry Kaslan’s company.

Chucky has been one of horror’s great icons for three decades and running. To re-imagine the franchise in the way that Lars Klevburg has here is a bold and welcome move. The world has changed a lot since the 1980s. The original Child’s Play poked brutal fun at a certain consumer madness in Reagan’s America, but this new version is an unblinking gaze at the consequences of Reagan’s free-market optimism. By giving the world over to market-justice and corporate profits, Reagan’s 1980’s replaced awe-inspired wonder with cold materialism.

Klevberg’s remake of Child’s Play recognizes where that all leads. It also replaces magic with materialism and the message seems to be that in a world without magic, our imaginations are corrupted by mere consumerism.

Continue Reading

Film Reviews

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a splendid coda to the Avengers

Save the world, save the girl?

Published

on

Spider-Man

Where do you go after Avengers: Endgame? The finale to an 11-year journey was always going to be a heavy exhale. But with much of the story finding conclusion, it was only natural that the next chapter would be something a little lighter, less fraught but still tense with importance. The question of responsibility and the burden of carrying it has been a fundamental principle of being a superhero in this universe, a burden that only continues in the final film of this phase. So where does the Marvel Cinematic Universe go after Endgame? Well, on holiday of course. Spider-Man: Far From Home is not only a splendid film but a nice coda to the biggest cinematic undertaking we’ve seen in recent history.

You can find Spider-Man: Far From Home nestled in the cinematic landscape somewhere between Iron Man 3 and National Lampoon’s Vacation. Peter Parker (Tom Holland, really solidifying himself as this generation’s best Spider-Man) is Clark Griswolding himself across Europe to chase the heart of MJ (Zendaya). As a bumbling 16-year-old who only wants to find the girl, his romance is cut a little short by the expected Marvel cinematic tomfoolery we’ve come to expect from our arachnid hero. Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn as Mysterio is a concerted effort; a cross between Tony Stark’s wise but too cool tutelage and Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin (take that how you will). As the carnage across Europe unfolds, the film becomes a well-balanced juxtapositioning of the kind of humor we’ve found appealing within in the MCU and action and adventure that doesn’t become overly burdensome or heavy. Far From Home keeps things light and breezy, but you never forget the stakes or think that this is just a tacked on fling after the events of Endgame.

The cast are well rounded and the addition of Marvel players we’ve come to love (Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, Spider-Man sidekick Ned, and both Nick Fury and Maria Hill) makes it hit with almost the same gravitas as the previous films. But more importantly, they never make the film feel like an overstuffed mess that plagued outings like Age of Ultron. The pace is engaging, and as the story unfolds amongst the smoke and mirrors, you can’t help but feel a kind of comic book happiness that you felt through Homecoming. It’s charming, it’s earnest, it’s funny, and at times, doesn’t take itself too seriously (Spider-Man video game in-joke included!). Plus it has those little moments that while may have been written for fans, will appeal to anyone who enjoys a good laugh, a touching moment, and good filmmaking. While the death of Tony Stark looms large within the narrative of the film, it doesn’t become baggage- but rather the catalyst for growth within Parker and helps propel the story to its conclusion.

However, one can’t help but feel that the continued presence of Tony Stark, and the reminder that he is gone, really does give this universe a sense of finality. If you stay for the end-credits (both scenes), you’ll know that Marvel has plans both big and small in the coming years. Far From Home is both the end and the beginning in a sense. It’s a nice coda to Endgame, and for some, probably a good place to step away from the past 11 years. Far From Home is also continued proof that heart and the desire to do good doesn’t always have to follow the same tired script. Save the world, lose the girl? Maybe not this time.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is in cinemas now.

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME
Directed by: Jon Watts
Written by: Erik Sommers, Chris McKenna
Cast: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Jake Gyllenhaal, Samuel L. Jackson, Colbie Smulders, Marisa Tomei
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Run time: 129 minutes

Continue Reading

Popular Things