THE P.T. ANDERSON FILES: BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)

It’s a strange thing to consider but for all of the power that sex wields to start wars, topple the powerful, and put people into financial or personal ruin, the porn industry is small time. That’s not to say that the porn business doesn’t make boatloads of cash. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I mean, if one really wants to believe that the only things subsidizing the porn industry are the spending habits of amoral perverts, that person may want to try and show their math on that assertion if only to sooner realize that there just aren’t that many degenerates wandering the earth. In other words, a whole lot of people you encounter at work, in the streets, and (gasp) at church have at least dipped a toe or, more likely, engaged in a full baptism into one of the four corners in the pool of the sex industry. But yet, for all of the dough the films generate, there are precious few hardcore actors or directors that have been able to transcend the hermetic shell of the adult film world either in name or deed. For every John Holmes, Ron Jeremy, or Sasha Grey, there are a thousand others whose stopover into the world of porn occurs because it’s a place that, if they can’t build a legacy, they can definitely make a buck.

It is because of this that, despite actually working at a General Cinemas theater at the time, I’m unsure as to what went through the public’s mind when they saw the expertly cut and energetic trailers for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights prior to its release in the summer of 1997. Here was a film that was going to be playing in the multiplexes and malls across America that would, in seemingly frank terms, follow the story of an ersatz John Holmes as he navigated the literal ups and downs in the pornographic film industry in the 1970’s and 80’s. Would America be able to reckon with its very real attachment to pornography to feel comfortable enough to go and see it and give it the respect it deserved or would the film flop given the culture’s mind-bogglingly puritanical attitude towards THIS KIND OF SEX™️? If there is anything to challenge the accepted notion that sex sells, it’s to invite people to sit through two-and-a-half hours of it.

But Boogie Nights was a hit and, surprisingly, a quite sizable one. Anchored in the front by a dynamite and keenly sensitive central performance from a then-risky Mark Wahlberg and, in the back, by a jaw-dropping return to form by Burt Reynolds with incredible, fearless performances by Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (among others) between them, Boogie Nights was received as a rollicking, exhilarating American epic that was an intoxicating mix of Scorsese-like rhythms and editing being navigated by Demme/Ashby-like heart across an Altman-like canvas; the most joyous piece of pop filmmaking since Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction three years earlier.

Boogie Nights appeared at just the right time in America to make the splash that it did. The years of peace and economic expansion under the Clinton administration turned the 90’s into a freewheeling party which saw the birth of the internet and, also, a certain lax in our social mores as latchkey kids from the 70’s who grew up sneaking peeks at their parents’ poorly hidden porn stashes rolled into their twenties with a more permissive, NBD attitude towards Boogie Nights’s subject matter. All of the moments within the film that focused on the hilariously crude approach to adult filmmaking (and its spot-on recreations of the final product) were met with the appropriately knowing chuckles of an audience that couldn’t do anything but acknowledge that they understood exactly what they were looking at and, in the words of Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, it was (at long last) ok with them. And it was the good fortune of everyone cast in the film that the worm of American culture had somewhat turned as Boogie Nights is a virtual “who’s who” of talent that was just beginning to crest a professional summit out of indie-world and the film’s success would propel almost every single one of them to mainstream fame.

One of the things that has continued to work in Boogie Nights’s favor almost a quarter century later is its anticipation of the succeeding generation’s devotion to 100% acceptance and the encouragement of full positivity among its peers. To this end, Anderson doesn’t excuse his characters’ flaws but is ultimately sympathetic to all of them (save and except Diggler’s mother, Joanna Gleason in a ferociously monstrous performance). The characters are small time but, almost presciently, exist in a world of total support and encouragement; one in which, from the point of view of those on the ground in the actual time and place, seemed like more of a legitimate enterprise than, say, selling blowjobs on Hollywood Boulevard for a hot meal and/or somewhere to sleep. So maybe it’s technically incorrect (and borderline irresponsible) for Julianne Moore’s mother-surrogate, Amber Waves, to fawn over Wahlberg’s decidedly not-very-talented (but massively endowed) Dirk Diggler as “so fucking talented,” but is it really worse than how his actual mother treats him in the neatly trimmed “normal” world of Torrance? Sure, Jessie St. Vincent’s (Melora Walters) paintings are uniquely awful but, really, are they any more subpar than some of the tacky prints that adorned the walls of suburbia at the same time? Are those adult award shows any more moronic and stupidly self-congratulatory than the Oscars? Certainly, the ephemeral static attached to the porn industry doesn’t make it look like the most positive environment to some people who live nine-to-five existences but, as the film makes crystal clear, the need-driven support structure within it is mighty alluring for the socially outcast, the marginalized, and the abused.

And Boogie Nights was never going to be a movie that reveled in its orgiastic pleasures for its own sake. Much like Goodfellas, there is a real “set ‘em up and knock ‘em down” formula to the film’s structure. The film’s first half looks like a total blast of wanton abandon; an effervescent celebration of the largesse of the sexual revolution replete with a pulsating soundtrack and the promise of a perpetual California sunset. As an audience member, you WANT to be there, even if you’re just hanging out in a lounge chair poolside while drinking a margarita while everything else swirls around you. But, sweet Christ, brutal is the comedown that occurs in the second half of the film when the organic pleasures of the 70’s are replaced with the synthetic coke high of the 80’s. A nonstop stack of nightmares including a murder-suicide, crippling addiction, accompanying sexual dysfunction, mounting legal challenges, the cold yet practical move from film to video, and violent moments of terrifying, rock-bottom sobriety show that Boogie Nights is just as eager to argue the downslope as convincingly as it does the ascension, though without any kind of sanctimony in regards to its characters’ plights.

But as much as Robert Altman utilized the titular city to examine America as a whole in 1975’s Nashville, Anderson is using the porn industry in the bracketed time frame to explore the fluid boundaries of family much like he did in Hard Eight the year before and he would in Magnolia two years later. And, to be sure, the world of Boogie Nights remains his best Petri dish in which to study this dynamic as the film’s libertine atmosphere mixes with its members’ outcast and discarded statuses which create disarmingly moving and powerful moments throughout the film, most especially those involving any combination of Wahlberg, Reynolds, and/or Moore.

And so it is that Boogie Nights endures not just because it’s a naughtily hilarious and dramatically satisfying film, well-remembered by Gen-Xers who pine for the sun-kissed days of the mid-90’s. It endures due to the fact that it was written and directed by a guy not yet twenty eight who could resist the easy temptation of sniggering at its subject matter in favor of focusing on the longer view that included poignancy, care, and familial love shared among its characters, ensuring that it would continue to pay dividends to its audience well into the future.

Sydney Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead

I’ve seen some ill advised plans in my day and even orchestrated a few of them myself but I’ve never seen quite an ethically fucked, totally stupid, domed to fail miserably scheme as the one dreamed up by two dysfunctional middle aged NYC blue collar brothers in Sydney Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, a bleak, depressing, pitch dark, anxiety inducing morality play that although admittedly is an excellent film on all fronts, is *NOT* a pleasant viewing experience and I shan’t be revisiting any time soon. Ethan Hawke is the lower middle class, very aloof, perpetual screw-up brother whose marriage is a disaster, relationship with his daughter depressing and he needs cash for alimony quick. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the older, wiser (HA!) and more successful sibling with a sleek corporate career but has his own issues including backdoor corruption, a failing marriage of his own to Marisa Tomei (really? Those two?) and a crippling heroin habit. They’re both financially fucked, so big bro hatches a plan to rob a mall jewelry store on a low-key Saturday when the cash drop is in house. That’s already a bad enough idea, but get this: the store in question is owned by their own parents, who are elderly no less. Now, Hoffman has his own complicated reasons for justifying such a terrible act that stem back into their childhoods, as these kinds of inexplicably dour familial tragedies usually do, while Hawke sort of tags along in befuddled, brainless complicity. Naturally the heist itself goes just about as wrong as it can go and results in (this isn’t a spoiler it’s in the trailer) the gunshot wounding of their mother (Rosemary Harris) thanks to the incompetence of a hapless small time hoodlum (Brian F. O’Byrne) that Hawke hires to do his dirty work in an act of despicable cowardice. Their father (Albert Finney in a towering performance and the finest work of the film) is very clearly still in love with her and starts to unravel, and it becomes clear he always loved her over his own children, a gnawing thorn in the side of their overall dynamic that was just waiting for a traumatic event to rear its head in. The film skips around in time as we see the events leading up to the heist itself, each character’s desperate situation reaching a breaking point that leads to such an extreme decision, spearheaded by Hoffman’s impossibly bitter character, a fellow who is so uncomfortable in his own skin he even makes a seemingly lighthearted sex scene with Tomei come across as uncomfortable. The actors are all terrific with Finney being the standout as the furious, heartbroken and vengeful father who seems like he never wanted to be a father to begin with, just a husband. The supporting cast has some excellent cameos including Leonardo Cimino, Amy Ryan and Michael Shannon as a violent ex-con who muscles in on their lives. This is a great film with terrifically developed character dynamics, a crisp, well oiled storytelling vernacular and a refreshingly earthen portrait of lower middle class shenanigans that few films capture with authenticity, and naturally Lumet’s by now second nature knack for expressing the spirit of NYC, this time in deglamorized boroughs not usually focused on in cinema. It’s a great film, it’s just not a nice one and you’ll feel like shit after, there’s no other way to slice it.

-Nate Hill

Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon: A Review by Nate Hill

  

Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, although pretty darn stylish, is just cursed with being the least engaging and unique Hannibal Lecter film out there. It’s not that it’s a bad flick, but when you have Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal and the far superior Manhunter to compete with, you’re trucking down a rocky road. The strongest element this film has going for it is Ralph Fiennes, who plays the hell out of the role of Francis Dolarhyde, the disturbed serial killer also known as the Tooth Fairy. Previously played by an introverted and terrifying Tom Noonan, Fiennes gives him a more rabid, haunted vibe and steals the show, but then he always does. Edward Norton is a bit underwhelming as FBI behavioural specialist Will Graham, sandwiched between William L. Peterson and Hugh Dancy’s modern day, definitive take on the character. Graham has the tact and luck to ensnare notorious cannibalistic murderer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins purrs his way through a hat trick in the role), whose help he subsequently needs in pursuing Dolarhyde. Harvey Keitel clocks in as rock jawed Jack Crawford, Graham’s boss and mentor, solidly filling in for far mor memorable turns from Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Farina and Scott Glenn. All the scenes with Dolarhyde fare best, given some truly impressive rural cinematography that sets the mood for the killer’s twisted mindset nicely. The cerebral jousting between Graham and Lecter only half works here, dulled in comparison to the crackling exchanges that Jodie Foster masterfully handled with Hopkins, who was far, far scarier back then. Emily Watson lends her doe eyed presence to the blind girl that brings out the only traces of humanity still left in Dolarhyde, Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up as bottom feeding tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds, and Mary Louise Parker, grounded as always, plays Graham’s wife. You could do worse in terms of films like this, but in the Lecter franchise it falls pretty far short of any of the other entries, save for the few inspired moments involving Fiennes. 

Patch Adams: A Review by Nate Hill 

Yes, Patch Adams is a pile of sentimental mush. Yeah, the filmmakers took severe liberties with the source material until their protagonist scarcely resembled the fellow they based him on. Sure, it’s soppy to all hell. My thoughts on all of the above: So freakin what. None of that has stopped me from loving the film growing up as a kid, and continuing to do so these days too. The message it delivers and the values it supports can be relatable to anyone in any walk of life, not just the medical field. Robin Williams had his demons, but he could be the brightest beacon of love and optimism a lot of the time, and he carries that wonderfully throughout the film. Patch Adams is a manic depressive, deeply sad man who finds his calling in the field of medicine following an epiphany involving a fellow patient (Michael Jeter, always great) at the psychiatric facility he is staying in. Upon enrolling in medical school he finds the cold, clinical atmosphere of his field uninviting. Patch is a vibrant soul who wishes to combat illness and despair not just with medicine, but a healthy dose of humour, empathy and the readiness to listen to your patient, think outside the box and have compassion. His methods are seen as unorthodox, especially by the college dean (Bob Gunton), whose ass is so tight that when he farts only dogs hear it. Patch both struggles and triumphs, finding solace and inspiration in daily interaction with patients, and hits walls with his superiors, who neither trust nor understand his ways. It’s always an uphill journey for any sort of pioneer, but he soldiers on, aided by William’s remarkable work. Patch starts his own independent clinic along with fellow student and girlfriend Carin (the lovely and very underrated Monica Potter), and life is good. But it’s never safe from tragedy, as we tearfully bear witness to in a plot turn that will rip out your heart and huck it off a cliff. Patch is undeterred though, adamant in his quest to bring light, levity and love into the lives of the people he works with, regardless of how much time they have left on this earth, or who tells him what he should and shouldn’t do. That’s essentially what the story is about: helping others any way you can. That extends beyond simply trying to cure their disease, remove a tumor, prescribe a medication or diagnose an illness in a dry, detached manner. It’s about alleviating suffering not only with the tools of your practice, but with those of your heart and soul as well. Patch knows this, and won’t back down from the good fight. Bless his heart, and William’s too, for a performance of warmth and affection. Watch for work from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Josef Sommer, Ryan Hurst, Richard Kelly, Harve Presnell, Daniel London, Irma P. Hall, Barry Shabaka Henley, Alan Tudyuk and and excellent Peter Coyote as a stubborn cancer patient. There’s naysayers galore buzzing around this film like gnats. Swat ’em harshly, and don’t let ’em get you down. Those of us who appreciate the film know what’s up. 

JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY’S DOUBT — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Doubt is an impeccable piece of filmmaking. From the Oscar-nominated writing to the air-tight direction to the spellbinding performances, it’s a precision-tooled work from a master storyteller who has an amazing grasp on what he wants to say. Adapted from his Pulitzer winning play of the same name, writer-director John Patrick Shanley crafted one of the most thought-provoking films from 2008 with Doubt, a piece of work that scorches the nerves because of how vital and possible all of it feels. Set in the 1960’s at a NYC Catholic school, Doubt tells the story of a priest who is accused of improper behavior with one of his altar boys. Philip Seymour Hoffman, forceful as ever, is Father Flynn, a seemingly good and decent man who takes a liking to the only black student/altar boy in the school. The scarily intense Meryl Streep is Sister Beauvier, the main accuser, who teams up with another nun, the fragile Sister James, played by Amy Adams, in order to try to bring Flynn down. Sister James is the one who thinks that something improper has occurred; she doesn’t have definitive proof but she merely thinks that something bad has happened. Shanley asks his viewers to make a decision at the end of the film as to who was right, who was wrong, who was lying, and who was telling the truth. This is a hard film to review without spoiling because there’s little to no fat on the bones of the story, with each scene feeding into the one previous and the one following. Every piercing line of dialogue is important to the overall narrative and every moment in each of the three central performances are so integral to the film’s outcome that it becomes a tricky movie to discuss without giving everything away.

And then you have an emotionally shattering Viola Davis, who stole some heartbreaking scenes as the altar boy’s deeply concerned mother; there’s not a false note played by any of these superlative performers, all of whom were bestowed with Oscar nominations for their riveting portrayals. With Doubt, what I think Shanley was trying to get his audience to ask themselves is: How do we really know what goes on behind a closed-door? Is it enough to simply think that someone has done something wrong before you attack their character? What is a person’s moral compass made up of, and how do we truly know the people we work and live with? How do we decide who is right and who is wrong when all of the facts aren’t made clear? Working with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Shanley brought an appropriately chilly visual aesthetic to the film, with Deakins stressing grays and browns and darkly lit interiors with tons of Dutch angles and long takes that maximize the dramatic potency of every face-off between the verbally sparring actors. Every line of dialogue crackles with authority, especially when spoken by Hoffman and Streep, and Adams, in the film’s most layered role, did excellent work, painting a portrait of a confused woman who may or may not have started something she has no way of ever controlling. And most importantly, Shanley knew exactly how to wrap up his story, and during the film’s final, stinging moments, you’ll be left with a lot of fodder for discussion after the final credits have rolled.

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