F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 16, 2012)

16 03 2012

Before Alexander Payne won his second Oscar for “The Descendants,” he still had game.  “Citizen Ruth,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” was his first feature film back in 1996, and it still has all the clever humor and heart of his later, more acclaimed works.  A razor-sharp satire of the abortion debate and the rest of the ridiculous culture wars of the ’90s, Payne leaves no party blameless, subjecting them all to scrutiny and criticism.

His protagonist, once again, is not someone easy to identify with; we merely experience the movie through them and become all the more aware of their flaws.  Here, it’s Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), an irresponsible child trapped in a woman’s body (figuratively speaking, this isn’t “Benjamin Button” after all).  She’s addicted to huffing fumes, putting her own life in danger and giving no attention to the lives of her young children.  Now, she’s in trouble with the law for the sixteenth time … and pregnant.

Ruth’s first thought is to get an abortion as she can barely take care of herself.  But before she can act, she is ambushed by the two sides of the abortion debate, fervent Bible-clutching pro-lifers and free-spirited sexually loose pro-choicers.  To them, Ruth is little more than a tally to add to their team’s score, a prize to be swayed and won.  They objectify her and will do anything to placate her, truly pulling out all the stops to convince her to choose their side.

Deciding whether or not to bring a child into the world is such a human decision, yet no one really seems to care about the baby in the whole debacle.  Payne shows how horrifying the rhetoric from both camps has become as to remove all humanity from the discussion; even Ruth, the woman at the center of the controversy, sways throughout the film based on who can offer her the most money.  Dern’s performance is a little cartoonish and annoying at times, but I would watch anyone act if they were endowed with the words of Alexander Payne.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 30, 2010)

30 07 2010

I had always been interested in seeing “Boogie Nights.”  And for those of you who happen to know the film’s subject matter, no, it’s not because I wanted to see certain things.  Released in 1997, the movie features plenty of today’s stars long before they had the luster and prestige their names bear now.  Five members of the ensemble have since been nominated for Oscars, and an actor who wasn’t even given top billing has even won an Oscar.

In an effort to see some of Julianne Moore’s finest roles, I decided it was time to watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s Academy Award-nominated second feature.  The movie was her breakout, earning her notices from everyone, including the first of her four Oscar nominations.  But it’s not just to feature her that “Boogie Nights” is my “F.I.L.M. of the Week;” the entire ensemble shines in a true work of artistry by Anderson.

I can’t dance around the topic any longer – this is a movie about the adult entertainment industry, in Los Angeles during the ’70s and ’80s.  Director Jack Horner is looking for an actor to build an empire around, someone who can do more than just look good.  He finds just that in Eddie Adams, a young nightclub employee with talents that Horner seeks.  Changing his name to Dirk Diggler, Horner’s discovery becomes the star he always dreamed of.

But the bigger Diggler’s star becomes, the closer he moves towards becoming a supernova.  His fame has made him violently angry and cocky.  He has also spiraled into severe drug abuse and addiction.  Soon enough, he finds that his greatest asset for his job doesn’t function the way he wants.  Diggler slowly drops towards rock bottom, and thanks to a strong performance by Mark Wahlberg, it’s a gripping journey to watch.  See, the stories of fame in the adult film industry are no different than any other entertainment industry.

As I said earlier, there is quite the ensemble at work here, including John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, and William H. Macy as members of Diggler’s posse.  It’s quite fun to see them in their younger years, just getting started in Hollywood.  He was leagues away from stardom at the time, but a definite standout is Philip Seymour Hoffman as a crew member infatuated with Diggler.  He plays an unsettling character, and it’s nailed with the precision we now regularly associate with Hoffman.

The women are great, too.  Heather Graham, who most people don’t take seriously, is seriously brilliant as Rollergirl, an actress who does all her movies wearing rollerskates.  Anderson wrote the character with great depth, exploring her insecurities and weaknesses.  Graham goes there with him, truly shocking us not only by how good she is but how far she is willing to take her character.  And then there’s Julianne Moore, who entered mainstream consciousness for her portrayal of Amber Waves.  She acts as a mother figure to Diggler, yet at the same time, she finds herself very attracted to him.  Moore can play both objectives well, but she’s at her best when they clash.

In only his second movie, Paul Thomas Anderson handles “Boogie Nights” with the precision of a Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, sharing the former’s knack for great camerawork and the latter’s ability to select great music.  Now that I’ve seen this, I have to wonder why I like his later movies so much less.