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The Films of Paul Thomas Anderson

Hard Eight (November 24/07)

Paul Thomas Anderson's feature-length debut, Hard Eight is a low-key yet sporadically fascinating drama revolving around Philip Baker Hall's Sydney and John C. Reilly's John. Sydney, a straight-shooting professional gambler, encounters the young, down-on-his-luck John outside a Reno diner and subsequently takes the man under his wing, with the bulk of the movie transpiring over a few particularly eventful days two years after their initial meeting. While Hard Eight does possess the feel of a first feature, there's certainly no denying that the film is rife with precisely the sort of stylistic and thematic touchstones that Anderson has since come to be associated with - including a challenging, downright innovative score and some seriously impressive camerawork. Hall's pitch-perfect performance is complemented by Reilly's expectedly sturdy work as Sydney's understudy, while Philip Seymour Hoffman easily dominates his one scene as a boisterous gambler who keeps referring to Sydney as "Big Time." Hard Eight ultimately isn't quite as flashy or as resonant as Anderson's later efforts, yet - judged on its own merits - the movie undoubtedly (and effectively) manages to put an electrifying spin on an admittedly familiar premise.

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Boogie Nights (December 18/07)

With Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson cements his reputation as one of the most gifted filmmakers of his generation - as the movie comes off as dazzling and utterly hypnotic piece of work that generally holds one's interest for the duration of its 156-minute running time. The film - which follows the trials and tribulations of an extended network of porn purveyors, including neophyte Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), father figure Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), and wide-eyed seductress Rollergirl (Heather Graham) - admittedly does suffer from a midsection that drags in parts, with Anderson's emphasis on the drug-related mishaps of the various characters lending the proceedings an intermittently repetitious sort of vibe. The film recovers magnificently with a haunting, downright mesmerizing stretch in which several key figures hit rock bottom, and there's little doubt that the third act's protracted drug-deal-gone-bad scene justifiably remains one of the most indelible cinematic sequences of the '90s. This is in addition to the uniformly superb performances, Robert Elswit's captivating cinematography, and Michael Penn's evocative score; such elements, contained within Anderson's flawless directorial choices, effectively ensure that Boogie Nights rarely comes off as anything less than a seriously impressive and flat-out engrossing sophomore effort.

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Magnolia (December 18/07)

Undeniably one of the most emotionally-draining films ever made, Magnolia is a sprawling epic revolving around a myriad of miserable characters - including John C. Reilly's Jim Kurring, Tom Cruise's Frank T.J. Mackey, and Philip Baker Hall's Jimmy Gator - as their lives intersect over the course of a particularly eventful 24-hour period. Director Paul Thomas Anderson has peppered the proceedings with a number of sequences that are simply exhilarating in their ambition and scope, yet the filmmaker effectively ensures that the admittedly grandiose visuals never take away from the reality of the characters. Anderson has infused each of the movie's central figures with a palpable sense of authenticity, and it's consequently not difficult to envision entire movies being built around these incredibly vivid individuals. The uniformly strong performances certainly go a long way towards cementing the film's mesmerizing vibe, as the various actors effectively disappear into their respective roles (Cruise's efforts at subverting his cocky persona are especially impressive). Magnolia is ultimately overlong and self-indulgent to be sure, and yet there's simply no denying the movie's overall impact.

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Punch-Drunk Love (January 1/08)

Though saddled with as slight a storyline as one could imagine, Punch-Drunk Love nevertheless establishes itself as yet another endlessly compelling and intricately layered effort from filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. The movie casts Adam Sandler as Barry Egan, a tragic figure who tentatively embarks upon a relationship with Emily Watson's Lena Leonard. Anchored by Sandler's very best performance and Anderson's astounding directorial choices, the film comes off as a unique, downright compelling piece of work virtually from the word go. Anderson - working with cinematographer Robert Elswit - has infused Punch-Drunk Love with an almost avant-garde visual sensibility that suits the material perfectly, and there's little doubt that this vibe is cemented by the director's judicious use of both Jon Brion's playful score and Jeremy Blake's vibrant artwork. Sandler and Watson's palpable chemistry together surely plays a key role in the film's success, while Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers precisely the sort of scene-stealing performance as the villainous Dean Trumbell that one might've expected. More than anything, however, Punch-Drunk Love succeeds as a portrait of a lonely, almost staggeringly introverted individual; though Barry suffers from anger-control problems and he's prone to random bouts of sobbing, the character never comes off as anything less than a fully-realized figure that one can't help but sympathize with. The end result is a film that's almost flawless in its execution and indelible in its impact, and there's little doubt that Punch-Drunk Love is (and always will be) the crowning achievement within Anderson's filmography.

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There Will Be Blood (November 28/07)

While There Will Be Blood clearly marks a tremendous departure for filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, the movie is often as compelling and flat-out exhilarating as anything within the director's virtually flawless body of work. Based in part on a novel by Upton Sinclair, the film follows turn-of-the-century oil man Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he battles both the harsh terrain of the landscape and an antagonistic preacher (Paul Dano's Eli Sunday) to slowly-but-surely build up his business. Saddled with a thoroughly deliberate pace and a central character that's far from likeable, There Will Be Blood is surely the least accessible of Anderson's films - yet there's little doubt that Day-Lewis' commanding, downright captivating performance carries the proceedings through the entirety of its 158-minute running time. And while it eventually does become clear that Anderson intends for the film to come off as a low-key character study (albeit one set within the context of an epic framework), the inclusion of a seemingly out-of-left-field finale does force the viewer to re-evaluate the importance of everything that's come before it (ie the movie is, once everything's said and done, not quite about what one initially suspected). That being said, Anderson (along with cinematographer Robert Elswit and musician Jonny Greenwood) has infused There Will Be Blood with precisely the sort of immersive feel that one has come to expect from the filmmaker - with the end result an indelible, sporadically enthralling piece of work.

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The Master (October 5/12)

An incongruously underwhelming effort from Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master follows World War II veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he flounders in a series of jobs before encountering an enigmatic, mysterious figure named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) - with the film subsequently detailing the bond that ensues between the two men as well as Dodd's ongoing efforts at creating a faith-based organization known as The Cause. There's little doubt that The Master fares best in its opening half hour, as writer/director Anderson, having brilliantly established the movie's post-WWII landscape, does an expectedly superb job of transforming Phoenix's damaged Freddie Quell into a seriously compelling figure - with the episodic, character-study vibe that ensues, as a result, as gripping and mesmerizing as one might've hoped. It's only as Freddie slowly-but-surely is drawn into Dodd's secretive, insular world that The Master begins to lose its grip on the viewer, with the increasingly aimless midsection wreaking havoc on the movie's momentum and ensuring that it becomes more and more difficult to work up any real interest in either of the central characters' exploits. The sporadic inclusion of engrossing sequences (eg Dodd "processes" Freddie), combined with Mihai Malaimare Jr's striking cinematography and the uniformly stirring performances, ensures that total boredom never quite sets in, admittedly, yet the viewer ultimately can't help but walk away from the movie without wondering just what the point of all this is - which finally does confirm The Master's place as the sort of film that one admires more than one enjoys (and that's the last thing one would've expected from such a dynamic and visionary director).

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Inherent Vice (January 7/15)

A rare (and total) misfire from Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice follows perpetually stoned 1970s private detective Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he embarks on an almost extraordinarily meandering and convoluted quest to track down his missing ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston's Shasta). It's clear immediately that Inherent Vice has virtually nothing to offer even the most ardent of Anderson fans, as the writer/director, in adapting Thomas Pynchon's eponymous novel, has flooded the proceedings with a whole host of uninteresting, overly quirky elements that grow more and more infuriating as time progresses - with the movie's shocking lack of cohesion exacerbated by an aggressively episodic structure. The ensuing lack of momentum is far from surprising, certainly, as Anderson devotes the lion's share of Inherent Vice's punishing 148 minutes to Doc's episodic exploits - the majority of which possess few attributes designed to engage the viewer. (It doesn't help that many scenes go on for much, much too long, with, for example, Doc's late-in-the-movie encounter with Shasta coming off as flat-out interminable.) And although Anderson admittedly does include a small handful of intriguing sequences - eg most everything involving Martin Short's hedonistic dentist remains an obvious highlight - Inherent Vice's thoroughly less-than-engrossing atmosphere ultimately cements its place as a misbegotten endeavor that hopefully marks the nadir of Anderson's otherwise stellar career.

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Junun (July 22/18)

Less a documentary and more a filmed concert, Junun details the recording of an album featuring Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and a group of talented Asian musicians (including Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur). It's clear immediately that filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson isn't looking to deliver a traditional (or even cohesive) non-fiction endeavor, as Junun has essentially been stripped down to its bare essentials and contains virtually no context to orient the viewer - with the picture instead consisting primarily of one (admittedly striking and captivating) performance after another. And while it does become increasingly difficult not to wish Anderson had devoted some time to interviews (eg why, for example, is Greenwood even doing this in the first place?), Junun nevertheless tends to fare a whole lot better than one might've anticipated due to the superb, mesmerizing musical performances and sprinkling of captivating sequences. (There is, with regard to the latter, a hypnotic interlude detailing a trip to a bustling market to repair a musician's instrument.) The final result is a solid endeavor that benefits rather substantially from a big-screen, surround-sound presentation, and it's apparent, ultimately, that the movie's 54 minute running time is a perfect fit for Anderson's atypically less-than-grandiose approach to the material.

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Phantom Thread (December 15/17)

Certainly a big improvement over Paul Thomas Anderson’s last feature, 2014’s somewhat disastrous Inherent Vice, Phantom Thread follows circa 1950s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as his orderly, regimented life is thrown for a loop after he meets and falls for a small-town waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). Phantom Thread’s opening stretch doesn’t exactly inspire a whole lot of confidence, admittedly, as writer/director Anderson has infused this stretch of the proceedings with a thoroughly polished yet almost generic feel – with the movie’s various attributes, from the score to the visuals to the sets, resembling countless released-in-December prestige projects. The intensely sumptuous vibe persists throughout, undoubtedly, and yet there’s little doubt the movie improves immeasurably as it progresses, with the initial intensely-romantic meeting (and subsequent first date) between Day-Lewis and Krieps' respective characters marking a turning point for the decidedly deliberate narrative. And although the movie never quite becomes the engrossing period piece one might’ve anticipated (and hoped for), Phantom Thread is nevertheless suffused with a whole host of components that are, on their own, nothing short of top-notch – with, in particular, Day-Lewis’ often riveting performance remaining a consistent highlight within the proceedings. The impressively subversive nature of the film’s final stretch ensures that the whole thing ends on a memorable, downright unforgettable note, to be sure, and the movie does seem as though it might benefit from repeat viewings (ie certain developments would take on more significance with the knowledge of what’s to come) – with the final result a strong effort from a once-brilliant filmmaker whose best efforts seem to be well behind him.

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© David Nusair