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Daily Reads: An Oral History of ‘Boogie Nights,’ Paul Thomas Anderson’s Best Actors and More

Daily Reads: An Oral History of 'Boogie Nights,' Paul Thomas Anderson's Best Actors and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential
news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. The Career of Tim Burton Revisited. Tim Burton’s career has had giddy highs and dispiriting lows (more of the latter lately), but his best work has a canival funhouse atmosphere that many have imitated but few have matched. Noel Murray of The Dissolve wrote about Burton’s career, revisiting all of his films along the way.

“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” is very much Burton’s movie, too. It’s his other perfect film, after “Vincent.” Working in the tradition of visually oriented comedy directors like Jacques Tati and Frank Tashlin—while copying neither—Burton puts Pee-wee and his handmade props inside a well-lit, well-decorated frame, reveling in the artificiality of it all. There’s a reason “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” became a cable-TV staple and go-to video rental in the 1980s. It’s so packed with good-spirited gags and strange interludes that it never goes stale. (There are too many classic bits in the film to name them all, but the coda where Pee-wee has an awkward cameo in the movie version of his own story is particularly funny and playful.) The movie has a satisfying arc, too, as Pee-wee leaves the comfort of his own home and comes back wiser—and even a fraction more mature. Read more.

2. The Best New Documentaries. There are a fair share of documentary auteurs like Errol Morris and Ross McElwee still working, yet the most exciting new docs aren’t coming from individuals, but from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. Bilge Ebiri of Vulture writes about what makes the likes of “Sweetgrass” and “Leviathan” essential.

Castaing-Taylor was also co-director (along with Véréna Paravel) of last year’s mind-blowing “Leviathan,” a frantic, beautiful, at times terrifying portrait of commercial fishing in the North Atlantic. While “Sweetgrass” eavesdropped on conversations that the cowboys had with one another, “Leviathan” was nearly wordless. It consisted of wild, seemingly impossible images: The filmmakers dunked and dragged their waterproof digital cameras in the ocean, capturing vertigo-inducing shots, glimpsing flocks of seagulls overhead in between breathless surges of waves; they placed cameras among growing stacks of dying fish; they tethered cameras to sailors’ helmets, masts, and pretty much anything that could bear it. Blood, guts, eyeballs, waves, boots, steel, and wood; the film was a striking collage of elements. Read more.

3. Mass Culture Can’t Critique Torture. In the past decade, several films and TV shows have depicted torture, but the new information about the government’s torture techniques go to even queasier places than “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Homeland” ever imagined. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg writes that mass culture can’t effectively critique torture.

Any film that would do so would almost certainly be rated NC-17 or have to be released without a rating, a status that would make it prohibitively difficult for many viewers to see it in a theater. Anal sex references may be showing up on broadcast television shows, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a standards and practices department that would give a pass to air images that blunt in network primetime. Premium cable channels such a Showtime and HBO, which already air more violent and sexual images than their counterparts in the networks or basic cable, might be willing to take greater risks. While I would be gratified to see them do so, I do not count on it. Read more.

4. The Best Movie About Technology. Plenty of science fiction movies try to say something cogent about the way technology affects humanity, but which one does it the best? Tim Carmody of Medium argues in favor of James Cameron’s “Aliens.”

Computers could have orders to kill us; computers could be among us without our knowledge. But Bishop in “Aliens” doesn’t get enough credit as a step forward. He’s a very complex blend of self-interest and compassion: someone who is fully aware that he is an AI, aware that others don’t hold him in equal esteem, but holds a certain amount of dignity and pride in that. He prefers the term “artificial person.” He cracks jokes about being synthetic, but not stupid; he cracks jokes even when he’s covered in his own blood. He seems alternately indifferent to human beings and craving of their approval. He’s someone who, just like every other character in the movie, has motive and opportunity to do the wrong thing, but manages to come out all right. Read more.

5. The Best Actors to Work with PTA. Paul Thomas Anderson is arguably the most formally accomplished American filmmaker of his generation, but he’s also one of the greatest living directors of actors. Writing for Rolling Stone, Bilge Ebiri picked the 30 performers he worked with best. His number one pick: Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Hoffman’s greatness was never more evident than when he was acting for Anderson; he appeared in five of the director’s films, more than any other actor. What’s more, his range in these films is astonishing: The cocky good old boy who briefly takes on Philip Baker Hall at the craps table in “Hard Eight;” the repressed, pathetic sound man in “Boogie Nights;” the shy, kindhearted nurse in “Magnolia;” the hair-trigger furniture salesman/pimp/con-man in “Punch-Drunk Love.” But Hoffman’s final performance for Anderson was undeniably his greatest: As the vaguely L. Ron Hubbard-like cult leader Lancaster Dodd in “The Master,” he had to be avuncular, narcissistic, grandiose, paranoid, comforting, and domineering, sometimes all at once. He not only nailed all of these — he gave the character a humanity that tied all these elements together. If “The Master” is a film about the rootlessness of Homo Americanus after WWII, Hoffman’s Dodd represents both the wolf that lays wait for lost souls and a lost soul himself. It’s a terribly poignant performance, now made even sadder by the knowledge that this monumental actor will never again get to collaborate with his cinematic soul mate. Read more.

6. An Oral History of “Boogie Nights.” PTA has made greater films since his 1997 breakthrough, but “Boogie Nights” is still his funniest, his most welcoming, and one of his most immediately warm. Grantland’s Alex French and Howie Kahn compiled an oral history of “Boogie Nights.” Here’s William H. Macy talking about signing on:

The draft of the script that I read was even racier than the final. I called my agent and said, “This isn’t a joke, is it? Because this isn’t even NC-17; this is X-rated. Are they really going to shoot this?” And he said, “No, it’s real.” I loved it. I loved the subject matter. I loved his loopy, lush storytelling style. I was used to playing these glorious losers. That was the only thing that I was a little reticent about. I went through a period where I was the go-to guy for any loser in any film. But with a script like that, you think, Well, sure, I’ll do that one more time. Read more.

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