Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999). Audacious in an interesting way … it doesn’t blow us away with technical virtuosity, but with narrative confidence and a large cast of characters who are as intriguing as they are miserable. And you can’t dismiss that misery … some people seem to think Magnolia is ultimately uplifting, but from my grouchy perspective, the uplift is the least-successful part of the movie. Some of the actors go over the top to express their angst … it works for Julianne Moore, who rarely makes a misstep in any of her movies, and it got Tom Cruise an Oscar nomination (Moore’s thespic excess reminds us she’s an intelligent actor … Cruise’s reminds us he tries hard, which is admirable, at least). But Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly take a quieter route with their roles, and they are at least as effective. Meanwhile, I thought the frogs were stupid and wasn’t moved by the scene where the various characters are all singing the same song, but the truth is, those are many people’s favorite parts. #781 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the Top 1000 films of all time.
Food, Inc. (Robert Kenner, 2008). Something like this can’t be judged by its artistic qualities. It exists only to inform and to agitate. Nothing wrong with that, but any evaluation of Food, Inc. requires only that you judge whether it makes its points. For the most part, I’d say yes. The facts of modern food production in America are there. There is at least an attempt at covering all bases (none of the big corporations would talk to the filmmakers, but some of the problems with small/local/organic food production are at least mentioned, my favorite being the family who eat at Burger King because they can afford it). Maybe it’s where I’m coming from to begin with, but there’s a flaw in the film’s argument. I think Food, Inc. is a damning indictment of corporate America (and the way government plays footsie with the powerful). For that reason, I found the treatment of Stonyfield Farm to be a bit off. The head of Stonyfield, Gary Hirshberg, comes across as a friendly proponent of organic yogurt. But, as the film points out, Stonyfield was bought by Dannon, the world’s biggest dairy company. Yes, Hirshberg is still “in charge” of Stonyfield, but the take no prisoners approach of the film as a whole should warn us of the dangers of a company as big as Dannon. And then we’re supposed to be happy when Walmart starts carrying Stonyfield products. Yes, it’s good to get organics to more people, but I don’t imagine that’s going to make the fucked-over workers at Walmart feel any better. It’s unclear why Stonyfield/Dannon/Walmart is good, while virtually every other corporation featured in the film is evil. An Oscar nominee for best feature documentary.