Felicity Huffman

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006) s01e01

I wish I were taking a rhetoric class so I could write a paper on whether “Studio 60” aged badly or poorly. I’ve never taken rhetoric and I’ve also never been great at first draft word choice so I’m not sure if that joke’s accurate but I will say it’s about as funny as anything on “Studio 60”’s first episode. I don’t have Amanda Peet or Steven Weber delivering it, so it’s more in the Matthew Perry arena.

But the point of “Studio 60” isn’t to be funny. It’s about the very serious business of being funny. And it doesn’t age well. It doesn’t not hold up—the pilot is just as good as its ever been in the places where it’s good and its got the problems just where it’s always had them—the second half is uneven, starting with the awkward introduction to the “Big Three” of the show-in-the-show’s Friday night sketch comedy program (Sarah Paulson, D.L. Hughley, and Nate Corddry). Then we get Matthew Perry playing the Aaron Sorkin wonder man and he’s not great at it.

But back to it not aging well for a second—one of the things Perry’s so upset about is the network putting the “flag over the network bug” but also the network bug in the first place.

Remember TV before the network bug in the bottom right? Barely, right? There’s a whole generation who doesn’t. Was Aaron Sorkin really mad about networking branding? And the Donald Trump joke isn’t even as bad as realizing Sorkin’s trying to both sides evangelical Christians with Paulson’s devout Christian but we have found out they really are just a couple sheets short of a Klan rally. Aaron Sorkin’s not a futurist or a political scientist, though… given 2016, it turns out neither of those disciplines are worth much.

Anyway.

What Sorkin does do well is his idealized version of the television industry, where upstart Peet can come in and convince Weber they can get rich off being classy. After sketch show producer Judd Hirsch—who can’t be based on Lorne Michaels because Lorne Michaels never made an actually good show—has his “mad as hell” moment on the air, new network president Peet brings back fired but now super successful Perry and Bradley Whitford (it’s a trip, no pun, seeing Whitford stumbling to find his co-lead cred in the show) to prove TV can still be relevant and good.

Just like it was when Edward R. Murrow used the “Jack Benny” show to take down McCarthy. Or when John Belushi’s Samurai Futaba brought the end to Vietnam.

Peet and Weber are great. Paulson’s interesting. Perry’s likable if you like Perry and Whitford’s likable if you like Whitford, though neither of them are particularly good here. And Perry’s hair is goofy.

Nice guest spots from Wendy Phillips, Donna Murphy, and Felicity Huffman.

Timothy Busfield is excellent as the director. He’s kind of the protagonist of the episode. Or at least the constant; he’s waiting to get fired for leaving Hirsch on the air.

Sorkin’s script is full of love of the craft of television making—I mean, control room director idolatry—and when it’s Hirsch, Peet, and Weber’s show it’s smooth sailing. Rockier when Perry takes the helm but it’s such an expensive… classy production it can’t not succeed as a pilot.

Though, disclaimer, I’ve liked Matthew Perry since the eighties so I’m biased. But it’s worth watching for Peet and Weber on their acting alone.

The Spanish Prisoner (1997, David Mamet)

Every moment, every line of dialogue, every shot–every use of sound–is so precise in The Spanish Prisoner, it’s sometimes hard to comprehend of Mamet put it all together. There are not a handful of precise moments, or a few precise scenes. Minute after minute, from the first shot, everything in the film is precision.

But none of the filmmaking precision–Carter Burwell’s score is the most obvious, but Gabriel Beristain’s photography and especially Barbara Tulliver’s editing are essential components as well–none of these components would matter without the acting. Between Ricky Jay, who delivers his lines–usually quotes–with enough memorability, even though Mamet never makes them obvious, the viewer can call back to them and how they relate to the film’s events.

Or lead Campbell Scott, who is simultaneously sympathetic and annoying because of his deep-seated desire for wealth, so much it causes him to ignore a possible romance with nice, regular girl Rebecca Pidgeon. She’s a little annoying herself, which often implies the pair is perfect for one another.

The important part about Scott, Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara (who has the perfect voice for Mamet dialogue), Jay, Felicity Huffman and Steve Martin (cast against type as a mystery man) is how they’re able to sell their roles. Mamet’s dialogue should put a glass pane between the viewer and The Spanish Prisoner, the unreality should pulse, but thanks to the cast (and Mamet’s direction) it feels realer than real.

It is an exceptional piece of filmmaking.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Mamet; director of photography, Gabriel Beristain; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Tim Galvin; produced by Jean Doumanian; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Campbell Scott (Joe Ross), Rebecca Pidgeon (Susan Ricci), Steve Martin (Jimmy Dell), Ben Gazzara (Mr. Klein), Felicity Huffman (Pat McCune), Lionel Mark Smith (Detective Jones) and Ricky Jay (George Lang).


Magnolia (1999, Paul Thomas Anderson)

Writing about Magnolia seems a daunting prospect (I don’t think I’ve ever read a review of the film). Following the prologue, which one could (or could not) see as a way to ease the viewer into the genre–the multi-character, all connected genre (Magnolia‘s got to be the best of the genre… I can’t think of any other serious competitors–Anderson’s taken what started as Altman’s genre and did it better than Altman ever could, thanks to Anderson’s post-modernist sensibilities)–the following occurred to me: it’s too dense. Magnolia is, quite possibly, the densest motion picture ever made. The film takes place over–roughly–twenty-four hours, with a lot of emphasis put on an afternoon period between 2:00 pm and 4:00 pm. These two hours take place in about an hour and a half of screen time, maybe a little more, maybe a little less. Why Tom Cruise gives his attendees lunch so late is never explained, though I’m sure Anderson has an explanation.

The film cuts between stories, often picking up exactly where it left off when it returns. It’s never made clear if the viewer is missing something, but the film certainly implies concurrent events are taking place and the order Anderson assigns to them are his choice.

I don’t know how to talk about this film. I can write a couple paragraphs about the acting (and probably will). I could do another list paragraph about the character relationships–Jason Robards and Philip Seymour Hoffman, for instance, have a couple amazing scenes together (Robards’s performance kind of ties Magnolia together for the people, while John C. Reilly’s performance ties it together the viewer). What else could I talk about? The direction–Anderson’s fantastic. He gets real showy at the beginning with an intricate montage–it’s almost like the first act set to music (before the title card, I think)–where the viewer gets all the information he or she is going to need to get going. There are some more great montages later, usually set to Aimee Mann’s songs–and, of course, the montage with the cast singing along with her song, which breaks the fourth wall and firmly establishes Anderson as the last son of Krypton–but they’re not as narratively dense as that first montage. It establishes the ground situation and acts as the dramatic vehicle. It’s a speedy move. All of Magnolia, all three hours of it, is actually a speedy move.

But Anderson isn’t just a visual director. The performances he gets out of his cast are so amazing, they frequently risk drawing the viewer off the celluloid to contemplate the filmmaking process. Especially with Robards and Cruise. The performance Anderson gets out of Cruise is singular–it engages Cruise’s movie star status while ignoring it. Again, something one can’t really discuss with any brevity. Even as good as those performances are–and one of those two gives the film’s best performance–the most impressive performance is Julianne Moore’s. While Melora Walters is in a constant state of anguish (as is William H. Macy), it’s Moore who talks about all of it. Almost all of her scenes are confessions; there’s a whole lot of explaining going on. It’s the kind of role where it looks easy, but it’s near impossible–the viewer has to ignore the information her dialogue produces immediately, instead concentrating on why she’s saying it. Her scene with Michael Murphy is one of the film’s best.

There’s a great scene where Anderson tricks the viewer. There are probably a lot of them where he tricks the viewer, actually, but I’m thinking about the one where the viewer is thinking Cruise is going to soften. It’s with Cruise the film transcends, in fact. About halfway through, he has this delivery and it’s the moment where Magnolia rises above all others. The film’s density isn’t even novel-like. It’s a film, through and through, which makes Anderson’s achievement all the greater.

Anderson has a way of drawing the supporting cast as caricatures (almost the inverse of what he does in Boogie Nights)–Felicity Huffman, Ricky Jay, Alfred Molina, even April Grace as the reporter who interviews Cruise for a significant portion of the film–these people are outside the Eye of Anderson, which defines their humanity. Even Michael Bowen–as Jeremy Blackman’s show-dad–escapes a little. Or Anderson cracks through the judgment. I need to explain–Anderson presents the entire main cast free of any judgment, which is at times difficult (Reilly ignoring information he desperately needs out of his unacknowledged racism). The supporting cast comes prejudged–they aren’t chia pets. The three hours the viewer spends with the film lets he or she judge the characters–with almost all of these judgments coming down in the film’s third act (with an exception or two). It defines why these characters are worth caring about, why they’re worth the investment of time and emotion.

At one point, with Cruise at Robards’s bedside, the film reaches an emotional boiling over (I’m observing the temperature based on my own tears). Cruise grasps his hands together and presses in an attempt to bottle in the emotion and cannot maintain. That action sums up the film itself.

But Magnolia‘s actually something of an upper. Anderson drags humanity into a mud bath and beats it with a stick for three hours, but he’s still a fan.

It’s a peerless film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Jon Brion; songs by Aimee Mann; production designers, William Arnold and Mark Bridges; produced by Anderson and JoAnne Sellar; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Jeremy Blackman (Stanley Spector), Tom Cruise (Frank T.J. Mackey), Melinda Dillon (Rose Gator), April Grace (Gwenovier), Luis Guzman (Luis Guzman), Philip Baker Hall (Jimmy Gator), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Phil Parma), Ricky Jay (Burt Ramsey), William H. Macy (Quiz Kid Donnie Smith), Alfred Molina (Solomon Solomon), Julianne Moore (Linda Partridge), Michael Murphy (Alan Kligman, esq.), John C. Reilly (Jim Kurring), Jason Robards (Earl Partridge), Melora Walters (Claudia Wilson), Michael Bowen (Rick Spector), Henry Gibson (Thurston Howell), Felicity Huffman (Cynthia), Emmanuel L. Johnson (Dixon), Don McManus (Dr. Landon), Eileen Ryan (Mary) and Danny Wells (Dick Jennings).


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