Julianne Moore

Short Cuts (1993, Robert Altman)

Short Cuts is about a weekend in Los Angeles. It’s a Robert Altman ensemble piece with twenty-two principle characters (though at least six of them are questionable–it really has three stories and then some tangents). It’s “based on the ‘writings’ of Raymond Carver” (emphasis mine), but I’m pretty sure it’s just an adaptation of his seminal work, If You Don’t Take Your Husband As is, He’ll Just Have to Rape and Murder a Young Woman and It Will Be Your Fault. Oh, wait, Altman actually strips the humanity out of Carver and leaves these dry husks and mixes them all up to make nine separate works fit into one three hour movie.

The first and third hours of Short Cuts have this Altman zooming in and cutting to a related image thing going. The first hour it’s mostly for fun–Altman likes to cynically mock the mundanity of his characters. Sisters Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore are both eating the same peanut butter in between cuts, for example. It’s cute, though when they have a scene together later and apparently aren’t even close enough to have talked about their sex lives since Stowe got married. Altman and co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt do this thing where about half the dialogue is pure exposition. Frankly, as an adaptation of Carver–and I know I jumped topics but I want to be done talking about the writing and the adapting and just deal with the result. So I’ll get it out of my system. Short Cuts feels like Robert Altman discovered Raymond Carver in The New Yorker; you don’t get to be performatively trite with Raymond Carver.

Now then. The three stories.

Lily Tomlin hits little kid, little kid goes to the hospital. Little kid’s parents are Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison. Little kid is asleep for most of the Short Cuts weekend. Like, unconscious, hospitalized. Cue drama for MacDowell and Davison. Jack Lemmon shows up as Davison’s dad. Tom Waits is Tomlin’s husband. Oh, and Tomlin gets away with it. Throw in Lyle Lovett pointlessly shit-calling MacDowell over the little kid’s missed birthday cake order.

MacDowell has absolutely nothing to do until the end of the movie when she gets her big moment and it’s bad. She’s not good, but you feel kind of bad for her because Altman gives her absolutely nothing to do. She’s supposed to smile and occasionally be sad and confused. She might have Short Cuts’s worst part. Terrified, grieving mother is apparently less interesting than Davison and Lemmon’s hospital reunion.

Davison is kind of weak until Lemmon shows up and when Lemmon’s trying to gaslight Davison about the past–performative gas lighting, in the way only Lemmon can do when he’s playing skeevy. Altman knows how to use some of these actors, just not enough of them. Anyway. Davison has no dialogue but he listens to the whole thing and you can just see the thoughts. It’s amazing. And makes up for the story monologue itself being poorly written. Lemmon’s performance has its ups and downs, but the downs are when Altman pushes too hard. Lemmon and MacDowell is going to fall apart because of their weak parts, but Lemmon on his own for thirty seconds, talking to background players? It’s awesome. MacDowell doesn’t actually get as much to do in the film as Lemmon and he’s only in it for the second hour. He appears out of nowhere and literally walks off into the sunset when he leaves.

As for Tomlin and Waits… she’s a waitress, he’s a drunken limo driver. They’re married. After she hits the kid apparently they have a fight worse than most of their fights and he leaves. They’re sort of a subplot of Story One. Then it turns out Tomlin’s daughter–who Waits only assaulted once, we’re reassured–is Lili Taylor, who’s in the sub-story. Because the thing about Short Cuts and its size is it’s too big. It’s padded. It’d be a lot better if it were an hour shorter.

Story Two. Tim Robbins is a cop with a wife, Stowe, and three kids. He’s having an affair and is generally a shit. Robbins is having the affair with Frances McDormand, who’s got a son with ex-husband Peter Gallagher; Gallagher is kind of stalking McDormand because she’s sexually active post-divorce. He’s not concerned about the kid, which is sort of refreshingly cynical, just kind of terrorizing McDormand for having sex. Stowe doesn’t get anything to do in her part of the story except know about Robbins’s affair and tell sister Moore about it.

Robbins is bad. He’s this nice guy pretending to be mean. I mean, he’s just supposed to be sort of harmless. Short Cuts is so trite. It’s so trite. It pretends to be mean but it’s so shallow. In the last third, those Altman zoom ins and cuts aren’t for cynical humor, they’re to cut away from moments of emotional tragedy. Altman’s narrative distance in this thing is a joke. He exploits the characters, he exploits the actors, he exploits the audience.

Stowe’s great. McDormand’s great. Gallagher’s good but maybe a scene away from greatness. He and McDormand have very little to do in the film except orbit Robbins and provide filler. Short Cuts’s L.A. is real small.

Story Three is Moore and husband Matthew Modine. Modine’s also background in Story One, but he doesn’t get a lot to do until the end of the second hour so he needs to be somewhere else. Moore’s a successful painter. Emotive nudes. Modine’s a doctor. He’s a jerk and frigid. She’s discontent but enthusiastic. They meet another couple–Anne Archer and Fred Ward–and want to get together. Or something. The first hour is so dripping in Altman’s condescending cynicism towards the characters he sometimes makes too much of a narrative slip and covers it with goop. Some casual racism, for example. Altman uses casual racism throughout Short Cuts to change up a moment. He tries it with class stuff, but usually he just likes the casual racism.

It’s so painfully cheap.

Anyway. Moore’s good, not great. She does get a better monologue than most and Altman wants to go for some nudity symbolism with her–lots of not sexy-time nudity in Short Cuts, but nothing compared to Moore’s monologue scene. He’s guilting the audience in wanting the scene to succeed for Moore’s sake. The scene doesn’t succeed. Maybe because Moore’s playing off a wooden Matthew Modine. Because Modine’s doctor is the biggest jerk in the known universe. But, you know, Moore still should be a better wife to him. Because he suspects she’s cheated on him. Sort of. Not really though. He’s a dick from the opening titles, which run twelve minutes, and Altman and his editors use to sort of ashcan the film. It’s an introduction; a manipulative one.

Meanwhile, Archer and Ward have some kind of bliss. She’s a professional clown, he’s out of work though they still live comfortably. Except their cars. His unemployment isn’t an issue until hour three and the car thing only comes up directly then. Before it’s just a detail in the scene where Robbins pulls her over and tries to pick her up and apparently steals her driver’s license.

Because, again, Shorts Cuts is way too big. Okay. Almost done. The sub-stories. Lori Singer and Annie Ross. They live next door to Story One but Ross doesn’t even know there’s a little kid there. Singer is a cellist who spends the rest of her time playing basketball with a multicultural group of young men. They play basketball at her house, this gaggle of men, yet serve no purpose other than to provide background and imply depth. Implied depth should be Short Cuts’s subtitle. Singer’s dad killed himself, Ross is her mom. Ross is a drunk jazz singer who performs at the bar where a handful of the characters show up. Exploitative sadness, melodrama, and nudity take place.

Ross is kind of great for hours one and two then weak in hour three. It’s the part as written but still. Short Cuts’s characters are so obnoxious, you have a limit. Lemmon gets off easy, for instance. Though Stowe gets through most of it. Only because she gets almost nothing to do in hour three.

The second sub-story, and the biggest one, is the one with Taylor. She’s married to Robert Downey Jr. and their best friends are Jennifer Jason Leigh and Chris Penn. Leigh and Penn are married. Everyone’s got to be married in Short Cuts because otherwise Altman’s points wouldn’t be so stunning. They’re housesitting–Taylor and Downey–and they’re potheads and there’s an implication Downey’s either cheating on Taylor or he’s trying to do so at every opportunity. Leigh is a phone sex worker. Penn is a pool cleaner (to MacDowell, in fact). Even though she’s probably making a lot more money than him, her work is bothering him and he’s reaching his breaking point. This emasculation cannot stand.

Taylor’s weak. It’s a lame part, but she’s weak. Downey’s weak. Lame part, but he’s still weak. Leigh’s capable in a lame part but she’s not exactly good. Altman and Barhydt require logic to last as long as the scene and not in-between them. Altman acts like bad exposition cancels out weak acting just because it “says” something. Penn’s good in the first couple scenes but once he becomes a crazed sex fiend, he’s pretty lame. Again, Altman’s not there for him. He’s not there for any of these actors. He’s at least there for Singer and Ross. Not these ones though.

Sub-story three is Fred Ward, Buck Henry, and Huey Lewis go fishing. Ward’s going to bring the fish to dinner at the Modine and Moore party he and Archer have planned. Look at how it all comes together. Like a glove. They go to the fishing spot, they find a dead body, they spend a day fishing around the body. Gives Altman a lot of opportunity to fetishize the submerged nude female corpse; he’s making a point about nudity, after all. It’s all so provocative.

Henry’s creepier than hell, which doesn’t seem to be the intention, but he’s playing it like a serial killer. Lewis just seems amused to actually have gotten cast in a Robert Altman movie. This story ties back into Story Three when Archer finds out about it, but it’s inconsequential except as filler. Oh, and so Altman can make the queen mother of false equivalences with a scene between Taylor and Henry regarding the objectification of dead bodies. It’s all so provocative.

Altman’s contention the viewer needs to decide the relevance is once thing, but when he ceases to provide the content needed to decide that relevance–or even bother to consider it–the ball is back in Altman’s court. If you want to do the Raymond Carver Extended Universe, you need to be doing something amazing. And Short Cuts isn’t doing anything amazing. I mean, I guess it’s making a Mark Isham score seem positively hip in comparison, but it’s not doing anything else amazing. Walt Lloyd’s Panavision photography is fine. It’s kind of dull, but not offensively. Geraldine Peroni’s editing is a little on the nose. Altman relies heavily on it to try to get through narrative rough patches, but Peroni can’t save it.

Because Short Cuts can’t need saving. Altman and Barhydt’s script gets shockingly cheap in the third hour. Shockingly. And Lemmon’s monologue is pretty cheap too–I mean, Lemmon’s delivery and Davison’s reaction save it, but it’s not uncheap. It’s just beautifully acted cheap. The third hour is just cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap. It’s the cheaper chicken.

You can’t save that level of cheapness. Nothing can. And even as the third hour drags, Altman still finds new ways to get even cheaper.

He’s pretty good at being cheap, but not for three hours.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Altman and Frank Barhydt, based on short stories by Raymond Carver; director of photography, Walt Lloyd; edited by Geraldine Peroni; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Stephen Altman; produced by Cary Brokaw; released by Fine Line Features.

Starring Andie MacDowell (Ann Finnigan), Bruce Davison (Howard Finnigan), Jack Lemmon (Paul Finnigan), Madeleine Stowe (Sherri Shepard), Tim Robbins (Gene Shepard), Julianne Moore (Marian Wyman), Matthew Modine (Dr. Ralph Wyman), Anne Archer (Claire Kane), Fred Ward (Stuart Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lois Kaiser), Chris Penn (Jerry Kaiser), Robert Downey Jr. (Bill Bush), Lili Taylor (Honey Bush), Lily Tomlin (Doreen Piggot), Tom Waits (Earl Piggot), Frances McDormand (Betty Weathers), Peter Gallagher (Stormy Weathers), Annie Ross (Tess Trainer), Lori Singer (Zoe Trainer), Buck Henry (Gordon Johnson), Huey Lewis (Vern Miller), and Lyle Lovett (Andy Bitkower).


Freedomland (2006, Joe Roth)

I didn’t see Freedomland when it came out because I loved the novel and Richard Price adapting the novel or not, the movie’s cast and crew aren’t encouraging it. No movie directed by Joe Roth should inspire confidence, especially not one about racism. Freedomland is about racism. It’s about the really uncomfortable realities of racism. Not racist cops, but racist people. The film opens telling the viewer it takes place in 1999, which when the novel should have been adapted. Possibly even starring Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore in the leads. Possibly with the entire supporting cast intact. But not with Joe Roth directing. Not directing it in Panavision aspect. Not with really slick photography from Anastas N. Michos and awful slick rapid fire editing from Nick Moore. Not with the James Newton Howard occasionally upbeat score. Not with sunny-time super-producer Scott Rudin apparently hunting down a Crash Oscar of his own. Because that Freedomland, this Freedomland, it refuses to call any white characters racist. It refuses to let the racist white cops be racist. It’s particularly mortifying and embarrassing because it’s all post-production neutering. It’s obviously shot Super 35 too, so they even cropped it to this nonsense.

Though someone tried hard to give Jackson as much slack as the frame would allow. Moore’s performance is an unsalvageable train wreck. Roth can’t direct actors, but Freedomland’s cast doesn’t need for direction. They need for some kind of honesty, which just isn’t present in the filmmaking. They need verisimilitude and Roth doesn’t want to acknowledge it. It’s about a black cop (Jackson) suspecting a white woman (Moore), who works exclusively with black people in the projects–specifically black children–is lying about a black guy kidnapping her son. The point of Freedomland is it can’t be more about race if it tried. And Roth and Rudin reduce the film to a ball-less Hallmark movie. It’s unclear how responsible Price is for it, because some of the responsibility is definitely on him. The post-production can be responsible for the atrocious, offensive editing of a riot scene, but the film gets to that riot scene because of Price’s script, because of how he handles the characters. Freedomland is half-assed filmmaking from people who know better. Even Roth should know better. It’s why he shoots it Super 35, so he doesn’t have to commit to anything while actually directing the actors.

Jackson tries. It’s a good part. It’s a poorly written part in what’s a disastrous film, but it’s a good part. And he does try hard. He does fall into a lot of his acting tropes and he never manages any chemistry with Moore, but it’s an admirable performance.

Edie Falco’s great. It’s embarrassing watching Moore opposite Falco. Her part’s terrible, even just going off the script, but she’s great. While Roth’s direction screws up a lot of the part, Price’s script isn’t there for the character.

Good support from William Forsythe. Moore-levels of train wreck from Ron Eldard as her racist cop brother. He and Moore don’t really have any scenes together, which is good because some kind of singularity would occur if they actually had to act at each other under Roth’s incompetent direction. Aunjanue Ellis’s fine. Lots to do in a lame part. She does what she can. Same goes for Clarke Peters and Anthony Mackie.

LaTonya Richardson Jackson stands out; she gets actual chemistry off Jackson, which no one else in the film gets. It’s hard not to assume its because they’re married off screen.

Freedomland is hard to watch and not for any of the reasons it should be hard to watch. It’s opportunistic, insincere and overproduced. If it were well-acted, well-directed, well-anything, it might be interesting as a failure. Instead, it’s even worth a footnote. Except as one of Jackson’s stronger performances. And as one of Moore’s worst.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Roth; screenplay by Richard Price, based on his novel; director of photography, Anastas N. Michos; edited by Nick Moore; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Scott Rudin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Samuel L. Jackson (Council), Julianne Moore (Brenda), Edie Falco (Karen), William Forsythe (Boyle), Ron Eldard (Danny Martin), Aunjanue Ellis (Felicia), Clarke Peters (Reverend Longway), Anthony Mackie (Billy), Domenick Lombardozzi (Sullivan), Fly Williams III (Rafik), Dorian Missick (Jason) and Peter Friedman (Lt. Gold).


Blindness (2008, Fernando Meirelles)

Maybe there’s a longer version of Blindness where they explain what happens to all the cast members who fall away from the film. Or what happens to them while the film’s busy on other stuff—like Danny Glover, who disappears for a large portion of the film, only to return in an integral part at the end.

Poor Mpho Koaho ingloriously disappears after being in the film from the first few minutes. I guess it’s all right—Glover’s good, Koaho isn’t. The film, which is in an unnamed city (which looks suspiciously Canadian—it filmed in Toronto), has some vague bureaucracy at the beginning (again, it seems very Canadian) but it soon descends into a weak Lord of the Flies with the blind instead of stranded kids. Leader of the bad guys are Gael García Bernal and Maury Chaykin. All the other bad guys, we later learn, as Hispanic males. All the good guys (the men, at least)… white or black. I’m not sure if the filmmakers realized it.

Bernal is laughably bad. Chaykin is at least mildly competent.

The lead is ostensibly Julianne Moore, the only seeing person in the world of the blind. Screenwriter Don McKellar (seemingly intentionally) writes in caricatures and makes Moore’s character ludicrously passive.

Due to McKellar’s weak writing, second-billed Mark Ruffalo gives a mediocre performance. Alice Braga is okay; the best performance is easily Kimura Yoshino.

Meirelles’s direction is unimpressive and obvious, like the film itself….

It’s not terrible, just pointless and boring.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Fernando Meirelles; screenplay by Don McKellar, based on a novel by José Saramago; director of photography, César Charlone; edited by Daniel Rezende; music by Marco Antônio Guimarães; production designers, Matthew Davies and Tulé Peak; produced by Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Niv Fichman and Sonoko Sakai; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Julianne Moore (Doctor’s Wife), Mark Ruffalo (Doctor), Danny Glover (Man with Black Eye Patch), Gael García Bernal (King of Ward 3), Maury Chaykin (Accountant), Alice Braga (Woman with Dark Glasses), Mpho Koaho (Pharmacist’s Assistant), Iseya Yûsuke (First Blind Man), Kimura Yoshino (First Blind Man’s Wife), Mitchell Nye (Boy) and Don McKellar (Thief).


The Big Lebowski (1998, Joel Coen)

There are a lot of interesting things about what the Coens do with The Big Lebowski. The foremost thing has to be how, even though the film is incredibly thoughtful and complex in its homages, the Coens aren’t exclusionary about it. If you don’t know it’s Raymond Chandler, it’s okay. If you don’t know zero budget Westerns had narrators, it’s okay.

If you do, you understand more about what they’re doing, but you don’t better understand the film. Because knowing where they’re coming from isn’t the point. The movie’s the point.

But being accepting of populist viewers aside, the Coens also do something very interesting with the dialogue. When people listen to other people, they’re hearing it for the first time, just like the viewer. Even though John Goodman’s amusing lunatic has been friends with Jeff Bridges’s character for untold years… Bridges’s reactions are in line with the audiences. He’s stunned—just like the viewer—at the stupid things Goodman says.

It’s subtle, but with the film starting in the first scene.

Bridges and Goodman are both great, as is Steve Buscemi as the third in their triumvirate. Of course, he has nothing to say, which is kind of the point.

In the supporting roles, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and David Thewlis are all fantastic.

Lebowski, now a pop culture icon, succeeds because it embraces pop culture (and assumes everyone should know LA culture). It’s excellent.

Except, however, when there’s a nonsensical reference to an as yet unestablished subplot.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes and Tricia Cooke; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; produced by Ethan Coen; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Jeffrey Lebowski), John Goodman (Walter Sobchak), Steve Buscemi (Theodore Donald ‘Donny’ Kerabatsos), David Huddleston (Jeffrey Lebowski), Julianne Moore (Maude Lebowski), Tara Reid (Bunny Lebowski), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Brandt), Ben Gazzara (Jackie Treehorn), Peter Stormare (Karl Hungus), John Turturro (Jesus Quintana), Jon Polito (Da Fino), David Thewlis (Knox Harrington), Jack Kehler (Marty) and Sam Elliott (The Stranger).


The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, Steven Spielberg)

Even though The Lost World: Jurassic Park is pretty bad, it features some of Steven Spielberg’s more interesting work as a director. It’s a b genre picture, with a huge budget and Spielberg directing it. It even has a cute King Kong reference. It’s a singular film in Spielberg’s filmography—even when he does a terrible sequel like Temple of Doom, it’s not as interesting. None of those statements mean one should see The Lost World. It’s tiring and boring; all of the action sequences are stale.

One problem is the CG technology. It’s gotten away from Spielberg. He can do pretty much whatever he wants, so he doesn’t have to think about it anymore and so he doesn’t. The film rushes from CG sequence to sequence, but nothing interesting. This Jurassic Park is intent on being dumb, not even giving the pretense of intelligence. Jeff Goldblum handles it pretty well, but his character is nowhere near as amusing as before.

Another problem is the script. While Spielberg may be responsible for Vince Vaughan’s casting and performance, David Koepp wrote some terrible lines for the character. But Koepp has even more problems—he doesn’t have a story. He’s got Vanessa Lee Chester pointlessly running around (as Goldblum’s daughter); she doesn’t even have a real action sequence.

There’s some good acting—Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite, Arliss Howard and Richard Schiff are all excellent. Howard’s a great worm.

Even the John Williams score is peculiar.

But being strange doesn’t make it worthwhile.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by David Koepp, based on a novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Rick Carter; produced by Gerald R. Molen and Colin Wilson; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jeff Goldblum (Dr. Ian Malcolm), Julianne Moore (Dr. Sarah Harding), Pete Postlethwaite (Roland Tembo), Richard Attenborough (John Hammond), Vince Vaughn (Nick Van Owen), Arliss Howard (Peter Ludlow), Vanessa Lee Chester (Kelly Curtis Malcolm), Peter Stormare (Dieter Stark), Harvey Jason (Ajay Sidhu), Richard Schiff (Eddie Carr), Joseph Mazzello (Tim Murphy) and Ariana Richards (Lex Murphy).


The Fugitive (1993, Andrew Davis)

It’s been a while since I last saw The Fugitive. I remember it didn’t impress me much, particularly Andrew Davis’s direction.

Needless to say, I was very wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated the film as much as I did this viewing. Davis’s direction is the finest action thriller direction I can recall. The film starts a breakneck pace about twenty minutes into the film and doesn’t stop… I don’t even think it stops at the end. The last scene is very quick as well.

The film’s approach to mainstream filmmaking–setting two strong actors opposite each other without making it a buddy picture–has vanished. The Fugitive doesn’t just juxtapose Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, it barely gives Ford any screen time to himself when he’s not on the run. The first twenty minutes… it’s summary storytelling. The audience doesn’t really get to know Ford until after he’s running.

Most of Ford’s scenes are by himself, either running or investigating, so it’s up to Jones. The supporting cast around Jones is a phenomenal piece of casting–Joe Pantoliano doing comic relief, obviously, is going to be good, but Daniel Roebuck has some moments too. Davis manages to give his cast great little moments without ever breaking pace.

Michael Chapman’s photography is an essential element. The film’s color scheme manages to be rich and drab at the same time.

I’m trying to think of something negative or unenthusiastic to say about the film.

I can’t think of anything.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Davis; screenplay by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy, based on a story by Twohy and characters created by Roy Huggins; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Don Brochu, David Finfer, Dean Goodhill, Dov Hoenig, Richard Nord and Dennis Virkler; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, J. Dennis Washington; produced by Arnold Kopelson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Harrison Ford (Dr. Richard Kimble), Tommy Lee Jones (Deputy Samuel Gerard), Sela Ward (Helen Kimble), Jeroen Krabbé (Dr. Charles Nichols), Joe Pantoliano (Agent Cosmo Renfro), Andreas Katsulas (Frederick Sykes), Jane Lynch (Dr. Kathy Wahlund), Julianne Moore (Dr. Anne Eastman), Daniel Roebuck (Agent Robert Biggs), L. Scott Caldwell (Agent Poole), Johnny Lee Davenport (Marshal Henry), Tom Wood (Agent Noah Newman) and Eddie Bo Smith Jr. (Copeland).


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).


Boogie Nights (1997, Paul Thomas Anderson)

Boogie Nights is so well-made, so stunningly made–I’m not even thinking about Anderson’s wonderful, lengthy steadicam sequences, I’m thinking about Philip Seymour Hoffman alone in his freshly painted car–it’s hard to think about anything else while watching it. The omnipresent soundtrack–Nights is a combination of American Graffiti (the prolific use of songs), Goodfellas (the way music is used to move a scene) and Saturday Night Fever (the general feel of the first hour… and look for the Staying Alive reference in the film’s second half)–the soundtrack draws so much attention to the way the film looks, it’s almost like Anderson is telling the viewer the story doesn’t matter too much. It matters a little–the audience is supposed to be horrified by somethings, laugh at others, dismiss others (the way the overdose scene is handled, for instance, isn’t so much sickening as it is amusing)–until everything changes.

The first half of Boogie Nights introduces the characters and spends a lot of time amusing the viewer. Save the sequence with Joanna Gleason as one of the worst screen parents in history–and the abuse Heather Graham endures in high school–the first half of the film is almost always upbeat. When Don Cheadle’s boss makes fun of him for wearing a cowboy outfit… yeah, the viewer’s supposed to be sympathetic to Cheadle… but also be aware the cowboy thing is dumb.

There aren’t any smart principals in Boogie Nights. Arguably, Burt Reynolds plays the film’s “smartest” character… but he’s not particularly bright. Cheadle, Mark Wahlberg, especially John C. Reilly–these are dumb guys. It’s hard to tell if Julianne Moore’s den mother was at any point intelligent–even as the film starts up with her, she’s nosediving into a suffocating drug dependency. Wahlberg and Reilly’s bromance is hilarious and engaging and it’s kind of amazing how much time Anderson gets away spending on it. Essentially, it’s just treading water in terms of an overall narrative, but Boogie Nights is so perfectly produced, it doesn’t matter.

At the halfway point, Boogie Nights makes a drastic turn. Nothing good happens for a long, long time. Bad things happen over and over. Part of the characters’ joint stupidity is believing in their own rhetoric–the scene with Cheadle getting denied for a bank loan (everyone else in the film, if Anderson gives them enough time, understands the principals’ delusions) is devastating. Cheadle gives the film’s best performance, in one of the film’s only truly sympathetic characters (Anderson basically only rewards two characters and Cheadle is one of them). Anderson takes the inverse of Verhoeven’s Robocop. Instead of tossing the people into the burning pit first thing to garner concern, Anderson makes the viewer like the characters with comedy (and a knowing appraisal of their intellectual limitedness), brings everything negative to the fore, then roasts them until they’re sweating humanity. And he almost gets away with it.

In the end, Boogie Nights comes up with a workable, loopy philosophy and, mostly because of the filmmaking and the torture he’s put the characters through, Anderson gets away with some of it. It’s not a complete success (he drops Moore once her story gets too difficult), but it works. Except–and I remember this from the theater, not from the DVD–not getting to see Reynolds’s face when he embraces Wahlberg (because of the resolution) hurts the scene.

There’s a lot of great acting–Reynolds is fantastic, as is Reilly. William H. Macy is great in his small part, as is Ricky Jay (especially when they’re together). Moore’s good, but her character’s too big for the part she has in the film and there’s chafing. Wahlberg’s solid in the lead role. He’s kind of perfect for it, because he’s so great at being a dimwit. In smaller roles, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Thomas Jane and Alfred Molina are amazing–especially Jane, who rattles off some great Anderson dialogue better than anyone else in the picture. Luis Guzman’s awesome.

Boogie Nights has a lot of friction of its own, in terms of what Anderson’s doing. Is the film most honest during the Cheadle scenes or the Hoffman scene in the car… or is it most honest when Anderson’s just executing a perfectly constructed scene. It’s a stunning film, but the narrative lacks. It somehow ties Anderson’s hands, like he can’t act contrary to the formula.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Michael Penn; production designer, Bob Ziembicki; produced by Anderson, Lloyd Levin, John S. Lyons and JoAnne Sellar; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Mark Wahlberg (Dirk Diggler), Julianne Moore (Amber Waves), Burt Reynolds (Jack Homer), Heather Graham (Rollergirl), Don Cheadle (Buck Swope), John C. Reilly (Reed Rothchild), Luis Guzmán (Maurice TT Rodriguez), William H. Macy (Little Bill), Robert Ridgely (The Colonel James), Ricky Jay (Kurt Longjohn), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Scotty J.), Nicole Ari Parker (Becky Barnett), Melora Walters (Jessie St. Vincent), Thomas Jane (Todd Parker), Joanna Gleason (Eddie’s mother) and Alfred Molina (Rahad Jackson).


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