William H. Macy

Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)

Room is the story of a woman (Brie Larson) and her son (Jacob Tremblay) who, after seven years in captivity by rapist Sean Bridgers (Tremblay being born as a result of one of those rapes), escape and have to adjust to the outside world. The film is from Tremblay’s perspective, with some occasional narration. Though never when the film actually needs narration. Screenwriter Emma Donoghue adapted her own novel, which kind of explains why the perspective is so unchanging, even when it’s not working on film. There are these scenes with Tremblay without narration where his behavior begs explanation. Instead, Donoghue and director Abrahamson just let the audience ponder. Abrahamson actually ignores the presence of the narration because he’s concentrating on Larson. Room wants to be both through Tremblay’s perspective but really be Larson’s movie.

It doesn’t work out in either department. Larson gets this amazing character and character arc, but then when the movie needs her to go away, she’s gone. Only the movie then sticks with Tremblay, which makes sense if it’s a first person novel, but not the movie because just because child Tremblay doesn’t understand what’s going on, the audience does. It’s a dodge. But then the film doesn’t really go deep on Tremblay, instead it just shifts that perspective to Joan Allen and William H. Macy as the grandparents. Of the two, Allen gets the better part but Macy gets the better scenes. There’s never enough with Larson and either of them, since it’s all got to be tethered to Tremblay.

However, outside its problems with perspective—both in the direction and on a fundamental level with the screenwriting–Room is outstanding. Abrahamson and editor Nathan Nugent work up this harrowing pace for the captivity sequence. Again, there are the nitpicky perspective things, but the film effectively and immediately drops the audience into this extraordinarily confined existence with Larson and Tremblay. The opening present action isn’t too long. The film starts on or just before Tremblay’s fifth birthday. The rest of the action plays out in the next week. For that section. The second half’s present action appears to take months but doesn’t really matter once Larson’s no longer narratively relevant.

So while Abrahamson never wows for thriller sequences or sublime ones, he also never tries for a wow only to miss. His direction is confident and deliberate, which the film does need. Room has so many ways it could go wrong and can’t really afford any missteps because they’d mess up the momentum of Larson’s performance. Because even though Tremblay has the bigger adjustment—she been telling him the real world was just something on the TV until the middle of the first act—Larson’s got a lot more repercussions. Though, again, both Larson and Tremblay get cheated out of dealing with those repercussions on screen.

Basically there needs to be a dramatic stylistic shift somewhere in the second half and there isn’t. Abrahamson never gives the impression of guiding the film. He’s always sticking to the script and doing well directing it, getting some amazing moments from his entire cast, but Room never quite feels organic. It feels raw—though the occasionally too smooth digital video hurts that impression rather than helping it. Oh. And the wide Panavision aspect ratio, which… just… no.

Larson’s performance is spectacular. She’s got a lot of big, dramatic moments and she nails them all. Even when the script doesn’t stick with her. In fact, Larson sort of sums of the problem with Room. Abrahamson knows the movie needs to be all about Larson’s performance and how her character arc affects Tremblay. Meanwhile, Room is actually from the perspective of Tremblay. The script doesn’t care what Abrahamson or Larson come up with.

But the script’s also excellent. It’s just… got a perspective problem.

Tremblay’s quite good. It’s impossible to imagine Room without Tremblay, but it’s also impossible to imagine a Room where Tremblay’s the protagonist and not the erstwhile subject of the picture. Because it’s not his movie, his part has nowhere near the possibility of Larson’s.

Allen’s good, Macy’s good. Tom McCamus is good. Bridgers is terrifying. Amanda Brugel has a great scene as a cop (with Joe Pingue as her “holy shit, men are useless” partner).

Stephen Rennicks’s music is effective.

Room’s story is bold. Not ostentatious, just bold. It’s a bold story, with a bold performance from Larson. It’s just not a bold film. It’s not a boldly produced film. It’s safe. It’s quite good, often spectacular, but it’s way too safe.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson; screenplay by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Nathan Nugent; music by Stephen Rennicks; production designer, Ethan Tobman; produced by David Gross and Ed Guiney; released by A24.

Starring Brie Larson (Joy), Jacob Tremblay (Jack), Joan Allen (Nancy), Tom McCamus (Leo), William H. Macy (Robert), Amanda Brugel (Officer Parker), Joe Pingue (Officer Grabowski), and Sean Bridgers (Old Nick).


Fargo (1996, Joel Coen)

Much–probably most–of Fargo is exceptional. The Coens take over half an hour to bring their protagonist into the movie. They spend that first half hour with the villains, even having time to make said villains simultaneously lovable and even more dangerous. William H. Macy isn’t just some loser who schemes to rip off his father-in-law, he’s a dangerous sociopath. It’s amazing what the Coens can fit behind those goofy accents and the folky talk.

And those levels of Fargo are what make it so fantastic. Frances McDormand isn’t playing a silly sheriff, she’s playing this incredible investigator who just happens to sound like she lives in a waffle commercial. All of the police work in the film is thoroughly executed; the cops aren’t of the Keystone variety.

But the Coens don’t engage with this situation. They don’t force the viewer. They don’t even acknowledge it. They’re playing it straight.

Until the end. McDormand stumbles across the bad guys by accident. Even worse, there was a plot point earlier to set up an actual investigatory discovery of the bad guys and the Coens skip it. Very disappointing.

Otherwise, the film is fantastic. Great photography from Roger Deakins, wonderful score from Carter Burwell. Fargo speeds along too. There’s never a slow moment.

The supporting cast–Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare, John Carroll Lynch–is great. Buscemi has some exceptional rants throughout.

McDormand and Macy are both excellent. McDormand even manages to sell the questionable stuff at the end.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; produced by Ethan Coen; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Frances McDormand (Marge Gunderson), William H. Macy (Jerry Lundegaard), Steve Buscemi (Carl Showalter), Harve Presnell (Wade Gustafson), Peter Stormare (Gaear Grimsrud), Kristin Rudrüd (Jean Lundegaard), John Carroll Lynch (Norm Gunderson) and Steve Park (Mike Yanagita).


A Single Shot (2013, David M. Rosenthal)

A Single Shot is the best film noir I’ve seen in a long time. Director Rosenthal eschews trying to make a neo-noir and just sets a film noir in some backwoods region. It’s never specified and it doesn’t really matter. It’s beautiful and dangerous. From the first hunting sequence, there’s always danger in Shot.

Sam Rockwell plays a ne’er do well who finds himself in more trouble than usual when he crosses paths with some dangerous ex-cons. Of course, it doesn’t help they somehow know his best friend (Jeffrey Wright), his estranged wife (Kelly Reilly) and even his lawyer (William H. Macy). It’s when all these connections become clear–Macy repeatedly talks about what a small town everyone is living in–Shot’s noir status becomes clear.

Sure, Rosenthal and writer Matthew F. Jones make Rockwell’s character far more sympathetic than the traditional noir protagonist, which initially makes Shot feel a little more like a strange Kentucky Hitchcock picture, but it’s noir. When it the whole picture unravels and reveals all its strange connections through time… it’s noir.

Rockwell’s lead performance is amazing. If it were just him doing a one man show, it’d probably still be an excellent film. But Shot has an unbelievably good supporting cast. Wright’s fantastic–like he and Rockwell were competing for who could be more devastating in slurred monologue. Ted Levine’s got a great scene, Ophelia Lovibond is awesome. Joe Anderson and Jason Isaacs are terrifying as the villains.

Shot is great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David M. Rosenthal; screenplay by Matthew F. Jones, based on his novel; director of photography, Eduard Grau; edited by Dan Robinson; music by Atli Örvarsson; production designer, David Brisbin; produced by Chris Coen, Aaron L. Gilbert, Keith Kjarval and Jeff Rice; released by Tribeca Film.

Starring Sam Rockwell (John Moon), Jeffrey Wright (Simon), Kelly Reilly (Moira), Jason Isaacs (Waylon), Joe Anderson (Obadiah), Ophelia Lovibond (Abbie), Ted Levine (Cecile) and William H. Macy (Pitt).


House of Games (1987, David Mamet)

House of Games is a very small film, but Mamet and cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía manage to make it appear a lot bigger. When there’s no one in a shot, in a public place, except a principal, Mamet makes it seem stylistic instead of budgetary. It’s only during the final fifteen minutes, when there’s a near empty airport—sure, it’s the middle of the night, but it’s still too empty—does it become clear the film’s just economical and it’s not style.

The film, about a psychiatrist who finds herself drawn to some lowlifes, is also about deception. It all works out in that sense. Still, once Mamet fully unveils House of Games, the whole thing collapses. He writes himself into a hole and can’t get out—possibly because it’s such a predictable plot. There are no surprises.

There’s a lot of excellent acting. Lindsay Crouse, as the psychiatrist, is great for most of the film (she’s the one who the ending fails). Joe Mantegna is the main lowlife she’s interested in and he’s excellent. Mike Nussbaum and Ricky Jay are also excellent. J.T. Walsh isn’t bad, he’s just doing a schtick and the others aren’t.

Mamet’s insistence the plot be the most compelling aspect constrains House of Games. He’s trying to be clever and cute but there’s no emotional connection. Even when she’s good, Crouse cannot connect on that level.

Even the dynamic dialogue fades away. Eventually it becomes so predictable it’s boring. While technically excellent, Games’s rather pointless.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Mamet; screenplay by Mamet, based on a story by Jonathan Katz and Mamet; director of photography, Juan Ruiz Anchía; edited by Trudy Ship; music by Alaric Jans; production designer, Michael Merritt; produced by Michael Hausman; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Lindsay Crouse (Margaret Ford), Joe Mantegna (Mike), Ricky Jay (George), Mike Nussbaum (Joey), Lilia Skala (Dr. Maria Littauer), William H. Macy (Sgt. Moran) and J.T. Walsh (The Businessman).


State and Main (2000, David Mamet)

Something unfortunate happens during the last third of State and Main… Mamet realizes he needs a story.

He goes so long without traditional narrative elements—the film has, at best, a roaming protagonist and Mamet doesn’t do much establish the ground situation as hint at one for smiles. Mamet doesn’t go for belly laughs in the script, he goes for nods and smiles. It works better, since he’s dealing with cynical Hollywood types in small town America.

Of course, it’s small town New England, so he can make sure the town’s residents are all quite literate.

For the most part, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s independent playwright turned Hollywood screenwriter is the protagonist. State and Main, the non-comic parts, is about his relationship with townsperson Rebecca Pidgeon. It’s a good on-screen romance… very classical. Mamet doesn’t know how to really finish it, turning Pidgeon into a nice Lady Macbeth at one point, but it’s otherwise excellent. Both Hoffman and Pidgeon are great.

But there’s no bad acting in the film. William H. Macy’s, Alec Baldwin, Julia Stiles, David Paymer, Lionel Mark Smith, Patti LuPone… everyone’s great. Mamet—doing a really mellow story—does exceeding well directing his cast.

Oh, and Sarah Jessica Parker? Great. I always forget she can be really good.

Clark Gregg’s small town slime bag’s fun too.

Very appropriate score from Theodore Shapiro.

The only complaint, besides the finale, is Mamet’s lack of establishing long shots. He never sets up the small town besides on street level.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Mamet; director of photography, Oliver Stapleton; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Theodore Shapiro; production designer, Gemma Jackson; produced by Sarah Green; released by Fine Line Features.

Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman (Joseph Turner White), Rebecca Pidgeon (Ann), William H. Macy (Walt Price), Clark Gregg (Doug Mackenzie), Sarah Jessica Parker (Claire Wellesley), Alec Baldwin (Bob Barrenger), Julia Stiles (Carla), Charles Durning (Mayor George Bailey), Patti LuPone (Sherry Bailey) and David Paymer (Marty Rossen).


The Lincoln Lawyer (2011, Brad Furman)

The Lincoln Lawyer is—in addition to being, besides the cast, a great pilot for a cable series—a standard legal thriller. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new one of these, probably because there are so many decent old ones to go through. Nothing in the film is a particular revelation, which might explain my lack of enthusiasm.

Star Matthew McConaughey is a basically good defense attorney who believes in justice. No surprises in his character. McConaughey essays the role fine.

Marisa Tomei’s his ex-wife (they’re still seeing each other) and an assistant district attorney. Tomei’s fine too.

Actually, wait. Josh Lucas stands out. As McConaughey’s opposing counsel, with more ambition than brains (and aware of it), he does a great job. Oh, and Michael Paré. He’s great.

The supporting cast is decent. No one excels—it’s a legal thriller, why bother? Ryan Phillippe, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, Michael Peña, Laurence Mason, Frances Fisher—They’re excellent actors; they all give fine performances. But they’re just pieces in the wheel, not particularly important. The twists and turns are what’s important in Lincoln Lawyer and, like I said, it’s strictly television material.

One problem is John Romano’s script. I imagine he faithfully adapts the bestseller source material, but he doesn’t bring anything special or filmic to it. It’s a legal thriller. Why bother?

Director Furman has some decent composition, but he can’t bring personality to the L.A. setting.

It should probably be watched—and appreciated—on TV.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Brad Furman; screenplay by John Romano, based on the novel by Michael Connelly; director of photography, Lukas Ettlin; edited by Jeff McEvoy; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Charisse Cardenas; produced by Sidney Kimmel, Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Scott Steindorff and Richard S. Wright; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Matthew McConaughey (Mick Haller), Marisa Tomei (Maggie McPherson), Ryan Phillippe (Louis Roulet), William H. Macy (Frank Levin), Laurence Mason (Earl), Josh Lucas (Ted Minton), John Leguizamo (Val Valenzuela), Michael Peña (Jesus Martinez), Bob Gunton (Cecil Dobbs), Frances Fisher (Mary Windsor), Bryan Cranston (Detective Lankford), Michaela Conlin (Detective Sobel) and Michael Paré (Detective Kurlen).


Jurassic Park III (2001, Joe Johnston)

Jurassic Park III is about a third of a movie. Even though it runs ninety minutes (minus however many minutes in end credits), there aren’t any characters and the running time is mostly spent on the action beats of a better movie. Instead of being a movie about genetically engineered dinosaurs left to their own devices and intruded upon, it’s a monster movie. And it’s a pretty boring one at that.

Johnston occasionally has moments of directorial flare, but few of them have to do with the action sequences. For the most part, the dinosaur action looks cheap and poorly conceived. I was shocked to read the film actually filmed in Hawaii. The terrible composite shots suggest it’s a soundstage creation.

It’s more a sequel to the second entry and references to the first seem inappropriate, regardless of Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s presences. None of the characters are likable—why do all these Jurassic Park movies need annoying kids? Trevor Morgan isn’t bad, but he’s useless. Unfortunately, many of the adults are useless; Alessandro Nivola is probably the prime example.

Why Johnston casted John Diehl and Bruce A. Young and wasted them is beyond me.

Neill’s not terrible, but he’s barely in it so who cares… I guess Téa Leoni gives the film’s “best” performance. Her or Dern in her cameo. And it’s hard to hate a film with Taylor Nichols in a bit part.

But why hire Don Davis, who composes fine scores, just to rearrange John Williams?

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Johnston; screenplay by Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, based on characters created by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Shelly Johnson; edited by Robert Dalva; music by Don Davis; production designer, Ed Verreaux; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Larry J. Franco; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Sam Neill (Dr. Alan Grant), William H. Macy (Paul Kirby), Téa Leoni (Amanda Kirby), Alessandro Nivola (Billy Brennan), Trevor Morgan (Erik Kirby), Michael Jeter (Mr. Udesky), John Diehl (Cooper), Bruce A. Young (M.B. Nash), Taylor Nichols (Mark Degler), Mark Harelik (Ben Hildebrand), Julio Oscar Mechoso (Enrique Cardoso) and Laura Dern (Dr. Ellie Sattler).


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).


Pleasantville (1998, Gary Ross)

All through Pleasantville, I kept wondering how–for a film with so many problems–it could have not only some of the most emotionally affecting (not effective) scenes I can remember seeing, but also an overwhelming ending, which makes the whole film seem like it was better than it was… Then I saw Steven Soderbergh’s name at the end on the producer list. That one’s a cheap shot at Gary Ross, but there’s a litany of things wrong with Pleasantville.

Firstly, it makes no sense. It doesn’t establish any reasonable rules for its fantasy (in fact, it seems to be trying to play down the fact it’s a far out science fiction story about a couple kids’ adventure in an alternate reality). The people and objects colorize for emphasis, not for any logical reason. It’s distracting and cheap–Pleasantville is very cheap. It’s the intelligentsia (or what passes for them in America–and in Hollywood films for that matter–so think Spielberg, which Ross does a lot) sucker punching the right wing. There’s another problem with Pleasantville: it presents a number of complicated problems and gives them all easy solutions. Some people exist after they switch universes, others appear to be gone from the collective memory. But back the sucker punching the right wing. The bad guys in Pleasantville are a bunch of white guys who are pissed off their wives aren’t cooking them dinner. I had to remember it came out before 2001, because I really can’t see it being released otherwise until a couple years ago (when Hollywood finally stopped lionizing fascist white men). Ross is real cheap with his comparisons too–are the newly conscious people of Pleasantville supposed to be stand-ins for blacks in America circa 1958, Jews in Germany circa 1934, or something else entirely? Or all three, whenever it suits Ross for the most effective scene (he loves the Nazi imagery though).

It’s weird to see a film, recognize it’s working you over, yet still let it do that number on you. And Pleasantville does it. It might be the only film to do it.

Ross’s composition is poor, the editing of the film is atrocious, so what drives it home. Randy Newman’s score is immeasurably important and the film couldn’t work without it, but it also couldn’t work without the performances. Tobey Maguire’s been so ineffective for so long, it’s a bit of a shock to see him act so well. Reese Witherspoon is even good, though her role is very simple. But the film works because of two people–Jeff Daniels and Joan Allen. Allen’s too good for it and she brings the material up to her level. Daniels’s role is also geared to be cheap (the character goes through extraordinary change in five hours, which take place over five minutes in the film, and we’re supposed to be wowed), but his performance is touching and tragic and wonderful and the longing in the scenes between the two of them, the longing for something unknowable… it makes Pleasantville a significant and essential viewing experience. It’s a cheap film, terribly, terribly cheap, but it’s a magnificent two hours and four minutes.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Gary Ross; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by William Goldenberg; music by Randy Newman; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Ross, Jon Kilik, Robert J. Degus and Steven Soderbergh; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Tobey Maguire (David), Jeff Daniels (Mr. Johnson), Joan Allen (Betty), William H. Macy (George), J.T. Walsh (Big Bob), Don Knotts (TV Repairman), Marley Shelton (Margaret), Jane Kaczmarek (David’s Mom) and Reese Witherspoon (Jennifer).


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