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Volume 2, Number 1

This Week's Reviews:  Magnolia, Snow Falling on Cedars.

This Week's Omissions:  NONE.


(Dir:  Paul Thomas Anderson, Starring Melora Walters, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards, Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Jeremy Blackman, William H. Macy, Melinda Dillon, Emmanuel Johnson, Michael Bowen, Henry Gibson, Ricky Jay, and Luis Guzmán)



The biggest problem with Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia is not in the film itself, but in its prologue.  Once the first ten minutes have rolled by, it is nearly impossible for the film to go anywhere beyond that prologue.  The prologue was incredible, rather imaginative at times, but the rest of the film lacks the senseless fun of it.  Was Anderson prepping the audience with a few laughs before getting to the drama?

Either way, I was still enthralled by the film.  Yes, it does never meet the high standards that it begins with, but it never falls too far below them. The look and feel of the film is more engaging than any film this past year besides The Insider, American Beauty, and The Talented Mr. Ripley.  The story works and Anderson's direction is terrific.  So what's the problem with that latter three hours of the film?  While Anderson seems to have a perfect grasp of what he wants, he seems to have lacked the forethought of anything else.  The whole scenario with William H. Macy's 'Quiz Kid' Donnie Smith character, however enjoyable and funny it may be, was rather pointless.  Sure it gave a thought provoking comparison of what might happen to current child prodigy Stanley Spector (Blackman), but otherwise it lacks any real reason for being there.

I'm not going say that the film is overlong -- the three hours plus running time seemed no more than two, if that -- it's just that there was quite a bit of wasted time.  There is a lack of the perfect follow-through to a major character in the final moments of the film; it is almost as if Anderson is no longer interested in the character, so he leaves that person and never mentions them again.  I would have easily forfeited the Stanley Spector versus his demanding father (Bowen) for a proper final moment with one of my favorite characters (for the record, as much as I hate to admit it, Blackman gives a rather inadequate performance in the incredibly demanding Stanley Spector role, so I am a little critical of the character from improper acting).

Where most of the film takes off, the Spector character seems to remain the same.  There is a small moment of justification for him towards the end, but it is so shallow that one could easily wave it off (I actually did not hate the way Anderson handles Spector towards the end, it seems to give the character a nice touch that it seemed to lack earlier).  The whole subplot of Spector and his dad seemed contrived, he just served the bill as the youngest depressed character of the cast.

And what a depressed cast it is.  Of the eleven major characters, Philip Seymour Hoffman's caring nurse Phil Parma is the closest to a heartened character.  There are the sex offenders, the drug addicts, the cancer patients, and those caught in-between, all of whom have taken to discouragement.  I'd say that more tears were shed in the running of this film than I have ever seen before on the silver screen.  The only one who remains tear-free seemed to be Bowen, who spends the entire film with a great sense of uncaring anyway.

The non-stop comparison of this film to Robert Altman's Nashville and Short Cuts seems one-sided.  While all three are intertwined stories within a vast epic-size character drama, Anderson treats his characters with more compassion than Altman did.  When I saw Short Cuts years ago, I was struck at how Altman seemed distant from his characters, while Anderson seems to want you to know these characters as well as you know yourself.  Even the street rapping Dixon (Johnson), whose screen time is limited to five minutes max, is given the proper angles and dimensions, changing in the viewer's mind with each appearance (the rap he does early on boggled my mind, but I actually intend on trying to catch what he is saying in my next viewing of the film).

As the mesmerizing trailer to the film says "There is the story of the boy genius...":  Stanley Spector, a small child lost in the world of a game show that has left him in a mental void; "... and the game show host ...":  Jimmy Gator (Hall), a famous host of the show Spector is on who is currently fighting cancer and his estranged daughter's inability to speak to him; "... and the ex-boy genius ...":  Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (Macy), a previous prodigy featured on Gator's game show who is now fighting the poverty that comes with lost fame;  "... there is the story of the dying man ...":  Earl Partridge (Robards), a man stricken with cancer and left alone with his nurse;  "... his lost son ...":  Frank T.J. Mackey (Cruise), long estranged from Earl and now famous as a male sexuality advisor; "... and the dying man's wife...":  Linda Partridge (Moore), a young wife to Earl who is using his illness for her own pharmaceutical gains;  "... the caretaker ...":  Phil Parma (Hoffman), a nurse who has been sent out by Earl to find Frank; "... and there's the story of a mother ...":  Rose Gator (Dillon), incredibly worried about her cancer stricken husband Jimmy and estranged daughter; "... and the daughter ...":  Claudia Wilson Gator (Walters), long taken away from her famous father and now living a reckless cocaine addled life;  "... and the police officer in love ...":  Officer Jim Kurring, a police officer that has found freedom from his stressful job by falling in love with Claudia. "... And this will all make sense in the end."

And that it does.  Where the film attempts to tie everything up in the ending, it raises one big question:  What in the hell was that "rain" for? Sure it was neat, to say the least, but one can only wonder what possessed Anderson to write that into the script.

While the film is incredibly able technically, the main draw of the film is in its great cast.  Tom Cruise gives one of his best performances in the ritualistic Mackey character, the amount of chauvinism was dripping off him in almost every scene (and when it is missing, he gives an even better performance as the contempt filled pained individual).  While Robards, Reilly, Hall, and Macy give incredible performances in male supporting roles, it is Hoffman that shines above them.  After appearing in such greats as Boogie Nights, Hard Eight (both directed by Paul Thomas Anderson as well), The Big Lebowski, Happiness, Flawless, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and now Magnolia, Hoffman is destined to be remembered as this film period's unsung independent hero.  He is our Robert Mitchum (ok, over-stepping here, but come up with a better example).

As much as I adored Hoffman in it, though, it was a certain supporting actress that made the film as good as it is.  Like Hoffman, Julianne Moore has been in a multitude of films this year -- An Ideal Husband, The End of the Affair, Cookie's Fortune, and A Map of the World -- and has shined in all of them (plus she, like Hoffman, finished off 1998 with a horrible film [Hoffman:  Patch Adams, Moore:  Psycho]).  Here she plays what could be her greatest performance ever, there is more compassion in her explosive anger attacks than all of her earliest work (which includes none other than Robert Altman's Short Cuts).  I could have easily watched a film simply about Linda Partridge; her's was one of the most interesting characters this year.

Notice that nearly everyone is referred to as a supporting actor.  That is because it is such a drawn-out ensemble piece that no one really serves as a star.  The closest thing in my opinion is Walters' Claudia Wilson Gator, it seemed like there was much more time spent with her.

Filled with incredible moments (the beautiful cast performance of the Aimee Mann song "Wise Up"), and, well, not-so-incredible moments (Spector's final plea to the television camera over his anger), Magnolia serves as one of this year's most flawed masterpieces.



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Snow Falling on Cedars

(Dir:  Scott Hicks, Starring Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh, Max von Sydow, James Cromwell, James Rebhorn, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepard, Eric Thal, Zejko Ivanek, Rick Yune, Jan Rubes, and Celia Weston)



Where Scott Hicks fails, he does so gracefully.  After a debut film like Shine in 1996 (#10 in my 1995 top ten list), he would be expected to do something just as touching and beautifully made, but that is not quite what is found in Snow Falling on Cedars.  It is cold, murky, angry, and blunt. But to tell the truth, it works for the film.

Don't get me wrong, I was not on the edge of my seat during the so-called suspenseful courtroom drama, but I was at least interested.  In the realm of courtroom scenes, this film is no better than Red Corner, but for deep character studies, this could at least meet the halfway mark of 12 Angry Men (as bad as that may sound, it is meant as a compliment).

The story of a man attempting to save another man accused of a crime he doubtfully committed has been done a million times, and this film brings nothing new to the same old workings, but there is a more pertinent back-story to this film that makes it more notable.  I was enlightened by the memories of Ishmael (Hawke) and his youthful years with Hatsue (Kudoh), a Japanese emigrant that defies her racist mother.  Theirs is the story of pain and passion, and there seems to be a true lacking of such in films today (as much as I adore it, how much compassion is in American Beauty?). I couldn't have cared less about Hatsue's husband Kazuo (Yune), who is being placed on trial for the death of a local fisherman he had a falling out with; I was much more interested in the other two.

But let's not dismiss the courtroom scenes too much.  While the dialogue and look was distinctively old, there was the great addition of two of the greatest actors in the history of cinema working in the courtroom.  Serving as judge, James Cromwell gives a great, disturbingly stern performance, one of the best of his career (what a long way he has gone since appearing in Blake Edwards' properly titled A Fine Mess).  And when the acting prowess of Cromwell is not enough, there is always the aged, but far from down Max von Sydow.  I happen to consider the Ingmar Bergman favorite as the greatest acting import Sweden ever sent to America.  The whole idea of a film with Max von Sydow can get me into a theatre, even if it was Patch Adams II.

Despite some great performances, Hawke and Kudoh get lost in the jumble; they really do nothing of note.  The story is interesting, though highly convoluted towards the end.  There is one sequence in the film that is worth the ticket price of this film.  There is a vast beach sequence halfway through, and it is perfect thanks to Hicks and cinematographer Robert Richardson.  If not for this sequence, I can promise that I would have given this a nice B-.


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Reviews by:
David Perry