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No. 42: “Magnolia” (1999)

“I’ll tell you everything, and you tell me everything, and maybe we can get through all the piss and shit and lies that kill other people.”
~~Claudia Wilson Gator

Epic in length, ambition and raw acting talent, “Magnolia” is not an easy film to break down. This motion picture defies quick summary, and that’s not because of a convoluted plot or characters with mystifying or unknowable motivations. Stripped of the gut-churning, elegaic soundtrack (including Aimee Mann’s devastating, Oscar-nominated “Save Me”), “Magnolia” is film about the most mundane of things: people interacting with other people. Under Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction, though, something so ordinary becomes extraordinary. Where other directors might see banality, he sees a life-affirming symphony of emotion.

In making “Magnolia,” Anderson had a rare opportunity for creative control. He decided to seize that opportunity — a wise move considering that a motion picture this theatrical about plain people might not have gotten made any other way. Making something like “Magnolia” involves a gigantic leap of faith that places an equally gigantic amount of trust in viewers. Could they see beauty in two lonely ne’er-do-wells (John C. Reilly, Melora Walters) bonding over a terrible cup of coffee? Or be moved to tears by the plight of a loser (William H. Macy) who lives so deep in the past he can’t see what’s ahead of him? It’s a risk few directors would take; that’s not Anderon’s way, however, and thank God for that. Anyone with a touch of patience and a willingness to accept coincidences will find much to love about “Magnolia,” which at its core is a meditation on the emotions we feel every day, many times a day: anger, sadness, pain, hope, lust, love, betrayal, jealousy and so much more. It is one of the best films ever made about the human condition.

One of the elements to love about “Magnolia” — not shocking given Anderson’s ability to assemble winning ensemble casts — is the performances. Anderson does not write any part, down to a dying man’s nurse, as one-dimensional. There are unfathomable depths to every character, and every actor finds those depths. Because “Magnolia” relies on the everyone-is-connected-somehow theme, there are no true main characters and no stories that preside over all others. Dying patriarchs Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), however, do stand at the middle. Earl pleads with his caretaker Phil (Hoffman) to find Frank (Tom Cruise, who hits a career high), the son Earl abandoned years ago. Frank, a manipulative slimeball who’s made a career of selling his womanizing strategies to regular guys, wants nothing to do with Earl. He also wants nothing to do with Earl’s trophy wife Linda (a wrenching Julianne Moore), who sublimates her guilt with any sedative she can find. Jimmy’s life is approaching its expiration date, and he cannot reconcile with his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), a cokehead. An inept, kind-hearted cop named Jim (John C. Reilly, a sweetly floundering Everyman) falls for Claudia when her neighbors file a noise complaint against her. Claudia’s father is on the verge of losing the thing that means most to him in the world: his successful game show “What Do Kids Know?” One of the young stars is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), whose father is pushing the boy right up to the breaking point. Donnie Smith (Macy in top comic-tragic form), former child star of the show, watches Stanley with jealous, knowing eyes. Donnie understands the dangers of peaking so young, and his anguish is plaintive: “I do have love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.”

Macy touches on one of the more important prevailing themes — and a universal human problem — in “Magnolia” with these two sentences of dialogue. These people, all bumbling and stumbling through life, have emotions too big to stuff down. Mann’s aching, weary voice perfectly underscores this plight, and Anderson’s tracking shot in the quiz show sequence builds the tension to uncomfortable levels. Like the characters in “Magnolia,” we pray for sweet release. When release comes, we are not prepared and we do not understand. Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe this, Stanley would say, is something that happens.

Review: “The Rules of Attraction” (2002)

If there exists a Hall of Fame for despicable characters in fiction and film, Sean Bateman deserves a prominent spot in both. Excluding Patrick Bateman (his older brother, no less), Sean may be one of the most disturbing creations to spring from the mind of author Bret Easton Ellis. He’d seem like an easy enough character to play — there’s almost no genuine human emotion to him, no regard for anyone else’s feelings or wellbeing and no interest in anything other than satisfying the rampaging desires of his id. But James Van Der Beek injects elements of iciness and menace, enough so that Sean becomes someone to fear and not simply dislike. Van Der Beek is every inch an unsetting yet seductive emotional vampire.

To a certain degree, the people who populate Sean’s world in Roger Avary’s “Rules of Attraction” aren’t beacons of morality. Only a few, like the sensitive, tortured Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), are remotely likable. This shallowness puts the film in a class by itself, since Avary is more concerned with flash than character development. The director fashions “Rules of Attraction” as a kind of anti-romantic comedy. The element of lives strung together by circumstance, is there, but that’s about it: misunderstandings aren’t smoothed over with a few lines of dialogue and swoony kisses; mistakes aren’t nicely cleaned up by the people who made them; the good don’t prevail while the bad suffer; and there’s sure as hell no happy ending. It’s not that kind of story, and Avary’s inventive shots — the best of which involves the intriguing split screen meeting of Sean and Lauren — create an impenetrable barrier between the actors and the audience. But then the isolated, surface-level world of “Rules of Attraction” is populated with young adults who fit into two categories: hunters and hunted.

The film adaptation is too fragmented to have a clear protagonist and employs some unorthodox methods for telling these students’ stories (fitting, since a straightforward narrative might mean we’d form attachments to a character). He begins the film at the end, forges ahead and rewinds to tell another story, reveal another viewpoint. After a few backtracks this method threatens to fray viewers’ patience; however, the characters’ stories have a train-wreck quality that stands up to the editing. The basic plot revolves around a love triangle emerging between three students: Sean, Camden College’s drug dealer who’s a textbook psychopath; Lauren, the girl Sean decides to be in love with; and Paul (Ian Somerhalder), Lauren’s ex who’s feeling bi-curious and cannot conceal his attraction to Sean. Floating at the outskirts of this story are Lauren’s oversexed roommate (Jessica Biel) and Victor (Kip Pardue), Lauren’s ex back from a tour of Europe and its many obliging vaginas. (One in 20 European women, Kip informs us in a whirlwind monologue, will sleep with a man who asks.) Also in the picture are Rupert (Clifton Collins Jr.), the unpredictable big-time coke dealer Sean owes thousands to, and Mr. Lawson (Eric Stoltz), the faintly creepy professor who enjoys the company of his pupils too often to claim innocence before a jury of his peers. The commonality is unrepentant narcissism; nobody in the bucolic world of Camden College has ambitions beyond scratching what itches, filling what’s empty and emptying what’s full. So when Lauren catches Sean, who’s professed to love her, in flagrante, he’s befuddled by her anger: “Since when does fucking somebody else mean that I’m not faithful to you?” Sean’s not in the habit of considering anyone’s feelings before his own, or thinking about feelings at all. He feeds on them because he has none to call his own.

Avary’s camerawork does much to highlight the vapidness of Sean and his acquaintainces (these aren’t the sort who really have “friends”), with flash edits and the somewhat grating rewind and backward motion techniques keeping our eyes occupied. “The Rules of Attraction” is a spectacle to see, much the same way “Run Lola Run” was. The Sean/Lauren split screen is one instance where Avary’s risk-taking pays off, and the extended is more than an inventive shot. It says that the characters see each other without really seeing. They never know each other, and most don’t want to.

Grade: B-

Review: “Backdraft” (1991)

“Backdraft” is known as a special effects-driven epic with some familial drama written in; nobody could argue Ron Howard’s film doesn’t earn that classification. There’s hardly a scene in the film that doesn’t include some lofty speech, or some feats of derring-do. There’s more to “Backdraft” than stunts, though, and it has to do with romance — not romance between characters (though there are requisite sex scenes) but romance between the firefighters and their prey. Never before has fire been filmed with such reverence and … eroticism. Arson investigator Shadow Rimgale puts a finer point on this, describing fire not as a phenomenon but as a feeling, living being. “The only way to truly kill it is to love it a little,” Shadow explains, almost lovingly. So “Backdraft,” really, is something of a love story.

If fire is the object of desire here, it does not lack suitors, and their stories — written and filmed without particular originality — only serve to complicate the bizzarely fascinating courtship dance of man and flame. Gregory Widen’s script supplies conflict in the form of two warring brothers, Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey (Kurt Russell) and Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin). The scenario is quite familiar: Bull fulfills the expectations everyone has for the son of a heroic firefighter. He has a wife (Rebecca De Mornay) and a son and a company of firefighters — including Axe Adcox (Scott Glenn, superb and heartbreaking), Tim (Jason Gedrick) and Grindle (Cedric Young) — he’d happily die to protect. Being the younger brother, Brian plays the perennial screw-up who bounced from one job to another, one girl to another, until stumbling into his big brother’s shadow once again. (It would be refreshing to see these roles reversed just once, no?) Bull, as his name suggests, is stubborn and brash; he endangers himself and his men by taking big risks, a habit that has threatened his career and his marriage. He’s a hero capable of sweeping dramatic actions who can’t handle day-to-day life. Russell plays him with a touch of sadness, and he hints at something a little darker: Maybe Bull’s reasons for doing the job aren’t as noble as he preaches they are. Maybe, as Rimgale suggests, fire is a femme fatale to get hooked on.

Brian and Bull’s problems serve as one piece of the bigger picture. The script has romantic entanglements — Jennifer Jason Leigh gives an underwhelming performance as Brian’s ex — that feel unnecessary (though De Mornay labors to make her character more than a blip on the screen) and, worse still, bothersome. They clutter up the film’s more intriguing substory: Rimdale’s investigation into a series of puzzling fires. Believed to be the work of a serial arsonist targeting Chicago’s connected politicos like councilman Swayzak (J.T. Walsh, possessed of a pair of squinty, up-to-something-rotten peepers), they are highly unusual because they are backdrafts — fire’s explosive response to the reintroduction of oxygen into flames that had exhaused the O2. If the science behind Howard’s creation of this phenomenon is iffy, his execution is not. The effects flirt with sheer brilliance, as Howard’s lens captures flames that undulate independently and together, like reeds rippled by an afternoon breeze. The camera accomplishes the tremendous feat of giving fire the forceful personality De Niro talks about. The flames are alluring and treacherous, capable of sensing — harshly punishing — those who do not respect them. Hans Zimmer’s score, expectedly boisterous, seems too overpowering for such a delicate, deadly creation.

Few other characters in “Backdraft” seem as nuanced as the flames Chicago’s Engine 17 chases down, though some come close. De Niro and Donald Sutherland (as arsonist Ronald Bartel) brings quiet eroticism to their parts. These are two men entranced by fire, and they are not ashamed to admit their fascination. Russell’s Bull is equal parts selflessness and swaggering bravado, a do-gooder who would prefer to escape into a burning warehouse than face his everyday life. And then we have Glenn*, who does so much with limited screentime it’s a wonder he didn’t nab a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Axe goes through the motions of heroics, talks the talk and walks the walk. His eyes tell a thornier tale.

Grade: B-

*Glenn tops the Pompous Film Snob’s Man Crush list, and after “Backdraft” I can see why.

My thought on today

Review: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2009)

There’s something not right about Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), and it has nothing to do with her appearance. The piercings, the dirty, dilapidated clothing and the tattoos are anti-establishment, but they aren’t revolutionary. It’s Lisbeth’s eyes that say more. They flash hatred and mistrust and wariness. The “I’m a snarling disaffected loner” attitude isn’t fresh off the truck, either. Look beyond all that hostility, though, and her eyes give voice to a jagged rift between the world in her head and the world outside of it. After a few minutes, her expression makes sense. It’s confusion. She doesn’t understand people, and she doesn’t understand why they expect her to behave as they do. She’s a foreigner in a country where she doesn’t know the customs.

Thus, Lisbeth Salander may be the most compelling heroine ever created who might have an autism spectrum disorder. No one in Stieg Larsson’s novel or in Niels Arden Oplev’s film adaptation offers any medical explanation for the 24-year-old orphaned hacker’s odd, antisocial behavior. They tend to think of Lisbeth as disturbed, or emotionally traumatized (if they’re kind), or standoffish, or just plain difficult. It’s easier to write her off in such ways; besides that, she makes no effort to explain her motivations to anyone. She’s content to live in her own head, making her unknowable on a level most protagonists aren’t. Rapace’s no-holds-barred work ensures that Lisbeth is captivating rather than merely abrasive; at times, the actress achieves a level of intensity that is frightening. The rest of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” doesn’t quite measure up — there’s tension, violence, but subtlety’s in short supply — but has enough strong performances and twists to keep us intrigued.

Playing second fiddle to Rapace is Michael Nyqvist, whose journalist Mikael Blomkvist is staring down the barrel of a three-month prison sentence after losing a libel case against an industrialist. Nyqvist’s calm energy offers a nice balance to Rapace’s unchecked fierceness, although he has a touch of the same focus in him that makes his partner such a phenomenal hacker. Before he begins his sentence, Mikael takes another case: Industrialist Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) wants the reporter to investigate the decades-old disappearance of his niece Harriet, who worked as Mikael’s nanny during his childhood. Henrik hints at the skeleton’s in his family’s closet but is more blunt about what he thinks happened to Harriet: a family member murdered the teen-aged girl. The Vanger clan, Henrik, reports, is a nasty lot with secrets the members mean to keep at all costs. In his digging Mikael crosses paths with Lisbeth, hired by Henrik’s lawyer to investigate him. Rather, Lisbeth contacts him almost tauntingly, providing her answer to a clue Mikael can’t figure out. The two forge a ginger, fruitful partnership that succeeds because of their opposite personalities: Mikael understands how to read/manipulate people’s emotions, while Lisbeth does the same with data. The truths they unearth are shocking enough to suggest the Vanger family has more in common with the Manson family than anyone else.

Oplev elects to intermingle these dark revelations with Lisbeth’s struggle to ignore her past (shown in unsubtle flashbacks) and understand what Mikael expects of her. Brutality aside, it’s this struggle that proves to be what hooks us in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” She’s got demons to spare, and her wrath toward men who hate women — the original Swedish title for Larsson’s book — knows no limits. One of the film’s most disturbing scenes is not her unthinkable abuse at the hands of her appointed guardian (a blood-freezing Peter Andersson), but her sadistically creative revenge. Rapace’s blistering scorn and towering rage are beyond disturbing. They’ll haunt you. So will other characters, like Martin Vanger, played masterfully with quiver-worthy menace by Peter Haber. Nyqvist is subdued, almost dull, but that’s a necessity. He’s not a burly action hero but an ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary story. He’s the tether keeping Oplev’s film from becoming a too-obvious celebration of grimness and death. Rapace has a different arc. She’s the embodiment of what John Milton meant when he wrote “I myself am hell.” Only her fury is every bit as sad as it is ruinous. 

Grade: A-

Good. Bad. I’m the woman with two jobs.

I have to interrupt our regularly scheduled movie scribbles to pass on an announcement (everyone stay calm; this is no time to whirl into a “that tornado tore my trailer in half!” panic). As y’all know, this blog is a labor of love for me, a respite from the 9-5 routine. Over the past year I’ve kept up a pretty regular schedule of posting four-five weekdays. That may have to change soon, as I’ve taken on a part-time job in addition to my full-time one. So in the coming months my posting may become more sporadic, and you may start seeing more weekend in posts in lieu of the usual Monday-Friday reviews. But I swear on my boomstick I’ll keep doing the best I can to get posts out there every week. Because it’s what I love to do, and also because Armond White has named our people — that’d be the movie bloggers — anarchists out to ruin the world of formal film criticism.

Hey, I always wanted to be an anarchist. My mom will be so proud.

My thought on today

Scarlett O’Hara — she was a bit of a twerp, wasn’t she?

This is just one of the many scenes that could have been improved if Mammy had thwacked Scarlett over the head with a broom.

As long as I live, those words will remain my favorite description of the dippy heroine — that’s right, I said it! Go on and revoke my Deep South Membershippin’ Card! — of “Gone with the Wind.” They came from the mouth of Mad Hatter, the Movie Mouth of Ontario and podcaster extraordinaire who is not the least bit concerned with not winning the LAMMY for Best Blog. Hatter kindly asked me to appear as a guest on his award-winning Matineecast a Southern little while — which, Southerners will tell you, is anywhere from 10 minutes to 10 weeks — ago. It took a “wedding” and a “road trip” (possibly both imaginary) and a whole mess of e-mailing, but Hatter and I got our acts together and finally recorded the episode. So if you’re just pantin’ to hear us prattle on about “Inception,” rant about one particularly uppity New York Press film critic and explore our mutual distaste for “Gone with the Wind,” visit Hatter’s blog to hear Matineecast Episode 17.

Review: “The Descent” (2005)

“Things that go bump in the night” has to be one of the oldest tricks in the Manual of Horror Movie Scare Tactics. The same goes for ye olde “trap some humans in a dark, leaky enclosed space with some heinous creatures and watch them plummet to the bottom of the food chain” maneuver and the “overconfident shepherd will lead the flock astray” bit — they’re coated in cobwebs. But when all three are done right, complaints about formulas get drowned out by shrieking. And Neil Marshall’s “The Descent” gets these approaches very right.

Set in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and filmed in the U.K., “The Descent” is one whopper of a smashing horror film. If Marshall merely introduced the characters, then put them through seven circles of hell, “The Descent” might qualify as a solid effort. But this director goes a few better, crafting a scarefest that also works splendidly as a psychological thriller, an action film and even a character study. Marshall skips from one genre to the next with ease, flair and a fine attention to detail (the caves’ hostile darkness almost deserves to be included in the cast list). If there is a nagging flaw, it may be the meet-and-greet. These “forced bonding” scenes are so pared-down they barely manage to set the tone, and they distinguish only a few women from the pack. One of the standouts is Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), traumatized by the car crash that killed her husband (Oliver Milburn) and daughter (Molly Kayll) a year before. She has agreed to accompany her best friend Beth (Alex Reid) on a spelunking trip in the Appalachians. They reunite with friends Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza, lean and mean), Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) at Juno’s isolated cabin. Joining the group is Juno’s new adrenaline-loving friend Holly (Nora-Jane Noone). The plan is to navigate some fully explored caves nearby — a way to take Sarah’s mind off the tragedy in her past.

Remember the “flock astray” approach mentioned earlier? This is where it crops up: Juno, bored by the thought of going where thousands have gone before, deviates from the plan she laid out (to anyone who could rescue the group, naturally) and takes them into a series of unexplored caves. Marshall, in the buildup to the certain dangers lurking in the caves’ hidden nooks and crannies, does not rush to flood the screen with blood and viscera. He lets the well-designed set and lighting do the dirty work of ratcheting up the unease with nary a sound, and little blood (initially). Then again, there’s something so elementally frightening about cramped, dank spaces — spaces unseen and untouched by man and inhabited by who-knows-what? — that needs no words. Sarah narrowly avoids a cave-in that traps the women and forces Juno to confess. The discovery of old climbing equipment and cave paintings lead the women to believe there could be an alternate escape route. But “The Descent” wouldn’t be a horror movie worth its blood if the trip out wasn’t twice as treacherous as the journey in. What happens is best left observed and not explained, except to say that Sarah is convinced that while the group may be dreadfully lost in the caves, they are not alone. Before the action-loaded bloodbath begins, it’s Sarah’s mounting uncertainty coupled with all the little missteps and faint noises and bone fragments that bit by bit toy with our minds.

The second act of “The Descent,” while markedly different than the first, is no less effective. Now that he’s unspooled our nerves, Marshall lets rip vicious action sequences galore and swimming pools of blood, bone, tissue and more — enough to satiate hardcore gore enthusiasts and gross out everyone else. “The Descent” keeps the tension and horror quotient high up to the final minutes, when Marshall eases on the throttle perhaps a little too much (one could argue the end mirrors our own wrung-out exhaustion). But images of what’s happened linger unpleasantly, and the quiet lets the plights of Juno — too complex to be a flat-out villain — and Sarah — too complex to be an out-and-out angel — sink deep. That’s when the real damage gets done.

Grade: A-

Nolan elegantly probes world of dreams in “Inception”

The Forger (Tom Hardy) and the Point Man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dream of big guns in "Inception."

“Star Trek” touted space as “the final frontier.” Christopher Nolan’s expansive, brain-bending “Inception” makes a case for human dreams as the true unexplored, untapped realm. There’s an underbelly of reason there. The outer boundaries of dreams — even more than the blackness of space — could be unknowable, or just inconceivable. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief-for-hire who invades the subconscious of his mark and steals information, spends more time in dreams than in reality. He believes he can navigate the human subconscious better than anyone and that he can control his own.

The characters in “Inception” feel much like the people in human dreams — ephemeral and furtive, but with an element of humanity that smudges the line between the conscious mind and the subconscious. There is a core of emotion to them that sets “Inception” far apart from typical heist films (the scenery and the apocalyptic-feeling Hans Zimmer score do the rest). We know little about Dom’s team members, but their interactions provide some real-world touchstones. Though these people could be projections of someone’s subconscious, but that’s beside the point. They instill a level of trust between viewers and the director. Dom’s capable team consists of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the point man who researches Dom’s marks; Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger whose arguments with Arthur supply the film’s funniest moments; Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young architect Dom hires on his father’s (Michael Caine) recommendation; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist skilled at creating sedatives. The job, proposed by business tycoon Saito (Ken Wantanabe), will be the trickiest Dom has attempted: infiltrate the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to his father’s company, and plant the idea to dismantle his inheritence. This, however, is not an in-and-out job. Dom and crew must descend into dreams within dreams and root the idea in catharsis. Yet the deeper Dom goes into Robert’s dreams, the deeper he goes into his own, and Dom’s memories of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) are bursting their prison.

Much like “Memento,” the structure of “Inception” defies linear analysis. The beginning, middle and end are there; they bleed into one another. Besides, the story is dreamlike in the way the beginning is hazy. All the immediacy lies in the middle, which is where viewers find themselves. There are dreams and meta-dreams and even dreams inside those; Nolan fashions these dreams, designed by Ariadne and populated by the mark’s minds, like everlasting gobstoppers. The dream layers seem interminable, and the only way to leave them is through a kick: the feeling of falling, or death, in a dream. There’s only one way to determine reality from a dream, and that’s the presence of a person’s totem, an artifact or self-made object. (Dom’s metal top is integral to the fabric of the story and to his memory of Mal and the part of his subconscious only Ariadne has seen.) The thought of making visible this shifting other plain boggles the mind, but Nolan — with an astronomical budget and shoots in six countries — pulls it off. He’s limited only by his imagination, and his imagination is vast. Mountain fortresses on snowy peaks, cliffs collapsing into the ocean, trains that barrel down city streets, fights in revolving hotel halls — these are sights that demand and deserve marveling. Wally Pfister’s cinematography, when combined with Zimmer’s trumpeting score and Nolan’s gift for confounding, is a sight to see.

More surprising than the images and the stunts, though, are the characters. Written in true Nolan fashion, they are not swallowed up by their majestic surroundings. Page finds curiosity and, better still, empathy in Ariadne, both amazed and horrified by the job she’s accepted. Hardy and Gordon-Levitt are a dream comedy team, lightening the atmosphere with their bickering, while Watanabe is no-holds-barred intensity. We can’t discern how close to the vest Saito is playing, and Watanabe doesn’t want us to. The talents of Caine and Cotillard continue to make impressive what should be minor parts. DiCaprio’s Dom is becoming the actor’s specialty: the man eaten away by pain and guilt he’s convinced he can hide from everyone. He assumes he’s the architect when it’s possible he’s as lost as everyone else.

Grade: A-