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Mulholland Dr. (2001)
An abstract masterpiece
As far as movies that defy easy explanation (and mere plot description) go, "Mulholland Dr." far exceeds the comparatively paltry offerings of "Memento," "The Usual Suspects," "Fight Club," and even manages to blow everything else Lynch has touched clear out of the water. Lurking with the typical Lynchian elements of 1950's atmosphere and film noir but on the much larger scale that is Hollywood, "Mulholland Dr." moves with the consistency of a dense fog, bleeding into the corners of your psyche and stamping it with startling images akin to a nightmare. Undoubtedly one of the best movies of 2001, this is not essential viewing: it is an essential experience.
We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us...
That line is first uttered by aging game show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) in Paul Thomas Anderson's epic character study `Magnolia.' Hall's character is the first of several to make this loose and indicative religious quote in `Magnolia,' a film so emotionally complex, alarmingly twisting, and arrestingly original that it should be marked as the last truly great film of the 1990's.
Pinning down a two-sentence summary of the plot is almost impossible for a three-hour opus of this magnitude. It is seemingly plot-less and runs on and on, without any real inevitable `goal' associated with most films. It's basically (and I use that term as loosely as possible) an exercise in following a group of people living in the San Fernando Valley and absorbing all the love, loss, regret, and wants that they're experiencing. As mundane as that appears, `Magnolia' is so inventive that it towers to become much, much more than it sounds.
Being a movie with many diverse characters, it includes a very fine-tuned ensemble cast. Among the characters are those trying to give their compassion and help the helpless in a heartless society, like police officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly, in a flawless performance) and caregiver Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman). There are those who are trying to find some basic respect in life, like Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), the 10-year-old prodigy of a kid's quiz show called `What Do Kids Know?' and Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former contestant of the very same quiz show who has gradually become a spineless has-been who's place in life is obsolete.
There are those who are at death's door and fighting to redeem a life full of lies and failure, such as wealthy television producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards, looking quite dead) and Jimmy Gator, the troubled host of the aforementioned quiz show. There are also characters who feel lost in their own pasts, like Claudia Gator (Melora Walters, in a startling breakout), a burnout cocaine addict who is so shattered and trapped in her own history that she instinctively shuns almost anyone who tries to introduce love into her life. There are wives who parallel each other; one, Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore), having a change of heart about her dying husband; the other, Rose Gator (Melinda Dillon), blissfully unaware of her husband's infidelity.
And there is Frank `T.J.' Mackie (Tom Cruise, in the most limitless role of his career). Frank is a sleazebag who teaches seminars to men in hotel ballrooms on how to `seduce and destroy' any woman they want; the amount of initial ambition and pretension in the character is scary.
On top of these main players, there are yet more. These characters do not belong to the story, they are the story. The film opens with a surreal examination of chance, a theme that sets us up for the series of occurrences and collisions that take place between all these people in the day the film takes place.
It would be criminal to go into the film in any more detail, for the turmoil, psychological manipulation, and powerful sequences it holds need to be experienced first-hand. Seemingly owing something to Robert Altman's 1993 L.A. study `Short Cuts,' the elements of divine intervention, dread, desperation and care in `Magnolia' make it a much different and much more affecting work.
Director, writer, and producer Paul Thomas Anderson is emerging as one of the most creative and articulate forces in Hollywood. The 29-year-old one-man-army behind `Boogie Nights' and the overlooked film noir `Hard Eight' pieces together something flawless out of what seems like nothing special. Anderson seems to have a knack for building impressive, cohesive ensemble casts, and this is certainly no exception. He takes bold, unapologetic chances with the writing, chances that pay off. Anderson also develops a very distinct style with `Magnolia;' the pace of the film seems very urgent, like a friend rushing to tell you some grand payoff of a story but patient enough to let all the subtle, creeping details sink in.
A very compelling element of the film is the soundtrack, almost all of which is tackled by the brilliant songwriter Aimee Mann and her sometimes-producer Jon Brion. Mann's sharp music lends a stunning vulnerability to the story, but Anderson is not content at just dropping songs into his film for atmosphere. Mann's songs actually helped Anderson to compose some of the characters in the story, and several songs are used to very poignant and unique effect at key points in the film; just another innovative step `Magnolia' takes towards cinematic perfection.
Other critics may point out that `Magnolia,' clocking in at almost three hours, is too long, too vague, too pointless, or too unorganized to even bother with. Yes, it is long, but it feels like the film would be much less if it had scurried along to complete some evident purpose as fast as it could. It helps that it does not have some set course to travel along either; we can't see where it's going or even why at points, and if we could it would surely be a less interesting journey. Not one scene seems boring or out of place, partly because of the life and blind audacity that the cast leaps into their respective roles with, partly because Anderson throws us into a world we are a little familiar with and a lot more confused and curious with.
Paul Thomas Anderson has said that after the critical success his breakout `Boogie Nights' was, he wanted to just cut loose and make a three-hour epic about whatever he wanted to make a three-hour epic about, develop unrelated characters who unexpectedly relate, and throw a bunch of Aimee Mann songs in it, just because the studio now gave him the power to do so. Somehow, that blunt description evolved into the towering, psychological, profound, brutally bold work of art and reflection of life that is called `Magnolia.'
But I wanted to like it soooo much...
"Nowhere" is one of those movies that strikes me as kind of a paradox: something that I want soooo strongly to like because of its aesthetic merit, but so void of any real substance that I end up sitting there, saying to myself "Ya, OK, and that was because...?" With all his other films, Gregg Araki has not struck me as someone with a dire message to tell. It's been like he's trying to shout some kind of warning at us at the top of his lungs, something he's trying to dress up with lots of drugs and violence and funky color schemes so it looks like art. Sure, polka dots are nice, but in a 90-minute movie we expect something a little more happening. At least with "Splendor" he exerts himself in a different direction, lending his bright noise to a really bizarre love triangle story. But in "Nowhere," re-heated leftovers of Araki's previous two "films," we get a blindingly confusing mesh of a bunch of L.A. teens and all their sex, booze, and drugs. The center of all this seems to be one guy, Dark Smith, who apparently likes his video camera and wants desperately to run away with the bi-sexual, bed-hopping Mel. This is the extent of the emotional depth in this movie. The teens in this movie just kind of bounce around aimlessly, skipping classes, doing nothing, and wearing funky clothes. The climax (or lack there of) is supposed to be at some party, I think, that almost all the characters show up at. So, where's the plot, Gregg? We get lizards with lazer guns, some cute cameos from the likes of Beverly D'Angelo and John Ritter, and even Traci Lords, Shannen Doherty, and Rose McGowan as some braindead valley girls. Nice. Props to the Araki-meister for injecting a garbage bag full of style into this thing, with lots of bright colors and artsy camera angles. But out side of that, what are we looking at here? A metaphor for the decline of the morals of the youth? A comment on the effects of drugs and suicide? Raving lunacy? Probably that last one. I wanna say I have a very high tolerance for movies with no point (i.e. the amazing "Magnolia"), but this is just stupid. "Nowhere" has a great soundtrack and some cool art direction, but as a teen myself, I'm more than a little repulsed and a lot bored with this waste of talent (hello Mena Suvari!) and un-inspired, un-imaginative writing. Sorry Gregg. I tried.
1/2* out of ****
The Interview (1998)
An incredible gem of a thriller
This film took me by total surprise. A taught Australian thriller in the same vein as The Usual Suspects, it unravels the mystery of exactly why a man was forcefully removed from his apartment by police at 5am and thrown into a dank interrogation room. Full of sharp turns as we try to discover what exactly the two opposing sides of the "victim" and the police are getting after. I think it's shocking I've heard nothing of this film; although its premise to the un-enlightened is dull, it's one of the most memorable films I can recall seeing in some time. Dynamite performance from Hugo Weaving, now notorious for his deadpanning in The Matrix. Rent this flick.
Kitchen Party (1997)
Take that, "Can't Hardly Wait!"
Probably one of the more subtle, original, realistic but no less funny flick about what happens when ultra-tight-ass parents go out to a dinner party and leave the son at home. As the title denotes, this film does involve a kitchen party, and the young actors in the film play it out with such deadpan realism that it could pass for a documentary. Accurate, timely and biting. A fine example of how to make a movie about teens alone in a house.
Dinner at Fred's (1997)
Slightly charming but forgettable
"Dinner at Fred's" is not necessarily a bad film. Someone must have been nervous about it in some respect, though, because the first time I saw it was at a film festival in September 1997. I heard more of it in the spring of 1999, when plans to release it were falling into place. Strange. Anyways, it was made before Gil Bellows of apparent "Ally McBeal" fame was famous, and it includes a charming performance from former indie-queen Parker Posey and flat-out weirdness from most of the rest of the cast. The thing is, it comes across as if this film is almost trying to be too oddball, and it seriously chokes the "unlikely" romantic sub-plot developing between the characters of Bellows and Posey. Most of the plot reminded me of similarly themed fish-out-of-water romances including snow, such as "Trapped in Paradise" and the like. The writing is not incredibly inspired either, but the actors do well with what they have in this predictable but mildly cute romantic comedy. See it if you're bored, and don't expect to remember much of it a day later.
Last Night (1998)
Forget the "Impact" and "Armageddon;" "Last Night" is one of 98's best.
Don McKellar's "Last Night" is a cinematic tour-de-force that can end the world without saying a word; it's a welcome contrast to the disgustingly effects-laden disaster flicks of the summer. "Last Night" deals with the end of civilization in a much more subtle, powerful manner, combining stellar performances from a series of diverse characters with incredible writing and first-time directing from McKellar. This breathtaking, surprising, emotional and oddly funny film is one of the real discoveries of 1998, and truly one of the year's best.