Magnolia (1999)

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What am I doing? I’m quietly judging you.  In the San Fernando Valley, a dying father, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), his guilty young wife Linda (Julianne Moore), his male nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his famous estranged son the sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), Jim, a police officer (John C. Reilly) in love, Stanley Spector (Neil Flynn) a boy genius on TV’s What Do Kids Know? who’s bullied by his thug father (Michael Bowen), an ex-boy genius Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) whose parents robbed his winnings in 1968, the dying game show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) and his estranged cokehead daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), each becomes part of a dazzling multiplicity of plots, but one story, over the course of one day when it’s raining cats and dogs… Respect the cock! Paul Thomas Anderson was inspired to create this mosaic of intersecting lives by the songs of Aimee Mann and they dominate the audio to the point (occasionally) of overwhelming the dialogue. It commences with a documentary prologue of chance and coincidence, a kind of Ripley’s about life and gosh-darns that hints at an epic concluding event (and boy does it deliver). At its core this is an analysis of the father-son relationship and the trade-offs that are made throughout life until finally … you just gotta let it go. There is a raft of immense performances in a story which has an epic quality but thrives on the specificity of character in a plot revolving around child abuse in various iterations. We may be through with the past, but the past is never through with us.  The double helix structure finds natural convergence at the point where the protagonists each sings a line from one of Mann’s songs, It’s Not Going to Stop (Until You Wise Up):  this astonishing directing flourish starts with Claudia which is logical because here is a narrative about being generous to damaged people and as we find out, she’s the most damaged of all. Hence her gargantuan cocaine consumption. It’s about what fathers do to their children and sometimes their spouses too. And how mothers can raise children back up, even from their own terrible depths. In the aftermath of Burt Reynolds’ death it’s appropriate to consider that the role for Robards was conceived for Reynolds:  his troubled relationship with Anderson and his dislike of the content of Boogie Nights (for which he received the Golden Globe) led him to decline the part. Which is ironic because he had joked that he would wind up playing Tom Cruise’s father one day (and Cruise is absolutely tremendous here as the fraudulent motivational leader, a lying Tony Robbins for sexist brutes). Anderson saw in Reynolds a kind of darkness and humanity to add to his array of multiply-talented actors – most of the people here were the repertory from Boogie Nights and it’s such a conscious re-assembling of types it still surprises. It’s a shame because when one looks at the totality of Reynolds’ career it’s clear that his loyalty to friends led him to make oddly destructive choices:  while Redford had Pollack and De Niro had Scorsese, Reynolds had … Hal Needham, the stuntman living in his pool house for 11 years. If he had spent those few necessary days on this set and well away from Thomas Jane, who knows what way his career might have swerved in the Noughties?! Goodness knows what made him turn down Taxi Driver, a film that has sway here. Perhaps Anderson is paying tribute to Reynolds by giving Claudia the debilitating condition that he got on City Heat when a stunt went wrong – the excruciating jaw injury TMJ that crippled him for over a decade. This may have started as a series of overlapping urban legends, an operatic disquisition on the damage that men do; it concludes with some tweaked endings and a Biblical purging of shame. How apt that it should be Claudia to break the fourth wall. With a smile. But it did happen

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The Straight Story (1999)

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You don’t think about getting old when you’re young… you shouldn’t.  Retired farmer and widower in his 70s, WW2 veteran Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) learns one day that his distant brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke and may not recover. Alvin is determined to make things right with Lyle while he still can, but his brother lives in Wisconsin, while Alvin is stuck in Iowa with no car and no driver’s license because of his frailties. His intellectually disabled daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) freaks out at the prospect of him taking off. Then he hits on the idea of making the trip on his old lawnmower, so beginning a picturesque and at times deeply spiritual odyssey across two states at a stately pace…  I can’t imagine anything good about being blind and lame at the same time but, still at my age I’ve seen about all that life has to dish out. I know to separate the wheat from the chaff, and let the small stuff fall away Written by director David Lynch’s collaborator and editor Mary Sweeney and John E. Roach, this is perhaps the most ironically straightforward entry in that filmmaker’s output.  He called it his most experimental movie and shot it chronologically along the route that the real Alvin took in 1994 (he died two years later). This is humane and simple, beautifully realised (DoP’d by Freddie Francis) with superb performances and a sympathetic score by Angelo Badalamenti. A lyrical tone poem to the American Midwest, the marvellous Farnsworth had terminal cancer during production and committed suicide the following year. His and Stanton’s scene is just swell, slow cinema at its apex.  The worst part of being old is rememberin’ when you was young

Boogie Nights (1997)

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We’re going to make film history right here on videotape. In LA’s San Fernando Valley in 1977, teenage busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) gets discovered by porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who’s on the lookout for new talent.  He transforms him into adult-film sensation Dirk Diggler. Brought into a supportive circle of friends, including fellow actors Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Dirk fulfills all his ambitions, but a toxic combination of drugs and egotism threatens to take him back down to earth.  As 1979 rolls into 1980 the business is changing and Horner is under pressure to switch to video despite his ambitions to be an auteur and he has to make a tough decision when financier The Colonel James (Robert Ridgely, who died shortly after production and to whom the film is dedicated) is caught with an underage girl who’s OD’d …  Diggler delivers a performance worth a thousand hard-ons. Bravura filmmaking from Paul Thomas Anderson which takes lurid content and spins it into a surprisingly sweet morality tale about the lowlifes behind pornos. The leading men are a study in contrasts:  Horner is a clever but kind director who doesn’t flinch from hardcore; while Diggler is the dumb box of rocks who has an enormous penis that dazzles. The running joke about Little Bill (William H. Macy) and his insatiable wife has an unbelievable climax; the revenge Rollergirl takes on a boy from high school is horrifying; and the wrap up sequence of redemption and closure for this makeshift family is fine drama. The final reveal is the money shot that we’ve all been waiting for. Reynolds won the Golden Globe and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Clever, amusing and humane, this is one of the best films of the Nineties.

Any Given Sunday (1999)

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You will not take this from me baby!  The Miami Sharks, a once-great American football team are struggling to make the 2001 Associated Football Franchises of America (AFFA) playoffs.  They are coached by thirty-year veteran Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino), who has fallen out of favour with young team owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) who inherited the team from her father, and offensive coordinator and D’Amato’s expected successor Nick Crozier (Aaron Eckhart). In the thirteenth game of the season, both starting quarterback and team captain Jack “Cap” Rooney (Dennis Quaid) and second-string quarterback Tyler Cherubini (Pat O’Hara) are injured and forced to leave the field. The desperate Sharks call on ambitious third-string quarterback Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) to replace them. A nervous Beamen makes a number of errors and fails to win the game for the Sharks, but he plays well and gains confidence. Rooney vows to make it back by the playoffs, with D’Amato promising to not give up on him….  Holy mackerel now that’s what I call football!  Adapted from the book On Any Given Sunday by NFL defensive  end Pat Toomay, this gets a typically robust treatment by writer/director Oliver Stone, who appears in the small role of TV commentator, giving a running narrative on the moves. There are lots of other big names including Jim Brown (what a second act!). If Pacino is a highly unlikely coach, he gets his boo ya moment with more than one big speech which is such a part of his repertoire (since Dog Day Afternoon and latterly in Scent of a Woman) but this was a role that should have been Burt Reynolds’ (Florida! Football!).  Pacino gets his Pacino moments, loud and soft, and a halfhearted romance with a prostitute (Elizabeth Berkeley) who wants to talk football post-coitally with this man who’s given up wife and family for the game, but she deflects his relationship overtures and always charges. However it’s a great ensemble:  Diaz is fine as the young woman trying to make her mark in a sport where her father’s rule was firmly based on friendship but times have changed; her mother’s (Ann-Margret) a lush; Christina wants the Sharks leading again, even if that means giving up Cappy, who gets another chance to be the hero leading the team – down on his luck after a horrible accident in the first sequence. With Willie breaking the rules to get ahead and butting heads with Tony, Dr Mandrake concealing the extent of Cherubini’s head injury, Cappy battling his wife (Lauren Holly) who wants him to keep playing, and Christina planning on offloading the team, this conforms to the playbook of most sports movies with all the storylines converging in Tony and how he responds to the pressures exerted in every direction. The medical subplot with internist Ollie Powers (Matthew Modine) discovering that unscrupulous team physician Dr Mandrake (James Woods, reuniting with Stone long after Salvador) is concealing the extent of Cherubini’s head injury and with Christina’s collusion raises the issue of concussion in sport and its long-term outcomes.  Either we heal now as a team or we will die as individuals.  That’s football. That’s all it is.  Beneath all the gut-busting aggression, the injuries, the quarrels, the deceptions, the betrayals and the on-field activities, this long loud movie has a great structure, with wonderful exchanges exhibiting the different philosophies. Willie goes against the playbook to achieve victory;  Tony is loyal to Cappy who knows he’s had it but plays along;  Christina is in it for money, having forgotten the roots of the team and she has a sharp learning curve that she cannot anticipate.  All the plot threads unite in those final seconds in the brutal race against time on the countdown clock. How apposite that the film within a film when Tony is serving Willie home-cooked dinner should be Ben-Hur:  the following year John Logan would write Gladiator.  The editing and sound mixing is second to none:  the gloss and wham bam and contrasting musical choices (Tony’s cool jazz vs Willie’s rap) eventually give way to something unified, as the theme of team building suggests. If this doesn’t entirely play fair – that twist ending unwinds over the lengthy credits sequence – the gamesmanship does leave a certain satisfaction and don’t say you weren’t warned by the dialogue which plants the ultimate payoff:  When a man looks back on his life he should be proud of all of it

 

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

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If you kept it simpler and danced from the heart … Australian ballroom dancer Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) wants to do his own thing and make up steps on the dancefloor, much to the disdain of his traditional colleagues. He is denounced by Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) who runs Dancesport, the competitive ballroom scene.  Scott’s partner Liz (Gia Carides) abandons him for Ken (John Hannan) whose partner Pam Short (Kerrry Shrimpton) has broken both her legs. So when a plain, left-footed local girl Fran (Tara Morice) approaches him he has little option but to take up the offer. Her Spanish father teaches them to dance the Paso Doble and her grandmother tells Scott he must learn to dance with his heart. Together, the team gives it their all but they only have three weeks to get ready for the Pan-Pacific competition and Barry Fife tells Scott that dancing their own way cost Scott’s parents while Liz wants him back … You stick with your roles until eventually they bring their own rewards. The first of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain trilogy, this is a low budget adaptation of a theatre improvisation and play which brought him to the world stage in a fairytale manner, much as our heroes take the competition. The faux-documentary style with direct address to camera gives way to more straightforward musical drama which however never rises much beyond the level of caricature in over the top characterisations, plenty of intimidating close ups of faces (the dancing feet, a little less) and restricted locations. However the sheer zip and zest of the performances, the funny Australian stereotyping and the heartfelt Cinderella story combined with the ugly duckling becoming a swan and falling for the daring prince who realises his pathetic dad (Barry Otto) is actually quite a chap, makes it all sequins and spangles and fun and wins you over in the end. There’s a wonderful soundtrack. Along with Muriel’s Wedding and Dead Calm, this film put Australia on the global movie map once again.

Great Expectations (1998)

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Why had she told me?  She told me to wound me. Orphan Finn (Jeremy James Kissner) is being raised by his older sister Maggie (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend Joe (Chris Cooper) a fisherman on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Finn fatefully makes the acquaintance of an escaped con, mobster Arthur Lustig (Robert De Niro) whom he tries to help get away from the police but the man is caught. He helps crazy old Nora Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft) and her beautiful niece Estella (Raquel Beaudene) by doing the gardening around their old mansion. Finn shows the old woman his art and she has him do a portrait of Estella.  When they are teenagers Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow) reveals in a passionate encounter that she knows Finn (Ethan Hawke) is in love with her, then disappears to study in Europe. In the ’80s a mysterious lawyer Jerry Ragno (Josh Mostel) turns up and offers to finance a show of Finn’s work in New York where he pursues his career in art, leaving the fishing business where he’s been working with Joe for years. He once again encounters his beloved Estella, now engaged to rich, snobby Walter (Hank Azaria)…  I’m not going to tell the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.  Director Alfonso Cuarón glories in the ironic world envisioned by Dickens now transposed to a very different, much lusher and contemporary locale by screenwriter Mitch Glazer. With the incredible production design and setting on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Paradiso Perduto the overgrown and crumbling tropical mansion decaying around Miss Havisham’s newest iteration, her every appearance serenaded by Bésame Mucho, the scene is set for a very modern retelling of a tragic romance. With Pip as Finn the lovelorn child and artist, surrounded by the wonders of Nature, the opportunity to relate the love story through pictures gives it a different level of expressionism.  Paltrow is the epitome of the cool Nineties blonde – think Carolyn Bessette, as she may have done, and her impossible persona of Estella and the snobby world of tastemakers she inhabits makes sense. Bancroft is perfectly lurid as the sad and wicked old dame to whose wise words Finn is deaf – his love for Estella is simply too overwhelming as her revenge plot against treacherous men unfolds. The contrast between the wonderfully blue seas and overgrowing gardens familiar to us from a few great private eye novels (and even Grey Gardens) with New York’s glittery art scene couldn’t be more pronounced and Uncle Joe’s arrival at Finn’s opening night is horribly embarrassing and sad. The shocking return of Magwitch/Lustig is perfectly achieved and we see Finn finally grow up in this tragically transforming tale from innocence to experience. A bewitching, stylish interpretation with stunning photography and lighting by Emanuel Lubezki and art by Francesco Clemente. The voiceover from Finn’s older and wiser perspective was written by David Mamet. What is it like not to feel anything?

Broken Arrow (1996)

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Would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapon? US Air Force pilots Vic Deakins (John Travolta) and Riley Hale (Christian Slater) are sent on an overnight top-secret mission with two nuclear weapons aboard their aircraft. But, after they are in the air, Deakins changes the plan. He attempts to kill Hale and then steals the weapons with the intent of selling them to terrorists led by financier Pritchett (Bob Gunton). However, Hale survives the crash and meets up with park ranger Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis) who initially misreads the situation and tries to arrest him. Together they try to thwart Deakins’ plan as Government man Giles Prentice (Frank Whaley) and Colonel Max Wilkins (Delroy Lindo) try to uncover what is going on in the desert – while a murderously ruthless chase ensues… John Woo’s second American film tones down his trademark stylistic elements but it has non-stop action, great effects, some terrific explosions and would have been improved by introducing some complexity into the screenplay, by Graham Yost, which mostly sets up sequence after sequence of shoot-em-ups, blow-em-ups and kill-em-ups in beautiful desert locations shot by Peter Levy, finishing with a face off between these terribly charismatic co-stars in a symphony of action that takes place on trains, boats, planes, helicopters and Hummers. It all culminates in a fiery conflagration and Travolta literally burns up the screen.  There’s no difference between you and a guy who shoots up a schoolyard.  You’ve both got a head full of bad wiring

One Fine Day (1996)

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Let’s do this right. Let me freshen up so I’ll feel a little more like a woman and less like a dead mommy.  Melanie Parker (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a divorced mom and architect who needs to give a very important presentation. Jack Taylor (George Clooney) is a divorced father and newspaper columnist looking to land a big scoop for his story about the mob. Both are single parents whose children, Sammy (Alex D. Linz) and Maggie (Mae Whitman), respectively, miss the bus for a field trip. They wind up left with their kids on  a hectic day. They decide to put aside their bickering and juggle baby-sitting duties, but the children don’t make it easy as they dislike each other and disappear while their parents’ identical mobile phones complicate the situation … This somewhat tiresome romcom spin on screwballs past is saved by two wonderful performances – Pfeiffer in particular makes this fun instead of the rather formulaic single-parent family downer comedy it is at is heart. The kids are good characters but the situations from Terrel Seltzer and Ellen Simon’s screenplay are pat and predictable although NYC gets a great showcase. Pfeiffer produced this so it was a conscious beefing up of her brand.  Clooney is quite impressive as the love interest but it was before he refined his look and skill and he doesn’t make the kind of impact you’d expect although they pair have undoubted chemistry. There are some bright spitballing exchanges: Men like you have made me the woman I am/All the women I know like you have made me think all women are like you. They’re delivered with relish and enliven a less than classic romcom. Directed by Michael Hoffman.

Mermaids (1990)

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Weird things happen. It’s 1963. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte Flax (Winona Ryder) is tired of her wacky mom (Cher) moving their family any time she feels it is necessary. When they move to a small Massachusetts town Mrs. Flax begins dating kindly shopkeeper Lou (Bob Hoskins) whose wife has run away. Charlotte and her 9-year-old swimming enthusiast sister, Kate (Christina Ricci), hope that they can finally settle down. But when Charlotte’s attraction to an older man Joe (Michael Schoeffling) the convent’s caretaker gets in the way, the family must learn to accept each other for who they truly are just as the President is assassinated and the nation mourns…  June Roberts’ adaptation of Patty Dann’s book is adept and appropriate, giving Winona Ryder one of her best roles and she plays it beautifully. Funny, warm and engaging, this works on so many levels but it doesn’t dodge the effect of maternal neglect – which is also a case of overpowering personality:  Charlotte’s fantasy fugue to New Haven is a sharp reminder that mother-daughter relationships are a minefield and when the daughter starts imitating the mother’s promiscuous behaviour (in between attempts to live like a Catholic saint) Mom doesn’t like it and there’s collateral damage. The girls are not products of marriages – just a teen romance and a one-night stand with an Olympic athlete (maybe) and when things get tough, Mom always gets going.  It’s Charlotte who wants to settle down. There’s a wonderful running joke about Mom’s inability to prepare any food other than hors d’oeuvres or sandwiches served with star-shaped cookie cutters. With great dialogue, lovely scene-setting and on the button performances (Cher giving one of her best), there’s nothing in this well-judged comedy drama you can’t like even though it unexpectedly swerves directions, more than once.  The characters are still sympathetic despite being curiously narcissistic:  that’s good writing. Cher tops it off with The Shoop Shoop Song! Directed by Richard Benjamin.

Awakenings (1990)

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I’m not very good with people.  It’s 1969.  Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) is a research neurologist who finds himself working with people for the first time at a public hospital in the Bronx, NYC. He is confronted with older catatonic patients who he discovers lost their capacity for communication following the encephalitis lethargica epidemic of 1917-1928. Once he realises there is more to them than just reflex actions he sets up righting decades of ignorance and experiments with doses of L-Dopa intended for Parkinsonian symptoms, starting with Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) whose immediate response is remarkable and triggers Sayer’s campaign to have it given to the others. He is supported by Nurse Eleanor Costello (Julie Kavner) and he helps Leonard’s mother (Ruth Nelson) come to terms with her son’s maturity – she thinks he is still the little boy she once knew. Leonard wants to socialise and develops a relationship with Paula (Penelope Ann Miller) the daughter of another patient but when it comes time to argue for more personal freedom Leonard starts to manifest facial tics and the dosages have to be revised as the realisation that his patient’s awakening may be temporary dawns on Sayer …  The late Oliver Sacks’ books were a thing in the Eighties – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was a very cool set of case studies and the stories in Awakenings gave Harold Pinter the inspiration for A Kind of Alaska.  This raises issues about what being alive really means and who knows best and what’s in the patient’s interest. It however strays into Rain Man territory and one is given pause for thought by De Niro’s early (and later) gurning catatonic impersonation when Tropic Thunder‘s warnings about ‘going full retard’ come to mind. This falls into the slush trap one too many times yet paradoxically it’s meticulously constructed as the real awakening is that of Sayer – to pain, feeling, response, caring.  Written by Steven Zaillian and directed by Penny Marshall who has a way with the performers but the treacly score doesn’t help. It’s nice to see John Heard and the wonderful Julie Kavner in significant supporting roles. There is probably a big ironic meta-cinematic text here considering drug buddies Williams and De Niro were the last people to see John Belushi alive and they communicate with each other here via a Ouija Board but I’m sure I don’t know what that is. The drugs don’t work? Perhaps. Read Sacks’ books instead, they’re amazing.