Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Short Cuts (1993)

Robert Altman was, if anything, an actor's director. He just clicked with them, and through them he created magic. It seemed like the more actors he had, the more he could express himself. Films like Nashville and The Player thrived on their actors, and how Altman was able to convey his own feeling and ideas through them. In Short Cuts, however, it seemed like Altman was using actors for a higher purpose. He had a story this time around, instead more of a group of mini-stories, about many different people, woven onto the same canvas.

His actors here served more than just a blank slate. It almost felt as if they came prepackaged already in their characters, ready for Altman to just turn his camera on and videotape them. They meet and drift apart, as they all hold the one thing that binds them together within Altman's vision, the city of Los Angeles. Angeles seems to be perhaps the greatest character in this film, although it serves more like an extra, until the end, when it delivers a great performance. Which isn't to say the film is plotless, although the breezy feel makes it almost seem as if this is so. There's dead bodies, car accidents, jazz singers, news reporters, lonely fathers, uninterested husbands and disappointed wives, but there is no one person who can tie it all together, but I have a feeling that's exactly how Altman wanted it.

I cannot quite describe to you what this film feels like. I want to say it feels like Altman, but unless you've seen any of his films (you should), you will have no idea what I mean. This film may be perhaps the perfect example of Altman, indeed it is him at top notch. But that's because he had an amazing cast to back him up, and they all turn in amazing performances. I'll probably spend half of this review talking about them, so here goes nothing.

Andie MacDowall isn't a very good actress, but she has been excellent in two movies. These two are Sex, Lies and Videotape and Short Cuts. Her southern accent is a bit annoying at first, but as soon as her story settles, so does she. We really begin to feel for her and her husband when their son has an accident, and MacDowall is absolutely terrific playing a woman in a constant state of sorrow. Bruce Davison, playing her husband is also similarly excellent, torn between his job and his obligations and his family, accentuated when his estranged father shows up out of the blue.

His father is played by Jack Lemmon. I'm going to be honest, I love Jack Lemmon. He's my favourite actor, so I obviously held some anticipation for him. At the start, I didn't notice anything special, but then, out of the blue, Altman gives him a six minute monologue about how he cheated on his wife. At first, he seems incredibly self confident, but then he basically breaks down in front of our eyes. I was blown away, once again, by Lemmon's acting, and I was incredibly moved by the scene. I was sad to see him go, but there are much more great performances in here to.

Next, we move on to the vignette starring Julianne Moore and Matthew Modine. Modine is quite good in the film, but Moore is the better of the two. She is not afraid to expose us to her character's most basic (female) elements, and then use that very distraction to enhance her character. She also acts very well in it. Intersecting with this storyline is that of the Kane's played by Fred Ward and Anne Archer. There is something about Ward's face that has always intrigued me, and his character is very good, albeit a little odd. Archer is the better of the two and she delivers a great scene with Ward.

Next we have Robert Downey Jr. Lili Taylor, Chris Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh. This is one of my favourite sections, as all the actors inhabit their characters with an element of mystery (well, maybe not Downey Jr.), but Penn in particular has a really shocking end, that serves as the climax to the film, brutal in subject and execution. Leigh, as his phone sex worker wife also gives us a really ugly character, whose flaws become increasingly apparent the more the film goes on.

Moving on, we have Madeline Stowe and Tim Robbins playing bickering husband and wife. Robbins may give the most interesting performance in the film, certainly one of the best. He gives us the definition of a slimy husband, cheating, lying, stealing and then going home and expecting his wife to take it. He is absolutely brutal. Stowe plays another ugly character. She could be call a victim, but she knows exactly what her husband is doing, and she doesn't care. She appears to, on the surface, but it is revealed that she is just as evil as her husband, feeding on his darkness.

Now we have Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits. Waits and Tomlin are some of the least interesting characters, but they inhabit their roles with great zest and love. Both are good actors, but here they can't quite save eh blandness of their characters. Moving on, we find Peter Gallagher and Frances McDormand. They are kind of like the lighter version of Robbins and Stowe, one is obsessed with his divorced wife and the other is obsessed with other men. Their son lands somewhere in the middle, and he is used as a pawn in both of their games. Both are very entertaining, and do a great job in their roles.

Moving on again (I'm almost done), we have Lori Singer and Annie Ross. Ross plays a washed up old singer, and Singer plays her cello playing daughter. One is an extrovert, while the other is an introvert. They both inspire feelings of great pity, especially Ross during her last scene. She refuses to accept that her golden days are over, and rejects the only person who loves her. Their story is particularly sad and dark, one of the darkest of  all. Finally, we have Fred Ward's fishing buddies. Both Buck Henry and Lyle Lovett are good, and the light-hearted murder mystery is a nice contrast to the scenes from later on. Both actors are serviceable, but nothing to write home about.

There we go, I'm done talking about the actors. I'm going to move on now. The score is brilliantly jazzy, and doesn't intrude upon the story much, and serves as a nice supplement to what's going on. The cinematography is nothing special, but it is perfectly good at portraying what is going on. The screenplay is brilliant. I haven't read many of Carver's stories, but I am not sure whether he managed to overlap just the right amount, as in this film. Not all the characters have to connect, but just enough of them do to make this feel woven, and the final natural resolution ties all the stories up just as well as Magnolia, and trust me, if you are getting compared to that film, than you've gotta be good.

As I said earlier, it is really Los Angeles that provides the film that extra level of uniqueness. By the end you feel that this could only have happened in that city, and that no other place on earth could hold together such a mixed group of people. Does this film show everyone in L.A? No, but it feels like a snapshot, distinctly 90s and distinctly Los Angeles. But then again, Altman always had an eye for place. Whether it was the western town from McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or the ballet in The Company, Altman has always sunk into his surroundings and really made them feel as if they were a character to.

Many directors can showcase a city, but few can turn it into a central character. With Altman you feel like his films could have only happened in certain places. This is most definitely one of them. I guess that's as good a segue as I'll get, so on to Altman's direction! This is Altman at his best. You feel as if he is so confident in his abilities that he gives us an epic in the most intimate way possible. His relaxed, fluid direction helped him to create a world that only he could have orchestrated and conducted, and one that comes off as terrific.

Short Cuts may lack certain things, and it's length may be daunting, but for anyone who has any interest in Altman or Los Angeles whatsoever, I recommend you jump right in. And don't look back.

Short Cuts,
Starring: Julianne Moore, Tim Robbins and Andie McDowall,
Directed by Robert Altman,
7.5/10 (B+)

1. 3 Women
2. The Player
3. Nashville
4. Short Cuts
5. Brewster McCloud
6. Gosford Park
7. A Prairie Home Companion
8. The Company
9. Cookie's Fortune
10. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson11. Fool For Love
12. Dr. T and the Women

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