Monday, August 31, 2009

A Separate Peace

Aren't you glad we have men in unform?

They go to battle so we can fight our own little private wars in peace.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Is There Gonna Be Cake?

Organizers of the Thurber Prize for American Humor announced Wednesday the finalists for the prize. 

They are:

Sloane Crosley- for "I Was Told There'd Be Cake"

Ian Frazier- for "Lamentations of the Father"

Don Lee- for "Wrack and Ruin"

Laurie Notaro- for "The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death"

The prize will be awarded in October and it  comes with $5,000. Frazier won in the year the prize was founded (for "Coyote vs. Acme," 1997).

Monday, August 10, 2009

There Will Be Frogs

Magnolia (1999) is a movie about TV people dying of cancer and kid champions in quiz shows, but it is also a movie about adults broken by troubled marriages and adults reeling from childhood memories.

It begins by talking about coincidences: First, a man in Greenberry Hill is murdered by three men named Green, Berry and Hill. Then, a blackjack dealer in a scuba diving suit is found dead hanging on a tree. A few days before his death, he gets into a fistfight with a pilot playing in the casino he is working for. This coincidence pushes the pilot into committing suicide. How he gets involved in the dealer's death, you have to see. 

Another coincidence concerns a teenager trying to take his own life by jumping off their apartment building. He would have lived, but how his parents become responsible for his death- and how he has become their accomplice- has to be seen to be believed.

In the next three hours, we will meet the lonely and the desperate across Paul Thomas Anderson's universe. 

Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) is a smart kid, one of the contestants in the quiz show "What Do Kids Know?" In one episode, he badly needs to go the bathroom, but he is not allowed to. This screws up his game.

Donnie (William H. Macy) was a big winner on the show in the 1960s. Now he is being fired from the department store he is working in. 

The host, Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall), has found out he has cancer. He tries to talk to his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) about it, but she flies into a rage. In one of her cocaine-sniffing days, she gets a visit from police officer Jim (John C. Reilly).

The show's producer, Earl (Jason Robards), is dying of cancer. Because of his terminal illness, his wife Linda (Julianne Moore) is having a hard time putting herself together. He asks his nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to try to get in touch with his long-lost son TJ (Tom Cruise).

Here in Magnolia we have outcasts and infidels, and we are treated to their awakenings.

Stanley is driven too hard by his father, and in Donnie we see a probable future that awaits him. Donnie wants to get braces he does not really need, and he also wants to get the bartender with braces. He has so much love to give, but there is nobody to receive it- just like Jim. Until Jim meets Claudia, anyway.

Claudia may or may not have been a victim of her father's abuse, and the father himself attempts a last shot at redemption. Earl confesses his sins to Phil, and Linda unravels at seeing him on his deathbed. 

The bravest performance here is that of Tom Cruise. His megastardom is more than toyed with: it is thrown out the window. The first time TJ meets Phil, Hoffman holds the door open but Cruise is kept out of our view. Anderson stills his shot, so for minutes we are looking at the character actor and not the superstar.

Cruise has made a career out of playing the same character: the cocky hotshot who gets his comeuppance and emerges a better man (Days of Thunder, Rain Man, Jerry Maguire, The Last Samurai, Minority Report, etc.). This is still a variation of that same character, with a twist: We are forced to re-evaluate his character as we gradually learn what made him the cocky hotshot that he is. Is it a defense mechanism, a smokescreen? 

Cruise plays a wounded kid, and is one of the children in the movie failed by their parents. These children pay for the sins of their fathers, and what sins they are. These people may have thought they have left their transgressions behind, but the specter of the past will still haunt them.

In the end, we are treated to a sing-along and a most improbable rain, but Anderson moves his camera and his music so quick and so well that we are swept along. Improbable, but these things happen.

Like magic, perhaps?

And the narrator happens to be Ricky Jay.