Tag: William H. Macy

Magnolia (1999)

Family dramas come together in Paul Thomas Anderson’s beloved Magnolia

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Jeremy Blackman (Stanley Spector), Tom Cruise (Frank TJ Mackey), Melinda Dillon (Rose Gator), April Grace (Gwenovier), Luiz Guzman (Luiz), Philip Baker Hall (Jimmy Gator), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Phil Parma), Ricky Jay (Burt Ramsey), William H Macy (“Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith), Alfred Molina (Solomon Solomon), Julianne Moore (Linda Partridge), Michael Murphy (Alan Kligman), John C. Reilly (Officer Jim Kurring), Jason Robards (Earl Patridge), Melora Walters (Claudia Wilson Gator), Felicity Huffman (Cynthia), Eileen Ryan (Mary), Michael Bowen (Rick Spector)

After the success of Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson landed a terrific deal: he could make what he wanted, about anything at all, at any length he liked. “I was in a position I will never ever be in again” is how Anderson remembers it. And thus was born Magnolia, a beautifully assembled labour of love, an imaginative remix of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts with biblical imagery. A sprawling collection of short stories, which leans into high tragedy and melodrama, Anderson’s Magnolia is the sort of film that is always going to find a special place on a film buff’s list of favourite films.

The film follows the lives of several people over a single day in LA. Legendary host of long running quiz show What Do Kids Know? Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is dying of cancer and desperate to reconcile with his traumatised daughter Claudia (Melora Walters). Claudia is tentatively starting a relationship with devout and kindly police officer Jim Kurring (John C Reilly). Former champion of Gator’s show, “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith’s (William H Macy) life is a disaster after his parents stole his winnings, and he’s struggling to hold down even the most basic of jobs. Former producer of the show Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is also dying  of cancer, cared for by his dedicated nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Earl’s wife Linda (Julianne Moore) is wracked with guilt, while Earl himself is desperate to reconcile with his estranged son Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), now a self-help guru who coaches men on how to pick up women. 

If you can’t see the links between the works of Robert Altman here, then you clearly need to look again. But it’s well worth it, as Anderson is a worthy successor to the master. He directs with a fluid confidence that comes from a director making a picture to please himself. Magnolia is frequently self-indulgent in its style and quirks, but it doesn’t matter when the effect of watching the film is so rewarding. From long takes to having the characters (all of them in different locations) sing along with Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” at a key moment in the film, there are flourishes here that will annoy some but will be precisely what others fall in love with the film for.

And that love is deserved as this is a thoughtful and intelligent film about the impact the past (and specifically our parents) can have on us. As the man said, “they fuck you up, your Mum and Dad”. Certainly the case here. From “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith to Claudia Gator, the film is crammed at every level with children (young and old) who have had their lives negatively affected by their upbringings. The past is a heavy burden, and it’s near impossible to shake-off – and in the cases of Donnie and Claudia brings with it a heavy dose of self-loathing. 

But what’s striking is that problems with the past don’t result in the same outcomes for people. Who would have thought that seemingly misogynistic motivational speaker Mackey’s beef with his dad is that Earl walked out on him and his dying mother when Mackey was a teenager? Part of the fascinating psychology of the film is how a son who loved and cared for his mother grew up to encourage men to treat women just as his father treated his mother. Is this some sort of perverse way to feel closer to the father who abandoned him? Perhaps Mackey has defined his life around hatred for his father, along with a deep longing for love – and perhaps his inability to deal with these feelings led to a professional career espousing the exact opposite? One of the neat things about Anderson’s film is that it largely avoids pat answers to this sort of thing. It’s left up to us to decide for ourselves – and perhaps reflect on how every person is an unanswerable riddle.

Whatever the answers are, it’s clear that parental problems are being paid-forward. The new Quiz Kid champion Stanley Spencer is a precocious child genius, being treated as an ATM by his father, who brags about his son while passive-aggressively demanding Stanley keep winning to continue funding his failing acting career. Stanley is a desperately unhappy child, more than smart enough to realise he is a performing monkey but unable to escape. And how can you get out of knots like that? After all, the film shows us one possible future for Stanley with Donnie – but walks a deft tightrope on whether the same life of loneliness and disappointment is inevitable for Stanley or not.

These familial clashes are introduced in the first hour and then simmer with exquisite timing during the film’s second hour. Anderson’s brilliant decision to build the film around a live recording of Gator’s quiz show means we are constantly reminded (as the show plays in the background throughout other scenes) that everything we are seeing is happening at the same time. The second hour of the film is a superbly deft cross-cutting from storyline to storyline, each building in tension. The desperation and entrapment in each scene beautifully spark off and contrast with each other. The sequence is at times marginally undermined by a slightly oppressive music score, but it’s beautifully assembled and shot and carries a real power – a superb balancing act of almost real time action that plays out for a nearly the whole of the second act. 

And Anderson knows skilfully to balance the gloom with real sparks of humanity and decency. Two characters in the film – Reilly’s cop and Hoffman’s nurse – are decent, kind and generous souls who have an overwhelmingly positive impact on every character they encounter. Both characters – and both actors are superb in these roles – are quiet, low-key but humane people who offer a quiet absolution to a host of characters, and opportunities to move on from the burdens of the past. Hoffman’s Phil is a genuinely kind person, who puts others before himself while Reilly’s Jim (surely the best performance of the actor’s career) is such a sweet, well-meaning, honest guy, that you understand why so many people feel bound to unburden themselves to him.

There is a lot to unburden in this film, and some of these moments tip over into melodrama at points. There are tear stained deathbed confessions, and angry, tearful moments of resentment and guilt bursting to the surface. At times, Magnolia is a little in love with these big moments, and indulges them too much, but it offers so many moments of quiet pain that you forgive it.

Not that the film is perfect. Today, even Anderson says it’s too long – and it really is. Unlike Altman, Anderson is less deft at pulling together all the threads in an overlapping story. This is effectively a series of short films intercut into one – the plot lines don’t overlap nearly as much as you might expect, with only Jim moving clearly from one plotline to another. It’s also a film that is driven largely by men. Of the few female characters, all are defined by their relationship to a man (and an older dying man at that), and not one of the female characters isn’t some form of victim. 

Anderson’s failure to really wrap the stories together means you can imagine unpicking the threads and reducing the runtime. Julianne Moore’s role as Earl’s guilty, unfaithful trophy wife (is she unaware of Earl’s own past of infidelity?) could have been easily shed from the film. Moore, much as I like her, gives a rather hysterical, mannered performance that feels out of touch with some of the more naturalistic work happening elsewhere in the film. The most melodramatic of the plots (every scene features Moore shouting, weeping, shrieking or all three), it also ends with the most contrived pat “hopeful ending”. It’s a weaker story that lags whenever it appears on screen.

Magnolia starts with a discussion of coincidence, but it’s not really about that – and the coincidence of all these people seems largely in the film to be reduced to the fact that they are all living in the same city with similar problems. It’s a slightly odd note to hit, as if Anderson slightly shifted the focus away from lives moving into and out of each other, in favour of a series of more self-contained linear stories. (That opening montage discussion of three (fictional) moments of fate and chance, while beautifully done, could also easily be trimmed from the film).

But then, these tweaks wouldn’t change the fact that Magnolia is a superbly made film, or that Anderson is a great filmmaker, even if he doesn’t quite manage to create the sprawling, interweaving, state of the nation piece he’s aiming for here. But as a collection of beautifully done short stories, it’s great. And the acting is superb. Tom Cruise drew most of the plaudits for an electric performance of egotism and triumphalism hiding pain and vulnerability near the surface, Anderson using Cruise’s physicality and intelligence as a performer better than perhaps any other director. Among the rest of the cast, Hall is superb as the guilt ridden Gator, Macy very moving as the desperate Donnie and Melora Walters heartrending as the film’s emotional centre, who ends the film breaking the fourth wall with a tender smile, that is perhaps one of the most beautiful final shots of modern cinema.

All this and it rains frogs at the end as well. But that introduction of biblical bizarreness is both strangely profound and fitting for Anderson’s stirring and inspiring film.

Fargo (1996)

Frances McDormand investigates one of many pointless slaughters, in the Coen’s bleak but fantastic Fargo

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Cast: Frances McDormand (Marge Gunderson), William H. Macy (Jerry Lundegaard), Steve Buscemi (Carl Showalter), Peter Stormare (Gaear Grimsrud), Harve Presnell (Wade Gustafson), John Carroll Lynch (Norm Gunderson), Steve Reevis (Shep Proudfoot), Kristin Rudrüd (Jean Lundegaard)

Sometimes you see a film and, for whatever reason, you expected something totally different. It can throw you when something is so different from your expectations. With Fargo I had been led to expect a comedy. A comedy with dark undertones, but a comedy never the less. Fargo is in fact such a blackly, violently, grim piece of work – with lashings of dark comedy – that I was completely turned off by it. Watching it again, understanding the quirky blackness and nihilistic optimism (yes that’s right!) it contains, I appreciated it more and more as the masterpiece it is.

In Minneapolis, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is a down-on-his luck car dealer, heavily in debt, who arranges for two small-time criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Storemare) from Fargo, North Dakota, to kidnap his wife, splitting the $80,000 ransom (while telling his wealthy father-in-law the ransom is actually $1 million). However, the kidnapping quickly gets bogged down in an escalating cycle of murder and violence, and events quickly spin out-of-control. All this is investigated by heavily-pregnant and relentlessly positive police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).

Only the Coens could have made film that is so nihilistic, in which life is so cheap and death so meaningless, but yet at the same time strangely hopeful and life-affirming. Because even after all the horror and casual murder that fills the film, its heart remains the warmth of Marge Gunderson. The film continually returns to the simple affection of her relationship with her husband (a hugely sweet John Carroll Lynch). Even her pregnancy (and their obvious, unshowy delight in it) suggests a hopeful new world, moving away from the horrors of this one. It’s a genuine, emotional heart at the centre of the story, which grounds all the violence and mayhem.

And there is a lot of violence. The film is punctured at several points by brutal and unexpected killings. The body count is extraordinarily high (seven people die during the film, which considering the cast is so small and the running time so tight is pretty darn high). The camera doesn’t shy away from the horrific after-effects of killing – the suddenness, and the cold grimness of the bodies left behind. The killing is often random and pointless, with several bystanders suffering: at one point the camera pans past a parking attendant, in the wrong place at the wrong time, slumped dead on the floor of his booth. And all of this over some money. Well, that and the fact that Peter Storemare’s thug is a psychopath.

All this disaster of course spins out from the feckless vacancy of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundergaard, a sad-sack loser and overtly “nice guy” who you feel has been an unimpressive, quietly resentful failure his entire life. Macy has never been better, not only making Jerry empty and desperate but also quietly bitter and frustrated. He’s never actually that sympathetic – there is an un-empathetic shallowness in him. David Thomson described him as “a scoundrel, and in the end amiability is as nothing.” Even when he’s being humiliated, you can’t really warm to him. There are several brilliant sequences where Lundergaard’s anger and resentfulness bubble under his “Minnesota-nice” attitudes – be that facing his over-bearing father across the dining room table, or furiously scraping at his car in the ice.

That “Minnesota-nice” accent and rhythm of speaking, its impeccable good manners, are the source of a lot of the films fun and warmth. Every character around the edges of the drama is sweetly optimistic, scrupulously polite and positive. It’s part of the Coens’ genius to set such a cold and violent drama within the confines of a world which is upbeat and positive. There is a brilliant contrasting comedy to the harshness of the world against the gentle happiness of Minnesota. It’s endlessly endearing and sweet.

The centre of this is Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, perhaps one of the quickest and sharpest investigators you’ll see in drama, able to compartmentalise the brutality of crime from the warmth of her home life. McDormand is simply excellent, the beating heart of the movie, despite the fact she doesn’t even appear until it is almost a third of the way in. Her gentle but astute investigation of the crime is marvellously Miss-Marple-like in its sharpness. But she extends the same shrewd and generous understanding of human nature to her personal life: there is a marvellous sequence where, having agreed to meet an old friend from college, she gently lets him down after recognising the lonely divorcee wants something very different from the meeting. That’s not surprising, considering the gentle supportiveness and love in her relationship with her husband gives the film a constant respite of humanity.

Marge may see the world of violence, she may even be able to live in it sometimes, but she doesn’t really understand it. And that’s not surprising because the Coens’ plot here revolves sort of around money, but it’s mostly around mistakes, fuck-ups and confusion. It just so happens that a number of the people involved are dangerous, proud, devoid of conscience or all three. It’s a disaster of epic proportions. But it spins out of no planning, just events going out of control. Jerry’s father in law (played excellently by Harve Presnell, a truly imposing slab of masculinity and the prototype bully) is of course far too controlling and arrogant to not take matters into his own hand by playing hardball with killers.

And those killers are both excellent. It’s a perfect role for Buscemi – scuzzy, fast talking, weaselly – with a look of panic behind the eyes. He’s a small-time hood, out of his depth, who makes some terrible mistakes and resorts to killing and violence. He’s a perfect match with Peter Storemare’s softly spoken, chillingly blank killer who goes about “cleaning up” any mess with a ruthless simplicity.

But that’s the thing about this film. It might be full of ruthless people and killers, but it ends with Marge and her husband, together in bed, spending time together. They have a future and it’s one of simple family values and hope. There may be mindless, terrible killing out in the world – senseless violence that goes nowhere and means nothing – but there is still the warmth of family relationships, the charm of simple home values. It’s a nihilistic film where life is cheap – but it leaves you with a warm and happy feeling.

It’s also of course marvellously made – if you had any doubt about the Coens’ mastery of cinema, watch this – it’s superbly edited and brilliantly paced. It’s a perfect length, short, sharp and achingly profound. It’s also marvellously shot by Roger Deakins. I hated Fargo when I first saw it. But re-watching it twice since then, it’s a marvel. A truly unique and deeply wonderful film.

Thank You For Smoking (2006)

Aaron Eckhart does the big spin on Thank You For Smoking

Director: Jason Reitman

Cast: Aaron Eckhart (Nick Naylor), Cameron Bright (Joey Naylor), Katie Holmes (Heather Holloway), Maria Bello (Polly Bailey), David Koechner (Bobby Jay Bliss), William H. Macy (Senator Ortolan Finistirre), Robert Duvall (The Captain), J.K. Simmons (BR), Kim Dickens (Jill Naylor), Rob Lowe (Jeff Megall), Sam Elliott (Lorne Lutch)

Lobbyists: paid smooth talkers, whose goal is to win influence for often unattractive industries. Not a popular profession. Thank You For Smoking follows a few weeks in the life of Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. With senate hearings underway to place a skull-and-crossbones picture on every pack of cigarettes sold, Naylor has a host of pressures to deal with, not least rebuilding a relationship with his young son (Cameron Bright).

Thank You For Smoking is a smart and amusing satire on a pretty simple target. It’s a great showpiece for the skills of Jason Reitman, who directs his sharply written script with wit and verve. Reitman crafts a satire that’s never too heavy-handed, a well-balanced film that’s about morality and freedom of choice, without banging the righteous drum to death. He’s also got a keen eye for the quick and effective gag, meaning the film moves swiftly from punchline to punchline.

It helps a great deal that Aaron Eckhart is terrific in the lead role: handsome, cocky, charming but with a strange vulnerability. Nick Naylor a fascinating character: while he does adjust his views on issues, he is never humbled by events, and there is no “road to Damascus” moment where he denounces his career. He’s totally confident in his skin, who has come to terms with his role and doesn’t care what people think of him. And you’ve got to respect a man so skilled that he gets a 20 year-old dying of cancer from smoking to shake his hand on live television.

Similarly, the film avoids an open condemnation of smoking (it doesn’t even feature a single character smoking). If anything, the real targets for its criticism are anti-smoking campaigners (William H Macy’s sanctimonious senator is skin-crawling and unbelievably smug and petty), and the opportunistic recipients of lobbying. The film makes clear smoking is a bad habit, but also pushes the right we have to choose – if we want to poison ourselves, we should do so! I’m not sure if Reitman is willing to admit an argument like this is partially an abuse of ill-informed free speech, but at least he hopes we are smart enough to make up our own minds. It’s all part of the careful discussion of lobbying – what kind of person can be swayed by a professional counter-argument man?

There are several other terrific performances. Simmons is hilarious as Naylor’s aggressively vocal boss. Rob Lowe offers a brilliant self-parody as a smoothly empty Hollywood super-agent obsessed with Japanese culture. Maria Bello and David Koechner are both sharply witty as Naylor’s fellow lobbyists for alcohol and firearms respectively. The scenes between the three of these “Merchants of Death” (or “The MOD Squad” as they call themselves) offer a sharply funny commentary on the action throughout.

If the film has a problem though, it’s that it never feels like it develops into being much more than a framework for some good jokes. There is a thinly veiled morality tale here, but the film never really feels like it makes a point or a conclusion. Sure there are tonnes of excellent jokes and laugh-out-loud moments, but is it much more than a series of skilled sketches? Eckhart is of course brilliant in each of these, but there is often a sense of watching a series of misconnected events. Characters drop in and swiftly out of the movie. There is no overarching plot, as such.

The film largely dodges any real narrative conclusion. This is of course part of the smartness of its design – it’s not trying to make moral points, or hector us on health – but it also makes the film feel slightly empty, narratively adrift. Little changes for the characters from the start to the end of the story. Of course, the film is not so crude as to make its hero learn “a lesson”, but it also means Naylor is a more difficult character to sustain interest in over a period of time: complete lack of self-doubt does not tend to make great drama.

It’s very funny, smart, well written and acted. However, while brave enough to avoid predictability, it’s also inconsistent enough to not have a real shape. Some moments – in particular the relationship between Naylor and his son – lean heavily on cliché. Some of its more unusual moments – especially a sequence where Naylor is kidnapped by anti-smoking campaigners – fall the wrong side of surreal. But for all that it’s an imperfect film, it is certainly funny enough to justify itself and features a superb performance of alpha-male arrogance from Aaron Eckhart (I’ve asked this elsewhere, but how unlucky is this guy to not be a bigger star?). I guarantee you’ll laugh several times when you watch this – and if nothing else you’ll have a think about lobbying.

Room (2015)

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay deal with a horrifying entrapment in Room

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Brie Larson (‘Ma’/Joy Newsome), Jacob Tremblay (Jack Newsome), Joan Allen (Nancy Newsome), William H. Macy (Robert Newsome), Sean Bridgers (Old Nick), Tom McCamus (Leo)

Several years ago, I read a book on the train while coming back from Manchester. I wasn’t even sure why I had bought it: the cover made the story look fluffy and empty and (horror of horrors) it was narrated by a child. Surely a recipe for a tiresome read. I couldn’t be more wrong: I couldn’t put it down. Room was sensitive, it was heartbreaking, it was life-affirming, it was fantastic. If that’s not a tricky act to follow, I don’t know what is.

Room tells the story of Ma (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who live together in a small room, with one skylight and no contact with the outside. Ma has built a whole world of childish adventure and excitement for Jack in this room, and their days are filled with games and laughter. But the audience knows better: at night Jack sleeps in the cupboard, ordered never to come out as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) comes into the room and sleeps with Ma. Ma (or Joy) is a woman in her early twenties, kidnapped and trapped in this room for seven years.

Room is an extraordinary piece of film-making, which really captures the compelling richness of a fantastic novel. However, one thing I think is very interesting about this film is the varied reactions it receives from people. I watched this film with my wife, and we had quite different reactions to it: she found it bleak (despite having a positive ending), while I found it (like the book) a hopeful and positive film, a life-affirming story about the conquest of innocence over adversity.

Abrahamson has perfectly captured the tone and style of what was already a hypnotic and engaging book. In the book, the entire story is interpreted through the eyes of the child. The reader knows the situation is far more dangerous and sinister, but we see the confined world of the room from the viewpoint of a child who literally knows nothing else. The book requires the reader to tell themselves the “full story” between the lines of the child’s perceptions.

In the film this is much harder to create – we can see everything for ourselves. What Abrahamson and Donoghue (who adapted the script from her own novel) do so well is keeping the child at the centre, and filtering much the film through him – we don’t see or experience anything Jack doesn’t. This means that Abrahamson is able to bring some of the love Jack feels for the room around him into the story – an opening montage of their daily routine, including eating, play and exercise, shows that to a kid, this could be seen as a fun place to live.

It’s also, for Jack, an extraordinarily safe place: he knows every inch of his universe, and never encounters anything that he does not know or has not seen before. The struggle for Jack is not to escape the room, but to grow up – to accept the existence of a wider world around him and leave childhood security behind. It’s a theme in that helps make the film universal, despite its extraordinary circumstances, as a heartfelt coming-of-age story. Abrahamson’s skilful and brilliantly subtle direction threads this concept through the entire story, undercutting its potential bleakness and providing it with warmth and depth.

The fact that this was (for me anyway!) an uplifting film demonstrates with what grace it has been put together. The alternative story that runs underneath Jack’s full understanding is handled with sensitivity but unflinching honesty. Joy may go out of her way to protect Jack from what is really happening to her – imprisoned and routinely raped several times a week – but the viewer understands far more. When Jack says there are days when “Ma just needs to sleep all day” we know the causes of her feeling – and the quiet shot of Joy silent and still under a duvet speaks volumes of the mental strain she is under.

So why is this uplifting? Because for me, this story is about Joy’s struggle to keep her son innocent, to keep him safe and to protect him from the reality of what is going on around him. To make sure that his father never has a piece of him. In this she is completely successful: in fact, her focus is so overwhelmingly on protecting Jack that later in the film, when events remove the need for this, she herself undergoes a terrible mental collapse. But the message throughout is Joy’s overwhelming love for her son and her desire to protect him: and this makes her story, in a strange way, a triumph.

Joy’s story also seems (eventually) positive, due to the power of Brie Larson’s performance. Winner of a well-deserved Oscar, Larson is unflinching in her empathy for Joy’s situation, her dedication to the role apparent in every frame. She never allows Joy to become weak – she may be trapped, she may suffer from depression, but she has an inner strength that has developed from her fixation on the welfare of her son. She is uncompromising though in playing the reality of the emotional burden Joy is carrying both for herself and her son.

Larson also deserves much credit – as does Abrahamson’s direction – for the simply breathtaking work from Jacob Tremblay as Jack. It’s no exaggeration to say that without a child capable of delivering a performance like this, the film could not have existed. Tremblay’s performance is completely natural, totally unforced and deeply affecting. We totally invest in his fate. He has the pressure of carrying huge chunks of the film and does so with complete confidence. He and Larson have a totally natural chemistry between them, a bond that seems unshakeable.

This is a film I found profoundly moving – there are several moments (at least three) where I felt a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes: moments of sadness, but also moments of triumph and moments of simple human warmth. It’s a spoiler to even say that there are other people in this film, but the second half of the film widens the story and subtly changes its nature: it is a survival story from the start, but it’s also one of adjustment and recovery. This later act of the film is as wonderfully told as the first part, rich with empathy and human emotion.

Room is a truly wonderful film, a small scale story about huge and powerful themes that wears its greatness very lightly. Lenny Abrahamson’s direction – both technically and in its control of actors and story – is exceptional, creating a film that balances dozens of tones with aplomb. Like I said, it’s a film that invites you to take many readings from it: it’s a film about a victim, that feels like a triumph story; a film about a confined world that teaches us about the wider world; a film about imprisonment that feels like a celebration of freedom. It’s an extraordinary work, and there isn’t enough praise for Larson and Tremblay. I can’t imagine not being moved again the next time I see this – it’s a film for the ages.