Dark City (1998)
Directed by Alex Proyas
A man awakens, naked and confused, in a grimy bathroom lit by a single bare bulb. A gold fish flops on the floor. A trickle of blood runs down the man’s forehead and a broken syringe lies near the tub. After putting the dying gold fish in the tub the man exits the room to find a woman’s mutilated corpse lying on the floor. The phone rings and an anonymous caller commands the man to flee before the “Strangers” arrive.
So begins one of the great Sci-fi Expressionist Noir films of the 1990s.
Dark City has long been a favorite of mine. I saw it shortly after it was released on DVD and fell in love with the amazing art direction, expertly crafted mystery and the oh-so-creepy Strangers. The film also features one of cinema’s all-time great reveals, has a truly feverish and demented score by Trevor Jones, and is filled with strong performances.
Rufus Sewell is terrific as the amnesiac John Murdoch, and William Hurt as a detective in over his head and Jennifer Connelly as a sultry lounge singer and Murdoch’s wife, turn in fine supporting perfs. Keifer Sutherland’s performance as Dr. Schreber has been disparaged in previous reviews of the film, but I found his turn as the stuttering, whispering mad scientist perfectly fine and a nice homage to Peter Lorre’s stammering serial killer in Fritz Lang’s M: one of Dark City’s many influences.
The Strangers are great villains: supremely sinister, powerful and ultimately pathetic. The revelation of their plight is one of the film’s greatest strengths. A dying species trying to determine the essence of the human soul in an effort to avoid extinction lends a certain poignance to their machinations. The care in which the reconstruct their human test subjects lives is almost touching.
In Dark City director Alex Proyas, first and foremost, weaves a compelling mystery in the vein of Raymond Chandler then effortlessly mixes in some German Expressionist style and even an over-the-top anime-inspired battle royale to boot.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
I had never seen Magnolia before last night and was very excited to watch it because my viewings of previous P.T. Anderson films have been wildly mixed. I loved Boogie Nights when I first saw it, but I was a young teenager then and was mostly fascinated by Roller Girl at the time. I saw Punch Drunk Love when I was just starting to watch films with a more artistic/critical eye and it just didn’t do it for me. I loved 2007’s There Will Be Blood and sent his ham-fisted debut feature Hard Eight packing in an earlier round, so I really had no idea what to expect from Magnolia.
Magnolia is a gratuitous, joyful mess of a film that follows the interconnected lives of a dozen or so people in Los Angeles. When weaving together a half dozen story lines some are bound to stand out and others to miss the mark, but even the ones that I felt didn’t quite work were oddly compelling.
John C. Reilly as an exceedingly open and honest cop who falls immediately in love with messed up coke head, Claudia (Marisa Tomei doppelganger Melora Walters) on a domestic disturbance call absolutely steals the show. He is adorably sweet and sincere without being saccharine and he is gold in every scene, especially on his date with Claudia, which is possibly my favorite scene in the film.
On a minor note, for some reason I found it exceedingly annoying that Claudia was a coke head. I mean, someone who is depressed and sits on the couch all day listening to music and watching TV should obviously be smoking pot. I guess she’s a glutton for punishment and just wants to accentuate the emotional pain she’s feeling every fifteen minutes or so.
But I digress. My other favorite storyline involved Philip Seymour Hoffman as a nurse caring for a dying television producer (Jason Robards). Their scenes together are incredibly touching and both give fantastic performances.
Then there is Tom Cruise. Despite his mega celebrity I can’t think of anything in this universe more asexual than Tom Cruise, with the possible exception of Nicole Kidman, so his first few scenes as the gyrating, air-humping, sexual terrorist self-help guru were akin to me watching the universe twist itself inside into some warped alternate reality. When he finally settle down for his interview (I wonder if they used the same prosthetic from Boogie Nights for that enormous bulge in his tighty whities?) I really started to enjoy his intense performance, which really paid off in his final scene with his dying father (Robards).
The music throughout is amazing (Super Tramp!), the frogs are incredible - almost as much for the I-can’t-believe-they’re-doing-this aspect, and the mix of melodrama, humor and pathos is incredibly balanced.
As for things I didn’t like. Never been a fan of Julianne Moore. Probably never will be. Playing pathetic is William H. Macy’s bread and butter, but I just wasn’t buying it this time around. I did find his feud with the excellent Henry Gibson entertaining though. All the game show stuff was fine, but not nearly as compelling as everything else that was going on.
Then there’s the ending, up to which I was thoroughly engrossed with the film’s varied story lines barreling toward apocalypse. I’m not talking about the frogs, I loved the frogs. Just the last couple minutes – the hammer-to-the-head close up of “But it did happen” in Claudia’s apartment and the insanity of playing Aimee Mann over John C. Reilly’s final words totally brought me out of my reverie and Claudia’s smile at the end seemed more like a smirk.
Magnolia obviously moves on. This is the 90s bracket after all and a film by one of the decade’s burgeoning artistic geniuses featuring a cast of some of the most acclaimed actors of the time giving career-defining performances in a story that is firmly rooted in the psychology of the time definitely deserves to move on.