Review by Michael Jacobson
Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne
Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey
Jr., Madeleine Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand,
Peter Gallagher, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry,
Director: Robert Altman
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 183 Minutes
Release Date: November 16, 2004
the war going?"
guys are winning."
Cuts is a
movie that succeeds as an impressive technical achievement but that almost
completely fails as entertainment.
was considered Robert Altman's most ambitious picture to date in 1993, and
that's saying a lot considering he's the man who made M*A*S*H and Nashville.
His previous movie The Player had re-established him as a
marketable director after a decade of flying underneath the radar, and he
parlayed that into making the film he'd been wanting to do for some time;
namely, a celluloid meditation on the short stories of Raymond Carver.
he would use Carver's text as a jumping off point, Short Cuts seems
pure Altman from start to finish. The
northwest settings were changed to Los Angeles, many of the blue collar
characters elevated to higher social strata, and multiple stories interwoven a
la Nashville in an attempt to make one cohesive novel of a film.
unlike his great masterpiece of the 70s, which at the time was an enthralling,
original piece of cinema, Short Cuts seems more like an attempt to relive
old glories. Altman's technical
prowess is still intact; he controls his many diverse elements like a master
conductor with a big orchestra in front of him. The problem is, just because he gets a great performance out
of every instrument doesn't mean he makes cohesive music.
a three hour plus running time, we don't get very close to any of the 23 main
characters. There is little to no
development here. Most of them are
unpleasant and unlikable, and you don't feel like you're sharing their
experiences so much as being trapped by them.
Altman has a penchant for turning actors loose and using them in a
symbiotic search for truth, but in this movie, he stumbles on it only rarely.
is really only one compelling storyline, when parents played by Andie MacDowell
and Bruce Davison learn their small child was hit by a car on his way to school.
When the picture focuses on their grief and worry, and we get caught up
in what the outcome of the boy's story will be, the movie works its best
second viewing of the film confirmed my initial suspicion, which is that
everything else that plays in it seems like a distraction from a core story.
Characters wander in and out of each other's experiences for no reason
other than to try and create cohesion artificially, but it's like trying to
piece together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture.
For example, Anne Archer's character is a clown.
Why? No other reason, as Altman even admits, other than to get her
into the hospital and briefly into other existing story threads.
script plays less like the nine stories and one poem by Raymond Carver it's
purported to be from and more like a collection of scenes written specifically
as acting exercises. Monologues and
dialogues seem to exist only to give the very capable cast material to work
with. Certain aspects seem totally
random for emotional effect...as if someone said "okay, now do the scene, but
this time, play it like the guy you're talking to you assaulted you sexually
once upon a time." It lets
qualified actors have moments to shine, but it has all the emotional impact of a
college drama class textbook.
Lemmon has a great monologue that is one of the highlights of the movie as far
as a pure moment goes, but it neither leads into nor out of anything.
Bits of drama are hinted at, such as an accident his son once had, but
they're never explored...again, it felt like little bits of business were
thrown in so the actors could shift gears and work out their crafts.
as I said, the main problem is that too many of the characters aren't likable,
and three hours is a long time to be stuck with them. Tim Robbins plays a cop who wears his uniform like a big
codpiece, Matthew Modine overacts as an uptight doctor, Lori Singer plays the
cello beautifully, but after multiple viewings, I still have no clue what the
hell her character is supposed to be about, Annie Ross does the over-the-hill
nightclub singer time and time again, and Lyle Lovett does his bit as a baker
who turns to harassing phone calls when a cake doesn't get picked up.
moments are so outrageous that they keep you at even more of a distance.
Peter Gallagher makes a point that half of his ex-wife's (Frances
McDormand) house is his by destroying everything in it with a chainsaw, though
he manages to stop the mayhem long enough for a free carpet shampoo.
Jennifer Jason Leigh does phone sex in her home, and though I've never
called a 900 number myself, I think I'd have a hard time enjoying it with the
sounds of small children and a grumpy husband (Chris Penn) constantly in the
background...talk about spoiling the moment.
There's humor in these conceptions, to be sure, but is the film trying
to seriously explore human nature and interaction, or is it merely interested in
going for the cheap laughs? Just
one of the movie's many identity crises.
of the characters ponders some paintings and wonders if nudity is what makes
them art. One could ask the same
question about Short Cuts, which may have more full frontal nudity than
any non-porn film in recent memory, and for absolutely no purpose whatsoever.
Frances McDormand, Madeleine Stowe, Lori Singer and Julianne Moore are
all lovely ladies who had the courage to bear all for the camera...I just wish I
could have felt there was a better reason for them to do so other than pleasing
Robert Altman. Hell, even Huey
Lewis "whips it out" so we can see him peeing in a stream.
I could have gone the rest of my life without watching that.
skill as a technical filmmaker is finely honed here, and the general lack of
intriguing storylines invites his fans to step back and marvel at the camerawork
(especially the long take with a telephoto lens in which the kid gets hit by the
car) and the taut editing, which gives the movie a genuine sense of rhythm and
pacing. But it's all style and no
substance; all beat and no melody.
love Robert Altman overall, but he sometimes comes across as a Fellini-esque
director who buckles under the weight of his own excesses.
Nashville was an ambitious, multi-storied and multiple character
experiment that worked beautifully. Short
Cuts seems like an attempt to repeat the experiment without getting the same
results. A side by side study of
the two films might be interesting for students to dissect why one went so right
and another went so awry.
scores with a winning anamorphic transfer...and even though I'm not one of the
film's bigger fans, I do appreciate getting to see it at home in its proper
scope ratio. Robert Altman is a man
who uses widescreen canvases not for action and scenery, but for character space
and relations, and this DVD allows viewers to contemplate the full scope of his
vision. Colors are vibrant and
beautiful throughout, with plenty of detail coming through, crisp clean images,
and no undue grain or noticeable artifacts despite the lengthy running time...a
new 5.1 mix is lively. Though
mostly dialogue oriented, there are some great sequences such as the helicopters
in the beginning and the many musical bits from night club jazz to classical
strings that keep the surround channels humming along nicely.
Spoken words are clean and clear and dynamic range is formidable.
The original stereo track is also included for purists, but the 5.1 is
definitely the better way to go.
short cuts were taken by Criterion in this department; they've presented one
of the year's finest DVD offerings. The
best extra is actually one not on the disc itself; it's a special book
collection of the nine stories and one poem by Raymond Carver used in the
scripting of the movie. For fans of
Carver who miss his presence in the film, this terrific edition will remind you
of his genius.
first disc contains an isolated music track...there's no commentary by Altman,
but that doesn't bother me; I've listened to just about every Altman
commentary available on DVD, and he's not the most informative or interesting
artist to listen to on a play-by-play basis.
second disc is the true treasure trove. There
is a feature length making of documentary done in 1993, a BBC television segment
on the movie and one of the stories in particular, a PBS documentary on Raymond
Carver, an hour long 1983 audio interview with the author, some demos of the
original songs performed by Dr. John, three deleted scenes (considering the
length of the movie, I was surprised to learn anything was actually cut!), and
an extensive look at the marketing, featuring many poster concepts, teaser and
theatrical trailers, and several TV spots.
best part for me was a new 2004 conversation between Tim Robbins and Robert
Altman, which covers a great deal of good information about the making of the
movie and Altman's techniques with actors and scripts.
It has all the juice you'd want from a commentary track packed into a
convenient half hour format.