Under a Spell 

Snow Falling on Cedars (PG-13)
Universal Pictures

*The Cider House Rules (PG-13)

*Magnolia (R)
New Line Cinema

There's a single cliché about moviegoing that is likely the basis of all good reviews, regardless of how much or how little the reviewer may know about filmmaking. When a movie is said to "cast a spell" over the viewer, that almost always translates into a good review, and truthfully, it's as good a measure as any.

The desired outcome of all moviegoers is escape -- either to a fictional or a real place, inhabited by characters who draw you into their drama, their humanity or their skewed view of the world. The director must create a seamless vision that casts a spell on the moviegoer, allowing her to forget for the duration, that she is actually watching a movie. People go to the movies to get lost, willingly, in the world created by the film.

In the case of these three technically superb films, Magnolia and The Cider House Rules succeeded at casting such a spell, but Snow Falling on Cedars took me to a place so relentlessly gloomy I just couldn't wait to get out.

Directed with blatant artistic self-consciousness by Scott Hicks (Shine), each perfectly framed and filmed scene in Snow Falling on Cedars feels over-directed, with the exception of the courtroom scenes where veteran Max Van Sydow is allowed to meander through his lines with well-earned respect and dignity.

Van Sydow plays the doddering old barrister hired to defend Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune) on a murder charge. It is 1950, and the setting is Amity Island off the coast of Wash-ington, a community heavily populated with Japanese immigrants. Miyamoto returns from serving the United States in World War II only to find that the farmland promised to him by the Heine family has been sold in his absence. When fisherman Carl Heine is mysteriously drowned, Miyamoto becomes the obvious suspect.

Watching the trial with intense concentration is Ishmael (Ethan Hawke), the local newspaperman who has a missing arm and is most fascinated with Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), Miyamoto's wife, the love of Ishmael's life who spurned him while he was fighting in the war (hence, the arm).

Hicks draws layer upon layer of concentric circles around this central courtroom plot, revealing the history of Ishmael and Hatsue through flashbacks (frolicking along the beach and deep in the cedar forests, concealing their forbidden love) and offering insight into the racial politics of the community. The movie works best in the central sections when the Japanese-American citizens of Amity Island are shuffled off to the internment camp at Manzanar for the duration of the war. This is compelling stuff, and it is a merciful escape from the overcast skies and overwrought emotions -- emphasized by an intrusive musical soundtrack -- that dominate the rest of the film. The dramatic tension of the murder trial is lost in the fog of this tediously constructed film, and by the end, we don't care at all who killed Carl Heine, we just want desperately to see the sky.

By contrast, director Lasse Hallstrom succeeds in The Cider House Rules, in making a place that could have been equally as oppressive into a magical, slightly bizarre locale. The film opens with a marvelous shot of a puffing, blue-gray steam engine, pitched against an iron-tinted sky. On a hill beyond the train station looms a run-down mansion, home of a pack of orphans and their surrogate father, Dr. Larch (Michael Caine), a man who spends half his time caring for unwanted children, and the other half performing abortions.

The oldest orphan, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), "a true and everlasting orphan," has become Larch's protg in the obstetrics business, but doesn't approve of abortion. When the chance arises, he sets off to explore the world with Woody and Candy (Paul Rudd and Charlize Theron), a handsome young couple who have just availed themselves of Dr. Larch's services. They take him to the coast of Maine, where Woody's mother runs an apple farm, and Homer becomes part of the picking crew and, eventually, Candy's lover.

Delroy Lindo gives a powerhouse performance as Mr. Rose, the head of the picking crew, who has an incestuous relationship with his daughter, Rose Rose, wonderfully played by hip-hop artist Erykah Badu in her movie debut.

Eventually, Homer must use his doctoring skills to help Rose, and the difficult lessons Dr. Larch has taught him come into focus.

John Irving, who wrote the novel, did an excellent job of paring down his long, Dickensian work into a cogent screenplay that doesn't sacrifice its heart in the translation. The characters' quirks and charms are intact, especially those of Dr. Larch, played by Caine with an overwhelming kindness and vulnerability. His scenes glow with humanity, and Maguire's low-key Homer provides an interesting counterpart.

The Cider House Rules, under Hallstrom's gentle, steady direction, succeeds at creating a place where we can suspend our opinions and beliefs and revel in the bittersweet nature of flawed humanity. I left the theater thoroughly uplifted by the experience.

Casting an altogether different kind of spell -- more like a combination acid trip and manic-depressive episode -- is director Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, a three-hour-long trip to the place we all fear and know too well, the juncture of who we've been in the past and who we are now, faced with brutal honesty.

Anderson's theme is difficult to grasp, but brilliantly explored. Foremost, he wants to say that we are all part of a human web of circumstance, and that there are intersections in our lives where strange, mysterious things occur -- sometimes even the miraculous occurrence of connecting with another human being.

Six stories intertwine, accented by the stark tunes of singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, in one of the better collaborations between filmmaking and popular music ever made.

I won't outline each of the stories here; they are all laid out with sweeping style by Anderson and an amazing cast of actors in the first hour. Jason Robards is haggard and heart-wrenching as Earl Partridge, a dying man; Juliette Moore makes you squirm in your seat as Linda, his brittle wife; Philip Seymour Hoffman anchors the film as Phil, Earl's caring nurse; Tom Cruise burns up the screen as television infomercial king Frank T.J. Mackey, Earl's estranged son; John C. Reilly is perfect as the bumbling cop who falls for cocaine addict Claudia, also wonderfully played by Melora Waters; Philip Baker Hall is tragically worn out as a game-show host, also dying, who is trying to come to terms with his worst transgressions.

All of these characters, and others, spiral downward during the first half of the film, and come together in a moment of pure serendipity at their lowest point -- Anderson has the audacity to allow them all to begin singing simultaneously, illustrating at once their connection and their estrangement.

From there, anything can happen and it does. Rights are wronged; wrongs are righted; a startling natural disaster occurs; people figure out where to put their love. "Things go round and round, don't they?" says T.J. Mackey, and indeed they do.

By the end of Magnolia, we understand that the likelihood of finding someone to love, and to love them well, is as remote and ridden with chance as, say, the possibility of frogs falling from the sky. As I was leaving the theater, I ran into a friend who said it was the kind of film that made you feel that something had changed, that things had shifted. He was right.


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