- May 7, 2001
The Criterion Collection
Film Length: 183 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Enhanced Widescreen
Audio: DD 5.1 / DD 2.0
Package: 2 discs/4 panel Digipak
Los Angeles in under attack. No, not the type we’d see or hear about with 24 hour headline news coverage, but an attack of the medfly. Throughout the course of this rather complex character study (or more aptly put, “couple study”), medflies are obliterating the California citrus crops and the city has countered with helicopters dusting the city spraying the pesticide Malathion in an attempt to control the outbreak. Robert Altman’s 1993 film chronicles the interweaving lives of nine rather unique but average families as they go about their daily lives living in the City of Angels.
The film boasts one of the largest collection of stars ever assembled for a single film – a veritable who’s who appear in the movie. All of the characters intertwine and cross paths in one way or another throughout the course of the film. It’s difficult to say “the main characters” here, but undoubtedly two of the mainstays are The Finnigans - Ann and Howard (played by Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison). Certainly their storyline is the most compelling and is one that seems to harness a focal point throughout the film. Howard is a successful television news anchorman and Ann is the loving housewife and dedicated mother of their eight year old son Casey (played by Lane Cassidy), who early in the film is struck by a car on his way to school. The driver of the car is Doreen Piggot (played by Lily Tomlin), a waitress at a local greasy spoon diner and is the tolerant wife to her alcoholic husband Earl, (played by Tom Waits).
Gene Shepard (played by Tim Robbins), is an LAPD traffic cop whose kids and needy wife Sherri Shepard (played by Madeline Stowe), have him stressed and on the verge of a breakdown – even the dog is a major factor in Gene’s stress. Offering one fantastic lie after another, Gene spends much of his spare time pursuing an adulterous relationship with Betty Weathers (played by Frances McDormand), a recently separated and wanton wife and mother who is always looking for the best party and the fastest way to get there. Betty’s other half is Stormy Weathers, (played by Peter Gallagher), a pilot who is working as a duster in the city due to the medfly outbreak. Stormy is brutally jealous of Betty and her numerous male companions and decides to challenge California’s family law by using a chainsaw to divide the belongings of the matrimonial home…
Zoe Trainer (played by Lori Singer), is a classically trained cellist and the daughter of jazz night club singer has-been, Tess Trainer (played by Annie Ross). Zoe spends much of her time trying to learn more about her dead father, but Tess is too busy looking for her next cocktail, reminiscing about the past.
One of the physicians assigned to treat young Casey is Dr. Ralph Wyman (played by Matthew Modine). The egotistical but insecure young doctor is married to an aspiring artist, Marian (played by Julianne Moore). Marian (who is Sheri Shepard’s sister) has recently told her husband the finer details of an earlier affair she engaged in, the details of which Ralph is having a hard time coping with. During a concert recital, Ralph and Marian befriend and invite Claire and Stuart Kane (played by Anne Archer and Fred Ward), over for a bar-be-que. Stuart promises to bring over fish that he recently caught while on a fishing trip with his friends, (Buck Henry and Huey Lewis). When the threesome arrived at their fishing hole, they discovered a nude female body submerged in the water and did what any other normal group of adults would do under similar circumstances – they tied the body off to the side of the shore and continued to fish only notifying the authorities upon their return three days later – a decision which ultimately has a negative impact on one of the marriages.
In what might be the most outrageous couple in the film, Lori and Jerry Kaiser (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Chris Penn) are a young and struggling couple, Jerry a pool man, while Lori is a “900” phone sex operator, who spends her day walking around the house on a cordless phone talking dirty to the perverts who call her. She does this in front of her entire family, while changing dirty diapers, fulfilling the needs of her children and even fighting with Jerry – I doubt she’d have any repeat callers…
Lori and Jerry are best friends with Bill and Honey Bush – I’m not making up these names, really… (played by Lili Taylor and Robert Downey Jr.). The couple is house-sitting for friends that are vacationing and have virtually moved in. Bill is a student of movie make-up, who practices his gory trade on his wife.
Look for other exceptional performances from Lyle Lovett who plays Andy Bitkower a baker who decides to harass the Finnigans due to a cake they have ordered but have not been able to pick it up due to them staying at the hospital to be with their son. And the best performance of all comes from Jack Lemmon who plays Howard’s father, Paul Finnigan. Learning of the accident from a family member, Paul decides to show up at the hospital to be with his son. Although he has not seen him in years - in fact he doesn’t even know his grandson’s name nor has he even met his daughter-in-law. During a touching but awkward chat in the hospital cafeteria, Paul confesses to his son, the details surrounding an affair he had on his late wife (Howard’s mother). Howard, barely able to cope with the stress of his son’s condition is painfully disturbed by his father’s confession. Lemmon’s performance is remarkable.
The medfly infestation is an additional source of angst and tension as the city has become unglued, as the residents fear the chemical used to be a carcinogen. The film comes to a climactic conclusion with an earthquake that decimates whatever sanctity is left of those living in Los Angeles. Robert Altman was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Director category, but needless say lost to Steven Spielberg for his work with Schindler’s List.
As for the packaging, the set consists of two discs housed in a four panel Digipak which slips nicely into an outer cardboard slipcover. The package itself is fairly thick as it also contains the Short Cuts book of short stories written by Raymond Carver, which served as the basis for the film. Also included is a 12 page insert which lists all Chapters, a Cast & Crew list and an essay entitled “City Symphony” by film critic Michael Wilmington. A terrific looking set.
The Feature: 4/5
Absolutely gorgeous. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, you never know what you’re going to get from a film of the 80’s or 90’s, but this one is almost flawless. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
The colors were incredibly natural looking, bordering on vibrant. Hues and saturation were perfect as were flesh tones, again, looking quite natural. Black levels were deeper than I anticipated and white were stark and clean.
There was a significant amount of image detail present throughout most of the film with only infrequent occasions of softness, which surely wasn’t transfer related. Long and wide shots looked sharp as well. There was only a very minute amount of fine film grain present which resulted in a beautiful film-like image with a significant amount of depth.
The overall image was rock solid and free of any shimmer or any jitter.
The print was virtually blemish free – hardly a scratch or dust mark to be found. The compression was handled perfectly but I did detect a very slight amount of haloing from time to time – very slight.
Great job Criterion.
Two audio options have been included on this set. First a DD 5.1 - 6 track mix from the 70mm theatrical release as well as a DD 2.0 – 2 track stereo mix from the theatrical release.
I listened to the 5.1 track that was included which for the most part is effective, though not necessarily remarkable.
The vast majority of the film is dialogue driven save for the helicopter “medfly raids” and the concluding earthquake. The dialogue was exceptional. Criterion seems to slightly boost the volume (slightly) for dialogue, and I like that – particularly for a film of this nature. The soundtrack was clean and virtually free of any hiss or distractions.
The soundstage was adequate to satisfactory and the level of dynamic range is about what we might of a film from 1993. Again, much of the aural oomph comes from the choppers and the final earthquake scenes.
The surrounds were barely noticeable. There were only a couple of occasions where I noticed a slight (enveloping) enhancement for a few of the jazz club scenes and some ambient noise here and there, but that’s about it. Your sub will get a slight workout during the initial and final scenes of the film.
A solid job which does what needs to be done with very little to complain about.
The set consists of two discs and basically, the feature film is located on disc one and the special features are located on disc two – with one exception:
[*] Fans of movie film scores will be pleased as there is an Isolated Music Track feature which is accessible on the Audio Set-up menu on disc one (or you can change on the fly).
[*] First up, a collection of Deleted Scenes. Three scenes entitled “Smoking”, “Hey Clown” and “I Threw It Away” have been included, all of which are pretty good actually, particularly the Lovett scene. Duration: 1:08, 0:37 and 2:24 minutes respectfully.
[*] Music Demos. Robert Altman asked music producer Hal Willner to find songs that could be performed by Annie Ross and her quintet for Short Cuts. Willner was able to get several prominent musicians to contribute including U2’s Bono, Elvis Costello and The Edge. Three of the songs chosen are presented here in rough form from the demo tape. Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) performs the songs on piano. They are entitled ‘To Hell With Love”, “I Don’t Know You” and “Full Moon”.
[*] The next feature, Luck, Trust & Ketchup is a making-of documentary done by John Dorr and Mike Kaplan. There are a number of behind-the scenes shots and a number of interviews to be found in the exceptional mini-documentary. The feature is filled with insight and information which includes the choice of stories and their eccentric storylines used in the film. The feature appears courtesy of Circle Associates Limited and EDTV. Duration: 89:57 minutes.
[*] BBC: Moving Pictures. When Short Cuts was released in the UK, the BBC series Moving Pictures, produced a segment on the film hosted by Howard Schuman that traced the development of Raymond Carver’s short story “Jerry and Molly and Sam”, for the film. Duration: 17:38 minutes.
[*] Marketing. The following is a collection of promotional tools that were used to promote the film. Included are an assortment of advertising campaigns, TV spots and trailers prefaced by a three page contextual introduction.
[*] To Write and Keep Kind. In 1992, Jean Walkinshaw produced this documentary on the life and work of Raymond Carver for PBS. It features with family and friends and provides and insightful look into his short stories and poems. Included are comments from his widow and a number of writers and critics. Duration: 56:45 minutes.
[*] Carver Audio Interview. Up next is a 1983 audio interview that covers a number of topics, relating particularly to the style of Carver’s writing, conducted by Kay Bonetti. This should be of particular interest if you are a fan of the literary works of Carver.
[*] The final feature on this disc is Reflections on Short Cuts which is an informal and candid discussion between the director and Tim Robbins that was recorded at the Don’t Tell Mama Cabaret and Piano Bar in New York City in June of this year, as they share a drink and reminisce. It was recorded specifically for this set. Not that he needs it, but this feature certainly confirms the intellect of Tim Robbins. Witty, intuitive and a lot of fun. Duration: 28:48 minutes.
You won’t very often find me handing out full marks for special features because most of the time, I don’t find them very special… I’ve really come to resent the “fluff” or promo pieces that appear as special features. You’ll find none of that here. In this case, the entire second disc is dedicated to worthwhile special features that legitimate fans of the film will appreciate. Outstanding job!
Special Features: 5/5
**Special Features rated for the quality of supplements, not the quantity**
In Short Cuts, Robert Altman takes us on a journey which allows us access into the lives of many unique individuals who all place on varying levels of the social status totem pole. And regardless of their placement within society, this exploration of human nature reinforces that neither money nor celebrity status guarantees us happiness or exemptions of life’s tragedies. None of us are immortal. Short Cuts is by no means a feel-good film, in fact it’s a clinic of social failure – an assembly line of tragedy.
As much as I liked Short Cuts, it’s not a film I could watch on a semi-regular or consistent basis. It’s the type of film that brings with it a significant amount of magic, but I’m afraid that magic would lose much of its luster with a fresh subsequent showing. I hadn’t seen this film since it appeared theatrically, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching this again after a number of years. The film clocks in at three + hours in length, but there is an awful lot of ground to cover.
As has been the case with the vast majority of recent Criterion releases, Short Cuts is an amazing set. The presentation is virtually flawless and the special features are extraordinarily entertaining and highly informative. If you are an Altman devotee or a fan of the film, you should be ecstatic with this release of Short Cuts. Great job Criterion, obviously no short cuts were taken here!
Overall Rating: 4.5/5 (not an average)
Release Date: November 16th, 2004