Our review of Magnolia (Blu-Ray), published January 21st, 2010, is also available.
The book says we may be through with the past but the past ain't through with us.
Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson's (Boogie Nights, Hard Eight AKA Sydney), third film is a sprawling urban epic that interweaves seven different storylines that are tied together by an event that could be shown as proof that shit does indeed happen.
I know I have written this before but the more I think about it and the more I see other movies from last year, the more I am convinced that for film, 1999 was a pretty special year. With Magnolia standing tall in last year's company, P. T. Anderson has given us an intensely personal, truly audacious film about love and loss, damnation and redemption.
Directing with a confidence that I sometimes found startling, Anderson unfolds his story like the petals of the flower for which the movie is named. Like nature, this movie takes time to expand to full bloom but when it does the end results are both beautiful and moving.
It is with a certain amount of irony that I looked on the calendar and noted Magnolia is being released on home video the same month as Robert Altman's classic Nashville. Much has been written of the debt Anderson owes to Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese; personally, I would add David Mamet to that list as well. If Magnolia feels like any other film it is Mr. Altman's Short Cuts. Both weave seemingly different storylines and characters into a final tapestry of emotion and self-discovery. For me the comparisons end there. Magnolia is far too personal a movie to be labeled as derivative. Both Magnolia and Anderson stand on their own feet, making apologies to no one. Also, when people complain that Anderson is too much like Altman or Scorsese my response is, isn't it better to model yourself after great filmmakers than average ones? After all, how many directors list Arthur Hiller or Herbert Ross as influences?
Proving that everything in life does indeed come back to Star Trek, Magnolia shows that how we deal with death is equally important as how we deal with life. Anderson gives meaning to that statement while still fleshing out each and every character, giving them all their moments to shine. I raised the influence of David Mamet earlier because Anderson has a good handle on what I like to call "Street Shakespeare" of which Mamet is the modern master. To me, "Street Shakespeare" is language that is rough and profanity-laden but also has a sort of elegance and rhythm to it, making it ring both true as well as current. While operatic in scale, everything in Anderson's screenplay has a natural ebb and flow to it. I don't know how much Anderson wrote, shot and cut out but everything in the movie feels right and has its proper place.
As for the event that ties all these stories together, Anderson received a great deal of criticism for his use of what can best be descried as an act of God. I am a big believer that when a filmmaker pulls some rabbit out of a hat just to end the story, it is a cheat and a cop-out. If, however, the filmmaker sets up this device during the course of the project and plays by the rules he/she has laid down, everything is fair game. To his credit and at the very beginning of the movie, Anderson does indeed set everything up, and for me, it worked. Is it incredible? Yes. Is it unbelievable? Within the context of the film, no. Am I going to tell you what the event is? Nope.
One of Magnolia's many highlights is the cinematography by Robert Elswit (Tomorrow Never Dies, The River Wild, 8MM), and New Line once more does their part by living up to the reputation they have established for themselves. The film is shown in anamorphic widescreen and maintains the theatrical 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Colors are ripe and full but never become oversaturated. Contrast is quite high but the picture holds together beautifully. Flesh tones appear natural and supple while black levels are almost impossibly deep with zero breakup. Shadows and dimly lighted sequences possess great detail and clarity, with no signs of edge enhancement or digital compression artifacts present. The print used is of the highest caliber, with no scratches or nicks to be seen. The picture really is of near reference quality.
Two listening options are available, one in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround and the other being a 5.1 mix. I chose to listen to the movie in 5.1 and it is a solid, front soundstage driven mix. The mix is full with Jon Brion's excellent score, Aimee Mann's songs and dialogue mixed together in almost perfect harmony. I say almost because there were one or two spots where the music tended to drown out what was being said. It did not happen often but it is a slight problem worth mentioning. Rear surrounds are not heard from often, being used mostly as filler until the movie's closing act when things become very active. Bass is not called upon much either, but as I said earlier things always sound natural and never thin. Being a recent release, there is not a trace of background distortion or hiss to be heard.
There are so many great performances in Magnolia that it is difficult to know where to begin.
For me one of the biggest highlights of the movie is the romance that develops between policeman Jim Kurring played by John C. Reilly (For The Love Of The Game, The Thin Red Line, The River Wild) and Melora Walters (Boogie Nights, Sydney, Ed Wood), as Claudia Wilson Gator. There is a pain, a truth and an honesty between the two of them that centers the entire movie. With the shot of a smiling Walters closing everything out, it would seem that Anderson felt the same way. This is the third time Anderson has used these two actors and he knows their strengths well. I think he takes that natural and everyday quality they both posses and uses it as a sort of guide for the viewer.
Also a member of the three-time Anderson club is the marvelous Philip Baker Hall (The Insider) as game show host Jimmy Gator. Hall has a spectacular range and he handles the rigors of his role very well. As Gator's wife Rose, is Melinda Dillon (To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything Julie Newmar, A Christmas Story, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind). Dillon is a wonderful actress who is not seen nearly enough. With Magnolia she turns in yet another strong performance.
As always William H. Macy (Happy, Texas, A Civil Action, Wag The Dog), finds just the right note of humor and sadness as quiz kid Donnie Smith. In his film debut young Jeremy Blackman is a wonder as the current quiz kid Stanley Spector. Smith wants nothing more than to give someone all the love he has, while Spector needs his father to see him as the boy he is and to give him the love he so desperately wants.
Tom Cruise (Jerry Maguire, A Few Good Men, The Color Of Money), got an Oscar nomination for his work as the loathsome television pick-up king, Frank TJ Mackey. Cruise is good playing against type and while I don't think his work is the revelation many in the press saw it to be, he holds up his end of the film. As his estranged father Jason Robards (Philadelphia, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Once Upon A Time In The West), is heartbreaking as the dying television producer Earl Partridge. One of the greatest actors of his generation, Robards still has the chops to dig into a role and make it come to life. Julianne Moore (An Ideal Husband, Short Cuts) turns in her normal solid work as Earl's wife, Linda Partridge. Linda is a woman who married for money and now finds herself falling in love with her husband as he lies on his deathbed. It is a tragic role that Moore runs with.
So many other actors worth talking about. Anderson Rep members Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Jay and Alfred Molina all turn up in various roles, each bringing their talent to the table once again. It is worth mentioning that another Anderson regular, Luis Guzman also shows up as, well, as Luis Guzman. As always he is a welcome presence and is pretty damn funny to boot.
To close out the acting session, it should be noted that two members of Robert Altman's acting company are also in Magnolia. Henry Gibson (The Blues Brothers, Nashville, The Long Good-bye) and Michael Murphy (Kansas City, M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller), both bring great experience and talent to the film. Their presence also provides a tangible link between the two filmmakers.
With Magnolia, New Line is giving us their first double disc release. The packaging is not unlike Fox's on their excellent Fight Club. Menu interfaces are easy to look at as well as to use. Both discs contain color bars so that everyone can calibrate the picture properly, this is a feature that I believe Criterion started and it is a welcome feature.
Disc one contains only the movie. That leaves disc two to house all the goodies. Using Fight Club once more as the current benchmark for special edition DVD's, Magnolia stacks up well but does not hit one out of the park. The first thing missing is a commentary track. I understand that Anderson has said that the movie speaks for itself and does not require additional commentary. Still when dealing with a film the scope and size of Magnolia, a commentary track would have been very helpful.
The main extra is the "Magnolia Diary," a documentary by Mark Rance about the making of Magnolia. At almost an hour long it is one of the best making-of features I have seen. Rance was given what seems to be almost unlimited access to the film and its production. Watching the documentary I got one distinct feeling. Paul Thomas Anderson drinks far too much coffee. Way too much coffee. The writer/director is hyper to the extreme.
The feature gives a great look at the making of an American epic. Just about everyone and everything is covered, although it is pretty obvious that Rance has a serious soft spot for Jason Robards. The veteran actor candidly discusses his own near fatal stay in the hospital and how the role in Magnolia fell into his lap shortly after being discharged.
Also in the package is the entire Frank TJ Mackey infomercial, "Search and Destroy" as well as the rest of Mackey's seminar. There is an outtake reel in the form of an Easter egg that is to be found in the disc's color bars. Aimee Mann's remarkable video "Save Me" is to be found as well, with the disc being closed out by the film's theatrical trailer and nine television spots.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is rare that a film comes along that so polarizes people. In talking about this film with several different people, the reactions were all extreme. Either they loved it or hated it. There were no in-betweens.
At 188 minutes, the length of Magnolia is bound to put quite a few people off. This was a length that I never really was aware of, outside a few moments around the two-hour mark but the film quickly regained my full interest and attention.
The subject matter itself is also bound to make some uncomfortable. It deals with death, mistakes made during life and the toll that all of that takes. The movie is often painful to watch, the sections with Jason Robards are especially difficult and Anderson does not pull his punches.
If I have one gripe with the disc, and this may well have come straight from P. T. Anderson, it only has 12 chapter stops. Now this is a film that runs over three hours with there being plenty of scenes that I would love to go back to easily. 12 chapter stops makes it a bit harder. Not a major complaint, call it more of an aggravation.
Magnolia also could have made good use of a commentary track, not to mention I would have loved to have seen some deleted footage. This is a good special edition, just not a great one.
Magnolia is one of the strongest movies of 1999 and probably one the best films from the '90s. It starts out strong and does not let up. Staying fresh in my memory nearly a week after being watched, Magnolia is a film I will come back to often.
New Line turns in strong work on picture and sound. While the special features leave a little bit to be desired, it is still a very strong package. I respect and understand the director's wishes about a commentary track, I just don't agree with him.
Retailing online for around 21 bucks, Magnolia is a movie to own and it receives my highest recommendation.
Magnolia, New Line and P. T. Anderson are acquitted of all charges. This court is dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Frank T. J. Mackey Seminar
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