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MAGNOLIA

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Jeremy Blackman, Tom Cruise, Melinda Dillon, Phillip Baker Hall, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Jay, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Jason Robards, John C. Reilly, Melora Walters
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround
Video: Widescreen 2.40:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: New Line Cinema
Features: See Review
Length: 188 Minutes
Release Date: August 29, 2000

Film ****

What a marvel of a film is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia! It arrived at the end of a glorious year for movies, and resulted in my choice for the absolute best film of 1999. A rare kind of movie experience that pulls you into it’s world and atmosphere, and dares to let you go for a single second in its’ three hour and eight minute running time. A magical gem of a movie where nine distinct characters who will cross one another’s path in the most unexpected way.  Featuring one of the strongest, most ensemble casts in the history of ensemble casts, Magnolia towers over all other movies of 1999, and it establishes Paul Thomas Anderson as a master filmmaker, where as Hard Eight introduced him, and Boogie Nights made him an A-list director.

The film opens with three accounts of coincidence and irony, with narration by actor Ricky Jay, that are unrelated to events in the main story, but it achieves brilliantly in setting up how the central story will pay off, and how all of the movie’s central characters will intersect. The first story involves the hanging of three men for a murder that takes place in the most unlikely place. The seconds tells of the accidental death of a blackjack dealer, at the hands of jet pilot whose paths crossed a couple nights before the incident. The third tells of a what begins as a suicide, then turns strangely in to a homicide. The words “These strange things happen all the time” uttered by the narrator before the credits appear clue you in on what kind of story and especially what kind of payoff you will get in the end.

Following that opening, we are then introduced the film’s amazingly ensemble cast of characters, backed up by a wonderful rendition of Three Dog Night’s One by Aimee Mann. There is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a cancer-stricken television producer who is slowly but surely approaching death. Earl’s very young wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), is full of grief and immensely depressed about her soon to be loss, among other incidents as well. Earl’s long-lost son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), is a charismatic motivational speaker of a seminar called “Seduce and Destroy”, designed to specifically to seduce and hurt women in the worst way. Earl’s personal nurse, Phil Parma (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is desperate to reunite Frank and Earl at Earl’s request. Then there’s Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall), host of the long-running game show “What Do Kids Know?”. Jimmy also has a form of cancer, and does not have much time left, and also has some emotional wounds to mend. Like the estranged relationship of Earl and Frank, one exists between Jimmy and his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters). Claudia is extremely bitter with her father, for reasons that seem inexplicable to even Jimmy himself. His wife (Melinda Dillon), also wants to know why she despises him. Claudia seems to want to be left alone, but she captures the attention of Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), an honest cop with a gentle soul, but a little inept on the side. Then there’s Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a child genius who is close from breaking a record on the game shoe Jimmy hosts. He is desperate to be looked at as just a normal kid, and not a celebrity. His only joy in being smart is that it will hopefully get his father’s attention. Last but not least, there’s the quiz kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who was once like Stanley, but now has been reduced to a sales clerk who’s desperate to impress someone who will give him some kind of love. These ten characters have a distinct connection to one another, and by the end of the film, it will be revealed.

Movies that exceed two or three hours are most of the time some of the best pieces of movie making. Such examples are JFK, Heat, Braveheart, Casino, and Anderson’s reigning masterpiece, Boogie Nights. However, sometimes, films that run long tend to include a few moments that get the film sidetracked, and thus the complete film doesn’t hold your attention. Magnolia doesn’t do that for a spare second of it’s running time, which is way seeing it on the opening day in a half-crowded theater was one of the most pleasant movie-going experiences of my life. From scene one, I was drawn in this world and the circle of eccentric characters, much like the same way I felt when seeing Boogie Nights for the first time in a theater. In other words, P.T. Anderson is a movie-making genius in the way he gets the viewer’s attention.

The cast of Magnolia is like a dream come true. When I first heard that Tom Cruise was going to be appearing in this film, I knew the film would soar, and I was right. Cruise’s portrayal of Frank Mackey is one of the actor’s greatest achievements, if not the greatest, ranking with Jerry Maguire, Eyes Wide Shut, and of course, Born on the 4th of July. He provides some of the movie’s darker humor, delivering such lines as “You are gonna give me that cherry pie, sweet mama baby” flawlessly. To be honest, it would be unfair to single out “A” great performance, because this entire cast shines as a whole.

Another star of Magnolia is Paul Thomas Anderson’s marvelous directing. I’ve always been big on long steady-cam shots, and this film has so many, I lost count. One could assume that Anderson is a disciple of the great Martin Scorsese, with his numerous quick camera cutting, but that method is so strong and effective in this film and in Boogie Nights as well.

With all that said, nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, will prepare you for the climax of this film. Various viewers might not know how to interpret exactly. It did take a few more viewings of the film to fully understand it, but nonetheless it is a breathtaking moment in the film that is likely to have you responding with awe.

Video ****

What more can I say? New Line has always been one of the leaders as far as DVD transfers go, and this will go down in DVD history as one of their very best. It’s a remarkably anamorphically enhanced widescreen presentation, with a plus. Featured on this disc are color bars that are used to set your monitor to match with the film’s appropriate coloring, and you will never see bigger difference with the use of that option than you will for this disc.

Audio ****

One of a kind, indeed. New Line doesn’t fail us here at all (like they ever would). The disc includes both a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, as well as a 2.0 Dolby Surround track. This is super, crisp and clear sound all the way. The soundtrack sounds terrific, as there is music playing in most of the film.

Features ****

After Fox’s monumental Fight Club disc, New Line appears to be heading for the same approach with this 2 Disc set. There are some very interesting features on the supplemental disc, including a hilarious deleted scene with Cruise’s Frank Mackey telling a wild anecdote of how he was able to “Form a Tragedy”, as well as the full, uncut Seduce and Destroy infomercial, several TV ads, trailers, a stunning music video for “Save Me” by Aimee Mann, and a very intriguing documentation of the making of the film titled The Magnolia Diary.

Summary:

Magnolia is a film that will without a doubt leave viewers with different opinions, but those who are swept by character pieces and that loved Boogie Nights should definitely take advantage of this. For film lovers, it is a treat of the most unexpected kind.