Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Magnolia: Platinum Series (1999)
Studio Line: New Line - Things fall down. People look up. And when it rains, it pours.

Magnolia is a mosaic of American life woven through a series of comic and poignant vignettes. Through a collusion of coincidence, change, human action, nine people will weave and wrap through each other’s lives on a day that builds to an unforgettable climax. Some will seek forgiveness, others escape. Some will mend frayed bonds, others will be exposed.

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Jason Robards, Philip Baker Hall, Tom Cruise, John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeremy Blackman, Melinda Dillon
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Screenplay; Best Supporting Actor-Tom Cruise; Best Song-"Save Me", 2000.
Box Office: Budget: $37 million. Opening Weekend: $193 thousand (7 screens). Gross: $22.45 million.
DVD: 2-Disc set; widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1 & Dolby Surround; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 12 chapters; rated R; 188 min.; $29.98; street date 8/29/00.
Supplements: 72-minute documentary "Magnolia Diary"; 2 Theatrical Trailers; 9 TV spots; Aimee Mann "Save Me" music video; "Frank T.J. Mackey Seminar"; "Mackey Infomercial".
Purchase: DVD | Magnolia: The Shooting Script - Paul Thomas Anderson | Score soundtrack - Jon Brion | Music soundtrack - Aimee Mann, Various Artists | Poster

Picture/Sound/Extras: A/A-/B+

Jump forward 50 years from and take a look back on the 1990s - which filmmakers who emerged in that decade do you believe will be regarded as genuine, long-lasting talents? If Las Vegas accepted wagers on this subject, I'd place my bets on David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) and Paul Thomas Anderson, creators of some of the most fresh and exciting movies of the last ten years.

Although he had already made a fine film in his debut effort, 1996's Hard Eight, Anderson really broke onto the scene in 1997 with Boogie Nights, a daring and creative journey into the life of a fictional porn star. BN created quite a stir, and though it featured quite a few flaws, it definitely offered a genuinely entertaining and compelling ride.

Although 1999's Magnolia is Anderson's third film, it really is his second in one regard, that of the "sophomore jinx". That phenomenon is most commonly associated with recording artists; lots of acts who release successful first albums encounter a great deal of trouble with their second attempts. This makes sense, since they had their whole lives to build up and refine quality material for that initial release, but the second one forced them to start from nothing.

Filmmakers also are affected by this phenomenon because of greater expectations. When one releases a first film - or an early work that causes a stir, as with BN - one projects it into a void; audiences and critics have little or no work by that artist against which to compare the movie. However, the follow-up doesn't exist on its own, and it'll be contrasted with the person's initial success.

As he mentions during this DVD's supplements, Anderson recognized this and set to work on a new film pretty soon after BN hit the screens. I thought that was a good sign to indicate his priorities; he knew that his next movie would be crucial to his artistic development and while he could have simply basked in the positive glow of his hit, he instead did the opposite to attempt to ensure it wouldn't be his only success.

Does Anderson achieve his goals in Magnolia? Yes, I think so. Is it better than Boogie Nights? No, but it's not worse, either; really, it's different, and though the films feature some significant similarities, comparisons between the two aren't tremendously clear-cut.

BN easily offers the more visceral, kinetic, rootin'-tootin' experience. From its showy opening scene in the nightclub, it grabs you by the neck, shakes you around and kicks you in the pants. It's a terrific statement from a filmmaker in that the movie's power makes it impossible to ignore.

Magnolia takes a very different route, as it's a much more quiet and contemplative affair. It's also more difficult to get a handle on the movie. I didn't see it during its theatrical run - I wanted to, but it was one of those "just didn't get around to it" flicks - and I feel that the one viewing I've had is insufficient to really get a grasp on the film's nuances.

However, it seemed clear that Anderson pursued many of the same themes seen in BN and Hard Eight, for that matter. I don't know much about Anderson's familial relationships, but he sure does seem obsessed with their interactions, especially in a dysfunctional way. All of his movies portray sad, lonely, disaffected folks who are either strongly alienated from kin or who have other significant issues. BN and HE were about finding family and belonging wherever one can, and though Magnolia concerns itself more closely with blood relations, it still shows characters who are generally in pursuit of love and acceptance.

Anderson tends to wear his influences on his sleeve. Just as BN strongly emulated Scorsese's GoodFellas, Magnolia takes a lot of cues from Robert Altman's Nashville. Frankly, I didn't care for that last film, for although I admired its ambition - it attempted to feature 24 "major" characters, although that number was a crock, since some roles barely existed - I found the execution to feel scattered and gimmicky.

Magnolia doesn't try to spread itself as thin; as such, it succeeds to a much fuller extent. I may incur the wrath of Altman's fans, but I felt Magnolia provided a much more tight and coherent film; unlike Nashville, it actually has a script and a storyline, not just lots of improvised guerrilla filmmaking.

By Nashville's definition of "major characters", there probably are 24 here, but Magnolia only focusses on nine of them. (Amusingly, Anderson casts two Nashville veterans - Henry Gibson and Michael Murphy - in minor roles here.) None of the parts can be considered the lead; unlike Anderson's prior two films, there is no character that stands out as the "main" one. Instead, each participant forms an integral segment of the whole and helps create this mysteriously lovely picture.

On the liner notes of the DVD, we're told that "Magnolia is a mosaic of American life woven through a series of comic and poignant vignettes. Through a collection of coincidence, chance, human action, shared media, past history and divine intervention, nine people will weave and warp through each other's lives on a day that builds to an unforgettable climax. Some will seek forgiveness, others escape. Some will mend frayed bonds, others will be exposed."

As pretentious as that paragraph sounds, it's essentially correct and probably summarizes Magnolia as well as anything. The film features no neat and tidy plot, as it simply focusses on the events of a single day. Actually, when you watch the movie, it seems hard to believe all of the action really is captured in one day; I've read reviews that discuss the different days of the piece, and I can't blame them for misinterpreting the scope, since the events feel like they happen over a longer period.

That doesn't mean that Magnolia comes across as forced or too large for its own good. While the danger exists for it to provide an unrealistic amount of revelation and drama for such a short period of time, the fact stands that nothing shown onscreen doesn't happen on a day-to-day basis. This doesn't mean that each of us experiences such life-affecting events every day of our existences, but Anderson doesn't say that we do. It just focusses on one day in which a lot happened to these particular people.

The film may stretch its premise due to the fact the episodes are interwoven, but I found his portrayal to be acceptably believable. After all, he doesn't attempt to wrap up events with a cute conclusion in which all of the characters end up at the same nightclub, or whatever, and he doesn't try to make all of them interact; you can play "Six degrees of Magnolia and quickly and easily link the participants, but this isn't done in an overly-tidy manner. It all makes sense and seems natural to me.

A couple other aspects of the plot blurb in the liner notes deserve mention. Some of the more-criticized parts of the story concern the "shared media" and the "divine intervention", as these sections of the film provide the picture's least realistic aspects. I don't want to discuss the actual content more fully since such an examination might provide potential spoilers, but let's just say that Anderson' choices are somewhat audacious.

But they work. Part of Anderson's gift is that he can offer unusual events in his films and make them seem not just believable and acceptable but also occasionally beautiful and poetic. The "shared media" falls into those cate gories, and the "divine intervention" has its oddly lovely moments as well. The latter provides what is undeniably one of the strangest movie endings I've seen, but somehow it feels "right" for this picture.

Magnolia isn't a perfect film, but warts and all, it's compelling and winning. Frankly, perfection is over-rated, and one thing we see in the movies of Anderson and Fincher is that flaws can possess their own charms. Anderson makes more of an asset out of a negative than almost anyone, and as a result, his films are both endearing and memorable. Magnolia is a gem to be savored.

The DVD:

Magnolia appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.4:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the picture looks simply fantastic, with virtually no problems of note.

Sharpness seems absolutely stellar, with all of the film appearing extremely crisp and clear; even during extremely wide shots, I detected no signs of softness. A minor hint of moiré effects appears, but it seems minimal, and the artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV were also less obvious than usual. The print itself presents no flaws that I could find; it seems completely free of grain, scratches, speckles, or other defects.

Colors were rich and lush, and they always seem well-saturated. For the most part, Magnolia lacks the eye-popping hues of Boogie Nights, but that makes sense since it doesn't need them. When appropriate, the colors look just as bright and bold as those in BN. Black levels also appear nicely deep and dark, and shadow detail remained clear without any excessive heaviness. All in all, it's a fantastic picture.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 track of Magnolia doesn't quite match up with the image, but it works well nonetheless. The soundfield mainly sticks to the front, with some strong activity occurring in the forward channels; the music spreads especially nicely, and quite a lot of effects also broaden out to the sides usefully. The surrounds generally offer a more limited spectrum, and they usually provide effective but basic ambience. This changes at times, most significantly during the bizarre climactic scene; on that occasion, the rear speakers really come to life. In any case, the soundfield seemed appropriate for the film.

Audio quality was absolutely terrific. Dialogue always sounds natural and warm, and it displays no edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects are crisp and realistic without any distortion, and the music seems bright and smooth. Dynamic range is excellent, and the track feature some deep, taut bass at times. Although it lacks some expansiveness, the mix nonetheless works well and sounds great.

Since Magnolia is a two-DVD package, some expect it will offer a wealth of supplements to compare with sets like Fight Club or the A Bug's Life Collector's Edition. That's not the case, and I've seen some moping in regard to that issue as though the second DVD was a waste of time. Many folks appear to feel that if this extra platter isn't packed to the brim with goodies, then it's not necessary. Since Magnolia doesn't feature a greater wealth of supplements than we'd find on many single-disc sets, some act as though it barely contains any extras.

The truth is quite different. Yes, two-DVD packages do set up certain expectations, but we have to remember one thing about Magnolia: the movies lasts more than three hours. As such, for the DVD to feature any supplements above and beyond a trailer or two, it needed a second disc. All the whiners out there who complain about the relative lack of extras need to relax; with a film this long, New Line easily could have dispensed with pretty much everything and left the DVD plain.

Perhaps the biggest gripe - and the biggest surprise - relates to the absence of an audio commentary from Anderson. As anyone who's witnessed his tracks for Boogie Nights and Hard Eight can testify, this dude can talk; after he dies, he still should be able to give the eulogy! However, for whatever reason, he didn't want to do a commentary for Magnolia; apparently he felt "talked out" about it. I find that hard to believe but respect his wishes.

This means that unlike most (all?) 2-DVD sets, Magnolia contains no extras on the first disc. In fact, it's one of the most basic DVDs New Line has produced in a while, and I'd guess this occurs because of Anderson's influence. There are no flashy menus or gewgaws. It's just "play movie", "set-up" or "scene selections", and the latter are remarkably restrained; this 188-minute movie only uses 12 chapter stops! Again, I'd bet that was Anderson's idea, as he probably didn't want to "slice up" the film into too many pieces.

Anyway, all of the goodies appear on the second platter. The main attraction here is "Magnolia Diary", a 72-minute and 35 second program that covers aspects of the film's production. As the title implies, this isn't a neat and coherent "making of" documentary; instead, it offers almost random glimpses at the creation of the movie, just as a real diary provides a vague overview of a person's life but not a clear narrative.

Frankly, I generally prefer programs that fit into the "taut and cohesive" school of documentaries, but as with the similar piece on Titus, this one includes plenty of strong bits that make it very interesting. It follows the film from pre-production through post-release awards and offers a frank and fun view at the movie's evolution. That means looks at the actors, various technical crew, and a lot of Anderson; hey, we even get an odd interpretive piece in which his girlfriend Fiona Apple acts out the part of the movie! (You'd have to see it to understand, not that I'm sure I got it.) I enjoyed the diary very much and thought that what it lacked in cohesion it made up for through energy and spirit. My only complaint: a lot of the audio is difficult to hear because of the video recording techniques; much of it is very quiet and hard to understand. New Line should have added subtitles to the program.

The remaining features are shorter but also interesting. Two of the segments are really clips from the film that we don't get to see very well. Actually, the "Frank T.J. Mackey Seminar" includes footage I don't believe made the movie; the three-minute and 55-second piece shows additional material from the "Seduce and Destroy" seminar we see Tom Cruise's character hold. It's quite fun and entertaining, albeit in an over-the-top misogynistic way.

The other similar piece is the "Mackey Infomercial" in its entirety. We see snippets of this in the film, but here we find the whole 90 seconds of the "Seduce and Destroy" TV ad. Again, it's purposefully cheesy, and I loved being able to see the full program.

The DVD includes a slew of promotional materials. We find both the "teaser" and the full theatrical trailers for Magnolia and also get nine TV spots. One of these - the final promo - was not broadcast and apparently makes its first appearance here. In the "nice touch" category, the DVD will play these back-to-back, which made my life easier; normally I'd have to click on each separate ad, which gets old quickly.

The final obvious extra is a music video for Aimee Mann's "Save Me". This clip was directed by Anderson and features virtually all of the main cast as Mann pops up surreptitiously in their lives. It's an interesting piece and works well.

Nice touch number two: the music video, the two trailers, and the "seminar" all appear in their correct 2.35:1 ratios and also are 16X9 enhanced. The "infomercial" is appropriately presented fullscreen, and though parts of the TV ads are letterboxed, they couldn't be anamorphically enhanced because parts of them remain 1.33:1.

As you look at the main menu for DVD 2, you'll note that "color bars" are listed at the top. They're not tremendously unusual to find, though typically only Criterion offer them. Click on them and you'll find a special treat: after 20 seconds of the bars, we get seven minutes and 55 seconds of outtakes from Magnolia. These offer some multiple shots of the same scene, plus a few goof-ups and takes ruined by laughter. Normally I dislike these things, but that's generally just due to the cheesy Burt Reynolds/Jackie Chan cutesy presentation they receive; for some reason, they seem more entertaining here. In any case, it's a cool little treat. (Although the outtakes are presented 2.35:1, they're not 16X9 enhanced; I'd guess this is because they're in amongst the fullscreen color bars, which rendered anamorphic enhancement difficult/impossible.)

1999 was a strong year for movies, but even among that crop, Magnolia stands out as one of the best. It's a lovely and lyrical piece that works extremely well despite its lack of a plot and its very long running time. The DVD offers excellent picture and sound plus some very nice supplements as well. Add this one to your "to buy" list; Magnolia is a keeper.

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