Many originally found director Paul Thomas Anderson's work fascinating years ago in "Hard Eight", a film that starred Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson. The film's release was somewhat badly done to put it lightly, and the film hardly saw much business at the box office. A few years later the director really had a chance to shine with "Boogie Nights", the porn-industry drama that won over many with its strong writing, fine acting and good handling of many actors and plot threads. Head to last year with "Magnolia", which was more divided on in opinion than "Boogie Nights". Some thought it was an overly lengthy (over 3 hours) drama; others thought it continued more of the same talent that Anderson showed in "Boogie".
I tend to agree with the second group more. Although "Magnolia" is honestly a bit much at 188 minutes, Anderson's stunning visual style and excellent screenplay are carried even further by performances from many of his usual actors that are excellent. Characters are fully written, sympathetic and although flawed, they are human and engaging.
Like "Boogie Nights", Anderson is easily able to keep a legion of widely varied characters organized. After the opening that shows us the possibilities of chance, we enter into a story taking place in LA that's built up from a number of shorter episodes that transition into one another. The great John C. Reilly plays a police officer loooking for love and finding it in a drug addict played by Melora Walters. At the same time, we see Jason Robards playing a man who is on the verge of dying, and comforted by his nurse (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and wife(Julianne Moore). The dying man wants to make things right with his son, Frank Mackey(Tom Cruise) who has become a self-help guru who teaches men how to get women.
And even more threads begin to open up as the film marches on, including a game show host(Phillip Baker Hall), a new contestant(Jeremy Blackman) and what has become of a previously popular contestant(the always excellent William H. Macy). No, the film does not move very quickly, but I appreciated many little things that pop up during the film's running time. The story and even specific scenes are fully written and constructed down to the slightest detail. As the film goes further and further, it's impressive how crisply the pieces of the puzzle grab onto one another. Anderson is a filmmaker who focuses on the moment, and as dramatic and depressing as "Magnolia" gets, he manages to hold the audiences attention for the majority of the running time.
And again, I particularly like the work of Anderson's cinematographer, Robert Elswit(who also worked with him on "Boogie Nights" and "Hard Eight". There's something about Elswit's movement that's graceful, elegant and fascinating all at once. Shots follow characters along naturally and occasionally zip inwards; the best way I can describe it is that the camera almost has a personality all it's own and feels somewhat like an unseen character following all of these stories around.
I also liked nearly all of the performances. Cruise is entertaining as a man hiding behind a false front; Reily is fantastic as usual as the police officer and fellow "Boogie Nights" actors Moore, Macy and others also turn in impressive work. In fact, there are really a few minor things that I didn't quite like. I liked many of the songs in the film (especially the Amiee Mann tunes), but otherwise there were a few scenes where I would have rather let the scene play out on its own rather than have the song behind it. A minor complaint, though.
Some may want to compare Anderson's work here with "Boogie Nights", but I think that's something that shouldn't be done in this case. Both films are extremely good, and have their own positive aspects to offer. If anything though, "Magnolia" proves that Anderson's talent continues. A few minor bumps don't keep this from being a well-written, expertly acted drama that is enjoyable up to the impressive and somewhat out-of-nowhere final moments.
Case: "Magnolia" is contained in a case similar to Fox's "Fight Club", or sort of like a junior version of what they did with their "X-Files" season set. Pictures from the film are on the two front sides, and once it's opened, there are listings for the chapters on both disc one and two.
VIDEO: New Line offers more solid work, and this time they mention on the back of the box that this transfer was done by director Paul Thomas Anderson and Lou Levinson. The film has a stylish look, with rich, deep colors and some great looking scenery and cinematography. The film is presented in it's original aspect ratio, which here, is about 2.40:1. The film occasionally has a slightly dark look, but even in the darker sequences, detail is always very good.
Flaws are impressively minimal here. The print is absolutely free of any marks, scratches or other similar flaws. A slight bit of artfacts appear once or twice, but basically this is a completely clear and clean presentation, which is impressive for a film that inches past the three-hour mark.
Again, colors are also well-rendered, looking bold and sometimes bright, with no problems at all. Black level is also strong, and flesh tones are naturally presented. The picture is consistently smooth and natural looking and attains a "film-like" look to it. Anderson and his crew did a very fine job with this transfer and it's another excellent effort from New Line.
SOUND: "Magnolia" is pretty much a front-heavy film in terms of audio, but that's actually not a complaint in this instance because the sound is involving enough to be entertaining. Much of the film is dialogue, with music complimenting the scenes, as well. The music sounds particularly full-bodied here; deep, rich and occasionally with solid bass.
Surrounds recieve some subtle use a couple of times throughout the movie. With an exception or two, they are not too noticable. Dialogue is clear and very easily understood. The songs from Mann remain the star of the show in terms of sound, and they sound excellent on this release. Dialogue-driven, but still entertaining and enjoyable.
MENUS:: The menu art is unexpectedly pretty basic, with film-themed images used for the main menus on both discs. I suppose though that animation or other touches really wouldn't have worked here, and it's nice on the second disc that the menus take the viewer directly to the extra instead of having to go through sub-menus.
EXTRAS: Although some were dissapointed that director Paul Thomas Anderson did not contribute a commentary track to "Magnolia", the second DVD in this set does provide some excellent supplemental features, especially the film's documentary.
The Diary: Making Of "Magnolia": Around 75 minutes in length, "The Diary" is the biggest extra located on the second disc, which is for supplemental features. Documentary filmmaker Mark Rance follows director Paul Thomas Anderson around from October 1998 to March of 2000. Interviews with Anderson offer the usual from the filmmaker that audiences have gotten to know from his commentary tracks on this first films. He has an impressive amount of energy and intensity about what he does and it shows here. As usual, he also occasionally uses 4-letter words, but it just adds to the emotional nature of how he describes his thoughts. He has a definite confidence about him, and I think it also helps his films.
As for this documentary, we are taken on the journey along with Anderson through the production and even afterwards. We start with the production meetings as well as Anderson's thoughts about where he wanted to take the film and specific stories. DVD viewers have seen similar features that are excellent on "Titus", "Three Kings" and "Rushmore", for example, but Rance's feature develops the elements and takes a fuller, more intimate look at Anderson's process of both pre-production and filming itself, then wrapping the film up. Interviews also seem less formal, catching actors and crew for a moment to give their thoughts on their character and the filmmaker. These quick, informal talks are more refreshing than the usual interviews included on most DVD documentaries; they seem simply more natural.
I'm also extremely glad to see this kind of documentary feature catching on. Instead of the more promotional feature that doesn't really tell us much about the movie, these intimate documentaries not only inform the viewer about how the movie was made, but allows us to be on the set and see problems arise and the joy of things going right. I think that this documentary gets even more interesting as it goes on, and the final section which covers promotion and release; it offers some funny moments and fascinating looks at the days leading up to and after a film's open. At the very least, to be allowed this kind of access to the set is a treat to watch. Some have complained that Anderson did not do a commentary for "Magnolia", but this 75-minute feature tells viewers the whole story.
TV Ads/Trailers: The film's theatrical trailer(Dolby Digital 5.1/2.35:1); teaser trailer(Dolby Digital 5.1/2.35:1) and 9 TV spots.
Music Video: Amiee Mann's "Save Me" video, presented in 2.35:1 and Dolby 2.0.
TJ Mackey Additional Footage: More of the TJ Mackey footage not seen in the theatrical release, along with the "Seduce and Destroy" infomercial that was used to promote the movie.
Color Bars: Color Bars, but with one difference - wait a few moments and you get a number of outtakes from the movie that last a total of about 8 minutes.
Final Thoughts: New Line does excellent work here, providing a second disc worth of additional material for $29.99, the cost of most single discs. As for the presentation, the picture quailty is superb, with only a tiny flaw or two in the entire three hour running time. Sound quality is good, too. Although "The Diary" is the most significant extra, there are a number of other extras to choose from.
As for the film, this is a film that I think I will want to watch again. "Magnolia" is, at it's best, stunning and even at it's least interesting moments, I still found things to enjoy. Overall though, this is a pretty fantastic film that I am highly recommending.