4- Three Kings (David O. Russell)
Paul Thomas Anderson's overblown, operatic, and Über melodramatic morality play was one of the most audacious releases of the 90's. It took balls for Anderson to put so much out there unapologetically and for him to make a film that relies entirely on an ensemble cast to understand what he's trying to say and how he's trying to say it. Like Anderson's two biggest masters, Scorsese and Altman, his film is dripping with religious allegory and tragic downfalls; however, unlike the downward spiral of Dirk Diggler in the extremely Scorsese-influenced Boogie Nights there seems to be genuine hope here for the majority of the characters. Like an Altman picture, Anderson zips his camera from scene to scene filling with it interesting dialogue and even more interesting characters, always with music in the background to keep with the operatic theme. The constant use of music not only alleviates some of the unease of sitting through a talky three-hour film, but it gives the film the same kind of energy one would find in early Scorsese. There's a sense that we don't know where Magnolia is heading, and when it finally reaches it's very literal biblical ending you're either smiling as you go along, or you're rolling your eyes in disbelief.
There are more characters of note, of course: Melora Waters as an abused drug addict who falls in love with Reilly's cop after he pays her a visit for being too loud in her apartment (this is one of Reilly's best scenes as he does so man y nuanced things for laughs that they slip right by the passive viewer); there's Tom Cruise's T.J. Mackey, of course, one of the only reason a lot of people saw this film to begin with (although to Cruise's credit he and Anderson didn't want his picture on the poster for fear that people would walk in thinking it was a "typical" Tom Cruise movie). He plays a foul-mouthed pervert who happens to make money off of his chauvinism with a stag-seminar entitled: "Search and Destroy". Cruise's seminars are some of the best parts of the film and some of the best acting Cruise has done.
The film is an aesthetic treat, too, as Aimee Mann's beautiful music guides use through the city and the interactions of these people's lives. Anderson's film is one of the first "hyperlink" films (a phrase I first heard from Ebert)…films like Crash, Babel, and other films of their ilk. The editing by Dylan Tichenor is appropriately manic, the cinematography by the great Robert Elswit’s fluid and graceful camera (like any Anderson film there’s some wonderful tracking shots and push-ins mixed with kinetic flash pans and other camera trickery)films L.A. in an unassuming way so that when the more blatant visual correlatives occur they’re more noticeable, and the aforementioned music by Mann is one of the best things about the film…not to mention one of the keys to better understanding the characters and what Anderson is trying to say with this film (one of the most famous, and best, scenes is where Mann's "Wise Up" plays and all of the characters in their respective places sing along).
Clearly Anderson is a fearless director. It takes guts to put a film so "out there" unabashedly and not be afraid of people perhaps thinking the film is pretentious and over-the-top melodrama. Time has been kind to Magnolia, though, and I think the recent love for another gutsy, overblown film that goes "out there" by Anderson, There Will Be Blood, has perhaps forced people to look at Magnolia with fresh eyes. I don't know if I'll ever think of There Will Be Blood the same way I think of Magnolia, but one thing they share in common and one thing that I admire the hell out of both films is Anderson's reluctance to pull back on the reins. So rare is it these days in the saturated and neutered Hollywood system to get a filmmaker who is willing to make films that feel more at home during the new wave of American cinema in the 70's. Anderson no longer has to think of himself as someone who aspires to be like Altman and Scorsese by fashioning his films after their style…he's now clearly on par with those two masters. Paul Thomas Anderson just may be the most talented and interesting American filmmaker to be unleashed on Hollywood since Martin Scorsese.