Friday, February 5, 2010

Revisiting 1999: The Top Ten Films of the Year, #3 --- Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Here's what I've covered so far...

The Top 10 Films of 1999:
5- The Insider (Michael Mann)
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.

The cast is universally great. My favorites are the star-turning performance by John C. Reilly as a bumbling, but sincere, L.A. cop. There's a moment when he loses his gun and fears he'll be even more of a laughingstock among his peers, and for something that probably feels so insignificant to us Reilly does a phenomenal job of making us feel the cop's fears, turning it into a poignant scene. I also loved William H. Macy here as quiz kid Donny. He plays that kind "celebrity" we would find on all those VH1 specials. There's a great scene where he's in a bar trying to work up the nerve to hit on the bartender, only to be derailed by a richer, smoother man played by Altman regular Henry Gibson (in a nice bit of casting by Anderson). The speech Donny gives is both funny and powerful as we see a man who has never had control of his life, always doing what others want him to do and so desperately trying to please those people.

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.

I mentioned that the film is overblown and operatic, playing for big time emotions that leave a lot of people laughing because said emotions are so unbridled and unabashed. Take for example the scene where Julianne Moore is looking to get more drugs for her dying husband Earl (played by Jason Robards Jr.). The pharmacist thinks she's just some spoiled rich woman looking to party, and even though Moore is a user, there's an amazing scene where she looses it and in a flurry of expletives tells off the pharmacist. It's a polarizing scene as those who don't buy into what Anderson is doing here often think the scene is overblown and unintentionally funny. There's also the bedside redemption scene between Mackey and Earl. Cruise's acting here is, again, quite over the top, but what about Anderson's film hasn't been over the top? It's the right note for what Anderson was going for.

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).

What makes Magnolia so brilliant though is the fact that Anderson sets up the theme of coincidence in the beginning in a brilliant little bit of storytelling and editing narrated by Ricky Jay. It's just one of many aesthetic choices that jar the viewer, and Anderson isn't afraid to throw everything he can think of into this film. That kind of attitude is what made 1999 such a memorable year for film. Along with Spike Jonze and David Russell, Anderson was an emerging and exciting filmmaker because we never knew what the next frame of his film had in store for us. There's was something liberating and anarchic in the air that year that even the old masters like Scorsese and Mann got into the act and made challenging films within the archetype of the Hollywood picture. Magnolia is one of those films that should I happen upon it on cable I can't turn away. Like the Coen's Fargo, there's something hypnotic about the film. It's a film that elevates me to a special place; a film that fills me with laughter and contemplation; a film that never feels its 188 minute running time; and most importantly a film that keeps me coming back to it because of its bravado and underlying themes that play out like modern version of the Hebrew Bible. The final shot of Melora Waters (with Mann's aptly titles song "Save Me" playing over the faint dialogue of Reily's cop) smiling is one of my favorite closing shots of all time; every time I watch that ending I smile with her, thankful for the exhausting, but exhilarating (and fulfilling), experience Anderson has given me.



I know there are countless more themes and metaphors in the film that I’m not covering here (I love all the literal Exodus 8:2 signs Anderson throws in..and in the screencaps above you enlarge them and look on the left side of the frame you'll notice a few examples of what I'm talking about), but I’m hoping those will be discussed more fully in the comments since a lot of writers better than me have already covered those themes. What strikes me most about Magnolia is how energetic it is, even in what the seemingly mundane details the film flows with exuberance that infectious. You don’t realize until the film is over that you’re worn out, not by boredom but by relentless energy of the film. It’s really something to behold.

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.

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  1. Great write up.

    Magnolia's one of those films that just gets past all my defenses and reduces me to jelly.

  2. The film definitely owes something to Short Cuts, and yet I have the same overflowing affection for it. This is my pick for 1999's best film- only Eyes Wide Shut comes close to knocking it out of the top spot for me.

  3. Great review!!!

    As you've rightly pointed out at the very outset of your wonderful analysis of the movie, Magnolia is an "overblown, operatic, and Über melodramatic morality play" - but all in the positive sense. An audacious effort from Anderson indeed - in fact, it might even be called his magnum opus.

  4. Another terrific review, Kevin! Great stuff. I haven't seen this film in ages. When it first came out on DVD I think I watched it too much and burned myself out on it but it's high time that I re-visit this one and you're post has certainly inspired me to do so.

    I agree that this is one of Cruise's best performances he's ever done and it seems like PTA really tapped into a part of the actor's past that he has alluded to briefly in interviews but seems to confront head-on in this film: the absence of a father figure in his life. MAGNOLIA is a fantastic example of go-for-broke cinema as PTA throws in everything but the kitchen sink and really tests an audience member's resolve for just how much melodrama they can possible take in one sitting. I loved this film an am curious to see how it holds up after all this time.

  5. I'm catching up on blog reading. I'm so glad to see you mention the scene with the lost gun. ("Find the gun! Find the gun, Jim!") I've always found that scene so utterly heartbreaking. Reilly is terrific in that movie.

    My favorite shot from the film, though, which is a little hard to appreciate out of the theater, comes when Cruise's character is cursing Robards and Hoffman can be seen in the back of the shot, fidgeting uncomfortably. Here he's tried to do this great thing, and now a man who feels like a father to him is getting cursed by his own son. A great shot!

    Also, hope I don't lose too many movie geek points for this, but I'd never spotted or heard about those Exodus signs. Obviously I caught the allusion, but didn't know he got so literal with it. Genius!

  6. Wow...I've been away from the blog for awhile and I've missed some comments on this. I'll respond specifically when I have the time...but I just wanted to say thanks for the comments, everyone! This project started a while ago and I feel like I need to finish it...but sometimes it's hard because I feel like people are all "listed out". I only have two more selections to go and then...oh what's that? Another list! (my best of the decade) Oh well.

    I'll be back later to respond to what you guys are saying...but I just wanted to say thanks for the comments and for adding to the discussion.

  7. EDJ:

    I agree...that ending always reduces me to, as you so wonderfully put it, jelly. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

  8. Adam:

    You're right about the Short Cuts influence on the film, and really like most of Anderson's films there is something owed to Altman and Scorsese (and Kubrick with There Will Be Blood). I didn't much care for Eyes Wide Shut...I probably need to revisit it again, but even though I liked it well enough (it looked beautiful with its hazy and dreamy aesthetic) it just couldn't crack the top of my list for 1999...which I think proves what a great year 1999 was. I was glad I got to see Eyes Wide Shut in the theaters my senior year in high school...that was definitely an experience to be able to see a first run Kubrick film in the theater.

    Thanks as always for stopping by!

  9. Shubhajit:

    I would say it is his magnum opus. Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words! I appreciate it.

  10. J.D.:

    I can understand where you're coming from. I watched this movie A TON when I was in college. However, the length of the film was never an issue for me. Whenever I see Magnolia playing on cable I will stop and watch it through to the end. There's something hypnotic not just about this film but with all of Anderson's films.

    I hope you revisit it soon...I would love to read your thoughts on it. Thanks as always for the kind words and for stopping by.

  11. Jason:

    Glad I'm not the only one that loves the 'lost gun' scene. Reilly is just so brilliant in this movie. Like I mentioned before, the scene where he checks in on Melora Waters' apartment...and the whole things with the volume ("that's cool I like to rock out too"), the TMJ conversation ("they should call it clicking jaw"), the coffee, and the moment where he covers his mouth and mumbles: "did you hear what I said"'s all played for subtle, nuanced laughs...which is weird to think of now that Reilly has made a lot of money going for broad humor in things like Walk Hard and Step Brothers.

    Thanks as always for stopping by and for the kind words. Don't feel bad about missing the Exodus 8:2 signs...I didn't see them until about the fourth or fifth time I watched the movie! Hehe.