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Blu-ray Review: Magnolia

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Magnolia is the kind of movie that simply begs to polarize audiences. It's long, it has a labyrinth of characters and plots intersecting, and it certainly doesn't mind structuring itself with a middle finger towards convention. Is it pretentious? Sure, if you're trying to find a pretentious film. Is it deeply profound? If you're looking for that, you probably won't disappoint yourself. Is it somewhere in the middle? No, there's no middle.

The Movie

It's important to know that there isn't a main character in Magnolia. And there is no hero, and there are no villains. There are just humans, they're all screwed up, most are in some way dealing with "the sins of the father", and things are probably going to get worse for them before they start to get any better. Take Frank "T.J." Mackey (Tom Cruise), for example. His popular audio/video series called "Seduce And Destroy" teaches men how to control women, instead of being controlled. Or former "Quiz Kid" champ Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who spends his time selling stereos but is secretly in love with the bartender across town.

The current prince of kid game show winners, Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), already realizes that there must be more to life than being controlled by his showbiz-wannabe father. They do a good job of not letting you know at first glance, but they're all dying on the inside. And Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is a lot like all of them, except that he is also dying on the outside, from cancer. And there are more, and somehow they're all connected and will have their lives changed over the course of a single day.

The pacing of the film is almost operatic. After opening with a brief prelude, we're ushered in to a rushed first act, meeting characters and identifying their situations. There are brief arias with each of the leads that peel back their veneer. And as they bounce from one to another, we're not sure if these people are related or not, and the story is initially told in snippets. First the blind what of their circumstances, later the why of their history, and eventually we get to the when and how can this be remedied. And it's these later acts that – fortunately – slow the pace down, before the somewhat grand finale. There are elements to the story that are fantastically coincidental at first glance, as well as elements of some divine intervention that lend it a fabled edge. But the more I dwell on the movie, and the more that time passes and I see it played out in personalities and emotions, the less fantastical it seems.

Video/Audio

Warner's delivers a solid 1080p/VC-1 transfer to Magnolia. The expert cinematography of the movie shines in high definition, where the lingering close-ups and slow pans help capture the moment with both emotion and detail. I don't approach films scientifically, so I can't say this without error, but there are certainly no obvious moments of artifacting, over-compression or noise issues. The image is surprisingly clean, especially given the range of environments and abundance of dark interiors. Any anomalies would probably be the result of source footage and not the transfer, but the upgrade for this from the previous DVD versions is readily apparent.

Magnolia is much more of a visual film than it is auditory. The dialogue-heavy pacing is right where it should be in the mix, and is expertly balanced. When action does take place in the sound field, it is full and immersive, and the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track becomes more of an obvious upgrade. Likewise, the musical aspects of the film – from the score as well as the prominent montage to Aimee Mann's Oscar-nominated "Save Me" – supply rich texture to the film, instead of just jumping out at you. The audio track is almost impressive in how unimpressive it is. Although certainly not a demonstration piece for your home theater, it is exactly what it needs to be for this film.

Bonus MaterialsWhy is it that whenever I actually want a director's commentary track, it's nowhere to be found? Such is the case here. With a film as sprawling as Magnolia – with multiple sub-plots, and characters that work in and out of several of them – it would be very interesting to get a more thorough dissection from the creator himself. Instead, what we get is a "Video Diary" (SD, 72:43), shot on hand-held camera during the production of the film. It's a candid look from on the set during the shoot, and features interview moments with the director, some of the crew, and several of the stars. It's less revelatory than it is an unfiltered glimpse at movie-making, but it is interesting to get reactions to a film, from those involved in it; and during its production instead of months or years later, while the experience is still fresh. Definitely an interesting watch, but not a substitute for something more expository.

Other than that, the features are pretty meager. There are two bonus items featuring Frank Mackey's character: a deleted scene (SD, 3:55), and the full "Seduce And Destroy infomercial" for his self-help series (SD, 1:33). The music video for Aimee Mann's "Save Me" (SD, 4:46) is directed by Anderson, and sets Mann within the main settings of the film. As the song is such a prominent part of the production, the video feels like a proper extension and recap of the characters at their emotional bottom. There are also two theatrical trailers (SD, 4:05), and nine television spots (SD, 4:39) for the film.

Conclusion

It's much easier to evaluate a film like Magnolia ten years after its release. It's the kind of movie that becomes something greater with the passage of time, where the subtleties of character's plights, or the comic-to-tragic unraveling of Cruise's Mackey, repeats itself throughout celebrity culture. Yes, the movie is long, and no, some of the act transitions aren't what we would typically consider to be seamless (and yes, the final act is a couple shades of odd upon first viewing). But the humanity of these characters, along with the brilliant acting of the entire cast, is completely mesmerizing. It spreads itself out like an Altman film, and any sense of untidiness must later be reconsidered in light of its reality. It's a film about thoroughly messy redemption, and that isn't something that can always be crammed or neatly compressed into a popcorn flick. If you haven't yet seen this film, this new Blu-ray release is an excellent introduction to what is one of the most memorable films of the past two decades. Highly recommended.

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