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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Overcast
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Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia may be the most magnificent failure since Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas--a runaway train of a movie that slips off the tracks early on and then spends three very long hours crashing. Except for the fact that he's used many of the same actors, it's hard to believe this is the guy who brought us Boogie Nights, which also sprawled but without Anderson losing control over his material. Magnolia simply doesn't know when to quit. It starts at a fever pitch of excitement and turmoil, then tries to climb higher, then higher. Howard Hawks used to say a movie only needs a couple of great scenes. Anderson wants every scene to be a great scene, and he's willing to sacrifice everything to get the job done.

A day-in-the-life movie that the director claims to have modeled on the Beatles song "A Day in the Life," Magnolia can't help but remind us of Robert Altman's Short Cuts, which also featured a group of Los Angelenos who swirled around one another like electrons. Stiff as a corpse, Jason Robards plays a TV producer dying of cancer, Julianne Moore the trophy wife who married him for his money and then, surprising herself, fell in love with him. Still, it's his long-lost son whom the TV producer calls for on his deathbed--a Tony Robbins-like confidence man who teaches less confident men how to "Seduce and Destroy" the opposite sex. (Letting it all hang out, Tom Cruise turns in a disgustingly mesmerizing performance that's all but dripping in testosterone.)

That's one storyline. The other is more densely interwoven. John C. Reilly is a nice-guy cop who responds to a noise complaint and winds up asking the woman (Melora Walters) out on a date. A miserable cokehead, she's the estranged daughter of a quiz-show host (Philip Baker Hall) who's just found out he too has cancer. Like the other cancer patient, this one has a few sins he'd like to confess to, which is one of the movie's themes: forgiving those (parents) who trespass against us. Another theme: knowledge vs. understanding. Magnolia features not one but two child prodigies (William H. Macy and Jeremy Blackman) who know all the answers to the TV-quiz questions but don't have a clue how to behave when the APPLAUSE sign goes off.

As if preparing for a flood, Anderson arranges everything in pairs, which makes the movie about twice as long as it needs to be. Seemingly improvised, the scenes go on and on, like acting exercises, and at times the whole thing feels like 23 actors in search of an author. It's a tapestry movie in which the threads are so frayed they don't hold together. We feel the lack of connection among these people, which is half of what Anderson is up to, but not the connection, which is the other half. Boogie Nights also set electrons swirling around one another, but it had a nucleus: Burt Reynolds' paternal porn director, around which a surrogate family of lost souls gathered. Magnolia doesn't have a solid core. Structurally, it's a great big bowl of Jell-O.

Much of the smooshiness is on purpose. In fact, that's part of what the movie's about--the random way that things seem to nevertheless fall into place. Anderson uses meteorological forecasts to set off the acts in his three-act structure, weather being the one thing we think we can predict, though we're wrong as often as we're right. But the movie itself seems as reliably unpredictable as the weather. There aren't enough signs of a controlling intelligence. Even the title goes unexplained, as far as I can tell. I've read that it refers to an avenue in the San Fernando Valley down which most of these characters go in search of love, compassion, forgiveness. Other directors would have thrown in some red lights. Anderson sees only the go-go-go of green.


I took my first trip out to Star Cinema last weekend--forgot to turn left on County PD and wound up near Verona. Ever so slightly off the beaten path, this brand-new state-of-the-art multiplex, which is owned by Prairie du Chien's AGT Enterprises, doesn't exactly "say" movie theater on the outside. It says...well, it says Wal-Mart, with its warehouse-like massing, its sea of asphalt, even its decorative textured block. Only the building's central tower, which stretches out into the parking lot in the form of an industrial-style canopy, suggests there might be something fun happening inside--that and the glass-block inserts in the piers, which, when lit, work their way through the colors of the rainbow, much like those color wheels that used to go with aluminum Christmas trees. Of course, I loved those color wheels, and I'm embarrassed to say I spent a good 10 minutes standing out in the cold and watching Star Cinema transform from green to blue to purple....

Inside, things both heat up and cool down. The tower's high-pitched roof extends past the ticket area to the concession stand on the back wall, forming a rather grand, if sadly unarticulated, space--kind of like a train shed that's been covered in drywall. To the left and to the right, videogames beckon. And beneath one's feet the somewhat garish carpet puts the "star" back in Star Cinema enough times to start one's own Milky Way. But where this particular multiplex shines the brightest is in its individual screening rooms, which come equipped with the latest in movie-watching razzle-dazzle: all-digital sound systems, stadium seating with high-backed seats that rock, wall-to-wall curved screens and, yes, cupholders. I'm still trying to make my peace with these curved screens, which wreak havoc on a movie's rectangle-based compositions. If only because Star Cinema's screens tend to be wider than other screens in town, they seem to curve more.

Perhaps we'll never return to the movie palaces of the '20s and '30s, where just being there was half the fun, but Star Cinema is at least a step in the right direction--excellent sound, decent-size screens, comfy seats. And if the new kid on the block brings some competition to a town that's been all but owned by Marcus Theatres for a number of years, who am I to complain?

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