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‘Magnolia’ answer to tepid summer cinema

Upon viewing the vast expanse of soulless theatrical releases that currently plague cinemas this summer, it’s sometimes refreshing, and cheaper, to meander into a local video store and pick up a great movie. “Magnolia” is one of them.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, “Magnolia” is his most personal and audacious effort to date — a sprawling, operatic meditation on love, death, family and forgiveness. The film traces one day in Los Angeles and follows the intersections and hazards of nine emotionally bruised and aching people in the spirit of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts.”

But one of the most original aspects of the film is its prologue — a short history of random encounters designed to prove that happenstance is an epic myth, which sets the tone and plausibility of events to come.

From there we are whisked away into the inner crevices of each character’s life — a lonely police officer looking for love from an emotionally disturbed girl whose father hosts a children’s game show; a boy genius on the show who is used by his father for money; a dying rich man looking for his long lost son, etc.

Anderson has received criticism for the movie being unfocused and too large in scope, but he doesn’t treat each story independent of each other, but uses each situation to create one story about one day in Los Angeles.

Anderson, however, is not with out predecessors. His directorial style is marked with the influence of Scorcese, Truffaut and Altman, but like any good artist, he melds the styles and techniques of past artists to create an original and insightful piece.

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He comes equipped with an arsenal of talented actors, from Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore and Phillip Seymour Hoffman to William H. Macy and the late Jason Robards — all of whom deliver powerful performances.

Cruise and Hoffman in particular are at their best in this movie — Cruise as a seedy sex infomercial guru played to chauvinistic perfection, and Hoffman as a male nurse performed with an exact restraint.

And then there are the frogs. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, I won’t give this part away, although it is one of the most astounding and audacious directorial moves in recent history.

But I will give you this: it is biblical, but that’s not the entire message. Its presence in the movie, like “Magnolia” itself, is elastic — it touches on many motifs and ultimately is left for viewer interpretation.

Kind of like life.

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