For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Master


With every new film, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s oeuvre grows increasingly elusive.  It was 1997 when the wunderkind’s sophomore effort, Boogie Nights, established him as a director of nearly boundless potential.  Then came Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood, each subsequent picture displaying a new level of confidence, and with it, abstraction.  Having already proven himself one of the finest contemporary American filmmakers, the man must feel less and less obligated to coddle to tenderfoot audiences.  His newest opus, a period piece curio called The Master, is less diluted than ever—it’s a pure Anderson vision quest, as beautiful and awe-inspiring and frustratingly opaque as a cathedral stain-glass mosaic designed by experimental animator Len Lye.    

It’s been widely publicized that Anderson’s film, about a fictional religion called The Cause, headed by charlatan/prophet Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), is based on the Scientologist movement of the 1950’s, founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.  Set in the years following WWII, The Master is less interested in attacking its subject with razor sharp exactitude than it is in exploring how all cults—and indeed all religions—have the power to embrace human souls and to ostracize them.  An extension of Anderson’s perpetual theme of families created and destroyed, The Master probes how one lone-wolf—Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, a disgruntled veteran—made his way into the calm baptismal waters of Dodd’s universe, and proceeded to stir up a turbulent sea. 

The film begins while Freddie’s still a Naval serviceman.  On the Pacific Front, he and his fellow sailors construct a sand-sculpture of a naked woman on the beach then proceed to violate it.  Later, as Truman announces VJ-Day over the radio, they sneak below decks of their battleship to drink the jet fuel out of unused torpedoes.  After the war, Freddie goes from job to job without much luck; he’s a drunk and a brute.  For a while, he does family portraits at a department store, and his (Anderson’s) tableaux hint at the plastic familial ideal of postwar America, where his rosy cheeked, shiny haired subjects look like wax dolls, mannequins of the American Dream.  Afterwards, he picks cabbage with migrant laborers, before one of his rotgut concoctions poisons a worker and gets him chased off.   Called instinctively back to the sea, Freddie stumbles upon The Cause.  Their leader, the aforementioned Dodd, is hosting a wedding party cruise for his daughter.  Out of sympathy, fascination or some ineffable romantic affection, Dodd latches onto Freddie, gives him a home, a job, and begins the “process” of making him into a full-fledged follower. 

In contrast to last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, however, The Master is not really about brainwashing at all.  Rather than portraying how strong voices influence impressionable minds, the story examines how one group failed to effect a man who’s so unreachable his pathology prevents him from being molded by even the most toxic subconscious forces.  Dodd’s doctrines posit that men have a spiritual supremacy over the animal kingdom, but Freddie’s animalistic urges—sex, violence, and substance abuse—make him a beast, the proverbial snake among the saved.  Dodd seeks to uncover the man.  Dodd’s watchful wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), is suspicious and grows critical of Freddie’s boorish behavior.  Soon Dodd releases his latest volume of biblical verses, and the religion grows exponentially, but with every new member, Freddie’s position in the group deteriorates a little more, like a sandcastle in rising tides.   

The film is rife with hidden messages, none of which are easily ascertained.  The film’s title, for instance, holds several important meanings.  Dodd himself is christened with the moniker, of course, but the true “masters” of the film are all the internal and external impetuses that rule our lives.  Freddie’s a slave to his alcoholism, his post-traumatic stress disorder, and his desire for romantic love that can never be fully satisfied.  Anderson presents a world governed by religious devotion, by societal values, and by cultural expectations that are as suffocating as they are ostensibly liberating.  Even Dodd himself, the film’s eponymous superior, shows his weakness in one particularly disturbing scene, in which Peggy uses sex to manipulate and control him, her hand literally maneuvering him like a puppet master’s.  Freddie’s canine features—his scrunched face, crooked wolf-like grin, unintelligible growl, hunched gait, spindly frame, and staggered movements—allow him to be easily subjugated.  In one scene, the two men roll around in the grass, playing; they call to mind a loyal pup gamboling with his master.         

Despite this fellowship, Freddie rejects enlightenment.  Somehow his animalism keeps him from being turned into a lobotomized disciple, but it’s that same trait that isolates him, melancholically, as if the soul that needs to be subdued was taken by the war.  And Anderson lets these ideas play out with minimal cinematic braggadocio.  Despite a few virtuosic camera ballets—including one stunning tracking shot that follows a model through the floor of a department store in hypnotic circles—Anderson favors intimate single-shots of the actor’s faces, allowing his brilliant central three to paint the screen with captivating character nuances.  Hoffman is a force of nature, and Adams is no mere cipher, no passive housewife, but a fiercely opinionated believer, as eerily unctuous as she is lovely.  Joaquin Phoenix gives a bravura exhibition.  His Freddie is not just a strikingly original creation; he’s a completely physical presence.  Like one of Martin Scorsese’s fascinatingly unsympathetic antiheroes, his every tick and line delivery reveals a little more about a man still at war down to his bones, struggling to find a place in the world beyond the horrors of battle. 

More than any other cinematic artist of his generation, Anderson is utterly fascinated with all aspects of the American experience.  The film’s stunning vistas—they have a push-pull contradictive power next to the close exchanges of the actors—express a deep perspicacity of those unique territorial expanses.  If I’m being honest, The Master is a magnificent film, bold and brilliant, though oddly remote, much like a deserted Pacific island.  Its Brechtian obfuscations make it hard to engage in on a dramatic level, but intellectually the movie is so conceptual, so rich in ideas, feelings, and enigmas that it begins to take on the qualities of an impressionistic art piece.  Anderson’s visual motifs—white water churning up behind a ship; Phoenix playing in the sand—are never clarified as past, present or fantasy.  Information is contradicted.  Temporal zigzags are never explained.  For a film about a man who promises all the answers, The Master offers precious few.  What we’re left with, when the credits roll, are questions, but ones that involve us in the discourse.  Over the past 15 years, I’ve dodged the seductive pull of Anderson’s earlier aesthetic dessert tables, but here, in perhaps his most unsettling cinematic feast, I finally find something to sink my teeth into.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sleepwalk With Me


Sleepwalk With Me is the sort of meta Indie that earns its right to be meta.  Right off the bat, the main character, a moon-faced beady-eyed thirty-something named Matt, looks into the camera and reminds everyone in the audience to turn off their cell phones.  It’s a surprising moment that at first seems gimmicky, like something the Muppets might do to purposefully break the cinematic illusion for the sake of cheeky irreverence.  But once we remember that Matt is played by the film’s writer/director (Mike Birbiglia), and that everything he’s about to tell us actually occurred in his life, the rest of the movie’s fourth-wall shattering self-knowingness feels less like a cynical ploy, and more like a heartfelt confession. 

The movie is based on the autobiographical stand-up routine of the director.  It originally aired as a comedy special on the NPR series This American Life.  Adapted to the screen by the man himself, the story tells of Matt’s journey from an unfulfilled barkeep to a successful comedian, which, in the process, afflicted his relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose), the girlfriend of eight years that desperately wanted to tie the knot, even if she was too agreeable to admit it outright.  The movie traces how Matt begins using elements from his strained love life to flesh out his meager routine, which not only gets the crowd guffawing, but it allows us to see how his comedy was a therapeutic expression of all the difficult aspects of his life. 

When he professes to his barfly listeners, “I only want to get married after I’m convinced that nothing good will ever happen to me again,” the room howls, but he actually means it.  The film works best as a study of relationships, critically examining how couples often stay together even after they’ve fallen out of love, based on some pragmatic commitment, or simply out of fear.  Matt looks at his parents—played brilliantly as opposites by character actors James Rebhorn and Carol Kane—and sees a couple that lasted forty long years for all the wrong reasons.  As written with such an observational deftness, the movie has similarities to TV’s Seinfeld.  Like how that creator/comedian’s wry critiques of everyday life informed his show, Mike Birbiglia’s frank romantic quandaries compelled his comedy, and vice versa. 

As the girlfriend he strings along, Ambrose (TV’s Six Feet Under) is beautiful and emotive—she has a great actress’s wordless command of emotion that doesn’t require a juicy line of dialogue to link every beat to.  Abby—who is a touch underwritten, I have to say—has an unspoken sadness that Ambrose nails.  Playing the dual roles of star and director, Birbiglia makes for a sympathetic performer, if not a particularly weighty one.  Behind the camera, he shows traces of invention: the director shoots the video-confessions that frame the story with close-ups from his passenger seat, as he drives around running mundane errands; there’s one slinky-cool long-take through a La Quinta Hotel; and a few surrealist dream sequences. 

Apropos to the title, those dreams become a major plot development with Matt’s increasingly vivid and dangerous sleepwalking episodes.  Bloated by this, the story starts to lose its forthright narrative trajectory, growing increasingly uneven, as this point never seamlessly blends into the rest of the movie.  But it was a significant obstacle in Mike Birbiglia’s pre-fame life, it provided a rich well for his on-stage creativity, and it helped define the man and artist he would eventually become.  How could he not include it?  Since Sleepwalk With Me is simply one man’s naked acknowledgment of his worst flaws and poorest choices, I can’t fault the guy for trying so hard to get that, his own life-story, just right.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Just The Gist, Part II: A Few More Quick Reviews...


Stop-motion films are too rare.  In comparison to their digitally polished, computer-animated brethren, movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, and the newest, ParaNorman, have the artisanal grace of arts-and-crafts projects—their tenderfoot artistry allowing the human fingerprints to remain untouched.  ParaNorman is the story of an alienated grade-schooler who rallies neighborhood kids to stop a dead witch’s curse from unleashing a plague of zombies on his sleeping New England village. From its first minutes, the animation casts an entrancing spell, predicating the proceedings on a mood of wistful ghoulishness.  As voiced by Kodi-Smit Mcfee, the hero, Norman, has a gentle fragility that puts him on the verge of shattering, and the film follows his tale with empathetic affection.  You see: Norman lives in a world of ghosts that only he can see, which causes his family to label him a weirdo, and his schoolmates to ostracize and ridicule him.  But what seems at first like his curse turns out to be his heroic destiny.  When panic sets in, and the riotous townsfolk start causing more destruction than the zombie aggressors, it’s Norman who restores order.  The “evil” witch behind the spell, as it happens, is just another haunted soul—one who, in a different era, faced similar intolerances as our supernatural lad.  The movie has a go-for-broke third act that feels pretty heavy-handed, but the autumnal setting, the charming characters, the hand-touched animation, and the anti-bullying message enliven this conventional ghost story, and make it worth watching and pondering.           

Robot And Frank:

Robot and Frank is perhaps 2012’s Indie gem—one that, I fear, few too many people will ever see.  In the near future, Frank Langella’s Frank is a retired crook with early-stage dementia, living secluded in the New Jersey countryside.  His two adult children, tired of babysitting their cantankerous old dad, decide to buy him a helper robot to ensure he eats right, stays active, and possibly improves his brain functioning.  The robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard doing his best HAL 9000 impression) is dutiful, but also smart and loyal—just nuanced enough to seem almost human.  Their relationship might have grown exhaustingly cute (how many old man befriends a kid, animal, or robot movies are there, anyway?) had Frank not misled the A.I. naïf into acting as an accomplice in his schemes to knock-off the smug yuppies down the street.  This welcome plot contortion gives the movie a quickened thriller’s pulse.  From there, the film blossoms into a meditative comedy/drama about age, fading memory and the role of technology in our increasingly tech-dependant lives.  The discourse between humans and increasingly human-like gizmos and gadgets is hardly a new subject, yet Robot and Frank finds in this theme a piercing humanistic melancholy, accentuated by Langella’s saddened performance.  The movie is a small but tender fable about life’s transience, and it reminds viewers to hold their memories dear, as they are all inevitably lost from the earth, like the files in your desktop hard-drive. 


After The Proposition and The Road, it’s clear that Aussie director John Hillcoat has chosen anarchic playgrounds as his favorite milieu.  His latest, Lawless, continues the trend, locating the director’s newest fastidiously-detailed cultural miasma in the Prohibition era Appalachian Mountains, where bootlegging siblings Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke (playing the real-life Bondurant Brothers) fight off Guy Pearce’s fiendish dandy G-Man—whose scrupulously clean appearance contrasts his perpetually polluted soul.  Along the way, Hardy (torpid and taciturn when he’s not dispensing enigmatic homilies) sheepishly observes Jessica Chastain’s bohemian barmaid, and LaBeouf courts saintly church mouse Mia Wasikowska.  As a period piece, Lawless is astutely conceived, showcasing the cars, clothes and cadences of the time with fine-tooth specificity.  As a drama, the story is lopsided, lackadaisical and has no true characters, only archetypes: Hardy’s Forrest is a colorless bulldog; LaBeouf’s Jack is an eager green upstart; Pearce’s Oscar-bait villain is like one of Christoph Waltz’ charismatic monsters, except without the charisma.  Hillcoat’s direction often indulges in violent episodes that are gratuitous, pointless in their brutality, and mesh roughly with other moments—especially from Hardy’s grunting simpleton—that register as unwittingly comedic.  The film’s greatest crime, however, is that it fails to bring these true-life folk heroes to the screen with the mystery and legendary grandeur that they so sorely deserve. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Just The Gist: A Few Quick Reviews

The Bourne Legacy:

Matt Damon is out and Jeremy Renner is in.  The latter’s Aaron Cross is a spunkier CIA engineered super-spy, but he lacks Jason Bourne's wounded bemusement.  The picaresque has our lone wolf operative running from his makers—suits in Washington surrounded by computers and surveillance monitors attempting to eliminate all their creations after Bourne goes rogue.  Cross links up with targeted witness Rachel Weisz, and the two go gallivanting off to Manila looking for the special blue pill that will complete Cross's transformation into a demigod.  Like one long, overblown trip to the pharmacy, this Bourne flick is without its predecessors' existential urgency; Cross is neither mysterious nor compelling as a protagonist, and his saga seems curiously void of gravity.  Director Tony Gilroy reveals himself an inferior action orchestrator to the great Paul Greengrass (whose Ultimatum stands out as the series’ best installment); he hacks the chase sequences into choppy, incoherent frenzies, as opposed to Greengrass' kinetic and enthralling symphonies of crosscut movement and menace.  With the hero still on the run as the credits roll, The Bourne Legacy sets up for sequels, but if you ask me, it's time to let him rest.

The Expendables 2:

A who's who of 80’s action-movie fare, The Expendables 2 adds a few new names to the roster, but it doesn't improve things much.  This is a slapdash shoot 'em up with a body count in the thousands, an arsenal of lethal hardware, and plenty of craggy faces spouting lines about being over the hill.  "We all belong in a museum," leisurely jokes legendary action star Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Felicitously, Van Damme plays a villain named Villain, and Chuck Norris shows up long enough to tell a Chuck Norris joke.  The Expendables 2 is a passable romp, but not a very good burlesque, mostly because Stallone, who penned and plays the lead, hasn't yet realized how silly this genre is and always was.  Mass exterminations of Anonymous Henchmen are interspersed with scenes of insipidly earnest melodrama.  One in particular showcases a boyish Liam Hemsworth speechifying on his experiences in Afghanistan and his yearning for the proverbial girl back home.  (Who says tough men can’t cry?)  Unfortunately for Stallone, the emotions laid bare are as artificial as the buckets of blood spilt.  His Rambo-influenced passion-project offers plenty of latex limbs, few laughs, and not nearly enough moments of good, pointed satire.

We Need To Talk About Kevin:

This exploitation horror film in art-house disguise is disturbing for all the wrong reasons.  In We Need To Talk About Kevin, Tilda Swinton plays the traumatized mother of a school shooter who grapples daily with her culpability in his crime—mostly by revisiting and reassessing memories of his childhood.  He was a sadistic little Damien with a devilishly sinister glower that ingratiated everybody else, including Swinton’s witless husband John C. Reilly.  She was frustrated, suspicious, and unnecessarily hard on him.  At least, that’s how she remembers it.  While the film manages, to a degree, to paint a chilling psychological portrait of assumed maternal guilt, director Lynne Ramsay's cerebral drama, for the most part, aspires to be seriously unpleasant viewing (I never thought any filmmaker could make crushed up cereal look so nauseating), while never allowing the material or characters or topical subject matter to generate any of the emotional potency.  Directorial gaudiness coupled with a deep mistrust of the story and the audience drag this wannabe skin-crawler into the realm of middling murk. 

The Grey:

Liam Neeson is Hollywood’s most popular badass.  It’s the Irish brogue and the grizzled virility, I think.  Anyway, in the surprisingly ruminative The Grey, Neeson plays a despondent hunter working at an Alaskan oilrig who survives a plane crash home with seven other gnarled ruffians.  Stranded in the desolate and uninhabitable conditions of our northern-most state, the bickering bunch hear howls in the darkness, a dozen pairs of yellow eyes illuminated like stars in the sky forebode the coming of hungry wolves.  Let the slasher movie clichés commence.  But Neeson and his pack never really fight directly with the beasts pursuing them, which might have been a more conventional direction for an action thriller.  Instead, the film becomes a thought-provoking allegory about normal men fleeing mortality’s insatiable appetite.  In Taken and Unknown, Neeson had control, taking names and kicking ass.  Here, he looks up to the sky—like a character out of Ingmar Bergman—and pleads for answers.  Gory and raw, but equally mystical and existential, The Grey, as it happens, isn't really about surviving the wilderness as much as running from, and then ultimately accepting, the nature of things.        

Hope Springs:

Hope Springs is hope-less.  This pseudo-psychological romantic comedy has stunted spouses Meryl Streep (passive, coy) and Tommy Lee Jones (stubborn, facetious) seeking sex counseling from a disturbingly deadpan Steve Carell.  Faking sensitivity but mentally licking his lips, Carell asks if they have oral sex, and we squirm in our seats at the horrifying thought of it.  Directed by David Frenkel—who coached Steep’s nefarious Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears PradaHope Springs will entertain only those few viewers who giggle girlishly at the sight of Streep acting naughty and nasty (at one point the legendary three-time Oscar winner deep-throats a banana).  But the script introduces major relationship problems just to have them cursorily dealt with and overcome.  Less giddy fun than the work of the late Nora Efon, and less profound than a toothpaste commercial directed by Mike Leigh, Hope Springs made me wonder: Why go into the boudoir of the middle-aged American couple, if you don’t have the guts to confront what you find there?

Premium Rush:

Cinema as cartoon, as video game, Premium Rush is a real-time chase thriller in which New York City bike messenger Joseph Gordon Levitt (in his spandex and on his Huffy) tries to outrun Michael Shannon's dastardly crooked cop to the final destination of the MacGuffin—in this case, a mysterious ticket worth fifty grand.  The comedic moments land, the tension builds, the stakes are high (enough), and the Road Runner aesthetic has the right amount of pulse and playfulness to keep this slight but enjoyable thriller riding on two full tires.

Killer Joe:

Vulgar, sordid, dumbfounding: Killer Joe is proof that the grindhouse spirit is alive and well, and not just in the style of Tarantino’s rousingly post-modern pasticcio, but in its classically course and hardcore form.  Director William Friedkin—the shock savant behind 1973’s The Exorcist—delivers an updated version of the classic noir Double Indemnity, transmogrifying Billy Wilder’s elegant Hollywood aristocrats into Kentucky fried trailer-trash: a debt-ridden good-for-nothing (Emile Hirsh) conspires to have his shrewish mother wacked in order to collect her fifty-thousand-dollar insurance policy.  The eponymous assassin (Matthew McConaughey in a sultry, unhurried performance of charismatic evil) agrees to do the job pro-bono, as long as the desperate worm hands over his beatific and innocent little sister (Juno Temple) as collateral.  Much fun ensues: pedophilia, hints of incest, bloody paroxysms, and one slow burning climactic scene so audaciously shameless and disgusting you’ll be holding back vomit with laughter.  A jaw-dropping thrill of unspeakable black-comedy pulp, Killer Joe is tongue-in-cheek exploitation, yet there’s a sensual, seductive allure to this facetious filth.  That the film, in its final seconds, actually has the balls to tickle your heartstrings mere moments after punching you directly in the gut is either Friedkin’s sickest tonal manipulation, or his canniest directorial feat.  You decide.