The Master(9/22/2012)

Warning: Review contains some spoilers

I don’t know a whole lot about Scientology aside from what I’ve seen in satirical pieces like South Park’s infamous “Trapped in the Closet” episode and I also don’t know a whole lot about its founder L. Ron Hubbard.  What little I had heard about it sounded ridiculous, but as a staunch atheist I’m pretty accustomed to feeling that way about all sorts of religious doctrine.  The rest of the world seems to be just as dismissive of the church as I am but they’re objections seem to have less to do with the actual beliefs of the church than the types of people attracted to it and the ways that it chooses to operate.  Specifically, it’s the churches secrecy and defensiveness that makes it seem strange and cult-like to the outside public and that’s part of what made director Paul Thomas Anderson’s decision to make a film clearly inspired by the early days of the church seem so bold and dangerous.  Just ask the makers of the 2001 film The Profit, a film which to this day hasn’t seen the light of day because of lawsuits from the church of scientology, how tricky it is to deal with this subject matter.

It may be because of this litigiousness that The Master is careful to play the “any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental” game.  The church/philosophy/self-help method at the center of the story is called “The Cause” rather than Scientolgy, its founder is named Lancaster Dodd rather than L. Ron Hubbard, and the doctrines he describes are superficially similar to but not really the same as the doctrines of Scientology.  Paul Thomas Anderson has said clearly that he believes the film should be seen as more than a “scientology movie” and I take him at his word about this, in part because his L. Ron Hubbard stand-in is not the film’s central character.  The film’s real protagonist is a man named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who has found himself aimless and volatile after returning home from the Second World War.  He essentially has post-traumatic stress disorder which isn’t being dealt with by society and I doubt that it’s a coincidence that Anderson chose to make a film about a man like this in a time when we’re still trying to deal with returning soldiers.

Joaquin Phoenix has a sort of old-school masculine Rock Hudson look to him and he uses that to great effect here.  In Freddie Quell he’s created a really fascinating character that seems driven to operate from his Id at all times.  When he’s angry he yells and throws punches, he drinks constantly and has little shame about his drunkenness, and he seems to have sex on his mind at all times. He’s unpredictable and a lot of audiences may be uncomfortable with how hard it is to peg this guy down as any one thing.  It’s this volatility that fascinates Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman); this is just the sort of man that Dodd’s philosophy/religion was supposed to be able to help.  Once the two are finally together it becomes hard to exactly understand how Quell feels about “The Cause.”  Does he truly believe in or even understand Dodd’s rather cryptic teachings?  Is he simply loyal to Dodd because of his kindness?  Or is he a staunch zealot who absolutely wants to help spread the word about “The Cause.”

Though it was clearly inspired by Scientology, the film never delves into what makes that organization so cult-like (namely it’s secrecy and its tendency to seek money from its followers).  Consequently I think that “The Cause” is meant to be a stand in for organized religion in general.  I doubt that the film would have been all that different if Lancaster Dodd had been based on Jerry Falwell, Sun Myung Moon, or Joseph Smith rather than L. Ron Hubbard.  Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, also dealt with organized religion but that film was all about the way religion deals with business while The Master is more about the relationship between a church (any church) and its followers.  There’s a great scene early in the film where a man confronts Dobbs about claims that “The Cause” can help treat leukemia patients and his main concern is that leukemia patients will come to Dobbs rather than seek out proven treatments.  This is exactly what happens to Dobbs over the course of the film, but his ailments are psychological rather than physical.  This may be why Anderson chose to focus in on Scientology rather than mainstream religion given that it’s Scientology that has a very specific vendetta against psychiatry.

If anything, Quell only gets worse over the course of his time with Dobbs and that’s largely because Dobbs opts to teach Quell about his elaborate doctrines rather than do anything to get to the root of Quell’s actual problems.  Quell does become somewhat more presentable to society over the course of his time with Dobbs, which is likely why Dobbs comes to think he’s making progress, but he really isn’t.  In this situation, religion proves to be an unnecessary middleman which just gets in the way of any legitimate treatment and when it becomes clear that Quell isn’t going to be the perfect accolade that they want he gets thrown out.  The film never turns Dobbs into a charlatan who abuses Quell for profit; instead Dobbs is simply a misguided believer in his own hype.  He believes in his methods so much that all he and his disciples can do is blame Quell when “The Cause” fails him.  Of course I suspect that opinions will vary about what this film’s true meaning is depending on one’s biases and beliefs.  As a non-believing heathen I’m a bit inclined to view it as an attack on the usefulness of religion, others will probably see it differently.  It’s apt that an early scene in the film depicts a man taking a Rorschach test.

The Master is probably not as good a film as There Will Be Blood but then again, that’s a hell of a hard act to follow.  Anderson’s style here is still certainly bold, but it’s less of a surprise here than it was in his previous film.  Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman both give really excellent performances here, but neither quite lives up to Daniel Day-Lewis’ absolute domination of the screen in Anderson’s last film, and the film also doesn’t have There Will Be Blood’s epic visual sweep.  Still, giving Paul Thomas Anderson grief for not toping There Will Be Blood is like chiding David Lean for having “only” followed Lawrence of Arabia with Doctor Zhivago. This is a mature film made by a master filmmaker and it’s thematic meaning will be heatedly debated for the rest of the year and for years to come by everyone who loves good cinema.

**** out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 9/29/2012

Note: To My regular readers (both of you), I will henceforth be combining my Documentary Round-Up and DVD Catch-Up features into a single “Round-Up” recurring feature.  Obviously this means that certain films will not be covered with the depth that they once were, but this will give me the opportunity to cover a larger quantity of films as they come out on DVD and give me more time to prepare my theatrical reviews.  Should I see something extraordinary only after it’s come out on DVD/Blu-Ray I will make an exception and revert to the old format, but for the most part this is the format I’ll be going eith for home video releases from now on.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (8/3/2012)

One of the most common formats for documentaries these days is that of the biographical profile.  You find an interesting person, film them doing their day to day thing, then use stock footage and talking heads to establish how they got there and why they’re so respected.  The mileage you get from these documentaries is entirely dependent on how interesting the subject is.  Jiro Ono, the pre-eminent sushi chef in Japan proves to be… interesting enough.  The film gives the viewer a good look at what goes on behind the scenes art Jiro’s restaurant from the fish market to the table, and also gives a good idea of what Jiro’s dedication has done to his family.  The film could be seen as a larger statement on what it takes to be the very best at any endeavor.  This is not a groundbreaking film, but it serves as a fairly fascinating 83 minutes.*** out of Four

Red Tails (9/2/2012)

Critics hated Red Tails when it came out last January, and I can see why, but I also feel like it was a bit over-bashed at the time.  The film isn’t bad so much as it’s extremely mediocre.  The aerial dogfights in the movie are pretty good, better than most World War II era flight movies that I’ve seen.  The real problem here are the scenes on the ground, which unfortunately come close to Pearl Harbor levels of cliché.  However, I find this more forgivable here than I do in that Michael Bay travesty if only because Red Tails lacks Pearl Harbors pretensions   While that movie was trying to be an epic on par with Saving Private Ryan, this film is mostly just telling the story of a bunch of guys united on the battlefield, and I think some of the corniness is an intentional homage to the aerial combat films of old.  The film is in many ways a T.V. movie with a much larger special effects budget and, when watched at home rather than in a theater, it can be fairly enjoyable.**1/2 out of Four

Marley (9/11/2012)

It’s not always easy loving Bob Marley.  The guy made beautiful music but saying anything nice about him seems to instantly make everyone assume you’re some kind of stoned slacker frat boy.  Anyone trying to make a documentary about his life needs to be able to sort through all kinds of baggage in order to get down to the essence of the man’s life and works.  Kevin MacDonald’s documentary, simply titled Marley does an admirable if not overwhelming job at delving into the man’s life.  There’s no gimmick here, it’s simply a series of talking heads telling a life story accompanied by some good stock footage.  That’s the dignified route to take but I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching a two hour episode of “Behind the Music.”  That’s not an inherently bad thing, but it’s not an exciting thing, and MacDonald also doesn’t uncover much of anything that Marley’s fans couldn’t already get from other sources already.  Still, if anyone is looking for a good overview of the reggae icon’s life this is as good a place to go as any and I can’t really blame the filmmakers just because I was already pretty well studied on the subject.*** out of Four

Wanderlust (9/16/2012)

I’ve never been a huge fan of either Paul Rudd or director David Wain, but to my surprise the latest film from the duo has proven to be pretty solid.  The film is a gentle send-up of hippie commune types and it wrings some pretty good humor out of that lifestyle while also working as a more traditional Judd Apatow-esque comedy.  Paul Rudd still proves to be a rather bland presence all told and I’m still no fan of his co-star Jennifer Aniston, but the rest of the ensemble is pretty solid and really improves the over-all product.  Not everything in the film works and it will never be mistaken for something that is truly great, but enough of it works to make it decidedly rental-worthy.*** out of Four

John Carter (9/28/2012)

Seeing John Carter you know in your bones that what you’re watching is a failure but it isn’t entirely easy to place your finger on exactly why that is.  The production values are quite good and there are some pretty decent action scenes.  The notion that they were going to turn Taylor Kitsch into a star was daft, but for the most part the acting and writing in the film was above average.  I think the root problem is that the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel upon which it’s based simply does not have the relevance in 2012 that director Andrew Stanton seemed to think it did.  In fact I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s generally a bad idea to try to make faithful adaptations of pulp novels, without exception audiences seem to reject every adaptation of pulp stories that nostalgic filmmakers throw at them.  The only time that pulp adaptations work are when filmmakers make original projects like  Indiana Jones and Star Wars which re-imagine the stories to make them more cool and relevant and this film most certainly does not do that.**1/2 out of Four

Lawless(9/1/2012)

Sometimes a movie’s pedigree is just too good to be ignored in spite of mixed reviews. That was certainly true of director John Hillcoat’s newest film Lawless.  On paper this movie had everything it needed to be awesome.  Hillcoat himself is a major emerging filmmaker, it’s based on what is by all accounts a fascinating true story, and it has a stellar cast which includes Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, and Gary Oldman.  And yet, the film got mixed-to-negative reviews coming out of Cannes and continued to polarize critics into its general release.  Of course critics were also needlessly hard on Hillcoat’s last film, The Road, so I wasn’t going to be deterred from giving his newest film a go for myself.

Truth be told, the critics are right to be “mixed” on this one, my opinions are certainly what you’d call “mixed.”  The thing is, there are aspects of this movie that I absolutely love.  Almost every individual scene and performance in the film is solid, some are above solid, there are set-pieces that are among the best I’ve seen all year.  And yet, the film is characterized by a baffling inability to make all of these excellent elements congeal into a story that I really cared about.   The film is about a family of prohibition-era moonshine runners called the Bondurant brothers (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke) and their battle against a corrupt Federal agent named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce).

The root problem in the film is that it never really made me like any of these brothers or root for them to succeed in their moonshine empire. At the heart of it, these guys are thugs who defy the law (albeit an antiquated and stupid law) and were more than happy to wade into the violence inherit in that criminal activity, and yet the film never really treats them like anti-heroes.  Instead it mostly treats them like a bunch of well intentioned “good ol’ boys” just trying to eke out a living.  Sure, they need to kill people occasionally, but they never pick any of their fights and they never seem to harm any innocent people with their criminal activity.

The Bondurant’s opposition is similarly lacking in nuance.  Guy Pearce’s Charlie Rakes is an almost cartoonishly evil adversary, the kind of villain who seems to do horrible things just because he seems to think its fun to be evil.  Granted, the character is extremely fun to watch.  Pearce plays him like this incredibly powerful and meticulous killer who hides behind a badge in order to extort money, kind of like the Michael Shannon character from “Boardwalk Empire” only without any delusions of piety.

Let’s compare this with John Hillcoat’s first film, The Proposition, which was also a period piece about a family of criminals in opposition to a corrupted authority figure.  In that film Hillcoat did ask you to empathize with a group of criminals, but he never ignored or denied that they were a group of truly volatile and dangerous bastards.  His villain in that film was also larger than life and cruel, but he did what he was doing out of a genuine belief that he was doing right by the area he controlled and that he was justified in his cruelty.  He wasn’t just a bastard being a bastard so that he could make money.  When the criminal family in that film finally rallied and took down their adversary the audience was left in a much more ambiguous place.  Here there’s none of that complicated morality; it’s just a story of good (or at least non-psychotic) versus evil.

So, if you ignore the film’s moral simplicity, does this at least work as some kind of fun crime yarn?  Well, not exactly.  I don’t think the film really does a very good job of explaining the dynamics of the situation anyway.  The film never really explains why the Bondurants are supposed to be any kind of rival for Rakes.  Their empire seems to be run by all of four people and operates pretty much out in the open.  Rakes knows where these brothers live, what in the world is stopping him from rounding up a dozen federal agents and massacring these guys?  The film suggests that this would rile up the locals, but why not just arrest them if this is a problem? There should be plenty of evidence to do so yet the Bondurants mage to continue functioning as an enterprise and Rakes never really bothers them until it becomes convenient for the plot.

I don’t think this movie is all that concerned with the minutia of moonshine running,  most of the work of building the Bondurant’s empire is done over the course of a short (albeit quite entertaining) montage.  I might go so far as to say that this isn’t a crime film at all, perhaps Hillcoat was trying to get a leg up on Quentin Tarentino in making a “Southern” (a Western set in the South).  As the title suggests, these people are living in an untamed and uncivilized backwoods and while there is supposedly a sheriff, he’s corrupt and does nothing to try to stop all the mayhem going on around him.  The film operates in a world where matters are solved with guns and with fistfights, its frontier justice from beginning to end.

Fortunately these gun fights and fist fights are excellently choreographed and staged by John Hillcoat, who has consistently proven to be one of this generation’s best directors of violence.  This movie is absolutely brutal, throats are cut, strong punches are thrown, and people are hurt badly by bloody retribution.  I admired Hillcoat’s audacity and craft in bringing all this to the screen, but it never felt as justified by context as it had in his previous films, at times it kind of felt just sadistic.  I also admired his location scouting ability, because he was constantly able to find interesting parts of the Southern woods to fill the screen with.  I didn’t get a whole lot out of Nick Cave’s score, which was ambient to the point of being unnoticeable, but there was one musical element to the film that will have everyone talking.  Cave has filled the soundtrack with original bluegrass covers of non-period rock and roll songs, most notably The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” (with this version apparently refering to moonshine rather than speed).

Maybe the film’s problem is that it’s based on a true story.  Perhaps the problem is that Hillcoat let his fascination with this time and place get the better of him and forgot that he needed to make his audience care just as much.  Or maybe the problem is that he was too determined to avoid making another film that critics could dismiss as “unpleasant” like they did with The Road and decided to make a more cut and dry film with a simpler morality at its core.  The fact remains that what he’s delivered with Lawless is a minor effort.  That said, I was never bored while watching the film. It has some very strong moments and that almost makes me want to give it a marginal pass, but the “crime epic” is a very competitive genre with high standards that Lawless just doesn’t live up to in spite of all the sturdy parts.

**1/2 out of Four

Elena(7/28/2012)

While I’m sure professional critics and festival goers often get the experience of seeing movies that they know almost nothing about, that’s not really something that I have the luxury of doing.  On the contrary, no matter how hard I try to avoid spoilers and the like, I often find that vast portions of the movies I go to have been revealed to me before I even buy a ticket.  This was not the case with the recent Russian film, Elena, which I managed to go to with only minimal foreknowledge.  My interest in the film was sparked by its placement in a handful of critics “best of the year so far” lists, otherwise all I knew about the film was that it was directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev (director of the 2003 film The Return) and what I could gleam from the film’s rather cryptic trailer, which doesn’t even reveal the film’s basic premise.

Nadezhda Markina plays the titular character in the film, she’s a middle aged woman in a long term relationship with a slightly older man named Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), with whom she lives in a well furnished and ultra-modern condo.  It quickly becomes clear that Elena wasn’t born into this lifestyle; her son from a previous marriage (Alexey Rozin) and his wife live in a down-trodden room in what can only be described as a slum on the other side of the city.  The divide between her old life and new life comes to a head when her grandson (Igor Ogurtsov) comes of age and needs money in order to get into college, if he doesn’t, he’ll more than likely be forced into the army.  Vladamir doesn’t feel responsible for the well being of Elena’s family and doesn’t want to pay, especially when he feels that her children are irresponsible and more or less worthy of the lives they live.

The central dilemma and conflict between Elena and Vladamir is a fascinating one.  I love movies which show difficult conflicts between strong willed people who all have a point.  We saw just such a film last year in Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, a film which took a familial conflict like this and saw it through to the very end.  Elena doesn’t do this.  Instead the central dilemma quickly becomes a stalemate and the movie continues on down a different direction after a mid-film twist.  Make no mistake, there’s some intrigue to be found in this new direction, but we’ve seen stories play out like that before and this isn’t bringing anything overly new to that equation.  I can’t help but wonder what the film would have been like if it had continued down its original path to the end.

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s slow and controlled style is effective here, but at times I did feel like he went a bit too far with it.  Had the film been crafted more conventionally it probably would have been 90 minutes long instead of 110 minutes, and most of that extra time is spent lingering on various objects and focusing more on the minutia of Elena’s life than a normal film would have.  That’s not a bad thing necessarily but I do wish that it had been building to something… just a little bit more.  The film has a very abrupt ending; it almost feels like there’s a missing third act to the film that never got filmed.  I’m sure there are a variety of interpretations to explain why this anti-climax is integral to the film, but on this initial viewing it just kind of seemed like a letdown.

**1/2 out of Four