Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Awesome Women of Cinema 2015

This was a pretty stellar year for women in film. Yes, there's still a long way to go, but some of the most successful movies this year (11 out of the top 25, in fact) had female protagonists or centered around women. So I want to celebrate some of the awesome women I saw at the movies this year.

1. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the Wives and the Vuvalini in Mad Max: Fury Road
Well, this one goes without saying. Women who are heroes with agency and who are not sexualized are usually hard to come by in movies, but MMFR is teeming with them. Young women, older women (old lady sharp shooters, no less!), and a badass truck-driving leader with a shaved head and mechanical arm, who you mostly see from the shoulders up. What a time to be alive!

2. Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) in Inside Out
Okay, Sadness and Joy aren't "women" per se, but they are definitely anthropomorphic and feminine coded. And despite their simple labels, they are each fairly complicated -- Joy can be sad and shed tears, Sadness can smile. And of course Riley's wonderful emotional complexities are what the movie is about. She also has a nice mix of traditionally feminine traits and not-so-feminine traits; she plays hockey and reads sappy vampire romance novels.

3. Joy (Brie Larson) and Nancy (Joan Allen) in Room
Joy (or "Ma," as she's referred to most often) survives and ultimately escapes a horrible situation, with the help of her son, but she's not impenetrable. Every once in a while you can see her let a bit of despair in, and that comes back in a big way when an interviewer suggests that she might have made a poor choice regarding her son's well-being. Nancy, for her part, is a solid rock of support (in sharp contrast to her ex-husband), never once, not even subtly, blaming her daughter for what happened.

4. Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Ex Machina
A robot, not technically a woman, but ... well, yes she is a woman. The story, from Ava's perspective, is much like Joy's in Room, actually. She's a captive, and she gets herself out by any means she can. She makes her own agency.

5. Carol (Cate Blanchett), Therese (Rooney Mara) and Abby (Sarah Paulson) in Carol
It annoyed me recently to see Carol referred to as a "predator" when all she does in this movie is pursue a woman she is interested in the same way a man would. I love that she's determined to live her life on her own terms, even if it means seeing less of her own child. I love that Therese, who preferred toy trains to dolls as a little girl, is reticent about vacationing with her boyfriend, even though he assumes she'll be up for it. But I especially love Abby's devoted friendship to Carol after their romantic relationship has dissolved, as well as her kindness to Carol's new love Therese. Women are almost *never* portrayed that way after a break-up; they're always jealous harpies (men are too, for that matter).

6. Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) in Joy
(This was the year of women named Joy, apparently.) Invented the Miracle Mop. Figured out when manufacturer was trying to screw her and turned the situation to her advantage. Convinced QVC to sell her product and film the spots herself. Managed not to kill excessively demanding and horrible family members. Stayed friends with her ex-husband who ended up being her close advisor. She's a textbook role model, but a role model nonetheless.

7. Amy (Amy Schumer), Kim (Brie Larson) and Dianna (Tilda Swinton) in Trainwreck
No, Hollywood, not all women are dying to get married, nor is there anything wrong with the ones who are. Amy Schumer basically won 2015 and changed the way a lot of people were willing to look at women, especially in comedy. Her character in this movie is a human disaster, as many women are, and even though Amy is the protagonist, the movie ultimately doesn't consider the more traditional Kim the bad guy. Dianna is also an interesting case; she's pretty one-note, but it's a note women don't often get to play.

8. Susan (Melissa McCarthy), Rayna (Rose Byrne), Nancy (Miranda Hart) and Elaine (Allison Janney) in Spy
This movie is almost (ALMOST) as awesome, lady wise, as Fury Road. Susan might seem like a familiar role early on -- the competent schlubby assistant who pines for a man she works with/for from afar. But the movie subverts the hell out of it. She's never the butt of the joke (nor is her delightfully awkward co-worker Nancy), and she is actually quite capable in the field. Rose Byrne's Rayna is an incredible comedic villain, and if it weren't for Melissa McCarthy's apparently limitless charisma, she might threaten to steal the show. And now that Judi Dench is no longer 007's boss in the Bond films, it's nice to have Elaine as an alternative lady-calling-the-shots in a traditionally male-centric world.

9. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) and Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in Crimson Peak
Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Hunnam are pretty faces, but Edith and Lucille drive all the action here. Edith is as independent as a woman could possibly be in this time period, at the beginning *and* the end of this movie. Lucille is just an all-around delightful villainess, and I had no idea Jessica Chastain could be so scary and intimidating. She's like Ms. Danvers, only more powerful. The final showdown on the titular "crimson peak" between these two women is pretty amazing.

10. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Can I get a hell yeah for more than one woman in a Star Wars movie?! Rey is not just "the girl"; she is the main hero of the movie (and presumably the entire new trilogy). Leia isn't a princess who has to be rescued; she's a frickin' General, leading the Resistance. Maz Kanata is a wonderful mentor figure who reminds me of Yoda. And we may not see a lot of Phasma, but she seems to be the new Boba Fett -- just a cool character that people love (without needing an elaborate prequel backstory *ahem*).

11. Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) in Tangerine
This movie is a snapshot of a very specific place and circle of people. At the center are Alexandra and Sin-Dee, trans sex workers whose beat is Santa Monica Blvd. They're close friends and they look out for each other, never more movingly than in the film's final scene. Feminism in our world is all too often white straight cisgender feminism (and almost always sex worker exclusionary, unless it can be Disney-fied, a la Pretty Woman), leaving stories about people who don't fit that specific mold ignored. This movie is not only a compelling story, shot in a way that makes it feel like nothing you've ever seen before, it also specifically tells the stories of two non-white trans women in the sex worker industry. It doesn't gawk at them, it doesn't treat them like interesting oddities; they are simply two women in a very specific world, and there's no way not to sympathize with them when they experience the brutal transmisogyny that they undoubtedly experience every day.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Film Discoveries of 2015

As much as I love the end-of-year "Top 10" lists, at a certain point, they start to look the same. As such, one of my favorite series of lists comes from Rupert Pupkin Speaks, where people submit their favorite "film discoveries" -- movies that aren't new, but that they saw for the first time that year. In that spirit, I submit:


10. Popcorn (1991)
My favorite from this year's "Dismember the Alamo" event.  I've already written about it here, but this is just a lovely bowl of candy goodness for any horror fan. Sure, there are some holes (in part because of development drama behind the scenes), but this is an incredibly entertaining movie. The B-movie spoofs alone make this worth watching. Add in Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather) as the final girl and a brilliant performance by Tom Villard and this is a must-see. It also contains this gem of a line - "There's more social relevance in Police Academy 5 than in all of Ingmar Bergman's cinematic smorgasbord." - which I have no trouble believing came out of a hipster film geek's mouth.

9. The Big Knife (1955)
Earlier this year, at the prompting of my favorite movie podcast, I started to delve more deeply into the work of Robert Aldrich, starting with this film (mostly because it was streaming on Netflix and was the easiest to find). Jack Palance plays a movie star who wants out of the business because he's slowly starting to lose his soul (and his wife, played by Ida Lupino). A bleach-blonde Rod Steiger (playing a slimy studio boss) then proceeds to manipulate him to unheard-of lows, to the point that the movie's depressing ending is almost a relief. Shelley Winters also appears as a not-quite-starlet whose biggest roles have been schmoozing executives in dresses borrowed from the costume department. Aldrich had an interesting take on human frailty -- that people are always going to screw up, but they'll at least try to do the right thing, but it probably won't ultimately work out -- and this movie is a great example of that.

8. Lionheart (1990)
My favorite entry in "Van Dammage" (another stellar Drafthouse event), this is everything you expect in a movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a few things you might not be expecting. In a lot of ways, this closely resembles another Van Damme film, Bloodsport, but here Van Damme isn't so much fighting for glory as he is fighting to help preserve the family of his recently deceased brother. Harrison Page gives a great supporting performance as Joshua, a man who runs fights for money and who hooks him up Cynthia (The Most 80s Woman Ever), who does the same thing but on a bigger scale. There are actually some interesting class issues at work in this movie, and the family drama, though hugely melodramatic, is pretty darn engaging.  I feel the need to point out that this is also the movie that gave us Jean-Claude in a singlet, fighting in an empty swimming pool.

7. Someone's Watching Me! (1978)
This is actually a TV movie, but it's written and directed by John Carpenter, right around the time he made Halloween and was at the height of his powers. This is a stalking movie starring Lauren Hutton, in which an unseen killer torments women until they commit suicide. It is also unmistakably a movie about casual sexism. Hutton's character has to deal with unwanted advances and turns the tables by doing some advancing of her own. She also strikes up a friendship with a woman played by Adrienne Barbeau (in a then rare sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian). This movie is kind of a product of its time (it was made at a fairly specific time in our culture, when people were starting to get interested in surveillance but there wasn't a lot of regulation yet), but it's still genuinely creepy and suspenseful with some great female characters. Probably one of my favorite things in Carpenter's oeuvre.

6. The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)
You might see this film as a knock-off of Ben-Hur, but you'd be wrong. One of the more intelligent and thoughtful entries in the "sword and sandal" genre, this is also a movie that boasts a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (suck it, Ben-Hur, you only have an 88%!). More about the events that began the onset of the empire's demise, rather than the actual end of it, this movie has a stellar cast (Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, a pre-Sound of Music Christopher Plummer, Mel Ferrer, James Mason, Omar Sharif) and some really well-done action scenes, including a breathtaking chariot race that gives Ben-Hur's chariot race a run for its money (yes really). The set design also deserves a mention, especially the replica of the Roman Forum, which is still the largest outdoor film set ever built.

5. Roar (1981)
Holy frickin' balls, this movie. I won't recount it all here, because it would take up too much space, but I HIGHLY recommend reading Tim League's article on the background of this movie. Director Noel Marshall stars in the film, along with his then wife Tippi Hedren and their children (including a teenage Melanie Griffith). Oh, and about 100 "big cats" (a cornucopia of untamed lions, tigers, jaguars, etc.), which lived with Marshall and his family on their California estate. I spent the entirety of this movie with my jaw on the floor, thinking "what on earth made someone think this was a good idea?!?!".  By the time the film was complete (an effort which took several years), 70 members of the cast and crew had been injured, including Melanie Griffith, who had to have facial reconstructive surgery, and DP Jan de Bont, who is quite explicitly scalped on camera in the film. This movie is insane, and there's no way anything like it would ever be made now.

4. Passione d'amore (1981)
This is the film that inspired Stephen Sondheim's musical Passion. I saw a French version with no subtitles, but the filmmaking was so strong that it made little difference. The story revolves around a young soldier who becomes the object of obsession of a homely, perpetually ill woman. Valeria D'Obici (who won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for her role) is a revelation, and the weight of selling the love story is largely on her shoulders. Her character, Fosca, is so clingy and manipulative that it's difficult to root for her, but she makes you completely buy that the handsome soldier she's in love with will return that love in time. This is melodrama of the highest order (Douglas Sirk could never), but it's so beautiful and compelling that I couldn't take my eyes off it. (Side note: If you like this movie, I recommend checking out Sondheim's musical as well.) 

3. ...All the Marbles (1981)

Another Aldrich film, and his last. A post-Columbo Peter Falk plays a guy who manages a female tag-team wrestling duo. Their lives are decidedly unglamorous, and they hate it a lot of the time, but they know how good they are and they keep plugging away, trying to get someone to give them a shot at a championship title. The wrestling scenes are brutal, and you can practically smell the sweat in and around the ring. Falk is obviously the star here, but Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon are wonderful and have great, complicated characters to play with. Burt Young also appears, as the slimiest promoter you've ever seen, and Richard Jaeckel also shows up as a referee. This might look like a sleazy T&A comedy from the 1980s, but this movie is the real deal and a great capper to Aldrich's career.

2. Red Rock West (1993)
Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper and J.T. Walsh. That's all you really need to know, but here's a bit more. The film's director, John Dahl, does more television work than anything nowadays (including a couple of episodes of Hannibal), but his early film work was really solid, this film included. Cage plays Michael, a drifter who is mistaken for someone named Lyle, who J.T. Walsh's character is hiring to kill his wife. This reminded me a lot of Blood Simple, in that it's a rural noir with a lot of twists and double-crosses. Nicolas Cage's career is an interesting study in an actor who always brings their A-game, no matter how crappy the material, but when he does get good stuff, you can absolutely see why he became a star.

1. The House at the End of Time (2014)
This Venezuelan horror-suspense flick really took me by surprise, in a lot of ways, and I hesitate to say too much about it for fear of spoiling it -- I'm grateful that I knew very little going into it, and I think that's the best way to experience it. The plot, roughly, involves a woman named Dulce who is imprisoned for a murder that we know from the beginning she didn't commit. It's not clear what happened at first, but Dulce seems to be experiencing some paranormal phenomena. After a thirty year imprisonment, Dulce is released but remains under house arrest in the same house where the murder took place (elegantly solving the "why doesn't she just leave the house?" problem that plagues most "scary house" movies). And with the help of a priest, she tries to figure out exactly what happened all those years ago. This is seriously one of the better movies of this subgenre I've seen. The last twenty or thirty minutes were so satisfying to me, and there really aren't many movies that have made me as happy a viewer as I was during this movie.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Grapes of Death (1978)

It's October, and I'm steeped in my tradition of All Horror Movies All the Time. Starting this year's horror glut with a little Jean Rollin.

French zombies! Well, sort of. The creatures in this film are not, strictly speaking, zombies. They’re infected (much like the people in The Crazies, I guess), but many of them seem to still have their minds, though they become homicidal after a while. The disease is from a poisoned wine supply, so it doesn’t spread person to person, as in typical zombie films. These “zombies” don’t eat people (or brains, or whatever); they just kill. And they can apparently be killed just like a normal person (bullet to the head effective, but not required).

Zombie films also tend to have some sort of political or social message, but while this movie tries very briefly to dip into political matters, it feels very out of place.

The story is pretty simple. A vineyard starts using a new pesticide that infects the workers and poisons the wine (which infects everyone who drinks it). A woman, Elizabeth, is traveling by train to visit her fiancé, who runs the vineyard, and one of the infected gets on the train and kills her friend, forcing Elizabeth to flee into the countryside. Everywhere she tries to take refuge is ZombieTown. 

The movie is very slow and atmospheric (very French, in other words), but that shouldn’t suggest that it’s dull. It’s really quite beautifully shot, and the rustic locations make it seem like a story from another time (well, I guess the 1970s are “another time” at this point, but I mean from centuries ago). I love seeing how different filmmakers play with the tropes, and there are some really effective frights in this. One of the most genuinely scary sequences involves Elizabeth encountering a young blind woman. She returns the girl to her village, but everyone seems to be dead or infected and Elizabeth is trying not to alarm her, but the girl doesn’t understand what’s going on and is panicking. There’s also an extended bit with a severed head that’s particularly gruesome. (Special effects in this film are really well done for being made on the cheap.)

The director, Jean Rollin, is known for his erotic horror movies (notably his lesbian vampire movies, such as Requiem for a Vampire, Fascination, Shiver of the Vampires, etc.), and all of his films dwell lovingly on the (usually nude or partially nude) female form. This movie is the least leering (though it does still have *some* leering) and probably the most truly scary of his films.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Chef (2014)

It’s been very exciting to watch Jon Favreau go from the up-and-coming indie director behind Swingers to a director that studios were willing to take a chance on and who would put out (mostly) quality mainstream stuff, like Elf and Iron Man. But with Chef, Favreau goes back to his indie roots, and this movie is a gosh-darn delight.

Favreau plays Carl Casper, a famous professional chef, who’s in a creative rut. This is largely because his boss, the owner of the restaurant where he works, only wants him to cook “safe” menus full of food that everyone knows and likes. But then again, Carl also chooses to stay there, so it’s at least partially his own fault. A well-known food blogger, played by Oliver Babish Platt, visits the restaurant and writes a scathing review, lamenting that this once visionary chef has lowered himself to cooking forgettable, uninspiring dishes that are not worth the exorbitant price the restaurant charges. Only he says it with a lot more meanness. And makes fun of Carl’s weight. Carl is outraged, and after his ten-year-old son teaches him how to use Twitter, gets into a flame war with the guy and basically becomes a meme. His ex-wife, who he is still close with, has been urging him to get a food truck, but he feels that’s beneath him. Until his internet infamy, that is. After getting a truck and fixing it up, he spends the summer driving across the country in it with his son and a guy who used to work for him, testing out the menu and trying new things in each new city — South Beach, New Orleans, Austin (I nearly screamed when Franklin BBQ got a huge cameo).

This is a lovely little movie about friendship, family, and creativity. I kept bracing myself for the obligatory end-of-act-2 Horrible Thing to happen, but it’s just ... nice. And positive. Which I guess makes some critics think it’s hollow, but I disagree. I love how it celebrates social media and what a huge impact that lets Carl’s son have on the business. I also just love the kid who plays his son, because he’s believable without being one of those creepy too-old-for-their-years child actors. The movie has tons of food porn, and you will probably immediately be looking for a place that sells Cubanos (Cuban sandwiches). It also has a lovely soundtrack, which is going on heavy rotation on my iPod for the summer.

It’s been out for a while, but if it’s still playing wherever you are, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Gravity (2012)

One of the classic field trips when I was a kid was to the planetarium at the Cumberland Museum. Whatever group I was with would pile in to the domed room and watch in awe as the lights went down and the museum people put on a show. But at least once in one of those trips I found out one of my big fears. There was some part of the presentation where they were showing us the view of earth from space and the view pulled back and back and back, and I got the distinct (and surprisingly unpleasant) feeling of drifting further into space. Now, I love astronomy, and I love learning about space. But I realized right then and there that I probably would not ever want to go there. Because that sensation of drifting further and further away from earth was the most scared I think I'd ever been.

So when I say I was a little afraid to see Gravity, and that even the trailers made me very anxious, to the point of shortness of breath and (with the last trailer I saw) fearful tears, I am not exaggerating. And, being the huge cinema snob that I am, I of course had to see it in the most potentially traumatizing format possible - 3D and IMAX. Of course.

If you've seen the trailers, you know most of the set-up here, but I'll expand on it a little. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a biomedical engineer who is on her first space mission. George Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut who is on his *last* space mission. While the two of them and another crew member are on a spacewalk, debris from a satellite crashes into a space shuttle, causing a chain reaction that results in loss of communication with Mission Control in Houston, as well the deaths of the entire crew except Ryan and Kowalski. Probably the most terrifying sequence to me - the girl who got so scared at the planetarium when she was little - is Ryan tumbling out into space. Kowalski is able to reach her, and they have a plan to get out of this alive. Well, since that's the first half hour of the film, you know things aren't going to go according to plan. And that's where I'd better stop. :-)

What makes this movie so astounding is the cinematic language and the very real sense of danger. This is not a film that could have been made ten years ago - the technology simply didn't exist yet to pull off the visuals at work here. And director Alfonso Cuarón, who we haven't heard from since his wonderful 2006 film Children of Men, uses these visuals in a way that few filmmakers can. The first 13 minutes of the movie are one uninterrupted shot, and that's not something you'd necessarily notice without being told because it's not flashy or showy, except that the cinematography gives you the distinct feeling of floating in space. What it does is put you right where the characters are, and when shit starts going down, you absolutely feel the terror.

Most of this movie is Sandra Bullock in a one-woman show that has to be the pinnacle of her career so far. I've never been that big a fan of hers, though I know she's better than most critics give her credit for, but she's on a whole other level here. She doesn't have anyone to bounce off of (except briefly with Clooney). The movie reminded me a bit of Apollo 13, which I guess seems like an obvious comparison. Both movies are about things going terribly wrong on space missions, but in Apollo 13, we're just as much in Mission Control as we are on that shuttle. We're invested in the astronauts' survival as much because Ed Harris and his crew are invested in it as we are for our own investment in those characters. Here, there's no Mission Control, at least none that can be of any use to Ryan. It's just Ryan and her own resources and, really, her own will to get out of this alive. She gets a little help, but what ultimately happens to her is - as much as it can be, considering her circumstances - all up to her.

This movie hit me emotionally in a lot of unexpected ways, particularly as I've just passed the one-year anniversary of my father's death. I suppose that, like all artistic endeavors, you'll get from it largely what you bring to it. For my part, it's the most emotionally draining and rewarding movie I've seen in a long time.

One final note, and I probably wouldn't even have thought of this if I hadn't been revisiting The West Wing recently and renewed my obsession with it. My favorite moment, and I suspect it's a favorite for a lot of people, reminded me pretty forcibly of Delores Landingham. If you see the film and you know that name, you'll see what I mean.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Life of Pi (2012)

Right off the bat, this is perhaps the most visually stunning film of the year - of pretty much any year, in fact. I would expect no less from an Ang Lee film, and what I have seen of films that utilize Indian culture, they are some of the most vibrant, colorful experiences I have had seeing movies, period.

Life of Pi (2012)

I have never read the novel on which this film is based, so I can't comment on how good a translation the film is. But here's at least some of the story. A man named Pi Patel is basically telling his life story to a writer. He talks at first about his early childhood and the origin of his name (which is actually Piscine, but he eventually shortened it to "Pi" because he couldn't take any more "pissing" taunts from his schoolmates). He talks about his father, who was a zookeeper, and some harsh lessons he learned about the animals they took care of, especially a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (yes, really). He also explains how he became a follower of not only Hinduism, but also Christianity and Islam, finding happiness in the variety of inspiration that these three faiths gave him.

When Pi is a teenager, his father decides to give up the zoo and take his family and the animals overseas, where he will then sell the animals and hopefully be able to better provide for his family. After a storm demolishes the ship they are traveling on, Pi's entire family and most of the animals are lost to the sea, and Pi is left alone in a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and Richard Parker. The use of 3D (and I cannot stress enough how much the 3D adds to the experience of this particular movie) has an unexpected effect here, as the claustrophobia of this situation is pretty intense. After a sequence of scenes that makes up some of the most horrifying few minutes of any film I've seen in recent memory, the passenger list on the lifeboat is whittled down to just Pi and Richard Parker. Most of the rest of the film deals with Pi trying to stay alive. As he says in a journal (part of the survival kit on the lifeboat), his fear of Richard Parker keeps him alert and having to keep him fed (so that the tiger won't eat him) gives him purpose.

I have seen several complaints about the framing device of this film, notably in the last ten minutes, which (in some viewers' eyes) undoes everything that came before by positing that none of it was real, that it was all some metaphor. I could not possibly see this more differently. Pi is telling his story to a couple of officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport who are trying to piece together what happened when the ship went down. They don't believe his story about the animals, so he tells them another one - essentially the same story (at least the first part of the lifeboat adventure), but with all humans - and instead of being an uplifting story of survival, it's a harrowing story of harsh conditions and lost innocence. What I took from it is that Pi's original version is absolutely true. But he tells the second story because he thinks the two men are more likely to believe it. This seems to be a case of the viewer getting from it what they bring to it, which I think is a mark of real art, not a failure in storytelling.

The way the story presents Pi's loss of his family, and eventually the loss of Richard Parker, was poignant in a way that really pushed my particular buttons. In particular, Pi parting ways with Richard Parker was the most poignant for me, because it reminded me so much of how I'm affected when people drift out of my life, whether by death or (more frequently) circumstance. We're all alone, on our own journey, and though we may have company from time to time, people drift in and out of our stories constantly, because they're in stories of their own.

If you've seen the trailer, you know you're in for a visual treat. Strangely, I think the trailer actually gives away *most* of the money shots from the visual effects, but there's still a lot to feast on. As far as cast goes, we spend most of our time with one human actor, Suraj Sharma, who plays the teenage Pi. This was his film debut, and while I wouldn't say he blew me away, I was impressed in that, for a first-time film actor, it could have gone wrong in so many ways and never did. The other standout is Irrfah Khan, who plays Pi as an adult.

This is a wonderful movie, and one which kind of demands to be seen on a big screen (preferably in 3D). I can't imagine what this movie will be like in a home video format, but if this movie joins my collection, I'm thankful I have a big screen to play it on.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Master (2012)

I first became aware of Paul Thomas Anderson with Boogie Nights, his Altman-esque ode to the waning golden age of porn in the 1970s. Subject matter aside, it was a remarkable ensemble piece that was followed up with an even more stellar film with a similar DNA, Magnolia. After getting a surprisingly layered performance from Adam Sandler in his next film, Punchdrunk Love, his work started to go in a new and more ambitious direction. As critics have said, where once he was trying to be Robert Altman, now he's trying to be Stanley Kubrick. There's no doubt in my mind that people are going to be looking back at 2007's There Will Be Blood as one of the most accomplished pieces of filmmaking ever made, but if you've seen it - perhaps out of bemused curiosity as to why everyone was suddenly talking about milkshakes back in 2007 - you might be thinking "... really?!" I hasten to add that there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that response, but this is something to keep in mind before wading into the salty waters of his newest film, The Master. Like There Will Be Blood before it, this is a film of lingering shots and slow burn storytelling. Storytelling, in fact, might be a misleading term, as the film centers more on the performances than plot.

Unlike There Will Be Blood, this movie does not have a lot of hooks for pop culture to get snagged on. I can't recall any notable "I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE" moments that can be easily lampooned or whittled down to amusing memes. Where There Will Be Blood was bombastic, The Master is more measured, with the real spirit of the film lying in it's quieter moments, some of which barely conceal much deeper and more intense emotion. You may have heard that this film is about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. That's ... sort of true. It is and it isn't. A comparison I've heard a lot from people who've seen it is that it's as much a movie about Scientology as Citizen Kane was a movie about William Randolph Hearst. I'll just leave that there, as my knowledge of the Church of Scientology is at absolute zero. For my money, it's about a guy who's a bit lost after World War II ends and eventually finds himself in a cult.

Our main character is Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, whose face is weathered beyond his years and shows the signs of his having survived more than his share of battles, both physical and spiritual (seriously, he looks even more like Johnny Cash than he did when he played him in Walk the Line). He's a former Navy man and comes back from World War II to work a string of jobs, each of which he eventually abandons with great histrionics. He has a gift for making homemade liquor from household chemicals (e.g., paint thinner, photo developing solution), but after nearly killing another man who samples one of his concoctions, he runs away in a panic and stumbles onto a riverboat where a group of people are celebrating a wedding. He wakes up the next morning in one of the boat's bunks and is brought to meet Lancaster Dodd (whose daughter is the one getting married). Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) found the last of Freddie's most recent batch of hooch and sampled it, thoroughly impressed though still admonishing. Right away, you see an instant connection between these two men, and this movie could be characterized as a sort of non-sexual romance between them. Freddie is clearly much more drawn to Dodd than to "The Cause," and everyone around Dodd is nervous about what effect Freddie is having on him.

What draws these two men to each other? Freddie is a very crude, animalistic man. Early in the film, we see him jerk off into the ocean. When one of his fellow sailors builds a sand sculpture of a naked, supine woman, Freddie entertains everyone by feverishly humping it. In a psych test, he sees sex organs in all the inkblots. And during his first interview with Dodd, he farts and giggles at himself. Dodd, on the other hand, is very erudite and gentlemanly, almost effeminate (though he's definitely the, errr, "top" with Freddie ... she said, hoping that everyone noticed the quote marks). Freddie is drawn to Dodd's magnetism, no doubt, but I also think that, in the wake of nearly killing a man earlier in the film, he is craving direction and wants to be told what to do. Dodd, I think, is drawn to Freddie's more primal nature (even while chastising him for it). I believe it also must be a classic case of "I can change him." 

This movie is a bit of a Rorschach test, which I'm sure is by design (I see what you did there, PT, with the inkblot test scene). There's obviously something Anderson is trying to say about faith and religion here, but it asks more questions than it answers, which might be frustrating for a lot of viewers but I think it's exactly what Anderson was trying to do (ambiguity, I mean, not frustrating the audience :P). For me, I can't help seeing The Cause as having an issue that a lot of faith-based organizations, including churches, have. They want to assimilate Freddie, to help him on their terms and not take who he is and what his issues are into account. And when Dodd's affection for Freddie lets the mission change even the slightest bit, it's seen as a threat.

A lot of critics seem to have issues with the, shall we say, malleable nature of what this film is about. I think that even the title itself is open to interpretation. Who is "the master" in this movie? The answer isn't as obvious as it might seem. But I have to love a film that makes me think about what it's really about and what it's telling me. Sometimes it's exhausting to watch a film like that, and sometimes you just want to see people slip on a banana peel or blow crap up, but films like this are essential, too.

In technical terms, this movie could not be more beautifully photographed, and if there is a theater near you showing it in 70mm (the way it was filmed), I would highly recommend seeing it that way. And Anderson uses the 70mm, not just to film landscapes and vistas, but more often to show us as much detail as possible of the spectacular performances his actors, especially Phoenix and Hoffman, who frequently appear in extreme close-up. Also of note is the period production design, which is Jack Fisk's handiwork. I always love seeing Fisk's name attached to a movie, not just because he's Mr. Sissy Spacek, but because he's been around since the 1970s and done work on some amazing films, including DePalma's Carrie (and he's pretty much responsible for his then new-ish wife auditioning for that film). In other technical news, if you liked Jonny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood, his score for The Master is even better.

One more thing, and this may be something you find crass to focus on, but I think it's a huge part of Anderson's sensibilities, and I kind of love him for it. There are a couple of scenes that include some rather frank female nudity, one of which is a sort of hallucination (featuring several women) and the other of which is a sex scene (featuring one woman, along with a man who you of course see less of because seeing too much of a man's body takes us into NC-17 territory and don't get me started on that double standard). Both scenes feature actresses with very different kinds of bodies, none (well, almost none) of which you're used to seeing in scenes that ogle the female form. And it's kind of awesome to see women's bodies celebrated, even (or maybe especially) if they don't fit the big-boobs-on-a-stick (or sometimes two-aspirins-on-a-stick) blueprint that seems to be all Hollywood sees fit to point a camera at.

I'm curious as to where this movie will end up in the Oscar conversation. A lot of critics seem to be falling all over themselves to praise it to the skies, but it's not what you'd call a crowd-pleaser. I'd say that Phoenix and Hoffman are in the acting race for sure, though thankfully they won't have to compete with one another, since the studio is planning to push Phoenix as the lead and Hoffman in support. If the Academy likes it enough, there could be room on the movie's coattails for a nomination as well for Amy Adams, who has a small but memorable role. Ack, the Oscar stuff is starting again, isn't it? I'm not ready. :D