Monday, September 24, 2012

To Lead or To Follow: A Look at Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master

     One of my most anticipated films of the year, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, is filled with incredible (easily some of the best of the year) performances and top-notch direction that layers thick tension and beautiful cinematography on the viewer. It shouldn't come as a surprise: ever since Anderson's first film, Hard Eight, he has created some of the most interesting characters and stories in modern American cinema--Adam Sandler's toilet plunger salesman in Punch-Drunk Love, Tom Cruise's misogynistic character arc in Magnolia ("Respect the Cock!"), and Daniel Day-Lewis's otherworldly performance in--one of the best films of the 2000s--There Will Be Blood come specifically to mind. With The Master, Anderson has created yet another interesting and unique story, this time about a man referred to as "the Master", who helps create a faith-based organization that is very Scientology-esque, and an unpredictably violent drifter who becomes wrapped up in the religion's powerful grip. It's a great film, and although the story lacks a specific sense of purpose (and the film as a whole never reaches the greatness of 2007's There Will be Blood), the two lead performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are plenty enough reason to stare in awe at the screen.
     I'm hesitant to keep mentioning There Will Be Blood, but since it's Paul Thomas Anderson's last and best film, it's surely relevant. Out of all of Anderson's cinematic directions, The Master is most similar to There Will Be Blood--stylistically and aesthetically (even Jonny Greenwood's score bears similarities). But where There Will Be Blood left the viewer with a sense of dread and foreboding, The Master deals with more daily human plights: the need to follow, the need to fit in, the need to be a part of a cause, whatever that cause may be. Lancaster Dodd (Seymour Hoffman), also known as The Master, is the leader of an up-and-coming faith-based organization that has connections to the real-life practice of Scientology. Dodd performs "processing" on his followers, which is basically a series of questions which causes the subject's spirit to get in touch with its other incarnations throughout the span of time. Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of this enigmatic character is wonderful: he's the jovial writer of books that have retained many followers, and he thinks he has the secret to the human existence. But Dodd, with his snake-oil salesman charm, only realizes his full potential when drifter Freddie Quell shows up at his doorstep.
     Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled man, and he's the real star of The Master. The film starts with different scenes of Freddie as he drifts through different jobs. He mainly thinks about two things: sex and getting black-out drunk. Early in the film, he's either rigorously masturbating to a sand sculpture of a naked woman or concocting dangerous alcoholic mixtures with paint thinner or rocket fuel (or anything else that will alter his state of mind). He's a lost soul, and a dangerous one: anything will set this man off towards a violent episode--a crying baby, running out of hooch, a sarcastic remark. It's hard to explain Phoenix's performance in The Master. It's something that has to be seen to truly be believed. After his break from acting after the (now known) parody of celebrity culture (and semi-documentary) I'm Still Here, Phoenix needed to make a statement, and he surely does here: filling Freddie with nervous laughter, a fascinating anxiety, and incredible destructive alcoholism, his portrayal of Freddie is the best performance of the year (or of many years).
     On a particularly lost night for Freddie, he drunkenly hops the railing of a heavenly sailing vessel that leaves its port and heads out into the open ocean. This is Dodd's boat, and once the master meets his unknown drifter, it sparks the creativity in him to continue his writings for "the cause". Freddie, seemingly stumbling upon a reason to keep on keeping on, becomes something of an acolyte to Dodd--his right-hand-man, a lost cause that becomes loyal and thuggish in his defense of the one person who has finally accepted him for who he is: a troubled man with more to give than just a sip of his homemade hooch. Throughout the second half of The Master, director Anderson intricately layers complexity upon complexity on the two character's relationship. They feed off of each other: Freddie looks to be accepted into the cause despite his violent episodes and battle with booze, and Dodd realizes the importance of accepting and trying to help any "animal" that is trying to become a man. But like any faith, Dodd's cause is ripe for criticism. Is the master "making it up as he goes along", as his grown son (Breaking Bad's Jessie Plemons) states? Or is "the cause" worth following unquestionably with the utmost loyalty, as Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, in super-serious mode) does?
     Organizing your thoughts after one viewing of The Master is a tricky proposition. The film will definitely benefit from a second viewing. Like Freddie's daily battle with his sexual and alcohol appetite, criticizing The Master is a challenge. One surely couldn't write this movie off as a simple critique on Scientology, a film to make Tom Cruise squirm or L. Ron Hubbard roll in his grave. What is The Master trying to tell us? An easy answer is never revealed. The final third of the film is slower and a bit confusing, entering into Freddie's (maybe?) dream-like imaginations and second guessing. But the film, at it's heart, is about man trying to live a philosophical life, while also questioning the basis of life itself. It's challenging and thoughtful, and it has two performances that both will surely win awards at the end of the year. Ultimately, The Master is a film that solidifies the fact that Paul Thomas Anderson is--above all--a cinematic master.     (A)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Netflix This: Friends With Kids

     If one were to read my pieces on the other web site that I write film reviews for,, they could see that I was a big fan of the 2001 romantic comedy, Kissing Jessica Stein, a girl-meets-girl story about a woman who decides to try to become physically/sexually attracted to other women. It starred (and was written by) Jennifer Westfeldt, and it was a humorous blend of drama, love and desire. Last year's Friends With Kids--also starring and written by Ms. Westfeldt--falls into that same category: a romantic comedy that's smart and different about the strain that having a child puts on a relationship, whether between two lovers...or two friends. Like Kissing Jessica, it's a pleasant surprise that propels Jennifer Westfeldt into the hierarchy of top chick-flick writers, and it's film that men should be happy to watch with their significant others instead of the typical, cliche, moronic feces that gets diarrhea-ed into theaters every week.
     Friends With Kids focuses on three couples in love and friendship. Mainly, we see Jason (Adam Scott, revelatory in this starring role) and Julie (Westfeldt), two long-time friends who have known each for years and live in the same building in New York. These two are not in love, but their platonic connection makes them ideal friends: they know each others' values and insights, they finish each others' sentences, and they constantly tell each other about various men and women who they date, sometime graphically. Alex and Leslie (Bridesmaid's Chris O'Dowd and Maya Rudolph) are a fairly normal couple, with the typical amount of love and bickering, and when they decide to have a child, it puts the thought into Julie and Jason's head that their biological clock is ticking faster and faster. Ben (Jon Hamm, in a good change-of-pace role from Don Draper on AMC's Mad Men) and Missy (Kristen Wiig) round out the friend group, and they portray a couple that constantly emerge from bathrooms and other public places with an orgasmic glow (until they have children, too, of course).
     Flash forward a few years later, and Julie and Jason are seeing what their friends are going through: once the two other couples have had children, the lack of sex, disappearance of sensuality and prominence of poop in their lives has turned them bitter and less fun-filled. Despite all of this, Julie and Jason take a huge life step: they decide to have a child then share the custody and continue their own, separate journey through love. That's the premise of Friends With Kids, and the adventure in baby barf, arguments, and observations about parenting and funny and fruitful. In a film such as this, with its typical romantic comedy set-up (Will Julie and Jason realize that resistance if futile? Will they fall in love, once their friendship produced a child?), the ending might seem predictable. But the sharp and shrewd screenplay, along with the touching performances of all involved, heaves it high above the heap of 2011's chick-flick fare.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lawless: A Tale of Bootleggin' Brotherly Love

     Lawless is a story about brothers and the lengths they will go for each other, their criminal enterprise, and their notorious reputation. It's hard to imagine two more different actors playing the two main Bondurant brothers: Tom Hardy, ever the presence of cinematic electricity in every film that showcases his ability (specifically his brawny insanity in Bronson, his emotional brutishness in Warrior, and his masked-villain anger in the recent The Dark Knight Rises), portrays Forrest, the leader of the Bondurant brothers, a man with many legends and a history of violence in the moon-shining era. Then we have Shia LaBeouf, ever the presence of cinematic annoyance (specifically as Michael Bay's golden boy in the Transformers franchise and in the easy-to-forget Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of *Fart Noise*), portraying Jack, the Bondurant "runt of the litter", a man who finally begins to realize his potential in the family business. Somehow--with Hardy's typical brilliance, LaBeouf's first worthwhile starring role, and the script and direction--it works. Lawless is a good but flawed film, a film that is saved by its performances, yet with a run time of nearly two hours, it feels too short.
     Lawless was originally titled The Wettest Country in the World, and it's based on the book of the same name by Matt Bondurant, the grandson and great-nephew of some of the characters in the film. The movie jumps right into the main story: the Bondurant brothers make some of the god-damned best moonshine in Franklin County, VA. They have a good hold of the market, and when it comes to opposition, they--especially Forrest, who speaks mainly in grunts--take no prisoners. Soon after meeting the brothers (the third of which is named Howard [Jason Clarke], who has a mean streak due to his moonshine alcoholism), a group of men ride up into the Bondurant compound. These men are led by a man named Rakes (Memento's Guy Pearce), a special agent from Chicago with a chip on his shoulder and a stick up his ass--maybe literally...he sure seems a bit off. He doesn't really have any eyebrows and reminded me of Steve-O when he shaved his body hair for Jackass. The problem with Rakes isn't Pearce's slightly-over-the-top performance (he speaks in a villainous high-speech, is immaculately dressed and wears more perfume than whores at a brothel), but the fact that he enters Lawless with no buildup or back story. Who is this man, this foil for the Bondurant brothers, and why does he care so much about bringing them down?
     The brothers base their operation out of a bar/restaurant (and gas station, I guess. I only know this because during one violent episode a pump-nozzle gets shoved into someone's mouth). Police hassle them there, rival booze-runners hassle them on the road and during drop-offs, and nearly every few scenes showcase a brutally violent showdown that has Shia LaBeouf getting his ass kicked (something he needed to do as an act of goodwill for movie-viewers worldwide) and Tom Hardy breaking bones with a set of brass knuckles, grumbling in his Neanderthal charm. Two women eventually enter the picture, and basically their only purpose is to add a female eye-candy presence to the proceedings: Maggie (Jessica Chastain) is a dancer from Chicago who was tired of violent men, clearly making the wrong choice to move to Franklin county. She becomes a worker for the Bondurants, performing various tasks to help the business run and add a pretty face. Bertha (Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska) is a preacher's daughter that LaBeouf's Jack falls madly in love with. Neither woman adds anything particularly interesting to Lawless. I won't even get into the fact that the great Gary Oldman is in the film as a powerful gangster, as he is so under-utilized that I questioned his presence altogether.
     Lawless was directed by John Hillcoat, and he was definitely a good choice: just like in his desolate films The Proposition and The Road, the way he films the land and the way he shows the shocking flashes of violence are top-notch. It was also written by musician Nick Cave (who also wrote Hillcoat's The Proposition). Unfortunately, Lawless doesn't quite match up with the former film's weirdness and original story. This is nothing we haven't seen before in the good Western films of the past twenty years, or even the last two years in HBO's wonderful and far-more-engaging Prohibition epic Boardwalk Empire.
     It's impossible to ignore the effort that the cast and crew put into Lawless. When Shia LaBeouf finally shows that he has the talent to act alongside wonderful character actors Hardy and Pearce, I consider that a win for everyone. But it still doesn't change the fact the film feels disjointed and the ending--the inevitable violent conclusion--predictable. Occasionally, one scene will jump to the next, and the viewer feels like they missed something. Gary Oldman's character, as I stated before, seems particularly pointless. Apparently, there is a reason for this: Lawless supposedly had an original three-hour cut before the studio made Hillcoat shave it down to a more viewer-friendly two hours. It wasn't for the best. When blood is spurting and the brothers are warring, Lawless has a brutal and visceral appeal--for the rest of the film, I felt like I had guzzled too much moonshine.     (B)