Thursday, July 11, 2013

Mona Lisa (1986)

Mona Lisa (1986), dir. Neil Jordan

Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa opens with a shot of one of London’s many bridges at dusk.  Crossing that bridge with a sense of urgency, and clutching a large yellow envelope is George (Bob Hoskins), a man just released from a seven-year jail sentence.  Playing from the film’s soundtrack, oozing with schmaltz is Nat King Cole’s eponymously titled song from 1950, “Mona Lisa”.  That song, though it cannot be made clear from the opening credits, but seeing how it is heard in snippets throughout the remainder of the film, holds some sort of significance.  George, for one, has a penchant for this type of music—that song in particular.  It says something curious about him, because he’s a rough-edged man, and his swift movements indicate a proclivity towards wild, unexpected outbursts.  What he lacks in stature he more than compensates with in intensity.  But beneath this gruff exterior is a real softy—a romantic who embodies every tender strain of Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa”.  “Mona Lisa”, both the song and the painting, serves as a parable for the object of George’s affection: a young, high-end call girl named Simone (Cathy Tyson), whom George is hired to drive around from job to job.  She’s charming, as every prostitute in her class should be, and is every bit as feisty as George, easily holding her own against him.  And just like the famous painting, “Mona Lisa”, possesses some mystery behind her meek smile.  Mona Lisa is a gritty, convincing, and lurid tale of love drawn from the dregs of society.  While its story is not an uplifting one, it’s a very thoughtful film, and there are enough shocks and surprises to keep you thinking about it for a long time afterward.
          The greatest strength of this film is in the performances.  Bob Hoskins in particular is a real dynamo, and his performance is the kind that will leave an indelible imprint on your memory.  While watching him, it occurred to me just how regrettable it is that actors of his appearance and stature would never get leading roles such as this anymore.  The role of George is that of a blue-collar criminal, and a Cockney at that.  Bob Hoskins is a perfect conceptual match for this character.  Pair that with the merits of his performance and it gives the film an air of authenticity and believability which is absolutely necessary to be convincing.  The same can easily be said for the rest of the cast.  Cathy Tyson, who surprisingly remained an unknown after the release of this film, exudes just the right amount of each thorny emotional ingredient to account for the baggage that makes the character of Simone both a tragic one and an enigma.  It’s understandable that her experience as a prostitute, having been ruefully abused by her pimps and heartlessly objectified by her clients has led her to resent the male sex as a whole. 
The initial relationship between George and Simone is a prickly one.  She’s used to dealing with an upscale clientele, and accepts George, with his shabby clothes, bloody marys, and uncouth manner with noticeable irritation.  He accepts with reluctance her offer to provide him with a new wardrobe to match the classic white Jaguar he’s been provided to drive her around in.  Gradually they warm up to one another, and George bubbles confidingly to his mechanic friend, Thomas (a very young Robbie Coltrane), his growing affections.  When Simone urges George to help her locate a fellow prostitute whom she vowed to protect, her motives appear to be quite obvious.  Where the truth lies, however, gives the story so much more dimension.  The world in which George enters into in his search for this young girl, Cathy, is one that makes clear George’s mettle.  He’s a fearless individual, for sure, but not an unfeeling one.  Having to witness first hand the plight of these young girls, many of who are underage, we see that George is horrified.  This of course is compounded by the fact that he is also trying to reconnect with his daughter, who is in high school.  His sense of disgust is further extended when he learns of the direct connection between Simone’s missing friend and his employer, the slimy Mortwell.  Mortwell, whose screen time is few, is effectively played by Michael Caine.  Caine has so seldom played villains, and yet he’s so naturally adept to it that it’s a large wonder why he hasn’t accepted the undertaking more often.  Mortwell is an incredible sleaze, and the nonchalance in which he approaches his sordid business dealings would have to be reflected in the face.  Caine does this superbly with those phlegmatic eyes of his and wry smile.  When George’s devotion to Simone crosses with his obligations to Mortwell the film’s climax is both shocking and provocative.  Throughout the film you clearly feel the plot moving towards some sort of culmination, but Simone’s ambiguity keeps you guessing as to what the nature of that culmination will be.  The pacing is good throughout, and the climax is delivered to maximum effect.
         Mona Lisa does what every good movie should do: tell a story, devoid of sleekness in excess and pretension, and allow you to experience that story through the vividness of its characters.  This is indeed a gritty story, and it is presented with biting realism (reportedly, real prostitutes were used for the scenes filmed at King’s Cross in London).  It’s that unabashed sense of realism that, in addition to the great performances, draws you into the story.  Mona Lisa is a film that deserves to be exhumed from the shelves.                        

Monday, April 29, 2013

Wise Blood (1979)

Wise Blood (1979), dir. John Huston

Unless one pays very close attention the opening credits to a movie, most people would probably be floored at the sheer number of screenplays adapted from books, novels in particular.  Given that a filmed version of a book is intended to stand on its own, and the more obscure the book the easier this is to accomplish, there should be little incentive for the viewer to investigate the genesis of the story they have just seen.  I personally find that the kinds of stories that warrant such probing are the ones in which the characters’ dimensions are the most fully realized.  Wise Blood features a vast array of some truly profound characters, bent by such perverse, yet thoughtful motives that their genesis could have only been literary in origin.  Original screenplays tend to place too much emphasis on the screen aspect of the term, and what they often end up with is a collection of superficial, one-dimensional characters.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (James Bond is a fine example of a very successful one-dimensional character, though literary he may be), but the viewer is in turn inclined to take these characters at face value—motives are seldom questioned, they simply are who they are.
      Wise Blood is adapted from Flannery O’Connor’s novel of the same name.  I know absolutely nothing about either Ms. O’Connor or her novel, but as you can probably surmise from the introduction to this review I am very intrigued.  It is the story of a young man, Hazel Motes, who after serving in a foreign war returns to his Tennessee home only to find his mother’s house in a state of utter dilapidation.  His mother is buried not far from where the wretched house barely stands.  “Gone to become an angle [sic]” is what reads on her tombstone.  Hazel (brilliantly played by Brad Dourif), is somewhat of an enigma, and that’s what makes him so fascinating.  We’re given no intimations as to what his life was like before fighting in the war, but it’s obvious that it had left him fully disillusioned, with religion in particular.  Hazel’s grandfather was a preacher, and there are intermittent flashbacks of Hazel sitting onstage with his grandfather (played by John Huston himself) as he sermonizes.  In one flashback Hazel becomes incontinent during his grandfather’s homily, suggesting a discomfort with the words spewing from the old man’s lips. 
      Hazel doesn’t stay at home for long.  He uses his military stipend to buy himself a pair of duds and a preacher’s hat, telling those he comes in contact with, “I’m gonna’ do some things I ain’t never done before.”  It’s made apparent however that even he himself has no idea what these ‘things’ are exactly.  He takes a train to another town, is immediately accused of looking like a preacher, but vehemently denies this.  He then goes to the home of a prostitute and shares her bed.  The following day in town he meets a blind preacher (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter.  The daughter takes an immediate liking to Hazel, but he takes an immediate provocative stance against the both of them.  His disillusionment, which has already fully taken hold of him compels him to accuse the blind man of being foolish for believing in and proselytizing about Jesus, whom he believes to have no part in our world.  He then proclaims that he is going to start his own church: ‘The Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified’, and takes to proselytizing in the streets himself.
    Another key character in this story is that of a young simpleton named Enoch Emory, who gravitates to Hazel and offers to help him develop this anti-religion of his.  Enoch possesses tendencies which are borderline insane, and his fixation on a shrunken, mummified cadaver serve to advance the on-the-fly developments of Hazel’s church.  That being the basic plot, I will not divulge any further details as to how the story progresses.  I will only say that it is a fascinating one, and easily kept my interest for the remainder of the film.
      Wise Blood works well as a biting, dark comedy.  It provides a humorous depiction of a quickly disappearing enclave of Southern White America, making comical use of their dialect and basic human values.  I found it interesting how just about any character in the film who started addressing passersby on the street could immediately hold their unwavering attention.  Be it some innate simplicity inherent in these people, or a staple of Southern etiquette, people today are certainly not that accommodating.
      There’s a certain level of discomfort in watching Hazel Motes wade through these waters of doubt he’s in.  Especially when he comes to learn that every other preacher he comes into contact with is an opportunistic phony.  The effect this revelation has upon him and what it drives him to do is both shocking and funny. 
      There are simply not too many movies like Wise Blood being made anymore.  Here is a film that focuses its energy one key aspect to the human condition, that of the loss of spirituality.  Other themes are also explored, such as honesty, morality, and sex, but they are all masterfully intertwined.  This is of course due to the subtle touch of one of America’s greatest directors, John Huston, a man whose decades long career never ceased to be fresh.  There’s a lot of value to Wise Blood—great performances, superb writing, and some biting social commentary.  Strongly recommended.                     

Friday, April 19, 2013

Murder by Decree (1979)

Murder by Decree (1979), dir. Bob Clark

On paper Murder by Decree looks like a recipe for a sure-fire hit.  It boasts an excellent cast, with such superb acting talents as Christopher Plummer, James Mason, Donald Sutherland, and Sir John Gielgud; and the plot, which pits Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper, sounds so obvious a synthesis of material that as a mystery it should have been nothing less than tantalizing.  Despite these seemingly potent ingredients however, the end product somehow manages to come up very flat indeed.  Murder by Decree is not a bad film, per se, but it fails to live up to its potential, thus accounting for its relegation to cinematic obscurity.
        The film offers very little in terms of set up, which is understandable given that Sherlock Holmes and his often-portly cohort, Dr. John H. Watson are two of the most iconic characters to ever grace the screen.  Holmes and Watson are played by Christopher Plummer and the not-so-portly James Mason (respectively), and they make a very likable duo.  Plummer, whose career has seen rejuvenation in recent years, gives an admirable portrayal of Holmes—a far more humble one than the literary version.  And Mason, who had always excelled in playing villains, gives Watson just the right amount of affability.  The two play off of each other very well, and the writing is just good enough to provide enough interesting interplay between them.
The plot is advanced very early on as the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings are already underway when Holmes and Watson are delegated to the case.  Without giving too much of the plot away I can say that, given that Sherlock Holmes is the detective here, the plot is far more convoluted than a simple ‘find the mad killer’ case one would generally expect of a ‘Jack the Ripper’ film.  There’s a lot of political intrigue, and even the involvement of the Freemasons is postulated—a secret society whose very existence is often underutilized in films.  Still, given all of the complexity to this mystery I couldn’t help from finding it a bit humdrum.  For those of you who are more used to the 21st century-style of mystery/thriller, in which the films are brimming with high action and special effects sequences, you may be surprised to know that Murder by Decree was a feature film in its day.  By today’s standards it has more of a made-for-Public Broadcasting-TV type of feel, but don’t let that act as a detraction.  It certainly didn’t bother me, quite the contrary: I for one often feel patronized while watching the over-the-top action/thrillers of today.  The makers of these films seem to believe that their audience is incapable of investing themselves into the picture unless it is bloated with exaggerated stunts and monstrous explosions, while at the same time filled with actors and actresses who were obviously chosen more for their sexual appeal rather than their strengths as a thespian.  Older films didn’t have these highly calculated, profit-based decisions behind them, and I appreciated Murder by Decree for its humility and intricate plotting.
There are of course elements in this film that are indicative of the popular conventions of the day.  For instance, we are often given first-person camera shots of the murder victims first being stalked, and then killed by the murderer.  This of course was a very common device in slasher films of the late 1970s and early ‘80s.  The art direction here is very dreary; most of the scenes take place at night, and there is omnipresent fog that seems to traverse into interior shots as well.  This film could have had very adverse effects on London tourism, to say the least.
Murder by Decree is a not a film I would recommend you rush to track down and view.  But, if you’re at home on a rainy Saturday afternoon and it just so happens to be playing on TV you might find it a somewhat satisfying viewing experience.  It certainly doesn’t deserve to be relegated to total obscurity. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012), dir. Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, though I have no doubt as to the high aspirations behind it, comes off as some pretty perfunctory filmmaking.  But that should come as no surprise, as Spielberg’s directorial talents have never really lent themselves to serious subject matter.  The hallmark films of Spielberg’s career—Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark—if there is any commonality between them, it is that they all possess a child-like sense of wonder, plus they are just plain fun to watch.  Whenever Spielberg, throughout his illustrious career felt compelled to diverge toward what he must have perceived as loftier filmmaking, the end result comes up flat.  He’s been able to effectively fool a lot of people otherwise by hiding behind sensitive material.  Be it the various aspects of WWII he’s covered, or slavery, all of those films have lacked the keen sense of wonder and adventure that he built his career upon.  When he foregoes the use of this innate talent, what we are often left with is characterless filmmaking.  It’s lamentable to add that even his more recent attempts at the style of films he used to excel at, such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or Tintin have also been disappointments.  It seems as though all youthful exuberance has been sapped from the man whose ego is legendary in Hollywood.
      Lincoln is not in any way a disappointment.  But at the same time, it isn’t a milestone picture in any sense.  Set in 1865, toward the conclusion of the Civil War, the film chronicles the events that led to Abraham Lincoln pushing through what many consider the crown of his achievements, the Thirteenth Amendment, which effectively banned slavery in the United States.  The film presents the bowdlerized version of the Civil War taught in our public schools, in which the issue of slavery was the sole cause of the war.  Pushing political correctness aside, the film does offer a highly detailed view into how our country’s legislative process functions, with much consideration to the agendas of the two major political parties, and the necessary voting margins one must achieve to pass a piece of legislation through.  While the process itself is not all that complicated, the personal and political agendas implicit are what adds zest to the whole mechanism.  With so many people directly involved, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the sheer number of characters in this film, especially since none are given their proper due.  While the acting is terrific all around, we are really only given superficial glimpses of these people—Lincoln included. 
      Abraham Lincoln is a personage of such historical significance that the difficulty of having him portrayed in film is that he may come off as a caricature, rather than a living, breathing person.  Daniel Day-Lewis is a marvelous actor, but I feel he may have been miscast.  He certainly looks the part, and is more than capable of exhibiting the kind of passion one would expect from a man of Lincoln’s mettle, but during the picture I was always aware that what I was seeing was Daniel Day-Lewis’s impersonation of Lincoln when I would have liked to have seen a more convincing depiction.  The voice of Lincoln has always puzzled me.  There has always been a distinct, yet stereotypical voice attached to Abraham Lincoln.  Be it the animatronic Abraham Lincoln at Disneyland, or the Abraham Lincoln from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure the voice has remained a constant.  Given that no audio recordings of Lincoln exist, his voice must have been passed down aurally by people who had heard it and were capable of emulating it.  There is something about Daniel Day-Lewis’s version of the voice that is unsettling.  It may be that it is pitched too high, or perhaps Day-Lewis had some difficulty emulating an American accent (few British actors can do this convincingly), but it’s a bit off, and given the amount of dialogue he has it becomes irksome after a while.
     This is a really a picture about an event in history and not about the man, Abraham Lincoln.  There are a few poignant scenes in which Lincoln relays the personal importance of having the Thirteenth Amendment passed, but little insight is provided as to what led him to hold these convictions other than his own interpretation of the words “all men are created equal”.  The film however does present some very odd and fascinating insights into what the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) was, and the result is quite shocking at times.  At one point Abe tells her he should have had her admitted to a mad house.  Spats like these beg the question of what kind of a husband Lincoln actually was, especially since most people view him simply as “the man who ended slavery”, or “the guy on the five dollar bill.”
     Lincoln is well written and finely acted, but the direction is uninspired.  I felt, as I have felt many times in the past, that Spielberg is just running through the motions.  I’m almost certain he didn’t approach it that way, but the workman-like construction of this film left me feeling somewhat detached when I should have felt profound emotion for one of our nation’s greatest presidents. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained (2012), dir. Quentin Tarantino

Prior to seeing Django Unchained I happened to catch Quentin Tarantino’s appearance on Charlie Rose’s program promoting the picture.  I’ve seen all of Tarantino’s previous appearances on that show, all of which were quite enjoyable, but was quite taken aback at this latest interview.  It was one hour of shameless self-adoration.  Tarantino has always been confident in his abilities, but what really separated this interview from the ones he had given Rose in the past was the degree to which he seems to perceive the public cares about his philosophies on film, his work ethic as both writer and director, and his personal cinematic tastes.  Judging from his quasi-scripted elucidations, he probably considers his level of influence to be at the industry’s zenith.  I have no doubt that there is a large assemblage of followers that sincerely do hang on his every word, but judging further the manner in which he carried himself on the program, he felt that clique to be all encompassing.  Admittedly, I too am a great admirer of his, but I found him very immodest in that interview, and immodesty is rarely considered to be an admirable trait.  Charlie Rose was partially to blame for leading him along that analytical track, in which all minutiae surrounding the production of Django was thoroughly explored ad nauseum.  I began to worry that all of this eye roll-inducing self-indulgence may have rubbed off from the film itself, for I had high hopes for Django.  I decided at that time to suspend judgment and wait for the film to speak for itself.
         Quentin Tarantino, since abandoning the crime genre, in which his first three masterful films fell into (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown), has since engulfed himself a genre which may be entirely his own, that of ‘fantasy revenge’ films. The Kill Bill films were the first of these, followed by 2007’s Death Proof, and more the recent Inglourious Basterds.  Basterds and Django possess the further distinction of being somewhat historically based, and I mean that in the loosest possible terminology.  To watch both of these films, one is required to disregard everything one has learned about these eras in history and to simply accept them as vehicles for entertainment.  I found that a reasonable prerequisite, as long as they were indeed entertaining.  Inglourious Basterds, set during WWII, is a delightful piece of whimsy that grants a small group of Jewish mercenaries the opportunity to take revenge upon their Nazi oppressors.  For Django Unchained, Tarantino has chosen yet another persecuted group from history; this time African-American slaves in the years directly preceding the Civil War.  Why Quentin Tarantino, seeing that he is neither Jewish nor Black, felt compelled to play champion to these two oppressed peoples is beyond me.  Given that he is part Cherokee, it seems more fitting for him to have devised a fantasy revenge picture in which the native tribes of the Americas expel the European colonists.  Perhaps that could be an idea for his next project.
       Django Unchained opens with a literal bang.  Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter, whose self confidence seems to match only Tarantino himself, frees (through the most theatrical means) a slave named Django who is his only lead in identifying a group of lawless brothers with a price on their heads.  After doing away with the brothers and collecting the bounty, Schultz teams up with Django and agrees, out of a sense of responsibility he says, to help Django track down his wife, Broomhilda [sic], whom he was separated when they were sold to new owners.  Waltz, who was the scene-stealing Nazi detective in Basterds, again plays a highly capable German polyglot—a role that Tarantino may end up typecasting for him.  Tarantino’s hubris seems to manifest itself within the character played by Waltz.  He’s highly articulate, with a scripted sense for delivery, and is master of every sticky situation he finds himself in.  Django on the other hand is soft-spoken and reserved (at least toward the beginning), but despite being a slave can ride a horse effortlessly and handle a firearm with Billy the Kid-like accuracy.  Together they make an unlikely team, but an interesting foil for the film’s surly villain: plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), captor of Broomhilda.
        Up until the arrival of Schultz and Django at ‘Candie Land’ (the name of Candie’s plantation) the film is quite enjoyable.  Not up to Tarantino’s usual high standard, but a lot of fun in many ways.  However, once the blood bath of fantasy revenge begins everything falls out of alignment as we are subjected to some of the most gratuitous massacres most likely ever filmed.  It was at this point I was reminded of a comment Tarantino made on Charlie Rose about the TV mini-series, Roots.  He expressed great disdain at the last episode where Chicken George (a slave) refuses the opportunity to whip one of the most hatefully racist characters on the series (played by Lloyd Bridges).  Making the claim that America’s thirst for blood went unquenched, he added that Django would not have that problem.  Well, he was right.  But to warrant such a thirst, one would have to conjure up figures far more personal than that of racial bigots from nearly two centuries ago.  A thirst like that would require the combined forces of sadistic school bullies, abusive stepparents, sexually-predatory clergymen, and conniving co-workers to justify the utter madness that is the last forty minutes of this picture. 
         Quentin Tarantino has been criticized for the violence in his films going all the way back to his first film, Reservoir Dogs.  Those criticisms were never duly justified as he himself rightly pointed out that the bulk of the violence happens off camera.  This, I felt was a much better way to deal with the violent aspects of his films.  Implications of violence leave much more to the imagination of the viewer, in turn allowing them to control the effectiveness of which.  By subjecting the viewer to explicit, exaggerated violence and gore, one can distance the viewer from the picture, unless he or she fetishes it.  Those with a healthy appetite for blood and guts will relish this film.  I personally do not shy away from violence when it is presented in a way contextually congruous to the story.  In Django however, the level of violence is entirely incongruous, and exaggerated to fulfill a fetishist’s appetite.
        Django Unchained is an entertaining picture all right, but by the final act the film begins to suffer from becoming too entertaining, if that at all makes sense.  There are many funny moments laden throughout.  Many people may make reference to the scene with the KKK members complaining about the poorly slit eyeholes in their masks.  True, it was funny, but the gag went on far too long and began to tug at udders where the milk had already run dry.  By far the funniest lines in the film come from Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, head servant to Calvin Candie.  He’s deliciously foul-mouthed, and has enjoyed his long-lived status at Candie Land for so long that even he harbors racist tendencies toward his own people.  It’s Jackson’s best role in years, and he is the true scene-stealer in this film, not Waltz.
      One of the more surprising, yet disappointing aspects of the film is the lack of biting dialogue that has become a Tarantino staple.  Scenes in this film are often structured in a manner to place more emphasis on the dialogue, which is neither fresh nor memorable.  A particularly annoying convention Tarantino uses is to have tense confrontations between characters interrupted to showcase side-dialogue, often with a passive party.  It comes off as arrogant as disrupts the flow of the picture.  The film’s grand monologue, if it can be said to have one, would be Leonardo DiCaprio’s spiel on the phrenology of African slaves.  When compared to Tarantino’s past great monologues, such as Samuel L. Jackson’s one about the shepherd from Pulp Fiction, and David Carradine’s one about Superman from Kill Bill, Volume II, this monologue is a more than a few rungs below those.  And some of his characterizations are inconsistent.  Dr. Schultz in particular, who I refuse to believe was as vain as he was portrayed in the scene that triggered the blood bath at the end.  All prior depictions of his character suggested him to be too calculating and interested in self-preservation to be as reckless as he was in that particular scene.  As for the character of Django himself, I never found him endearing enough to generate any sympathy for, or to want to root for him in the end.  The same goes for Broomhilda.  Of all of the characters in the film, shockingly the hero and heroine were the most superficial and cardboard.  This of course greatly detracted from the film’s climax.    
    After viewing the film, the fears generated from the Charlie Rose interview were unfortunately realized. Django Unchained overall is a fiercely arrogant and self-indulgent picture.  I realize that any film based on a person’s inner fantasies would have to be self-indulgent at its core, but what exacerbates the level indulgence is the apparent need to share it with others with the confidence that that particular fantasy may be universal.  I think all of us, at one time or another, have fantasized about taking the most extreme and contrived revenge upon our tormentors, but personally I shudder at the thought of other people having access to those passing fancies of mine.
     Django Unchained is a small blemish on an otherwise flawless directing career.  Quentin Tarantino has proved himself in the past two decades to be one of the most visionary directors working.  I might add that I would have to rank Pulp Fiction as one of top ten best films ever produced.  I’ve always felt that with that film, which occurred so early on in his career, he set the bar too high for himself.  He may never be able to top it, but I sincerely hope that he regains his footing after Django.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Master (2012)

The Master (2012), dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Somehow while watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master, I got to thinking about the composer Arnold Schoenberg.  It was Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16 (1909) specifically which came to mind.  It is a work that utilizes an orchestra of Mahlerian proportions with every instrument functioning as it would in a late Romantic symphony or tone poem, only that the notes seems all wrong, and there is a meandering quality to the music that leaves the listener stricken with a sense of bewilderment.  But what a trip it is.  However, by the end of the piece you are left with the unsettling sensation that what you just have heard has either gone over your head, or hadn’t at all and it simply is what it is.  The Master left me feeling a similar sensation.  For nearly two and a half hours I was deeply engrossed.  Here is a film so visually rich, so well paced, and so well performed, that when about halfway through I realized would go nowhere (much like PTA’s other films) I ceased to care about its obvious shortcomings.  I was in it simply for the ride.  Paul Thomas Anderson, like Arnold Schoenberg, has mastered the technical aspects of his craft.  Where the vagaries in Schoenberg’s work are pretty well accounted for—here was a man who felt burdened by the limits of tonal music and sought release through Expressionism—Paul Thomas Anderson’s lack of conveyance seems to be more the result of a personal defect of some kind, rooted in existential nihilism*.  Or, perhaps there is some message that simply does go over everyone’s head.  Either way, there’s still a lot of worth in his work.
      The Master is set in the early 1950s and centers on the relationship between a maladjusted WWII naval veteran, named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and the eccentric Lancaster Dodd, whom they call ‘The Master’ (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Dodd is the leader of a fledgling cult known as “The Cause”.  Ostensibly inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and the church of Scientology, “The Cause” seems to have firmer roots in Buddhism, in which reincarnation is one of its fundamental beliefs, and the direct exploration of one’s self is the key to unlocking life’s secrets.  From our first glimpse of Freddie Quell it is somehow made apparent that he is a hopeless cause.  Perhaps it’s that dumb grin of his, but gradually as we are introduced to both his unhealthy sexual preoccupation and his addiction to his own brand of chemically infused alcoholic cocktails, it’s clear there’s little that can be done for him.
    One of the focal methods developed by Dodd is a series of intense questioning centered on past trauma called ‘processing’.  It is these scenes that are the most well written and meticulously acted in the film.  Through Freddie’s processing we learn of his incestuous relationship with his aunt, and of the subject of his own personal turmoil—the unrealized love with a young girl which war tore him away from.  Freddie is a truly troubled sort.  The ‘potions’ he’s addicted to probably kill off brain cells in troves, and he has unpredictable violent tendencies.  His devotion to ‘The Master’ and ‘The Cause’ appears to be a manifestation of ennui rather being spawned from a desire to get well.  In fact, Freddie provides little evidence that he believes there is anything wrong with himself in the first place.  Lancaster Dodd is keen to help him, but as the leader of the cult is equally as keen to help any prospective convert.  He does take a natural liking to Freddie, but by the end of the film comes to believe, just as his own family had deduced, that Freddie is truly a lost cause.
      I don’t if it was intentional, but in this film Anderson’s repeated aversion to any firm kind of resolution does take some effect here.  From one interpretation the film could serve as a parable to religion itself, as religion can be viewed as a grand entity offering wondrous payback, albeit with the answers never being provided to the living.  Freddie Quell is never given the answer to whatever it was he invested all of his time and effort towards, and we the viewer of the film are left without any clear message, aside from the possible interpretation I’ve just postulated.
    Despite its shortcomings, The Master remains to be a work of bravura filmmaking.  Shot in glorious 65mm film, the images are beautiful and crystal clear, and free of the pixilation and artificial glossiness that plagues digital film.  Like There Will Be Blood before it, Anderson has a talent for finding the right people to recreate period looks.  The sets, props, and costumes are perfect to a tee, and the actors are made up to truly look as though they come from another era.  Joaquin Phoenix is nearly unrecognizable (for a moment I thought he was Hank Azaria), but this is also a testament to his superb acting as he breathes life into the role of Freddie Quell.  In terms of consistency, there are few actors that can match Philip Seymour Hoffman (John Malkovich is one).  He is such a pleasure to watch, and absolutely fearless when it comes to assuming a character.  Also, the music by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead is very befitting and adds a certain punch to the film. 
     Anderson, as he has repeatedly done in the past, fails to deliver on all of the elements necessary for a really cogent picture.  Given the scope of his films, a clearly conveyed message of some kind would be the icing on the cake.  But, if ‘things are what they are’ is the only kind of message we are ever to receive from him I suppose there is little we can do but accept it.  Thankfully the packaging is excellent. 

*See blog entry, Paul Thomas Anderson: One Shy Step From Greatness by Ethan van Winkle (October 12, 2012)           

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Argo (2012)

Argo (2012), dir. Ben Affleck

Is Ben Affleck an auteur in the making, or a ready-made provocateur?  The directorial style he assumed for Argo is far too referential to ever achieve auteur status; the film’s distortion of history, however and subtle antagonistic nature may have already earned him the notoriety of the latter label.
      I can admit to having nearly been fooled into perceiving what kind of film Argo actually is.  For those not in the know, Argo is a historical drama chronicling the exfiltration of six American diplomats following the 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries.  “Argo” is the name of the dummy Hollywood sci-fi film project that was used as a front for the covert exfiltration of the six diplomats, who narrowly escaped the raid at the embassy and were then secretly harbored by the Canadian ambassador to Iran.  At first I was charmed by the film’s meticulous art direction.  I find that 1970s and ‘80s period films are some of the most difficult to make convincing.  Argo gets it just right, from the wardrobe selection to the props, down to the film’s grainy appearance (a film camera was used, thankfully, and not a ghastly digital one).  They even used a circa 1970s Warner Brothers logo preceding the opening creditshow’s that for authenticity?  One cannot help but appreciate the keen eye for detail put into the production of this film.  Once the initial enchantment wore off however, I began to ask myself certain questions.  One, why did they select this story to adapt to film?  As far as clandestine governmental operations go, this one isn’t wholly exciting, hence the conspicuous ‘Hollywood’ touches here and there to add excitement and suspense, when in the reality of the story there was none.  Two, why are the Iranians presented to us in such a bad light?  In Argo’s brief introduction in which Iran’s recent history is summarized, we are told of how Western forces deposed the nationally elected leader responsible for nationalizing Iran’s oil refineries, stripping them away from British and US holders, and in turn imposing upon the Iranian people their own hand-picked Shah, an opulent and garish, yet cruel leader.  Anyone with basic cognition should be able to understand the Iranians’ hostility, especially after the well-known atrocities that ensued the deposition.  In Argo there is no effort made to sympathize with the Iranians’ plight.  Rather, they are treated much in the same way as they are in the current media—a fanatical, barbarous mob of anti-Americans, the ‘enemy’ in another word.  Given the current tensions with Iran it seems very antagonistic to produce a film of this sort, especially with war drums beating in both Tel Aviv and Washington.  It was the answer to those questions I asked myself that made me realize that Argo, behind the lavish production and superb acting is in essence a propaganda film.
      I have no problem with propaganda films, after-the-fact, that is.  Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky are both excellent examples of propaganda filmmaking that is also good filmmaking.  Argo too will fall into that category, when it becomes less incendiary (though I fear it wasn’t viewed as being incendiary enough upon its release).  And there are other incendiary features to this film in addition to the anti-Iran undertones.  I’ve already been subjected to the furor of my Canadian friends who have informed me of the flagrant mitigation of Canadian involvement in the whole “Argo” operation.  In reality, the sci-fi film caper was almost entirely a Canadian conception, and not a CIA one as shown in Argo.
      Politics aside, I can still assign Argo a ‘good’ rating.  From a technical standpoint it is very well made.  And it boasts some very fine acting besides (Alan Arkin in particular, though he seems to be getting typecast as a grouchy old man these days).  Is Argo good enough to have won best picture at the Academy Awards?  I don’t think so, and that worries me given the anti-Iran sentiments that are rife in Hollywood.  So with that I can say enjoy Argo for what it is, but do so with a conscientious mind.