The Master (2012) – Paul Thomas Anderson

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Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams star in The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest and perhaps best feature film yet.  Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an idiosyncratic, alcoholic WWII Naval veteran who, in his drunken wanderings, stumbles onto a yacht about to set sail.  There, he is introduced to the yacht’s owners, the Dodds — Lancaster (Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Adams) — and their controversial, Scientology-like philosophy called The Cause: the idea that a person’s soul has moved from body to body through time for trillions of years.

Freddie Quell is a shocking character.  Within the first five minutes of being on screen, he describes to someone how to remove crabs from one’s testicles (his advice involves a razor, a lighter, and an ice pick) and pretends to have sex with a sand sculpture of a naked women (and then leaves to go masturbate into the ocean).  He is crass and utterly sex-crazed, trying to seduce almost every woman he meets.  He is also a severe alcoholic, willing to drink any liquid with an alcohol content, and he specializes in creating alcoholic concoctions so potent that they can kill a man.  Freddie lives in a state of volatility, constantly erupting into emotional, violent outbursts, willing to pick a fight in any context.

Phoenix’s performance is utterly compelling.  He seems to go beyond acting and simply becomes this character, right down to his physicality — thin, hunched over, his face lined.  He mumbles and slurs his words together.  He smiles childishly when he is proud, and he flails his skinny limbs at anyone who comes near when he is angry.  Phoenix is able to achieve a performance that is both overstated and subtle, both caricatural and believable.

Hoffman’s acting does not suffer by comparison.  Lancaster — or “The Master”, as he is called by the followers of The Cause — speaks formally and elegantly, a stark contrast to Freddie’s coarse vernacular.  He is a man who values his own intellect and who is passionate about his ideas.  He is charismatic and confident, and he takes himself extremely seriously (and is at times almost laughable for this reason).  But he is also sincere, and his moments of vulnerability make him both interesting and sympathetic.

The collision of these two characters is the collision of the animalistic and the cerebral.  Lancaster is recorded as saying that man is not an animal; man transcends the animal kingdom.  The entire philosophy of The Cause centers on the concept of the soul moving beyond its corporal limitations.  Freddie, on the other hand, is an utterly physical being.  He is sexual, emotional, violent.  There is a tension when these two forces come together, and also an attraction.  Lancaster frequently scolds Freddie for his unrefined behavior.  After Freddie picks a fight with a man who has insulted Lancaster, Lancaster calls Freddie “naughty” and compares him to an animal that eats its own feces when hungry.  At the same time, however, Lancaster also seems somehow moved by Freddie.  He enjoys Freddie’s toxic concoctions, and he begins writing his second book around the time of their introduction.  As his wife Peggy points out, Freddie seems to “inspire something in him”.

It is through Lancaster’s eyes that we begin to appreciate and like Freddie.  He assesses a real value to Freddie, which mystifies both his family and (at least at first) the viewer.  Lancaster invites Freddie to participate in some “casual processing”, which consists of a series of questions through which Freddie will become more in touch with his transcendent soul.  In this scene, an initial bond forms not only between Freddie and Lancaster, but also between Freddie and the audience, as we see a vulnerable side to him that up until this point has not been apparent.

As the film progresses, the bond between the two men grows stronger, and there are even hints of romantic tension between them.  Freddie picks a fight with a cop to defend Lancaster, and Lancaster desperately begs the cops “not to hurt him”.  When reunited after a night in the police station, Freddie and Lancaster’s embrace crumples into a rolling, tumbling, full-body hug.  Lancaster hires Freddie to take professional photographs of him, and Freddie pushes Lancaster’s hair out of his face in a motion that is almost a caress.  The homoerotic suggestions are there, but they seem to go deeper than sexuality.  There is a sense that the two men’s souls have found kinship in each other, and while that can be confused with romantic love, at least on Freddie’s end those feelings do not seem to be there.  Lancaster’s feelings are more ambiguous, and there is a question of whether he is too afraid to act — too afraid to engage with his animal side, his emotions and his physical urges.

Throughout the film Freddie seems to be searching for something, and it is unclear whether he will find it in The Cause.  The use of the word “master” is significant, applying not only to Lancaster’s position as the head of The Cause, but also to his position as Freddie’s master.  Lancaster feels an urge to “help” Freddie, and in the process of doing so he takes control over him, subjecting him to a series of tests and exercises.  Earlier, when both men find themselves in the police station — the screen split between Freddie thrashing about, handcuffed, kicking the toilet bowl until it shatters, pounding his head repeatedly against the upper bunk; and Lancaster standing stoically, leaning against the upper bunk in his own cell — Lancaster points out Freddie’s fear of being imprisoned.  He asserts that this fear of imprisonment is an essential part of Freddie’s immortal soul.  Ultimately, Freddie must decide whether The Cause is the answer to his searching, or just another form of imprisonment.  As Peggy Dodd tells him fiercely, The Cause is not something to be handled casually.  “This is something you do for a billion years, or not at all.”

This is a compelling and original film.  The writing is smart, the acting is superb, and it all comes together in the end in a mysteriously satisfying way… even if you leave the theater not quite sure of what you just experienced.

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Psycho (1998) – Gus Van Sant

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As a Van Sant fangirl and a lover of Hitchcock, I’d been meaning to see this film for a long time.  I had also heard some truly terrible things about it, which intrigued me.  This is essentially a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, with some minor changes.  In the film, Marion Crane (Anne Heche) blows out of town after having stolen $400,000 from her boss.  She stops to spend the night in a motel, where she meets the lonely and mysterious young owner, Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn).  Meanwhile, a search party composed of her sister Lila (Julianne Moore), Marion’s boyfriend Sam (Viggo Mortensen), and a private investigator Inspector Arbogast (William H. Macy) looks into Marion’s disappearance.

For me (and probably for many viewers), the question that first comes to mind is “Why?”  Hitchcock’s film is a classic that has stood the test of time, and a remake doesn’t seem necessary.  After watching the film, the answer is still not clear to me.

Sadly, I think this project does no favors for either filmmaker.  What I find to be one of the most compelling things about Van Sant’s films is his very present camerawork, and by remaking Hitchcock’s film shot for shot, none of the camerawork is his own.  Hitchcock’s camerawork is fabulous, of course, but if I wanted to enjoy that, I would have watched the original film.  On the other hand, the remake is set in 1998 Phoenix, AZ, and many aspects Hitchcock’s classic story do not translate to present-day.  It is harder to suspend our disbelief.  In present-day, the film seems melodramatic, tacky, and just plain not-that-scary.

This is quite the cast, and Van Sant makes some really strange casting choices.  I don’t love Ann Heche as Marion.  Janet Leigh’s Marion is mysterious and impenetrable, and that is an essential part of what makes the first half of the film suspenseful.  Heche, on the other hand, is almost goofy throughout the film.  She paces around her bedroom, almost laughing to herself as she looks at the envelope of money on her bed, trying to decide whether to steal it.  It’s as if she is trying to make up her mind on whether to go on a date with the guy she knows is bad news.

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Vince Vaughn as Norman, on the other hand, I actually surprisingly like.  He is not the Norman Bates we are used to, certainly.  In the original film, Anthony Perkins is slender, effeminate, and childlike, and thus pretty unthreatening.  We get the sense that Marion feels sorry for him.  Vaughn, on the other hand, is tall and muscular—standing taller than any of the other characters, male or female—so his dynamic with Heche’s Marion is completely different.  He has a much more physical presence than Perkins’ Norman.

Van Sant plays on this physical presence.  When Norman watches Marion undressing through the peephole in her wall, Van Sant makes the decision to have Bates unzip his pants and start masturbating.  Later, when Lila Crane goes into Norman’s bedroom (a scene which was not included in the original film), she finds pornographic magazines.  Van Sant turns Norman into a pervert—a choice which I wasn’t sure I liked, but it certainly heightens the tension between Norman and his mother, and adds extra weight to his line, “A son is a poor substitute for a lover.”

The other significant changes Van Sant makes to Hitchcock’s original are in the stabbing scenes.  The famous shower scene is replicated almost exactly, except for the addition of two short shots of rolling black thunderheads.  In the scene where Arbogast is stabbed, Van Sant inserts a shot of a naked woman wearing a mask, and a deer in the middle of a road.  How we are meant to interpret these images, I have no idea.  The last delirious thoughts of a dying person?  It is a very Van Sant thing to do (ie. My Own Private Idaho), but it is jarring to have his own avant-garde style inserted without explanation into the classical style of Hitchcock.

      

Overall, I did not find this film to be the terrible travesty that it was built up to be.  I did not, however, think that it added anything significant to the original film, and rather suffered by comparison.  I think the word “disorienting” would best describe it.

But in the end what I like so much about Van Sant is his willingness to experiment.  And sure, sometimes those experiments fall flat.  Just get back on that horse, buddy.

Love This Giant (September 2012) – David Byrne & St. Vincent

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Indie rock pixie Annie Clark, who performs under the moniker St. Vincent, and Talking Heads’ vocalist David Byrne come together to bring us this collaborative one-off, Love This Giant.

The instrumentation on this album is almost exclusively brass, giving the album a texture not unlike the Talking Heads 1988 album Naked.  Overall the songs are peppy, upbeat, and in a way very formulaic, like a brass-heavy pop record.  There is some real lyrical depth here, though.  The vocals suggest, probe, and question, and in “I Should Watch TV”, many of the lyrics are even taken from Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem “Song of Myself”.  Go figure.

Clark and Byrne each take a few songs on the album to sing solo, and they team up on the rest.  Both artists have distinctive sounds, and it’s almost uncanny to hear the two sounds mesh.  In an interview, Clark describes Byrne’s music as having a tone that is “a rare combination of paranoid mania and ecstatic joy”, and that tone dominates the feel of the album perhaps more than Clark’s own darkly beautiful music.  Both artists do contribute meaningfully, however, and they seem to bring the best out of each other: Clark makes Byrne’s singing a little more melodic and a little more beautiful, and Byrne grounds Clark’s songwriting and makes it a little more accessible and a little snappier.

As always, Clark reveals herself to be remarkably vocally versatile, alternating between a gentle, breathy, dark tone; a lower, grittier sound; and a more theatrical middle-range that matches Byrne’s own singing style.  Her entrance 45 seconds into the opening track, “Who”, is gorgeous and agile.  Throughout the album she is often multi-tracked—sometimes in octaves, sometimes in unison, and often in harmony (as is her way) —and this gives her vocals an ethereal, floating quality.  In many of the tracks, her voice weaves in and out of the background, enveloping itself around Byrne’s manic lead vocals.

The album is a cool experiment, and although perhaps a little heavy on the horns and saxophones, it features some really catchy and interesting songs.  My favorite tracks: “Who”, “Dinner For Two”, “Ice Age”.  Honorable mention to “The One Who Broke Your Heart”.

I’m seeing these guys tomorrow in concert!  Can’t wait.

Funny Games (2007) – Michael Haneke

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In this shot-by-shot remake of Haneke’s 1997 Austrian film by the same title, Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play Ann and George Farber, a couple headed to their summer home with their young son Georgie and their golden retriever Lucky.  All is well until Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbett), two young men who seemed to be staying with the family next door, appear at the house asking to borrow a few eggs.  The two men refuse to leave the Farbers’ home, and throughout the next twelve hours torture the family with a series of violent “games”.

From what I can tell, this is not your ordinary horror film.  Almost all of the violence occurs off camera, a choice which is relieving and tasteful, but also eerie in its own way.  Often there will be a scream or a cry of pain, and the camera does not even turn to acknowledge what has happened.  Sounds of violence become as commonplace as the sound of a television on in the background.

The film also does not use any sort of score, except for a jarring screamo metal song in the beginning and end credits.  This is impressive because most horror films rely heavily on music to evoke fear or suspense in the viewer.  The effect is that everything feels horrifyingly true-to-life, and we feel almost as though we are in the house with the characters.

This sensation of being pulled into the story is heightened in the several points when Paul actually breaks the fourth wall and turns to the camera.  The first time he does it—as he is leading Ann around the driveway in a sick game of hot-and-cold—he glances over his shoulder and smirks at us.  It’s a quick moment, and it’s terrifying.  Did he just look at us?  Later, when Paul is proposing a bet with the family, he turns and says to the camera, “I mean, what do you think? You think they stand a chance? Well, you’re on their side, aren’t you. Who are you betting on, hmm?”

This breaking of the fourth wall brings up the unsettling question of the role that we play in this violent story.  Paul posits that we are “on their side”—that we are rooting for the Farbers.  And yet, later, while removing Ann’s gag, he says to her, “It’s boring when the mute suffer. We want to entertain our audience, right?”  And indeed, why are we watching this film if not to be entertained by two men torturing an innocent family?  Who are we really rooting for?

Kudos to Pitt and Corbett—Pitt especially.  Their performances really blew me away.  They are such unlikely and terrifying villains: handsome (although Peter’s hair looks distinctly unwashed) and young, clean-cut and pulled together, with gentle speaking voices and calm demeanors.  They seem wealthy and educated.  They are polite, friendly, interested in golf.  Throughout the film, this sense of sophistication, control, and politeness is never dropped.

The two men are dressed almost completely in white, including white gloves, and they are often surrounded by white.  When Peter first appears at the Farbers’ house, his face is obscured by the screen door, blanched by the angle of the sunlight, so that only his voice can be heard.  The scene in which the dynamic between the two men and the family turns from pleasant to violent takes place in the Farbers’ spotless white foyer, and the two men almost blend into the walls.  The confrontation between Paul and Georgie also takes place in a white hallway.

The two men have a distinct lack of background.  Paul tells the family several stories about Peter’s past, each time undercutting the last story and presenting them with a new, entirely different one.  We have no sense of where the two men came from, or how they came to be in this vacation neighborhood.  Paul does not even consistently call his companion Peter, but often refers to him as Tom, sometimes even in the same line.  “This is Peter. Come here, Tom, where are your manners? Shake the man’s hand.”  Paul and Peter’s association with whiteness, then, connects to that utter blankness.  They have no true identities, and there is an inhuman cleanliness and an emptiness about them.

The impressive performances all around, as well as some really nuanced camerawork by Haneke, make this film both engaging and surprisingly intellectually stimulating.  It is artful even while being horrifying and sick.  It also raises the dark question of what we consider entertainment today, the use of the word “games” being particularly noteworthy.  The ride is perhaps not as rocky as other horror movies, but the unsettling feeling you will have for hours afterwards should not be underestimated!

Bright Star (2009) – Jane Campion

ImageBen Whishaw and Abbie Cornish bring to life the historic love affair between Romantic poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, which is cut short by Keats’ early death.  Get ready for a good cry.  And you will have no one to blame but yourself, because you knew the ending going into it.

I can’t imagine that it’s is an easy task to portray a Romantic poet as an exciting and appealing hero.  I’ve seen it done successfully in Shakespeare In Love, but Whishaw’s Keats—pale, slender, brooding, and soft-spoken—does not have the manic charisma of Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare.  John has his own enigmatic attraction, certainly, but in the end it is Fanny who really carries the film.  She’s introduced to us as a seamstress, stitching all of her own clothing by hand, and her creations are both impressive and absurd.  We see her first in a bright red and yellow combination—later in a frock with a “triple mushroom collar”.  She wears the clothing confidently, and enthusiastically describes it to anyone who will listen.  When she meets John, she sends her younger sister Toots (Edie Martin) (so cute!!!) to buy his new book of poems.  Toots tells the bookseller, “My sister has met the author, and she wants to read it for herself to see if he’s an idiot or not.”

Fanny’s strong-willed personality is, of course, ultimately softened, and we see the tender side of her as she and John fall in love.  I think that Cornish’s performance convincingly captures that feeling of first love—the euphoria, the desperate longing, the feeling that you’re about to die all the time due to extreme emotion.  She lies sick in bed for five days after John leaves for the summer, waiting for a letter from him.  When she finally receives one, she is deliriously happy.  She lies down in the field, kisses Toots and tells her she loves her.  I especially loved this moment because I found it so true to life: the idea that while happy in love, everything—even your annoying little sister—seems beautiful and precious.

There is, of course, a childishness and a rashness to Fanny’s passion.  She throws a veritable temper tantrum when she finds out John is leaving for the summer, crying and telling him that she hates him.  She tells her mother, “When I don’t hear from him, it’s as if I’ve died.  As if the air is sucked out from my lungs, and I’m left desolate.  But when I receive a letter, I know my world is real.”  We hear her and are moved by her passion, but we also can’t help but chuckle.  She is so dramatic and so young.

However, our knowledge of John’s impending death puts a dark spin on Fanny and John’s naive young love.  We know all too well that Fanny’s childish tears over a summer apart or a delayed letter will ultimately give way to tears of very adult grief.  I think this is a big part of the reason the film works.  There is an interesting and terrible tension throughout the film between youth and death.  John writes to Fanny in a letter, “I almost wish we were butterflies and lived but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.”  Fanny reads this and fills her bedroom with butterflies.  But, sadly, in a way John and Fanny really are like the butterflies of which he writes, living only in mere moments together.

This is a heavily romantic and stylized film, and it just barely steers clear of being seriously cliche.  John and Fanny spend a lot of time gazing into each other’s eyes and reciting poetry.  There is plenty of letter-writing, weeping, and walking back and forth across the heath.  And yet, there is something so charming about it, and so genuine.  If you are a poetry lover, or just want to enjoy some good old-fashioned nineteenth-century romance, it is definitely worth the tears.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) – Sean Durkin

ImageI really liked this.  Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, a young woman trying to reconstruct her life after having spent two years in a cult-like commune.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty stupendous performance from newcomer Olsen. Coming out of the commune, Martha has a confused sense of appropriate behavior, and she constantly breaks social taboos.  Some of her more outlandish actions include swimming naked in front of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s fiancé Ted (Hugh Dancy), asking them if the rumor is true that “married people don’t f-ck”, and even climbing into bed with them while they are having sex.  It is clear that her time at the commune has fragmented her sense of boundaries.

Martha is generally distant and detached.  She calls Lucy in tears, asking for a ride home, but refuses to explain when they are in the car together.  She is vaguely impolite, with occasional moments of startling cruelty—“just because we’re sisters doesn’t mean we have to talk about everything that comes into your head”; laughing out loud when Ted tells her he and Lucy are trying to have a baby; and in the final confrontation between the two sisters, telling Lucy that she is going to be a terrible mother.  She is a heroine who is at times difficult to root for.

And yet, despite her alienating behavior, Martha is still a deeply sympathetic character. It is a difficult feat to have an audience identify with a character who is sullen, taciturn, and internally focused (for lack of a better example, think Bella from Twilight—utterly unlikeable), and I am so impressed that this film is able to achieve that feat.

I think the key is that while Martha shuts herself off from the other characters, she makes herself vulnerable to us, the viewers.  The story cuts back and forth between the present, where Martha is at Lucy and Ted’s summer home in Connecticut, and the past, where she is at the commune.  While she does not explain herself to Lucy and Ted, her bizarre actions are explained to us through the troubling flashbacks to which we bear witness.  We see Martha’s transformation into Marcy May, a name chosen for her by Patrick (John Hawkes), the commune’s leader.  We see Patrick rape her on her first night, and we see another woman from the commune telling her, “I know you feel like something bad just happened, Marcy May.  But you have to trust me, it wasn’t bad.”  We see her learning that she needs to be “cleansed” of the “toxins” of the outside world, and soon we see her teaching a new commune member the same lessons.  We see her internal struggle as the actions of the commune turn violent.  In this light, her actions in the present are more understandable and tragic, rather than frustrating.

What makes this whole story believable to me, in the end, is how lost Martha seems.  And the cinematography works to emphasize that—whether she is at home with her family or at the commune, the camera often trains closely on her face, with the other characters out of focus and/or partially out of the frame.

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ImageThe commune is a chance for Martha to find a sense of belonging.  Here, she finds her “role” and is valued as someone special.  Something I struggled with as I was watching the movie was my wish to be drawn into this commune a little more myself.  I found most of the commune members to be off-putting from the beginning, Patrick especially.  I wanted to viscerally feel Martha’s attraction to this community.  But I think that Martha’s evident need for belonging allowed me to understand why it was happening to her, even if I couldn’t imagine that happening to me.

In general, I think the story unfolds very cleverly.  It’s a sensational story—rape, murder, drugs, brainwashing—and while there are certainly terrifying moments, for the most part Durkin tells us the story slowly and patiently.  The takes are long, and the dialogue is understated (and refreshingly free of stilted explication).  This is a tasteful choice, and Durkin successfully avoids turning Martha’s story into a soap opera.

Because I think that in the end, this isn’t a story about a cult; it’s a story about a person trying to find her place in the world.  Even when she is safe with Lucy and Ted, Martha seems lost, getting into a heated argument with Ted about what she will do with her future.  She even resorts to calling the commune again on the phone, presumably feeling almost homesick for it.  She doesn’t seem to belong anywhere.  I think the title is fitting, then—there are so many names that she takes on throughout the film, and the title does not commit to any one of them, suggesting Martha’s own ambivalence about her identity.

The ending is ambiguous, and I am still not sure if I like it.  I appreciate that Durkin does not try to wrap up Martha’s whole story into a neat little package, but the film is cut short in a jarring way.  I really just think that the last shot of the film is gorgeous, centered on her face with the car following behind.  Durkin and Olsen together do such a great job of drawing us into Martha’s perspective, her fear and loneliness.

ImageOmg. Terrifying.