Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Master (2012)

The Master is a poignant expression on American themes such as loneliness, faith, charlatans, pop culture mythology and much more.  Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman have a master/protege relationship rife with ambiguous tension.  Both performances are appropriately masterful: Phoenix is sympathetic as misfit Freddie Quell, while Hoffman is Lancaster Dodd, mysterious leader of "the cause." Amy Adams plays the master's young wife who has her own unique charisma.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson blurs realism and surrealism at some crucial points, uses flashbacks, and beautiful cinematography to fashion a unique cinematic universe.

The film opens on a Pacific beach as the Second World War winds down.  Freddie Quell is a sailor prone to violent, alcohol fueled outbursts. Other sailors are freaked out by his behavior.  When they return home the men are addressed by an officer who assures them an easy transition to civilian life, as the camera pans a row of terrified faces.  Most of them will go on and live meaningful lives.  But Freddie has limited prospects in a post-war America of seemingly endless possibilities.  He's unable to hold a job or have a meaningful relationship.  In the middle of a drunken stupor he comes upon Lancaster Dodd's yacht and finds a safe haven.

Anderson's cinema is a throwback to the 1970s auteurs who upheld anti-heroes as reflections of a society growing increasingly alienated with itself.  Anti-heroes serve as avatars for a large segment of society who, in the words of Lancaster Dodd, "have fallen off the proper path."  Historians write histories of the postwar with the word "anxiety" inevitably appearing on the titles of their monographs.  And for good reason.  The state of the world in 1945 with a horrible war ending and onset of the atomic age changed civilization in ways we are just beginning to understand.  Today, those years are awash in nostalgia and look "simpler," because they are the past.  No one can escape the time period they born into, yet must find their own meaning.

While The Master drew criticism for its fictional portrayal of Scientology, it's more of a story about the desperate search (or even need) for a belief system outside the confines of organized religion or conventional psychology.   In Freddie Quell, Dodd sees an opportunity to put his own philosophy to the test.  Through "processing" sessions (and other experimental treatments) he forces Freddie to confront past trauma so he can function in society.  Their relationship forms the crux of the film.  A father-son dynamic develops between them.  Their initial processing scene is a tour de force fraught with tension and brilliant acting.  From the very start they are alter egos drawn to each other out of a shared recklessness.  

Phoenix carries an awkward posture and a muttering speaking style in his sympathetic characterization of Freddie.  There's something moving about anyone making an effort to be a better person.  Few films have handled isolation with such care.  The narrative of World War II remains static in the popular mind: men came back, went to school, got married, raised families, and moved on.  But others didn't fare so well.  Flashbacks reveal Freddie's innocent relationship with a High School girl he promised to marry are handled with a surprising tenderness. Later he learns she married someone else in a scene of heartbreaking dignity.

Anderson, in two of his previous films, looks at American history: the 1970s porn-industry in Boogie Nights (1997) and capitalism in There Will Be Blood (2007), are character driven, unromantic accounts of the past.  So many historical films are just that - too historical. Characters in Anderson's world react to history instead of acting like pawns on a predictable trajectory.  There's a number of ways to interpret The Master.  It will stand as one of the best films of the decade.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tree of Life: Film as Poetry

 "the rising world of waters dark and deep/won from the void and formless infinite."
                                -Book 3 Paradise Lost

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life glows with every frame. Malick's film stands along side Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of scope and ambition.  Profound questions are raised: What is the purpose of life?  How do human beings reckon with being part of a universe far beyond their imagination?  Is there a mysterious power behind existence?  Kubrick's 2001 focused on the relationship between humanity and technology and its dual nature - to both build and destroy - as well as our growing dependence on it for survival and to venture "to infinity and beyond."  Malick is concerned with the struggle to find meaning within existence.

Tree of Life is poetry in motion.  Every shot conveys deep thought and emotion.  The film opens with some fragments from the major narrative centered on a family in 1950s Texas.  The father, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), is stern and keeps a firm grip on his three sons in contrast to the mother Mrs O"Brien, who is calm, playful, patient.  Before going into the main story, there's an artful sequence depicting the creation of the universe. Animations of the sun coming to life, the primordial soup of life, the movement of life from water unto land, and the rise and collapse of dinosaurs are sublime.  To cynics, these sequences may call to mind a Discovery channel documentary.  But they are handled with a beauty most films never approach (special effects designed by Douglas Trumbull who worked with Kubrick).  Then the film shifts millions of years ahead into the future for the birth of the O'Brien's first son, Jack.

A common criticism of Tree of Life is the disconnect between the Cosmos like portion of the film and its connection to the family (by all accounts autobiographical).  There's something moving by juxtaposing the vastness of universe with the the life of one family residing on an obscure planet orbiting a star on the fringes of the Milky Way galaxy.

Astronomers have a clear picture of the size of the universe our own place in it seems insignificant and barely a ripple in the tapestry of living.  By realizing we are part of something bigger, and accepting the mystery surrounding all aspects of existence is an idea easy for modern mind to scoff at.  Malick unabashedly expresses his own belief through the language of cinema with some Miltonic flourishes.

The style is pure expressionism.  The innocence and frivolity of childhood are captured as the camera seems to glide through the house.   Dialogue is kept to a minimum. The images tell the story.  All the actors did a fantastic job of capturing emotion without dialogue.  Brad Pitt brings a strength and vulnerability as the father, while Jessica Chastain is grace personified.  Sean Penn's section of the film feels undeveloped.

Malick is unique among directors for making two masterpieces in the 1970s , Badlands and Days of Heaven.  Then he went on a 20 year hiatus. In 1997 he returned with the meandering World War II film, The Thin Red Line. His recent 2013 film, To the Wonder is in limited release and he has two other projects in post-production so thankfully for us he is making up for lost time.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Social Network (2010) ****

The Social Network opens with an intense conversation between two people.  There's no mediator- its just two people talking.  Mark Zuckerberg's (Jesse Eisenberg)  obsession with getting into the Porcellian Club at Harvard prevents him from connecting with his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara).  Angry after she breaks us with him, he writes an mean spirited blog entry to humiliate her.  And the rest is history . . .

A greenish, yellow hue with a dark background permeates almost every scene in the film.  A lurking darkness recalling to Gordon Willis's cinematography in Coppola's Godfather films.  At times, it seems Fincher is putting a subtle (or secondary) screen between the viewer and what's happening on the screen.  Are we witnessing history or fiction?  The strange color visuals hint at an artificiality of movies in contrast to the factual tone of the script.

A young cast carries the Social Network through its sophisticated script.  Perhaps no youth oriented film youth film has had better casting since American Graffiti.  Zuckerberg as played by Jesse Eisenberg is lonely, childish, and cunning.  Has Eisenberg made a bad film?  His work in The Squid and the Whale, Zombieland, and Adventureland make him one of the most promising actors of his generation.  Rooney Mara only appears in a few scenes, but manages to convey a compassionate beauty and a righteous anger.  No one doubted Mara would make a fierce Lisbeth Salamander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Justin Timberlake  as Napster founder Sean Smith steals the second half of the film. And the film has two traditional villains in the Winklevoss twins (who in a great moment compare themselves to Cobra Kai dudes in the Karate Kid).

David Fincher splits his output between calculated potboilers (Se7en, Girl With Dragon Tattoo) and serious attempts at social commentary (Fight Club, Zodiac).  The Social Network succeeds on both levels.  Aaron Sorkin's smart script meshes nicely with Fincher's darker sensibility.

Zuckerberg is alone at the end much like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.  He stares sadly into his own creation as "Baby You're Rich Man" plays.  Also, like Charles Foster Kane or Orson Welles for that matter, Zuckerberg,  moved media into a new age.  Personally, I'm not a big fan of facebook.  But does anyone really love facebook?  The Social Network is American movie making at its best with its uncertainty towards class, technology, ambition, and character.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Munich: Spielberg's Critique of post 9/11 America Disguised as a Spy Thriller

Steven Spielberg's Munich is a blend of quiet, thoughtful moments punctuated by intense action sequences.  Munich's a haunting film with a brave message about history, war, and politics.  

Munich opens with the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Games.  Palestinian terrorists saw the potential for using the Olympics as a means to draw the world's attention to the plight of their people.  In response, according to the George Jonas book Vengeance, the Israeli government assembled a secret team to track down and kill all those responsible for the killings.   Politics aside, Munich is one of the best espionage films ever to depict the heady international situation of the 1970s.  Recently, (after the bombings in Boston), I've heard the word Munich turned into a verb as in, "time to go all Munich on these guys."  If you're in the mood for harsh reprisals, you will enjoy the revenge scenes.  If you're concerned about meeting violence with violence, Munich will make you consider alternatives.  Like any good historical film, it made me want to learn more about the era, namely, the labyrinth of 20th century politics.

Avner (Eric Bana) is an Israeli commando leader assigned to lead the team of assassins. The film suggests he was handpicked by Prime Minister Golda Meir.  In a meeting of the Israeli cabinet she concedes every civilization must compromise with its values in order to survive.  While the film never answers the questions posed by Ms. Meir, it does show the personal consequences of doing so.  Bana is well cast as the team leader - exuding compassion and righteous strength.  His team includes a forger, explosives expert, strong man, and clean up artist.  The team calls to mind The Seven Samurai and  the The Dirty Dozen.  In their mission to kill the terrorists they find themselves caught in an unholy web of collateral damage and paranoia.  Gradually, members began to question the motives behind their mission.

Perhaps the political turbulence associated with Munich overshadowed the film's close ties with the spy genre.  Some of Spielberg's darkest, and most exciting sequences appear in Munich.  The recreation of the actual Munich debacle are handled with a gritty realism.  But the dialogue scenes written by Tony Kushner are just as intense.  In another sequence they plant a bomb in the phone of a suspected terrorist, but must call it off when the man's daughter arrives.  Another exciting scene is raid on terrorist compound anticipates Zero Dark Thirty.  As an espionage thriller, Munich ranks among the best (and further proof Spielberg could make an awesome James Bond film).

The moral clarity question is simple: Should violence be met with more violence?  When civilizations are facing an existential threat - how far should they go?  Throughout its entire existence, Israel has faced hostility and has gone to extreme measures to protect their country.  Meanwhile, the United States after the 9/11 attacks engaged in long-term wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Did America's more aggressive foreign policy create more potential enemies than ever before?  

Munich is not saying responding with force is wrong.  It's a plea to at least consider the consequences. The final scene, a confrontation between Avner and his handler with the World Trade Center prominent in the background, reminds us actions have consequences. Decisions made by individuals do influence the course of history.

Since 9/11, Spielberg has engaged more directly with history and politics.  Munich is his boldest and most under appreciated film because it challenged the ethos of post-9/11 America in an unflinching and heroic matter. 


Friday, May 10, 2013

Dawn of the Dead **** (1978)

For horror movie aficionados George Romero's Dawn of the Dead has a permanent slot in their handful of must sees ( the Citizen Kane of zombie cinema).  Released in 1978, the film set a new standard for onscreen gore with grisly affects courtesy of the splatter master, Tom Savani. Besides being a gross out fest, the film also serves as a time capsule of the 1970s with its not so subtle commentary on consumerism.  In fact the film helped launch the zombie genre of films, comics, and a precursor to The Walking Dead. Upon first viewing, I remember being really frightened by the sense of doom throughout the film.  If the 1968 version tapped into  anxiety over social change, the 1978 incarnation looks at the more long-term threats to civilization i.e. energy supply.

 At their best, scary movies are a window into collective cultural anxiety.  I'm sure Dawn of the Dead has inspired a few monographs on 1970s malaise.  Horror is the least respected film genre for few good reasons.  Sometimes for good reason due to their unrelenting misogyny and exploitative nature. For a time in the 1970s, auteur directors like Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg used the genre to great effect.  Modern incarnations of the genre inclines toward pure shock.

The grainy black and white of Night of the Living Dead had a realistic, documentary like feel. Dawn of the Dead is more cinematic, yet still claustrophobic  Set mostly in a shopping mall, the wide open spaces allow for more adventurous cinematography, while still making the viewer feel confined.  Also, the banal earth tones of indoor malls provide a disturbing counterpoint to the horror.

The film begins with survivors of an ongoing zombie apocalypse seal themselves off in a shopping center.  The first 20 minutes are extremely violent as a TV crew films a raid on a ghetto as troops are clearing out a minority neighborhood. It looks like a reenactment of the Vietnam War. From the first sequence, its clear the zombies are not the most dangerous villain.  One character cynically observes that the rednecks will probably survive with their endless supply of guns.  The zombies are creepy, but the humans are capable of far more monstrous acts.

Romero shot the movie in Pittsburgh and used a cast of unknowns to great effect.  The four major characters are all flawed in their own way.  But they also show courage and intelligence.  As they set up their consumer's paradise, the mall becomes a character unto itself.  My favorite sequence is when the survivors indulge themselves with food, clothes, guns - in a moment of pure consumerist utopia (its the film equivalent to Don Delillo's mall as paradise sequence in his 1985 novel White Noise).  Has anyone not fantasized about a unlimited shopping spree?  Then again, how do you feel after making that grand purchase?  It's fleeting.

And the film's entertainment factor is a bit fleeting by the end.  There's really no where to go with the story.  The final 20 minutes feature an outburst of zombie on biker violence.  Well, it just gross.  By today's standards a bit tame, but still potent.  The soundtrack by Dario Argento is creepy - an unsettling collage of synthesizers, elevator and carnival music.

Romero went on to direct four more zombie flicks, including three made in the last decade.  Dawn of the Dead still works because it's not really a zombie film at all.  It's about humanity.  We root for the rational side in all of us to survive when those ghouls are outside patiently waiting.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

My Own Love Song ***1/2 (2010)

My Own Love Song is full of pleasant surprises.  Rene Zellweger delivers one of her best performances as a woman coming to terms with the past.  Her co-star, the always brilliant Forrest Whitaker, matches her at every step.  The soundtrack, written by no other than Bob Dylan, fits in perfectly with film's wistful, but hopeful mood.  My Own Love Song brings to mind Faulkner, Guthrie, and American mythology. 

Jane Wyatt's (Zellweger) once promising singing career came to a halt after injuries from a car accident confined her to a wheelchair.  Several years after the accident she lives alone and her only friend is a local named Joey (Forrest Whitaker) who is also scarred by a past trauma.  Both performances evoke melancholy and resilience   Their unlikely friendship also recalls 1970s movies with people from different ages, genders, and class came together.  Joey convinces her accompany him to New Orleans to meet a man who claims be in communication with angels. Along the way they meet Nora, who's husband has disappeared, and Caldwell (Nick Nolte) a former musician struggling with post-traumatic stress after Hurricane Katrina.

Music plays a central role in the film.  Like Robert Altman's Nashville, Dahan includes scenes where the characters perform songs.  In those moments they achieve a true transcendence adding so much to their characters and the story.  Bob Dylan's soundtrack, mostly from his his 2009 album Together Through Life, a collection of tunes evoking loss and rebirth, setting the right tone for the film.

My Own Love Song never saw a general release in America. It is now available on Tubi.  After Hurricane Katrina, America never got a Grapes of Wrath or even a film to put the tragedy into a historical context (Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke is an exception) and its own small way My Own Love Song is a reckoning with American tragedy - and hope.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Liberal Arts ***

Any young person who decides to major in the humanities, especially in this economy, does so at their own peril.  Or that's what society says.  Dedicating one's time these days to a "life of the mind" or towards creative endeavors faces the prospect of being told "to live in the real world" or "just be a teacher" (not knocking teaching in anyway here).  Meanwhile, book culture has underwent its share of knocks in recent years.  Book store chains are closing and placing all their hopes in electronic reading gadgets.  Alternative reading cultures have merged online with sites like goodreads and Amazon.  Readers are out there.  We're not in Fahrenheit 451 territory yet.

Starring Josh Radner (who also wrote and directed) as a hyper bookworm living in New York City where he works as a college admissions counselor.  The film opens with him giving lame pitch lines to prospective students. After breaking up with his girlfriend, he is invited back to attend an old professor's retirement party in Ohio (filmed at Kenyon College).  Jesse is the type of person who wishes college never ended with the all night chats on Delillo and Roth (although we never learn about his ambitions in college). While visiting his former professor Jesse meets a kindred spirit in Zibby (Elizabeth Olson) a drama student wise beyond her years.

Liberal Arts is not necessarily a romantic comedy, but a film about maturity.  So, it asks some mature questions:  What does it mean to be an adult?  Why is there so much anxiety about the passing of time?  All the characters in the film are very mature - maybe the most mature film I've seen in some time.  Thankfully, the film avoids an onslaught of quirky characters, but actual adults who are engaging with the world and doing the best they can.

Jesse is a bit flaky at times, but never annoying.  When an old professor accuses him of acting like an "effete, man-boy" he decides to make a change.  He grows up.

Of course, the title "Liberal Arts" screams independent film.  The editing is sharp and all the performances ring true.  And as a liberal arts guy myself, the film has an encouraging message.  One can still build a life and stay true to their passions and still live as a functional person in the real world.  Someday, anyway.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Mud ***

Mud combines elements of Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, family melodrama, and Southern epic.  There's quite a bit going on in this one.  Matthew McConaughey stars as Mud who lives in self-exposed exile on an island on the Mississippi River.  Two boys, the central figures in the film, befriend him in the midst of their own family struggles.

Setting is a strong character in an environment divided between townies and the fisherman. It's a rough country in an economically stagnant region.  Water is a used as a metaphor throughout as a life giving force, but one also showing the unpredictability of life - something both beautiful and terrifying.

Mud is also a study of masculinity in the South.  Mud, whom the boys (Ellis and Kyle) come to idolize, is like a folk- hero in an old ballad, the non-conformist.  He claims he's staying on the island for the woman he loves (Reese Witherspoon), but as they learn Mud has complex motives behind all his decisions.  Ellis's father (Ray McKinoon) is simple and hardworking, and a believer in tough love who carries himself with quiet dignity. Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), a mysterious neighbor, is yet another loner with a mysterious past ( hard not not think of Chuck Yeagar).  Ellis's friend Kyle is being raised by an uncle in arrested development.

My description may sound like Mud is a character study, and on some level it is, yet it's also heavy on plot and melodrama.

The female roles in Mud are less defined.  Juniper is never quite defined and Witherspoon is underused.  Mud stays committed to her, despite the turbulent nature of their relationship.  Ellis's mother leaves his father and he resents her for it.  His crush, a local townie, leaves him in the cold.  As I mentioned above, Mud is about men and how they react to crisis.

Matthew McConaughey performance is pitch perfect as the outsider with his own sense of honor.  Jeff Nichols, the director, has set his two previous films in the South as well, Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011) which also place family and loyalty front and center.  There's a mix of melancholy hope running throughout the film, although the ending feels inevitable and forced.  Overall, Mud is a crowd pleaser  amidst the usual run of summer blockbusters.