Friday, September 28, 2012

On "The Master"

Writer-director Paul Thoms Anderson has made the father-son relationship complex a recurring theme in many of his films, whether subjugated within his multi-storyline narrative ("Magnolia") or tangentially within genre ("Hard Eight", "Boogie Nights"), but his latest film, "The Master" may be his most pointed and raw effort yet. From the first time stunted, angry seaman Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and learned doctor Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) meet, the overtures of the father-son relationship are overt and tense in the way Dodd says "alright..." in that fatherly tone of a man siting behind a large desk, patiently accepting his sulking son's presence either good or bad. And from there, "The Master" gels into a sublime series of scenes where father and prodigal son connect, disconnect, argue, love and work through repressed emotions caused by post-war stress. For those that have called "The Master" pointless, I humbly disagree. Not only is it probably one of the most touching examinations of the push-and-pull that separates and joins people, but it reigns as a subtle miracle of the three act structure, revealing everything in small glances and a technical cinematic prowess that feels unmatched in current cinema.

First and foremost, "The Master" is an actor's film.... positioning Hoffman and Phoenix in a verbal spar of words, emotions, shot and counter-shot reactions and pregnant pauses. Director Anderson, always looking for the opportunity to swivel and swing the camera, remains mostly passive here (save for a few delicate tracking shots and one breathlessly wonderful tracking shot across a foggy field), relying on the terrific performances and the face of Phoenix to relay the energy. Still, incredible tension is built up in every scene. This is partly what gives "The Master" its unexpected power.... the feeling that every scene is about to spin out of control into some groundbreaking moment, but remains faithful to the catharsis that Quell and Dodd provide each other and others. There's always one or two trademark P.T. Anderson set pieces in each of his films, and in "The Master" there's several of them- the initial "processing" scene, a jailhouse confrontation and especially the final conversation between Quell and Dodd.... a scene that imposes just as much quiet devastation as the "milkshake" scene in "There Will Be Blood" is violent. But, compared to that film, "The Master" is about inward restlessness and the search for happiness, whether that be through inner peace or the settling down of a family. "The Master" is bookmarked by scenes of Quell searching for something, haunted by past memories that seem to defy psychoanalysis or self-help. For P.T. Anderson, cinema is his analysis and with "The Master", he's ascended into magnificent stratospheres.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Last Few Films I've Seen, September Edition

A combination of big screen, small screen and boob tube viewing over the past couple of weeks:

1. Nazi Love Camp 27 (1977)- Released as a titillating grindhouse flick in the early 70's, I can usually roll or have fun with Nazisploitation efforts, but this one is a tepid experience. Inter cutting full penetration, lesbianism, sadism and really bad acting (plus a story about human genetics engineering a baby for Hitler), the film probably should stay unreleased in the U.S. A bootleg classic now though.

2. The Skin I Live In (2011)- Almodovar just never really connects with me, finally catching up with his praised film from last year. The way he mixes up Spanish melodrama, queer cinema and basic thriller tenants is all very well done, but I just didn't care for anyone in this film.

3. Premium Rush (2012)- Yes, this is probably the first terrible Michael Shannon performance of his career, but I'll be damned if David Koepp's fast paced, straightforward actioner isn't involving and downright fun even if we know how everything works out. Gordon-Levitt is terrific again, ex-Sopranos actress Dania Ramirez (Blanca) breathes great energy into her supporting role and I was pulling for everyone to end up ok.

4. Kill List (2012)- Ben Wheatley's cocktail mix of a film tries its hand at three different genres, each one more terrifying and disturbing than the next, and establishes him as a great talent to watch. The less one knows about this film, the better. One of the year's best films.

5. The Wall (1983) Turkish director Yilmaz Guney's final film, and certainly an angry one in his long line of autobiographical films about his country and the political/civilian unrest. If one hasn't seen "Yol", I urge them to track down a copy if possible. I have 4 more hard to find Gilmay films lined up to watch in the coming months, and I look forward to exploring his stuff. This one, about life inside a sprawling prison inhabited by children, women and men segregated from each other, is uncompromising and surprising in the way gentleness and violence exists in the same very small space.

6. Snowtown (2011)- Right from the start, I felt imprisoned and claustrophobic from this film- about an Australian serial killer- that never waned. There's nothing inherently wrong with "Snowtown"... in fact it's scenes of violence and murder are quite harrowing in the way they unflinchingly present their crimes and all involved give realized performances. I just felt like I've seen this whole thing before, right down to the washed out 70's cinematography.

7. Lovely Molly (2012)- Film Comment editor Gavin Smith and I usually agree on our horror film vices (we both seem to be the only people who really, really loved "Insidious"), but here we differ. Sorry Gavin. Eduardo Sanchez ("Blair Witch Project") returns to the genre with a shallow exploration of insanity and atmospheric chiller. When a woman moves back into her childhood home, her mental state blurs between reality and fiction. Low-fi horror it is, but the film relies on video camcorder footage just a bit much.

8. Fanny and Alexander (1983)- The 5 hour television cut, something close to a masterpiece by Ingmar Bergman. My God, the colors and interiors of this film are mesmerizing. The story, which takes its time weaving a tale about one family's ups and downs during the early 1900's is a knockout of narrative, infusing character and grace into every member of the family. While eventually settling on the young children and their hardships after their father's death, Bergman never loses his way in a mammoth event that ranks up there with the best of them.

9. Too Big To Fail (2011)- There's one scene in Curtis Hanson's razor sharp exploration of the 2008 financial crisis that explains the mortgage company meltdown better than anything I've seen or read in the last three years. Probably liberaled up and Hollywood-ized, of course, the HBO tv event is still a terrific and clear eyed expose.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Jean Pierre Melville Files: Army of Shadows

Originally released in 1969, Jean Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows" really didn't come into acclaim until 2006 when Rialto pictures re-distributed it, crafting an arthouse success out of a sort-of long lost classic. Made in between Melville's string of hard nosed, French revisionist black and white noirs, perhaps "Army of Shadows" was doomed to a quiet existence because it didn't fit squarely into the great director's expected cinema lineage. Regardless of the reasons, Rialto's diligence and foresight in re-positioning "Army of Shadows" as the one Melville you had to see is a minor stroke of genius. It is a masterpiece, in every way.

Adapted from the memoirs of French Resistance fighter Joseph Kessel, "Army of Shadows" is a patient, brooding examination of the interior workings of one French Resistance cell. Based on actual people, I'm tempted to call "Army of Shadows" the best film about the Resistance, even though it comes relatively late in this spirited genre of films. Where a majority of the Resistance films deal with a certain person or action against the deadly German war machine, "Army of Shadows" shows us both the anxious and the mundane with events as diverse as the smuggling of a transmitter through a heavily guarded train station and a night time escort onto a submarine. The results- a free France- are the same, yet Melville gives both events the same heightened tension even though the submarine landing yields far less devastating consequences as the only threat present is an old French policeman, both related to the person running the Resistance mission and stating he's the only customs officer watching the entire beach for the Germans. Shifting through a series of near misses, captures, imprisonments, escapes, and cafe conversations, "Army of Shadows" reveals an entire universe of Resistance fighters and the fragile line between freedom and torture with pristine vision. Lino Ventura, as the "star" in the film in the loosest sense, plays Philippe Verbier, a man running the cell with clarity of purpose... stone faced and confident even when mounted against the fate of death by firing squad. Though so many Ventura films are unavailable on DVD and this praise is probably limited, but I think this is his best performance.

Also present in "Army of Shadows" (and most Resistance films) is the parlor of doom. Granted, Melville drapes a majority of his films in this, yet the tone is set from the opening scene as German soldiers march towards the camera next to the Arch de Triomph and central characters are picked up, tortured and executed with little warning. The film's central colors- drab blacks, deep browns and winter-time gray skies- also denote the seemingly insurmountable task the French Resistance fighters have against the German Army. But it's the procedural nature of the film and Melville's insistence on transferring a quiet thriller over the historical context that makes "Army of Shadows" such a breathless exercise. In the face of defeat, what shines through most deeply in Melville's film is determined resolve of human nature to fight for what belongs to us. Whether that's a smuggled transistor radio to hear BBC broadcasts or arranging for the violent escape of a fellow prisoner, "Army of Shadows" gives hefty weight and reverent reflection to both.

"Army of Shadows" is the first film in a series of posts looking at films that deal with the Resistance during World War 2.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Friday, September 07, 2012

New Week's Offerings

A Burning Hot Summer

Philippe Garrel’s “A Burning Hot Summer” could be interpreted as yet another tangentially self biographical tale of tortured young love, but its more hopeful and engaging than many of his previous examinations. Yes there are bouts of suicide and depression, affairs and charged fights, but “A Burning Hot Summer” at least allows the escape of one young couple into much happier times. Frederic (Louis Garrel) is a painter married to successful actress Angele (the beautiful Monica Bellucci) when he meets Paul (Jerome Rabart). Paul eventually falls in love with Elisabeth (Celine Sallette). Frederic invites Paul and Elisabeth to live with them in Rome while Angele works on a movie. Their initial idyllic setting gives way to jealousy and boredom. The more disastrous of the pair is Garrel and Bellucci, constantly unhappy and seeking other partners. While director Garrel focuses most of the pain and anguish on these two, he allows a natural, almost sweet relationship to form between Paul and Elisabeth. If one couple is the ‘amour fou’ Garrel loves to examine, the other is the exact opposite. Filtered through this tale are many of Garrel’s tropes, including a meta-movie overlay as Angele works on a movie (with her new lover no doubt) and one long, unbroken scene as Bellucci dances at a house party. I’m a sucker for such an innocuous moment and it works to dizzying perfection here. “A Burning Hot Summer” deals in mood and surface emotions. At times, it’s difficult to take the film’s pensive and overdone scenario to heart (including a foreshadowing opening scene that drains some of the tension), but when the final scene does occur, I was surprisingly moved.


Based on an acclaimed novel by Don DeLillo (which has its vitriolic fans apparently), David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” is a hermetic, ice cold blooded experiment. In the past, this probably would’ve been a good thing based on the director‘s need to sublimate precision over emotion, but “Cosmopolis” comes off as a crushing bore. Full of long winded, absurd speeches about global capitalism, dwindling fortunes and warped asides about human nature (and an asymmetrical prostate), “Cosmopolis” is essentially a dark parable that appeals to all the people searching for an assault on the ‘one percenters’. Starring Robert Pattinson as some sort of capital mogul, “Cosmopolis” is mostly confined to the back of his stretched limo as he descends across downtown Manhattan while his fortune crumbles on a risky market bet. Cameos by Samantha Morton, Mathieu Almaric, Jay Burachel and Paul Giamatti serve to liven up the deadening tone as best their monotonous conversations can, but the imprisoned backseat and clinical discussions of currency and non sequitors made me nauseous. And when Pattinson steps out into the real world, things get even weirder. A conversation with an old barber…. An explicable murder by a basketball court…. And Pattinson’s uneasy relationship with newlywed wife (Sarah Gadan) all emphasize the cyborgian nature of every character. I’m sure there’s some scathing points in DeLillo’s novel (adapted directly by Cronenberg) but as a film, “Cosmopolis” failed to stimulate me intellectually…. And for Cronenberg that’s a major disappointment.


John Hillcoat makes some violent movies. They feel violent… full of droning soundtrack noises that heighten the tension and an unflinching camera that patiently observes killings and neck snappings and blood and dirt. “Lawless” (his most Hollywood film to date) doesn’t shirk from the violence, creating a highly stylized universe where tommy guns are loud, a hotel room covered in blood is truly traumatic and the big final showdown between two men is draped in shadows. Technically, “Lawless” is peerless. It’s when the characters within his story try to express emotion, vengeance or lust that the story comes to a screeching halt. Following the moonshine exploits of a backwoods Virginia family of Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke and Shia LeBouf, their peaceful criminal dealings come against Chicago special attorney Guy Pearce when he tries to make his mark on the profitable trade. Pearce (a mainstay of Hillcoat) as always, chews the scene with relish, creating a character we all wish was dead. But it’s the clumsy performance of LeBouf and forced love entanglements with female stars Jessica Chastain and Mia Wiskowski that dampen the film’s energy.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Cinema Obscura: Anima Persa

"Anima Persa" (translated as "Lost Souls") is a completely weird effort. With acting pedigree as sublime as Catherine Deneuvue and Vittoria Gassman and shades of the giallo genre played out amongst the indelible images of a sprawling Venetian mansion, its a shame that "Anima Persa" isn't quite as good as it means to be.

Released in 1977 by the obviously prolific Dino Risi, "Anima Persa" deals with the arrival of a young student Tino (Danilo Mattei) in Venice to study painting. He moves in with his aunt (Deneuvue) and uncle (Gassman) and is quickly apprised that the old mansion holds secrets.... namely the confinement of another crazy uncle upstairs. Tino is forced into the psychological game between aunt and uncle. He is misogynistic, continually blaming Deneuevue for being "a stupid woman", unable to appreciate the finer things in life like his cherished opera records. She tells Tino about her daughter, supposedly murdered by the insane, pedophile uncle upstairs. Unable to believe or decipher the hatred between them, Tino goes on his own quest to uncover his family's secret past.

A better title would have been "Imprisoned Souls". Owing some rudimentary elements to the giallo genre, "Anima Persa" is far too tame in its suspense to qualify. Taking as its setting only two or three different locations- and a few exterior shots of the lovely Venice canal ways- "Anima Persa" instead chooses to act out a family psychological horror that often borders on extreme parody. Tino's love interest, Lucia (Anicee Alvina) meets him in art class (which looks like a holdover hippie protest) where she blithely strips nude for the class to sketch. Deneuvue, in one of her more strange, emotionless performances, rarely gets out of her pajamas and night gown and Gassman, as the controlling Uncle Stolz, is given a quick gambling habit towards the end of the film that neither explains him or the strange conclusion. A bit of Hitchcock and Argento thrown in for good measure don't tidy up the quite boring mess of Rosi's film. Perhaps my high expectations of an unheralded giallo gem soured my experience, but "Anima Persa" probably belongs as a true cinema obscura for good reasons.