The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
How could I have not reviewed this movie? I had such a visceral negative reaction to it when I saw it . . . way back in October. I just assumed that I had written down my thoughts.
My relationship to the films of the director Paul Thomas Anderson started out so well. Although I never watched his first film, I loved his second feature, Boogie Nights, from the first frame. In it, Anderson masterfully juggled multiple plot threads, and coaxed terrific performances from all of his actors, especially Mark Wahlberg. As his films have progressed, I have liked them less, although I have always appreciated his ability to direct actors.
Magnolia was fun, but messier than its predecessor. Tom Cruise almost made the whole thing worth watching, however. I found the film after that, Punch-Drunk Love, to be interesting, yet simultaneously unwatchable. And then came the Oscar-nominated There Will Be Blood, which had a magnificent first half, and then a completely chaotic (and unmotivated by the first part) second half. As soon as Daniel Day-Lewis says, “There is a madness inside of me,” I was out of the picture.
Count me among the exceptions.
This is a film that needed to be more of just one thing than a multitude of many different things all trying to coalesce into meaning. It has good actors giving strong performances and fine 65mm cinematography, and a surfeit of portentous music. It purports to be about a Scientology-like cult – led by an L. Ron Hubbard stand-in played by Philip Seymour Hoffman – and a troubled and violent young man – played by the prodigal Joaquin Phoenix – who might just be the cult’s next great recruit, yet when the film is over, we discover that either: a) the cult was just a sleight-of-hand construct meant to distract us from whatever the film is really about, or b) as long as this movie is, it’s only half complete. I actually felt that way at the end of There Will Be Blood, that we had were missing large chunks of what would have made a compelling story.
Since I loved Boogie Nights so much, I will credit Anderson with all of purposeful intention in the world, and assume that the film is not about Scientology at all. In fact, given that we open and close on the same images of Phoenix on the beach, making sand castles, I propose that The Master takes place entirely in Phoenix’s character’s head. His drifter is so lost and so lonely and so . . . unpleasant . . . that he conjures up a mysterious religious organization which decides to take a special interest in him and save him. Alas, his inner demons will not release him, and so even his own wild imaginings provide no release – the cult fails – and he remains lost at the end. This is the only way the film makes sense to me. Unfortunately, even if this were Anderson’s plan all along, it wouldn’t make what actually unfolds on the screen any more interesting. A central protagonist who doesn’t change is a snooze to spend time with, especially the 2 1/2 hours required here.
As of this writing, the film has been Oscar-nominated for only Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Supporting Actress (Amy Adams), and Best Supporting Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman). I am surprised it wasn’t nominated for Best Cinematography, in which category it would have actually merited a win.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, 2012)
This was a fascinating documentary, about the internationally known dissident Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei. I knew nothing about him before watching the film. The movie follows him as he confronts the Chinese government, in 2009, over student deaths in an earthquake in Sichuan Province. We then find out about his background (son of an intellectual father who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution), his studies and life in America in the 1980s, and his choice to return to China in the years after Tianenman Square. By the time we meet him, he has been exhibiting in the great galleries of the West, such as the Tate Modern in London. Though irreverent, he seems to be able to get away with provocations that his fellow dissidents do not, perhaps protected by his celebrity. It comes as a surprise (and a shock), then, when we find out, suddenly, shortly before the end of the film, that he has been “disappeared.” Knowing nothing about him, I assumed that was it. And what an ending that would have been. But fortunately for him (and for the world), he resurfaces, a bit cowed and damaged, but alive. In the last few minutes of the movie, we see his old cockiness return. Hence the subtitle, “Never Sorry.” As of October of this past year, he was again exhibiting internationally.
This is a strong year for documentaries – perhaps stronger than for narratives – and this one didn’t make the Oscar cut. Too bad. It’s worth watching. One learns a lot about the art of protest – literally and figuratively – and the specificity of the details we learn about this one artist lead us to a better understanding of some universal truths about the nature of oppression and resistance.
Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)
This is far from a perfect movie, but anyone who has ever lost a beloved pet will find it hard to resist. Tim Burton’s spooky dramedy of one boy’s attempt to resurrect one such lost pet has, as its inspiration, his own feelings about the dog he loved as a child. It’s this connection to the work that helps Burton bring an emotional intensity to the film that I have often found lacking in his other movies, no matter how wildly inventive they may have been.
Victor is a science nerd whose parents want him to go out and play ball. It’s at one of these forced outings that his best friend – his dog Sparky – chases a ball out of the park and into the wheels of a car. Horror! But all is not lost, because young Victor has seen the right monster movies, and so he successfully channels the power of a lighting storm into Sparky’s (freshly dug-up) corpse, und voilà! Wir haben ein Frankenweenie!
By the time the movie is over, many other young kids will have resurrected their own dead pets, and the undead Sparky will prove that, dead or alive (or some combination thereof), a dog really is a mad scientist’s best friend.
Why is it not perfect? Well, the tone is uneven in a few places, and the use of the one Asian character is funny, but also in questionable taste. But the animation is beautiful (I saw it in 3D), and you really do feel how much Victor cares for Sparky, and vice versa. The film still resonates for me, even now. As I write this, my own little pooch lies on my bed, nestled next to my thigh. If you have such a companion, then you’ll probably be moved by the film, as well.
I love Pixar, but Frankenweenie is my pick for the Best Animated Film Oscar this year, in spite of its flaws. The beauty of its visual style and the genuine feeling that courses throughout make it a true work of art.