Film review – The Master (2012)

7 November 2012
The Master: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix)

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix)

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) re-enters America after having served in World War II and now suffering from post-traumatic stress. Like Vietnam War veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) trying to make sense of America in the late 1970s in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) Freddie is similarly childlike, emerging into a world that is recognisable to him, but doesn’t fully make sense. Conformity, capitalism and consumerism are some of the characteristics of an era of both extraordinary economic growth, but also paranoia where the threat of communist infiltration created a markedly conservative political and social climate. Trying to find a place in an era of pronounced social cohesion, Freddie requires a master. That master is the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a quasi-religious philosophical movement known as The Cause.

Like the nervous and volatile Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) in Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love 2002, Freddie is a lost soul who desires to be part of something bigger than just himself. Constantly talking out of the side of his mouth, hunched over and never quite managing to dress in clothes that properly fit him, Freddie is never comfortable in the world he occupies. At the other extreme is Lancaster the father-figure who, similar to Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), is a larger-than-life entrepreneur who captures the American spirit in all its grandiosity, boldness and insanity. If The Master doesn’t have the same immediate emotional effect as Anderson’s previous work it is because it is dealing with far more subdued and interior subject matter than romantic love or building an oil empire.

While Scientology is the inspiration for The Cause and L Ron Hubbard the inspiration for Lancaster, The Master is more interested in systems of control in general and the psychological desire to obey. Following Lancaster’s teaching is something Freddie very quickly and willingly succumbs to, aggressively defending Lancaster even when arguments questioning The Cause are presented reasonably and rationally. Freddie’s faith in Lancaster is so strong that he believes him to even be above the law and any evidence contrary to this does shake the foundations of his belief, but not for long. The Master never presents any definitive explanation for why Freddie would be drawn to The Cause. Lancaster certainly never convincingly presents his belief system; an early scene where he discusses his philosophy on life is almost gibberish, he gets extremely defensive when challenged and even his own son claims he is making everything up on the spot. Nevertheless, Freddie watches dutifully, grinning in delight whenever Lancaster speaks.

Freddie begins the film as not only childlike, but almost primal. He is driven by instinct. He likes to drink so creates terrifying homebrew from anything he can find, including a variety of industrial liquids and chemicals. He is constantly horny, masturbating a few metres away from his fellow soldiers after fondling a sand sculpture of a naked woman. In a much later scene he imagines all the women in the room naked, although it is difficult to tell if he is more entranced by them or Lancaster. When Freddie is with a woman sexually he playfully pokes her breasts and giggles. The next day Freddie is confused and angry by his inability to have a sexual relationship and takes out his rage on a customer at the mall where he is working. Freddie talks about a young woman he loved named Doris, although his neglectful actions – until it is too late – suggest that he is really in love with the ideal of her.

The sexual imagery Freddie continually returns to is that of the naked woman sand sculpture, shaped to pose like a nude model in a pornographic magazine. Similar to Brandon (Michael Fassbender) in Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame, Freddie is obsessed with the manufactured representation of sex rather than the real thing. Like the strange chemical cocktails he drinks, the sex he craves is synthetic and instead of living his own life he looks for a synthetic version of life, and that’s the belief system and social hierarchy that Lancaster offers.

The Master is therefore a film about obedience and forming an identity through subservience. Freddie begins with sex and alcohol as his master, but Lancaster and The Cause soon takes the place in the way that people recovering from addictions often turn to religion as a new form of obsessive behaviour. The exercises that Lancaster submits Freddie to seem designed to strip away his sense of self rather than provide any enlightenment.

Freddie isn’t the only subservient character in the film as Lancaster is also revealed as a figurehead for The Cause with his wife Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) as the person who is really in charge. The most overt scene exploring their relationship is when Peggy sternly instructs Lancaster on matters of his fidelity while violently masturbating him. Their relationship is seen to be something highly perverse with Peggy maintaining her power over Lancaster while reducing him to his most basic impulses and desires – taking him down to Freddie’s level.

In the same way that the characters in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011) can be very easily read as representing aspects of the American psyche post-9/11, the characters of The Master similarly represent aspects of the American psyche post-World War II. Social cohesion is desired as the best way for an individual to achieve harmony and any attempt to question that cohesion is met with strong resistance. Sexuality is something to be repressed or at least released in a ‘harmless’ way, resulting in a perverse obsession with the idea of sex rather than sex itself. The Master is in many ways a straightforward story about a man unsure of the new world he is now in, and wants to belong to something so that he too can move beyond childish and primal urges and become civilised. Anderson doesn’t provide any easy answers about whether or not Freddie is successful in his ascent, although the final cryptic scene suggests that while he has moved up by a notch in social status he is still mentally in the same place that he was when the film began.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – On the Road (2012)

27 September 2012
On the Road: Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund)

Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund)

Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness style of writing is an energetic mix of impressions and observations, made visual in the film adaptation of his classic novel On the Road where Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) experiences adventure, drugs, sex, jazz and an intense friendship while travelling around America during a time of great cultural shifts and tensions. As with the novel the film is told from Paradise’s interior view of the world where his nonconformity was part revolutionary and part youthful self-indulgence. The film doesn’t depict the broader social and political issues of the era as Paradise was more focused on cultivating experiences and discovering America via a series of road trips with his best friend and muse Dean Moriarty (played by Garrett Hedlund and based on Kerouac’s fellow Beat Generation member Neal Cassady).

On the Road has long been declared ‘unfilmable’, which is only worth mentioning to illustrate how narrowly some people regard cinema. A film adaptation of On the Road that conforms to a classical Hollywood cause-and-effect narrative structure probably would never work, but fortunately not all films are made adhering to the Hollywood tradition. While the term ‘art house’ is mainly used today as a catchall marketing label for a wide range of films, it once meant films that genuinely aspired to something different to the dominant product coming out of the American studio system. For example, the various waves of European art-house cinema movements that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s deliberately went against Hollywood conventions to focus on things like character subjectivity and challenging established film style to express ideology, inspire active thought rather than passive viewing, and create impressions of places, people and ideas. In America there were various avant-garde and counter-culture movements doing similar experiments with narrative cinema. American filmmaker John Cassavetes’s early improvised and cinéma vérité style of cinema in the mid 1950s coincided with the publication of On the Road in 1957. These are the cinema movements that make On the Road extremely filmable, resulting in director Walter Salles and writer José Rivera’s absorbing adaptation.

The film style reflects the interior focus of the material and captures the essence of moments rather than facilitating a traditional narrative. Scenes at parties and in music clubs are tightly framed, often shot with a disorientating sweeping camera and frequently contain dialogue drowned out by the music. Such scenes have a seductive mix of energy and immediacy that expresses the Shock of the New as experienced by the Beat Generation’s lust for life and experimentation. As a contrast the scenes of the American natural and urban landscapes are warmly lit and soft focused to convey the romanticised vision of life on the road.

While On the Road is a series of impressionistic moments, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as aimless. The relationship between Paradise and Moriarty is a symbiotic one based on the desire both men have to replace their absent fathers. Paradise begins his travels after the death of his father while Moriarty is continually searching for his, based on scraps of information that he is living derelict on the streets somewhere. If the film ever does feel laborious it is during the final part of the film, which initially seems like one sequence too many. However, this is because for Paradise it is one adventure too many while for Moriarty the desire to pursue an impossible ideal and maintain the dream is too strong. The final stages of the film are some of the most powerful in how they portray the dark side to the young men’s adventures, which includes a level of excess that cannot be maintained and a destructively neglectful treatment of the women in their lives. There is also a scene where they go to hear music and cannot get into a club unless they hire coats, suggesting that the counterculture they once embraced as their own has now been absorbed into the mainstream, removing its potency and purpose.

While Riley and Hedlund are superb as Paradise and Moriarty, a real strength of the film is the performances by the supporting cast, including Viggo Mortensen who channels William S Burroughs through the Old Bull Lee character beautifully, as well as Amy Adams who plays his wife Jane, based on Joan Vollmer. Kristen Stewart is sensational as Marylou (based on Luanne Henderson), the teenage girl Moriarty marries and then travels with. Stewart portrays Marylou as a wild, passionate, liberated and free willed person while also giving her a melancholic edge since she knows her adventures with Moriarty are finite. As Moriarty’s second wife Camille (based on Carolyn Cassady), Kirsten Dunst articulates the anger and disappointment of a woman who realises she is just a part of her husband’s grand adventure and not allowed to have her own. While the female characters are barely given a voice in the novel, the inclusion of extra details from the filmmakers (some of which came from Carolyn Cassady’s autobiography Off the Road) gives the film a welcomed extra dimension.

While other adaptations of seminal Beat works, such as Howl (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2010) and Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991) have incorporated biographical detail with the hallucinogenic imagery and experimental approach from the original texts, On the Road is a much more straightforward adaptation. The film even has the same pleasantly casual tone of the novel where the mind of the reader/viewer is allowed to drift to then come back and pick up on the next sensation on offer. While fidelity to source material is an unreasonable and unrealistic way to evaluate the value of a film adapted from a novel (see ‘The book is never better than the film’), it is remarkable when a film so faithfully captures the spirit of the original text. Salles has done exactly that with the film adaptation of On the Road, resulting in a cinematic treat for lovers of Beat literature and in particular Kerouac’s novel.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – The Fighter (2010)

31 January 2011
The Fighter: “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dick "Dicky" Eklund (Christian Bale)

“Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dick "Dicky" Eklund (Christian Bale)

Mark Wahlberg teams up once more with Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees director David O. Russell to play real life boxer “Irish” Micky Ward. Before turning pro Micky struggled to live up to his potential while under the dubious guidance of his overbearing mother (Melissa Leo) and his brother Dick “Dicky” Eklund (Christian Bale), a former professional boxer and crack addict.

The excitingly edited and choreographed boxing is complemented by the film’s slick cinematography, which give the domestic scenes several energetic flourishes without compromising its gritty urban aesthetic. The battle for Micky’s heart and loyalty outside of the ring provides most of the drama with Micky’s new girlfriend (Amy Adams) attempting to pull him away from the manipulative control that Dicky and his mother have over him.

Situated somewhere between the crowd-pleasing melodrama of Rocky and the psychological character study of Raging Bull, The Fighter is an enjoyable underdog-triumphs-over-adversity story that demonstrates once again just how cinematic a sport boxing is. Adams is sensational in a tougher role than audiences are used to seeing her in while Wahlberg and Bale deliver their best performances in several years.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 372, 2011

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)

19 May 2009
Larry Daley (Ben Stiller)

Larry Daley (Ben Stiller)

For the new Night at the Museum film (again directed by Shawn Levy who also produced) Ben Stiller (Tropic Thunder) is reunited with his previous co-stars for another adventure involving museum exhibitions coming to life from sunset to sunrise. Since the previous film Larry Daley (Stiller) has left his night guard job at the New York Museum of Natural History to become a highly successful inventor and infomercial host. The museum’s exhibits, who are also Larry’s now neglected friends, are now being boxed up and sent into storage in Washington DC’s massive Smithsonian Institution complex. However, upon arrival the New York exhibits encounter significant hostilities, forcing Larry to go to Washington, adopt the night guard uniform once again and infiltrate the Smithsonian in order to rescue his friends. The result is a wonderfully fun and feel-good family film that perfectly continues the spirit of the original film but ups the ante with more characters, more conceits (paintings, photographs and historical monuments also come to life in this new film) and more exhibits to explore in the various buildings that house the incredible Smithsonian collection.

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Film review – Doubt (2008)

13 January 2009

Doubt is an adaptation of the award winning play Doubt: A Parable. Set in a Bronx Catholic school in the mid 1960s, Doubt explores the conflict between Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the conservative and authoritarian principal of the school, and Father Brendan Flynn, a new progressive priest who Sister Aloysius accuses of having sexual relationships with the school’s first black student. Doubt is an exploration of faith, casting judgement, suspicion, and of course, doubt. The audience is never too sure if Flynn is actually guilty or what is motivating Sister Aloysius to go after him. Unfortunately what makes powerful drama on stage does not automatically translate to cinema.

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