Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Master, dir/wr. Paul Thomas Anderson, st. Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

I feel for the woman that strode purposefully from the cinema auditorium sometime during The Master's opening twenty minutes, for P. T. Anderson's latest is baffling, claustrophobically intoxicating and hypnotic. It's the cinematic equivalent of tempering the most intense migraine with Ibuprofen Lysine, the knotty tension of perception giving way to exquisite visual bliss. Joaquin Phoenix, in a terrifyingly articulate portrayal of imbalance and trauma, his slurred drawl and heavy eyelids recalling Ted Levine's dangerous and louche Jame Gumb in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, plays Freddie Quell (named as it turns out, not without a sense of irony), a WWII veteran crippled with PTSD and an addiction to gals and booze. Stowing away on the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Seymour Hoffman), a physician of sorts, philosopher and psychological-alchemist who's building his own movement known as 'The Cause', and soon the pair form a fragile master/padawan relationship, driven as they both are by their ability to concoct from whatever's lying around - Freddie from paint thinner and bread, Lancaster from all manner of hazy new-age self-help mysticism. Anderson has stated The Master isn't strictly about Scientology but any number of crackpot religions and groups that sprung up all over the US after WW2, but the similarities are there, hiding in plain sight. One man's 'processing' is another man's 'auditing' after all. Again, like in 1999's superb Magnolia, Anderson employs long passages of rhythmic, tonal drone-score with which to underpin vast sequences - here, using Jonny Greenwood as he did in There Will Be Blood. An early scene with Quell and Dodd has the latter 'processing' the former with one of his 'sequences' - a barrage of questions that would flummox Pinter's Goldberg and McCann, ranging from the inane to the inflammatory, with an immediate restart if one blinks.  The effect is startling, unsettling, wholly absorbing and more than a little frightening. But there's a poetry to proceedings that makes Anderson such a unique and artful director. We can all name great visual auteurs or ones who coax wonderful performances from their actors or who can spin a great yarn, but Anderson does all three, and to a level of complexity and detail that simply astounds. 

Friday, 16 November 2012

Rust and Bone, dir. Jacques Audiard, wr. Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, st. Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts

If nothing else, Rust and Bone gives us, in Matthias Schoenaerts' bare-knuckled fighter Ali, a protagonist as richly complex as he is apathetic - a grade-A fuck-up, bestowed with wildly fluctuating parenting skills, and endowed with a blunt honesty which skates along that threshold between douchedom and refreshing honesty. Having absconded from his life with his addict girlfriend, Ali and his son find themselves at the door of his sister Anna and her boyfriend Foued, grateful for the free post-sell-by date yoghurt Anna liberates from the supermarket where she works, a beat-up old moped, and a roof over their heads - a stable environment which promises something of a new start. He gets a job at a security firm working as a nightclub bouncer (thanks to his background in boxing) and intervenes in a bar-fight, picking up a bruised and bloodied Stéphanie (Cotillard) from the floor, a precursory act to the more figurative way his valour will save her as the film progresses. After a terrible accident at the waterpark where Stéphanie works as a whale-trainer, the pair strike up a relationship - of sorts - for his lack of grace and consideration pauses for no-one, no matter how serious their trauma. In fact, weirdly, the casual nature of their partnership is just what Stéphanie needs, a sharp reminder that it's the small things that anchor us during desolation, even if those things are the everyday hurts and pains of human interaction. It's definitely a play of two halves, as the film shifts from Stéphanie's story to Ali, and his knuckle-headed but oddly sensible decision to play to his strengths and discover employment as a back-alley street-fighter. Audiard even shoots his leads in different modes; Cotillard is allowed glorious, sun-drenched close-ups of her un-made-up face, awash with the resignation of out-pained exhaustion, whilst almost the only insight we get into Schoenaerts state of mind is through the serious of physical blows he throws, and shadowy poses he strikes. It's almost like the camera, like Ali himself, finds it difficult to settle and focus; Ali. unlike Stéphanie, is almost always moving, a frenetic, kinetic flurry of motion, activity and purpose that is at odds with his inability to see a greater holistic vision for him and his son. Restrained and emotionally sincere (if not perhaps a touch contrived in its narrative), and with a commanding performance by Cotillard, Rust and Bone is a surely a shoo-in for Oscar contention given its subject matter and low-key production stylings, but it's also beautifully effective in its portrayal of un-algorithmable relationships, and how and why they function; this is a depiction of love not shouted from the rooftops, but kept suppressed, quietly blossoming in the soul.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Ted, dir. Seth MacFarlane, wr. Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild, st. Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi

Whether you buy into stand ups like Frankie Boyle or comedy shows like Family Guy or not, you will be aware of their intensely polarising effect. Indeed one wonders at the longevity of that particular brand of outrageous and 'offensive' humour, even if the merit of such jokes about cancer and degenerative diseases have been discussed to death. Here, in lieu of a live-action Family Guy episode, MacFarlane enlists his writing team, composer (Walter Murphy) and a whole slew of FG regulars - including Kunis. The story is one of typical stoner-redemption; loser and improbably hot girlfriend part ways due to third party before finding that true love was there all along. Films like this remind me of that Edward Albee line from The Zoo Story in which Jerry proclaims that "sometimes you have to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly." Ted finds the reasons for John and Lori's split as traditional and predictable as ever. John made a wish as a boy that his teddy bear - his only friend - could speak, and many years later, he's still stuck in ambitionless adolescence - his ursine pal's vernacular having taken on a more colourful hue. There have been many voices opining recently on whether Family Guy should quit, not quite while it's ahead, more a case of before it sinks much lower; on the basis of Ted, one's inclined to agree. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, dir. Timur Bekmambetov, scr. Seth Grahame-Smith, st. Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas

Light on scares or substance and heavy on the fancy-pants grading and tricksy post-production, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is classic Bekmambetov. Along with Wanted, Apollo 18 and The Darkest Hour, this bears all the hallmarks of his tiresome pyrotechnica, a vapid melange of unenthusiastic performances and over-choreographed set-pieces, stitched together with no discernible care or thought. In 1818, the young Abe watches his mother's slaughter at the hands of plantation owner Jack Barts (Csokas). Nine years later, Lincoln is befriended by shade-wearing Henry Sturges (Cooper) who proves nifty at the old vamp-slaying. After the obligatory not-gonna-train-you-yeah-alright-I'll-train-you patter, Abraham is soon dispatching the undead in flash routines that involve him spinning his silver-bladed axe like a behatted majorette with ADHD. Ignoring an earlier don't-fall-in-love-with-anyone-now-you're-a-lone-wolf speech, he predictable falls for Mary Todd (Winstead) and sets about destroying vampiric ultra-bastard Adam (Sewell), a terrifying monster about as evil as an unsharpened banana. If you feel like you've seen this all before, it's because you have. Bekmambetov rips off everything from Underworld to Sherlock Holmes with po-faced solemnity. The result is as boring as it is utterly, utterly forgettable.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Great Debaters, dir. Denzel Washington, wr. Jeffrey Porro, Robert Eisele, st. Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker

Written by The Equaliser and Cagney And Lacey writer Robert Eisele, produced by Oprah's Harpo Productions and directed with a fierce passion by Washington, this tale of the Wiley Collage Debating Team and their struggle with prejudice and racial discrimination in the American South in the 1930s is everything you might expect and hope it to be given the powerhouse production team behind it. Washington's portrayal is exemplary in its control and delivery, furthering the case for his nomination as one of the finest actors of his generation. Here, his Melvin B. Tolson is calm, erudite, aggressively protective and nurturing of his students. It's a performance that many might feel is stabilised by the effectively simple triumph-over-adversity construct, or James Newton Howard's soaringly empathic score, and indeed the film is peppered with stirring Shawshanky literary quotes pertaining to freedom and injustice, but the lasting effect is nonetheless of a solidly virtuous film.  Like all good dramas of this ilk, the triumphant conclusion is a little predictable, but it's absolved thanks to its extraordinary historical backstory.