Jacques Audiard's film adaptation of THE SISTERS BROTHERS deals with the Wild West becoming a modern world.
Lynne Ramsay's YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is an auteur's vision of a revenge flick - a character study full of symbolism.
This film never gets the credit it deserves. But it's one of the best post-2000 crime-thrillers out there, directed/written by the one and only James Gray.
The Master. 2012. Directed & Written by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Martin Dew, Joshua Close, Jillian Bell, Kevin J. O’Connor, Patty McCormack, Laura Dern, & Mimi Cozzens. Annapurna Pictures/The Weinstein Company/Ghoulardi Film Company.
Rated 14A. 144 minutes.
Paul Thomas Anderson is the best filmmaker of his generation. There are tons of other writer-directors I admire, to the fullest. However, he stands atop that pyramid. Time and time again his films captivate me in genuine ways others do not. I’ve followed his career closely since initially seeing Magnolia, then going back to Hard Eight and moving on forward again. His work as a director is astonishing, as Anderson cobbled together his own style through watching the cinema others produced, learning the craft through seeing it in motion. With equal parts Stanley Kubrick influence and that of Robert Altman as well, Anderson makes movies in an epic style while also managing to keep complete focus on the humanity at the core of his characters and the plethora of stories he tells. His earlier work is dominated much more by the Altman-esque sensibilities of his talent. Starting with There Will Be Blood, he’s transitioned into his more Kubrick inspired work.
The Master is at once an unauthorized, fictional version of the life of L. Ron Hubbard, and also the story of two men locked in a love they’ll never fully express; not in this life, anyways. Perhaps the next. And then there’s also the fact this film speaks to that Scientology influence without directly condemning and shaming their beliefs (no matter how crazy they are). Anderson questions what is at the heart of faith: could it simply be the searching of the lost for love and comfort? Who knows.
Throughout the film a Navy veteran out of WWII named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself in the midst of The Cause, a group on the verge of being a full fledged cult run by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), affectionately known as The Master. What follows is a story that touches on belief, duty, love, war, and much more.
After WWII, there was this search for a new meaning to masculinity. In peace time there must be a redefinition of what it is to be masculine. How does a man pushed to kill for his country come back home to that very country and simply… exist? On the Blu ray Special Edition of The Master the 1946 documentary Let There Be Light directed by John Huston is included. This is the catalyst for Anderson’s film. The opening scene is essentially directly from that documentary, as men are interviewed just like Freddie about various psychological elements. One thing the V.As all hear is that people will not understand, and it’s quite possible they might even find their “condition” shameful, so on. So that violent outburst we see from Freddie as he tries to work a normal job taking photos in a department store is merely the aggressive, wartime side of him fighting to survive. Like a delayed reaction or a motor that’s only recently been shut down, it takes time for that aggression to work itself out. Maybe it never does. But that’s why Freddie is almost the perfect test for someone like Dodd, coming along after the Second World War and likely still filled with hate for the enemy. He challenges that “inherent state of perfect” which Dodd refers to in his teachings.
There’s a significance to seeing the beginning V.A. scenes with the doctor and Freddie in juxtaposition with Freddie being ‘processed’ by Dodd. On a simple visual level, there are certain frames where they sit across from one another similarly in each scene; the doctor and Dodd appear on one side of the frame, as Phoenix often remains on the other. Above that there’s the fact Freddie is always searching for a master. Just so happens he ends up finding The Master, Lancaster Dodd, head of The Cause. But before that it was the army; in those beginning scenes, the V.A. Doctor is an extension of the army, and a master in his own right. Moreover, the questions aren’t so dissimilar between Dodd and the doctor, as they each come at Freddie from a psychological standpoint. And finally, it’s the parallel of real science, real psychology versus the fake, pseudo-religious Scientology-like madness Dodd is spinning. So at once there’s a ton of different elements at play all in these two scenes put together.
One of the final scenes has Lancaster singing to Freddie, the song “(I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China”, and it calls to mind an earlier moment. When Freddie is first ‘processed’ by Dodd he remembers the girl named Doris he left behind at home, the love of his life. She also sings to him “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”. Now what I find interesting is obviously that they’re both romantic songs. And they’re both sung in scenes that precede a farewell, a final goodbye. But the longing in both scenes from Doris and Dodd respectively is evident, which reveals a good deal. It’s obvious before that Dodd and Freddie have a special relationship. I’m not saying that it’s full-on homosexual. However, they do love one another, and on a level of understanding.
The duality of man: Freddie and Lancaster are two sides of a coin, the Split Saber, which is of course Dodd’s own title for his second book that comes furiously from his own hand after Freddie arrives on the boat and in his life. During certain moments the animal in Lancaster comes out, the one whose world of which he vehemently denies man is a part. For instance, when challenged by an insistent man at a party Dodd bursts out calling him “pig fuck” in front of the entire room while trying to defend his position. So of course we see it immediately as his breaking in front of people and unable to appropriately explain/defend The Cause (because it’s all bullshit). Though it’s more. It is that beast in Dodd that wants to live out in the world. In turn, that beast in him unable to unleash lives in Freddie, which is a large part of why he’s drawn to the man.
Ultimately, I do feel that Dodd is a closeted homosexual. That’s my call. I don’t think Freddie necessarily is, though he seeks great comfort in Dodd, and most certainly cares for the man deeply. But the scene where Peggy jerks her husband off in the bathroom over the sink is telling. They don’t make love, even though she is pregnant. They don’t even lay down in bed or get comfortable. It’s something that’s got to be done, like milking a cow, or doing any other chore. She also tells him to give up on certain ideas, that it “didn‘t work for them and it‘s not going to work for you“, and then advises him not to drink anymore of Freddie’s hooch. On the opposite side, Freddie is a lost man. He can’t seem to really connect with women well enough, other than physically, to form a relationship, at least one that he doesn’t abandon. His relationship with women is problematic at best, as we see immediately on the beach during his tour of duty where he and other men build a woman in the sand; one he proceeds to finger bang and pretend-fuck in front of everybody, all before masturbating furiously into the ocean. So there’s a form of homosexual love on Freddie’s part towards Dodd, too. It’s out of a need, a necessity. He has to have that master, someone to control and guide him. On ther other side Dodd requires somebody to indulge the animalistic nature in him.
In the end this is one of the strongest messages I see in The Master: religious groups such as The Cause are built by emotionally fragile people seeking the comfort in numbers among the fragility of others, so it’s basically the lost leading the lost. This further perpetuates others that are lost looking for a home and a place of comfort to end up further adrift.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is fantastic here. He embodies The Master well and takes us to the serious side of a man whose mental stability is questionable. All the same, he makes the man believable, very strong. A great performance. Opposite him Joaquin Phoenix gives what might be the single best performance of his entire career. He actually physically embodies Freddie to the point you can see how he formed the walk, the way he stands, his entire look. A remarkable role and Phoenix just downright nails it. Some of the scenes between Hoffman and Phoenix are beyond intense, especially the quiet, closed in moments where it’s just the two of them like the processing early on, et cetera. These two have wild chemistry. Love the scene of them in jail – everything about it is perfect, the angle at which Anderson catches them, the intensity of their conversation, we even see Lancaster slip more into his animal behaviour and just hurl curses and insults at Freddie.
Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame comes back with Anderson again to do another innovative, unique sounding score. His compositions here are downright magical, as they float and hum and burn below the drama. It really is wonderful stuff. At times there’s this gorgeously flowing orchestral music. In other scenes Greenwood employs some of the ole Radiohead weirdness, as he did with portions of There Will Be Blood. It works even better in this film because the strange atmosphere of the music mirrors lots of the oddities in Anderson’s screenplay. They are a solid team together as artists, likely why Anderson has done other work with Radiohead and Greenwood.
In addition, cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. captures the vision of Anderson perfectly with his full, rich lens. Between Malaimare and Anderson the flow of each scene is intense. Certain scenes are blocked with great care and attention. Others it’s simply the fact Malaimare captures every last raw emotion in the faces of the characters. The period is likewise captured elegantly. Also the boat and most of the locations were great settings. When a film that’s written and directed well, filmed well, is also a properly rounded production in terms of set/costume design (and other areas) then it’s altogether an amazing experience.
This is a masterpiece of a modern film. Paul Thomas Anderson proves over and over he does well with period pieces, no matter if it’s late 1800s, mid-1970s, or any other time. He can turn period pieces into more than just spectacle. Within those he works over the human emotions to an endless degree. Here, his exploration of a forbidden and powerful love between two men is disguised amongst a larger story about belief and faith, fringe religious groups (a.k.a cults), as well as the power of one person over another, for various reasons. The two powerhouse performances of Hoffman and Phoenix are something spectacular to behold. They make this film even better for their presence in it. Anderson will continue to make beautiful cinema, and this will likely always be a favourite of mine out of his filmography. The Master moves me, emotionally and visually, to the point I can watch this endlessly.
U Turn. 1997. Directed by Oliver Stone. Screenplay by John Ridley, from his book Stray Dogs.
Starring Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Voight, Powers Boothe, Laurie Metcalf & Liv Tyler. Phoenix Pictures/Illusion Entertainment Group/Clyde Is Hungry Films/Canal+ Droits Audiovisuels.
Rated R. 125 minutes.
Oliver Stone is an acquired taste. Always has been. I’m sure if I’d been a teenager when films like Platoon or later Natural Born Killers came out (almost made it for that second one), he would’ve been a filmmaker I’d flock to theatres for, over and over. He has a rebellious spirit. Perhaps why, when I was a teenager I eventually made my way into his filmography. In fact, going to film school when I did was partially inspired by Stone, whose movies and style I always found chaotic, vivid, and never less than incredibly interesting. So I devoured everything he ever made. Not to say each single movie is a masterpiece – no filmmaker is flawless – but he has an amazingly solid track record. His war-related pictures are rarely matched in intensity, and scope. Movies like Natural Born Killers and even The Doors are odd rides through madness, equally intense and every bit as intriguing as his political work.
U Turn falls into that second category – the weird and the wild. An adaptation of John Ridley’s novel Stray Dogs, this movie is quite different in story and plot than most of Stone’s previous films. Usually we see Stone take on, as I said, war or politics, often edging towards realism and many times based off actual true events. Yet this movie goes into completely fictional territory, though apparently the original book is loosely based on a real story about a drifter who wandered into a town and disappeared forever. Either way, Ridley’s story plays well with Stone and his style of filmmaking. Their forces combine into a fucked up movie that you won’t soon forget.
With Russian mafia on his tail, Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) is heading to Las Vegas. He needs to pay off a big debt, fast. Only trouble is, on the way over the highway Bobby encounters car trouble. This strands him out in a small town named Superior, Arizona. Even worse, the whole place is filled with quirky, and sometimes dangerous, characters with whom he has a varied number of encounters. Things start out weird enough, then slowly everything spirals into darkness. Coming across a beautiful young woman named Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez), Bobby believes he’s hit the jackpot. But then her husband Jake (Nick Nolte) arrives, catching them almost in bed together. Afterwards, Jake finds Bobby on the road and offers him a ride; as well as offers him thousands and thousands of dollars to kill Grace.
The nail in the coffin comes when Bobby ends up between a couple robbers and a grocery store clerk. His bag full of money gets blown away in the resulting gunfight, which puts him at even worse odds than the beginning. Expecting the mafia to find him, Bobby tries his best to get out of Superior.
Except it isn’t ever that easy, is it? Not for a guy like Bobby.
I’ve always love Stone’s frenetic, quick cut, quick edit style. Here, though, it may be on its best form. Honestly. The way he gives us the scene, but then edits and cuts bits and pieces around it from the same dialogue, the same scene, this technique almost puts us right in the place of Bobby Cooper. He’s seeing these people, talking to them. Simultaneously, Stone cuts these different reactions, often manic-like actions and laughter, which sort of paints these people as two-faced, strange, weird; all of which they certainly are. Sort of makes this a very unsettling movie, in that way. Each character is like a different breed, one you can never for sure get hold of, and at the same time you almost really know these people, especially if you come from a smaller area like myself. These small town, almost hickish people are recognizable, albeit strange and oddly curious, too. Either way, the technique Stone uses draws us into the web of these characters in an impressive, low-key sense.
The soundtrack and score, as usual for Stone, are lots of fun. We’ve got everything on the soundtrack from Johnny Cash to Peggy Lee, Sammi Smith (singing a song by Kris Kristofferson), to Ween and Gloria Lynne. Can’t forget the weird score to match all the other weirdness, by none other than Ennio Morricone. To be totally honest, I’ve seen this film about 20 times, or more, and I never once realized it was Morricone who did the composing. He’s a true talent, a varied and eclectic musician if there ever were one in the film industry. His music is a perfect addition to this plethora of oddities. At times, it makes things feel like a funhouse, right out in the open Arizona sun. Others, there’s a charming noir feel to the strings in the background, plucking away, ratcheting up the suspense and the tension. Great use of score and soundtrack, which again I often come to expect from a guy like Stone. He usually collaborates well with other artists.
The acting is top notch. A dark and comic cast of characters comes to life here. Penn does a great down-and-out performance, Bobby Cooper on the edge of oblivion, already missing a couple fingers and hoping not to have to give up any more. Though I find Penn a bit nuts as a person, I dig his acting and he’s a favourite of mine. Then, Nolte and Boothe each add a sort of veteran feel to the cast, men who’ve been in all sorts of movies giving their best to these odd little small town folks; Nolte is vicious and conniving, while Boothe is tough and stand-offish. Even J-Lo gives us a decent effort. And Claire Danes is around for a little bit, playing a hilarious, cute character, which adds just another dash of flavour to the pot.
Above everyone else, I have to mention two special names for putting in incredible work, albeit in relatively small, not even supporting roles: Joaquin Phoenix and Billy Bob Thornton. First, Phoenix plays Toby N. Tucker – a.k.a TNT – and this is such a nice role, lots of quirk, plus there’s a simmering charisma to the character. Even if he is an asshole. Yet it’s Billy Bob who truly shines, packing on at least 20-30 pounds to play a mechanic named Darrell who may be a bit slow, but certainly ain’t stupid. He has a way of speaking, a way of moving. Really, for such a small character Thornton leaned in hard and brought this one off the page. Again, these are touches which add the right amount to an already interesting story.
I’ve always considered U Turn a 5-star slice of cinema. It’s sort of trashy, and at the same time there is a great neo-noir thriller with a peppering of black comedy thrown in at every corner. While many probably dismissed this movie upon release, and plenty have/still do after, every time I get the chance I’ll watch it. There’s a sexy dangerousness about so many parts in the film. At the same time, the odd nature of the town, the characters, everything comes across completely, madly, and chaos fills just about every last frame. There’s not a single scene I don’t love and every watch of U Turn unsettles, disturbs and enthralls me. Leaving it ’till now to watch? Do yourself a favour. Pop this on, have a fucking weird night.