Sunday, September 30, 2012

Some Quick Thoughts on Looper

So, Looper is a really solid piece of work. It's rare that a modern film tackles sci-fi with anything resembling grit, but this is that flick. What's more, the time travel gimmick actually WORKS! My chief objection, namely that sending someone back in time to knock them off made a lot less sense than popping them a few in a back alley before going Fargo on the clean-up, was put to rest in the first 30 seconds. One of the main problems with time travel as a narrative convention lies in the inherent confusion that comes with playing with what happens to the future when the building blocks get re-arranged. The way that Looper handles things on that front is remarkably level-headed and above all, effective. As a huge Trekkie, I'm no time travel novice, but it was terrific to see a filmmaker worry less about tying his audience's head in knots and more about making sure that everything that happened as a result of Bruce Willis' trip down the rabbit hole makes sense. Little Pierce Gagnon is one to keep your eye on. I'm usually pretty tough on child actors, because there's only one Justin Henry, but this kid is pretty fantastic. He manages to handle the dichotomous part of an old soul in a vulnerable little boy's body to wonderful effect. Favorite line in the film: "Pass me the Phillips."

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Master - Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush

I've been indirectly anticipating Paul Thomas Anderson's next film since the release of There Will Be Blood in late 2007. That film is perhaps the greatest single piece of work in the career of one of cinema's greatest contemporary talents. Part American epic, part fever dream, it's a true tour de force from Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano that deserves its own place in the cinematic canon.

As such, The Master seems to have a lot going for it. Anderson's star has never been higher, and Joaquin Phoenix is finally back to acting after his lost weekend with Casey Affleck. The rest of the cast includes such fine actors as Phillip Seymour Hoffman and the delightful Amy Adams. Master musician Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame) is back to score the film . . . and the whole thing is a look at what leads a person to join a cult. This is a potentially devastating combo.

And it just doesn't work out in the end.

Now, the film's paced well, moves briskly, and never feels like it's sinking under its almost 2 1/2 hour length. The performances are solid, with particular kudos belonging to Joaquin Phoenix for a strong turn as a mentally unstable man at the mercy of Hoffman's brand of quack science. It's a physical performance that requires him to give the impression that an angular, disjointed body is at the mercy of a tormented mind. Amy Adams is really good. Hoffman's all right, even if his "Uncle Snappy" routine doesn't really stretch him in any direction that's particularly groundbreaking. Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s photography is lovely, and Anderson's direction is strong, which shouldn't surprise anyone.

But The Master doesn't go anywhere, and that's a big problem. Now, I'm a vocal opponent of the Church of $cientology, and I'm thrilled that an artist of Anderson's stature was inspired to use that particularly nefarious organization as dramatic fodder. Make no mistake. That's exactly what's happened. Despite assurances from the team that this is not directly related to L. Ron Hubbard's soul-crushing, life-destroying moneymaking machine, The Master is clearly intended to be an attack on $cientology. Terms may be changed, and names might be different, but if you know what to look for, it's there in spades. 

Despite its good intentions, I felt cheated when the film ended. There's just no real resolution to the story. I don't know what Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd wanted from Phoenix's Freddie Quell. I don't know if he honestly thought that he could help Freddie, if he was preying on a weak mind, or if some strange combination of the two was at work. I don't know why Freddie didn't see through the pseudo-scientific psychobabble he was constantly exposed to. I don't know why the last interaction the two have is so strange. There are those who feel that the final act of There Will Be Blood is at complete odds with the rest of the picture. I've never been one of those people, but here, I do not understand what's supposed to be gained from the truly bizarre series of final events that roll around.

Even despite the fine casting, the performances don't really allow for much emotional engagement with the characters, which is a curious thing. Even the performance I liked most (Phoenix) relies on a certain level of physical gimmickry to be effective. It's difficult to avoid the obvious comparisons with Daniel Day-Lewis, but I'm also reminded, strangely enough, of the female leads in 2010's Never Let Me Go. Keira Knightley seems to need quirky characteristics to make Ruth tick. Carey Mulligan just is. There's not a note of falsity in her performance. She's (in a relatively short time) found a way to perform in a state of being that's immediate, affecting, and remarkably genuine. I'm not suggesting that Phoenix's work isn't strong, only that it's not good enough to transcend the material and fully engross the viewer. You keep noticing the little things that the performer's bringing to the performance, instead of allowing the performance to sink into a larger cohesive experience.
I'm right on the fence here. I can't deny that the film's fairly absorbing for much of its running time, but I found myself waiting for a knockout punch that just never came. The Master provides for an interesting experience that proves ultimately thankless, and that's a really frustrating thing. If you love Paul Thomas Anderson, you'll want to see this for that reason alone, but otherwise? I can't really recommend the film beyond that.

3 stars (out of 5)


With the noble aspirations of a film attempting to tackle a large problem in mind, I respectfully ask you to Google the name "Lisa McPherson."