Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Master

When the director of one of my favourite films of the past twenty years (Magnolia) starts getting rave reviews for his latest film, it is, I hope, understandable that I would develop high expectations and rush out to see it on the first day of its release in Winnipeg. 

As I have stated before, high expectations are always a mistake. If only I had thought to check Roger Ebert’s review of the film (he gave The Master only **+), my expectations might have been more realistic. Instead, after seeing dozens of four-star reviews, I became so convinced I would love The Master that I was telling people I was finally going to see a film which was sure to be in my Top Ten of the year. Alas, that is far from certain.

What The Master does offer is some of the best acting you’ll ever see. Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are phenomenal. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a disturbed man with a taste for serious alcohol who served in the navy during WWII. Five years later (1950), his erratic behaviour and addiction to poison find him hiding on a ship, which is where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) and his wife (Adams) as well as a group of Dodd’s followers.

It is obvious that Dodd is supposed to be L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of that strange religion called Scientology. Dodd (the master) takes a special interest in Freddie and tries, for the rest of the film, to ‘convert’ him. For his part, Freddie becomes a loyal servant who’ll do anything to protect Dodd but is more interested in booze than religion. The odd relationship between Dodd and Freddie becomes the heart of The Master.

Besides the outstanding acting, The Master boasts amazing cinematography as well as excellent writing and direction from Paul Thomas Anderson. Many of the scenes are mesmerizing. Unfortunately, a couple of extended scenes didn’t work for me at all. I got the repeated sense that the film just wasn’t going anywhere with its great characters and dialogue. I found it very hard to sympathize with Freddie and impossible to sympathize with anyone else and this obviously didn’t help. Overall, my lack of emotional engagement was enough to significantly detract from the brilliance of what I was watching.

As a result, I can only give The Master a disappointed ***+. My mug is up, but Top Ten isn’t likely (though this has been a very disappointing year thus far).

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

At least ten people told me I needed to watch The Cabin in the Woods even when they knew I do not like horror films. The last time I watched a critically-acclaimed tongue-in-cheek horror film recommended by friends (Drag Me to Hell), it turned out to be a mistake. But this time Joss Whedon, a master of characterization and dialogue, is one of the writers (joined by director Drew Goddard) so, having missed it at the theatre, I took a chance and watched it as soon as it was released on DVD (Blu-ray, to be precise). 

Let me start by saying that satirizing slasher/zombie horror films by making a slasher/zombie horror film is what I would call precarious undertaking. At one level, I can understand why many people (especially horror fans) believe that The Cabin in the Woods succeeded in its attempt to do this (among its other accomplishments). At another level, however, my intense dislike of slasher/zombie horror films (I can’t think of a sub-genre I like less) prevents me from fully appreciating what this film is doing.

As for the plot, let’s just say it starts with five stereotypical college students (the jock, the brain, the bad girl, the good girl and the nerd) deciding to spend the weekend at a remote cabin in the woods. Warnings that they may be in danger are of course ignored and soon enough some very bad things start to happen. But there is much much more to this horror flick than these formulaic cliches, which it is obviously satirizing. 

For example, the film starts with a dialogue between Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, who are marvellous and very funny as two scientists/technicians overseeing the events taking place in the cabin. This is not usual fare for slasher films and is worth the price of admission by itself, but there were actually many more things to appreciate. The five actors playing the students are effective and well-cast. As expected , the dialogue is intelligent, funny and generally outstanding. In one classic scene, the decision of the group to split up instead of sticking together (they can cover more ground that way?) is particularly effective. But the clever satire goes beyond satirizing horror films (and the film industry in general) by venturing into philosophical questions like the nature of self-sacrifice.

There is no doubt that The Cabin in the Woods is both insightful and entertaining, but for me (the opposite of a horror fan, though keep in mind that I love Alien) it was only slightly better than tolerable, which is not exactly high praise. Setting aside the fact that I was able to predict two major plot twists, which is disappointing, my big problem with the film is the blending of comedy and slaughter. Many people in this film meet a very grisly demise at the hands of monsters of every variety. The last line of one of these people, just before one of the monsters begins to devour him, is meant to be hilarious. It may be a great line and part of me did start to laugh at the irony, but I find it very difficult to laugh while people are killed off. Those who do not share this difficulty will appreciate the film much more than I did (and no doubt laugh throughout). 

I can’t give The Cabin in the Woods more than ***, but my mug is up.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Robot and Frank

Robot and Frank, directed by Jake Schreier, is a quiet comedy-drama which takes place in ‘the near future’. It stars Frank Langella as Frank Weld, an older man who lives by himself in rural New York and has begun to suffer from dementia (e.g. he has trouble remembering his son’s name (Hunter) and the past fifteen years of his son’s life). To save on constant travel, Hunter buys his father a robot which can cook, clean and monitor Frank’s health. At first, Frank is angry and resistant. But then he discovers the robot can be trained to help him make a successful return to his previous career as a burglar. While the robot keeps reminding Frank that it is not human, an unlikely friendship begins to develop.

Robot and Frank is completely unbelievable and the plot is shaky at best. But its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. Langella, perfectly cast, does a great job as Frank, the likable forgetful crook, and gets good support from Susan Sarandon, among others. The film is beautifully shot, it moves at a good pace, it’s intelligent and it deals with the trials of aging in a funny, warmhearted and wise way, asking important questions about the things that give life meaning. Best of all, Robot and Frank has a couple of surprise twists I did not see coming. A delightful satisfying film for those who aren’t looking for action or outrageous comedy.

Robot and Frank gets a very solid ***. My mug is up.

Monday, 10 September 2012


This 2009 film passed me by until I began searching for movies for a film-based course on Southeast Asia. While the course is centred on cinema by Thai, Malaysian and Filipino directors, I also wanted some "outsider" perspectives and Mammoth seemed perfect - a Swedish writer/director (Lukas Moodysson) looks at the interaction between American, Thai and Filipino cultures in our contemporary globalised world. 

And it did not disappoint. This is a powerful, well-acted story of our times. The central theme is the future of our species (and here the mammoth symbolism comes to the fore) given our increasing disability to provide real human connection, especially for our children. Instead of direct family connection we see the alienating results of people desperately trying to connect with their cell phones or else they ended up with substitute connections (nannies, prostitutes, doctors) replacing the touch that families - in spite of their best intentions - are unable to provide. The cultural interaction, while highlighting the very real disparities, also shows that the threat of human disconnection is common across cultures.

Compared frequently to Babel or Crash, many critics accused the movie of heavy-handed guilt manipulating, but this seems a false charge to me. One has to wonder if these critics are protesting too much with their cell phones in hand and their children cared for by others. The depictions are all fair and realistic, and while one incident in particular may have poured it on a little thick, it was certainly plausible. The warning is indeed urgent, but it seems well-presented and realistic. It's not hard to sympathize with all of the main characters who clearly love their children and are trying to be good people. I give it a strong ***1/2 and recommend it to those looking for discussion starters on where society is heading.