Big technique, minor story in underwhelming ‘The Master’
There are some astonishing moments early in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, when something really seems to be going on. As the Navy seaman played by Joaquin Phoenix behaves badly just before and after the end of World War II—cooking and drinking lethal alcohol out of whatever fuel is handy, dry-humping a sand sculpture of a nude woman on the beach, laughing inappropriately at the therapists in the VA hospital—the movie seems to have its own wildly original vitality. Then we begin to notice how threadbare the emperor’s clothes really are.
In broad compositions, story structure, and snatches of incidental music, The Master soon starts to feel a lot like Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Once again, he relies on powerhouse acting—here, Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman—to distract the audience away from the lack of substance or meaning or plot in Anderson’s script. As Phoenix’s lost soul and Hoffman’s cult leader go head-to-head—drinking, raging, psyching each other out, or, most alarming, engaging in queasy-making bromance bear hugs—we start to realize that’s all there is to The Master. It’s a dual character study in search of a story.
Freddy Quell (Phoenix) is a horny, alcoholic screw-up who can’t get a grip after the war. Extinguishing his job as a department store portrait photographer with an unprovoked attack on a customer, then driven out of the produce fields by enraged Filipino migrant workers for cooking bad hooch, he hops aboard a luxury yacht leaving San Francisco Bay. There he falls under the spell of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a patriarchal figure with a facade of serenity who leads his large entourage in a belief system called The Cause.
Where Dodd comes from or what exactly he stands for remain elusive. He dabbles in past-life regression, urges his followers to elevate their species above animals (although Quell doesn’t quite get that part, eager to pummel anyone who begs to differ with Dodd’s message), and goes in for mentally abusive “processing” to break down his followers’ resistance. (“Do you ever think about how inconsequential you are?”) Meanwhile, his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams) coaches them on proactively attacking their attackers, otherwise “we will never dominate the environment the way we should.”
It would help if we ever had a clue what they were talking about or what they want to achieve. But once volatile Quell meets loony-tunes Dodd (who might break out at any moment into “I Want to Get You On a Slow Boat to China” for no reason), that’s it for plot development. Dodd elevates drunken Quell into his inner circle, to the despair of his family, evidently because his ego requires someone as hopeless as Quell to dominate. But despite the danse macabre between the two of them that lasts the rest of the movie, they never seem to connect with nor enlighten each other in any comprehensible way.
Anderson can get inarticulate rage up onscreen. But, like his characters, he doesn’t know what to do with it. Is he commenting on postwar trauma? The psychology of the cult follower (or leader)? Who knows? No one undergoes any kind of personal transformation or gains any insight, and with no narrative drive to prop up the flaccid story, the movie just lies there, twitching.
Moments of apparent dramatic intensity turn out to be fueled by Jonny Greenwood’s jittery, propulsive music, coupled with the built-in suspense of wondering how long Phoenix can maintain the same bent, gnarled stance of pent-up aggression. (Answer: for the entire movie. Phoenix’s bravura performance deserves some kind of endurance award, at least. So do we.)
Anderson has paid attention to physical scope; he shot in 65 mm, using lots of large vistas of deserts, beaches, canyons. He’s adept at long, complex tracking shots, full of perfectly choreographed action. Yet the simplest mechanics of storytelling often elude him, like the improbable moment when an usher brings in a cradle telephone (on what must be the world’s longest cord) into a theater balcony during the movie so a patron can take a call.
Anderson doesn’t seem to care if something makes sense as long as it looks cool, just as he doesn’t care if The Master adds up to anything, so long as it has the appearance of profundity.
★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. A Weinstein Co. release. Rated R. 137 minutes.
'Chicken With Plums' is a luscious, imaginative love story
First there was Persepolis, a gorgeously rendered black-and-white animated film about growing up female in Iran based on the graphic novel memoir by Marjane Satrapi. Now, Satrapi and her filmmaking partner Vincent Paronnaud are back with a splendid sophomore effort, Chicken With Plums.
Awesome visual tone poem 'Samsara' tries too hard for profundity
Starting out as a cinematographer on Koyannisqatsi, the original trippy head movie, Ron Fricke has devoted his career to plotless, dialogue-free visual meditations on Nature and Life. Twenty years ago, he made his feature directing debut with Baraka, an uneven, if at times breathtaking, visual tone poem on who we are and how we live in the world.
Phone-prank cautionary tale ‘Compliance’ loses touch with reality
Is it a tough, but important and timely drama on the “only following orders” mentality, or a gratuitous wallow in abasement and abuse? Audiences at Sundance this year were split over Compliance, the sophomore feature from Craig Zobel; half of them walked out early, the rest stayed to the end and cheered. But the truth of this film’s effectiveness lies somewhere in between these extremes—just as the facts of the case histories on which the story is supposedly based (“INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS” scream the opening credits) no doubt lie somewhat to windward of the way they are presented onscreen.
Man and machine bond in sly, poignant 'Robot & Frank'
From the review trailer, you'd think Robot & Frank was a madcap comedy about an aging ex-jewel thief and his new robotic accomplice in crime. Yes, these elements do figure into the plot, but that's not all there is to the story. Beneath the laughs—and there are plenty of them, thanks to yet another knockout performance from Frank Langella in the central role—this sly debut feature from director Jake Schreier is a surprisingly poignant meditation on age, friendship, family, and the role of memory in defining who we are.
Scripted by Christopher D. Ford, the film revolves around Frank (Langella), a cantankerous old git rambling around his empty nest of a family home in upstate New York, sometime in "the near future." He's long since divorced; his son, Hunter (James Marsden), busy with his own life and family, can only get up to see him once a week, and his globe-trotting daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), is always calling from some exotic locale via Skype (or its futuristic equivalent).
All that breaks up his days are trips to the village library, whose librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) greets him as her "one and only patron," and tries to find him titles he hasn't already read a dozen times from the dwindling supply of non-digitized stock.
Frank has started to forget things; he can never remember his favorite village cafe is long gone, or that his son has been out of Princeton for 15 years. Concerned, Hunter brings him a "health care aid" in the form of a personal robot. About 4 feet tall (it looks like a mini storm trooper made of white metal with an empty black visor for a "face") the robot is programmed to cook healthy meals, and engage Frank in projects that will keep his mind active. Frank is having none of it, of course, but Hunter warns ominously if he doesn't go along with the plan, "you'll wind up in the Memory Center."
Frank hates the food and resents the intrusion into his life, yet finds he doesn't mind having someone to talk to, or at least listen to his own rants. (Robot's patient, if not quite emotional, voice is provided by Peter Sarsgaard.) For his part, Robot reveals that if he fails at his job, he'll have his memory circuits wiped clean and reprogrammed—a fate with which Frank can sympathize all too well. When Frank also discovers that Robot has no automatic moral override when it comes to unethical tasks—like picking locks and stealing—he comes up with a project the two of them can do together.
Frank's targets are the rich and trendy young couples moving in to gentrify the neighborhood—beginning with his beloved library. Director Schreier (ex-keyboardist for indie rockers Francis and the Lights) has fun satirizing the pop culture of tomorrow; the incoming library honchos think books are cool, in a retro-hip kind of way, although they question the previous generation's "quaint relationship to printed media." As actual books disappear from the shelves, Jennifer explains, "It's all about augmented reality now." (Still in an ironic nod to the classics of yore, her robotic boss is called "Mr. Darcy.")
But the underlying story of family relations and friendship are just as quietly compelling. When anti-machine activist Madison comes to stay with her dad for a few days, and de-activates Robot, Frank blurts out in protest, "But he's my friend!" As the law closes in, Frank doesn't have the heart to take Robot's advice and erase his memory circuits to destroy the evidence against himself; he can't bear to lose the connection between them. And there's a lovely little epiphany toward the end that brings the family story full circle.
Langella is as marvelous as ever, which is saying a lot. His Frank is gruff, caustic and funny, yet often eloquent in his unspoken vulnerability. He's not only interesting to spend time with, it's extremely smart of the filmmakers to unfold the story entirely from Frank's not-always-reliable viewpoint, which makes for some very touching and surprising revelations along the way. And stick around for the closing credits, where a montage of real-life robotic droids in action reminds us that the future is just around the corner.
ROBOT & FRANK
★★★ (out of four)
With Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler and Susan Sarandon. Written by Christopher D. Ford. Directed by Jake Schreier. A Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Rated PG-13. 90 minutes.