C’mon C’mon (2021)
Writer/director Mike Mills’ latest is a gentle and meandering movie, which is coming to be his indie specialty for me. C’mon C’mon features Joaquin Phoenix (in his schlubby every-man phase) as an audio journalist collecting interviews. He suddenly finds himself watching his young nephew (Woody Norman) after his sister (Gabby Hoffman) has to tend to her husband’s deteriorating mental illness. What follows is a lot of small moments that play quite naturalistic and in wry, nice dialogue exchanges. It’s also kind of sweetly boring. It’s a collection of moments of Phoenix struggling with how to relate to children, what we pass down to the next generation as legacy, and how to try and be a responsible parent and role model for an impressionable youth. It’s all messages and themes we’ve seen in dozens of other heartwarming parenting movies. The draw is the relationship between Phoenix and Norman, who proves to be a wonderfully natural performer, enough so that the movie often feels more observed than written. Their relationship is sweet but I felt like the movie was too often circling the same points and character differences for far too long. Perhaps others will get more out of this, find more to personally relate to, especially those finding themselves caring for children in unexpected circumstances. C’mon C’mon is reflective and compassionate and also kind of a snoozer.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Gladiator (2000) [Review Re-View]
Originally released May 5, 2000:
Director Ridley Scott has given the world of cinema some of its most unforgettable visual experiences. But can Scott breath new life into a genre whose heyday was when a badly dubbed Steve Reeves oiled his chest and wrestled loincloth-clad extras in the 1950s?
The year is roughly 180 AD and Rome is just finishing up its long-standing assault on anything that moves in the European continent. General Maximus (Russell Crowe) merely wants to retire back to his loving family and get away from the doom and war that has plagued his life. This is made all the more difficult when the ailing Emperor bypasses his treacherous son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and decides to crown Maximus as the Defender of Rome. Because of this Commodus rises to power through bloody circumstances and has Maximus assigned to execution and his family crucified. You’d think crucifixion would be so passé by now. Maximus escapes only to be sold into slavery and bought by a dirt-run gladiator training school. As he advances up the chain and learns the tricks of the primal sport he seeks but vengeance for his fallen family.
Gladiator is an absorbing and sweeping spectacle of carnage and first-rate entertainment. The action is swift and ruthlessly visceral. The first movie in a long time to literally have me poised on the edge of my seat. The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp.
What Gladiator doesn’t sacrifice to the muscle of effects and action is storytelling. Are you listening George Lucas? Gladiator may unleash the beast when the rousing action is loose, but this is coupled with compelling drama and complex characters. Phoenix may at first seem like a snotty brat with an unhealthy eye for his sister (Connie Nielsen), but the further Gladiator continues the more you see in his eyes the troubled youth who just wants the love of his father that was never bestowed to him. Maximus is a devoted family man who regularly kisses clay statues of his family while away, and must ceremoniously dust himself with the earth before any battle.
The acting matches every sword blow and chariot race toe-for-toe. Russell Crowe marks a first-rate staple of heroism. Every calculating glare he exhibits shows the compassion and ferocity of this warrior. He becomes a rare breed – an action hero who can think and actually act. Oliver Reed, in what sadly was his last role, turns in a splendid and charismatic turn as the head of the gladiator school of Fine Arts and Carnage. Mysteriously everyone carries a British accent closer to them then a toga two sizes too small. Even Crowe who is nicknamed “The Spaniard” speaks like he walked out of Masterpiece Theater.
The effects and visuals are a sumptuous feast. The aerial shots of Rome and the Coliseum are simply breath taking. Gladiator rivals American Beauty for the most rose petals used in a movie, except in this one they don’t shoot out of Mena Suvari’s breasts.
Ridley Scott’s track record may be hit or miss but Gladiator is definitely one sorely not to be missed.
Nate’s Grade: A-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
As Russell Crowe famously barked, “Are you not entertained?’ It was hard to argue in 2000 and it still holds true to this day. Gladiator was a big-budget throwback to the swords-and-sandals epics of old Hollywood. It was a box-office hit, made Crowe a star, and won five Academy Awards including Best Picture. My own elderly grandmother loved it so much that she saw it three times in a theater that summer, which was practically unheard of in her later years (she also, inexplicably, loved the 1999 Mummy movie). It was a millennial DVD staple. I can recall everyone on my freshman dorm hall owning it and hearing it on regular rotation. As studio projects were getting bigger with more reliance on CGI, Gladiator felt like a refreshing reminder on how powerful old stories can be with some modern-day polish. Re-watching Gladiator twenty years later, it still resonates thanks to its tried-and-true formula of underdog vengeance.
We all love a good story where we follow a wronged party seek to right those wrongs, plus we all love a good underdog tale, and given the pomp and circumstance of the gladiatorial arena, it’s easy to see how this movie was engineered to be a success from the page. This isn’t a particularly new story. Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus mined the same territory with an even bigger scope, both in politics and in war, and there have been many movies covering the same history around the rise of Commodus, like 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and The Two Gladiators. We’ve seen this kind of story before even in this setting but that doesn’t matter. The familiarity with a story isn’t a hindrance if the filmmakers take their story seriously and make an audience care about its characters. It all comes down to execution. As long as the filmmakers don’t get complacent and take that formula familiarity for granted, old stories can have the same power they had for decades because, deep down, cooked in their structure, they just work.
Gladiator gives us everything we need to know by the conclusion of its first act, introducing us to Maximus, showing his leadership and loyalty, giving us the strained father-son relationship with Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, the expectations of the son of his ascendancy, the regrets of the father and hope for a return to a Republic, the reluctance of Maximus to be more than a general of Rome, and finally after the murder of the old emperor, a decisive choice for Maximus that challenges his morals and responsibility. From there, screenwriters David Franzoni (Amistad), John Logan (The Aviator), and William Nicholson (Les Miserables) put our hero and villain on parallel tracks heading for a collision. Maximus rises through the ranks of gladiators and builds a name for himself, getting called to the major leagues of bloodsport, and Commodus schemes to have his old enemy killed with increasingly dangerous trials in the Coliseum. It’s a natural progression and escalation, which makes the storytelling satisfying as it carries on. Gladiator never had a finished script when they began filming, which has become more common with big budget tentpoles with daunting release dates and rarely does this work out well. However, this is the exception (the screenplay was even nominated for an Oscar). It should be stated that the events of Gladiator pay very little to the actual history but fidelity is not necessary to telling a compelling story (the real-life Commodus rose to power after dear old dad died from plague). Use what you need, I say.
Ridley Scott was on an artistic hot streak during the start of the twenty-first century, directing three movies within one and a half years of release and earning two Oscar nominations. He wanted to veer Gladiator away from anything too cheesy of older swords-and-sandals epics, as reported. This isn’t about homoerotic wrestling with men in unitards (in Jerry Seinfeld voice: not that there’s anything wrong with that) and instead about the grit and superficial glory of Rome. The opening battle in Germania is meant to show Maximus in action but it also shows just how overpowering the Roman Empire was during this time period. They just massacre the remaining German tribe, and there’s a reason we don’t focus on battle strategy and instead on the chaos. The conclusion of the battle is a shaky camera mess of bodies and flames and dark shapes. It’s a bloody mess and not something to be glorified. Maximus is tired. His men are tired. Even Marcus Aurelius is tired of his decade-long conquering of a map, adding little inches to an already gargantuan territory. When is it all enough? When is war a self-perpetuating quagmire?
This same dismissive view over conquest and glory carries throughout. When Maximus becomes a slave, he must play the blood-thirsty appetites of the crowd to reach his goals. He disdains the theater of combat, the delaying of strikes simply to draw out the drama of two men fighting to the death. Later, these same venal interests of the mob form a protection for Maximus. He’s too popular to just be assassinated because the Roman people just love watching how he slays opponents. There’s an implicit condemnation of popular entertainment built around the suffering of others. Scott has a purpose for his depictions of violence, and you could even make the argument he is drawing parallels between the bloodthirsty crowds of the Coliseum and modern-day moviegoers screaming for violence. What are the human costs for this entertainment? It’s not explicitly stated, and some might even say this level of commentary for a movie awash in bloodshed makes any such condemnation hollow or hypocritical. Maybe. The violence feels like it has weight even when it can border on feeling like a video game stage with enemies to clear.
Crowe (The Nice Guys) was already making a name for himself as a rugged character actor in movies like L.A. Confidential and The Insider, but it was Gladiator that made him a Hollywood leading man, a title that he always seems to have felt uncomfortable with. Crowe wasn’t the first choice of Scott and the filmmakers (Mel Gibson turned Maximus down saying he was too old), but it’s hard to imagine another person in the role now. Crowe has a commanding presence in the film, an immediate magnetism, that you understand why men would follow him into hell. That flinty intensity plays into the action movie strengths, but there’s also a reflective side to the man, a sense of humor that can be surprising and rewarding. There’s more to Maximus than avenging his wife and child, and Crowe brings shades of complexity to an instantly iconic role. He finds the tired soul of Maximus when he could have simply been a kickass killing machine. Between Crowe’s three Best Actor nominations in a row from 1999-2001, I think he won for the wrong performance. It’s a shame Crowe hasn’t been nominated since, which seems downright absurd. People have forgotten what an amazing actor Crowe can be, singing voice notwithstanding (I need a sequel to Master and Commander please and thank you).
This was also a breakout role for Joaquin Phoenix (Her), who has risen to become one of the most celebrated and chameleon-like actors of his generation. The character of Commodus is your classic example of an entitled child who doesn’t understand why people don’t like him. He’s a sniveling villain prone to temper tantrums (“I am vexed. I am very vexed”). Much like his co-star, Phoenix finds layers to the character rather than resting on a stock villain characterization. He’s really the jealous son who envies the preference and love given to Maximus, first from his father, then from his widowed sister (Connie Nielsen), and then from the Roman people. He whines that they love Maximus in a way he will never deserve. It’s hard not to even see a Trumpian psychology to Commodus, a man not equipped for the position of power he occupies who longs for adulation he hasn’t earned. You can hate the man, but you might also feel sorry for him despite yourself. When he wants to be pompous, he can be hilarious (I adored his quick reaction shots to the theatrical combat). When he wants to be creepy, he can be terrifying. You can even see some of the broken pieces here that Phoenix would masterfully use to compose his Oscar-winning Joker performance.
The supporting cast was gifted with great old actors getting one last victory lap. Richard Harris was so stately and grandfatherly that it got him the role of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise. It also served as a great sendoff for Oliver Reed (Oliver!) as Proximo, the selfish, trash-talking former gladiator turned gladiator trainer. Reed died months into the production and before he had wrapped his part, requiring extensive reworking from the screenwriters (Logan was on set for much of the production to cater to the immediate day-to-day story needs). Scott used a body double and parlayed visual effects to recreate Reed’s face, much like what 1994’s The Crow was forced to do after the unfortunate death of its star, Brandon Lee. I kept looking for what moments would be Reed and what moments would be the CGI-enabled Reed double, and it was harder to determine than I thought, so nice job visual effects team. Reed had a reputation of being a carousing reprobate, so having a final performance that allowed him to tap into those old impulses plus the regrets of older age was a wonderful final match.
The other big takeaway upon my twenty-year re-watch was how recognizable and stirring Hans Zimmer’s famous score was, which lost the Oscar that year to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and that seems insane to me. Zimmer has been in a class all his own since the 90s with classic, instantly hum-able scores for True Romance, The Lion King, The Dark Knight, Inception, and The Pirates of the Caribbean, which borrows heavily from his theme for Gladiator. The score greatly adds to the excitement and majesty of the movie and can prove transporting by itself.
A truly bizarre post-script is the story of how the studio tried to develop a sequel. Gladiator was hugely successful but any sequel presented problems. Given the death of its star, following another character makes the most sense, and yet that’s not the direction the screenplay took. Eventually, the sequel to Gladiator was going to follow the ghost of Maximus as it travels through time including to modern-day. Just take a moment and dream of what could have been. Alas, we’ll likely never get time-traveling ghost Maximus now and we simply don’t deserve it as a society.
Reviewing my original film critique from 2000, I feel that my 18-year-old self was more entranced with making snappy, pithy blurbs than going into further detail on my analysis. My early reviews were far more declarative, saying something was good or bad and giving some detail but not dwelling on going deeper into the examination. This line, “The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp,” makes me cringe a little because it’s just trying too hard to be casually clever. I do enjoy the Mena Suvari rose petal joke. Still, I celebrated that a studio movie could emphasize its story first and foremost and my observations are still valid. I’m all but certain the only reason I knew who Steve Reeves was back then was because of his many appearances via Mystery Science Theater 3000 covering his cheesy swords-and-sandals films of old that Ridley Scott was so eager to avoid recreating (“Do you like films about gladiators?”)
Because the movie does so much so well, with some exceptional, it’s hard for me to rate Gladiator any lower than my initial grade of an A-, so that’s where I’m keeping it twenty years later. I think the national conversation has cooled on Gladiator, forgotten it because it wasn’t quite as audacious as other examples of early 2000s films, but it sets out to tell a familiar story on a big canvas and deserves its plaudits for somehow pulling it all off with style and gravity. It would be flippant to say Gladiator still slays the competition but it’s still mighty entertaining.
Re-View Grade: A-
There has been a lot of discussion over Joker, a new dark R-rated spinoff unrelated to other comic book movies and directed by the man who gave the world The Hangover films. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips desired to tell a character-driven drama that explored how Batman’s most notorious villain, and perhaps the most widely known villain of all pop culture, became exactly the clown he is. Some people said the Joker didn’t need a back-story, others said that Phillips had no place dabbling into the realm of superhero cinema, and there were plenty of others who expressed unease that the movie might inadvertently serve as an inspiration for disaffected loners looking for encouragement to make others feel their pain and suffering. After all those think pieces and cultural hand-wringing, Joker, as the actual movie, isn’t quite the transgressive experience that others feared and that the movie very much wants you to believe.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a quiet, pathetic man who is being ground down by the forces in his life. He has a unique medical condition that causes him to break out in hysterical laughter when he’s nervous or upset, which only makes others feel nervous and upset. It’s hard for him to keep his job as a for-hire clown and his therapy and medicine are being eliminated thanks to budget cuts. He cares for his elderly mother (Frances Conroy), crushes on an attractive neighbor (Zazie Beetz), and dreams of being a stand-up comic who will one day grace the set of his favorite late-night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur’s life changes from one night of extreme violence and how it shapes his concept of himself and society. He’s tired of feeling bad for who he is and he’s going to realize his true potential on the biggest stage.
There’s something, excuse the modern parlance, quite “edgelord” about the film and its artistic approach. It’s very eager to be dangerous, edgy, disturbing, and there are certainly extended moments where it achieves these goals, notably thanks to Phoenix’s performance. However, I was cognizant of how eager the film was to be gritty, and dark, and different, to the point that it felt like the whole enterprise wasn’t just trying too hard to be different but wanted you to know it was trying. After a while, you just have to shrug and say, “Hey, movie, I get it.” This guy’s life ain’t too hot. The first 45 minutes could probably be condensed in half. The first two acts feel redundant as they establish the many trials and tribulations of this man on the edge of a broken society that has abandoned him. Because of this, Joker can be an entertaining experiment in solo superhero stories but there is a critical absence of depth that keeps the film from going beyond a stellar lead performance. It’s a Martin Scorsese hodgepodge, a cover song for a famous villain.
This is the kind of movie where subtlety is rarely used, which increases the sensation that it’s trying too hard because it seems like it’s saying all of its points with exclamation marks. Even in the opening minutes, while Arthur is applying his clownish makeup, we hear a voice over narration from a TV newscaster who is essentially screaming to the audience all of the important social contexts for the setting (Things are bad! People are mean! The economy is bad! People are getting desperate! What has the world come to?!). There’s a fantasy experience where the characters are just openly explaining their desires. The visual metaphors are pretty simple, like the idea of hiding behind a mask (don’t we all wear masks, man?) and the intimidating set of stairs ascending to Arthur’s apartment that he must climb. So many supporting characters act like mouthpieces for larger collective groups, like a paid therapist who tells Arthur that the people with money don’t care about her or Arthur, the little people caught in the machinery of runaway capitalism, or Thomas Wayne as the callous and cold business elite who seems disdainful about any sort of empathy for others that challenge his responsibility to a larger society. De Niro’s talk show host feels like an amalgamation of a lot of different themes, like daddy issues, the media, but also the representation of ridicule as comedy and mass entertainment. There aren’t so much supporting characters as there are ideas, and in a weird way this could have worked, as if each figure represents some different level of psychosis for Arthur, almost as if it was repeating the 2003 movie Identity and everyone really is a reflection of Arthur’s damaged personality. The inclusion of Beetz (Deadpool 2) is more a plot device meant to humanize Arthur, but the entire premise feels like it’s missing development to make it believable, and ultimately this is the point of her character but it’s a long wait for a reveal for a character that is superfluous at her core. It’s the kind of movie that thinks we need to yet again see the definitive formative act of every Batman movie.
The movie does pick up a momentum when Arthur starts to get set on his way toward becoming the clown prince of crime. When the Joker gets his first taste of violence, in self-defense, the clown vigilante becomes a symbol for a reactionary contingent of Gotham’s lower classes. The groundswell of support provides a welcomed sense of community for a man who has been secluded for his idiosyncrasies, but it’s a celebration of a loss of morality, and so to fully embrace this tide of supporters he must give away the last of vestiges of his soul. This downfall allows for the movie to feel like it’s finally committed to something, where the setups are finally starting to coalesce around a character who is now driving his story rather than being the recipient of misfortune. The violence becomes more shocking and Arthur stops caring about hiding who he really is, and that’s when the movie becomes the full force it had been promising. I was tapping nervously throughout the final thirty minutes because I was anticipating bad things for anybody on screen. Phillips can use this anxious anticipation for unexpected comedy too, like where a character was trapped due to their unique circumstances and whether they too were in mortal peril. I wish Phillips had pulled back because there’s a perfect visual to conclude his movie, that brings the entire self-actualization and loss of morality full circle, and yet the movie gives us another two-minute coda.
Joker certainly feels like Phillips’ version of a Scorsese movie, for better and for worse. If you’re going to imitate anyone, it might as well be one of the greatest living filmmakers whose crime dramas have reshaped the very language of the movies and how we view violent crooks. The go-to response I’ve seen is that Joker is a combination of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I’ll readily agree with the Taxi Driver comparisons. It’s everywhere. We have a disaffected loner who is turning sour on an increasingly hostile and unstable society he views as beyond repair. Even the shot selections, camera movements, and 1970s era set design evoke that influence. The King of Comedy is more a facile comparison, as Arthur is a disturbed man trying his luck at standup comedy, failing, and becoming more unhinged. The real reason reviewers seem to be making this connection is the inclusion of Robert De Niro, and it feels like that is the only reason he’s actually involved, to ping back to King of Comedy. The idea of a stiff actor like De Niro being a glib talk show host, even in the 1970s, seems like a bad fit. The other real film influence I don’t see getting as much recognition is Network. This is a tale of one man tapping into a vent of anger and starting a movement that ripples out beyond them into something uncontrollable.
Phillips is best known for his comedy work but I could feel his leaning to do a straight genre picture. In other reviews, I’ve cited Phillips’ keen eye for noir-flavored visuals (think of the car traveling across the desert as seen through the reflection of sunglasses in The Hangover). He had the chops to tell a straight genre crime thriller, so it’s not surprising that Joker is a slickly made, unsettling, and effective movie when it counts. This is a grimy-looking New York City, I mean Gotham City, where the garbage piles high (another not so subtle visual metaphor) and the city feels like a maze all its own crushing our main character. The cinematography is great with several strong moments that amplify the mood of unrest and distaste. The crafty costumes by Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread) lend to the overall authenticity of the period. The cello-heavy score by Hidur Guonadottir (HBO’s Chernobyl) is very evocative and ominously conveys the turmoil bubbling below the surface in a manner that doesn’t feel like pandering. This is a good-looking production made by talented technicians and Phillips has enough skill to pull it all together, even if that aim is really to recreate a style of another filmmaker and the time and place of his films.
I’ve purposely saved the best for last, and that’s Phoenix as the titular character. He is mesmerizing as a broken man trying to find his place in society and flailing wildly. His uncontrollable cackling is so unsettling that when he broke into laughing fits, I could feel myself getting more and more unnerved. At first it was the awkward sympathy of watching a man struggle to get through his disability, trying to compose himself, and embarrassed for the discomfort he was projecting. The very sound of the cackling trying to be contained, as a friend and co-worker Jason credited, watching the laughter catch in his throat, it had such an immediate, almost physical reaction in me. Later in the movie, I cringed because it made me worry what was going to happen next because I know it’s a precursor to bad feelings. When he’s becoming more comfortable with his impulses and dark thoughts, you notice the cackling starts to ebb away. There’s a small moment that I loved where after he flees from his first murder he runs into a bathroom, and once his breathing calms, it’s almost like his body is commanded by some spiritual serenity as he begins to dance. Phillips allows the scene to breathe and play out, to invite the audience to join. This little motif probably appears a few too many times, but it’s a beautiful little moment of physicality that expresses the chaos becoming harmony within a man. Phoenix lost 50 pounds for the role and his gaunt, haunted frame reminds you how much of a shell of a human being this character feels like. He even tells his therapist that he questioned whether he was even a person or not. Phoenix burrows deep into the character and unleashes a committed intensity that is impressively communicated through his sad, reedy, sing-songy voice, his slippery stances and body language, and the madness that seems to resonate from his bulging eyes. Even when the movie is repeating its steps and tricks, it’s Phoenix that constantly gives back to the audience. It’s a performance certainly worthy of Oscar attention and plaudits, though in my mind it’s still a step or two below the instantly iconic, and Oscar-winning, performance from Heath Ledger.
Joker is a movie and should not be held responsible for the actions of others and what they may read from the film. I don’t sense Phillips and his team condoning their protagonist’s lawless actions, and the violence is often undercut so that it feels more disturbing than triumphant and exhilarating. When Arthur does get his first kill, the audience has likely been silently rooting for him to fight back, to punish the wrongdoers, but the movie draws out the scene in a manner that’s akin to a wounded animal panicking as it scrambles for its life and a cold execution. It’s not meant to be cool. Phoenix’s performance elevates the entire enterprise and will unnerve as much as it ensnares. It’s not a subtle movie at all, and it hugs the works of Scorsese a little too closely, both in tone as well as visual symmetry. It’s trying very hard to be nihilistic, edgy, and provocative (this isn’t your “normal comic book movie” it wants to scream with every frame). Arthur just wanted to make people laugh, the movie tells us, but the joke was on him after all (subtlety). If anyone is inspired from this movie, I hope it’s to seek out other Scorsese movies.
Nate’s Grade: B
First Reformed (2018)/ You Were Never Really Here (2018)
Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here use sly genre subversion to act as commentary on what kinds of movies the audience associates with these kind of haunted men, their arcs, and the nature of violence. Subverting audience expectations is in and of itself not necessarily a better option. You can have unexpected things happen but the narrative that happens after needs to be compelling, and if possible, unavoidable in hindsight (Game of Thrones is good at this). By the same notion, the finale of Breaking Bad was pretty easy to anticipate but that’s because of how well written the storytelling trajectory was pointing to its natural end. I can tell a tense father-son reconciliation story and then if I end it with a meteor wiping out the Earth all of a sudden, well that’s unexpected but that doesn’t make it better storytelling. What helps elevate both movies is that the subversions are thematically related to the relationship between violence and vengeance, absolution and atonement, and the audience and our desires with these films.
In First Reformed, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke, enthralling) is the caretaker of a small upstate New York church where the weekly attendance can be counted on one hand. The church, First Reformed, is nearing the commemoration of its two hundred-fiftieth anniversary that will be celebrated by local dignitaries and the governor. Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, surprisingly adept in drama) is the pastor for the mega church that seems to have everything that First Reformed lacks. Jeffers wants to help out Toller but the humble man of the cloth refuses. Rev. Toller is pushed out of his comfort zone by the husband of a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) who challenges him on man’s stewardship of the environment. The husband worries about bringing a child into this world and contributing the larger problem of climate change. This interaction gets Rev. Toller to think about his own culpability and sets him on a path of righteous justice.
Writer/director Paul Schrader is famous for his stories about violent men confronting the wickedness of the world around them. From Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to Hardcore, Schrader has a penchant for documenting the self-destructive recourse of flawed men who feel removed or constrained by a society they feel is out of step with morality. What better canvas then for Schrader than a middle-aged pastor at a small, reclusive church? Rev. Toller is so humble he doesn’t own more than a few sticks of furniture in his home, the adjoining parsonage to the church. He’s friendly but often choosing to keep to himself, forgoing comforts and perceived handouts from the people around him. A woman his own age keeps trying to connect with him, their romantic coupling in the past a platform for her to continue hoping he’ll come around to her. She’s a perfectly nice woman, a choir headmistress for the mega church down the road, but she reminds Toller of his weakness and maybe even something worse. The aforementioned mega church basically keeps Toller’s small parish afloat as a charity (First Reformed is nicknamed the “gift shop church” for its historical notoriety). Rev. Jeffers is concerned about his fellow man of the cloth and the toll his solitude and seclusion is taking on him. It’s like he’s trying to atone for something, taking on a very Christ-like path of penitence. It’s around here that the character is activated into a higher calling in conflict with the church.
I’ll explain what I was expecting given the premise and presence of Schrader. I was expecting a movie much in keeping with A History of Violence, where a small-town man is thrust back into a past life of violence by outside forces and he has to confront how far this “new him” has come from the sins of “old him.” I was expecting Toller to become more violent and radicalized, pitting others in his cross-hairs for retribution. That’s not really First Reformed at all. First off, it’s the slowest of slow burns. You better be prepared to luxuriate in the day-to-day details of Rev. Toller’s simple life, from unclogging toilets to visiting with parishioners in their homes and having long philosophical conversations with them about faith and man’s role in the ecosystem. That conversation specifically teeters toward ten minutes and serves as the end of Act One, and I think if you’re still invested by then, you’ll be along for the rest of the film. However, it’s not going to be an easily accessible movie. This conversation stirs something deeper inside Toller, dissatisfaction with the church and how it coddles with big business, the chief polluters of God’s kingdom. Toller becomes a late-in-life environmental activist who questions the stewardship of the church body. This sets him on a path that seems destined for bloody violence. He’s going to go out in a fury of righteousness. We’re expecting a big bang by the end, especially given Schrader’s history of these kinds of stories with these kinds of men. But that doesn’t happen.
I’ll try and avoid spoilers but discussion over the thematic relevance of the end of First Reformed will unavoidably suggest to the reader some significant plot developments, so please feel free to read this paragraph or skip to the next one. The second half of the movie is setting you up for a very specific ending, one where Toller strikes back against forces he feels are detrimental to the well being of the church. It’s setting you up for a climactic showdown with powerful forces that feel unaccountable for their actions. I was ready for a final rush of violence to serve as the crescendo to Schrader’s slow burn. This is where the movie swerves away from audience expectations. We’re prepared for a meaningful death but instead Schrader’s ending, in retrospect, makes us question why we should have desired such a violent and vengeful finale. Why should this character be a martyr for our bloodlust against the powerful? Ultimately, Schrader’s movie ends on a romantic, optimistic note of personal salvation after setting you up for a dark story with a predetermined, self-destructive end. The abruptness of the ending may inspire some titters, but when you look back at the film, it makes complete sense and calls into question why we would wish for blood and violence over human connection and forgiveness. Schrader is saying that you wanted the wrong kind of movie.
First Reformed takes the modest aims of its protagonist to heart when it comes to the presentation of its story. Schrader films the entire movie in the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, the square box of old pre-high definition televisions. It’s an aspect ratio that keeps everything centered for the audience and on display. I think there was exactly four camera movements in the entire movie; almost the entirely of the 113 minutes is from a stationary, documentary-styled camera. It’s a very specific visual style that limits the visual information and dynamism but manages to personalize the main character even more. It’s his movie and his journey of self, so the visual representation is also restrained. There’s really one flash of upsetting violence in the whole movie, as if to remind the audience how a violent death is not something to be celebrated. For an R-rated Paul Schrader movie, it’s far more reserved, subtle, and thoughtful. It left me thinking about Rev. Toller and his messianic mission and our desire for a big bloody finish. The idea of a selfless death directed toward violent retribution is inherently self-involved. It’s not death that provides meaning but life, it’s not how we end but what we do with the days beforehand.
You Were Never Really Here is built as a hitman thriller based on Jonathan Ames’ novel. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired gun who specializes in rescuing young women. He’s hired to find the missing adolescent daughter of a senatorial candidate. He investigates the underbelly of sex trafficking to save this little girl, but larger forces are at play and will make Joe suffer gravely for interfering with their wanton exploitation.
The average audience for You Were Never Really Here has been steadily fed a diet of these kinds of movies, from the artful (Luc Besson’s The Professional), to the pulpy (The Long Kiss Goodnight), to any number of hollow, nihilistic video game-styled murder fantasies (Hitman, a thousand straight-to-DVD movies). We’re expecting men of action who are ruthlessly efficient and clever when it comes to their killing. We’re expecting stylish merchants of death who leave behind a heavy body count with swagger. That’s not what brilliant Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) has in mind at all. She takes the iconography of the hitman thriller and turns it into an expectation-smashing existential character study, but not just of its disturbed main character but also for the audience and our relationship to these movies. We expect remorseless killing machines that turn death into splashy and cool tableaus. These movies aren’t so much key on mediation and reflection, beyond the standard “reap what you sow” adage.
Much of the violence is kept off screen or purposely denied to the audience. I’m trying to remember if we even see Joe kill anyone on screen. The infiltration of the sex trafficking organization hops between fixed security angles, edited together in a dissonant manner, where the last shot doesn’t fully line up for a smooth edit, leaving a half second. The effect is one that’s knowingly alienating and challenging. When Joe does unleash his violent skills, it’s rarely given a showcase for entertainment. This is a movie that doesn’t celebrate its violence. There’s a moment where Joe lies on the ground beside a mortally wounded bad guy. They exchange a few cordial words, he procures some vital information, but then Joe stays with the man and the two sing a song together. It sounds bizarre when written out but it’s a moment that really stuck with me. After everything, these two men can find a small sliver of humanity between them to share. Even the final confrontation, the big climactic set piece of any other movie, ends with a shoulder shrug, as if Ramsay is saying to the audience, “Why would seeing all that be cathartic?”
For Ramsay, the focus of the movie is on the man committing the acts of violence rather than how stylish and cool and cinematic those acts of violence can be. This is the one area where I feel a longer running time could have better helped her goal. I think Ramsay might be the best filmmaker we have for triptych narratives. 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is a startling and insightful movie that opens up the guilt of a woman whose son grew up very badly, jumping around time periods, using a repetition of images to provide visual stings and associations. You Were Never Really Here does similar labor, establishing our strong silent protagonist through glimpses of a troubled past, from a childhood with an abusive father and a mother he would have to save, to incidents during military service and police investigations that reminded Joe about the depravity of others, in particular the ability to exploit and dehumanize women as disposable property. Ramsay offers discorded images and brief flashes and asks the audience to put together the pieces to better understand Joe as a man propelled and haunted by his bloody past. However, at a slim 89 minutes, the audience could have used more time and opportunity to better develop and analyze this central character. The pieces are tantalizing but I wanted more, and as a result I found Joe to be an interesting start to a character that was in need of more time and attention to transcend the boundaries of his archetype. I needed a little more from him and his world.
There are several moments that quickly come to my memory, sticking with me because of the level of artistic arrangement or implication. Because Ramsay wants to take the Hollywood hitman revenge thriller and deconstruct it and provoke her audience and its desires for violence, there isn’t much of a plot to this movie. I could literally spoil the whole thing with the following sentence: a man of violence is hired to find a missing girl, finds her, loses her, and finds her again at great personal expense. The movie is more of a poignant and intriguing exercise in our relationship to these kinds of stories. There are moments of beauty in the movie that took my breath away, like when Joe lowers a wrapped body into the depths of a lake, and with the shafts of light, the curls of hair, the small visual details, it felt like watching a living baroque painting. There are also several bizarre moments that stand out, like when Joe fantasizes about blowing his brains out at a diner while the patrons, and the blood-soaked waitress, go about their day. It’s these little flourishes that make the movie stand above other hitman movie deconstruction exercises like George Clooney’s overly solemn The American. It’s not all tragedy and inescapable dread. Amidst Joe’s tortured past and troubled future, there’s a necessary sense of hope. You don’t know what will happen next but you’re not resigned to retrograde nihilism.
Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here are slow burn indie character studies that ask their audience to question the movies they’ve been set up for. Schrader and Ramsay are deft storytellers who pair their visual gifts to the psyches of their damaged, haunted, and self-destructive middle-aged men. Hawke is phenomenal as Rev. Toller and Phoenix is suitably unsettled from a life of confronting predatory violence. Both movies have also stayed with me, though First Reformed I find to be the better developed, better executed, better acted of the two films. It’s enough of a comeback for Schrader, whose last film I remember seeing was the laughably bad Lindsay Lohan “erotic thriller” The Canyons. These are two movies that aren’t exactly the most accessible. Both challenge the audience to analyze the personal relationships with genre storytelling. If you have patience and an open mind, both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here provide thoughtful and methodical examinations on genre, violence, and the visceral appeal of empty bloodshed.
First Reformed: A-
You Were Never Really Here: B
Inherent Vice (2014)
This is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write. It’s not because I’m torn over the film; no, it’s because this review will also serve as my break-up letter. Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA), we’re just moving in two different directions. We met when we were both young and headstrong. I enjoyed your early works Paul, but then somewhere around There Will be Blood, things changed. You didn’t seem like the PTA I had known to love. You became someone else, and your films represented this change, becoming plotless and laborious centerpieces on self-destructive men. Others raved to the heavens over Blood but it left me cold. Maybe I’m missing something, I thought. Maybe the problem is me. Maybe it’s just a phase. Then in 2012 came The Master, a pretentious and ultimately futile exercise anchored by the wrong choice for a main character. When I saw the early advertisements for Inherent Vice I got my hopes up. It looked like a weird and silly throwback, a crime caper that didn’t take itself so seriously. At last, I thought, my PTA has returned to me. After watching Inherent Vice, I can no longer deny the reality I have been ducking. My PTA is gone and he’s not coming back. We’ll always have Boogie Nights, Paul. It will still be one of my favorite films no matter what.
In the drug-fueled world of 1970 Los Angeles, stoner private eye Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by one of his ex-girlfriends, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She’s in a bad place. The man she’s in love with, the wealthy real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is going to be conned. Mickey’s wife, and her boyfriend, is going to commit the guy to a mental hospital ward and take control of his empire. Then Shasta and Mickey go missing. Doc asks around, from his police detective contact named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), to an ex (Reese Witherspoon) who happens to be in the L.A. justice department, to a junkie (Jena Malone) with a fancy set of fake teeth thanks to a coked-out dentist (Martin Short) who may be a front for an Asian heroin cartel. Or maybe not. As more and more strange characters come into orbit, Doc’s life is placed in danger, and all he really wants to find out is whether his dear Shasta is safe or not.
Inherent Vice is a shaggy dog detective tale that is too long, too convoluted, too slow, too mumbly, too confusing, and not nearly funny or engaging enough. If it weren’t for the enduring pain that was The Master, this would qualify as Anderson’s worst picture.
One of my main complaints of Anderson’s last two movies has been the paucity of a strong narrative, especially with the plodding Master. It almost felt like Anderson was, subconsciously or consciously, evening the scales from his plot-heavy early works. Being plotless is not a charge one can levy against Inherent Vice. There is a story here with plenty of subplots and intrigue. The problem is that it’s almost never coherent, as if the audience is lost in the same pot haze as its loopy protagonist. The mystery barely develops before the movie starts heaping subplot upon subplot, each introducing more and more characters, before the audience has a chance to process. It’s difficult to keep all the characters and their relationships straight, and then just when you think you have everything settled, the film provides even more work. The characters just feel like they’re playing out in different movies (some I would prefer to be watching), with the occasional crossover. I literally gave up 45 minutes into the movie and accepted the fact that I’m not going to be able to follow it, so I might as well just watch and cope. This defeatist attitude did not enhance my viewing pleasure. The narrative is too cluttered with side characters and superfluous digressions.
The plot is overstuffed with characters, many of which will only appear for one sequence or even one scene, thus polluting a narrative already crammed to the seams with characters to keep track of. Did all of these characters need to be here and visited in such frequency? Doc makes for a fairly frustrating protagonist. He’s got little personality to him and few opportunities to flesh him out. Not having read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, I cannot say how complex the original character was that Anderson had to work with. Doc just seems like a placeholder for a character, a guy who bumbles about with a microphone, asking others questions and slowly unraveling a convoluted conspiracy. He’s more a figure to open other characters up than a character himself. The obvious comparison to the film and the protagonist is The Big Lebowski, a Coen brothers film I’m not even that fond over. However, with Lebowski, the Coens gave us memorable characters that separated themselves from the pack. The main character had a definite personality even if he was drunk or stoned for most of the film. Except for Short’s wonderfully debased and wily five minutes onscreen, every character just kind of washes in and out of your memory, only registering because of a famous face portraying him or her. Even in the closing minutes, the film is still introducing vital characters. The unnecessary narration by musician Joanna Newsome is also dripping with pretense.
Another key factor that limits coherency is the fact that every damn character mumbles almost entirely through the entirety of the movie. And that entirety, by the way, is almost two and a half hours, a running time too long by at least 30 minutes, especially when Doc’s central mystery of what happened to Shasta is over before the two-hour mark. For whatever reason, it seems that Anderson has given an edict that no actor on set can talk above a certain decibel level or enunciate that clearly. This is a film that almost requires a subtitle feature. There are so many hushed or mumbled conversations, making it even harder to keep up with the convoluted narrative. Anderson’s camerawork can complicate the matter as well. Throughout the film, he’ll position his characters speaking and slowly, always so slowly, zoom in on them, as if we’re eavesdropping. David Fincher did something similar with his sound design on Social Network, amping up the ambient noise to force the audience to tune their ears and pay closer attention. However, he had Aaron Sorkin’s words to work with, which were quite worth our attention. With Inherent Vice, the characters talk in circles, tangents, and limp jokes. After a protracted setup, and listening to one superficially kooky character after another, you come to terms with the fact that while difficult to follow and hear, you’re probably not missing much.
Obviously, Inherent Vice is one detective mystery where the answers matter less than the journey and the various characters that emerge, but I just didn’t care, period. It started too slow, building a hazy atmosphere that just couldn’t sustain this amount of prolonged bloat and an overload of characters. Anderson needed to prune Pynchon’s novel further. What appears onscreen is just too difficult to follow along, and, more importantly, not engaging enough to justify the effort. The characters fall into this nether region between realism and broadly comic, which just makes them sort of unrealistic yet not funny enough. The story rambles and rambles, set to twee narration that feels like Newsome is just reading from the book, like Anderson could just not part with a handful of prose passages in his translation. Much like The Master, I know there will be champions of this movie, but I won’t be able to understand them. This isn’t a zany Chinatown meets Lewboswki. This isn’t some grand throwback to 1970s cinema. This isn’t even much in the way of a comedy, so be forewarned. Inherent Vice is the realization for me that the Paul Thomas Anderson I fell in love with is not coming back. And that’s okay. He’s allowed to peruse other movies just as I’m allowed to see other directors. I wish him well.
Nate’s Grade: C+
It’s been several years for Spike Jonze since he escaped the turmoil around Where the Wild Things Are, an ambitious adaptation that ran afoul with studio execs over the oppressively sad tone (I agreed with the execs). He’s one of the most stylish visual directors working today, but Her is something very different for the man. For starters, it’s a film Jonze wrote himself; no collaboration with Charlie Kaufman this time. It’s also a pared down love story, focusing heavily on two characters and their exciting and emerging union. There are no visual tricks, no gimmicks, no overt special effects, nothing to distract from the central relationship commanding the screen. It’s a different kind of film from Jonze but one that’s just as brilliantly well made as his best. Her is a beguiling winner.
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man struggling to get his life back together. He’s a star at his job where he writes other people’s personal letters for them, but he’s a sensitive soul still refusing to sign the divorce papers from his ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). He doesn’t want to lose that part of his life. After watching an ad, Theodore buys a new computer operating system (OS) that promises to be the most lifelike possible. He pops the software onto his computer and, voila, the voice of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) emerges, chipper, helpful, and compassionate. Theodore is a new man with her assistance, and soon they grow even closer together on a romantic scale. Theodore and Samantha embark on the greta unknown together, but can a relationship work when it’s with a voice in your computer.
It’s been weeks since I first watched Her and I keep thinking back upon it, turning it over in my mind, finding more and more to like about this captivating little movie. It’s a tenderhearted and poignant movie that also manages to have something to say about human connection. And this really is a love story, and an engrossing one at that, despite the fact that it’s man and machine. The romance between Samantha and Theodore is never looked down upon, marginalized, the setup to some punch line about how nerd can’t get dates with real women. You think the film might go there, and then Theodore’s co-workers just shrug when the truth comes out and treat his relationship like any other. I suppose you could make all sorts of analogues, but they are unnecessary because Samantha truly feels like another person. She’s given complexity, curiosity, impulses, and, yes, as voiced by the husky-voiced Johansson, an alluring edge. Because she’s a disembodied voice minus form, theirs is a relationship built upon intellect, conversation, personality, and a burgeoning connection, though they do cover the sex part as well. In fact, the climactic (pardon the pun) vocal exploration is simultaneously awkward, funny, heartfelt, and yes, even a little sexy, and the music crescendos to give it even more oomph. Samantha is learning just as much about herself as Theodore is. Their relationship is opening both of them up to the possibilities they might never have sought. In that respect, Jonze’s film falls under that sweet spell all engaging romances achieve where our spirits are lifted and we swoon along with the onscreen coupling.
I’ve found it tricky to talk about Her at least in describing the premise to other people; comparing Samantha to Siri has helped rather than just referring to her as an “operating system.” One concern I had was that Jonze was just going to deliver the premise in a very expected manner and Her would serve up more of the same. But he doesn’t. While this is a light science fiction film, it is extremely well developed and thought out. Jonze has taken remarkable care to flesh out his story and enrich the not too distant future world. It felt like a world that could reasonably exist. I enjoyed the fact that there were so-called surrogates for hire, people that would serve as the physical embodiments of the OS personalities, providing a different kind of encounter, one meant to converge intimacy with touch. I could see these people existing if this were the future. Even better, Jonze takes great care to develop the central relationship between his lovers, so that every unique complication is given some form of respectful coverage. They discuss the limitations but not just what you would assume. Yes Samantha has no body, but she can also be in many places at once, doing many things at once, and simply will outlive all her carbon-based life form companions. Can they make this last? Even with the technological component, old problems can rear their head, particularly jealousy, like when Samantha begins communicating with other OS personalities. Then there’s Theodore’s lingering divorce with his wife, a woman who can stir up old feelings and doubts. Without giving too much away, the end manages to be hopeful, melancholy, expected, and satisfying.
Jonze also manages to slide in some subtle jabs about the state of communication and connection. There’s an early shot where Theodore is riding a train and everyone on board appears to be talking except that they’re all talking to their OS, each person an isolated unit. Theodore’s job also seems like a perfect social commentary as well as a clever conceit for a man who has unsurpassed skill with words but difficulty with the flesh-and-blood interaction. It works directly with the theme of the film. I also find it humorous, and a bit subversive, that Theodore has long-standing relationships with clients. He’s been writing letters for certain couples for years going all the way back to their first meeting. Think about that, this couple’s communication and courtship rest upon the words of an intermediary paid for his services. These people could go their entire lives thinking their partner is the author of such wonderful, heartfelt, observant words. That’s the dearth of honest communication plaguing human relationships, but it’s not a new problem. We’ve all ducked hard conversations. Many of us would love to have someone come in and do the dirty work while we sit back and reap the rewards. But a relationship built upon deceit or convenience will ultimately fall apart, or, in this new age of technological isolation and greater deception, will it?
Jonze’s direction seems invisible, like we’re dropping in on these characters and peaking on their lives. The overall technical aesthetic of Her is a clean, simplified look and feel for a love story that manages to be new and familiar. The production design has an eye-catching degree of colors, which bathe the film in a consistently dreamy, gauzy aura, echoing the screenplay’s warm heart. The score by the Canadian alternative band Arcade Fire is low-key but just as vulnerable, resonant, and special as the characters in the film. It’s mostly pared down piano trinkles but the reoccurring motifs stick in your head, elevating Jonze’s film. When Samantha takes up composing songs to express her sum total feelings of a moment, capturing a snapshot of a particular time as she refers, it’s nice to have talented musicians able to bring this to life.
Phoneix (The Master) gives such a tender, vulnerable performance that you worry that he’s going to be crushed by life. He has this remarkable way of making you want to hug Theodore, like he’s this sad puppy that just needs a good home. There are moments in the film where just one perfectly executed crinkly-eyed crooked smile tells me everything about this character. Phoenix plays his character as a good-hearted, amiable, and deeply romantic individual, and the sheer strength of his performance will knock you back. Theodore has such great pools of empathy, and a poet’s soul, which allows him to excel at his job but it also makes relationships hard. A relationship takes work, and Theodore may have not been up to the labor, as his ex-wife argues. Personally, I found a lot of striking points of similarity with the character and I think others will as well. Who hasn’t, in a moment of dark-clouded funk, wondered if they’ve reached the apex of their emotional experiences, that everything will somehow be lesser variations? Who hasn’t feared that they somehow tapped out on their ability to love as powerfully as before? As Theodore is picking up the pieces of his life, trying to determine his new sense of self, we’re learning alongside him exactly how Samantha is changing him.
Before this movie, I would have said a Johansson (Don Jon) performance minus her body would be a travesty, but damn if she doesn’t give a performance that is worthy of the Oscar buzz. It’s easy to understand why Theodore falls for Samantha, and you will too. Johansson has never been this winsome and loveable but she’s far more than some idealized Super Girlfriend to be placed precariously on a pedestal. She’s learning too, making choices, some of them bad, and exploring the consequences. The depth of emotion she’s able to convey with a character only heard audibly is impressive. Samantha is a fully formed character that wants to be treated as such, and Johansson give her all the shadings of a living being. She’s inquisitive, funny, curious, but also eerily human in her mannerisms, like when she uses short breaths when feeling awkward even though she has no use for breath, obviously. Johansson is so easily sultry, voice included, but Samantha is not relegated to some high-tech toy, some quirky sexual fantasy. She feels real, which is why their relationship feels genuine and so moving and charming.
Who knew the most affecting love story of 2013 would involve a man and his computer? Her is an insightful, touching, and rewarding movie that hits you on many levels, satisfying all of them. It’s a smart film that explores the various complications of its premise while widening its scope further, it’s heartfelt and humble as it approaches relatable matters of love and loss and feeling adrift, it’s sweetly romantic while at the same time being tethered to reality, finding a perfect balance, and at its core it’s the tale of two people, one human and one mechanical, that find happiness in one another. People will likely pick the movie apart to search for personal messages from Jonze about his own divorce from filmmaker Sofia Coppola in 2003. Maybe that stuff is buried in there, but Jonze has crafted something far more applicable and enjoyable. Her is an openly romantic film that doesn’t shortchange heartache, and it posits that love is love no matter whom it’s directed at. Her is an extraordinary sort of movie and one I plan on revisiting again. Give this unconventional romance a chance and you may be delightfully surprised.
Nate’s Grade: A
The Master (2012)
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson met with great resistance when he was shopping his script around for The Master. It was dubbed the “Scientology movie” and reportedly based upon the controversial religion and its leader, L. Ron Hubbard. It looked like Hollywood was spooked by the prospect of a movie that appeared to take on Scientology. Eventually Anderson got his financing and made the movie he wanted to make. Calling it the “Scientology movie” is misleading. I wish The Master was a Scientology expose because that would be far more interesting than the exasperating film I got, which is one nutty guy who dabbled in a Scientology-like cult. Maybe the resistance Anderson experienced wasn’t an indication of the subject matter. Perhaps it was only an indication that The Master just wasn’t a compelling story, a charge I can agree with wholeheartedly after viewing this disappointing film.
Freddie Quells (Joaquin Phoenix) is struggling to adjust to life after World War II. Fresh out of the Navy, he works as a department store photographer, until his rage and social awkwardness lead to him being fired. He’s drifting about and hops onto a ferry leaving town. Onboard is Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, a man.” Dodd has gathered a revered following. He believes that people can regress to past lives trillions, yes you read that right, of years into the past. Dodd’s own children admit that dear old dad is “making it up as he goes along.” His movement, known as The Cause, has been called a cult by detractors, the will of one man, and the followers don’t take kindly to challenges from the outside. Dodd adopts Freddie as a project. He’s on the verge of completing his second major treatise and Freddie seems to be an inspiration for him. Freddie finds some measure of acceptance within Dodd’s community of followers, but his erratic behavior keeps people on constant edge.
I found The Master to be boring; uncompromisingly boring, hopelessly boring, but worse than all that, pointlessly boring. Was this really a story that needed to be told? I cannot fathom why Anderson chose to tell this story or, in particular, why he chose to tell it through the character of Freddie Quell. A story about a huckster exploiting people with a religion he made up is a fascinating story with or without the Scientology/L. Ron Hubbard connections. That’s a story worthy of being made. Now, instead of this, we have two hours of a guy acting nuts. I would better be able to stomach the Freddie character if I felt like anything of significance was happening to him. He’s a broken man, clearly mentally ill in some capacity, and prone to outbursts that turn violent. Does he change? Does he grow? Does he do anything? Does his life have anything of significance happen to him over the course of 137 minutes? Not really. He’s pretty much the same guy from start to finish; his arc is essentially that he’s crazy at the start, meets Dodd, and then is crazy at the end. We get it, the guy is messed up. He makes a drink out of paint thinner for crying out loud. I didn’t care about him at all. I don’t need to see static scene after static scene of this guy acting out. I wasn’t a There Will Be Blood fan but at least Daniel Plainview was a strong central character with enough dimensions to carry a film. Freddie Quell just isn’t that interesting or entertaining. He’s actually a tiresome character because you get a perfect sense of who he is in just 10 minutes. The rest of the movie just seems to remind you what you already know.
It is a disappointing realization but I feel like the Paul Thomas Anderson I enjoyed is slipping away, as his flashy, propulsive, plot-heavy early work has given way to opaque, reserved, and plotless movies. It’s like I just watched someone with the verve of Martin Scorsese transform into a poetic film somnambulist like Terrence Malick; not a good move. I don’t know what Anderson’s message is or what he was trying to say, and I’m unsure why he decided to use a limited character like Freddy Quells as his prism. It almost feels like Anderson is compensating for his plot-driven films of his early career, like he has to balance the scales in his mind. I shudder where this recompense might take Anderson for his next film. I like to think of myself as an intelligent moviegoer who enjoys being challenged by movies. But that doesn’t mean I’ll accept anything challenging as quality. Case in point: Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialism, which was contemptuous of its audience. I don’t mind doing work but you have to give me a reason. There has to be a reward, either with the narrative or with the characters. I found no rewards with The Master and it’s not because I didn’t “get it,” film snobs, it’s because the movie was too opaque to say anything of substance beyond simplistic observations about the abuse of power and influence.
When I say plotless I don’t mean that we’re simply watching paint dry, though there are stretches of The Master where I would feel that could be a suitable test from Dodd. There are events. There are scenes. There are changing relationships. It’s just that none of this seems to matter, or at least it never feels like it does. There’s no build, no increase in urgency, and The Master just sort of drifts along to the detached rhythms of Freddie. The movie can feel interminable, and you may ask yourself, on a loop, “Is this going anywhere?” There are two scenes that stand out because there are so few that seem to matter. One is shortly after Dodd and Freddie have been arrested. The two men are locked in opposing cells and they explode in venomous anger. It feels like Anderson can finally allow his characters to vent out what they’ve truly been feeling. Another memorable scene, just for weirdness, is when we jump inside Freddie’s head. All the women, young and old, at a social gathering suddenly lose their clothing (think: Choke). It’s one of the best scenes at exploring Freddie’s sexual compulsions, plus it’s just peculiar. I wanted more scenes like this where we try and get inside the man’s mind. The rest of the characters are underwritten, especially Amy Adams (Trouble with the Curve) as Dodd’s wife and fierce protector. This is a movie about two strong-willed men and everybody else gets relegated to minimal supporting positions. I miss the sprawling humanism of Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is very accomplished. The 1950s era setting is lushly recreated, aided by cinematography that seems to present this bygone age in a colorless manner. By this I mean that the world feels muted, repressed, the colors are there but they don’t pop, and I think this look fits the movie marvelously. Anderson shot the film in 70mm, which would offer startling detail to his images. I did not see the film projected this way (as will most) but you could sense the time and effort put into getting the details of his world right. The musical score by Johnny Greenwood is minimalist but effective, with a few key strokes of a guitar to note rising tension.
The true draw of the film is the performances, which are excellent and at least provide a reason for staying awake. This is Phoenix’s first role since his two-year performance stunt documented in I’m Still Here. It feels like his off-putting, confrontational, bizarre antics for that faux documentary were all just training for playing the character of Freddie. The man has sad, droopy eyes, a fixed sneer that denotes his permanent displeasure and cocksure attitude. He speaks in mumbled sentences, he walks with his arms pinned out, donning the posture and behavior of a chicken. It’s at once an odd and striking performance, and Phoenix does his best to make the character worthy of your attention. He gives it his all, but sadly Freddie just doesn’t merit prominence. Hoffman (Moneyball) is equally alluring as the charming huckster who seems to come alive under a spotlight; the man exudes an oily presence, and yet there are a handful of moments where he lashes out, venting the roiling anger that seems to be barely contained at times. Hoffman’s performance is one of willful self-delusion rather than rampant self-destruction, which makes him far more compelling in my opinion. I would have preferred a Lancaster Dodd movie rather than a Freddie Quells movie.
The Master is a confounding, airless, opaque character study that is far from masterful. The faults of the film and its stilted ambitions lay squarely at the feet of its flawed central character, Freddie Quell. The movie adopts Freddie’s demeanor, managing a distant, standoffish, defiant attitude that thumbs its nose at audience demands. Don’t you know entertainment has no place in art, silly filmgoers?
Anderson is still a vastly talented filmmaker but I lament the path his career has taken. I adored the first four movies of Anderson’s career, but now I wonder if I’ll ever get something along the likes of Boogie Nights or even Punch-Drunk Love again. At this point Anderson has earned enough artistic latitude to tell whatever stories he so chooses. This is why my frustration has mounted because I am at a loss to why he feels compelled to tell this story and in this manner. The Master is an artistically stillborn affair. You want to believe there’s more under the surface but I don’t see it. The main ideas and themes are hammered with little variation, the slight plot drifts aimlessly finding no sense of momentum, and the characters are kept at such distance that the film feels clinical, like we’re observing creatures under glass for study. It just so happens that none of these characters warrant the attention. The Master will be praised by a plethora of film critics. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said it renews your faith in American cinema. I had the opposite reaction. The Master made me lose faith, mainly that I’ll ever enjoy a Paul Thomas Anderson film from this point on.
Nate’s Grade: C
I’m Still Here (2010)
Joaquin Phoenix may not be the most stable of actors, but anyone could have successfully guessed that his public meltdown and entry into rap, complete with a scraggly mountain man beard, was a hoax. Phoenix and his brother-in-law Casey Affleck worked out a two-year piece of performance art, with Phoenix completely committing to his egotistical, self-destructive send-up of actors. Affleck directed the exploits, which is another clue that everything is a hoax. Do you think his brother-in-law, and a respected actor, would film Phoenix going overboard, snorting coke, lying with hookers, having an assistant literally defecate on his face, and then try and turn a buck? I’m Still Here is like a Saturday Night Live sketch, or an improv game, that stretches on forever. Whatever points Phoenix and Affleck may have had in mind get utterly lost at a plodding 108 minutes. Phoenix’s Andy Kaufman-esque practical joke is admirable but that doesn’t mean anybody needs to see this ramshackle, artless mess. It all comes across like a self-indulgent jape between friends, a personal project that loses all meaning outside a limited circle of friends.
Nate’s Grade: C
Reservation Road (2007)
What happened here? Director Terry George was coming off of 2004’s stirring Hotel Rwanda, he had A-list talent like Mark Ruffalo, Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connelly and the results end up feeling like a parody of awards-hungry prestige films steeped in grief and set in suburbia. To be fair, the acting is mostly respectable even if the characters start yelling a majority of their lines. The film moves at an absurdly swift pace that doesn’t allow much time for the actors to react reflectively about grief and guilt. The movie is kept afloat by some contrived coincidences, like Ruffalo’s lawyer being hired by Phoenix to find the culprit responsible for the hit and run that killed his son (surprise, it was Ruffalo behind the wheel!). Reservation Road doesn’t dwell too long on the plot setups it crafts and stumbles into a sudden and convenient epiphany by Phoenix. The conclusion is neither satisfying nor emotionally grueling, and the movie just kind of ends abruptly with little resolved, crushed under the weight of failed pretensions. This movie wants to dig deep and say Big Things about the human condition but it’s hard to do when you’re as emotionally inert and dramatically flaccid as Reservation Road. Seriously, what happened here?
Nate’s Grade: C
Walk the Line (2005)
I found this movie enjoyable but full of your standard, by-the-book biopic moments (rise/fall, addiction, famous faces, losing a brother at young age); still the performances were what the film hinged on and they were fantastic, especially with the added pressure of singing in their own voices. Walk the Line was good but didn’t really connect for me, and I think part of that is because the plot revolves around June Carter refusing to “be” with the Man in Black for 10 years. Yes they were each married to other people and their time on stage was like a forbidden courtship all its own, but it’s just not that compelling of a conflict, to me at least.
Nate’s Grade: B
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