THE MASTER (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity and Language

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Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek, Laura Dern & Christopher Evan Welch

By every conceivable measure, I thought I would love or (at least) like Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER. I’ve had the movie recommended to me by numerous cinephiles. I’ve liked every Anderson film that I’ve seen thus far to some extent (including the strange INHERENT VICE). I also love films that dig at really controversial and touchy topics. THE MASTER had many things going for it, but left me feeling purely apathetic towards it. This film definitely has some fantastic qualities, but enough mediocre ones to leave it as a middle-of-the-road experience for me.

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WWII has ended and veteran Freddie Quell is struggling to adapt to post-war America. In coping with his traumatic wartime experiences, Freddie has become a raging alcoholic with a sex addiction. Moving from one failed job to another, Freddie winds up as a stowaway on the yacht of Lancaster Dodd. Dodd claims to be a philosopher, a nuclear physicist, a writer, a doctor, and a man. He’s leading a new religious movement known as “The Cause” and soon has a fascinated Freddie more than a little interested in helping out this philosophical “genius” with his good work. As The Cause keeps moving forward, Freddie begins to realize that this new religion might be a cult. This shell-shocked veteran turned follower is left with experiencing a lot of conflicting emotions and saddled with some tough decisions to make.

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THE MASTER has stunning cinematography. Anderson brought this story to the screen using 65mm film and that old-school technique is fantastic to see in this new age of mostly digital filmmaking. The musical score accompanying the film is haunting and beautiful. It makes the whole film seem a lot better than it actually is when you slice down to the nitty-gritty of the plot (but more on that in a moment). There are also parallels to Scientology that have already been pointed out by many. These supposed coincidences are impossible not to notice, though Anderson denies that this movie was inspired by that group. Dodd is a stand-in for L. Ron Hubbard and the ludicrous claims of The Cause (mentally time-travelling and curing cancer through sheer will) mirror the same level of insane faux reasoning of Scientology’s beliefs. Aside from specific comparisons to Scientology, THE MASTER has a lot to say about religion in general and not much of it is nice. However, I felt that more time could have been dedicated to this commentary that’s pretty much abandoned by the closing credits.

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Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman deliver fearless performances in their roles as protégé and master. Phoenix convinces you of his ill-tempered former sailor with a whole lot of baggage, while Hoffman is simply amazing as Dodd. They sell these characters as real people, but there’s just not a whole lot of empathy that can be given towards them. As sick as it may sound, I felt like AMERICAN PSYCHO, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and (most recently) NIGHTCRAWLER did a great job of putting you inside the head of a lunatic. You may not have liked them, but you could probably relate to them in some unfathomable, unexplainable way. THE MASTER didn’t compel me in that sense. I really couldn’t care less about either Freddie or Dodd. The performances are great, but the characters are far too distanced from the audience. That may sound like an oxymoron, but that’s exactly how it felt. Amy Adams is rather underused as Dodd’s wife. For the most part, this is a two-person show.

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My biggest problems with THE MASTER are the messy narrative and long-winded running time. Paul Thomas Anderson has stated in recent interviews that he doesn’t care so much about having a plot in his films anymore and only wants to leave long-lasting feelings with the viewer. While that’s apparent in the recent INHERENT VICE (which didn’t make a lick of sense after about 40 minutes), it’s far more obvious in THE MASTER. There are long stretches of this film that didn’t seem to be relying on a story whatsoever, but instead on these characters. That’s not necessarily a bad way of approaching things, but it becomes a problem when the film gets boring. THE MASTER got dull in many spots throughout its running time of over two hours.

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THE MASTER left me with no strong reactions and not much story to hold on to. Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography is filled with unusual and original creations. THE MASTER is definitely unusual and original, but that doesn’t necessarily make it good. I didn’t care for the lack of a working plot and the running time was far too long. The characters felt oddly disconnected, in spite of phenomenal performances. There are definitely people who will adore THE MASTER for a variety of reasons (including the ones that I’ve listed as negatives), but this film just wasn’t for me.

Grade: C

TO DIE FOR (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content, and for Language

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Directed by: Gus Van Sant

Written by: Buck Henry

(based on the novel TO DIE FOR by Joyce Maynard)

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Illeana Douglas, Alison Folland, Dan Hedaya & Wayne Knight

TO DIE FOR, inspired by the insane true story of Pamela Smart, is a weird movie to say the least. Gus Van Sant takes the basis of a wicked crime and manipulative villainess, then adds a mockumentary approach that doesn’t quite mesh well with the story being told. A blending of darkly comedic elements, quirky stylistic choices, and a sinister edge make for an oddball little film that just happens to be inspired by a real-life sociopath. TO DIE FOR is unique, weird, and one-of-a-kind…but also a tonal mess.

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Since her childhood, Suzanne Stone has always wanted to be the center of attention on TV. This goal-oriented, go-getter with delusions of grandeur won’t let anything get in the way of her career…and that includes her bartender husband who just wants to live a simple life as a restaurant owner with Suzanne by his side. Stone’s career as a small town weather girl and media consultant at a high school are not enough as she dreams of being a national news anchor for CNN. This leads her to recruit three teenagers to kill her husband which has unpredictable consequences for everyone involved.

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Gus Van Sant’s mockumentary approach hinders TO DIE FOR’s tension in a lot of ways. We are told upfront through newspaper articles in the opening credits what Suzanne Stone has done and therefore nothing is left to be much of a surprise. The film too often focuses on unneeded “interviews” with the characters in which they talk about a scene and then we see that exact moment play out. It diffuses any ounce of good suspense that could have been built. I can’t help but imagine that TO DIE FOR might have played much better as a traditional narrative, but there’s also a scathing satirical view (about how the media sensationalizes crime and killers) that’s hard to ignore as well. Danny Elfman’s whimsical score works perfectly during key moments, but can also be very distracting. There are fantastic stylistic choices throughout in framing, colors, and a climactic scene that works flawlessly in spite of all the problems surrounding the rest of the film.

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For every negative that can be said about TO DIE FOR, I don’t think anybody can fault Nicole Kidman’s stellar performance as the deluded narcissistic Suzanne Stone. If there’s one reason to watch this movie, it’s definitely Kidman’s portrayal of this sociopath woman with no identifiable moral compass and no problems in hurting other people to get her way. On the opposite end of the spectrum, everyone else in this film feels like they’re from a totally different movie. Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck and Alison Folland all play stereotypical dumb teenagers and that’s about it. Matt Dillon doesn’t do much to sell his nice guy husband, who comes off as an annoying idiot…which is probably not the direction that Van Sant originally hoped for. It helps if the viewer feels sympathy towards the victim in a murder case, even if that person wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. TO DIE FOR is populated by a whole lot of irritating characters with the exception of Kidman’s charismatic psycho-bitch.

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TO DIE FOR left me with a lot of mixed feelings. On one hand, the story here is really interesting. On the other, suspense is compromised multiple times by the mockumentary approach that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense by the end of the film (there are a couple of plot holes). There’s a Danny Elfman score that works in some scenes, but ruins others. Nicole Kidman gives a stellar performance as a well-fleshed out femme fatale, but everyone else feels wooden or clichéd. Overall, TO DIE FOR is a severely mixed bag that’s worth watching once if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

Grade: C+

INHERENT VICE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Drug Use throughout, Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Language and some Violence

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Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

(based on the novel INHERENT VICE by Thomas Pynchon)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Maya Rudolph & Martin Short

Paul Thomas Anderson is known for making unique films, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted him tackling a stoner noir comedy. Yet, INHERENT VICE (nominated for one Golden Globe and two Academy Awards) is currently in theaters. This movie plays out like CHINATOWN by way of BIG LEBOWSKI. Unfortunately, a damn near incoherent script and lengthy running time kill some of the momentum that this hippie mystery had going for it. I can see it gaining a possible cult following, but INHERENT VICE’s big problems weigh it down. At least, the film is a somewhat entertaining mess.

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The 60’s have come to a close and the 70’s are killing the hippie movement. Doc Sportello is a pothead private investigator who receives a mysterious visit from his ex-girlfriend, Shasta. Doc’s ex, now lover to a powerful businessman, informs the hippie detective that there’s a complicated plan at work and she might be in danger. Before you know it, Shasta has disappeared and Doc is on the case. His search begins with three seemingly unrelated disappearances that lead to a huge conspiracy and much craziness. I must attest to not completely understanding everything in the plot at the end of the day, but dare anyone to explain the whole movie to me in a way that makes any plausible sense without having to pull out a notepad and pen in order to map the whole story out. At one point in the film, Doc does exactly that on his wall and I couldn’t help but feel totally lost with him (in a bad way).

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How does INHERENT VICE function as a comedy? It definitely has its fair share of very funny scenes. The best of which have not been given away in the trailer. However, there is also a semi-serious attempt to lace all of these laughs into a mystery that becomes far more irritating than entertaining. For the first hour, I had a pretty good grasp of the plot as the web of lies, murder, and drugs spun faster and faster. However, with a certain plot twist, the movie completely lost me and never regained my interest in the actual story at hand. Part of this might be entirely blamed upon the source material itself as the 2009 has been said to be polarizing. Some call it a hugely entertaining hippie noir, while others see the whole affair as an aimless bore. I’m somewhere in the middle in my opinion of this film. The biggest detriment to the movie is the overlong running time that drags in quite a few places and ends with a shrug.

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Doc is a totally wooden protagonist. Joaquin Phoenix blends right into the role of a hippie who happens to be a private investigator on the side, but there’s nothing much to this character other than him wandering through a variety of random situations (some of which work, while others fall flat). The other characters wind up serving little to no point, including Reese Witherspoon and Benicio Del Toro popping up for about 5 minutes of screen time. Not to mention that Martin Short’s entertaining role is underused. There is one exception to these shallow cartoon characters played by A-listers. That’s in the performance of Josh Brolin. Brolin plays a cop bearing the nickname of Bigfoot. This character is fuelled by an extreme prejudice against hippies, but also remains a friend (of sorts) to Doc. Brolin steals every scene he’s in and received the biggest laughs out of my theater audience (myself included).

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Even though it bores in places and is ultimately underwhelming, INHERENT VICE does have an air of solid filmmaking around it. It’s very well-shot, has great moments and sports a fantastic soundtrack. There’s a sense that what you’re watching might just be a drug-addled hallucination projected onto the theater screen (in a similar way to FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS). There are definitely positive qualities to be said for that effect. I’d almost recommend seeing the film just for the weird, funny atmosphere it brings (as well as Brolin’s scenes).

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INHERENT VICE is a one-of-a-kind movie in its concept and execution, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. There are laughs to be had, but also a running time that limps along. The A-list cast is mostly wasted and Josh Brolin walks away as the best part of the entire movie. I imagine that INHERENT VICE would play a lot better if you were high (not that I’m advocating that at all). As someone who saw the film without drugs, I think it’s just an okay flick.

Grade: C+

THE IMMIGRANT (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: R for Sexual Content, Nudity and some Language

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Directed by: James Gray

Written by: Ric Menello & James Gray

Starring: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Yelena Solovey & Dagmara Dominiczyk

It’s surprising that THE IMMIGRANT (which played Cannes last year and lost the highly coveted Palme d’Or to BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR) wasn’t labeled an Oscar contender last year (due to the asinine decision to delay the film until Summer 2014). Part of the blame for this move should be squarely placed on the shoulders of the Weinstein Company, having earned a dire reputation for constantly giving their filmmakers and films a raw deal (e.g. SNOWPIERCER). The rest can be leveled at director/co-writer James Gray himself. While there are areas that radiate with excellent filmmaking, THE IMMIGRANT has some noticeable problems that detracted from my overall appreciation of the movie. The story being told and the classy way that Gray sticks to telling it hearkens back to an era of filmmaking that isn’t seen too often in these modern times. This movie would have been right at home during the 1950’s and that’s both benefits and detracts from the quality.

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The time is 1921 and the place is Ellis Island. Ewa and her sister, Magda, have arrived from Poland only to face complications of legally getting into America. Magda is suffering from a bad illness and being kept in the Ellis Island infirmary, while Ewa is “lucky” enough to befriend a seemingly kind man named Bruno. Bruno is a pimp on the lookout for fresh young “talent” and sends Ewa into a downward spiral of prostitution that makes her existence a living hell. After meeting Emil, a talented street magician, it appears that Ewa may have found a glimmer of hope that makes life worth living after all. Thus enters a battle of wills between Emil and Bruno, of which Ewa hopes to come out unscathed with Emil.

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THE IMMIGRANT boasts some impressive cinematography and great performances. Marion Cotillard is arresting and sucks the audience into the character of Ewa. I felt for this poor young woman wanting a small slice of the American dream, but falling victim to a cruel world and unforgiving society. Jeremy Renner is Emil (a.k.a. Owen the Magician) and while he’s good, it felt like his character didn’t have a whole lot of screen time. He served the purpose as a love interest for Ewa and was clearly giving it his all, but the character wasn’t developed enough for his performance to be called outstanding. Finally, there’s Joaquin Phoenix (an actor impossible to typecast). As Bruno, I absolutely hated Phoenix from his first appearance. It’s not that his performance is bad, but rather so good that I found him to be a despicable excuse for a human being. There are moments that do flesh him out into far more than just a cardboard villain and I reveled that the role of Bruno was actually a character, not a mere moustache-twirling caricature.

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For a movie revolving around a Polish woman forced into a life of prostitution, everything is very restrained here. There’s not a whole lot of sexual content thrown up on the screen and the viewer is shown just enough to know the true misery that Ewa is going through. Again, director James Gray takes a classy approach to a dark subject. All of the set design and costumes whisk the viewer back into the 1920’s. The film is very accomplished as a period piece. The nagging thing is that some plot elements were done in an excellent fashion and others either seemed to be rushed or unnecessary. It almost seemed as if Gray and co-writer Rick Menello didn’t know which angles to follow and which ones to disregard, so every possible direction was thrown onto the screen and the film sadly suffers for that.

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While the dishonest relationship formed between Ewa (Cotillard) and Bruno (Phoenix) felt genuine, the introduction of Emil (Renner) needed some more time thrown in to be believable. The same can be said about Ewa’s rivalry with a jealous Polish whore. The angle of Ewa’s Catholic faith giving her strength also felt a tad unneeded. It’s not because the movie takes a faith-based preachy high ground (in fact, it’s quite the opposite), but this was another ingredient thrown into the story that felt rushed. Even with these pacing issues and unneeded story threads, the film does far more things right than it gets wrong. The haunting final shot packs such an artistic symbolism (not subtle in the slightest) that sends the movie out on a very satisfying note.

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THE IMMIGRANT doesn’t necessarily re-invent the wheel. The plot elements are familiar and this time period has been captured in film before, but the movie succeeds as a sophisticated story told in a lavishly constructed atmosphere. The performances from everyone range from good to fantastic, some suffering from underwritten characters. The script could have used some final touches that either expanded certain plot points or cut them out completely. With these flaws taken into consideration, THE IMMIGRANT still stands as a powerful movie. It also winds up being very good, when it could have been great.

Grade: B

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