The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most talked about and highly praised films of the year, making it very hard to approach without preconceptions. Nevertheless, this was my attempted approach. A tale of two halves – two astonishing performances – from Joaquin Phoenix as psychologically damaged Freddie Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the man who thinks he can fix him, Lancaster Dodd. Anderson loosely based Dodd and his movement, The Cause on the emerging teachings of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology in post WWII America and certain aspects, such as ‘processing’ of patients (which Freddie undergoes) are akin to auditing in Dianetics.
Rather than a straight biographical exercise, The Master is so much more, becoming a portrait of emotional unrest and struggle of power, the narrative of which unravels and sprawls and happily doesn’t provide a neat conclusion. There’s something unreachable about the characters, perhaps because Anderson doesn’t ever suggest that their actions will have the kind of consequences we might expect from a conventional narrative. We see Dodd take Freddie under his wing and the latter’s steadfast loyalty would suggest that his susceptibility might allow him to change, but what kind of change can be expected from such aggressive methods?
The two leads aside, Amy Adams is compelling as Dodd’s wife Peggy: a woman who appears to follow her husband’s lead only to reveal her true power in the final act. Peggy is perhaps the true Master, able to control her ‘base’ urges more convincingly than Dodd, whose outbursts when confronted only show his similarity with Freddie. I can’t say that The Master had the same emotionally confrontational effect on me that Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) or Magnolia (1999) did – despite all three films having in common central, powerhouse, male performances – but its certainly a thought provoking, beautiful, more challenging film than the average. Perhaps a second viewing (in Anderson’s preferred format, 70mm) will enrich my appreciation.
Ahead of the release of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers I caught up with all the enthusiasts of his previous films and watched Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011). The formers’ blue grey palette, naturalistic performances and documentary style camera work make for a fresh and unnerving viewing experience. Centred around a crime family – mother Maggie (Julia Deakin), father Bill (Robert Hill), and son Karl (Robin Hill) and beginning with the release of the latter two from jail, the plot concerns the unravelling of the family’s trust in their network of associates and friends as they suspect each of informing on them to the police. Set mostly in the interior of the family home, much of the black comedy comes from the incongruity of combining British home life with the ‘necessary violence’ enacted to maintain the family’s code of retaliation.
Kill List also uses a family dynamic to contrast domestic banality with psychological torment and horrific cruelty – this time carried out by Jay (Neil Maskell) alongside friend and fellow hit man Gal (Michael Smiley, also in Down Terrace) as they set about a three-kill job. Leaving wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) with their son Sam (Harry Simpson), in their well-furnished home whilst he undertakes the job that will solve their money trouble, Jay and Gal begin to question the nature of the task in hand, resulting in an altogether more dense and unsettling – even scary – trail of murder and revenge. Original music by Jim Williams is uncompromisingly uncomfortable, constantly maintaining the tension of an unexpected threat. This, combined with some deft framing and editing, not to mention brilliant performances make for an impressive viewing experience and a film that lingers after the credits have rolled. I’ve no reason to doubt that Sightseers will live up to its positive acclaim.
On current release is the charming and engaging Silver Linings Playbook directed by David O. Russell, who – it could be argued – has rejuvenated the romantic comedy here in the same way he added edge to the boxing drama with 2011’s The Fighter. Actually Silver Linings Playbook has more in common with the director’s screwball, existential crisis comedy, I Heart Huckabees (2004) as Bradley Cooper plays recently diagnosed bi-polar, Pat, attempting to improve his mental and physical health after a spell in a psychiatric hospital. Agreeing to partner the also troubled Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in a dance contest, in exchange for her help in contacting his estranged wife, Pat shares a determination and single-mindedness much like Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) in Huckabees. The relationship between widowed, raw, Tiffany and initially oblivious Pat, and all their Psychiatric-jargon infused exchanges is similar to that of Tommy’s ‘other’ Albert (Jason Schwartzman), as each must benefit from their interactions: Tiffany wants to break her habit of generosity without reciprocation.
In this way, Silver Linings Playbook is better considered as a compassionate comedy about the human condition, even if this does belie the inevitability of its romantic comedy conventions. Oh, and Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver are brilliant as Pat’s parents.
This week saw my completion of The Apu Trilogy with Satyajit Ray’s The World of Apu (1959). The previous films Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956) concern Apu’s childhood years living in relative poverty (a state that he never really manages to escape) with his family, and following this, his entry into education and discovery of science. It would be foolish to attempt to summarise the myriad moments of excellence in these three films, suffice to say if you like Ozu or Renoir, Ray’s most famous trilogy is essential viewing, demonstrating him as a filmmaker of true humanity and skill.
Foregoing exhaustive reviews of every film seen this week, but sticking to the journal format, a small list of the others – which demonstrate a soft spot for schmaltz – should suffice:
Men in Black 3, Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012
The Mighty Ducks, Stephen Herek, 1992
D2: The Mighty Ducks, Sam Weisman, 1994
WAL·E, Andrew Stanton, 2008