POSTED ON OCTOBER 10, 2012:
Some Fathers Don't Know Best
Two October surprises at the cinema
I developed a sort of prejudice to Paul Thomas Anderson. It's almost an illogical one, but it lies in his first two films, Hard 8 and Boogie Nights. It's reductive to call them Scorsese homages, but much of his admittedly adept style -- which was garnering profuse acclaim -- seemed liberally borrowed. From the blocking of shots, editing and musical cues or in the case of Boogie Nights, the entire plot structure of Goodfellas, Anderson unabashedly let audiences know he really liked Scorsese. Yet, they are both very good films.
With Magnolia, it's ensemble cast, finely intersecting multiple plotlines and excellent performances (Anderson's best trait is that he is a great director of and for actors) from the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, William Macy, Julianne Moore and an unlikely Tom Cruise -- among a slew of others -- was a departure from that style. I loved it. I felt I had seen the first really "Anderson" film. Then I saw Robert Altman's Short Cuts and realized he just borrowed that structure, too.
Since no one seems to count Punch-Drunk Love -- though, for the record, I liked it and know of no analogous uber-director's film he mined it from -- Anderson's next big splash was There Will Be Blood. Finally, even though the influence of Stanley Kubrick is apparent, Anderson came into his own -- which is why the prejudice was illogical. It's not as though he was making shit films to begin with. I liked or loved all of them. But with There Will Be Blood he crafted an epic, technically superb and amazingly immersive tale that put him right up there with the greats to which he was so often being compared.
The Master continues that Kubrick infused style, though this tale of a PTSD seaman who comes into the life of a guy who is no way L. Ron Hubbard, is probably the artiest, least narratively concerned film Anderson's ever made.
It's 1950, and Joaquin Phoenix portrays (inhabits would be a better word) Freddie Quell, an alcoholic, borderline psychotic, ex-Navy man whose tendencies for carnality, violence and crafting mixed drinks from paint thinner get him booted from various jobs after the end of World War II.
He drunkenly stows away on the yacht of a wealthy industrialist who is hosting the voyage of a self-avowed "writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher" named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his family, from San Francisco to New York. Dodd is marrying off his daughter (Ambyr Childers) and using the extended journey to write a sequel to his self-help best seller, The Cause -- which espouses that everything wrong with people ("aberations") is born into them but that through "processing" they can become their perfect selves, thus changing the course of humanity and all the terrible flaws that tie us to our animal nature.
When Dodd meets Quell, and imbibes his strong potion, he takes Quell on as his protégé and test subject -- which morphs into a bizarre father-son relationship that blurs the line between family and cult.
The biggest problem with The Master -- perhaps the only problem -- is it's unforced, sometimes meandering tone. This isn't a film going for a strong narrative thrust as much as it is a character study of two basically insane men who form a friendship and force change into each other's lives. Is it a critique of Scientology? Sure, but aside from that it's not clear what Anderson is really trying to say outside of the exploration of his characters. You have to give yourself over to them. And while the situations themselves might seem mundane, it's the characters what provide the context for the films minimalist plotting.
Those characters are, fortunately, performed incredibly well by Phoenix and Hoffman, who give two masterful turns as Lancaster Dodd and Frank Quell. If these aren't nomination worthy then nothing is. Phoenix, in particular, disappears into the role of Frank Quell -- elevating him to near Brando status. Hoffman is typically great, but Phoenix is revelatory and explosive.
Their performances and Anderson's directorial confidence are bolstered by the stunning cinematography of Mihai Malaimare (Tetro) and the flawless production design of Jack Fisk, bringing the '50s era look to stunning life. The Master looks amazing and the score by Johnny Greenwood perfectly accentuates the films oddball tone.
Does it totally work? No. Despite a new PTA film being catnip for film geeks all of the superb aspects do not spell perfection. But for those that love to be immersed in incredible character work and taken down unexpected paths The Master provides a dreamlike window into a different time and another world.
The Disneyfied output of Tim Burton has become a total bore over the last few years -- the notable exception being his bloody and faithful adaptation of Sweeney Todd. His penchant for remakes has become the most annoying part. From the awful Planet of the Apes to Alice in Wonderland (a truly terrible film) to Dark Shadows, it seemed as if Burton's once promising vision and charming style were mired in laziness and mediocrity. But worse, he just stopped being fun.
But his latest, Frankenweenie, a feature-length adaptation of his 1984 short film of the same name, is a wonderful return to creepy and emotional form.
Victor (Charlie Tahan) is a young boy with no friends but for his dog Sparky, and he rather likes it that way. Spending his off time crafting stop-motion monster movies in his attic Victor prefers to be alone with his imagination.
His father, worried that the boy might be too solitary, convinces him to go out for baseball though it's really science that peaks the boy's interest.
Sparky meets his maker when he fetches a pop fly ball and is hit by a car. Victor is heartbroken until the lessons of his science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) give him hope when he decides to harness lightning and reanimate his four legged friend. The experiment is a success, but when his competition in the science fair -- particularly his Japanese classmate, Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao) -- learn of Victor's undead best pal their efforts to replicate his work and win the science fair turn out some disastrous results.
Burton seems to have returned full force with Frankenweenie. Working from a script by John August, and in the realm of gorgeous, black-and-white stop-motion animation, Burton infuses real heart and emotion into the story, while satisfyingly filling his world with his staple visual style which oddly doesn't seem as self-referential as it has in the recent past. It's a loving ode to the Hammer horror films of the '50s that he grew up on, but more than that it's a sweet story that feels like Burton at his best.
The amazing stop-motion work bolsters the funny and confident script and Burton directs with confidence that feels right at home. For the first time in a long time Burton has made a movie that feels personal. He even manages to squeeze in his obligatory Christopher Lee cameo.
Frankenweenie is a lovely little October surprise.
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