Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

Varying degrees of spoilerage

The horror genre in film has proven to be remarkably malleable during its existence. While earlier entries were dead serious (or at least intended to be), later films began to become spoofy, referential, and even self-referential. Some were designed specifically to parody the exploits of monsters and vampires and their shadowy confines, to elicit knowing giggles. Others tried to have it both ways, simultaneously tickling and scaring the audience. I can reference back to the age of Abbott and Costello, following with many silly Mad Magazine type parodies.

In the early 80s, films taking aim at the ever popular slashers were opening every few months (SATURDAY THE 14th et al.). AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, released in 1981, was one of the first truly successfully horror films that infused a wicked sense of humor. John Landis' film also worked in many clever references to terror forefathers like Lon Chaney and the sorts of films in which he appeared. It all worked - compelling narrative, groundbreaking effects, fun references, a cheeky yet forboding attitude.

This year's THE CABIN IN THE WOODS tries very hard to succeed in that vein. You might note that I haven't referenced Wes Craven's SCREAM and its sequels. I do consider the first few entries in that franchise to cleverly satirize the horror genre (and its fans), while being fairly eerie movies in their own right. It would seem inevitable that CABIN would be best compared with SCREAM, but I disagree. Craven's films were fixated on a very specific type of horror - the slasher, the slice and dice. CABIN takes on seemingly everything writers Drew Goddard (also director) and Joss Whedon (who produced) could imagine: zombie flicks, torture porn (HOSTEL and SAW films). And yes, all the monster and vampire movies. It feels closer to the spirit of AMERICAN WEREWOLF, but is ultimately more like a prepubescent boy's imagination gone unchecked.

The scenario is classic: a quintet of undergraduates, each fitting neatly into an assigned label: jock, whore, stoner, nice guy, and innocent, head to the mountains for a weekend in a cousin's ancient cabin for some old school R and R. There isn't a cell phone tower within miles! On the way, they meet the predictably ominous gas station attendant who tries (none too hard) to warn them of forthcoming peril. He's plenty ornery and spits on the ground a few times.

The cabin turns out, yeah man, to be way cool and all, but what's up with that 2-way mirror in between bedrooms? Upon discovering this, nice guy Holden (Jesse Williams) prevents Dana, the "virgin" (Kristen Connolly) from removing her top in the next room before a drop of drool escapes his lips. Later, the group discovers a basement filled with lots of weird artifacts and a book with verses written in Latin that has a grisly back story. Dana is encouraged to read the words aloud. Is it a coincidence that zombies suddenly appear outside? Of course not, but the reasons are not why you would think, especially if you've watched EVIL DEAD one hundred times. If you have not seen CABIN IN THE WOODS, I suggest you stop reading this review now.

The entire scenario, it turns out, is being engineered by 2 technician pencil necks (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, in some inspired casting) who pull switches to manipulate every action in and around the cabin.  Their boss is some important figure "upstairs". The pair make wisecracks, express boredom, and collect money from an army of co-workers who pool to see how and when each kid gets it. The entire thing is scripted, and to ensure things go as planned, drugs are pumped through the vents of the cabin and even outside, mainly to impair judgment but also to increase libido. If you've seen 1 or 2 slashers, you know what happens to horny teens. But what if the stoner, Marty (Fran Kranz), is already so high he is immune to the drugs? What will happen if all (or at least most) of the kids don't die?

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS gradually reveals, especially in its eventful third act, why an organization would perpetuate such a cruel game and also why the hell this too-clever-by-half film exists in the first place. It is not just another crappy latter day horror flick that looks bad (and I must say that the cinematography here is as poor as in any number of contemporary thrillers). I will not reveal exactly what occurs, or the final moments with its hasty explanations and bizarre (but ultimately lame) conclusion. But Goddard and Whedon, who have a lot on their minds, reveal, I suppose, that they are essentially geniuses, albeit with a 13 year old's disorganization of thought and over-the-top enthusiasm. But to get an idea, consider this quote from Goddard:
"The horror movie is merely the jumping off point for the inherent questions about humanity that the genre suggests. Why, as a people, do we feel the need to marginalize, objectify, and destroy youth? And this is not specific to the genre, or movies in general, or our present day culture. We've been doing this to youth since we first began as a people and this question-the question of why-is very much at the heart of CABIN."
While I can see (and am intrigued) why the men pose such interesting questions, their movie again merely plays like that young boy imagination gone out of bounds. Kitchen sink? That scratches the surface. The latter part of this film, while crazily entertaining and impressive, goes a bit astray of the filmmakers' intentions, calling attention to itself, then concluding with ideas that breathless schoolkids would frantically scribble in short stories to impress their like-minded friends. Frustrating mess, this movie, but worth seeing nonetheless. It does manage a genuine scare or 2, as is not as silly as other horror spoofs, but still a bit immature, methinks.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


In the mid-80s, Baltimore's own John Waters did something most unexpected: he directed a PG-rated musical called HAIRSPRAY. Those familiar with his underground films like PINK FLAMINGOS and FEMALE TROUBLE (to say nothing of EAT YOUR MAKEUP) must've had quite a chuckle. His new film did not feature grossly overweight transvestites or actors eating dog excrement. Instead came a satiric but gentle poke at early 60s America, a transitory time as the straight-laced, lily white culture of the 1950s was giving way to civil rights marches and school integration.

1990's CRY-BABY backs up a bit, to the mid-50s, but casts a similiarly squinted eye toward the zeitgeist, though this time our protagonists include rough, other-side-of-the-tracks type called "Drapes" in addition to the patently clean cut "squares". Caught between them is a "good girl" named Allison (Amy Locane) who falls in love with Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker (Johnny Depp). In the earliest scenes she sighs with boredom over her privileged life and cardboard boyfriend, Baldwin (Stephen Mailer). Next thing she knows, she's onstage at a local hangout singing onstage with Cry-Baby and his wild friends and family. But the "squares" show up and cause a ruckus. Cry-Baby ends up in the slammer.

Along the way, there are lots of songs. CRY-BABY is a snarky, yet affectionate spoof of '50s low budget teen musicals. If you've lain awake nights hoping to hear Mr. Depp sing, look no further. He brings a whole lotta energy and heart to it. Not to mention confidence. Contrast this with Matt Damon's hesitant jazz vocal in THE TALENTED MISTER RIPLEY, or anyone's solo in Woody Allen's EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU.

Nearly everyone in CRY-BABY's eclectic cast gets to croon. In typical Waters fashion, that cast includes former glam boy Iggy Pop, former porn sensation Traci Lords, and former SLA member Patricia Hearst, who has the film's funniest moment during a courtroom scene. Waters' stock company players like Ricki Lake and Troy Donahue and Mink Stole (the latter two who play the parents of one of the Drapes, a tough chick called "Hatchet Face") are also present. The songs are appropriately goofy, over-the-top paeans to teen love, meant to evoke all those silly American International pics. Maybe even GREASE.

Goofy and over-the-top is an accurate way to describe CRY-BABY. Right down to a climatic game of "chicken", no teen musical staple is avoided. And Waters loves to revel in the seedy lifestyles of the Drapes. My favorite such moment is Cry-Baby's grandparents' (Pop and Susan Tyrell) unveiling of a custom-made crib for their next future grandkid. Next, we see the spotless world of the squares, staging a talent show filled with vanilla Pat Boone-like tunes. It's hard to tell if Waters is leveling the same scope at each social group, though I suspect he had equal fun lampooning the cluttered Drape landscape along with that of the spotless squares. And I think it's clear with which group he'd more identify.

Monday, October 22, 2012



Writer/director David Cronenberg's SHIVERS (1975) is simultaneously one of the most unsettling and hilarious movies I've seen. I laughed out loud many times, moreso than during aggressively marketed and branded comedies like THE HANGOVER. The laughs were sometimes deliberate on the part of the filmmakers, many other times not. I also laughed, I believe, as a defense mechanism to the unfolding dread, the highly uncomfortable (and even more scarily observant) scenario. Like when people are frightened or faced with something highly unpleasant. While it's easy to poke fun at what at first glance is a cheesy, amateurishly acted, ultra low-budget, 70s-to-the-hilt gross out, the subtext for many would be plently disturbing.

On an island off Montreal is a luxury high rise with all the ammenities a Yuppie could indulge. In the effective opening credit sequence, we're presented a slide show of the interiors and exteriors of the Starlite Island complex, its condos gleaming with modern accoutrements and its swimming pools Olympic sized. A narrator informs us that residents also have their own retail shops and deli. There's also a medical clinic with a doctor who'll make house calls as late as 9 or 10 P.M. The early scenes show prospective residents, a young couple being interviewed by our narrator, discussing floorplans.

But meanwhile, just a few rooms over, an elderly man is wrestling with a schoolgirl, eventally stripping her of her blouse and pouring acid on and cutting into her abdomen before slitting his own throat. Familiar Cronenberg territory, or as one critic stated about SHIVERS, "sets the disgusting pattern for most of his subsequent pictures."

It is explained later that the killer was an esteemed university physician who had been experimenting with man-made parasites to aid with organ transplants. His creations, however, once mainfested, cause sexual disinhibition in its hosts, perhaps a result of the doctor's thesis that man has become too much of a thinking being, ignoring and suppressing primal urges. This fits in well with Cronenberg's repeated themes of physical evolution and fleshly metamorpheses. Remember James Woods' final line in VIDEODROME?

The parasites are red, appropriately phallic looking slugs that manage to travel throughout the Starlite, infecting almost everyone, spread through any sort of contact, not just sexual. One infamous scene shows a parasite climbing through the drain of a tub and entering a bather's er, orifice. Other times the little troublemakers are transmitted through kisses. This is relevant as every victim suddenly becomes uncontrollably aroused. This essentially being an exploitation movie, the opportunities abound.

And the director spares us very little with his "attack scenes". Boundary pushing? Good taste? Consider the scene where a man (squeezing what looks like a jelly donut through his fingers) attacks a woman and her very young daughter in an elevator. Or two children on a leash, barking like dogs. Or the finale, a man overtaken in the Starlite pool by armies of naked condo dwellers. SHIVERS is an extravanganza of sex and gore, enough so that the Canadian Board refused to assist Cronenberg with funding for his next few films. In an interview, the director reported that after an article ("You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is, You Paid For It") damning SHIVERS was published in a national magazine, he was kicked out of his Tornoto apartment due to "decency rules"!

But I have to be fair. SHIVERS is not just cheap smarm. The elements of sex and violence are explored, to my eyes, not for titillation but for clinical analysis. Most intriguingly, as to their similarities. Cronenberg is almost downright medical with his films, adopting a scientist's objective approach to physiologic/psychologic decay. While some of the characters do expire, most are merely transformed. Evolving. Some might say regressing. Others might agree with the doctor who created the parasites, observing a return to the primal, what makes humans, animals.

You might also say, irrational, but there can be an argument there. The "victims" in SHIVERS (also known as THEY CAME FROM WITHIN) may not be mere lower brainstem zombies mindlessly eating flesh, but rather more cunning in their efforts to recruit others to join them. As the mob grows, we may be reminded of George Romero films, as each of the newly infected salivates and extends arms toward new "recruits". Cronenberg may be arguing that the doc was right, that, speaking microcosmically, the Starlite resident were mindless, repressed consumer zombies before they were infected, and now they are liberated. Your milage may vary on that point.

I read an interesting take - that SHIVERS is a parable for the invasion of American mores and values on Canadians, something the director denies. There is no denying that this film will get you thinking, if you're not too busy covering your eyes, being outraged, or laughing.....

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Driver's Ed

A clip from David Lynch's 1997 LOST HIGHWAY.  A perfect demonstration of why one should not tailgate. This clip should be shown to anyone applying for a driver's license.

Warning: Absolutely Not Safe For Workplace!

Sunday, October 14, 2012


There are times when nothing besides some vintage film noir will do. Such a seductive environment: shadowy black and white world of fedoras and drifting cigarette smoke, flask clutching. Of world weary detectives and the "dames" who keep everyone guessing. For me, it doesn't matter if the film is a classic like THE BIG SLEEP or any number of Boston Blackie programmers or even grade Z cheapies. The dreary world itself is just so oddly appealing, regardless if the patented fast talk is Oscar worthy or mere screenwriter dreck or if the editing is sloppy.

1944's LAURA is quintessential noir, surely one of the best of the genre and arguably one of the best films of its era. Otto Preminger went on to direct many great films like ANATOMY OF A MURDER, but I think this one is my favorite. And he almost didn't direct LAURA, signed on originally as only producer but inheriting the project after multiple screenplay revisions, studio drama, and the firing of director Rouben Mamoulian. His instincts for the script and casting were subject to much studio interefernce. Studio head Darryl Zanuck was displeased with Preminger's original conclusion to the film and forced a reshoot, in the "it's only a dream" mold. When Walter Winchell expressed bewilderment with it after a screening, Zanuck conceded and the original ending was used. Thank heavens.

LAURA begins with the curt narration of columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), his discussion of the recent murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a woman with whom he grew very close. Clearly, he was in love with her. But was it a more paternal or fraternal love? Waldo seems awfully fey. His hilarious, blunt barbs against pretty much everyone else provide endless future quoting opportunities or even Facebook statii, lest one wants to come off as a (articulate and darkly witty) crumudgeon.

In flashback we see that Laura was not always the strong willed ad exec. When she first approaches Lydecker at his daily luch at the Algonquin Hotel, he tries to brush her off. But soon he is mentoring and grooming her to move deftly through high society. Her beauty and sophistication attract a parade of suitors who are summarily rebuffed by Lydecker through his considerable contacts and influence. He's a jealous one. The pair have regularly scheduled dates and behave like staid long-marrieds.

Complicating things is Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a smooth but dense playboy who becomes her fiance, much to the chagrin of Laura's aunt Ann (Judith Treadwell) who desires him enough to try to buy his love. As detective McPherson (Dana Andrews) questions everyone he begins to become smitten with the deceased, an obsession not unnoticed by Lydecker. Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt's screenplay gets typically serpentine before the final fade out. The central twist involves the corpse itself.

But LAURA never gets convoluted. This is a foremost a character driven story wrapped in a somewhat clever whodunnit. Plot developments are designed to allow each character to reveal themselves through crackling dialogue, not simply to call attention to themselves. I've sat through many complicated mysteries that were pleased with their own twists, soulless exercises in contrivance. Who cares if there's a triple cross if the characters aren't well defined or even the slightest bit interesting? Watch the Laurence Fishburne/Ellen Barkin drama BAD COMPANY for a perfect example of how not to do it. In contrast, the great noirs made the heroes, heroines, and rapscallions alike fascinating, and sometimes filled with delicious contradictions.

And it's just so soothing to be drawn into that netherworld, a world LAURA so easily inhabits.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman's first film in thirteen years, 2011's DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, strangely plays both like a Whit Stillman film and someone's idea of one. An homage to? Yes. A parody of? At times.  A long creative layoff can be a dangerous thing. The artist behind METROPOLITAN, BARCELONA, and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO has indeed fashioned another film that could not have been made by anyone else, especially in this post-postmodern era. Does DAMSELS earn a place among those earlier classics?

Yes and no. Within seconds of the opening, there was little mistaking where I was, back in that wonderful landscape of articulate, sophisticated, and self-aware dialogue that is unmistakably Stillman. The story is set in the present, more or less, and the attitude is an odd mix of New Republic, New Yorker, and National Review, with perhaps some Voltaire and Wodehouse-like observations interwoven.

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS's title refers to a small group of attractive female undergraduates at a vaguely Ivy League campus called Seven Oaks, somewhere in the Northeastern United States.  Violet (Greta Gerwig) leads the young ladies with an organizer's upbeat spirit leavened with blithely biting commentary. Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) speaks with a British accent, suggesting West Indies heritage perhaps, but insists she's from London.   Heather (Carrie Maclemore) is a very svelte, flirtatous coed whose voice is maybe a half octave off Valley Girl. Into their circle comes Lily (Analeigh Titon), waify and introverted who is quickly adopted by the girls as they fear for her survival on campus. Of course, they only have the best of intentions.

Violet et al. volunteer at a campus suicide prevention center. They offer donuts and consolation to students who've lost their will. The damsels' efforts at treatment are dubious.  In lieu of proper counseling, for example, dance therapy is offered.  This may have something to do with Violet's life goal of creating a new dance craze.

Instead of Greek, Seven Oaks features a Roman fraternity system populated with oafish boys who of course, enjoy getting drunk and throwing up, but also seem to have deficiencies of the most basic of intuitive skills. One running gag includes a frat boy who cannot distinguish colors.  Not for medical reasons, but because his parents, in their rush to groom an upwardly mobile scholar, had him skip kindergarten. Each of the Du fraternity are presented as hilariously inarticulate dolts, allowing the director to stage some of the broadest humor yet seen in his films. I never expected a Stillman movie to evoke memories of ANIMAL HOUSE.

Violet likes the Du boys. She finds them endearing. Sad, of course, but worthy of her time as she seeks to "help" them. She even dates one. Her words very thinly veil a superiority, a snobbishness inherent to a would-be debutante. Part of the satire in DAMSELS is that she and the other lead characters are not really Ivy League material, intellectually or in pedigree.  Violet is a swift pretender, a self-deluded lass with perfect grammar who seeks to be the heir to say, Emma Woodhouse in a Jane Austen novel, but fails significantly in her matchmaking.  A round robin of boyfriends will trade partners with each of the Damsels, almost like that in a Woody Allen film. There are also musical numbers.

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is an enjoyable trifle. It has the expected Stillman charms: the dialogue, the fashions, the conservative wit. The subject of the film is so ripe for ribbing and Stillman provides many choice pokes at this culture. This is especially true of the over educated whose analysis of every last iota of their lives perhaps prevents their fulfillment. I guess one could prod for a deeper analysis, but one could also enjoy this movie as if it were simply a lost 1930s' treasure ala THAT'S MY BOY or a Marx Brothers.  DAMSELS could fairly easily could be mistaken for one. Minus the color photography of course.

But unlike the earlier films, DAMSELS also plays like Stillman-lite, if that isn't redundant. METROPOLITAN's gentle but potent social satire deservedly put the director on the map, while the later films eruditely examined relational dynamics amidst anti-American sentiment and even the disco era. Each of those films were awash in Stillman's "been there" point of view and piquant prose. Here, the character of Violet is emblematic of past work. Greta Gerwig's performance perfectly captures the essence of a Stillman heroine. And like that of Violet, his films have a "velvet brick" quality: sharp, keenly observant jabs wrapped in the most elegant of packages.

But DAMSELS doesn't achieve the lofty sophistication of the earlier films. As refreshingly different and (sometimes) smart as it is, most often it feels like a film student's thesis on the director. Or a wannabe indie up and comer trying to ape an inimitable style.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Pharmacy Years: Mom and Pop Retail, Part 2

I had dealt with the death of a co-worker before. During the institutional stint, a young lady with whom I filled prescriptions orders passed away rather suddenly, a culmination of factors related to a blood disorder. I had worked with her for about a year. I still remember how everything stopped for her when Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" piped through the office. It was as if the sirens were calling to Ulysses. *Tanya's death was a shock, a sobering reminder of mortality, but as before, in the face of such a tragedy, the machine chugged on. Her name, when mentioned later, was followed by a few long faces and a sad tone of a recollection, but soon enough, someone's smutty joke cut through the gloom and it was business as usual.

The second year I worked in "seizureville", my clerk, *Franny, did not return to work after being admitted to an E.R. late one night. It had been an eventful week; a tropical storm had made a mess of the store, the drop ceiling reduced to paste atop much of the merchandise. The day of Franny's death, she and I handled crisis after crisis as worried seniors tried to get refills and manage aisles amidst an unsafe environment. It was a tiring day. We all walked out worse for wear. Little did Franny realize it would be the final time. I did not believe *Frederick, my boss, when he relayed the news the next morning. I was stunned to the point of catatonia. I literally could not move.

Maybe you've experienced it - having just been with someone and then realizing they were gone forever. Like a cruel joke. Despite the comforts of my faith, for a period I felt unsafe and vulnerable. Not in some abstract way as I had when I heard about or read of folks dying. This was palpable. Franny would never again spot me a few bucks so I could get lunch from the deli next door. She would never speak of her sad family again, of her mother who lived in a local development she dubbed "Sterile Village." The sadness lingered for a long while. My other co-worker, *Sally and I could not stop talking about her. Sally had a much deeper reservoir of memories and feelings than me, and when she wasn't reduced to tears she would speak at length of Franny.

My boss, far from being an emotional sort, dealt with it in a muted stoicism, but I could tell he was devastated. He and Franny had fought constantly. I often cringed when Frederick berated her. I was too timid to intervene on her behalf; I was still the new kid. After a few years, the timidity fell off of me like a snake's coil, but by then Franny had been gone a long time. Even sadder: a month or so after Franny died, her husband, a rather odd fellow who spoke with a horribly nasally voice we all imitated, succumbed to his unrelieved sadness and took his life. I didn't know him well, didn't ever talk to him beyond a hello, but I always knew somehow how completed he was with his wife. Her absence just made things pointless. If there's any bright spot, at least Franny wasn't around to witness would would happen 2 years later.....  


 *Not the real name.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Master

Lancaster Dodd,  the titular character of Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film THE MASTER, espouses that one need not look further than himself to find enlightenment. Man has evolved sufficiently over trillions (yes) of Earth years in ways which allow him to unlock secrets and discover pathways to secure genuine purpose in life, even a way for physical healing. The "Cause", Dodd's invented philosophy, acknowledges hard science but contradicts it when alternative methodology (in part, some sort of conversational therapy) is encouraged solely to attempt to treat a patient for a disease like leukemia.

This enlightenment of the individual is so empowering, Dodd even questions the police when they come to arrest him as to what authority under which they act. The Cause does not name a deity or higher power beyond this earth.  Does this mean there is no one, other than self (flawed, riddled with sin) to whom there is accountability? 

Dodd, brilliantly portrayed by Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman, has written a book, a bible, if you will, which outlines systematic dogma for his growing band of followers. "Processing", an interview method involving relentless and repetitive questioning/interrogation, is a tool used to reveal the essence of human behavior, the seeds of perhaps what drives certain actions. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a perfect subject for examination: the WWII vet (diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder) seems to be at the mercy of unchecked libido and unresolved rage, perhaps not unrelated. In an early scene, Quell is given a Rorschach test in which every image to him appears sexual. It is unsurprising that he later reveals, during Dodd's processing of him, having had intercourse with his aunt. Three times, at least. But was this admission bullied out of him, a hasty answer to a leading question?

I thought of the Voight-Kampff tests in BLADE RUNNER during THE MASTER's numerous processing and "exercise" sequences. Although "processing" is purely question and answer, not intending necessarily to discern whether the subject is lying and with no equipment to measure pupil and iris aperture, Anderson creates captivating, often claustrophobic scenes in which the viewer shares the subject's discomfort.  Great manipulation is at work, needless to say. "The Master", such a grand title. How does one earn it?

Anderson's movie does not provide those answers. By the time we meet Dodd, commandeering the ship on which Freddie stows away, he has achieved a deification among his faithful. But as Freddie spends time in this group, family members will reveal their true thoughts about the Cause,and Dodd. Some, like Dodd's icy wife Peggy (Amy Adams) are rigidly dedicated, at least outwardly. Others baldly state that the Leader is just making it all up. So conflicting for a young man, searching for something in which to believe, for guidance. The military was comparatively easier with its unstinting regimen. Outside, Freddie is a vagabond who loses jobs in some places and is chased away from others. His only apparent talent: concocting homemade alcoholic beverages, much of which he imbibes himself.

It occurred to me that perhaps Freddie is meant to represent Dodd's unbridled id.  Every impulsive action that the Master has trained himself to suppress. Could that be why Dodd is so accepting of the young "silly animal"? Does he see him as a visceral extension of himself? All of his talk of trying to save Freddie, when in actuality he wants to keep him around for a vicariousness that keeps him alive? A venue for his own carnality? He certainly loves those drinks Freddie mixes. I was especially fascinated with the jailhouse scene: each man is shown in long shot, in neighboring cells, able to look at each other through bars. As if through a mirror.  Freddie violently destroys his cell in unchecked fury while Dodd just looks at him.  Then finally dismissing Freddie's actions, calling him unsavable, but later, rallying to have him rejoin the "family", against the suspicions of everyone else.

THE MASTER is a difficult movie to describe.  With each unique work, Anderson has more or less created his own audacious cinematic language.  There are patterns repeated here from the earlier ones: long, nervous pans, dissonant Johnny Greenwood score, patently bizarre and even shocking imagery presented in such a matter of fact, abrupt way (note Johnny's vision of a party). Anderson's direction is so assured, so dazzling, and so singular.  He is a true artist, and watching his films always reignites my excitement for cinema, even if the films themselves ultimately fall short (THERE WILL BE BLOOD, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE). I would hesitate to pinpoint a scene or style as "Andersonian", but his command of the medium is startlingly assured, especially in his decision to shoot this film in 65 millimeter. All the better to study each face.

As an indictment of religious cults and the cult of personality surrounding their leaders (L. Ron Hubbard, while not specifically evoked, looms largely), perhaps THE MASTER fails. I did not feel I understood the Cause any better at the end of the film, and I'm sure some readers will disagree with the conclusions about it I stated in the opening paragraphs.  Several times throughout the film, Dodd begins a speech which threatens to elaborate on his (shifting) tenets, but the director always cuts away. 

As a character study, it is stunning. It seems redundant to point out Hoffman's amazing, intuitive acting, but here, even in the way he moves his eyes, he's fully invested.  Phoenix nearly matches him with a wildly physical performance characterized with wayward gait and inarticulate speech.  Adams does some interesting work herself as Dodd's fiercely protective spouse, fiery and fundamental, so devoted to her husband no matter what snake oil he peddles.

THE MASTER will also prove, I believe, to prompt endless discussions among those studying comparative religions and anyone who cites faith to straighten them in their daily walk. Such a relentless, challenging movie will rattle souls, I think especially for believers.  Most eye opening will this film be for those who have, like Freddie, sped toward that dot in the distance.......

Monday, October 1, 2012


Sophia Coppola's SOMEWHERE begins and ends with a Hollywood star du jour named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) speeding around in his black Ferrari. The opening scene goes on for a few minutes, the car quite symbolically going in circles. In the final scene, the car is parked in a desert; the driver walks away, keys left in the ignition.

Johnny lives in L.A.'s infamous Chateau Marmont hotel, a place with a rich and often sordid history of celebrity excess. Unlike his progenitors, Johnny doesn't trash his room or shoot a bolus of heroin and cocaine into his veins. In fact, he's pretty well behaved for being a household name. He's mobbed by fans at the hotel and abroad, but remarkably never plays the V.I.P. card. Rather, he's extremely disaffected, going through listless days much like anyone else who has few responsibilities. He wanders the halls. Sits on the couch. Stares at the Chateau's ancient walls. In between making movies, he's either dutifully attending photo shoots or fielding questions at press junkets. "Who is Johnny Marco?" reporters ask.

Director/writer Coppola quickly cuts to the next image before Marco can answer that all-but-unanswerable question. How the hell should he know? Him least of all? But he's not a narcissist. He just doesn't seem to care. Barely acknowledges anything. He makes his way through parties with handshakes and nods, seeming to know many, but... All those L.A. hipsters certainly couldn't tell you much about Johnny. There's no depth to anything in his life. Just like when he happens upon Benicio Del Toro in the hotel elevator. Their empty exchange tells us everything.

Being a big star allows Johnny to indulge a series of beautiful women. But he's as bored with them as he is the walls. He hires blonde twin sisters who pole dance in front of them (they bring their own collapsable poles) and watches with what is best described as amusement. One time, he even passes out during their performance. In another key scene, the young man falls asleep while attempting to pleasure a conquest.

Johnny also has an 11 year old daughter named Cleo (Elle Fanning). She shows up at the Marmont on the appointed days. Does Johnny resent the intrusion to his trysts? Welcome it? His face betrays nothing. After Johnny's ex informs him she is taking an extended vacation with no determined return, Cleo begins an extended stay with Johnny.

They have an easy rapport. They're like friends. We see them share gelatto in the middle of the night and play Guitar Hero (to the Police's "So Lonely", no less). Never once does he discipline her, though she's a well behaved kid. He also doesn't explain the woman who joins them at breakfast while in Italy. Cleo's face really says it all in that scene.

Ms. Coppola accurately stated that SOMEWHERE allows the viewer to breathe. It often plays like a beautiful coffee table book, static enough to allow you to drink in all that SoCal sunlight, the shabby chic of the hotel. To watch a 30-something who's become famous go through the paces. Like many before him, he yawns at his privilege. The film just follows him as he showers, drives, eats.

I was initially impatient with this movie, as scene after scene showed, very little. Like a pretentious would-be "art film". Nothing really "happens". There is no portent, no set ups, no payoffs, no "if you introduce a gun in the first act you gotta shoot someone in the third" nonsense. It shows a life, fly on the wall style. All of the images add up to something quietly disturbing. You realize this at the very end and especially the next day. Many films have a collection of great scenes that don't add up to anything. SOMEWHERE is filled with stills that build to a wounded whole. Yes, Johnny finally breaks down and admits he's "nothing." It is not a big scene with a huge catharsis. We've seen it before, but this time we've earned that admission. I think Ms. Coppola's film is one of the best essays on loneliness I've seen in quite a while.