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The Master (2012)
Fascinating, yet personally unsatisfying
From the first shot of Joaquin Phoenix, The Master appears headed for greatness. Why? For one, this is a PT Anderson picture, and he's given us two of the most mesmerizing character studies of the 21st century in Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood. In both of those films, he presents a protagonist who deep inside holds a passionate flame of rage ready to burst out at the right moment. Anderson is a master at developing these characters, allowing the audience to slowly absorb their mindset and feelings.
Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a character that's instantly intriguing. We meet Freddie on a beach, where he and his fellow navy men are spending sometime off duty. Freddie is attempting to get drunk off of some sort of coconut concoction. Actually, we see he's always trying to get drunk as we follow his post war exploits for the first 20 minutes or so of the film. Every frame of these twenty minutes is absolutely perfect, making the character all the more fascinating by the minute. The meat of the story though, begins when Freddie finds himself hitting rock bottom, with few options left. He ends up getting caught up with a rising spiritual movement called "The Cause" headed by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour-Hoffman). You of course expect that this is where those emotions inside Freddie should start coming out, and become clearer. However, things turn out not to be that simple.
The Master an intellectual film that is likely to be the most conversation-provoking movie of the year. At an emotional level though, it doesn't hit the spot. It has these big themes it's dealing with, like faith, and alcoholism, yet beneath all of that it seems to loose track of the characters. Quell and Dodd are both extremely fascinating characters, but I felt like I was on the outside looking in at them, never getting a sense of their motivations or thoughts. "What's troubling Freddie?" I asked myself. I can think of some possibilities, but I couldn't feel them.
To make things worse, the distance between the characters and myself only seems to grow as the films moves on. Midway through, Freddie has become the right hand man of sorts to Dodd. What puzzled me though, was where this connection between the two was coming from. Again, I could come up with some possibilities, but I don't want a movie to leave me guessing; I want it to show me. Why is Freddie so compelled by the cause? What are these demons that seem to bother him? Ultimately, Freddie ends up in a position where he has to evaluate his commitment to the organization as well as his future altogether, and again I was left confused and in the dark. The ending is ambiguous and I couldn't seem to see Freddie in a way any different from how I saw him five minutes in. I'm not asking for complete answers, just enough evidence to come up with an interpretation.
I feel it sets itself up to deliver so much that it's hard to avoid being even just a little disappointed. I do understand, however that many people will and already have been completely engrossed by this movie, and I will not argue with them. This review reflects not really my criticism of the film, as much as my inability to connect with the characters. I honestly envy anyone who was able to do that. That said, The Master has much to dissect intellectually, and I look forward to repeat viewings.
A true work of art
Pretty much the only place Detachment suffers is a few moments of choppy, unnatural acting. However, it's a rare drama that doesn't rely on bold, pitch-perfect performances to carry the film, but rather a brutal yet focused mindset on the real issues the film examines with honesty and no false answers to try soften the blow.
Adrian Brody plays a substitute English teacher named Henry, who is filling in for a week or so at a failing inner city high school. His first encounter with the students in his first hour class results in an unruly, disrespectful young man being sent out within minutes. Henry is completely untouched by any words thrown at him, yet not in any power-asserting way. He kicks out the student with literally no care. He doesn't tell the student to go the dean's office or anywhere specific; go anywhere, just get out of the classroom if he doesn't want to learn.
Henry is also a great teacher. His students love him even after only having him for only a couple days. He is not nourishing, but he is understanding, letting his students talk to him while keeping his distance. His most prominent characteristic seems to be the titular sense of Detachment. Henry is not the optimistic teacher we've seen in countless education based films where a teacher strive to lift his or her student's spirits up. Henry is cynic, haunted by a past not made clear but hinted at. He talks about teachers entering the field with aspirations to make a difference, build future leaders, and change a culture of failure into one of achievement, before running into the harsh reality that there is only so much an educator can do. We're left to wonder if Henry is talking about himself or not.
The film does not follow a conventional plot. It exists within a certain time frame, but one that can be placed at any time at any school in the country. Watching the movie is like looking through a lens that shows a general picture of the public school system. Tony Kaye doesn't use this picture to make any statements. He's not interesting in giving any opinions. Detachment is a true work of art that takes an objective look at a vital issue without pointing any fingers, not calling for instant resolutions.
Too many dramas place too much weight on their actors to carry the film's power. Detachment hold it's own. Many sequences of dialog do not sound natural particular scenes where Henry has one on one conversations with students and they are the weak spots in this film. However, these scenes hardly affect the viewing experience because the film never sets itself up to be all about singular performances. What's most important is what those moments add to the story, and how they reflect reality, even if it is not a perfect reenactment of reality. That said, Adrien Brody as Henry is not to be thrown under the bus. Brody leads an ensemble that does every character justice, even with limited screen time.
Detachment is not a film out to inspire anyone or give ideas on how to fix the system. It does nothing more than what a piece of filmmaking should do: make viewers think. Hopefully watching this film will cause one to consider what really is standing in the way of inner city children and a good education, and the answer is not bad teachers or not enough funding. Can you see what it is? I guess the follow up to that would be, "can anything really be done about it?"
Despite occupying previously occupied territory, Arbitrage has you on the edge of your seat.
Arbitrage is a thriller that's got you hooked early on, and invested in every minute followed. It's set up like a paint by the numbers thriller; the rich guy has a perfectly kept secret he's keeping from his family yet it in a single moment it seems that secret is going to fall apart. Where Arbitrage makes itself unique though, is where this particular character takes the story and the audience. Arbitrage is not a morality tale, nor does it feel like a cautionary tale. There is not a single scene in this movie the audience can take away and learn something from. No, Arbitrage is a dark and pessimistic yet gripping drama.
Richard Gere, in what is probably one of the best performances of the year, plays Rob Miller, a major hedge fund manager. It's obvious from our first glimpse of him that he's hiding something. Turns out he's fixing his books to keep his company afloat, and is in the midst of an affair with an art dealer who happens to also be a client of his. Despite his trickery and deceit though, Gere's Miller has quite the charm and likability. One of the first scenes shows Miller discussing with his daughter (who is also his CFO) the sale of the company and it's assets. He cites spending time with his family as a factor for stepping away from the business. Is he telling the truth, or just using that to cover the fact he needs to sell the business to avoid prison time? Even after we learn of his fraud, it still seems plausible that his main concern is to protect his family.
Of course from experience of watching movies, we know what to expect. An accident occurs, and Miller's lover is killed. It's at this predictable point though, where the film really takes off, in both Gere's performance and the film's precision. Miller weights his options, ultimately deciding his best move is to flee the scene, reasons being to be protect his family, as well as his business. As I said, anyone who watches movies knows where the story has to go, and Miller soon finds himself under investigation by homicide detective Michael Bryer, a well-casted Tim Roth.
Arbitrage is not a movie about decision making as much as it is about the motives behind them1. While it does give off a pretty heavy anti-rich feel, it's one of the better movies in recent years in terms of portraying it's rich protagonist in two-dimensions. His actions are clearly wrong, yet we as the audience are not crying out for blood. Perhaps he is not being entirely selfish in his actions. Or maybe he is. It's difficult to come to a conclusion.
Hearat Shulayim (2011)
Two great lead performances that couldn't be any more different.
Footnote, one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language films at the Oscars earlier this year, boasts two extraordinary performances. And it's absolutely vital that those two performances are pitch perfect, because the key to the film's drama and tension lies in those particular characters.
The premise is fairly straightforward. A father and son are both philogy professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Eliezer Shkolnik is an old school researcher who believes findings are only valid if research is conducted in the proper scientific method, while his son, Uriel, follows the more modern philosophy. Eliezer loathes the popularity and acceptance of the current methods, and is so stubborn he even refuses to cancel one of his classes even though only one student is signed.
Having background on research methods or philology is not necessary however, when it comes to following along the movie. Shlomo Bar'aba and Lior Ashkenazi, as Eliezer and Uriel respectively, both make sure to humanize their characters and portray their conflicting ideals by showcasing conflicting personalities as wells.
The plot gets really interesting when Eliezer finds out he has been voted the winner of the Israel Prize, forcing him to rethink how he feels his colleagues, and the field in general. However, Uriel soon gets a phone call that will shake things up even more.
Unfortunately, Footnote does not deliver a satisfying conclusion, at least not a memorable one. The tension is slowly built up really well as the film cuts deeper into the plot, yet when the time comes for a huge clash, the film ends up kinds of just floating around not knowing the right time to fade out. However, the meat of the film is too good to be ignored, as both Bar'aba and Ashkenazi deliver performances you won't soon forget.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
The always funny and amusing quirky, whimsical Wes Anderson has made some great films, but he's never produced such a beautiful and sweet story until now.
I find Moonrise Kingdom to be the most polished Wes Anderson film to date. While it includes the norms of a Wes Anderson feature vibrantly colorful cinematography, quirky dialog, spontaneity, Bill Murray the heart of this movie is unlike anything I've ever seen from him.
It's an adventure tale about two young lovers by the names of Sam and Suzy who in their innocence, decide to run away together, leaving havoc among the adult characters, played by the likes of Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Francis McDormand, and the aforementioned Bill Murray. The adult character's troublesome lives and inadvertent personalities are confronted in the midst of the chaotic search for the children. In contrast, Sam and Suzy's bond becomes even more intimate as they discuss the troubles and turbulences of youth. However, things are bound to get twisted and soon we're in for a wildly hilarious adventure.
Despite all the great actors featured in the ensemble cast, the most memorable performances come from the two young unknown actors playing Sam and Suzy. They enable the spirits of their characters so well, I can't imagine writers Anderson and Roman Coppola envisioning them to be any better. While I've always found Anderson's troublesome characters to be intriguing, I've never felt the sympathy for them that I felt for Sam and Suzy. As a result, Moonrise Kingdom is the most universal, affective story Wes Anderson has told.
If you had to describe this film in one word, there would be so many options. The obvious ones that come up are witty, whimsical, and clever. Going into the theater though, I did not expect that the film would be so sweet and beautiful. Beautiful in both its imagery and its surprisingly graceful storytelling. With all the hoopla that comes from Anderson's wonderful gimmicks, he still manages to balance style with substance and leave us with more than just a few laughs.
The Avengers (2012)
I didn't think it could be done, but Joss Whedon pulled it off.
Last year, I had similar reactions to both Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. While they were mildly amusing, they were often quite boring, lacking any big-blockbuster spectacle, and seemed only around to lead into another film. That film of course, was The Avengers, and not only did I not appreciate a film out to only promote another movie, but I had little faith four films with such different styles and backgrounds would come together to work as one film.
However, the film that Joss Whedon has made completely proved me wrong and exceeded my expectations. The Avengers may actually be the best Marvel-adaption to be in the vein of the comics. It's enormously entertaining, with witty humor, and a satisfying, engaging character driven plot.
What makes the film work so well is that the filmmakers (of both The Avengers and the previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) find a way to blend the characters separate mythologies into one arc that feels natural. In that sense, I have a newfound respect for Thor and Captain America, for how they properly develop their characters individually and establish their own timeline, while at the same time developing the background for some of the major plot devices in The Avengers. While Thor, and Captain America may not work as great entertainment on their own terms, when looked at as one huge overlapping arc which also includes Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and The Incredible Hulk -, they make for a great series.
Where it seems today the only way a superhero film can be great is if it's re-envisioned to be more realistic and dark in the vein of The Dark Knight or Sam Raimi's Spider Man series, Marvel's The Avengers shows that a great superhero film only needs to satisfy it's audience, with two solid hours of action-packed, energized entertainment.
Into the Abyss (2011)
Werner Herzog's documentary on capital punishment features empathetic character profiles, but overall the film could have been more fascinating.
The idea of Werner Herzog making a documentary revolving around a single individual waiting on death row sounded like an idea from heaven. Herzog is a master at plunging deep into the souls of troubled individuals, weather factual or fictitious, as seen in his masterpieces Aguirre, the Wrath of God and the documentary Grizzly Man. Surprisingly however, Into The Abyss only goes so far regarding it's featured subjects. While Herzog's craft for storytelling is vividly shown here, this documentary only channels the surface of a deeper, more compelling character profile.
We meet the headlining subject of the film early on. Michael Perry has been on death row for 8 years and is set to be executed in just 8 days, following the interview. We learn a few things about him. He is a Christian and believes he will go to heaven following his execution. In his words, he's either going "home or home." The interview between Herzog and Perry, as well as the other interview between Herzog and Perry's accomplice Jason Burkett who is only serving a 40-year prison term, is a fascinating viewing experience. Herzog creates an intimate experience between the subjects and the viewer, and even as we learn the facts behind the horrible crime that Perry and Burkett have been sentenced for, we seem inclined to somehow find a way to believe both their stories that the other is responsible. There is a sense of empathy on par with that created by Truman Capote in In Cold Blood.
However, while Herzog succeeds in showing the humanity of his subjects, we fail to see the part of them that would murder innocent people. We end up with unanswered questions. Into The Abyss doesn't set out to do anything beyond make a political argument about capital punishment. Therefore, Into The Abyss is nothing more than an extremely well made political documentary, when it could be that along with something so much more interesting.