Monday, 5 November 2012

Review: Paul Thomas Anderson's 'The Master'

"You do this for a billion years - or not at all"

Release Date: 16th November (or out now on 70mm film at the Odeon West End)
Paul Thomas Anderson
Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Amy Adams

If you've been drumming your fingers since 2007 and yearning for the release Paul Thomas Anderson's most recent masterpiece, rest assured you will be rewarded for your patience. From the very first second - choppy Pacific waters and a prolonged shot of shifting, stormy eyes, urged forwards with the booming orchestra of Johnny Greenwood's perfect score - it's obvious that the past five years of Anderson's life have not been spent idly.

The story is one of power, manipulation, trauma, vulnerability, love and loneliness... but the story was somewhat insignificant. It feels that Anderson isn't trying to tell a story, nor give us a narrative - his plot just serves as a canvas for the characters he is painting. And, much like Plainview and Eli in TWBB, what we care about is this warped father/son-esque power struggle that his characters engage in. Joaquin Phoenix has gifted us with his most accomplished performance yet as Freddie Quale, an apt name for a Naval Veteran and a drunk who squirms with inner turmoil. Freddie seems so filled with pain that his entire body is curling in on itself. He is a man at sea in every sense - and he's lost control of his ship in stormy waters. His limbs spasm, violence takes him over and he unsteadily lurches across life. Anderson's characteristically brooding close ups (a la Daniel Plainview) show us a man broken by war and desperate for somewhere to rest. Enter Seymour-Hoffman, that is Lancaster Dodd - a charismatic, enchanting ship commander who looks past Freddie's erratic, anti-social behaviour and takes him under his wing after he stows away on the good ship Alethia.

And so begins a  captivating play-off between the leading men, Seymour-Hoffman and Phoenix, set against Anderson's suggestive and stunning backdrop of barren desert and rolling beaches - brought to vivid, saturated life on the 70mm film. Like the hopelessly vulnerable Freddie, we are at first sucked in by the charm of Dodd, but steadily the cracks begin to show and Dodd's amiable patriarch gives way to a megalomanic Ahab, Captain of religious-movement-cum-cult 'The Cause', and incapable of being questioned without bursts of quickly dampened rage. Anderson brings to mind Scientology in a vague sort of a way, but like the story this is insignificant in comparison to the charged close-ups of faces and souls, and we feel reluctant to see this as a comment on its contemporary counterpart. Despite our slow disenchantment, Freddie remains in the Masters thrall, and we witness his struggle with this surrogate father, with alcohol and with himself. He is drawn to Dodd, comforted by him and in adulation of him, he provides a long sought for island of calm for a man in turmoil. For Dodd, Freddie is his disciple, his son and his greatest challenge, and like a dog follows him faithfully and attacks his adversaries. Like volatile lovers they hurl abuse at one another, then return for an embrace - excommunicate one another only to call, grovelling, and ask to come back.

Although the film is so forcefully about masculine power, the feminine force driving these men - something totally absent in TWBB - is soft and steely. The wholesome, heavily pregnant Amy Adams is a driving force behind The Cause, and where Dodd embraces Freddie, she coldly turns him away. Her perseverance in her following of her husband's gospel, 'you do this for a billion years - or not at all' implies a dogged devotion, but we aren't convinced. Always still, quiet and on the periphery of the action, Peggy Dodd is a silent power and suggests the true momentum behind Langston's booming confidence - a silent wind in the sails of his Pequod. She not so much defines the Master, but underlines him. Similarly, in the opening scenes of the film, the bestial Freddie is reduced to a 'crying episode' by a letter from a girl he used to know. We get a sense that the very cores of these men are, however indirectly, engineered by their women.

I feel that the only way you can fully appreciate The Master is by feeling it - the desperate sadness of a broken man and the fearsome power of oration. Paul Thomas Anderson has created characters as powerful, solitary and moving as Daniel Plainview twice over, and it's fair to say that he is the real master here.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Review: Skyfall

Since Quantum of Solace received such a brutally cold reception, Skyfall had a lot to answer for. Over the past few months, the internet has been the soundboard for a constant foreboding that Skyfall is bound to disappoint, and concerns have been raised that we have most probably seen it before in the form of... well, every other Bond film.

 But Sam Mendes can be suitably smug about the latest instalment of the 007 chronicles. Of course, Skyfall is full of Bond stereotypes and blatant references to previous films - indeed, what is a Bond film without the mandatory death-by-wild-animal? But, in intentionally using props and plots from previous adventures, he crafts something wholly new. And here, we meet the James we know and love again. Except, somehow, without doing anything particularly new, Craig shows us an entirely fresh kind of Bond - soft and emotional, vulnerable and, after twenty three adventures, understandably ageing. 

Barring a brief soujourn in Shanghai, the main action in Skyfall is on and under home ground, featuring pursuits through the London Underground reminiscent of the just-in-time commute we all know and loathe and action-packed scenes in rural, ethereally foggy Scotland. Skyfall coaxes elements of the classic Bond franchise into it's British bosom and, quite literally, blows them up.

Performance wise, there was hardly a flaw. Javier Bardem as 'the villain' Silver was just plain weird... utterly distressing to watch, and despite being the funniest aspect of the film his unnerving performance is on a par with Christoph Waltz's chilling Hans Landa of Inglorious Basterds. The veterans were of course on top form, with Craig using Bond's suddenly uncovered past to create a more complex and personable character than his previous efforts. We are also treated to the delightful addition of Ralph Fiennes as a morally ambiguous sparring partner for Dench, and the ever-impressive Ben Whishaw as an adorable, wool-clad 'Q'. 

As Adele croons over the credits we can be safe in one conclusion - that Skyfall has reincarnated James Bond in every sense. 

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Review: Shame

Director: Steve Mcqueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan

I was not sure what to expect from a film so self-proclaimedly explicit, though I suppose centring on the struggles one goes through in the battle with satyriasis it would have been hard to avoid. I understand why Fassbender said it was a blessing in disguise that his mother couldn't make the Venice Film Festival premiere. It's also no wonder he won an award for his moving yet frankly quite disturbing performance as sex-addict Brandon.

We already know that Steve McQueen is not afraid of pushing Fassbender to physical extremes, as we saw in Hunger, with Fassbender as an emaciated Bobby Sands, literally wasting away. On this level, the troubled, angry and subversively pleasant man we meet in Shame makes for extremely uncomfortable watching. Yes, I'm pretty sure anyone watching this film will have found it uncomfortable, but it's also impossible to tear your eyes away. Fassbender and Mulligan's explosive and melancholy - not to mention borderline incestuous - relationship, and their private anguish is an utterly hypnotizing playing out of damaged lives. It is stark and crude, but beautiful, epitomised in Mulligan's haunting rendition of New York, New York, and the silent tear it moves Brandon to shed.

McQueen does little to offer his characters a route out of their ruts, and we are left with a somewhat grim dissatisfaction, from which there seems to be no escape. His morbid fatalism is a grey undertone of the whole film, both literally, in everything from the costume to the clinical lighting, and in a more pervasive way - the whole film feels overwhelmingly colourless. McQueen has crafted a stark and brilliant look at the lives of the secret down and outs, creating a complex distortion of how success and satisfaction is perceived. Shame is almost definitely worth a watch, just don't go and see it with your parents.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

War Horse

Speilberg was brave to attempt to adapt a book written in a horse's perspective (which, having been done in Black Beauty so memorably can't really be done again) and a play that shot to fame for its incredible puppetry. So, detracting the main elements of the success of its other forms, what are you left with? In fact, a remarkable film. Our heartstrings are played with the ideal balance of gut-wrenchingly sad scenes and the odd, perfectly timed laugh. I don't even think such thorough enjoyment depends on a tendency to love horses, or a tendency to love Benedict Cumberbatch (but who lacks that tendency anyway?). Tears seemed to be a fairly unanimous reaction, unsurprisingly. In fact, this would be my only criticism, I do begin to tire of films engineered to melt the hearts and tear-ducts of its audience in such a contrived way - often such a bleak film seems unnecessary, unless it can save itself on it's merit as a piece of art.
Luckily, Spielberg managed once again showed the horror of the war from a completely different point of view, in a completely new way, so there was nothing of the 'same old' attitude I've developed towards the 'genred' films that seem unforgivably formulaic. The sheer quantity of eye-candy was also something of a plus point- from the handsome horse to the men he carried. Even the scenery and camera-work was occasionally so beautiful you forgot all about the film itself. The final scene was such an incredible piece of cinema it will take a long time to forget- the colours and light on screen were like nothing I'd seen before.
Now all I want to do is see the stage production.