Friday, 22 February 2013

O Scars 2013

Unless you've been living on the moon (and thus can't tell that this is a very worn-out way to start a text), you'll know that they are handing out the Academy Awards this sunday. Big whoop. But this year, the nominees do have a fair amount of wild cards among them, so I actually have a shred of interest in the whole thing. I might even stay up to watch the dang thing, despite Seth MacFarlane's racism, silly voices and inevitable song number. As ever, the films are what's the most important thing, not the glitz and glamour. So here's a look at how the major nominees are (32% new material).

Director: Michael Haneke

Famed Austrian analyst Michael Haneke surprised audiences worldwide for having such a heartfelt central theme in his latest movie. Haneke is one who usually tends to shy away from all sorts of basic Hollywood schmaltz and basic emotional manipulations. And the end result manages to be a worthy successor to the director's filmography, both done in the auteur's signature, distant style, yet with the sort of unforced emotional resonance that makes for a powerful cinematic experience. At the very least, it is a movie that can be enjoyed on multiple levels. It challenges you to think and analyze, but doesn't force you to. The central theme of love is strong enough as it is.

In the spotlight of the humane film are an elderly couple of wealthy music teachers, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). They live together in a vast flat in the middle of Paris, where most of the film is also set. But then, their everyday routines and bourgeois cultural consumption  are threatened when Anne has a stroke and her health starts to falter. Georges takes care of his bed-ridden wife as best he can. Their worried daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) comes to visit and suggest that Anne could get better treatment at a hospital. Georges is adamant that she'll be best off in their home, and makes effort to get the very best treatment and care for her as he can.

It seems odd that so few movies dare to deal with the Autumn years of peoples' lives. It is the time when lives may be changes in a flick of a wrist, and may hang by a thread. Watching Amour is utterly devastating and hard, yet infinitely rewarding. One doesn't need flashy melodrama and luscious over-the-topness to tell about us as people. This is as honest and down-to-earth as one can get, never spoon-feeding the viewers with anything.

As is often the case with Haneke, this is less a story, more a study of emotions and situations. The director's characterization is precise and is helped tremendously by the excellent cast. Also faithful to the director's style, he devastates upper-middle-class living, where the keeping up of appearances of a dreadful situation may be the most important thing to do. As precious of his wife is to him, Georges can't stand the thought of humiliating her by allowing just anyone to treat her. All the possessions the rich pair owns eventually turn into empty relics at a tomb. We know from the beginning how the thing will play out, which adds to the hopelessness and emotional punch of the film.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Foreign Film
Will win: Best Actress: Emmanuelle Riva, Best Foreign Film
Should win: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay

Director: Ben Affleck

Argo has grown to be more controversial the more it wins awards. It's a bit too safe a bet for people voting for awards, while very good, it's scarcely about anything. It's Hollywood's very own pat in its own back, shying away from all the political dimensions of the time period it tells about. Nevertheless, no matter how many wrongly won awards it gets, I like it simply because it managed to be one of the year's most exciting films. The super-intense thriller about rescuing American ambassadors from the Ayatollah's Iran in 1980 reaches almost Hitchcock-levels in building up tensions and letting the viewer worry about the outcome. It may be historically poppycock, but it makes for a thrilling ride at the cinemas.

During the Islamic Revolution in 1970's Iran, the US Embassy gets overrun by an angry mob. The diplomats manage to destroy most of the documents about their identities before managing to escape. But the Iranians start to furiously recovering the shredded files. The USA had angered the Iranian people by providing medical care and a sanctuary to the last Iranian Shah, hated by the revolutionaries.

Ben Affleck has grown better and better with each of his directing duties. The film's a fun tribute to the hands-on approach to filmmaking, craftsmanship and B-movies of old. The time when smart-mouthed creative personnel still managed to get a project rolling in Hollywood, without the meddling of slick, money-hunting business executives.

The film does depict iranians as straight-up villains (although it lays the groundwork on why they are so upset of America's policies, what with all the spying). As such, it probably won't do any favors for the already icy relationship between USA and Iran. The more popularity it gains, the more it may hurt in the long run. But Affleck does offer as apolitical approach to the historical subject as is possible in such a real-life situation. The final scenes have little to do with reality, but as a climax to the tension, as well as a tribute to the little-cheesy American blockbusting filmmaking the movie celebrates, it works.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Score
Will win: Best Adapted Screenplay; Chris Terrio, Best Film Editing; William Goldenburg, Best Sound Editing; Erik Aadahl, Ethan Van der Ryn
Should win: Best Film Editing.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Director: Benh Zeitlin

Now, for a film I have grown less fond the more attention it has gained, your every-hipster's do-it-yourself catastrophy movie. It's been praised for being a wholly original piece of filmmaking, while in fact it pulls a lot of familiar heartstrings and tells more or less the same story as Terry Gilliam's Tideland. I've been left wondering whether Gilliam's more edgy, cruel and audience-testing provocation was actually the better film. It may have had a handicapped stereotype, but it's a lot more easier to swallow than some of the racial stereotypes on display here.

In a fictional Deep Southern village of Washtub, lives the six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) in a run-down shack. Her mother has long since left so she attempts to bond with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Unfortunately, Wink has severe mental and heath problems, and isn't too happy about them and is prone to bursts of anger. Hushpuppy has learned to more or less take care of herself, with the help of the other villagers.

Hushpuppy has an active imagination and gets lost inside it from time to time. When a tornado threatens the village, Wink and Hushpuppy rekindle their relationship, but the desperate situation also calls for desperate acts. Hushpuppy also ventures on an adventure to find her mother. The plot bounces here and there, making the point that childhood's innocence and imagination provides a philosophy where drastic situations can turn to magical adventures. Hushpuppy is never alone, and keeps the love she's received on her sleeve to help her along when his father is on a downswing or otherwise things appear to go from bad to worse.

The main problem of the film seems to be that it throws so many things in the air and quickly ties up the knots at the end. For instance, there isn't enough on he community and it's coping by the end, although it seemed like a major element in the beginning. Also the annoying, ever-constant voiceover from Hushpuppy hammers the points home too hard, rather than allowing people make their own minds and conclusions.

The film is visually very inventive, with some amazing sets that look like they've been lying around for years having actually been created from scratch. The overwhelming flood of striking imagery makes the viewer feel like a six-year-old him- or herself, being amazed of the vastness of the world and all the things in it. That's probably why the film had such a strong response. But this in turn also brings with it a sense of helplessness. We can't do anything to hold Hushpuppy's family together, or even to make her act sensibly to grow up to be a proper adult in time.

But nevertheless, for a first-time director, Benh Zeitlin has created an amazingly confident piece of work. It has been helping that the director and the crew form a strong creative collective that have supported each other with their decisions and visions. It's a good enough first step, but now the film is a piece that's easier to appreciate than to truly delve into.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: Nada.
Should win: Nada.

Django Unchained
Director: Quentin Tarantino

The latest Tarantino joint offers the usual inter-textual movie references, violent battle scenes and tongue-in-cheek humor. But this time around the auteur at least has a good story and an actual character arc at the core of his moviemaking, rather than just a framework in which to drop dialogue scenes and movie references. Now all his characterizations and reference choices serve the main story, give or take a few gratitious cameos and a few beauty errors.

This is a movie that's more than just the sum of it's parts. The parts vary in quality a bit, but not as considerably as in the director's last few films. It's an angry, bitter and loud song against injustice and for equal opportunites in life for all. It's a hero's journey and while the end may be played mostly for laughs, it is really a bit grim tale on how a fish out of water grows to be a cynical and nihilistic mass murderer. There's, of course, a love story in the centre of it all.

And not just between two bestest buddies.

It would be foolish to think Tarantino's entertaining approach to a subject as grim as slavery would win any favors from the Academy voters, but he's still the black horse I'm betting on in the original screenplay category - simply because the Academy likes to right old wrongs and it's been 18 years since QT won the award from Pulp Fiction. And to add the insult, the auteur had to share the podium with Roger Avary of all people! He's due another statue, even if his script could have used one more polish this time around.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing
Will win: Best Original Screenplay
Should win: Nada.

Les Miserablés
Director: Tom Hooper

Musicals tend to be the sort of black horses in Oscar betting races, but they also tend to win quite often. In the case one doesn't think Argo will take home whatever few awards it's nominated, and Silver Linings Playbook is too weird for the rest, it is quite clear that this will be the major winner come sunday. It is an irresistibly super-melodramatic adaptation of a major Broadway play, epic in proportion, and allowing familiar actors to show some range. Tom Hooper is a major Oscar darling in that he's competent but not offensively ground-breaking in any way, so it's quite surprising to see he's not up for an award for directing, too.

There's a lot of these grumpy close-ups.

Based on Victor Hugo's classic novel, the story tells the story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) being doomed to a life of poverty and misery after being released. But one act of kindness makes him rethink his life, so he breaks his parole and devotes his life to serving God. Years later, he's become a wealthy businessman, employing also the desperate Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Valjean's manager fires her due to she keeping that she has a daughter and to support her does a little moonlighting on the side. Fantine's life is ruined as a consequence, but when Valjean finds out about it, he decides to give away his wealth and freedom to give a better future to Fantine's small daughter Cosette. He goes on the run from the vengeful Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), bent on getting Valjean behind bars again.

The complicated story brings heaps of misery and death to each of its main characters. All are expressed through the power of song. This is a super-emotional story, filled with such melodramatism it should play well with the masses of Academy voters. Even though the film has quite a depressing story, the main themes of love, honesty, passion, sacrifice and strength in the face of hardships that work on most people. The style isn't all consistent with the burlesque/grotesque stylings of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter seeming to belong to a shithouse adaptation of Sweeney Todd instead.

The melodramatism does reach ultimate points at times, and several minor characters are not well-realized enough for the viewer to invest in them too much. The first half in general works much better than the muddled third act. Mostly the cast is superb, however, and one can expect at least Hathaway and probably also Jackman to also pick an award for their troubles. They both are former Oscar hosts after all. And their back now is needin' some scratchin'.

Anne Hathaway will cry either way.
My favorite thing about the film is the super epic opening, picturing a tattered French Tricolour from underwater before rising to the surface to show a massive war ship being pulled to the shore by singing worker-convicts. That's how you open a huge movie!

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Costume Design, Best Song, Best Makeup, Best Soundmixing, Best Production Design
Will win: Best Picture, Best Actor; Hugh Jackman, Best Supporting Actress; Anne Hathaway, Best Costume Design, Best Song, Best Makeup, Best Soundmixing, Best Production Design
Should win: Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Soundmixing, Best Production Design

Life of Pi
Director: Ang Lee

While Ang Lee's novel adaptation isn't one of the best nominees, I'm still quite glad I went to see it in cinema. For whatever it's flaws are in audience-pandering and hokey religious-spiritual messages, it is still visually a quite striking epic. Clear, colorful HD shots of zoo animals, both real and CGI are something most people would like to test their new TV with.

The titular Pi, Piscine Patel (Irrfan Khan), reminisces his life and lost love for a journalist, eventually getting to the most important thing that ever happened to him. When he was young (and played by Shuraj Sharma) he attempted to move from India to the United States with his zoo-owning family. But at a huge storm there was a shipwreck and he as the only human managed to survive to a life boat. But alongside with him on the raft is a collection of various animals. Especially with the man eating tiger Richard Parker, the survival at sea becomes a fight for survival in another way as well.

The animals are, of course symbolic and in case the audience had their own interpretations for them, they are spelled out twice in the end. The story doesn't really make me believe in God as much as it makes me believe there are no point of obviousness Hollywood producers won't feel the need to talk down to. But as said, visually the movie is very nifty, with animals and various faces the sea has from a raging storm to the mirror-clear calmness. There's no reason this won't win an award or two for its visual ideas alone. I'm guessing cinematography and CGI effects are up for the gong at least.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score, Best Original Song
Will win: Best Cinematography; Claudio Miranda, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score; Mychael Danna
Should win: Best Visual Effects

Director: Steven Spielberg

You can't make much more white bread account on racial issues than Steven Spielberg has done here. The movie focuses on the hardships the beloved US president (Daniel Day-Lewis) faced when attempting to pass the law abolishing slavery through the senate. The political climate of a war-torn country divided into two is a sort of parable to the political climate of today where Democrats and Republicans can't seem to agree on just about anything and oppose each other by principle rather than by what's best for the nation.

Good leadership is telling a lot of historical stories and jokes.

This is done by having a story with plenty of historical compromises and focusing more on Lincoln's skills in legislation and political horse-trading than in actually holding the duties of a commander-in-chief during wartime, or his famed speeches or such. Spielberg thinks these are so well-known mattersthat even characters within the story are super-naturally familiar with them. For instance, multiple characters recite the Gettysburg Address from heart to Lincoln a mere day or two after the president has spoken it aloud. The clunky script also has people reciting historical facts to other people that should know them already, as if they had never heard of them before.

"Gee, dad. Remember when you were born in a small log cabin?"
Black characters are of any use to the film only when used to boost some other character's image by showing him keeping them as equals. Towards the end the very few black actors on screen are so light-skinned, and shot in such a light, they might as well be played by white actors.

Most of the actors are still quite good, even though Daniel Day-Lewis can (and probably does) do such a role in his sleep. To create some sort of drama, Spielberg goes through his very basic motions of a too-distant father-son relationship between Lincoln and his son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Much squabble is had whether the young Lincoln can join the army, but without any payoff to the plot strain.

"I'll end this war rather than to see you join it!"
The outspoken, foul-mouthed Tommy Lee Jones brings home the little there is here to enjoy. But as a whole, the film is very cheesy, badly scripted and most of all, is a very boring account about an interesting subject. I hope this will reflect on how few awards it should get.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing
Will win: I hope nothing.
Should win: Nada.

Silver Linings Playbook
Director: David O. Russell

Silver Linings Playbook is an unique film that could have been very cheap but feels earnest enough to be rootable. Starting to watch this, I didn't care for it much at first, as the odd structure, weird characters and emphasis on mental illness aren't that instantly likeable. But as it goes on, the film grows on you, mostly thanks to the lovely Jennifer Lawrence. It's okay to have a crush on her now, isn't it?

At the core this is a romantic comedy that downplays the comedy. Russell revisits some of the themes he studied previously in Fighter. These include a romance giving the key to fix a broken family, and sport being the glue that allows the family find its place within the whole suburban working-class society. I didn't like the film quite as much, because these themes are sidelined to give more room into the growing relationship between Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Cooper is fine, but a bit unworthy protagonist. It's a bit cheap to show you can conquer mental illnesses just by letting go of the past and moving on, and with the powers of love and trust.

But the film's reality feels inhabited and functional, for even the minor roles are cast well enough. Really, only the snooty professional dancers and judges feel like they're Barbie dolls. But the viewpoint of the film is very much on the underdogs. Everyone has been praising Robert De Niro's performance as a loving father prone to explosive or impulsive behavior, and with good cause. For once, he feels like a proper, fleshed-out character in a movie, and not just Bob De Niro popping by to collect another paycheck.

Jacki Weaver is fine too, but didn't leave as lasting an impression. She's subtler.

I would have no problems to see this emerge as the big victor of the evening, but sadly, don't really believe so. It's a bit too quirky, and a bit too un-melodramatic. Russell should win the director's gong for his past works as well, particularly seeing as Argo and Les Mis missed out on director noms entirely. De Niro is a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor. Not only did he have the best performance of the nominees, I also like to think the Academy would want to push him into doing better-quality movies in general, again.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing
Will win: Best Director: David O. Russell; Best Supporting Actor: Robert De Niro
Should win: Best Supporting Actor

Zero Dark Thirty
Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Perhaps the most devisive Oscar nominee this year, Kathryn Bigelow's account on the War on Terror has been accused of many things, often inaccurately. However, I'm not sure if the final movie reaches the journalistically distant, equal tone Bigelow and Mark Boal claim to have been aiming for in interviews. Nevertheless, it is a gripping thriller. Suspenseful as all hell, and treating it's subject more seriously than the fluffy, more entertaining Argo. This is a movie to challenge you to think.

The main problem many liberal and left-leaning people have with the film is with the torture sequences that occur in the first part of the movie. However, the torture US soldiers are depicted as doing, is neither heroic or glamorous. It's described as disgusting and vile, and it really doesn't get any good answers. The fact that the search for Bin Laden takes even the slightest step forward is, due to the chaotic nature of the information, postponed by years of being insecure whether the intel is reliable or not.

The torture sequence also shows the first moral compromise the lead character (played by Jessica Chastain) is willing to make. First introduced as a viewpoint character, we learn heaps of this career woman in the one scene she refuses any mercy for the tortured prisoner, rather advising him on telling the truth to help himself. But even though her person has these wicked sides, we somewhat root for her. A woman's place in the military is to do everything at least with twice the effort and conviction then the men. She's just following the patterns she sees around her to get ahead, never minding her morale.

The film simplifies a rather large amount of CIA operations, and basically it's a revenge movie since she gets a lot more juice in her hunt once her only female friend and trustee gets killed by bad intel. As with Hurt Locker, the film's finale shows the ultimate unfulfilling nature of violence. Nothing has been solved by the death of Bin Laden and everything our heroine has strived for has been stripped. The dead caused by her hunt can't be brought back to life.

The film would deserve a Sound Editing Oscar simply for the fact that it mostly is a very talkative political thriller, but when there are explosions or helicopters chopping, they are so loud as you can feel them in your gut. However, I'm far from an expert on the subject. I just think that it was kind of a cool feeling in the theatre, for once the big screen acoustic seemed to be utilized.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Editing
Will win: Nothing.
Should win: Best Sound Editing

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Stop! Motion Time!

As readers might know already, I'm a big animation buff. When the Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature were announced, however, I realized that I had missed a lot of the year's crop, which is particularly a shame since the nominees include three stop motion pictures. That sort of animation is generally way more fun than CGI animation, since puppets tend to have more personality than ultra-slick computer models. Two of these stop-motioners have a spoooky horror theme, and one is just about your basic looting, plundering and causing a ruckus.

If you're curious about what I thought of Brave and Wreck-It-Ralph, you can read my reviews by clicking their titles in this sentence.

Director: Tim Burton

Tim Burton's latest film could be seen as an attempt to please his old fans, who have grown incresingly disappointed with his recent body of work. This attempt concerns updating his beloved short film he made in the 1980's to a feature film animation. The original Frankenweenie is pretty much perfect as such, and Burton tends to fall in the pitfalls of stretching the story in an artificial manner in this longer version. Still, at many points it does feel to have the creative energy and gentle satire on suburban America that Burton's good films in the 80's and 90's had. The heart of Frankenweenie, a story of love and friendship, has also remained intact.

Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a clear Mary Sue of Burton's youth, a creative boy that has few friends, and prefers staying indoors to film monster movies or do scientific experiments to going out to play. His best friend is the family dog Sparky, who is a curious mutt, and always ready for an adventure with his owner. Victor is eager to participate in the school's science fair, inspired by the new eccentric teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau). Victor's dad (Martin Short) agrees, on the condition that Victor tries out sports, particularly baseball. On the day of Victor's game, Sparky escapes to follow his master to the field. When he runs out to catch the ball flying out to the street, the dog has a fatal run-in with a car.

The broken Victor finds a new chance to bring his friend back to life, when he learns that electricity has a way of making dead tissue twitch. But his successful experiment rises interest in his science fair rivals, all who want to try it out on their pets long gone. The climax has Burton gleefully ripping off various monster movie clichés with glee, as the creatures wreck havok. The film turns from Edward Scissorhands -type outcast drama into more of a Mars Attacks! type of mischief-making comedy. Balancing these two approaches isn't always consistent.

Fortunately, Burton mellows out by the final scene, which is as charming as it was in the original film. The puppetry is magnificent, with the animals being super-cute and the humans emotive and like Burton's drawings having popped to life. As a contrast to Burton's previous animated features, there are no memorable, eye-popping song sequences, but the story wouldn't need any anyway. The old school -style slow, black-and-white storytelling works in this film's case, but it also drove audiences away from theatres. Kids these days. As it is, it's a nice little film reminding that Burton still carries some of that creative energy that raised him to the top of Hollywood in the first place. Let's hope he can still utilize it in his live action films as well.


Pirates! A Band of Misfits (a.k.a. The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists)
Director: Peter Lord

The latest feature from Aardman studios blends stop motion wax dolls and CGI backgrounds in a visual style that's epic and finely detailed and hand-crafted at the same time. It's got a silly sense of humor mixing non-sequiturs and the unexpected with good, tested british wit in the fashion of Monty Python. It's got chase scenes and exotic locales and The Clash and The Pogues on the soundtrack. Yet as a whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) has declared a war against piracy, with plenty of the most notorious outlaws having already been captured. But there are still eager sea-farers out there. One such a motley crew is the band of misfits led by The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant). They are a bit too nice to be plundering scallywags, but love the pirate lifestyle. With their antics, The Pirate Captain figures they could finally win the Pirate of the Year Award, given to the captain with the biggest booty. But seizing ships and stealing treasures doesn't seem to be his strongest skill.

Baby-talking to pets is.

When the crew runs into the young scientist Charles Darwin (David Tennant), they get informed that The Captain's parrot Polly is in fact the only remaining Dodo in the world. The prize for bringing such a zoological treasure to London would be huge. But the only problem is that London is Victoria's stronghold, and the pirates need to disguise themselves to not be caught.

While a lot of pieces in this one are at the right places, and it is funny and amusing enough, there's something vital missing in this film. As of now, it's amusing enough, if a fairly forgettable caper. It's a bit hard to grasp what's wrong with it. Perhaps the movie tries too hard to please all audiences. While the script is smart, it also lacks some sort of edginess all the best comedies have.

I also think that the personalities of the various pirates in the crew could have been played with a lot more. It's probably a joke stemming from the original children's book this is based on, to name all the characters in such a functionalist manner (i.e. "The Pirate with a Scarf", "The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate" or "The Pirate who likes Sunsets and Kittens"). But in the long run playing them all just for gags takes away from the audience's involvement in their escapades. It's a bad sign if no one gives a damn if they are going to cope or not. Also, the chase scenes aren't as elaborate as in, say, Wallace & Gromit, now just featuring too many characters screaming and spazzing out instead of rolling along, unexpectedly but with the determination of a speed train.


Directors: Chris Butler, Sam Fell

I was wary of this children's horror fable beforehand, simply because it features zombies as the central horrors. I used to love zombies until they became the most overplayed and tiresome thing in popular culture and having them featured in a kid's movie was just another low in their road to irrelevance. But gladly, the central zombies here weren't either Romero-like man eaters or even fast-running video game monsters. These are good old-fashioned magic zombies, undead pilgrims rising from their graves due to a curse.

So the film features the outcast 10-year-old Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who can see the dead. His parents and older sister won't believe him and other kids at school make fun of him. One day, Norman meets Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), a hobo that claims he's his uncle, and that he has a ritual which protects the town of Blithe Hollow from an ancient curse. When the ritual fails and Prenderghast dies, it's up to Norman to save the village from an old evil going back to the times of the pilgrims. But Norman will learn that the best way to destroy wickedness is goodness and being nice.

The film has a nice array of characters, and the zombies in particular with their slacked jaws are suitably spooky-looking. The cast is filled with your basic small-town archetypes, with the more notable characters coming from the realm of the dead. However, the film somewhat lacks in suspense and athmosphere-creating. Anyone actually thinking this is better-crafted than Brave must be out of their mind. Even 10 seconds of a set up scene of that film's misty moors of Scotland is more exciting than this whole film.

This is by no means a bad movie, but it's Monster House meets The Frighteners stich is a bit worn-out. I do appreciate the early shout-out to Troll 2, though.


Monday, 11 February 2013

Chew: The Master

I figure enough time has passed from both me seeing the Master in 70 mm print, and all you poor schmucks who saw it premiere in Finland last week, to do another Chew on the film. Perhaps writing this even teaches myself a thing or two about the film. Chew texts gloss over plot points and such, so if you're unfamiliar with the film, I advise you to see it before reading. This also means the following will contain some Spoilers.

In short

Paul Thomas Anderson is at the top of his game, and at the point where he can do just about anything he pleases with his films. It's very rare for a major American director to create a work such as this; a visually striking, character piece that leaves out plenty of lose ends, and keeps its pace deliberately low-key. It's all well and good if your film is either compact or sprawling with ideas at every corner. As it is, however, The Master doesn't quite grab me with its content, while it does have several very good ideas at its core. The film seems to have plenty of fat in its near three-hour running time.

The most unexpected thing happened on this Anderson film: the characters don't grow on you. While Phoenix and Hoffman do superb work acting and fleshing out the characters with tiny nuances, they don't really seem that interesting to be worth following almost three hours. It might be due to Anderson's refusal to have any major climaxes, with the films ups and downs being very minor bumps in the way. After peeling away most of their cover, at core the main characters are quite one note. There Will Be Blood had the same features but it was considerably less subdued, letting itself loose with BIG melodramatism from time to time. It had some emotion in it.

Anderson is a clear Romantic but here he insists on making a big, ponderous film with the cold analytics of Kubrick and the poetism of Malick, reaching the heights of neither. The film could use several more important character's viewpoints, as of now it only really looks at two, MAYBE three individuals. It's still not a bad film by any means, and the several themes Anderson juggles throughout the film are quite interesting.


The clearest implication of the film is that it's about a lost soul looking for a place in the world. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is an ex-Marine from the War of the Pacific and doesn't know what to do or where to go after the war ends. Everything feels empty, until a chance takes him to the family of spiritual leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd convinces Quell that he holds all the keys of life, answers to all the mysteries. But "the master" keeps them to himself, constantly repeating the half-truth that his next book will change Quell's world when it's finished. Of course, when the book comes out, it doesn't make anything clearer and was just the kind of big build-up with hot air inside Dodd specializes in.

In a very Andersonian fashion, the director sees that (post-war) America is built on ideas. But rather than these ideas being always the best and the most solid, the things which to build upon are chosen by however well they are sold to people. It's a country of traveling salesmen, and Hoffman is a down-on-his luck Cut-Me-Own-Throat seller. Dodd truly believes his own product is truly wonderful, it is just too hard to grasp and too great to be able to explain to the public. His followers are sold to this false ideal rather than any real thoughts or ponderings.

But Quell doesn't get any better. In fact his aimless, reckless ways are increasingly seen as a threat to the Dodd empire by the matriarch Peggy (Amy Adams). Quell sticks around, partly because he hasn't anywhere better to go, partly because he thinks he's been convinced by Dodd's BS when in fact he isn't even thinking about it. Dodd asking endless questions and making personality tests has also Quell convinced the Master can make deep analyses of his life and knows what's best for him.

A lot of people have found a father-son relationship within Dodd and Quell. In fact both the actors seem to play a little off of each other, as if belonging in separate movies. Their relationship is depicted coldly, and both attempt feed off each other. It's more of a master-apprentice relationship as the title suggests. But in this case neither realizes there's little the other can teach, before it's too late. The father-son relationship does raise it's head at least in times when Quell rebels against his philantropist.

Castles made of sand

In the film's sun-burned imagery, the ocean is one of the rare things to be in full color. Indeed the image Quell reminisces throughout the film, is the foam forming behind his ship sailing away from the war. It's a metaphor how he approaches life. He doesn't look back or ahead, he lives in the spur of the moment like the foam, that doesn't last long. It's also repeated in the scene where the speed of a motorcycle blinds him from the brainwash inflicted by the Dodds and he manages to do a short-lived escape. An escape into nothing, it turns out.

He builds short-form sand castles for pleasure in his very first scene where he builds a sand mermaid to fuck, infinitely bored waiting for a ship to take him home. And at home the same thing goes on, idle sex, dumping the women afterwards, and Quell getting fed up with any career opportunity he's offered. It's interesting to note how Dodd is foreshadowed in the scene where Quell annoys a similar pudgy middle-aged mustached patron into a fist fight. Quell brings a hot photography light too close to his face just for the laugh.

While most of the movie is very light, there are several darker night scenes. At those points Quell almost always mixes up his trademarked cocktails, featuring all sorts of poisonous solvents and drain cleaning liquids. It hints on his character being suicidal, or just oblivious on how much harm he can do.

Looking for love in all the wrong places

The film's view on sex is that it's more or less an act of control. Peggy keeps her husband at bay with a well-timed hand job. Part of Quell's interest in Dodd's cult stems from the fact that the Master can make women object to his whim, like stripping naked while playing a tune for him to sing. Picking up random girls for Quell is a way to pass the time and his attempts at controlling the women are feeble at best. He hasn't got anything to offer them, but unlike Dodd, he can't disguise the fact.

Quell does try to look for the light for his life, but it is very hard to find with the film being burned throughout with light anyway. The only relationship he's ever had was with his high-school girlfriend, and even that may have been a memory gilded by living through worse times. Quell has difficulties grasping other people don't live like him, in a timeless vacuum where not much progress happens.

That's also kind of like this movie. I realize my major gripe is that a film about an aimless wanderer being offered vague wisdoms and circumspect truths, feels like an aimless, vague circumspect quasi-movie. That's the whole point. Like the Master, I just wished it had more to offer for me than it does. I may still be missing on some major revelation  It's a film I really should see again, but for the moment don't really have the energy to do so.


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