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Review: The Master

2.0

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The Master
Photo: The Weinstein Company

One of Paul Thomas Anderson’s best qualities as a dramatist is that he knows the value of a minor gesture. His style is measured and deliberate, but it’s also true that he’s less overtly meticulous or detail-oriented than, say, Stanley Kubrick, to whom he’s increasingly compared. Anderson’s sensibility hovers a few degrees above the minutia: In his films, the focus is on the repetition of a phrase, a trickle of blood down a forehead, a tracking shot into a club. These gestures carry all the weight. In his underrated Punch-Drunk Love, the “big” moments—Adam Sandler’s sudden explosions of rage, for instance—had a gravity at odds with their otherwise largely comic surroundings, and that dissonance proved dynamic and interesting. His major follow-up, There Will Be Blood, dived headlong in the other direction, swung like an iron fist away from dynamism and toward an unwavering, one-note brutalism equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. Anderson’s characteristic gestures oscillated there between depressing and alarming (often very unexpectedly, as when a long piece of drilling machinery falls and crushes a rig worker suddenly), each horror stacked upon the last like a mounting tower of pain and suffering. The ultimate effect was substantial: There Will Be Blood remains something of a high-water mark for a cinema of blistering miserablism, and, now that The Master has arrived and proved disappointing, it’s still P.T. Anderson’s best film.

The Master‘s self-contained minor gestures are standalone pleasures strung together like beads on a string. When these moments arrive, Anderson is operating in top form; the problem is simply that, unlike the films which came before it, The Master boasts too few of them. In other words, it coasts: Where his earlier work seemed often fit to burst with the verve of tiny niceties, The Master drifts for long expanses, like the wanderer at the heart of the film, running on only the fumes of drama and action. As befits a filmmaker accustomed to working on broad canvases, the themes Anderson deigns to tackle here are de facto capital-M Major, his dual subjects suitably larger than life; odd, then, that the film itself feels so withdrawn and scaled back, like an aspiring epic rendered slight in manner and form. That his approach has been thoroughly pared down sounds, in theory, like a process of considered simplification, and a more generous reading could ascribe its slender figure to a desire to challenge or subvert expectations. But the overall thinness of the film—what is, frankly, a lack of substance beneath its cool, well-composed aesthetic and two perfectly riveting performances—feels more like an uncharacteristic cop-out than some kind of sly or subversive coup.

Ostensibly the story of an obliquely characterized drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) who befriends the charismatic leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of a burgeoning, insidious cult in the 1950s, The Master seems, perhaps surprisingly, considerably more interested in the nebulous, counterintuitive nature of the relationship which develops between them than in the cult which forms the backdrop of the story, and the decision to keep the focus fixed in that direction comes to be both the most interesting and frustrating aspect of the narrative. Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, pretty clearly modeled after L. Ron Hubbard, has by the film’s end published only two volumes of scripture and has only spoken to a small congregation of followers, and though understanding that the Cause is based at least in part on Scientology helps us to imagine its scope by comparison to a real-world corollary, the film never otherwise endeavors to situate the cult in any film-specific cultural or historical context; as a result, we never gain any real sense of how large or influential the Cause is at any given time, which makes it feel like a function of the plot rather than a central, fully realized part of it.

Deemphasizing the particulars of the cult’s operations in this way was in a sense a pretty brazen narrative elision, and though it’s the most problematic restriction of the film’s scope, it’s also one of its principal sources of interest: Our focus shifts, almost by necessity, away from the cult as a serious institution or corrupting force and toward its central figures as characters not strictly defined by it. Phoenix’s demented, ever-somnambulant Freddie Quell, in particular, seems perpetually out of synch with dynamics of the group to which he belongs, and his apparent disinterest in the details of the religion he embraces is probably the best case for the film’s own detachment from the same—a line of reasoning one can accept abstractly without deeming it a virtue. Quell’s grasp of the events unfolding around him is strictly tenuous throughout his exploits, so it seems reasonable, at least theoretically, that we ought to remain as clueless as our surrogate. But aimlessness and confusion form a less interesting basis for narrative drama than the workings of one of the world’s most pervasive and influential cult.

Dodd, for his part, lords over his followers with precisely the insidious manipulation of the best cult leaders (and, for that matter, fascists, a parallel not lost on Anderson); the fact that the content of his belief system is mostly elided while the rhetoric is retained suggests, in an oblique and not totally satisfying way, that the speaker has far more power than the sermon. In other words, the essence of the Cause is arbitrary, an idea explicated in a scene in which Laura Dern’s character, a loyal adherent to the word of her master, is shouted down after questioning the changing of a key word in Dodd’s latest book. This moment serves a clear dramatic purpose (its volume alone adds a bit of dramatic heft during a particularly ponderous stretch), but it doesn’t quite land as a turn of the screw of late-film character development; following two hours of general consistency from Dodd, it doesn’t seem very credible that he’d backtrack on a major element of his unifying philosophy so explicitly—or make a mistake so obvious.

Part of what’s interesting about these characters is how full-bodied and three-dimensional they feel; they’re complicated, confused collections of contradictory impulses and unclear motivations, so it isn’t difficult to imagine an action or decision that can’t be definitively accounted for. Besides, Phoenix and Hoffman embody their respective heroes so intensely and immersively (these performances are transformative both verbally and physically, until neither are completely recognizable as themselves) that the characters seem rich and believable even when their motivations remain vague (nearly always) or their actions occasionally baffle (frustratingly often). There’s even a pervading sense that we don’t know and may never know what it is that draws Dodd and Quell to one another in the first place, and there’s no easily perceivable explanation for why Quell gravitates toward Dodd’s cult given his apparent lack of interest in it as a way of life, or why Dodd seems so invested in having his newfound—and highly dissimilar—friend work so closely to an operation so important to him (the suggestion is floated that he regards Quell as a protégé, but the bond seems more credibly based on friendship—or perhaps suppressed romance—than any kind of potential business prospect).

That quality, again, is both a virtue and a fault: It’s always a pleasure to see two meaty, conspicuously actorly performances given room to breathe on screen. But because a central dimension of those performances is their fundamental impenetrability (the actors always look like they’re thinking something cogent and in character even if we can’t discern precisely what it is), the film, to a distressing degree, remains itself woefully impenetrable. Had more authorial energy been expended establishing other points of entry into the world of the film beyond the psychology of its major players, The Master might still betray a convincing sense of inner depth and richness. But reduced to this level of relative austerity (by Anderson’s standards), and with the minor gestures which make his films what they are stripped down and left lacking, The Master feels rather meager, a pale revision of a sensibility that until now served the director well.

And it’s a shame. There’s much to admire about The Master, including another serious, propulsive score from Jonny Greenwood and more of the immaculate shooting and editing for which Anderson is well known. But where There Will Be Blood inspired awe, The Master inspires only mild curiosity, the feeling that something is missing. An early scene on a boat finds Quell undergoing “some informal processing,” a free-association psychology exam conducted with an almost sadistic intensity by Dodd, and though fleeting, it’s totally riveting, and might be the best minor gesture Anderson has ever mustered. But the film isolates it, cutting away soon and never returning to anything like it; the two never have “processing” sessions again, and the only other times we see Dodd practicing his religion among others, it’s either brief and muted (early, at a dinner party) or over-extended and belabored (later, when he forces Quell to pull a Lil Jon and go from the window to the wall). That scene suggests the movie The Master might have been, integrating the operational substance of the cult with the psychological robustness of the characters, using one to dig deep within the other and vice versa. But the moment it finds this ideal footing, it falls out of it again, eventually settling into a rhythm of repetition and inaction that’s quite dull by comparison. That’s a crucial flaw: The rest lacks impact. The Master is Anderson with the edges sanded off, the best bits shorn down to nubs.

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern Director: Paul Thomas Anderson Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson Distributor: The Weinstein Company Running Time: 137 min Rating: R Year: 2012 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass Is Less Than Half Empty

M. Night Shyamalan’s film is aimed at an audience from whom he cringingly craves fealty.

2

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Glass
Photo: Universal Pictures

What a difference nearly two decades makes. When writer-director M. Night Shyamalan released Unbreakable way back in 2000, the superhero genre was hardly the mass-cultural malady that it is today. An oddball take on caped crusaders and the like had a better chance of standing out in theaters, and Unbreakable was certainly one of the more eccentric uses of $75 million Hollywood studio dollars.

Shyamalan’s tale of a Philadelphia security guard, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who, after surviving a devastating train crash, discovers he has inhuman strength and a psychic ability to predict danger, was photographed in languorous long takes, with most dialogue spoken barely above a whisper. Unbreakable was really more of a slow-burning family relationship drama—especially between Dunn and his hero-worshipping son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark)—than it was a men-in-tights, or, in this case, man-in-rain-slicker action flick. But a cartoonishly clothed Samuel L. Jackson did often pop up as a brittle-boned character named Elijah Price, who pontificated about comic books as if they were a socio-cultural Rosetta Stone.

In one of his patented, P.T. Barnum-esque twist endings, Shyamalan revealed that Price fancied himself Dunn’s brainiac archnemesis. “They called me Mr. Glass,” he says of his childhood torturers. And so the stage was set for a future showdown, though lower box-office receipts than expected appeared to put the kibosh on that. But now here we are with the frivolous and protracted Glass, which finally pits Dunn and Glass against each other. Though there’s one other person involved…or perhaps we should say multiple people in one.

That would be Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the dissociative identity-afflicted villain known as The Horde, who was first introduced in Shyamalan’s 2016 hit, and stealth Unbreakable sequel, Split. McAvoy is once again the whole show here, with the actor receiving top billing over his co-stars. He shares several scenes with Split’s damaged final girl, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), and he leans full-tilt into The Horde’s various personalities. Among these interior others are prim British matriarch Patricia; nine-year-old dance freak/Drake fanboy Hedwig; macho sexual deviant Dennis; and a cannibalistic savage known only as The Beast, who’s as close to a Big Bad as the film gets. McAvoy’s energy and go-for-brokeness is infectious, and it’s something Glass could use a whole lot more of.

The film’s first 20 minutes or so put Dunn, now nicknamed The Overseer, and Crumb on a collision course that eventually lands them in the same mental hospital where Glass is incarcerated. The trio’s physician is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, seemingly rehearsing for her eventual role as Nurse Ratched in Ryan Murphy’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel), an icy unbeliever, so she says, in anything superheroic. It’s Staple’s goal to talk her three charges into renouncing their phenomenal powers. And talk. And talk. And talk.

Much of Glass’s running time is given over to therapy sessions in which Crumb cycles through his personas, Dunn looks alternately befuddled and constipated, and Glass lolls his Frederick Douglass-coiffed head to the side in drooling catatonia. (Is he faking his unresponsiveness? What do you think?) He’s barely the star of his own film, though Shyamalan has said in interviews that Glass is meant to reflect the character’s fragile, erudite nature, as Unbreakable did Dunn’s reluctant heroism and Split did Crumb’s anything-goes psychosis.

There’s a certain clinical elegance to the crisp digital cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, much in keeping with Glass’s eye-catching, purple-accented wardrobe (love that monogrammed cravat!). It’s telling, however, that the most striking scenes here are flashbacks to the Eduardo Serra-shot Unbreakable. This includes a terrifying deleted scene from that film in which a young Elijah Price (Johnny Hiram Jamison) rides an amusement park Tilt-A-Whirl, with bone-shattering results and to the palpable distress of his mother, played by Charlayne Woodard. She reprises her role, as Clark does Dunn’s now-grown son, in Glass’s present-day scenes.

A bigger issue is that the film’s earnest deconstruction of comic-book mythology seems antiquated given our present glut of superhero media. It’s no longer a genre to be elevated since it has become the norm. Plus, the unintentionally hilarious way that Paulson says, “Have you ever been to a comic book convention?” is one of several signposts suggesting that Shyamalan’s geek cred is about, say, 20 years behind the times.

It certainly might have helped if Shyamalan were able to more humorously poke at his own pretenses. The wet-noodle climax in which all of Glass’s characters have a staggeringly non-epochal confrontation in a friggin’ parking lot could only have benefitted from a sense that the stars and the multi-hyphenate auteur were enjoying themselves. It’s only too appropriate that Jackson’s Glass sternly narrates this skeletally smack-a-doo finale as if he was a distressed academic lecturing attention-starved stoners.

Perhaps genuine fun is too much to ask from an artist who once wrote a po-faced tome about closing America’s education gap (put “I Got Schooled” into Google and delight, such as it is). There’s also another twist or two on the horizon, though it gives nothing away to say that the reveals amount to little more than “the real superhero…was mankind.” In the end, Glass proves to be another of Shyamalan’s pompous sermons about faith in oneself, aimed at an audience from whom he cringingly craves fealty.

Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard Director: M. Night Shyamalan Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 129 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: An Acceptable Loss Is a Morally Urgent B Movie

The film is a cynical critique of American foreign policy wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills.

2.5

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An Acceptable Loss
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Joe Chappelle’s An Acceptable Loss is a B movie with a morally urgent message, a cynical critique of American foreign policy in the Middle East wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills. By positioning the U.S. government as the film’s primary antagonist, Chappelle takes to task the repeated killing of innocent lives as collateral damage in the hunt for terrorists and other ostensible enemies.

The ethical quandary that arises from such an operation is embodied by Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter), a former national security adviser to Vice President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis) who’s taken a teaching gig at a Chicago university. As Libby secretly transcribes her experiences, and faces civilians who are angry over her role in a controversial military operation in Syria, Chappelle shows a surprising empathy for the character. The filmmaker outlines that Libby’s memorializing of her experiences and her honest attempt at assimilating within a society that more or less shuns her is borne out of feelings of regret.

But An Acceptable Loss’s compelling take on moral reckoning is compromised by the distracting presence of Martin (Ben Tavassoli), a grad student who consistently exposes lapses in the storyline’s logic. Martin mysteriously stalks Libby and sets up an elaborate surveillance system in her house, but it’s never explained how Martin can operate with the skill, knowledge, and proficiency of some kind of intelligence officer. Dubiously, when Libby and Martin need each other’s help in a moment of crisis, the film oddly passes on holding the latter’s disturbingly voyeuristic behavior accountable; Libby shakes her head, and then the film drops the matter completely. For a film eager to ponder the ethics of people’s actions, it comes off as strange that Chappelle doesn’t scrutinize Martin’s own.

Still, it’s difficult not to get swept up in An Acceptable Loss’s technical virtuosity. The film’s propulsive narrative is nothing if not efficient, aided in no small part by crisp editing that relishes the fine art of cross-cutting. The dark interiors that Chappelle favors create a Tourneur-like atmosphere of dread that subsumes Libby, underlining the covert nature of her documenting her secrets; even scenes in daylight have a strangely nocturnal feel to them. This visual style complements An Acceptable Loss’s pessimistic view of America’s foreign policy, which is sustained right up to the film’s hopeful coda. The film shows that if policy is to change, it greatly helps to be supported by people like Libby, someone who had been complicit in committing atrocities but ultimately embraced her humanity.

Cast: Tika Sumpter, Ben Tavassoli, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jeff Hephner, Alex Weisman, Clarke Peters Director: Joe Chappelle Screenwriter: Joe Chappelle Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: The Heiresses Is a Contemplative Look at Class

Ana Brun’s performance as Chela anchors our attention where Marcelo Martinessi’s understated visuals might otherwise lose it.

3.0

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The Heiresses
Photo: Distrib Films US

In writer-director Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses, middle-aged lesbian couple Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irún) live together in a bourgeois household with only the leftovers of its former grandeur. The house and its furnishings, Chela’s inheritance from her parents, have a dated, hand-me-down quality, and the couple is gradually selling off the expensive furniture and china to pay for Chiquita’s debts. The emptying of the house of Chela’s possessions reflects the greater emptiness that Martinessi makes the audience feel in the space, where hardly anybody but the couple appears, and where the lights seem to always be off, presumably to save money.

But selling off Chela’s inheritance is to no avail, and Chiquita ends up in what’s essentially a debtor’s prison (the bank she owes money to charges her with fraud). Chiquita had been the dominant personality in their relationship, and after she’s sent to prison Chela finds herself in an even emptier house, without much to do. When an elderly neighbor, Pituca (Maria Martins), asks her for a ride one day, and insists on paying her for it, Chela finds a new vocation, becoming a kind of unofficial chauffeur to the neighborhood’s still-wealthy ladies. Although she doesn’t have a license, she begins driving Pituca and her friends around the city, picking up a regular gig driving the younger Angy (Ana Ivanova) to visit her ill mother. Initially flummoxed by the way she has fallen from her bourgeois indolence into a working-class job, Chela begins to embrace the relative freedom offered by driving, as well as the independence her bourgeoning relationships with the other women give her from Chiquita.

Martinessi cites Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant as his inspiration for the film, but The Heiresses has little of Fassbinder’s grandiose flair. This film’s characters spend more time staring contemplatively off screen than they do erupting into sudden emotional outbursts, for example, and Martinessi doesn’t accentuate the superficiality of Chela’s bourgeois home by arranging a literally glittering mise-en-scène, as Fassbinder might have done. Instead, Martinessi’s images are rather static and quite dark, relying on the natural lighting of the dimly lit house and Chela’s cramped Mercedes, the two places where most of The Heiresses’s scenes take place. The result is a film that’s more grounded—and more stylistically pared down—than Fassbinder’s performative melodramas.

In other ways, however, The Heiresses does recall Fassbinder’s drama of failed domesticity. In their shared home, Chela and Chiquita are surrounded by the signs of a disintegrating upper-middle-class patriarchy, represented in the ornaments of wealth Chela identifies as coming from her father. And like Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, though patriarchy is a structuring absence in The Heiresses, Martinessi’s film is overwhelmingly female: Angy has an ex-boyfriend who appears in the background of a couple shots, but no man’s face is seen throughout the entire film. While The Heiresses presents an almost exclusively female world, it uses very few exterior shots, communicating a feeling of confinement—most literally in those scenes in which Chela visits Chiquita in the women’s prison.

This sense of confinement reflects on Chela personally, as well as on the women in the film more broadly. As the nouveau riche come to look over her possessions, Chela spies on them through a cracked-open door. Martinessi presents these scenes from Chela’s voyeuristic point of view, reflecting her isolation and trepidation in relation to the outside world: She’s ashamed to now be reliant on selling her family’s possessions, but she’s also afraid of making contact with anyone outside of her and Chiquita’s world.

At times, paradoxically, the visual and dramatic quietude of The Heiresses feels a bit excessive, but Brun’s performance as Chela anchors our attention where Martinessi’s understated visuals might otherwise lose it. In downward glances and semi-dazed glares, she captures a character who at once is overwhelmed by her new circumstances and emotionally shields herself from them. Slowly and ambivalently, Chela finds a sense of self apart from her overbearing partner and the legacy of her father—breaking away from, rather than merely avoiding, her oppressive circumstances.

Cast: Ana Brun, Margarite Irún, Ana Ivanova, Maria Martins, Nilda González, Alicia Guerra Director: Marcelo Martinessi Screenwriter: Marcelo Martinessi Distributor: Distrib Films US Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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