The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)

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In There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson got earth’s most intense actor into the role of a megalomaniac and essentially just let the camera watch Daniel Day Lewis volcano all over everything. Here he does the same with another great slow-burner, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, though the results here are even more diffuse in terms of plotting. Joaquin Phoenix plays the Master’s acolyte and foil, and does terrific but often overcooked work; you get the sense that Hoffman is not the only three-named intensity-monger that Phoenix is bending over backwards to impress. It’s an engaging movie to look at, but as with There Will Be Blood, I wind up feeling there’s a certain emptiness to the endeavor. So many of the scenes feel like exercises in a Strasberg seminar; there’s a great deal of emoting, but not a lot of emotion. Part of the trouble is that the movie is so fearful of being about anything specific that it winds up not being about anything in particular. The wish to belong, the lure of alcohol, rationalism vs spirituality, male friendship, PTSD, American vacuity . . . they’re all toyed with as themes, but Anderson puts down no significant bets on any of them. So you’ll remember people laughing, crying, shouting, fighting, and kissing, but not why.

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These endless summer days I ingest culture faster than I can process it. In addition to a lot of material about PTSD, which I’m reading for a writing project, this is what’s been passing in front of my eyeballs. 

White Material, Claire Denis (2009). Denis goes back to Africa. Isabelle Hupert makes me nervous. The politics here are a mess, totally confused. A good example of how sloppy thinking likes to masquerade as ambiguity. But it’s Claire Denis, so of course we must still love it.

Somewhere, Sofia Coppola (2010). Just letting the camera keep running on a lifeless scene doesn’t make it Cassavetes. This is a deeply boring movie.

Another Year, Mike Leigh (2010). Another heartbreaker from Mike Leigh. It’s not really a story so much as it is a kind of temporal vitrine, in which are displayed a half-dozen fully-realized characters, interacting with each other and trying to be alive.

True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen (2010). Lacks the Coen whimsy of Fargo, etc. and also the Coen fatedness of No Country for Old Men. Fine, but neither here nor there.

F for Fake, Orson Welles (1973). Sloppy, self-indulgent, self-important, gimmicky, dull. And that’s coming from someone who’s genuinely interested in and who has great patience for this theme. Poor old fucker.

American Experience: Stonewall Uprising, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (2010). Nice doc. Lots of fascinating footage of Village life in the 60’s.

The Fighter, David O. Russell (2010). Stolid family drama, worth seeing. Has the kind of genuineness and moral seriousness of purpose you rarely see at the multiplex these days. It’s about a hundred times less interesting than, say, Raging Bull, but I think contemporary audiences are so incredibly grateful when they’re not pandered to, they wind up thinking something like this is art for the ages.

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Jonathan Shay (1994). Perfect idea, poorly executed with slack, repetitive prose and a lot of unnecessary self-dealing.

Speed the Plow, David Mamet (1988). Dialogue perfection. Perfect dramatic efficiency.

Still Life: A Documentary, Emily Mann (1982). Really lively, allusive, slippery drama about the collision of eros and thanatos in the post-war life of a Vietnam veteran.

Lethal Warriors, David Philipps (2010). Philipps didn’t ask for this job; he was a sports writer in Colorado Springs when the “Band of Brothers” started coming back from Iraq and killing each other and others. Philipps does an admirable job of stepping up and becoming a real reporter, covering some of the saddest stories of the war. Good, thorough, clear reporting. See also the Frontline episode, The Wounded Platoon.

Louie, Louis C.K. (2010-). Makes Seinfeld look like Happy Days.

The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni (1975). Oh, it’s horribly pretentious and aimless and even sometimes irresponsible, but it’s also of course gorgeous and dizzying poetry. I had to go get my camera to take pictures of it. Then I had to spend an hour planning a trip to Andalusia. 

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924). Been clambering up this Alp since May. Certainly skimmed some of the later Settembrini discourses, but I genuinely enjoyed almost all of these 700 pages. Took extensive notes elsewhere. This is utterly worth your time. Read it while you’re young. What’s it about? It’s about a young man who decides — the verb is too strong — to absent himself from history.

Port of Shadows, Marcel Carné (1938). Oh, France. Merci pour Michèle Morgan.

The Rack, Arnold Laven (1956)

One of the saddest movies you’ll ever see. It has the awkwardness and claustrophobia of a funeral from the very first frame. Paul Newman spends two years in a North Korean prison camp. When he gets home, he’s charged with collaborating with the enemy. It becomes clear that if he did provide aid and comfort to his captors, he did it to protect his comrades and/or because he’d been driven insane by torture. The tragic logic of the prosecution is eerily reminiscent of so many contemporary stories. Why was Muhammad Ismail Agha, fourteen, sent to Guantanamo? Because he’s a terrorist. How do you know he’s a terrorist? Because he was sent to Guantanamo.

The Messenger, Oren Moverman (2009)

This is not a perfect movie. There are a few flabby passages, and a few overly determined scenes. There are some fatal–though not necessarily obvious–inconsistencies in the script. The first-time director sometimes seems unsure of where to put the camera and where to point it. But the imperfections serve to accentuate what a truly superb work this really is. The cast–Samantha Morton in particular, closely followed by Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson–is absolutely fantastic. (Samantha Morton, I have to stress this, is amazing. I can’t remember the last time I saw a performance this good.) The script takes serious issues seriously without pandering to us or trying to edify us. The mise-en-scène perfectly captures the comfortable banality of contemporary American spaces–TV rooms, bars, malls, kitchens, cars, etc. And best of all, above all, the movie never hurries to make connections or draw conclusions. Silence is permitted, digression is permitted, reflection is permitted, and so genuine thought is possible.

Given the complexity of the subject matter and Moverman’s lack of experience, it’s all the more amazing that this turned out so well. It could have so easily been a disaster. I see that Moverman is at work on a Kurt Cobain picture. Another project with long odds, for sure, but seeing this makes me think he might be able to pull it off. God knows Van Sant didn’t.

A slightly bizarre afterthought: This reminded me of nothing so much as the sublime You Can Count on Me, another of the very few movies I can think of which seems to depict actual human relationships rather than cartoon versions of same. Screen those two as a double bill and you’ll be walking around with your guts turned inside out for a week.

Brothers, Jim Sheridan (2009)

Bad news: After fifteen minutes, my clip-on cliche monitor badge was already white-hot, so I had to turn this off and send it back to Netflix unwatched.

Good news: If I can just get up the gumption to write the heimkehrer I’m planning, it can’t possibly be this bad.

Let’s take a moment here to lament the tanking of Jim Sheridan, whose first picture, My Left Foot, was so terrific, but whose subsequent outings have gotten progressively worse.

Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood (2008)

A mismatched-buddy picture ala Beverly Hills Cop, a crusty-mentor picture ala Finding Forrester, an urban revenge fantasy ala Taxi Driver, a man-damaged-by-war-learns-to-be-human-again picture like so many of the movies I’ve been watching lately, a can’t-we-all-just-get-along overcoming-racism-through-food picture I can’t think of another example of right now . . . In short, a lot of things, but no one thing in particular. Oh, I forgot the nagging priest making a case for Catholicism. An awkward and manic-depressive movie, now ebullient and now morose. Oh, I forgot how terrible the writing is. (Eastwood to mirror: “I have more in common with these gooks than with my own family.” As if the movie hadn’t already pounded us over the head with that information a hundred times in a hundred ways already.) Politically speaking, I can’t make heads or tails of it. For starters, Eastwood’s character is supposed to be this huge racist, but in one strange scene he makes pretty clear that all his slurs are just “how men talk to each other,” that the racism is just an act. OK, he might not be racist, but the movie sure is, even — especially — at the moments when it thinks its being most enlightened, as in the portrayal of the Hmong protagonists as helpless and naive. The only Hispanics and African Americans on offer in the picture are gangbangers. It’s like Eastwood threw all these ingredients into the pot and hoped they’d make a meal, but really it’s just an inedible mess.