Archive for September, 2012

Films can elicit different emotions for various purposes whether it is a dooming bell to a happy farce.  It’s job isn’t just to entertain but to make sure the audience understands the purpose it’s trying to reach and it’s eventual conclusion.  At times, films can be frustrating affairs as the audience tries to peel back it’s layers and grasp what the director was trying to say only to be succumbed back to square one.  This eternal struggle forces an audience member to either give up in frustration or continue the epic back-and-forth mind game of understanding.  And so comes this review of The Master, a film by the always fascinating Paul Anderson and explores cults and it’s followers in detail.  The eventual end product is that same struggle of understanding where the pieces fall in place and why but for better (or for worse), it will take a bit more than a single viewing to fully ascertain all the detail.  In the end, however, the film’s overly long and pretentious methodology fights with some brilliant acting roles and beautiful aesthetic qualities that oddly end up as a fairly good view of the oddities of cults in itself.

The Master follows Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran of World War II who suffers from PTSD.  After his return from the war, his troubles continue to haunt him as he deals with alcoholism and fits of extreme anger.  He tries to acclimate to society in different occupations and roles but continues to find trouble until he hides in a boat and meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man who created a fervent following based on his own book.  Soon, Freddie meets the family including Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), and the small growth of the cult versus society and has to battle his own demons along the way.

The Master is at it’s best when it lets it’s actors flow in a scene with strong cinematography, score and lighting all helping to set the tone.  The acting ensemble here collectively are a phenomenal group.  The supporting cast has some great moments, especially an underutilized but controlling role from Adams in one of her darker roles.  The way she controls and sits in the back of her husband is always intense to see and fascinatingly strange.  On the other hand are the two leads, Hoffman and Phoenix who bring such intensity and ferocity to their characters in similar yet so different ways.  Hoffman commands a well-spoken man that has both severe anger issues and jovial outbursts as the cult leader while Phoenix acts like a trickster, brashly moving onto his next move yet so intrigued by Hoffman’s character.  Watch the scenes that simply include the two of them in one room (there’s many opportunities for this) and see them both explore and stay fascinated with one another in an interesting game of cat-and-mouse.  Supporting these actors is gorgeous cinematography that loves to pull back in rapid cuts and let the landscape and the character(s) be seen in relation to one another.  Additionally, the lighting has such a 1950s’ quality to it that perfectly sets the tone along with a musical score that parallels it’s characters well, especially Freddie’s broken clarinet theme.

However, the film will deeply divide many on whether or not it’s narrative does much with the characters and strange plot devices that it languishes in.  Anderson sets up the stage between the meeting of an outsider, Freddie, and the cult that Lancaster holds together.  However, the film does not deviate much from this interaction and creates a bit of a repetitive tempo that revolves around this circle in which Freddie despairs, finds solace and then rediscovers the despair and breaks.  This pattern may happen at different intensity levels and moments in the history of the cult but the beats all seem to remain the same, even puzzlingly near the end with few answers and a breadth of questions.  Personally, although the problem was apparent, the themes did seem to resonate in why such a pattern was occurring in terms of who was the master of the other and in control along with the personalities and inner demons that seem to be commonplace among the cultists and Freddie.  Still, there is no denying that Anderson has little care to explain the purpose or reasoning behind the character motivations which could have created a possibly clearer picture of the situation or that the better narrative, in terms of Lancaster’s cult, is given less time to grow than the strange tale of Freddie.  This film is set up more as a symbolic and abstract piece that has fascinating pieces with a narrative that doesn’t always connect.

The Master is a film that completely knows its purpose, even at the expense of it’s narrative, but still ends with a fine acting ensemble and cinematic piece.  There is no denying that the film is bound to infuriate and confuse much of it’s viewing audience with the overly long narrative and plot cycle that rotates in circles more than pushes forward.  However, for audiences that can understand it’s purpose and look past such strange plot devices, there is much to be found from some brilliant performances from Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams along with a great musical composition, beautiful cinematography and a fascinating sense of cults.  Although it may be illegible at times, The Master is a fascinating film that challenges it’s audience to come to terms with it’s character, just as much as they try to become masters of one another.  

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rated: R
Running Time: 137 Minutes

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of *****


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There is no exact rule for what a film can and cannot do (granted, if we dig deeper, there are intrinsic elements that people do expect but for the sake of the review, I wanted to focus on this general aesthetic).  Instead, it has a sense of purpose in what it wants to try and accomplish.  One of the most important elements I believe a film has to prove before the film ends.  However, even after trying to generally prove it’s central purpose, the said film needs to make the purpose worthy of discussion and prove that it brings a unique insight into the table, especially one that challenges the audience with a powerful question.  So comes Compliance, a film based on true events, that falls very much into the center of this category.  It asks and presents a large moral dilemma, but unfortunately falters when trying to give meaning and purpose behind it all.

Compliance follows Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of a fast food restaurant who gets a call from a police officer one day that one of her employees, named Becky (Drema Walker), had been caught stealing from another person and needs to be detained until police could arrive.  Sandra detains Becky into the back and thus begins a long ordeal between the police officer, Sandra, Becky and a host of other people connected to the incident in the film including the person on the other line, Officer Daniels (Pat Healy).

Compliance’s strong suit is in the good aesthetic value of the fairly simple story.  Very little of the plot happens outside of the fast food restaurant and the interior is not exactly filled with interesting set pieces.  The problem that creeps up is simply all the attention of the film being put onto other elements of the film other than the scenery and a close inspection of context and narrative.  At least on a purely aesthetic level, the film is fine.  The colors are muted and dark to reflect the tone of the film while the actual actors seem to fit their roles in terms of appearance.  Compliance also sets up interesting ideas and themes with it.  The narrative explores obedience and power in different facets whether it is over a faceless medium or a manager and her employee.  It also asks about what common sense would be and the levels of relationships that affect the final outcome.  The fact that it is based on a true story definitely adds a bit more at stake to what may seem like an outlandish premise.

The problems, however, creep up in terms of how much one buys the premise and the lack of little else other than the conflict.  Although the film opens up in gigantic letters that it is based on a true story, the film does little to provide the audience with much context and conflict.  Instead, it gives out little morsels of character exposition and is too set on telling the plot straight than trying to imagine and think about more of the relationships of these characters inside and outside the fast food restaurant.  Personally, the lack of this context was a strong factor in feeling that the film did not do enough to explain itself and ended up more ridiculous than shocking.  Showing the audience the perpetrator as well felt as more of a scare tactic than much usage of trying to explain his motivations.  Under the film’s current guidance, hiding the perpetrator under a veil would have serviced the story much better.  Yet the presentation style and the film order felt so by the books that it did not do the end product enough justice.  Such a laid back approach felt to skew the film with more questions than answers – questions that the film could have either filled with it’s own assumptions or at least give scenes of provocative thought to.  The best scene in the film perhaps is in it’s final scene between the manager and another character, discussing the events that had transpired – a scene that had some weight in terms of character development and thoughtful questions on it’s subject matter.

Compliance is a tough pill to swallow, not exactly because of it’s subject matter but the decisions made in it’s presentation and characterization.  The central tale of Compliance is told fairly clearly with little room for the imagination and in that sense, makes for an interesting character study and moral issue of obedience to authority and personal sensibility.  However, personally, the film’s stand as an omnipotent passerby feels inadequate for the subject matter, only subtly hinting at why characters may have acted in a certain way.  This slight glance at the characters’ back story only fuels more of a desire to see how characters acted in different situations compared to the moral challenge presented in the film and to present more characterization that seemed lacking.  The end result is a fairly sad ordeal into those that abuse power and those that don’t do more to recognize such abuse but failing to put much substance behind the spectacle.   

Director: Craig Zobel
Rated: R
Running Time: Approx. 90 Mins.

The Wie muses: ** ½ out of *****

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The magnificence of films like Koyaanisqatsi is not just in the fact that it’s filmed without a single line of dialogue or mostly landscapes.  It is that they give these moving images meaning and depth through cinematography, syntax and sound/music.  Although seemingly simple in some respects compared to other genres, these films are constant battles of both mapping out the importance of it’s imagery and then creating a significance that doesn’t undermine the final product as a whole.  So comes Samsara, a film that is very much in the vein of this tiny genre of symbolic landscape/no dialogue films.  Although the final product at times seems too upfront and forceful with it’s themes, Samsara succeeds in both wowing audiences with it’s beautiful captures of both nature and humans alike while creating meaningful context around it.

Samsara is, at it’s core, a film about nature and human beings – both in harmony and against one another.  The meaning of the title literally translates to continuous flow or cyclic forces.  Shot in beautiful 70mm film, Director Fricke and his crew travel to 25 countries and views a variety of objects from volcanoes to city landscapes while also looking towards individuals and the people’s lives.

The toughest criticism to lodge at the film is in how  it’s messaging sometimes becomes so explicit and causes these sections to feel out-of-place amongst the rest of it’s film.  Samsara is a very subtle film in the different aspects it views and usually lets it’s themes flow out in such non-explicit ways.  However, there are enough noticeable moments in which Fricke cuts away from this technique and literally creates a very controlled and more noticeably manipulated scene.  Understandably, this comment may seem strange to lodge at a film in which scenes are obviously shot in certain ways and scenes are, of course, presented in a specific way.  Still, these scenes stand out because it seems easy to point out that they are manipulated and breaks the subtle consistency used throughout the rest of the film.  Similar messaging appears in the aforementioned subtle technique as well and works to bring forth the ideas and so unfortunately, these very overt scenes come up as a bit of a disappointment in comparison.

Luckily, other than these examples, Samsara is poignant both in it’s visual and aural presentation along with the symbolic overtones.  In terms of the different aspects visualized, Fricke and his crew have picked up both some of the obvious locales but also many fascinating sights as well of both the man-made and nature.  Some of the shots seem so surreal that it’s an amazing sight to think that little special effects tampering was involved.  Probably some of the most fascinating shots involves large bodies of people and the unique situations that it involves.  One of the most surprising involves a prison which I won’t spoil here.  In addition, the music, full of hymns, chants and electronica do a pretty good job of complementing the scenery as well.  Finally, there is a great sense of modern and relevant themes that are both global and interpersonal.  The film feels both as a celebration of life and a harsh look into the problems the world is facing that is deeper than simply the world versus humans but also ‘East’ versus ‘West’ as well as obesity and consumption.  Even though it may seem a bit preachy at times, the visual interplay and juxtaposition create creative scenarios that flow into one another and give meaning to a sea of people roaming around.  The introduction and ending as well serve as great starting points and bookends that bring the experience altogether.

Samsara is far from the first film to utilize just cinematography, sound and music to tell it’s plot but is still an impressive feat to see come together nevertheless.  Some of it’s overt thematic tellings may be a bit much and it’s ‘plot’ mechanics are rudimentary than innovative.  However, the shots are utterly gorgeous and many times amazing while as a whole, Director Fricke, weaves in fascinating themes such as ‘East’ versus ‘West’ comparisons to the quest for human perfection, all without a single line of dialogue.  Samsara is a beautiful painting that embodies the modern human life from it’s worst to it’s best and is another fine example of the relevance and importance of cinema.   

Director: Ron Fricke
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 102 Minutes

The Wie muses: **** out of *****

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