[12 September 2012]
PopMatters Features Editor
USA—Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s unsettling study of the origins of a junk-science religion that looks suspiciously like Scientology, is among the two or three most anticipated titles at this year’s festival.
Set in a starkly realized post-war America, The Master follows aimless veteran Freddie Quill as he slips from job to job and from one violent episode to another. Uncannily adept at mixing up “potions”—using paint thinner, turpentine, ominous-looking powders—he awakens at the end of a bender on a ship headed from San Francisco to New York. His host is Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic guru peddling a curious brand of pseudo-spiritual psychology (think a cross between hypnotherapy, sci-fi paranoia and past-life recovery). From the get-go, Dodd sees in Quill a project of sorts: this is a man so unrefined as to suggest raw materials. And so he sets about breaking Quill’s “animal” tendencies through something he calls “processing”. Soon, along with Dodd’s zealous wife (a fierce Amy Adams) and several hangers-on, the ship arrives in New York and they begin a tour of the east coast, gathering adherents, quarrelling with skeptics, spreading the word.
Joaquin Phoenix (in a rebound role after the goodwill-smothering stunt that was I’m Still Here) plays Quill as a moth-breathing simpleton with only basic control over his physical impulses. He sees sex everywhere, drinks to great excess, and is prone to sudden displays of savagery. In Phoenix’s hands, he is a ferocious, haunting figure—in any other movie this same Quill would be a psychotic, a serial killer—his relentless physical volatility is always simmering just below the surface.
As “the Master”, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s turn is appropriately commanding. A big, ruddy-faced presence, he is the centre of attention wherever he goes. However, he is also a man of intense passions. Almost as quick to anger as Quill, he moves from passive and soft-spoken patience to sharp barks of fury, especially when faced with (even the mildest) criticism. Scores of people are drawn to him, they hush when he speaks, and they praise his steadfast vision in the face of a hostile world. Quill, operating as both loyal footsoldier and ongoing “project” for Dodd—he never quite falls in line with the precepts of the cult, and is perceived as a threat by all others in the inner circle—is both foil to Hoffman’s practiced refinement and a constant reminder of humanity’s bestial tendencies. The interplay between this misguided Messiah and his pet Judas is simply fascinating to watch. This is easily one of the best films of the year, even if it doesn’t all quite work.
Because, for all of its careful and frankly amazing development, The Master takes an unexpected turn in the final act which throws much of what has come before into question. Anderson did something similar in There Will Be Blood—recall the bowling alley zaniness that muddled the final act of that otherwise stunning picture—and one wonders if it is becoming something of a signature. (If so, maybe he could use some of that “processing” to get it sorted?)
Sweden/Ireland/Norway/Finland—Dir. Mikael Marcimain
It is Sweden in the late 1970s. It was a time defined by progressive social policies, a time when liberals around the world cheered as middle aged men in suits made bold proclamations about women’s rights and sexual liberalization to wide popular support. And it was also, argues the deeply provocative if scattered Call Girl, a time during which a conspiracy between police, the courts, and secret service officers protected a prostitution racket enjoyed by those same white men in suits who were spouting feminist platitudes.
To tell this somewhat fictionalized story, this neat policier cuts back and forth between two narrative strands before finally tying them together in the last half hour. In one, we follow several police officers as they struggle to build a case against Dagmar Glans (Pernilla August) the madam at the heart of the racket. In the second, far more fully realized line, we follow Iris (Sofia Karemyr), a 15-year old ward of the state living in the world’s most lax juvenile home, as she slips into work as a high priced call girl under Glans’ icy gaze.
This isn’t easy viewing. The horror of this film lies in the slow motion spiral into which we follow Iris (and, to a lesser extent, her cousin whom she encourages to join her). There are, to underline the cruelty of it all, a great many scenes featuring sweaty, flabby men grunting on top of naked minors. But, for all of the sex, there is precious little pleasure on display. Sex is nasty, brutish, and short in this picture.
As the police edge closer to connecting the dots, and as the politicians, judges, and officials involved begin to fear that their extra-curriculars will be exposed, people start to die. It is a familiar story. But, there is something about the sure-handed direction of first-timer Mikael Marcimain that makes us look past the expected narrative turns, the seen-it-coming reversals. He has a gift with actors, and gets stirring, unsettling performances out of everyone involved. Filled with carefully reconstructed period details, and featuring terrifically glossy disco-era music (often jarringly, thrillingly used as the soundtrack to decidedly un-groovy on-screen activities), Call Girl is a thoughtful, mature study of institutionalized sexism that should find a wide audience.
A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman
UK—Dir. Ben Timlett, Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson
When Graham Chapman, one fifth of the sublime comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus, passed away in 1989, it was revealed that he had recently made hours of audiotapes recounting his life. They were full of bizarre flights of fancy, wild imaginings, a scant few frank revelations, and lots and lots of outright lies. He was very up front about the lies, mind you. This was designed to be an impressionistic autobiography: if not accurate then at least true.
This innovative film has taken those recordings and built an animated feature around them. Narrated by a man long dead, there is a truly magical effect to Liar’s Autobiography in the early going. Are these Chapman’s last, rambling thoughts realized onscreen in psychedelic 3D? Are we settling in to gain insight into this comedic genius, into his mind, his methods?
Well, yes, and no. But, let’s face it, mostly no.
Featuring voice work from some of his erstwhile troupe-mates, and celebrating a mood of pervasive irreverent zaniness, the film has the jolly air of a classic Python flick. More’s the shame then, that it simply isn’t very funny.
Far too much of the film is given over to three themes: alcoholism, sex, and fame. Perhaps these were indeed the defining features of Chapman’s life in his own estimation, but for his millions of fans it was the comedy that framed him. And we get precious little insight into that. What’s worse, what jokes there are feel tossed off, lazy. Indeed, some sections of the film are wholly given over to juvenile and even irritating gags (as in one lengthy sequence about name-dropping in Hollywood).
Although the visuals are frequently wonderful to look upon—his “three days of unpleasantness” while sobering up is a masterpiece of grotesquerie—there just isn’t much that engages the mind, or the heart. Too bad he didn’t leave us with more.
USA—Dir. Ariel Vroman
Michael Shannon is enjoying a lot of buzz for his turn as real life mob hit man Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski. Too bad the film that surrounds it is such a failure. A morally bankrupt attempt to lionize a man who killed north of 100 people—the film actually closes with a photograph of the actual Kuklinski with his dates underneath, like this had been a wake, or a hagiography—The Iceman seems to have decided that people should sympathise with this assassin.
The plot is bare bones, and follows a well-worn narrative groove. Working as a voice actor for porn films in the mid-1960s, an already murderous Kuklinski runs afoul of some mobsters. When their intimidation tactics don’t appear to impress him, their pragmatic boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) hands Kuklinski a pistol and commands him to go and kill a random homeless man. Kukliski complies and, just like that, he’s hired. Meanwhile, he courts and then marries a virtuous woman (Winona Ryder in a welcome return) and they begin to raise a family. Soon enough, they move into a house in a leafy New Jersey suburb, his oblivious wife and kids convinced that he’s making his living working in “currency exchange”.
Eventually, things get complicated between DeMeo and Kuklinski, and the gifted hit man is forced to take another job, working with another serial killer (a fabulously hirsute Chris Evans) who has a penchant for cyanide and chemistry sets. They take to freezing their victims post-mortem, and then chopping them to smaller pieces for ease of disposal. (We get to watch them at work, so look forward to that.) But, relations between these two become thorny, and eventually guns start to get aimed at Kuklinski’s precious family. He gets desperate, makes mistakes, and starts running out of friends. Cornered, he takes a risk and accepts a job from an undercover cop. The contours of this story are well known to anyone who remembers the sensation caused by his arrest in the mid-1980s.
There are several things that don’t work in this film. First off: don’t cast Ray Liotta as a gangster unless you want people to compare your film to Goodfellas. (The Iceman really does not benefit from any comparison to Goodfellas.)
But, much more significantly, there is the problem that The Iceman needs us to believe that no one—not his family, not his friends—can tell that Kuklinski was a murderous thug, despite the fact that he sounds, acts, and looks like a murderous thug. Indeed, he appears (in Shannon’s dark, hulking performance) like nothing so much as a mask-free Michael Myers. Even while cuddling a baby! How could we, the audience, be the only ones to notice this? It never really works—at best, we just conclude that his wife, kids and friends are all hapless morons, but this doesn’t much help with our emotional investment.
And this is the thing that matters most, and which presents the greatest hurdle for a biopic of a serial killer: emotional investment. And here is where The Iceman fails. Fascinated by the wrong side of the story, the film heaps almost all of its attention on Kuklinski and his gangster colleagues, and has little patience for his family (not to mention his victims). But, aren’t they the real story here? Had The Iceman tried to help us to understand how these otherwise “normal” people could be living with such a malevolent brute, had it allowed any of them some kind of interior lives, this could have been a powerful study. Instead, we are left with this B-grade portrait of a man best forgotten.