Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ego and Id—The Master

An exceedingly strange, thrilling and disturbing film, The Master is a like a dark pool, mysterious and rippling with refracted light, now revealing, now concealing what it is really saying.

View Trailer


DEMAND ON VIEWER  High (length, non-linear, and difficulty of comprehension)
OVERALL  Selectively Recommended (this is not a film for those who want a straightforward story or a feel good.)

Playing the dark, base, animalistic persona of Freddie Quell, Joachin Phoenix upstages even the inestimable Philip Seymour Hoffman as he turns out a singular performance with a character as real and as unforgettable as his other two major roles in Gladiator and Walk the Line. There is constant tension in the film based on the unpredictability of his character against the formal, high-society cult that has been built by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).

Quell has something like post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in the war. He goes from job to job, getting in trouble by reckless behavior such as mixing alcoholic drinks using paint thinner and poisoning people. He happens by a boat with a group of high-class New Yorkers, and is welcomed by their leader, Dodd.

Immediately there is chemistry between Quell and Dodd; one of the fascinations of this film is to ask why this is so throughout the course of the story. Is Quell the Id to Dodd's ego? The animal to Dodd's spiritual nature?

Dodd loves Quell's alcoholic drinks even while maintaining that Quell is "naughty" and should stop boozing. Quell in turn loves Dodd's repetitive questioning process. Based loosely on scientology, it is evidently aimed at the recovery of memories and past lives. It seems to help Quell calm down. Close ups of Quell show a haggard and lined face becoming smooth again. But ultimately Quell cannot be quelled (choice of his name is very ironic.)

At one point Dodd has Quell pace relentlessly back and forth between wall and window as part of the "process." This is frustrating to Quell but ultimately helps free his trapped and repressed guilt over abandoning a woman earlier in his life. These strange encounters permeate the film with a kind of unreal trance-like quality, believable and yet at the same time alien.

In his saner moments Quell is a photographer. His role is (albeit unconsciously) to both document and expose the cult to a harsh glaring light. We see, through Quell's eyes, Dodd's inconsistencies, Dodd's own animal nature, and the ridiculous elements of Dodd's practice. The irony is that Quell is perhaps the least self-aware person in the story, or so it seems at first, and yet he practices great kindness in the end by passing on some of Dodd's more positive and helpful questions.

The megalomania of Dodd is both mesmerizing and creepy, and yet at times he seems genuine and effective in reaching an unreachable person like Quell. The two are clearly dependent on each other. It reminds me of Hegel's discussion of the master-slave relationship. One is dependent on the other, and one's very existence arises out of the other's. "I'm the only one that likes you!" Dodd yells as they are both in jail.

The jail scene is the most riveting of the film. I do not know how it was physically possible for Phoenix to ram his body around that cell, slamming into the top bunk over and over, without becoming injured. All the while the "rational" Dodd looks on passively, suavely. It is hard to miss the statement here that these are twin sides of the same character.

Amy Adams deserves special mention. Her performance is a subtle blend of submissive and controlling body language, and her barely contained emotional fervor is pitch perfect for her role as Dodd's wife. She sits in judgment over both Quell and Dodd, introducing another element of mastery—sexual. Clearly Dodd's sexuality is kept in check by her; and her own sexuality is fraught with repression. She seems to be eternally pregnant as well, bringing up the constant presence of that more primal element of society and particularly religion, the guarded use of sex within the family for procreation and protection of the fold.

After an ambiguous scene depicting what seemed to be a fantasy of Quell's, where members of the cult were unashamedly nude during a song and dance session, it is Dodd who gets punished by his wife Peggy (Adams). It is as though Quell and Dodd were collapsed into a single mind, perhaps together with all males, high and low class alike. Dodd is punished in a very challenging scene in the bathroom where Peggy masturbates him and acts the part of an aggressor.

This film certainly helps to explain the prevalence of cults and fanatical movements, but it also helps illuminate the darker (and sexual) parts of our own natures. We all pretend to be rational, but we all have ways of covering over our flaws. We all feel that our own logical positions are airtight, and yet they may be just flights of our own imagination. We think we are in control, and yet Quell is there within, at the edge of our consciousness, waiting to jump out. What issues do each of us face require a master to help us modulate, fix, or move through?

Near the end of the film Dodd says "If you can figure out a way to live your life without a Master, you will be the only human being ever to do so." This kind of line at the end of a film causes one to go back and re-evaluate just what was the subject of the film in the first place. For a society at the edge of evolution, perhaps we are also at the brink of falling overboard, because we do not know ourselves as well as we think. Perhaps we ought to reckon with our sexuality rather than pretending to be "rational" in order to control it. Perhaps it is not so bad after all to be looked after by a Master.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fresh Innocence — Moonrise Kingdom

A dollhouse world more honest than our own.

(Must be patient as story unfolds at a slightly slower pace than many films.)
OVERALL Highly Recommended!

In Moonrise Kingdom we get to see the wisdom and innocence of youth — from the dollhouse opening scene to the boy scout island adventure, from the first kiss to the serious commitment to elope. Wes Anderson has created a magical world that is also somehow more honest and agreeable than our own. Kudos to the adolescent actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward (and why don't they get billing on the poster??!!) who carry the film with their unashamed naturalism and grace, and who outshine even the likes of Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Tilda Swinton!

This is good storytelling and finely crafted scenemaking at its best. You will feel better after seeing this, I guarantee it. It has a reassuring quality to it, as though commenting about something way beyond its era (1960s), something having to do with our own time, of rediscovering fresh innocence and shedding the clumsy embarrasment of our forbears.

Below are some examples of the artistically placed scenes, and some of the tropes, such as looking through the binoculars, putting on masks and costumes (and removal of the same, along with clothing), the quirky yet oddly endearing adult habits, and the diligence of the ever studious scout.

See this film! In the meantime, there is another fantastic review of this film at Moving World, a fine film blog that Deeper Film aspires to!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Morality and Sacrifice — The Dark Knight Rises

Much more than your average superhero comic-book film, this one is worth seeing for its moral worldview and its deep character portrayals. 

OVERALL Selectively recommended (may be unpalatable for some children)

This movie is a fun, wild ride, and while it has certain deficiencies—most glaringly the absence of a villain as mysterious and disturbing as the Joker—it is a solid capstone on a well-made trilogy, and it offers some powerful lessons in personal sacrifice, virtue and in understanding one's fear.

The production pyrotechnics combine with a solid plot and great character acting to deliver a film in league with director Christopher Nolan's first two installments. Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine — these are some of our best film actors, and any story with them would be worth seeing. This is one of the finest performances I've seen from Caine. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway also complete the well-rounded cast, along with a brief return visit from Liam Neeson. Each of these characters comes with a rich and complex worldview that gives them roundedness and solidity, and makes them intriguing to watch on screen.

One thing I really enjoy about Nolan's work is that he can accomplish much within the space of a few minutes, without sacrificing quality or interupting the flow of the story. He achieves a rhythm with carefully edited and precisely calibrated scenes, making them at once more memorable and able to deal with many plots and subplots simultaneously.
A surprising and original twist comes in Nolan's combination of batwoman and catwoman into one role. Anne Hathaway delivered this duality perfectly; her presence offered the kind of sexual frisson and moral ambiguity that give the Batman story its edge. With a single look Hathaway can communicate a range of emotional reaction, such as at the unexpected return of Bruce Wayne after his imprisonment, where she makes the shift from her betrayal of him to support and even love.

As for Bane (Tom Hardy), he was simply not scary enough. Nolan did such a fine job of creating the devil incarnate in the Joker, that no future villain could ever match it. Bane is a too-obvious character created to seem invincible. His face looks like a skull, he has a strange voice, he is inhumanly strong, and can affect people by touching them. Still, he came off a bit flat, despite the effort to make him seem complex (as the rescuer of a child from the prison pit). 
Bane is the self-styled representative of the 99% (a surprisingly relevant premise), and the moral lesson of the film centers around this conflict, as Bane takes down the stock market and sets up a kangaroo court. Batman wishes not to resort to violence and anarchy in resolving these kinds of class struggles. Batman is no revolutionary, but he does what it necessary to preserve order. For those who worry that the film is too violent for children, this lesson is quite clear even to children and is actually a memorable way to teach nonviolent resolution of conflict.

The best lesson of the film comes in Wayne's imprisonment. Stripped of his batman armor, he returns to his roots as a person struggling with core beliefs, and living in a very primal state. The scene in the pit recalls the original training sequence in Batman Begins, a nice literary device that makes the story feel contiguous with the earlier films.

Dark Knight Rises offers an important lesson: we must not deny our fear or our weaknesses, but rather recognize their power to connect us to our true humanity, our ability to sacrifice, and get us to do what we thought was impossible for the sake of our common welfare. These virtues are not easily found in films, especially not in this genre. For their effort at putting forth these lessons in an entertaining way, the director, cast and crew deserve accolades, and this film deserves to be remembered.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Epic Adolescence — Prometheus

There is not much to say about this inane film, except that it exhibits adolescence in epic proportion.


OVERALL: Not recommended

I have a particular dislike for films that pretend to be philosophical but are really only adolescent comic-book explorations. Matrix comes to mind, with its poor combination of a pseudo-intellectual Keanu Reaves furrowing his brow over a pseudo-metaphysical discussion about reality and perception.

Prometheus out-Matrixes the Matrix on that score, with plenty of bad acting, bad directing, and bad plotting to go around. By the end of the film, one has had one's fill of gratuitous alien-goo, unconvincing recoveries from outlandish trauma (how about an alien c-section?), and those big exoskeletal spaceships that have been in vogue in science-fiction films forever. To top it off, the crew is a bad copy of Star Trek.

Why do these pretend-philosophical films bother me this way? I see plenty of bad movies (a recent one being Sherlock Holmes, for example. "Make it count!" Please.) Most of them generally don't pretend to be profound (Jack and Jill, anyone?). That's perfectly ok by me. Not so here. In Prometheus we are led on by questions about the creation of mankind, about why we are here, and whether an artificial intelligence (AI) could have a soul. We see vast potential in the commentary of AI David (Michael Fassbender): his relationship to the humans may resemble the humans' relationship to a possible alien creator. He is rational and detached, and yet at times sinister in his uncaring. He takes a cross from Elizabeth, she wants it returned, because she believes in God, and he does not.

These are profoundly interesting, deeply sacred and important topics; but none are handled with respect in this film. Seeing it one has the feeling of trampling over a bed of orchids, or spoiling a fine pinot by eating a greasy cheeseburger with it. The superficiality of it is almost breathtaking.

Question: Why spend so much money, time, and effort on such a pseudo-epic, and pay attention with so much artistry to the finest visual details, if all you are really interested in is voyeuristic death-and-gore scenes? Low budget zombie films accomplish this much more effectively, and do not pretend to be anything other than they are: camp-cult candy. Neither is it entertaining to watch a contrived plot unwind around contrived acting.

Here is Frank Rich on Alien, Ridley Scott's earlier foray into philoso-gore:

“It is depressing to watch an expensive, crafty movie that never soars beyond its cold desire to score the big bucks … Scott knows how to push the buttons that make the audience squirm, but he achieves nothing that could not be accomplished equally well by sending electric shocks through a theater’s seats.”

Eerily familiar commentary. Evidently, nothing has changed in 30 years. Please, Ridley Scott and every other filmmaker who can command so much of the world's attention with a film, spare us any more of this drivel; it is neither entertainment nor art.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sex at 16 — Are All Men Pedophiles? — Julien Dubuque Int'l Film Festival

Do you find me attractive? Answer: why yes! So says biology and nearly all civilizations in human history. And most men (if they are honest). 

Editing: 5
Narrative: 5
Research/Content: 4
Production: 5

Demand on Viewer: Moderate-High (mature/difficult theme)
Overall: Very needed for discussion

Pedophilia is both a dangerous and widely misunderstood phenomenon. How to make sense of it? Such is the task of this remarkable film, one of the unsung successes screened at the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival.

Director Jan-Willem Breure   bravely swims upstream against conventional wisdom in this close and fine-tuned examination of human sexuality and the complex body of knowledge under the simple heading "pedophilia." With interviews of professionals in the field as well as perpetrators and victims of pedophiles, a solid and wide-ranging portrait of this fascinating problem is painted.

Among some of the more thought-provoking lines:  "Mary was 12 or 13 when she had Jesus" and "Pedophilia [the post-pubescent kind] will eventually come to be accepted."

The best distinction this film makes is that pre-pubescent children and post-pubescent children are dramatically different, and should be categorized as such when trying to understand the biological phenomena of sex, including readiness for sex as well as attractiveness to (normal) opposite sex. The number 18 is shown to be an arbitrary starting point for legal consensual sex. 
Consider the following analysis from PRWEB on this film:

We live in a society that condemns pedophiles, though biological instinct and world cultures throughout history suggest that an attraction to adolescents is as natural as it is unavoidable. The fashion industry on the one hand sexualizes ever-younger girls while those who act on these instincts are reviled. According to Jan-Willem Breure, the apparent hypocrisy at the heart of society forces the question: What do we mean when we talk about Pedophilia? Are All Men Pedophiles?

Where do you draw the line? Your answer might be blurry after seeing this well-made and thought-provoking visual essay. 

Thanks to JDIFF and the screening team for allowing this one through, it was edifying and provoked much discussion afterward. This film proves that only rational thought, not following the herd morality, can lead us to better, safer, more compassionate humane world.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Change of Fate — Adjustment Bureau

Can our passions change fate? Will God change his mind and "adjust" the plan because we feel passion? These are age old questions put to good use in Adjustment Bureau.


OVERALL: Recommended for date night or "mindless" entertainment

Three things are great about this film:
  1. Yankee stadium accessible from a random door. Every kid's dream!
  2. Male-female chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt (who is about as elegant and desirable as can be in this film), and
  3. John Slattery (best known as Roger Sterling on Mad Men). Slattery's casual and debonair style is entertaining and quite subtle, a nice feature in the film that sadly disappears toward the end.

When the senator (Damon) discovers he must stop seeing a girl because a group of dapper-suited men say so, he discovers a layer to existence most of us never get to see. 

These angels mean for him to follow The Plan, but it turns out that even they are being tested, by the "chairman." 

See this film for its discussion of free will vs. fate, and its affirmation of the way a powerful love can turn the tides, even after years of mistakes, separation and even the gods trying to get in the way!  

Monday, May 7, 2012

Infusion of Romance and Chemistry — Je T'aime, I Love You Terminal — The Julien Dubuque International Film Festival

View the trailer to this film and you'll be hooked! This is the first film on this blog to be awarded 5's in all categories!


DEMAND ON VIEWER: MILD (Very easy on the eyes and mind! A welcome change of gears.)

OVERALL: Highly Recommended

An infusion of romance, chemistry and light-hearted fun into the bloodstream, Je T'aime, I Love You Terminal explores the mysterious way life guides with synchronicity and teaches us about priorities and ethics in love, all worn lightly and sprinkled with plenty of mischievous humor and delight. It will make a good first date movie, or in my case, a nice way to spend an evening alone enjoying someone else's happiness vicariously.

Most people are uncertain before a decision, but what about afterward? Ben has made a decision to ask his girlfriend Hillary to marry him, but it is the plucky and charming Emma who comes into his orbit on the way. A delayed flight sets the stage in Prague for a day of romantic tension, as Emma teaches Ben to dance the dance of spontaneity.

She takes him on a kind of miniature odyssey, from trying on a dress to visiting a family member (an unforgettably funny scene), to buying a ring for Hillary and pretending it is for herself, to enjoying boxing video games and amusement park rides together. While Emma is clearly wide-eyed and thrilled by the whole encounter, Ben alternates between bemusement and utter confusion.

This kind of interaction with a woman is clearly something Ben has been missing. For a few blessed hours he comes out of his heavy-hearted and pensive relationship with Hillary, and though he can't quite let go of his current trajectory (and who could after all?), looks through a window into another universe, sees a possible life for himself there. What if this is the real one? As accidental as it seems, as irrational as it would be to follow it, perhaps this path is the true one.

"Cheating is bad, except when you've found the one you're supposed to be with." Emma's philosophy, quite firmly stated, makes us laugh. It seems self-serving, but herein is the brilliance of the film: we are laughing at something all too true. We poke fun at Emma's maxim at our own expense. Je T'aime gets us to look a little more honestly at our own ethical assumptions about love.

Director Dani Menkin's Je T'aime, I Love You Terminal is a remarkable achievement, for its natural feel, its earthy humor, its male-female dynamic, and its international flavor. Along with his lighter counterpoint to his other film in the JDIFF, Dolphin Boy (see review here at Deeper Film), Menkin completes a kind of portrait of beauty and profound love in unusual and painful circumstances.
Alas, it is a "terminal." The story leaves us to wonder how it will finally resolve. The romantic tension comes precisely from the fact that these two characters are dwelling in possibility. Whether or not their lives will be spent together, their spontaneous dance holds out a tantalizing potential. An unsatisfying ending to some perhaps, but to me, their goodbye was the seal on a finely wrought story, not soon to be forgotten.