Sunday, October 28, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 10/21/2012

All About Eve (1950, Mankiewicz) **** A

Well, now I have to watch BORN YESTERDAY to see the performance that kept Bette Davis from the Oscar in one of the fiercest performances of the decade. Davis is the fading though still undeniably great star, and it's not hard to see that Davis is drawing on painful personal experience as her Margo Channing is slowly obsolesced by her conniving superfan-cum-amanuensis, the titular Eve (Ann Baxter). The rest of the cast does superb work (George Sanders was justly Oscar'd for his turn as a bitchy, Machiavellian impressario/theater critic), and at the half point Marilyn Monroe debuts like the real-life megaton bomb(shell) the fictional Eve is meant to represent. Baxter isn't as indelible as Davis, but perhaps that's by design in a film that mourns the way great actresses are cast out in favor of the new pretty thing, long before their own Awesomeness Expiration Dates.

My only real quibble is the "start at the end" framing device, which isn't particularly necessary, and deflates much of what should be revelations about Eve and her true intentions. This but seems to have been an extremely popular trope during Hollywood's golden years. Almost never does it work for me; not here, not in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, not in SUNSET BOULEVARD, not in . . . well, let's say it works infrequently, even in movies I think are landmark achievements in other respects. Am I wrong about this? What was the deal, classic movies?

The Searchers (1956, Ford) ***1/2 (B+) 

Sorry, but no, this isn't one of the 5 or 10 or 20 best movies of forever times, as seems to be the consensus these days. Which of course (as I apparently feel compelled to say any time I give less than four stars to a canonized movie) doesn't make it bad. Ford is an understated master as always; it's a gorgeous movie full of gorgeous shots, and Wayne is a powerful presence, but half the movie belongs to charisma-hole Jeffery Hunter and his oft-delayed betrothal to fellow charisma-hole Vera Miles (at least those crazy kids have something in common), which consistently derails the other much more interesting movie that keeps trying to happen. That movie is unquestionably great, though I think the film's rather inevitable ending (you're not going to end your picture with John Wayne murdering Natalie Wood) tries to let Ethan off the hook in a way that doesn't work after two-plus hours of vileness. Also, anybody who thinks that this movie is an outlier of racial sensitivity is forgetting the Indian bride played for yucks. (To say nothing about the stock "retarded" character, who is purely meant as comic relief and is about as funny as a clown*. Seriously, what the hell is it about 50s and 60s Westerns that thought that a retarded man or a dwarf or a retarded dwarf was necessary even in an otherwise dramatic piece? I don't see TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD interrupted for a five minute scene of Billy Barty getting drunk and making hilariously lewd advances on Dill — which, now that I've typed that: yes, of course that would be better). Still, credit where due for presenting Ethan warts and all, as both a brave man of action and a miserable racist son of a bitch, and to Wayne for committing his considerable screen presence to the endeavor. It's strength is in letting us sort it out, which does leave us with a much more nuanced moral landscape that your usual 50s oater. You know, even with the cop-out ending.

*Clowns are not funny. They are horrible.

Surf's Up (2007, Brannon, Buck) **1/2 (C+)

You know what? I think I've seen enough kids movies cut from the exact same wan 'hero learns a lesson' template. (The lesson in this case is: enjoy the experience, not the accolades. Is it learned? By the hero?*) Manages watch-ability primarily via (1) some occasionally nifty integration of the animated characters into what appear to be real backgrounds, (2) Jeff Bridges' reprisal as The Dude in animated surfer penguin mode and (3) fairly breezy sense of humor that never seems to be taking itself seriously. The faux documentary trope drops in and out as the plot demands, though the talking head portions are probably the most entertaining. "Thoroughly inoffensive" sums it up well.

*Yes, and yes. I suppose after all it's good that the protagonist's arc involves his learning not to care if he wins or loses, since that was my starting point.

The Master (2012, PT Anderson) ***1/2 (A-)

There's an extraordinary moment near the end of THE MASTER in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman repeats the word, "two." I won't give the context since it comprises a minor spoiler (and I'm pretending these are being read by people), but it was the moment for me that I decided that Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, cult founder, leader, author, and all around flim-flam man, really believes the new age time-travel past-lives moonshine he's peddling — which, come to think of it, might be what he sees in Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a disaffected, sex-obsessed, disturbed and violent WWII vet who stumbles into his orbit. Apparently, Freddy is also a savant with a very odd specialty; he is preternaturally skilled in making hooch out of fuel, turpentine, and whatever other obviously poisonous household products are at hand. Nor is this a matter of necessity; Freddy appears to prefer his swill even when premium liquor is at hand. Stranger still, so seemingly does Dodd. Or, perhaps, Dodd simply appreciates a man willing to get high on his own supply. Sure, sometimes others get sick or even die from this shit, but they themselves never do. They are, as Freddy puts it, "smart about it." Down the hatch.

That's Dodd is full of it is never something the film really leaves in doubt, though the movie isn't particularly interested in exposé (it evokes Scientology but doesn't seem to mirror it). An early scene depicting a confrontation between Dodd and a skeptic proves conclusively that this "Master" is all potato and no chip. But still...his methods are effective in breaking down emotional and psychological barriers, and in fact his methods seem as though they could conceivably be of occasional benefit, if only they were stripped of demagoguery. Hoffman's imbues Dodd with the sort of charisma and intelligence that makes you *want* to believe, at least in the moment, that he's telling the truth. He's a man who know exactly what he thinks, and exactly why, which can be intoxicating even after you've figured out that what he thinks is ultimately full of nothing.

Which brings me to Paul Thomas Anderson, a man seemingly in possession of limitless formal skills as a filmmaker. I'll see any of his movies, for no other reason than the sheer intoxication of watching an artist who knows exactly what he is doing and why. Like Altman, or or Kubrick, or Scorsese (or many dozens of others to whom PTA is less frequently compared) we know in each film we are contending with intelligence and intentionality in service of craft. Anderson does extraordinary things as usual with image, with dialogue, with performance and (perhaps especially in this case) with sound, to create at all times a sense of deep experience. What's not clear in this case is whether or not it's ultimately full of nothing. Which is my extremely long-winded way of saying that I really sure as we sit watching this movie we are doing, what it's supposed to mean, or even if there is meaning to be had.

It's certainly possible that this is one of those films whose layers will reveal themselves over time, upon reflection and upon subsequent viewings (look: most 3.5 star reviews are not getting a review anywhere close to this long). But my initial impression was one of context excised. In some cases the missing context is overt and serves the story well (e.g., the fact that we aren't showing the meeting of Freddy and Dodd is because Freddy was blackout blotto and doesn't remember it; leaving it out underscores Freddy's role as our 'point of view' character). Nevertheless, my mode was one of constant expectation of a revelation that never really came, a constant "wow, this is really interesting to watch, and I sure wish I knew why it is supposed to be as compelling as I feel I should find it."

There's a moment around the middle of the run time when Dodd breaks down Freddy by forcing him to spend the day with eyes closed, walking from one end of a room (wood paneling) to another (glass window) and each time forces him to describe what he feels. It's pointless, it's repetitive, and the way it is shot and scored and acted had me on the edge of my seat for the catharsis that it seemed to think it was presenting, but I never really saw the point of it and I still don't. It's possible that Anderson has with THE MASTER become, like the Master, the delivery mechanism for a giant sham.

But if it is just a sham, it's a hell of an entrancing sham. I'll watch it again.

P.S. I don't know how I get out this review without talking about the performance of Joaquin Phoenix, who . . . holy crap. It's got to be one of the single most bizarre things I've ever seen. All crazy angles and distortions, his body and face a mess of discomfort, he's playing a young man who has somehow managed to make himself elderly, a bundle of muscle and rage turned inward on itself until it become sunken-chested weakness, filtered (I shit you not) through Popeye. It shouldn't work, it's horribly contrived, and it is inescapably believable. Hoffman does great work with a known archetype. Phoenix creates some sort of insane new archetype that will probably disappear forevermore.

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