The Master (A)
U.S.: Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012, Starz/Anchor Bay
The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson's dark tale of post-war America, of a master (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a follower (Joaquin Phoenix), and the master's wife (Amy Adams). It's the epic yarn of how a con job became a big cult, and of how the seemingly placid Eisenhower-era '50s planted the seeds that grew later into the Abbie Hoffman '60s -- the story of an explosive friendship between a charlatan and a drunk, between a preacher and a hell-raiser, sabotaged by the preacher's determined wife.
Here, Anderson gives us another twisted American saga, in the grand but intimate vein of his last film, There Will Be Blood. That 2007 film was a deep dark portrait of America's young oil industry inspired by Upton Sinclair's big, densely packed, muckraking novel Oil!, with Daniel Day-Lewis casting a scowling spell as an evil-hearted oilman.
The Master is a different kind of American success story. The man on the rise is Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a puffy-faced, grinning Pied Piper of a guy with a resonant, plummy voice you could pour over crepes, and a Cheshire grin that never fades. Dodd describes himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher." He has invented an obviously phony pseudo-philosophy, pseudo-psychology, self-help scam called The Cause -- a burgeoning cult seemingly modeled on science fiction/fantasy writer L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology, but reminiscent of many a shell game with a charismatic leader.
Dodd is the Great False American Papa, worshiped because he's a bully with a smooth, soft, paternal touch. We first see him hosting a wedding on a yacht in San Francisco Harbor, and that's where he meets Freddie Quell (Phoenix).
If Dodd is smooth as silk, Freddie is a wild-ass, glinting-eyed mad outlaw of a guy who chews his lip, drinks like a school of fish, looks like a beatnik zombie and behaves like a psycho sex-crazed maniac. We've met Freddie before, in the movie's rapt, violent opening scenes -- as a sailor in Guam on a beach at the end of World War II, screwing a sand-woman on the South Pacific beach and masturbating into the surf; seeing nothing but inky cocks and pussies when he's given a Rorschach test; copulating with a model in the dark room where he works as a department store photographer and chugging home-made liquor laced with paint thinner; mauling and attacking the middle-class-looking male subject he's photographing (while Ella Fitzgerald sings "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan"); nearly poisoning one of his fellow California fruit pickers with his mega-hooch, and finally wandering onto Dodd's (maybe borrowed) yacht, mixing some booze, and stowing away. When he wakes up, Freddie meets Dodd, who has already decided he likes Freddie, because he likes his booze, though the stuff seems to nearly rip out his throat on the way down.
It's love at first sight, or sip, or psych test. One of the movie's great scenes is the shipboard Q&A interview or "process" that Dodd administers to Freddie, rattling off questions like Jack Webb without brakes, repeating his queries with jackhammer insistence until he gets the answer he wants. It's a relentless dialogue, played like an interrogation game, batting out evil secrets. It will be echoed later on in an amazingly violent and disturbing jail scene, where Dodd and Freddie are incarcerated in adjoining cells -- and the two scream at each other while Freddie tears up his cell.
Dodd is conquered by Freddie as well. We can see the depth of their palship in Freddie's homecoming to the Dodds' grandly front-porched home, when the two of them tumble into a bear hug, rolling all over the lawn before Dodd's stiffer-backed family and his often pregnant wife, Peggy (Adams). Why are they such buddies? Maybe because each gets something important out of the other: beaming daddy, a wild and crazy son.
Hoffman and Phoenix are perfect in these roles, and perfectly matched (or mismatched) as well -- Hoffman's urbane purr setting off Phoenix's shaggy demonic tantrums. Neither actor has ever been better. Neither has had a more felicitous partner to bounce stuff off. They're great mad foils: a phony grinning king and his dead-serious glowering clown. And Adams' Peggy is a great villainness -- probably just as demonic, in her way, as Freddie.
Anderson is a fantastic screenwriter and director, and he pushes both skills to the max in The Master. It's a wonderfully shaped and crafted film, shot with a wide-eyed beauty that can sometimes make you feel as happily drunk as Freddie. A rebel against the frenetic quick-cut style of most of the new Hollywood movies, Anderson likes to shoot long takes with a moving, roving camera.
But Anderson is also good at montage, and he's terrific here at evoking the look and feel and sound of the post-war era, weaving a marvelous quilt of romantic pop that breathes the period -- from the matchless Ella to Duke Ellington's peerless aggregation on "Dancers in Love" or "Lotus Blossom," to Jo Stafford's creamy ballad "No Other Love."
U.K.-U.S.: Sam Mendes, 2012, MGM
Skyfall may be a James Bond movie for both the masses and the cognoscenti, but it begins with something as old as The Perils of Pauline -- a chase and a battle on a train. In this case, the chase is in Istanbul, through a bazaar, over the streets, up to the roofs and on a speeding train, and it ends with what seems to be the end of Agent 007 himself. Thanks to a decision by his boss M (Judi Dench, at her most regal), Bond -- played for the third time by Daniel Craig -- is shot and plunged into the drink and into another set of flashy Bond credits, and another catchy Bond pop credits song (this time written and sung by recent Grammy-winner Adele).
He's not dead of course. He'll be back before long, fighting another sadistic Bond villain (Javier Bardem as the brilliantly nefarious Silva), romancing some stunning Bond girls (including Berenice Marlohe's sleek Severine), trading cracks with fellow agent and trigger-puller Eva (Naomie Harris), and playing with some new gadgets from a new Q (Ben Whishaw) as well as getting snared in the politics of his MI6 secret service employers and combating what seems a campaign to replace M.
But Skyfall does have a few surprises and intimations of mortality for us, many of them involving M, who's had her agent files hacked and stolen by Silva, and is under lots of pressure from her own bad boss, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes, at his most sullen). By the end of the show, which takes place in Scotland (Sean Connery's homeland), and involves Bond, M, Silva, Silva's thugs, and a rustic and feisty gamekeeper named Kincade (Albert Finney, though Connery would have been a good choice here), most of the audience should feel they've had at least part of their money's worth.
Skyfall is one of the classiest of the Bonds. The director is Oscar winner Sam Mendes. The writers include Bond veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, abetted by the imaginative John Logan (Hugo). The cinematographer is the Coen brothers' indispensable eye, Roger Deakins. And the rest of the cast includes Helen McCrory, Rory Kinnear and CNN's Wolf Blitzer (as himself). Like the Harry Potter movies, the Bond series likes to load it up with top Brits and others. Starting with Craig.
Did I like it? Any movie with Javier Bardem as a villain (or as a non-villain for that matter), has my vote. And Skyfall is not only a classy production on every level -- well-acted, well-written, well-shot -- but a rip-roaring action movie too.
U.S.: Scott Derrickson, 2012, Summit Entertainment
Sometimes genuinely scary, sometimes genuinely silly, Scott Derrickson's Sinister actually has one of the more frightening uses of horror movie found footage they've sprung on us recently. How much you enjoy it depends on how much disbelief you can suspend and how much footage you can swallow -- which may depend on how many contemporary horror movies, especially The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal knockoffs, are on your regular diet.
Derrickson makes the supposedly amateur films more effective this time by mixing them up with supposedly "real life" stuff of what's going on outside the found footage, with the guy supposedly watching these creepy horror home movies. In what passes in Sinister for the real world, a struggling true-crime author named Ellison (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into a house where another family not so long ago was massacred, without informing his own loved ones of their new home's gruesome history or of the other murders (in other places) that preceded it.
The rest of the family -- Juliet Rylance as mom Tracy and Claire Foley and Michael Hall Daddario as kids Ashley and Trevor -- begin to show signs of paranormal wear and tear. The spooks play hide-and-seek and jump-behind-a-door and we-wish we-were-in-The-Shining behind Ellison as he wanders around the place, and, as the dour local sheriff, Fred Dalton Thompson shows up and acts surly. Thompson's deputy, though, played by James Sansone, is contrastingly helpful to the author, since he's eager to get an acknowledgement in the eventual book's front section.
Meanwhile, Ellison keeps his most horrific discovery to himself: In the attic are scruffy old boxes containing amateur movies of the actual murders, taken, it seems, by the actual killer or killers. They are, by far, the movie's most disturbing moments. Especially the one in the tree.
These home snuff movies are creepy and ragged-looking. The real-life scenes are creepy stylized horror stuff. And the professional reality makes the amateur "reality" movies look spookier. (Kudos to cinematographer Chris Norr for the way he lights both of them; the movie looks fantastic.) Derrickson, who also directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the overblown 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, works with Norr to keep everything shadowy and grim and unsettling.
Despite an effective fall-apart acting job by Hawke, though, you have to swallow a little too much malarkey to completely enjoy this movie. Like all the loud noises nobody seems to hear. Or the way the family seems to except so much madness. Or the absence of everyday townspeople. Sheriff Thomson probably has the right idea. Get out of town -- or stay out of the attic -- or don't climb trees -- or leave that found footage in its box, dammit.