Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

They wasted a perfectly good short story title

billboardsMartin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that makes you question what you want to know, sympathizes with lots of people no other film will, challenges characters who have the best intentions, and ends in a much different place than viewers probably want it to. In other hands, the film would focus on Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) quest to bring her daughter’s killer to justice, because that’s Mildred’s single motivation throughout the story. However, reality ensues: it’s not always that easy. Resources for such a quest are hard to come by. The authorities are useless. She has another kid (Lucas Hedges) to focus on. And beyond all that, it’s just not what the movie is about.

Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) left the house one day after a fight with her mom, and was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant. A year later, the police have come up with nothing, having seemingly forgotten about the case, so Mildred purchases ad space on three defunct billboards on a lesser-used route into town. Put together, the message reads, “Raped while dying and still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?” The police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson at his best) isn’t exactly an obstructionist, but he’s done all he can legally do, and on top of that, he’s dying of cancer. If that weren’t enough, his most assertive officer, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a racist layabout whose brutal nature and utter incompetence have gone unpunished for years, so hell if there’s anyone in Ebbing who can actually hunt down a suspect who may have been nothing but a drifter who passed through town a year ago.

The film’s narrative involves Mildred’s war on the town rather than the hunt for the killer (which may or may not begin at the very end, depending on how you look at it), and is mostly a study of Ebbing’s various personalities. Mildred is a classic anti-hero, complete with plenty of anvil-drop scenes that emphasize just how badass she is, but the film often invites us to critique her actions: blowing up a police station, beating on minors, being rude to dwarfs and the terminally ill, etc. But she’s been through it all. Besides the loss of her daughter, she’s had to endure years of abuse by her ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), who still won’t just go away. Bits of her real self – or at least the caring, mama-bear-type side of the self we see here – reveal themselves in interesting places, but her emotional scars prevent her from ever being who she was before, just like the literal scar on the town where Angela’s body was burned.

Willoughby and Dixon are the other characters who are examined closely, sometimes in the right way and sometimes not. The film spends a perhaps unnecessary amount of time with Willoughby and his family, leading up to Willoughby’s inevitable suicide, whereupon he leaves parting gifts and advice to a few folks, including Mildred and Dixon. These sequences are mainly used to beat the audience over the head with the idea that one needs love and compassion to achieve their desires – advice both Mildred and Dixon can use in spades. However, Willoughby could have spent more time guiding his right-hand man more closely, rather than making excuses for his race-motivated torture of citizens and allowing him to just keep on squeaking by.  By the time Dixon receives Willoughby’s heartfelt letter, it’s too late for him to become a real detective. Worse, the film turns Dixon into Mildred’s fellow anti-hero without punishing him for his racism or his unwarranted violence against innocent people (which includes punching a young girl in the face), or even giving the slightest hint that he’s going to change his ways. Instead the film creates this “face turn” in the cheapest way possible: simply introducing someone much shittier (a bar patron who threatens Mildred and brags about sexually assaulting women). McDonagh’s thematic material needs some work in this respect. It’s difficult to reconcile the film’s overt messages of love and compassion with its demand that the audience show these things for characters that haven’t really earned it.

This is McDonagh’s third film to include conspicuous racism (In Bruges had the “race war” tirade; Seven Psychopaths had Woody Harrelson throwing the N-word around and murdering Black women), more or less without comeuppance for the perpetrators. It’s his second film to use a dwarf as a comic sidekick/victim of “midget” talk. Maybe I’m being too critical of minutiae, but if the whole point is just that shitty people exist and aren’t usually punished for their shittiness, then fine, we get it. But you’re making works of art. Do something with that. Or at least have an idea about it.

The film ends with Mildred and Dixon driving to Idaho to maybe kill a rapist who had nothing to do with Angela’s death, beginning a possible cycle of vigilantism and taking matters into their own hands. Much like Mildred’s experiences must be for the real-life people who experience them, the final shot is the beginning of a story that never ends. Ultimately, the film’s greatest success is what it says about agency, and the lengths the desperate are willing to go to obtain it.

billboards2Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017); written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell.

 

Lady Bird

Hella tight

lb

Years ago, in my Frances Ha review, I praised Greta Gerwig’s screenwriting as being full of nuanced characters, fearless language, woman protagonists who don’t abide by male-invented tropes, and dialogue wherein you don’t immediately know whether the character is right or wrong. Lady Bird fulfills my (and probably lots of other people’s) prediction that Gerwig was going to break out big time.

A film that takes place in 2002 is a period piece now, and Gerwig’s vision of Sacramento captures a currently popular theme: the clash between nostalgia and the need to escape from home. These narratives always center around young people, and the best ones lately (I’m thinking, fondly, of Life is Strange) involve adolescent girls with difficult family dynamics, figuring themselves out as they realize they want more. In the case of Christine (Saoirse Ronan), the escapism involves abandoning her birth name, which sets her apart from everyone at her Catholic high school.

Lady Bird’s best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), is her only equal, and the only person she laughs with (I’m talking actual laughing, where the laughers don’t care who’s watching or how goofy they look or what problems are waiting outside the laugh). The film is as much about the arc of their friendship as it is about anything else. The rest of the supporting cast also get complete, unique arcs, including Jenna (Odeya Rush), a popular girl whose short-lived friendship with Lady Bird is entirely based on lies; Danny (Lucas Hedges); Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, whose too-good-to-be-true vibe pays off fantastically; Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), Lady Bird’s adopted brother with whom she shares a classic love-hate rivalry, and others. The most important relationship in the film, however, is between LB and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who works her ass off in her job as a nurse, but just doesn’t speak LB’s language or understand what she needs beyond food and shelter.

This relationship is what the movie is about, and the writing pulls no punches. Neither mother nor daughter is allowed to be right all the time. Ronan carries every scene, playing LB as a child, wild youth, mature friend, fostering older sibling, and more. Sometimes, she says something awful and screams and storms out of a room, and love her as we might, we can’t defend her. Everyone is held up to scrutiny, even the dad (Tracy Letts), who just sort of agrees with LB about everything so he doesn’t have to be the bad guy.

Gerwig, Ronan, and the crew have really given us something here: a truthful film about the place below the poverty line, about the complexities of mother-daughter relationships (and women’s lives in general), about un-fetishizing girls in Catholic school, and a story where the men get the “stereotypical love interest” treatment (goody two-shoes schoolboy vs. pot-addled rocker guy). And it’s got a school assembly scene that obliterates the one from Donnie Darko: In response to an anti-abortion speaker’s sanctimonious baloney, LB says, “Maybe if your mom had gone through with the abortion, we wouldn’t have to sit through this fucking assembly.” Hard to argue with that logic.

Lady_Bird_poster.jpegLady Bird (2017); written and directed by Greta Gerwig; starring Saoirse Ronan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lobster

The less grand, not-so-exotic, neither Budapest nor Marigold hotel

lobsterYorgos Lanthimos is what you’d call a “visionary director” if you knew that what you saw was pretty good but didn’t know exactly what to say about it.  He’s got a cynicism akin to Lars Von Trier.  He seems to care about shots as much as Terrence Malick.  He wraps these into the microscope-lens of an Alex Garland pic.  Then again, name-dropping and saying nothing else is basically the same as leaving it at “visionary director,” so let’s dissect.

In a dystopia that is never referred to as such (I might call it an alternate universe instead), newly single people are taken to the Hotel, where they have forty-five days to find a suitable partner or else be transformed into the animal of their choice and live out the remainder of their existence in anachronistic misery in the nearby forest.  Everyone speaks in an unsettling monotone.  Masturbation is prohibited, but the Maid (Ariane Labed!) makes sure everyone is sexually frustrated 24/7.  Single-by-choice folks who have escaped the Hotel are hunted down by Hotel residents with the promise of extra days as a human.  None of the transformation technology is explained, nor is the necessity of the Hotel (for instance, is the human population at rock bottom?).  Residents are subjected to embarrassingly campy propaganda (including a painfully inaccurate simulation of rape) meant to convince them that partnership is the key to happiness.  The whole thing has been compared to a Samuel Beckett piece – sure, it’s got the quiet cynicism, the allegory, the navel-gazing, the bizarre end-of-time scenario focused on a tiny sliver of the world – but there’s an underlying anger to The Lobster that neither Endgame nor Waiting for Godot possess.

David (Collin Farrell), the only named character, chooses a lobster as his animal, due to his love for the sea and the creatures’ generally long lives (apparently grocery-store seafood departments and the state of Maine no longer exist in Lanthimos’s fiction).  This choice is ridiculed by a know-it-all with a limp (Ben Whishaw), who along with an also-unnamed lisper (John C. Reilly) constitute David’s friend base.  The issue is that not just anyone can get together and have a good time; relationships are formed based on what the Hotel staff see as compatible features.  In other words, completely arbitrary traits, such as shared physical ailments (nearsightedness, a tendency to get nosebleeds, etc.), fondness for cookies, and so on.  It’s a fairly transparent criticism of online dating culture: the speed of it, the fakeness, the images people create of themselves vs. who they actually are, the methods by which we decide so much about a person without having met them.

The story is narrated by a near-sighted woman (Rachel Weiss), who doesn’t meet David until about halfway through.  At this point, David has forsaken the Hotel after a disastrous attempt to partner with a complete sociopath (Angeliki Papoulia).  As a story in this genre must explore the perspectives of both major factions, David joins the “loners” in the woods, who are led by a ruthlessly rigid woman played by Palm d’Or-winning superstar Léa Seydoux (doing what she does best here – playing a fascinating Alpha – rather than the love-interest and femme fatale stuff she finds herself doing in American movies).  Here, the rules of the Hotel are inverted: masturbate all you want, but relationships are banned.  Even flirting is punishable by permanent disfigurement.  The viewer quickly finds that David doesn’t fit in this world either, because he quickly falls in love with Weiss’s character, and both strive to keep this relationship secret from the leader.

What I was slower to realize is that The Lobster would have worked better as a stage drama, where justification is vital only as far as character behavior, and the worlds, rich as they might be, are still confined to the room you’re in, and what you can believe is determined only by the performances (think Beckett and Pinter).  In a film, you get a look at what’s there, and you start to ask questions like, what is the rest of the world doing?  Are there other Hotels?  Why do the loners stay in the woods around the Hotel when they could get out of danger by going pretty much anywhere else?  Where are all the gay and gender non-conforming people (the Hotel allows one to register as gay or hetero, but not bisexual because of some plot-convenient Noodle Incident, yet we never see any gay people or couples on screen, and the propaganda is all aimed at hetero couples)?  Why does the loner leader have such arbitrary rules?  If everyone hates these rules, why don’t they overthrow her?  There’s more, but you get the gist: story beats and character behaviors are introduced in order for the film to make a point about something, rather than because it’s what makes sense.

It’s also a film that includes lots of interesting women, most of whom die, and all of whom exist in order to have diametrically opposed effects on the male protagonist.  It becomes frustrating, in part because characters with dramatic potential are wasted, and also because you feel like you’re supposed to cheer for it.  In the end, as David prepares to blind himself with a steak knife in order to be “equal” to his now-blind lover, do he and (by extension) the filmmakers realize that the duo are still abiding by the Hotel’s rules, this far away from the place itself?

It’s the job of a picture like this to generate discussions, not questions based on lack of clarity of intention.  As it stands, The Lobster is an awesome piece of art, but not a particularly good movie, in spite of the dedicated and deliciously weird performances by Farrell, Labed, and Seydoux. Let me know if there’s ever a stage version, yeah?

220px-the_lobsterThe Lobster (2015); written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weiss, Ariane Labed, and Léa Seydoux.

 

The Great Gatsby

Come out you Baz Luhrmann; come out and fight me like a man

gatsbyDespite anachronistic and invasive music, Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – considered one of the Great American Novels by many (myself not included) – is more or less scene-by-scene accurate when it comes to story events.  This does not make a movie a “good adaptation,” however.  Two elements makes a good movie adaptation of a book: 1) the understanding that books cannot “become” movies, and that a movie adapted from a written work must stand on its own as a unique piece; and 2) a basic (or preferably advanced) understanding of the thematic material, i.e. what the book is “about.”  This film is more hot-and-cold in that area, though not as overt as Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

I won’t hash out the entire plot this time, because you do not need me to.  Leonardo DiCaprio appears as the titular Gatsby, a former soldier living as a wealthy socialite on the East Coast in hopes that his old lover, Daisy Buchanan, will show up at one of his unbelievably lavish parties.  She doesn’t, but her cousin Nick (Toby Maguire) does – am I hashing out the plot? Apologies.  I’ll stop.  The first bit of irony we’re fed is the title, specifically the word “great,” and this is where Luhrmann gets it wrong.  Much of the point of Gatsby is that the most morally corrupt characters are the ones idolized, and that the masses become obsessed with the most superficial garbage (i.e. the incredible parties, the glitz and glamor, the alcohol and whoring, etc.).  Fitzgerald’s inclusion of the word “great” in the title was meant to reflect this irony on the reader, and to invite us to look smugly upon the inhabitants of the novel who just don’t seem to reach the conclusion that the readers do.  In the novel, Nick is much more savvy to this knowledge than Maguire’s character in the film – one major difference includes his placement in a sanitarium, wherein he relates the story’s events to a doctor and eventually writes a manuscript called “Gatsby,” which he eventually changes to the title of the novel after adding “The Great.”  This injects a bit of narrative poison into a film that almost gets it right: Nick, as the narrator (not as a fictional representation of the reader, mind you) is supposed to realize (as he comes much closer to doing in the text) that Gatsby is in fact not great.  No one in this story is.

The other major missing element is that of “Owl Eyes,” a minor but very important character who appears in two scenes of the novel.  The above themes are in some ways conveyed through this character – a bespectacled man encountered by Nick in Gatsby’s library – who expects Gatsby’s books to be nothing but hollow covers (for purposes of giving the illusion of a great library) and is surprised to find that they are all real books.  Owl Eyes comments that Gatsby has mastered something similar to theatre – the elaborate party itself is a fabrication masking an ulterior motive – and suggests that everything in Gatsby’s life is mere illusion.  Thus, the “great” in the title feels similar to a moniker a mediocre magician might possess.  Instead, the film spends lots of time (and real-life money) on the glamorous parties and never stops to remind us how much of a sham they are (nor does it respect us quite enough to allow us to figure it out on our own).  In the end, Nick realizes that the people of the West (the entire main cast) are completely unable to jive with the values of the East, and that Gatsby’s lifestyle – which so closely resembles the exemplary “American Dream” (also a sham, represented by the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock) – is an illusion in and of itself, because Gatsby’s dreams are dead and gone before the story even begins.

The movie does include the billboard featuring the bespectacled eyes of forgotten oculist T.J. Eckleburg, which serve as a sort of uninvolved “observer God” who sees everything but does nothing to intervene or impart advice (much like the Owl Eyes character, who comes with some Lost Generation subtext as well).  The connective tissue between the character and the billboard, however, is never explored, nor is the meaning behind the fact that this billboard watches over the shittiest part of town.  But wait – I said that books cannot be “made into” movies, so some things get left out, right?  Sure, if your biggest concern is time.  But The Great Gatsby is a short novel, and what’s left out here is the most basic understanding of Fitzgerald’s themes.  Look at 2012’s Anna Karenina for an example of a film that (mostly) did a respectable job with its source material while creating a visual adaptation that was, in many positive ways, its own piece of art.

The despicable characters are still despicable, however, which is right in line with the novel.  Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), who goes on histrionic rants and says boring non-applicable racist stuff (which seems inserted simply because a period piece can get away with it), does all of the bad things he does in the novel, including getting Gatsby killed, though in the movie it’s spoiled (don’t you dare call it foreshadowed) far too soon.  At the very least, Nick realize that Tom and Daisy are horrible people who rely on their money to save them from every situation.  Bafflingly left out is Nick’s relationship with Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), one of the only likeable (and only in minor ways) characters in the story.  Elizabeth Debicki, who has only appeared in one movie previously, plays Jordan with such confidence and adventurous intrigue that her lack of involvement later in the story is nothing short of infuriating.  While DiCaprio’s performance (especially his completely organic-sounding “old sport” dialogue) is impressive as ever, Debicki is the highlight of the cast.

I’m just waiting for someone to screw up Absalom, Absalom! next.

The Great Gatsby (2013); adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel; directed by Baz Luhrmann; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Toby Maguire, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carey Mulligan. 

A Late Quartet

Unleash your passion

Allow me to share a lovely tidbit concerning movie dialogue, as suggested to me by a certain poet with whom I saw Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet: “It’s good dialogue if a character says something and you’re not sure if they’re right.”  Yes.  In real life, your friends don’t speak in laconics, in absolutes, in spartan phrases that tie the meaning of everything that’s happened that day into a pretty bow.  A Late Quartet features dialogue so rich and a plot so adeptly structured that we not only appreciate and recognize the complexities of the characters’ conflicts, but we also know what else they’re thinking about as they speak.

As the story begins, an era ends: Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), cellist in a famous string quartet – The Fugue, who have played over three thousand concerts – has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and has decided that this will be his final season.  The rest of the quartet is comprised of Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the controlling and humorless First Violinist, Juliette (Catherine Keener), the viola player, and Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Juliette’s husband, who thinks the quartet has grown dull and predictable due to Daniel’s failure to “take risks” (including his steadfast refusal to play Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131, without the music in front of them).  After Peter’s quiet announcement that he will only play one more show, Robert reveals that he would like to begin switching chairs with Daniel.  Since Peter’s replacement will not require this change, the group suspect that Robert has desired this for some time, and we soon bear witness to his inferiority complex not only within the quartet, but at home.

The film is split into three main conflicts.  Chiefly, Peter’s departure from the quartet and the struggles of the group to not only come to terms with his illness and abrupt exeunt after twenty-five years, but also to find someone worthy of replacing him – they push for Nina Lee (played by herself), but she’s already in a trio with the stubborn Gideon (Wallace Shawn), and remains a Godot character until the end.  Secondly, Robert’s frustration with the quartet spills into his home life, and he winds up having a one-night stand with a running buddy (Liraz Charhi), which he’s unable to hide from Juliette even for a day.  However ill-intentioned Hoffman’s characters have been in the past, Robert never becomes a stock “bad husband” character, and his attempts at Juliette’s forgiveness are heartfelt and sincere.  Lastly, Robert and Juliette have a daughter in her early twenties, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), who is taking private violin lessons with Daniel.  Their antagonistic student-teacher relationship veils not only mutual admiration, but a secret love/lust, and they begin an affair, which the headstrong Alexandra is less than hesitant to reveal to her mother, whom she believes has not been there for her due to the quartet’s seven-month-a-year touring schedule.  These issues, while organically developed and expertly paced, come to a head during a final practice at Peter’s house, and the fate of the quartet and their relationships hang in the air during the only possible climax for this story: the first concert of the Fugue’s final season.

Finally, we have a film not based upon contrivance, not a half-hearted remake, not a blasphemous adaptation of a beloved novel, and not cash-raking action fare.  It also doesn’t get caught up in its own “science” – the film explores the inner workings of a string quartet, and in such detail that any musician would likely be convinced that Zilberman knows his material, but nothing is included that does not push the story forward or deepen the characters.  This is the kind of film that should be taking home little golden men in February, and not just because of its structure and depth.  The performers, who have lately fallen into unchallenging roles (with the exception of Hoffman, whose role in The Master was a gem at the center of an otherwise disastrous film) shine as the members of the Fugue, and clearly spent time learning at least the basics of their characters’ instruments and how to make themselves look like professionals doing their life’s work.  Keener plays Juliette as a realistically conflicted and humble mother, wife, and friend.  Walken ceases his predictable comedy and self-parody to remind us that he’s an Academy Award winner and can radiate dramatic multitudes (not just caricature) with his mannerisms.  Ivanir plays Daniel as a sympathetic loner, and despite how inappropriate his relationship with Alexandra might be, we want him to have something good for a change.  Imogen Poots is Alexandra, and her rather angsty acting style sticks out due to her being the only young character in the film, but she holds her own with the older, more experienced actors, and the careful writing prevents Alex from ever coming off as a bratty kid.

I know a few people who will likely tell me that they haven’t seen Walken in a film this year, and wonder what he’s doing.  Those are the same people who would find a film like this “boring” – no fighting?  No superheroes?  No galactic threat?  I say screw the galaxy.  Try caring about human nature.  As the above-mentioned poet concluded about this film, “There’s nothing stupid in it.”

A Late Quartet (2012); written and directed by Yaron Zilberman; starring Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, and Imogen Poots.

The Master

Your biggest hint: the paint thinner

The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s widely acclaimed new drama, is actually not so much a film as it is a series of well-acted scenes that could all be from different Oscar-grade movies.  The story is nonexistent, none of the details matter, and the characters never grow, change, or reveal very much about themselves.

The action centers around Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran with a drinking problem, no direction, and evidently severe PTSD.  After losing several jobs due to drunken assaults and other bad behavior, Freddie becomes a drifter and happens upon the ship of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), founder and self-proclaimed Master of a cult-like following known only as the Cause – whether or not this is an allegory for Scientology is a question best posed to those who follow the latter.  Dodd, enjoying Freddie’s homemade drinks (which include paint thinner), allows him to stay onboard and become a member of the Cause .  In one of the film’s best scenes, which goes on for something close to ten minutes, Dodd makes Freddie participate in an exercise known as Processing, in which Freddie must reveal terribly personal secrets about himself while not blinking his eyes.  Though Freddie passes these tests, the other members of the cause, most notably Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), are apprehensive about Freddie’s usefulness to the movement, as well as fearful of his unpredictable, violent behavior.  Peggy, the effective second-in-command of the Cause, tells Freddie he must quit “boozing” if he’s going to stay with the group, and he accepts this ultimatum without intention of actually quitting.  Eventually, one of Dodd’s sons (Jesse Plemons) passively remarks that his father is a fraud and improvising the tenants of his religion.  Freddie, though, defends Dodd’s honor and assaults anyone who speaks against him, including police, who arrest Dodd for practicing medicine without a license.  Freddie reveals that he abandoned his sweetheart when he left for war, and pines for her.

Why does Freddie hang around the Cause?  Does he really believe in it?  These important questions are never explored.  The entire first half hour of the movie could be cut, because all of the information given is revealed later – Freddie is angry, Freddie is drunk, Freddie is sexually starved – a lesson I often give to fiction students about where a story actually begins.  Many of the scenes are populated with very long shots, which I normally love for various reasons specific to the films that make use of them, but here, they seem not only obligatory, but indulgent.  Why is this film over two hours?  A question I’m sure the several folks who walked out during our showing also had.

Phoenix and Hoffman deliver two of the best male performances of the year, as well as two of the best performances of their respective careers.  These characters are fun to watch together, but despite the film’s dubious marketing, their interactions never amount to the buddy-story we really want.  Phoenix’s Freddie is sad, pathetic, and sympathetic when the film needs him to be, and Hoffman carries Dodd with all of the declamatory hubris we might associate with folks like L. Ron Hubbard.  The issue, however, is movement: the film remains constantly locked in place.  Here’s a scene where Dodd gives Freddie a test.  Here’s a scene where Freddie completes the test.  There is no scene before, in between, or after that gives the slightest inkling about what Freddie was supposed to learn during the test, whether he learned it, whether he believes he learned anything, nor whether either man truly believed the test was necessary.

Does Dodd even believe in the Cause, or is he a pure charlatan?  This would be an incredibly vital question in the story this film claims to tell, but only in two points is it touched on: in the above scene with Dodd’s son, and a later scene in which a Cause member (Laura Dern) politely points out a contradiction in Dodd’s work.  The situation is never explored further, nor does the Cause suffer for it; in fact, Dodd is able to open a “school” in England once his second book becomes a success.  You may be thinking, okay, the film is making a point about charlatans and frauds getting away with lies and deceit.  No – that’s Arbitrage, a film with a coherent structure and several clear goals.  I’ve heard The Master praised as “deliberately misshapen.”  No – you’re thinking of Quentin Tarantino’s films, which, even with their heavy stylization and non-chronological narratives, still have a defined structure and a story arc.  The Master plays like two hours and fifteen minutes’ worth of short films featuring the same three characters.  This isn’t Anderson’s first swing of the bat, of course – he received an Oscar nomination for There Will Be Blood, another very long and indulgent film with a hubristic male lead, but that was a film containing only one story and an effective (if nonsensical) ending.  Here, Anderson delivers another movie smeared with Oscar gloss, but nothing underneath.

The Master also falls into an old trap: as male filmmakers get older, the women in their films get younger and more naked.  I could not have counted the breasts in this movie if I’d tried.  A wonderful scene featuring Hoffman singing an old roving song is blindsided when Freddie imagines every woman in the room naked – for several minutes of screen time.  The women are dancing, bouncing, and playing instruments, so this leads to some very deliberate imagery.  Scenes like this, along with the fact that the one principle female character – Peggy – is always seen with a child (either in her arms or in her belly) gives the film that sexist tang every male film critic (who, by the way, are the only ones giving this film the astounding praise it’s received) is quick to give a pass if the overall film and performance quality are on the up and up – a dangerous pattern that helps perpetuate a cycle of anti-feminism consistently dismissed as innocuous if the filmmaker claims to be doing a “period piece.”

Here’s a lesson in avoiding indulgent storytelling: if your own work is getting you hard, you have revising to do.

The Master (2012); written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.

Arbitrage

Everybody works for me

Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage presents a very clear metaphor: rich people can get away with murder.  The film’s story sees Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a sixty year-old billionaire hedge fund manager not dissimilar to Bernie Madoff, attempting to merge his company via a deal with Mr. Mayfied, a Godot-like character not often seen, but who sends several of his people to Miller’s offices to modify the deal.  However, Miller is involved in a multi-million dollar fraud, having hidden $400 million worth of debt from both his family and the investors.  Miller’s CFO is his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), a strong, stable woman who makes a capable business partner.  Miller also shares a seemingly healthy relationship with his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), who knows her husband has at least one mistress, but accepts this as long as some set of conditions (which we are never quite privy to, but can assume has something to do with maintaining a lavish lifestyle) are met.

The central conflict, however, is not the merger and the fraud, at least not when Miller takes his mistress, Julie (Laetitia Casta) for a cruise to one of his rural secondary homes.  Julie, an up-and-coming artist whose ventures Miller funds, loves him and wants him to leave Ellen.  He puts off answering, but all of the discussion amounts to nothing when he dozes off in the driver’s seat, resulting in a gruesome car accident that kills Julie and results in an attempt at a massive cover-up.  Miller begins to dial 911, then thinks better of it and makes a collect call to Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of a former chauffeur for whom Miller once did personal favors, asking for a ride home and keeping the cause of his (very visible) injuries a secret.

What follows is Miller’s attempt to hide every possible truth from every possible party.  Police Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), a bristly lawman with a chip on his shoulder concerning “rich assholes,” is sent to discover the identity of Julie’s absent driver, and knows Miller was the wheelman after a surprise interrogation.  Bryer explores Julie’s apartment, harasses Jimmy (who is pegged as a witness after police trace the call), and even goes as far as photo-shopping a photo of Jimmy’s license plate in order to place his car at a guilt-proving location.  Roth’s character wears a black suit and made me imagine all-too-vividly what might have happened if Mr. Orange, Roth’s black-suited undercover cop from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, had continued with his career and worked another twenty years.  The lines engraving his face and his passive-yet-menacing interrogation style say more than could ever be spoken about this guy’s position in life.

Brit Marling, who scripted and starred in Another Earth, my favorite film from last year, performs strongly here, matching the veterans Gere and Sarandon line for line.  It’s truly an amazing thing to see. I’m fine with a film centering around a male character, but if I have one gripe about the film, it’s the mild underuse of Brit, whose longer scenes are rare chestnuts in a film so full of handsome men doing bad things.

The ingenuity of a thriller like Arbitrage lies in the fact that a filmgoer’s instinct is either to immediately identify with the protagonist, or try to remain completely neutral until one event or another forces them to take a side.  It doesn’t take very long for Miller to reveal himself as a snake, and while no sane person would root for him to get away with either of his schemes, we as an audience are burdened with each of his lies and deceptions until the pressure is unceremoniously relieved in the film’s all-too-true-to-life ending.  No, bastards like Miller never lose.

Arbitrage (2012); written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki; starring Richard Gere, Brit Marling, Tim Roth, and Susan Sarandon.

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