reviews of The Master and The Paperboy

By Jordan Minter

What have we here?
By the time you get to the end of The Master, there’s a fundamental issue that you can’t get around. At two hours and thirty minutes it is just too long for what it is. I almost never complain about a movie’s length, but as I sat in the beautiful Grand Lake Theater, a stylistic mirror to The Master’s baroque re-imagination of early 50’s glamour, I found myself continually saying over and over again, this would be a weird place to end the film. No, this would be a weird place to end the film! Oh my God, what a weird place to end the film. And as I say, if you watch it, you will be able to say, several times, that this would indeed be a weird place to end the film. And when you find yourself at the end of the film, you will find yourself saying, perhaps one of those times would have been a better place to end the film, no matter how weird it would have been. So, to begin with we have issues of duration and endings.

Great films create emotions we didn’t think we had, The Master is a film that creates a feeling within us that says, you are watching a great film and without all that nonsense of emotion. It is amazing to look at, even if you come in knowing that (the director’s) previous film was the gorgeously haunted—at least to look at—There Will be Blood. It has amazing performances, particularly Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, Oscar worthy no less. But does any of it matter when it seems like a failure of some sorts occurred in the editing room and no one could decide what weird ending would work best?

How to look at the world
The Master follows Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a psychologically conflicted World War Two vet who moves from one bender to another, swigging torpedo fuel and paint thinner and everything else in between. Words cannot do justice to Phoenix’s tortured performance, so I won’t write about it, but you watch it and you marvel at an acting style that seems to come out of nowhere to declare itself the only way. We follow Quell as he shambles his way through life making mistake after mistake in the type of downward spiral that eventually leads to a horrific death. All this changes when he meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) “a writer, a doctor, an astro-physicist, a theoretical philosopher” and leader of an organization known as the “Cause.” It is through a series of meetings with Dodd that Quell becomes entranced with Dodd’s ideas, beliefs and Dodd himself and joins the “Cause” and by doing so possibly starts to heal. The film follows the ups and downs of the relationship between Dodd and Quell and their volatile friendship.

Let’s get down to the basics. In many ways, this film is everything A Dangerous Method was not, David Cronenberg’s take on the birth of psychoanalysis, Freud, Jung and therapeutic misconduct. Both followed a tortured individual and a charismatic healer. As the tortured undergo difficult treatments and achieve some success in regaining emotional balance, they become all too involved with the healer, which is the ostensible source of drama in both films. What A Dangerous Method lacked in mood and aesthetics, The Master excels in, but A Dangerous Method has a story, where The Master is a one hundred and fifty minute tone poem—there’s a reason most lyric poetry is short and epic poetry traffics in ideas and plots.

Without a doubt Paul Thomas Anderson is an amazing director, but from Boogie Nights, to Magnolia, to Punch-Drunk Love, to There Will Be Blood, the visuals have slowly become more important than anything else. That doesn’t mean he has jettisoned character, but these characters are products of cinematography and not plot. I’m not saying that that is a bad thing, what I am saying is he is much better than The Master and its limited scope. Success can sometimes be as toxic as failure and he may be haunted by the public triumph of There Will Be Blood and artistic possibilities beyond his means or anybody else’s for that matter. Reception is an odd thing and it can affect an artist in all sorts of unintended ways. In many ways, The Master is already considered a classic and there’s probably someone writing a BFI book right now. It will possibly receive an Oscar for one of the best performances categories, best picture and best director and at least nominations, but the actual film feels truncated, more of an idea of greatness than greatness itself.

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I'll have a McConaugh-sance with that
One of the most amazing “art” stories of the last two years is Matthew McConaughey’s continued and beautiful quest to remake a goofball career into something searing and unique. With The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie, Killer Joe and Magic Mike, the McConaugh-sance is well under way and soaring higher with The Paperboy. It’s an emotional roller-coaster of a film, an amazing collaboration of wild talents who pull together to create a piece of art that will take years to truly get a hold of and which, unfortunately, many reviewers have failed to grasp. And yet my attempt at high praise is not enough to describe the full magnitude of what The Paperboy is, or how it does what it does, which is both unusual and tremendous.

The Paperboy is set in 1969 in a small town in Florida where segregation is a way of life, as engrained a habit as breathing. It is in this racially charged atmosphere that our story begins in medias res. A corrupt Sheriff is killed and Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack in a rousing performance) is tried, convicted and sent to death row without much due process—his previous run-ins with the law make him a nice candidate for conviction. Our story begins with the retelling of that story by Anita (Macy Gray in a stunning performance) the housemaid, who has acted as a surrogate mother to Ward (McConaughey, brilliance already noted) and Jack (a strangely effective Zac Efron) Jansen. The whole story is told through her narration and closely follows Jack’s time as a driver to his older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and his writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo), both newspapermen for the Miami Herald. There job is to find out the true story of what happened to the Sheriff and whether Van Wetter is actually innocent.

Nicole Kidman is blessed
Okay, that’s simple enough, until you throw in Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman, literally acting her pants off) a hairdresser whose hobby is writing convicts and whom Jack has fallen hopelessly in love with. Miss Bless, as she is often referred to, symbolism noted, has sworn off all other men and dreams of marrying Van Wetter upon his release. She, of course, believes him to be innocent of all charges. Her proof is that all the men she writes to talk about wanting to go down on her, but Hillary only talks about Miss Bless going down on him, which to her bleach blonde mind means that not only is he innocent, but he also exists in a state of innocence.

Van Wetter is eventually freed from prison and given a full pardon based on an article that Yardley writes without Ward, who is in the hospital due to a severe beating he took during a sexual encounter gone horribly wrong. It’s that type of movie, where haphazard incidents lurch the narrative forward. Miss Bless then moves with Van Wetter out to his trailer in the swamp, which in the annals of blessedly bad ideas is near the top. Jack and Ward know full well that Van Wetter may actually be guilty and go to get Miss Bless. This leads to an all night chase through the swamp. We learn that Van Wetter went back to prison for all his crimes and died in the electric chair. Everything in between is a rousing tale of conflicted love, racism, sexuality and family. With fantastic performances by all, amazing visuals reminiscent of films of that era and sharp, true dialogue this movie literally sucks you in, spits you out and demands that you see it again and again.

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What is a Gold Man to Art?
As awards season heats up the odds makers have begun to handicap the race for the Golden statue. Already, a debate has sprung up surrounding The Master and some remarks made by Joaquin Phoenix who said that after the circus surrounding his nominations for Gladiator and Walk The Line that he never wanted to go through another Oscar race again. Bells went off and the telephones around Hollywood didn’t stop ringing as to whether he hurt or helped his chances. It’s all so immaterial when you consider how deep Phoenix goes in his performance, as if you could award an Oscar or anything for that. How do you quantify that? Or Amy Adams’ performance, which may be the single best portrayal of a woman in a film since... the mind wanders. I honestly can’t think of a woman portrayed with such complexity and honesty until I saw The Master and I never would have imagined that Adams had the talent to pull it off. No offense, Amy.

The real problem is roles, not only for women, but also for men. The characters we get in movies are barely characters at all and this is why The Paperboy is such a revelation. The roles here are not normally doled out, male or female, and that allows the actors to play real people to a degree unheard of in most films. Nicole Kidman gives an air blowjob to John Cusack and you can’t believe it it’s so real—there should be an Oscar category for that. She urinates on Zac Efron—that should be another category. These are not things we get to see actors do in Oscar-worthy serious dramas. Matthew McCounaghey plays a gay man who has a special longing for African-American males with a dollop of BDSM. I don’t think these scenes would have happened if the director, Lee Daniels, weren’t gay and African-American. It’s not like you come away feeling all gay marriage about the scenes, they’re just plain brutal depictions of real people doing real people things and getting real people results and it’s both awful to see but astounding to experience.

The main antagonist in the film is David Oyelowo’s character Yardley, Ward’s black co-author, who through some sort of sexual arrangement with Miss Bless writes the false story that springs Van Wetter from jail. All of the tragedy that follows comes from this betrayal of journalistic and personal ethics and it’s the failure of an African-American man in the racist Couth. That’s unheard of in Hollywood or independent films and is a vicious punch to the gut. Where does that leave us? Reeling and more alive. This is real art and you can bet Oscar won’t reward it, but just maybe, maybe, you will.

Don't let this go unseen!
©The CCA Arts Review and Jordan Minter

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