You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Friday, 23 November 2012


Faith, Sex, and the Duality of Man

The Master is a difficult film to unreservedly love.

For one thing, it’s a far trickier beast than Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous world-beater, the relentless and aptly titled There Will Be Blood. There are no oilrig explosions, no dairy beverage related analogies, though the film is certainly closer to it's immediate predecessor in style, tone, and content than any other PTA’s directed. There is the same sense of a tremendous driving force behind the film’s protagonist, in this case former seaman and life-long screw-up Freddie Quell, and the idea that they are moving towards something dark and life changing, potentially devastating. The question is whether or not he ever truly arrives there and what that means for the picture.

Both The Master and TWWB are based in part around the career-defining performances by their leads, in the former Daniel Day-Lewis’ irascible Daniel Plainview, here Joaquin Phoenix’s tormented Quell. As a performance, it’s enough to make you consider how much of Phoenix’s mockumentary I’m Still Here, documenting his apparent breakdown over a two-year period after retiring from acting, was actually faked. Phoenix gives a genuinely remarkable performance as the World War 2 vet whose emotional problems, we sense, far predate his involvement in the conflict. Phoenix is all raw nerves, uneasy charm; a sneering, mumbling, profoundly broken human being.

But just as TWBB had Paul Dano’s preacher Eli Sunday as a counterpoint to Plainview, here Anderson introduces Lancaster Dodd, self-proclaimed leader of The Cause, played to perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffmann. As rough and misshapen as Freddie is, he nevertheless quickly forms an attachment to the polished and articulate Dodd, onto whose yacht he drunkenly stows away. Dodd, famously based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, begins to employ the obviously troubled Freddie as a guinea pig in his Processing exercise, designed at helping man reach his full potential through overcoming past traumas. This is where the film plants its thematic flag.

Freddie’s violent and erratic behavior continues to degenerate, despite his claims of wanting to change, and Dodd, for all his claims of enlightenment, persists in swigging the toxic concoctions he has Freddie brew for him (hint: the secret ingredient is paint thinner). While in TWBB, the dueling forces represented would seem to be those of religion and industry, or perhaps traditionalism and progress, in The Master the battle would seem to be between mankind’s higher nature and his potential for bestiality. Is Lancaster Dodd a charlatan? Is Freddie Quell salvageable? And what of Dodd’s wife, Peggy: might she, who ultimately rules Dodd’s heart and hearth, be the true master?

Or perhaps, as Dodd elliptically comments that all men have a master, the film is about the ultimate inability to achieve true self-realization. Freddie is a man so enthrall to his emotions that he repeatedly jeopardizes any chance that he might have at happiness of fulfillment – when he assaults a customer in the apartment store after a bad day, or is forced to flee a cabbage farm after his moonshine poisons a fellow migrant worker, you get the feel that Freddie has been running a long while and may well be running for the rest of his life. Similarly, Dodd is, not without irony, addicted to the ideas, to the very principles he believes will set him free, whether or not it's chicanery.

After a while, it’s easy to see why two such very different men would hold such an allure for each other.

Some critics have dismissed The Master as baffling, but, though it is often obscure, I feel this misses the point of the piece. It is a grand and sprawling piece of cinema, one that encompasses religious mania and postwar ennui without ever truly being about any of it. It’s a journey without a destination, which, given where the film ends and a particular scene involving a trek across the desert, is perhaps apt. There Will Be Blood is likewise about the self-made man, but if that film’s creed is, to quote Shakespeare, the binary “To be or not to be” then The Master’s would be the multivalent “What a piece of work is a man”. At the heart of the film there is a tremendous ambivalence, as in Hamlet itself.

To return to more purely cinematic concerns, the film is beautifully shot – Anderson’s roving camera defies you an objective take on proceedings and the sense of choreography is naturalistic and impeccable. I was lucky enough to see the film as a 70mm print, which may well still be showing at the West End Odeon for all those in the area, and, from the sandy Pacific beach on which the film opens to the blinding desert flats on which a choice is made, The Master is spellbindingly beautiful. From the haunting orchestral score by Johnny Greenwood subliminally ticking over in the background to the unfaultable editing by Peter McNulty and previous Anderson collaborator Leslie Jones, The Master is truly a master class in ambitious thematic cinema.

With Day-Lewis already receiving plaudits for his performance as the eponymous President in Spielberg’s Lincoln, and with Phoenix having recently denounced the Oscars as “total bulls**t”, Anderson may not be able to repeat his success with the Academy in the acting category. Hoffmann and Adams are exemplary, but their performances lack the intensity and focality of Phoenix’s turn. It’s impossibility to easily bracket, and indeed its ultimate indecipherability, may hinder its chances at Best Picture, too, despite its success in Venice. A lot of essays will undoubtedly be written about The Master – from its cinematography to it’s occasional opacity – and it deserves every one.

Safe to say, we won’t be seeing anything else like it in the cinema for a long time.

Friday, 16 November 2012


Well, that took a while, but after four years of languishing in MGM’s cash-strapped development rooms, James Bond is finally back on the big screen, just in time for the franchise’s 50th anniversary. The question is whether ‘Skyfall’, directed by auteur Sam Mendes, is a worthy showcase for half a century of martini-swilling, Aston-driving, megalomaniac-stopping, not-returning-gadgets-even-though-specifically-asked-to-by-Q-Branch-ing “spy craft”.

The answer: Of course it is. 

After the controversial instalment that was the dour Quantum of Solace, Mendes and his team inject a well-needed vein of humor into the proceedings, and take Bond closer back to his roots than since Daniel Craig first donned the tux. 

For one thing, ‘Skyfall’ sees the return of the classic Bond villain in the form of Javier Bardem’s Silva. After ‘Embittered Frenchman’ in QoS and Casino Royale’s somewhat colourless Le Chiffre (despite beating our hero’s knackers with a knotted rope), Silva may be the most out-there threat that Bond’s faced since… Blimey, a long while. A fey (see: camp), almost prissy sociopath, Bardem doesn’t quite go No Country on us, but his magnetic portrayal of the former MI6 agent hints at (and in one memorably gruesome moment reveals) the scarred monster beneath the surface. A monster created in part by Judi Dench’s frosty M. 

In the pre-title sequence released in the build-up to the film’s premiere, M orders operative Eve (Naomie Harris), one of the film’s two “Bond girls”, to “Take the shot”, which, gone awry, sends Bond plummeting off a moving train to his presumed death. Yeah, right. When Bond is drawn out of “retirement” by events in the capital, he’s no longer the smoothly working machine he once was, and Bardem’s Silva is waiting.  

As in the previous two films, Craig’s performance is mesmerising. Unlike the good old days when one arguably had to simply look good in formal wear and be able to utter the occasional bon mot without losing at baccarat (I’m being dismissive here, but Roger Moore in A View to A Kill, for instance), Craig hints at the depths of emotion, of humanity, that lie beneath all the stylish provocation. It's difficult not to like Bond, but it's rare as a viewer, for me at least, to find yourself actually caring about him, which in 'Skyfall' is a surprisingly easy proposition.

Shortly enough, Bond’s back on his customary tour of exotic locales, from Shanghai to Macau, bedding the local beauties in the form of Bérénice Marlohe’s Sévérine (or should that be Silva’s Sévérine?), during which the film carries itself beautifully through the usual motions. From the opening bike chase across the rooftops of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar to a neon backlit fistfight atop a skyscraper, Mendes proves he knows how to shoot action and, in the latter case, bring his more arthouse sensibilities to bear. With Roger Deakin as a cinematographer, who worked previously with Bardem on No Country For Old Men, this should come as no surprise.

Some familiar faces also make an appearance, the most notable perhaps being the aforementioned Q, who makes himself known to a Bond in a scene that takes place at the National Gallery. To which I made an immediate visit the minute I stepped out of the West End Odeon at around quarter to four on Saturday, 27th October, 2012, though in my defence it is only just around the corner.

This new hyper-articulate, albeit slightly prickly Q, played by Ben Whishaw, never quite steps entirely out of the shadow of his predecessor, the late Desmond Llewellyn, but with about five minutes in the role that’s perhaps to be expected. He is nevertheless a geeky delight, plus he does get to deliver that old standard about expecting his equipment back in one piece (ha!).  

As ‘Skyfall’ takes a turn reminiscent of The Dark Knight (one of Mende’s proclaimed influences), M finds herself having to account for past mistakes. From reciting Tennyson at a board of enquiry to dealing with the resurrected Bond’s announced appearance in her apartment (“Well, you’re not staying here”), Dench is magnificent. It’s easy to forget that she’s been involved in the franchise since Goldeneye in 1995, seventeen years, and, with seven films under her belt, she’s as much a part of Bond’s history as any of the men who have inhabited the title role. 

Speaking of Bond’s history, ‘Skyfall’ takes us further back than we’ve ever been before and gives us a tantalizing glimpse at the world – “When he came out, he wasn’t a boy anymore.” To say more would be to spoil it, suffice to say it features an appearance from one of Britain’s best-loved thesps (brushing neatly over my failure to even mention Ralph’s Fiennes’ Mallory, the big boss to whom M must answer for her sins). It won’t be to everyone’s tastes: This constitutes arguably the biggest step towards demystifying the film franchise Bond since… well, forever. 

Maybe it’s sentimental.

Maybe it’s a cheap way to drum up some emotion. 

In any case, the third act, whatever you think of it, is a brave venture forth from the standard formula, and - with it's mist-shrouded moors and ancestral manse - my god, it's beautiful. Bond is on his back foot, haunted, hunted, and personally, I’m more excited about the future of the franchise than I have been in a long while. If this is Craig’s last appearance in the role, it’s a worthy one. So, bring on the old-new Bond, put another auteur in the director’s chair, and let’s get back to work.

So, all together: 'JAMES BOND WILL RETURN IN...'

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

"Well, Dimitri, what happened is... one of our base commanders, he had a sort of... well, he went a little funny in the head... you know... just a little... funny. And, ah... he went and did a silly thing..."