Monthly Archives: May 2014

Set adrift by ‘The Master’

Joaquin Phoenix portrays Freddie Quell, a physically and psychically damaged veteran of WWII.

Joaquin Phoenix portrays Freddie Quell, a physically and psychically damaged veteran of WWII.

EVER WATCH A MOVIE WITH A FRIEND, and then have a conversation that makes you wonder if the friend actually paid any attention during the movie?

That’s what I felt like when I sought out reviews of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. After recently watching the 2012 film, I was seeking some clarity. More so than any of the other three Anderson films I’ve seen – Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood – I felt like I wasn’t quite grasping the film’s message.

The reviews I found – many by the big names (or big-name media outlets) – seemed to confirm that everyone else was pretty much as lost I was. That surprised me some, but I think that, in a way, is a tribute to The Master. It wasn’t an easy three-act piece all tidily wrapped up in the end, and it left plenty of room for interpretation.

What really surprised me, though, was that, in some instances, these big names were completely missing on obvious stuff. For example … late in the film, Freddy leaves Lancaster Dodd, aka the Master, and his Cause acolytes to return to his old home town. The trip is a disappointment, and he ends up sleeping in a movie theater. A theater employee arrives with a phone. It’s the Master, calling Freddie back into the fold, telling him to cross the Atlantic and meet him in England. Then there’s a cut, and it shows Freddie, still asleep in the theater as if nothing happened. THAT’S BECAUSE NOTHING HAPPENED. It was a dream.

In two separate reviews I perused, two different reviewers acted as if the phone call actually happened. Because, of course, the Master just hopped on Facebook in post-WWII England, saw that Freddie had checked in to the Regal Theatre, then Googled the phone number so he could give his pal Freddie a call.

Is that what these reviewers thought (or, to give them credit, something significantly less ridiculous)? And even if they did, did they not watch the rest of the film? Because even if there was confusion on that point, Freddie himself clears it up in his final meeting with the Master, saying he came to England because of his dream. There’s plenty of obfuscation and unclear subtext throughout the duration of The Master, but on this point, the movie is clear.

THE BEST REVIEW I came across was by Roger Ebert. Ebert makes a couple of points I think most of the other reviews I read missed. First, he isn’t willing to automatically assume that there’s an undercurrent of homoeroticism here. There’s a time or two – particularly in their last meeting – where I felt that vibe. But I don’t think it’s obvious throughout the movie that the two leads being in love is the case. To me, it feels like each admires (admiration bordering on jealousy, in some instances) what the other is. Dodd sees in Freddy a man who is truly free, no family obligations, no wife, anonymous, a man who acts on impulse, fear, rage, joy, a person who can truly live in the moment. Freddy sees in Dodd the American Dream, a man with a beautiful, doting wife, a family who loves him, a man who is respected for his intellect, a gentleman at ease in every situation, a success.

What Ebert also nails is The Master’s greatest problem: “The Master shows invention and curiosity. It is often spellbinding. But what does it intend to communicate?” What, indeed. With There Will Be Blood, Anderson seems to show us through Daniel Plainview that, to be a success in a hard world, one must be hard. Plainview sacrifices everything non-material – relationships, opportunities, his very soul – to get every material reward he can, to one-up or destroy everyone who would deny him his success. In Boogie Nights, Dirk Diggler is much the same, unable to keep any stable relationship – whether love, friendship or family – because his pursuit of fame overwhelms all, actions mirrored by nearly every other member of his porn clan. Here … is it beware false prophets? Is that it? Despite an absolutely amazing performance by Joaquin Phoenix – who manages to verbally encapsulate a man lost and bewildered, physically showing his constant discomfort, both because of his war injuries and his seeming inability to fit in anywhere – as well as solid showings by both Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, it’s unclear what the takeaway is. As stunning as The Master is, that lack of a solid base ends up being what undercuts it all, a sense uncertainty for the viewer that doesn’t fade even with introspection.

DON’T GET ME WRONG: I’m not one of those viewers who needs every little thing laid out for them. I don’t mind uncertainty. But I need to feel that there’s a point to that uncertainty.

Take another film about a cult: Martha Marcy May Marlene. It has similarities to The Master: top-of-the-line performances by Ashley Olsen and John Hawkes, a story line about a cult and a general feeling of uncertainty about what is real and what isn’t. Olsen’s character, a lost girl who takes up with a cult, then realizes she’s in over her head and runs to live with a distant sister, lives in a constant state of uncertainty: What is real? How do I behave? What now? Is the cult coming to get me, to get my sister, to get revenge? And the way the film is shot, past and present run together, reality and hallucinations are confused. The ending is even left hanging, open, threatening. But the nut of it is there: What happens to those who belong nowhere, to no one? How do those who can’t find their place in society make their way?

Which, come to think of it, could be the one consistent theme of The Master. But over the course of the film, that gets buried, lost, tossed in with a bevy of other ideas to be mulled, but never borne out. For all of its wonderful qualities, The Master as a whole is somewhat frustrating.

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Is ‘Lords’ the best of Rob Zombie?

If you're in a creepy, blood red room with just a cross and a horrifying, unrecognizable beast, it's probably time to find a new apartment.

If you’re in a creepy, blood red room with just a cross and a horrifying, unrecognizable beast, it’s probably time to find a new apartment.

So if you’re here for the short answer to the titular question, the answer is this: No.

(SPOILERS AHEAD. Don’t say you weren’t warned.)

That isn’t to diss Lords of Salem, which despite every negative review and “Oh my God it’s a train wreck” warning aimed in my direction, I really enjoyed. But I’m not your average reviewer or moviegoer (or at least I’d like to think so). When things start to spin and Rob Zombie eschews more traditional narrative form to go abstract, weird and just plain gross, I’m willing to take that ride. And while I’ll admit the ending wasn’t satisfying, I end up feeling like the journey was worth it, for a number of reasons.

1. Zombie goes old school. The modern, enlightened America knows that the Salem witch trials were a bunch of self-serving, misogynistic, superstitious men taking out their own insecurities and hostilities on the women and girls around them. Zombie takes the traditional horror approach: Sure, the bulk of the women were innocent victims, but there was this one coven that was pure evil and really wanted to unleash the power of Satan on the earthly plane. It’s not very PC, but it’s that PC mentality that ends up biting everyone in the ass in the end. Francis Matthias (nice to see Bruce Davison), an author and authority on the witches of Salem, never once believes that any of these coincidences – the Lords of Salem references, Heidi Hawthorne being a descendant of witch-killing Pastor Hawthorne, the haunting tune (call it “Colonial industrial,” a mix of Francis Scott Key and Nordic dark metal), etc. – are anything more than coincidences … right up until one of the witches bashes his skull in with a skillet. Heidi’s pals, Whitey and Herman, believe Heidi has merely succumbed to pressure and returned to her addict ways, not suspecting something supernatural is at work. Zombie uses our enlightened, modern prejudices against us here. It’s a trick a lot of horror uses, sure, but Zombie does it smoothly, serving his tale well.

2. I don’t need to know everything. You know the main reason why the Dexter series finale sucked so much? The minds behind the scenes felt the need to explain everything. Instead of leaving us with the image of Dexter in his boat, his sister’s dead body next to him, waiting for the hurricane to swallow them whole, never knowing for sure if Dexter survives or not, we get that cheesy bullshit coda with Dexter now playing the role of the loner logger, which runs counter to everything the series set up as well as being just plain stupid. Viewers were given too much, and it left a nasty taste in our collective mouths. In Lords of Salem, I don’t mind that I’m not always entirely sure what’s going on. That’s sort of the point. Heidi, her pals, Matthias, the average Salem citizen has no clue what dark cloud hangs over their fair village. Zombie is putting us in an uncomfortable place of being lost in the dark, right there with the characters. The imagery is terrifying, not of this earth. It is a mix of heresy, putridity and the potential for violence. I don’t need to know who or what that midget, Frankenstein’s monster, turkey-looking thingy is. It ain’t good, that’s for damn certain. The harbingers with the dark, rotted cloth faces? I don’t think they’re here to welcome Heidi to the neighborhood. I find comfort in the fact that Zombie allows his viewers the opportunity to let their imaginations take the reins and run with it.

3. That scary hallway. A significant part of The Shining‘s appeal is how fully Stanley Kubrick incorporates the Overlook Hotel as a character in the film. Roman Polanski – while largely an overrated, obnoxious rapist – managed a similar vibe with the Bramford in Rosemary’s Baby. Heidi’s apartment building isn’t so scary, but her particular hallway is ominous, a portent of bad things to come. It’s creepy every time Zombie shows it. It isn’t quite as important to the tale as the Overlook or the Bramford, but it’s a nice touch and a centering point for Lords of Salem.

4. I get the feeling if the director was David Lynch instead of Rob Zombie, Lords of Salem would have been hailed instead of jeered. OK, maybe that’s an overstatement. But it seems that Zombie’s fascination with white trash culture – something that is part of all of his on-screen work – gets derided because he isn’t viewed as having the intellectual and spiritual take that Lynch is known for while mining the same rural mindset for Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, etc. I’m not saying Zombie is better than Lynch or vice versa, but it feels like their views on the nasty secrets of small towns are not all that dissimilar. I think the real gap is in the perception of critics, some of whom may be a bit on the snobby side.

Sounds like I enjoyed the film, doesn’t it? But in the end, I would still argue that Lords of Salem isn’t Zombie’s finest, not because Lords is sub-par, but because Zombie has made two better films: 2007’s Halloween remake and 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects. In Halloween, Zombie takes the original’s skeletal classic and adds some meat. It’s not the be all, end all of horror movies, but it’s worthy. The Devil’s Rejects is Zombie’s finest to date, creating a film where there is no rooting interest, the anti-heroes unworthy of victory or salvation, and the “heroes” just as irredeemable and low.

But I think Lords of Salem, while not Zombie’s finest film as a whole, may be his best effort as a visual storyteller. I respect that he continues to improve at his craft, and at the same time, I look forward to see what he does next.

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The record vs. the live show

I attended the River Roots festival in Madison, Indiana, this past weekend. I was struck by the incredible variances in the artists’ albums and their live performances in a way I never had been before.

For example, Rusted Root. Before I go cracking on their live show, let me say there was a complete meltdown of the sound system prior to their headlining performance, and that probably didn’t help their rhythm and cohesiveness. However, based on their albums and what I’d heard from pals who had already seen Rusted Root live, I expected a drum-heavy set, probably more reggae- or African music-influenced. What I got was an above-average, middle-of-the-road, rock-and-roll cover band. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t worth the headliner billing and definitely not what I – and the increasing number of people heading for the doors during their set – was looking for.

Contrast that with the Black Lillies. They were the headlining act the opening night, and I had been thoroughly underwhelmed by what I’d heard on their albums. But the Black Lillies I saw at River Roots put on one helluva country-inflected rock and roll show. The difference in the energy between the Black Lillies live and on disc was substantial. It really was almost like I was seeing an entirely different band.

That dynamic played out a lot over the course of the weekend. Elephant Revival put on a nice show, but they sounded awfully close to their recorded selves. It would’ve been nice to see them go more off-script. Cincinnati’s Shiny and the Spoon delivered on the second stage, but the quirky folk group I heard on their albums evolved to a more straight-up country act at the festival. Not bad, but unexpected. Spirit Family Reunion were solid on record, but when they played live, it was like I expected to see the words “Passion” and “Intensity” tattooed on the each of the band members’ knuckles, a la Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear.

But the band who took it to another level was St. Paul and the Broken Bones. I’ve already raved about them on my best albums of 2014 (so far) list, and I was psyched for the live show. I’ve never had a come to Jesus moment, but I think watching St. Paul live was as close as I’ll get. The band is absolutely tight, just wrecking each soul track with precision and passion. Lead singer Paul Janeway looks a bit like a guy who might try to sell you life insurance, then the show starts and he’s singing like Otis Redding and moving like a lost Blues Brother.

Apparently, for St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the medium doesn’t matter. They’ll own it no matter what.

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That’s My Jam #16: Ol’ Dirty Bastard, ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’

When the Wu Tang Clan hit in the early 1990s, it was hard to know what to make of them. Method Man, the life of the party. Ghostface Killah, the lady’s man. RZA, the guru. GZA, the warrior.

And in the midst of the 36 chambers, kung fu, eastern mysticism and New York gangsta poses there was Ol’ Dirty Bastard. A blurry mess of pure Id, Dirty sounded like Flava Flav’s crack baby cousin. The opening piano notes of Shimmy Shimmy Ya sing out that something ain’t right, and it’s going to get weirder before it gets straight. And, indeed, shit got crazy. Dirty was a true original.

R.I.P.

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Where ‘Helix’ went right

If only the show was as cool as this publicity photo.

If only the show was as cool as this publicity photo.

Anyone remember the first season of Lost? The terror, the uncertainty, the promise of an amazing unfolding of events, history and imagination. Lost had that “it” factor.

The minds behind Lost then spent the better part of the next season destroying all such promise, adding a bunch of characters that mainly ended up dead, going down tangents the resulted in little but frustration for viewers, ignoring everything it had previously done to build its fan base.

What’s amazing about Helix is that it managed to achieve that frustration level in just one season, 13 episodes to the 40 or so it took Lost.

But rather than write about all the issues the show has – meandering and occasionally confusing story lines, poor acting, worse writing, etc. – I want to talk about what Helix got right: The setting.

The set-up is this: A CDC infectious disease team, led by Dr. Alan Farragut (played to the cheesy hilt by Billy Campbell), is called in to deal with a potential epidemic. Potential because, although the secret disease has popped up, at this point it is contained at a secret arctic research facility owned by the Ilaria Corporation. The hitch: At this point the lone infected “vector” is Farragut’s estranged brother, and the estrangement is because of a love triangle involving Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky, who easily gives the best acting performance on the show), who is part of Farragut’s CDC team and ex-wife.

The arctic base is terrific. Big open corridors. Small, dimly lit labs. Everything white, gray, sparse, clean, antiseptic. The overall effect is haunting and claustrophobic, especially when compared with the cold, harsh, dark weather and open, snowy terrain that surrounds the lab. The facility itself has its own presence and character, reminiscent of the arctic base in John Carpenter’s The Thing or even the isolated hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Unfortunately, even that gets screwed by the minds behind Helix. Occasional and largely unnecessary trips to an Inuit village and a visit to an abandoned facility accomplish the one thing that should never happen on Helix: Taking the cast any further from the creepy facility than its immediate exterior. And, of course, those trips mean little. The big reveal from the Inuit village is marginally interesting … until the character that the reveal means most to offs himself. I still don’t recall why Farragut and Julia go to the abandoned facility. Must have been really vital to the show.

To sum up: There’s no reason to watch Helix. You’re just encouraging them. And SyFy can fill the space with Sliders re-runs. At least that’s a show is both fun and honest about its lack of smarts.

 

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‘Quantum Thief’: Is the juice worth the squeeze?

In any heist situation, it helps if you have wings.

In any heist situation, it helps if you have wings.

In The Girl Next Door, when Kelly asks Matthew if the juice is worth the squeeze, he wants to know if Matthew is ready to face the repercussions of his actions, and if those repercussions are worth the end result.

With regards to The Quantum Thief, I ask the same question with a slightly different meaning. Is the juice – the reward of finishing the complex, fast-paced novel – worth the squeeze – the fact that the complexity is almost mind-boggling in the early chapters of the book?

Part of the brilliance of The Quantum Thief is its speed. The Mars-based heist perpetrated by scoundrel/thief Jean Le Flambeur at the behest of the Oori warrior Mieli is grand, fun and brilliant. It’s hard not to get swept up in it.

Actually, I take that back. It is kind of hard to get caught up in it. Know what a gevulot is? Tzaddikim? Sobornost? You won’t, at least at first. And author Hannu Rajaniemi isn’t big with the explanations, instead expecting you to go along for the ride and figure it out as the novel unfolds.

An appendix, glossary or something would have been nice, akin to what was added to the end of A Clockwork Orange. A reviewer over at the Speculative Scotsman admits that while normally he hates that sort of thing, he’d have been consulting it throughout the entirety of the book.

In the end, the juice was worth it for me. I found it to a be a simultaneously confusing and fun experience, and I look forward to reading Rajaniemi’s next tale of Jean’s exploits.

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Will I continue to walk with the ‘Dead’?

Our plucky band off survivors just keeps on plucking.

Our plucky band off survivors just keeps on plucking.

Lots of spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Instead of “those who arrive survive,” how about “slowly but surely”? Because that both describes the trek to Terminus and seasons 2-4 of The Walking Dead.

Harsh? Maybe. To their credit, the Walking Dead folks know how to create a cliffhanger, both at their mid-season break and at the end of the season. From the execution of Carol’s zombie daughter to the fall of the prison and the death of Herschel, the minds behind The Walking Dead hit the big notes big. Rick finally getting back into kick-ass mode after being so lost for a season and a half was terrific, and I look forward to seeing what happens next fall.

Maybe.

Season 4 was an exercise in frustration for the most part. I was willing to forgive slow starts to both Seasons 2 and 3 because AMC had excised significant portions of the writing and producing staff each time. The death of zombie Sophia in the middle of Season 2 was awesome, but preceded by a lot of twiddling thumbs. At that point, Walking Dead was starting to remind me a lot of the worst of Lost: Two people isolated in some beautiful setting, saying deep, serious shit while staring off toward the horizon.

But, again, the turnover behind the scenes, the knowledge that these people were kind of being thrown into the middle of a hugely popular show, it all made me be patient, even if I was a bit on the annoyed side.

The problem is there is no such excuse for Season 4. There was no purge, no turnover. There should have been an amazing plan for the whole season heading into it, not just a nice start, terrific middle and gripping – if abrupt – end. All of that Governor background in the fall, what exactly was the point of that? We knew he was a selfish, brutal (and possibly slightly mentally ill) guy with a taste for blood and power who never really even believed in the possibility of peace. Were we supposed to believe he’d soften up with his new “family”? Because if so, that wasn’t sold very well. I never bought into it. It played like wheels spinning in snow, a waste of screen time for a character who the Walking Dead folks then proceeded to kill. Not that I have a problem with that, but if you’re just going to kill him anyway and not really make him integral in any part of the future show except the execution of Herschel, then why bother with the lame, useless back-story?

When The Walking Dead returned from Christmas break, we got more background and less plot and action. Michonne had a family, and it broke her heart when they died? Name one character who doesn’t have the same back story. Daryl was a dipshit redneck before the apocalypse? Gee, who would have guessed that? Rick isn’t sure what to do next? Been there, done that. Glen and Maggie love each other? Sweet, but no value added. And in between we get plod, plod, plod, plus a few characters added who, at this point, aren’t very interesting or are already dead.

Really, the second-to-last episode of Season 4, The Grove, where Carol is forced to make another hard choice, is far superior to either of the two that follow it. The second-to-last was another mildly interesting episode that’s sole purpose was to reunite Glen with Maggie. The final episode starts with serious intensity, then watch it crumble to pieces as Rick, Carl, Michonne and Darryl practically run into Terminus without a thought, followed with a display of automatic weapon fire so hokey and poorly choreographed that I’m reasonably certain it was stock footage from The A-Team, and – finally – one great, final line.

Is it worth it? It has been, to an extent. I guess the real question is will The Walking Dead be worth it moving forward? That, I’m not so sure about.

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