Monday, October 01, 2012

Combo (Sorta) Review: Looper/The Master

One thing I like about being the master of my own blog is that I can take my time with reviews if I need to. And last week, I saw two films that simply couldn't be reviewed right off the bat: Rian Johnson's Looper and Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master.

I very much admired both, but I couldn't quite wrap my viewing arms around either one, partly because both films play with time. Looper does so by dint of being a time travel thriller, while The Master's deliberate pacing made me feel like I was watching it in a state of suspended animation. Time doesn't tick by in either one of these films so much as swirl around you.

These two films wouldn't seem to have much in common, but they share one conundrum: How do you evaluate films in which the lead characters are, not to put too fine a point on it, pricks? Do you have to like films where you don't like the people? Can you?

The short answer is, sure you can. Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull centers around a particularly savage prick named Jake La Motta, and that's the one of the best films ever made. The key is either to lock into a secondary character, or to at least find the central figure a fascinating train wreck. Looper takes the former route; The Master the latter.

Since Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis play the same aloof, unpleasant character, it's like having two strikes rolled into one. But there are mitigating factors: the sheer charisma of both, and the emotional draw of the character played by Emily Blunt.

Levitt/Willis is not a model citizen, but it's fun and really spellbinding to watch the two of them play the same characters at different ages in the same space. But it's Blunt who really provides the emotional center of gravity in the movie as the forlorn, mysterious woman Gordon-Levitt stumbles across. She has already gone on record to say Looper is the best movie she's ever been in. I would also argue it's her best performance.

That I've spent this much time discussing the characters in a Rian Johnson film is telling. The rub against Johnson has been that he's more clever than assured as a storyteller, but Looper finally finds Johnson connecting on both visual and emotional levels. Johnson has a vivid imagination that doesn't make the future look like a variation on Back to the Future or Blade Runner - it feels lived in, even while it's turning the world upside down. The film can't escape a certain aloof quality, and Bruce Willis made a better time travel movie with 12 Monkeys, but Looper is so dizzying that I didn't always know which way was up - and that's all to the good.

I also often didn't know which way was up in The Master, and there, the disorientation is more troubling. People have complained, not unreasonably, that the lead character played by Joaquin Phoenix, is too opaque and the storytelling too elliptical. It is indeed difficult to draw a bead on a character who may be beyond redemption.

And yet, that may be precisely the point.

The Master is a journey into the soul of someone who seems to have lost his soul. Phoenix's Freddie Quell, a vet struggling after World War II - is certainly not unemotional - he's prone to violent outbursts. But he is also surely a man without a center of gravity, and so it might be fitting that the movie seems aimless and distant. So is Freddie.

But he's not the only lost soul here. I would also argue that Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is too, in his own way - and that's why Freddie fascinates him. Sure, Dodd is more certain of himself and what he knows - or thinks he knows - but he's also prone to outbursts whenever anyone challenges his outlandish faith. And what does it say about a man who radiates magnetism on the one hand, yet allows himself to be emasculated by his stern wife, played by Amy Adams?

This much is not in dispute: the acting is fiercely good. Hoffman is eerie yet assured, while Phoenix radiates a magnetic vibe of anxiety, of sheer intensity, that rivals that of Daniel Day-Lewis. Adams proves once Again that she's not all sweetness and light. We saw her play tough in The Fighter, here, she gets to play chilling.

Those who dismiss The Master are, I fear, being too facile. This is not a film that can be absorbed in one sitting. By the same token, It may not be a masterpiece either - it takes too many detours and leaves them dangling for that. I can't grade it right now - but I also can't shake it. That means something.

Looper: A-

The Master: Incomplete (good thing I'm not on Metacritic)



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