Category Archives: Oscar Movies

‘The Master’ Of The House

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a young World War II Navy man, returns from sea to a changing America, a world that is very different than the place he had called home. Like most men who returned from “over there,” Freddie tries to “fit in” the post-war society by finding a job. He becomes a photographer in a department store, and although he enjoys the company of one particular sales girl, he gets fired for drunkenly assaulting a customer. After his disappointing change in employment, Freddie finds work on a cabbage farm, until his own alcoholic concoction of paint thinner and jet fuel poisons an elderly co-worker. Freddie is then ran out of town.

Quite simply, Freddie Quell is a mess. Violent, sexually obsessed, and an alcoholic in the most extreme sense (the guy drinks straight Drain-O for goodness sakes,) for the prologue scenes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’, Freddie is as aimless as a ship without a sail, an automobile without a steering wheel.

However, one night during his drunken wandering, this walking disaster finds his way onto the ship of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a writer, doctor, theoretical philosopher, nuclear physicist, and a ‘hopelessly inquisitive man.’ But more importantly, Dodd is a leader of an American spiritual movement known as ‘The Cause,’ which seeks to abandon the trauma and pain of past lives in order to find happiness, meaning, fulfillment, love, etc. In short, you take one part L. Ron Hubbard, one part Philip Seymour Hoffman, you end up getting Lancaster Dodd, and also a pretty convincing 20th century cult. Instead of drinking the Kool-Aid of Jonestown, the followers of The Cause drink in the words of their Master, who is as eccentric as he is charismatic. Hoffman exudes the righteous confidence that not only brings this character to life, but makes Dodd seem as realistic as any religious figure that there ever has been.

‘The Master’ centers around the relationship between Freddie and Dodd. The man who seemingly has all the answers, and another that seems to be the human incarnation of a giant question mark. Dodd becomes fascinated with Freddie, convinced that he knows him from some sort of past existence, that somehow Freddie had known the Master long before he had stowed away on his ship. The Master puts Freddie through a period of intense psychological analysis, what Dodd calls ‘Processing’, in which he asks Freddie questions of his life’s previous experiences. Through this interrogation, we find out that Freddie is even more troubled than we had originally thought; a dead father, an institutionalized mother, a shameful sexual encounter with his aunt, and a love that he abandoned when he left for the war. We discover this past trauma, and lost love, and the root of most of Freddie’s dysfunction.

Dodd decides that Freddie must join The Cause in their travels, even though Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams) and other disciples remain skeptical of this unstable outsider. Freddie continues a pattern of boozing and violence, assaulting a man who debates with the Master at a dinner party, as well as getting arrested while trying to defend Dodd against a group of policeman. It becomes apparent to the following and to the audience that, despite the ‘treatment’ and attention he is receiving from this pseudo-spiritual guru, Freddie is not getting better. He remains an incredibly flawed, broken person.

As the story continues, it is also revealed to us that Dodd, this so-called Master, is also plagued with ethical shortcomings and a great many moral contradictions. His own son claims that he is a fraud, simply improvising his spiritual revelations, and when his latest book is published, Dodd is criticized by both his close friends and his followers. As the audience, Anderson clearly reveals to us that the Master is a slave to his own moral piety; seemingly a prisoner to his own philosophies.

But make no mistake; through all the complexity and thematic symbolism, ‘The Master’ truly is about the relationship between Mentor and Disciple; The Master and the Student. But it really is more than this. There is authentic friendship, and even deep love between Freddie and Dodd. Not only was Freddie lost before meeting Dodd, we come to believe that Dodd himself wasn’t fulfilled until encountering Freddie as well. It’s as if Freddie represents everything that the Master is seeking to do away with, but he simply cannot leave it behind. He is still attached to his vices, and the relationship with Freddie, although fulfilling, seems to be destroying him.

Anderson is truly a craftsman when it comes to filmmaking; an in-depth artist and director in equal parts. The way the film is shot, acted, and written truly is mesmerizing. As a viewer, I was enthralled by ‘The Master,’ and as much as I explained above about the actual plot and my own interpretation of the meaning, it is obvious to me that I have merely scratched the surface when it comes to fully understanding it entirely. It really is a movie that is so dense and complex, you truly could write a novel discussing everything that puts it together. Like Anderson’s 2008 film ‘There Will Be Blood,’ ‘The Master’ not only demands a second viewing; your brain is already shouting to see it again as you walk out of the theater.

That being said, with all the praise that I give this film, and as amazing as much of it is, ‘The Master’ is not without its own moral ambiguity on top muddled sexual imagery. I feel that there are a few scenes where the audience is truly lost, wondering of the purpose behind certain storytelling decisions. While Freddie is obviously a sexually driven person, Anderson plunges us head-first into his depravity, leaving us covered in his perverse ugliness. Also, the ending of the film leaves us asking, “What was it all about?” Perhaps this was Anderson’s intent. We, like Freddie Quell, find that the more we are immersed in this cult culture, the less that we truly understand, and we, also like Freddie, end up coming out of the experience more confused than changed. However, this ambiguity is really my own qualm with what is otherwise an incredible movie.

One last note on ‘The Master’: I truly believe that in this movie, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman have given performances that may be the best of their career, and also will end up being the best two performances you will see this year. They own the screen with such ferocity, at times leaving us awestruck. Too bad for both of them though, because Phoenix openly hates AMPAS and everything connected to the Oscars, so I feel that neither of them will truly get the recognition that they deserve.

“It’s total, utter bulls***, and I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t believe in it. It’s a carrot, but it’s the worst-tasting carrot I’ve ever tasted in my whole life. I don’t want this carrot. It’s totally subjective. Pitting people against each other … It’s the stupidest thing in the whole world.” -Joaquin Phoenix on the Oscars

Sometimes, bro, you just gotta keep your mouth shut.

My Note: Despite it’s moral ambiguity and complexity, ‘The Master’ is nothing short of brilliant.

My Grade: A- (This grade will most likely change over time. I need a second viewing, and I feel as I grow in understanding, this movie will just get better to me. Putting a grade on this thing is like grading a Picasso painting; it wasn’t meant to be done.”

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Beginners: Passed Down from Father to Son

As people, we are constantly trying to learn how to love each other. It’s a funny thing, love; it can be both beautiful and messy, incredible as well as painful. One day it can seem so real, so tangible, and just when we think we have a hold on it, it slips right through our fingers. In the end, we’re pretty clueless where to start when we fall in love.

‘Beginners.’ That’s what we are, and that’s what ‘Beginners’ is all about. However, the movie doesn’t approach the subject with cynicism, but sincerity. It is so heartfelt and alive; a beautiful love letter to the idea of Love itself.

It is about an artist named Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor) and his father Hal (played by Christopher Plummer). After Oliver’s mother dies, Hal tells his son, after 38 years of marriage, that he is gay. He tells his son that he no longer wants to be ‘theoretically gay,’ that he wants to ‘do something about it.’ 4 years after telling this to his son, Hal dies of cancer (by the way the audience is told all of this in the very first scene, so don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything for you).

The film is chronologically centered around the death of Oliver’s father. Half of it views their relationship in retrospect, focusing on the years between Hal’s coming out and his death. The other half is focused on a romantic relationship that Oliver develops with a young woman named Anna (played by Melanie Laurent) that begins shortly after Oliver’s father passes away.

That is the story of ‘Beginners,’ and as far as the story goes, it is so simple. But don’t be fooled; I can’t say enough good things about this movie. It deals with so many deep and complex themes. It discusses how we learn to love from our parents, how happiness is not as simple as it looks, and how it is better to love deeply and passionately than to never love at all.

The true spirit of ‘Beginners’ lies within the honest and authentic relationships that the characters develop.  Oliver and Hal bring so much truth to the father and son relationship. The authenticity of this relationship is vital when the viewer begins to discover that Hal’s last few years have changed how Oliver views his entire life; past, present, and future.

The movie itself is partly autobiographical. The writer and director Mike Mills wrote the script after his father came out to him following his mother’s death. To me, this makes ‘Beginners’ such a personal and brave film that shares such a intimate life experience. It is done with such subtle grace though that it feels real to the audience. It is Mills’ life experiences deconstructed for the screen. So in a way, the film reads as almost an homage to his father; how his father’s honesty changed how he sees love.

There are also brilliant little pieces of filmmaking where Oliver reflects on his relationship with his mother. All of these scenes are of Oliver’s childhood and are rich with of bitterness and regret. With these moments we see the true conflict that is happening within Oliver; his mother is the parent of his childhood, the one who really raised him, while Hal is the parent of his adulthood, who seems much happier now that is mother is gone. With his mother he sees the negative side of love, a side that was caused by his incapable father. In his last few years with his father, he is able to see the joy that comes with finding love for the first time. He learned what love was from his parents, and his parents are working in opposition to each other, even in death.

Although sometimes sad to watch, the film as a whole carries a note of optimism. It makes us believe that if we continue to search for love, that love with eventually find us, and when it does, we should fight for it.

Christopher Plummer is so incredibly brilliant in this movie. Think about how difficult this role is: play a gay man, who was married to a woman for almost forty years, and is a father to a middle aged straight man, and is also on his death bed. To have this role and not make a caricature of gay pride, but an honest look at what it means to lie about being straight for so long that coming out can be just as confusing. This past year, he took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this performance; he deserved every bit of it. By the way, if you’ve never seen an interview with Christopher Plummer, check that out. He is just delightful.

As I’ve been reflecting about this movie, I’ve also thought about my own relationship with my parents. Anyone who knows my family knows that I am my father’s son. I have his voice, his walk, and his laugh. But I also know that there is so much of my mother in me; her passion, her heart, and her eyes. But rather than working in opposition with each other, they work in harmony within my spirit. I’m glad that I learned to love from them, because they’ve become pretty skillful at it. I hope someday I can learn to love as deeply as they love each other.

My Note: ‘Beginners’ one of the most honest, heartfelt, and authentic movies that you’ll ever see.

My Grade: A+

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Munich: A Sandcastle Built to Fall

The list of those responsible.

Terror comes to us in many forms. It can be a story on the news, a man with a bomb, or an airplane being flown into a building. The madness of extreme and disillusioned men can be overwhelming. It makes no sense to us; how men could have so much hate within their bones for people that they have never met. But at the Olympic Games held in Munich the Summer of 1972, terror came in the form of a man wearing a ski mask on a balcony, while his fellow Arabian terrorists, members of a group known as Black September, were holding 11 eleven Israeli athletes hostage inside. Eventually, all of these hostages were killed, sending the Middle Eastern world into a frenzy.

Israel was determined to respond.  And this response is the subject of Steven Spielberg’s ambitious film ‘Munich’.

The film opens with a filmmaker’s perspective of the events that happened that day. It is shocking, violent, and an aggressive bit of chaos to watch on screen, as news cameras tune in and take notice of what is happening. We are then shown the world tuned into their television screens, united in horror over these atrocities. The world watches while the terrorists take the hostages to an airport, and it is here that the world watches them die. Let me tell you what a well done opening sequence this is; a perfect set up for the rest of the film, done in textbook fashion by Spielberg.

Then comes a scene of great significance: We are then brought into the Israel “war room” with Prime Minister Golda Meir (played by Lynn Cohen). Meir informs her generals that the world must know that Israelites cannot be slaughtered in front of the entire world without consequence. And in a Biblically profound speech, she tells her generals that “every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” She orders her military to take action against those responsible for Munich.

The narrative centers on five ex-Mossad agents that are charged with a seemingly simple task; to assassinate 11 men involved in the planning of the massacre. The team’s leader, Avner (played by Eric Bana), is a young Israeli father who is asked to lead this mission of Zionist vengeance. Accompanied by a trigger man, a bomb maker, a forger, and a forensics expert, Avner takes his team all over the capitals of Europe, tracking down and killing their targets with bullets and homemade explosives.

This central portion of the film where the Israeli assassins scheme and eliminate their targets is truly one of the most entertaining things that you can watch. Watching the characters come up with ideas for explosives, develop a plan, and experience problems that cause them to improvise is thrilling. It reminds me of the old Hitchcock films, with their patient pacing and suspense, and I feel like Spielberg even channeled some of Orson Welles’ ‘Touch of Evil’ with a particular scene involving a telephone bomb. And Mr. Movie Magic himself still never ceases to amaze me with some of his action sequences, how the chaos of a moment can be filmed in such a compelling way.

Avner and Ephraim discuss the mission.

Not only are the first two acts of this movie entertaining in its action, but it is also thought provoking in its dialogue and character interaction. Like when Avner meets for the first time with the Frenchman who sells agents information, a man known as Papa. He tells Avner that they refuse to work with governments because governments cannot be trusted with power. Papa believes that family is the only thing in this world worth protecting. In another scene, the team is forced to stay in a safe house with Palestinian terrorists. While together, unbeknownst to the Palestinians that they are staying with Israelites, Avner and one of the Palestinian men talk about what they want most in the world; a place to call home. This scene humanizes the enemy for our hero as well as for the audience.

While on their mission, some of the men begin to question the morality of what they are doing. All of them Jewish, there is this prevailing thought that they are called to be righteous, and what they are doing is not what they were called to be. At this time, Avner justifies it by saying that with every man they kill, they are saving Israeli lives. These dialogues between the protagonists are both deep and challenging, causing the viewer to also question the moral value behind the violence they are watching. At what point do these men start to become terrorists themselves?

Now, let’s pause for a moment. At this point, we are about 2 hours into the film, and there is about 30 minutes remaining. Up until this point, ‘Munich’ is an incredible movie. It is exciting, deep, meaningful, and it seems to be going somewhere. Although so far the ride has been fulfilling, our characters are beginning to experience opposition and the audience is in need of a very strong third act if we are going to be able to pull it all together. It is a tight 30 minutes away from greatness.

Then, something unexpected happens. The movie begins to fall apart. Our characters who were once bound by a mission begin to implode psychologically. Avner, the leader of the unit, becomes paranoid and untrustworthy, not only for other characters, but for the audience as well. The story that was once so put together and purposeful, loses focus from the goal. It begins to take detours and tangents that make the audience want to ask “Where are we?” The protagonists begin to share something in common with the viewer in the fact that we both become lost in a world of violence with no real way out, so much so that by the end of it all, we forget how meaningful it was when we started.

It’s hard to say when this really begins, although I have two scenes in particular that “jump the shark” for me.

One involves the failed assassination of the most well protected Palestinian leader on their list; when the coup is broken up by a patrolling teenage guard, Avner responds by shooting him in the face. This, to me, is the first real evidence that Avner is no longer the man we thought he was. The other involves a scene in which Avner is making love to his wife accompanied by haunting flashbacks to the Munich massacres. Although I understand the purpose of this scene (at least I think I do), it seems unnecessary, out of place, and in all seriousness, overindulgent film school garbage. And trust me, I’m being kind with that description.

There are many who believe that this is done by design, that the writer Tony Kushner and director Steven Spielberg purposefully allow the film to go downhill, as a way of showing the viewer that the conclusion of these violent acts is not glorious, but ugly. In the same way that Avner is in conflict with himself, the film begins to contradict the ideals that it once believed in. With the opposition that the team is experiencing, the audience begins to feel opposition with what they want; a great ending. If this is true, then kudos to Spielberg because he accomplished this self-destruction with flying colors.

However, from where I’m standing, that’s not what I see. What I see is a writer and director that didn’t truly believe in the message that they were originally preaching. They decided that they were not comfortable with going all the way to the end. Like the characters in the story, it is truly the creators of this film that are lost. They couldn’t choose what to believe in, so instead, they chose to believe in nothing.  To end the film by telling us that the conflict between Israel and Palestine will never end through violence is not a profound statement to make. It is merely an echo from what we know in our conscience to be true.

My Note: ‘Munich’ is two hours of a fantastic movie followed by wave of disappointment that brings the entire sandcastle crumbling down.

My Grade: A-

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Lost in Translation: A Lonely Place

Bill and Scarlett

That moment when he comes back.

Movies are able to capture emotion in a way that few other art forms can. Feelings like anger, happiness, triumph, and sadness are easy to display on the screen. All you need is a decent actress and characters that can carry a story. But, very few movies out there can show you what it is like to be lonely in a crowd of hundreds. It is much easier for a filmmaker to show someone falling in love than to bring truth to a young woman that is caught in a loveless marriage. These emotions are complex, subtle, and difficult to understand.

Very few movies are able to pull this off. You need a great cast, an even better directing effort, and a knockout script.

“Lost in Translation” is one of those movies. An enlightening tale about a truly human connection in a foreign world, “Lost in Translation” is a delicious piece of Sushi-flavored originality in a world of fast-food style chick flicks.

It tells the story of Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray), a past-his-prime movie star who visits Japan on business; he is starring in a commercial for a Japanese whiskey company. While in Tokyo, he drinks often, tries to understand the Japanese locals, avoids calls from his wife, and then drinks more in the hotel bar. More than anything, Bob is unhappy.

It is also the story of Charlotte (played by Scarlett Johansson), a young woman traveling with photographer husband. Charlotte is realizing that her husband is not the man she thought he was, and these feelings are brought out in their Tokyo hotel. She is noticeably unhappy and out of place in her marriage.

If you haven’t guessed it, Bob and Charlotte meet in the hotel and make a connection. This is such a fun relationship to watch unfold on screen, and it is played so well by Murray and Johansson. The two lost and wandering people, separated by age and life experience, become companions in this brand new world. They sing Karaoke together, eat Sushi together, take advantage of universal health care. You know, the normal things you do in Japan.

The scene that pulls this relationship together for me comes when Bob and Charlotte are talking to each other in a hotel room. Charlotte tells him that she feels stuck and wonders if life gets easier. She asks Bob about marriage and being a father. Murray is absolutely brilliant in this scene, making the dialogue seem so natural and real. And then, in a situation where it would be so easy for Bob Harris give into temptation and take advantage of this beautiful girl, writer/director Sofia Coppola does something brilliant. Bob and Charlotte simply fall asleep next to each other, proving to the audience that their relationship is not sexual, but one of deep affection and respect.

While watching this movie, I found myself connecting with the characters in a such a meaningful way. It is in theses moments that I realized the real message of this movie. Loneliness is something we all can relate to, and for these two people, it is what brings them together. The title itself is alluding to the feeling we all experience when we are unhappy; like we are trapped in a foreign land where no one understands us. And when we’re stuck, all we need is someone to set us free.

My Note: This beautiful film deserves nothing but praise.

My Grade: A

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