“The Master”

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I had to wait a few weeks to see this (because I didn’t want to pay the surcharge for the 70 millimeter showings — not sure why that is a big deal.  Well, it is more that don’t know enough to appreciate it) so I was worried that the actual movie would be anticlimactic after all the promotion that kept on coming.   But as is so often the case, when I did see the movie, it turned out not to be the same one I was expecting.

My theater said:

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for, folks. If the reviews are to be believed, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master, is a “landmark American film” (The Daily Telegraph) that “will cause the lame to walk and the blind to see” (The Guardian).

After returning from the Second World War, and having witnessed many horrors, a charismatic intellectual, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), creates a faith-based organization in an attempt to provide meaning to his now landlocked life. His teachings gather a devout following and he becomes known as “The Master”. His right-hand man Freddie Sutton (Joaquin Phoenix), a former drifter and bad boy sailor, begins to question both the belief system and The Master himself.

See what I mean?  But this wasn’t what the movie was like at all.   (It just occurred to me to wonder if the people who write these have seen the movie. )  I did enjoy it — it’s a lovely color film, with all the nice period details and some good sets and scenery, and a pretty good rollicking story — and I would not advise anyone not to see it.  But it won’t work any miracles for you.  I found it mostly a showcase for the two lead actors, but their acting was pretty believable.  The cult material was plausible, at least, except for the nude scene (shades of Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe?).  Amy Adams was good, though I thought her character could have been developed more.

Quite a change from the last time I saw Joaquin Phoenix, which was in his pseudo-documentary a few years ago.  Maybe he is growing up (if this part was in fact not just playing himself?  That may be hard to tell, as apparently he lives his parts).  I read in Wikipedia that he came up with the character’s twisted posture himself.  I had wondered about that: was it how Phoenix actually is physically?  Apparently not, but I don’t see what the purpose was.  Oh, maybe it was “Symbolism” — yeah, that must be it, it’s the outward reflection of his twisted psyche!  …Please.

The whole movie was kind of like that.  What’s the point?  I thought a good expose (how do you make accents in this?) or sendup of Scientology would be interesting, but it didn’t really do that.  I couldn’t see any allegory going on.  What was the director trying to say?  The movie was like one of those novels from the 1950s that’s a good story but doesn’t qualify as literature — it could have been chosen by the Book of the Month Club, and I would have pulled it from my parents’ bookcase and read it.  But I wouldn’t have learned anything from it.  I don’t think there is anything to learn here, either.

“Girl Model”

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Despite its having won awards at film festivals, I found this to be a slight and kind of dispiriting documentary.  From the theater’s website:

With the worldwide rise in popularity of young models, have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes? Girl Model follows two protagonists involved in this industry.

Despite a lack of obvious similarities between Siberia and Tokyo, a thriving model industry connects these distant regions. Ashley, a deeply ambivalent model scout who scours the Siberian countryside looking for fresh faces to send to the Japanese market, and one of her discoveries, Nadya, a 13-year-old plucked from her rustic home in Russia and dropped into the center of bustling Tokyo with promises of a profitable career. After Ashley’s initial discovery of Nadya, they rarely meet again, but their stories are inextricably bound. As Nadya’s optimism about rescuing her family from financial hardship grows, her dreams contrast against Ashley’s more jaded outlook about the industry’s corrosive influence.  In English, Russian and Japanese with English subtitles.

I suppose it told me things I hadn’t known, but I don’t think I have had any use or interest in that information since viewing this movie.  I thought it would be more like “America’s Next Top Model,” I guess, but the setups never came to positive conclusions.  I think the film’s maker could have made more of a context for what was actually going to happen (not much, and nothing really positive).  For example, it could have been more of a movie about Ashley — how she was in this life, then she was not, and now she is enabling others to take advantage of girls who are possibly even easier to victimize than she was.  Well, I guess that was there if I am able to write that, but still it could have been done better, I think.

The scenes showing life in Siberia and in a very tiny Japanese apartment were interesting.

“The Best Man”

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As I anxiously wait for the polls to close on this Election Day, what better movie to write about than “The Best Man,” that terrific look at presidential campaign politics from 1964?  (A mere coincidence, though — I am way behind on my movie reporting, and I actually saw this more than a month ago.)  The movie is based on Gore Vidal’s play of the same name from 1960, and he wrote the movie as well.

My theater’s writeup:  “In Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (based on Vidal’s play of the same name), Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson square off as political adversaries during a presidential primary in this sardonic, insightful drama that brings out the best, and worst, in American politics.

Released during the Presidential campaign of 1964, The Best Man is a caustic political drama which kept a lot of critics and filmgoers guessing which real-life politicians inspired the lead characters. In one corner, you have William Russell (Fonda), the older, more idealistic candidate whose wife is on the verge of divorcing him. In the other corner, you have Joe Cantwell (Robertson), the younger, more opportunistic candidate who doesn’t hesitate in using smear tactics if necessary. In the middle is the former President (Lee Tracy) who still hasn’t decided which candidate to endorse.”

(I shall miss Gore Vidal — I wish he had written more memoirs.  His acerbic take on people celebrity-worshipped by most Americans was at times startling but nonetheless a nice counter to that blind approval of people in the public eye.  For example, he held no love for the Kennedy family and shared the anecdotes to demonstrate why. )

But back to the movie.  It tells the story of a party convention, back in the days when decisions were actually made at these events (I do remember watching them on TV and enjoying the colorful voting of the states…).  Two candidates vie to be nominated to become the next President of the United States (apparently the other party is in disarray and isn’t in contention), one played by Henry Fonda and one by Dale Robertson.   The Henry Fonda character is portrayed as an intellectual, a man of conscience who is widely believed to be modeled on Adlai Stevenson.  The Dale Robertson character is a firebrand who will do or say whatever it takes to reach his goal; he’s considered to be based on John F. Kennedy (see above re Vidal’s attitude) with perhaps bits of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon.

Digression: I wasn’t paying attention when this particular movie came out, but I do remember when Dale Robertson played JFK in the PT 109 movie.  Isn’t it interesting that he got to play him twice — once as a hero and once as a villain!

There is not a lot more I can think of to say without giving away the full plot.  I don’t know why they chose to make it in black-and-white — oh, symbolism much LOL? — because the spectacle at the convention would have been good in color.  Also, I would have liked to see the room decor and the attire of the women characters in color.

Speaking of the women, Henry Fonda’s wife was played by Margaret Leighton, whom I can’t remember seeing in any other roles.   She was 42 at the time but seemed a lot older to me — possibly that is just the effect of distance in time upon perception of fashion and coiffures; I often have trouble figuring out how old some people are supposed to be in old movies.  She also had an English accent, which they never explained.  Dale Robertson’s wife was played by Edie Adams (age 37), who did a nice job with the downscale character.   (Vidal got in a nice dig at Jacqueline Kennedy, too, placed in the mouth of Fonda’s character.)

Other interesting parts were played by the comedian Shelley Berman, whom I had never seen in a dramatic (though here comedic) role, and a young-looking Kevin McCarthy (though he was actually 50 at the time — he died in 2010 at 96; I had no idea he was that old), who, Wikipedia tells us, was a real-life cousin of the other McCarthy, Eugene.  The ex-President Hofstader, played by Lee Tracy (who was the only carryover from the stage version), seemed like a real throwback to pre-WWII movies — that must have been the right way to do it, though, because he did get an academy award nomination for it.

One more comment, about the plot — it had a nice twist at the end.  I didn’t see it coming.  Maybe I will go read more Gore Vidal fiction and hope for more such interesting surprises.  Except for “Myra Breckinridge,” which my peers and I read when it came out for its shock value rather than its literary value, I think I have only read historical fiction by him.  I carried one of his books about ancient Rome as my subway reading back in the 70s — it took months to finish.  Not an inspiring experience.  But now I am older and wiser.  If I do read some Vidal, I will report on it.

“Manhattan Short”

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This is, of course, the Manhattan Short Film Festival.  Here is what the theater said about it:

An extraordinary global event takes place the week of September 28th to October 7th 2011 when over 100,000 people in over 300 cities across six continents gather in cinemas, galleries, Universities, museums and cafes for one purpose…to view and vote on our finalists’ films in the annual Manhattan Short Film Festival!

Their mission is to unite audiences from all corners of the globe for one week via the most compelling short films submitted to them each year. Our tagline “One World One Week One Festival” is the mantra that sets the Manhattan Short Film Festival apart from any other film event of the year.

Manhattan Short is your chance to see the next generation of filmmakers from around the world. Over the past ten years, six of their films were nominated for Oscars in the short film category. Many of the finalists have gone on to make notable feature films and this festival believes in the notion that it is “The public that creates stars”. And for a short film, there is no bigger public than the worldwide public of  Manhattan Short.

This year, there did not seem to be a clear winner — my companion and I decided to vote for the same one, but they were all pretty good little films.   The finalists were selected from more than 500 entries.  Some I did like better than others, but that doesn’t mean the others were not good.

My stepson, who is a film buff, stated today that he does not like short films — I find that I actively do, and I really enjoy festival screenings like this.   It’s a different art from making a full-length movie, the same way writing a short story is, from a novel.   My local theater often shows one before the main feature, and seeing those has been very enjoyable also.   It is remarkable how much a good short film can get across in just a few minutes — some of the ones described below seemed much longer than they actually were (in a good way!).   And sometimes it only takes a few minutes to make a big point.

Here are the 2012 Finalists, their synopses, and my opinions.

The Devil’s Ballroom — Director:  Henrik M. Dahlsbrakken, Norway, 15m30s —  On a perilous journey to the North Pole, an Arctic explorer makes a critical decision with lifelong consequences.

*This was basically a film without dialogue — it created its mood very well, with that great Scandinavian cinematography.   But, the context was not stated in the film, so I didn’t get some of the depth of meaning.   If I had had time to read the program beforehand, it would really have helped me appreciate this one better.

A Curious Conjunction of Coincidences — Director:  Joost Reijmers, The Netherlands, 8m34s —  Bad luck connects three men together even though they live in different centuries.  THIS ONE GOT SECOND PLACE.

*This was cute, with some animation included and great special effects at the end.   And of course its being Dutch gave it a leg up in my opinion.  But it didn’t hang together as well as it could have.

Where Does the Sea Flow — Director:  Vitaly Saltykov, Russia, 14m — A mother comes to grips with a precocious young daughter and the violent circumstances of her birth.

*The actresses were just lovely — so believable.  The story — well, not much story, just a situation — was depicted well, and the scenery was great.  I did think there was more of the orange-dress-on-the-riverbank scene than there needed to be, however, and unnecessary repetition of it.  By the way, the violent circumstances were not actually about the child’s birth.

Two & Two —  Director:  Babak Anvari, UK, 8m25s — In a school run by an authoritarian regime, a seemingly ridiculous decree becomes a syllabus for terror.

*The premise for this one was so, well, ridiculous that it both heightened the scariness of the point the film was making and made it easier to perceive.  Although it was slotted in as a UK film, in fact it was shot in Farsi and was depicting the filmmaker’s native Iran.  Brrr.

Cluck —  Director:  Michael Lavelle, Ireland, 18m57s — Feathers are ruffled at the orphanage when a new arrival threatens to upset the pecking order.

*There seem to be a lot of Oliver Twist-like short films these days — well, this one had a different twist, along with all the usual (bad school personnel, child rebels, dark dormitory scenes, etc.).  It also had a happy ending, my personal preference.  I have to say, the child actor in the lead role was some performer.

Behind the Mirrors — Director:  Julio O. Ramos, Peru, 12m10s — When one of the night’s customers at a disreputable motel leaves an unexpected mess, the young manager sees an opportunity that may change his family’s fortunes forever.

*The synopsis is a bit of a euphemism, but this was a pretty good little movie.  It had rather an O. Henry denouement, which I didn’t even guess beforehand.   There have been other interesting short films from Peru, I think.  Good for them.

The Unfortunate End of Robert Ebb — Director:  Clément Bolla, FX Goby, Matthieu Landour, UK/France, 12m50s — A  monster terrorizes a town and induces collective hysteria, with hilarious results.

*This is the one we ended up voting for, just because it was a rollicking good little movie.   I missed one important thing early on, I guess — how did he get inside the monster suit? — but it just rolled on from scene to scene, getting funnier.  The very last scene tied up a loose end from early on in a cool way.  I think I voted for it because it didn’t pretend to be high art or demonstrate special technique or make a scary point about the world — it was just an entertaining little movie, well done in all aspects.  It was in UK English, though it was slotted in for France onscreen — now that I think of it,  that fact might have connected it to British comedy like Wallace and Gromit — that didn’t hurt, if so.
Superman, Spiderman or Batman — Director: Tudor Giurgiu, Romania, 11m — Inspired by his favorite comic book heroes, a young boy tries to save the day.  THIS ONE GOT FIRST PLACE.
*I did manage to read the program during Intermission, and unfortunately, the writeup for this one just talked about how hard it was to shoot with this little boy.   So that was what I was thinking about, instead of getting lost in the story and caught up by the characters.  If I hadn’t known that, I might have enjoyed it more.   It was interesting seeing a bit of everyday Romania, though.   And I thought I could discern some cognates with English words in the spoken Romanian.
’92 Skybox Alonzo Mourning Rookie Card — Director:  Todd Sklar, USA, 12m — Brothers Jim and Dave sort out their differences in extreme fashion when their father dies.
*This one was lively and interestingly done, but what was the point?  Two brothers fight and make up at the end, but there was no epiphany, no life-changing moment of realization or anything.   I took away nothing that would make me believe they wouldn’t just do this again sometime soon.   And I didn’t actually understand the ending.  Maybe I will ask my companion whether he did.  Surprisingly, though, the program states that the budget was only about $1000 — I think they did really well, and I would not have guessed.  (But production budget was not the problem — it was the script.)
Voice Over —  Director: Martin Rosete, Spain, 9m50s — A series of life-threatening experiences pale in comparison to a situation that requires real courage.  THIS ONE GOT THIRD PLACE.

*The still that advertises “Manhattan Short” comes from this movie.   I guess the point is that the three tried-and-true dangerous movie scenarios are not really the movie — the program didn’t get that across, so I was expecting a heavier tone than it turned out there was.  Kind of sweet, though.  Interestingly, though this was slotted for Spain, it was all in French — that was fun.

When I find out which one won, I will add that here.  SEE ABOVE — ALAS, MY FAVORITE ONLY CAME IN NINTH.  BOO.

 

[If anything looks odd, sorry — for some reason I am having a terrible time with paragraph breaks in this one.]

“The Sessions”

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This screening was an unexpected pleasure — a special one-off showing of an indie film I had not even heard of.  And it turned out to be a terrific event — with the director, producer and star available for Q&A afterwards!  They actually counted the empty seats after we were all in, to see how many stand-bys could be accommodated.  (I love my local theater!)

From the email invitation:

Winner of the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, The Sessions is based on the poignantly optimistic writings of California-based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (played by John Hawkes). Confined to an iron lung due to polio, O’Brien is, at age 38, determined to lose his virginity. With the help of his therapists and the guidance of his priest (William H. Macy), he sets out to make his dream a reality. Co-starring Helen Hunt.

It was a really nice film — made me think about things I never had considered, which I suppose was the intention.  But it was funny, too.  The actors were excellent.   I guess this is why they call them “actors,” but John Hawkes was SO different from the last two parts I saw him in (Martha Marcy May Marlene and Winter’s Bone — both scary roles, and one was a really bad and creepy guy, brrrr!).   He came across as (is that any better than “came off as”?) an intelligent and thoughtful person in the Q&A as well.  Articulate and not apparently too full of himself — he seemed like such a normal and interesting person that I feel a little funny writing about him like this.  (Still remembering that he is an actor, though…)  I wished that I had a question to ask him but I settled for complimenting him on my way past (a benefit of my penchant for the front row).

I found some biographical material on him on the Internet, and it seems he may have a good background for playing scary rural guys.  I did not realize he was as old as 53, though — there is that actor business again, allowing him to play younger roles, I guess.

It didn’t really sink in that the movie was based on a true story, till the end (I was not paying enough attention to the beginning, which included real footage of the main character, and apparently I didn’t bother to read the invitation very thoroughly).  Perhaps that fact explains why some of the characters were not well developed, such as the therapist played by Helen Hunt (my goodness, she is in good shape!) and the priest played by William H. Macy.   I suppose that his role’s purpose was to allow some of Mark O’Brien’s comic lines, which I imagine appeared in his writings, to be spoken on screen.   Anyway, he looked great with the shaggy hair.

Back to Helen Hunt:  her husband was played by Adam Arkin, and aspects of their relationship were raised but not really resolved or even pursued much.  Possibly they are both still alive, so that might have limited what was allowed to be shown on screen?  ( I mean the real people the roles were based on.)  But, they were not the main story, and I think the main story was told well.  I do recommend this movie.

“Knuckleball!”

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This movie was more enjoyable, and in a different way, than I had expected.

The theater’s writeup:

“Knuckleball! is the story of a few good men, a handful of pitchers in the entire history of baseball forced to resort to the lowest rung on the credibility ladder in their sport: throwing a ball so slow and unpredictable that no one wants anything to do with it.

The film follows the Major League’s only knuckleballers in 2011, Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, as they pursue a mercurial art form in a world that values speed, accuracy, and numerical accountability.

Red Sox pitcher Wakefield is the 17-year veteran and fan favorite weeks away from turning 45 (the oldest player in the game) and seven victories away from the remarkable and deeply personal milestone of 200 career wins. Dickey is the charismatic and articulate 34 year-old neophyte trying to fight his way out of the minor league system with the New York Mets.

With extraordinary access from the players and Major League Baseball, the film follows their personal quests with behind-the-scenes moments at the ballpark, on the road, and at home with family.

It never really explained why knuckleballers are so poorly regarded — I would think a pitch that is unhittable would be a GOOD thing for a team to have? — but I did learn a lot about this particular technique.  I expected that much — and, not being much of a sports fan, there was a lot of room for learning.   But, it didn’t talk down to me or over my head.  It was a nice documentary about the careers of two young men who came off as pretty likable — I hadn’t expected that part.   The parts about the anguish of failing and going back down a notch were interesting (they went back up, too).  Also, there were appearances by older players, who I had not realized were knuckleball pitchers.  They also came off as decent people (“came off as”?  If I think of a more mellifluous phrase I will substitute it later).

The only off-note was seeing Tim Wakefield’s pseudo-Mediterranean mega-mansion in Melbourne, Florida.  Admittedly real estate down there is much less expensive (I see a 5-bedroom, 4-bath, 2600 sf pseudo-Med on half an acre, built in 2005 advertised just over $500K, and regular houses for regular people around half that), but it still seemed over the top and not in keeping with the fellow we’d just been watching for a hour or so.  And of course it pointed out how excessively large the salaries of celebrity sports figures are.  But that is what our culture rewards — I wouldn’t expect Tim Wakefield or any player to negotiate a salary downward.  And, having it, I would agree he’s entitled to spend it as he likes.

Edited November 14, 2012: R.A. Dickey, the other knuckleballer in the documentary, has just won the Cy Young Award — so there’s a little respect for the style!

“Funny Girl”

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Though this movie came out in 1968, I had never seen it — possibly it has never made it to TV?  That seems odd, because I think it would be pretty well suited to that medium.  Nonetheless, I did enjoy it on the big screen.  It was, of course, one of my local theater’s Big Screen Classics.  And a classic American movie spectacular it was.

My theater’s promotional text:

Barbra Streisand, in her first and most iconic role ever!

Fanny Brice (Streisand) begins her career in vaudeville; but only she could have expected it to end on Broadway. Omar Sharif plays her long-time friend, eventual husband, and entrepreneur Nicky Arnstein. The film follows their long careers through the ups and downs of love, stardom and failure. Based upon the true story of Broadway star Fanny Brice, this award-winning film was directed by four-time Academy Award winner William Wyler (Ben-Hur, The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday) from the Broadway musical of the same name.

I didn’t remember that the movie was based on a Broadway show, so I guess it did not demonstrate the shortcomings of other conversions from stage to screen, or I might have noticed.   The story was very simplistic — even for a Hollywood movie of its era (and it did seem more like a product of the previous decade — by 1968 the youth movement was in full swing, but there is no evidence here.  By this time, audiences were getting edgier fare, and the story certainly could have supported some.  But nope, it apparently did not deviate — pun! — from the stage version).

The plot was so simplified from Fanny Brice’s actual life that they apparently couldn’t ground the story in time — I was not sure when things were supposed to be happening.   What a surprise to find that it took place before and after World War I — it wasn’t mentioned.   Nor the Depression, which I think was going on toward the end, nor Prohibition.   All in all, a pretty flat story with some bits that were pretty hard to swallow.

But the costumes!!  They were lush, colorful, luxurious — unrealistic but great on the screen.   That does seem like a vestige of the Broadway show, come to think of it — the costumes would have to project more than is needed in a movie.   Also, the sets were nice — I did like the over-the-top luxe decor.  And, Barbra Streisand did a good job, though her wisecracking might have been a bit on the anachronistic side (yes, Fanny Brice had that reputation, but I believe she would not have executed her witticisms quite the same way).  And man, that girl (she looked so young! but she was in her mid-thirties; I just looked it up) could sing.   Even if it was dubbed in later, it was great.

Omar Sharif, though, was a little problematic.  His accent, for one thing — it was not believable that he would talk that way, and no attempt at explanation was made (though I was expecting something).   He was not a full realized character, meddle as they did with Nick Arnstein’s actual life story, which wasn’t the actor’s fault, so maybe I can’t fault him for being stiff in the role.   He did look good for being 10 years older than Streisand, and he sure did look nice in his evening clothes.   The supporting cast was pretty bad, unfortunately — like that of “I Love Lucy,” so broadly (and annoyingly) drawn.

Wikipedia has some interesting info about the casting.   The studio had wanted Shirley MacLaine in the lead, but the producer — Brice’s son-in-law! — put his foot down.   A lot of men were considered for the male lead — Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, Sean Connery, David Janssen, James Garner — and though I have appreciated all these actors in one role or another, they would have been worse choices for the role than Omar Sharif.  (If I come up with someone who would have been  better, I will add such a mention to this post.)

Reading the Wikipedia entry made me remember that Anne Francis was also in the movie — barely.  She got big-name billing in the credits but her role was pretty pointless (apparently it was cut back to a shadow of the original character) and her time onscreen very brief.

And one more Wikipedia observation:  “When Barbra Streisand appeared in Funny Girl in 1968, for the first time, a Jewish woman was on screen with Jewish features, a Jewish name and Jewish mannerisms. In this role the Jewish woman was presented as smart, comedic, beautiful and talented.”   [Boldface added.]  Perhaps I might have noticed this at the time, but it certainly didn’t strike me last week: times have changed!  For moviegoers in 1968, this might have been the dash of edginess that was coming to be expected in popular culture of the time.