George Miller’s frenetic, creepy vision of a future where a version of The Wild Ones terrorizes the roads is a confident, distinctive picture made all the more impressive by its paltry $400,000 budget. Miller went on to make The Road Warrior, cementing Mel Gibson as the most bankable of stars, but in Mad Max, Gibson barely resonates until he is transformed, ala’ Charles Bronson in Death Wish, into a silent, dispenser of retributive violence. His payback is gripping, played out on a widescreen lens at high speeds on the desolate roads of Australia. Still, the picture stops dead in its tracks halfway through as we wait for the brutal thugs of the road to incur Gibson’s rage. It is also the worst scored film in the history of movies, a blaring and bizarre Bernard Hermann knock-off.
I saw the original Broadway play, which was fun, silly and wholly dedicated to some of the worst hair metal and pop of the 1980s. The play sensed your patience and came in at 90 minutes. The movie is an interminable 2 hours and actually adds more awful tunes, playing many of them straight.
The film takes the tongue-in-cheek silliness of the play and reduces it to reverential lip synching and air guitar. I was immediately reminded of Julie Taymor’s underrated Across the Universe, which cut a swath through the 60s with Beatles hits and brilliant, kinetic choreography, and still just came up a little short. Here, we get crappy tunes played with sincerity and nary a dance sequence beyond finger snaps and flash mobs. Alec Baldwin, Paul Giamatti, Russell Brand and Catherine Zeta Jones (a zealot Tipper Gore bent on shutting down the latter’s rock and roll world and club in LA) camp their way lazily through this thin flick, with a few winks (isn’t Michael Jackson getting pale?) and not much more. Glee blows this away, and Glee sucks (director Adam Shankman actually graduated from directing this awful film to directing . . . Glee). Tack on the star crossed leads, two nobodies so boring I didn’t bother to look them up for this review, and the disaster is complete. The one star is for Tom Cruise’s turn as Stacee Jaxx, the dissolute rock god, who busts his ass in a lost cause. He always gets an A for effort.
Beautiful, sumptuous and deservedly nominated for production design, costume design, and cinematography Oscars, the film is also leaden and dull. There is no burning desire detectable in the icy, mannered Keira Knightley, and her illicit romance with the fey Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass, Nowhere Boy) is unconvincing. The lush production is soulless and a bit gimmicky, replete with a dance sequence that recalls Tony and Maria in West Side Story (minus the passion), and a distracting movie-within-a-play depiction. Very pretty and little else. Knightley is preeternaturally girlish. She cannot convey having lived long and rich enough to put it all on the line for an adulterous love, so she opts for Anna as bipolar.
Frank Langella lives alone in the country a few hours from New York City. He is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s, functional but slipping, and at first, appears to be little more than a forgetful, petty thief of decorative soaps sold in the town’s gift shop. When his son (James Marsden) brings him a robot for company and guidance, we learn that Langella was once a second story burglar who did two stints in prison. He loathes the robot until he learns it has no conscience. A friendship develops, and soon, the robot is acting as his accomplice in a jewel heist.
The movie is clever, often touching, and a bit subversive. There is a hilarious section where Langella’s anti-robot daughter (Liv Tyler) visits. Horrified at her father’s reliance on the robot, she turns it off, only to surreptitiously turn it on when she wants the house cleaned.
Though the film is set in the not too distant future, the credits are accompanied by clips of the work robots are currently doing (or being designed to do) for humans, and the future is now.
A hodgepodge of The Devil’s Backbone, The Others, The Sixth Sense, and The Orphanage, the resulting stew lacks the intrigue, creepiness or depth of any of those films. Post WWI, a noted spiritualist debunker played by Rebecca Hall (The Town, Parade’s End) is enlisted by a teacher (Dominic West) to come to a remote English boy’s school. A young student has died and the children have been traumatized, not only by that tragedy, but by the ghost of another boy. After begging off, Hall unconvincingly takes on the challenge, easily solving the more recent death in the first quarter of the film. The rest is devoted to her chasing the ghost about, falling for West, and being manipulated for a big Shymalanesque reveal that is rushed, awkward and unnecessary. The film is overly ambitious, neglecting the less showy aspects of a ghost story, like pace, investigatory patience, and diversion. Instead, Hall tears around the house, easily converted from skeptic to believing hysteric, until her ludicrous connection is clumsily offered via flashback. It’s director Nick Murphy’s first feature and he is overmatched. Worse, there are a mere three scary moments, a number The Woman in Black provided ten fold.
Co-written by Jay Baruchel (of Knocked Up and Tropic Thunder) and Evan Goldberg (writer of Superbad and Pineapple Express), this comedy has a Judd Apatow feel and a direct lineage to Slap Shot. Seann William Scott (Doug Glatt) plays a dim but loveable lunk in Canada who is recruited as a goon by the Halifax franchise after he dismantles an out-of-control hockey player who jumped into the stands. He soon finds his purpose, his love, and his destiny, in the form of the greatest enforcer of all, Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber), and in the process, coalesces a fractured club.
This is a clever meld of sports schmaltz and sharp, crude comedy, and it was unfairly overlooked. Scott is supremely disciplined in playing a sweet dolt. We get none of his smirk from the American Pie movies, which makes his elevation from the ranks of security guard and bouncer to hockey hero touching and sweet. When his love interest (Allison Pill) runs up to him crying after breaking up with her boyfriend, he asks “Did you just see Rudy?” and you believe the question is sincere. When Pill, a hockey player groupie, tells him, “You make me wanna stop sleeping with a bunch of guys,” he replies, “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me” and it seems so.
The hockey itself is not particularly realistic but, like Slap Shot, director Michael Dowse handles the speed, fluidity and violence of the game well and largely for comedic effect. Goldberg and Baruchel even include their own version of the Hansen brothers, two Russian jokesters who plague the team’s insecure goalie.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s attempt to chronicle the rise of an L. Ron Hubbard type, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), is crippled by what the director probably deems a necessary evil. Dodd finds the damaged and cruel WWII veteran Joaquin Phoenix, and through his character (a brutish Of Mice and Menesque Lennie), we see how the weak can be co-opted and conscripted by a charismatic charlatan. But to dramatize that point, we have to spend an inordinate amount of time with a vicious, unsympathetic thug. Phoenix’s rendition is jarring, but unpleasant, as his character is mentally unstable and ape-like.
Amy Adams plays Dodd’s fanatical wife and observes of Phoenix, “He’s a drunk and he’s dangerous and he will be our undoing if we have him here.”
And that’s what happens to the movie. Phoenix progresses, but from feral animal to a more controllable and controlled beast. Not a particularly interesting or illuminating journey.
The film is also repetitive. The scenes of Phoenix’s “processing” feel interminable, Phoenix skulks and broods and then attacks critics of Hoffman, and Hoffman charmingly explains his cobbled together philosophy, until he is questioned, and then he explodes.
The performances of Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams are all excellent (all three received deserved Oscar nominations), but this is a very long, awful dull, hard slog and the ending is ridiculous.
The Master is a marathon of well shot tedium. It’s also a bit of a cop out. If you’re going to take on the genesis of Scientology, why be so oblique? Why choose to focus so tightly on the relationship between the Hubbard character and a baboon like Phoenix?