Author Archives: Cath L

Does The Master reveal Paul Thomas Anderson to be a cult leader?

Rather than review Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film The Master, I’m much more interested in taking a closer look at its critical reception; because I’m an English teacher and not a film critic, I find the discourse more fascinating than the film’s actual merits and flaws. The film has garnered lavish praise from an overwhelming consensus of film critics, and that could very well affect your reaction to (or even viewing of) the film.

At the time of writing (Fri 2 Nov), collative site Rotten Tomatoes says that The Master has an 85% approval rating from critics, but 60% from non-critics – that’s a 25% discrepancy. Metacritic, which exercises a bit more quality control, calculates an 86% critic approval contrasted with a dismal 43% approval rating among non-critics; that’s a 43% difference.

Are critics really so different from thoughtful movie-watchers who bother to actually sign up and contribute to Metacritic? You actually have to defend your rating on Metacritic; it’s not a matter of casually clicking on a number. And Metacritic users can obviously see what the critics have said. Granted, there are some films that are perfect for critics but not audiences, and I’d love to hear of some comparable examples in the comments. But even so, this is notable because it’s a massive discrepancy on a substantial scale. What on earth is going on? Let’s look at a cross-section of quotes and see if we can make sense of this.

Numerous critics from highly-esteemed publications stumble over each other to be the most ardent disciple of cinematic master PTA. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone stridently opens his review with: “I believe in the church of Paul Thomas Anderson… [he] refuses to do the thinking for you. His films mess with your head until you take them in and take them on. No wonder Anderson infuriates lazy audiences… Written, directed, acted, shot, edited and scored with a bracing vibrancy that restores your faith in film as an art form, The Master is nirvana for movie lovers.”

Is he seriously saying that if we don’t positively rate this film, then we’re lazy cinema-goers who don’t properly love movies? It’s telling that Travers proclaims that he is a follower of Paul Thomas Anderson’s cult while burying this admission with adulatory adjectives and bludgeoning us with his self-righteousness. A.O. Scott of The New York Times at least hints at the divisive nature of the film before professing his faith in PTA: “This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief… It is a movie about the lure and folly of greatness that comes as close as anything I’ve seen recently to being a great movie. There will be skeptics, but the cult is already forming. Count me in.”

The majority of positive critics’ reviews sound like some form of cult worship. And granted, Paul Thomas Anderson is a darling of film buffs, who understandably gravitate towards auteurs; think of how films by Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers garner support before the trailers are even cut. Perhaps film critics, whose occupational hazard is to take their opinions very seriously, are somehow compelled to continue praising the work of these auteurs, since they’ve written glowing reviews of their previous films. Oddly, Peter Bradshaw refutes this idea in the opening of his review in The Guardian: “Nothing makes critics more nervous than a director who makes two exceptional films in a row. Reviewers get a bit self-conscious about dishing out the top prize again, scared of looking like fanboys and pushovers. They feel the need to change the mood, to validate the uniqueness of their former praise.” To me, it sounds suspiciously like Bradshaw is trying to put some spin on the fact that he’s jumped on the bandwagon along with the other critics… like it’s so brave of him to be a film critic and a fan of Anderson’s work.

In the Metacritic tally, there are scant examples of critics who don’t prostrate themselves before The Master (though some more even-handed, non-listed responses have begun to emerge: check out Nick Pinkerton in Sight & Sound). One well-defended response comes from famed thumbs-user Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun Times, whose opening sentence is: “The Master is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.” While this isn’t a review per se, I can’t pretend to be totally objective – I agree with Ebert. There are plenty of laudable aspects of the film: the extremely committed performances, its striking visuals, the resonance of the post-WWII time period with cult formation, Jonny Greenwood’s impressionistic score. But all to what end? For me, watching the film was challenging, but not in the intellectual sense; it challenged me in an existential sense. I wondered why I was sitting there, watching the film. Why it exists. What its purpose is. How it got there. The film, to me, is frustratingly far less than the sum of its parts.

Another independent review is from and Richard Corliss of Time Magazine, who engages with the contention of many critics that Anderson is a visionary ahead of the curve, mentioning that the filmmaker is “apparently determined to rewrite 2,500 years of dramatic literature.” I’m no traditionalist, but established principles of good storytelling just aren’t redefined by this purposefully oblique film. Anderson may be a model of devotion to film and The Master does reflect this – but is it a well-told story? Cinephiles who have decided that it is cannot avoid proselytizing this cinematic master they badly want to believe in – and that is so beautifully ironic.

Look, I am an unashamed fan of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and I appreciated There Will Be Blood. Plus it’s an achievement in itself that The Master can provoke such powerful reactions from its audience. But this feels like that old fable about the Emperor and his new clothes. A purportedly masterful man creates what people choose to believe is fantastic yet invisible to nonbelievers, and in the end, a child has to point to the Emperor and yell, “but he’s not wearing any clothes!” So this is me being that child, trying to break the spell of groupthink. Though by all means, go and see The Master for yourself, and form your own opinions regardless of what everyone else says.

PPH @ LFF: The We and the I | review

When a bunch of teenagers board the bus or train you’re on, what do you feel? Dread? Disgust? I usually try to reassure myself that when I have kids, they won’t be so un-self-aware. But the thing is, when people are in groups – teenagers or not – we tend to have a certain blindness of others outside our group. And when we were teenagers, it was even worse; remember being painfully aware of your peers while egocentrically preoccupied by your own drama-filled thoughts? (I hope that wasn’t just me.) Michel Gondry’s The We and the I brilliantly captures our struggle against groupthink to be individuals in a condensed form by limiting the camera’s gaze to a bus ride home on the last day of school. It’s refreshing and fun to catch a glimpse of Gondry’s view of the world – realistically flawed, humorous and vulnerable moments combined with a bit of visual whimsy.

The film begins by contrasting the relative quiet of the South Bronx neighbourhood with the frenetic chaos that the end of the school day unleashes. Students pile onto the public bus and compete for seats; it quickly becomes clear who is confident and who is not. As a high school teacher myself, parents sometimes ask me for advice about teenagers; one of my first questions to them is where their kid sits on the bus. The kids who think they’re cool, often bullies, sit way in the back. The independent-minded ones don’t mind taking the seats in front. Most end up in between, but still leaning towards one side or the other. The We and the I gets this just right, presenting a good mix of teenage archetypes without it seeming too forced: up front, some snooty clever kids; some couples, both straight and gay; some sensitive musician boys; an artist; an awkward outcast; an aloof outsider who stoically keeps his headphones in; and of course, the cocky bullies in the back. Thinking back, a bit of you probably belonged in each group… but you had to choose an affiliation, unless you were one of the rare ‘floaters’.

The cramped setting of The We and the I mirrors the sometimes suffocating social world of teenagers; it’s a real technical achievement that Gondry manages to be a fly-on-the-wall in such small spaces. The camera seamlessly flits around the bus, dipping in and out of each hormone-fuelled micro-drama while still capturing the dynamics between groups. The kids’ cell phone use is included to admirable effect, from my teacher’s point of view – most teens today feel compelled to be plugged in at all times, which also leaves them more vulnerable to social missteps. As the bus gradually empties, the We does become the I; the teens have to choose their own individual paths.

Having taught just outside NYC, the kids in The We and the I are much more familiar to me than the casts of past teen films – much more recognisable than the characters in Dazed and Confused, which just represents a very different part of America. There’s no guitar rock on this soundtrack – it’s mostly Young MC and old-school hip hop. It’s also such a relief to see teenagers onscreen actually talking like teenagers – swearing left and right, voices emphatic, vocabulary normal (not what an adult wishes they’d say). It’s heartening to see teens represented so honestly by these non-professional actors. When the credits roll, you see that all the character names are the kids’ actual names – Gondry workshopped the film with these kids at The Point, a community youth centre. The result of their collaboration is a uniquely candid document of the lives of urban youth that makes me very glad that someone like Gondry keeps making films.

El Alma de Las Moscas (The Soul of Flies) | review

The promising debut film of independent filmmaker Jonathan Cenzual Burley, El Alma de Las Moscas (The Soul of Flies), is a low-key magical realist meditation in buddy-film form. The two protagonists, Nero (Andrea Calabrese) and Miguel (Javier Sáez), are brothers meeting for the first time after decades, summoned to their absent father’s funeral by posthumous letters. They meet at a train station that happens to be abandoned – presumably by their deceased dad’s design – and are forced to come to terms with each other as they meander through the grain fields in Salamanca (western Spain) towards the funeral. If you appreciate Beckett’s Waiting for Godot but wish it were a bit more accessible and less tragic, this would be right up your alley.

Crucially for the film’s dramatic trajectory, Nero and Miguel provide effective foil for one another; Nero is an ebullient optimist while Miguel is a brooding cynic. Their dynamic drives the film forward and gives the film a sense of purpose. Because there are few close-ups on either – the film is dominated by medium and long shots of the pair against the landscape – their clothing choices are key for convincingly defining their characters. It’s fitting that Nero looks comfortable in the countryside, wearing earth-tones and a humble flat cap, while Miguel looks incongruous in a slick black-and-white suit.

The film has a third protagonist: the countryside. Given voice by a rustic, rhythmic soundtrack, it’s a strong character of the film as well. The expanses of dry grain fields are described by the narrator as containing a “labyrinth of memories”, a silent witness of the life their father lived. The countryside looks great on film; Burley’s minimalist aesthetic utilises striking, saturated colours and naturalistic light so it looks painterly and timeless.

The writer/director said in a recent interview that he shot this film in three weeks with a tiny cast and crew and a very limited budget, so it’s really intended as a calling card. Burley’s message is: ‘This is what I can do with no money; now give me some.’ And the results are encouraging. While El Alma de las Moscas is understated and minimalist, it has a clear vision and thoughtfully uses film language. For example, when the two brothers are wandering around, their journey moves right to left across the screen, enhancing that their journey is not about forward movement. When they finally start traveling the right way towards the funeral, their path is tracked left to right so a conclusion feels inevitable.

El Alma de las Moscas seems to be billed as a comedy, but that’s a bit misleading, as it doesn’t quite fit into that box. Two strangers wander around the countryside, meeting some quirky characters along the way, and ruminate about the nature of family, loneliness, fate and mortality. This film isn’t often laugh-out-loud funny, but it does deal with deep subject matter in a light-hearted way. So if you’re in the mood for that, check it out.

The Soul of Flies is out now on DVD, released by Matchbox Films (RRP.  £15.99) | Buy the film at amazon.co.uk.  

PPH @ LFF: Key of Life (Kagi-Dorobou no Method) | review

Choosing which films to see out of the hundreds at the BFI London Film Festival is never an easy task, but one key bit of information definitely helps me prioritise – whether the film’s already got a UK distributor or not. I always pick at least one foreign film or documentary that I may never get another chance to see, usually from Asia, often from Japan. They’re safe bets to me, considering the country’s rich cinematic history, and they provide refreshing breaks from Eurocentric perspectives. My personal opinion is that many modern Japanese cultural products, from anime to music to cinema, thoughtfully mix Western influences and Eastern values so that the experience is both enticingly unique and broadly accessible.

This year I chose director-screenwriter Kenji Uchida’s entertaining tragicomedy Key of Life, a Japanese-style riff on Trading Places in which Sakurai (Masato Sakai), a down-and-out actor, opportunistically steals an amnesaic’s identity. Sakurai’s life is in shambles – he owes everyone money and the ex-girlfriend he still loves is engaged. Likably pathetic, he even fails at committing suicide. When Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa) slips and hits his head in a bathhouse, a shortcut for restarting Sakurai’s life literally falls at his feet. It’s extra-lucky that Kondo happens to be quite wealthy. Kondo-as-Sakurai chances upon a bit of luck too in befriending Kanae, a nerdy magazine editor, at the hospital. She is on an endearing-yet-vaguely-pitiable mission to get married before her ill father dies, and discovers that it’s convenient to get to know someone while he is trying to rediscover himself. It’s all fun and games until the real Sakurai stumbles across the source of Kondo’s wealth – it turns out that he’s an assassin for the mob, and his last job wasn’t quite finished… thus the fates of these three previously isolated figures are suddenly tied together, and they’re left testing when their collective luck will finally run out.

The world the film portrays is wacky, yet recognisably modern and cynical; apart from the main trio, everyone makes selfish decisions that destroy relationships and are largely driven by pride and materialism. That backdrop is vital, as it facilitates us rooting for these naive principal characters while they earnestly fumble through these unusual circumstances. We trust them enough to go along for the ride, happy to be surprised at the twists and turns.

But most importantly, there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud moments as the two men play with their new identities. Most of the credit goes to Kagawa’s bravura performance as Kondo, deftly switching between the cold, professional assassin to the vulnerable amnesic; Sakai seems outclassed, too much of a ham, but in fairness, his character is supposed to be a failed actor. Key of Life orchestrates its many tonal shifts skilfully, evoking an enjoyable range of emotions. Uchida’s well-crafted, well-executed comedy is well-worth a watch. And next time you’re perusing a film festival programme, keep an eye out for good foreign films without distribution deals.

Take This Waltz | review

Two familiar female screen archetypes are the clever-yet-uptight brunette and the flighty-yet-vulnerable blonde – and I bet that your sympathies lean heavily towards one more than the other. Do you favour Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse (or Cher in Clueless if you’d rather)? A more modern pairing would be the neurotic Liz Lemon and diva Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock. Better yet, did you ever watch Dawson’s Creek’s in the late ‘90s? If you were Dawson, would you pick Joey (Katie Holmes) or Jen (Michelle Williams)?

Well, I rooted for Joey. And if you think similarly, you might struggle a bit with this film. Take This Waltz, starring Michelle Williams, and written and directed by Sarah Polley, is very blonde. It’s a bit like watching a spinoff of Dawson’s Creek starring Jen, fast forwarded 10 years, and on HBO.

In Take This Waltz, Margot (Michelle Williams), a married 28-year-old, has a chance encounter with a frustrating-but-attractive man (Luke Kirby) who just happens to live across the street. She’s a bit restless and impetuous, while her unassuming husband (Seth Rogan) is quite comfortable with their sickeningly adorable relationship. Who, we wonder, will she choose in the end?

The camera is sympathetic to Margot, catching her in golden light and framing her with fetish-y close ups. Sadly, it feels more like watching an uber-girly Michelle Williams rather than a new character, because no names are mentioned in the first quarter of the film. I ended up associating the nameless characters with their actors’ past roles, instead of getting engrossed in the film’s world.

Luckily, the film is well-cast. Williams, who usually tends toward playing characters with darker troubles than this, is charmingly naive. Rogan, in a rare dramatic role, is endearing, though his quips pack a much softer punch in this context. The relatively unknown Kirby fits as the mysterious love interest, and his penetrating stares manage to project more longing than creepiness. But the real delight is Sarah Silverman as Margot’s spirited sister-in-law Geri. She plays a recovering alcoholic, which is perfect for her brand of dark humour laced with vulnerability. It’s a relief when she’s onscreen to cut through the cuteness that pervades the film.

Unfortunately, the film’s flighty tone definitely results in some head-askance moments. It’s consciously quirky, tries too hard, and the rhythm is sometimes forced. The tonal shifts in several scenes repeat the same problematic pattern; they start saccharine until you can’t take any more, abruptly turn darkly humorous, then try to end on a genuine note. Hence the Dawson’s Creek comparison – such moments resonate on more of a TV-movie level.

Aside from these issues, Take this Waltz is largely beguiling. It’s smartly structured, giving the characters just the right amount of weight. It also manages to deal satisfyingly and honestly with the moral complications that infidelity arouses. Plus it looks fantastic, showcasing a vibrant Toronto in the summertime – the bright colours and hazy light suit the unabashedly sweet tone of the film. It achieves several striking contrasts between scenes to shift textures; the nighttime pool scene and the fairground rides are particularly atmospheric. And the fitting soundtrack is populated by acoustic guitars, xylophones and flutes to keep the mood wistful.

So should you see it? It may depend on who you’re watching it with. When I saw it, the gender divide in the room was palpable; the lead female’s cutesy nature elicited exasperated sighs and miserable cringing from several men in the audience, who may have expected it to be more along the lines of Blue Valentine. And to be fair, at several points I felt similar – but my instinctive female solidarity, plus memories of chats with girlfriends, kept me circumspect. This kind of girl definitely exists, like her or not – it wouldn’t be fair to be dismissive of the film based on its blonde tone. Ultimately, I think this film has merit, presenting an enjoyable, decidedly feminine perspective of a woman’s insecurities and fantasies. But give it a watch and decide for yourself – with someone of the opposite sex, if you’re feeling bold.

Take This Waltz is in cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur

Nostalgia for the Light | review

While Patricio Guzmán’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light juxtaposes fairly niche interests – astronomy and the Pinochet era – the poetic way he draws parallels between scientific and sociopolitical investigations of the past transcends the particulars. Personal traumas resonate on an epic scale in Guzman’s haunting depiction of the scars of modern Chile.

Forty years ago, Chile’s democracy was struggling with a crippled economy and a politically polarised population. Four decades of strong leftist forces were being challenged, especially because of the Cold War. Under these conditions, hard right General Pinochet staged a successful, military coup against the leftist president Salvador Allende. His regime aggressively and brutally silenced any opposition, imprisoning, torturing, ‘disappearing’ and exiling thousands – including Patricio Guzmán.

When Guzmán was 32, he started his second documentary called The Battle of Chile, filming up until the day of the coup that put Pinochet in power. On that day, Guzmán was imprisoned for two weeks. Then, threatened with execution, he fled to Europe with his film stock. Since that time, he has made many documentaries about Chilean concerns, and it is fitting that – now in his 70s – he reflects upon Chile’s history with a pained nostalgia.

The film is dominated by gorgeous, sweeping shots of the Atacama desert and the glittering sky above it. Guzmán shows us how both environments grant us access to evidence of the past, whether through the changing composition of star systems or through preserved artefacts shallowly buried in shifting sands. He also captures how time is pre-modern in these environments, and the present feels like a fallacy. Even the sunlight we see and feel takes eight minutes to travel to us. He makes it clear that the silence of the desert and of space doesn’t necessarily indicate calm – both are pregnant with secrets and history that lead to endless questions.

To try and answer these questions, Guzmán interweaves varied testimonials from Chileans with these images of nature, effectively layered to ruminate upon how we try to find inner peace by remembering and trying to understand our past. He is fascinated by Chile’s paradoxical predisposition to examine the ancient past through the sky and the desert, while seeming to have a collective amnesia about the recent past. His most heartbreaking interviews are with women who have been tirelessly searching the Atacama desert for the remains of their loved ones for nearly three decades. Their struggles embody the film’s title – they, representative of many Chileans, long for a time when they did not feel like they live restlessly in the dark, isolated in their search for answers.

But ultimately, by focusing on this intersection of history and science, Guzmán’s unique documentary tries to reassure us by emphasising the invisible interconnectedness of everything. It serves as a reminder that we’re part of a massive cycle, made of stardust, and generation after generation will continue to pursue an understanding of it all.

Nostalgia for the Light is in cinemas now. Follow contributor Cathy Landicho on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.

A Simple Life (Tao Jie) | review

Think of Hong Kong cinema and your mind might automatically wander to martial arts films or crime thrillers. But, as you can infer from this film’s title, A Simple Life is not one of them. It has had commercial success and critical acclaim that was unexpected by all involved in the film, many of whom are veterans of the Hong Kong film industry. It’s the fifth highest-grossing film in Hong Kong this year so far (The Avengers and Men In Black 3 hold the top spots). Considering that the Hong Kong film industry has been struggling mightily against Hollywood blockbusters since the mid-1990s, the fact that this film has been a surprise hit is heartening for the regional business. A Simple Life is a love letter to a decidedly unglamorous and humble Hong Kong.

Ann Hui’s gentle film is led by Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), an ageing domestic servant (‘amah’ in Chinese) who tends to the needs of bachelor Roger Leung (Andy Lau), the only member of his family left in Hong Kong. Ah Tao was with the Leung family since she was orphaned by WWII and served four generations of the family, so the Leungs are essentially her family. The film focuses on Ah Tao’s relationship to Roger and how it evolves during her last years, rendering a tender portrait of the reality of becoming elderly.

There’s authenticity embedded in the film that helps it resonate – it’s based on real characters and Deanie Ip is actually Andy Tau’s godmother. It also doesn’t hurt that 23 years ago, Ip and Lau co-starred as mother and son in a film called The Truth. There’s a natural ease and familiarity to their understated onscreen interactions that is rare to see.

A Simple Life opens with Ah Tao limping up stairs with heavy groceries and then serving Roger a meal without any thanks or recognition offered. For the majority of us who didn’t grow up with in-house servants, it’s a bit off-putting. Roger hardly looks like a grown-up; he moves and dresses like a university student, despite being a big shot in the film industry. In contrast, Ah Tao acts with a strong sense of purpose and a professional dignity about her responsibilities; she never asks for anything and never complains. Deanie Ip is only 64, but her natural physical mannerisms thoroughly convince you that her body is starting to fail.

Ah Tao has a stroke, and thus retires and asks to be put in a nursing home so she isn’t a burden on Roger. Their familiar routines with each other are put in reverse; Roger goes from being cared for to having to take care of both himself and Ah Tao. Through Ah Tao, we get the nursing home experience without the smells, as she transitions from independent living to what is essentially a waiting game. The nursing home is populated with well-nuanced characters who make it clear that Ah Tao is one of the fortunate ones. It’s lucky for us in the audience, as hers is a best-case scenario of a stage of life most would rather not think about.

It may all sound depressing, but watching it doesn’t feel that way. Each character is cheerful and entertaining, complete with little idiosyncrasies, and the cinematography is crisp and naturalistic. Everything in the film serves character development in a humanist, understated manner, quite like Ah Tao herself. Deanie Ip’s performance (which deservedly won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at Venice, the first for a Hong Kong woman) commands respect and holds your sympathies. The last third does drag slightly, mainly because you know what’s coming; but this reflects reality, since the waiting is quietly agonising. The film gently reminds us of our mortality and our responsibilities to our family, in a non-preachy way. If you feel like a break from grandiose blockbuster films this summer, give this one a try.

A Simple Life opens in selected UK cinemas nationwide on 3 August. Contributor Cathy Landicho can followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.