Sunday, November 25, 2012

Pantheon movie of the month - LET THERE BE LIGHT (1946)

Paul Thomas Anderson has cited John Huston's post-war documentary, LET THERE BE LIGHT, as a key influence on the themes, style and dialogue of his film, THE MASTER. With that in mind, I hunted downloaded a copy of the restored film from the wonderful people at the US National Film Registry, to see if it would shed any light on that elusive, troubling work.

The movie is an hour-long black and white documentary produced by the US Army Pictorial Services, in 1946, designed to show their troops the "after-care" that the traumatised might receive before re-entering civilian life. The movie was ground-breaking in three respects.  First, it was the first film to show the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder, in an era when that was very imperfectly  understood.  Second, it the filming took place in a segregated hospital on Long Island, in an era when the US Army was still segregated. Thirdly, despite being shot by the director who is most closely associated with the rugged, mythic American Man, it shows a desperately affecting sensitivity to, and respect for, the men, in an era when they might have been written off as flaky or cry-babies, or just plain mad.

It was clearly seen as too ground-breaking. Suppressed by the Army until 1980, as being too honest a portrayal of the damage war can do to men, and therefore "bad for recruitment".

LET THERE BE LIGHT takes the form of group and single interviews with servicemen struggling, like Freddie Quell, with PTSD, as well as fly-on-the-wall footage of classes they attend and treatment they receive.  The movie imposes a redemptive arc on the men, from admission, through drug therapy, hypnosis and eventually to being released rehabilitated.  But viewers know that all is not well. The men are ashamed of their problems, unable to articulate why they're so hurt, and even as we see them sent back to "real life" we know they are ill-equipped to cope.

It's a deeply affecting film. None of the men are as physically broken as Freddie Quell, presumably because the US Army would not have allowed them on film. In fact, what strikes us is how articulate and composed they are - how respectful and trusting in the institution that has maimed them - and indeed how naive they are about how civilian society will treat them.  One particular soldier, an African-American man, speaks calmly and movingly about "breaking out" of the narrow social circle in which he was constrained before the war.  Another soldier has complete belief that any potential employer, by virtue of his having attained the position of being an employer, will be intelligent and sensitive enough to understand his psychological problems.  All of which speaks to a time when people were more polite and more respectful or organised and established power structures.

The influence on THE MASTER is clear. Freddie Quell is shown in early scenes that echo the interviews and treatment in LET THERE BE LIGHT.  He emerges a deeply broken man unable to diagnose let alone cope with his PTSD.  This was as I had expected.  What I found more fascinating was that some of the treatment Freddie receives in The Cause also echoes the US Army's methods in the documentary: hypnotherapy, positive reinforcement, and the talking cure.  Seeing both films together makes Quell's attraction to The Cause somehow more understandable. He has been conditioned by his Army treatment to respond to such direct orders and paternalistic care. He has merely substituted Lancaster Dodd for his Army doctor. It's fascinating and heart-breaking stuff.

LET THERE BE LIGHT is available in a cleaned-up but still woefully scratchy 58 minute version thanks to the fact that it won a place in the Library of Congress' US National Film Board Registry.  (Link above). It can also be found on YouTube. It will also be included on THE MASTER blu-ray and DVD with 20 minutes of previously cut footage.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Screenwriter Alex Kurtzman (STAR TREK) makes his directorial debut with the occasionally hilarious, but tonally uneven and overlong dramedy, PEOPLE LIKE US.  The person I watched the movie with judged it "the worst movie I've seen in some time".  I agree that it was a wearying watch, and had more endings that LORD OF THE RINGS. But every time I gave up on this over-wrought drama, a scene would take place that once again got me into it.  This flick isn't a failure - it just drowned any spark of life in melodrama.

Perhaps the movie's real problem is its central conceit - damaged brother discovers he has a half-sister and a nephew after his father's death. But instead of coming clean about their family ties, he insinuates himself into their lives until the sister is in danger of falling for him.  This is the classic plot contrivance that only ever happens in cheap films, and prevents the movie doing what it really wants to do - which is to portray real , authentic damaged people struggling to come to terms with an emotional crisis.

The movie stars Chris Pine as Sam, a resentful son commissioned by his recently deceased father to give $150,000 to the sister he never knew he had. That sister, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) is a recovering alcoholic with a whip-smart son called Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario). Chris Pine is the weak link in the set-up with his limited emotional range, and while Banks is the better actress, she's far too glossy to convince as a struggling single mum.  In every case, they are both upstaged for comedy by Michael Hall D'Addario (the coolest screenkid ever, with the best screen entrance for a schoolboy since Malcolm McDowell in IF...), and for drama by a dishevelled and conflicted Michelle Pfeiffer (Sam's mum).  Her role in the estrangement of her husband from his illegitimate daughter is beautifully written and played, and it's sad that it is resolved in such a hammy way.

PEOPLE LIKE US opened earlier this year in the USA, Italy, the Philippines, Chile, Norway, Germany  Denmark, the UK and Ireland. It opens this weekend in Turkey.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Overlooked DVD of the month - A ROYAL AFFAIR

Nikolaj Arcel's Danish costume drama may have been overlooked upon release by this blog, but it has quietly won praise at Berlin and now finds itself a contender for the Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Oscars.  This obliged me to check it out, and I have to say, I was struggling to understand what the fuss is about.

The movie plays as a conventional, earnest, rather plodding historical drama, based on a true story, set in the 18th century Danish court.  Pretty but naive English princess Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) is married to the Danish King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), a socially awkward, mentally unstable but well-meaning young man.  She dutifully gives him an heir, but falls for the Court Doctor, Streunsee (Mads Mikkelsen), a radical Enlightenment thinker. This gives us the "forbidden love" material so beloved of publicists, and of course once an illegitimate child is born and the established aristos become jealous of Streunsee's power, it doesn't end well for the lovers. But by far the more interesting story is that of the King's unhealthy friendship with Streunsee, and Streunsee's rather ambiguous personality.  Far  from a wholly good hero, liberating our heroine, and Denmark, with enlightenment thinking, Streunsee is a deeply imperfect man.  He reinstalls laws of censorship as soon as the libeliste attack his relationship with the Queen, and shamelessly manipulates the King.

The weakness of this film is that Vikander and Mikkelsen have zero screen chemistry. Their romance is incredible (literally - I didn't believe it) - if anything a romance of the mind rather than the heart.  And this banal transgressive love story sucks up time that could have been given to court intrigue.  As for Mikkel Boe Folsgaard's performance, it's certainly the best of the three, but has none of the deep sadness or brilliance of, say, THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE III. 

Indeed, this film suffers in general by comparison with other costume dramas set in the same period. In particular, the similarity of the young foreign princess married to a difficult man - the illicit love affair - the libelists - the palace intrigue, casts this film in an unfavourable light relative to Sofia Coppola's radical MARIE ANTOINETTE. That movie broke the mould, and since then, a conventional, if polished historical romantic drama, just seems rather anaemic. 

A ROYAL AFFAIR played Berlin 2012 where Mikkel Boe Folsgaard won the Silver Bear for Best Actor, and Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg won the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay.  The movie also played Toronto and Telluride. It is Denmark's official submission for the Oscars.  It opened earlier this year in Denmark, Estonia, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, the Netherlands, Iceland, Israel, Norway, Belgium, Poland and Spain.  It is currently on release in Spain and the USA, and opens this weekend in France and Hungary. It opens on December 10th in Slovenia and in Argentina on April 4th. 

Friday, November 16, 2012


Bella's journey from whiny reactive teen to Ripleyesque super-mum.
And so the fantastically successful commercial juggernaut that is Twiglet drifts to a close, with this polished, camp but ultimately rather silly final film.  The movie picks up in media res, with our previously whiny, reactive, pathetic heroine Bella (Kristen Stewart) opening her colour-enhanced, fake-eyelashed eyes as a sparkly vampire, all her spider-senses tingling.  The first forty-minutes of the flick see her hop skip and jump through a new world of heightened colour and smell, astonishingly controlling her urge to feed off humans, and coming to terms with the fact that her child, Renesmee, survived because her old flirt-friend and werewolf (Taylor Lautner) "imprinted" on her.  And where's Bella's husband in all this?  Looking on smugly as his "new-born" wife kicks ass and looks hotter than ever.

In the movie's second act, Bella's in-laws, The Cullens, gather up a brood of global vampires to testify to the fact that Renesmee isn't an  out-of-control, dangerous child vampire, but actually a half-human cute little moppet.  Their aim is to reason with the Vampire world's equivalent to the Papacy, led by Michael Sheen's hilariously camp Aro, that Renesmee shouldn't be killed, and failing that, to do battle.  This leads us to the final act of the film, which seeks to give fans of the almost absurdly bloodless novels a humdinger of an action sequence, while also remaining faithful to the more talky, banal denouement of the book. Suffice to say that, as one would expect in this world of emasculated, proto Christian revival vampires, all ends happily for the good guys, and even for the bad guys, because basically the entire plot motivation of this movie has been a gross misunderstanding. 

There's a lot to like in this instalment of the series. Production values are top notch.  Guillermo Navarro's photography of Bella's newly heightened world is beautiful; the bleach blonde dye jobs on the Cullens are less cheap; the CGI wolves are superb; and the Volturi superbly over-the-top.  The acting is just fine, with the exception of Stewart who really does sell it well. Michael Sheen is, of course, stunning, and Dakota Fanning seems to share in his sense of mischief.  I can honestly say I had a fun time watching this movie.

Of course, it doesn't really hang together.  Aro's speech to pre-emptively kill the unknown quantity that is Renesmee kept cracking me up as a caricature of Tony Blair's pro Iraqi war campaign.  The knowing homo-eroticism of Lautner stripping off for Charlie (Billy Burke) broke any seriousness this movie might have had.  And, as with the X-MEN movies, I'm always struck by the disparity and ill-use of the super-powers handed out to the different characters.  Bella has self- control and a defensive shield. Awesome. But this other guy can CONTROL THE ELEMENTS!!! I mean, isn't that game over for the Volturi right there? And as for Alice's power to see the future, so crucial in allowing the screenwriters to have their cake and eat it, if she can see various potential outcomes, doesn't that rather confuse which  of her prophesies to believe in?

Ah well, I guess this isn't a movie we should think about too deeply.  In today's recessionary climate it seems like a nostalgic throw-back to the boom years in which it was written - when beautiful people drove beautiful cars, and a virginal young girl who waited till  marriage would be gifted a beautiful cottage stocked with pretty handbags and shoes. I mean, who needs an education anyway? And let's not even get into the sheer creepiness of poor Renesmee being promised, in utero, to a guy who's already gone through puberty.  To all those pop-culture commentators praising Bella as a modern heroine I say, no no and again no.

But like I said, better not to overthink it.   Better to enjoy the camp hilarity of Sheen's maniacal laugh and Gap ad models ripping each other's heads off. 

BREAKING DAWN PART 2 is on release pretty much everywhere except Armenia, Cambodia, Germany, Singapore and India where it opens next week; Hong Kong where it opens on December 20th and Japan where it opens on December 28th. 

Sunday, November 04, 2012


Paul Thomas Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD was something like cinematic perfection. It had a brutal force, a bravura confidence, an unforgettable visual and aural palette. It was a movie dominated by a charismatic evil man - an Oil Man - a man bending the world to his very will.  At times it felt like Paul Thomas Anderson was in step with his on screen persona, throwing the conventions of genre cinema aside, reinventing the grammar of cinema with his disdain for mere dialogue and petty narrative conventions. The bar was set high for THE MASTER.  And our prurient interest fuelled by early reports that about the founding of a cult similar to Scientology.  It was almost too much for the art-house addict to handle: a take-down of Scientology from our most pioneering and uncompromising director. And one who had directed Tom Cruise in his closest-to-the-bone role in MAGNOLIA.

The result, is sadly, so much less than the sum of its parts. A salutary lesson in what happens when an uncompromising artistic vision ultimately fails in its execution and resolution. A mis-step to be sure.  A tragedy, when one considers the nuggets of performance that hint at what this movie could have been.

As the film opens we meet Freddie Quell, a traumatised WWII vet, washed up on the West Coast: alcoholic, sex-obsessed, with an ungovernable temper, a drifter.  As played by Joaquin Phoenix, he is quite literally bowed and beaten by life, his shoulders turned inward, his clothes ill-fitting, his face riven by lines, his voice so broken one can barely understand him.  It is a brave choice, but an unsuccessful one.  Phoenix seems to play "at" his character, rather than inhabiting him. Worse, he seems to be acting in a register - in a movie - entirely different to the other characters in the film.

He meets them after half an hour of drifting, when he jumps on board the luxurious cruise ship of The Master, the cult-leader Lancaster Dodd. Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays him as a charismatic bon vivant.  We feel that he does love the people he is helping, even if, as the movie progresses, we hear hints that he has been fraudulent - even if, as his son suggests, he is just making it up as he goes along.  He certainly cares about Freddie. Indeed he needs Freddie, much to his family's disquiet. 

The problem is that the relationship between Freddie and Lancaster isn't as interesting or as sinister a it needs to be to form the centre of the film - perhaps because of Phoenix's bizarre performance - perhaps become of Anderson's weak script.  I was far more drawn to the relationship between Lancaster and his wife, Peggy, superbly portrayed by Amy Adams as the most quietly poisonous wife since Winona Ryder's May Archer in Scorsese's THE AGE OF INNOCENCE.  There are moments when one believes that it is Peggy who is truly THE MASTER, but those moments are never allowed to open up. Even in a movie of a 145 minute running time, Freddie Quell keeps crowding her out. The way in which Peggy exerts her power is from a chair in the corner, with the subtlest of touches. And it reminds us  of how unnerving and profound this movie can be, when it will only be quiet.  A similarly memorable scene occurs between Lancaster and his acolyte Helen (Laura Dern). She questions the change of a single word in The Cause's doctrine and is summarily dismissed by Lancaster.  To see her face crumple, and his irritation sparked, it is to see the genesis of oppression and a heart breaking.

What else can we say about his strange, long, sometimes beautiful, oftentimes bewildering film? I'm not sure the 65mm photography is really put to good use.  There are some gloriously coloured shots of the sea, and of dark rooms from DP Mihai Malaimare Jr (TETRO) but nothing to rival Robert Elswit's fire-drenched skies of THERE WILL BE BLOOD.  (How sad that THAT couldn't have been filmed in 65 mil.)  I also rather disliked the use of female nudity in this film. I'm far from prudish but was any of this necessary?  I also understand that many critics have had problems with the movie's ending, and while I agree, I think this is just symptomatic of far deeper problems.  

The sad truth is that Paul Thomas Anderson just didn't know where he was going to take this story, or what his point was. Neither did he have the taste or the courage to recognise that Phoenix's performance was skewering his film.

THE MASTER played Venice, where Paul Thomas Anderson won the Silver Lion, and Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman shared the Volpi Cup for Best Actor. It also played Hollywood and Toronto 2012. It opened earlier this year in the USA, Canada and Israel. It is on limited release in the UK this week but opens wider in two weeks time. It opens on Nov 9th in Australia and Turkey; on Nov 16th in Chile andd Poland; on Jan 6th in Portugal; Jan 10th in France, Greece, the Netherlands and Norway; on Jan 18th in Iceland; on Jan 31st in Denmark; on Feb 7th in Argentina and Italy; on Feb 15th in Brazil and Russia and on Feb 21st in Germany and Hong Kong.