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the-masterContinuing the review round-up of recent films watched over the past couple of weeks. The Master has been high up on my list of films to watch ever since I saw the first trailer for it. Paul Thomas Anderson has become one of the most distinctive voices in cinema for a few years now, but for me, There Will Be Blood and The Master are truly visionary films. Epics of the interior and exterior. Despite the luminous cinematography, many of the best scenes in The Master are head-to-head dialogue exchanges between Joaquin Phoenix’s engagingly chaotic drifter and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s egotistic cult-leader.

Supposedly based on the life of L. Ron Hubbard, The Master charts a life of desperate seeking on the part of Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie; a desire to be a part of something, to find a meaning where there is no meaning, and so many of the film’s scenes revolve around that idea – from Freddie’s aimless pursuit of work that he only ends up failing at, or the to-and-fro march from wall to window that Hoffman’s character puts him through, ostensibly to train him, but as it descends into surrealism Freddie hasn’t really found anything of substance, he continues blindly through the world, searching for meaning. This metaphor is also captured so beautifully by his nostalgia and longing for an old affair that represents the only time in his life when there was meaning, but he can never recapture that. There is some sort of structural metaphor at play here as well, of America’s search for identity as a country in the immediate post-war period.

All that said, the film is gorgeous to look at, the performances are astonishingly good, the score is wonderfully unsettling and at times it’s incredibly touching. I can see, however, that the film is a ‘difficult’ film. It intentionally frustrates the viewer looking for a linear story with resolution. The characters are not terribly nice people. Both Freddie and Lancaster Dodd do and say some pretty unpleasant things, but they have such a chemistry on screen, each there to provide the other with the meaning to life that they think they need. Freddie is an animal, sexually motivated, prone to violence, alcoholic, and as such may not be likeable to everyone, but Phoenix injects a vulnerability and world-weariness to him, a questing, forlorn nature that makes it impossible not to find some sympathy with him, even if it’s the sympathy you give to a disease-ridden, broken, savage old dog.

Spectacular film-making. One of my favourites of the year. Lingered long after the final frame. I should have reviewed it sooner after I watched it, which is why it is being lumped in with this round-up.

watch-true-gritNot so much a remake as a revisit to the Charles Portis source novel of True Grit, the Coen Brothers’ gritty western is an elegiac version of a great story. Shot with washed-out filters in a winter country bled dry of colour, Hailee Steinfeld’s precocious Mattie Ross out for revenge grabs our attention from the opening. She more than admirably holds her own when Jeff Bridges’ grungy portrayal of Rooster Cogburn shows up, larger than life, drinking and shooting his way through the rough justice of the old west.

Ably supported by Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger and a typically colourful cast of Coen grotesques, Bridges cuts through the romanticised vision of the gunfighter to bring us this jaded lawman, still good at heart, but with questionable methods. It made me want to rewatch the 1969 film, a film I remember well from my childhood, for the contrast in approaches to the story.

Dark SkiesNot quite sure why I chose to subject myself to Dark Skies. It came with a slew of bad reviews. I suppose it was part of the unending quest to find a properly scary film, and some aspect of this being about aliens just appealed to me.

As is often the case with low expectations, the film rarely turns out to be as bad as you think it’s going to be.  It’s a competently handled chiller, documenting a family breakdown as much as alien abduction. There many levels where Dark Skies could have worked on a much more sophisticated level as metaphor for the breakdown of the family, and I genuinely think the film-makers were striving for something like that. More time is spent developing the characters than creating scares, which can only be a good thing. Unfortunately, those characters are uniformly mundane, dull everyfolk, in yet another white American suburban middle class home of the kind we have seen far FAR too much of. Instead of trying to reference Spielberg, it would have been far more interesting to make the characters stand out as something other than the target demographic.  There are some quite effective scares and one or two in particular lingered with me after the film and gave me nightmares. So, job done. Shame the film doesn’t have the courage of its convictions and the ending is wholly predictable.

Red FilmWith the sequel hitting cinemas currently, it was time to finally see Red. If only because there are so few fun films these days that succeed as multi-purpose vehicles. In this case, action-comedy with an impressive ensemble cast. John Malkovich and Helen Mirren in particular appear to be having a whale of a time.

This is not a film that needs any sort of in-depth critique. It is comic-book cinema and bundles of fun. Cartoonish and ridiculous with some great music. It is still one of the more original and enjoyable action films of recent years. Much needed after the po-faced Bourne films and the various wannabes that followed (Taken etc…).

At the very least, I have to thank Red for introducing me to the incomparable Calibro 35. Italian jazz-funk-rock in the style of 1970s crime movie soundtracks. This is what all my best dreams should sound like.