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Matthew Honig

"The Master" review

Despite what most critics are saying, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is far from masterful

Oscar season has officially begun with the release of “The Master,” director Paul Thomas Anderson’s hotly anticipated commentary on cultism. Said to be based on L. Ron Hubbard’s founding of the Church of Scientology, “The Master,” while intriguing at its onset, meanders for almost two and a half hours.

The film, set predominately in 1950, follows Joaquin Phoenix as the alcoholic WWII vet Freddy Quell. Quell’s addiction and mental instability prevents him from forming relationships and holding a job—that is, until he meets Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. Dodd, the founding member of a religious group he calls “The Cause,” welcomes Quell as one of his minions in an effort to heal the damaged veteran. What follows is a slew of repetitive scenes in which Dodd oversees Quell undertaking a series of psychological exercises reminiscent of Scientologist “auditing.”

“The Master”’s strongest asset, by far, is its performances.  The role of Quell doesn’t seem like much of a departure from Phoenix’s turbulent personal life. It is truly depressing to watch the character in his recurrent drunken stupor. The manner in which Quell slurs his words, becomes violent, and laughs at inappropriate times renders him one of the most realistic movie drunks in recent history. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman is engaging, as always, in the titular role. The Oscar-winning actor, a regular of PTA’s film catalogue, plays Dodd with a complicated aura of charisma and intimidation. Hoffman’s tension-filled exchanges with Phoenix are the most involving moments of the film. Also doing a fine job is Amy Adams in a performance that’s miles away from her breakthrough part in “Enchanted.” The young actress is undeniably creepy as Dodd’s brainwashed wife, Peggy.

Although “The Master” showcases quality acting from its leads, the film lumbers along at a painfully slow crawl. By comparison, Anderson’s last effort (the nearly three-hour long “There Will Be Blood”) feels fast-paced—however, that picture was propelled by a powerhouse performance by Daniel Day Lewis. Granted, “The Master” is meant to be an in-depth character study and Anderson’s works are known for their “I.V. drip” of plot development. This being said, the dramatic stakes in “The Master” just aren’t very high. The main conflict in the film revolves around whether or not Quell will overcome his personality issues and be officially inducted into The Cause.  After the “The Master”‘s hour-and-a-half mark, Phoenix’s repeated meltdowns and bizzarro therapy sessions become tedious. 

Working in “The Master”’s favor is the fact that the film is beautifully crafted. Anderson’s characteristically long tracking shots are on full display. Furthermore, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack perfectly fits the mood of the film.  But “The Master”’s grand aesthetics don’t make up for its prolonged runtime. Although the film gives rise to some interesting questions about the nature of religious groups and the power relationships within them,  “The Master” is more yawn-inducing than thought-provoking.

"The Dark Knight Rises" review

Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy comes to a disappointing end

After an excessively drawn-out marketing campaign, “The Dark Knight Rises” has finally hit cinemas worldwide. Following the grand reception of “The Dark Knight,” filmmaker Christopher Nolan was faced with the daunting task of following up what is widely considered the quintessential comic book adaptation. The odds were stacked against the acclaimed director, as second sequels seldom reach the heights of their predecessors. “The Dark Knight Rises” turns out to be no exception. Nolan’s newest doesn’t come close to capturing the magic that made the series’ previous entry so special.

The picture begins eight years after the events of  “The Dark Knight.” Gotham City is in peacetime and Bruce Wayne lives reclusively in his manor. Having been blamed for the death of Harvey Dent, Batman has completely dropped off the grid. A need for the hero emerges when a ruthless terrorist named Bane escapes from incarceration and sets out to destroy Gotham. With the help of Commissioner Gordon, Detective John Blake, and a thief named Selina Kyle, Wayne dons the Batsuit once more to protect the people of his community. 

Familiar plot contrivances render “The Dark Knight Rises” a merely so-so superhero flick. Granted, suspension of disbelief is obviously required when reading a comic book or viewing a comic book movie. But a big part of why “The Dark Knight” stood out was its gritty realism—the film was less of a fantasy and more of a crime tale. In contrast, “The Dark Knight Rises” embraces the worn-out conventions of the superhero genre. Even worse, Christopher and brother John Nolan’s screenplay is filled with hokey melodrama.

Still, the film is generally passable in the acting department. Christian Bale has always been sufficient as the caped crusader, yet he was never quite as likeable in the part as Michael Keaton. He can definitely sport the Batsuit and meet the physical demands of the role, but Bale’s voice as Batman comes off too forced. The actor is significantly better in provocative performances, a la his work in “The Fighter” or  “American Psycho.”

Most of the supporting players give their best. Ann Hathaway makes for a sizzling Selina Kyle (known in the comics, of course, as Catwoman). The banter between Kyle and Wayne marks a high point of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Hathaway’s Catwoman is a clever add-on to Nolan’s franchise, as is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake. “The 500 Days of Summer” actor has a juicy role as John Blake, a good-hearted cop who never lost faith in Batman. Rounding out the cast are Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cottillard, and Michael Caine. All of them put on a good show except for Caine, who is in involved in some of the film’s overly emotional moments.

It’s Tom Hardy’s much-hyped portrayal of Bane that turns out to be the film’s biggest strength. Hardy’s take on the baddie is both unsettling and thrilling. Although Heath Ledger’s Joker made for a superior performance, Hardy’s Bane is still a top-notch movie villain. He makes “The Amazing Spiderman”’s foe, The Lizard, look like a total pushover.

As expected, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a polished product. Cinematographer Wally Pfister’s sprawling shots of Gotham City are impressive and Nolan’s team obviously knows how to stage a solid action sequence. The showdowns between Batman and Bane are particularly well done. Still, the film’s technical mastery by no means makes up for its glaring deficiencies in storytelling.

While it’s not a total misfire, “The Dark Knight Rises” doesn’t offer much more than the standard comic book movie. It has plenty of “oohs” and “ahhs,” but the last installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy falls short of a glorious finish. One can only hope that Nolan’s next effort will be a return to form.

'Moonrise Kingdom' review

Director Wes Anderson is back at the top of his game

Very few filmmakers are as divisive as Wes Anderson, the auteur behind such offbeat yarns as The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The director’s newest, Moonrise Kingdom, is his most accessible effort to date. While the film contains all of Anderson’s quirky flourishes, Moonrise Kingdom has a winning charm that distinguishes it from his previous work.

Newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman play Suzy and Sam, two love-struck tweens who run away together on New Penzance (a fictional New England island)  circa 1965. Hot on their heels is a search party consisting of a depressed police captain, Sam’s “Khaki Scout” troop leader, and Suzy’s out of touch parents. What’s worse for the star-crossed lovers, a severe storm is rapidly approaching the island.

Moonrise Kingdom has solid performances across the board. Bruce Willis gives his best turn in recent memory as Captain Sharp, the policeman heading the search expedition. It’s refreshing to see Willis taking on a melancholic, subdued role as opposed to his usual Die Hard shtick. Edward Norton provides many of the film’s laughs as the chain-smoking Scout Master Ward. The Fight Club actor’s goofy facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission. Moonrise Kingdom also features Bill Murray, always an enjoyable screen presence, as Suzy’s father. The SNL vet brings his signature brand of dry humor into the mix. If anything, Moonrise Kingdom needs more Murray.

Although Moonrise Kingdom sees commendable acting from its big stars, it’s Hayward and Gilman who own the show. The chemistry between the leads is more believable than in most adult romances, like the mediocre Magic Mike. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Academy gives these two newcomers a nod come award season.

One of Moonrise Kingdom’s biggest strengths is its fantasy-like approach to a familiar subject matter. The whimsical aspect is cleverly executed and never overbearing. Kingdom has dreamlike elements, yet the characters’ struggles feel very true to life. That being said, the picture examines some serious issues, but never loses hold of its droll spirit. Whereas some of Anderson’s efforts suffer from syrupy plot developments (Tenenbaums and Life Aquatic), Moonrise Kingdom remains tonally consistent.

Moonrise Kingdom isn’t for everyone. As with all of Anderson’s films, the script’s humor couldn’t be more deadpan. Refreshingly, there are no fart jokes or pratfalls to be had here. Also limiting the film’s appeal is its frank depiction of adolescent sexuality, which may have more conservative audiences feeling sick to their stomachs. 

Moonrise Kingdom is a clever little film that supplies more entertainment than the majority of big budget blockbusters. Certainly, many will find Anderson’s unconventional storytelling to be off-putting. But for moviegoers seeking a break from all the summer movie drivel, a trip to Moonrise Kingdom should be in order.

'Prometheus' review

A look at director Ridley Scott’s return to sci-fi.

For the past three years, sci-fi geeks worldwide have speculated about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. After Scott revealed the film was set in the same universe as the Alien saga, internet fan communities buzzed with rumors about the picture’s connection to the lucrative franchise. As expected, the director’s newest does not match the quality of his 1979 entry in the series. Horror movie clichés, plot holes, and hokey philosophizing mar the script, credited to Jon Spaihts and Lost writer Damon Lindelof. Nonetheless, Prometheus is decent sci-fi rife with gross-out scares and spellbinding visual effects.

Noomi Rapace plays Elizabeth Shaw, a tree-hugging archeologist who, in 2089, discovers hieroglyphic evidence for extra terrestrial life. She is convinced that these cave drawings point to a planetary civilization containing answers to the mystery of human creation. Flash forward four years and she is onboard the space vessel Prometheus, preparing to land on said planet. Once the crew is on the ground, it soon becomes clear that Shaw’s journey has taken her to a deadly alien environment. Who would have thought?

Similar to Alien, the first half of Prometheus is propelled by an eerie, gradual buildup of fear. Sadly, Spaihts’ and Lindelof’s storyline devolves into Hollywood predictability. For example, characters have an idiotic sense of judgment a la a B-rate slasher flick. Decisions they make in moments of stress are completely bonkers. The screenwriters attempt to make up for such silliness by throwing grandiose philosophical ponderings into the mix. All of the metaphysical mumbo jumbo further exacerbates Prometheus’ unintentional cheesiness.

With one exception, Prometheus also falls short in the acting department. Unfortunately, Noomi Rapace—who was superb in the Swedish film adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—gives a mediocre turn as Scott’s protagonist. It is a shame that Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw comes off as a typical horror movie heroine. In terms of likeability, she falls far short of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the lead in the original Alien installments. Much to Prometheus’ detriment, Rapace’s acting frequently veers into hackneyed melodrama.

A highlight of the film is Michael Fassbender, who turns in a delightfully menacing performance as David, the spaceship’s resident cyborg. Judging by Fassbender’s acclaimed work in X-Men: First Class, Shame, A Dangerous Method, and now Prometheus, it is clear that he is one of the finest actors working in cinema today. Ironically, Fassbender’s robot is the only role that breathes a little humanity into Prometheus.

Idris Elba, Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce round out the cast. Although these three are quality performers, their characters in Prometheus are undeveloped sci-fi archetypes. Elba is sorely underused as Captain Janek. Recently seen in Snow White and Huntsman and Young Adult, Charlize Theron plays her usual vixen as crew supervisor Meredith Vickers. Even though the Oscar winning actress is satisfactory in the role, it’s a part she takes all too frequently.

In a bizarre casting choice, forty-four year old Guy Pearce portrays the aged CEO of Weyland, the corporation sponsoring Prometheus’ journey. The Memento actor falls victim to the same brand of botched makeup work that plagued Leonardo DiCaprio in last year’s J. Edgar. Unquestionably, Pearce’s character would have been better realized in the hands of an elderly performer.

Despite Prometheus’ contrived storyline, it showcases many of Ridley Scott’s talents as a filmmaker. The British director crafts an all immersive setting in Prometheus just as he did in American Gangster, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and so on. The scale of the film is truly massive. In IMAX 3D, Prometheus’ visual effects and sprawling set pieces are wowing. Never has an extraterrestrial environment looked so real on the silver screen.

Of course, Prometheus would not exist in the Alien universe without sinister ETs. The movie’s monsters, while not as horrifying as Alien’s titular beast, are sufficiently squirm inducing. For audiences seeking nothing more than a fun creature feature, Ridley Scott’s newest is sure to please. While lacking the intelligence and originality of Alien, Prometheus is fine popcorn entertainment. Given the director’s pedigree, it should have been much more.

Men in Black III review

Will Smith’s newest a mixed bag

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones have suited up once again for Men in Black III, director Barry Sonnenfeld’s third installment of the fifteen-year-old science fiction film franchise. After the lukewarm fan response to MIB II and various reports of a plagued production (Etan Cohen’s script, based on a concept Smith came up with himself, underwent extensive rewrites mid-shoot), it seemed that the newest chapter in the series was doomed to suffer from the dreaded “second sequel” syndrome. Thus, it comes as somewhat as a surprise that Men in Black III is not the high budgeted mess that so many anticipated.

The picture opens in the modern day with Boris “The Animal” (Flight of the Concords Jermaine Clement) — a sinister alien with venomous insect-like features — breaking out from a maximum security moon prison. He vows vengeance on his captor, Agent K (Jones), and time travels to 1969 with the intent of killing the younger K (a scene-stealing Josh Brolin). Of course, it’s all up to the smooth-talking Agent J (Smith) to prevent this catastrophic reversal of history.

While Smith brings his usual charisma to the screen as Agent J, a number of his one-liners feel forced and fall flat. The character simply isn’t as fresh or funny as he was in the original MIB. Smith is ultimately overshadowed by Josh Brolin’s young Agent K. Brolin truly does a spot-on impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones, his No Country for Old Men costar. The actor’s welcoming presence makes up for Jones’ absence for much of the film as K senior isn’t given much screen time.

The humanoid Boris, Sonnenfeld’s villain this time around, is a technical marvel but merely comes off as a watered down version of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Edgar, the unforgettable antagonist of the first film. British great Emma Thompson has a humorous supporting part as Agent M, MIB’s new chief of operations, but her role is disappointingly minimal.

Although the time travel plot is relentlessly contrived, MIB 3 is a visual treat. Fans of the series will not be disappointed by the film’s onslaught of colorful space creatures and flashy gadgets. The special effects are even better when viewed in 3D. Men in Black III was shot in 3D and (unlike many recent blockbusters) truly benefits from the added extra dimension. A scene, in which J travels back in time by diving off the top of the Empire State Building is awe inducing as are the various instances of alien thugs getting vaporized into goo.

For the most part, the film stays true to its overtly silly tone but takes an unnecessary sentimental turn at the end that will likely polarize audiences. All of its faults aside, MIB III is an amusing, turn-your-brain-off diversion fit for a Saturday matinee. Sonnenfeld’s second sequel may not be anywhere nearly as clever as the first Men in Black, but there is no denying that the series’ third outing could have turned out far worse.