The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is an uncompromising, rigorous and disciplined work of modernist cinema—a twisty, difficult film which undermines all expectations, keeping the spectator at a critical distance throughout yet continually holding our attention via mesmerizing visuals and knotty moral and ethical conundrums. Gorgeously shot and edited, The Master looks magnificent on the big screen, and the relationship between the film’s two central characters generates a lot of heat – the work on display is about as explosive and compelling as screen acting gets.

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Short Films

Help. I’m looking for a hand full of well-made short films for a class I’m teaching. It’s a three-hour, once a week class which is a new format for me (well, I did it last spring and I don’t think I managed the hours as well as my students might have liked). I need a bag of tricks (any creative exercises you might want to share would also be appreciated).
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Super 8

A spirited, infectiously engrossing homage to Cold War-era creature features, Steven Spielberg, and assorted Amblin Entertainment films from the 1980s, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 generates a crackerjack narrative kick and could very well be the most entertaining popcorn movie of the summer (though I suspect Cowboys and Aliens will give it a good run for it’s money). Much like the creature at it’s center, Abrams has concocted a plot made up of spare parts, skillfully blending elements from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, * batteries not included, The Goonies, and Jaws into a movie which feels organically whole. There is certainly a kind of self-reflexive glee in the way the pieces all come together, which should amuse anyone who grew up in the seventies and eighties, but Super 8 is more than a nostalgia trip. The actors fully commit to the material (the kids are really great), the camera work is nimble and the editing sharp and propulsive, the special-effects are top-notch, and the big emotional moments are well-earned. Trading Spielberg’s SoCal suburbia for a more lived-in, mid-western, rust-belt milieu, Abrams amps up the suspense with each turn of the plot. Stick around for the credits (which includes, I think, a humorous nod to the recent indie hit Paranormal Activity).

The Tree of Life

First, three moments. After jumping back and forth between three distinct periods of time (evoked primarily through architectural signifiers), in which the off-screen death of a secondary character reverberates with a transcendental solemnity, Terence Malick steers the viewer way, way, way back in time, delivering a visually stunning, ontological investigation into the beginnings of life on Earth. After much fire, fluid, flora and fauna, we come across two dinosaurs: one in the foreground collapsed, perhaps dying or maybe only sick; the other towering above in the background, eyeing the vulnerable creature with some interest. The latter approaches and suddenly I’m on the lookout for an objective correlative – maybe one openly referencing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I mean, the guiding principle of the film arrives in voice-over (and has been on a constant media loop since the emergence of what must certainly be the greatest trailer ever made): “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” And so I sat and watched, and I waited, and yet . . . Continue reading The Tree of Life

Top 100 British Films

Time Out London recently posted their top 100 titles generated by an impressive list of industry experts. I had not seen their number one pick – Don’t Look Now – so I thought I’d give it a go via Netflix. Are there any lovers out there, because I didn’t get it. I guess it is a great addition to the neurotic male genre (or maybe the paranoid gothic), but I thought it was a bit silly.

“Pretty soon, your mother will give birth to two children and a dog.”

Giorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth is one strange, nearly inexplicable film – a polymorphously perverse comedy about paranoia and control set in a suburban, Greek enclave which functions as something of 21st century Skinner box with a swimming pool. What unfolds plays out like some weird, cinematic feral child fostered by David Lynch and Pier Paolo Pasolini. In brief, Father and Mother have created a false paradise in their back yard, raising their children (Oldest Daughter, Younger Daughter, and Son) in a space far removed from the chaos of civilization (Father leaves for work on a daily basis as a manager of some sort at an urban factory; occasionally he brings back a female security guard to have sex with his Son). As far as the kids know, however, the world outside their compound is dangerous and taboo, subject to malevolent, killer kitty-cats who destroyed their brother years ago (it is unclear if the brother ever existed but such are the intriguing ambiguities at play in the text). Furthermore, Mother and Father have assigned their own arbitrary meanings to certain words; a zombie is a little yellow flower, a cunt is an overhead lighting instrument, the sea is a comfortable piece of furniture upon which one sits, and so on. Continue reading “Pretty soon, your mother will give birth to two children and a dog.”


A lovesick ex-con. An Ukrainian prostitute. Her unctuous pimp. An eager police officer. His alienated wife. A bank robbery. An accidental shooting. Anger. Guilt. Revenge. Suspense. Deception. Sex, self-loathing, and even some hard-fought redemption. Everything about the first half of this Austrian film, directed with empathy and precision by Götz Spielmann, is undermined by everything that doesn’t happen in the second, and that’s what makes it so damn good (and so fucking scary). As Roger Ebert has written, “Rare is the thriller that is more about the reasons of people instead of the needs of the plot.” Indeed, this is truly a compelling and moving psychological character-study (I’ll even go so far as to describe it as Dostoevskian). I was moved to tears on more than one occasion; there is a scene toward the end, for example, when one character tosses a useless object into a lake just as a whoosh of wind whips across the surface of the water as if smoothing out all that has come before. Was it the luck of the moment or a carefully calibrated cinematic stunt? To be honest, I could give a shit as the moment stuck, worked it’s magic, and left me, if only for a moment, breathless. This movie deserves to be seen.

Un Prophète

This is best film I’ve seen all year and will be released on DVD next Tuesday so I thought I might encourage all to bump it up to the top of your Netflix queue. Jacques Audiard’s film (which was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film this past February) is best described as magical neo-realism and tells the story of Malik, a passive, scared, eighteen-year-old who speaks French and Arabic but has been a ward of the state for so long, he really doesn’t know who or what he is. Serving a six-year prison sentence for assault, Malik’s first days are grim, but he is soon made an offer by the Corsican crime syndicate who runs life behind bars . . . let’s just say it’s an offer he can’t refuse (and one which will change the course of his life in ways not even Malik can fully comprehend). As the days and weeks and months and years accumulate, Malik grapples with issues of loyalty, morality, religion and guilt in a coming-of-age drama which is truly epic in scope. Un Prophète instantly evokes comparisons to Coppola’s The Godfather, Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and Meirelles’ City of God. It really is that good.