TIFF Review: Room 237

Room 237 (2012, directed by Rodney Ascher)

We've all been there. You're watching a movie and all of a sudden, bang! You get an epiphany about it. Maybe you were trying to figure out why the basement door always seemed to be locked and the knob was red, or why Kevin Spacey held his cigarette funny, and all of a sudden pieces start falling into place and it all makes sense. Or maybe you were talking with your friends after the movie and words tumbled out of your mouth that you didn't even know were there and you found yourself arguing that wait, no, the Gods Below are actually the audience, and it's their suspension of disbelief that needs to be maintained in order to keep them 'asleep' and stop the world/film from being destroyed.

What happens when you start telling your theory and your friends look at you like you're crazy, though? What do you do with your theory? Do you pack it away, or do you look deeper into the movie for more evidence to prove to them that you're right?

A doc about the obsessive/paranoid end of the cinephile spectrum, Room 237 could almost have been subtitled Kubrick Plays Itself. A group of people with very distinct takes on The Shining spin their theories exclusively in voiceover while film clips, mostly from the Shining itself but also drawing heavily from other Kubrick works like 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut as well as a wide range of other films, are used to illustrate the various points they're trying to make. The theories are, to be polite, a bit odd. One person thinks the film is about the Holocaust (cue the American Werewolf in London demon Nazis dream sequence), another about the genocide of native North Americans (cue the crying chief anti-littering ad). A third thinks it's Kubrick's admission that he was involved in faking the moon landing footage (not, the speaker stresses, that he thinks we didn't actually go to the moon. Just that the images we saw on television were faked on a sound stage. Cue the Capricorn One clips.) The impossible architecture of the hotel gets explored, as does the numerology of the rooms and the cars in the parking lot. Much is made of the psycho-sexual composition of the carpets. In fact each theory gets "supported" by a careful textual analysis of background details and apparent continuity errors that of course can't be accidents at all, but must have been deliberately placed there as clues by a mega-genius like Kubrick.

Yes, the film is funny and extremely well put together and the theories are barking mad, but the film does have something to say about the nature of film fandom and film criticism that might just hit a little too close to home for some, a message punctuated by the decision to never have Room 237's theorists appear on camera. Just as the lack of visual detail in a cartoon drawing of a person makes it more universal and easier to identify with, hearing only the voices of the speakers makes it that much easier to put yourself in their shoes. I can remember sending friends a long, detailed email in the lead-up to the release of Scream 3 "proving", beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Dewey was in fact the mastermind behind all the killings. (And I still think that theory would have made a better movie than the pile of shit Ehren Kruger actually gave us.) Really, if you are invested in movies beyond a certain point, you're going to have opinions and theories about specific ones that are, umm, outside the mainstream. The trick is understanding that they are just theories, and not letting yourself become too attached to any of them, because once you fall down that rabbit hole it's hard to find your way back out.

Room 237 is an entertaining and at times unnerving piece of work. It's an absolute must-see, whether you're a fan of Kubrick, the Shining or just of movies in general.

TIFF Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas (2012, directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer)

(Note the credit: Lana and Andy, not just "the Wachowskis". It's fitting, in a way, that this is the movie for which Lana first gets billing under her new name, as Cloud Atlas addresses questions about the nature of human identity, what it means in fact to be 'human', as well as dabbling in themes of persecution and freedom. Now as to how successfully it addresses those themes and questions, well...)

Based on a thought-to-be-unfilmable book, Cloud Atlas tells six disparate stories set in six disparate time periods: a harrowing ocean voyage in the 1800s, a young composer struggling to make a name for himself in the 1930s, an intrepid reporter uncovering a scandal in the 1970s, the comic escapades of an aging publisher in the present day, the education and enlightenment of a cloned worker in Seoul in the 2100s, and a desperate quest for the remains of a lost civilization in the far future. The film hops back and forth between each story, gradually teasing out links between them, while also featuring nearly the same cast of actors in each playing sometimes wildly different roles. The result is not the confusing mishmash it might have been: each story and each time period is clearly distinct from each other in look and feel, and thanks to makeup, language and accent there's never any confusion about who or what you're seeing on screen. That, alone, makes Cloud Atlas an impressive achievement, but there's a lot more going on in it than just some nice plot-juggling. On a certain level it's also a puzzle movie. Each story shows up as a story in the succeeding time period: the young composer, for instance, finds a torn copy of a book that purports to be a journal of that 1800s ocean voyage, while the aging publisher is sent a manuscript presenting the '70s investigation as a crime novel. The entire film is also bookended by an old storyteller entertaining children around a fire. Those touches adds a nice bit of uncertainty to the proceedings, creating a smidge of doubt as to whether the stories are supposed to be 'real' or merely fictions within the larger fiction. There's also a fun game of 'spot the actor' that goes on once you realize how the casting operates, as the roles of some very recognizable faces are not always obvious.

That uncertainty is actually necessary, because unfortunately the film felt just a little too simplified and straight-forward thematically. I hesitate to say it's dumbed-down for a mass audience, but I'm not sure I can be more charitable. When you get down to its core, Cloud Atlas tells us that freedom is good, persecution is bad, and people are people. Well, duh. It isn't enough, for instance, to have Sonmi-451's story in Neo Seoul be one of a "fabricant" and her dawning realization that despite her origins she is as human as someone who came from a womb. No, the futuristic society that created her has to be shown treating her as inhumanely as we treat livestock today, if not worse. And those elements are also reflected in the stories of the young man on the ocean voyage, who befriends a runaway slave and eventually becomes an abolitionist; and in the publisher's imprisonment in an old age home against his will; and the struggles faced by the composer due to his sexual orientation. Such links may help make the movie feel more coherent, but they also make it feel awfully on the nose at times, like it's one story told six different ways as opposed to six different stories. Granted, that is one of the things the film is trying to say, but it doesn't so it with much subtlety.

The other area in which Cloud Atlas feels like something of a let-down is in the performances. Tom Hanks is particularly cringe-worthy in a couple of places, portraying a thuggish "British" author (I'm putting British in quotes because his accent is just excruciating), while neither he nor Halle Berry come across looking good trying to handle a future island dialect that veers dangerously close to Jar-Jar territory. The makeup also isn't up to the herculean tasks set for it. Hugo Weaving is supposed to look comical as the Nurse Rached-like matron at the old age home, but Jim Sturgess looks no more like a Korean resistance fighter than Boris Karloff did an evil Chinese mastermind, and dotting Doona Bae's face with freckles doesn't allow her to pass as the very British wife of the ocean voyager.

The film's strengths more than balance out those missteps though. In terms of cinematography and effects it looks amazing across all six time periods while still always feeling like one movie instead of six different ones, which is even more astounding when you consider the Wachowskis shot three segments and Tykwer shot three using two completely separate crews. The performances are for the most part very good (Jim Broadbent will never let you down, while of the supporting cast Hugh Grant of all people is tremendous) and certainly its themes are worthy ones, even if they get treated a bit shallowly. In fact if I'd compare Cloud Atlas to anything (and I know it's a weird comparison, so bear with me on this) it would be the film that really cemented Hanks as an A-list star, Forrest Gump. The two have nothing in common plot-wise, but both are incredible technical achievements that sell their source material a bit short in order to take a shot at reaching a wider audience. That calculation paid off big-time for Gump, but I'm not convinced it will for Tykwer and the Wachowskis' crazy collaboration. For the record I liked it far more than Zemeckis' facile blockbuster though, and I'm really hoping it does strike the necessary chord with audiences to become a hit.

Whatever flaws Cloud Atlas has, we need more movies with this kind of ambition.

TIFF Review: The Lesser Blessed

The Lesser Blessed (2012, directed by Anita Doron)

As long as kids continue to come of age, there will be coming-of-age stories. No matter what time, place and culture the story's set in, the near-universality of the passage into (or at least towards) adulthood gives an audience an easy hook into a worldview they might not otherwise be able to relate to. You might not be a snot-nosed teen in post-war America, or a young woman finding her place in the world in England in the 1800s, or a troubled boy in '50s Paris, but you can find enough common ground with them to give yourself over to their journeys.

Which is not to say that The Lesser Blessed (the film, at least... I haven't read the book it's based on) is a classic on the level of Catcher In the Rye, or Jane Eyre, or the 400 Blows. But it's unique enough to carve out a little space of its own next to those heavyweights.

Larry is a gawky, withdrawn teenager whose past can be traced in the burn scars all over his body. A member of the Dogrib tribe living in a small town in the Northwest Territories, he seems to wander through his days listening and drumming along to heavy metal, pining after perky blonde Juliet and avoiding getting beaten up by the class bully Darcy. When bad-boy Johnny Beck arrives at school though, putting Darcy in his place and hooking up with Juliet, Larry finds himself drawn out of his shell and forced to confront the demons he's been denying.

While there's nothing terribly original about the basic setup, The Lesser Blessed gets full value out of its northern setting and native heritage. In another time and place Larry might have become a Dogrib medicine man or prophet, but in a 21st century high school he's just an awkward kid prone to dreaming of the bush and making sweetly cryptic, poetic pronouncements. The sense of isolation is palpable; living in a place where there isn't much to do other than drink and get high Larry's options for escape are very limited, and running away means sleeping outdoors and a potentially quick death whether you're prepared for what nature can throw at you or not.

Joel Nathan Evans mostly strikes the right notes as Larry and Benjamin Bratt is solid as the new guy in Larry's mom's life, but it's Kiowa Gordon (yes, one of the Twilight hunks) that makes the biggest impression as Johnny, letting just enough of his pain show through to explain, if not excuse, his behavior.

The Lesser Blessed is aptly named. It isn't the greatest coming-of-age film you'll ever see, but you won't regret seeking it out.

TIFF Review: The Hunt

The Hunt (2012, directed by Thomas Vinterberg)

A kindergarten student gives her favorite teacher and her father's best friend an innocent peck on the lips. He gently scolds her and tries to let her know that the peck was inappropriate. Feeling rejected, she tells an ugly lie to another teacher. From such small seeds are tragedies born.

The Hunt is a frustrating film, which is suspect is exactly the reaction Vinterberg wants from his audience. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen, tremendous as always) is too perfectly nice. A divorced dad whose ex-wife seems to be the one with the issues he struggles to deal with being separated from his son but makes the best of it, and is even just starting a relationship with a woman who works at the school. There's no chance of there being anything dark or sinister in his character. He's clearly an innocent man caught up in a horror show. And watching that horror show unfold makes you want to reach into the screen and shake some sense into all the dumbasses who make it happen. Fear and ignorance spread like wildfire. Even young Klara is able to recognize something isn't right, that what she's inadvertently unleashed needs to be put back down, but even though she tries to tell the "adults" that she made it up no one wants to listen. Her denials are dismissed as an attempt to suppress her memories. Lucas' life is ruined in an instant, as Klara's one little lie turns into a witch hunt and a supposed epidemic of abuse among all the kids in Lucas' charge.

In fact the dominoes seem to fall too neatly as the lie escalates, and critical thinking skills are found to be completely lacking among Lucas' friends and neighbors, but that has to be Vinterberg's point. False accusations and witch hunts happen in real life, and this is more or less exactly how they happen. It's a little too pat in the film, but that just heightens your sense of impotence in the face of the injustice. If it's frustrating to watch it's because human weakness can be frustrating to watch. We should be better than this, and far too often we aren't.

Mikkelsen's ability and willingness to let himself get broken down completely and discover what's at his character's core is on full display, and his performance saves the film. The Hunt feels like a lesser effort from Vinterberg in the end, simply because things are just too black and white, but that's hardly an indictment. Personally, I'll take lesser Vinterberg over peak Haneke any day.

TIFF Review: No One Lives

No One Lives (2012, directed by Ryuhei Kitamura)

Kitamura isn't exactly the most subtle of filmmakers, granted, but when the demented brain behind 2001's Versus unleashes a film on you called No One Lives, you pretty much get locked into certain expectations: a high body count, gruesome kills, and probably a certain amount of cheekiness with regard to the whole enterprise.

I am happy to report that No One Lives meets all those expectations in spades.

The film opens with a couple moving to a new city, hauling a trailer behind their car and looking for a place to stop for the night. There's something off about their relationship though, something disconcerting that you can't quite put your finger on. When they cross paths with a gang of robbers whose mad-dog member just killed a couple of people during a heist gone wrong, bad things happening seem pretty much inevitable. How bad though, and who they happen to... well, that would be telling.

This is a movie you need to have some faith in. I'm not going to mince words: the dialogue in No One Lives is stilted, awkward and cringe-worthy. Even actors who are known to have some pretty decent chops, such as Luke Evans and Lee Tergesen, aren't able to do anything with it. Through the first 10-15 minutes of the film you're going to wonder what the hell you've gotten yourself into. Then The Scene happens, and all that doubt will disappear and you'll know exactly what you've gotten yourself into - a film that is genuflecting at the altar of '70s horror, both American and Italian. The Scene is... I can't even. Suffice it to say there's a couple of kills that kick the plot into gear, and then a thing happens that is so perfectly over-the-top and awesome and gross and spectacular that it just sweeps you along in its bloody wake. You can't prepare yourself for The Scene, and you wouldn't want to. If anyone tries to spoil it for you just shoot them in the face, for the good of all humanity.

The rest of the movie is a cat and mouse game, if the cat and mouse are both heavily armed and deeply disturbed sadists. None of the remaining violence and mayhem rises quite to the level of The Scene, but it doesn't need to. There are guns and explosions and wood chippers and shower curtains a-plenty for the rest of the cast to get massacred with, and there's a tremendous slow reveal in flashback of just how sick the sickest of the sickos in this movie really is that adds the perfect depraved accents to the proceedings. And just for fun, No One Lives also features the back half of one of the greatest synchronicities/links in Midnight Madness history: one night after Seven Psychopaths has as a not-insignificant plot point multiple slashed throats, No One Lives sees said sickest of the sickos (say that five times fast...) giving a lesson in how to keep someone alive after their throat's been slashed.

No One Lives is pure, unashamed modern grindhouse, with all that that implies. Don't say you weren't warned.

TIFF Review: Rust and Bone

Rust and Bone (2012, directed by Jacques Audiard)

I freely admit it- I'm a sucker for melodrama. From Douglas Sirk to My So-Called Life to Carlos Siguion-Reyna, if the emotions portrayed on screen are inflated you're probably going to hook me in at least a little. The trick with the melodramatic style, of course, is walking that fine line between exaggerated and grotesque, between engaging and campy. Get it right and you generate tears in your audience; get it wrong, and the results is eye rolls.

Rust and Bone is a film where you'll probably want to bring a lot of kleenex along with you.
Ali (Bullhead's Matthias Schoenaerts) is a single dad who's taken his son away from his mother, giving dark hints that the boy was being used as a drug mule. He's no saint himself though, stealing food on a train and a camera in town to keep the duo going until they get to the home of the sister he hasn't seen in years. Anna and her husband take them in, but Ali has trouble holding up his end of the bargain. He's a fairly negligent dad, preferring to bang chicks at the gym rather than pick Sam up at school. He briefly lands a job as a bouncer due to his boxing background and, while breaking up a fight, meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), an orca trainer at a nearby Seaworld-style amusement park. Stephanie has issues of her own, and while there are sparks at their first meeting nothing much comes of it.

Then Stephanie has an accident and loses both of her legs at the knee. As she tries to rebuild her life she reaches out to Ali, who by this time is knocking out teeth in backyard brawls as a French Kimbo Slice. Without even really knowing why, he lets her in, and a rough, cautious romance starts to bloom.

One of the most amazing things about Rust and Bone, for me, is the way Audiard fuses old school Hollywood melodrama with modern filmmaking. The basic setup is essentially An Affair To Remember, only Cary Grant has been replaced by Kirk Douglas from Champion, but there is nothing retro about this movie in large part due to the two outstanding leads. Cotillard is her usual magnificent self, with pain and the will to survive dancing in her eyes and across her face like shadows, but Scheonaerts is no second fiddle. His Ali is exactly the self-centered man-child you expect and yet he manages to invest Ali with a surprising innocence. When Ali hurts the people in his life he does so out of ignorance and carelessness, not malice. And the mirroring of Ali's unintentional efforts to help Stephanie find herself again with her own very intentional efforts to help him grow up give their relationship incredible depth.

The other element that makes that relationship so interesting, of course, is Stephanie's disability. This is the single best depiction of a person handling the loss of their limbs I have ever seen on screen. Granted, it's not a subject that comes up much in movies, but between the absolutely seamless digital effects used to remove her lower legs (or, eventually, replace them with prosthetics) and Cotillard's total investment in a character struggling to deal with her new physical reality and prove to herself that she is still intact and whole, Rust and Bone is a spectacular triumph just for that one achievement alone. It's the kind of showy role that would normally seem like total Oscar-bait, but Cotillard's performance is as far from, say, Pacino's cartoonish scenery-chewing in Scent of a Woman as it's possible to get. Stephanie's journey through her personal crucible feels achingly real, and the moment when she finally regains herself - ludicrously and gloriously punctuated by Katy Perry's Fireworks - is as uplifting a scene as you will see in any movie this year, and probably this decade.

Of course Stephanie's journey is only half the movie and Ali's crucible is just as hellish as hers, although for different reasons. But Schoenaerts' desperate despair is just as compelling as Cotillard's when he hits bottom, and his own rebirth just as believable. Throw around all the young Brando comparisons you want with regard to this performance; Schoenaerts earns them all with an intensity and physicality maybe only matched in recent years by Tom Hardy in Bronson or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin.

Rust and Bone manages to tell a larger-than-life story with all the trappings of classic melodrama in a grounded, realistic way, and the result is simply magic. Find it, watch it, and have a good cry. You won't regret it.

TIFF Review: Tai Chi Zero

Tai Chi Zero (2012, directed by Stephen Fung)

This movie is... well, there's... it just... I mean, fuck.

I don't want to simply rehash the tweet I sent out right after seeing it, but it's really the best description I've got. Tai Chi Zero is the crazy, crazy baby of Kung Fu Hustle and Scott Pilgrim. Ostensibly it's a Chinese historical epic about Yang Lu Chan, the man who popularized tai chi, and tells the standard tale of his quest to learn the secrets of the style and master them, but at the same time it's a batshit, steampunk-infused story of good versus evil, tradition versus progress, and xenophobia versus inclusiveness delivered along with a visual maelstrom of comic book elements. Yes, I said steampunk. Chinese steampunk. Deal with it.

This is most giddily ridiculous film I've seen in a long time. It feels like almost every frame gets jazzed up with something. I suppose it's become a bit old hat to superimpose a credit when a character appears on screen for the first time, but when have you seen superimposed credits that list not only the character and the actor playing them, but also why the actor is in the film? (For example, the actress who plays Sister Mahjongg apparently coached the 2008 Italian Olympic Wushu team. I looked it up - they scored a silver. Good job, Sister Mahjongg!) When tai chi techniques get used, charts pop up showing you the appropriate foot placement and movements so, I guess, you can practice them yourself. And when our hero finally arrives at the tiny mountain village that's the home of the fabled tai chi practitioners, a handy legend appears denoting what all the buildings are, and even helpfully points out a flagpole. It's hilarious, and absurd, and awesome.

The fighting is fantastic, no surprise when you have a cast of Olympic coaches and '70s martial arts film legends and whatnot. Fung shows it in small doses though and is liberal with the wire work and effects, sometimes putting them to the most ridiculous uses. 2008 Olympic Wushu overall champion (hmm, 2008 must have been a good year for wushu) Yuan Ziaochao makes his film debut in the lead, and plays Yang Lu Chan as, well, as an idiot. Half his dialogue seems to be him saying "What the hell?" at stuff that really shouldn't require that much explanation. He's great at it though, giving Chan a naivete and optimism that carries him through when his intellect and martial arts prowess fail him. If Jackie has an heir this is probably him: Yuan seems to have a clear gift for comedy along with his fighting chops. And Hong Kong model/actress Angelababy shines as Chan's main foil and inevitable love interest (sort of), the daughter of the legendary tai chi master Chen, who is played with gruff but lovable charm by Tony Leung Ka Fai.

There are two really awful things about seeing Tai Chi Zero though. One, it's only the first half of the story. Tai Chi Hero is still apparently in post-production, so the plot just stops dead at the end of the movie and it's kind of cruel because there's about to be a big wedding and everything and I want to see how it ends right the hell now now NOW. They do throw a trailer for Tai Chi Hero in the credits though, so that's something. Peter Stormare even shows up in it, because why not. Also, in China they get to see this insane thing in Imax 3D, while we were stuck with a 2D print over here. Given what Fung does with the other technical elements of the film I can only imagine what his mad genius did with the 3D.

Look, Tai Chi Zero has major pacing problems and the music could be better and the English dialogue is of course stilted, but you won't care. You simply won't care. It's too awesome.

It's just... ridiculous. Stupid, and ridiculous, and an assload of fun.

TIFF Review: Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths (2012, directed by Martin McDonagh)

Once upon a time in the land of Hollywood, after the usurper king Quentin the Loquacious had unleashed Pulp Fiction on the world, a host of lesser talents tried to make star-studded ensemble crime comedy/drama/thrillers with titles like Six Heads and Two Days in Duffel Bag Valley While You're Dead in order to carve out their own little fiefdoms. They were pretty much uniformly terrible, and mostly disappeared without leaving much of a trace in the collective unconscious aside from a vague sense of nausea at the thought of ever watching another hackneyed star-studded ensemble crime comedy/drama/thriller again.

So, naturally, the demented mind behind In Bruges decided to make his next film a star-studded ensemble crime comedy/drama/thriller. Only McDonagh made it mostly a comedy, and a meta-comedy making fun of star-studded ensemble crime comedy/drama/thrillers at that, and that decision pretty much saves the film.

Now, that's not to say Seven Psychopaths is a great film, or really even a very good film. The "plot" involves a drunken sot of a screenwriter named, ahem, Martin (played with his usual slightly ditzy charm by Colin Farrell) who's trying to write a movie called, ahem, Seven Psychopaths but is having trouble finishing it because he's kind of sick of writing about violence and death and just wants to know why the psychopaths can't talk through their differences instead of resorting to gunfire and bloodshed. His best friend Billy Bickle (a perfectly loopy Sam Rockwell), who wants to co-write the script with him, keeps trying to push him forward by pointing him towards some real-life psychos including a masked lunatic who kills only mid- to high-level members of the Italian mafia or the yakuza, a man who grew weary of being part of a Bonnie and Clyde-meets-Dexter couple who killed serial killers (Tom Waits in a fantastic little extended cameo) and a Quaker who torments the man who murdered his daughter into committing suicide and then follows him to hell by slitting his own throat. I imagine you've spotted a pattern there. Billy is in the dognapping business with Hans (Christopher Walker being, well, himself), but they run afoul of the head of the crime family (an over-the-top Woody Harrelson) Psychopath #1 has been targeting when they take his dog by mistake. Paths cross, mayhem ensues, bodies pile up etc etc etc.

If that sounds like a dumbed-down Adaptation, well, it kinda is, right down to Billy's insistence on getting "his ending". But Seven Psychopaths manages to carve out an identity of its own, so that the similarities don't make it seem like a retread. McDonagh, as with In Bruges, has written some crackling dialogue and handed it over to a cast that knows what to do with it, so even if the story doesn't really go anywhere and the big reveals get telegraphed from a mile away the movie still plenty entertaining enough to carry you past all the rough edges and slow spots.

I feel like I should dismount with some sort of labored "seven psychopaths out of 10!" closing line here, but honestly it wouldn't rate more than six and a half. Whatever. Seven Psychopaths is an entertaining, amusing time waster - no more, no less.

TIFF Review: The Master

The Master (2012, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)

Oh boy.

This was, by far, the film I was most looking forward to at this year's TIFF. Paul Thomas Anderson has never made a bad film - hell, the man's never made anything less than a great film. And given what the film was, given that it supposedly did to L. Ron Hubbard what Citizen Kane did to William Randolph Hearst, given that PTA shot it in 70 mm, there was simply no way I was missing it. Eris, in her finite capricious wisdom, even graced me with a ticket to the public premiere at the relatively glorious Princess of Wales, a space normally reserved for live theater that only shows movies during the film festival.

On the surface, The Master is everything you would want and expect from a PTA film. It looks exquisite, moving from a blue ocean churning behind a ship to the Arizona desert and making everything look glorious. It does as fantastic a job of recreating the early '50s as Boogie Nights did of recreating the '70s and early '80s. The performances are uniformly outstanding, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman firing off what will probably be acclaimed an Oscar-worthy turn as the charismatic, insecure charlatan/guru (those two have always been opposite sides of the same coin) Lancaster Dodd, Joaquin Phoenix tearing into his role as Freddy, the immovable object to Hoffman's irresistible force, and Amy Adams matching those two blow for blow as Peggy, the power behind Hoffman's throne (and Amy, if you're reading this: you need to do Lady MacBeth. Like, right now. I will pay any price, airfare included, to sit in the audience and watch you perform the Damned Spot monologue on stage.)

And yet... when the screen cut finally to black, I did not have that immediate "OMG that was the greatest thing I'd ever seen" reaction I've gotten from just about every other PTA movie. In fact, I was left wondering what the point of it all was. The Master is a film about unenlightened people making a show of striving for enlightenment, so while that creates an opportunity for some acting fireworks it results in none of them really having any kind of character arc. Hoffman ends the film in the same place he started it, offering freedom to the weak while slowly putting them in chains. Adams is still the same driven woman she was at the beginning, equal parts dutiful wife and puppet master. And Phoenix... his Freddy is everything Hoffman's "Cause" decries, a laughing, fucking, drunken monkey of a man who cares nothing for bettering himself. All he really learns, by the end, is how to mimic Hoffman's attempts to indoctrinate him and turn them into a juvenile sex game.

Don't get me wrong. There's a lot going on in The Master, on the surface and below it. The film does a solid job of filling in the early history of Scientology under a thin veneer of fictionalization, while the interplay between Freddy, Lancaster and Peggy so obviously represents the relationship between id, ego and superego that the Freudian... Christ, I can't even really call it 'subtext' since it's so transparent - that Freudian reading supplies a bigger fuck you to Hubbard and his legacy than anything in the actual plot of the film. Like I said, every individual part of the film, looked at in isolation, has no obvious flaws. And yet... and yet.

Maybe it's that lack of character development that creates a distance that I've never felt before in a PTA film. There was no emotional distance between me and Daniel Plainsview or Dirk Diggler. Maybe it was the lack of big moments that left me feeling wanting. There are no pudding-fueled trips to Hawaii in The Master, no rains of frogs. Nobody gets beaten to death with a bowling pin. All we get that comes close is a jailhouse shouting match. Or maybe it was the curious divide between Phoenix's overtly Method-driven style of acting, rooted so strongly in his physicality from his clenched jaw to the apparent chronic back condition that seemed to inform his movements, and Hoffman and Adams' more organic styles that prevented me from connecting fully with the movie. All I know is that when the credits started rolling, I felt the space between myself and the screen very, very keenly. I felt like I'd been lectured at, not engaged.

The Master is a film that will most likely be acclaimed as great, and I don't really have a problem with that. This isn't some banal Ron Howard piece of shit Oscar bait that folks will gush over because it's non-threatening. But, barring some big epiphany striking me, this is going to be the Paul Thomas Anderson film I revisit the least down the road.

TIFF Review: Dredd 3D

Dredd 3D (2012, directed by Peter Travis)

This is probably the single most faithful comic book adaptation to ever hit the big screen.

Now, let me be clear here: I don't think it's the greatest comic book movie ever made. That title is clearly reserved for either Dark Knight or Scott Pilgrim, or possibly A History of Violence, and there are a bunch of others (X2, for instance) I'd stack above Dredd too, but in terms of being true to its origins nothing adapted so far has come within a mile of Dredd. This film is exactly what a movie based on your old 2000AD issues should be, and I genuinely can't conceive of a Judge Dredd movie ever being any better than this.

The quick and dirty for anyone unfamiliar with the character (and by 'unfamiliar' I mean 'have only seen that abortion of a Stallone movie'): in a future America mostly destroyed by nuclear war, a small part of the Eastern Seaboard is still inhabited, with the people living in one giant metropolitan area called Mega City One. This being a dystopia, the city is a chaotic cesspool of crime and sin, and the law is represented by Judges who have the authority to arrest, try and convict criminals on the spot. The baddest of these badasses is Judge Dredd, which makes sense given his name.

In short, Dredd the character is a fascist wet dream. And what makes Dredd 3D so nearly perfect is that it embraces that idea down to its very core. The film saddles him with a psychic rookie Judge (played by a spunky and steely Olivia Thirly) who's in danger of washing out of the force, and by seeing Dredd through her eyes while he teaches her how to be an 'effective' Judge the movie effortlessly sucks you into its worldview. It quickly becomes very easy to root for Dredd, even though by any rational standard his very existence should be horrific. Dredd, as a character, is a wrong house drug raid that kills your dog and trashes your stuff taken to its logical extreme. Dredd is the living embodiment of the bureaucratic nightmare that's the real villain in Brazil, and yet you cheer for him because he wears cool gear, has an awesome gun and has good tough-guy lines, and because Karl Urban (the man behind the face shield) knows what makes him tick and does a great near-Clint Eastwood impression for Dredd's voice. In fact based on his work here, Urban's now joined my Preacher dream cast as the Saint of Killers.

Plot-wise there's little here you haven't seen before, and recently. Once you get past the setup the movie is essentially a sci-fi version of the Raid, right down to the architecture of the building. But you know what? It doesn't really matter whether this is another case of 'parallel projects intersecting' or whether Alex Garland saw a good idea he could run with. Dredd still feels like its own thing, still feels like it was ripped out of those 2000AD back issues, and that's what matters here. Dredd and the rookie get called in to a megablock to investigate three drug-related murders, the gang in control of the block lock the whole thing down so they can't escape with a prisoner who knows too much, and the two Judges have to fight their way up to escape. Cue the ultraviolence. Lots and lots of ultraviolence.

There's almost nothing bad I can say about this movie. The effects are great, the slo-mo camera work on the drug trips is great (they didn't bring in Antichrist's DoP for nothing), Lena Headey is terrifically vicious as the gang leader, the 3D is effective, Dredd doesn't talk too much and has no romantic interest whatsoever in his cute rookie partner... it gets everything right. My only nitpick is that the aerial establishing shots of Mega City One look too much like modern highways and traffic patterns just cobbled together. That's literally the only thing I found to complain about.

Having said all that... Dredd still isn't a great film. It's just about perfect, but its ambitions are small and limited by that same source material it gets so, so right. I mean, let's be honest here. I like Judge Dredd, but he's not exactly one of the greatest or most complex characters in comics history. But that's fine. No one's going to walk into Dredd expecting an Oscar winner. They're going to walk in expecting a guy to shoot and blow up a fuckload of skeevs and wastoids, and see only the lower half of his face while he does it, that's exactly what they're going to get.