by Craig Thomas
Let’s be clear. This is not a film about Scientology. Joaquin Phoenix does not play a troubled Second World War veteran who starts a long relationship with Scientology after a chance encounter with L. Ron Hubbard. And Philip Seymour Hoffman does not play L. Ron Hubbard. With that out of the way let me explain a bit about this film.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled Second World War veteran (Freddie Quell) who, after a chance encounter with author and leader of the burgeoning religious cult The Cause, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has all sorts of beliefs about past lives and trapped souls and curing leukemia through “anti-hypnosis” (which, as is pointed out, seems an awful lot like hypnosis). He is also a terrible writer, with an uncanny ability to “discover” truths about the very essence of existence.
And that makes it sound far more exciting than it actually is.
Almost nothing of note happens in the entire film. No-one changes, no-one grows or learns anything. It’s the story of two troubled men who are just as troubled at the end as at the beginning, which is not surprising as nothing really happens to either of them. One is protected from the world by moonshine, the other by a fawning, downtrodden following. But perhaps that is the point. If so, I struggle to understand why it took nearly two and a half hours to say so. Indeed, it takes a good half hour or so before Dodd even appears, all of which is spent watching Freddie Quell running around being troubled.
At this point I should point out that I am not Armond White. I do not believe that the collected works of Paul W. S. Anderson (including the entire Resident Evil series and two AvP films) have more to offer to the medium of film than Paul Thomas Anderson. In fact, I find the work of the former to be trash and found There Will Be Blood to be a fine film, in the best sense. I was looking forward to this.
So it brings me no pleasure to write such a scathing review. I went with two friends, both of whom also hated it. In fact, I was the most forgiving, which I suspect, was due to having been the only one of us to suffer through The Tree of Life in its entirety. So if you liked that, then you will probably love this.
Let’s try to find some positives.
First of all, it is well put together, with some nice sequences and tracking shots. It had a nice gloss and looked authentically like the 1950s (or at least, what I imagine the 1950s to have looked like). It has a couple of beautiful shots of the sea and there is a lovely setup in a prison sequence.
Then there was the acting. Joaquin Phoenix puts in a great physical performance playing a troubled veteran with a number of war wounds, both physical and psychological. However, for a significant portion of the film I could not see the character as much more than Phoenix acting (what is commonly known in the industry as Ben Affleck Syndrome), even if it was good acting. As the film progressed I became less conscious of this, which may have been little more than indifference caused by increasing levels of boredom watching him walk back and fore across a room for 15 minutes, touching the wall, then touching the window.
Stealing every scene he was in and by far the best thing about this film was the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as cult leader, Dodd. He was outstanding in every scene and certainly deserves an Oscar nomination, at least. Personally, I would put him in the Best Actor category, as opposed to Best Supporting Actor, though there might be some debate about that. I’d even go so far as to say a second statuette for the hugely talented actor would be well deserved. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Phoenix got a nomination as well, though I am not entirely convinced by his performance.
Another person who should definitely get a nod (this time in the Best Supporting Actress category), and who was by far the biggest (pleasant) surprise of the film was Amy Adams playing Dodd’s long-struggling, yet ideologically committed and articulate wife, Peggy. Having seen her in little more than films for children (Enchanted) and those with large amounts of black humour (Sunshine Cleaning) I was surprised to see her take on such a heavy role and even more so when she delivered a pitch-perfect performance. Though she has very much on the periphery, she has a number of key scenes in which she has an oppertunity to do something and in each she matches Hoffman. A win for her would not be undeserved.
Well, that’s quite enough of that.
There has been a lot of good things said about this film (as opposed specifically for the actors) and for the life of me I can’t see why. I attribute part of this to the cult that surrounds Paul Thomas Anderson, as it does with most famous and highly talented film-makers. People want to like it so talk it up. Another reason might be the similarities with Scientology (which it is definitely not about), but if anything this simply detracts from the film itself and adds to the mundane nature of the thing. If it’s anything else, I can’t see it. But perhaps that is the point, perhaps I just don’t “get it”. But I think I did, just as I’m pretty sure I “got” The Tree of Life.
I just didn’t like it.
I never walk out of films, and I didn’t walk out of this one, but the thought seriously crossed my mind, which was one of the first moments I realized I really didn’t like it, despite my best efforts to do so. I also found myself wishing that it was a documentary on Scientology, which would have been far more interesting.
In the end, this films fails to satisfy. It is not a exposé of Scientology (for legal reasons as much as anything else), nor is a particularly good film, though it was clearly made by a good film-maker. By the end I didn’t learn anything about anything, nor did I feel anything other than relief it was all over.
Yet technically, it was well made and some of the performances (particularly Hoffman and Adams) were terrific. I can only imagine how powerful their performances would have been, had this been a better (or even a good) film. As it is, I would struggle to recommend watching it for their performances alone because everything else is just so dull.
This is a hard film to rate, but in the end I think everything balances itself out, just about.
by Steve Habrat
Over the course of the next few days, I will be listing off the 25 films that have scared the hell out of me. This is not a definitive list of the scariest films ever made but rather recommendations of films that I think will spook you. Feel free to comment on this and let me know which films scare you. Let the terror begin!
25.) The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
In the opening moments of this silent film chiller, a man explores the underground tunnels of a Paris opera house. He is alone in the dark and armed with nothing but a lantern. The camera remains stationary in front of him so we only get to see his reactions. Keep in mind there is absolutely no sound. All of a sudden, he sees someone or something. Not anything or anyone he recognizes. We the audience are not permitted to catch a glimpse. Judging by his reaction, I do not think we want to. This is the magic of the crown jewel of the Universal Movie Monsters heap. We are not assisted by the luxury of sound effects. Our brain fills in the horrors for us and sometimes that can be the most effective way to send an icy chill down your spine. While many of you probably are familiar with Lon Chaney’s legendary hellish phantom and you do not even realize it, he plays the phantom like he may never have had the chance to star in anything ever again. And it also features a breathtaking sequence in color (gasp!). This is a truly unforgettable epic that mesmerizes and horrifies.
24.) The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
Many have expressed their disapproval at this remake of the 1977 Wes Craven classic of the same title. But in a rare case, French director Alexandre Aja actually improves upon it. And it refuses to play nice. Vile, upsetting, disgusting and downright repulsive, it hits the ground running and barrels at you without slowing down. The opening sequence and credits are enough to give you nightmares for a week and all it consists of is a few scientists in HAZMAT suits testing radiation who meet a grisly end. This is followed closely by lots of stock footage of atomic bomb tests. Following a family who ends up getting trapped in the hills of New Mexico and who begin getting terrorized by colony of mutant miners who were subjected to radiation from bombs set of by the US government may not sound all the brutal, but trust me, do not enter lightly. It’s an unapologetic and unflinching little movie. About half way through the film explodes like a ticking time bomb and it’s incredible to me that this avoided an NC-17 rating. Oh, and I should tell you that the family has a newborn baby with them. And the mutants kidnap the child and plan on eating it. Start covering your eyes and chewing off your fingernails now. Not for the faint of heart.
23.) Inland Empire (2006)
What’s it about? I couldn’t tell you. What’s the underlying message? Beats me. What’s the point? The point is that it scares the living hell out of you and it’s impossible to know why. David Lynch’s three-hour grainy epic that appears to be about a remake of a film that was cursed blurs the lines of what is real and what is a nightmare. Half way through you will give up trying to follow it but you will not be able to avoid it’s icy glare. The trailer alone will have goose bumps running up and down your arms. What elevates it is Lynch’s use of surreal imagery. There truthfully should not be anything particularly scary about it, but there is. Through his use of close ups, every single character takes on the look of a deformed specter that is staring right into your soul. And wait for one particular image of a deformed face that, in my opinion, is one of the most disturbing images I have ever seen on film. I understand that the film may frustrate you on what is actually happening and what isn’t, but I can assure you that that is exactly what Lynch is going for. To drive you mad.
22.) The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
Have you ever had someone tell you about his or her encounter with something paranormal? I would guess that while they are telling the story, your imagination was busy bringing their story to life. The story was creepy because you were not there but you believe this person is telling you the truth. Plus, your imagination has filled in what took place. Long after they have told you the story, it still plays in your brain like it was your own experience. That is kind of what The Mothman Prophecies is like. And it’s based on true events that happened in the late 60s. Through the strong performances by Richard Gere, Debra Messing, and Laura Linney, they make you feel every ounce of their confusion, frustration, horror, and weariness that is brought on from the events take place throughout the film. Centering on the sightings of an otherworldly winged creature with “two red eyes” in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, the film has an unshakeable sense of doom woven throughout. We are constantly left with some strange account that leaves us gripping our seats or a notion that something truly horrifying is lurking just around the corner. Pay close attention to the details in this one. It’s what doesn’t jump right out at you that is actually the creepiest. The Mothman is everywhere even if we never really get a good glimpse. But it’s like your reaction to your friend’s paranormal experience, you do not know, but you can imagine.
21.) Repulsion (1965)
Going mad has never been this unsettling. Roman Polanski’s portrait of a young woman (played by the gorgeous Catherine Denuve) who is seemingly losing her mind after her mother goes away for a weekend is all the more surreal because we cannot pin point the reason why. She is so normal! Turning an apartment into a claustrophobic living nightmare, the film makes exceptional use of space. Polanski makes the audience actually feel the walls closing in. And when someone knocks on her door, talk about tense! What truly makes Repulsion work is that it is a patient horror film. One that is all the more unsettling because this could be happening a few doors down in your apartment complex or just a few houses down. And to such a lovely woman at that! It’s a shame that Polanski’s other horror film, Rosemary’s Baby, overshadows that gem. Through it’s gritty scope and enclosed spaces, after seeing it you may want to evaluate your own sanity, go stand in an open field for a couple of hours, and you’ll never want to eat vegetables again.
Drop by tomorrow for more of the films that have scared the shit out of me. You know you’re intrigued and the terror has hypnotized you. And feel free to let us know what horror films scare you. Also, if you have not voted in our tiebreaker poll yet, Click Here to do so.