Two of the most highly anticipated movies of the year got things started at the Venice Film Festival this week. First, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master screened for critics for the first time after a few surprise screenings for fans earlier this week. Later in the weekend Terence Malick’s To the Wonder played to a predictably mixed reaction from those in attendance. Let’s take a look at some of those reviews and see how they will affect the Oscar race, shall we?
The Master – Paul Thomas Anderson
The masterful director of such films as There Will be Blood and Boogie Nights returns from a 5-year absence with a controversial film about a religious cult leader in the 1950s. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the titular “Master” while Joaquin Phoenix stars as one of his early followers. The reception for the movie in Venice seemed to be overwhelmingly positive with almost unanimously kind reviews.
Oliver Lyttleton of The Playlist goes so far as to call Anderson’s latest film his “most distinctive to date.” He showers praise on the three lead performances – Hoffman, Phoenix, and Amy Adams – and sums up his overall feelings nicely:
But perhaps the element that’s lingered the most for us, even above the fantastic performances, is the rhythm of the film. Languid and dreamlike (aided by some sequences that may be flashbacks, may be fantasies, or may even be time travel, if Lancaster is to be believed), it’s as hypnotic as the ‘processing’ that’s central to the Cause, until you’re released blinking and dazed into the daylight once the credits roll.
Guy Lodge of In Contention compares The Master to the holiest of cinematic holies, Citizen Kane. He explains that the films have much the same goal in mind:
Like “Kane,” however, Anderson’s film is a swaggering character study rather than a scabrous attack on an institution, and more far-reaching for it. As played, and brilliantly so, by Hoffman, there’s actually much to like and admire in the generous, persuasive Dodd, who has a lofty vision and fierce self-conviction, but isn’t quite a megalomaniac: “Above all, I am a man,” are the words with which he introduces himself to Quell, and the film leaves unspoken the question of whether he really believes that or not.
Tommaso Tocci of Press Play is equally praise-worthy of the performance and echoes other critics who say The Master betters Anderson’s previous effort:
Quell pathologically refuses progress (yet, sooner or later, everybody has to “pick a spot”…) and seems always well-positioned to disrupt those symmetries, starting with the twisted mess that Phoenix turned his face into for the role. Despite the enormous performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and despite the fact that the story is essentially about two men, Anderson cannot help focusing the film on its central character. There Will Be Blood was a radical departure in Anderson’s career; The Master displays similar scope and weight but has a more ambiguous texture.
Harvey Weinstein must be doing cartwheels right now. The studio chief and master Oscar strategist has been able to sell poorly reviewed films before, but it makes it much easier when the critics are on his side. I absolutely stand by my argument that The Master is the frontrunner for Best Picture and it sounds like Joaquin Phoenix is the man to beat in the Best Actor race. Hoffman and Adams are less sure things for the win, but they should no doubt be able to ride the buzz to a couple of nominations.
To the Wonder – Terence Malick
After the premiere of Terence Malick’s latest film in Venice, it was widely reported on Twitter that the audience reacted to the screening with a mixture of boos and cheers. The reviews for the film seem to reflect that split reaction with critics on both sides of the aisle.
Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter says the film will test Malick’s fans to see how devoted they really are. He thinks the auteur’s unique style doesn’t seem to fit with this movie:
However accomplished Malick’s technique might be in some ways, this mostly comes off, especially in the laborious second hour, as visual doodling without focused thematic goals. Currently without a distributor domestically, this ultimately enervating film will have trouble rustling up audiences in any market.
John Bleasdale of CineVue gives the film 2 out of 5 stars and he his dislike for the film can only be matched by how unimpressed he was with the performances:
The film’s style means that we never get to know the protagonists in anyway that is significant. Characters (such as they are) wander from room to room – or wander around each other – occasionally gazing inappropriately at a cloud or the corner of the skirting board. Kurylenko constantly seems to be ‘expressing herself’ through the medium of dance, like the very worst kind of performance artist.
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian feels quite differently, however. In his 4 out of 5 star review he expresses a fondness for what Malick is attempting:
Just two years after The Tree of Life – hardly more than an eye-blink in terms of his usual production-rate – Terrence Malick has returned with something which could be seen as a B-side or companion piece to that film. It is a bold and often beautiful movie, unfashionably and unironically concerned with love and God, and what will happen to us in the absence of either. To the Wonder does not quite have the mad and magnificent ambition of The Tree of Life, nor a male performance to match Brad Pitt’s in that picture.
Guy Lodge of In Contention also appreciates the film, saying it has very different ambitions than The Tree of Life:
Though Malick’s requisite rolling landscapes and infinite bruise-colored skies are still very much present and correct (Emmanuel Lubezki devotees should prepare for, well, the wonder), it’s the director’s most intimate film since 1978’s “Days of Heaven,” as well as his most gaspingly romantic. If the title “Tree of Life” loftily bracketed a branching journey through mortality and beyond, this is his Tree of Love.
I’m going to wait to pass judgement on this one. The Tree of Life was also greeted with boos and a split reaction when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and it went on to win the Palme d’Or and become a Best Picture nominee. However, based on which critics were giving the positive reviews I have a feeling this will be the type of movie that I fall for a lot more than the Academy.
Other Venice Movies
Rahmin Bahrani’s At Any Price opened to tepid reviews, but one of the film’s stars Dennis Quaid has been getting heaps of praise. Oliver Lyttleton of The Playlist says that this is Bahrani’s most mainstream-feeling film and that Quaid is the absolute highlight:
Fortunately, newcomer Maika Monroe, is a real find as Cadence, and best of all is Dennis Quaid. We always like seeing him on screen, but he’s never had a part like this one, a folksy King Lear (indeed, it’s hard not to spot a little of Quaid’s Bill Clinton from “The Special Relationship” and his Dubya surrogate from “American Dreamz” in the part) whose shallow smile just about masks his fears and his disappointments. The actor is truly the center of the film, and he’s honestly terrific from the first frame to the last.
If the movie makes it to theatres before the end of the year and the Best Actor race is not already too crowded, expect the much loved Quaid to get a nomination from his friends at the Academy.
Another potential wild card in the Best Actor race is Michael Shannon who is due after being snubbed for his performance in Take Shelter last year. Ariel Vroman’s The Iceman features Shannon in the lead role as a mob hitman, a performance which Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gives much praise:
Shannon brings a blank, brutal force to the role and he is very credible: but his story is weirdly opaque. He kills people,, a lot of people, but it’s not leading to any great revelations, and as a hired hand, his story seems to be outside the mob politics that might be more engaging as drama. Yet as a demonstration of the banality of evil, The Iceman is certainly effective and Shannon’s performance gives the film its power.
I don’t expect any sort of Oscar play for this little movie, but Shannon is very good in everything I have seen from him so far, so some people will probably take notice.
Stay tuned for more updates from the Fall festivals as the reviews come in! What do you think of the Oscar chances for the above films?