Monday, September 24, 2012

New Film: Trouble with the Curve (2012) & The Master (2012)

Robert Lorenz's Trouble with the Curve (2012), from a Randy Brown screenplay, represents Clint Eastwood's first on-camera work since Gran Torino (2008), the multi-hyphenate's final extraordinary entry into the "Dirty Harry" cycle, and the auteur's first role in a film by another director since In the Line of Fire (Wolfgang Petersen, 1993). What emerges, despite Eastwood's lack of credited presence behind the camera, is some of the most personal Hollywood filmmaking of the year, with the actor's long-standing, psychoanalytic preoccupations with estranged father-daughter relationships (True Crime, Million Dollar Baby) and child victimization (A Perfect World, Mystic River) confirming the filmmaker's secret authorship over his former assistant-director's debut. Much more meaningfully, Trouble with the Curve also extends the self-reflexive project of the actor-director's work, with the star's latest explicitly ceding control to a younger generation. Eastwood's sight-impaired Gus Lobel begrudgingly gives his daughter (Amy Adams as Mickey) his keys - only to wreck his vehicle later, in a moment of characteristic self-deprecation - before literally receding into the background of the frame, as Mickey rushes to be with Justin Timberlake's Johnny in the focal foreground. Trouble with the Curve indeed marks a handing over of sorts, to Adams and Timberlake - the latter representing the 'Ice Cube' generation of actors with whom Gus and his fellow scouts needle one of their colleagues - no less than to Lorenz.

Eastwood's withdrawal, however, is by no means unambiguously positive. On the one hand, Adams and Timberlake's chemistry does provide much of Trouble with the Curve's pleasure, whether Johnny is chatting up Mickey beside the chain-link or the beaming couple joins the clogging in a backwoods North Carolina watering hole. On the other hand, Trouble with the Curve is diminished, though not so much for this writer to cancel his recommendation, by Lorenz's direction, which oscillates between the perfunctory and the overly literal (in his point-of-view framings of Gus's deteriorating sight), as well as by Brown's screenplay, with its frequently too-on-point dialogue. Then there is the film's denouement that violently strains credulity, even if its counter to the statistics-driven analysis of Bennett Miller's Moneyball (2011), a film that it should be admitted is superior both on the level of its writing and also in its direction, is both plausible on the microscopic level and also ably integrated into Trouble with the Curve's cliché-riddled narrative.

At this point, it would seem germane to turn to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (2012), which shares not only Adams with the Eastwood film - albeit to lesser effect - but also Philip Seymour Hoffman with another superior Bennett Miller film, the latter's biopic Capote (2005). Here, however, the comparison essentially ends, with Trouble with the Curve's opening scene urination announcing Eastwood's return to a low-brow aesthetic, while The Master declares its significance in not only its title, but in its selection of a 70mm format and even, perversely enough, Joaquin Phoenix's more intellectually respectable masturbatory gestures that take the place of Eastwood's prostate. The last of these sets the tone for the taming of Phoenix's primitive, which all too often Anderson squeezes into standard-issue shot/reverse-shot decoupage - thereby belying the selection of the more expensive and expansive format. Of course, The Master does have its visual moments, whether Phoenix's Freddie Quell is racing over a California field or exploding in an ably chosen static two-shot with his impassive seducer Hoffman in the next cell; it is simply that these passages are more the exception than the rule.

In the end, however, The Master's problem seems perhaps less its ability to sustain visual interest - after all, Trouble with the Curve rarely achieves any, save for its atmospheric Carolina pinewood exteriors and freshly groomed ball-fields - than that there seems to be little beneath its surfaces, behind Phoenix's and Hoffman's scenery-chewing push-and-pull (to Adams and Timberlake's gentle courtship). The Trouble with the Curve is of course predominately what exists beyond the frame, a work that invites if not actually calls its viewer to consider its place in Eastwood's career as both an extension and a new direction. The Master by comparison seems to exist in no world other than those of its characters, who enact a psycho-sexual drama that fails to offer viewers anything meaningful about post-war America or a Scientology faith that Anderson seems far less comfortable criticizing than the Christian fundamentalism of There Will Be Blood (2007). Despite the ambitions of its title, 'the Master' appears to have lost his nerve in what may well be his weakest film of his career.

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