Tragedy and Disasters

I watched a ton of screeners this week, so I would be prepared to vote in the SAG awards, which take place this week. As I've no doubt mentioned in previous years, the majority of films up for awards seem to be quite depressing and this year is no different. We have the Impossible, about a family caught in the 2004 tsunami, Rust and Bone, about an accident involving a killer whale and her trainer, the Sessions, which is about a man who has polio and is in an iron lung, which is causing some people to treat him as not quite human, the Master, which seems to be one man's quest to put every inappropriate liquid under the sun in his body, and Hitchcock, which is about obsession and not getting your needs met. On the plus side we have the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which could have been depressing but was a lot of fun, despite some tragic moments. Argo also could have been massively depressing, given its grim subject matter but it was handled with a deft touch and, while very suspenseful, was not heartbreaking.

The Master was baffling to me. It's about two men, one of whom is a cult leader called Lancaster Dodd, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and a drifter/sailor who has some deep psychic wounds. The drifter, called Freddie Quell and played by Joaquin Phoenix, who I absolutely did not recognize, has a knack for creating new and different kinds of drinks, but they are made with awful, awful ingredients. He fixes a special drink for Dodd made from canned peaches and pain thinner and at one point makes something so toxic it poisons someone who doesn't “drink it smart.”

Freddie is looking to fill a lack, which may or may not be from brain damage he sustained from drinking I don't know, jet fuel or something. Or it could be from his extreme family problems, which he explores while working for Dodd, who puts him through a series of mental exercises called Processing. This procedure is supposed to heal past traumas, of which Freddie has plenty. There is some fine acting in the Master, especially from Mr. Phoenix, who will probably have a sore back for the rest of his life after playing Freddie, who never stands up straight, but I came away confused and unsure of the theme or the message. Maybe I need some Processing of my own to help me get over seeing the film?

The Impossible is set in Thailand and has some absolutely beautiful shots of the ocean, beach and other scenery. It also has some of the most painful scenes of injury I've ever seen, to the point I had to pretend I was watching a zombie movie because I couldn't look at the screen without cringing. The film begins with a family of five, three sons, a mother who is a doctor and a father who does something I never quite understood, going on vacation in Thailand. They aren't there long before the tsunami hits, beginning a series of horrifying images. (Because this movie is based on real events, I had a very hard time watching. I knew how hard hit the entire area was, how there wasn't enough clean water or medications, and I knew that even if there were survivors they were not going to have to get through only a few hours before rescue, they were going to be in trouble for a long time.)

The dad is in the pool with the two younger boys when the wall of water crashes down on them. He stands facing the water, one boy under each arm, terrifying this viewer. Mom crouches in front of a wall of glass, calling to the oldest boy to dive into the water, which is great advice when dealing with regular waves but is kind of like jumping the last second before an elevator crashes, ie not terribly effective. Mom and the oldest son soon surface and struggle to reach each other, flailing through the rushing water and frequently being submerged completely. Mom is carried by the water into some appalling hazards, including the spiky trunk of a tree that impales her chest, and finally emerges from the water so battered and bruised that her son can't look at her. He is covered in abrasions himself, but luckily for them both is in better shape and is able to help them both get to a safer spot, after an almost unendurable series of shots of the two of them in terrible pain, pressed to the limits of their abilities.

The cast is excellent, especially Tom Holland, who plays Lucas, the oldest son. He carries a great deal of the film and never misses a step. Naomi Watts is excellent as his battered mother and Ewan McGregor is compelling as the father. I am not a fan of the loving way the camera lingered on Mom's injuries, much the way a certain director whose initials are QT does with the actresses in his films. I felt the focus on the wounds was close to fetishizing them, something I also felt about the injuries in Rust and Bone. I think we could all tell how awful the experience was for millions of people without focusing so strongly on physical pain and suffering. Hopefully I will get time to talk about some of the other films like Argo next week.

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is another story from Strange Horizons. This one is called Dead. Nude. Girls. It's by Lori Selke and it's about a man who is dating a stripper who happens to be a reanimated corpse. It's oddly touching and quietly sad.