“20% Cooler”: Bronies, a Documentary

A discussion of the documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unlikely Adult Fans of My Little Pony, and the fandom that inspired it

bronies: the extremely unexpected adult fans of my little ponyMy Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

by REBECCA, January 13, 2014

The adult male fandom of the 2010 show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has been fairly well documented in the last few years, with early mentions of the brony (a portmanteau of “bro” and “pony”) phenomenon treating it as creepy and embarrassing. This evaluation mirrors precisely the perception that many bronies are afraid their love of My Little Pony will spark if they discuss it outside chatrooms and BronyCons.

bronycon 2013The insults, jeers, and genuine sense of creeped-outness displayed by many uninitiated, however, have been totally de-fanged in the last few years, blasted to cynical smithereens by the sheer power of joy, delight, and genuine caring that is the brony fandom. Now, the documentary that has been floating around the internet for the last year is on Netflix instant and we can all wrap ourselves in the rainbow-colored manes of its positivity (and its cosplay!).

my childhood MLP puzzle (with one piece missing)Like many, I came of age with the original My Little Pony movie, tv show, pony toys, and even a puzzle that I did over and over (right; thanks for the pic, mom & dad!). I wasn’t super into it, but I liked the bright colors and the sparkles; as far as I know, though, there wasn’t much to recommend it to an adult audience. The new incarnation of My Little Pony, created by Lauren Faust, on the other hand, is notable for having a solid ethos: the concept that “friendship is magic” underlies the whole show, and with its positive outlook, bright worldview, and varied characters, it’s easy to see why Friendship is Magic has attracted a very different audience than that for which it was originally intended.

official_bronycon_poster_by_timon1771-d4aqm7xThat many people find an adult fanbase for a show purportedly marketed to children surprising is one thing, but that is clearly not the real issue at the heart of Laurent Malaquais’ documentary. Though it is titled Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony, it isn’t the fact that these fans are adults that makes people uncomfortable, of course; it’s the fact that they’re men. And, further, that the show marketed to kids stars five female characters, even if they’re ponies.

Why this is confusing to people is simple: sexist and patriarchal culture that assumes:

1.) that only females would ever be interested in female characters.

2.) that men do not value friendship, caring, and sensitivity as positive character traits.

3.) that, therefore, if a man enjoys watching a show about female characters that does value those things then there is something abnormal about him.

But that’s patriarchy 101, and those are assumptions that most of us run up against every day. They are, however, merely the backdrop of Malaquais’ documentary, givens that the featured bronies understand as part of the world they can leave behind when they enter My Little Pony’s land of Equestria. There are some shout-outs to explaining the place of bronies in the post-9/11 world and its concomitant traumatic masculinity by a talking head professor, sure. But the majority of Bronies is dedicated to a celebration of the ways in which My Little Pony fandom has touched the lives of several bronies.

bronies paper magazineThere’s Alex, a teenager from rural North Carolina who had his back windshield smashed in once he put custom My Little Pony decals on it; Lyle, a guy from Bar Harbor who is afraid to come out as a brony to his hyper-conservative father; Daniel, a guy from Northern England whose Aspergers prevents him from socializing until he attends a BronyCon, and Benjamin & Nadine, a German couple who met at a My Little Pony meet-up. The documentary follows each of them around and shows the ways that My Little Pony changed their lives and their experiences with learning that there was such an active fan community surrounding the show. (This is definitely one of the times when the internet is a huge win for humanity!)

These folks (and other interviewees) discuss the way My Little Pony has been a positive force in their lives and how other entertainment doesn’t make them feel nearly as good. Nearly all of them have had to come to terms with, first, their own internalized notions that their enjoyment of the show is somehow abnormal, and, second, decide who they are going to tell about their love of the show. Some are sheepish, some defiant, and some proselytistic, but all of them are distinctly aware that most people will find their fandom weird, and every one of them acknowledges that admitting it runs the risk of being thought of as “girly,” “gay,” “wimpy,” and “unmasculine.”

bronycon_summer_2012___025_by_rjth-d55m0phLauren Faust (creator of Friendship is Magic), Tara Strong (voice of Twilight Sparkle), and John de Lancie (voice of the Discord and the one with the idea for the documentary) are also featured. As documentaries go, it’s nothing terribly special, but it’s done with such positivity and appreciation for the bronies and their fandom that it put a huge smile on my face. Anyone familiar with fandom will be familiar with the cosplay, fanfiction, fan videos, and fan art that Friendship is Magic has inspired, and Bronies feature several of the fandom’s most popular creators—a musician, a laser lightshow creator, and an artist. That was one of the most inspiring elements of the documentary, as it is one of the most inspiring elements of fandom in general—seeing people with a passion for something creating things for other fans to appreciate. 

No single look at a culture can ever capture all its facets, of course, and Bronies is mainly concerned with hitting the high points: military bronies who believe the show’s values are similar to those of the armed forces’; fundraising bronies who contribute to the health care of a young brony with a brain tumor; etc. There is nothing said about the elements of the fandom (and they exist in all of them) that are of a less family-friendly nature, but that’s clearly not the documentary’s goal. It’s sure to make the fans who ponied up (sorry) the funds for its production on Kickstarter thrilled, and as for the rest of us, well, everypony could do with a little more magic in our lives! 



Movie Review: How I Live Now

A Review of How I Live Now, directed by Kevin Macdonald, based on the novel by Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now


Meg Rosoff’s 2004 novel How I Live Now has been made into a movie and I totally didn’t know about it until five seconds ago. Yay!

If last week’s Ender’s Game adaptation made one big mistake that ended up gutting the whole story, How I Live Now makes small, smart decisions every step of the way. Within the first three minutes, I was completely and utterly sold on the world, the aesthetic, and the characters.

How I Live Now Meg RosoffHow I Live Now is the story of Daisy (Saoirse Ronin), who lives in New York City and has come to England for the summer to stay with her cousins, whom she’s never met, because her father is having a new baby. Her cousins live in a ramshackle old rural house with lots of woods, hills, creeks, and animals, and Daisy quickly falls in love with it, and one of them—her cousin Edmund. Soon, though, war breaks out and the cousins are separated, always trying to escape and come back home, to be together.

Our introduction to Daisy was pitch-perfect and effortless, managing to capture the attitude of Rosoff’s narrative voice, even without using heavy voice over (take a note, Ender’s Game). Saoirse Ronin, bless her, is a magnificent Daisy, never afraid to be nasty and moody, but always with a core of vulnerability. Basically, I would watch her eat cornflakes or, like, do something else that’s super boring, because that’s how compelling she is, as always. Also, she is an accent genius.

how i live nowThe contrast between the hardness of Daisy’s fresh-from-NYC aesthetic and control-freak attitude and the soft, wildness of her cousins’ run-down home, their trips swimming and running through woods and fields is beautifully done. The film captures the beauty and peace of their home in just the right way, so that when the war comes, the audience is as sad to lose it as Daisy is.

How I Live Now doesn’t shrink from showing the grisly moments of the war, either, which elevates it above any concerns I may have had that it would be yet another slick capitalization on YA dystopia-fever. Just like the book, this is truly a movie that thinks about the effects of war, on both the ravaged countryside and the psyches of Daisy and her cousins as they traverse it.

how i live nowIn addition to the beauty of the film, I was struck by its masterful balance of sound and quiet. The credits are very in your face and loud, bopping to the tune of Daisy’s music, and Daisy’s own inner-voices drown out any other silence. The scenes in the country house, on the other hand, are quiet at base, but punctuated by very specific noises—the call of Edmund’s hawk, the gush of a waterfall—that are just as loud as Daisy’s music, but peaceful enough that she doesn’t need the din of those inner voices. There are long stretches of the cousins’ journey back to one another without dialogue, too, and scenes of carnage that speak for themselves.

In Rosoff’s novel, the story is told retrospectively, and though we don’t have much of a frame, the film manages, in addition to dramatic immediacy, to capture precisely the tone of wisdom and dreaminess that would accompany a tale told from a point looking backward. How I Live Now might be my favorite YA film adaptation to date. 

Neither Sense Nor Sensibility: Austenland

A Review of Austenland, written and directed by Jerusha Hess; based on the novel by Shannon Hale


by REBECCA, September 4, 2013

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a movie in possession of both Keri Russell and literary intertexts, must be worth seeing, amiright? Rarely has a universally-acknowledged truth been so epically false.

Austenland by Shannon HaleAustenland is the story of plain Jane (Russell), unlucky in love and (not unrelatedly) obsessed with Jane Austen—the books, the characters, the time period, the aesthetics, everything. Her guest room is an altar to her obsession with Mr. Darcy in particular, and she has a life-size cardboard cutout of Colin Firth’s Darcy in her living room. Apathetic and convinced that the only good men are fictional, Jane buys a package to go to Austenland, an immersive vacation where guests stay in an Austenesque manor and are the center of their own story, complete with men, food, entertainments, and, of course, romance. Jane can only afford the basic package, though, so rather than a Lizzie Bennet, she is relegated to navys, browns, and the servants’ quarters. Drama (kind of) ensues; you can guess the rest.

People, I kind of don’t know where to start with this mess.

keri russell felicityAustenland is always torn between showing scorn for Jane as a pathetic, deluded loser who romanticizes fiction instead of living life, and showing that she is different than all those other losers, so she’s not an appealing character. And I fundamentally refuse to believe that this character yo-yo-ing is Keri Russell’s fault. I mean, this is freaking Felicity we’re talking about: girlfriend makes pathetic romantic appealing as hell.

The premise of Austenland is that the actors there act charming and dote on the women, giving them the experience of their fantasy Austen heroines. The movie is determined to pull one over on its audience in the “reveal” of a clever “twist” (my scare quotes, if it isn’t clear, suggest that this “reveal” is no revelation) having to do with whether the men are really acting or if their romance is real. However, it doesn’t matter whether whether the romance is real or contrived because both the Mr. Darcy character and the stableboy character are so absolutely unappealing.

Don’t even get me started on Jennifer Coolidge, whose “dumb American” character has, at this point in cinematic history, become so unrelentingly clichéd that she may as well have been plucked out of another movie and stuck into this one. James Callis and Georgia King add dashes of random absurdity that do little more than remind the viewers that we wish this movie would be as absurd in its execution as it is in its premise.

Really, JJ Feild, as the Mr. Darcyish character is the only one who can get away with playing it straight, because Austenland, for all that it alleges to be comic, is, at heart, a fairly uncreative and conservative reinscription of the notion that every woman’s fantasy is Mr. Darcy, and if they act Lizzy Bennet-esque, then that fantasy will come true.

austenlandAnd that’s the real failure, I think: that the movie, in the end, only replicates Austen as opposed to conversing with her.  Jane’s journey is an unsubtle parallel of an Austen character’s and fails to address any of the questions that could have been interestingly raised about a modern woman obsessed with Regency times. In a movie packed with gags, references, uncomfortable humor, and lots and lots of curled hair, there really isn’t a single moment of charm. Nor is there any hint of what someone like Jane might find appealing about Jane Austen’s world to begin with. Indeed, Austenland seems to be operating under the assumption that it doesn’t need to explain what’s appealing about Austen, because we all already agree. Rather, from the opening scenes of the film, it is clear that young Jane will be taught a lesson: you must be disillusioned of your fantasies to have a chance at real happiness. It is equally clear, I think, that this is a lesson Austen has taught us many times over—and with far wittier dialogue.

Before or after you watch The Bling Ring, also watch Foxes.


review by Tessa

A group of friends from the Valley participates in an activity that is part bonding and part trying to become part of the adult world, and it backfires. They end up in a police station. Their actions and reaction reveal cultural preoccupations of their time. It could be a vague description of The Bling Ring,  reviewed by Rebecca yesterday, but it’s also a vague description of Foxes, Adrian Lyne’s 1980 film starring Jodie Foster and Cherie Currie.


As I watched Foxes I immediately connected it to the teens of The Bling Ring – although I haven’t seen Coppola’s film yet, I have read Nancy Jo Sales’ book. I was happy to learn that I wasn’t stretching my interpretation – Coppola mentions Foxes as an inspiration in this interview with Rookie.

I thought The Bling Ring, Sales’ expansion of her original Vanity Fair article about a celebrity robbery ring run by a bunch of middle class teenagers in the Valley, an enjoyable if depressing look at celebrity-stalking culture, starring teenagers who are unaware that their narcissism is showing. Sales fills out the story with speculation as to why and how this kind of culture grew and affected Valley denizens (and non-Valley denizens), but it’s never a mystery how the kids (allegedly?) did it, and it ends up being cringingly sad how they all try to deny it and rat each other out.

Jodie Foster = Emma Watson?

Jodie Foster = Emma Watson?

Foxes has a smaller and more internal trajectory, and a comparison of the two says a lot about the current interpretation of adulthood in America these days–and here I’m using “adulthood” to mean “grown-up aspirations”.

In Foxes, parents are around, but don’t get it – what it’s like to be the teenage girls. The movie follows four friends – Jeanie, Annie, Madge, and Deirdre, as they re figuring themselves out and yearning for family and a place in the world, somewhere safe – as Jeanie says “somewhere we can try to help each other.”  Annie is a burgeoning drunk and her dad is a psychotically strict policeman – she’s always running away from him to the back of some too-old dude’s motorcycle and the rest of the girls are always retrieving and trying to protect her. But the other three have good-to-normal bonds with their mothers. There’s a great scene where Jeanie (Jodie Foster) gets in bed with her mom to read her Plato, so her mom can study for a college class, and a very real scene where Madge (Marilyn Kagan) gets upset that her mom is questioning her about her virginity at her birthday party, so she shuts herself up in her room to cry — and then her mom comes in and curses her with calling every single friend who shows up later and apologizing for canceling the party.


In The Bling Ring the parents aren’t so much of the picture, and if they are they identify too much with their children’s youth – like Alexis Neier’s mom. Although she is yelled at by Alexis every single time she tries to speak to Nancy Jo Sales, it is clear that her mom sees herself as a friend to Alexis, and booster of the pursuit of beauty and fame, and spiritual enlightenment (through the use of The Secret).

Is it better or just different than this outburst from Jeanie’s mom in Foxes?:

“You want a place of your own? Fine, take this one. …There’s too much music here, too many boys, girls laying all over the furniture, half out of your clothes, on the floor. You’re too beautiful! All of you! You make me hate my hips! I hate my hips.”


In Foxes the girls are always talking about finding a space of their own:

Jeanie: “[Annie] should have someplace to go, you know?”

Madge: “Where?”

Jeanie: “I dunno… Sometimes I think it’s, like, 1 o’clock in the morning, you just had a fight with your mom, there’s no place to go. Someplace with like, pillows around, a little music, people to talk to. That sort of thing, you know?”

Their lives seem to be whirlwinds of trying to get to class on time, hitting on guys in the supermarket line, covering for each other when two dates show up to the same Angel show, fending off the gently clumsy advances of Baby Scott Baio, 10baioand being there for each other after breakups.  Eventually they try to fulfill their friend/family fantasies with a private dinner party at Madge’s older boyf’s house and it totally turns into a rager (no thanks to Baby Laura Dern).38dern


The girls don’t explicitly learn lessons from this, but they do realize that they hurt other people’s property. And further, more serious plot developments change and toughen them, or set them up for even more growing.


In The Bling Ring the guy and girls are yearning for a place in the world through fame – if you don’t do something, you are no one. The line that Emma Watson says in the trailer about being a world leader is taken from the mouth of Alexis Neiers herself.  They want a family that’s more like a clique and try to fulfill this through stealing (whether consciously or not) and it falls apart – they all try to blame each other to avoid jail time. Neiers gets married and reforms herself.

They need the crime to feel like they’ve been made real –they push in to the celebrities’ space, committing criminal acts, whereas in Foxes the police element comes from other people pushing into the girls’ space, their fantasy of what they want a family to be. But that doesn’t mean they don’t wish their families were like famous, or at least beautiful, people:

Annie: “You know, he’s not really my dad.”

Jeanie: “Since when?”

A: “It’s true. Remember the flower children that all the time used to do acid? I was like eleven. I dropped acid and it all came out. I mean that guy, the cop. He ain’t my dad. I saw my real dad. No shit.”

J: “Well what’d he look like?”

A: “Really cool. A cross between Cary Grant… and the Mighty Thor. He was a motocross biker.”

J: “I don’t see Cary Grant on a bike.”

A: “He was! He was so beautiful.”

But I think the most glaring difference between the fake teenagers of Foxes and the real teenagers of The Bling Ring is that the fake teenagers are more in touch with their own feelings. The kids in The Bling Ring are masked, disaffected, and their friendships fall apart when things get rough. The kids in Foxes might be just as bored as their future counterparts, but they seem less miserable, even when they’re crying, and more capable of real joy. Does that mean the world is grimmer today?


Jeanie: “You go out into the world, it gets scary sometimes. Learn to laugh a little!”

Movie Review: Warm Bodies

A Review of Warm Bodies, directed by Jonathan Levine

Warm Bodiesby REBECCA, March 3, 2013

If you’ve been reading C&M the last week, you know that Tessa and I are in Edinburgh (yay!). Well, when we arrived here Thursday morning, we decided that although we’d both been awake since Wednesday morning, we didn’t want to nap and screw up our internal clocks, so we just shot some espresso and went about our business: tramping through cemeteries, swooning over the alternate UK covers of YA novels (Patrick Ness!), and after some cake, going to see Warm Bodies.

And I give you that intro in order to warn you that this is the review of a person who watched this movie in an altered state—as my mother used to tell me in college, driving while sleep deprived is like driving drunk. If that’s true, then I was definitely sleep-wasted when Tessa and I saw Warm Bodies. Still, I have to say that I don’t think my opinion of it would have been much different had I been in my right mind. That said, then, I have only three things to say about Warm Bodies.

Isaac Marion Warm Bodies1. It was dumb but mildly charming and entertaining. Now, I didn’t read Isaac Marion’s book, so I can’t comment on how it translated, but it was definitely not a complex or thought-provoking concept. But, still, Nicholas Hoult is charming as R and I guess there are moments that are sweet. It has been pointed out to me (thanks, T!) that Marion has said that he didn’t want Warm Bodies shelved in the YA section, because he thinks it’s potentially limiting to the book’s audience. No idea, since I didn’t read it, but the movie is absolutely, positively YA, even though it has John Malkovich.

2. Here’s Tessa’s take: “Much like Human Centipede, it was medically impossible, but much like Human Centipede, I didn’t mind suspending my disbelief. It was so ridiculous, I just didn’t have a choice.”

3. I don’t know who this Teresa Palmer person is, but in Warm Bodies, at least, she is the CLONE OF KRISTEN STEWART. I MEAN, HER CLONE! Like, she looks like her (even though her features don’t, really) and sounds like her (even though she’s Australian—good accent, p.s.), and even has her intonation. It was like they put out a casting ad that said “hot young thing wanted; must be Kristen Stewart-y.” Also, once Nicholas Hoult loses his zombie makeup, he and Teresa Palmer look uncannily similar. It was like Nicholas Hoult making out with a blonde Kristen Stewart who was also his own twin. In a pool. While John Malkovich watched.

Teresa Palmer  Kristen Stewart

And really, that is ALL I have to say on the matter. Although I definitely micro-slept at times, I sure didn’t miss anything.

What did you think? Am I crazy about this Kristen Stewart thing? Tell me in the comments.


Romance Under the Spanish Moss: a Safe Haven movie review

A Review of Safe Haven, directed by Lasse Hallström (2013)

Safe Haven

Friends, I have to come clean with you about something. My name is Rebecca and I . . . I have really been looking forward to seeing the latest Nicholas Sparks movie.

So, last night my sister and I made the pilgrimage and, well, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Julianne Hough plays Katie, a woman running from a violent past, who ends up in small town North Carolina. There she meets Alex, a widower with two kids. And the rest is romance history. I haven’t read the novel Safe Haven, so I can’t comment on it as an adaptation, but I did think Hallström did a nice job: the romance was understated and believable (if a little flat), the setting beautifully evoked, and Katie’s past legitimately sinister.

Safe HavenMy favorite thing about Safe Haven (besides Katie’s house), though, was Julianne Hough. I have no idea whether she’s a good actor or she was just being herself, but either way, I found her very refreshing. So many romance couples are swoony and cutesy, but even in the face of small town hospitality and romance Hough was wary, a little skittish, self-preservingly impolite, and has a great husky voice. We’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about the disturbingly thin line in some YA romances between romantic beau geste and stalkerish creepiness. In light of that, I found Katie’s character’s negative reaction to Alex’s beau geste (even though it wasn’t intrinsically creepy) particularly refreshing, especially in a genre that usually isn’t. Josh Duhamel as the grieving widower was good, too—he didn’t overplay any of the emotions, but he’s sweet, sincere, and endearingly unsuave.

The dialogue is actually pretty good, except for the notable, and unfortunate, exception of the scene where Katie and Alex declare their love. But, you know, those scenes are pretty awkward in real life too. The drama is legitimately engaging. And director Lasse Hallström, true to form, really plays the small moments well: numerous shots of feet going from place to place, hands touching in the sand. And there are a few “twists,” which are pretty predictable, but add to the dynamics of the film.

In short, Safe Haven is a well-made, well-paced romance that manages to infuse a predictable plot with some legitimate suspense—so, as long as you’re not expecting anything more than that, you probably won’t be disappointed. I wasn’t.

5 Things I Learned From the Director’s Commentary Track of Valley Girl (1983)

by Tessa

I’ve been taking a wee break from reading YA, instead immersing myself in the marital concerns of a man in the late 1700s, a book about one woman’s journey within her own black feminism, and new theories of emotion as they apply to brain research. Also finishing reading this poem.

But I did watch a tale of young love on the first day of the year: Valley Girl, Nicolas Cage’s first role under the name Nicolas Cage. Cage is very young and looks like he’s stopmotion animated. He plays Randy, a devotee of punk-edged pop-rock from Hollywood, who falls for Julie, a pastel-ensconced Valley Girl.  They run up against the social prejudice of the suburban set. The whole thing felt like an Apatow precursor – it had almost-too-long scenes with Julie’s hippie parents and its comedy comes from that uncomfortable-realist perspective.  It seems improvised, but it isn’t (mostly).  It has more substance than one might expect, and a really great soundtrack – the big song “I Melt With You” got famous because of it, and costumes (partially designed by the teenage punk son of a costume designer).


I ended up watching Martha Coolidge (the director)’s commentary, and this is what I learned:

Things I Learned From the Director’s Commentary of Valley Girl
1. Nic Cage was asked to remove some chest hair so that he would look younger (though he was the youngest of the cast).  He came back the next day with a weird, distinctive chest hair triangle. Sort of looks like a swooping gull.
2. Nic Cage was in the casting reject pile and his photo was pulled out as an example of what the director wanted to see – “No more pretty boys”.


Nic Cage at the 38th Cannes Film Festival in 1985 (AP Images editorial license)

Nic Cage at the 38th Cannes Film Festival in 1985 (AP Images editorial license)

3. The club in Hollywood where they go the first night they meet was called the Central in real life. Now it is occupied by the Viper Room.
4. Coolidge asked X to be the house band before the Plimsouls, but X did not want to alienate their Valley-based fans, so they declined.

5. There’s a montage where Cage tries to win Julie back by infiltrating all aspects of her life, including getting jobs at all the places she frequents. He pops up as a disguised waiter in a chef hat at a drive-up joint, and when informed that he’s forgotten part of the order, exclaims “Well Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers, I guess I DID!” and his gum drops out of his mouth into the car.  The gum was an accident that they kept in the movie. (It was also Cage’s idea to wear a chef’s hat).

BONUS: Cage also improvised this line.

OTHER THING: Elizabeth Daily went on to voice Tommy Pickles of Rugrats among other things.

Here’s another blog post with more (unverified?) facts! FAXCXTZ.

Guest Post: Voodoo Math, an attempt to wrestle with The Master

Today’s guest post comes from Evan Pulgino.  Even explores The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and what makes it a movie you should go to the theater right now and see.  I’d consider it simply because of the fact of 1. a Phoenix family member and 2. plot that features a cult-like religious leader, but Evan has more well-thought out and compelling reasons.  He’s also a movie buff as you can see from his introduction:

“I fell in love with movies after a chance encounter with 2001: A Space Odyssey in college. Ever since then I’ve been consumed by trying to watch every great film ever made. Being a lifelong stutterer, the idea of expressing thoughts through a visual medium was a powerful draw. I prefer movies that feel like dreams. My favorite films are Barry Lyndon, Blade Runner, Blue Velvet, In the Mood for Love, and The Virgin Spring.”

I love Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. It is an enigmatic, beautiful, and powerful experience.
However, the reasons why I love it are the same reasons I find it difficult to write about. The process is like trying to nail clouds to the sky. I feel like I’m leaving behind half-finished artifacts of articles about The Master in my wake that will later to be misassembled or refashioned by future generations. I’ve been holding on too tight, trying to turn a piece of art into a puzzle that can be solved. Instead of trying to form a coherent single critique of the film I’m going to embrace the film’s ethereal tone and just list a
series of stray thoughts, observations, and ramblings about The Master.

The Master is about the relationship between two men, a navy seaman returning to America after World War II and the leader of a strange religious movement called The Cause (a thinly veiled version of Scientology). Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an animalistic, alcoholic, and disturbed veteran. His body is misshapen and his speech is often slurred. It’s unclear if his problems are PTSD or have some deeper root. Drifting from job to job, Freddie stows away on a ship setting sail from San Francisco. The ship is under the command of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) a self-proclaimed “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher.” Dodd is the master of The Cause and a great many of his followers have gathered on the New York bound ship for the wedding of his daughter. Dodd
keeps Quell on board for his ability to make hooch (with secret hidden ingredients like paint thinner or cleaning products) and eventually attempts to take Freddie under his wing for motivations that remain mysterious. The film focuses on the often-complicated relationship between Quell and Dodd. Sometimes it seems the men are locked in a power struggle for control, sometimes it’s a messy father-son relationship, and sometimes it feels like a love story.

By Hubbard_and_moulton.jpg: Oregon Journal staff derivative work: -- Cirt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

L. Ron Hubbard, 1943

One of the first things that struck me about The Master is the sheer confidence, beauty, and mastery of Paul Thomas Anderson’s style. What I love about it how the style doesn’t get in its own way. The visuals are stark, clean, and simple. The framing of the shots and the editing give the performers space to perform. The Master isn’t about editing trickery, but human beings inhabiting a very real world. This style is so underused that it actually becomes wonderfully disorienting at times. There are countless shots that are framed with no specific point of focus. This causes your eyes to dart all over the frame trying to soak in the details and nuance. The editing and the pacing felt very much like floating at sea, and not just because The Masteris filled with lots of water imagery. The opening of the film, detailing Freddie Quell’s post-war life, drifting from job to job, is a perfect example of how pacing and framing sets a mood. Quell is often surrounded by negative space that isolates him from the rest of the world. I loved the shot of Quell being chased through an empty cabbage field on a misty dawn. Additionally Jonny Greenwood’s discordant score creates and underlying sense of uneasiness and dread.

Much has been said about the acting in the film. I don’t want to dwell too much on this aspect, but it definitely deserves mention. Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman tower in this film. Phoenix is one of the most underappreciated great actors working today, but is rarely in great movies. Here, he is given a great role in a great film and more than delivers. He is tortured, contorted, gaunt, and mysterious. His is a violent and powerful performance that belongs side-by-side with Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood as one of the top performances in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Hoffman is spectacular as well. Charming, charismatic, and angry. There’s more than a touch of Orson Welles in his performance and Hoffman fills those shoes like no other actor could. His character may or may not be a charlatan, but you like him, admire him, and understand him.

Sailors on the USS Lexington, from the U.S. National Archives flickr

I’m sort of a sucker for movies about religion. More specifically movies about the power and appeal of religion, but that also understand the feelings of imprisonment and confusion that religion creates. I believe that The Master is about much more than Scientology or even religion in general, but I can’t help feeling drawn into viewing the film through a religious prism. I love the scene in the first third of the film where Freddie undergoes processing (the film’s version of Scientology’s auditing) for the first time. You can feel how the processing system is designed to penetrate through barriers that the subject has built
to break a person’s will. The two actors are masterful in this scene. The dialogue starts to take on the qualities of music. At first, Freddie seems to be playing with the master, but eventually the systematic manner of the questioning breaks him and the film gracefully transitions into a dream-like flashback that is a source of his pain. When Freddie comes out of the flashback he is reborn. You can see in his eyes that he is a believer, even if he never really is quite sure of what exactly he believes. For better or worse the two men have genuinely bonded. There’s an emotional bond that is formed between believers and spiritual exploration. Also, my second viewing of The Master also brought out a sense of rebellion in Freddie that I didn’t perceive the first time around. I initially thought that The Master was a riff on A Clockwork Orange and that Freddie is an Alex-type character that the master attempts to control. But now I see the film as Freddie’s journey to heal himself via The Cause and eventual realization that Lancaster Dodd is a fake. Freddie’s true rebirth comes when he rejects The Cause and sees through the master’s lies.

I love that this movie is fluid and dreamlike and open to interpretation. I’m less interested in a movie that is anchored to narrative logic than a movie that is trying to inspire emotions, ideas, and thoughts. Film is an inherently dreamlike medium and I love movies that embrace that quality and let the audience explore the worlds they create. The Master has a lot of rabbit holes to get lost in. The film seems to enjoy letting go of reality the same way a madman lets go of the wheel of a speeding car. The Master does this with both large and small details.

Joaquin Phoenix at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival. image by flickr user GabboT

A general sense of uneasiness permeates the entire film, but a scene about half way through removes the floor out from under you. Lancaster Dodd and his followers are staying at the house of a believer in Philadelphia. During their first night in the house he
sings a bawdy song to the group. Nothing seems out of the ordinary until mid-scene all the women in the scene appear naked without transition. The scene straddles the line between reality and fantasy. All of a sudden you are unsure if you are seeing something that is actually happening in the world of the film or the dream of a character. You never quite regain your footing in the world from that point on. Small strange details seem larger and more unusual. I loved the sequence when Freddie wakes up in a movie theater with an usher handing him a telephone with the master on the other end of the line.

I also love getting lost in the details of The Master. The clothes, the sets, and ordinary objects that feel extraordinary. I attribute the enjoyment of these details to the shooting of the film in 65mm. This is an intimate movie shot in an epic format. Movies are rarely shot on film anymore, let alone 65mm. 65mm is a larger film stock with a much higher resolution. This creates not only a higher quality image, but also captures more detail in the images themselves. Although in most theaters in the US you’ll be seeing a 35mm conversion, the effect is remarkable. The images of the film pop off the screen and become real. I’ve found myself noticing small, inconsequential details that contribute to the mood of the film. In my first viewing I fixated on an image early in the film where Lancaster Dodd is presiding over the wedding of his daughter on the deck of the ship. I remember being able to feel the texture of the clothes in that scene and loving the way Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s hair flew in the wind. My second viewing I just stared at the motion of a fan at a gathering of The Cause. These details only occupy a few seconds of screen time but they had aesthetic importance.

I feel like I’m not even scratching the surface of The Master. There’s so much more in this film to discuss and analyze and praise. After two screenings the film still feels elusive and mysterious to me. It’s a movie I want to obsess over and reinterpret over the years, reviewing it through different viewpoints and perspectives. It is a rich work of art that refuses to be categorized, defined, or ignored. Maybe one day its spell will no longer move me, but for now I’m a willing acolyte.

Other articles about The Master:

Battlefield Mankind” Kent Jones @ Film Comment
The Master: What does it all mean?” Jim Emerson @ scanners
Remastered” Dana Stevens @ Slate

Similar Viewing:

There Will Be Blood // Paul Thomas Anderson’s equally exhilarating previous film with a stellar
performance from Daniel Day Lewis
Higher Ground // Vera Farmiga’s beautiful exploration of the power, hopefulness, and
inadequacy of belief
F for Fake // Orson Welle’s charming, deceitful, and mysterious “documentary” about
charlatans, liars, and fakery

Looper is satisfyingly speculative.

photo by robert.molinarus on flickr

Reasons Why You Should Go Watch Looper Right Now

by Tessa
1. It does that delicious thing where the future is like today, only worse, but not ostentatiously, Johnny Mnemonically different. And it goes through the day-to-day of the future without being overly explanatory.  For example, the drug of choice in the future is ingested via eyedrops. No voiceover explains what it is or how it works, or even what people call it. Because there’s no need to.  (There is a voiceover that comes and goes but I wasn’t too annoyed, which is saying something because I really hate voiceover and I think it’s lazy.)

2. Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  He’s got such a nice smile, and is a great actor. He talks just like Bruce Willis. (I kind of enjoyed how they sculpted his face to look like Willis, but in all the closeups you could see the pancake makeup on him).

photo by Gage Skidmore via flickr, hearts by me

3. It doesn’t do what you think it’s going to do. As far as the looping stuff. And it doesn’t rush to a violent climax just because that’s what movies do.  It doesn’t end with one long explosion boom boom crunch screech chase, but intercuts the violence with a thought out plot acted by characters with plausible motivations.

4. It answers the time travel question of: but doesn’t it change stuff? With: yes. And no. So it’s more about accepting the mutability of things than explaining hard and fast rules.  I’m sure there are plot holes, and I don’t care/

5. Paul Dano being a wobbly-voiced fuckup.

6. It feels entertaining but it has weight behind it. It’s long, but just long enough.

7. A four year old kid with the cutest chubby cheeks and some really great acting chops.

8. People’s motivations were not only plausible, but changed during the movie as their characters rethought themselves, like real people!

9. The script successfully incorporates the term “blunderbuss” into its worldbuilding.

10. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s wardrobe.

Tessa’s post-Looper reading suggestions, in no particular order.

Parable of the Talent & Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Shadoweyes by Ross Campbell

Deadenders by Ed Brubaker & Warren Pleece

The Only Ones by Aaron Starmer

Finder by Carla Speed McNeil

I’m guessing… Philip K. Dick, although I haven’t read any of his books (yet).

Chronicle (de una muerte anunciada)

Dir: Josh Trank
Writer: Max Landis (son of John Landis!!!)

review by Tessa

Chronicle  opens on a black screen. The buzz of something electronic.  A hard bump against an unexpectedly closed door, the rattle of a doorknob, and a man’s voice, already angry, barking “Andrew?  Andrew! Open this door.”

Andrew appears behind a camera mounted on a tripod, pointing at the mirror mounted on the locked door.  He refuses to open it, accuses his father of being drunk, and tells him that he’ll be taping everything from now on.

And he does, starting on his ride to school the next day with affable cousin Matt, through the hallways where his camera gets made fun of for being too old, and on the bleachers where he eats lunch alone.  He introduces each scene to an imaginary audience, sounding proud and unsure at once. “This is where I eat. . . This is my school. . . “ But we can see on his face as he reviews the footage that he is happy to be involved in the filming and creation of something:

Until his dad comes in the room. Andrew’s face immediately closes off.

And his dad slaps him around, pushing him off his chair – payback for not opening the door the night before.  Later we hear his dad pleading with the pharmacy to give him a discount on the pain pills that Andrew’s mother needs – she’s painfully dying of cancer in the next room.

It appears that this is a representative capsule of Andrew’s life. His Matt semi-reluctantly invites Andrew to a party in an abandoned building and advises him to leave the camera at home.  Of course Andrew doesn’t, accidentally films the wrong girl’s butt, gets spit on by her meathead boyfriend, and ends up crying in the grass.  It’s more touching filmed than it sounds, less stereotyped.  The documentary style, deft editing, and above average acting skills have already  elevated this beyond a cautionary bullying tale.

And then, Andrew’s camera provides him with an in. The extremely popular Steve Montgomery


has found something, along with Matt.

A hole in the ground, filled with a weird buzzing energy.

Inside the hole, something that glows and pulses and messes with the camera. Something overwhelming.

The next time we see Andrew, Matt, and Steve, they’re goofing around in the backyard throwing baseballs at each other. . .  from impossible angles. Andrew stops one right in front of his face, using only his mind.  Not only is this an incredible secret, it’s Andrew’s ticket to having real friends and feeling like he can be himself around two other people on Earth.  Soon the boys are hanging out all the time, making fun of how often Steve’s girlfriend calls him and leaves angry, suspicious voicemails, and eventually taking their powers from Legos to parking lots and toy stores.

Until one day, this happens:

The thing to remember is that this isn’t a Marvel Universe. These are teenage boys, and like all teenagers, their brains are still growing – particularly in the prefrontal cortex, where good decision-making happens.  So instead of getting costumes, thinking about responsibility, and fighting crime, these guys just goof around.  The only problem is that even though Andrew now has friends and some confidence, he still is suffering from abuse, probably PTSD, and grief.  And when the world continues to show him uncaring and injustice, he reacts like a teenager would.  But now he’s not just a teenager anymore.

Rent for the great effects and stay for the emotionally resonant story.

Keep your eye out for Chronicle 2, as well.


Project X / Jim Shepard

Shepard nails the weirdness and sadness and  funniness in the voice of two middle school boys obsessed with a Plan, and masters the yawning gap of reason as well as the push of invented reason behind inevitable violence.

Attack the Block

Group of prepubescent London thugs finds themselves in the middle of an alien attack and must find out what courage really is – more great, old-school effects, and FUNNY.

Carrie / Firestarter

Stephen King knows from telekinetic rage. Read the books AND watch the movies.

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