Review: The Master (2012)

>> Sunday, September 23, 2012

USA/C-137m./Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson/Wr: Paul Thomas Anderson/Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Freddie Quell); Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lancaster Dodd); Amy Adams (Peggy Dodd); Laura Dern (Helen Sullivan); Ambyr Childers (Elizabeth Dodd); Jesse Plemons (Val Dodd); Rami Malek (Clark)

There are a handful of films that so dazzle you with the power of their images that, as you leave the theater, the world appears changed.  Colors are more vibrant.  Textures appear in sharper focus.  You notice the composition between shapes.  Your concentration is heightened.  In short, you view the world as if it were a movie.  Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master,is one such film.

The story, what there is of one, centers around Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) a sex-obsessed, alcoholic World War vet, diagnosed with a “nervous condition.” After being released from the naval veteran’s hospital, Freddie loses one job due to erratic fits of anger and flees another job due to inadvertently poisoning a co-worker with his highly-potent homebrew.  It is Freddie’s talent for low-budget mixology, combining ingredients such as industrial alcohol and paint thinner with fruit juice, that initially ingratiates him with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a huckster leader of an infant scientific/religious movement (some call it a cult).  Dodd sees Quell as his greatest conversion challenge, and Quell sees Dodd and his group as a respite from his wandering.  However, under-the-surface Dodd and his extended family may be as tightly-wound and animalistic as Freddie. 

The Master is a difficult, confounding film that will leave many audiences cold.  Those that aren’t turned off by Anderson’s cryptic writing and the film’s deliberate pace may well be repelled by the often sexually crude dialogue and the energy of Phoenix’s raw-nerve performance.  That said, The Master is a work of art, and it is easily the best film of the year.  Paul Thomas Anderson has yet to make a bad film, but with the one-two punch of There Will Be Blood and The Master, his work has risen to the level of that of the top rank of film artists, such as Welles, Kubrick, and Fellini.

There is much to praise in this 137-minute work of art.  Anderson always get the most from the actors that he works with (from Philip Baker Hall to Tom Cruise to Adam Sandler to Daniel Day-Lewis), and The Master contains career-topping performances from Phoenix, Hoffman, and Amy Adams.  The cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. is mesmerizing, and the Jonny Greenwood's score amps us the tension without intruding on the action.  The only area where one might find fault is in the lack of story, but it is hard to complain when the film is so rich in characterization.  The movie will leave you with plenty to contemplate, even if you can’t quite process the narrative upon a first viewing.

For soused cinema enthusiasts, The Master is a banquet.  Freddie Quell is a capital “A” alcoholic, and the film focuses loving attention on his mixology skills.  Much like the Three Stooges, Freddie can concoct volcanically potent yet drinkable cocktails from the most unlikely ingredients (though he doesn’t use an old boot as a cocktail shaker).  The character of Lancaster Dodd is also an inveterate tippler, but he keeps his predilections better hidden, under the watchful eye of his domineering wife.  The tug of war between Quell and Dodd, two bombastic boozers, makes fascinating viewing.

Drinks Consumed--Torpedo juice (180-proof grain alcohol drained from a torpedo); poisonous punch (made from a variety of liquors and paint thinner); champagne; Old Fashions, and scotch served neat

Intoxicating Effects--brawling, physical violence, swearing, hangover, memory blackouts, sneaking sips, harmonizing, jail time, destruction of property, and soused sex
Potent Quotables--When asked by Dodd if Freddie’s brew is poison, Quell responds, “Not if you drink it smart.”  (I’ll replace this paraphrase with the exact quote when the film is released on video.) 

Video Availability--The Master is available on Blu-rayand DVDfrom Starz/Anchor Bay.

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous masterwork, There Will Be Blood (2007),is also fond of his drink. 


Review: A Free Soul (1931)

>> Monday, July 30, 2012

USA/B&W-93m./Dir: Clarence Brown/Wr: Becky Gardiner & John Meehan, from a book by Adela Rogers St. John/Cast: Norma Shearer (Jan Ashe), Lionel Barrymore (Stephen Ashe), Clark Gable (Ace Wilfong), Leslie Howard (Dwight Winthrop), James Gleason (Eddie), and Lucy Beaumont (Grandma Ashe)

In response to a series of highly publicized Hollywood sex scandals, the U.S. film industry began a policy of self-censorship in July of 1934.  Film historians have chosen to refer to movies produced between the advent of sound and the enforcement of this Motion Picture Production Code as “Pre-Code,” because these pictures often display lascivious sexuality, drug and alcohol use, intense violence, and other salacious behavior that would be unthinkable a few years later.  A Free Soulis a good example of a Pre-Code film, in that is flaunts frank depictions of pre-marital sex, racketeering, murder, and alcohol abuse.

Lionel Barrymore and Norma Shearer star as Stephen and Jan Ashe, an alcoholic attorney and his free-thinking daughter.  Ashe’s best years as a lawyer are behind him due to his drinking, but he scores a great success in his Johnny Cochran-like defense of gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable).  When a soused and celebratory Ashe brings Ace to a family dinner party, he unintentionally sparks a scandalous affair between Ace and his daughter.  When relations between the unwed lovers sour, Jan’s former fiancé, Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard), takes the law into his own hands.  Only the legal skills of Jan’s pickled pater can save the rash Dwight.

Time has blunted the shock value of this moldy melodrama.  The immodest suggestion of sex between Shearer and Gable (She went to his apartment and stayed—GASP!) is pretty tame by today’s standards.  The depiction of Barrymore’s alcoholism, while frank for the period, is also not alarming in the eyes of present-day audiences.  However, what do retain the power to shock are Norma Shearer’s costumes (or lack thereof).  In particular, she wears a thin, slip-like dress to a family dinner party and to Gable’s apartment afterwards that clings to her body in a most immodest way, making it obvious that nothing is worn underneath.  The nightgown is more indecent than anything Jean Harlow wore onscreen during the same era. Based upon this dress alone, the movie would have a hard time obtaining a PG-13 rating today.

While the sudsy story doesn’t hold up well, A Free Soul holds a special place in film history for a few reasons.  Firstly, Lionel Barrymore won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the alky attorney, beginning a tradition of awards going hand-in-hand with portrayals of dipsomaniacs struggling against their obsession with the bottle.  More importantly, Clark Gable made such an impression in his supporting turn in A Free Soul that it catapulted him to leading man status, where he soon proved to be the 1930s’ top male sex symbol.  Finally, the first pairing of Gable and Howard is sure to draw interest from fans of Gone with the Wind (Norma Shearer was also one of the many actress considered for the role of Scarlett).

A Free Soul is not great drama, but general audiences will find it worth their time based upon Norma Shearer's costume choices and Barrymore’s boozing.  Of course, for fans of Pre-Code flicks, it is more or less essential viewing.   
Drinks Consumed--Champagne, gin martinis, whisky and soda, and unnamed liquor

Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, slurred speech, hiccups, staggering, stumbling, bickering, and bar tossed

Potent Quotables-
-JAN: Tell me, Eddie.  Has he been drinking?
EDDIE: Well…
JAN: A lot?
EDDIE: Well, it wouldn’t be a lot for a camel or one of them things.

Video Availability--A Free Soul is available on DVD as a part of the TCM Archives - Forbidden Hollywood Collection Vol. 2(Warner Home Video).

Similarly Sauced Cinema--For a more modern tale of a lawyer struggling with alcoholism, check out The Verdict (1982), featuring Paul Newman at his finest. 

Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 2 (The Divorcee / A Free Soul /      Three on a Match / Female / Night Nurse / Pre-Code Documentary)


Booze News: More W.C. on DVD and Pegg/Frost Pub Crawl Film Greenlit

>> Saturday, July 14, 2012

Greetings, fellow inebriates,

Here at Booze Movies, we consider W.C. Fields our patron saint; so any new video release from the Great Man's filmography is a cause for celebration.  Consequently, I'm delighted to announce that Field's most surreal film, Million Dollar Legs (1932), will make its U.S. DVD debut on August 6th as part of the Turner Classic Movies and Universal box set 1930's Rarities.

Million Dollar Legs was only Fields' second sound feature, and Hollywood had not quite figured out how to showcase the talents of its greatest screen comedian.  W.C.'s role is secondary to the amiable but lesser comic actor Jack Oakie, and it is a rare role in which the Great Man does imbibe or even discuss demon alcohol.  Still, I greatly encourage soused cinema enthusiasts to seek out Million Dollar Legs, because the film is hilariously loony, and the Great Man makes the most of every second he's given to perform.

The movie is more akin to the comic insanity of the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933) than to most of W.C. Fields' later work (although Never Give a Sucker an Even Break shares a similar surrealist streak).  The story takes place in Klopstokia, a small country populated by impossibly talented athletes (almost all named either George or Angela).  Fields is the President, a post determined by arm wrestling matches.  The nonsensical plot involves anarchists, spies, goats, the 1932 Olympics, and attempts to sing an old Klopstockian love song.  If you like bizarre humor, this is the film for you.

The DVD box set also includes three other sought-after 1930's flicks:

  • Mae West's Belle of the Nineties (1934)
  • Jack Benny's Artists and Models (1937)
  • Gary Cooper's Souls at Sea (1937)

In other booze news --

The World's End, Edgar Wright's pub crawl film starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost has been officially greenlit (an outcome that was never really in doubt).  Although the film won't begin shooting until fall, a teaser poster has already been released.  You can check it out to the left.  It seems very appropriate for a film about a pub crawl.



Review: Fat City (1972)

>> Sunday, June 10, 2012

USA/C-100m./Dir: John Huston/Wr: Leonard Gardner/Cast: Stacey Keach (Billy Tully), Jeff Bridges (Ernie Munger), Susan Tyrrell (Oma), Nicholas Colasanto (Ruben), Candy Clark (Faye), Art Aragon (Babe), Curtis Cokes (Earl)

“Just when you get started, your life makes a beeline for the drain.” – Tully (Stacy Keach) in Fat City (1972)

So many exceptional films were lensed in the 1970s that several of the decade’s releases that were merely very good have been forgotten with the passing of time.  Fat Cityis one such movie.  Celebrated in 1972 as a late career return-to-form by director John Huston after a series of critical and box office bombs, this slice-of-life drama about boxing, boozing, and broken dreams is rarely mentioned in discussions of 70’s films or of Huston’s filmography.  While Fat City doesn’t stand as tall Huston’s best--The Maltese Falconand The Treasure of the Sierra Madrefor example--it deserves to be better remembered than it is.

Adapted from a novel of the same name, Fat City tells the story of two low-stakes prizefighters as they drift, drink, and dream the Stockton, California area.  Stacey Keach, sans mustache, stars as Billy Tully, a retired boxer nearing thirty.  Tully dreams of getting another shot at glory in the ring, but he spends most of his time in dive bars getting loaded and blaming other people for the disappointments in his life.  During one of Tully’s few attempts to work out, he spars with Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges), a young, low-talent amateur.  The older fighter sees potential in the kid and talks him into training with his old manager, Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto). 

While Ruben tries to shape the up-and-comer into a prizefighter, Tully sidles back to the bar and into the arms of another alky, Oma (Susan Tyrrell).  Tully shacks up with Oma and picks crops to finance their juicehead lifestyle, but he can’t shake his pugilistic dreams.  Meanwhile, Munger has had disappointments of his own, and he also has to turn to day labor to pay the bills.  When the two former fighters encounter each other on a migrant farm gig, they decide to give boxing one last try.

If you’re looking for an uplifting underdog story, you best look elsewhere.  From Fat City’s opening sequence, set to Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” a mood of melancholy hangs over the movie.  Before the fighters step into the ring, their downfall is more or less assured.  In truth, despite a few well-filmed prizefights, Fat City really isn’t a sports movie.  It’s a slice of life drama about pipe dreams, self-delusion, and alcoholism--much closer to The Iceman Cometh than Rocky

Still, Fat City is not nearly as depressing as it may sound.  The film has a sly, sometimes brutal sense of humor, which comes across most prominently in the scenes depicting the turbulent, liquor-fueled relationship between Tully and Oma (which may remind soused cinema enthusiasts of the central relationship in Barfly).  Actually, Susan Tyrell’s performance as Oma is the real standout of the picture (although Keach is no slouch).  Never has an actor portrayed an irrational dipsomaniac with more truth and humor.  Her performance is nothing short of mesmerizing and is reason enough to seek out the film.

Fat City is worth a rediscovery.  You'll be glad you sampled John Huston's late-career concoction. 

Drinks Consumed—Beer, sherry, whiskey, and unnamed liquor

Intoxicating Effects—Sneaking sips, slurred speech, stumbling, belching, boasting, bickering, and public disturbance

Potent Quotables—EARL: The thing you’ve got to understand about her--she’s a juicehead. 
TULLY: I know.  She won’t eat either.
EARL: Yeah.  That’s on account of her unhappy life and all that shit.  Nothin’ I can do about that, so I don’t let it worry me none.

Video Availability--DVD (Sony)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--John Huston took on the subject of alcoholism again with another literary adaptation, Under the Volcano (1984).


Booze News: Pub crawl film coming from Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost

>> Saturday, May 12, 2012

The team that brought us Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are set to begin filming their third collaboration in September.  Once again, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost will star, and Wright will direct from a script he co-wrote with Pegg.   

The World's End will tell the story about a pub crawl that may coincide with something larger.  Here's the description, as reported by

20 years after attempting an epic pub crawl, five childhood friends reunite when one of them becomes hell bent on trying the drinking marathon again. They are convinced to stage an encore by mate Gary King, a 40-year old man trapped at the cigarette end of his teens, who drags his reluctant pals to their home town and once again attempts to reach the fabled pub, The World’s End. As they attempt to reconcile the past and present, they realize the real struggle is for the future, not just theirs but humankind’s. Reaching The World’s End is the least of their worries.

As a huge fan of both Shaun and Fuzz, I can't wait.  If the previous two films are any indication, there will be laughs and boozing a'plenty.



Review: On the Bowery (1957)

>> Saturday, April 14, 2012

USA/B&W-65m./Dir: Lionel Rogosin/Wr: Richard Bagley, Lionel Rogosin, & Mark Sufrin /Cast: Ray Salyer (Himself), Gorman Hendricks (Himself), Frank Matthews (Himself)

Alcoholism has never been captured with a more unflinchingly eye than in Lionel Rogosin’s 1957 semi-documentary, On The Bowery. The film was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar and was awarded the BAFTA in the same category, but it is not a true documentary in the traditional sense. It is a mixture of narrative scenes combined with cinema vérité footage that combine to give an illusion of reality.

Director Lionel Rogosin came upon the style for the film after many false starts. Determined to depict life in all its seedy reality, he hung out for many months with the stumblebums and stewpots of New York’s skid row neighborhood, commonly referred to as the Bowery. There he befriended a wasted old alcoholic by the name of Gorman Hendricks, who gave Rogosin a guided tour of the city’s underbelly. Once Rogosin felt familiar with the way of life of the Bowery’s forgotten men, he began filming with a hidden camera, but the results were lacking. He then employed a professional film crew, but he was once again unsatisfied with the results.

Rogosin’s breakthrough came after meeting writer Mark Sufrin and cinematographer Dick Bagley in Greenwich Village’s White Horse Tavern. The pair was intrigued with Rogosin’s idea, and together they came up with a plan that would create a truthful portrait of the denizens of skid row. They began filming with no story in mind, and then worked up a simple script outline to hold the film together. The staged scenes allowed Gorman and the other homeless Bowery men to improvise using their own language, while keeping the film from deteriorating into a series of directionless vignettes. The narrative scenes were then mixed with documentary footage to put them in context of the larger reality.

The film tells the story of drifter, Ray Salyer, who enters the Bowery with a suitcase and a few bucks in his pocket from working on the railroad. He wanders into the Confidence Bar and Grill, where a group of withered alcoholics help him spend his money on beer and port wine. When his cash has depleted, the drunks move along to look for another mark, but an old man, Gorman Hendricks, sticks around to tell Ray where he can trade some clothes for enough scratch for another drink and a flop. After selling a pair of pants, Gorman gets Ray drunk with the earnings, and the newbie passes out in the street. Gorman then steals Ray’s valise and uses it as collateral to get a hotel room for himself. That begins three days of hell on the Bowery, in which Ray will encounter day labor, sermonizing, debauchery, and physical violence.

Rogosin’s uncompromising portrait of men dedicated to their alcoholism is very slight in terms of story; and if watched as a narrative film, it can come across as slow-moving, saggy, and predictable. However, if viewed as a document of a time and place, On the Bowery is fascinating. The black and white photography is striking and has a harsh, unforgiving beauty. The movie is like a Weegee crime photograph come to life, and is best watched like one would view a photography exhibit in an art gallery.

On the Bowery was a highly influential film that played a significant part in the independent film movement. John Cassavetes often sighted Rogosin as a major influence on his work. Unfortunately, the film did not do as much to help the men on which it focused. Gorman Hendricks died shortly after the film was released. Ray Salyer was offered a Hollywood contract based upon his performance in On the Bowery, but he turned it down, preferring to dedicate himself to his boozing.

Drinks Consumed--Wine (muscatel and port), beer, gin, and other unnamed liquors

Intoxicating Effects--Staggering, slurred speech, bickering, brawling, public disturbance, jail time, boasting, passing out, the shakes, harmonizing, and bar tossed

Potent Quotables--RAY: These guys sure took off. Didn’t they?
GORMAN: Sure. They didn’t see any more in evidence, so naturally, they’re gonna go.
RAY: Anything for a drink, huh?
GORMAN: Yeah. I reckon.
RAY: Ah, well. That’s the way it goes.
GORMAN: Well, that’s the bowery for ya.

Video Availability--DVDand Blu-ray(Milestone Films)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Barbet Schroeder glorified drunken stumblebums in Barfly (1987).


Review: Young Adult (2011)

>> Monday, March 19, 2012

USA/C-94m./Dir: Jason Reitman/Wr: Diablo Cody/Cast: Charlize Theron (Mavis Gary), Patton Oswalt (Matt Freehauf), Patrick Wilson (Buddy Slade), Elizabeth Reaser (Beth Slade), Collette Wolfe (Sandra Freehauf), Jill Eikenberry (Hedda Gary)

In 2007, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody teamed up to create Juno,a sunny indie comedy about teenage pregnancy that proved to be a breakout hit. In 2011, the duo reunited to produce Young Adult,but this time the results were less rosy both onscreen and in terms of box office. It is understandable that an acidic black comedy would have trouble connecting with a mass audience. However, it is a shame that more people didn’t give Young Adult a try, because it is the best work of the writer, director, and much of the cast.

Charlize Theron stars as Mavis Gary, a high school prom queen whose best days are likely behind her. She is now a 37-year-old, divorced, soon-to-be unemployed ghost writer, with only a Pomeranian and a bottle for company. Suffering from depression and severe narcissism, she spends her days in a small Minneapolis apartment avoiding work, boozing, and passing out. This pattern is disrupted when Mavis receives a birth announcement from Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), her steady beau from high school. The ex-prom queen sees this as a sign, and decides to return to her home town of Mercury to try to break-up Buddy’s marriage and steal the stud back for herself.

While Buddy is the ultimate goal, Mavis ends up spending more time in Mercury with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a fellow classmate who was the victim of a vicious hate crime. Mavis and Matt share a similar bleak outlook on life and thirst for bourbon. Matt is the only soul with whom Mavis confides her scheme; and while he tries his best to talk some sense in his new-found friend, he does little to get in the way of her path of destruction.

All of the elements come together beautifully in Young Adult. It is a fearless film that pulls no punches for its characters or its audience. While the movie is often uncomfortable to watch, it is witty and truthful throughout—so truthful that viewers in their late thirties or early forties may find the characters disturbingly easy to identify with.

Those that found Juno too twee for their tastes (I was not amongst the film’s detractors) will not have the same problem with Young Adult. If anything, they may find Diablo Cody’s dialogue too sharp and viewpoint too sour this time around. It is her best script to date, and it proves that she is not a one-note writer.

Jason Reitman (who has yet to produce a bad movie) makes the most of Cody’s words and his actors’ performances; and those performances are truly great. Charlize Theron does the finest acting of her career in Young Adult. She courageously avoids any opportunity to tone down Mavis’ unpleasantness or her acute alcoholism. Patton Oswalt’s supporting turn is equally honest and bitterly funny. Both performances are Oscar-caliber.

Young Adult is an overlooked gem, and I highly recommended that you sample this masterful concoction. Just know going in that this cocktail is decidedly bitter.

Drinks Consumed--Bourbon whiskey (Maker’s Mark & 8-Year Mos Eisley Special Reserve), Hard Jack’s Cider, beer (Budweiser & Summer Ale), tequila, sangria, and unnamed liquor

Intoxicating Effects--Hangover, soused sex, slurred speech, stumbling, swearing, public disturbance, and drunk driving

Potent Quotables--MAVIS: Yeah, I think I may be an alcoholic.
HEDDA (laughing): Very funny.

Video Availability--DVDand Blu-ray(Paramount)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Alexander Payne also mixed up a cocktail of alcohol, depression, and snide comedy in Sideways (2009).

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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