Tag Archives: B+



Tragic deaths are hardly rare in the music business, but Whitney Houston’s fall from pop superstardom to a sad end in a hotel bathtub in 2012 is one of the most notorious, and most poignant. Her passing is naturally the culminating event in Kevin Macdonald’s excellent documentary, but while not ignoring the circumstances leading to her death—and offering some startling observations about her emotional and physical health—it provides an insightful view of her entire life and career, as well as the social context surrounding and affecting them.

In many respects Macdonald’s film is ordinary, in terms of its formal conventionality. It assembles excerpts from interviews and mingles them with archival footage and stills to provide an outline and analysis of Houston’s life. What’s extraordinary is the range of those interviewed—from her mother, brothers and other relatives, as well as her husband Bobby Brown, through business colleagues (even Kevin Costner, who remarks on co-starring with her in “The Bodyguard”). But the result is no watered-down authorized biography. The interviews elicit revealing observations and admissions, and even those occasions when someone says something incredible—as when Brown simply denies that drug use had anything to do with her death—the comment is telling.

And Macdonald is uncompromising in depicting the difficult familial circumstances that had such a great impact on Houston. Hers was a broken family not only because her parents divorced but in other ways. Her mother Cissy, a successful singer herself, recognized her daughter’s talent early on and taught her well, but was also absent so much that she left much of the work of raising her to others, and then sent her to a demanding Catholic school. Her father John, a powerful New Jersey state official, was a notorious womanizer, but was infuriated when Cissy had an affair with the minister her daughter revered. Whitney placed her brothers in jobs with her retinue after her pop success, but they were hardly good influences, among other things encouraging her increasingly harmful drug habit.

Her family, moreover, was hardly supportive of Houston’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, a high school friend who became her roommate when she left her family at 18. Crawford not only served as her aide and confidant but—much to the family’s displeasure—was also her lover, something that would lead to some very nasty press coverage (and, ultimately, Crawford’s departure). Equally unpleasant was the allegation from some African-American leaders—including Al Sharpton—that she wasn’t “black” enough. Under such circumstances it was perhaps psychologically understandable that she should have married Brown as a means of dealing with both issues—a marriage that ultimately proved disastrous to her wellbeing, particularly since his star fell as hers ascended.

“Whitney” doesn’t ignore the artistic side. It shows her amazing early talent and her astronomical success with Clive Davis’ Arista Records. It gives one a taste of her live performances and the overwhelming popularity of “I Will Always Love You,” not only in America but throughout the world, and admiringly recalls her rendition of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl, which had a unifying patriotic effect at an important moment in U.S. history, during the first Gulf War.

But the emphasis is on Houston’s personal life, and the decline that was epitomized by a catastrophic “comeback” tour, which some of the people involved describe in truly horrific terms. The situation was exacerbated once more by family problems: she had appointed her father as her manager, but fired him after he was accused of skimming funds, and he responded by filing suit against her for $100,000,000. They never reconciled. And the scorn with which she was treated by the media—a few examples are included, like a clip from “American Dad”—was only amplified by a misguided interview Houston herself gave to Diane Sawyer.

There are obviously many villains in the Houston story, but the film withholds one until a late-minute revelation. Ultimately, Macdonald argues, the real crux of the tragedy lay in Houston’s inability to come to terms with the person she really was, and he traces that to childhood molestation by a person whom her assistant Mary Jones explicitly names, citing Whitney herself as the source. To find out that person’s identity, see the film.

That’s hardly the only reason to watch “Whitney,” however. Macdonald recognizes the complexity that marked both her rise and her fall, and, aided by editor Sam Rice-Edwards, who has blended the archival material and Nelson Hume’s newly-shot footage with a supple touch, conveys the tragedy of her life with intelligence and skill.


Grade: B+

Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to “There Will Be Blood” will inevitably be known as the Scientology film, and it does indeed inhabit the world surrounding a self-styled, L. Ron Hubbard-like “prophet” who’s establishing a cult-like movement during the early 1950s. But though Philip Seymour Hoffman offers a fascinatingly intense performance as the obsessive, manipulative, volatile Lancaster Dodd, as he’s called, and obviously relishes the grandiloquent language Anderson’s provided him with, he and his program, here referred to as The Cause, aren’t really what “The Master” is about. Its focus is instead on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled WWII vet whom Dodd brings into his orbit, with disconcertingly uneven results.

Phoenix, returning to admitted acting after the puckish performance art of “I’m Still Here,” gives a riveting performance as Quell, from the initial sequences of his strange antics on a Pacific beach during the war, which even his randy shipmates look on with shock, through his break with Dodd in England years later. Hunched over, squinting, with a tendency to hold his arms at his hips in an old-man pose, he brings the tormented, unpredictable ex-sailor to unsettling life, exploding at an instant from quiet menace to rage. After the war we see him as a portrait photographer in a department store, ogling the floor model but abruptly attacking a customer, an obviously well-heeled businessman, after which he takes a menial job as a farm worker. After an incident involving another laborer who falls ill from a slug of Freddie’s homemade hooch, which he distills from anything at hand, he dashes away to escape a beating and winds up in a drunken stupor on a yacht taking Dodd and his bevy of followers through the Panama Canal to New York.

The two immediately hit it off. It’s fairly easy to see why in Quell’s case—he’s both puzzled and awed by the strange, pontificating Dodd, and is in desperate need of some guidance. But why should the latter effectively adopt Quell? In part it’s because he takes to Freddie’s brewing expertise. But one gets the feeling that it’s really because Quell is the ultimate challenge: if Dodd can work his salesman’s magic on Freddie, can anybody be beyond his reach? (Of course, Dodd might also have an inkling of the fact that Quell can serve as a private enforcer, spontaneously going off on those who disrespect his mentor.)

That’s demonstrated in a scene after their arrival in New York, when Dodd’s the focus of attention at a party where he’s challenged by a outspoken skeptic (Christopher Evan Welch), whom Freddie later assaults. But that sequence also shows Dodd’s quick temper, too, when he snaps back at his questioner with a venom that spurs Quell on. He just controls it better—though he has another outburst later on, this time with a long-time supporter who questions the “evolution” of his movement.

What “The Master” becomes from this point is an episodic, impressionistic account of the relationship between the two men, as Dodd’s cagey wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and sons—one devoted to his father, the other blithely dismissive of him—look on. There are occasional glimpses of Quell’s past, in particular his doomed infatuation with a young girl (Madison Beaty), but these episodes are more dreamlike (as are depictions of his sexual longings) than explanatory. Nor is Dodd’s history revealed: he arrives on the scene fully formed, and really changes little, his ambition well established by the first frame in which he appears.

Rather than a symphony with a beginning, middle and end, in fact, the film is really more a cinematic theme and variations, composed primarily of sequences in which Dodd seeks to induct Freddie fully into the movement through a series of exercises (including a question-and-answer session called processing that looks suspiciously like Scientologist auditing) and Quell is alternately drawn in and repulsed. The climax of this macabre dance comes in a beautifully composed jailhouse scene, when Dodd’s been hauled in for misappropriation of funds and Freddie for going crazy trying to prevent his arrest. As Dodd stands quietly watching, leaning against the bunk beds, the shackled Quell literally tears his cell apart, and when Dodd berates him for giving in to his animal drives, Freddie challenges his teachings as mere invention. It’s a bravura moment for both actors, who are equally histrionic, but Phoenix is in full-throated mode (as Hoffman was in “Capote”) while Hoffman is more subtly seductive.

The sequence is a high point of “The Master,” showing the brilliance of the two stars as well as Anderson’s in conception and composition. But it’s also indicative of the film’s major problem—it repeats essentially the same point over and over, and though the restatements build to the jailhouse tornado, as a whole the picture doesn’t rise to the revelatory close one longs for. Indeed, it ends more in obliqueness and ambiguity which, though perhaps thematically impressive, aren’t dramatically as satisfying as you might wish.

But even a flawed Anderson film is more interesting than most directors’ unequivocal triumphs. And this one is as beautifully produced as any of them. Though the supporting cast, even Adams, is largely overshadowed by Phoenix and Hoffman, the crew contribute work of a quality it’s impossible to ignore. Mihai Malaimare, Jr.’s widescreen cinematography is exquisite, capturing every nuance of period detail in the production design of Jack Fisk and David Crank, John P. Goldsmith’s set design, Amy Wells’s set decoration and Mark Bridges’ costume design. Editors Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty give the performances time to breathe without sacrificing forward motion, and Jonny Greenwood’s score adds to the sense of dislocation Freddie represents.

Though it doesn’t possess the single-minded intensity of “There Will Be Blood,” this is obviously a masterly piece of filmmaking. And like “Blood,” it provides a stage for two extraordinary performances.