In an era when most studio movies are designed by consensus to appeal to the lowest common denominator, I have to acknowledge the true auteurs working within the system who are constructing distinctive and challenging projects. That said, I am an absolute nut for Paul Thomas Anderson and his previous film efforts. "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "There Will Be Blood" were all squarely on my favorites list in the respective years that they were released. "The Master," to my mind, was the can't miss proposition of the fall season. While embraced by critics and awarded three Oscar nominations for its performances, the experience probably connected more with my mind than with my heart. I'm thrilled that some people proclaim this a brilliant masterwork, but I'm not surprised by the negative reaction either. It's a difficult movie that defies expectations at every turn. I do credit Anderson with making his vision, in this case--it is not something that connected with me in that way that I had hoped.
When I first heard of "The Master," it was described as the first major film about Scientology that isn't really about Scientology. Set in the 1950's, the story brings together a charismatic intellectual (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and a troubled World War II veteran (Joaquin Phoenix). Hoffman is the leader of a new religious order (some may say cult) designed to provide spiritual guidance for those they deem lost. At first, Phoenix seems to welcome The Cause, as it is called, starting to fit in to the new movement. But the more he learns and experiences, the more conflicted he becomes. Is Hoffman a visionary or a charlatan? When the two men play off one another, the film crackles with vitality. Can Phoenix rise from the ashes to rebuild a semblance or normality or is he another lost cause?
These are some of the questions that the screenplay flirts with. In the end, though, "The Master" is never a movie that spells everything out for the viewer. There are different ways that the film can be interpreted. I found this approach intriguing as a mental exercise, but the movie remained too aloof to move me emotionally in the way that I might have liked. Still, the performers are top notch. Phoenix is impassioned and unpredictable, a powder keg ready to explode with little to no provocation. Hoffman is steely and convincing. Amy Adams plays a change-of-pace role as Hoffman's wife, a surprisingly understated leg to the film's central triangle. Anderson proves, once again, that he's unafraid to buck the norm. "The Master" isn't like any other film this year. It's not a film to passively enjoy, but to actively engage in. For serious minded film goers only, I respected "The Master" more than I loved it. KGHarris, 2/13.
on January 17, 2013
I was blown away by this film. The psychological realism is very demented and disturbing. I can understand why many are turned off by it. I talked to one person who said they didn't like the movie because the main characters had no redeeming qualities. Well, that's why I like the movie. So to see the film as a masterpiece first requires one to have a certain taste, to have an appreciation of characters and drama that are not attractive. Yes, the characters are disgusting, evil people, played ridiculously well by the actors. Yes, the psychological drama is absurd and revolting. This is an extremely dark film, I'd say much darker than PTA's last outing. It delves deep into human psychology, especially qualities of fear, delusion, exploitation, and rage, uncharted territory that is not commonly explored in mainstream cinema. Most do not want to explore these qualities of humanness at such an intimate level, most go to the movies for escapism and do not find as much entertainment in such forced introspection. Anyway, this film is the best I've seen in a long time. I expect it will be talked about for ages, reevaluated throughout the years and shown to be a stunning portrait of the underbelly of Americana.
on May 3, 2013
The Master is a purposefully non-traditional film that most people won't like. I happened to be one of those who loved it. If you go to this film expecting a traditional, three-act narrative structure, with likeable characters and/or characters who will eventually be redeemed, then you have come to the wrong movie. This is not a Hollywood, feel-good movie about the triumph of the human spirit. Instead, The Master is a groundbreaking film that you have to watch with an open mind. Ultimately, The Master is an incisive exploration of the eternal struggle between the spirit and the flesh. As the cult leader, Phillip Seymour Hoffman represents the realm of logic and the mind, of science and rationality. He approaches life analytically and always needs to be in control of his surroundings, and the people in his life. Jouquin Phoenix, on the other hand, represents the unchecked flow of primal, animal nature. This the the central conflict in The Master...between someone who constantly needs to be in control of his life, and someone else who resists all methods of control and repression. The reason why this film alienates so many people is because of its disquieting portrayal of human nature--in the world presented in The Master, no matter where we run to, we're always presented with the startling realization that in this life, there is no escape or redemption, there is only the constant struggle for power and domination. The only thing that separates us from the animals, Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be saying, is an ultimately futile desire to find a higher force to comfort us, but what if that higher force is using us for its own purposes? I believe this question is what The Master is ultimately exploring.
This is a film about people searching desperately for a key to unlock the secrets of existence. And it focuses on two characters: one who can find no such key and one who convinces himself and others that he has found such a key. The former is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who we first meet on an unnamed beach in the South Pacific during the last days of WW11 and who we follow for some time as he unsuccessfully struggles to quell internal turmoil and establish some semblance of normalcy in post-War America; and the latter is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is also battling unnamed dragons but who seems to have found some form of inner peace as the leader of an order/cult that promises members that human perfection is achievable in this lifetime if members allow themselves to be unlocked by Lancaster Dodd's magic key (which he calls processing). When Quell stows away on Dodd's yacht the two seem to recognize some common quality in each other. Dodd takes an interest in Quell's curious life, and as Quell learns more about Dodd's methods so do we. Processing is essentially psychoanalytic questioning that seeks to help members identify and neutralize past traumas so that they can eliminate negativity from their present lives and achieve that hoped for perfection. Its psychoanalysis but its psychoanalysis with a difference, the difference being that members are encouraged not only to recall past experiences but also to recall past lives. A lot has been made of the fact that this philosophy is loosely based on L. Ron Hubbards Scientology, but the film is less interested in the specifics of the actual philosophy than in the need of its followers to believe in something. This desperation to believe in something, however outlandish, is what interests PT Anderson (and what will resonate with audiences). This film is as intense as they come but its long and is not as consistently entertaining as the directors previous work (although for all of the reasons just mentioned it is his most ambitious and interesting). Its most powerful moments come when Dodd plays psychoanalytical father to lost pupil Quell. Quell's desperation and Dodd's need to dominate his pupil is palpable in these scenes that are unlike any I've seen in an American film. Quell's need to accept Dodd as a father figure is matched by an equal need to reject him as a guru. We're not asked to accept Quell as any kind of hero, just as an eternally lost soul. Freddie Quell, an existentially lost man for whom there are no answers, stands as the perfect antithesis to Lancaster Dodd, the man who refuses to live in a world where there are no answers (even if this means that he himself must invent those answers as he goes along). This is as existential as American filmmaking gets. There Will Be Blood may have wider appeal because it is about something all Americans can relate to, Greed. This film is about something fewer Americans will connect with: the meaninglessness of existence (or at least the difficulties of living without any existential certainties). This film is two hours long and there are no obvious payoffs, and some may hold PT Anderson accountable for the fact that there are no transcendent truths in The Master. But that is what makes this film so unusual and so daring.
on November 26, 2014
The film has an allegorical structure, very much functioning as a dream functions in which each detail, for example from the cast of the sky to a relative, friend, insect, a path, road, vehicle etc. every little detail of the dream's landscape as one of the true aspects of the dreamer. Dreams are more perfect in structure than any film can be architecturally except for the possibility that the film is itself one aspect of the film maker's life eternal dream. From this perspective, every major and supporting character are each different but truthful reflections of a single personality and, in general, of the internal struggle common to human nature. that is, to each of us. The film in fact could be seen as a challenge to belief in the existence of a Master, or, to be blunt, of God. Rather, every aspect of the human personality is each in its own way struggling for perfection, or to be the Master, in its own way, all the aspects failing to find a way to a balanced cohesioon that leads to perfection.
on March 7, 2014
PTA knows there's no disputing his greatness as a filmmaker after There Will Be Blood and is no longer content to be contained by straightforward movie narratives.
As a result The Master can be disjointed at times, and often plays more like a jumble of casually related scenes than an actual narrative. Yet if you pay attention, even the meandering narrative has a thematic function. Most of the disjointedness between scenes takes place whenever Freddy is in control of his own life, drifting from place to place seemingly at random and with no common thread other than Freddy himself. This is contrasted with how purposefully scenes build upon each other whenever Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character cohabits the screen with Freddy, creating a clear thematic parallel to Freddy's scattered inner life and the Master's plan to gradually build him towards something.
Where the movie goes with that arc may not climax anything like Paul Thomas Anderson's previous films, but that's also part of the point PTA is trying to make - that real life doesn't always unfold in the tidy way we expect our Hollywood stories to.* (That said, I'm a hypocrite because if the ending was anywhere near as wildly climactic and entertaining as There Will Be Blood's this would probably have replaced that film as my favorite of all time.)
A name to watch - Mihai Malaimare Jr, standing in as cinematographer for Anderson's usual collaborator, Robert Elswit, and somehow outdoing the Oscar winner. It's a shame that so much of the movie is relegated to an ordinary house, because every image shot outside of the confines of that damn window and wall is pure gold, from Freddy lounging on a ship's mast while sailors fling food at him to Freddy sprinting headlong into a field of crops with an angry, drunken mob at his heels.
In particular I love how one of my favorite shots - a breezy, elegant glide through a mall as a sales model shows off her wares - is comically juxtaposed with Freddy's decidedly inelegant way of cutting short his date with that same sales model later that evening. That scene captures The Master's appeal in a nutshell - beautiful, bizarre, and driven by one hell of a character.
on February 27, 2013
If IMHO disappointing by the story's end, this initially rather interesting take on the origins of Scientology certainly starts out bravely.
Set largely in California and then "on a cruise" from California to New York (through the Panama Canal) in the years immediately following World War II, the story follows a folksy, semi-intellectual at least _partly/internally_ sincere "Master" (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and certainly based on the person of Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard) and his attempt to stabilize and perhaps even bring some joy to a fictionalized troubled, hard-drinking "everyman" Pacific war-veteran (played by Joaquim Phoenix) who could fallen out of the pages of a John Steinbeck novel (one thinks of "Cannery Row", "Grapes of Wrath" and especially "Of Mice and Men").
Others around the "Master" including his rigid/tightly bound wife (played by Amy Adams) and wealthy/reasonably well-read and bored benefactor/"groupie" (played by Patty McCormack) round-out this dance of post-war American archetypes and help explain why someone like L. Ron Hubbard could "catch on."
My problem with the movie is its ending. Having set-up the story so well, IMHO it just "peters-out in the desert" by the end. And IMHO that's a shame.
on March 9, 2013
Paul Thomas Anderson fans will LOVE it. People who crave great performances will LOVE it. Joaquin Phoenix's performance was - in a word - PHENOMENAL.
Those of us who become euphorically giddy over the opening of "The Godfather" or are enthralled by the majesty of "2001 A Space Odyssey" or simply love a story brought to the screen and done right like "The Dark Knight", would love "The Master". The first act had me wondering if I had just imbibed some syrupy opiate. Then I realized it was the film unfolding before me. The second act does stretch on a bit, but that is part of the genius of Paul Thomas Anderson. He is prepping you for when it all comes together so beautifully in the last twenty minutes or so. Some people seem confused by Anderson's style of story telling. For me, it's what's so refreshing. Anderson is interested in the drama of the human condition rather than a human's dramatic situation or circumstance. He doesn't hold your hand through the story.
"The Master" does look at the phenomena of cult, and Joaquin's character's encounter with it is the story. There are some faint echoes of Scientology in the film, but one could apply Jim Jones or Heavens Gate just as easily. Anderson seems to be saying that cults have often been a danger in our society because it is a human endeavor that appeals to our very humanness - the never ending search for answers, reckoning and relief from pain. Anderson has not made an attack on Scientology, but a revelation of the seduction of cult.
Some wrote here that Phoenix's character has no arc. Bulls***. Story and character arc do not have to slap you in the face. Someone else complained that there are no redeeming qualities in the film. Wrong. Joaquin's character is redeemed in the end. A dramatic change in behavior is not necessary for a character to find redemption. "The Master" is a masterpiece of film making and story telling. I highly recommend it to any lover of film in the tradition of Kubrick, Coppola or Malick
on May 11, 2013
Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians had a song lyric from an album they released way back in the early 1980's -- Airscape was the song. It had a line that seemed to me to describe how this film about belief, delusion, and mental illness made me feel after I watched it. "Save your illusions, for someone else, save your illusions, for yourself."
This was definitely not a clean and tidy film about deconstructing Scientology, it's about way more than that. It sort of haunts you weeks after you've watched it. A strange brilliant thing.
on August 7, 2013
"Comparisons are not invariably odious, but they are often misleading," Orson Welles once wrote, in reference to the long-running debate over whether or not the many parallels in his film "Citizen Kane" to the real life story of William Randolph Hearst and the rise of his powerful publishing empire were purely coincidental. It is quite possible that current and future generations of critics and audiences will engage in similar debate regarding the parallels in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, "The Master to the real life story of L. Ron Hubbard and the founding of his Church of Scientology.
Despite a number of "coincidences", the answer to the most obvious question is, "no". This is neither a hagiography nor a smack down of any specific doyen or belief system (thinly disguised or otherwise). Anyone who would pigeonhole the film with such a shallow reading likely has not seen it (or is perhaps unfamiliar with certain prevalent themes running through all of PTA's previous films). What he has crafted is a thought-provoking and startlingly original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or an emperor with no clothes. Is it a spiritual need? Is it an emotional need? Or...is it purely a lizard brain response, embedded in our DNA?
As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, "Well you know, there are leaders...and there are followers." At its most rudimentary level, "The Master" is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers. Anderson frames his narrative using the zeitgeist of America's existential post-WW2 malaise, in the person of ex-sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Socially withdrawn, prone to dipsomania, odd sexual compulsions and unpredictable fits of rage, Freddie's transition back to civilian life has not been a smooth one. In fact, the character of Freddy strongly recalls the archetypal "disillusioned vet" protagonist who pops up time and again throughout the classic film noir cycle of the 1940s and 1950s.
Freddie's laundry list of personality disorders has not endeared him to the 5 o'clock world; he drifts from job to job. Headed for a meltdown, Freddy skulks in the shadows of a San Francisco marina, where he crashes a shipboard wedding party, hoping to stow away. It turns out that the ship is captained by the father of the bride, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a self-described writer/doctor/nuclear physicist/ philosopher and "...a hopelessly inquisitive man." He is also a burgeoning cult leader; the boat is chock-a-block with devotees in thrall with Dodd and his philosophy, referred to as "The Cause".
Initially, the paranoid Dodd admonishes his uninvited guest, suspecting him to be some manner of government spook assigned to infiltrate his organization; but instead of giving him the heave-ho, "something" compels him to do a sudden 180 and invite the twitchy and troubled Freddie along for an imminent (Homeric?) ocean voyage with his family and followers to New York. And so begins the life-altering relationship between the two men, which vacillates tenuously between master/servant, mentor/apprentice, and father/son (the latter recalling Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in "Hard Eight", Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in "Boogie Nights", Tom Cruise and Jason Robards in "Magnolia", and Daniel Day-Lewis and Dillon Freasier/Paul Dano in "There Will Be Blood").
Not to denigrate Hoffman, who is mesmerizing as always; nor fine supporting performances from the likes of Amy Adams (as Dodd's subtly controlling wife, who plays a sort of shrewd Livia to his mercurial Augustus) or Laura Dern,but Phoenix achieves an Oscar-worthy transformation. I don't know if this was by accident or by design, but I swear he is channeling Montgomery Clift, not only replicating his acting tics and vocal inflection, but his physicality (right down to the hunched shoulders and sunken chest-it is downright eerie).
The film is beautifully shot in 65mm by DP Mihai Malainare, Jr., and nicely scored by Jonny Greenwood. Those with short attention spans are warned: This film demands your full attention (and begs repeated viewings). It's exhilarating, audacious, and while at times a bit baffling, it is never dull.