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Monday, October 1, 2012

The Master- Film Review

Director Paul Thomas Anderson has been called many things.  "Genius" and "Wunderkind" are words often associated with him and his work, namely 2007's There Will Be Blood, 1999's Magnolia and now the much ballyhooed The Master (now playing in limited release.)

Anderson does have a keen eye.  His attention to detail in the above works, and in his others, most notably the porn epic Boogie Nights, are quite remarkable.  The desolate oil fields and remote locations surrounding Daniel Day Lewis in Blood easily transport the viewer back in time to late 19th Century Southern California during the gold rush.

In Nights, Southern California is once again represented, but in bold polyesters and a classic disco soundtrack.

And in The Master, Anderson turns his camera to post WW2 America and the look is breathtaking.

But like his last film, Blood, the overall effort is inconsistent, overlong and borderline pretentious.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (a regular PT Anderson collaborator) is "The Master."  Quite simply he is playing an L. Ron Hubbard type.  He is learned.  He is charismatic.  He is an enigma.  He is also one note, and kinda predictable.  Hoffman, as always, is very good.  There just isn't much for him to do with the role.  His wife Peggy, played by Amy Adams, is similarly one dimensional.  He= the spirited patriarch out to start a new religion, a new way of life, a new World- all predicated on the belief that humans are mere temporary vessels in the everlasting time continuum called "The Cause."  She= his dutiful wife that supports him no matter what.  Oh, she will voice her displeasure and concern, but she is a 1950s wife so it's The Master's way or no way at all.  There is nothing new here.  And as each scene drags on slower and slower you wonder if Anderson knows that all along.

The Master asks subjects to go through "processing" which is a sort of psycho evaluation bent on converting non-believers to "The Cause."  It is built on repetition and careful prodding toward an eventual payoff.  The problem is if you see through it right away the whole thing seems unrealistic.

The same can be said of the film.  It moves ever so slowly and tries to convince you things will get better if you simply "believe."

The Master finds a protege and you watch it all unfold.

It is Joaquin Phoenix's (back from an alternate reality meltdown that saw him try a rap career and look every bit the part of a lost Hollywood soul) Freddie Quell, that breathes some life into the proceedings.  Quell is a post war drunk lost trying to assimilate into "normal" life.  How can he learn how to adjust after the horrors he witnessed?   How will he survive?  Sound familiar? It is metaphor for the countless soldiers coming home from the Middle East to say the least.

Phoenix is an absolute wonder.  His Quell is a portrait of torture.  His eyes are vacant.  His shoulders sink in like someone afflicted with a muscular problem.  His scarred mouth struggles to deliver words in a deep, shaky baritone that sounds like pain itself.  Funny this was the kid from Parenthood all those years ago looking for attention from his mother.   Not only has he grown up to inhabit the spirit of Johnny Cash, here he inhabits a man of similar complexity it is near impossible to look away.  Without his fearlessness and command on screen The Master would be downright pedestrian.

Simply, each scene, beautifully shot and elegantly composed by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, goes on way too long.  Since you care very little about any of the characters why subject yourself to nearly three hours of them?

The Master is an egomaniac with more flaws then pages in Dianetics.  His wife is so blind with ambition and obedience she cannot see his epic failures.  And Quell is such a tragic, go nowhere figure that just when you think you can root for him he does something heinous.

And over, and over, again.

There are moments of beauty in Anderson's work for sure.  And like many of his projects he gets great performances from its stars.  But when you strip away the score and impeccable production value it would be good to get a substantive narrative and/or character development.

It's not here.  Or maybe it is in far shorter form.  Sometimes success can get the best of you.  It appears no one can tell PT Anderson when to edit, or abort altogether.

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