The films of Paul Thomas Anderson are a work of rare beauty. As mere audiences members, it is difficult to conceptualize the amount of thought and meticulous care Anderson gives to each film, (let alone each scene). His techniques are sensational, and in his newly released film The Master, we again are presented with a masterful work of art.

As an example of contemporary stand out film-making, The Master bristles with vivid moments and unbeatable acting. Its intrigue is not in narrative satisfactions but rather the excesses and extremes of human behavior as it relates to the interplay of troubled souls desperate to find their footing.

While it’s been widely reported, (and even acknowledged by Paul Thomas Anderson), that L. Ron Hubbard was an inspiration for the character of Lancaster Dodd (played by Hoffman), the film is not about the development of Hubbard’s Scientology. The ties between the real-life religion and the fictitious cult of The Master are indeed enlightening, but act as only a significant side to the main center of the film.

The Master focuses on Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a G.I. who has been psychologically damaged by his participation in World War II. As he returns home without prospects or plan, Freddie becomes enmeshed in Dodd’s group of fanatical followers when he drunkenly stumbles aboard the boat of the “The Master.” Freddie quickly rises through the ranks, becoming Dodd’s right-hand man, but his problems, (alcoholism and a hair-trigger temper), prove to be difficult to resolve by Dodd’s pseudo-psychology. He remains a deeply disturbed individual and Dodd’s inability to “cure” him causes several of those in The Master’s inner circle, including his wife (Amy Adams), to question whether Freddie should be cast out.

Much of The Master is about the dynamic between Freddie and Lancaster. Lancaster’s influence on the psychologically tortured ex-GI is profound and pernicious. However, Freddie’s inability to be ‘cured’ represents a failure of The Master’s “process” and is taken as  a personal hit to Lancaster’s pride. Many of the one-on-one scenes with Hoffman and Phoenix burst with energy. These two are so compelling when sharing the screen that the movie suffers when either are missing.

The increasing anticipation around the film comes from Joaquin Phoenix’s grand return to cinema. Phoenix arguably gave his best performance to date, brilliantly playing an absolutely unique, must-see character. To portray Freddie, Phoenix underwent a challenging physical transformation into a gaunt, sick-looking man with stooped shoulders and a shambling gait. Phoenix just buries himself in Freddie’s persona and there’s never a moment when we disbelieve him. The scenes in which Freddie loses control are forceful, effective and never over-step its boundaries.

In support are both Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams who play their roles phenomenally and there is little doubt that Hoffman will get Oscar consideration. Hoffman’s Lancaster is both charismatic and aggressive, who is easily aggravate by opposition to his cause. His performance is tense and intriguing, speaking strongly to his wide-range of talents within the film, and highlighting his illustrious career as actor. Adams’ will probably not get the respect she deserves for her role, due to size of the part. Adams’ take on Lancaster’s wife is disturbing and creepy, yet it works. She fascinates us with here emotionless face and stern personality, while maintaining a tone of both dominating and submissive in character. Like most of the supporting characters, moments with Adams are intriguing, and leaves a strong desire for more.

Joaquin Phoniex in The-MasterWhen viewing The Master, take into consideration that the film is about character interaction, not character development. We learn little about Lancaster’s past and don’t get a real sense of whether he even believes everything he says. We see  though a well-crafted dialog, his powers of persuasion, his ability to charm like a snake oil salesman, and his occasional bursts of rage. At times he appears to be his wife’s puppet and then will later override and dismiss her. We understand Freddie better. He is given a back story, but his personality is immutable, which seems to be Anderson’s intent on showing forcefully how Lancaster’s “processing” fails. Freddie’s point-of-view, which is difficult to decipher, provides our portal into the story. The Fantasy and dream sequences are intermixed with reality and Freddie, hiding his feeling and thoughts, never reveals whether Lancaster is making progress ‘curing’ him until a sudden out-burst of uncontrollable temper.

Where The Master faces criticism falls within its unconventional narrative. There is no arc to the story.  It’s a flat-lined plot that is not necessarily dull, but leaves you wondering when the film will truly begin. There is very little suspense, yet it burst with tension. Each scene is fantastically shot, and is logically pieced together, but as a whole never amounts to anything. There is no climax, nor closure, yet neither of which is needed to feel satisfaction because we are not left hanging. Its difficult to say whether this should count as a negative to the film because this unusual style of narrative is certainly creative and doesn’t hinder the experience of the movie.

Final Verdict: The Master is contemporary film-making at its best. All parts of the production are phenomenal, and the world Paul Thomas Anderson creates is intriguing and captivating. If you are a film connoisseur, who closely follows the Oscar run, The Master is a must see feature. If you pay little attention to such glorified cinema rituals, well, then you still shouldn’t miss this film. Paul Thomas Anderson is a one of a kind director who is a master himself. He has truly perfected his crafted and deserves much appreciation for his unique artistry.

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  • Reel G

    Check out an interesting take on The Master from two old-school Hollywood veterans.

  • Erik Charter

    The Films of Paul Thomas Anderson – From Boogie Nights to Dismal Days

    My wife and I are celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary next month. I had a Friday class in Des Moines yesterday at a hotel and we decided to have her meet me there at the end of the day, go out to dinner, go to Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, “The Master”, and spend the night – kind of an early, abbreviated, anniversary getaway. I had been watching the reviews in the New York Times and in the Wall Street Journal and was looking forward to seeing it. Fearing a big crowd I went ahead and purchased my tickets online on Thursday night — paying an extra $2. The last time I did this was for a Saturday afternoon showing of “The Social Network” and when my wife and I arrived we were the only two people in the theater. Oh well, just in case…

    It’s now Saturday morning and I’ve woken up — before seven — and am trying to process what I’ve seen the night before. “The Master” has to be one of the most boring, misguided, and unentertaining movies I have ever seen. I’ll expound more on that later, but for now let’s go back to 1997 when I heard the name Paul Thomas Anderson for the first time.

    I was living in the small town of Huxley, Iowa with my wife and two young daughters. I was 27 and remember seeing a review by Siskel and Ebert of Anderson’s second movie “Boogie Nights”. I was intrigued — a movie about pornography that isn’t itself pornography? You can find their review here: . Siskel liked it, but didn’t love it. Ebert put it on his top 10 list of the year. I didn’t end up seeing it in the theater (I hardly saw anything in the theater back then).

    A few years later “Boogie Nights” came out on VHS and I rented it. My wife and I attempted to watch it, but the sexuality was too much for my religious sensibilities at that time (I now have a different view on the relationship between Christ and culture — but that’s a topic for another day). We gave up midway through the first half. Time went on and I got more into film. I have a job where I work a lot with numbers and can often watch or listen to things while I am at work. over the last 10-15 years I have watched hundreds of movies and TV series. Eventually I re-rented “Boogie Nights” and gave it a second try. This time I made it the whole way through and found it to be unlike anything I had ever seen before. The best word I can use to describe it is “electric”.

    As mentioned, the movie is about pornography but is not itself pornography. There are a couple of pornographic (or former pornographic) actresses in it — Nina Hartley, who plays a pornographic actress, and Veronica Hart, who plays a family court judge. All of the other actors and actresses are mainstream and the cast is probably the greatest asset of the film. 1970′s movie icon Burt Reynolds, who had not had a good decade (or two) plays Jack Horner, a “filmmaker” (i.e. pornographer) who acts as a flawed father figure to his actors, a group of misfits and hard cases. He received multiple award nominations — including a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination — for his performance (Burt Reynolds – Academy Award Nomination?).

    Mark Wahlberg plays Eddie Adams, a.k.a. Dirk Diggler, Jack Horner’s newest discovery. Wahlberg’s character is loosely based on pornographic actor John Holmes, a tragic, fatally flawed man if there ever was one. The movie to see for insight into Holmes are the 2003 film “Wonderland” starring Val Kilmer (it’s amazingly virtually sex-free) and the bonus disk which gets into the life of Holmes and the Wonderland Murders that he may or may not have been involved in, depending on who you believe. The bonus disk is more sexual.

    Other cast members include Julianne Moore as Maggie/Amber Waves an aging porn star who has deserted her family, John C. Reilly as Reed Rothchild, another actor who befriends Eddie (they come off like a couple of junior-high buddies – neither is brain-surgeon material to put it mildly), Heather Graham as Brandi/Rollergirl (her rage is just below the surface), Don Cheadle as actor and aspiring stereo-store owner Buck Swope, Nicole Ari Parker as actress Becky Barnett (she has maybe the best line in the movie — “I’ve got a new look – chocolate love”), William H. Macy as crew member (and tragic figure) Little Bill Thompson, Thomas Jane in a great, over the top role as the coke-crazed Todd Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman (much more on him later) as crew member and repressed homosexual Scotty J., Melora Walters as actress and Cheadle love interest Jessie St. Vincent”, Robert Ridgely (a long-time friend of Anderson’s dad) as the fatally-flawed financial backer The Colonel , Philip Baker Hall (more on him later, too) as video porn kingpin Floyd Gondolli, Alfred Molina in a great and memorable performance as drug dealer Rahad Jackson (his is probably the best scene in the movie), Luis Guzman as club owner and wannabe actor Maurice Rodriguez, David Mamet favorite Ricky Jay as crew member Kurt Longjohn, and Joanna Gleason in the important role of Eddie/Dirk’s mother.

    Why is the movie “electric”? The pace is unlike anything else I have seen except for two other great films – Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”. I believe Scorsese has had a strong influence on Anderson and Tarantino is his Anderson’s contemporary (I believe they share a lot of the same assets and shortcomings). Virtually every scene leaves you on the edge of your seat because you are just not sure where Anderson is going to take you. Some critics (Pauline Kael especially) praise the upbeat, optimistic first half of the film but don’t appreciate the much more violent, depressing second half. My take is just the opposite — the first half is good, but the second half is gritty and real. It’s a challenge to watch — you are on edge the whole time. The point at which the movie turns is one of the most memorable scenes in film. It’s the scene where Macy’s “Little Bill” has reached his breaking point with his unfaithful wife (Hartley). Anderson remarks in the commentary on how when the scene started people at the first public screening were laughing, which was not at all what he intended. By the end of the scene no one was laughing, however, and he knew he had hit his mark.

    The thing that made “Boogie Nights” great in addition to the cast and characters is Anderson’s writing. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and he deserved it. His direction is also great, but he has never reached the heights as a writer again that he reached in “Boogie Nights”. The scenes are creative, original, unpredictable, and in some ways unlike anything that had come before. It is certainly (and sadly) unlike anything that has come from Anderson since.

    Before making “Boogie Nights” Anderson had made his first film, originally titled “Sydney” and later titled “Hard Eight”. It’s a film with much smaller ambitions than “Boogie Nights” but is really pretty good. I can’t say too much about the plot without giving away key elements. I would equate it to “Boogie Nights” in the same way I might equate Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” to his “Jackie Brown”. Unlike Anderson and “Hard Eight”, Tarantino merely directed and did not write an original screenplay for ”Jackie Brown” (it was based on Elmore Leonard’s book “Rum Punch”), but otherwise there are similarities in which each serves as a very worthy companion to a much more ambitious masterpiece.

    Like “Boogie Nights”, “Hard Eight” included stars Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly along with supporting cast members Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Ridgely, and Melora Walters. Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow starred in “Hard Eight” but were not in “Boogie Nights”.

    With “Hard Eight” and ”Boogie Nights” under his belt Anderson went on to write and direct the very ambitious, in many ways admirable, but ultimately somewhat disappointing three hour plus “Magnolia”. Hall, Hoffman, Macy, Moore, Reilly, Walters, Jay, Guzman, Jane, and Molina from the earlier two films reappear. Other key roles are played by Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, Felicity Huffman, Henry Gibson (he plays a character named “Thurston Howell”– apparently Anderson, my contemporary, grew up watching the same shows as me), and Patton Oswalt.

    Like “Boogie Nights”, “Magnolia” contains a number of interesting characters and overlapping storylines. The best in my opinion involve the Tom Cruise character, “Frank T.J. Mackey”, a misogynistic self-help guru, his dying father played by Robards (who was not far from death in real life), and a caring male nurse played by Hoffman. Many of the other characters and stories just fail to pan out, as much as we would like them to, and this begins to reveal a weakness in Anderson’s writing that will continue to play out in his later films — up to and including “The Master”: Like Quentin Tarantino, when it comes down to it he is a member of Generation X with a limited education and a limited perspective on life who, once he gets away from his own personal life experiences, has serious weaknesses as a writer.

    Part of the reason “Boogie Nights” is so good is it takes place in the San Fernando Valley (where Anderson is from), during the period of time in which he grew up (the 1970s & 80s), in an industry in which he was familiar (he watched a lot of movies from the “golden age of porn”). “Hard Eight” was a small enough, tight enough movie that he could write it successfully. With “Magnolia” we are still in the San Fernando Valley, but Anderson is beginning to try to tackle characters and themes that were beyond his 29 years or so of life experience at the time (he was born in 1970 — 7 months after me).

    After “Magnolia” Anderson made “Punch Drunk Love” starring Adam Sandler. It is probably best viewed as a one-off in Anderson’s career – A quirky, self-contained story of a henpecked man played by Sandler who falls in love and learns to stand up for himself. It is charming and amusing, but does not aspire to the heights Anderson has reached for before or since. Hoffman and Guzman appear again and Emily Watson stars as Sandler’s love interest.

    After “Punch Drunk Love”, his 4th film in 6th years, Anderson dropped off the map for five years. There were online rumors of a drug problem. I have no idea if those rumors were true or not. He served as the “stand by director” for Robert Altman (who was at or near his 80′s) on “A Prairie Home Companion”. The movie bears none of Anderson’s mark, however.

    In 2007 Anderson made his return to big, ambitious movies with “There Will Be Blood”. I will talk more about it, but as an introduction I would say that the best thing that can be said about it is that it is an vehicle for the talents of Daniel Day-Lewis, one of our greatest living actors. Day-Lewis had previously starred in the magical “The Unberable Lightness of Being”, had given a great performance in “My Left Foot”, and starred in the very good “Last of the Mohicans” and Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”. Day-Lewis is a method actor and the role of Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood” was tailor made for him. He won the Oscar for Best Actor for the role.

    ”There Will Be Blood” is loosely based on a 1927 novel by Upton Sinclair novel called “Oil!”. I have never read it and have never met anyone else who has, either. Lewis plays a power-hungry oilman. The movie is better than “The Master”, but shares the trait that although the acting is good, the story and the movie just never quite come together into a satisfying whole. We don’t really come to know the characters, we don’t really come to like any of them, and in the end we don’t really care what becomes of any of them.

    This brings us to “The Master”. It is like a bad parody of a Flannery O’Connor novel or short story. There have been excellent movies about charismatic religious figures – Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” is the best I have seen. There are other great movies of this type still to be made. The story of Joseph Smith and the early days of the Mormon church is just begging for a skilled screenwriter. “The Master”, however is a mess.

    Let’s start with the man who plays “The Master”, a.k.a. Lancaster Dodd. Philip Seymour Hoffman is, in my opinion, our greatest living actor. I have enjoyed his work for the last two decades. His first role was on a 1991 episode of “Law and Order”. He stood out. His breakout role was in “Boogie Nights” in 1997. He played a role in the cult favorite, the Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” in 1998. He also played a dirty phone caller in the extremely odd Todd Solondz film “Happiness” that year. In 1999 in addition to “Magnolia” he played Freddie Miles in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”. In 2000 he stood out as the rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous”. In 2002 and 2003 me delivered incredible performances – two of the best I have ever seen – in “Love Liza” and “Owning Mahowny”. In 2005 he won his Best Actor Oscar for “Capote”. Since then he has delivered very good performances in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”, “The Savages”, “Charlie Wilson’s War”, “Doubt”, “Moneyball”, and ”The Ides of March”. Recently he appeared on Broadway to much acclaim in the role of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”. Hoffman is an actor’s actor – there is nothing he can’t do.

    This is why it’s a shame that he is totally wasted in “The Master”. Joaquin Phoenix, another excellent actor, is also wasted. Jesse Plemons, who plays Dodd’s son and who is great in “Friday Night Lights” and, more recently, in “Breaking Bad”, is also wasted. Amy Adams is made to look ugly — even uglier than she was in “The Fighter”. She has a nude scene while ostensibly pregnant from which I had to avert my eyes, and not for the right reason. There are several other nude women in the scene, some probably in their 60s or older. The whole scene makes no sense and is never explained. We don’t know if it was real or a dream. I haven’t seen anything like it since Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”. There is also a nude woman in the final scene and she, too, is unattractive. Is this the same guy who made “Boogie Nights”? I wouldn’t have a problem with it if any of these scenes made sense, but thy don’t.

    One of the things that made “Boogie Nights” so good was that even the small parts were really well cast. In “The Master”, Dodd’s daughter and son-in-law are played by Ambyr Childers and Rami Malek. Malek had played the really odd soldier in “The Pacific”. I never warmed up to him in that and I couldn’t warm up to him in this either. Childers was so unremarkable that in most of the scenes she was in I had to do a double-take to recognize her and remember who she was. The other bit players were unremarkable – Laura Dern was the only one I recognized. She hasn’t been around a bloated dinosaur like this since “Jurassic Park”.

    At this point you may be asking why I am not talking about the plot of the movie. I guess my answer is that after watching it I really don’t have any idea what it was. Phoneix plays Freddie Quell, a lost and damaged soul who has just returned from WWII service in the Navy in the Pacific (this is no “The Best Years of Our Lives”). Dodd is a charismatic, L. Ron Hubbard type figure who has developed and is still developing a Scientology-like religion. Who is he? We have no idea. Where did he come from? We have no idea. How did he come up with his ideas for his religion? We have no idea. Amy Adams plays his wife.

    The religion itself is nonsensical and a skeptic points this out on a New York City trip. Hoffman eventually explodes in a rage (he goes from calm to rage in an instant better than any actor I have ever seen), but we get no real responses to the skeptic. Freddie just takes it upon himself to beat him up (as he also does to another man later – a believer who questions new wrinkles in Dodd’s teachings). As the movie goes on Freddie progresses, Freddie regresses, Freddie goes, Freddie comes back, no one in the audience cares. It ends with a barely concealed (or maybe not concealed at all) homo-erotic scene of Dodd singing to Freddie about how he would like to take him on a slow boat to China — whatever that means. I wish someone would have sent the prints of this dud on a slow boat to China. Maybe the Chinese could have found it, pirated it, and taken a bath on it.

    Have I mentioned the movie was bad? An older couple got up and walked out half way through. In the row in front of us a teenage kid was sitting between what looked to be his parents and my wife and I felt pity for the embarassment that all three of them must have been feeling. A lady got up and returned 15 minutes or so later. She apparently felt it was no big deal to go make a phone call, go to the bathroom, or whatever because she knew she wouldn’t be missing much. The rest of us just sat there like fools, figuring that it had to get better. After all we had paid $9.75 each to see this (plus the $1 online processing fee in my case) . Surely it had to get better? It never did.

    The only way “The Master” makes any sense is if Anderson is winking at us — purposefully conning us. A movie in which the screenwriter/director is making it up as he goes along about a charismatic cult leader who is making it up as he goes along. Get it? In this sense it reminds me of Werner Herzog’s much better film “Fitzcarraldo” and the documentary about Herzog making it, “Burden of Dreams”. We come to realize that the whole enterprise was a semi-crazy filmmaker trying to make a nearly impossible film about a semi-crazy man (Klaus Kinski as Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, a.k.a. Fitzcarraldo) trying to build an opera house in the Amazon jungle. Herzog faced the mind-boggling task of hauling a ship over a mountain in order to portray Fitzcarraldo accomplishing the mind-boggling task of hauling a ship over a mountain.

    Where does this leave Paul Thomas Anderson? Critics have been giving him the benefit of the doubt on the movie (very unwisely in my opinion). One exception is Roger Ebert. Ebert has been more-and-more generous with the thumbs ups and the stars as he has aged and mellowed. I should have known better when I saw on Friday morning that he only gave it 2 1/2 stars. Hoffman and Phoenix may get Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor nominations. They did a good job — it’s not their fault. If Anderson gets a Best Picture, Best Director, or Best Screenplay nomination it will be a travesty. I suspect the reason the movie was released in September and not in December is that people who know film know that it’s just not good.

    It’s especially not good in light of the heights from which Anderson has fallen. My plea to him is to go back and watch “Boogie Nights”. Relive the magic that existed when he wrote that screenplay in his early twenties. Look at the roles he created. Look at the actors he hired to play those roles. Look at the scenes. Re-experience the electricity. Anderson is still a young man. Scorsese is still making great movies in his late sixties. He didn’t make “Goodfellas” until he was 48. Altman worked until he was 80 and made his best movies after he was Anderson’s age. There’s still time to turn this around.

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