Tag Archives: The Master

My movie year

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham LincolnSince most of my reading in 2012 was work-related, I can’t talk about most of the books published last year. I can’t even offer a complete rundown of movies for 2012, but the ones I did see left a strong impression, for better or for worse. I write narrative history books, so I guess it’s to be expected that my two favorite movies of 2012 took on much-debated, ideologically contested chapters of the American story.

MY FAVES: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln can be nitpicked on this or that point, but the fact of the matter is that this chamber epic about Lincoln’s last months — and the bare-knuckled fight to win passage of the amendment banning slavery — got more good history on the screen than any other Hollywood film. Tony Kushner’s script was excellent, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln was astonishing, and the supporting cast kept every frame bursting with talent. Argo managed the impressive trick of balancing an exciting story (the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction rescue of several Americans from Tehran during the Iranian revolution) with unblinking acknowledgement of the political blowback that created the situation. A jingo movie this ain’t. Hooray for Canada!

RUNNER-UP FAVE: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Actually, it’s every bit as good as the two top picks: a fascinating companion piece to There Will Be Blood, about the strange relationship between a traumatized WWII veteran and a cut-rate cult leader loosely modeled on L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson is the most original and adventurous filmmaker in America right now.

THE BEST MOVIE NOBODY SAW: Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, not advised for PETA members but highly recommended to anyone interested in a spare, moody survival tale about a man whose inner demons are almost as dangerous as the wolves pursuing a band of survivors through the frigid north. RUNNER UP: The Innkeepers began as a slacker comedy and ended as a gooseflesh-laden ghost story, short on gore but long on atmosphere.

THE WORST MOVIE EVERYBODY SAW: The Dark Knight Rises. Noisy, incoherent junk. Lame writing, indifferently staged action sequences, and a hectic, overstuffed storyline with too many plot twists and two few genuinely interesting setpieces. Bane was never going to be as fascinating as the Joker, one of the greatest pop-culture villains of all time, and Tom Hardy had to deliver his lines through a mask that made him sound like Darth Vader doing a Sean Connery impersonation. But any worthwhile ideas Christopher Nolan had for Batman were used up in The Dark Knight. RUNNER-UP NON-FAVE: Prometheus. Was it a prequel to Alien? A lateral sequel? Geeks who’ve gotten tired of debating whether Rick Deckard was a replicant can muse over the details of this handsomely made, brain-dead movie. There’s gonna be a sequel? Great — I’ll boycott it now and avoid the rush.

MOST OVERRATED: Even though hardly anyone saw Killing Them Softly, many who did praised it in John-the-Baptist terms because of fleeting moments that carried the gritty tang of its source material — Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, the great forgotten American crime writer. Unfortunately, writer-director Andrew Domink never saw a thematic point he couldn’t pound with a Thor-sized hammer, and as a director he loved Tarantino not wisely but too well. (People who love to watch glass shattering in slow-motion will cherish the Blu-Ray.) The biggest disappointment of the year, for me at any rate. Because it was a leaden bore from start to finish, it edged out the wildly overpraised Looper, a moderately clever time-travel story that got dumber as it went along, but managed to be pretty entertaining along the way.

BEST MOVIE FOR TEENAGERS: After the twin fiascoes of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom showed Wes Anderson returning from the far frontiers of Tweedom without watering down his beguiling style. A charming movie about a pair of dreamy kids who raise all kinds of hell simply by being their unconventional selves.      

BEST ARGUMENT FOR KICKSTARTER: Absentia, produced with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, was a character-driven indie with a strong Ramsey Campbell flavor, a monster story focused on the psychological wounds inflicted by a menace that remained largely unseen, though the few glimpses we got were plenty hair-raising.   

BEST USE OF 3D: Vanessa Hudgens falling off the giant bee in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Can’t remember what else happened in the flick, though the sprout said she liked it. 

BEST USE OF ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: Marvel’s The Avengers would have been unwatchable without his Tony Stark. I’m glad Joss Whedon hit the jackpot, but I liked the story better when it was called the Season Five finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

BEST IN-JOKE: James Bond threatening M with the ejector-seat button of the old school Aston Martin in Skyfall. Judi Dench’s delivery of the comeback line.

BEST PIXAR MOVIE RELEASED UNDER THE DISNEY NAME: Wreck-It Ralph was officially a Disney release, but its creation of a universe for video game characters, and the wit with which it showed them functioning within the rules of that universe, recalled Pixar’s Toy Story movies, even if it didn’t come anywhere near their emotional heft. Meanwhile, Brave, the official Pixar release, played like just another Spunky Princess story from the Disney mill. Since the founder of Pixar, John Lasseter, is head of both animation shops, the distinction may not amount to much. But still.

BEST ANIMATED MOVIE NOT RELEASED BY PIXAR: The Secret World of Arietty. I love Miyazaki movies, even when Miyazaki doesn’t direct them. And ParaNorman had a freaky intensity the trailers never hinted at.

WORST MOVIE I’M GLAD I SAW: David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. All the tedium of a Tarkovsky film at only half the length. But I’m still glad I saw it because, after all, who else but Cronenberg would even think of making a film like that?

BEST REUNION: I haven’t seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D, 48 fps, Imax, Smellovision, Feelie-rama, or any of the other formats of the future. The conventional 2D version was overlong, badly paced, too obviously padded, and loaded with too many dwarves that could be distinguished only by their hairstyles. (Tolkien didn’t do much better.) But the film came alive in its second half, and I was happy to be back in the Middle-earth Peter Jackson envisioned in his brilliant Lord of the Rings films. I’ve come to the conclusion that Jackson was put on this earth to show up Ralph Bakshi, Stanley Kubrick, John Boorman, the Beatles, and everyone else who took a run at Tolkien’s work and fell flat.          

MUST CATCH UP WITH SOON: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Killer Joe, Rust and Bone, Antiviral, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Samsara, Damsels in Distress.

I’LL GET AROUND TO THEM SOMETIME: Django Unchained goes on the back burner because Death Proof was dull as dirt and Inglourious Basterds pissed me off. So does Zero Dark Thirty, because I don’t like torture porn.   

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Meeting on the fringe

Apropos of yesterday’s review of The Master, here’s an out-of-the-blue New Republic article about the growing relationship between Scientology and the Nation of Islam. I almost wrote “unlikely alliance,” but as the article makes clear, there’s a lot more overlap in their worldviews than you might think.

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Reasons to believe

Though it arrives after a five-year interval, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master plays like a companion piece to his previous, There Will Be Blood. Both works are built around a tense, frequently explosive relationship between a smooth-talking messianic figure and a gimpy, black-haired obsessive prone to bursts of startling violence. Both There Will Be Blood and The Master climax with bogus preachers confessing their fraudulence, but where in the earlier film confession was a prelude to savage madness, in The Master it serves as a benediction leading to a surprisingly sweet resolution.

I don’t want to lean on the comparison too hard: The Master stands on its own two feet in Anderson’s catalogue, even as it rises head and shoulders above most of this year’s other serious movies. In There Will Be Blood, belief was shown as something of a natural resource, exploited by Eli Sunday as relentlessly as his antagonist Daniel Plainview drilled for oil. The Master is about the need for belief, and how that need — even when manipulated by an obvious huckster — is not necessarily a bad thing. 

I have no clue as to Anderson’s religious or spiritual leanings, but after seeing The Master I realized that the need for belief is a theme running through all of his work to date. In his  debut feature, Hard Eight, a man commits murder to protect the illusion that has enabled another man to get himself out of the gutter. The porn-industry players in Boogie Nights are sustained by their insistence on seeing themselves as something more than items off a meat rack. Even the uber-nerdy hero of Punch-Drunk Love warns an enemy that being in love has given him the strength and will to defeat all challengers. None of this is shown with even the tiniest trace of sentimentality, least of all in The Master. Anderson’s films may be warmer than those of Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman, his acknowledged models, but he is every bit as observant in capturing human frailty.

Like its predecessors, The Master is rooted in a very particular period of history, which it evokes with an unshowy but very exacting attention to detail. Here it is the prosperous decade immediately following World War II, when America truly dominated the world. The main character, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), has emerged from the Navy with a full complement of physical and psychological wounds and no apparent skills beyond the ability to concoct Sneaky Pete from whatever chemicals come to hand. (At least Daniel Plainview stuck with whiskey; we get our first look at Freddie as he slurps torpedo fuel.) Infantile in his behavior, wracked by sexual fixations and barely able to interact with others, Freddie is too damaged to take part in the postwar prosperity, and he quickly drifts to the bottom of society. With no likely prospects beyond dying in a ditch, Freddie  impulsively stows away on a yacht and comes face to face with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a slickly plausible con man who has set himself up as the head of a self-help cult called The Cause.  

Early reports on The Master said it was a roman a clef about L. Ron Hubbard and the early years of Scientology, and Anderson references Hubbard’s fixation on ships and the sea throughout the film. When Dodd offers Freddie free “processing” to unearth his inner demons, the repetitive questioning seems based on what I’m told are the early stages of Scientological training.  We learn nothing of Dodd’s background, which is too bad — Anderson could have mined Hubbard’s pre-cult career as a science fiction writer to great comic effect. (Check out these scathing reminiscences from Frederik Pohl’s blog for examples.) It’s no surprise that John W. Campbell, the landmark science fiction editor who became an insufferable crank in his later years, fell in love with Dianetics, the precursor of Scientology. Campbell’s view of the future (echoed by many other genre writers at the time) boiled down to opinionated white guys with engineering degrees setting the universe straight; why not have those same opinionated white guys conquer the inner space of the mind as well? When Freddie asks what he does, Lancaster Dodd responds with a list of titles straight from the mouth of one of Robert A. Heinlein’s “competent man” characters. But the fraudulence leaks through in the way Dodd carefully parses his sentences, as when Freddie asks if he owns the yacht, and Dodd replies, “I am its captain.” After all, any two-bit Bible banger has tried-and-true dodges at his disposal. Dodd, applying a pseudo-scientific sheen to spiritual bunk, constantly has to improvise, and he can’t always bring it off. In these clumsy moments, the less-than-masterful master is almost endearing.

There are no bad performances in any of Anderson’s films, but Punch-Drunk Love and, especially, There Will Be Blood showed him moving away from the large ensembles and naturalistic acting of his first three films, and toward stories built around one or two actors giving highly mannered performances. As played by Joaquin Phoenix, Freddie is a twisted rag of a man, starved to the bone, with a mouth perpetually curled to suggest either a grimace or a sneer — when we see him lurching through his job as a portrait photographer, Freddie is like a refugee from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari stranded in a department store. Dodd, all well-fed confidence and poise, is his perfect foil — Hoffman doesn’t so much play the role as soak it in through his skin. Unlike Eli Sunday, whose charismatic preaching seemd sincere (albeit grotesque) right up to the climax of There Will Be Blood, Dodd can’t keep his mask from slipping whenever The Cause gets questioned a little too closely or persistently. Late in the film there’s a memorable scene in which Dodd, tired and distracted after a day’s con-artistry, is approached by a well-meaning devotee (Laura Dern) whose need for clarity triggers a burst of rage as intense as a nuclear test in the desert. She’s so cowed she can’t bring herself to look straight at him, but her sidelong glance makes it clear she’s finally figured things out.

In The Master, the real issue is the nature of Dodd’s relationship with Freddie, which puzzles Dodd’s circle and alarms his wife (Amy Adams), who understands The Cause is the only thing standing between their family and penury. At first, Freddie seems to present Dodd with a worst-case challenge; if he can help this damaged specimen, maybe The Cause offers something real after all. Ironically, the processing sessions do seem to have an effect on Freddie, just as Scientology (at least in its early stages) appears to benefit some people — certainly Tom Cruise credits it with making him one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. In a further irony, wises Freddie up to Dodd’s fakery even as it makes him a slightly more functional human being. When Freddie and Dodd finally part ways, Dodd’s valediction comes across as a wink from one con-man to another — “If you find a way to live without a master, without any master, let us know. You’d be the first person in the history of the world.” We then see Freddie picking up a woman at a bar and giving her a garbled version of Dodd’s processing spiel during their pillow talk. The Cause may not be real, but at least it has given Freddie something new in life — a relatively harmless way to get over on people.

As I said, there is nothing sentimental about The Master. Dodd is never shown as a loveable scamp — indeed, there’s always something creepy about him even in his best moments — and we are never encouraged to see his marks as deserving of their victimization. The film’s take on belief, and the need for belief, is far more subtle than that. It helps to remember that the central relationship begins when Dodd samples and enjoys one of Freddie’s improvised brews. “Is this booze you make poison?” Dodd asks during one session. “Not if you drink it smart,” Freddie tells him. That line takes on greater significance every time I think about it.

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Friday finds

In 1957, five men stood in the Nevada desert while a nuclear missile detonated 18,500 feet above their heads. Here’s what happened to them.

What to expect when you’re expecting to die after being sucked out an airlock into the vacuum of space.

How to get around Arkham, Massachusetts, with help from H.P. Lovecraft.

You can make anything with Legos — including The Wire.

Now Zimmerman says it was all God’s plan. Which God was not specified.

Wanna be the Dark Knight? Better have some serious batbucks.

This isn’t going to be a great year for Scientology. First the Tom Cruise divorce, and now this movie, which promises to do for L. Ron Hubbard what There Will Be Blood did for oil tycoons.

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