Movie Review ~ The Master

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.

Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rami Malek, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, David Warshofsky

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 144 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Writer-director Anderson has given cinema several very fine films over the course of his career.  Wild and epic, all of his films have a lot of high-level ideas and concepts to them which can make them fun discussion movies when the lights come up.  A case could be made that most of these films involve some sort of fatherly figure and the relationship they have with someone they see as their child. In his little seen and underrated Hard Eight, Philip Baker Hall played a wise figure that takes nobody John C. Reilly under his wing and provides tutelage in the world of gambling.  Boogie Nights finds the porn producer inhabited by Burt Reynolds guiding protégé Mark Walhberg to becoming a star.  Magnolia, There Must Be Blood, and even the dreadful Punch-Drunk Love all find similar situations.

It’s more of the same with Anderson’s newest work, The Master, as it documents the bond formed by a loner veteran Freddie Quell (Phoenix) brought into the fold of The Cause by its founder  Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).  As Quell gets in deeper with Dodd and his family (including Adams as his wife), he’s tested greatly physically and mentally until like all Anderson films something inevitably has to give.

There’s some mighty fine acting happening in The Master and it is clear why Hoffman has been nominated for an Oscar for his work.  The troubling thing for me is that he’s nominated as a Supporting Actor when he really is a co-lead with the also-nominated Phoenix.  (The same thing happened with lead actor Christoph Waltz snagging a Supporting Actor nomination for Django Unchained).  Sure, Phoenix is the character the film revolves around but Hoffman has just as much responsibility in the grand scheme of things.

Hoffman can sometimes make me weary as the characters he takes are quite passive but in The Master he delivers a career high performance with a conviction and underlying deceit.  He elevates nearly every scene he’s in and does it with an assured ease.  It’s clear that Hoffman and Anderson worked in tandem to create this character and it’s a fine example of the symbiosis between an actor’s craft and the written word.

As the troubled Quell, Phoenix is back on the screen after a hiatus from acting that saw the actor go through a truly weird metamorphosis.  Phoenix still maintains his unfortunate trait of mumbling through his dialogue and even if it is a character choice that works better with this character than others, it does create an invisible barrier between his performance and the others onscreen. 

Anderson’s last film was working with the infamously committed Daniel Day-Lewis and Phoenix is much the same type of method actor.  What sets the two actors apart is that Phoenix’s commitment seems unplanned rather than spontaneous and before you say what’s the difference – there is one.  Day-Lewis may make his choices in the moment and feed off of others but you know that he’s so invested in the character that even the most unexpected moments come from an understanding of the work itself. On the other hand, Phoenix has more than a few scenes in the movie that feel as if they are in service to him rather than the movie. Still, Phoenix and Hoffman have two dynamite scenes that are so good they dwarf everything and everyone else in the film.

I feel like I’ve seen Adams doing this kind of work for a while now.  It’s clear that Adams is an actress with ingenuity and strength but I’m not seeing what the big is with her performance here.  For my money it’s not a memorable enough performance to warrant the Supporting Actress nomination she received.  I kept waiting for that one scene that would truly blow me away – even if a few moments started up that mountain the peak was never reached in a satisfying way. 

Much has been made about the film being a thinly veiled insight into the rise in popularity of Scientology and it’s easy to draw comparisons between the movement started by L. Ron Hubbard and The Master’s movement, The Cause.  Not being overly familiar with Scientology I have to say that even if that’s what The Cause is getting at it’s not the central focus of the film.  The people at the heart of the matter are what the movie is focused on.

As is the case of all Anderson’s films, this one overstays its welcome.  I thought the film was winding up with a nice coda, only to witness an extra 10 minutes that did nothing to make the film better than where it could have stopped.  It’s strange that some directors don’t know when to close up shop and go home and Anderson’s The Master (along with Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained) winds up being that friend at the party you were happy to see arrive but now just wish would go home so you can sleep.

Movie Review ~ The Oscar Nominated Short Films – Documentary

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Oscar Nominated Short Films…anyone that has ever done an office Oscar pool is familiar with these categories.  These are the nominees with names of films you’ve never heard of and if you’re like me you usually pick the one that sounds the most Oscar-y or the one with the craziest title.  For the past few years, the Academy has been packaging these films and presenting them in theaters or for download online to give audiences a chance to see these and maybe make more than a blind guess.  In years past I’ve made it to the Documentary Shorts but this year I wanted to make sure I hit the Animated Shorts and Live Action Shorts as well.

Kings Point

Documentaries that take place over several years are always a fascination of mine.  There’s one thing about filming a specific event or idea that is interesting but I find myself drawn to documentaries that are involved enough to follow something/someone through the years to show how time plays a factor for the subject(s).  Kings Point is one such documentary, following a group of seniors at a retirement community in Florida for nearly a decade.  We meet a handful of the residents and get brief glimpses into their world as they talk about relationships (new and old), living on their own, and their plans for the future.  Instead of being a maudlin exploration of regret and what could have been, the focus seems to be on what these seniors want for the future.  We see that rivalry for attention knows no age and the social games we play as teenagers can come back into fashion for octogenarians as well.  The forty minute run time flies by…I was just getting to know these people before the credits were rolling. 

Mondays at Racine

As anyone that has been impacted by a cancer diagnosis can attest, there’s a lot of loss of self that occurs when the “C” word is mentioned…especially for women who find a small part of their identity in their hair.  Mondays at Racine introduces us to a Long Island beauty salon run by two sisters where one Monday every month they open their doors for free services to women going through chemotherapy.  They offer support as the women lose their hair, eyebrows, eyelashes and aim to give back something small on the outside that can have a large impact on the inside.  I thought the film would be a Steel Magnolias-esque look at the revolving door in the salon but instead it branches out to follow two women at different stages in their cancer diagnosis.  One young mother faces a choice that may affect her future while another woman has battled cancer for 17 years is followed as she comes to terms with the present and problems in her marriage.  It’s a five hanky documentary short that serves to inspire and comfort…and succeeds on both accounts.

Inocente

For me, the best kinds of documentaries are the ones that show success in the face of great struggle.  Fifteen year old Inocente is a homeless illegal immigrant with a flair for the artistic and is the subject of this impactful short.  Slickly produced and perhaps a bit manipulative as an ad for the arts program that Inocente is involved with, it’s nevertheless an engaging film thanks to its subject and her art.  Living in yet another small space with her mom and two young brothers we see Inocente as she treks across her California town everyday to express herself artistically.  Using her face as an extension of her canvas, she dresses how she feels.  A lack of connecting the dots between school/art/home life keeps the movie from feeling 100% authentic but I’m betting this documentary won’t be the last we’ll hear of this young talent.

Redemption

Having visited New York City multiple times over the years, I’ve perhaps been blind to the ‘canners’ at the center of this documentary.  In NYC, cans and bottles can be redeemed for money (.05/item) and in this economically strapped climate, former high end earners can be found on the streets sifting through garbage bins for their loot.  We meet nearly a dozen individuals and hear their story, relayed not so much as  “woe-is-me” diatribes but as a “this is what I do now” admissions.  I think there are perhaps a bit too many points to focus on and I definitely wanted to see more of certain individuals and less of others.  Most enjoyable were the arguments over territory and exploring how two people who don’t speak the same language learn to communicate at a base level.

Open Heart

Rheumatic heart disease has been nearly wiped out in the US thanks to our access to antibiotics like penicillin.  Over in Rwanda, however, these drugs are not easy to come by so a simple case of strep throat in young children can leave their hearts damaged beyond repair.  Through a partnership between the Italian and Sudanese, a free clinic was opened in Sudan to treat those in need.  Open Heart follows eight children (aged 3-19) as they leave their families and travel to Sudan to receive life saving heart operations.  The film is at its best when it centers on the children throughout their journey and after their surgery.  There’s a lot of joyous moments in the short and don’t be surprised if you’re laughing through some well justified tears.  The movie does dip a bit when the film drifts into political/business territory in relation to tension between the Italian medical team and the Sudanese government.  Thankfully, it’s a minor detour and it’s not long before everything is back on track. 

An interview with the winner of this category last year was interspersed between the shorts but unlike the interviews from the Live Action and Animated programs, this one seemed too fractured to really get involved with.  That’s probably because in the other programs the films were so short that you could view the interview segments as more of a commercial between films…with each documentary clocking in around 40 minutes, it took some time to get reacquainted with the winner from last year.

The Silver Bullet ~ 42

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Synopsis: The life story of Jackie Robinson and his history-making signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers under the guidance of team executive Branch Rickey.

Release Date: April 12, 2013 

Thoughts: Now that football season has drawn to a close it’s time to look forward to the summer and America’s Greatest Pastime: baseball.  Though the sport has historically provided the setting for many a great film, there seems to be a renewed interest in one of the greatest players to have ever swung a bat.  That would be Jackie Robinson and 42 looks like it could be a home run as a biopic of the player that battled racism and personal struggles to become a legend.  I think that gruff Harrison Ford will make a winning Branch Rickey thanks to writer/director Brian Helgeland’s slick style and solid ear for dialogue.  Though baseball season is still several months away, this April release could be a well-timed hit for those eager to be taken out to the ballgame…cinematically at least.