Sunday, March 10, 2013

THE MASTER, a movie in search of itself

It is only fitting that Paul Thomas Anderson would choose a cult as his subject for the film THE MASTER. After all, Anderson is somewhat of a cult himself. The youngish director is the darling of critics who see themselves as avant-guarde, winning numerous awards from independent and foreign film festivals. Two of his six films are negligible, HARD EIGHT and PUNCHDRUNK LOVE (Adam Sandler starring), and the other four have many merits but often fail to coalesce into something meaningful or lasting. BOOGIE NIGHTS explores the seedy world of porn movies and made a star of Mark Wahlberg; it has several powerful performances but no lasting meaning. MAGNOLIA, on the other hand, may be his best film, providing Tom Cruise with his finest performance to date. It's an ensemble film about three sets of people striving for understanding in the San Fernando Valley. Even though it is somewhat pretentious, it's highly entertaining with powerful performances.

Many consider Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) as his finest work to date. This relentlessly dour drama about obsession during the great oil boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries won Daniel Day-Lewis his second Best Actor Oscar. It has no characters that an empathetic audience could possibly warm to, and that may be the point. Greed consumes them, costing them love and fulfillment. It's interesting that there are no women of significance in this story.

THE MASTER (2012) has been accused of being based on the life of L. Ron Hubbard and his religion of Scientology, but the film carefully makes the plot and characters so general that the comparison doesn't hold. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a sex-driven Navy veteran who suffers from battle shock and a lack of control. After a number of violent and senseless encounters, he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a cult called The Cause, who sees something in Freddie and makes him a member.What Dodd sees in Freddie is never explored. At first it seems that Freddie has found a meaning in life, but his personality cannot maintain any kind of lasting relationship. His "Master" may be compelling, but his message is murky and unoriginal. Hoffman is miscast as the "master" and is overshadowed by Phoenix's powerful performance.

On the other hand, Hoffman fares much better in A LATE QUARTET, a quietly moving drama about a famed string quartet in crisis. The group's leader, cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken in a beautifully underplayed performance) tells his fellow musicians that he must step down because of Parkinson's disease, a series of dramatic conflicts emerge. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays second violin Robert Gelbart and Catherine Keener is violist Juliette Gelbert. Rounding out the group is Mark Ivaner as first violin Daniel Lerner. All are superb actors and even convincing as string classical musicians. What follows are affairs, jealousies, and betrayals, but the quartet and its music triumph over all in a satisfying drama that isn't just for classical music fans.

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