Friday, September 21, 2012


The Master

The Master Even before its screening at this year's Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, "The Master" (USA 2012 | 137 min.) has become the most anticipated film of the year and it is labeled as a must-see among cinephiles. It's the sixth feature from acclaimed auteur Paul Thomas Anderson and it's his first film since his outstanding "There Will Be Blood" five years ago. With this new exquisitely beautiful film, he has outdone himself and achieves a new height in the art of filmmaking.

The master in the film is the charismatic and controlling Dr. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who claims himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, and a hopelessly inquisitive man." He is also the founder of a religious organization named "The Cause," which mostly attracts wealthy followers. He magically and authoritatively conducts "process" upon them so they can mentally travel back in time, not just to last week or last month, but to a time before their biological birth, or even before the birth of the earth. He preaches that it is where the root of any problem lies and what one must confront.

If Lancaster sounds like a con artist to you, you are not alone. There are plenty skeptics in the movie. Among them is a sex-crazed, hot-tempered, and alcoholic World War II veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Set in the early '50s, after returning from the war, he appears to be severely damaged, either by the war experience, or perhaps by all the cocktails he makes which contain any chemical liquid in his path.

When Lancaster's daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) gets married to Clark (Rami Malek) on a private sailing yacht in San Francisco, Freddie drifts in and crashes the wedding party. After Lancaster meets Freddie, he and his stone faced wife Peggy (Amy Adams) welcome him into the family and start to treat Freddie as a son of their own. A subtle and complex relationship between Lancaster and Freddie begins to evolve. Freddie stumbles on an unpredictable journey wrestling between loyalty and doubt toward Lancaster.

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master

The movie doesn't always unfold its story in a conventional way and it reminds me the storytelling style in "The Tree of Life." However, each scene is captivating and mesmerizing. As if you are strolling in a museum, your focus moves from one painting to another. Once you finish and step back, you are impressed by the entire collection.

From the visionary direction to the impeccable recreation of lives in the '50s, from the haunting symphony music to the stunning cinematography shot on grand 65mm film stock, the movie is an exhilarating achievement in many aspects. However, the great performances from a fine ensemble cast stands out, especially the fierce and Oscar calibrated performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. I am confident that all three will be nominated for the Academy Awards.

I admit that I cut corner on learning Scientology by reading Lawrence Wright's fascinating report "The Apostate" (New Yorker, February 14 & 21, 2011) about writer/director Paul Haggis's falling out from the Church of Scientology. Despite my limited knowledge on the subject, I don't feel this film is about Scientology ("The Cause") or its founder L. Ron Hubbard (Lancaster Dodd). This is a film about Lancaster and Freddie, and how fantastically Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman play them.

The film already wins major awards at the 69th Venice International Film Festival including best director and best actor. I predict that the movie will net five to ten (if not more) Academy Award nominations. You can time-travel to the future and pick the categories.

"The Master," a Weinstein Company release, opens on Friday, September 21, 2012 at Bay Area theaters.

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