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The Master (2012)

by Craig Thomas

Let’s be clear. This is not a film about Scientology. Joaquin Phoenix does not play a troubled Second World War veteran who starts a long relationship with Scientology after a chance encounter with L. Ron Hubbard. And Philip Seymour Hoffman does not play L. Ron Hubbard. With that out of the way let me explain a bit about this film.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled Second World War veteran (Freddie Quell) who, after a chance encounter with author and leader of the burgeoning religious cult The Cause, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has all sorts of beliefs about past lives and trapped souls and curing leukemia through “anti-hypnosis” (which, as is pointed out, seems an awful lot like hypnosis). He is also a terrible writer, with an uncanny ability to “discover” truths about the very essence of existence.

And that makes it sound far more exciting than it actually is.

Seriously.

Almost nothing of note happens in the entire film. No-one changes, no-one grows or learns anything. It’s the story of two troubled men who are just as troubled at the end as at the beginning, which is not surprising as nothing really happens to either of them. One is protected from the world by moonshine, the other by a fawning, downtrodden following. But perhaps that is the point. If so, I struggle to understand why it took nearly two and a half hours to say so. Indeed, it takes a good half hour or so before Dodd even appears, all of which is spent watching Freddie Quell running around being troubled.

At this point I should point out that I am not Armond White. I do not believe that the collected works of Paul W. S. Anderson (including the entire Resident Evil series and two AvP films) have more to offer to the medium of film than Paul Thomas Anderson. In fact, I find the work of the former to be trash and found There Will Be Blood to be a fine film, in the best sense. I was looking forward to this.

So it brings me no pleasure to write such a scathing review. I went with two friends, both of whom also hated it. In fact, I was the most forgiving, which I suspect, was due to having been the only one of us to suffer through The Tree of Life in its entirety. So if you liked that, then you will probably love this.

Let’s try to find some positives.

First of all, it is well put together, with some nice sequences and tracking shots. It had a nice gloss and looked authentically like the 1950s (or at least, what I imagine the 1950s to have looked like). It has a couple of beautiful shots of the sea and there is a lovely setup in a prison sequence.

Then there was the acting. Joaquin Phoenix puts in a great physical performance playing a troubled veteran with a number of war wounds, both physical and psychological. However, for a significant portion of the film I could not see the character as much more than Phoenix acting (what is commonly known in the industry as Ben Affleck Syndrome), even if it was good acting. As the film progressed I became less conscious of this, which may have been little more than indifference caused by increasing levels of boredom watching him walk back and fore across a room for 15 minutes, touching the wall, then touching the window.

Stealing every scene he was in and by far the best thing about this film was the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as cult leader, Dodd. He was outstanding in every scene and certainly deserves an Oscar nomination, at least. Personally, I would put him in the Best Actor category, as opposed to Best Supporting Actor, though there might be some debate about that. I’d even go so far as to say a second statuette for the hugely talented actor would be well deserved. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Phoenix got a nomination as well, though I am not entirely convinced by his performance.

Another person who should definitely get a nod (this time in the Best Supporting Actress category), and who was by far the biggest (pleasant) surprise of the film was Amy Adams playing Dodd’s long-struggling, yet ideologically committed and articulate wife, Peggy. Having seen her in little more than films for children (Enchanted) and those with large amounts of black humour (Sunshine Cleaning) I was surprised to see her take on such a heavy role and even more so when she delivered a pitch-perfect performance. Though she has very much on the periphery, she has a number of key scenes in which she has an oppertunity to do something and in each she matches Hoffman. A win for her would not be undeserved.

Well, that’s quite enough of that.

There has been a lot of good things said about this film (as opposed specifically for the actors) and for the life of me I can’t see why. I attribute part of this to the cult that surrounds Paul Thomas Anderson, as it does with most famous and highly talented film-makers. People want to like it so talk it up. Another reason might be the similarities with Scientology (which it is definitely not about), but if anything this simply detracts from the film itself and adds to the mundane nature of the thing. If it’s anything else, I can’t see it. But perhaps that is the point, perhaps I just don’t “get it”. But I think I did, just as I’m pretty sure I “got” The Tree of Life.

I just didn’t like it.

I never walk out of films, and I didn’t walk out of this one, but the thought seriously crossed my mind, which was one of the first moments I realized I really didn’t like it, despite my best efforts to do so. I also found myself wishing that it was a documentary on Scientology, which would have been far more interesting.

In the end, this films fails to satisfy. It is not a exposé of Scientology (for legal reasons as much as anything else), nor is a particularly good film, though it was clearly made by a good film-maker. By the end I didn’t learn anything about anything, nor did I feel anything other than relief it was all over.

Yet technically, it was well made and some of the performances (particularly Hoffman and Adams) were terrific. I can only imagine how powerful their performances would have been, had this been a better (or even a good) film. As it is, I would struggle to recommend watching it for their performances alone because everything else is just so dull.

This is a hard film to rate, but in the end I think everything balances itself out, just about.

Grade: C

Moneyball (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Believe it or not, I really enjoy sports films. Sports films usually follow a character that is completely engulfed in their art. Yes, I consider sports an art form. The athletes are there to entertain and often times inspire you. Sports lure out all different types of emotions from the athletes themselves, be it soaring happiness or the lowest form of defeat. Yet I always find myself in awe over their dedication to whatever it is they perform. There is also something about rooting for the underdog in these films, which usually borrow from real life events. It allows the viewers to believe in the idea of miracles and prove to us that hard work pays off. To some, it could suggest a higher power looking over the little guy or gal. These athletes will sacrifice their personal life, love, their sanity, and even their own sanctuaries—their bodies, all in the name of their art. I guess I can relate because I dedicate myself to movies completely. I will go to great lengths to see a movie I am infinitely excited about to the point where I will practically be collapsing from exhaustion at work the next day. I just had to see that midnight showing. I love it when people are overcome with a dedication to what they love. It to me means that they stand for something. For athletes and the people behind the scenes of the specific sport, they are dedicated to winning and an ultimate triumph. The victory symbolically wipes away any defeat they have suffered in the past.

Take Moneyball, the casual and self-assured new true-story sports film not about athletes themselves, but about the individuals who build baseball teams. Moneyball is about the ones who give themselves over completely to deliver wins and leave a legacy. We see countless scenes where characters sit around television screens and discuss a player’s form. They sit around tables and debate about what player has the ideal appearance for America’s favorite pastime. They fight with each other, feelings are hurt, and lessons are learned. It’s all in the name of what these men love. At the heart of all of it is Billy Beane (Played by Brad Pitt), who seems to be suffering from sleep deprivation behind a protruding bottom lip that is filled with chewing tobacco, sagging eyes, and a face that shows traces of Benicio del Toro. Beane is the GM (General Manager) of the Oakland A’s, who are in a scramble to rebuild their crumbling team after a crushing loss to the Yankees. They can’t compete with the salaries of teams like the New York Yankees, but boy, do they have heart and passion for their team. Beane travels to Cleveland, Ohio to discuss player trades with the Indians and during the meeting, notices a bright young number cruncher/player analyst named Peter Brand (Played by Jonah Hill, in one hell of a dramatic turn) who picks favorite players based on mathematics and science over form and physical appearance. Impressed by the young Peter, Billy hires him to devise a system to pick up gifted athletes without shelling out a huge sum of cash. As Beane tries to reinvent the scouting system and stacks his team with a group of misfit players, the experiment is met with criticism from those around Beane. As the experiment falls apart, Beane begins to reflect on decisions he made and grapples with the fact that he may loose his career over the gamble.

I’d be bluffing if I said I understood every word of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s well-spoken script. It fires off more sports vocabulary and trivia than I could keep up with. Sometimes, it sounded like Greek. It had the two friends I saw it with giddy by the little nods to sports history and player cameos (I should clarify that it is players depicted by actors. They knew instantly who they were. I just shook my head and smiled.). I was there for the story and I can say that I walked away satisfied, like Zaillian and Sorkin treated me with respect. They didn’t dumb the film down for viewers like me, which I extol. This is a sports fan movie. This is also a warm film, one that made me feel like I was sitting in on these conversations that were taking place. I felt like I was sitting in the room with them. The men stick chew in their lips, spit into cups, shift nervously and uncomfortably in their seats, and sometimes stumble through their dialogue like a real individual would. Everything seems so spontaneous. Never like it has been memorized. When Oscar comes calling, I hope it remembers Mr. Pitt and Mr. Hill. The dialogue flows from their lips with ease to the point where they ceased being Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill and morphed into Billy and Peter. I loved it.

Much of Moneyball’s success rests on the shoulders of director Bennet Miller, who always makes the film disarming, even when it suffers from a few editing problems and a disregarded climax that feels barely there and insignificant. The film builds up to this one moment, and it quickly passes with weird fade-outs, and glum voice-overs from sports commentaries. Miller can construct a scene, but sometimes the editing stubs an emotional moment. His pacing is superb and he had my undivided attention, even if the film runs a bit too long. He also builds suspense nicely; especially during a ballgame sequence that will leave you feeling like one of the fans on the day the real game was played.

Moneyball boasts an A-list cast of seasoned vets who punch in some phenomenal acting. I could not get enough of Pitt’s Beane, whose love of baseball outweighs a rocky past of humiliation and regret. His past starts to bite him in the ass, and we can see the beads of sweat forming on his brow. It’s quite possibly his most humanistic performance, where for once he shakes off the viewer’s perception of him. Every film he is in, no matter whom he plays I always think “Hey! That’s Brad Pitt!” Not to say he is not a talented actor (the man plays some seriously eccentric chaps), but here he seems approachable and on our ordinary level. Hill gives one of the finest performances of his career, playing the diffident Peter who drools over every pitch thrown. I honestly bought his love for the game. There is a scene near the beginning of the film where he approaches the A’s stadium. Some of the stadium employees are pulling down hulking banners of their beloved players who have left the team. He stares up at the theater in amazement. Peter is bewitched by game. The music is quiet strums on an electric guitar as he gazes lovingly upon his new home. It’s such a magnificent scene. There is also the welcome presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the A’s beer bellied coach who casts icy glares at Beane and goes against him at every turn to save his career. He’s a background character, but it is now Oscar season so it makes sense he would pop up in this, an Oscar contender.

Moneyball is just shy of greatness. For someone who is on the outside of sports, it’s one heck of a story. It also is an eye-opening encounter, as I never knew what went in to scouting baseball players. Like all sports films, it does try to tug the heartstrings with its underdog traits. Sadly, it’s weighed down by a dragging run time and a handful of scenes that could have been left on the cutting room floor. It’s great to see a celebration of passion and dedication. A testament to those who will risk their reputation to stand by what they love. I just can’t help but smile when Beane admits that he does not do what he does because of money. In the end, it’s Pitt and Hill who become the MVPs of the film. They hit a few home runs, but I wish that the film would have stepped up and delivered a grand slam. Grade: B+

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