Friday, September 21, 2012

Obeying 'The Master'

By James Colt Harrison

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has created an overly long look at a religious cult leader in the outstanding film THE MASTER. The main character, played superbly by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a charismatic quasi-preacher. In the mean time, news from Hollywood is the Scientology organization has mounted a campaign of e-mails to the Weinstein Company objecting to the film. Anderson did say at the Venice Film Festival THE MASTER was “inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and the early days of Dianetics.” Both Anderson and Harvey Weinstein have said the film is not a biography of the Scientology leader.

When Eddie is mustered out of the Navy just after World War II, he is lost, unhinged and confused about what to do and where to go. He needs a mentor and guardian and finds that in the person of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the founder of a new religious organization. Eddie is a drunk and a womanizer and hopelessly uncontrollable. Only a special actor could capture all of Eddie’s failures, quirks, and hopeful eagerness. That actor is Joaquin Phoenix, giving the performance of a career. Hands down, he gives a great portrayal of a stumble bum, alcoholic screw-up and is flawless in his nearly over-the-top histrionics. But Phoenix knows when to stop with the scenery-chewing, thereby making his character more heart-wrenching and pathetic.

Hoffman, of course, is good reading the phone book, and he manages to be menacing, charming, and evil all at the same time as Dodd. Both Phoenix and Hoffman will be battling for that golden statue come next year, perhaps in different categories. In the film, however, Eddie’s character is totally reliant on whatever Dodd tells him to do, and he becomes Dodd’s puppy dog.

What is not totally apparent in the somewhat puzzling film, is that it dawns on you later Dodd is totally smitten with Eddie and is secretly in love with him. Eddie, of course, is living a raucously erotic life with prostitutes and street sluts, entirely ignoring Dodd’s feelings. It is apparent Dodd’s wife (a steely-eyed Amy Adams) has figured out what is going on with her husband  and manages to let him know in a surprising way that will make you sit up and gulp.

The Dodd’s have produced two grown children, daughter Elizabeth. played by newcomer Ambyr Childers and son Val, played by Jesse Plemons.

Plemons is best known for his role on the television series FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS playing a college kid from 2006 to 2011. The stocky blond bruiser hails from a small suburb of Dallas called Mart. He currently lives in Austin, and is a true Texan. He was born April 2, 1998 and played his first show business role at age 10 in a small film. He began getting more parts as he grew up and appeared in TV shows such as WALKER, TEXAS RANGER, SABRINA THE TEEN-AGE WITCH and GRAY’S ANATOMY.  His film appearances have been in BATTLESHIP, ALL THE PRETTY HORSES, and VARSTIY BLUES. The young actor, who loves to play guitar and sing in his band “Cowboy and Indian,” recently graduated from Texas Tech, which allowed him to earn his high school diploma. Jesse plays the cult leader’s son in the film, but he sees through his father and is instrumental in informing Eddie the truth.

Having grown up in an unusual family setting, Phoenix was born Joaquin Rafael Bottom in Puerto Rico to a California father (John Lee Bottom) and a Brooklyn-born mother (Arlyn Dunetz). With four other siblings, Phoenix was raised in a religious cult himself, but the family left it after disillusionment. After traveling throughout South America, they returned to California in 1978. Phoenix’s parents were more or less drifters and hippies, later getting jobs as a landscaper and a secretary for a television network. The children were put to work to earn extra money for food by being street performers. It was there they were discovered by an agent who specialized in kiddie talent. Although brother River Phoenix got all the looks in the family, Phoenix apparently got all the talent. Joaquin’s first acting job was on TV and his first movie was SPACE CAMP in 1986. As he grew older he appeared in films such as TO DIE FOR with Nicole Kidman, and with Russell Crowe in GLADIATOR, for which he was nominated for an Oscar® as Best Supporting Actor. In 2005 he was again nominated for an Oscar®  as Best Actor for playing country star Johnny Cash in WALK THE LINE.

Director Anderson has won many accolades with his previous films MAGNOLIA, LET THERE BE BLOOD, and BOOGIE NIGHTS. There is no doubt he is one of America’s finest director’s as is proved with this scathing view of religious cult  leaders in general. THE MASTER is one of the best films of the year and is sure to win many honors at awards time. The Weinstein Company/Annapurna Pictures.

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