The Master

ImageTwo things can be said with certainty about Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master. First, Anderson definitely knows his way around a camera; second, Joaquin Phoenix emphatically knows his way around appearing ‘disturbed.’ Both of these elements are used to their absolute potential in order to challenge and entice the audience to look a little closer at this film than, perhaps, Anderson has asked in the past.

The Master is Anderson’s sixth stop on his cinematic journey through American culture and it may be his most polarizing one to date. Director, Anderson has mesmerized audiences with triumphantly engaging dissections of American culture in films like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and of course 2007’s There Will Be Blood. The Master returns Anderson to his role as writer along with being director after his singular exception, adapting Upton Sinclair’s Oil! into There Will Be Blood. This time Anderson takes an isolated and cold look at specific segment of post-World War II 1950s America. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a Naval veteran who struggles with alcoholism, anger issues, and repressed memories of a troubled upbringing which partially manifest in unhealthy sexual obsessions. After the war, Quell finds himself in a series of odd-jobs that he is in no way suited for, including one that results in his being chased off after one of his “home-made” alcoholic concoctions seemingly brings about the death, or near death, of one of his co-workers. It is here that Quell finds himself a stow-away on a yacht commanded by a charming, yet nefarious character by the name of Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who stars in four of Anderson’s six films). Dodd is at sea to officiate and celebrate the wedding of his daughter, but upon the discovery of Quell his interests turn to him and his story. Dodd’s compassion for Quell unveils to reveal his role as leader of a cultest group known as The Cause. Dodd uses his wit, intellect, and charm to pray on the affluent, which in turn results in additional wealth, appreciation, and power for him and his group. He is quick to accept compliments, but resorts to shouting down and conceivably condoning violence against his critics. Quell, who has been wrestling with his uncertain future, is easily drawn in by their hypnotizing appeal.

What follows is a slow-burn of a drama that gains all of its leisurely paced momentum from the conflicts that arise between Quell and Dodd. It is also a challenging film for the viewer. It is a cinematic puzzle on par with enigmatic films like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in 2011. We are forced to pay close attention as we constantly question a look, a question, or an action in an ongoing battle to understand these characters’ true motivations. A follow-up to There Will Be Blood, it is hard to ignore the similarities between Blood’s Daniel Plainview and Master’s Lancaster Dodd; the names are iconically memorable for starters. Furthermore, Dodd’s methodical and meticulous effort to distort and corrupt the psyche of Quell in order to vindicate or authenticate himself certainly rings a bell.

The Master is not an easy film to understand, nor is it an easy film to watch given its 140 minute running time. What it is, is a beautifully acted and orchestrated character analysis filmed on 65 mm film stock. Anderson takes endless risks here and while the film drags, his criticisms on some of the supposed motivations of those who promise answers, faith, or comfort do stay with you after the credits role. C+

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Celeste and Jessie Forever

ImageIt seems like you can boil romantic comedies down into two distinct categories. First, there is the wildly exaggerated and romantically super-charged type (The Proposal, The Wedding Planner, He’s Just not that in to You). Then, there is the down-to-earth, subtle, more realistic type (When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall, Love Actually). Both of these styles of “Rom-Com” can be tremendously successful or abysmally awful. Celeste and Jesse Forever can be described as a decent stab at the second type or a failure at the first.

Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg play Celeste and Jesse, a cute, happy, seemingly perfect couple with one surprising blemish, they are about to be divorced. The reason for their decision to separate remains somewhat unclear as we are introduced to them six months into their post-separation, pre-divorce limbo period. It seems Celeste is convinced that Jessie, while a great guy, lacks any form of motivation to be the husband she feels she deserves. This ambiguity about why they are breaking up allows the film to explore the minds of the characters as they struggle with the decision to either try again or be the first to move on. Both are determined to not hurt each other, but find that this is impossible as they exist in this touchy gray area of their relationship.

Writer and star, Rashida Jones deserves some credit for attempting to breathe life into a genre that has been, for the most part, rather weak as of late. Celeste and Jessie works pretty well when we are following the couple’s lives as they try to understand if and/or how they are supposed to love each other; these scenes are clever, cute, funny, and emotionally dramatic at times. That strength is tossed away when the film shifts focus towards Celeste’s silly rivalry with Riley Banks (Emma Roberts), a Ke$ha-like pop star at her media consulting firm. It is here that Celeste and Jessie Forever tries to tip-toe unsuccessfully into the other sillier type of romantic comedy with clichés abound like the gay friend, going on bad dates, and the perfect guy who’s right under her nose. Unfortunately, all this transition does is make the audience feel a bit manipulated and uneasy. In the end, Celeste and Jessie Forever feels a bit uneven. The film does make us care about these characters and there is a resolution that is somewhat satisfying. Emma Roberts’ vapid Riley Banks mentions in the film, “It’s about being who you are…unless who you are sucks.” Celeste and Jessie tries so hard not to suck that it loses what it could have been. C+