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Column Fri Sep 21 2012

The Master & Dredd 3D

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The Master


I know a lot of people are going to walk out of the latest from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson and think that they need to see it one or two more times just to get to the film's deeper meanings and the sources of its underlying tension. If I may be so bold, I don't think that's necessary; I think this may be Anderson's most in-your-face, on-the-surface work, and I don't level that as a criticism. I just sincerely doubt any additional digging is required; the scenes as they play out make the themes clearly and precisely evident.

And while we're talking about things that aren't necessary or relevant, can we drop the Scientology discussion? The Master is not a film about Scientology or L. Ron Hubbard. Sure, Anderson borrows some of the dogma and practices of the relatively new religion, but the film isn't some classless exposé. Between this film and There Will Be Blood, it's become clear that Anderson has a fascination (some might call it a healthy disrespect) for religious leaders. He seem less interested in what they're preaching and more in how they're preaching it. He also explores the idea that there is the thinnest of lines between being a spiritual guide and a crazy person.

There were times in The Master where I simply had to tune out what Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd (frequently referred to as "the Master" by his followers) was saying because it didn't matter. This is an examination about his methods, how his delivery sells his beliefs, and the ways he draws people into his science-based following. Dodd twists the will of people seeking something different than worshipping long-dead icons; he's selling them the future. A kind of time travel is the basis of Dodd's practice, and it's beyond fascinating watching Hoffman bring people (including me) under his spell. I recall people complaining that they thought Hoffman's talents were wasted in his relatively small role in Moneyball. If you really thought that, you weren't paying attention. When he locks eyes on you, you're caught; and in The Master, he has the unblinking eyes of a hunter.

Adopting a look that reminded me of a middle-aged Charles Foster Kane, Dodd meets his match when confronted with Freddie Sutton (Joaquin Phoenix), a former Navy man fresh out of World War II (the film is set mostly in 1950) who has no trouble getting into one mess after another at every turn. Freddie was psychologically damaged from what he experienced during the war, and now he wanders the country aimless and drunk off homemade liquor. He is on a first-name basis with trouble, and that eventually leads him to stow away on a boat inhabited by Dodd, his wife Mary Sue (a riveting Amy Adams) and a few dozen guests at their daughter's wedding. He wakes up hungover in a bed, and is told that he now works for Mr. Dodd. With little argument, he agrees.

It's clear from the start that Dodd has taken on Freddie as the ultimate challenge. At one point, Dodd makes says if Freddie is not cured of his wicked ways then it is they who have failed him. Freddie's scars run deep, and using a series of questions and exercises (called "being processed"), Dodd wants to reveal the spirits from Freddie's past (past lives is a big part of this religion referred to as "The Cause"), cast them out, and fortify his new friend for the future.

The Master is at its most electric and searing when Hoffman and Phoenix share the screen, and although they appear together many times throughout the film, there are three key scenes that are the highlights of the movie. The first is that initial processing sequence, in which Dodd rattles off a series of questions (often repeating the same questions four or five times) and Freddie responds in kind. In that brief exchange, we learn more about Freddie than we do anywhere else in the film, both because of what he's saying and the way he shifts nervously in his chair.

Watching Phoenix is this role is one of the greatest experiences I've had observing an actor on screen in many years — his crooked smile; his wavy, slicked-back hair that he constantly runs his hands through; his voice, which alternates between mumbling and screaming; his shifty, violent eyes; and his general air of equal parts charm and menace. But the reason all of these physical cues are the most compelling is that they reveal something broken behind Freddie's eyes.

The second great Hoffman-Phoenix scene takes place in adjacent jail cells, where it becomes clear that Freddie does not like being restrained or caged. The final exchange takes place near the end of the film in Dodd's cavernous office, and it is in that scene that this unlikely pairing has its clear and painful break, and we discover truly if Dodd's processing and exercises have done Freddie any good in the long run.

The Master is Anderson's most impressionistic work, and by that I mean that there's very little by way of a plot. Considering what a masterful storyteller Anderson is, this may be the most divisive issue with audiences. What he has done instead of telling a traditional narrative is given us a series of sequences and images that, when added up at the end, paint portraits of its two leading men. You might think that's what all movies do, but after you see this one, you'll think again.

But The Master isn't only about men. Just from the one secret screening in California recently, the word was out that Amy Adams was the biggest surprise of this film, and that is 100 percent correct. Adams actually plays two roles: the public and private faces of Mary Sue Dodd, who spends much of the film dowdy and pregnant sitting beside her husband, nodding in agreement and offering adornment to his already flowery words. But when they are alone, out comes the warrior woman who fears that her husband's small but growing kingdom will tumble before it really takes off. She's as much a part of his success as he is, and if you don't think so, wait for a particularly telling scene in a bathroom. Men are so easy to figure out sometimes.

One of Anderson's constant strengths is his ability to cast smaller supporting roles perfectly, in addition to his leads. The Master is loaded with great work from the likes of Kevin J. O'Connor and Laura Dern but keep your eyes on Jesse Plemons ("Friday Night Lights," Observe and Report and most recently on "Breaking Bad") and Ambyr Childers as Dodd's grown children from a previous marriage. They know more about their father than anyone in this film, and when Plemons says to Freddie that Dodd is "making this up as he goes along," it feels shocking even thought we've been thinking it all along.

I also liked Rami Malek as Childers' new husband. He is so loyal to Dodd and the Cause that we wonder who he thought he was actually marrying on that boat. He's the closest thing we get to blind faith in the movie, and that made it impossible to take my eyes of him.

I don't want to spend too much time talking about the 70mm presentation of The Master I got to experience, because the sad fact is most of you will not see the film projected as such. I do plan on seeing the film again, projected in a more traditional fashion, for comparison's sake. But there is no way to accurately describe the way the several shots of a ship's wake on the clear blue ocean looks in 70mm. There is a depth and richness to it that is simply irreplaceable by any level of digital filming or projection. But I suspect the film's gorgeous cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. (a relative newcomer who worked with Francis Ford Coppola on Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt), coupled with Jonny Greenwood's hypnotic score, will look pretty stellar in a multiplex as well. Still, if you have the opportunity to see the film in 70mm ever, do so; the results are noticeably different and staggeringly gorgeous.

Here's my advice. Simply watch The Master the first time around. Don't try to decipher or interpret or assign meaning. Just observe the characters as you would any other film. Let their eccentricities amuse you, explosive personalities shock you, and motives become clearer as the film goes on. If you're on the lookout for a contortionistic plot, you may leave disappointed — it just isn't there. Even a subplot involving Freddie's hometown sweetheart who he left behind when he went to war, which I assumed would teach us a great deal about who he was before the war, has very little to offer beyond an interesting conversation. The Master is Anderson stripped down to the barest of plot, leaving a great deal of room for some of the greatest performances and camerawork he has ever held up for our intake.

I'll leave you with this: Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe a world of possibilities and hidden meanings will be opened up to me as I revisit he film two or three more times. I'd love to be wrong about that. But here's the thing: I don't think that it will change my deep affection for this movie if that is true. I suspect The Master works at every level — as a simple story of two men of different minds, or as a thesis on faith, love, the mind, religion, time, maybe life itself. The most important thing is that Anderson never forgets to keep us guessing and entertained. If a filmmaker can surprise me as to what will happen next and how I'll feel about it, that's more than half the battle. And it's certainly enough for me to recommend seeing it, at least once.

Dredd 3D

I'll admit, it's been a number of years since I've even accidentally laid eyes upon Sylvester Stallone's Judge Dredd, but in my faded memory of the film, I remember it as a comedy. The scenes that stick in my head are of Stallone and Rob Schneider. I'm sure die-hard fans of the source material comic book were appalled; I simply watched it, shrugged and moved on to the next Stallone movie, which he was still pumping out at a fairly regular pace back in the mid-'90s.

So the best advice I can give you going into director Peter Travis' (Vanishing Point) Dredd 3D is this: pretend that other one never existed. This version seems perfectly synched, stylized (but not overly so), hyper-violent, pulp science fiction that paints the picture of the world in the not-to-distant future where a huge portion of the eastern seaboard of America has become one giant scorched earth city where crime runs rampant, and the only way to expedite the justice system is to have the national police force (known as judges) serve as law enforcement, judge, jury, and if necessary, executioner. And very often, they find it necessary. There's no emotion involved in the judgements, no defense, and the judges seem to have a lot of flexibility about how they can carry out executions, so it allows for creativity on the job, I guess.

But even among the names of judges whispered in the Hall of Justice, that of Judge Dredd (Karl Urban, of The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek fame) seems to be the stuff of legend in terms of his exploits and swiftly delivered style of justice. As it should be, despite the fact that Urban is a classically handsome actor, we never see more than his nose and snarling mouth for the entire film. He puts on a gruff voice that reminded me a middle-aged Clint Eastwood mixed with a little of Christian Bale's Batman (not quite that whispery, but ragged nonetheless). The result is a persona that civilians would rightfully fear just from his stature and tone. That and the fact that he kills a lot of bad guys without hesitation.

The blood and gore in this film seems to have a heavy emphasis on chunks. Brain matter and other head-wound debris seem to be the order of the day. When a bad guy takes a bullet or has an explosive device rip through their body, we are rarely spared the details, and I'm quite OK with that; some of you may find it too much. What I find fascinating is that despite the high body count in Dredd 3D, I actually remember many specific kills, partially because we experience several of them in slow motion. The reason for this is that many of the victims are on a drug called Slo-Mo, which makes your brain experience the world at 1 percent the speed, which makes a long fall down a 200-story building seem like an eternity.

After we see Judge Dredd dispense with justice first time, he is saddled with the unenviable task of assessing the readiness of a rookie judge named Cassandra (Olivia Thurlby, completely breaking type with her usual indie-film, quirky-girl roles). She is expected to fail the process because she technically failed the entrance exam, but it turns out she has psychic abilities (mutants are apparently common in this version of the future) that allow her to read minds with startling accuracy. The justice system thinks she'd be useful, and Dredd is expected to field train her for a day.

The pair are called to the aforementioned housing project known as the Peach Trees, a massive steel structure run by the Ma-Ma clan, to investigate a triple homicide. Ma-Ma is actually a former prostitute played by Lena Headey (300, "Game of Thrones"), and she is one nasty bitch who regularly punishes anyone who crosses her by skinning them alive before murdering them. You will grow to fear her and her rather oily-looking facial scars.

During their investigation, the judges take into custody one of Ma-Ma's lieutenants, Kay (Wood Harris from "The Wire"), and she does not like that one bit since they plan on taking him in on suspicion of the murders. Ma-Ma is more worried about him cracking under interrogation and spilling the beans about her operation, so she puts the entire building on lockdown and announces to the building that she'd be ever-so grateful if someone in the complex would take out the judges. The film eventually becomes a race by the judges to either get out of the building (not likely) or go up the entire 200 stories to take out Ma-Ma and her crew and anyone else in the building that might do them harm. If this scenario sounds suspiciously like the plot of The Raid, yeah, there's not much I can say to discourage that line of thinking — it's remarkably similar. But the good news is, both films are very good; Dredd 3D is just a whole lot bigger in scale.

Travis does a remarkable job of keeping things moving, while keeping the tone serious but with room for the darkest of dark humor. Thurlby is not on hand to deliver quippy dialogue or be the hapless female in this endeavor. She makes rookie mistakes, but that's in line with her character's level of experience; not because she's a woman holding a big gun. She seems more vulnerable only because she's the only judge who doesn't wear a helmet (it interferes with her mind-reading abilities), but by being able to see her face, she also humanizes the almost robot-like judges. But she kills and takes the hits with the best of them. Judge Dredd is the badass that you want from this film, but Cassandra is the heart and soul of a film that would die under its own weight without her.

I should also mention a nice supporting turn by Domhnall Gleeson (one half of Harry Potter's Weasley twins) as Ma-Ma's computer tech, who is treated like some sort of pet to her, and not in the good way. But in the end, the film comes down to the dynamic between Urban and Thirlby, which is both as student/teacher and as equals. Many of the snap judgements in the film belong to her, not him, and by him giving her that responsibility, she is allowed to show just how ready she is for the job (or not), and it makes us respect her more immediately.

I should mention that Dredd 3D is (as the title implies) in 3D, but aside from a few shots near the beginning of the film and most of the slow-motion sequences, the film is so dark that I rarely even noticed that 3D was part of the movie. With any 3D work, I tend to get a lot of emails asked if the up-charge is worth it; in this case, it is not. Aside from that, if you can handle truckloads of graphic violence, you're in for a hardcore action ride the likes of which I haven't seen in quite some time from a mainstream, non-horror release. Prepare to have your mind and eyes assaulted in the best possible way.

 
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