Saturday, February 23, 2013

Catching up with THE MASTER: Anderson's Oscar-nommed movie makes Blu-ray debut

It looks good, that's for sure, although it does not actually look quite that good. (Maybe the 70mm version appeared deeper, darker and more delicious?) In any case, THE MASTER -- the much-talked-about, would-be artistic blockbuster that disappointed at the box-office -- hits the street on DVD and Blu-ray this coming week, where film buffs can get their fill, maybe for a second time, while the hoi polloi (if it can be convinced to take a chance) watches, curls up its nose and then scratches its collective head. Not enough "action."

Though it does not identify Scientology by name, the movie -- written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (shown at left) -- drops enough hints and uses enough techniques similar to that cult so that most media-friendly folk will soon under-stand what kind of game the titular  "Master" (played oh-so-well by Philip Seymour Hoffman, below) is running and upon what it is based. The movie might just as easily have been titled The Pupil (or maybe The Disciple) as it concentrates more on the character of the hugely problemed man (a most interesting performance by Joaquin Phoenix, further below) who, by chance, comes into the sphere of this master and finds himself growing attached to and led by this charismatic charlatan, even as the supposed master is being seduced by the charms of his not-quite protégé.

And? Well, that's pretty much it, so far as plot/content is concerned. Lots of little things happen along the way, many of them interesting in their manner, and it adds up to... very little. But all very well photographed and acted -- and even, maybe, written -- line by line (if you don't try to make anything of the whole).

We move -- via Mr. Phoenix's character, Freddie -- from the latter days of World War II (above) through work as a department store photographer (below) to the lettuce fields of California.

Characters neither change nor grow (Mr. Phoenix, unfortunately, looks the same age from first to last, though quite a bit of time has passed), and one fat cliché of a scene (below) with an army psychiatrist may bring to mind the punch line of that old joke where the patient tells his shrink: "Don't call me sex-obssessed: You're the one with the dirty pictures!" There is also a terrific scene with a fine Laura Dern in which the master and his "philosophy" are unmasked rather thoroughly, if subtly.

This scene is given the same weight as just about everything other else in the film and so registers neither strongly nor weakly: It's simply there. This seems to be the modus operandi of Mr. Anderson, and it both commendable (for people who don't like the heavy-handed) and risky because, halfway along, the movie begins to plod and continue that plodding until its nearly two-and-one-half hours are up.

Along the way we meet the master's ever-loving and watchful wife: a fine Amy Adams, above, left, with Jesse Plemonscenter, as his son and Ambyr Childers as his daughter, at right, above. Then there's that utterly bizarre scene in which some supposedly vital writings are removed from a cave in the desert, below. And...? Don't ask, dummy. That's simply it.

I am glad I saw The Master, if only to keep up with what Mr. Anderson is doing. But the awe in which so many of our critics regard the film, is, to put it mildly, misplaced. Perhaps it is best to conceive of the movie, rather than a mere slice-of-life, as a great, big chunk-of-life. What to actually make of it, however, is utterly up for grabs.

The movie, from The Weinstein Company, hits the street on DVD and Blu-ray this coming Tuesday, February 26.

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