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REVIEW: The Master (2012) March 18, 2016

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

Hollywood is often described as “dream factory” and, therefore, it is understood that its main business is selling fiction instead of truth. So, when Hollywood filmmakers have to choose between telling history and telling fiction, they often opt for the latter, mostly because facts tend to be too boring and not attractive enough for audience. In some rare instances, however, fiction wins over history not because of filmmakers’ artistic or commercial consideration, but because facts, when properly presented, might step on the toes of some vengeful and powerful individuals or organisations. Even some of the greatest filmmakers had to take those things into account. Citizen Kane, the world’s most famous film à clef,  is the best know example of such practice. In more recent years, such films are rarity, mostly because Hollywood filmmakers these days tend not to pick unnecessary fights and when they actually do, they are very careful not to admit it openly. One of such examples could be found in The Master, 2012 film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Plot begins at the end of Second World War, when US Navy sailor Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, has to face serious adjusting to civilian life. Psychological traumas suffered during the war and before it, however, make such adjustment very difficult and Freddie often indulges in self-destructive behaviour and alcohol, the latter provided by moonshine made by his own personal recipe. After losing a job and causing the death of a man who tasted his product Freddie runs to San Francisco and finds a shelter on yacht. When he wakes up, it turns out that the yacht is owned by Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffmann), eccentric self-proclaimed philosopher and founder a movement called “Cause”. Dodd is thrilled with Freddie’s moonshine, but even more fascinated by his character and sees him as a perfect guinea pig to test his bold theories and bizarre psychological procedures called “Processing”. Quell joins the “Cause” and becomes Dodd’s most enthusiastic supporter. Dodd’s other followers, most notably his wife Peggy (played by Amy Adams), are increasingly troubled by his presence, mostly because his continuing driking and propensity for unnecessary violence compromises the movement and their founder’s teaching.

Before and during the production a lot of free publicity for The Master was created by speculations that the film was a biopic dedicated to L. Ron Hubbard, founder of controversial Church of Scientology. A Hollywood film was, however, unlikely to deal with that subject directly, mainly because many of important Hollywood personalities (including some of Anderson’s close friends) were Scientologists, and the Church of Scientology was not known for not taking criticism kindly. So, Anderson was forced to deal with such hot potato indirectly; first by creating fictious versions of Hubbard and Scientology under different names and then by portraying the early years of Scientology from the perspective of an outsider.

Another set of speculations dealt with this film being a potential favourite for Academy Awards, especially in acting categories. The Master featured two very strong roles played by two very talented artists. Phoenix, who built his reputaion by playing troubled and often unlikeable characters is working very hard with Freddie, creating a very convincing and at times disturbing portrayal of alcoholic and sex-obsessed sociopath whose wartime traumas might be just a convenient cover for some much deeper issues. Hoffmann is, however, much more sympathetic but also very impressive as a person whose intellectual and other achievements don’t match his claims but who nevertheless compensates such gap with great deal of charm and charisma.

Two great acting performances, however, can’t compensate for the serious script deficiencies and Anderson’s apparent loss of focus. The plot is simply too slow and loses much of its focus in the second half when Freddie’s presence in the organisation leads to inevitable conflict which is resolved in a way which is both banal and confusing. Even more confusing is the actual ending in which Freddie has to finally face the fact that he and Dodd would have to go separate ways. Anderson wrote and directed those scenes in such a way that it is unclear whether they are actual events or Freddie’s dream. By that time anyone, apart from Anderson’s most die hard fans would stop caring and would probably appreciate film being over. The Master in the end didn’t need damaging controversies or some behind-the-scene Scientologist conspiracy to fail in getting awards and become a big disappointment.

RATING: 5/10


Buffalo Soldiers (2001) June 12, 2005

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Attacks of September 11th 2001 had profound effect on American film industry, because after them many important or popular films could not be seen without, in one way or the other, being compared with real life. But the effect of that fateful day wasn’t limited to the past films. Some of the films that were supposed to be released were put on hold, because the studios were worried about their tone or subject matter being inappropriate for prevailing mindset in America. One of such films was BUFFALO SOLDIERS, 2001 black comedy directed by Greg Jordan. It took few years and a certain change of political climate for this film to be available.

The plot, based on the novel by Richard O’Connor, is set in West Germany at the end of Cold War. With Soviet invasion becoming less likely, American troops guarding the Free World are becoming bored out of their minds and engage in all kinds of misbehaviour, like abusing drugs and crushing cars of hapless West German civilians with their tanks. Specialist Ray Elwood (played by Joaquin Phoenix) decides to spend his time more constructively – he and couple of soldiers set up their own heroin production and arms smuggling racket. All this happens under the eyes of Colonel Wallace Berman (played by Ed Harris), kind-hearted but clueless battalion commander, who is blissfully unaware even of Elwood having an affair with his wife (played by Elizabeth McGovern). Things change when the new, tough Sergeant Robert K. Lee (played by Scott Glen) arrives to base and begins to hamper Elwood’s illegal activities. Elwood tries to retaliate by starting an affair with Lee’s daughter Robyn (played by Anna Paquin) but this only leads to personal conflict escalating to almost surreal proportions.

BUFFALO SOLDIERS had its premiere on September 7th 2001. It isn’t hard to understand why Miramax chose not to distribute the film after the whole social climate in America changed four days later. In a country which went to great pains to describe “men and women of armed forces” as noble and heroic defenders of democracy it was hard to accept the film where those same men and women are portrayed as murderers, drug dealers and other examples of human filth. Thankfully for Miramax, war in Iraq created enough of anti-military sentiment in USA for BUFFALO SOLDIERS to become acceptable for American audience and later enjoy even greater acceptance abroad.

If BUFFALO SOLDIERS is indeed “anti-American” or “anti-military”, it is only in a sense that it shows some unpleasant truths that aren’t limited to the world’s greatest superpower or its current government. The sorry state of US military depicted in the film is even explicitly explained through the protagonist’s opening narration – after Vietnam War and abolition of draft, there was very little chance of military being the reflection of American society in general. In other words, when prosperous industrial nations make their militaries professional, they are bound to be faced with militaries comprised of those people who are marginalised in those societies because of their skin colour, low education, low income, low intelligence, criminal tendencies or all of that. And, as Robert Aldrich implicitly suggested in THE DIRTY DOZEN, certain qualities that make a good soldier would be completely unacceptable for individuals in civilian life. This heretical thesis is explicitly stated in BUFFALO SOLDIER – the more humane and scrupulous character is, the less likely it is that he would make a fine soldier and vice versa.

One of the greatest achievements of BUFFALO SOLDIERS is in the way it delivers such ultimately depressive content in humorous fashion. Even more important is ability of screenwriter Eric Weiss to avoid some of Hollywood clichés, especially those related to the protagonist. Elwood, brilliantly played by Joaquin Phoenix, is anti-hero whose actions might look despicable, but they are only reflections of a society; in other words, Elwood might be corrupt, but he isn’t better or worse than the very system to whom he belongs. What is even more important is his humanity – the film suggests that Elwood might have something of a conscience, but, unlike conventional Hollywood films, he doesn’t get one great epiphany at the end.

Unfortunately, BUFFALO SOLDIERS did succumb to certain Hollywood conventions. The most noticeable is obligatory romantic subplot involving Sergeant Lee’s daughter – although Anna Paquin again shows his great acting ability, the whole romance is too distracting and blunts the satiric edge of the film. Even more annoying is heavy-handed symbolism at the very end of the film. However, even with such flaws, BUFFALO SOLDIERS is a dark, entertaining and thought-provoking film that could be recommended to pacifists and militarists alike.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)