Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

It was nearly impossible for The Master to live up to everyone’s expectations. Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film was touted as the one to watch this year at TIFF and it’s already the frontrunner for the next Academy Awards, even though very few have seen the movie.

An epic, two-and-a-half hour long character study, The Master is brilliantly acted and breathtakingly beautiful. But just as it happened with P.T. Anderson previous film There Will Be Blood, it’s hard to engage with it. In both movies, the protagonists are extremely unlikable. Not evil, but very unpleasant.

Joaquin Phoenix makes good use of his mental breakdown from two years ago in his portrait of Freddie Quell. A WWII veteran who deals with his PTSD disorder by ingesting large amounts of alcohol, Quell is a shell of a man just a couple of weeks from panhandling on the streets. Freddie is found by Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the self-appointed leader of The Cause, a pseudo-scientific doctrine according to which our bodies have been corrupted by forces beyond our control.

Dodd adopts Quell more as a pet than as a disciple. Regardless, Freddie seems to become more functional under his gaze, but there is a limit to what The Cause can do for him. Dodd refuses to believe Freddie is beyond help (the guy drinks kerosene, for Pete’s sake). Then again, even Quell intoxicated brain realizes Dodd is making things up as he goes along.

Let’s stop pretending the plot is not based on the origins of Scientology. The similes are too many to ignore (“auditing” is rechristened “processing”, just to mention one). But The Master is more about the fallibility of men than some elaborated cult for celebrities. Phoenix work is reminiscent of early Brando and Hoffman is the perfect straight man to let his freak flag fly.

Unfortunately, among all these remarkable achievements, the connection with the audience is lost. It’s hard if not impossible to relate to Freddie plight, let alone Dodd’s motivations (I imagine some skittishness to tackle a religion of some Hollywood power-players). I miss the Paul Thomas Anderson of Magnolia and Boggie Nights, when he was poised to become the Robert Altman of our generation. His movies were imperfect, but at least you knew there was a human behind them. Three born-again prairie dogs.

And now, the lightning round:

Cloud Atlas (United States): I would be doing a disservice to this film if attempt to review it in a couple of paragraphs. This Wachowski siblings and Tom Twyker collaboration is hard sci-fi, more even than the first Matrix. Cloud Atlas combines six stories from all over time and space, each one of them with a different degree of complexity. It’s up to you to discover each one of them and see how they connect. I can guarantee you one thing, it would take more than one sitting.

Ambitious, imperfect and maddening at times, Cloud Atlas gives a very unique spin to the “we are all connected” subgenre. The acting (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant perform up to six roles at the time) and the tone is all over the place, and yet I would place it over The Master in a heartbeat. The final thirty minutes are the most stirring I have experienced in TIFF this year. Three temporary prairie dogs. Could be more.

End of Watch (United States): Leave it to David Ayer, the screenwriter of Training Day and Street Kings to get some juice from two tired formulas: The police drama and the found-footage recipe. Using all kinds of portable devices, we follow two LAPD cops (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) go through their day in some really bad neighborhoods. Ayer goes for realism and at times succeeds: These guys are not heroes, but there is certain nobility in his demeanor. His efforts are undermined by the terribly miscast Anna Kendrick and America Ferrera (think Ugly Betty as a hardened cop). The one cliché Ayer can’t avoid is the final confrontation with some Latino gangstas, but at least he makes the gun play entertaining. Three and a half prairie dogs, one set to retire, about to go on a final ride…

Everybody Has a Plan (Argentina): Besides being the go-to guy for studio movies with an edge, Viggo Mortensen has a whole separate career as leading man Spanish-speaking movies. Here, Mortensen takes a double role as emotionally detached twins embroiled in express kidnappings. Stolen identities and deceptions abound. For some reason, Argentinean filmmakers are very good at crime drama. Tres perros de pradera, ché.

Random notes:

* The reaction after the screening of Cloud Atlas was mixed. Many people hated it, others were intrigued. It would be interesting to see how it plays massively, although it will be a tough sale.

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