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Popcorn & Prejudice: A Movie Blog

Seattle Times writer Moira Macdonald muses on moviegoing. Email Moira: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

September 8, 2012 at 1:26 PM

At TIFF: ‘The Master’ is masterful

TORONTO — The heavens opened and the rain fell in torrents this morning in Toronto as the press corps, many of us bearing more than passing resemblances to drowned rats, assembled early for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” — could it have been the revenge of Scientology? Regardless, it’s a remarkably powerful film, set a few years after World War II, about a one man looking for a home, and another man looking for a son. Joaquin Phoenix, strutting like an uncertain prizefighter and slurring his words so they overlap like dominoes, plays Freddie, a young Navy veteran, an alcoholic and a lost soul; Philip Seymour Hoffman, jovially magnetic, is Lancaster Dodd, known as Master to the small band of followers around him in a fledgling self-awareness movement called The Cause. Wanting something to cling to, Freddie joins the group, but he’s reluctant to be dominated, and the film’s most intense moments feature the two men at odds, each trying to understand the other. “We do away with all negative emotional impulses,” the Master explains; Freddie can’t quite do that.
Like all of Anderson’s films, “The Master” is long and occasionally perplexing; there are odd dream sequences, and Jonny Greenwood’s ominously strummed score casts another layer of eerieness to an already strange story. But it’s often mesmerizing, particularly in Phoenix and Hoffman’s face-offs (you realize how very physically different the two are, and how their acting styles come from different places), and in its gorgeous, burnished 70mm images. I don’t know enough about L. Ron Hubbard to know how close the Scientology parallel is (will find out more before reviewing the film for its Seattle release), but ultimately “The Master” is less about the specifics of cult religions and more about eloquently examining a young man’s pain and an older man’s power. It opens in Seattle — in 70mm at Cinerama! — on the 21st.
Elsewhere today at TIFF: distribution deals are starting to fall into place, with Mike Newell’s “Great Expectations” (which I won’t see until Monday) picked up by Outsource Media Group for North American distribution, and Billy Bob Thornton’s “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” acquired by Anchor Bay. “The Place Behind the Pines,” a crime thriller directed by Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”) and starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, had its world premiere last night to much buzz; distributors are said to be circling. And, on a sidewalk, I ran into some charity group that wears bright orange T-shirts exactly like the ones worn by the thousands (I swear, they’re everywhere) of TIFF volunteers, and found it very disconcerting to be accosted for money by what looked lke the same people who greet everybody so sweetly from every possible angle at every TIFF venue, stationed roughly every five feet, minimum. But that was an entirely different orange T-shirt brigade, so the questions remains: Of all the T-shirt colors on earth, why orange?
Anyway, now the sun is out, midafternoon, and I’m off to “Cloud Atlas” and then dinner, assuming I can pick my head up off the floor after two hours and 45 minutes of trippy sci-fi, or whatever “Cloud Atlas” could be said to be. Then again, it might be fabulous. More later.

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