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New films: The Master, Trouble with the Curve, & House at the End of the Street

The Master
Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

“The Master” is an extremely well made and well acted film that I have mixed feelings about.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a young man who leaves the Navy after WWII with few clear prospects but a prodigious drinking problem – and not of the purely alcoholic kind, more of the torpedo fuel and chemical cocktail kind. After a few failed attempts at gainful employment, he finds himself in the company of an enigmatic man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his band of disciples, who address him as Master.

Both Phoenix and Hoffman are great in their respective roles, as is Amy Adams in the lesser (as measured by screentime only) of two performances this week (see also “Trouble with the Curve”) as Hoffman’s wife.

What is more difficult to assess, in my opinion, is the story. As we see more of the Master and his group, it becomes clear that they form the nucleus of some kind of cult-like organization with widespread followers and also detractors. Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is both a natural target for the group, as a wandering and vulnerable soul with little to lose, but also a loose cannon with his unpredictable nature and substance abuse problems.

Although it was less blatant earlier in the production and distribution process, it has been stated more clearly recently that much of the inspiration for Hoffman’s Master, Lancaster Dodd, was based on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. And stories or allegations have surfaced about pressure being applied by Scientologists to suppress the production – although that also makes for good publicity as the film is released to theaters.

Which gives rise to my mixed feelings as it’s not entirely clear whether this is intended to be a full-on film about Hubbard, with names and details changed to avoid challenges, or a film about cults and acolytes that happens to use Hubbard and Scientology as models on which to base the leader and structure. The film manages to seem both generic in some moments, especially with regard to Quell as a troubled individual who might be vulnerable to the appeal of a structured environment, and quite specific in others as it depicts aspects of the methods and beliefs, books being published, and other details that seem quite consistent with Hubbard and Scientology, including the period.

It feels as if it’s trying to be both of those things at once and, at least at some level, it seemed to me as though it suffered in the process. When the camera is on Phoenix it feels like a story about Quell, the troubled individual, when it’s on Hoffman it feels like a story about Hubbard and Scientology, and when it’s on both of them, it feels more like a third film about a strained relationship (or even ‘bromance’) between two unlikely friends, co-conspirators in some grand adventure. There are even moments when it could be the inner turmoil of two parts of a single personality struggling for dominance.

It seems likely that the film will earn acting award nominations, but the rest of its fate during awards season seems less clear at this early stage. Almost every aspect of the production (art direction, wardrobe, etc.) satisfied me more than the writing. I have avoided production notes and interviews with Anderson to avoid preconceptions, but at some point I will probably track them down in order to get a better handle on what the ultimate goal was and to further determine to what extent it seems to have met it. Until then, my mixed feelings will remain mixed – wondering if the goal was to leave me pondering that lack of perceived clarity, perhaps leaving me as vulnerable to claims of absolute knowledge and control as Freddie Quell might be.


Trouble with the Curve
Directed by Robert Lorenz

“Trouble with the Curve” succeeds despite flaws that might destroy another film, largely because of the cast of Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, and Justin Timberlake as a father, his daughter, and a guy who has a history with the father and who wants a future with the daughter. That’s a winning combination that could work in many contexts and happens to work here in the world of baseball.

Last week I mentioned an issue with recent stories and hinted at another to come – and this is it. Eastwood plays an elderly baseball scout with a great record in the age of probabilities and statistics – it’s essentially the anti-“Moneyball.” His employers, the Atlanta Braves want him to scout a highschool player (who’s a total schmuck) but the young gun in the office (Matthew Lillard) doesn’t trust him, preferring instead the objective numbers and, if pushed, his own scout. That’s already a decent story that could potentially carry a movie – it has conflict, competition, and a grudge.

But this is really more of a relationship movie about a father and daughter, set in baseball, than a baseball movie. So the story needs a convenient mechanism to get the high-powered lawyer daughter to tag along with crotchety old Dad. And we get that by virtue of Eastwood’s character losing his sight, which would seem inherently problematic for a scout, as well as an old guy living alone. It’s a bit of a lazy mechanism that drives the plot but also requires multiple shots of Eastwood tripping and walking into things.

He’s a widower with regrets, past his prime, who has a bad relationship with his daughter, in an industry that no longer values him, and facing retirement with no backup plan. He didn’t need to be going blind for the story to work and it felt like another example of a script that lays it on thick in case the audience wouldn’t otherwise appreciate the sense of jeopardy.

The other major league problem is that the story is profoundly predictable. There was only one minor plot detail that mildly surprised me. I even timed a brief trip to the bathroom perfectly within a single scene that I was confident would last a few minutes and add virtually nothing to the plot.

Which takes me back to my first point, that it’s the cast that makes it worthwhile. If you don’t like these actors, don’t see the movie – because you have to like them enough to enjoy watching them act out scenes you could probably write yourself after the first 20 minutes. And if you do like them, it’s a delightful, lightweight drama – like the ground rule double of baseball movies, that performs as well as it does by virtue of an inherent factor in the production, in this case the cast.


House at the End of the Street
Directed by Mark Tonderai

As with “Trouble with the Curve,” the fact that “House at the End of the Street” does as well as it does (which isn’t that well) is largely due to the primary cast. Here we get Elisabeth Shue and Jennifer Lawrence as a mother and daughter with a strained relationship, where we’d often get two relatively unknown faces and a film that might have seemed better suited for a straight to video release.

Circumstances have caused them to move to a new town and rent a house next to another in which a grisly double murder was committed. In a neat touch of movie self-awareness, the plot doesn’t cause them to discover this over time, as creepy things occur, it’s presented upfront and the Mom even says that the history and location is what made the house affordable.

It’s not a great film but it does deliver on its dark themes – although it’s more of a thriller than the horror that some of the advance images might have hinted at. Even the title font flashes at the audience and shows a twisted version behind itself – and there’s a neat scene in which a faulty flashlight creates an effective boost in the suspense level. Of course there’s also the “Why would you go in there?” and the “Are you sure the person’s really dead?” moments that are essentially required in a film like this, but it’s simple and somewhat effective.


All three films open in Sacramento today.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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