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The Master (2012, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)

Oh boy.

This was, by far, the film I was most looking forward to at this year's TIFF. Paul Thomas Anderson has never made a bad film - hell, the man's never made anything less than a great film. And given what the film was, given that it supposedly did to L. Ron Hubbard what Citizen Kane did to William Randolph Hearst, given that PTA shot it in 70 mm, there was simply no way I was missing it. Eris, in her finite capricious wisdom, even graced me with a ticket to the public premiere at the relatively glorious Princess of Wales, a space normally reserved for live theater that only shows movies during the film festival.

On the surface, The Master is everything you would want and expect from a PTA film. It looks exquisite, moving from a blue ocean churning behind a ship to the Arizona desert and making everything look glorious. It does as fantastic a job of recreating the early '50s as Boogie Nights did of recreating the '70s and early '80s. The performances are uniformly outstanding, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman firing off what will probably be acclaimed an Oscar-worthy turn as the charismatic, insecure charlatan/guru (those two have always been opposite sides of the same coin) Lancaster Dodd, Joaquin Phoenix tearing into his role as Freddy, the immovable object to Hoffman's irresistible force, and Amy Adams matching those two blow for blow as Peggy, the power behind Hoffman's throne (and Amy, if you're reading this: you need to do Lady MacBeth. Like, right now. I will pay any price, airfare included, to sit in the audience and watch you perform the Damned Spot monologue on stage.)

And yet... when the screen cut finally to black, I did not have that immediate "OMG that was the greatest thing I'd ever seen" reaction I've gotten from just about every other PTA movie. In fact, I was left wondering what the point of it all was. The Master is a film about unenlightened people making a show of striving for enlightenment, so while that creates an opportunity for some acting fireworks it results in none of them really having any kind of character arc. Hoffman ends the film in the same place he started it, offering freedom to the weak while slowly putting them in chains. Adams is still the same driven woman she was at the beginning, equal parts dutiful wife and puppet master. And Phoenix... his Freddy is everything Hoffman's "Cause" decries, a laughing, fucking, drunken monkey of a man who cares nothing for bettering himself. All he really learns, by the end, is how to mimic Hoffman's attempts to indoctrinate him and turn them into a juvenile sex game.

Don't get me wrong. There's a lot going on in The Master, on the surface and below it. The film does a solid job of filling in the early history of Scientology under a thin veneer of fictionalization, while the interplay between Freddy, Lancaster and Peggy so obviously represents the relationship between id, ego and superego that the Freudian... Christ, I can't even really call it 'subtext' since it's so transparent - that Freudian reading supplies a bigger fuck you to Hubbard and his legacy than anything in the actual plot of the film. Like I said, every individual part of the film, looked at in isolation, has no obvious flaws. And yet... and yet.

Maybe it's that lack of character development that creates a distance that I've never felt before in a PTA film. There was no emotional distance between me and Daniel Plainsview or Dirk Diggler. Maybe it was the lack of big moments that left me feeling wanting. There are no pudding-fueled trips to Hawaii in The Master, no rains of frogs. Nobody gets beaten to death with a bowling pin. All we get that comes close is a jailhouse shouting match. Or maybe it was the curious divide between Phoenix's overtly Method-driven style of acting, rooted so strongly in his physicality from his clenched jaw to the apparent chronic back condition that seemed to inform his movements, and Hoffman and Adams' more organic styles that prevented me from connecting fully with the movie. All I know is that when the credits started rolling, I felt the space between myself and the screen very, very keenly. I felt like I'd been lectured at, not engaged.

The Master is a film that will most likely be acclaimed as great, and I don't really have a problem with that. This isn't some banal Ron Howard piece of shit Oscar bait that folks will gush over because it's non-threatening. But, barring some big epiphany striking me, this is going to be the Paul Thomas Anderson film I revisit the least down the road.



Seven Psychopaths (2012, directed by Martin McDonagh)

Once upon a time in the land of Hollywood, after the usurper king Quentin the Loquacious had unleashed Pulp Fiction on the world, a host of lesser talents tried to make star-studded ensemble crime comedy/drama/thrillers with titles like Six Heads and Two Days in Duffel Bag Valley While You're Dead in order to carve out their own little fiefdoms. They were pretty much uniformly terrible, and mostly disappeared without leaving much of a trace in the collective unconscious aside from a vague sense of nausea at the thought of ever watching another hackneyed star-studded ensemble crime comedy/drama/thriller again.

So, naturally, the demented mind behind In Bruges decided to make his next film a star-studded ensemble crime comedy/drama/thriller. Only McDonagh made it mostly a comedy, and a meta-comedy making fun of star-studded ensemble crime comedy/drama/thrillers at that, and that decision pretty much saves the film.

Now, that's not to say Seven Psychopaths is a great film, or really even a very good film. The "plot" involves a drunken sot of a screenwriter named, ahem, Martin (played with his usual slightly ditzy charm by Colin Farrell) who's trying to write a movie called, ahem, Seven Psychopaths but is having trouble finishing it because he's kind of sick of writing about violence and death and just wants to know why the psychopaths can't talk through their differences instead of resorting to gunfire and bloodshed. His best friend Billy Bickle (a perfectly loopy Sam Rockwell), who wants to co-write the script with him, keeps trying to push him forward by pointing him towards some real-life psychos including a masked lunatic who kills only mid- to high-level members of the Italian mafia or the yakuza, a man who grew weary of being part of a Bonnie and Clyde-meets-Dexter couple who killed serial killers (Tom Waits in a fantastic little extended cameo) and a Quaker who torments the man who murdered his daughter into committing suicide and then follows him to hell by slitting his own throat. I imagine you've spotted a pattern there. Billy is in the dognapping business with Hans (Christopher Walker being, well, himself), but they run afoul of the head of the crime family (an over-the-top Woody Harrelson) Psychopath #1 has been targeting when they take his dog by mistake. Paths cross, mayhem ensues, bodies pile up etc etc etc.

If that sounds like a dumbed-down Adaptation, well, it kinda is, right down to Billy's insistence on getting "his ending". But Seven Psychopaths manages to carve out an identity of its own, so that the similarities don't make it seem like a retread. McDonagh, as with In Bruges, has written some crackling dialogue and handed it over to a cast that knows what to do with it, so even if the story doesn't really go anywhere and the big reveals get telegraphed from a mile away the movie still plenty entertaining enough to carry you past all the rough edges and slow spots.

I feel like I should dismount with some sort of labored "seven psychopaths out of 10!" closing line here, but honestly it wouldn't rate more than six and a half. Whatever. Seven Psychopaths is an entertaining, amusing time waster - no more, no less.



Tai Chi 0 (2012, directed by Stephen Fung)

This movie is... well, there's... it just... I mean, fuck.

I don't want to simply rehash the tweet I sent out right after seeing it, but it's really the best description I've got. Tai Chi Zero is the crazy, crazy baby of Kung Fu Hustle and Scott Pilgrim. Ostensibly it's a Chinese historical epic about Yang Lu Chan, the man who popularized tai chi, and tells the standard tale of his quest to learn the secrets of the style and master them, but at the same time it's a batshit, steampunk-infused story of good versus evil, tradition versus progress, and xenophobia versus inclusiveness delivered along with a visual maelstrom of comic book elements. Yes, I said steampunk. Chinese steampunk. Deal with it.

This is most giddily ridiculous film I've seen in a long time. It feels like almost every frame gets jazzed up with something. I suppose it's become a bit old hat to superimpose a credit when a character appears on screen for the first time, but when have you seen superimposed credits that list not only the character and the actor playing them, but also why the actor is in the film? (For example, the actress who plays Sister Mahjongg apparently coached the 2008 Italian Olympic Wushu team. I looked it up - they scored a silver. Good job, Sister Mahjongg!) When tai chi techniques get used, charts pop up showing you the appropriate foot placement and movements so, I guess, you can practice them yourself. And when our hero finally arrives at the tiny mountain village that's the home of the fabled tai chi practitioners, a handy legend appears denoting what all the buildings are, and even helpfully points out a flagpole. It's hilarious, and absurd, and awesome.

The fighting is fantastic, no surprise when you have a cast of Olympic coaches and '70s martial arts film legends and whatnot. Fung shows it in small doses though and is liberal with the wire work and effects, sometimes putting them to the most ridiculous uses. 2008 Olympic Wushu overall champion (hmm, 2008 must have been a good year for wushu) Yuan Ziaochao makes his film debut in the lead, and plays Yang Lu Chan as, well, as an idiot. Half his dialogue seems to be him saying "What the hell?" at stuff that really shouldn't require that much explanation. He's great at it though, giving Chan a naivete and optimism that carries him through when his intellect and martial arts prowess fail him. If Jackie has an heir this is probably him: Yuan seems to have a clear gift for comedy along with his fighting chops. And Hong Kong model/actress Angelababy shines as Chan's main foil and inevitable love interest (sort of), the daughter of the legendary tai chi master Chen, who is played with gruff but lovable charm by Tony Leung Ka Fai.

There are two really awful things about seeing Tai Chi Zero though. One, it's only the first half of the story. Tai Chi Hero is still apparently in post-production, so the plot just stops dead at the end of the movie and it's kind of cruel because there's about to be a big wedding and everything and I want to see how it ends right the hell now now NOW. They do throw a trailer for Tai Chi Hero in the credits though, so that's something. Peter Stormare even shows up in it, because why not. Also, in China they get to see this insane thing in Imax 3D, while we were stuck with a 2D print over here. Given what Fung does with the other technical elements of the film I can only imagine what his mad genius did with the 3D.

Look, Tai Chi Zero has major pacing problems and the music could be better and the English dialogue is of course stilted, but you won't care. You simply won't care. It's too awesome.

It's just... ridiculous. Stupid, and ridiculous, and an assload of fun.

Follow me, and give me audience friends. Cassius, go you onto Twitter. @AntonSirius

Readers Talkback
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  • Sept. 10, 2012, 3:47 p.m. CST


    by Mennen

  • His track record at the BO stinks.

  • Sept. 10, 2012, 3:50 p.m. CST


    by Mennen

    Am I forgetting one?

  • Sept. 10, 2012, 4:02 p.m. CST

    post a fucking spoiler alert

    by john

  • Sept. 10, 2012, 4:14 p.m. CST

    Peter Stormare even shows up in it, because why not.

    by Ultron ver 2.0

    I lol'd. Great review....looking forward to seeing Tai Chi 0!

  • Sept. 10, 2012, 4:33 p.m. CST


    by vanchimera

    Remember that time I didn't complain about having a movie spoiled because I didn't read the review?

  • Sept. 10, 2012, 4:34 p.m. CST

    you are watching the wrong Colin Farrell movies

    by IAmLegolas

    check out In Bruges, Ondine, The Way Back & London Boulevard and come back with that shit. Those remakes were destined to fail with or without him as most remakes do.

  • Sept. 10, 2012, 4:49 p.m. CST

    Don't lie. S.W.A.T. aint that bad and y'all know it!!!

    by Michael

  • Sept. 10, 2012, 4:59 p.m. CST

    One good thing to come out of all of this

    by papabendi

    No more Colin Farrell blockbusters.

  • Sept. 10, 2012, 5:36 p.m. CST


    by Anton_Sirius

    Which one do you think contains spoilers, exactly?

  • Sept. 10, 2012, 5:47 p.m. CST

    The Master.....

    by john

    When a movie is about the development of its characters and you tell us where they end up in the end, that's a spoiler.

  • Sept. 10, 2012, 8:23 p.m. CST

    Good thing...

    by Pete

    I already saw The Master. I would be pissed if I were you guys and read this with no spoiler warnings.

  • If you yourself don't think its great, then you SHOULD have a problem with that. Otherwise, its clear that you are cowardly pulling your punches in order to satisfy some rabid fan base of readers who expect (or even demand) that you to love it. So do you think its "great" or not? If you are going to write a review, have the courage of your convictions to honestly relate what you have experienced with your own eyes. Let's face it. The Master sucks. Its boring (not engagingly slow mind you, but BORING). It has no story arc. No character arc. And no insights into anything important. While I'm all in favor of expressing nuanced or even contradictory feelings in a review, I would definitely have a problem with anyone who describes this film as "great" - it's an insult to genuinely great films and would demonstrate that the reviewer has no real taste whatsoever.

  • I didn't see anything "below the surface" of The Master as you put it. Even you said that the Freudian themes are "transparent" - which by definition means that its not below the surface of anything. If there is so much going on here, why can't you even begin to explain or describe it? The reason you can't do so is because your observation is completely false. There is NOT a lot going on in the Master. On the surface, below the surface, or anywhere else. It is simply the most hollow movie since Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar".

  • Sept. 10, 2012, 11:41 p.m. CST

    see above anton sirius

    by john

  • Sept. 10, 2012, 11:59 p.m. CST

    Give Anton Sirius more time on this site

    by tatoosh

    Really well written and insightful reviews. What Harry would write if he had bothered to get an English degree. Good stuff. Cool.

  • Sept. 11, 2012, 1:10 a.m. CST


    by Anton_Sirius

    Spoilers are revealed plot points, not opinions on character development (or lack thereof). There actually IS a spoiler in one of those reviews though, now that I've read back over them, although it hardly rises to the level of actually spoiling the movie since you see it coming from a mile off.

  • Sept. 11, 2012, 1:18 a.m. CST


    by Anton_Sirius

    I wasn't bored by the Master. I didn't find it that difficult to decode either, but then I know something of Scientology's origins, and basic psychoanalysis. Others may not have that background knowledge and might draw different things out of it than I did. If my respect for other people's opinions and refusal to treat my own as gospel comes across as cowardice to you, I'm inclined to say that says more about you than it does me.

  • Sept. 11, 2012, 1:26 a.m. CST

    Saw it tonight *BIG SPOILERS*

    by heyoucantlaughatthat

    Saw it in Austin tonight w/ PTA himself in attendance. I see the gripes about lack of character development. I was fully on the hype train walking into the theater, and I guess I'd put together my own version of the plot inside my head, what I got was very different. If you're expecting to see a volatile Joaquin Phoenix slowly tamed and broken by a brilliant and manipulative Hoffman you'll be disappointed. If you're expecting to see a showboat phony wannabe cult leader slowly exposed for the fraud he really is, you'll be disappointed. Both Phoenix and Hoffman end the movie essentially where they start, which surprised me. The movie is more of a snapshot of a bizarre relationship formed by two men who have difficulty accepting worlds different than the ones inside their head. And they're never given any reason to accept anything else. There are some faint signs of Phoenix being tamed by that wall-to-window exercise, but none of it really sticks. He shows a little maturity finding out about his old sweetheart getting married to another guy, but he doesn't ever change. I think the whole point of that last scene where he's trying to "process" that girl he's having sex with was to show that even the "cause" was just another weird little thing to help him get his rocks off. He's a pretty lost soul and no one can do much for him. It was different than what I wanted, but it was so well made that I will still say I enjoyed it. It was way better than the tree of life anyway.

  • Sept. 11, 2012, 1:35 a.m. CST

    Anton Sirius

    by Badltnt310

    So would you characterize this movie as "great" or not? Now I'm confused. Its not about treating anyone's opinions as gospel - its about developing clarity as a writer. There is a difference between conveying nuance and mixed emotions in one's writing versus simply being wishy-washy in one's opinions. You may not see it, but your review definitely falls into the latter category. But if you have no real interest in improving how you might clearly convey your thoughts to the reader - that's your prerogative. If you weren't bored by The Master, can you name a film or two that you did consider boring as a frame of reference?

  • Sept. 11, 2012, 2:15 a.m. CST


    by Badltnt310

    Your review seems every bit as confused and convoluted as Anton Sirius's. You spend 5 full paragraphs explaining why you were obviously disappointed in the film and that "none of it really sticks" - but then you end it by saying it was "so well made that I will still say I enjoyed it". If you honestly feel that way, don't you think it would be better to dedicate the bulk of your writing here to articulating and explaining why you felt it was so well made and why you enjoyed it? The average reader will not understand what you are getting at, at all, here. Do you HONESTLY feel that it was well made and that you enjoyed it? Then please tell us WHY. Or is reality that you really didn't like it at all, but that you got so caught up in the hype machine and peer pressure from the early reviews / PTA's personal appearance, etc. that you lack the courage to really say as much?

  • Sept. 11, 2012, 6:28 a.m. CST

    Tai Chi 0

    by Bobemite

    Total agreement about Tai Chi 0. I saw the Saturday night showing at TIFF, and Anton nailed it perfectly.

  • Sept. 11, 2012, 9:53 a.m. CST

    More Tom Waits

    by 2for2true

    Always the coolest man in the room.

  • Sept. 11, 2012, 11 a.m. CST

    Nonsense Sirius.....

    by john

    If people are telling you that something about their review is bugging them, why not fix it instead of trying to justify yourself? A spoiler is any bit of information that potentially ruins the experience of the film. Revealing a cameo could be a spoiler for instance. Revealing where a character ends up in a movie with minimal plot that's essentially about their development is a spoiler. Does this really have to be explained to you, or are you just going to continue being pious? Please tell me now so I know whether or not I'll be reading your reviews/inadvertently spoiling films for myself in the future.

  • Sept. 11, 2012, 11:03 a.m. CST

    and what you refer to Sirius are "plot spoilers"

    by john

    There are other kinds of spoilers that harm the enjoyment/surprise of a film. Like your review for instance.

  • Sept. 11, 2012, 11:23 a.m. CST


    by heyoucantlaughatthat

    I wasnt disappointed so much as surprised at how different it was from what I had expected. I said others might be disappointed if they had these certain expectations, but I still took in the movie in for what it was. As every single other reviewer on the internet has said, it's beautifully shot and well acted, so it is still enjoyable.

  • Sept. 11, 2012, 4:33 p.m. CST

    Didn't David Spade do a movie where he stole a girl's dog?

    by Mugato5150

    Starring the same girl, no less?

  • Sept. 11, 2012, 11:35 p.m. CST

    I think I will be seeing Tai Chi 0 In Texas after all...

    by Kid Dynamite

    Usually I have to wait for months b4 it hits DVD but not anymore.. More and more Kung Fu movies have distribution and hitting theaters locally, which is good for me/ I don't have to wait anymore, can't wait to see Tai Chi 0 In October!!!!

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 7:46 a.m. CST

    Things to do in Denver...

    by Buffalo500

    ...when you're dead. So are you saying one of my favourite 90's movies is bad?