FS, Contributing Writer
The Master (wide release), the latest from perfectionist writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood), is bound to be called “the Scientology movie,” though L. Ron Hubbard’s movement is but the inspiration for a more personal tale.
One of its stars, Philip Seymour Hoffman, does play a Hubbard-like leader, Lancaster Dodd, who is assembling a spiritual following during the early 1950s for a belief system called “The Cause,” which has many similarities to Scientology, like an assessment technique referred to as “processing” rather than “auditing.”
But while Hoffman gives a fascinatingly intense performance, the focus of Anderson’s story is actually Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a tormented World War II veteran who stumbles into Dodd’s orbit. Alternately attracted to the master’s message and repulsed by his hypocrisy, the volatile Quell is adopted by Dodd, who apparently sees converting him as the ultimate challenge.
After his remarkable piece of performance art in I’m Still Here, Phoenix returns to traditional acting with a riveting turn – scary one moment and poignant the next.
The picture is beautifully crafted and consistently engrossing. But it’s more like a theme with variations rather than a symphony, repeating the same beats and ending in ambiguity rather than a satisfying climax. Along the way, however, it offers some remarkable moments, like a sequence with Dodd and Quell in adjoining jail cells that’s as brilliantly acted as it is perfectly staged.
And watch for University of Dallas alumnus Christopher Evan Welch as More, the New Yorker who has the temerity to call Dodd out in a brief but important scene.
“End of Watch”
David Ayer, who wrote Training Day, returns to the mean streets of Los Angeles with End of Watch (wide release), a gritty, violent cops-on-the-beat buddy movie that comes across like Adam-12 on steroids.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are the partners who film their own exploits while rescuing kids from burning houses, aiding fallen comrades and trying to keep the peace among rival gangs. They also take time out from official duties to attend to a wife or a girlfriend.
The camaraderie between the two stars is strong, and the supporting cast is excellent as well. Combined with the picture’s volcanic style, that makes for a visually exciting experience.
It falters at the end, however, opting for an explosive finale that turns a housing development into a virtual war zone where the heroes face almost certain annihilation. One can understand why Ayer chooses that route – today’s audiences demand a big finish – but it turns what had previously been a fairly realistic film into something more conventionally action-oriented, with more than a touch of the tearjerker to boot.
Anyone thinking of attending his high school reunion can probably be dissuaded by watching 10 Years (NorthPark), a dismal dramedy about a bunch of 28-year-olds who reassemble in their hometown to reconnect a decade after their graduation.
There are the usual moments of humor and heartfelt revelations, but the jokes are puerile and the treacle-filled episodes simply embarrassing. The worst segments involve a drunken bully who irritates all the old outcasts by trying to apologize to them. He annoys us, too.
10 Years is so bad that it makes detention seem a more welcome prospect than homecoming.
“Trouble with the Curve”
Clint Eastwood trots out his curmudgeon shtick as a baseball scout with failing eyesight in Trouble with the Curve (wide release).
But the movie is less about the game than the old coot’s reconciliation with his daughter (Amy Adams), a high-octane lawyer who’s persuaded to help her dad check out a top prospect in North Carolina. She finds him surly on the surface but an old softie underneath and also finds romance with another scout played by Justin Timberlake.
Trouble with the Curve can be thought of as the anti-Moneyball, a paean to the old way of choosing players rather than depending on computer-driven statistics. It should appeal to lovers of Matlock and TV shows of that geriatric ilk, but it’s so riddled with clichés – especially in the final reel, where implausibility and coincidence are taken to astronomical levels – that it’s more likely to elicit giggles than sighs of contentment.
“House at the End of the Street”
House at the End of the Street (wide release) is an old-fashioned thriller about a girl (Jennifer Lawrence) who moves next door to a place where a terrible murder occurred and its perpetrator – a child who killed her parents – disappeared without a trace. The newcomer makes friends with the sole survivor, the child’s older brother, who harbors a secret related to the tragedy, and gradually uncovers what it is.
The movie is basically a cross between Jane Eyre and Psycho, but the writer is no Charlotte Brontë and the director no Alfred Hitchcock. This House is dilapidated.