Monday, 15 October 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson - An appreciation

In this, my first film blog , I'm going to wax lyrical on a genius of a film director who in 1999 blew my tiny mind. 

The film: "Magnolia", had me leaving the Cinema scratching my head in wonder as to why I'd wasted nearly three hours of my life. 13 years later, many, many obsessed viewings later (see below) I'm more than a little embarrassed by my early naivety. 

I'm concentrating on the six full cinematic films directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, as I haven't seen the various TV specials and "shorts" accredited to him. These six films cover very different time periods, and vastly different settings. But at their core they all share a common bond of love, communication, the human spirit, human relationships and a feel of coincidence and fate. They also share a common bond of some of the finest and greatest actors of our generation, many of whom are in nearly every Paul Thomas Anderson film. They include:

John C Reilly
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Philip Baker Hall
Julianne Moore
Luis Guzman
William H Macy
Melora Walters

Paul's immense directing talent has also cajoled career defining performances from actor's such as Tom Cruise (Magnolia), Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights), Adam Sandler (Punch Drunk Love), Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will be Blood), Paul Dano (There Will be Blood) and now both Amy Adams and Joaquin Phoenix (The Master).

All of the following films are unique, individual creations, all of which have been both written and directed by Paul. Five of the six films were photographed by the genius that is Director of Photography Robert Elswit and all have a very distinctive and unique cinematic musical score. Jon Brion has scored three, Michael Penn one, with Jonny Greenwood masterly scoring Paul's two most recent films. As a Radiohead fan, this pleases me greatly! Dylan Tichenor has also edited four of Paul's six films.

As with all of my upcoming film blogs, it is not my intention to list endless spoilers as I do not wish to spoil anyone's enjoyment of these incredible films. Rather, it is my intention to give a flavour for the films, some brief scene dissections and occasional character background. My film blogs are intended to be very personal, how I reacted (and still react) to these films and not filled with spoilers, trivia or fact tracks. They can be found elsewhere on the Internet!

For the record, I saw them out of the chronological order I have placed them here. I was immediately won over by Magnolia on repeat viewings, saw Punch Drunk Love on release, Boogie Nights on DVD, There will be Blood on opening day release before tracking down a copy of Sydney (aka Hard Eight) in 2012 and finally seeing The Master in early February. So, on with the PTA love in, and six incredible films.

Sydney (1996)

"Never ignore a man's courtesy"

Sydney (also known as Hard Eight) was Paul Thomas Anderson's first cinematic release, and a criminally (pun intended) underrated one at that. His first collaboration with Director of Photography Robert Elswit sees a stellar, marquee cast producing a wonderful drama that if you haven't already seen, please don't read any further reviews (except this wonderful one here), no trailers and watch this 102 minute gem without any further background information as you'll be in for a cinematic treat. The marquee stars produce incredible performances:

Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) Just an incredible performance from the consummate actor of his generation in his first of many collaborations with Director PT Anderson. The entire film is seen very much through his eyes, every interaction, every twist and turn. A sublime performance.

(Gwyneth Paltrow) The smallest of the three marquee roles but an excellent portrayal of the bright lights of the city leaving this lucky little lady behind. Waitress, part time prostitute and acquaintance of Sydney's, her love affair with John drives the central narrative of the film.

John (John C Reilly) Down and out and down on his luck, who is approached by Sydney with an intriguing proposition. The shared car journey sets up the premise of the film brilliantly. A Master with a willing pupil. The sage old head trying to control a headstrong young man. A brilliant performance from Reilly.

A small overall cast, but important supporting roles fall to Samuel L Jackson as "Jimmy" and two actors that will feature heavily in future PT Anderson films, Philip Seymour Hoffman as "Young Craps Player" and Melora Walters as "Jimmy's Girl". Set in Reno amongst the various nightclubs and open all hours gambling venues, this gem will surely surprise and please you as the narrative doesn't hint at the unexpected twists to come and when they do are genuinely shocking and befit this brilliant debut feature from my favourite individual Director of cinematic films. Just behind the Coen Brothers, but now ahead of Quentin Tarantino. Not a bad place to be and how I'd love to be the fifth wheel in that cinematic conversation!

Boogie Nights (1997)

"This is a giant cock"

Set between 1977 and the early 1980's, this stunning film follows "Dirk Diggler" and his rather large appendage making it, erm, big in the porn industry! Mark Wahlberg, the underrated actor of his generation plays Dirk and takes centre stage alongside a stunning performance from cigar chomping Burt Reynolds as "Jack Horner". In the opening scenes you are introduced to virtually every character, and very early on you detect their human frailties and the vacuous superficiality of their lives and the industry in which they work. Except one, the fresh faced, eager and motivated Dirk Diggler. The early scenes really set the table for the movie, from Paul Thomas Anderson's amazing swooping camera work and full screen shots really immersing you directly into the film. Together with the human frailties and broken characters, you get a sense of a brooding intensity building and building, until the eventual release (my sexual references here aren't intentional!) at the end of Act Two.

There are so many characters and so many stand out performances aside from Wahlberg and Reynolds. Julianne Moore as hyper "Amber Waves" is astonishing, John C Reilly as "Reed Rothchild" crumbles before your eyes and Heather Graham plays "Rollergirl" to perfection. Don Cheadle as "Buck Swope" stands out against a backdrop of great acting talent. 

Biased I may be, but "Little Bill" is played by one of my all time favourite actors William H Macy. A small part, minimal dialogue, but played perfectly before he departs the scene on a very bloody New Years Eve!

The supporting cast continues with Luis Guzman (in his first PT Anderson film) as the bizarre and hyper "Maurice Rodriguez" and three returnees from Anderson's first film also star in supporting roles with Melora Walters "Jesse St Vincent", Philip Baker Hall as "Floyd Gondolli" and Philip Seymour Hoffman stealing every scene as camp film assistant "Scotty J". His performance, amongst an all star cast is truly brilliant. Fans of late 70's and early 80's music will love the soundtrack as there's plenty to choose from. The closing credits start with ELO's "Living Thing" which encapsulates this gem of a movie perfectly. As does the other stand out music choice - as a True Romance style shoot out ensues, we have Alfred Molina's crazy "Rahad Jackson" shooting everything and everyone in sight, whilst Nena's "99 Red Balloons" go by! Further musical gems are "Best of my Love" by The Emotions, "Sunny" by Boney M, "Afternoon Delight" by Starland Vocal Band and "Mama Told Me Not to Come" by Three Dog Night. As with all PT Anderson films, the soundtrack alone is highly recommended.

The film that propelled Paul Thomas Anderson into the mainstream is a master class in cinema, drawing as it does unbelievable central performances that captivate the imagination and the heart. Written and directed by PT Anderson, this was originally based on a short film in 1988 by Anderson entitled "The Dirk Diggler Story" and is also very loosely based on the 1970's porn star John Holmes, he of the rather large appendage! Regular collaborators Dylan Tichenor (Editor) and Robert Elswit (Director of Photography) return and help Anderson create a strangely twisting tale of obscurity, fame, denial and redemption all wrapped within characters that on the surface aren't likeable but as you immerse yourself in an overly long (155 minutes) film you warm to and root for. Too long? Maybe. But it's a tale brilliantly told, wonderfully shot and brought to life by some of the most cherished character actors of our time.

Magnolia (1999)

"What am I doing? I'm quietly judging you"

Seen on far too many occasions for me to admit. OK, the old joke is I watch this once a month just to keep my hand in, and there's a little truth to the joke, but where to start with this modern classic? Vague and bizarre weather reports? CHECK. Raining frogs? CHECK. Bizarre, interwoven but seemingly unconnected historical events? CHECK. Tom Cruise acting his arse off? CHECK. Melora Walters providing an acting master class of immense proportions? CHECK. A beautiful yet haunting musical score from Jon Brion? CHECK. I could go on (Philip Seymour Hoffman is incredible) but I am exceedingly biased and simply blown away every time I watch this. However, in the fairness of balance(!) some have criticised this as way too melancholic, confusing, upsetting and a plodding over long drama. To those I retort it is uplifting beyond measure, a screenplay from Director Anderson that resonates through every character and central performances that astound me every time.

This is but the tip of a very deep iceberg, again covering relationships, human frailty, desperation, loneliness, despair, but intermingled with joy, redemption, recovery and the triumph of the human spirit. Whenever you're settled into the film, a seemingly unconnected "event" is interwoven into the narrative to make you question the event and it's relevance. Oh, and there's 7/8 interweaving stories from rich, seemingly unconnected characters all taking place at the same time, in the same city, which slowly and deliberately come together to produce a sublime piece of cinema. The DVD "extras" has a feature length documentary on the making of this masterpiece, which is as essential a watch as the film itself. I can't possibly do this film justice, it truly is a masterpiece, and the starting point for my cinematic love for Paul Thomas Anderson.

Back to the film itself: You have Tom Cruise as never seen before and never better as  Men's Sexual Counsellor "Frank TJ Mackey", Julianne Moore as guilt ridden, drug taking, cheating wife "Linda Partridge" to Jason Robards "Earl Partridge" (stand out performance), John C Reilly's error prone but good hearted policeman "Jim Kurring", Philip Baker Hall dominates the screen in every scene as "Jimmy Gator" and Philip Seymour Hoffman's heart-breaking performance as male nurse "Phil Parma". This truly is a stellar cast and a stellar film, with numerous more cameo performances from Luis Guzman, Alfred Molina, Michael Bowen and Melinda Dillon to name but a few.

Yet to be mentioned are "Quiz Kid Donnie Smith" (brilliantly portrayed by William H Macy), Melora Walters will break your heart as "Claudia" and Jeremy Blackman similarly as the precocious quiz kid, "Stanley Spector"

The following short scene gets me every time, is the most bizarre and surreal in a very high calibre list of bizarre and surreal moments and is roughly 4 minutes of screen time from this 188 minute master class. It occurs towards the end of Act Two and it tells you everything and nothing and leads us onto the fantastic soundtrack accompanying this film:

As the strains of Aimee Mann's brilliant "Wise Up" begins so too do every main character in the film, singing along in separate edited segments to the entirety of the song. Beginning with Claudia as first she announces "You're so stupid" before snorting two lines of cocaine and singing along, the camera slowly panning in to a close up of her before slowly cutting to Jim, now also singing along, revealed by a slow pan around a bedroom door to reveal him sitting on the edge of his bed, the cross clearly illuminated on the wall behind him. Next is Jimmy Gator, sitting at home singing along as another slow pan closes in on him, followed by Donnie Smith, similar panning shot as before, this time, his large winner's cheque clearly illuminated behind him as he sings along. Next is the stricken Earl Partridge and his nurse Phil Parma but here they are both singing along as the camera slowly pans past Phil and into a close up of Earl. Now moving outside for the first time and two similar shots of separate cars drenched in the pouring rain, and of firstly Linda Partridge singing along before a slow reveal shows Frank TJ Mackey doing likewise before a final shot of Stanley Spector brings both the song and this bizarre scene to a close.

Two interesting issues to note before we close, firstly Stanley's panning shot is the first to move away from a character as all of the others have been zoom/pans into a character and secondly as the song ends as does the pouring rain, very abruptly to be replaced with yet another bizarre weather forecast "Rain Clearing, Breezy Overnight".

Leaving aside spoilers and major plot points, this film is as near as cinematic perfection as you can get. The overall soundtrack itself to the film is minimal, but is saved, quite literally, by Aimee Mann's haunting and beautiful "Save Me" over the closing credits and "Wise Up" as briefly described above. However, with various tracks interspersed within the film, the stand alone soundtrack to the film is highly recommended. Dominated by Aimee Mann with further tracks "One", "Build that Wall", "You Do" and "Nothing is Good Enough", there are also gems from Supertramp "The Logical Song", Gabrielle's "Dreams" (hilariously used in the film) and some joyous operatic pieces such as "Habanera from Carmen" by Georges Bizet and "Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss.

Brilliantly and darkly funny, heart breaking, thought provoking or melancholic and dreary drama. Your take your chance, your choose your poison. Just watch out for the frogman in the tree, the guy on the roof and those pesky raining frogs! It really happened, you know! If you haven't seen this film and are reading the characters as sex counsellor, male nurse, policeman and quiz kid's and wondering what the hell is going on, well welcome to the club! And the good news is, it works. Perfectly. All of the disparate stories, events, cut-scenes and even the raining frogs, it's a complete triumph of the will film.

Punch Drunk Love (2002)

"I want you to know that I wanted to kiss you just then"

Paul Thomas Anderson's fourth cinematic masterpiece is an underrated piece of pure joy. Here's a dissection of the bizarre opening ten minutes that will tell you so little about the film you'll simply have to watch it for yourself! With no opening credits whatsoever the film opens on a long shot of "Barry Egan" (Adam Sandler) clad in a blue suit sitting at an office desk in an empty, barely furnished office in an industrial estate. The long shot frames Barry in the corner of the bare room, with a distinctive partial blue nominal strip of paint breaking up the otherwise staid, neutral coloured wall. In the middle of a telephone call, Barry is pedantic about a coupon offer, frustrated and apathetic at the responses received he exits the office into a very early morning stillness. Staring at the exit gate of the industrial estate, the camera pans away from Barry and continues to move, slowly swooping (a familiar pattern throughout the film) out of the gates and into a deserted, still and quiet road. It's interesting to note both the pale blue "hue" that surrounds Barry and the complete lack of any sound as he approaches the exit gates until a passing car overturns unexpectedly and spectacularly, breaking the complete silence, as does a delivery van that swiftly drops off a piano at the kerbside and drives off.

Cutting back to Barry, now seated again and in the middle of another frustrating telephone call, this is quickly cut away from as Barry repeats his earlier leaving of the office, however this time a car pulls into the estate and he's greeted by "Lena Leonard" (Emily Watson) with an odd request: "Is it ok if I leave my car with you?". An awkward conversation ensues to which Barry accepts to help Lena and she leaves to go to work, not before the two share brief glances at each other. Barry appears stressed by either the conversation or the odd request (or both) and hides in the corner of his office, with the camera panning to him sneaking a look at the exit gates and the piano that is still sitting at the kerbside.

Again in complete silence, Barry approaches the piano, but with a swift change in camera to the opposite side of the road we see and hear a roaring truck approach, seemingly on a collision course with the piano. Back to the original camera angle, we see Barry cradling the piano and rushing back to the office. Playing some gentle, indistinct notes on the piano, barely audible, the silence returns somewhat before the crashing sound of the roller blinds introduce us to "Lance" (Luis Guzman) in yet another PT Anderson film. Cue further awkward conversations between Barry and Lance, with Barry backing away and out of the office as a multi coloured stream of effects fill the screen to end the opening ten minutes. 

In addition to Adam Sandler, Emily Watson and the returning Luis Guzman, Philip Seymour Hoffman also returns to a PT Anderson film, this time as an owner of a bedding store in a flat out bizarrely brilliant role as "Dean Trumbell". And Barry has seven nagging sisters! "Elizabeth" (Mary Lynn Rajskub), "Susan" (Lisa Spector), "Nicole" (Nicole Gerbard), "Gilda" (Mia Weinberg), "Anna" (Karen Hermelin), "Kathleen" (Julie Hermelin) and "Rhonda" (Hazel Mailloux). And he has five Brothers in Law, one called "Walter the Dentist" (Robert Smigel). Confused?! Here's the two stars of this wonderful film:

Barry Egan 
(Adam Sandler) Simply never better and a career defining performance. Desperate for love, escape and normalcy away from his hen pecking Sisters, Sandler plays borderline psychosis Egan in a brilliant portrayal. Nervous, twitchy and out of control, Sandler is brilliant and far funnier playing dead pan serious than anything in his "funny" roles. A sublime performance of nervous tension, chaotic mood swings and nuanced touches of real perfection.

Lena Leonard
(Emily Watson) Smiling, flirtatious and eyes that shine and light up the screen. Desperate to secure a date with Barry despite his frailties and oddities. The smaller of the two headline roles, but Watson is superb throughout.

The greatest compliment I can pay this film is that it is a complete one off. A quirky love story with a bizarre central narrative surrounded in bizarre and surreal sub plots that will make you laugh hard, even at the most surreal of circumstances. The central love story is a delight and a joy, with characters that are eminently likeable despite their foibles. Plot spoilers prevent me from disclosing any further than simply stating there are so many humorous (some very darkly comedic) scenes that will make you smile, especially the "Gay Boy" interlude, the restaurant restroom and the most joyous of all scenes, the iconic silhouette kiss from the film posters. A common theme in the film separate from previous PT Anderson films seems to be of being busy, distracted, looking elsewhere. Of life going on without you and you looking at it from the periphery. There are many segments depicting this, and of moments of silence broken, often in unexpected ways. 

Brilliantly captured by Paul Thomas Anderson and regular Director of Photography collaborator Robert Elswit, the real kudos here belongs to Jon Brion for his musical score. In keeping with the film, it's quirky and full of strangely colliding odd sound effects (especially when Barry is alone) and joyously uplifting when together with Lena. One music track stands out "He Needs Me" by Shelley Duvall. Jeremy Blake also deserves great credit for the bizarre, acid trip like feel to the multi coloured interludes. Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, common themes of human separation, desire, a need for human interaction and compassion are all again to the fore amidst a chaotic mix of a dysfunctional family and hilarious central narratives. Your heart is guaranteed to swell by the end of this beauty of a film.

There will be Blood (2007)

"Just give me the blood, Eli"

I saw this on opening day cinema release and for the first time in my life paid for the premium upgrade of sitting in an executive style box with enhanced surround sound. Do they still do this? Anyway, I got what I paid for, as 4/5 local oiks decided this was the perfect occasion to do likewise, a couple of whom had sex (he didn't last long) and then proceeded to talk all over the film. Loudly and often. Then departed with a "sorry mate" with 20 minutes left. There was almost blood. But on with the actual film.

At 158 minutes this is a slow burning (pun intended) modern classic that again has relationships, human angst and emotion as it's central driver of the narrative. There is a constant juxtaposition of three main relationships, Father and Son, Oilman/Workers and Oilman/Faith Healer, with Daniel Day-Lewis starring and lighting up the screen as "Daniel Plainview" in a career best performance. He is on screen for virtually the entire film and dominates every scene with a brooding intensity that borders on majestic. Protective of his only son "HW" (Dillon Freasier) who, as the youngest member of the cast is flat out brilliant and who may/may not be biologically his. The juxtaposition continues with Daniel's fierce determination to embrace workers and villagers as a family unit, but ultimately to ensure his own financial gain in the emerging market for oil.

Five minutes pass before the first word is uttered, a despairing "No" from Daniel Plainview as he falls into an oil well, to fourteen minutes in total when he makes his famous address to a collection of prospective investors and land owners:

"Ladies & Gentleman, I've travelled over jist about half of our state to get here this evenin'. I couldn't get away sooner, because my new well was a-comin in at Lobos River, and I had to see about it. That well is now flowin' four thousand barrel, and payin' me an income of five thousand dollars a day. I got two others drillin', and I got sixteen producin' at Antelope. 

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, if I say I'm an oil man, you got to agree"

The first fourteen minutes, devoid though they are of any real speech, are saturated in dark, brooding colours, vast landscapes and deep early 20th Century oil wells. Covering the end of the 19th Century through the early 1920's, this is a depiction of a boom time in America, the influx of oil and the start of one of the largest industries in humankind. The three contrasting relationships are all highly developed (as are other narrative strands omitted here for fear of spoilers) however the three major relationships soon become the centrepiece of this fantastic film, with Day-Lewis' portrayal of love and devotion to his son and co-workers sharply focussed by his snarling antipathy toward "Eli Sunday" (Paul Dano) and his religious prophecies. Dano produces a startling central performance of subtle innuendo and over the top suggestion with seemingly no middle ground which is a great testament to an actor matching the majestic performance from Day-Lewis. With "Paul Sunday" offering his family's land at a cut price, Daniel and his son visit the family farm to meet with Eli Sunday and the extended family, from thereon in the juxtaposition between the two very opposite characters of Daniel and Eli take centre stage. The pair share incredible screen time together, and I've dissected just one incredible scene below, following a very short premise to set the scene:

Daniel, continually tolerant yet reluctant to accept Eli's "Church of the Third Revelation" is forced to repent for his sins in order to finally secure leasing rights to the land of "William Bandy" (Hans Howes). Despite repeated offers of more money to Bandy, there is only one way "be washed in the blood of Jesus Christ".
Eli, shot from below to ensure the illuminated cross is directly behind and above him calls out for a sinner needing redemption, a "new member". This is the start of a truly wondrous portrayal of righteous anger and force from Paul Dano as his character Eli continues to push for the new member to make himself known to the congregation. Cutting between Eli and Daniel, looking down and not wanting to catch Eli's eye line, he eventually raises a hand and walks slowly towards the stage, before standing directly underneath the illuminated cross. "We have a sinner with us here who wishes for salvation!"

Ordering Daniel to his knees, Eli circles him, his righteous anger growing with every step, as does Dano's performance, imploring Daniel to confess louder and louder "I am a Sinner". Always looking down, Daniel repeats Eli's words as he circles him, softly and often indistinctly as Eli continues to circle him and implore him to speak up and shout for the forgiveness of his sins. Shouting now, and forcibly so both at Daniel and the congregation, Eli forces Daniel to repeat "I was lost but now I am found" before Daniel, finally looking up and boiling over with frustration seeks an end to the baptism. We cut now between extreme close ups of both men, both with anger and frustration prevalent as Eli circles Daniel once more before fiercely slapping Daniel's face numerous times before grasping his forehead and expelling the "demons" and "ghosts". Daniel is finally baptised and with an extreme close up on Daniel exclaims softly "There's a pipeline" before rising to his feet and shaking Eli's hand with a forced smile. Whilst doing so, Daniel says something indistinct to Eli which visibly shocks him before Daniel is welcomed by the congregation and re-takes his seat. A short, but powerful scene brilliantly depicted by two powerhouse performances from Day-Lewis and Dano.

In addition to the central powerhouse performances already noted, there are further superb supporting roles from a brilliant Sydney McCallister as "Mary Sunday", with her father "Abel Sunday" played by David Willis. Kevin J O'Connor plays the mysterious role of "Henry" brilliantly, his eyes forever darting across the screen and a special mention of praise is devoted to Russell Harvard who plays the adult "HW" with a charm and real beauty. Ciaran Hinds also excels with minimal dialogue as Daniel Plainview's trusted confidant "Fletcher".

The character of the film is evident from those first fourteen minutes. No dialogue, all exposition and stunning cinematography from the genius that is Robert Elswit. Very few films could get away with a dialogue free opening such as this, slow, dark and foreboding with a minimal score (see below) it's a great credit to the wonderful directing and story telling skills of Paul Thomas Anderson that as an audience you go with this. Perhaps it's because you get a real sense that every scene has been meticulously planned to the nth degree, from the wide angled vista's to the brooding menace of Day-Lewis' performance to the story being told. With the very brief outline of the opening fourteen minutes and the brief baptism scene I have perhaps given 5% of the total film here. The remaining 95% is a pure and utter joy. Unsettling, a sense of foreboding mixed with triumph, anger and rage. Of love, friendship, loss and regret. All common, regular themes of a PT Anderson film and all magnificently told here.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson based on Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil", it deservedly gained Oscars recognition in 2008 with eight nominations and two successes, with both Daniel Day-Lewis (Best Actor) and Robert Elswit (Best Cinematography) deserved winners.

And for Radiohead fans you have the very real treat of Jonny Greenwood providing a haunting, beautiful and melancholic film score throughout, with the soundtrack alone highly recommended. Whilst not usual Radiohead fare by any means, Jonny's score is wonderful, mixing his own creations with that of existing pieces such as the joyous "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major" which accompanies the end credits. Many tracks such as "Convergence", "Open Spaces", "Henry Plainview", "HW/Hope of New Fields" and the title track "There Will be Blood" perfectly encapsulate this film, full as they are of foreboding, yet haunting beauty. The film befits this, as it is yet another hauntingly beautiful film from a brilliant cinematic Director.

The Master (2012)

"We record everything. Throughout all lifetimes"

To say it's been five long years since There Will be Blood and that I have been eagerly awaiting this release since it was first mooted in 2009 would be an understatement. Add in to the mix a story loosely based on the beginnings of Scientology and it's founder L Ron Hubbard, plus the supreme acting talents of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix and it's been a slow three years to arrive. But well worth the wait as Paul Thomas Anderson has again produced a truly wonderful film. Again Paul both wrote the screenplay and directed as well as producing but the first major change to note from his previous films is the choice of Cinematographer, with Mihai Malaimare replacing long term collaborative partner Robert Elswit. However this change doesn't transmit in any way to the screen as you're immediately struck by how vibrant, pinpoint sharp and colourful this film is despite it being slightly de-saturated of colour to reflect the 1940/50's time setting. The vibrancy of the picture is a joy, as are the multitude of settings photographed so well by Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, bringing to life numerous beach scenes, ocean views and desert plains with a typically long lens but equally quite brilliant each time. Inside shots are framed and lit brilliantly, often in a cramped room of a house or ship, with Director Paul Thomas Anderson reinforcing the claustrophobia with tight angled shots and a gently rolling camera to encompass and capture the scene. At this early stage, all of Amy Wells (Set Design), David Crank and Jack Fisk (Production Design) and Mark Bridges (Costume Design) deserve immense credit, as does Jonny Greenwood for another haunting, jaunty and eclectic film score and overall original music.

A biased fan of Radiohead I may be, however Jonny Greenwood's musical score is again sublime and follows on from his success with There Will be Blood. The score here is very similar in tone to that of There Will be Blood with climbing operatic pieces mixed with orchestral pieces that accompany the film perfectly but in an odd and sporadic way. There are eleven original pieces of music from Jonny Greenwood with stand out pieces such as "Overtones", "Time Hole" and "Alethia" perfectly encapsulating the characters fractured minds as they bump and pop along in the background of the film, rising and falling gently along with the narrative. The musical tracks included are also odd and quirky choices but fit the film perfectly such as stand outs "Get Thee Behind Me Satan" by Ella Fitzgerald, "No Other Love" by Jo Stafford and "Changing Partners" by Helen Forrest over the closing credits. There are also three superb tracks from the actors themselves, with Philip Seymour Hoffman singing "Slow Boat to China" in a heart breaking scene as well as "I'll Go No More A-Roving" in a bizarre and surreal scene! But the stand out belongs to actress Madison Beaty with "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)". Many but not all of these feature on the CD soundtrack that accompanies this film and which is thoroughly recommended.

The film itself is set between the end of World War II and the early 1950's and covers roughly a five year period. The opening twenty minutes cover this time period quickly to bring us both up to date with the timeline and to fill in a compelling back story to "Freddie Quell" (Joaquin Phoenix). As with the beginning of There Will be Blood, this film also starts with minimal dialogue but supreme cinematography of a lapping tide at a beach with a naval platoon awaiting either orders or the end of the War. Freddie's personal problems are immediately obvious in the first three or four minutes of this 144 minute classic. He's immediately portrayed as an outsider, a loner with a strangely awkward gait and style. His first words depict how to get rid of a sexual disease to a fellow sailor and then awkwardly he engages sexually with a woman figure carved in the sand to which he becomes too sexually excited and to the bemusement of his fellow sailors he masturbates into the ocean to relieve himself. Undergoing a medical to leave the Navy he continually references sex but the overall picture painted of Freddie is of an awkward and unsure outsider who wants to be accepted, along with his alcoholic "potion" that accompanies his journey from leaving the navy to becoming a cantankerous Photographer in a local Mall to chopping vegetables in a field in California before escaping and stowing away aboard a passing luxury ship. Here he meets "Lancaster Dodd" and "Peggy Dodd" and a legendary film is born.

Freddie Quell 
(Joaquin Phoenix) An alcoholic outsider and drifter whose quirks, ticks and nervous tension could be explained as a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or shell shock in the much simpler vernacular of the day. He is physically and mentally shattered into pieces. His physical ticks are evident through a lazy eye and speaking through one side of his mouth with a sometimes unintelligible drawl. His gait is awkward into an almost contortion of his body from the waist down and gives a constant appearance of being unable to stand up straight and move without the appearance of pain. Mentally, Freddie's obvious alcoholism is a constant problem and his hip flask is repeatedly on show as he tops this up with his "potion" but equally evident is his inappropriate bouts of overt sexuality and he's unable to control a temper that swings violently out of control. In many ways Freddie is an open book for all of this and more and it's to Joaquin Phoenix's great credit as his performance from start to finish is exactly that, a performance, of obvious personality traits, ticks, compulsions and obsessions. His first session of "Informal Processing" (more of which later) is apt and confirms the openness we see as an audience to his failings. As he answers the questions during the processing I immediately contradicted every answer as his frailties are very much in evidence immediately he is on screen. Not to be seen as a negative in any way as this is purely intentional and part of Freddie's journey in the film. Despite The Master moniker for the film, this is Freddie's film and is so expertly brought to life by a much maligned, but absolutely brilliant character actor in Joaquin Phoenix. A career defining performance and well worthy of his Best Actor nomination at the 2013 Oscars.

Lancaster Dodd 
(Philip Seymour Hoffman) Known throughout as "Master" by everyone he comes into contact with but not in a totally slavishly devoted way, more out of genuine respect for a pioneer figure who is seemingly perma smiled and loved by everyone that surrounds him. Jovial and very much the centre of attention with a hyper positive attitude, his performances and lectures always reference "past lives" and "Processing" and is constantly railing against a humanity that he is sees as asleep to possibilities outside of their comfort zone. "Man is Asleep" is a telling reference to the "Cause" he promotes, of past lives continually living on through the soul and spirit to present lives and beyond. Fiercely loyal to his family and his gathering band of devotees as well as the Cause's message. Dodd's duality is subtly unravelled but never more evident than when his message and teachings are challenged. However there is far more than this as the film progresses. Yet another wonderful character performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman in a Paul Thomas Anderson film, their fifth collaboration in six films, and a very well deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the 2013 Oscars.

Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) A thunderous and career defining performance from Amy Adams and as with her esteemed co-stars, fully deserving of her Oscar nomination in 2013 for Best Supporting Actress. With minimal dialogue, it's the touches, glances and often cold barren stares that make this performance so thunderous and my immediate take is that Peggy is the real driving force behind the "Cause" and very definitely the power behind the throne. Always seemingly looking at and perhaps constantly and silently judging Freddie, she is vociferous to outsiders and non-believers but in a subtle and nuanced way. She reserves her vitriol for Lancaster and their private time together but in public is a silent, judging rock for her husband. As the film develops so too does Peggy's silent menace and never more aptly shown than when Lancaster is challenged over the veracity of the cause. As Lancaster becomes angry and flustered Peggy is silently raging at the challenger, firstly in soft out of focus just below her husband who dominates the shot but two quick cuts later display her rage and apoplexy at the cheek of anyone to question their beliefs. There is one brief scene between husband and wife that spoilers prevent me from disclosing but when you see it you will understand the definite power balance in play. It's a wonderfully surreal scene that says so much. The joy of Adams' performance is the subtlety on display and against two astounding performances above, eclipses these to become the true stand out star. A brilliant and mesmerising performance.

Across several narrative strands and locations there are superb supporting roles throughout notably, Amber Childers as perma smiling daughter "Elizabeth Dodd" and Jesse Plemons plays fellow sibling "Val Dodd" brilliantly with purposely very little dialogue to work with. Rami Malek is excellent as Lancaster's new Son-in-Law "Clark" and Madison Beaty plays "Doris" with a gentle beauty that is perfectly encapsulated when she sings "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree". Laura Dern plays a socialite/supporter of the Cause well as "Helen Sullivan" and finally Kevin J O'Connor returns from a similarly vague role in There Will be Blood with another here as "Bill William". There are many more cameo and supporting roles as we weave between Freddie's leaving of the Navy to following the Cause and following Lancaster Dodd as he travels from city to city to promote his faith, his writings and his experiences.

Two brief scenes follow, one encapsulates Freddie's early sexual desperation and a burgeoning alcohol problem, the other is a thunderous piece of cinema. Each scene is vastly different to the other but an ideal taster for Freddie's journey and wonderful examples of the Director's eye for cinematic scenes of real beauty.

"Martha the Salesgirl" (Amy Ferguson) is introduced in a beautiful, gentle and almost balletic continuous camera shot as she walks the floor of the Department Store selling the dress she's wearing. Always smiling but equally always looking in Freddie's direction as she continues her gentle dance around the floor, the scene is accompanied by the sublime "Get Thee Behind Me Satan" by Ella Fitzgerald. "You have a break coming?" asks Freddie.

As "Get Thee Behind Me Satan" continues gently in the background there is a brief interlude scene whereby Freddie makes his "potion" and this is quickly cut to Martha sampling his concoction. Freddie is now drunk and weaving as the pair stand together in his yellow tinged photography darkroom "Taste Good?" he asks before forcibly kissing Martha and breaking out into his manic laughter. Martha plays along with the sexual tension, teasing Freddie with "What else do you want to see, these?" as she reveals her breasts. Before she can do so, Freddie's immediate "Yes" perfectly depicts his sexual desperation. Playing with Martha's breasts, they kiss passionately again before Freddie regains a little composure to ask Martha for a date.

A brilliant cameo appearance from Amy Ferguson and Joaquin Phoenix sets the tone again for Freddie's coming descent.

Following Dodd's arrest, Freddie's violent reaction leads him to be arrested too and they are both housed in adjoining jail cells. Freddie's arrival sees a violent continuation of his frustration as he continually head butts a bed and a cell wall before kicking the toilet to pieces in abject anger and rage. As per the picture above, Dodd stands in his cell completely impassively throughout watching his friend's tortuous and violent outburst before he finally comments "Your fear of capture and imprisonment is an implant from millions of years ago. This battle has been with you since before you know it. This is not new. This is not you". Freddie continues to reacts angrily to Dodd's calming words and with a camera angle to between the two cells their continuing exchange is captured, of Dodd preaching to his friend and of Freddie, prowling his cell like a caged lion. As the camera reverts to the angle of the picture above, Dodd continues "You are asleep. Your spirit was free. Moving from body to the next body. Free. Free for a moment. Then it was captured by an Invader force bent on turning you to the darkest where you've been implanted with a push/pull mechanism that keeps you fearful of authority and destructive. We are in the middle of a battle that is a trillion years in the making and is bigger than the both of us".

An intense face to face argument ensues:

Freddie: "Your fucking family hates you. Your son hates you"

Dodd: "Who fucking likes you, except for me?"

The scene ends in a surreal and bizarre fashion however not before Dodd continually and tellingly reinforces to Freddie that he is alone with no friends to call on and that he alone is his only friend who believes in him yet still does not want to see him ever again. "We're done. You're a drunk. We're done". This is just one example of numerous thunderous performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in their joint scenes together. There are six in all whereby they are the only two characters in the scene, plus a heartbreaking telephone conversation. Each scene from their initial meeting as Freddie is caught as a stowaway to their telephone conversation adds more and more layers to a fractured and seemingly difficult friendship that is ultimately far more than a simple friendship.

I know very little of Scientology as a religion, it's teachings or indeed it's spiritual Leader L Ron Hubbard, so I'll leave those discussions for people far more learned than I. Suffice to say the comparisons and references of "The Cause", "Past Lives" and "Processing" are obvious nods to this as is the ever smiling and charismatic Leader Lancaster Dodd. Forever known simply as Master he is the Master of all he surveys and always the centre of attention. The Processing aspect is heavily covered and for the uninitiated this appears to be a form of regression, but not to your childhood but to past lives lived and experiences gained for this life. A perpetual soul and spirit living on from body to body, life to life. There are also numerous references from Dodd to the comparisons between humans and animals and the distinctions between the two and our advancement as humans over the animal kingdom.

But what captivated me were three central performances from Amy Adams, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, sublime cinematography from Mihai Malaimare, a musical score from Jonny Greenwood that is awkward and jaunty and all the better for it and a joy of a film from Director Paul Thomas Anderson. Forever criticised for not being able to "end" his previous films, this is an unfair criticism labelled at him but not here. The ending is the weakest part of a brilliant film that captured my imagination from the first minute to the last and is Paul's sixth utterly astounding cinematic feature. Roll on number seven and hopefully not a five year hiatus in between.

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