From Top To Bottom
By Carl Kozlowski
It’s rare when a critic sees both the best and worst film of the year in the same day. But that’s how things played out last week, when I sat through screenings of The Master and Dredd 3D in a single afternoon.
The Master is the very definition of cinematic art: a bold, expansive, lush portrait of a daring topic with superb writing and direction with career-best performances by its stars. On the other end of the spectrum, Dredd 3D is perhaps the worst film I’ve ever endured: a soulless, violent, morally debasing and thought-free exercise in hateful inhumanity.
In case you haven’t guessed, I’m recommending you see The Master, which is the first film since 2007’s There Will Be Blood by visionary writer-director Paul Thomas (P.T.) Anderson. The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a writer-turned-motivational speaker named Lanaster Dodd and an electrifying Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled World War II sailor named Freddy Quell who falls under Dodd’s spell while searching for true love and existential meaning after the war.
Quell has been shell-shocked by battles and devastated by loneliness, fueling a barely contained rage that explodes at the worst times and causes him to lose a plush job as a portrait photographer. He also makes moonshine using fuel, a combination that kills a fellow worker at a migrant farm camp and sends Quell running to a riverside town in which he stumbles drunkenly onto a yacht owned by Dodd.
When Dodd offers him a job on his ship’s crew, he gladly accepts being part of the author’s high-living entourage. Dodd leads The Cause, one of many human-potential movements of the early 1950s, and soon Quell is rising through the ranks of this cult-like organization and garnering a strength of personality that he never had before.
Just as everything seems to be going great, Quell starts to notice the cracks in Dodd’s façade of happiness and prosperity and starts to rebel against the man he has been taught to call Master. Yet, as he starts to pull away from Dodd, it turns out that Dodd has a desperate need to keep him in the fold at nearly any cost, forcing Quell to decide whether he can now be the master of his own destiny.
With its depiction of a beefy, flamboyantly successful and charismatic author turned cult leader, The Master has drawn attention for its many seeming parallels to the founding of the Church of Scientology and its creator, science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. This has sparked speculation as to whether the church or its prominent members such as Tom Cruise (who earned an Oscar nomination working under Anderson in 1999’s Magnolia) attempted to prevent the production or alter its content along the way.
Those seeking intensive insights into the secretive group’s founding won’t find them here, but the film has so much else to offer on every level—best of all, Phoenix’s sure to be legendary performance and the stunning cinematography by Mihai Mlaimare Jr. shot on the rarely used, old-school format of 65mm film—that they won’t feel they missed a thing.
Meanwhile, Dredd 3D deserves mention only because of its stature as an example of everything that can go wrong with movies. Set in a dystopian near-future America that has been irradiated following a nuclear war, the film focuses on a loner named Dredd, who is a Judge—a special class of law enforcement officer who is authorized to render sentences up to and including executions.
The story—if one can even call it that—focuses on a single night in which Dredd is forced to take a prospective female Judge named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) along on his rounds in order to train her. They get called to investigate the deaths of three thugs who just fell 200 stories from the roof to the courtyard of an utterly lawless housing project after running afoul of their drug kingpin, a vicious woman called MaMa (Lena Headey).
MaMa is trying to overrun the city with a new drug called Slo Mo, which when injected makes users feel like events are happening at 1 percent of their normal speed. And as Dredd and Anderson punch, kick, shoot, burn and eviscerate countless interchangeable baddies on the way to a final showdown with MaMa, viewers are subjected to seeing some of the most despicable violence in movie history occur both in slow-motion and 3D.
From director Pete Travis, who made the fantastic thriller Vantage Point in 2008 and writer Alex Garland, who has done much better work with films like The Beach, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, down through Urban, Thirlby and Headey, everyone should be ashamed of their involvement in this dreck.