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Friday, September 28, 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson Returns with The Master

Written by Kirk Baird

By the age of 27 Paul Thomas Anderson was hailed as a genius, a wunderkind, and an impressive new voice among young filmmakers.

The film that garnered this attention was Boogie Nights, an unconventional (read: refreshingly nonjudgmental) examination of the booming pornographic film industry in the 1970s and 1980s in San Fernando Valley.

The film brought several future Hollywood stars to the fore in Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, and John C. Reilly; resurrected Burt Reynolds’ career; and probably saved the career of Mark Wahlberg by proving to audiences he could act better than he could rap as Marky Mark.

Anderson is back in the spotlight for The Master, as always a film he wrote and directed, a detached examination of a nascent pseudo science-religious movement in the 1950s founded by a charismatic writer and intellectual named Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).

The film centers on the relationship between Dodd and Freddie Quell (a sure-to-be Oscar-nominated Joaquin Phoenix) as the drunken and violent ne'er-do-well who stumbles into Lancaster's life and becomes a surrogate son. Theirs is a complicated relationship of envy and respect, anger and love, and that's where the relationship remains — frozen in place, as with most of the other characters in the film.

The Master is receiving strong buzz and currently enjoys an 87 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Anderson films don’t come often: In the 16 years since Anderson, now 42, made his first studio feature, he’s directed only six movies. For comparison's sake, Steven Spielberg directed nearly twice that amount in his first 16 years as a filmmaker.

Here’s a quick examination of Anderson’s oeuvre:

Hard Eight (1996): For Anderson’s first film he establishes a persistent theme of his films up through and including The Master of surrogate father and wayward son. Philip Baker Hall plays Sydney, a longtime gambler who takes the inexperience and down-on-his-luck John (Reilly) under his tutelage in Reno. Gwyneth Paltrow plays a casino cocktail waitress and hooker named Clementine whom John falls for, which brings unexpected complications into his life.

Boogie Nights (1997): The three-minute tracking shot that introduces the film’s cast of characters remains one of my favorite opening shots in movies. Based loosely on the life of porn legend John Holmes, Boogie Nights is the story of porn star Dirk Diggler (Wahlberg) and his rise to fame, followed by his steep decline into drugs. The film is also populated with a menagerie of characters with struggles of their own.

Magnolia (1999): Tom Cruise was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 2000 as a bitter and aggressive motivational speaker, one of many fascinating flawed characters whose lives randomly intersect in this mosaic set in San Fernando Valley. The film’s emotional core is punctuated by Aimee Mann’s terrific soundtrack, which was also nominated for an Oscar.

Punch-Drunk Love (2002): Anderson thought enough of his abilities and of Adam Sandler that he cast the oft-critically maligned comic actor in Sandler’s first dramatic role as a troubled soul who finds true love, gets mixed up in strange phone sex hotline trouble, and must overcome emotionally crippling family members and other hostile forces to win her affections.

There Will Be Blood (2007): The union of Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis sprouts the expected results, with Day-Lewis earning his second Best Actor Oscar as miner turned rich oil man and force of nature Daniel Plainview in early 20th century Southern California in this mesmerizing film essay on capitalism, religion, and father-son relationships.

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