The hype for "The Master" reached himalayan heights once the box office tally for the first weekend came in, breaking the record for the highest per theater limited opening of all time, grossing roughly $740,000 in 5 theaters. Most critics and bloggers have splattered their undying love and admiration for this film all over the internet; it currently enjoys a whopping 86% on rotten tomatoes. Yet the audience only gave it a 66%. Much has been said about the flaws and the flatness of the story, its real or imagined references to Scientology, and the incredible stroke-inducing performances by Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but most impressively by a drunk-on-paint-thinner Joaquin Phoenix back from fake retirement.
While I did not enjoy the film as a whole (in terms of the magical aftertaste you get when you witness a masterpiece) this is not a movie review. I will point out why this is still a film worth watching. It took me an entire week to write this post because I wanted it to sink in and gnaw at me in my dreams before going on a murderous rant about why I didn't like it. And dream about it I did. The movie has some remarkable elements, like beautiful pieces of a complicated jigsaw puzzle that, when finished, fails to promote a feeling of pride in its completion.
Let's start with production value. Paul Thomas Anderson lovingly filmed his baby in 65mm film (also called Super Panavision 70) which I discussed in a previous post on the documentary "Samsara." (Please try as hard as you can to watch it in 70mm.) That documentary aside, this is the first mainstream Hollywood feature film to be shot entirely in that format in 18 years, since Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version of "Hamlet." And due to the large size of the camera, the cost of film development, and the overall trends of shooting digital, this may very well be the last film to be nominated for (or maybe even win) the Best Picture Oscar to be shot in this format, a tradition started with "West Side Story" and "Lawrence of Arabia."
"The Master" discussion with producer/writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson on September 16, 2012, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater
This film wouldn't be as haunting without the eye-watering production design by P.T. Anderson/Terrence Malick veterans, David Crank and Jack Fisk. The feeling that you get when watching this film is that you're siting in your suburban living room looking out of the window in the 1950's; you can smell the pies steaming and the babies booming. The decor and locations are tremendously effective in making you forget that you live in 2012. Those high-belt pants raised over the belly button and floppy blousy shirts that costume designer Mark Bridges outfits Joaquin Phoenix with are no less impressive than any costumes used in 19th century french period films; a sure Oscar nod right there.
The seemingly new director of photography, Mihai Malaimare Jr. has obviously clinched a nomination for best cinematography. He got his start on a recent slate of unsuccessful Francis Ford Coppola films ("Tetro," "Twixt," and "Youth Without Youth") which is actually a good thing, because after that practice, this will be the first time anyone remembers him; a champion achievement. One thing is for sure: the images of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix riding a motorcycle across the flat desert will become some of the most iconic images in cinema history.