TIFF: “Argo” and “The Master” land on Oscar’s Official Radar

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Phoenix and Hoffman shine bright in “The Master”

THE MASTER (****)
The single most anticipated film of the festival is Paul Thomas Anderson’s powerful The Master, which at once leaps into award consideration in several categories, and will no doubt alarm the hard-core Scientologists in Hollywood including Mr. Cruise who has already seem the film, and made clear his feelings. At one point early in the film Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), known as the Master is challenged at a party with his beliefs and pseudo religion, the Cause by a man who tells him straight out he believes what is being created is a cult. Enraged Dodd, flares up showing perhaps what lies underneath the surface of the charm, the smiles and caring. It for me was a strong reminder that blind faith in a single man can be dangerous. As far back as Christ people have followed a single man, and sometimes it can work, if that person is Gandhi, but if they are Hitler or Jim Jones the results can be terrifying. There can be no denying that this film is based on L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology, to the extent of the members passing out flyers on the streets urging people to come in and listen.  Watching the film, we see how membership in such a cult (and that is what it is) can be dangerous.

Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a haunted war veteran, full of rage, a hard drinker, womanizer, and struggling to get back into life. Moving from job to job he cannot hold down anything it seems, and wanders one night onto a boat anchored in a bay with a party happening on board. Found out, Quell is taken to Dodd, and the pair becomes fast friends, with Dodd making Quell his personal project. He dislikes Quells’ rage, but more dislikes the fact he cannot control the man as he controls the others around him. He does not seem to have any trouble drinking the homemade booze that Quell creates with among other things, paint thinner, until his wife makes clear he needs to stop drinking the swill Quell creates. As Quell begins to see contradictions in Dodd’s’ teachings, begins to listen to the masters son, who says at one point, “he’s making it up as he goes along” which sticks in Quells mind. There are alarms that are set off regarding the master. The police show up at a home where he is staying and arrest him for draining a charitable foundation of more than eleven thousand dollars, and in one scene, he appears to be surrounded by naked women, while the men remain dressed. What challenges Quell more than anything else is the fact Dodd cannot be questioned about his cause, he blows up and goes on the attack when worn down.

In a career defining performance, the finest of his career, Joaquin Phoenix makes a welcome return to acting, apparently over his attempt to become a rapper. He brings something unique and startling to Quell, pulling his body in it appears and walking with his chin jutting out, all but challenging someone to hit him. There is a huge chip on his shoulder, and his movements seem to come as someone is holding the back of his shirt collar. Quell is a unique creation for the actor, unlike anything he has ever done before, and certainly along the lines of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007) in being a cinematic original. Equally good is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, one of the finest actors of his generation as the charismatic Dodd, who we know almost at once is flawed, but watch with great interest as he smiles his way through just about any issue (sound familiar??). Even when taken away in handcuffs he knows any outburst from himself will hurt his cause, so quietly goes along while all hell breaks loose behind him. It is a brilliant piece of acting, and both actors could land nominations for Best Actor.

Though Amy Adams has not been drawing much attention for the film, I found her performance superb. Quiet and dutiful when in public, doing whatever her husband asks of her, she is steely resolve behind closed doors and makes many of the calls within the marriage herself. She believes in his cause, she believes in him, and blindly follows him, but some of it at least on her terms. She does not like Quell, does not care for what happens when he is around, but cannot bring her husband to banish the man from their presence. We see in her eyes her distaste for him when he comes to England, and wonder how long she will allow him in their lives again.

The score is less music than a series of strong sounds, though from time to time there is harmony on the track. Odd though it works beautifully for the film, and the cinematography is exquisite.

Once again Anderson has made a brilliant American film about flawed human beings walking the planet colliding into one another, struggling through life. On the strength of just six films he has become the most exciting director in American cinema. The Academy will be challenged by The Master for more reasons than there is space to write here, but I do believe nominations will come for the film and it will do well with the critics’ awards.

Ben Affleck’s third, might be the charm…

ARGO (****)
Ben Affleck leaps into the forefront of American directors with this much talked about thriller that is easily going to earn Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. In fact it is so good, it could be the sixth film in a row to play TIFF and go on to win the Oscar as Best Picture!! Argo has all the goods the Academy likes, and was directed by an actor who has come back from a terrible career disaster after winning that Oscar for Good Will Hunting (1997). It was not so long ago that Ben Affleck was something of an industry joke as an actor, and seeing him emerge as a major filmmaker has given Hollywood something to cheer for. Oscar loves a comeback, and they have never shied away from a historical film.

Based on The Canadian Caper, the film explores what happened (sort of) when the CIA became involved in extracting some Americans stuck in Iran during the revolution that happened in that country in the seventies. On November 4, 1979 a group of Islamist militants took control of the US embassy and held fifty-two hostages, while six managed to slip out and take refuge in the Canadian embassy.  As the militants make door to door searches, the chance of them being found out are very real, this will mean execution. CIA operative Mendez (Affleck) gets the call to help these people and comes up with a bold manner to make that happen…they will pretend they are a movie company scouting locations in Iran and get the Americans out at that point. Remember Wag the Dog (1997)? Suddenly it is not so far out of the realm to use the movies for political reasons.

Much of the early film is very funny, but Affleck handles the move from humor to thriller beautifully, smooth, allowing the transition to happen without the audience realizing it has taken place. Suddenly things become very serious and we are hurtling towards the conclusion, which is life and death. To make the movie ploy happen Mendez realizes he must reach into Hollywood and get help and he does that involving Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help them out. A science fiction script is cranked out at rapid speed, real life makeup artist John Chambers, who won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes (1968) is brought in to help out and the plan seems fool-proof. But the Iranians are as smart as Mendez, and will not be fooled easily and suddenly what seemed like an easy extraction becomes something that is life and death for everyone involved, and if the plan goes poorly, they realize it could mean the end for the fifty-two hostages.

Affleck delivers the good as both actor and director, a nice reminder that he has always been a fine actor, just made poor choices. Brian Cranston, so good on TV’s Breaking Bad gets a juicy role here that could see him land more film work, Rory Cochrane, Victor Garber, and Clea DuVall are terrific, and the great john Goodman is marvelous. A taut script and taut direction make this one of the festivals’ hottest tickets and easily one of the year’s very best films.