Friday, September 21, 2012

The Master - 2 1/2 stars

The movie is set in the 1950s.  It's about a troubled soldier who becomes a drifter after World War II.  Joaquin Phoenix plays the drifter, Freddie Quell.  He has a lot of problems.  He's probably got PTSD.  He's also horny as hell.  When the soldiers are on a beach goofing around and one soldier makes a woman out of sand, Freddie gets on top of it and starts humping it.  This makes the other soldiers laugh until it keeps going on too long.  Freddie isn't trying to make the other soldiers laugh.  He's actually trying to get off with this sandwoman.

After the war, Freddie tries to lead a normal life but he keeps getting fired for getting into fights.  Eventually he meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a cult or movement or something like that.  Dodd likes Freddie instantly, and here Freddie finds his purpose.  He gets into The Cause and becomes Dodd's right hand man and chief enforcer.  He does things like beat up people who speak out against The Cause.

A lot of people assumed this movie would be about Scientology.  It isn't, although there are similarities.  Paul Thomas Anderson (writer, director, producer) said that Dodd was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, and there are similarities to the way Scientology began.  But the movie is about a fictional man and a fictional movement, and Dodd isn't even the main character.  The movie is really about Freddie and his journey.

I loved the first 30 - 45 minutes of this movie.  I was fascinated watching Freddie's journey.  Phoenix gives probably the best performance of his career, and will be nominated for an Academy Award for this movie.  He is so good that he manages to steal every scene he is in with Hoffman.  It's nice to have Phoenix back after the whole crazy quitting acting to become a rap star fiasco.

Once Dodd starts putting Freddie through strange tests, the movie starts to drag.  The tests, called processing (like auditing?) are interesting at first, but when Dodd starts making Freddie close his eyes, feel the walls and describe them, I almost dozed off.  It gets so monotonous and doesn't go anywhere. 

There is a good movie here.  I wish we got to know more about where Dodd came from, what The Cause is all about, something.  But the longer the movie goes on, the more it meanders without a plot or narrative.  During the first half, I thought I was watching the best movie of the year.  Then the movie just lost me.  I can't quite recommend it, although there is stuff in this movie worth seeing.  This one is a tough call.

House at the End of the Street - 2 1/2 stars

A mother and daughter move to a new town and find themselves living next door to a house where a young girl murdered her parents.  When the daughter befriends the surviving son, she learns the story is far from over.  [synopsis from]

The daughter, Elissa, is played by Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, Winter's Bone).  Her mom is played by Elisabeth Shue.  Elissa starts making friends in her new town and soon meets Ryan.  The story goes that Ryan's sister murdered their parents then ran away, and supposedly she drowned in a lake or something but her body was never found.  When this story was told in the movie, it made me laugh out loud.  Really?  The killer's body was never found?  Could this mean that the killer is still alive, and will show up before the end of the movie???

Many people in town believe that the sister, Carrie Anne, is still alive and living in the woods.  Well, we learn pretty early on that she is still alive (so this really isn't a spoiler).  Her brother Ryan has been keeping her locked up in the basement ever since the murders.  She's still crazy and he has to keep her sedated.  So we know her brother is kind of messed up too.  I understand that he feels sympathy for his sister and doesn't want her arrested or locked up in a loony bin, but does he really think that living locked up in a basement is any kind of life? 

Anyway, the movie is mostly about whether she will escape and kill again.  She does escape now and then, and this is where the movie tries to be scary.  She is lurking in the woods watching people, and there is a scene where she comes across a couple making out in a parked car.  I wondered if the movie was going to turn into Friday the 13th, but it doesn't go there.

Obviously Ryan doesn't want anyone to know that his sister is locked up in his basement, which makes things complicated when Elissa starts coming over for makeout sessions on the couch.  The movie could have been more interesting if it had done something with the relationship between Elissa and Ryan, but it doesn't do much.

The biggest problem with the movie is none of the relationships are developed well.  Elissa's relationship with her mom is very cliched, with bad dialogue about how bad a mom she is and stuff like that.  No one in this movie speaks convincingly.  The screenwriter has no idea how to write interesting dialogue.  Also, there is no humor in the movie.

I always use Scream (1996) as an example of how a good horror movie should be.  Even when there is no killing or terror going on, Scream is still a good movie.  The reason is the characters are well developed and interesting, and they have good dialogue.  There is also a lot of humor in Scream.  I think I laughed more in Scream than in many comedies.  Everyone who writes a horror movie should watch Scream to see how to do it right.

So why 2 1/2 stars for House at the End of the Street?  I'm probably being generous, but the movie didn't bore me.  I was intrigued enough with the setup that I wanted to see what would happen.  And there were a couple of good twists late in the movie that I didn't see coming.  So in the end, I liked the story but the script really could have used a re-write.