There's no mistaking when summer's over and the fall movie season begins. That's when the Weinstein Company — which once existed in a different form as Miramax — releases the sort of serious and challenging films that make critics' hearts sing, just in time for the all-important awards season. Miramax earned an astonishing 220 Oscar nominations during the last 17 years of Harvey Weinstein's reign, many of them richly deserved by movies with budgets far more modest than those found at the big Hollywood studios. The vast majority of Miramax award winners always arrived between Labor Day and Christmas.
In 2012, there's no better fit for the now-widespread fall movie aesthetic than writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. His previous film, There Will Be Blood, took the Academy by storm (eight nominations) and later was named "best film of the decade" by publications ranging from Rolling Stone to The New Yorker. Anderson's new film, The Master, will probably do almost as well with tributes and awards. Like There Will Be Blood, it's a brooding character study with spectacular central performances that explores recent history to illuminate the dark side of the American Dream. It's stark, vivid and hugely cinematic, but it's also a movie that's easier to admire than it is to love.
The Master stirred controversy long before its arrival in theaters. Anderson admits to finding inspiration for his story in the life of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, and it's not a flattering portrait. But the film quickly transcends those origins through the talented Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays budding 1950s cult leader Lancaster Dodd with a frail humanity that is clearly his own creation. Matching Hoffman blow-for-blow is Joaquin Phoenix, who returns to serious work after a long absence and delivers a memorable turn as war-damaged Freddie Quell, an ideal mark for the manipulative Dodd. Military shrinks poke and prod Freddie's psyche but have no chance of easing the alcoholic drifter's entry into post-war consumerist society. That's where "The Cause" — Dodd's vision for personal healing through time travel to past lives — comes into play.
Anderson's movie comes by its epic scale and visual splendor honestly. The Master is the first narrative movie shot on 65mm film in more than a decade — this is the format that helped give Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music their unmistakable grandeur. That magic comes through largely unscathed by today's 4K digital projectors. An organic and dissonant score by classically trained Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood serves as a foil for the visuals and provides an ideal backdrop for Freddie's and Dodd's troubled souls. But soul is the one intangible attribute to which the movie can't really lay claim. The Master may fall a little short of the Anderson masterpiece for which many had hoped. But it's powerful enough to make you believe the filmmaker's best work is still ahead. — KEN KORMAN