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L. Ron Hubbard (#110 of 4)

True/False Film Fest 2015: Going Clear, Field Niggas, & White Out, Black In

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True/False Film Fest 2015: <em>Going Clear</em>, <em>Field Niggas</em>, & <em>White Out, Black In</em>
True/False Film Fest 2015: <em>Going Clear</em>, <em>Field Niggas</em>, & <em>White Out, Black In</em>

A lazy, sensationalistic piece of cinematic journalism based on a masterpiece of narrative reportage, Alex Gibney’s Going Clear takes the revelations of Lawrence Wright’s work exposing the inner workings of the Church of Scientology and twists them into two hours of talking-head interviews, reenactments, and pointless scaremongering. The prolific director reliably releases two or three features a year on infamous celebrities or provocative subjects, and his approach is fluid, sweeping, and at this point dispiritingly formulaic. Gibney’s ambition is to create the definitive documentary on each of his subjects; as such, his films refuse to dwell on the ambiguities or hypocrisies that might make them more worthwhile than a half hour on YouTube and Wikipedia.

Wright’s presence in Going Clear is a persistent reminder of what the film could have been. Early on, he declares an interest in systems of belief with a “crushing certainty that erases doubt,” but the film’s synopsis of Scientology is delivered with a sneer. The religion’s duped apostates speak of signing billion-year contracts, spending vast sums of money on elevating the church’s baroque hierarchy of spiritual achievement, and being treated cruelly as lesser acolytes (John Travolta, Tom Cruise) are festooned with honors intended to keep them espousing the religion’s benefits. Wright explains how L. Ron Hubbard transformed his work in science fiction into a formal set of beliefs, and the film quickly reminds us that Hubbard was “prone to invention,” dredging up inflated war stories and some heinous treatment of his lovers and children.

Oscar Prospects: The Master

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Oscar Prospects: The Master
Oscar Prospects: The Master

Time will tell if the Academy’s newest rule adjustment will throw off the mojo of latecomers like Les Misérables, but it’s sure to benefit a movie like The Master, which has graciously offered voters several months to see it before casting their ballots. Often, such an early-season release would carry the risk of a loss of steam, and that may well be the fate of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, but it seems there are too many Oscar-friendly factors at play here to doubt the movie’s long-term clout. The cast is smack-dab in Oscar’s comfort zone, the Scientology parallels are present enough to offer some baity relevance, and with critical champions like A.O. Scott, the film has the reviews it needs to make it a veritable must-see, even if it’s not being gushed over quite like There Will Be Blood. There is the consideration that the Oscars aren’t what they were in 2007, when critically adored fare aligned with Academy favorites, and a curio like the saga of Daniel Plainview could go toe-to-toe with the elliptical nihilism of No Country for Old Men. But, then, The Master isn’t in the same key as its predecessor either, and if anything, its rather straightforward narrative makes it Anderson’s most accessible film since Boogie Nights. Though likely not a top-five contender, the movie’s Best Picture nomination chances look fairly solid at the moment, boosted by a very impressive box-office performance.

Venice Film Festival 2012: The Master

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Venice Film Festival 2012: <em>The Master</em>
Venice Film Festival 2012: <em>The Master</em>

Power, ambition, sex, religion, daddy issues—themes that have obsessed Paul Thomas Anderson throughout his patchy but compelling career. You’ll find them all here and more in The Master, a feverish snapshot of America at the dawn of the ’50s, war fresh in its mind. Anderson’s dazzling feature is also, notoriously, a thinly veiled portrait of the birth of Z-grade science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard’s celebrity-endorsed religion, though less barbed than you might expect.

Credit for this nuanced approach should go to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who imbues title character Lancaster Dodd with a large dollop of avuncular charm. One gets the impression that “The Cause,” Dodd’s teachings that claim to have the potential to cure cancer and bring about world peace, is simply an outlandish bit of mischief that’s gotten out of hand, a petty confidence racket that requires increasingly flamboyant lies as his followers multiply.

The film opens like a playful Beau Travail. WWII is nearing its end and on a golden South Pacific beach members of the U.S. Navy lark in the blue surf like they’re in an Old Spice commercial. One of these sailors, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, gaunt, loose-limbed, in Two Lovers form), stands out from the wholesome crowd. Freddie is pure id, a volatile ball of bodily functions and uncontrollable urges. After entertaining his buddies by miming a sex act with an anatomically correct female sand sculpture, he wades knee-deep into the drink to jerk off. This is as close to contentment as we’ll see Freddie for the rest of the film.

Poster Lab: The Master

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Poster Lab: <em>The Master</em>
Poster Lab: <em>The Master</em>

Poster designer Dustin Stanton has a history with Paul Thomas Anderson, devising the ad for the director’s Punch-Drunk Love while working with BLT & Associates, and creating the unforgettable one-sheet for There Will Be Blood while employed by Concept Arts. Now an independent artist, Stanton has been followed by his auteur collaborator, and has easily outdone himself with the poster for The Master, Anderson’s forthcoming sixth feature. Focusing on a drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) who, in the early 1950s, finds apparent salvation from alcoholism and malcontent with a budding religious group, the film is served well by Stanton’s glass-half-full approach, which implies a skepticism about the drifter’s turning point, and seems to question whether or not his saviors’ murky world is indeed better than his own. There’s a host of meanings one could ascribe to this handsome image, which easily sits in the top tier of 2012 film posters. Stanton first marries the elements of liquor and the sea, as the cultish group reportedly gets its start on a boat (where much of the film takes place). There’s also the dichotomy between Phoenix’s bobbing-through-life apprentice and his titular mentor (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose credibility may just be going down by the head. And if you care to take the bait, there’s always the matter of the title itself, which seems an incidental reflection of Anderson’s ego.