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Joaquin Phoenix Joins Cult, Affleck Dumps Lover: Movies

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'To the Wonder'
Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder," his follow-up to "The Tree of Life." The movie was in the competition at the 2012 Venice Film Festival. Source: Venice Film Festival via Bloomberg

Sept. 4 (Bloomberg) -- War is over for one young veteran, and all he can think about is sex.

Joaquin Phoenix plays former Navy serviceman Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” (which premiered at the Venice Film Festival at the weekend). Freddie can’t stifle his animal instincts: He’s drawn to sand castles shaped like naked women, and sees only genitals in an inkblot psychology test.

After turbulent stints as a photographer and a farm hand, he hops on a riverboat packed with revelers who all seem to look up to one man: Lancaster Dodd, a.k.a. the Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Soon, Freddie does too.

Anderson makes no secret of “The Master” being inspired by L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology, which actor Tom Cruise belongs to. So reporters asked him about Cruise’s reaction.

“We are still friends,” replied the bearded, mild-mannered Anderson at the jam-packed news conference. “In fact, I showed him the film -- and the rest is between us.”

Phoenix seemed as uncontainable in person as he was in the movie. Donning a black shirt and tie, he squirmed, smoked, stepped out for a bit, and snubbed reporters’ questions.

The plot of “The Master” is classic stuff. A 1950s Svengali sets out to tame a maladjusted, lonely young man.

The problem is that we discover, way too soon, that the emperor has no clothes. The Master quickly seems a buffoon, and Freddie a mindless boor.

Oscar Winner

Anderson’s previous movie, the Oscar-winning “There Will Be Blood,” was based on an Upton Sinclair novel. “The Master” is the fruit of his own imagination, with flawed results.

Still, it’ll probably earn trophies for its main men. As the feral Freddie, Phoenix delivers a one-two punch of a performance. Seymour Hoffman cuts an avuncular figure as he sings to congregations of besuited men and nude women.

The two offer powerful on-screen duets. In one, the Master makes Freddie answer a barrage of questions unblinkingly: Does he linger at bus stops? Have muscle spasms? Fret over past failures?

In another, the two spend the night in adjacent jail cells. Like a bull in a China shop, Phoenix smashes a porcelain toilet inside the historic San Pedro prison where the scene was shot.

Amy Adams deserves mention as the Master’s Lady Macbeth-like wife. And sumptuous cinematography also comes to the rescue.

In the end, though, “The Master” falls flat. Two outstanding actors make the most of an uneven hand. Rating: **.

‘To the Wonder’

There was a lot of pressure on Terrence Malick after the global success of his 2011 “The Tree of Life.”

“To the Wonder,” unspooled in Venice and starring Ben Affleck, is an underwhelming follow-up.

Where “Tree of Life” explored the meaning of life, “To the Wonder” probes the meaning of love -- the dizzying ups, the devastating downs -- in Malick’s typical style: at once starkly realistic and philosophical, sometimes even preachy.

The movie’s first weakness is Malick’s threadbare scripting. Actors barely speak to each other. Words are narrated, instead, in foreign-language voiceovers.

Casting is the second problem. Talented Rachel McAdams gets a supporting role; the female lead goes to ex-model and James Bond girl Olga Kurylenko (“Quantum of Solace”). She often seems to be posing for a fashion shoot -- a result of her own inexperience, but equally, of Malick’s hazy direction.

Reclusive Malick kept away from Venice, as did Affleck. Kurylenko, in a beaded light-blue dress, spoke to reporters.

Malick Telepathy

“The telepathy between us was amazing,” said Kurylenko of her rapport with Malick. “On set, he didn’t really need to speak to me that much: I just knew what he wanted me to do.”

In the opening scenes, Kurylenko’s character Marina, a single mom, is swept off her feet by Neil (Affleck). They live out the romantic myth on the bridges and boulevards of the City of Lights. They then head for Mont Saint-Michel, the “wonder” of the title, and tiptoe across the soggy sands all around, an apparent metaphor for their soon-to-be-wobbly relationship.

When they move to Oklahoma with Marina’s daughter, Neil isn’t sure anymore. Marina departs, and he takes up with childhood friend Jane (McAdams).

Their courtship takes place on the family ranch, in a dry landscape inhabited by a magnificent herd of buffalo. Malick’s camera travels slowly from the beasts to the human beings in one of Malick’s majestic natural panoramas.

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough such moments. Other shots of plants and river stones feel repetitive. The casting of Javier Bardem as a Spanish-speaking priest suffering a faith crisis is incongruous.

It took Malick six years to release “Tree of Life.” By comparison, “To the Wonder” seems completed in haste. Malick has just finished another shoot, as it turns out, and is set to embark on the next. Here’s hoping the scripts are meatier, and the casting more consistent. Rating: **.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market, Greg Evans on U.S. television and John Mariani on wine.

To contact the writer on the story: Farah Nayeri in Venice at farahn@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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