‘The Master,’ Pretentious Art Film or ‘Master’piece?

The Master — * Star

My first instinct is to tell you that after watching The Master, the new film by director Paul Thomas Anderson (of Boogie Nights fame) is that it is pretentious shit. And part of that is because of all the rave reviews I saw of this film before going  into the theater. I have a fairly high tolerance for self-indulgent directors and wandering films that provide no guidance for the audience as I can always read up on any visual cues or background information later, but halfway into this film I started to get bored and really annoyed. I also felt this from everyone around me and the crowd was an older, introspective group who, like me, was looking for a literary experience (based on the rave reviews) and some insight into how cults may have started after World War 2.

If you don’t already know, The Master mirrors Scientology (in the film they call it “The Cause”) and founder L. Ron Hubbard. The producers and I believe even the director are quick to dismiss that the film is a critique of the religion–it’s supposed to be a period piece fueled by character studies; only observations with no judgments. That is exactly true. The Master isn’t a  critique of anything, purely observational which is the problem. We feel so damned lost with these characters that it’s like a bad dinner conversation that’s gone off into some bizarre direction where you can’t remember if there ever was a topic of interest. Then throw in some odd sexual moments for additional confusion. It also suffers because the film isn’t dangerous. You would think with a director taking on subject matter inspired by L. Ron Hubbard that the film would have some bite. Not so, there’s no teeth and we’re slowly gummed into apathy.

The only good thing I can say about the film are the performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cult leader Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix as his protege  Freddie Quell. Joaquin especially seems to transform himself into the ultimate war vet loser who can’t embrace the new religion but is loyal to its leader since he has no other friends.

It’s not that Director Anderson had to take a stance against Scientology, but he should have explored it more than what was pictured. Yes, he did take some time to focus on “processing” which is code for Scientology’s “auditing” and it did show some of the techniques used to break down a person’s resistance to it’s strange ideas. However, as there was no apparent transformation of Freddie Quell (he starts off as a boozer with violent tendencies and after a long session of manipulativel exercises continues his life in the same manner as shown by his attack on a book publisher). We learn nothing. The excuse is that the film is really about Freddie Quell, but Quell is not likable in the least and he’s not even that fascinating from that perspective. I found him a dull character study, the guy who should have been left on the side while we spent time with Lancaster Dodd and what made him start a new religion.

According to Wikipedia, Tom Cruise was allowed to screen The Master ahead of time and report back to Scientology headquarters, like the good soldier that he is. The offense they took was that at one point in the film Lancaster Dodd’s son tells Freddie Quell that his dad is just making it up as he goes. In other words, L. Ron Hubbard, the science-fiction writer, just made up Scientology too. Honestly, Scientology doesn’t have much to worry about except the drooling critics. The public at large isn’t going to care about this film and even geeks like me are likely not to recommend it (as we can see here with this review). It may be worth one curiosity viewing  if you can tolerate some of the boredom and want to see the performances, but expect to be checking your watch (when is this over?). There is some random nudity (such as a party scene which I don’t know if it was meant to be real or imagined by Freddie Quell), fart humor, a hand job and masturbation, in case that helps (though again, these small offenses add nothing to the story).

If the director wanted to make a film just for himself, he succeeded, but for an audience it’s frustrating. I really went in wanting to like a film that dared to show Scientology in its infancy. All we got is a tease of the potential filled with unexplained moments and yawns.

‘Prayers for Bobby,’ a Primer for Parents of Gay Children

If you want to see a real tearjerker with a good message, watch Prayers for Bobby. It’s a Lifetime movie, but one of the few that may stand the test of time (continued reruns on cable) as it records the efforts of Mary Griffith to come to terms with her gay son’s suicide, and while it is TV quality, it is one of Sigourney Weaver’s better performances (Aliens is still the best though!).

The true story is simple enough: a son comes out of the closet in a moderately religious home in the seventies and the situation goes from bad to worse as the well-intentioned mother tries to fix her child using The Bible and therapy. Only too late does she realize there is nothing to fix. Bobby, in a world of emotional pain due to rejection by his mother and seemingly the world, and a new boyfriend who cheats (at least that’s the way it appeared), decides to end it all. A not uncommon story in the gay teen community. When you tear kids down in their adolescence they either give up or they recover in their adulthood. I don’t believe Christian fundamentalists realize how much damage they do when they denigrate gay people. Taking away a person’s self-esteem leaves them defenseless when esteem is most needed (first love break-ups or spousal abuse as examples).

As with all tragedies, people tend to reach deeper into their faith, question it, and often can come out of it as stronger people. This was the case for Mary Griffith who somehow had to find forgiveness for what she described in the film as breaking down her son’s self-esteem. It’s not surprising she became an activist for gay rights after joining Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and at the end of the film it shows her looking enthusiastic as ever with white hair and a smile. Good for her, activism was her recovery.

This film is aimed at believers, in particular Christians, so freethinking atheists will probably roll their eyes at the Biblical explanations for why The Bible is not necessarily anti-gay. I’m not sure how defining “abomination” as “unclean” is really any better because if God presided over Israel and was allowing them to put gays to death (as well as all the other rules that could get you killed or banished for being unclean) then what good is that? Why even bother with The Bible? I guess the intention is that Biblical laws are not meant for all time periods. True, but if God does not change we can judge his past to get an idea of his opinions on certain social issues. You can interpret The Bible in its ancient context but how do you pull a modern God out of it?

Religious ties hold fast and are not easily cut. But it is better that the obvious hypocrisies of conservative/literalist Christianity are pointed out  in Prayers for Bobby.

If you’re a gay friendly Christian or a parent of a gay child, you’ll love the film. For us manly heterosexual men–watch it, absorb it, and then pop in Aliens! It is after all a Lifetime movie and there’s just so many tears you can take. Hell, even gay geeks like Aliens (you know you’re out there, reading comic books and watching cheezy movies just like I do).

‘Judgment’ Movie with Mr. T

I can’t even put a rating on Judgment, part 4 in the Apocalypse series. I haven’t even reviewed the other movies in the series on Freethunk, but this one from 2001 stands out for so many reasons. I can tell you, depending on your beliefs or nonbelief you’ll either be in tears or laughing your ass off. It’s  a bad movie with some decent acting and Corbin Bernsen holds it together even though the dialogue is ridiculous. I kept expecting him to lose control of the scripted rebuttals, conversations and angst, but each time he reigns in the dialogue so the movie doesn’t veer off in to a total car wreck.  AND Mr. T is in it! Get out the popcorn!

The premise is simple: Victoria Thorne, played by Jessica Steen,  is a journalist who apparently was executed but then kept in a cell by the AntiChrist. She’s brought out for a show trial to create some entertainment and reaffirm The Beast’s benevolence to the new world order. Mitch Kendrick, played by Corbin Bernsen, is the lawyer chosen to represent her and is explicitly told he is to follow orders and not deviate from the rigged court system. In the end, of course, he does after he has a change of heart. Throughout the film, Mitch struggles with the fact that he put his own father, a believer in Christ, on trial and ultimately his father was executed for not recanting.

Mr. T is part of the resistance–though it’s hard to tell if they can resist because he keeps being told not to use violence. C’mon! He’s Mr. T! Bring out the A-Team and whoop some AntiChrist ass! My wife walked into the room while T was delivering his lines and looked puzzled and then laughed. It’s just bad and I love Mr. T, but…oh, it’s just bad.

The part that is going to get atheists and other freethinkers talking back to the screen is the trial itself. My wife caught me doing it.  At one point Mitch is allowed to place one of Victoria Thorne’s sisters in Christ on the stand and she insists there is solid evidence for Christ. So much so that it is equivalent to the existence of Aristotle. The witness is so confident that after the examination scene is done you’re thinking back, “Wait, what evidence?”

The “court” evidence seems to amount to 500 witnesses to Christ’s resurrection, but who are these witnesses and are they noted outside of the Bible? I searched for it and it is a claim by the Apostle Paul. Someone on Yahoo Answers asked the same question I’m asking and this is how a Christian responded:

The proof is the thousands of historical manuscripts. Since we have thousands of historical documents that say it did and you don’t have squat to prove it didn’t we have more proof than you. The Bible does not list their names though they were known and many still alive at the time the New Testament was written.
Of couse I find that most athiest are not interested in any facts that contradict what they have chosen to believe.

Okay? So there are historical documents of witnesses with no names? I’m not sure which historical documents this persons is referring to beyond the Bible. I’m aware of a Josephus reference to Christ’s resurrection that is debated by historians, but that’s it. Do you think the Bible alone would stand up in a court of law? Let’s go to a more well known author, Josh McDowell:

Let’s take the more than 500 witnesses who saw Jesus alive after His death and burial, and place them in a courtroom. Do you realize that if each of those 500 people were to testify for only six minutes, including cross-examination, you would have an amazing 50 hours of firsthand testimony?

Yes, you would? But you don’t have those witnesses!

Does anyone else see a problem here? One of the leading founders of the Christian cult (it was a cult at the time) says there were 500 witnesses to the resurrection but isn’t naming names and the only place you can read this statement is in his writings in the book of Corinthians. On top of that we don’t even have Paul’s original writing–we have copies of copies. What would we think of any other cult leader that made that claim in the past or present? We would say bullshit, produce the witnesses. This is not evidence. This is someone making a claim in a book too old to verify. I can’t go and question these witnesses or historically speaking, without being named, I can’t research their existence. What kind of stupid logic is this?

This is the Bible verse in question from Corinthians, chapter 15:

For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; 4And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: 5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: 6 After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.

That is not court evidence or any evidence at all. Don’t believe everything you see on TV and don’t believe everything you read in a book more than a 1000 years old. We don’t necessarily have to throw the whole Bible out as history, but when it deviates into miracles–yes, we need more evidence. At the usual refrain goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. A man raising from the dead is extraordinary.

The other evidence brought up in Judgment were the conclusions of Steve Greenleaf, an attorney at law? I looked him up and he did write a book on examining the resurrection, but that again is not evidence. The basis for his conclusions might be evidence but the movie assumes we should accept Greenleaf by his position alone as they only mention his name and that he was a preeminent lawyer. With that logic, then abortion should be moral because it was examined by the Supreme Court justices of the United States and found to be a woman’s right. We can be impressed by Greenleaf as a person thus making us more prone to listen to him as an expert, but his stance alone is not evidence. Also, according to Conservapedia.com, he died in friggin’ 1853!

This has to be the worst evidence ever presented! I realize a movie can’t go on at lengths, but that scene alone had our prosecuting attorney speechless without a rebuttal. Do you think there might be some changes in courtroom law and acceptable evidence since 1853?

Judgment actually does some damage to itself when they try to call God/Jesus Christ to the stand and nothing happens. It may have been meant to be rhetorical, but it reminds unbelievers of the absence of Christ, not the presence. You find yourself agreeing with the prosecuting attorney for the AntiChrist even though she did a piss-poor job.

This is the usual fare I’ve seen pumped out of Cloud Ten Pictures and I know they’re only getting bigger. It’s obviously meant for believers because you really have to “believe” to accept the movie’s conclusions. They make no sense and I would even venture to say that this is the movie’s fault as there are far better convincing arguments. The resurrection of Christ cannot be proven in a court of law. It requires faith because there is no solid evidence. The storyline could have incorporated a show trial, but the movie should not have made the show trial the entire premise. It doesn’t work. Christians want to have it both ways: 1. God can be proven. 2. It requires faith to believe in God.

I would keep God in the realm of mystery and simply exploit the persecution angle as most people, including atheists, believe in freedom of religion.

SIDENOTE: The resistance is using cell phones and they’re not immediately tracked and captured? The AntiChrist would have them on the first call, wouldn’t he? Besides, in one scene, without the mark of the beast a couple can’t buy a pizza. How the hell did they sign up for cell phone service? I’m not saying they couldn’t have come up with a fictional premise to use cell phones outside of say Sprint or AT&T, but for the sake of futurism at least make an attempt to explain cell phone use without being tracked by the government.

SIDENOTE 2: Resisting Christians are called “Haters.” It’s supposed to be a derisive term but it comes off as funny. I kept expecting an attorney to say in a teenybopper voice, “Hey now, don’t be a hater.”

SIDENOTE 3: Did you know the mark of the beast can be faked? That’s what some of the characters do (rub on tattoo, not sure what it was on their hands). I think that ruins the underlying theme of rejecting Christ. And what if you take the mark of the beast but change your mind? Can’t go back while some other guy faked the mark of the beast and still has a choice even though by faking the mark he/she is rejecting Christ?

‘Rust’ Movie Review

Rust (2010) --**1/2 Stars

I watched Rust (2010 on New Year’s Eve as it is pretty normal for me to try to force myself to stop working and relax (I sort of succeeded, only worked a half day on projects). If you read the Freethunk News Bites, you may have some idea that Rust was written and directed Corbin Bernsen (LA Law, Psych). He took time to comment on a post about the San Diego Christian Film Festival where the film was to compete against other faith inspired films.

Therefore I may want to tread carefully, but thoughtfully as Corbin Bernsen might actually take time out of his schedule to read this review. I want to be fair due to my own biases but also fair to my regular Freethunk readers. …That usually means I’ll offend everyone and satisfy myself. I’m fine with that. As long as I’m just not spouting off (which I’m guilty of on several occasions).

CB, as he doesn’t seem to mind being called that, has made it clear that he doesn’t want to be labeled and subsequently I would say doesn’t want his creative work labeled as a “Christian Film.” Fact is, he stressed that he shouldn’t be “put in a box.” I can sympathize as assumptions are made whenever you say you are a Christian or Atheist, however, I personally do not mind labels as long as they can be stretched and expanded. It’s hard for people to not categorize books and movies, especially when you are attracted to one genre over another. For our purposes here, I will label Rust a faith film, but not necessarily a Christian film.

Rust takes place in Kipling. It is a small town film reflecting small town values that are undermined by the blunt honesty of people just being people. What I mean by that is Rust doesn’t uphold the small town illusion. The mood is bleak often reflected by the literal cold and isolation of winter and the residents of Kipling all have their crosses to bear. The problem is, they don’t really know how to bear them, with the exception maybe of the aging Pastor Barrow who asks more questions than gives answers.

The main character, James Moore, in the opening of Rust seems to almost have a panic attack towards his religious profession as a minister and just walks off after questioning a statue of Jesus. We’re not even quite sure what instigated this? Is it just a mid-life crisis or something more?  

He returns to his home town of Kipling to find himself or refresh himself on why he started on a pastoral career course in the first place, but all around him is just a feeling of hopelessness and an acceptance of mediocrity. His Dad seems indifferent to his return, apparently disappointed with his son leaving in a time of need. His sister is divorced with her former husband having a relationship with a younger woman. And his childhood friend Travis (who is slow but not what I call mentally retarded)  is in lock-up for arson after a well-liked family burned inside their home.  …Fun stuff! Kind of depressing for New Year’s Eve–but then I’m a strange sort anyhow, I enjoy the cold of winter and this is nothing compared to my reading list of heavy-handed books.

Here, with all of the bleakness of his life and the other lives he’s known since he was born, is where James Moore looks around him, looks at himself and then doesn’t know what to do. Oddly enough, I didn’t see him reaching out to God, but listening to his father tell him to finish something in his life. To me, that is very subjective, “finish what?!”

But when we have those panic attacks–I’m such and such age and I’ve accomplished nothing–we look for something to divert attention away from our perceived failures. Something else that we can complete that will have more meaning. In this case, it is discovering the truth about the fire and why Travis is accepting the blame. How this helps James restore his faith in God the end, I’m not sure I could follow. I do know that when you feel like a failure, sometimes stepping away from your career or going on a quest of sorts will bring you back around. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe this film isn’t even about God (uh-oh, did I just suggest that?).

Was restoral of faith in God necessary? Or was it a restoral of faith in one’s self? See, as someone who doesn’t believe in God, when I viewed the opening of the film I saw James Moore talking to himself–not to Jesus through a statue. I saw the same thing throughout the film and to some extent at the end of the film. I didn’t see a necessity for God at all in Rust. The tagline on the DVD is “A journey home, a faith restored.” Faith in what (?) is not mentioned really until the end and even then what does James Moore or rather CB as the writer do? He doesn’t quote scripture, not even after reading from a Bible (huh?). He quotes Samuel Pierce (who?) I won’t give that part of it away, but if you study that last scene in the church–no scripture is taught. Not one word from The Bible.  It is CB’s personal view of God and of faith, not The Bible’s. It is not, in my opinion, even Christianity (there I go again with the labels). The rust in Rust is referring to how we live our lives despite the creaking of our hardships (to extend the analogy of the title) and how we live our lives for others.

Now I know CB or Christian readers may call foul, but that’s my personal interpretation. Rust is about someone walking away from himself and then coming back around because he knows he can help be a thread in the “fabric” that creates the blanket that covers us all. James Moore refers to that fabric/blanket as something of God.  I don’t see how that applies. That blanket is the empathy of the human race, our relationships to family, friends and strangers and how we come to each other’s rescue in small and large ways. The analogy of the blanket being noted, by the way, is another reference to the last scene with the sermon.

Is Rust a film for freethinkers? For entertainment purposes, no–for reflection yes. Drop the word God and you have a humanist film. Faith can be applied to the view that we, on this fragile planet, are getting better at weaving the blanket. Dare I take the analogy away from God? Of course I do.

Christians are more likely to be drawn to the film because after the hardships are lain bare, relief is given by Moore’s restoral to his “calling.” Freethinkers will have objections, but not necessarily against the writing so much as what I call the elephant in the room as I describe below.

The acting is above par for a small budget project and the film does not present a fantasy faith that cures all. The script, in my opinion, is incomplete as there is more to explore and the wrap-up at the end, for lack of a better phrase, is “too sunny.” I would have actually liked to have seen more screen time with Travis–if that guy is acting he’s damn good, if he’s not he’s an interesting individual– and why he did what he did as further character exploration, but I realize that the arson mystery was there to fuel the healing of the main character James Moore (the movie really wasn’t about a fire). I do believe the ending is too simple, that any jubilation the characters were shown to be feeling after the resolution to the tragedy would be short-lived. A family died horribly in a fire because of stupidity. Throughout the whole film you should be asking, “Where was God?” My faith was in James Moore as a man bent on finding the truth. God was lacking.


The Elephant in the Room –You know as an atheist I am going to have to comment on the obvious and it all has to do with the fire. While James Moore’s faith was restored by the fire, what about the family that was burned to death?

 When they were calling out for help, where was God? If this was God’s plan to restore Minister Moore’s faith then it was a pretty f’d-up plan. Oddly enough, CB’s script seems to reject the idea of God’s plan in the sense of planned tragedy or God putting “hurdles” (as Minister Moore refers to them) in our path for us to overcome them, but then he contradicts himself when he has Minister Moore indicate in the same sermon that God has planned our journey (which would include the hurdles). Do we dare get into pre-determinism/Calvinism? It is a no-win conversation.

Suffice to say, if God has planned the journey he knew the fire would happen and he knew how to prevent and/or rescue the family. You can’t explain away God’s apathy if you believe in God. The only logical explanation is there is no God planning anything. Fires simply happen and we mortals have to do our best to cope. Fact is, we do better than coping as we overcome natural and manmade disasters each year through our own ingenuity. God is not due the credit as an all powerful being that can’t lift his hand for one moment towards a burning baby is not worthy of worship. It does not matter if He did not cause the fire. You too are guilty if you stand idly by and watch a family burn without doing anything (even it is only calling 911).

The Martyr –The other point I need to make is Travis. Travis commits a Christ-like act by taking the sins of others upon himself. In other words, he took blame for the fire so the kids would not judged by Kipling society. The problem is, he indirectly caused a kid to blow his brains out. For those who haven’t seen the film and are reading this, it was a teenager who inadvertently dropped a cigarette which was the real cause of the fire–not Travis intentionally starting the fire because he had a conflict with the homeowner. The kid, keeping his silence due to Travis falsely confessing, feels so much guilt that later on he shoots himself.

Is that a fair thing to say? If Travis had not accepted blame and if the police were more competent, the kids would have been caught. They would have faced the consequences and gotten counseling or parental help. Now we know it was an accident, but no kid or adult is going to live well hiding a secret that caused the death of an entire family. It would eat them up inside. That’s exactly what caused the subsequent suicide of the boy after the fire.

That makes Travis a tragic figure. Now the alternative is that Travis could have turned all the kids in and still the boy in question may have commited suicide. This is something unforseeable. However, it would not be as a result of Travis trying to play Christ. It makes you wonder about other unintentional consequences there are to being Christ-like. This would be good subject matter for a faith film.

SIDENOTE: What I found more touching was the DVD extra where CB spreads some of his father’s ashes in Kipling. I almost wonder if he had written the film with the “movie father “passing away at some point in the script that we could see more of who James Moore was. It certainly showed more of who CB was. This is armchair directing though and probably unfair. The father was well-played, not slick acting like you might think, and much like Travis, I would have liked to seen more scenes with him.

Well hopefully after this battering there will be more. I like to see these films though I know most freethinkers dismiss them. I think they’re useful to understand and cross examine (LA Law pun intended). Exploring faith, without literal adherence to scripture or obvious propaganda, may lead someone to a more intelligent view on the subject and even an understanding of why the need for a God is questionable. …At least, that’s my optimistic opinion. On the other hand, it is easier to examine and argue a film with a literalist perspective. Thank no-god for TBN inspired films.