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Critic vs. Critic: A Tale of Two Paul Anderson Films

Thompson on Hollywood By Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood September 19, 2012 at 1:25PM

It didn't escape the notice of critics this past weekend that two wildly disparate films were released by directors both named Paul Anderson -- Paul Thomas Anderson's festival favorite and rave-reviewed "The Master," and Paul W.S. Anderson's "Resident Evil: Retribution," the fifth installment in the video-game-based franchise and the director's third helming contribution to the series. Notably, Armond White is Team Resident Evil, calling "The Master" a "dull, nihilistic and mean-spirited presumption of cultural history." Below, a round-up of critics weighing in on PTA and PWSA.
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The Master Resident Evil

It didn't escape the notice of critics this past weekend that two wildly disparate films were released by directors both named Paul Anderson -- Paul Thomas Anderson's festival favorite and rave-reviewed "The Master," and Paul W.S. Anderson's "Resident Evil: Retribution," the fifth installment in the video-game-based franchise and the director's third helming contribution to the series.

This presented a field day for critics. On the one hand, they got to fill in the blanks left by PTA with his gorgeous but opaque and inscrutable "The Master." And on the other, some were able to celebrate an under-the-radar unpretentious B-moviemaker with low Tomatometer scores over the much-trumpeted A-list highbrow auteur.

Notably, infamous critical contrarian Armond White is Team Resident Evil, calling "The Master" a "dull, nihilistic and mean-spirited presumption of cultural history." And also proclaiming Paul W.S. Anderson's virtues is long-time supporter, NYT critic Dave Kehr.

Below, a round-up of critics weighing in on PTA and PWSA.

Box office-wise, "Resident Evil" took the weekend with slightly over $21 million (PSWA's fourth #1 weekend gross), while "The Master" opened with the best-ever specialized platform per-screen average, with a weekend total of $730K.

Armond White, City Arts:

It’s time now to assert Paul W.S. Anderson’s status as one of contemporary cinema’s most thrilling talents. He deserves a clarifying comparison to the fraudulent, annoyingly monickered Paul Thomas Anderson whose film The Master opened the same week as Resident Evil 5. ..The Master, a roman a clef about Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and his paradigmatic follower, is a dull, nihilistic and mean-spirited presumption of cultural history whereas the futuristic fantasy of Resident Evil: Retribution turns nihilism into Apocalyptic Pop. This is the classic White elephant vs. Termite art parallel once coined by critic Manny Farber.

A.O. Scott, The New York Times:

The Master is rigorously agnostic about his methods and intentions, refusing the temptations of satire and gazing fondly at Dodd’s follies even as it notes the brutal way he and his acolytes deal with doubters and heretics. This semi-sympathetic stance makes sense, since the film, a glorious and haunting symphony of color, emotion and sound, is very much its own Cause. Our minds sometimes play tricks on us, substituting invention for memory. Movies turn this lapse into a principle, manufacturing collective fantasies that are often more vivid, more real, than what actually happened. “The Master,” unfolding in the anxious, movie-saturated years just after World War II, is not a work of history in the literal or even the conventionally literary sense. The strange and complicated story it has to tell exists beyond the reach of doubt or verification. The cumulative artifice on display is beautiful—camera movements that elicit an involuntary gasp, passages in Jonny Greenwood’s score that raise the hair on the back of your neck, feats of acting that defy comprehension — but all of it has been marshaled in the pursuit of a new kind of cinematic truth. This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief.

Dave Kehr interview, TCM's Movie Morlocks:

You hear complaints about there being a lack of action films with women, well, this is one of the most successful series out there, and it stars a woman. There are no compromises here, it’s just not a big deal at this point, in the Resident Evil world...Retribution is the smoothest and most satisfying. It does not feel monotonously fast. And it’s really tight. Every scene flows. And that’s exactly what Joss Whedon can’t seem to do. “Alright, that number’s over. We have two to three minutes of sarcastic banter between thinly sketched characters before it’s time for the next number to start."...It’s not like that audience is going to respond, “hey, this got a great review in the Times! Let’s go see Resident Evil 5!” It’s funny how people get that label of being schlock directors. I don’t know what he did to deserve that.

Ignatiy Vishnavetsky, MUBI review of "Resident Evil: Retribution":

Paul W.S. Anderson makes lively, unpretentious mid-budget genre movies fixated on video-gamey "cool" and distinguished by their leanness and their inventive -- and sometimes even poetic -- use of space...Anderson's work may not have a lot of narrative substance, but his visual sensibility is so well-developed that it often doesn't matter; form is substituted for theme. Composed in crisp visual shorthand, Anderson's movies are about images: strong, stoic-faced women meting out violence; characters executing somersaults through the air; tiny figures venturing into vast, foreboding spaces.

Karina Longworth, LA Weekly:

["The Master" is] a film of breathtaking cinematic romanticism and near-complete denial of conventional catharsis. You might wish it gave you more in terms of comfort food pleasure, but that's not Anderson's problem. You've just seen too many movies about incommunicative fuck-ups who manage to break down their defenses at some convenient third-act moment, assuring that order will be restored. By not opening up that valve, The Master forces the question of whether personality change is possible—or even advisable.

Ignatiy Vishnavetsky, MUBI review of "The Master":

This intentional smallness becomes The Master's major flaw. What makes the film's second half so frustrating is the way it refuses to resolve any of the problems Anderson introduces so potently -- through careful cuts, visual shorthand, and immersive juxtapositions of sound and image -- in the first half.

This article is related to: Paul Thomas Anderson, Reviews, The Master


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