“The Master” an unforgettable exploration of what we need and why we need it.

Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted a work that both elates me and condemns me. I’ll explain.

Anderson is, unquestionably, the most seminal figure in my current appreciation of cinema. For years, he’s steadily climbed the echelon of America’s great directors, and with 2007’s exclamation-point of a film in “There Will Be Blood”, in my eyes, he perched himself at the top. I’m as passionate and rapturous about Anderson as I am about any other artistic figure, well, ever.

Though his films vary from three-hour epics about the ’70s adult-film industry, to focused explorations of Reno gamblers, to idiosyncratic, quietly haunting Adam Sandler comedies, there’s a very clear thematic through-line, connecting all of his work — wounded souls finding compassion in makeshift families. His new work, “The Master”, has arrived with the sort of fervent anticipation and giddy buzz reserved for the biggest of cinematic heavyweights. Perhaps, because it’s up there.

“The Master” is massive. There’s no getting around that. Filmed with the 65mm cameras used for the likes of big-budget, classic screen-epics “Lawrence of Arabia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, it’s a film with impossibly gorgeous sights and eerily evocative lighting and color-schemes.

And what does Anderson (henceforth, “PTA”) choose to point these great, attentive tools at? A face. But not a typical face, alas: Joaquin Phoenix’s contorted mannerisms would be striking even if they weren’t in the wake of his faux-public-meltdown three years back.

Phoenix delivers what surely will go down as 2012’s finest performance, navigating us through a dense labyrinth of tics and twitches. The end result is more than a character, it’s an enduring image, one that will gnaw away at your psyche as it has mine. He plays Freddie Quell, a man who makes absolutely no effort to hide his animalistic urges.

To call him odd is to understate the matter. In post-WWII California, he’s one of many, many soldiers who has emerged as deeply disturbed and erratic — in particular, Freddie is a sex addict, a man whose slurred speech lays bare his innermost feelings, and one with an odd talent for making potent alcohol out of the oddest ingredients — paint thinner, rocket fuel, and rubbing alcohol included. But after one of these concoctions kills a co-worker, Freddie flees, eventually stowing aboard a wealthy steam-liner.

Aboard is a self-described “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher [..] and deeply inquisitive man”, Lancaster Dodd. Played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a totally immersive, transcendent work that would anchor any other film, Dodd is actually something of a supporting player in “The Master”, despite being the title character.

Dodd, alongside his devoted wife Peggy (Amy Adams, who masterfully subverts her cheery, matriarchal image to play a two-faced control freak), is in the throes of creating a spiritual movement called “The Cause”. The exact specifics of the Cause don’t matter much, just that it allegedly holds the secret to unlocking past lives and experiences, in order to enrich our own. What matters is that Dodd takes Freddie under his wing, creating a relationship with both tense undertones and a certain odd perversity.

In one scene, Dodd, to “break” Freddie into the Cause, asks a series of repeating questions that progress from innocuous to downright dangerous. It’s a little self-contained work of absolutely flaming urgency, as riveting as any scene in any film in any year. And in the end, it really encapsulates all that I treasure in “The Master” — technical mastery, layered thematic subtext, and the absolutely mad eyes of an actor who, like the Phoenix, has risen again.

It’s been said that this is a bold work of tonal & paced originality, but to say this implies a rhythm that runs through it all. I’m not sure PTA has one. The film churns along like a broken staccato pattern whose elements are stripped as it progresses. We begin with a firm grasp on narrative and character, yet exit the theater with nothing but questions.

I have stated that “The Master” elates and condemns me. But how can it possibly comment on me? Because, perhaps behind the iron curtain, “The Master” is PTA’s reflection on the role of the filmmaker in our lives — just like his Lancaster Dodd, they’re eager, skilled charlatans who twist our realities and turn our emotions. But it cannot be done without consent, not without the Freddies of the world who seek escape from the demons of the past and the worries of the future. Whether escape is sought in a bottle’s bottom or in a theater’s top row, it’s all the same. “The Master” explores why we need others — be it an institution or a man — to fulfill ourselves. Like the best of novels, there’s so much more to discover and so many more nuances to pick up, making repeat visits just as essential as the first. But as of this writing, this is the American film of the year. A

“Trouble With The Curve” is a simple pleasure with simple performances and a simple message.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay “Trouble With The Curve” is that while watching it, all else disappears. One forgets that the lead actor, Clint Eastwood, has recently delivered a subtly racist monologue to a chair; one forgets that the appearance from supporting actress Amy Adams is the lesser of her one-two punch of new releases this weekend; one even forgets that romantic-interest Justin Timberlake once crooned pop tunes with one of the more ear-splitting groups of the late ’90s, N’Sync. (The dude has dropped two great solo albums since then, but the point still stands.)

All of the context surrounding the film, all of the behind-the-scenes workings and even the film’s fairly static, flaccid direction become irrelevant. What we are left with are three wonderful actors, their small-scale quests to get what they want, and our own emotions as an audience. “Trouble With The Curve” is as unpretentious and undemanding as movies get. This occasionally works in its favor, creating a charming, homely atmosphere. Sometimes it works against it, as the simplistic characterization and “aw-shucks” demeanor get old fast.

Eastwood plays baseball scout Gus Lobel. As Lobel approaches his mid-80s years, his eyesight begins to erode — needless to say, a pressing issue, since it’s that sense that keeps him employed. His bosses want to send him to North Carolina to assess a rising high-school talent, but Lobel needs a fresh pair of eyes. Reluctantly, he recruits his fully grown, somewhat estranged daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), to head to the field with him and see if the kid has talent. While there, Mickey hits it off with rival baseball scout Johnny, played by Timberlake.

This sets the stage for an admittedly minor series of conflicts, all of which are resolved with the tidy sweep and moral righteousness one would expect from an Eastwood film. Interestingly enough, Eastwood is, for the first time in 19 years, only an actor here. He serves under Robert Lorenz, a first-timer who’s nonetheless assisted Eastwood’s directorial work for decades. Lorenz directs with a capable if unflashy eye. To be fair, this isn’t a story demanding great pyrotechnics behind the camera. Flashiness has a time and a place, and “Trouble With The Curve” provides neither. Nevertheless, the proceedings have a sort of hokey stagey-ness to them — one can almost sense the “walk here”, “pause there” script directions.

The script, drafted by fellow newcomer Randy Brown, is totally adequate. Rarely calling attention to itself, and only doing so when blatantly corny set-pieces arise (Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake winning each other over by skillfully doing a country/rodeo-type dance? Really?), Brown also writes some of Eastwood’s better one-liners in quite some time. Eastwood delivers them with all the conviction and skill his RNC speech lacked — and unlike his co-star in that event, he’s got very skilled actors backing him up here.

Amy Adams — continuing to snap up every mildly juicy female role Hollywood has — is as plucky and endearing as ever. She even makes her romantic subplot with the (notably) younger Justin Timberlake click here, bringing reality to a contrived, corny scenario. John Goodman, Robert Patrick, and Matthew Lillard are all vibrant and engaging in supporting roles as Eastwood’s co-workers. Perhaps, had the attitude of the cast been emulated when the script was hammered out, “Trouble With The Curve” could have thrown us all for a loop. As it stands, it fully engages and charms. For a time. B-

“Lawless” a grand tease of what could have been the year’s best

“Lawless” is a vital career-test of most involved, representing a vital financial or creative crossroads. Director John Hillcoat needs an artistic/commercial rebound after 2009’s long-delayed “The Road”. Tom Hardy needs to prove his post-“Dark Knight” viability as a leading man. Perhaps most importantly tested is Shia LaBeouf, who after years of talking about wanting “game-changing” projects — all the while collecting paychecks for the “Transformers” trilogy — seems to have burned most of his bridges in Hollywood. “Lawless” indeed represents a new, matured Shia, who does turn in very impressive work.

He’s Jack Bondurant, one of three Prohibition-era Virginian brothers running what many called the “wettest county in the world” — namely, the one most immersed in the production of bootlegged liquor. He’s something of a business outsider compared to his elder brothers, Forrest and Howard, and so begins to want a bigger piece of the pie.

This happens concurrent with the arrival of Special Agent Charlie Rakes. He’s a flashy, quick-tempered individual whose drive to crush bootleggers, and the Bondurants along with them, kicks the film’s dramatic momentum off. In theory, at least.

In truth, the biggest problem that “Lawless” has is its general inability to sustain any major form of dramatic momentum, at least for a long period of time. One would think that with its fairly simplistic conflict — brothers vs. lawmen — “Lawless” would have no problem creating tension. But screenwriter Nick Cave prefers taking many inexplicable narrative detours — take for instance, the sudden 5-minute introduction of prominent gangster Lloyd Banner as a Bondurant ally, a relationship that is never explained or given a pay-off. Why go to the lengths of writing his character and casting a phenomenal actor (Gary Oldman) in his shoes if there’s no significance at play?

Ditto for Mia Wasikowska, playing a preacher’s daughter who receives the romantic attention of Jack, AND for Jessica Chastain, playing a similar figure in the life of Forrest. These are all talented, worthy actors whose parts never add up to much. This is frustrating not because we expect more from the actors’ reputations, but because “Lawless” itself always hints at grandiose revelations and character moments that just never come.

“Lawless” is deeply unsatisfying, yes, but not because the plot is unresolved — quite the contrary, an epilogue actually leaves everything annoyingly over-explained. But rather, the many hints and sneak-peeks given by “Lawless” of something great to come, are what undo it. They tease. But they never deliver.

“Lawless” is home to a lot of small pleasures, don’t get me wrong. I could fawn over the hypnotic cinematography and relaxed aesthetic composition for days, and the music by screenwriter Nick Cave is a wonderful complement to the on-screen proceedings.

Greatly impressive are the duo of LaBeouf and Hardy. Over the course of “Lawless”, LaBeouf’s character transforms from a young, impressionable idealist into to a hardened, decisive man. LaBeouf’s work captures that shift with subtlety and grace, mirrored all the more by the fact that “Lawless” is a more mature work than the fare he’s chosen before.This, coupled with his superb work only a month ago in “The Dark Knight Rises”, Hardy’s proven to be one 0f the most intense cinematic presences out there. Where in “Rises”, Hardy’s creepy, mask-assisted voice was what haunted you, in “Lawless” it’s the exact opposite. It’s his silence, his calculation.

Guy Pearce’s work may be what leaves most people buzzing about “Lawless”. With hammy lines like ‘Never drink from a greasy cup’ and an inspired choice to shave off his eyebrows, Pearce creates a thoroughly loathsome, fearful figure. A worthy villain, one of depth and complexity. But it is precisely that depth and complexity in such a small dose, that leads us to wonder why it is not in a larger one, why it doesn’t apply to the film’s events, the significance of those events, and the general question: why exactly is this story being told? And this is where “Lawless” fails. C+