There will be a Svengali, a raw naif, confident camera work, bombast, a treatise on a pillar of American life, and yes, blood, or at least violence. If this is a Paul Thomas Anderson work, and “The Master” is quintessentially that, characters will be given the time to reveal themselves and develop in ways that defy narrative convention. That’s for good and ill, because while Joaquin Phoenix is captivating as a pained alcoholic Navy veteran, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is absolutely mesmerizing as an author turned cult leader, their story does not escalate to what one would consider a “climax.” What we do get is a rich character study inside the post–World War II uncertainty that was the breeding ground for new belief systems. “The Master” is less a veiled story of L. Ron Hubbard than “Citizen Kane” was the tale of William Randolph Hearst, but it’s just as ambitious as Welles’ opus. Hoffman might well win an Oscar, and Phoenix and Amy Adams should join him in receiving nominations.
Filled with mostly charismatic, resourceful actors cast as mostly odious, shallow 28-year-olds, “10 Years” falls into the worst tendencies of films that feature high school reunions, ensembles, or multiple story lines. Chris Pratt, as a former bully, promises to provide desperately needed moments of levity as he attempts to headlock the former nerds into forgiveness, but the script turns what should be his ham-handed ineptitude into strong-armed unpleasantness. Channing Tatum plays against type insofar as his Jake lacks an inkling of swagger, but his relationship with former flame Mary (Rosario Dawson) doesn’t evoke even a molecule of chemistry. A song performed by Oscar Isaac works, but it doesn’t save storylines featuring Justin Long and Max Minghella as idiotic boy-men. The most relatable character is played by Ron Livingston, an interloper who just wants to leave.
A protagonist needn’t be likable; witness the compelling antiheroes that populate our most interesting TV shows, such as “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Dexter.” But if he’s not likable, he needs to at least be interesting. “Arbitrage” gives us Richard Gere as Robert Miller, a crooked hedge-fund king who bolts from the scene of a car crash that leaves his mistress dead, thereby failing the likableness test twice over. Yet somehow it seems the moviemakers expect us to pull for Miller, possibly because, hey—it’s Richard Gere. But Gere cannot give his character dimension. When he must deliver anguish, we get petulance; when the script calls for rage, we get peevishness. Also, the movie hinges on—and this would count as a spoiler if the script hadn’t seen to that already—the deus ex machina of a police officer needlessly framing a guilty character. Susan Sarandon delivers a typically strong performance as Mrs. Miller, but Tim Roth seems to skulk in from a Sidney Lumet movie with a mouth full of “dees” and “does.”
“Step Up to the Plate” would surely be the lodestar of the slow-food documentary movement were such a phenomenon to exist. In this film, directed by Paul Lacoste, we meet chefs Michel and Sébastien Bras, a father-son tandem whose eponymous restaurant in the Aubrac region of France has received three stars from the Michelin Guide. Sébastien, the son, plans to take over the family business, which does not seem to please the patriarch, but the tension is as subtle and delicate as one of the gustatory inventions lovingly displayed onscreen. In one five-minute-long sequence Sébastien wordlessly prepares and places five ingredients for a dish designed to get sweeter as one eats it. Another scene centers on father and son gently arguing over, then diagramming out, whether foie gras should be plated using a right-to-left or a left-to-right motion. If this is the sort of fare that fires your imagination, or activates your salivary glands, you’re in for a rich buffet.
Mike Pesca is a correspondent for National Public Radio and a panelist on the podcast “Hang Up and Listen.” Screen Grab columnist Tim Grierson will return Sept. 27.