"The Master" (R, 138 minutes, The Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay): It's the end of World War II and sailor Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) hits the road, finally stowing away, drunk, on a party boat under the command of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Seeing that Freddie has been on a bender, he announces that the younger man is "aberrated," a disjointed state of being that Lancaster seeks to mend by way of his self-styled religion, the Cause. They enter an alternately symbiotic and dramatically dysfunctional relationship, observed from an intimate distance by Lancaster's all-seeing wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). Combined with a surprising turn from Adams, "The Master" presents viewers with one of the most potent triads in recent film memory. There's so much weirdness and beauty in "The Master" that it takes a while for the notion to sink in that so much acting talent and cinematic artistry has been put to the service of such puny, insufferable characters. There's no doubt that Paul Thomas Anderson is a master of the medium. The deeper question is whether the filmmaker's ambition and skill in this case leave us feeling buoyed or hopelessly at sea.
"Chasing Mavericks" (PG, 105 minutes, Fox): There are two monster waves in this surfing movie inspired by the life of Jay Moriarity, the Northern California teenager who in 1994 became an overnight celebrity after riding the infamous swells off Half Moon Bay known as Mavericks. One is the literal mass of churning, white water that lends the movie its name and much of its dramatic power. The other is the figurative tsunami of schmaltzy melodrama. Although "Mavericks" is structured around the quasi father-son relationship between the squeaky-clean Jay and Frosty Hesson, the gruff, grizzled surfing veteran who becomes the teen's life coach and big-wave trainer, there's lots of extraneous plotting - which, however fact based, is handled in such a pre-fab manner that it feels phony. Fortunately, directors Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson keep this syrupy tide in check. After a somewhat shaky start, the movie improves as it works its way out of the tangle of subplots to an undeniably stirring conclusion.
Also released Tuesday
"Chicken With Plums"
"The Loneliest Planet"
"Law & Order: The Twelfth Year"
"NOVA ScienceNOW: How Smart Can We Get?" (PBS)