THE MASTER (15) *** It's never dull, but nor does it grab you by the throat

PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON'S long-awaited new film, his first since the monumental There Will Be Blood five years ago, is a drifting, enigmatic thing that is bound to please some audiences more than others.

On the surface it's a film about a cult which some have likened to Scientology, which may well be the case. It's not really important. The sceptics do get a voice, but it's not an attack on it, put it that way. Disappointingly, it never fully succeeds as a character study either.

Anderson's skill at conveying character through action rather than words does drive the early stages though, as we encounter Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) just as the end of the Second World War brings his days in the navy to a close.

Something of an oddball, seemingly sex-obsessed and suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, he drifts from job to job in the years following the war, never sure what to do with himself and subject to bouts of rage.

Freddie likes to make his own hooch, almost as much as he likes to drink it. On the run after being accused of poisoning someone with it, he stows away on a boat in San Francisco bound for New York.

It's here that he meets Lancaster Dodd, played by Anderson's frequent collaborator, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd describes himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher", any of which may or may not be the truth, but what most certainly is true is what a powerful and magnetic figure he is.

He leads a group called The Cause, and claims he can explore a person's past lives through time-travel hypnosis, and that through this he can cure cancer and mental illness. Dodd sees the lost soul in Freddie and sets about trying to initiate him into their ways, but Freddie's erratic behaviour consistently comes between them.

Deliberately paced, The Master lacks the clarity of intent that made There Will Be Blood so memorable. Like that film it has at its core a man of power and ambition and great will, albeit one who is most likely a brain-washing charlatan. It takes a while to show its hand, if it ever does, but the presence of its actors keeps you watching, and the technical expertise with which it's all put together is beyond reproach.

But the content is the key, and it's here that The Master both triumphs and frustrates. In a second half that's largely unchecked by narrative conventions, it jumps between scenes that don't necessarily relate or follow on to what's come before. It's never dull, but nor does it ever grab you by the throat and force you to engage with it.

The film loses its way somewhat in a midsection that feels aimless and a final third that becomes increasingly obtuse, and in the end The Master is an occasionally stunning but more often than not maddening experience.

Running Time: 143 mins

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

AMOUR (12a) ** Tough love or a labour of love - either way it's a hard watch

MICHAEL HANEKE picked up his second Palme d'Or at Cannes this year but, unlike his previous winner, The White Ribbon, the punishing ordeal that is Amour offers little reward beyond its surface grimness and gloss.

It opens with fire and police officers breaking into an apartment, where an elderly woman is found in a sealed off room, dead on her bed and surrounded by flowers. Let this opening be a warning as to where the film is headed, as we flash back to meet Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a well-healed Parisian couple in their 80s. They still enjoy an active lifestyle, but Georges begins to notice Anne spacing out, and it's found that she's suffered a stroke.

As Anne becomes progressively more sick and dependent, Georges struggles to care for her through daily life, as Haneke probes and lingers, and as the indignities for Anne increase, the reasons for continuing to watch slip away.

Other than a concert visit at the beginning we don't leave the apartment, and it soon becomes oppressive, as the Austrian director exhibits his talent for presenting horror in the mundane. It's a demanding film, and one that never feels sorry for itself, or lapses into melancholy, utterly rejecting sentiment. It not is entirely devoid of humour but it's such a cold, composed affair kept at such a clinical distance that there's no way of penetrating its armour.

What keeps it from being just too taxing is what gives the film its title - the 50 or 60 years of love that exist between these two that the ravages of illness and death can't rend, and Georges' commitment to Anne is quietly heartbreaking.

The acting is small, subtle, and beautiful, and every moment is crafted with precision and the utmost skill by Haneke.

Running Time: 127 mins

Director: Michael Haneke

UP THERE ** (15) Glasgow-shot supernatural comedy is set to be a BAFTA contender

SHOT in Glasgow though not explicitly set here, this supernatural comedy is one of the contenders for best film at the upcoming Scottish BAFTA awards.

Martin (Burn Gorman) is recently deceased and not handling death too well. Forced to go to counselling sessions while he awaits his ultimate goal of getting "up there", to keep his mind off it, he's given a job of meeting the newly dead at A&E to fill them in on their fates, but when he loses one, the plot rather loses its way too.

Moderately charming but incredibly slight, Up There is certainly an original, dotted with nice details, and for the first 15 minutes or so, it more or less works as a lugubrious comedy version of The Sixth Sense. There's some mileage in the dead not being able to influence the physical world, though it's less clear whether they're able to interact with each other. But the low budget means much of it is just people standing around chatting, and for all that it's brief, there's nothing like the depth of material required.

Repetition can be a problem and the second half is stretched and ragged in the extreme, quickly demonstrating that it's the sort of thing that may have worked infinitely better as a short film.

Running Time: 80 mins

Director: Zam Salim