A really good movie is always synergistic, the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

A really good movie always is synergistic, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. In the just-released "Lawless," the parts are astonishingly good, testimony to what can occur when a fine ensemble of actors is buttressed by a gifted production designer, Chris Kennedy, and a superb costumer, Margot Wilson. The result is remarkable, creating an absorbing film with a visceral sense of dread that is unrelenting.

The audience is transported to 1931, the nation in the full throws of The Volstead Act. The place is Franklin County, Va. The people, hardscrabble and resilient, have turned to brewing moonshine, the green hills dotted with the burning fires of their stills. Speakeasies are operating at full throttle.

When the county law, spearheaded by a malevolent and sadistic special deputy, Charley Rakes (Guy Pierce), moves in — not to shut the local boys down, but to demand a bigger cut of the profits — an almost mythical family, the Bondurants, led by Forrest (Tom Hardy), make it clear that they are not about to "lie down" for the local sheriff, an imported deputy, or the federales. Brothers Jack (Shia La Beouf), Cricket (Dan Dehan) and Howard (Jason Clarke) stand with Forrest.

Jack, the youngest, provides the voiceover for the film. It soon becomes clear that his one wish is to stand tall and apart from his brothers, a wish that soon puts him in harm's way. Not only with the local law but with a Chicago gangster (Gary Oldman), a hard case who's come down to Franklin to acquire some brew, a mixture so potent that you can either drink it or put it in your gas tank.

In addition to the overall feel of the movie — sepia in tone, frayed, calloused — it is replete with astonishing performances. Consider Pearce's portrayal of Rakes. Pearce, clearly an actor and not a movie star, possesses the rare gift of being subsumed by the character he portrays. As Rakes, he inhabits a man who is effete, almost a dandy, and coldly homicidal.

And not to forget Jessica Chastain ("The Help") as Maggie, a refugee from Chicago burlesque, hoping to live a quiet, rural life. She soon finds herself in the middle of a pitched battle and in love with the taciturn Forrest. Hardy is pitch-perfect in the role, as is Mia Wasikowski as Jack's love interest. Jason Clarke is outstanding, as are all of the supporting actors.

"Lawless" is directed with a subtle but sure touch by John Hillcoat ("The Road"). The result is a memorable period film that is violent to be sure, but also a film that is unrelentingly compelling.

Celeste and Jesse Forever

At first blush, it would be easy to conclude that "Celeste and Jesse Forever" follows those formulaic romantic comedies that never dip below a patina of saccharine set pieces that extol the virtues of true love. It's not.

"Celeste and Jesse" instead is a quirky, crisply written film that begins with Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg), while living in the same digs (she in the main house, he in the rear studio), are talking divorce while still spending all their time together, happy to declare to friends that they remain best friends.

Celeste, a principal in an advertising firm that creates brands for rock stars and companies, is successful and smart and a bit self-absorbed. Jesse is content to flirt with work as an illustrator, while spending his days watching old tapes of the Olympics.

We learn that they were high school sweethearts who married young, and have, over the years, learned that marriage requires a maturity and self-understanding that they haven't yet achieved.

Of course, it's clear that Celeste has grown up in terms of a career and Jesse has stalled.

But it's their relationship that suffers from arrested development. Together, they can't move beyond their once youthful attachment to one another. Their tenacious connection is a metaphor for the pain involved in growing up.

This is the fulcrum of the screenplay (written by Jones), making "Celeste and Jesse" far more interesting and funny than those recent, tepid romantic comedies. It's also a well-written window into a generation.