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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of March 2

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BARNEY'S VERSION Paul Giamatti's excellent performance earned him the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, and he certainly deserved the honor over his embarrassingly weak competition. What isn't so clear, however, is why this film was thrust into the Comedy category in the first place. Certainly, this adaptation of Mordecai Richler's novel has its share of gentle laughs, many of them provided by Dustin Hoffman in an ingratiating turn as the father of Giamatti's Barney Panofsky. But ultimately, this decades-spanning look at the life of an often unpleasant man is more about heartbreak than humor, touching upon such subjects as Alzheimer's, infidelity and even murder. Moving back and forth in time, the film allows us glimpses into what helped turn Barney into a far-from-upstanding individual, even if it doesn't always excuse his behavior (for what it's worth, he's surrounded by equally annoying and/or unscrupulous individuals, played by, among others, Minnie Driver, Scott Speedman and the Twilight series' original Victoria, Rachelle Lefevre). Barney Panofsky is a rich character inhabited by an actor up to the formidable task, although it's worth noting that the Globe win didn't lead to an Oscar nod; instead, its sole nomination was for Best Makeup. It deserved to win over Rick Baker's been-there-done-that work on the actual winner The Wolfman; frankly, Benicio Del Toro's hirsute countenance is no match for Giamatti's liver spots. ***

BIUTIFUL An Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor, the Mexican import Biutiful has much in common with writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's previous film. Like Babel, it takes some interesting ideas and belabors them for well over two fidgety hours. In a typically compelling performance, Javier Bardem stars as Uxbal, a Barcelona resident who decides to put his affairs in order once he learns that he's dying of cancer. A conscientious man who nevertheless provides Chinese sweatshop owners with illegal workers, Uxbal has to deal with his unstable, adulterous and alcoholic wife (Maricel Alvarez), their two young kids, and — shades of Hereafter — the ability to communicate with the dearly departed. That's more than enough fodder to fill a screenplay, and I don't begrudge Inarritu his burning desire to consistently make cynical movies that wallow in the mire (he also directed 21 Grams and Amores Perros, both better than either Babel or Biutiful). But he and co-scripters Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone pile on the grim incidents by also following the (mis)fortunes of several supporting characters who detract from Uxbal's ordeal. It doesn't make the movie far-reaching or well-rounded; it just makes it bloated. **1/2

BLACK SWAN Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a messy masterpiece. Like Apocalypse Now, Eraserhead and Aronofsky's own Requiem for a Dream, it's one of those films that will force viewers to either reject it outright or allow it to burrow into the brain and remain there for days, weeks, months on end. It's a character study writ large, a juicy melodrama operating at a fever pitch. At its center is Natalie Portman in an astonishing, Oscar-winning performance as Nina Sayers, a ballerina whose director (Vincent Cassel) casts her in the lead role of his production of Swan Lake. But in true All About Eve fashion, just as she replaced an aging star (a knockout bit by Winona Ryder), she fears being usurped by a sexy newcomer (Mila Kunis). Meanwhile, the home situation is equally strained, given the fanatical devotion of her mother (an excellent Barbara Hershey). Is Nina strong enough to withstand myriad challenges, or is she on the verge of cracking up? The answers are there, but the film is complex enough to leave wiggle room for any theories. Examining the process of suffering for one's art in a strikingly unique manner, this psychosexual thriller is by turns frightening, sensual, humorous and tragic. It's a galvanizing picture that's simultaneously elegant and coarse — like its protagonist, it manages to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. ****

BLUE VALENTINE Ingmar Bergman's superb 1974 release Scenes from a Marriage went beyond allowing the viewer to feel like a fly on the wall: It made the viewer feel like a fly pinned to the wall, privy to everything going on in the room but unable to flee from the scene when things got nasty. A similar sense of uneasy omniscience informs Blue Valentine, a raw look at the ugly disintegration of that hallowed union between a man and a woman. Moving his story around in nonlinear fashion, director-cowriter Derek Cianfrance starts out by showing Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) toward the end of their unhappy time together. Thereafter, he flashes back to the days when they were eager young kids in loopy love — Dean was the more spontaneous and romantic of the pair, Cindy the more sensible and intelligent. Jumping back and forth, Cianfrance nails with absolute clarity the opening and closing acts of this doomed romance, but he doesn't always satisfactorily connect the narrative from A to Z, leaving important questions unanswered. Nevertheless, this punishing drama is worth a look thanks to the excellent work by the leads as well as Cianfrance's ability to employ the appropriate mood to help capture his own prickly scenes from a marriage. ***

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