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Anne Reid's gutsy, masterful performance in the title role of The Mother throws down the gauntlet in this year's Oscar race. She plays a newly widowed woman who gets entangled with a married man... almost half her age... who also happens to be her daughter's boyfriend.

            May (Reid) is understandably shaken by her husband's death and goes to stay in London with her self-absorbed kids, presumably in hopes of some comfort. But her son Bobby is caught up in his work and uninterested family, while her needy daughter Paula is involved with Darren (Daniel Craig of Sylvia), the contractor building Bobby's solarium. Paula enlists May to get a feel for Darren's intentions and May becomes drawn to the brooding handyman, who makes her think there might be life after death.

            Don't think The Mother is some feel-good romp, however. It's messy and uncomfortable, full of frustrating and puzzling behavior. None of the characters here are particularly likeable --- the most sympathetic one is screwing the man her daughter loves --- but they are, refreshingly, warts-and-all real.

            Director Roger Michell, who was also responsible for Persuasion, elicits flawless work from his entire cast, which is no doubt made easier when the script is by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Launderette). And watch for the inventive camera work by Alwin Küchler, as he doesn't usually go for the obvious shot.

            You've probably noticed that when critics refer to an actor's bravery in a role, what they're really saying is "I can't believe someone so old/flawed took her clothes off." (And I use "her" because, sadly, we are all far more critical of women.) I definitely appreciate the filmmaker's desire for realism --- at some point in the day, everyone gets naked --- but is onscreen nudity necessary, or does it distract the moviegoer right out of the story? Or, worse, is it a simple marketing decision designed to get tongues wagging and people in seats?

--- Dayna Papaleo


            If many brains producing the same thought simultaneously can produce a collective, audible sound, that's the one I heard as the lights went up at the screening for the new Robert Redford flick The Clearing.

            At first the film exudes the same quiet grace of its characters' affluent lives, with a low-key, studied intent. I was willing to ignore some early red-flag, familiarly hokey dialogue as things moved swiftly into the kidnapping plot that finds rich guy Redford wrested from his life by Willem Dafoe.

            A wife and children remain, hostages of the threat that the man they never fully had the attention of will never grace them again. This boring family, now headed by Helen Mirren, go through the paces of dejection and occasional anger, and it's all restrained in a civilized kind of way. The daughter, just off a plane to be with her family, even has headphones around her neck. I guess a plane ride is still boring without them even when your father has been kidnapped.

            The week or so of their waiting to see what will develop with the aloof kidnapper and the sweet time he takes with his demands is one half of the movie. No surprises or interesting developments occur whatsoever, unless you haven't seen the trailer, in which case I guess you are in for one mild surprise. There is, however, some more hackneyed dialogue, as well as the eventual foothold of the terse, percussive music more commonly found in the credits of cop shows like NYPD Blue.

            This is intercut with the other half, which, instead of a week, awkwardly takes place over only a day. This is the first day of the story, from Redford's point of view as he is led through the woods by a chatty, mysterious Dafoe. This section offers whatever pleasures there are to be had, including a great moment as Dafoe is putting tennis shoes on Redford, whose hands are bound. Redford looks on with incredulity at the ridiculousness of it, and then up at the beauty of the trees and sky, taking in the concreteness of the moment, fixing the scope of it in his mind.

            Watching his character's confident, professional charm trying to undo the ties of Dafoe's resolve is another encouraging element, but this sputters out in time along with every other promising facet of the film. The massive surprise is that there are zero surprises in store, nothing you haven't already hashed out for yourself from the beginning. I'm not talking about being able to guess the big reveals at the end-there just are none.

            The big point of the film? That despite his flaws and absences, Redford's character still loves his wife very much. But that's something they make clear within the first five minutes of the movie. The Clearing is strangely pointless, but with fine performances from all three veteran actors, it's at least a Whiffle Ball with class.

            You can't possibly miss the point of this week's other kidnapping feature, Try and Get Me! (1950). Didactic to the point of lunacy, it's a movie with a message --- one it delivers in as delightfully ham-handed a way as the industrial films being churned out for classroom instruction in the same period. While only the beginning and end of the film live up to the wild expectations of the title, there's plenty to enjoy in between.

            Lloyd Bridges, as a too-slick criminal with no conscience, turns in a performance which lunges from snappy and electric to just plain over the top. He talks Howard, a sad sack with money troubles, into being his cohort, and leads him into a misbegotten kidnapping scheme that goes wrong right away. Before the men can be tried, a gossip columnist whips the town into a frenzy with his editorializing, and soon the town is storming the police station with lynching on the brain.

            The earnest melodrama of much of the picture is propped up by Bridges, a deliciously weird performance by the woman who plays Howard's date, and by it's own cheesy overemphasis on the moral lesson --- not to mention the brutally stark ending, which takes the cheese right out of the burger.

            Jeff Bridges will introduce his father's film, which screens at the Dryden Theater on Saturday, July 24, and later that night will be back at the Dryden for "An Evening With Jeff Bridges."

--- Andy Davis