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The Debt, Our Idiot Brother, The Guard 

THE DEBT

***

Don't be turned off by the worrisome facts that its release date has kept changing, it's already made the global rounds since last September, and it's being buried with an end-of-summer release date. An English-language remake of a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Debt is actually a compelling thriller that features a topnotch cast and able direction by Shakespeare in Love helmer John Madden.

In 1966, Mossad agents Stephan (Marton Csokas), Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and David (Sam Worthington) are tasked with locating and bringing to justice Dieter Vogel (a chilling Jesper Christensen), a Nazi madman who, like Josef Mengele, conducted gruesome experiments on Jews during the war. Thirty years later, the Israeli agents (now played by, respectively, Tom Wilkinson, Helen Mirren and Ciaran Hinds) are still celebrated for their heroic achievements in East Berlin back in the day. But something is clearly troubling two members of the team, and as the film smoothly moves back and forth between eras, it becomes clear that there's more to the saga than what the world knows.

For the first hour, The Debt delivers on its growing mystery and its punchy suspense, with Madden further wringing a real sense of stifling confinement as the young agents are forced to shack up in a grubby apartment with their bound captive. Once all questions have been addressed, the story's third-act shenanigans become increasingly fanciful and aren't as gripping as what preceded them, although they still bring the story to a reasonably acceptable conclusion.

The entire cast is excellent -- even the usually vanilla Worthington -- although the MVP is clearly Chastain. Already the breakout star of the summer thanks to The Help and The Tree of Life -- and with at least two more high-profile titles coming out this year alone -- she's the vital center of this picture. Not just anybody can convincingly play the great Helen Mirren as a young woman, but Jessica Chastain pulls it off without breaking stride.

THE GUARD

***1/2

Nobody can curse like the Irish, and that's proven again in The Guard, in which the various characters turn profanity into an art form. But this delightful endeavor -- one of the year's best as we prepare to head into the Oscar-bait seasons -- doesn't just provide an amusing workout for the R-rating; instead, it's a savagely clever yarn that manages to tweak genre staples before burying them completely.

In Sergeant Gerry Boyle, Brendan Gleeson finds a great character to inhabit, and he's dynamic as the rural cop who doesn't let much ruffle his feathers -- not even murder. When FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) appears on the scene to investigate drug smuggling, the two engage in a testy relationship made strenuous by Boyle's mock-racist cracks ("Did you grow up in the projects?") and Everett's big-city-superiority routine.

Meanwhile, the villains (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot) conduct their business as usual, taking time out to philosophize, criticize, and grow exasperated at the weaker minds surrounding them. Naturally, it all leads to a final showdown, but most viewers won't be prepared for the capper.

The Guard is terrific entertainment, and I can't wait to re-watch it on Blu-ray, when I can turn on the subtitles and catch the handful of lines I couldn't locate under those thick brogues.

OUR IDIOT BROTHER

***

After the likes of The Change-Up and The Hangover Part II (to name but two of a million), I was beginning to give up on ever again seeing any R-rated "man-child" movies that offered anything of value. Thank goodness, then, for Our Idiot Brother, which realizes there's more to this type of tale than scatological gags.

Paul Rudd plays Ned, a clueless free spirit whose behavior alternately endears him to and alienates him from his three sisters: ladder-climbing reporter Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), frazzled wife and mother Liz (Emily Mortimer) and slightly ditzy bisexual Natalie (Zooey Deschanel). The film initially seems as shaggy and aimless as its protagonist, but it improves as it continues, with director Jesse Peretz having secured the right performers for virtually every role (Steve Coogan lends sneering support as Liz's unfaithful husband, while Rashida Jones is quietly effective as Natalie's brainy lover).

And while the movie coulda/shoulda been longer than its scant 90 minutes, it's actually surprising just how much memorable material scripters Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall pack into the piece. For a movie centering on an unabashed clod, it's a fairly intelligent work.

 

 

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