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Dench Searches for Secret Son; Cage’s Rage: Venice Movies

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan as Philomena Lee and Martin Sixsmith in Stephen Frears's "Philomena." About a mother forcibly separated from her son, the film is in competition at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. Photographer: Alex Bailey/Pathe Productions Limited/British Broadcasting Corporation/British Film Institute/Philomena Lee Limited/Venice Film Festival via Bloomberg

Teenage moms faced a brutal fate in 1950s Ireland: They were often forced to live in convents and watched their babies get snatched away.

“Philomena,” the true story of one such mother, premiered over the weekend at the Venice Film Festival. Director Stephen Frears -- whose movie blatantly indicts the Catholic Church for its treatment of “fallen women” -- took the opportunity to deliver a special invitation.

“I am very, very keen that the pope should see it, if you have any influence in those quarters,” Frears told the Venice media pack. When asked to elaborate, the filmmaker said: “He seems like a rather good bloke, the pope.”

Judi Dench plays the elderly Philomena Lee, who, after decades of self-imposed silence, reveals to her daughter Jane the existence of a long-lost son. Jane begs Martin Sixsmith, a former journalist and U.K. government spin doctor, to help track down the missing first-born.

“Philomena” could easily have turned into the sappy saga of a wronged woman. Instead, it’s a well-calibrated drama -- neither too sweet nor too bitter, with a funny duo at its core.

Dench’s Philomena has a titanium hip and a passion for candy bars and romance novels. Steve Coogan’s Sixsmith tells people he used to be a Roman Catholic, and curses at elderly nuns.

Frears will probably have to wait a while for that Vatican screening. Judging by his movie’s critical reception, however, the wait for a trophy may be much more brief. Rating: ****.

‘Night Moves’

Jesse Eisenberg won an Oscar nomination for his performance as Facebook Inc. co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.” His character in “Night Moves” is just as socially inept.

Josh (Eisenberg) is a militant ecologist and organic farm worker who plots to blow up a hydroelectric dam with two others (Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard). In the film’s first hour, we watch them attend anti-capitalist seminars, buy a motorboat, stuff it with explosives, and lead it by night to the tall dam.

For a while, “Night Moves” -- also in the Venice competition -- feels like a dreary environmentalist manifesto. Yet when the dam explodes -- a scene that director Kelly Reichardt coolly illustrates with sound, not image -- the culprits find themselves in a far less morally defensible spot. From then on, the movie becomes all about the character of Josh, and a much more gripping experience.

Eisenberg delivers an award-worthy performance as the ring leader. So distant he’s practically autistic, Josh is blindly devoted to the cause, and is surprisingly emotion-prone. While the film could use some trimming, Reichardt (director of the 2010 “Meek’s Cutoff”) pulls it all off in the end -- with Eisenberg’s help. Rating: ***.


Joe is an ex-convict who works for a lumber company and has anger management issues.

As played by Nicolas Cage, he’s also the titular hero of David Gordon Green’s new movie, a Venice contestant. “Joe” is a bleak and violent portrayal of the working-class South with a non-linear narrative that meanders too much for the movie to cohere.

The central theme is Joe’s encounter with Gary, a teenage dropout whose mission in life is to defend himself and his family from an abusive, hard-drinking bum of a dad. Yet the core Joe-Gary relationship is never really fleshed out. We see so much of Joe -- his bar-room brawls, his trips to the brothel -- that he becomes a caricature. And we don’t see enough of the two of them together.

Cast in this awkward film, Cage sometimes seems like he’s revisiting his “Leaving Las Vegas” role. The true gems are the bum -- non-professional actor Gary Poulter, a real-life Austin vagrant who’s now deceased and who will make your skin crawl -- and the remarkable young Texas actor Tye Sheridan. Rating: **.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         So-so
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Guy Collins and John Mariani on wine.

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