Mad Dash

As usual Loach gets all the physical details right. The dim light in the bowling alley where Joe takes Sarah on a tentative first date. The ill-fitting suit and self-important gait of a welfare bureaucrat snooping around the neighborhood for petty violations. The weary faces in the waiting room of Sarah's clinic. The gray-green haze overhanging the tables in the snooker parlor where we first meet slimy McGowan (David Hayman), the predatory drug dealer who will eventually wreck several lives. American movie directors like Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese have such a sure feel for the underside of big cities that you can practically smell the booze and taste the blood every time they take a camera into the street. Loach is just as masterful. This portrait of Glasgow, rooted in poverty, with desperation rapping at the door, wants for nothing in terms of grit and authenticity.

Mullan, who popped up briefly in Braveheart, Trainspotting and a pair of earlier Loach movies, seems exactly the right actor here. He bears an odd facial resemblance to a young Red Buttons, but there the similarities end: In Joe's athletic, hair-trigger jumpiness we see a boozehound still expelling the old poisons, and in his growing devotion to Sarah we get the unmistakable sense of a decent man who's wasted his prime but now sees one last chance to make good. It can't have been easy to keep this tough-and-tender portrait upright and schmaltz-free, but Mullan manages it, with help from his clear-eyed director. Witness the wonderfully telling scene in which Joe and a buddy, posing as old hands in the design trade, propose to wallpaper an oddly shaped sitting room for new friend Sarah. Joe's combination of sweetness, cunning and mischief as he finesses the job just about defines him.

The thing we don't know is how far he will stick out his neck for a boy whose bad luck and lousy choices must remind him of his own. A Ken Loach movie can be a screamingly funny experience, particularly when we're least expecting to crack up. But his lifelong quest, as he once described it, "to clarify the lives of ordinary people" usually veers into tragedy, too. Loach never fears to confront the cold realities of life.

By the way, try not to be put off by the subtitles. That's right, subtitles. On the surface Scotland and America would appear to share a common language, but the sound of English as spoken in the working-class districts of Glasgow can present a stiff challenge on this side of the Atlantic. Five minutes into the movie, most Yanks will be glad for a little help at the bottom of the screen.

Otherwise, we're on our own to contemplate another extraordinary piece of work from one of the world's most underrated moviemakers -- a film at once harsh and tender and almost faultless in the way it sheds light on a time and a place and a troubled soul.

Opens Feb. 26 at the Tivoli.
-- Bill Gallo

Directed by Garry Marshall

Director Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, Beaches) has always tended toward unrealistically feel-good movies, and The Other Sister is no exception. Billed as "a love story for the romantically challenged," it concerns a mentally challenged young woman (Juliette Lewis) struggling for independence from her overprotective mother (Diane Keaton). With the exception of one scene late in the film, everything in this overly cute movie is played for laughs. It's the world as Marshall would like it to be.

Portrayed in flashback as a willful, angry, destructive child, Carla emerges from a private boarding school for the mentally handicapped as far more centered, sensible and capable than anyone else onscreen. But mama Elizabeth, who has always been slightly embarrassed by her youngest daughter (and, on top of that, has to contend with a lesbian daughter and an underachieving daughter), just can't accept her as a responsible adult who wants her own apartment, is determined to take courses at a regular school and hopes for a boyfriend, who soon arrives in the form of Daniel (Giovanni Ribisi), an equally mentally challenged young man living on his own.

This is a very different role for former wild child Lewis, best known for provocative films like Natural Born Killers, and she does a fine job -- as does Ribisi, most recently seen in Saving Private Ryan. The problem is, the film is so intent on being uplifting and happy that it treats the young protagonists almost like a circus act. Much of what they say and how they view the world is humorous, but it's like laughing at small children playing grownup and remarking, "Oh, aren't they cute?" In the same "out of the mouths of babes" vein, Carla reels off one platitude after another. She is by far the wisest character in the story.

The film's humor is as mainstream and broad as it comes. On Halloween Carla walks into the living room wearing a cumbersome swan costume and announces, "I feel so delicate," the joke being, of course, that she looks anything but delicate. When Carla and Daniel start thinking about sleeping together, they consult The Joy of Sex.

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