★★★ 1/2 out of four stars

Rating: R for violence, language and sexual content. In Spanish, subtitled.

Theater: Uptown.

As direct as a bullet to the brain, "Sin Nombre" follows two Latino adolescents on a perilous journey to the United States. Willy, a new member of a violent Mexican street gang, boards the northbound freight train to rob the immigrants. Sayra, from Honduras, is riding the rails with her uncle and father, a deportee desperate to get back to his new stateside family. The dream and the nightmare collide as Willy rescues Sayra, wounding a gang mate who is about to rape her. His act of bravery makes him a marked man, and Sayra's grateful insistence on staying at his side puts her directly in harm's way.

This is a stunning feature debut for director Cary Fukunaga. The story borrows from road movies and crime thrillers, but the scenes and situations vibrate with authenticity. There is a "National Geographic" realism to the images of the fearsome, tattooed gangbangers and the destitute migrants camped out in railroad yards. There are moments of sublime beauty as well. The film opens with Willy staring at a mural of a forest ablaze with orange and crimson fall colors. A field of flowers in the same palette rushes by as he rides the rails, but by then he's too worried about outrunning his former gang brothers to notice.

This is a bloody film, but you couldn't tell the story otherwise. These are characters in crisis from the moment we meet them. For a time, they treat each other with respect and compassion, but the realities of poverty and desperation are never far from view. Fukunaga's vision is a challenging blend of pessimism and hope. Halfway through the travelers' train ride, they're chased by cheering children who throw them oranges. Later, they're greeted by another group of kids throwing rocks. Edgar Flores is fine as Willy, showing the pathos of a character who inflicts suffering on others but more on himself, and Paulina Gaitan shines as kind, brave Sayra.


★★★ out of four stars

Unrated; nudity, sexuality and profanity. In Flemish, subtitled.

Theater: Lagoon.

A romantic drama, interwoven with bright ribbons of humor. Matty, a 40ish post office clerk, glumly hopes for the return of her husband Werner, an art teacher now dating an ex-student. Her frustrations boil over during a parking lot accident. The truck driver who dented her car, Johnny, is a Viking lummox more than a decade younger. She screams at him. He bellows at her. Then they laugh, and he asks her on a date. Should Matty settle for the devil she knows behind Door No. 1, pursue the unknown guy behind No. 2 or wait for a possible No. 3?

Matty's midlife coming-of-age story is told with caustic wit and a big heart. It's crammed with intriguing characters: Johnny's urge to move beyond his chaotic jailbird past explains why he'd spin romantic fantasies about a maternal, stable woman, and Werner's foppish Flock of Seagulls haircut tells us all we need to know about his yen to erase the last two decades and get a do-over on his life.

None of Matty's choices leads to a feel-good ending; that would be a copout for this realistic comedy-drama. Instead, it gives us a jumping-off point for debate about her options: genuine, cautious uplift with zero saccharine.


★★ 1/2 out of four stars

Rating: PG-13 for sexuality and nudity, violence, and brief language. In French, subtitled.

Theater: Edina.

This glossy, cornball French music-hall yarn positively revels in nostalgia. Director Christophe Barratier packs on the 1930s production design, staging the frequent musical numbers like a latter-day Busby Berkeley, and the ensemble story has more plots than a can-can dancer has petticoats.

Economic crisis closes a working-class Parisian vaudeville theater until the cast and stagehands decide to reopen it under their own management. The mustache-twirlin' owner can't decide if he's more interested in crushing the upstart proles or sleeping with the young star (dazzling newcomer Nora Arnezeder). The chief stagehand loses his adorable son to his upwardly mobile ex. A no-talent impressionist becomes the warmup act for the local fascist sympathizers. And on and on.

As tradition demands, there's a romance between the new star and a backstage laborer, but Arnezeder outshines co-star Clovis Cornillac so completely that he fades into the background. Handsomely produced, lushly photographed and energetically performed, the film is still rather anemic. It's an overstuffed homage to a bygone style of show business rather than a vigorous piece of entertainment on its own. But when Arnezeder is in focus, you can see a star being born right before your eyes.