It's a good weekend to catch up on your movie watching before Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony - starting with the odds-on (and deserved) favorite for the foreign-language Oscar.
That's "A Separation," Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi's brilliant and heartbreaking tale of how one decision leads to one tragic event after another. When Simin (Leila Hatami) seeks a divorce from her husband Nader (Peyman Maadi), so she can take their daughter Termeh out of Iran, Nader refuses - and he won't leave Tehran because he's responsible for his Alzheimer's-afflicted father. When Simin moves out, Nader hires a maid, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to tend to his father. But she, being a strict Muslim, balks at having to tend to the old man's toilet problems. Things spiral downward from there, and the courts become involved -- as Farhadi's tense, precise and above all humane script plays out. The strictures of life in Iran are a part of the movie's message, but there's a deeper universal story of people trying to do the right thing but finding it's all gone wrong.
Another Oscar nominee in the foreign-language category is "Bullhead," a bleak Belgian drama that's part character study and part gangster thriller. Unfortunately, the gangster stuff is the less interesting part. What's more fascinating is the profile of Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts), a brutish member of a cattle-raising family who injects himself with nearly as many illegal steroids as his family gives to the cows. The reasons behind Jacky's troubles go back to a childhood trauma, which surfaces when he encounters a boyhood friend (Jeroen Perceval) who's involved with some hormone suppliers.
The big studio movie this week is "Wanderlust," a happily raunchy comedy in which two New Yorkers (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) land in a Georgia commune and decide to live among the hippies there. Rudd and Aniston are almost an afterthought in the movie, as director David Wain ("Role Models," "Wet Hot American Summer") has more fun with the throwaway humor of his supporting cast -- including former "The State" cohorts Kerri Kenney-Silver, Ken Marino and Joe Lo Truglia.
"Act of Valor" is an action thriller with an odd twist: It depicts the working lives of Navy SEALs on missions to combat terrorism, with active-duty SEALs portray the fighting men in the film. That brings some degree of authenticity to the military action (though it's all shot like a first-person-shooter videogame), but the emotional dramatics -- the parts that require acting -- are wanting.
"Unicorn City" is a locally produced comedy about a slacker (Devin McGinn) who aims to prove his leadership skills by becoming head of a community made up of fantasy role-playing gamers. The Tribune's Scott D. Pierce was less than impressed with the film.
Lastly, two studio movies arrive without being screened for critics: The thriller "Gone," starring Amanda Seyfried as a woman who's convinced that the serial killer she eluded two years ago has now kidnapped her sister; and "Good Deeds," the latest from writer-director Tyler Perry, who plays a straitlaced businessman whose life is changed when he meets a poor single mom (Thandie Newton).