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By Michael Calleri

"Biutiful" has been Academy Award-nominated for best foreign language film as well as for best actor, Javier Bardem. The movie is in a good position to win the foreign language award, but Bardem, who won for supporting actor for "No Country For Old Men" in 2008, will watch Colin Firth receive the best actor honor for "The King's Speech" this year.

Bardem is superb in "Biutiful," a multi-layered drama in which he plays a low-level criminal who lives and operates in the seamier neighborhoods of Barcelona. This is not the Barcelona of the tourist posters, of the mythical architecture of Antoni Gaudi, or the turquoise-hued Mediterranean Sea. This is a Barcelona of harsh realities. It's ugly, dirty, and falling apart.

Bardem plays Uxbal, a hyperactive schemer who is raising his two children because his wife is unreliable and has turned to prostitution.

Uxbal also has terminal cancer. Not even the mystical healer he visits can help him with this crisis. He's a criminal who's never killed anyone, but he's facing a death sentence.

The movie is long, but I never felt its length. You know the saying: A short bad movie can seem like an eternity, but a good long movie can go by in an instant. "Biutiful" is the latter. At 148 well-paced minutes, it's engrossing and tough-minded.

Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel," "Amores Perros," "21 Grams") has co-written, along with Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone, a witch's brew of cruelty about a man getting on with his questionable life in the face of misery and the cold reality of disease.

One of Uxbal's moneymakers is his involvement in human trafficking. Chinese immigrants who've fled their homeland find their way to Spain to work in sweatshops sewing fake luxury goods to sell to tourists. What's topsy-turvy here is that in China itself, actual Chinese workers make these very same designer goods for high-end retailers.

There are multiple storylines in the film, including one about a married, middle-aged Chinese businessman who runs the illegal factory and has a younger male lover he prefers to his wife, although the fact of his homosexuality terrifies him. Watch the look the wife gives when the young man shows up unannounced at the businessman's house.

"Biutiful" is about frantic people who find their lot in life to be a parable of negativity and doom. How did they get to this point in their existence in one of the most beautiful and enchanting cities in the world? The question wears on them, but they have to keep doing what they're doing to survive. Life, as dreary as it may be, has to go on. Inarritu tells you why.

"The Eagle" is an historical adventure that satisfied my criteria for movies such as this to succeed: I learned a few things. I wasn't bored. I didn't laugh at the wrong places.

They often call these films "sword and sandal" epics. And they are often dismissed as silly. Yes, some of them are silly, but this one shouldn't be dismissed. It's fun and very well-made.

In 140 A.D., Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), is a Roman Centurion living in the conquered land we now call Britain. He is a leader of men, in charge of a garrison, but living under a shadow.

His father was commander of 5,000 men who disappeared in the strange, uncivilized reaches of what will become Scotland. His father's legions were carrying a gold standard called the Eagle.

Marcus debates the wisdom of trying to find out what happened to the missing men and the Eagle with a Roman political leader, played by Donald Sutherland.

The decision is made to head for the mysterious north. With his trusty slave Esca (Jamie Bell) beside him, Marcus will go past Hadrian's Wall and find his way through the forbidden reaches of what is essentially a land of barbarians. He will either succeed in finding out what happened to his father and reclaim the Eagle, or he'll die trying. He is warned about the Seal People, and we will get to see them.

The movie is directed by Kevin MacDonald, who made the popular "The Last King Of Scotland." Jeremy Brock's screenplay is based on a popular historical novel by Rosemary Sutcliff.

MacDonald and his team, including nice work from Tatum and Bell, have crafted a relationship between master and slave that is believable and endearing. Marcus and Esca are the heart and soul of the movie.

Additionally, there's an action sequence in "The Eagle" that takes place near a creek in a forested valley that is as good as any action sequence I've seen.

If you want to bring children, you know your own kids, but be forewarned. The picture is filled with intense violence, including gladiatorial combat involving Esca, who looks like a youngster, but actually isn't. There are ominous landscapes. The bloody swordplay is ruled by today's movie standards, which means the violence quotient is significantly ramped up.

I truly enjoyed "The Eagle." It's an adventure tale told well.

"The Company Men" is a solid drama about downsizing and the effect it has on the upper level of corporate management.

The film is written and directed by John Wells, the main man behind "China Beach," "The West Wing" and "E.R."

The picture stars Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper and Craig T. Nelson.

There are women characters, but they are peripheral. This is primarily a film about well-off men losing one of the things that exemplifies their reason for being: a job.

Nothing has prepared them for the new realities of the global economy. Nothing comforts them once they are fired. Not their fancy toys. Not their camaraderie. Not even their families.

The focus is on Affleck and Costner, brothers-in-law separated by a real divide. Costner makes things. Affleck is a highly paid paper pusher.

Writer-director Wells gets a little bogged-down in the working-class hero aspects of his story, but overall it's a superbly acted movie about extreme loss and the struggle for redemption.

E-mail Michael Calleri at michaelcallerimoviesnfr@yahoo.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Feb. 15, 2011