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By Michael Calleri

"Of Gods And Men" won the grand prize at Cannes and the French Cesar for best picture. It is a powerful study of contemplative men, Cistercian monks at a monastery in the mountains of Algeria.

They pray, make honey they sell at the local outdoor market, and offer medicine and words of wisdom to villagers, most of whom are Muslim. Life is peaceful and cooperative until Islamic fundamentalists begin a war against the government, killing Europeans brought in for construction work, terrorizing fellow Muslims, and eventually threatening the monks themselves.

When the violence begins, the eight monks engage in determined discussions about whether to leave or to accept military protection. They do neither, choosing a road to an uncertain future.

The exceptional movie, directed by Xavier Beauvois, and written by Beauvois and Etienne Comar, is a testament to faith, and it forces you to see the points of view of conflicting religions.

It is also a vision of a world turned upside-down. The film is based on actual events in Algeria in the 1990s, which included the kidnapping of the monks of Tibhirine. It will give you pause, make you think, and after you leave the theater, it will compel you to read more about what did, or did not, happen to the men. The movie is open-ended, a mystery of sorts.

Beauvois directs with clarity and deliberation. Caroline Champetier's strong cinematography captures images of abject poverty and haunted fearful faces.

The superb cast includes French stars such as Michael Lonsdale and Lambert Wilson.

A pivotal sequence takes place on Christmas and includes an exchange of ideas between the leader of the monks and the leader of the guerillas.

"Of Gods And Men" is a movie that's utterly unafraid of ideas and is one of the best films I've seen in years.

In "Win Win," a New Jersey lawyer, who also coaches high school wrestling, pulls a fast one to help his family.

He manipulates the legal system to place an elderly man into a senior care facility. The old guy's money then goes into the lawyer's pocket.

Paul Giamatti is the attorney and Amy Ryan is his wife. The exceptional cast -- there's not a bad performance in the movie -- includes Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young and newcomer Alex Shaffer, who plays a high school wrestling star with abandonment issues. His family structure is a mess.

The film is written and directed by actor Thomas McCarthy, whom you've seen in movies such as "Meet The Parents" and "Michael Clayton." He also directs masterfully, having succeeded with two highly successful pictures, "The Station Agent" and "The Visitor."

"Win Win" is often very funny and always believable. It hits a number of emotional highs and never backs down in telling its story about ordinary people whose lives skirt a traditional path. There's also resonance regarding today's financial realities. Another must-see.

"Hanna" is an absolutely satisfying movie about a 16-year-old female killing machine, who has been trained by her father, a spy, to survive in the wilderness and sense danger at every turn. He was once the target of an assassination attempt.

A solid Eric Bana is the ever-alert dad, and Saorise Ronan gloriously plays Hanna with all the energy and excitement that so many vaunted classic male action stars deliver.

Cate Blanchett is wonderfully wicked as a villainous CIA operative determined to take out Bana and Hanna.

The movie, from director Joe Wright ("Atonement"), is filled with quirky characters, terrific set pieces and a story that never flags. Once Hanna is separated from her father and on the lam, be prepared for something you may be stunned you've gone to see: an intelligent, engrossing, wildly entertaining action movie.

A new "Arthur" has arrived, so let's get something straight. Many movie fans love the original 1981 film. If you want that version, go rent it, buy it, or watch it on cable. It exists. Find it.

If you go to see the new one and complain that it's not the old one, that's unfair criticism. Of course it's not the "old one."

The updated version is built around a comic movie star. Spare me from the whiners.

Arthur is played by Russell Brand, whose sense of humor many people enjoy. I think he's likable. Because of his off-kilter acting style, Brand made "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" a little bit better.

The story is essentially the same. Arthur is a fabulously wealthy Manhattan drunk with an eye for the ladies. He must wed an equally rich stick-in-the-mud (Jennifer Garner), because his mother has corporation envy. Arthur doesn't want to marry her.

Possible true love enters the picture in the guise of a Queens lass (Greta Gerwig), who gives illegal tours of New York City. Arthur has a nanny, deliciously played by Helen Mirren.

This new "Arthur" is less emotional than the original. However, it hits a lot of comic high notes, because Brand is good at what he does, which is to turn drunken smarminess into slapstick fastballs. Everything is built around his offbeat personality as an actor. If you loathe Brand, why would you go see it? This is his "Arthur," not Dudley Moore's.

"Kill The Irishman" is a good movie drawn from the real-life adventures of 1970s Cleveland gangster Danny Greene.

It's written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, not with an eye toward repeating every gangster cliche from Scorsese to "The Sopranos," but with an eye toward telling a solid story. Hensleigh succeeds.

Greene (an excellent Ray Stevenson) takes to the risky life of being a Cleveland thug. He associates with, or fears doing deals with, mobsters played by Christopher Walken, Vincent D'Onofrio and Paul Sorvino. You will recognize some actors from other gangland films and television series.

Danny's wife's nerves are shot. He's got the police, those who aren't in bed with the mob, curious about his activities. Val Kilmer's a cop.

Overall, this is a gritty, down-to-earth independent feature that is nicely acted and worth seeing. It's not flashy, but it is compelling.

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

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 12, 2011