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‘Blood Equity’

“Everybody who plays leaves with something,” says retired New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson in the documentary “Blood Equity” but, sadly, he doesn’t mean a glorious pension or athletic pride. He’s referring to the physical and mental struggles of ex-football players who feel monetarily neglected by the now $7.1-billion sport and its union when, as studies increasingly show, the game’s built-in brutality -- and fierce pride in playing injured -- leads to a post-career life of constant medical care.

The outrage expressed by interviewees Carson, Mike Ditka, Daryl Johnston, Donnie Green and others -- whether offering personal tales of woe or sticking up for others -- is directed mostly at NFL Players Assn. head Gene Upshaw, who notoriously denied a connection between game-time concussions and increased instances of dementia among retirees. (Footage of Baltimore Colts legend John Mackey not recognizing family photos is especially heartbreaking.)

Upshaw died last year, though, which indicates that director Michael Felix and ex-NFL linebacker/coach Roman Phifer, who produced, could have updated their advocacy to reflect the latest efforts to address this problem. But as rough-hewn and stylistically awkward as the film is -- editing car crash sound effects over nasty on-field collisions -- the stories make for gripping testimony.

-- Robert Abele “Blood Equity.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 3 minutes. At Laemmle Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

Exploring issues of anti-Semitism

In posing the question, “What is anti-Semitism today?” documentarian suggests how easily the accusation of anti-Semitism can be exploited for political purposes. Even though “Defamation,” which is sprinkled with unexpected moments of wry humor, will be inescapably controversial, Yoav Shamir strives admirably to be evenhanded. Therefore, one is able to comprehend the passion of Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, and the equal fervor of former DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein, pilloried and even banned from Israel for declaring that Israel perversely draws upon the Holocaust to justify its oppression of Palestinians.

“Defamation” is a reminder of how making crucial distinctions in regard to the behavior of others is a constant and difficult, often impossible, task -- and of the importance of being aware yet resisting paranoia. Members of minorities are forever in a state of uncertainty as to how they stand with many individuals of the majority.

Shamir talks to blacks and Jews in New York’s Crown Heights neighborhood, the site of an ugly racial incident some years ago -- and discovers both shrewdness and ignorance. Among many other experiences, he follows a large group of Israeli high school students on a journey to Poland’s death camps, where some admit to being afraid of leaving their hotel rooms, so frightened are they by the remarks of teachers and Secret Service agents on the dangers of anti-Semitism. Ultimately, Shamir believes that even though the past must be remembered it should not be allowed to overshadow the present and therefore the future.

-- Kevin Thomas “Defamation.” MPAA rating: Unrated. In English, Hebrew, Polish and Russian with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. At the Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

Devolving into short stories

The criss-crossed film narrative is in a state of overuse, but writer-director James DeMonaco’s droll, modestly stylish crime gewgaw “Staten Island” wrings a few suspenseful and comic pleasures out of a time-bending format that has served the likes of Quentin Tarantino ( “Pulp Fiction”) and Sidney Lumet (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”) among scores of others. In fact, Ethan Hawke seems to have channeled his good-hearted dope from the latter movie to play Sully, a septic tank cleaner who plans to steal a mobster’s stash to pay for embryonic technology that promises a smarter baby for he and his wife (Julianne Nicholson).

The first part, however, is about the mobster, Palmetto (a typically loopy Vincent D’Onofrio), whose lust for glory nearly gets him bumped off but then bizarrely turns him into a tree-preservation advocate. Lastly, there’s an endearingly expressive Seymour Cassel as a lonely deaf mute butcher whose ties to Sully and Palmetto lead him down a gruesome yet strangely redemptive path. The tonal idiosyncrasies may grate early on but things coalesce nicely until the whole thing starts to resemble a diverting short story.

-- Robert Abele “Staten Island.” MPAA rating: R for violent content and language. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. At Laemmle Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

Hal Holbrook shines in ‘Sun’

It’s hard to believe, but Hal Holbrook, one of the stage and screen’s enduring talents, has never had the solo lead in a feature film. That has been duly rectified with the actor’s achingly memorable star performance in the superb “That Evening Sun.”

Meticulously directed by first-time helmer Scott Teems (who also adapted the fine script from William Gay’s short story), the film involves 80-year-old Abner Meecham (Holbrook), a Tennessee widower and retirement home escapee who returns to live in his longtime farmhouse only to discover his lawyer son, Paul (Walton Goggins), has rented it out to local redneck deadbeat Lonzo Choat (Raymond McKinnon), Choat’s dutiful wife, Ludie (Carrie Preston), and their amiable teenage daughter, Pamela (Mia Wasikowska).

Tough, resourceful and self-aware, Abner moves into the farm’s tenant shack vowing to outlast the Choats, despite Paul’s plan to ultimately sell the hard luck family the property. What follows is a series of pride-fueled, increasingly risky faceoffs between Abner and Lonzo that test both men’s considerable, if very different kinds of, mettle.

Though the movie is filled with complex emotions and a powerful poignancy, it often manages to be darkly funny, thanks to Holbrook’s wily, unsentimental portrayal under Teems’ smartly calibrated hand. The supporting players, who also include Barry Corbin as Meecham’s old friend and neighbor, all shine as well, especially in their various one-on-one scenes with Holbrook, each of which plays like a master class in acting.

-- Gary Goldstein “That Evening Sun.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language, some violence, sexual content and thematic elements. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. At Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino; Regal’s Westpark 8, Irvine.

Making sense of their radical dad

Sisters and co-directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler attempt to come to terms with the memory of their contradictory father, late radical civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, in their absorbing documentary “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.” Though the Kunstler offspring unearth no definitive reasons for their famous -- and often infamous -- dad’s curious shift from defending such famed 1960s and ‘70s activists as the Mississippi Freedom Riders, the Catonsville 9, the Chicago 8 and members of the American Indian Movement, to later representing a series of accused rapists, assassins and terrorists, the film provides a rich and entertaining snapshot of America’s Vietnam-era zeitgeist and of our nation’s sometimes flawed legal system.

Even as children, the thick-as-thieves Emily and Sarah, shown here in amusing home video clips, proved probing interviewers as they questioned their father about his provocative work. As adults, the filmmakers nabbed an array of interview subjects, including such first-hand observers as Tom Hayden, Jimmy Breslin, Bobby Seale and Father Daniel Berrigan, to shed light on the quixotic Kunstler.

Terrific archival footage from a range of seminal civil rights events, as well as affecting narration written by Sarah Kunstler and spoken by Emily Kunstler (who also edited the film), round out this superior documentary.

-- Gary Goldstein “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. At Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles.

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