‘American Radical’: Norman Finkelstein fights how he sees fit

An enthralling Korean mystery

The enthralling, unpredictable, yet highly accessible “Mother” from Korea’s Bong Joon-ho, takes the predicament of a fiercely devoted single mother (Kim Hye-ja, in an Oscar-caliber portrayal) determined to get justice for her simple-minded son, Do-joon (Won Bin), arrested for the murder of a teenage girl by lazy, indifferent police, and turns it into a dazzlingly multifaceted epic of stunning surprise. The mother’s realization that she must investigate the murder herself if she is to have a hope of saving her son allows the film to become a murder mystery -- and much more.

Suspense and danger are just the beginning, for “Mother” contemplates both the dark humor and incipient tragedy of the random collisions of character and fate. Bong lays bare the casual, reflexive cruelty of society, streaked as it is with indifference and corruption. Incidents and individuals frequently prove to be not what they seem. At its heart, it is a probing of mother love carried to extremes in various and unexpected ways; Bong, as nervy as Quentin Tarantino, evokes the profundity of Sophocles only to compound one bleakly comic irony upon another.

-- Kevin Thomas “Mother.” MPAA rating: R for language, some sexual content, violence and drug use. In Korean with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.

Whether you agree with the politics of author-scholar Norman Finkelstein, the polarizing subject of the documentary “American Radical,” or not, there’s no denying the guy’s got resolve. This outspoken son of Nazi concentration camp survivors is so entrenched in the inflammatory case he’s been making for years -- that Israelis and American Jews have exploited the Holocaust to justify their ongoing opposition to Palestine -- that it has clearly shaped and informed his entire adult life.

Yet for all of his intractable passion on the issue, Finkelstein’s prickly, obsessive approach often brings to mind the pick-a-side rantings of a zealous cable news host; some will likely find his views more conflated than convincing. However, co-directors David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier don’t pass judgment on Finkelstein (they leave that to such supporters as Noam Chomsky and detractors as Alan Dershowitz), faithfully trailing him across the globe as he tangles with college students and TV interviewers and huddles with Hezbollah and Palestinian refugees.

While this tenure-challenged Middle Eastern studies professor is hardly pleasant cinematic company, it’s tough to look away.

-- Gary Goldstein “American Radical.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

Troubled immigrants

That the phrase “get rich quick” is so often followed by the word “scheme” is clearly off the radar of Elaine Cheng (Cindy Cheung), the enterprising if naive mother of writer-director Tze Chun’s wonderful “Children of Invention.”

A Chinese immigrant with a foreclosed suburban Boston house, an expired work visa, two small children and an unsupportive ex-husband, the needy Elaine becomes embroiled in a pyramid scam. Elaine is by no means a bad or purposely negligent mother, but her single-minded drive to provide for her family leaves little time for her kids, who become almost eerily resourceful as a result.

When Elaine is arrested for her unwitting involvement in the illegal investment ruse, her sensible, budding inventor son Raymond (Michael Chen) and feisty daughter Tina (Crystal Chiu) must survive in her curious absence. Though the siblings’ alone time thankfully avoids any Dickensian rabbit holes (this is, after all, a gentle film), their glum ramen dinners, prickly teamwork and nervy journey into downtown Boston are absorbing and deftly played. Chen and Chiu’s genuine, rarely cloying performances along with Cheung’s urgent sincerity add immeasurably to this timely film’s many modest pleasures.

-- Gary Goldstein “Children of Invention.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. In English, Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles. At the Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.

‘Owl’ is elegant but slow-paced

A conjurer of unpleasant behavior among the ordinary, author Patricia Highsmith has been a favorite of filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Minghella. Her 1962 novel “The Cry of the Owl” -- about a doomed depressive caught up in obsession and murder -- has now received its second film adaptation (after Claude Chabrol’s French version in the ‘80s).

British writer-director Jamie Thraves, who hails from music videos, works up a crisp, elegantly foreboding visual bleakness as he drags divorcing aeronautics engineer Robert (Paddy Considine) from peeping tom -- spying on the normal home life of stranger Jenny (Julia Stiles) -- to noir sucker.

The pivot point is when Jenny, who talks of how “some people are poison in this life,” turns the tables on Robert and becomes his stalker. Complicating matters are Robert’s mean-spirited ex-wife (Caroline Dhavernas) and Jenny’s hot-tempered boyfriend (James Gilbert), who goes missing one violent evening. As things get hairier for Robert, “The Cry of the Owl” picks up some welcome steam -- even ending on a chillingly apt final shot -- but, overall, it’s the kind of technically proficient, deliberately paced, grim sleepwalk that leaves one cold rather than cracked open.

-- Robert Abele “The Cry of the Owl.” MPAA rating: R for violence and language. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

Comedy group’s charming effort

The comedy troupe that decides to make a movie -- from Monty Python to Broken Lizard -- is by now a long-standing tradition. The Derrick Comedy group steps up to the plate with “Mystery Team,” a pleasant, charming knockabout with a playfully imaginative sense of wit and a pleasingly assured visual style.

The film’s story revolves around a trio of Encyclopedia Brown-style child detectives -- the Master of Disguise (Donald Glover), the Strongest Kid in Town (Dominic Dierkes) and the Boy Genius (D.C. Pierson) -- who have gone from precocious and cute as youngsters to sort of sad as they prepare to graduate from high school. When a little girl shows up one morning and wants them to find out who murdered her parents, they gleefully dive in way over their heads.

The parade of familiar faces from the sitcom “Community,” “Saturday Night Live,” the Upright Citizens Brigade and elsewhere make this sometimes feel like an in-joke among comedy insiders. Perhaps not surprisingly, the film, directed by Dan Eckman, plays out as a series of sketches. There is enough naive charm to the leads to keep the film’s central gag from running out of gas, even if it seems at times to be running on fumes.

-- Mark Olsen “Mystery Team.” MPAA rating: R for sexual content, nudity, language and some drug material. Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. At the Nuart, West L.A.

Girls lost in the woods

The Canadian thriller “Surviving Crooked Lake” offers tension and honest emotion while making good use of its clearly limited financial resources. Co-writer-directors Sascha Drews, Ezra Krybus and Matthew Miller, shooting on digital video, take a sometimes spare, other times energized approach to their variation-on-a-theme material, building a nice head of steam as they go.

This latest “vacation from hell” entry eschews backwoods monsters and boogeymen for more reality-based obstacles on the order of such movies as “Open Water” and last year’s “The Canyon.” Here, a coltish quartet of teen BFFs on a camping-and-canoe trip must find their way out of the wilderness after guide Jonah (Guy Yarkoni), the protective older brother of Steph (Stephanie Richardson), dies in a freak accident. Lost without food and, apparently, cellphones, nerves fray and loyalties shift as Steph and the girls (Candice Mausner, Morgan McCunn and Alysha Aubin), saddled with Jonah’s corpse, battle the elements and, to a lesser degree, one another. But the poignancy of Steph’s devotion to Jonah, who’s been her rock since their father’s death, is the film’s strongest -- and most unique -- asset.

-- Gary Goldstein “Surviving Crooked Lake.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for some disturbing bloody images, brief strong language, drug use and smoking. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

Conflict at a D.C. prep school

Racial land mines, cultural differences and adolescent girl turmoil get the indie mash-up treatment in writer-producer-director Emily Abt’s drama " Toe to Toe,” a movie whose emotional messiness is sturdier than its storytelling. Set primarily at a racially mixed Washington, D.C., prep school, Abt focuses on the queasy friendship between studious black teenager Tosha (Sonequa Martin), who lives in cramped inner city quarters with four generations of her family (including Leslie Uggams as a no-nonsense grandma), and white, privileged, and self-destructively promiscuous Jesse (a heartbreaking Louisa Krause).

They’re both star players on the lacrosse team -- for Tosha, it’s also her hoped-for Princeton scholarship ticket -- but they clash over the attentions of a sweet-faced Lebanese classmate (Silvestre Rasuk) with hip-hop-DJ dreams. Martin’s charismatic dignity in conveying Tosha’s academic and cultural pressures make for a fetching heroine, and she’s a stark counterpoint to Krause’s Jesse, a fast-fading flower whose aggressive sexual indiscriminateness (since her globe-trotting mother, played by Ally Walker, ignores her) is at times difficult to watch.

Unfortunately, Abt undercuts the roiling power of her pained strivers with over-earnest dialogue and tidying-up plotting. But for good stretches, “Toe to Toe” has an engaging frankness about youthful liberty as both a weighty armor and a dangerously alluring escape hatch.

-- Robert Abele “Toe to Toe.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. At Laemmle Sunset 5, West Hollywood; and University Town Center, Irvine.