What looms beyond is the question

In a surprising and compelling way, "Take Shelter" is one of the best films of 2011. Strange and ominous, surreal and disconcerting, it also possesses an explicit realism that is both mundane and profoundly unsettling. A length of string pulled ever tighter.

Jeff Nichols, writer and director, creates a milieu in which a small family — Curtis (Michael Shannon), his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their 6-year-old daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart) — is typically happy. They live in a small northern Ohio town, their suburban house spare, unadorned, almost stark. Curtis is a construction worker with a good job and solid health benefits; Sam takes in sewing and works flea markets on weekends; and Hannah, who is deaf, is preparing to have surgery to regain her hearing.

And then something begins to change for Curtis. One afternoon he is standing in his backyard and on the horizon loom dark, threatening clouds. Swarms of small birds, hundreds of them, rise and fall as one, as if monitoring the heartbeat of the Earth. Then it's raining, a heavy, slanting, viscous wet.

Soon Curtis' nights are filled with nightmares, dreams that haunt his sleep and his waking hours, triggered by the storms, or not. He fears he is going crazy — his mother (Kathy Bates) was hospitalized for schizophrenia at about the same age Curtis is now. He soon loses the ability to distinguish between what is real and what is not.

Filled with a permeating dread, he begins to enlarge an old storm cellar behind the house. He gathers food and water, preparing for something that seems nebulous, ill-defined, an abiding feeling that torments him.

Samantha is helpless, confused, unable to understand what is happening, and Curtis, often taciturn, is reluctant to explain his dreams and the cause of his obsession with the underground shelter.

There are two narratives at work in "Take Shelter" that makes it decidedly gripping. Are we witnessing a man losing all contact with reality, with his family and community, drifting away into mental illness, following his mother? Or is Curtis riveted by a premonition that is unrelenting and evocative in a quiet yet unsettling way?

The film creates and sustains a penetrating ambiguity. Is what looms on the horizon merely a summer heartland thunderstorm? Or are the gunmetal gray clouds that seem so benign yet so dangerous, broken by ragged lightning, a powerful metaphor, a foreshadowing that is now framing Curtis' life?

"Take Shelter" is exceptional in so many ways. The portrayals by Shannon and Chastain are remarkable, filled with coiled emotion and restraint. And the ending is something that will prompt discussion for days after.

Happy Feet 2

Though "Happy Feet 2" doesn't possess the freshness of "Happy Feet" (the narrative is coherence-challenged), it nevertheless offers up new and familiar characters, and some of the most gorgeous visuals imaginable, viewed through the 3-D specs that are now de rigueur for so many movies slated for kids.

Once again the setting of "HF2" is Antarctica, in the Emperor penguin colony called Adelie. Mumble (Elijah Wood) is now grown up and has a small son, Erik (Ava Acres). He's still dancing, demonstrated by the opening set up in which hundreds of penguins do a "Rhythm Nation" stomp. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Erik is dancing-averse. He doesn't feel it. His feet don't move like his Pop's. What to do?

Well, this is a Disney film and embedded in the narrative is a nice message. Erik must find his own way, become his own person, so to speak, aided by his two loyal sidekicks, Bo (Meibh Campbell) and Atticus (Bejamin Lil P-Nut Flores, Jr.).

There is a subplot, of sorts, featuring two delightful and amusing krill: Bill (Matt Damon) and Will (Brad Pitt). It's Will who is, not unlike Erik, in search of his purpose. "I'm one in a krillion," he laments.

There are other characters whom the kids will embrace, such as Ramon/Lovelace (Robin Williams) both characters filled with a manic energy, enhanced by Williams' amazing, often heavily accented voice. A Williams' riff is a thing of beauty.

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