Scott Eastwood and Britt Robertson in The Longest RideTHE LONGEST RIDE

I don't mean to alarm you, but this past Friday, a seismic event occurred at national cineplexes: A movie based on one of Nicholas Sparks' romantic melodramas opened, and not once - not once! - did its dewy young lovers wind up kissing in the rain.

In the shower? Sure. In a sunlit pond in rural North Carolina? Well, duh. But while there are ample downpours in director George Tillman Jr.'s adaptation of Sparks' 2013 novel, at no point did our severely moistened leads Britt Robertson and Scott Eastwood make out in the midst of one. And I should know, because I stayed awake for the whole film - which, in something of a surprise, wasn't as difficult as I'd anticipated.

The Longest Ride is unusual in the cinematic Sparks canon for another reason, too, because its early scenes are actually good. Or at least lighthearted and charming, which is about as good as good gets in these things. This year's Sparks-y romance for the ages finds Robertson's art-history major Sophia and Eastwood's professional bull-rider Luke falling hard and fast for one another, conveniently setting up all manner of opposite-sides-of-the-tracks roadblocks. Can the cultured Sophia find happiness with a cowpoke who risks death with every eight-second ride? Can the old-fashioned Luke find fulfillment in gallery soirées and discussions of Pollock and de Kooning? (Based on his comically nauseated reaction to a modern-art exhibit here, probably not.) But from the start, and despite the contrived setup, Robertson and Eastwood (Clint's son) are terrifically endearing, charismatic, and sexy together; they're such a dream couple that when, about 20 minutes into the film, the thus-far chaste pair took a late-night drive and an encroaching thunderstorm rumbled in the distance, I reflexively giggled. Here it comes!, I thought with unbecoming enthusiasm. Kissing in the rain! But what happened instead? Alan Alda showed up and ruined everything.

Granted, the fault was more Sparks' than Alda's, the latter of whom, with his dependable actor's instincts and soothing voice, lends the movie some emotional gravitas. But as soon as Alda's Ira Levinson enters the picture, the storm-swept Sophia and Luke having discovered his crashed car in a ditch, The Longest Ride's narrative does an abrupt, unwelcome about-face. Sophia makes routine hospital visits and, at Ira's request, graciously reads 1940s love letters - letters he himself wrote - to the elderly man, and for more than half of the film's remainder, we watch flashbacks of the complicated romance between the young Ira and his wife (Jack Huston and Oona Chaplin, the respective grandchildren of Hollywood royalty John and Charlie). A question: Didn't we already see The Notebook? Another question: Why, exactly, is Sophia reading these missives aloud to their own author? Just so Ira can luxuriate in his Sparks-ian turns of phrase?

Barring Alda's presence, everything about the Ira storyline comes off as forced and phony (the World War II battle sequence, for its part, is downright shoddy), and so much time is devoted to it that Sophia's and Luke's romance starts to seem an afterthought; it's the rare central conceit that feels like an interruption of its chief subplot. Even though Tillman's outing is formulaic and dully written (by Craig Bolotin) and boasts a ridiculous whopper of a wish-fulfillment ending, I've certainly seen worse Nicholas Sparks adaptations than this - which, with the exception of Dear John, would be all of them. But this is the first one I've been to that so effectively tarnishes what you most enjoy about it. Somewhere in The Longest Ride's 135 minutes is a pretty great 70-minute entertainment aching to get out.

 

Ryan Reynolds and Helen Mirren in Woman in GoldWOMAN IN GOLD

Based on a true story, director Simon Curtis' Woman in Gold opens with the artist Gustav Klimt completing his famed Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, and everything we see - the painting, the lighting, the subject's skin tone and jewelry - is suffused with such an overwhelming amber glow that it's like peering at the movie through an Oscar statuette. Which is somewhat fitting, considering that this well-meaning, non-threatening drama by the Weinstein Company, with its impeccably tasteful scenes of World War II cruelties, feels like a done-deal Best Picture contender circa 1999. But it's not bad. As Maria Altmann, a native Austrian whose family lost the aforementioned Klimt to the Nazis, Helen Mirren gives an unsentimental, determined performance that eschews easy sympathy, and that's mostly free of the affectations that made the actress too sitcom adorable in last year's The Hundred-Foot Journey; this is some of Mirren's finest screen work in years. Ryan Reynolds, playing the lawyer hoping to retrieve the portrait, does his best to keep up with her and occasionally succeeds - he's touching, if not terribly interesting - and the story is engrossing enough that you're not much bothered by its flaws, even in the film's breathless, grossly manipulative escape-from-the-Nazis chase. All told, Woman in Gold is a pleasant, agreeable take on material that really demanded a much firmer hand, and it's filled with lovely grace notes, from the crooked smile of Daniel Brühl to the gorgeous period décor to the late arrival of Elizabeth McGovern as a sensible judge. "I've always thought there should be more women judges," says Mirren when the verdict swings Maria's way. If more of them could be played by Elizabeth McGovern, you wouldn't hear any argument from me.

 

Erica Rivas in Wild TalesWILD TALES

Anthology films are traditionally hit-or-miss affairs ... unless the anthology is Movie 43, which is all miss, all the time. But until writer/director Damián Szifrón's Wild Tales, which just began its run at Iowa City's FilmScene, I'd never seen one composed exclusively of hits - big, smashing, swinging-for-the-fences hits. A 2014 nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film, this Argentinian wonder finds its six separate stories connected only by their running motifs of revenge and retribution, and by each of them emerging as alternately horrifying and horrifyingly funny. Szifrón's 10-minute opener "Pasternak" might be the movie's coup de grâce, an astoundingly hilarious, nerve-racking Twilight Zone in which one airplane passenger after another slowly realizes that they're all connected by more than a mutual destination. (My Friday-night visit to FilmScene was the first time I'd heard, and participated in, film-screening laughter this boisterous since my initial trip to The Lego Movie.) But although the superbly directed, astutely written tales to follow are less compact, they're no less tension-filled, riotous, or queasily satisfying. "The Rats" finds a diner waitress and cook considering the rat-poison murder of an unduly rude patron. (This man, it turns out, is a gangster who ruined the waitress' family, but speaking as a former waiter, he kind of deserves to go just for responding to her "Table of one?" query with a sarcastic "I see you're good at math.") "Road to Hell" is the ultimate road-rage fantasy, a bloodier, more in-your-face take on Spielberg's Duel. "The Deal" is for those who hate one-percenters buying their way out of trouble. (That'd be 99 percent of us.) "Bombita" is for those who hate towing services and dread the DMV. (That'd be all of us.) And the jealousy-fueled "'Til Death Do Us Part" finale imagines the most uncomfortable wedding reception ever, and ends the proceedings on a note so shocking yet so absurdly right that our packed FilmScene auditorium was left with no choice but to applaud. Wild Tales is the most fun I've had at the movies since Whiplash. That we're almost halfway through April and my favorite new release of 2015 is technically from 2014 is cause for mild concern.

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