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Naive Tanya (Dina Korzun), a children’s book illustrator, and her 10-year-old son, Artiom (Artiom Strelnikov), fly from Moscow to London, expecting to find Mark, Tanya’s English fiancé, at the airport. Mark fails to show up, and British immigration agents threaten to deport them. In desperation, Tanya claims political asylum. The police escort her and Artiom to Stonehaven, a decaying, fenced-in, video-monitored seaside resort serving as a holding pen for refugees. Housed in a grim, dilapidated high-rise and issued a fistful of food vouchers for impalatable fare (fried batter shaped to mimic fish), the pair find themselves in surroundings as bleak as a Soviet-era gulag.

So begins Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski’s punningly titled Last Resort, the opening attraction of the latest Shooting Gallery series, which in previous seasons has premiered Croupier, Such a Long Journey, A Time for Drunken Horses, and other critically acclaimed films. Last Resort’s opening reels are artful and engrossing, strongly reminiscent of Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1982 masterpiece Moonlighting, in which a group of Polish workmen find themselves trapped in London during the Solidarity uprising. Like Skolimowski, Pawlikowski blends realism with poetic touches to indict the chilly xenophobia of British bureaucracy.

Last Resort contains the elements of a potentially first-rate movie—an intriguing subject, heartfelt performances by the lovely Korzun and the precocious Strelnikov, and cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski’s evocative images of the rundown Margate locations that represent the fictionalized Stonehaven. But the film’s initial impact dissipates into a series of increasingly contrived and melodramatic vignettes.

Alfie (Paddy Considine), the ex-convict manager of an amusement arcade, befriends Artiom and is drawn to Tanya, who wants to go home but, abandoned by Mark and without money to purchase tickets back to Russia, is condemned by immigration rules to an extended exile. She reluctantly accepts an offer from Les, an Internet pornographer (played by real-life English smut actor Lindsey Honey), to strip for his cybersex Web site, but she flees in embarrassment when forced to perform. Alfie, who has renovated Tanya’s squalid flat, learns about her involvement with Les and angrily walks out on her, followed by Artiom, who goes on a bender with a gang of young toughs. Ultimately, Alfie commandeers a small sailboat and helps his new friends escape from Stonehaven, leaving Tanya to decide whether to remain with him or return to Russia.

Following English director Mike Leigh’s practice, Pawlikowski and co-scripter Rowan Joffe began with a bare-bones narrative outline and encouraged the actors to participate in the shaping of their characters. By doing so, the filmmakers sidestep the dustbin naturalism of Ken Loach’s movies but overcompensate by turning Last Resort into a wish-fulfillment fairy tale reminiscent of Hettie MacDonald’s gay working-class coming-of-age fable, Beautiful Thing. Despite the depressive squalor of Last Resort’s setting, its characters are implausibly benevolent: Les treats Tanya with the respect one might expect from a kindly grandfather, and the infatuated Alfie represses his yen for her. Lenczewski’s photography—a blend of handheld camerawork and meticulously composed cityscapes—mirrors Pawlikowski’s unstable fusion of social realism and fantasy.

Last Resort’s vivid performances and compelling images help to compensate for its wavering tone and unconvincing narrative. With a stronger script, it could have been a memorable chamber piece instead of an interesting misfire.

Pollock, actor-director Ed Harris’ biopic about iconoclastic abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, would be far more effective if it possessed some of the formal flair of Pawlikowski’s film. Disappointingly pedestrian in both style and substance, Pollock fails to do justice to its subject, a renegade artist who successfully defied conventional notions about painting content and technique.

Screenwriters Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller open with a sequence depicting Pollock (played by Harris) at the apex of his career. At an exhibition of his work, a young fan asks him to autograph a 1949 issue of Life magazine emblazoned with the headline “Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?” A shot of Pollock’s conflicted face triggers a flashback to 1941, when the then-unknown artist shared a cramped Greenwich Village flat with his brother. This serves as the first episode in a chronological account of Pollock’s life and work: his early frustration at his inability to shake off Picasso’s influence; his stormy relationship with his future wife, Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), a Russian-Jewish painter; his invention of a radical style of painting championed by perspicacious critics and collectors; his increasingly self-destructive response to celebrity, fueled by alcoholism and psychological problems; and his 1956 death, at 44, in an automobile crash.

It’s difficult to pinpoint Pollock’s target audience. Moviegoers unfamiliar with art history are bound to be puzzled by the artist’s inexplicable behavior as well as by the film’s cursorily introduced secondary figures—critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, arts benefactor Peggy Guggenheim, and painter Willem de Kooning (portrayed by Val Kilmer in a ludicrous cameo). Only viewers who have digested Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s 900-page Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, the exhaustively researched biography on which the movie is based, or are otherwise knowledgeable about the painter’s life, will arrive armed with sufficient information concerning the crippling family background that forged the painter’s tormented psyche (material that the screenplay omits) and the New York art world figures who witnessed Pollock’s rise and fall.

Although Harris spent nearly a decade preparing Pollock, learning to paint and obtaining rights to shoot in locations where the artist lived, the film is nearly as shallow as previous Hollywood biopics about Billie Holiday, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, and other emotionally unstable creators. Unsurprisingly, Harris presents the painter’s life as a series of acting set pieces, opportunities to project anger, insecurity, drunkenness, contrition, cruelty, tenderness, and despair. He even adopts Robert De Niro’s Oscar-winning Raging Bull stunt of gaining weight for the alcohol-bloated Pollock’s final scenes. The gambit paid off: Harris has received a Best Actor nomination for his performance. But one leaves the film more impressed by the actor’s histrionic efforts than by the complexity and achievements of the character he portrays.

Once you get past Harden’s jaw-dropping initial appearance—she’s made up to resemble ’50s pinup Bettie Page—it becomes apparent that her performance, nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, is richer and deeper than Harris’. Krasner’s selfless, unyielding support of her lover’s work—frequently at the expense of her own career—and patient acceptance of his often abusive mood swings are more cogently motivated than Pollock’s perplexing behavior. The secondary characters are little more than cartoonish sketches: arty, horny heiress Guggenheim (Amy Madigan, Harris’ wife); her effete amanuensis, Howard Putzel (Bud Cort); smug, pontificating Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor), whose aesthetic dictums (“Paint is paint, surface is surface”) sprout like balloons above his head; and Pollock’s latter-day mistress, Ruth Kligman (Jennifer Connelly), demeaningly depicted as a bimbo art groupie. At times, the screenplay borders on Monty Python-ish burlesque. We’re asked to believe that Pollock’s mature style was the consequence of his accidentally dribbling paint on the floor of his studio. Reacting to the first of his breakthrough works, Krasner prophetically chirps, “You’ve done it, Pollock! You’ve cracked it wide open!”

The only moments that ring true in this formulaic biography are the scenes depicting the creation of Pollock’s paintings. Reproducing sequences from Hans Namuth’s documentaries capturing the artist in the throes of creation, Harris’ uninhibited application of pigment to vast white canvases possesses a palpable passion absent elsewhere in the film. And a 360-degree panning shot of a gallery exhibition breathtakingly confirms the enduring power of Pollock’s once-controversial artwork, transcending the prosaic confines of Harris’ earthbound movie. CP