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proposition2.jpg Review Archive:

 Australia •  Azur and Asmar •  Babel •  Ballerina •  Ballets Russes •  The Bank Job •  Beasts of the Southern Wild •  Beauty in Trouble •  Beowulf •   Beyond the Mat •  Biggie and Tupac •  Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh •  A Broken Sole •  Burn After Reading •  Carmen & Geoffrey •  Changling •  The Corpse Bride •  The Crow •  Curse of the Golden Flower •  Dark City •  The Dark Knight •  Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father •  District B13 •  Donkey Punch •  Donnie Darko •  Don't Ask, Don't Tell •  Dostana •  Double Team •  Doubt •   Eagle Eye •  Enchanted •  Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet •  The Fall •  Four Christmases •  Frost/Nixon •  Games People Play •  Gran Torino •  Iron Man •  Jar City •  Jumper •  Just, Melvin •  Kissing Jessica Stein •  The Krays •  Last Chance Harvey •   Layer Cake •   The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen •   The Liberty Kid •   Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling •   The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra •   Margarita Happy Hour •   Maximum Risk •   Miss March •   My Bloody Valentine •   Ned Kelly •   No Country for Old Men •   Not Easily Broken •   Notorious •   Obscene •  Our City Dreams •   Push •   The Proposition •  A Quantum of Solace •   A Real Young Girl •   Reverend Billy & the Church of Stop Shopping •   Revolutionary Road •   RocknRolla •  Serbis •   Sexy Beast •  Sin City •  Skeleton Frolics •  Slumdog Millionaire •  Southland Tales •   The Spirit •   Stardust •   State of Play (2003) •   Stag •   The Strangers •  Surfwise •  Taken •  300 •  The Three Stooges •   The Tracker •   The Unborn •   V for Vendetta •   Very Bad Things •   The Visitor •  Walk the Line •   Without Warning! •  What Would Jesus Buy? •  The Wrestler

Reviews of horror films and Bollywood movies:

Horror

Bollywood


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Australia

(2008)
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann.
Written by: Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Luhrmann
With: Nicole Kidman, High Jackman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson and David Gulpilil.

Baz Luhrmann's epic tale of Northern Australia between 1939 and 1941, when it was a wild frontier not unlike the American West, recalls the old-fashioned, golden-age Hollywood movie-movies that wrapped forbidden desire, aching heartbreak, personal tragedy, war, adventure and breathtaking thrills in a glittering overlay of movie-star glamor. It's far from perfect, erring as it does on the side of sweeping visuals, broad characterization and shameless sentiment. But Gone With the Wind wasn't a subtle dissection of Southern history and mores either. Luhrmann, whose rural family briefly ran a movie theater, set out to make a rousing, romantic, all-encompassing spectacle, and that's exactly what he delivered.

If you're looking for brutal, feel-bad films about how the outback was won, have a look at Nick Cave and John Hillicoate's The Proposition (2005), Rolf de Heer's The Tracker (2003) or Gregor Jordan's Ned Kelly (2002), starring Heath Ledger as Australia's Billy the Kid. But if you're up for a rousing romp with just enough ideas in its glossy head that you don't have to feel thoroughly stupid for surrendering to its charms, Australia is the way to go.

Largely shot on location in the awesomely photogenic Outback, Australia opens in 1939 and is narrated by mixed-race child Nullah (Walters), born on the cattle ranch Faraway Downs to a devoted Aboriginal mother and a white overseer, Neil Fletcher (Wenham), to whom a bastard colored child is of no more use or consequence than a mongrel dog. Faraway Downs is owned by Englishman Maitland Ashley, whose prim and proper wife, Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman), is convinced that her husband is carrying on some kind of torrid affair in the land down under. She pays a surprise visit in hopes of catching him in flagrante, only to find him dead and the ranch on the brink of failure, thanks to the dastardly machinations of cattle baron King Carney (fellow Australian crossover star Brown), who with the help of opportunistic weasel Fletcher hopes to corner the market in beef for the British army. Lady Ashley may be a long-stemmed English rose, but she's not about to be pushed around by a pack of common hooligans descended from transported criminals.

In short order, she's allied herself with the sexy Drover (Jackman), a rugged cowboy who won't be fenced in by love or barbed wire; bonded with the charming, resourceful and newly motherless Nullah; and assembled a ragtag crew of women, children and the inevitable gentleman drunk (veteran Aussie actor Thompson) to thwart Carney by driving 1,500 head of Faraway Downs cattle to Darwin in time to stop upright Captain Emmett Dunham (Ben Mendelsohn) awarding Carney a monopoly. And that's only the beginning of Lady Ashley's journey, which culminates in the 1942 air raid on Darwin by Japanese kamikaze bombers.

It's easy to be cynical about a movie like Australia, whose thoroughly unironic points of reference range from The African Queen to The Wizard of Oz. But why fight its retro appeal? Once upon a time, Hollywood spectacles dominated the movie marketplace at the expense of more challenging, unconventional films. But in 2008, the motivated moviegoer can gorge on Chinese art movies, indie brain benders and obscuriana of every stripe without venturing beyond Netflix — Australia is just another option, a Thanksgiving feast of a movie that delivers celluloid comfort food with no apologies. And there's nothing wrong with that.


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Azur and Asmar


Written and Directed by: Michel Ocelot
Animated

French animator Michel Ocelot's jewel-like fable unfolds in a once-upon-a-time version of medieval North Africa alive with vibrant colors and dazzling patterns, both natural and manmade. It's an astonishing feat of visual imagination, every bit as beautiful as Ocelet's feature debut, the West African-folktale inspired Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998).

It opens in a stern castle in medieval France, where North African nanny Jenane is raising two small boys: Her own son, Asmar, and Azur, the blue-eyed child of her employer. Brought up as brothers, squabbling and scrapping, Azur and Asmar are enchanted by the stories Jenane learned as a girl, including the tale of the captive Djinn Fairy, more beautiful than any diamond and imprisoned somewhere deep underground.

As the boys grow older, Azur's father realizes that by abdicating his parental duties to a Saracen, he's saddled himself with a bilingual son indifferent to class and race and ignorant of the arts of a gentleman. He tries to rectify the situation by banishing Jenane and Asmar, but the damage is done: Azur grows up to be a headstrong dreamer whose only ambition is to liberate the Djinn fairy.

Spectacularly unprepared for the rigors of his journey, Azur is nearly lost at sea but washes up in North Africa, where he's shunned for his limpid blue eyes -- considered an ill omen -- and takes refuge in feigning blindness, is taken advantage of by a wily beggar and eventually reunited with Jenane, now a fabulously wealthy merchant who welcomes him as a long-lost son. Asmar, about to undertake his own quest for the Djinn fairy, is somewhat less thrilled, especially when Jenane insists the boys start their adventure together.

How things will wind up is a foregone conclusion — that's how fairy tales are — but the film's visual splendors are sensuously enthralling. This is Ocelot's first foray into CGI, which he uses with considerable subtlety: Faces and hands are modeled, while the lavishly ornamented clothing is rendered in a flatter, more decorative style; the elaborate backgrounds, rooted in non-figurative Arabic art, are simply dazzling, rivaled only by maverick animator Richard Williams' sadly compromised Arabian Knight/The Thief and the Cobbler (this article details its tumultuous history).

The story itself is as didactic as the average Disney moral tale, encouraging religious and racial harmony, fairness, equality for women, honesty and good manners. But it's both less formulaic in structure and considerably less saccharine, even as the cast of characters expands to include a comic sidekick (the aforementioned wily beggar), a wise old man and a precocious child princess.

And allow me a moment to rhapsodize about the film's exotic creatures, a fire-engine red, blue-clawed lion whose stylized mane rises and falls like rows of porcupine quills, and the saimourh, a gigantic bird with heavenly plumage and a taste for raw meat. They figure briefly into Asmar and Azur's adventures and, like all true stars, leave you wanting more.


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Babel

(2006)
Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
Written by: Guillermo Arriaga's.
With: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Mohamed Akhzam, Adriana Barraza, Gael Garcia Bernal, Rinko Kikuchi, Clifton Collins, Jr., Mustapha Amhita, Elle Fanning, Nathan Gamble, Boubker Ait El Caid, Said Tarchani.

Its trendily provocative elements notwithstanding, there's less than meets the eye to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga's variations on the theme of miscommunication and careless acts.

The story begins in rural Morocco, where weathered goatherd Mohammed (Amhita) buys a neighbor's rifle so his adolescent sons, Yussef and Ahmed (El Caid, Tarchani), can protect his flock from jackals. When there are no jackals to rout, the bored, restless boys take potshots at increasingly far-flung targets, eventually striking a tour bus.

Their random bullet finds American traveler Susan (Blanchett), who's vacationing with her husband, Richard (Pitt); the trip is a last-ditch effort to salvage their marriage, in ruins since the death of their baby and Richard's subsequent emotional abandonment of his grieving wife and children. With Susan losing blood at an alarming rate and the nearest hospital hours away over rough roads, the tour group's translator, Anwar (Akhzam), suggests a detour to his nearby village. But help is slow to come and as Susan bleeds, Richard rages helplessly and the other tourists grow increasingly militant about wanting to leave. Prickly government officials and overeager reporters recast the accidental shooting as an act of terrorism.

Meanwhile, in San Diego, Richard and Susan's housekeeper, Amelia (Barraza), is caught between her responsibility to Debbie and Mike (Fanning, Gamble), the children she's raised from infancy, and her own adult son, who's getting married in their Mexican hometown. Unable to find anyone to whom she can entrust Mike and Debbie for the day, she takes them along. Everything is fine until the drive back with Amelia's nephew, Santiago (Bernal). Slightly drunk and seething with the accumulated hurt of a thousand petty indignities, Santiago butts heads with an officious border guard (Collins Jr.) at the U.S./Mexican border and rashly decides to flee. Pursued by agents, he leaves Amelia and the children in the desert, promising to return later.

And in Japan, a deaf-mute teenager, Chieko (Kikuchi), displaces the suffocating rage born of her mother's recent suicide and her own disability into a series of blatant, joyless sexual displays.

As in Arriaga and Inarritu's previous collaborations, Amores Perros (2001) and 21 Grams (2003), the flashy spectacle of intersecting narratives, whiplash crosscutting and fractured chronology nearly overwhelms the film's simple message, in this case that despite divisions of language, race and geography, we're all connected. Ironically, by the time Babel debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, Inarritu and Arriaga were publicly feuding, apparently over Arriaga's insistence that screenwriters and directors deserve equal credit for a film's success.


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Ballerina

(2005)
Written and Directed by: Bertrand Normand.
With: Valery Gergiev, Ulyana Lopatkina, Diana Vishneva, Evgenia Obraztsova, Alina Somova, Andrian Fadeyev, Altynay Asylmuratova, Ludmila Safronova, Svetlana Zakharova, Manuel Legris, Cedric Klapisch, Pierre Lacotte and Igor Zelensky.

Made for French television, Bertrand Normand's portrait of five Russian ballerinas at various stages of their careers peeks behind the velvet wall that separates dance lovers from the rigorously disciplined, unglamorous lives of dancers. It's a shame that the film itself is so simplistic, but the ballerinas provide the panache and mercurial complexity it lacks.

Normand's subjects range from Alina Somova, whom we first see as a 17-year-old star at St. Petersburg's world famous Vaganova Academy and follow as she starts over in the Kirov's corps de ballet, to Ulyana Lopatkina, 32, a Kirov Ballet prima ballerina hoping to make a comeback after a two-year absence from the stage. Having undergone surgery in the US to repair her damaged ankle, gotten married and had a daughter, Lopatkina is beginning the arduous road back from injury, hoping to regain the strength and artistry she once had. Diana Vishneva, another Kirov star, is in her late 20s and internationally acclaimed for her extraordinary stage presence and acting skills, which more than compensate for her less-than-textbook technique. Vishneva revels in the fact that since Perestroika, Russian dancers have been freer to perform with companies around the world, allowing them to grow as artists by experiencing other styles of choreography and performance.

Ukrainian-born Svetlana Zakharova, 24, was accepted into the Kirov when she was 17 and made a soloist the following year; she eventually leaves the Kirov for the Moscow-based Bolshoi Ballet. Fresh-faced Evgenia Obratsova, who graduated from Vaganova a year before Somova and combines meltingly soft technique with fierce dedication, rises to new heights in Romeo and Juliet but still goes out of her way to maintain a personal connection with the fans — mostly women — who gather outside the stage door of the Mariinsky theater.

Actress Diane Baker's flatly delivered, tediously written voice over is a major liability, but the ballerinas prevail, demonstrating again and again that despite the Russian ballet world's emphasis on conformity — its hallmark is the flawlessly symmetrical corps de ballet — each has found her own strong, unique voice as a dancer. If not as perceptive as Etoiles or as hugely entertaining as Ballets Russes, it's still a glimpse into a priviledged, ruthlessly demanding world few outsiders ever get to see.


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Ballets Russes

(2005)
Written and Directed by: Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine.
With: Dame Alicia Markova, Frederic Franklin, Irina Baronova, Tamara Tchinarova Finch, Maria Tallchief, Yvonne Chouteau, Tatiana Riabouchinska, Wakefield Poole and Yvonne Craig.

You don't have to know an arabesque from an alligator to enjoy Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine's loving documentary about the various incarnations of the Ballet Russe: The reminiscences of its international cast of raconteurs — razor-sharp survivors of a bygone era filled with glittering, larger-than-life personalities and outrageous twists of fate — are better than any soap opera.

Flamboyant Russian cultural impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) — who inspired The Red Shoes' imperious Boris Lermontov, who tells his dancers they must choose between love and art mdash; formed the first Ballet Russe in 1909, cultivating artists, dancers, composers and choreographers; they included George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Vaslav Nijinsky, Michel Fokine, Leon Bakst and Leonide Massine. The company folded after Diaghilev death, but Monte Carlo Opera Ballet director Rene Blum and Russian expatriate Colonel Vassili de Basil revived it as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, hiring Balanchine and Massine and recycling the original company's vast stockpile of costumes and scenery.

For 30 years, egos raged behind the "everything is beautiful at the ballet" facade. Balanchine was ousted in 1933, Blum quit in 1935, and Massine and de Basil jockeyed for control until 1938, when Massine formed his own Ballet Russe and fought de Basil for the name. Massine won, forcing de Basil to rename his company the Original Ballet Russe. De Basil's company conquered Australia and South America before folding in 1948, while Massine's toured the US under the auspices of booking agent extraordinaire Sol Hurok. Balanchine, who'd spent the intervening years working on Broadway, in Hollywood and even choreographing an elephant dance for the Ringling Brothers' circus, replaced Massine and then left to form his own company, the world-famous New York City Ballet. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo limped on until 1962, when it danced a last, threadbare performance at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Before television, video or the internet brought world-class dancers and musicians into people's homes, the various Ballets Russes brought both classic and daringly modern works to small towns and international opera houses; their dancers went to Hollywood and to Broadway, trailing an intoxicating aroma of old-world glamour. When the ball was over, they scattered to Denmark, England, Australia, Venezuela and the United States, settling in cities as diverse as New York, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago, where they taught, started companies and tended the flames of their golden youth. Geller and Goldfine have assembled a treasure trove of color and B&W performance footage, but the stars are the incredibly diverse Ballets Russes alumni, from grown-up "baby ballerinas" Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska to Yvonne Craig, who became TV's Batgirl, to pioneering gay pornographer Wakefield Poole. All have amazing stories, and know exactly how to tell them.


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The Bank Job

(2008)
Directed by: Roger Donaldson.
Written by: Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.
With: Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows, Stephen Campbell Moore, Daniel Mays, Alki David, James Faulkner, Richard Lintern, Michael Jimson, David Suchet, Sharon Maughan, Angus Wright and Peter de Jersey.

Lurking behind a criminally bad title is a surprisingly tight, clever, twisty heist tale, loosely based on real events and crisply directed by Australian-born, New Zealand-based filmmaker Roger Donaldson.

1971, London: South London used-car dealer Terry Leather (Statham), is always looking to move his family up in the world, and isn't averse to shady business. So when Martine Love (Burrows), who rode her razor-blade cheekbones out of the old neighborhood and into the jet set, comes along with a proposition, he listens. She has an inside line on a major security lapse at the Baker Street branch of Lloyd's Bank: The alarms have been shut down while security experts try to correct a vexing, persistent technical glitch. An enterprising crew, she says, could rent the failed leather-goods shop two doors down, tunnel directly into the safe-deposit vault and loot the boxes with impunity.

Though initially dubious — robbing banks is a several notches up from the kind of crime with which Terry and his mates are familiar — Terry takes the plunge and rounds up his pals: Frustrated photographer Kevin (Moore); aspiring actor and part-time porno star Dave (Mays); con artist Guy (Faulkner); and Bambas (David), who actually knows something about digging tunnels and breaking through reinforced concrete floors. Sweet-natured mechanic Eddie (Jimson) is posted on a neighboring roof with a walkie-talkie, charged with keeping the others apprised of street-level developments. The plan is low-tech but solid: The devil is in the complications. These complications include Martine's debt to suave MI5 agent Tim Everett (Lintern), who wants the orgy photos of a wayward royal contained in the safe deposit box of a notorious thug turned black-power activist (de Jersey); the fact that a Soho smut mogul and an upscale madame (Suchet, Maughan) also have boxes of incriminating materials in the vault; and the presence of a ham radio operator (Wright) who accidentally tunes in to the gang's frequency mid-job.

That UK newspapers abruptly stopped covering the real-life crime they dubbed "The Walkie-Talkie Robbery" after four days — a robbery that netted the contemporary equivalent of millions — lends credence to speculation that it was the subject of a "D Notice" — a government gag order in the name of national security. And that, in turn, opens the doors to all manner of speculation: Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' screenplay is a deft blend of fact (including several of the more implausible turns), rumor and supposition, and Donaldson keeps all their narrative plates in the air while drawing a surprisingly warm and nuanced performance from Statham.


Beasts of the Southern Wild

 

One of the most lavishly praised films of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and a Camera d'Or winner at Cannes, Beasts of the Southern Wild teeters on the edge of embracing the cliches of "lyrical poverty" movies, but is anchored in complex reality by the performance of non-actress Quvenzhané Wallis as a motherless six-year-old forced to rely increasingly on her own wits, common sense and childish optimism after a major hurricane devastates her bayou community and her beloved father gradually succumbs to chronic illness.

To an outsider's eye, the world of the bright, sensitive, unselfconsciously intuitive Hushpuppy (Wallis) is one of deprivation, ignorance and grinding poverty. Her mother is long gone—dead, divorced or decamped for parts unknown; who can say?—her father Wink (Dwight Henry) an underemployed drinker in declining health, and her friends are a passel of equally under-parented children and scruffy animals: chicks and chickens, a rheumy-eyed Chihuahua mix, the pot-bellied pig who's probably destined for a stew pot sooner rather than later.

But to Hushpuppy, the world is a miraculous place whose beating heart is echoed in the chests of all creatures great and small, even the giant prehistoric boars her schoolteacher describes to her motley charges. Wink loves the (literally) backwater community locals call "The Bathtub," a brutally beautiful but deceptively fragile ecosystem, and whatever his faults as a parent, he's teaching Hushpuppy to live in it too. But Wink's health is precarious—he doesn't talk about it, but from week to week getting a deep breath comes harder and he's less up to the day-to-day work of scratching a subsistence living from the water and dirt—and his decision to ride out a Katrina-level hurricane rather than evacuate proves disastrous. He and Hushpuppy aren't alone when the rains stop—a handful of equally addled, obstinate lifers hunkered down in their own shacks and lived to tell the tale—but the Bathtub is damaged, the water poisoned, and emergency crews are scouring the countryside in search of survivors they can rescue and place in clean, well-stocked shelters until such time as they can be relocated, a prospect the locals regard as a fate worse than death.

Benh Zeitlin's first feature, is a stunner: You may have reservations about its depiction of catch-as-catch-can bayou poverty as an improvement over, say, the institutional poverty of the best-run urban housing project, but Zeitlin's visuals make his case. Hunger is hunger, but a feast for the soul can offset the ache of an empty belly—not for everyone, perhaps, but for those connected to a community in which a year of bayou sunsets is infinitely more nourishing than a year of fast-food fries.


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Beauty in Trouble/Kraska v nesnazích

(2006)
Directed by: Jan Hrebejk.
Written by: Petr Jarchovsky, inspired by the poem by Robert Graves.
With: Ana Geislerova, Josef Abrham, Roman Luknar, Michaela Mrvikova , Adam Misik , Jana Brejchova, Emilia Vasaryova and Jiri Schmitzer.

Inspired by Robert Graves' deeply cynical poem, this bleak story of love and pragmatism tells the story of a woman whose future hinges on her relationships with two very different men.

Marcela Cmolikova (Geislerova) got pregnant as a teenager and left home because her mother and stepfather, Zdena (Brejchova) and Risa (Schmitzer), insisted that she have an abortion. Marcela married mechanic Jarda (Luknar), who adopted her daughter, Lucina (Mrvikova), now 15, and fathered her seven-year-old son, Kuba (Misik). Powerful sexual chemistry is the glue that holds their marriage together, but Marcela feels increasing trapped in the aftermath of a flood that damaged their uninsured home, destroyed most of their possessions and is compromising Kuba's health — mold exacerbates his asthma. Jarda is increasingly sullen, crude and dismissive of Marcela's concerns — she doesn't want her children stigmatized by having a thief for a father, while he only cares that stealing cares is more lucrative than fixing them.

After one fight too many, Marcela moves back in with her mother. The cramped quarters put a strain on Zdena's marriage; the manipulative Risa, who lives on disability and is always home, picks fights with Marcela, leers at Lucina and plays mind games with Kuba, always while Zdena is away. Then Jarda gets arrested and a chance encounter with the stolen car's owner &mdash expatriate Evzen Benes (Abrham), a widower who returned to Prague to sell his family's house — opens a world of possibilities for Marcela. An attractive widower, Evzen is so fundamentally decent that he offers to get Jarda a good lawyer and refuses to evict the family who've been squatting in the Benes home for years. That he's old enough to be Marcela's father and doesn't excite her the way Jarda does is offset by the fact that she enjoys his company, lives in a Tuscan villa attached to a successful vineyard, likes children and isn't afraid of the emotional baggage that inevitably comes with a 32-year-old mother. It's clear to everyone, including Marcela, that divorcing Jarda and marrying Evzen would be a mature decision — perhaps the first of her life. Director Hrebejk and screenwriter Jarchovsky's film is a subtle, unsparing portrait of families whose fragile dynamics fray under pressure. Its strength lies in the complexity with which the characters are written — there's more to everyone than first meets the eye, even such apparently one-note monsters as Risa and Jarda's fanatically religious mother (Vasaryova) — and the subtlety with which their thorny relationships are revealed.


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Beowulf

(2007)
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis.
Written by: Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman.
With:Ray Winston, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman and Robin Wright Penn.

First and foremost a showcase for the latest developments in motion-capture and 3-D technology, Robert Zemeckis' take on the ancient tale in verse of men and monsters transforms real actors — including Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Crispin Glover, John Malkovich and Robin Wright Penn — into waxy-looking, dead-eyed avatars that look as though they belong in a high-end video game.

Denmark, sixth century: Hedonistic King Hrothgar (Hopkins) has a monster problem: The powerful, misshapen Grendel (Glover) has declared war on Hrothgar's kingdom, brutally murdering and terrorizing his subjects. Enter brawny, boastful Beowulf (Winstone), who brings his loyal right-hand man Wiglaf (Gleeson) as well as a band of warriors from far across the sea. Beowulf proceeds to make good on his promise to slay the beast, but he loses most of his company to the wrath of Grendel's mother (Jolie), a gilded water demon with a long, sinuous braid of hair that seems to have a writhing, sinister life of its own — and she makes an offer no mere man can refuse.

While Beowulf and Grendel's oft-told tale would seem to define the term "spoiler-proof," it actually is possible to spoil screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman's ingenious solution to the story's thorniest structural quirk: the rift between the first half and the second, which takes place decades later and pits the still-mighty Beowulf against a vindictive dragon. Suffice it to say that they found a structurally elegant way to pull the two halves together.

The trouble is that the film's look trumps all. Zack Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller's 300 (2006), to which Beowulf has been compared, is a stunning fusion of live action and computer-generated images, simultaneously highly stylized and vividly rooted in flesh-and-blood physicality.

Zemeckis' film is both kitsch and creepy: Beowulf is fantasy, but Beowulf is a sheltered teen-boy fantasy, full of macho bluster, denatured violence and leaden double entendres. Limbs fly in a spatter of decorative cartoon gore, the fleshy Winstone gets a virtual trade-up to an anonymously buff Chippendale dancer's body (the better to vanquish Grendel in the nude and wow Hrothgar's comely queen) and the frontally naked "Angelina Jolie" is as smooth and desexed as "Grendel's Mother Barbie." And there's something faintly depressing about such pallidly antiseptic daydreams.

Beowolf opened on 3,000-plus screens, of which more than 800 played the film's digital 3-D version; another 75 conventional 3-D prints played large-screen theaters. The digital 3-D version was produced by the Real D company (a single-projector system that uses glasses with polarized lenses; their first theatrical effort was 2005's CChicken Little), and the effect of depth is strikingly good.


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Beyond the Mat


Written, Directed and Co-Produced by: Barry W. Blaustein.
With: Mick Foley, Jake Roberts, Vince McMahon, Darren Drozdov, Roland Alexander, Tony Jones and Mike Modest.

You don't have to be a wrestling fan to enjoy screenwriter Barry Blaustein's directing debut, a behind-the-scenes documentary that manages to be unabashedly sympathetic without being a puff piece.

Blaustein, who confesses up front that he's been a wrestling fan since childhood, focuses on three wrestlers at very different points in their careers. Hugely popular WWF star Mick Foley, 35, wrestles under the name Mankind, hidden behind a Dr. Lecter-like leather mask. An articulate and gentle man in real life, Foley's specialty is taking brutal beatings in the ring, and Blaustein records the horrified reactions of his wife and children as Foley gets pummeled until he bleeds. (Foley recently announced his retirement.) Middle-aged Terry Funk has been wrestling since the '70s, when his wild-man persona made him a well-loved heel; now he's an éminence grise, still loved by fans and commanding substantial fees. But the years of wrestling have taken a physical toll, and Funk's family is encouraging him to give up the game for good. Jake "The Snake" Roberts was an '80s star, but drug abuse and emotional turmoil have reduced him to wrestling in low-rent venues. Blaustein chronicles Roberts's painful attempt at reconciliation with one of his seven children, as well as the wrestler's grim stories of his own miserable childhood and self-destructive rampages. Blaustein also gives a quick history of professional wrestling and includes plenty of footage of preposterous antics.

The result is hugely entertaining and genuinely informative, a tribute to individual performers that doesn't neglect the fact that what they do is ridiculous. The film's release was hindered by WWF honcho Vince McMahon (he was interviewed on camera and cooperated during production); he forbade WWF wrestlers from promoting the picture and pressured USA and UPN networks, which broadcast WWF matches, into not accepting advertising.


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Biggie and Tupac

(2002)
Written and Directed by: Nick Broomfield.
Documentary

English documentarian Nick Broomfield never met a controversy he didn't want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the ground, and the murders of rappers Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur — still unsolved seven years after Broomfield hurled himself into the fray — are nothing if not controversial.

One-time friends whose bitter, high-profile feud epitomized the East Coast-West Coast rap wars, Shakur and B.I.G. — born Christopher Wallace — died within six months of each other in 1996 and 1997, both shot in public places (Las Vegas and Los Angeles, respectively) in front of dozens of witnesses who saw nothing. Conventional wisdom — and an exhaustive September 2002 Los Angeles Times investigative report — suggests that Wallace masterminded Shakur's murder, then fell victim to ongoing rap world violence.

Broomfield favors a theory blaming Death Row Records founder Marion "Suge" Knight and the ongoing antagonism between Death Row and Bad Boy Records boss Sean "Puffy" Combs. The hit-and-run tactics Broomfield refined while making such incendiary films as Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1994), Heifi Fleiss: Hollywood Madame (1996) and Kurt and Courtney (1998) are in full flower here, and almost succeed in diverting attention from the fact that while he elicits some provocative theories about the rappers' deaths, he can't back them up. Broomfield is a filmmaker, of course, and not bound by judicial rules of evidence. But while a documentary like Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (1988) presents a detailed and compelling alternative to the official version of a 12-year-old Texas murder case, Biggie and Tupac is just another episode of the ongoing "Nick Broomfield Show," in which everyone who tries to elude his intrusive camera looks evasive, shifty, stupid or some combination of the three.

Not that most of Broomfield's interviewees do themselves any favors: They shuffle thuggishly, mumble and make vague, expletive-laced allegations. Former LAPD cops Russell Poole and Kevin Hackie suggest that rogue police (several of whom were later snared in the Ramparts scandal) were involved, but Poole is restrained by ongoing legal actions and Hackie by what appears to be self-protective common sense. Neither has the smoking gun in his desk drawer. In this shady company, Wallace's mother Voletta, a determined, soft-spoken, former schoolteacher, is a breath of fresh air. Mrs. Wallace opened numerous doors for Broomfield, and though he denied rumors that her support contributed to his favoring the theory that paints her son a victim rather than a killer, it's hard to imagine not being swayed by such a quietly devoted and resourceful woman. Overall, the film is occasionally interesting but essentially unpersuasive, a footnote to a still evolving story.


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Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh

(2009)
Directed by: Roberta Grossman.
Written by: Sophie Sartain.
Documentary

Released on the heels of the WWII-era drama Defiance, which dramatizes the armed resistance spearheaded by the Bielski brothers of Belarus, this documentary (with reenactments) tells the equally inspiring story of Hannah Senesh.

For the full review, click here.

This review orginally appeared in Time Out New York.


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A Broken Sole

(2008)
Directed by: Antony Marsellis.
Written by: Susan Charlotte.
With: Danny Aiello, Margaret Colin, Bob Dishy, Judith Light, Laila Robins and John Shea.

Directed for the screen by Antony Marselli, playwright Susan Charlotte's examination of 9/11's psychic scars comprises three loosely connected vignettes, each featuring a pair of New Yorkers whose paths intersect at an emotionally volatile moment.

In the first segment, set on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, a film professor (Light) barges into a Hell's Kitchen cobbler's shop and demands that the owner (Aiello) fix her shoe, even as he protests that he's closed. "You can't be," she says abrasively, pulling off her worn, low-heeled green pump. "My sole is broken." As they bicker and spar, their damaged hearts are bared: She saw the planes that flew into the towers, and her sense of loss and dislocation is now fused with the film she was going to show that morning, Vittorio De Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970). He's an Italian Jew who lost his father and grandfather during World War II, is estranged from his only child and has a terrible feeling that the customer he affectionately calls "Teenie Louise" is never coming back for her dressy pumps.

Six weeks later, a stressed-out Realtor (Robins) badgers a paranoid cabbie (Dishy) who enunciates veeeeeeery precisely into cutting short his lunch break and taking her to an apartment showing. He's agoraphobic and she's frantic; trapped in the car, they, too, bare their inner wounds: Her grandmother, once a renowned baker, lost the will to create after spending two years in a concentration camp and she's afraid of her violent, mentally unbalanced brother, while the cabbie staves off crushing loneliness by attending the funerals of fallen firefighters.

Two months after that, struggling, middle-aged actress Nan (Colin) and dyslexic director Bob (Shea) negotiate an awkward morning after: They wound up in bed on their first date, but now she wants to get to know him better, while he seems anxious to disappear. Bob's obsession with palindromes sparks a thorny discussion that eventually leads both to reveal their insecurities and mutual desire to find human connection in a cold and uncertain world.

The rhythms of Charlotte's mannered, artificial dialogue are better suited to stage than screen: Each segment started life as a one-act play and overall the film works better as a conversation starter than drama. The specter of "discussion to follow" hovers over soul-searching pronouncements like Nan's blunt observation that "you have to live your life, no matter how scary it gets" and symbols like those broken soles/souls.


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Burn After Reading

(2008)
Written adn Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen.
With: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, Olek Krupa, Michael Countryman, Hamilton Clancy, Armand Schultz, Elizabeth Marvel, Raul Aranas, Brian O'Neill, David Rasche and J.K. Simmons.

Joel and Ethan Coen's follow-up to the Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men (2007) is a return to the smarty pants black comedies that put them on the hipster map. And credit where it's due: The brothers' dark, all-star farce about sex, lies and surveillance is pretty damned funny.

CIA Balkan analyst Osborne Cox (Malkovich) has just quit his job, furious that his smug superiors were about to demote him, ostensibly because he has a drinking problem but more likely because of his foul temper and evident contempt for the rest of the human race. Osbourne's wife, ice-cold pediatrician Katie (Swinton), is equally furious: Osbourne's plan to start a consulting business and write his memoirs (sorry, mem-wahs) strikes her as the height of deluded self-indulgence.

Unbeknownst to Osbourne, Katie is having an affair with serial philanderer Harry Pfarrar (Clooney) — a charming horndog who claims to have spent years bodyguarding top-level politicos without ever discharging his weapon (nudge nudge, wink wink) before taking a cushy gig at the Treasury Department — and has engaged a cutthroat divorce lawyer. Harry is married to successful children's book writer Sandy (Marvel) and has no plans to divorce her, regardless of what he tells Katie or anyone else.

Meanwhile, "Hardbodies" health-club employee Linda Litzke (McDormand, Joel Coen's wife of 25 years) is in the throes of a midlife crisis and wants to reinvent herself via plastic surgery she can't possibly afford. Then her genially brainless co-worker, Chet Feldheimer (Pitt, delivering a broadly comic turn that's oddly charming despite its aggressive lack of subtlety), gets his hands on a disc full of top-secret sh*t — Osawld's mem-wahs — that the janitor found in the ladies' locker room.

Linda sees an opportunity... an opportunity for blackmail, to be sure, but an opportunity none the less. Their inept attempts to cash in set in motion a farcical series of misunderstandings that end in mayhem, murder and massive confusion in the intelligence community.

Every Coen Brothers tic and mannerism that fans of No Country rejoiced they had abandoned is back in force in Burn Without Reading: The snarky dialogue, the briskly artificial timing, the absurd plot contrivances and the cavalier willingness to exploit brutal suffering for laughs.

But it's often funny and occasionally hilarious: Unlike many films in which the cast is clearly having a high old time, the audience isn't left out of the fun. And don't miss The Fugs' gleefully profane CIA Man (1966), which plays over the closing credits. Warning: Don't listen if you have an effing problem with effing bad laguage!

Effing A, man!


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Carmen & Geoffrey

(2009)
Directed by: Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob.
With: Carmen de Lavallade, Geoffrey Holder, Leo Holder and Jennifer Dunning.

Dancer/choreographer/actors Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder are so funny, talented, charismatic and attractive that many faults of Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob's documentary about the couple fade in the light of their presence. It's a shame the film isn't more polished, but an imperfect look at these accomplished, unpretentious performers is better than none at all.

Married for 47 years, Holder and de Lavellande came of age as artists at a time when opportunities for black dancers were both limited and, more often than not, limiting. None of which stopped them from seizing what opportunities there were and making their own. Born in New Orleans but raised in Los Angeles, de Lavallade was inspired to dance by her cousin, ballerina Janet Collins, the first African-American dancer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. de Lavallade studied with modern dance pioneer Lester Horton; her fellow students included Alvin Ailey, who went on to found the all-black Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company in 1957. Holder was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, where he was ill-served by an anglocentric school system that made no distinction between being dyslecic, as Holder was, and being stupid. It's clear the memory still makes him angry, though he chuckles that having novelist-to-be V.S. Naipaul as a classmate didn't help. Holder instead followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Boscoe, an accomplished painter and dancer who later moved to England and started his own company. By the time Holder was 23, he was in New York at the invitation of Agnes DeMille and auditioning for the Harold Arlen/Truman Capote musical House of Flowers, where he met de Lavallade. They were married in 1955 and continue to work, together and separately, even though both are well into their 70s.

The filmmakers' decision to focus almost exclusively on de Lavallade and Holder's dance careers is unfortunate, since both were tremendously versatile talents. And while shilling for 7Up may not have been the creative highlight of Holder's career, being the "un-cola" man brought him instant pop culture fame — a mention wouldn't have been amiss. On the other hand, the film features extraordinary footage of the younger Holder and de Lavallade, including de Lavallade in Ailey's crowd-pleasing Revelations and their appearance with the legendary Josephine Baker in the mid-1950s. The clips alone would make it worth seeing, even if the modern-day interviews with de Lavallade and Holder weren't just as enthralling: They're natural storytellers, and they have great stories to tell.


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Changeling


Directed by: Clint Eastwood.
Written by: J.Michael Straczynski.
With: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly and Colm Feore.

Eastwood and J. Michael Straczynski's period crime thriller has everything going for it. It's based on a bizarre true crime story, features a top notch cast and pivots on the travails of an independent woman who refuses to acknowledge the prejudices of a casually sexist era and pays for her boldness. But for all its assets — fine cast, engaging story, meticulous attention to detail and a sense of outrage at the lengths to which venal men will go to protect their own interests — it's a strangely arid piece of filmmaking, handsome, respectful, unsensational and thoroughly lifeless.

Los Angeles, 1928: Single mother Christine Collins (Jolie) has spent the last nine years quietly defying deeply ingrained social biases that paint women as weak, helpless and prone to nervous disorders. Christine has raised a polite, responsible son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), while earning a respectable living working for the telephone company, where she excels as one of the first women trusted with a supervisory position. And then one ordinary day Christine's world is turned upside down: She returns from work to find Walter gone and the LAPD — a police department with a formidable history of corruption, favoritism and shameless showboating — treats her as a hysteric when she begs them to initiate a search. Most missing kids come home of their own accord with 24 hours, they assure her; if Walter isn't back tomorrow they'll take a report.

Walter doesn't come back, and several months later — months of emotional agony for Christine — LAPD Captain J.J. Jones (Donovan) announces that Walter has been found in Illinois and is on a train back to California.

But the child (Devon Conti) who steps off the train isn't Walter. Christine knows it the moment she sees the boy, but is persuaded to take in the changeling because this child, as young and vulnerable as her own, has nowhere to go. But Christine is determined to keep the search for Walter alive, and collects statements from her son's dentist, doctor and schoolteacher asserting that the child the LAPD insists is Walter is no such thing. The LAPD stonewalls until Christine's case is taken up by media-savvy activist preacher Gustav Briegleb (Malkovich), who uses his weekly radio broadcast to deplore institutionalized corruption within the police department. But even as Jones tries to silence Christine by shutting her up in a snake pit of a mental hospital, one of his own, a Detective Lester Ybarra (Kelly) stumbles, stumbles on evidence that may link Walter's disappearance to a horrifying crime.

True crime buffs will be familiar with the Wineville chicken coop murders, a case so sensational in its day that the town changed its name to Mira Loma in hopes of shaking of its taint; it even inspired an episode of Dragnet. But the film's real draw is the spectacle of Jolie as a woman who will stop at nothing to find, or find out what happened to, her child. It's impossible to fault her technically: She's intense without resorting to cheap histrionics, simultaneously desperate and resolute, and dutifully does whatever the script demands, from downplaying her thoroughly 21st-century looks to being power-hosed naked by sadistic asylum matrons. But I found her unpersuasive, strangely flat and studied, and if you aren't fully invested in Christine Collins' ordeal, the rest of the movie becomes a series of quaint tableaux.


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The Corpse Bride

(2005)
Directed by: Tim Burton and Mike Johnson.
Written by: John August, Caroline Thompson and Pamela Pettler, based on characters created by Tim Burton and Carlos Grangel.
With the voices of: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman, Paul Whitehouse, Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney, Richard E. Grant, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Enn Reitel and Jane Horrocks.

Nominally co-directed by Burton and Mike Johnson, this macabre fairy tale about a nervous bridegroom who accidentally betroths himself to a cadaver is clearly Burton's show all the way.

omewhere in some dour, gray, 19th-century land beyond the forest, sensitive Victor Van Dort (voice of Depp), son of nouveaux riches fishmongers (Ullman, Whitehouse), is to marry into the aristocratic but broke Everglot family. Though his imperious future in-laws (Lumley, Finney) are snobs, Victor's bride-to-be, Victoria (Watson), is a lovely and artistic young woman, the soul mate Victor always hoped to find. But at their wedding rehearsal he repeatedly flubs his vows and runs off into the deep, dark wood in shame, trying to get the cursed words right until he finally recites them perfectly. He slips Victoria's ring onto what he thinks is a desiccated branch sticking out from under the snow. But it's actually the skeletal hand of Emily (Bonham Carter), a bride murdered by her duplicitous lover, and she accepts Victor's proposal and whisks him off to the Land of the Dead.

In the surprisingly happening underworld, every day is the Dia de los Muertos, and the streets are bathed in washes of colored light and abuzz with cheerful skeletons who shake, rattle and roll their single eyeballs from socket to socket while half-rotted corpses carouse all night in establishments where the headwaiter is just that — a disembodied head. Even Victor's pallid cheeks take on a rosy glow. But while touched by Emily's sad story — delivered in the form of a bravura jumpin'-jive number by a bowler-hatted bag o' bones and crew — Victor wants only to return to Victoria. She, in turn, has been promised to a mysterious stranger, Count Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant), by her grasping parents. From the maggot (Reitel) who roosts behind Emily's eyeball and feeds her wicked thoughts in doleful Peter Lorre tones to the scampering spiders who reweave Victor's clothes, this puppet-animated feature is cheerfully eerie and steeped in love for old horror films, unfolding in a weirdly canted mittel-Europe that's equal parts Hammer Victoriana and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).

But the real marvel is that beneath the ghoulish in-jokes and horror-geek allusions, there's a core of the same bittersweet truth that makes the best fairy tales resonate from one generation to the next: The film's final image is as sweetly magical as any live-action story of doomed love.


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The Crow

(1994)
Directed by: Alex Proyas.
Written by:: David J. Schow and John Shirley, based on the comic book and comic strip series by James O'Barr.
With: Brandon Lee, Michael Wincott, Rochelle Davis, Ernie Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, Michael Berryman, Angel David, Bai Ling, Lawrence Mason, Michael Massee, Bill Raymond, Marco Rodriguez, Sofia Shinas, Anna Thomson, Tony Todd and Jon Polito.

Based on James O'Barr's bleak comic-book series, The Crow is dark valentine to adolescent agonies and dreams, especially the dream that love — true, pure, soul-mate love — can conquer all, even death.

Tough little street waif Sarah (Davis) lives without hope in an industrial Detroit slum where daylight never shines the streets are always slick with rain and littered with filth. Aspiring rock star Eric Draven (Lee) and his angelic fiancee Shelley (Shinas), walk the same mean streets but aspire to better lives; unfortunately, they run afoul of brutal crime boss/slumlord Top Dollar (Wincott). On Devil's Night — the night before Halloween, when chaos reigns and fires rage — Wincott sends street thug T-Bird (Kelly, of The Warriors) and his gang to get rid of his troublesome tenants; after amusing themselves by raping and torturing Shelley, they finally kill them both.

A year later, Eric claws his way out of the grave, driven by the need to avenge Shelley's awful death. Perched on his tombstone is a crow, Eric's liaison between the worlds of the living and dead. One by one, Eric goes after the men who took his beloved Shelley, starting with T-Bird's gang — Grange (Candyman star Todd), Funboy (Mason) and Tin-Tin (Massee) — then T-Bird and, finally, the callous mastermind behind it all.

Australian filmmaker Alex Proyas' first US feature aims higher than the average rape/revenge tale, but its aspirations were largely overshadowed by the on-set death of star Brandon Lee, during a firearms stunt involving actor Michael Massee and a gun loaded with blanks. The gun had been used earlier for a different shot and through what appears to have been a combination of a carelessness, inexperience and bad luck, Lee was hit by a dummy bullet — not a live round, but a metal projectile nonetheless — that had lodged in the barrel. He later died at a local hospital. The fact that The Crow was shot in North Carolina, a "right to work" state where filmmakers could cut costs by employing non-union labor, was widely considered a contributing factor in the mishap, but no charges were filed (for a full account, see Jeffrey Goodell's 1993 article in Premiere magazine.)

Lee's death was filmed — it took several seconds for the crew to realize he wasn't acting — but contrary to widely circulated rumors, none of the footage was used ; the scene was restaged with a different antagonist wielding a knife. The Crow was completed by using a double to act out Lee's remaining scenes, then superimposing footage the late actor's face on the double's body.


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Curse of the Golden Flower

(2006)
Directed by: Zhang Yimou.
Written by: Bian Zhihong, Wu Nan and Zhang Yimou. With: Chow Yun-Fat, Jay Chou, Gong Li, Liu Ye, Li Man, Ni Dahong, Chen Jin and Qin Junjie.

Viewers expecting a Zhang Yimou film like Red Sorghum (1987) or Raise the Red Lantern (1991) will be in for a shock: This operatic historical drama comes with a thick overlay of intrigue, incest and voluptuous violence and more closely resembles William Shakespeare's much-reviled Titus Andronicus than, say, the intimate The Story Of Qiu Ju (1992). And fans of Zhang's Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) will miss the balletic martial-arts sequences. But this stunning family tragedy is lavishly entertaining nonetheless, a gilded horror story that revels in lurid colors and sensational emotions.

Set during the excesses of the Tang Dynasty's corrupt tail end (923-936 AD), Curse of the Golden Flower unfolds almost entirely within the walls of the imperial palace, and opens as the household rises to prepare for the arrival of the emperor (Chow) and Prince Jai (Chou), who's returning from three years of waging war along the empire's northern border on his father's behalf. The empress (Gong) waits at home with her stepson, Crown Prince Wan (Liu), and sullen Prince Yu (Qin), Jai's younger brother. Though the household functions like a piece of intricate clockwork — eunuchs and ladies' maids rise and dress in unison, servants call out the hours, kitchen hands chop and slice and simmer with the precision of finely calibrated machines — its inner workings are a seething morass of unruly impulses.

The empress is undergoing daily treatment for an unspecified ailment, expressly ordered by her husband and personally overseen by the imperial doctor (Ni) and his loyal daughter, Chan (Li), and yet she seems to be getting sicker. Is she being poisoned because she's embroiled in a long-standing affair with Prince Wan? The dissolute Wan, in turn, is secretly trysting with Chan, and plans to ask the emperor for permission to leave the palace and go to a provincial capital. The emperor intends to pass over Wan in favor of Prince Jai, a warrior after his own heart, but Jai is torn between his powerful father and his suffering mother. Simmering resentments and secret plans come to a head during the lavish Chrysanthemum Festival, and by the time it's over the golden flowers are stained a very different color.

Zhang's grand guignol moral tale unfolds at stately fever pitch and culminates in a succession of color-coded battles as beautifully abstract as shifting glass beads in a kaleidoscope, and throughout strikes a flawless formal balance between physical beauty and emotional ugliness.


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Dark City

(1998)
Directed by: Alex Proyas.
Written by:: Lem Dobbs, Alex Proyas and David S. Goyer, from a story by Proyas.
With: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O'Brien, Ian Richardson, David Wenham, William Hurt, Bruce Spence, Colin Friels, John Bluthal, Mitchell Butel and Melissa George.

Alexander Proyas' film noir fever dream with a sci-fi secret revolves around a man who goes looking for his identity and makes a discovery that quite literally shifts the ground beneath his feet.

John Murdoch (Sewell) wakes up in a hotel bathroom with no memory of how he got there. There's a dead girl all cut up in the other room, and he also has no idea who she is or what happened. In fact, he has no idea who he is; though he seems to have a beautiful lounge-singer wife (Connelly) and some weird bald-headed guys in Hellraiser drag on his tail for reason he couldn't begin to fathom. And that's not the half of it: Things start getting really weird at midnight, when everyone in the city mysteriously falls into some sort of dead sleep, while Murdoch remains awake to see the very buildings around him twisting and changing, like concrete seeds sprouting in some bizarre mind-bending nightmare.

Acting isn't the main event in Proyas' even more stylish follow up to the gloomily handsome The Crow (1994), but Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O'Brien (who also played Riff Raff in both the stage production and the movie) delivers a deeply creepy turn as the sinister Mr. Hand, Murdoch's chief nemesis, and Connelly looks nothing short of breathtaking in her '40s-era gowns that are far more memorable that her performance. Story telling isn't Proyas' strong suit either; his not-so-original screenplay, a rather silly twist on Philip K. Dick's We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, is just an excuse for him to create an astonishingly stylized alternate world. And while serious movie buffs will recognize its inspirations, from Nosferatu and Mad Love to Brazil and Metropolis, the resulting is a haunting, heartbreakingly beautiful collage of movie memories.


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The Dark Knight

(2008)
Directed by: Christopher Nolan.
Written by: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, from a story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Bob Kane appearing in comic books published by DC Comics.
With: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts, Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Jai White, William Fichtner, Monique Gabriela and Ron Dean.

Even without Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, Christopher Nolan's pitch-black sequel toBatman Begins (2005) would be a tour de force. But Ledger's mesmerizingly damaged agent provocateur is the film's dark heart, a presence so malevolently unpredictable that it remains palpable even when he's not on screen.

Millionaire Bruce Wayne (Bale) continues to live his double life as the crusading Batman, but at an ever-escalating personal cost: He's displaced and all but alone. Wayne Manor has been burned to the ground, forcing him into an anonymous high-rise apartment, and childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal, taking over from the vapid Katie Holmes) has taken up with crusading district attorney Harvey Dent (Eckhart) who's conducting his war on crime, by the book and in the bright light of day.

Faithful butler Alfred (Caine) and Wayne Industries' factotum Lucius Fox ( Freeman) continue to support Bruce's lonely battle against criminals, but Gotham City is still overrun with warring gangs. Public opinion regarding the dark angel is polarized — grassroots champion of the average citizen or dangerous vigilante? — and the headline-grabbing exploits of a pack of untrained, hot-headed imitators who've sprung up in the Batman's shadow only muddy the waters further. Succumbing to the unrelenting pressure, Batman and longtime ally Lieutenant Gordon (Oldman) agree to work with Dent, an arrangement that brings impressive short-term results but sets the stage for an anarchic reign of terror orchestrated by the wild card in the underworld deck: The Joker (Ledger). Having made himself persona non grata among thieves by robbing the banks that launder and safeguard their ill-gotten gains, the Joker then proposes that they all work together to take back the night.

Written by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan (David S. Goyer gets co-story credit), the film juggles multiple intertwined narratives — Batman's dark night of the soul, the Joker's machinations, the rise and fall of Dent, the criminal super-alliance— without feeling bloated or unfocused; its 142 minutes fly by. Nolan stages some stunning action sequences. The opening heist is worthy of Michael Mann and maintains a convincing atmosphere of apocalyptic paranoia; Gotham City is under siege, people are genuinely frightened and life-or-death situations can go either way. But most importantly, he gives his top-notch cast plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters.

That Ledger stands out in such a powerhouse ensemble is a tribute to his radically unhinged interpretation of a familiar character: The lank hair tinged seaweed green, the darting tongue and faint lisp that call constant attention to the ghastly rictus of his mouth, the nightmarishly smudged make up… taken together, they make previous Jokers feel like, well, jokes.


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Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

(2008)
Written and Directed by: Kurt Kuenne
Documentary.

Kuenne's Dear Zachary defies traditional rules of documentary filmmaking, casting aside any pretense of objectivity in favor of a thoroughly subjective cri de coeur.

Kuenne set out to make a glorified home movie about his longtime friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, who was shot to death in Pennsylvania in 2001. Above all, Kuenne hoped to show Bagby's son, Zachary — born after his father's death — the kind of man his father was. But Dear Zachary quickly developed into something else. At the same time that Kuenne was teasing heartwarming memories out of Bagby's friends and relatives, Bagby's ex-girlfriend, Dr. Shirley Turner — the prime (indeed only) suspect in his murder — had fled to her native Canada and was manipulating the legal system with an eye to ensuring that she was never extradited to the United States and that Bagby's parents, Kathleen and David, never gained custody of their grandson. Turner's dreadful victory supplies the film's devastating climax.

Dear Zachary garnered strong reviews but remarkably few high-profile awards, perhaps because it's fundamentally artless — not amateurish, but completely focused on content rather than form — and resists being absorbed into the outsider aesthetic of Jonathan Caouette's 2003 Tarnation or James Ronald Whitney's profoundly disquieting Just, Melvin (2000). Maybe the fact Kuenne never pretends to be objective offended critics: From the outset, he portrays Bagby as a stand-up guy who loved too well but not wisely and Turner as a head case with the smarts to work the system until it worked for her. Or maybe Dear Zachary sucker-punched too many reviewers into tears and they resented it… whatever the case, it's one hell of a heart-wrenchingly sad, blisteringly angry, profoundly heartfelt movie that dares you to walk away with a shrug and a glib quip. I can't forget it, and that's more than I can say for a lot of documentaries I saw in 2008.


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District B13

(2008)
Directed by: Pierre Morel.
Written by: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen.
With: David Belle, Bibi Naceri, Dany Verissimo, Cyril Raffaelli, Francois Chattot.

Imagine, if you will, Escape from New York (1981) crossed with every mismatched-buddy movie ever made, set in one of the high-tension French banlieues, built around emerging martial art form parkour and set to a crunchy techno soundtrack. Written by Luc Besson and directed by Pierre Morel (The Transporter), the combination sounds ridiculous and plays like a jolt of pure, trashy adrenaline straight to the heart.

In the not-too-distant future, the high-rise suburbs where much of France's urban immigrant population is concentrated have been walled off, and the hardworking poor left to the tender mercies of heavily armed gangs. Law-abiding do-gooder Leito (Belle), a heavily tattooed devotee of parkour who grew up in Banlieue 13 and can navigate rooftops and building facades like Spider-man, intercepts a huge heroin shipment belonging to drug lord Taha (cowriter Naceri).

Taha's thugs come to get it back, but it's already gone down the drain, so they kidnap Leito's sister, Lola (Verissimo), to force him to make good. Leito rescues her and hauls Taha to the local police station, whose spineless commander arrests Leito and returns Lola to Taha. Some months later, elite police officer Damien Tomasso (Raffaelli), a human dynamo with muscles in places other people don't have places, has just single-handedly busted up a whole gang in an illicit casino hidden beneath a drab corner deli when Defense Secretary Kruger (Chattot) gives him a special assignment: Damien must break Leito out of a prison transport and persuade him to help retrieve an experimental WMD — a "clean bomb" that kills people but spares buildings — that was hijacked and taken into Banlieue 13. The clock is ticking, and Taha has the missile pointed right at central Paris. Damien is all about orders, Leito only wants to rescue Lola, whom the increasingly cocaine-addled Taha has been keeping on a leash by his bedside. Commencez les coups de pieds au cul!

Both Raffaelli and parkour pioneer Belle are stuntmen, and if they're not the world's most expressive actors, they're good enough to handle the lulls between action sequences, though the strain shows when Raffaelli is required to deliver a high-minded speech about liberte, fraternite et egalite. Until then, the film's a high-voltage kick that's never lets up, energized by sheer bravura stunt work. Yes, it was overcranked and then slowed down, but what you're seeing isn't wire work or CGI — it's stunt choreography, beautifully executed, flawlessly cut together and brainlessly thrilling.


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Donkey Punch

(2007)
Directed by: Olly Blackburn.
Written by: Olly Blackburn and David Bloom.
With: Robert Boulter, Sian Breckin, Tom Burke, Nichola Burley, Julian Morris, Jay Taylor and Jaime Winstone.

Very Bad Things meets Knife in the Water in first-time feature director Olly Blackburn's thriller about not-so-bright young things trying to cover up a nasty accident and getting themselves into ever deeper water as they do.

Three working-class galpals from dreary Leeds decide to vacation together in anything-goes Majorca, Spain, for some sun and fun, emphasis on the fun. Lisa and Kim (Breckin and Winstone, the daughter of veteran UK actor Ray) are out for a good time, consequences be damned. Sensible Tammi (Burley) is all for a good time within the parameters of common sense, which is why she drags her heels when three likely lads — confident Marcus (Taylor), baby-faced Josh (Morris) and bad-boy Bluey (Burke) — invite them to party aboard the luxury they're crewing. But Tammi is no match for peer pressure, and they all wind up aboard the deluxe Durban, heading out to sea. Tammi hits it off with Josh's older brother, Sean (Boulter), and they wind up talking the night away while Lisa, Kim and the rest of the guys go directly to serious drinking, drugging and sexing — videotape and all, naturally. The evening's highlight is meant to be shy-boy Josh experiencing rough-sex Nirvana via the urban-legend "donkey punch," which involves a sharp blow to the back of one's sex partner's neck, triggeing involuntary spasms rumored to produce mind-blowing orgasms. Unfortunately, Josh hits Lisa too hard and snaps her neck.

The horrified girls want to go to the police and explain that the whole thing was an accident, while the boys favor tossing Lisa's corpse overboard and claiming she fell into the deep blue while dead drunk. Sean is stuck in the middle: Under other circumstances he'd side with the girls, but if everything goes pear-shaped, his brother will spend the rest of his life rotting in some Spanish jail. What to do, what to do? And so the stage is set for everyone's worst instincts to surface: Friendship and loyalty take a backseat to sheer animal will to survive, and each character is tested to his or her limits before their long, dark and bloody night of the soul is over.

Donkey Punch breaks no new ground, but it's sharply executed and delivers a couple of nasty surprises between set up and resolution. Characters who initially seem pulled off the shelf marked "genre cliches" gradually reveal surprising nuances — and the "can you believe this conclusion seems remarkably reasonable in light of the events that lead up to it.


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Donnie Darko

(2001)
Written and Directed by: Richard Kelly.
With: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Duval, Beth Grant and Daveigh Chase.

First-time writer-director Richard Kelly's exercise in "or is it?" paranoia gets off to a shaky start but gradually pulls together into a genuinely haunting parable of teenage alienation.

October 2, 1988: Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is having a rough trip through adolescence. Sandwiched between two well-adjusted, outgoing sisters — Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who's about to start college, and little Samantha ( Chase), part of her school's "Sparkle Motion" dance squad — Donnie feels awkward, misunderstood and alienated from the rituals and routines of high-school life. He doesn't have a girlfriend, but he's got a shrink (Ross), a medicine cabinet filled with unwanted psychotropic drugs and an imaginary friend called Frank (Duval), who looks like a guy in a malevolent bunny suit.

And then fate delivers a mind-boggling kick in the teeth: A jet engine crashes through Donnie's bedroom ceiling, and the only reason he isn't squashed is that he's out sleepwalking. Already plagued by existential angst, Donnie is deeply shaken by his brush with death, made stranger by the fact that no one can figure out where the engine came from — no crippled plane turns up anywhere, and the FAA is, frankly, baffled. Donnie begins seeing Frank behind the bathroom mirror, warning that the world will end in 28 days: Frank knows, he says, because he's from the future. A string of odd coincidences suggests Frank may be telling the truth, and Donnie becomes obsessed with time travel. He also begins having visions of energy streaming from people's bodies, apparently reaching out for... something. Meanwhile, the school is vandalized — could the culprit be Donnie, sleepwalking under Frank's influence? — and the town falls under the spell of a silver-tongued motivational speaker (Swayze). The bright spot in Donnie's increasingly dark days is his budding relationship with transfer student Gretchen Ross (Malone), who's on the run from her own demons.

Kelly's observations about materialism and crackpot pop philosophizing are trite and hardly unique to the '80s, but his missteps are minor by comparison to his achievements: He slowly weaves a meticulously crafted web of peculiarity around Donnie, and by the time the movie shows its hand, every piece of the puzzle has slipped neatly — which is not to say glibly — into place.

Although Donnie Darko tanked on original theatrical release, earning less than $5,000,000, it found such a passionate following on video and DVD that it was re-released in 2004 with 20 minutes of restored footage trimmed to reduce the running time. While many director's cuts are pointless variations on mediocre material, the extended version of Donnie Darko is a dramatic improvement on the original. It's simultaneously more vivid and more elusive, a delicious fever dream whose highlights include the most unsettling jack o' lantern ever... suffice it to say that Frank the bunny looks seriously disturbing as a pumpkin.

At 133 minutes, the film doesn't feel longer, just deeper and more richly textured. The Big '80s soundtrack (to which Kelly added some songs and shifted others around) feels more eerily ominous than ever, an incongruously bouncy counterpoint to Donnie's increasingly menacing visions of Frank. The bulk of the restored scenes involve Donnie's English teacher, Miss Pomeroy (Barrymore, whose Flower Films produced), lecturing about the novel Watership Down; other, shorter added scenes expand on and enrich Donnie's relationship with his family. Kelly also beefed up the special visual effects, though not to the point of intrusiveness; they now include superimposed pages from local eccentric Roberta Sparrow's "Philosophy of Time Travel" that appear to explain Donnie's dilemma.


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Don't Ask, Don't Tell

(2002)
Directed by: Doug Miles.
Written by: Tex Hauser.
With: Peter Graves, James Seay, Frank Gerstle, Gaylord "Steve" Pendleton, John Frederick, Barbara Bestar, Shepard Menken and Jack Daly, with the voices of Lloyd Floyd, Rosa Rugosa and Steve Lippe.

What's Up Tiger Lily meets Mystery Science Theater 3000. The indignities visited upon low-rent sci-fi picture Killers from Space (1954, directed by Billy Wilder's less-talented brother, W. Lee Wilder) by Beastmaster 2 screenwriters Doug Miles and Tex Hauser include a new soundtrack and footage, actors inserted into existing scenes and a new story line. The result: A dreary movie about aliens stealing American military secrets reborn as a silly comedy about aliens stealing American manhood.

Tired of gays in the military, Dr. Fartin (Graves, voice of Frandsen) — that's Fart-een — plots to lure the sissies to isolated Sodom Flats and nuke them. But Fartin's plane crashes just outside Inbred, Texas, where newly arrived aliens lurk. Fartin is revived by the pop-eyed extraterrestrials, who bombard him with gay-rays and send him back to base Fellatio Alger to steal secrets that will help them turn the whole world gay. Noting Fartin's new-found familiarity with show tunes, perverted dope-fiend Colonel Butz (Seay, voice of Floyd) urges Fartin's sexy wife, Ellen (Bestar, voice of Rugosa), to keep her husband on the straight and narrow. Meanwhile, the space invaders scheme and stage hip-hop dance numbers (a comic highlight) in their disco dungeon of terror.

The new dialogue is a barrage of puns, anachronisms, political quips and gags about anal probes, drugs and all things queer. The new footage features J. Edgar Hoover (Lippe) in drag, naughty Nurse Bendover and dumbass, inbred Police Chief Mussolino (both played by Floyd), plus miscellaneous racy inserts involving panty flashing, blueberry pancakes eaten off a lady's derriere and the like.

Like the L.A. Connection Comedy Group, who worked similar transformations on Sherlock Holmes mystery Woman in Green (1945) and The Blob (1958) in the 1980s, transforming them into "Movie Mystery Madness" and "Blobbermouth," respectively), Hauser and Miles go for broke, lobbing their every comic idea at the screen. Some work better than others, and overall tomfoolery like this is a matter of taste.


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Dostana

(2008)
Directed by: Tarun Mansukhani.
Written by: Anvita Dutt Guptan, based on a story by Tarun Mansukhani.
With: John Abraham, Ahishek Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra, Bobby Deol, Monika Gaba, Boman Irani, Kiron Kher, Sushmita Mukherjee and Shilpa Shetty.

Cross I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry with the all-but forgotten 1970s farce The Gay Deceivers, then dress it up with elaborate musical sequences: Et voila! You have Dostana ("Friendship" in Hindi), which is about 20 minutes too long and funnier than it has any right to be.

Waking after separate hook-ups in the same swank Miami apartment, perpetually horny nurse Sameer (Bachchan, son of Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan) — "Sam" to his U.S. pals — and hot-to-trot fashion photographer Kunal (one-time male model Abraham) cross paths over breakfast and part ways imagining they'll never meet again. Wrong

. Both Sam and Kunal are in urgent need of an apartment and cross paths at a too-perfect-for-words condo, only to learn from Baby (Mukherjee, the Rosie O'Donnell of India), the middle aged harpie showing the place, that the owner — who will be living there as well — will only rent to women. Kunal and Sam are disconsolate until inspiration strikes: What if they told Baby they were a gay couple?

Kunal and Sam get their dream digs, complete with dream girl: The pricey condo's overextended owner turns out to be stunning fashionista Neha (former Miss World Chopra). One lie leads to another, and soon Kunal and Sam are applying for expedited immigration status as a couple; playing lovey-dovey for immigration inspector Javier, who drops by at a most inconvenient moment; fending off the advances of Neha's super-swishy boss, Verve magazine editor M (Irani); and dealing with Sam's drama-queen mother (Kher), who falls into a dead faint at the thought that her precious, pampered man-child is — gasp! — light in his loafers.

Meanwhile, Sam, Kunal and Neha become close friends, sharing confidences, emotional support and Hallmark moments.... If only Sam and Kunal weren't both nursing crushes on Neha they can neither declare nor act upon without blowing their "we're here, we're queer, don't worry about us" facades, everything would be perfect. And then Neha embarks on a serious romance with her new boss, Abhimanyu Singh (Deol), a divorced single father with an unfortunate predilection for shiny silk suits. Kunal and Sam conspire together to derail the relationship, triggering a series of complications that eventually blow up in the worst possible way.

Make no mistake: Dostana trades in stereotypes about swishy queers, shallow horndogs, frustrated career girls, guilt-wielding (s)mothers and overbearing aunties who need to chill out and get laid. And you know what? It's pretty damned funny and oddly subversive. Yes, everyone learns a lesson about tolerance without actually embracing an alternative lifestyle, but any movie that can finagle two macho movie studs into a full-on smooch that doesn't devolve into slapstick gay panic is venturing into risky territory. And man oh man, is it chockablock with lingering shots of scrumptious flesh — just check out this clip of the opening musical number:

Remember: Dostana came out of India, the country where last year Richard Gere impulsively planted a chaste kiss on the cheek of actress Shilpa Shetty at an AIDS charity event and ignited a firestorm of public outrage.

I'm a big fan of Bollywood movies, and not in a snotty "aren't they just too camp" kind of way. I love that Indian filmmakers are willing to embrace the excesses of melodrama as a way to explore universal emotional truths. I love a musical number that lets characters sing the things they can't put into spoken words. And I love how hard Bollywood films work to give you your money's worth: They're like the weather in new England — if you don't like it, just wait ten minutes and it will change.

A lot of Western critics dismiss mainstream Indian films as naïve, but they're not. They're shaped by formulas and conventions, but good filmmakers use those strictures in exactly the same way Douglas Sirk used the clichés of Hollywood "women's pictures" to dissect the devastating consequences of acceding to rigid, hypocritical social mores. You can snicker at the glossy surface of Sirk's 1959 Imitation of Life all you want, but the funeral sequence at the end reduces me to tears every single time, even if I run across it while channel surfing.

I'm not saying that all the 800-900 films that come out of Bollywood every year are good: They're not. As sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon famously observed, 90% percent of everything is crap. I'm just proposing that to assume Bollywood movies are all dumb, lightweight, old-fashioned junk that panders to unsophisticated idiots is short sighted — there's gold amid the dross, and odds are that any Indian movie that makes it to the US is one of the better ones. So give it a go ... what do you have to lose? And that's my rant for today.


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Double Team

(1997)
Directed by: Tsui Hark.
Written by: Paul Mones and Don Jakoby, based on the story by Jakoby.
With: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Rodman, Paul Freeman, Mickey Rourke, Natacha Lindinger, Valeria Cavalli, Jay Benedict, Joelle Devaux-Vullion and Bruno Bilotta..

The totally generic name doesn't give you a clue (it was shot as "The Colony, which isn't much better), so you probably want to know what this movie's about. Well, hard to say exactly, but it has something to do with scary amusement parks, Dennis Rodman selling high-tech weapons out of a sex shop in Antwerp, plutonium, Jean-Claude Van Damme's thighs, ripping off/paying homage to The Prisoner, tigers and bald Chinese dervishes holding switchblades between their toes.

Government agent Jack Quinn (Van Damme) just wants to lie by the pool withhis pregnant girlfriend, but get's hauled out of retirement to take on one last job involving his longtime nemesis, Starvros (Rourke). The powers that be team Quinn with Antwerp-based arms deal Yaz (Rodman), but their plan to take down Stavos goes horribly wrong: Stavros' girlfriend and child are killed and Quinn wakes up in "The Colony", which appears to be a top-of-the-line tropical spa on an isolated island but turns out to be a luxury detention center, where the the world's most dangerous superspies are made permanent guests so their brains can be drained of information that will help the battle against international terrorism (and who knows what else). Wait, is that the McGoohan estate on the line? Quinn eventually escapes, of course, determined to stop Stavros once and for all.

The angles are canted, the close-ups are disorienting, the colors are supersaturated and the action never stops. Making a Van Damme picture appears to have become a rite of passage for Hong Kong directors looking to break into the American mainstream market — Ringo Lam and John Woo had already weathered the Van Damme-age with Maximum Risk (1999) and Hard Target (1993) — and Vietnamese-born producer/director Tsui Hark made his US debut with this densely layered, nightmarish and utterly chaotic action film. The pace, look and tone will be familiar to Hong Kong action buffs, while neophytes may be baffled by the film's weirdly sentimental streak: Ultimately, the vendetta driving Quinn and his nemesis is all about babies. But by the time Stavros has mined the Colosseum (yes, the Colosseum) and sicced a Bengal tiger on Van Damme, it will be clear to all that the only thing to do is sit back and wallow in the spectacle.


Doubt

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Written and Directed by John Patrick Shanley
With: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis and Joseph Foster II.

John Patrick Shanley brings his Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play to the screen with a cast whose collective efforts go a long way to mitigating Shanley's pedestrian grasp of film language.

1964, The Bronx: St. Nicholas church is an anchor in the lives of its working-class Irish and Italian parishioners, who dutifully send their sons and daughters to its school in the expectation that they'll receive superior secular and moral educations. Longtime principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep) rules by intimidation and is wise to the scams and subterfuges of grade-school slackers and reprobates: Better to scare the hell out of them than let them wander onto the slippery slope to hellfire. The times may be a-changin', but St. Nicholas isn't: Sister Aloysius despises ballpoint pens, rock 'n' roll, bad posture and the notion that the church should adjust itself to accommodate contemporary attitudes. As far as she's concerned, the word of God isn't a hemline, subject to fads and fashions. It's immutable, inviolate and unchanging — the fixed point on which the faithful can rely. Which is only one of many reasons she has reservations about bluff, genial Father Flynn (Hoffman), with his fashionably ambiguous sermons and his unseemly palling around with students. Sister Aloysius has her eye on Flynn, and without specifying anything asks her fellow nuns to be on the lookout for anything — anything at all — that strikes them as odd.

Like Flynn, young, untested Sister James (Ryan) prefers the carrot to the stick. It's her nature to look for the best in people and hope the worst never materializes, but she's not oblivious and has vague qualms about the relationship between Flynn and shy, chubby, 12-year-old Donald Miller (Foster), the school's first African-American student. Once Sister James reluctantly confides in Sister Aloysius, the die is cast: Sister Aloysius will stop at nothing to get Father Flynn out of St. Nicholas. But the church hierarchy will never take the word of a lowly nun over that of a priest, and Sister James is all too eager to accept Flynn's explanations. Even the boy's mother (Davis) is reluctant to make waves. Sister Aloysius, however, is beholden to her remorseless conscience; she may not have proof of Flynn's wrongdoing, but moral rectitude forces her to see matters through to the bitter end.

Shanley's play is a blunt tool, and a less didactic director would have resisted the urge to underscore allusions to a metaphorical wind blowing through the world with a real wind that snaps tree branches and whips leaves into churning vortices. Thank goodness he has powerhouse performances from Hoffman and Streep to smooth over the script's deficiencies; Hoffman is a smiling, self-indulgent predator with a smooth line of self-deluding patter and Streep is a coiled spring of joyless asceticism and soul-corroding awareness of the world's infinite perfidy. Sister James is little more than a foil and Ryan can't do much with her, but Davis is incendiary as the pragmatic Mrs. Miller, who's made her harsh peace with the knowledge that when life deals you a rotten hand there's nothing to do but play it as best you can.


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Eagle Eye

(2008)
Directed by:. D.J. Caruso
Written by: John Glenn, Travis Adam Wright, Hillary Seitz and Dan McDermott, from a story by McDermott.
With: Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chicklis and Billy Bob Thornton.

Noisy, derivative and thoroughly preposterous even by the standards of 21st-century action movies, this sci-fi tinged thriller pits a pair of ordinary folks against a disembodied voice that orders them to do very bad things.

Tired of competing with his brilliant twin brother, Ethan, Jerry Shaw (LaBeouf) opts out of the race, dropping out of Stamford to take a series of dead-end jobs and bum around the world. He's working at a Chicago copy shop when he's abruptly called home for Ethan's funeral. After the inevitable run in with his dad, who clearly thinks the wrong son was run down by a truck, Ethan returns home to find his bank account crammed with cash, his apartment piled high with military gear and a strange woman on his cell phone, telling him to do as he's told or he'll be arrested as a terrorist. Jerry is still waffling when the FBI's counter-terrorist unit kicks in his door.

While Jerry is being sweated by Agent Thomas Morgan (Thornton), Rachel Holloman (Monaghan) is spending a night on the town with her girlfriends. A single mother, Rachel has just put her 8-year-old, Sam (Boyce), on a train to Washington DC, where his school band is going to play at the Kennedy Center, and is enjoying her first break in ages. She too gets a call from the same female stranger, telling her that if she fails to follow directions, Sam will die. The stranger engineers Jerry's escape and throws him together with Rachel, now driving a spiffy Porsche Cayenne, and the race is on. Can Rachel and Jerry figure out who's pulling their strings and what they're being manipulated into doing before Morgan catches up to them?

A string of elaborate and utterly unbelievable stunts sequences wrapped around a tangle of timely concerns — the roots of terrorism, the price of big-brother surveillance, the pitfalls of super-technologies and the question of who should decide where a nation's best interests lie — this big-budget thriller's tenuous claim to torn-from-today's headlines believability hinges on whether you buy the identity of the mysterious caller, which is revealed halfway through the film. Suffice it to say that Colossus: The Forbin Project got there first, and more convincingly.


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Enchanted

(2007)
Directed by: Kevin Lima.
Written by: Billy Kelly.
With: Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden, Timothy Spall, Idina Menzel, Rachel Covey, Susan Sarandon, William Huntley, Samantha Ivers and Elizabeth Mathis.

Kevin Lima and Billy Kelly's surprisingly sophisticated riff on animated fairy-tale movie cliches banishes a chirpy animated princess to the real world of New York City, where happily-ever-aftering is in woefully short supply.

Beautiful, kindhearted, cartoon commoner Giselle (Adams) is about to marry handsome Prince Edward (Marsden) when Edward's wicked stepmother, evil Queen Narissa (Sarandon), steps in, shoving the unsuspecting Giselle into a deep well that opens onto a busy Times Square street. Poor, trusting Giselle, with her poofy wedding dress and sunny dearth of street smarts, is quickly robbed, drenched by the inevitable sudden squall and reduced to knocking pathetically on the door of a billboard illustration of a castle, looking like a bona fide crazy lady.

Fortunately, fate delivers her into the reluctant custody of divorced divorce lawyer Robert (Patrick Dempsey), whose fantasy-deprived little daughter, Morgan (Covey), loves all things princess and persuades daddy to keep her, at least temporarily. Giselle's presence disrupts every aspect of Robert's life, starting with his plan to propose to sassy Nancy (Menzel), the thoroughly empowered girlfriend who's spent the last five years respecting Robert's "no sleepover" rule because hey, what mature modern woman would resent a devoted single father's efforts to keep home a safe harbor for his motherless child? Nancy's rection to finding a naked stranger in Robert's shower, not unsurprisingly, is white-hot fury.

Giselle also puts a serious crimp in Robert's ongoing efforts to teach Morgan that real life is not a Disney movie, and that it's better to be smart, cautious and self-reliant than to sit around humming "Someday My Prince Will Come." In fact, she soon has Robert questioning his own rueful cynicism: There must be a logical explanation for the way a simple walk in Central Park with Giselle spontaneously becomes becomes a full-scale musical production number, or Giselle's offhand ability to get that pair of cooing doves to fly over to Nancy's place bearing a heart-shaped wreath of flowers, but damned if he can figure out what it is.

Though Enchanted casts a wide net, its most obvious influence is Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), from Sarandon's busty evil queen to the poisoned apples with which her henchman (Spall) tries to poison Giselle. And rightly so: Snow White is the source from which all subsequent Disney animation springs. With the exception of a supersweet ending that ignores the hard truth at the heart of the best fairy tales — that happy endings come at a real price — Enchanted works on every level.

The script is genuinely clever (love the rats, pigeons and giant cockroaches who respond to Giselle's call for animal friends to help clean Robert's apartment), old Disney hands Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz deliver spot-on pastiches of the blandly pleasant songs on which their careers were built, and the cast consistently opts for subtlety rather than coarse farce. Special kudos to Adams, who nails the distinctive body language of Disney's spunky animated good girls and manages to make Giselle's relentless optimism seem charming rather than a sign of mental deficiency.


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Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet

(2001)
Written and Directed by: Nils Tavernier.
With: Ghislaine Thesmar, ClaireMarie Osta, Maurice Bejart, Jiri Kylian, Marie-Agnes Gillot, Manuel LeGris, Nicolas Le Riche, Erwan LeRoux and Gilles Mondoo.

It's tempting to dismiss the all-or-nothing histrionics of Michael Powell's classic ballet melodrama The Red Shoes (1948) as overwrought and unrealistic, but Nils Tavernier's sober, perceptive documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet proves beyond a doubt that the stakes are every bit as high in the real world of 21st-century dancers' lives.

"The system is a machine that crushes the weak," says former ballerina Ghislaine Thesmar of the rigorous process by which adorable youngsters are molded into world-class dancers, and dancers developed into etoiles — stars. Though a relative newcomer to the world of classical dance, Tavernier's grandparents lived on the Avenue de l'Opera, near the 19th-century Palais Garnier where the Paris Opera Ballet performs, and he became fascinated by the graceful, slightly otherworldly dancers he saw walking down the street. Shot in 1999, Tavernier's film includes footage of rehearsals, company class and performances and interviews with choreographers (including a reluctant Maurice Bejart and a more forthcoming Jiri Kylian), company directors, students and dancers, from the lowest-ranked hopefuls in the corps to the most senior members of the troupe.

Unlike most American companies, the Paris Opera Ballet is insured a steady stream of dancers trained in its specific style from its own, nearly 400-year-old school, and advancement through the ranks proceeds according to a rigid schedule. Of the hundreds of aspiring dancers who apply to the school annually, 30 are accepted, a third make it through the first year and a handful graduate to dance with the company. Without slipping into point/counterpoint cliches, Tavernier elicits starkly contrasting accounts of life in the school and the company; whether because he's a particularly skilled interviewer or French dancers are especially articulate, his subjects' responses are both candid and considered.

Etoile ClaireMarie Osta, who channeled her teenage desire to be a nun into dancing, wasn't phased by the harsh mental and physical demands of the Paris Opera Ballet school, while fellow etoile Marie-Agnes Gillot concedes that she would have welcomed a little more emotional support. Other dancers speak perceptively about balancing their careers and their personal lives, the ironic and frustrating way that artistic maturity coincides with loss of physical ability, the complicated mix of camaraderie and competition that defines their relationships with other dancers, and what they get in return for all they've given up.

Overall the film is a fascinating glimpse into an insular world that gives the lie to many clichés and showcases a group of dedicated artists.


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The Fall

(2006)
Directed by: Tarsem Singh.
Written by: Dan Gilroy, Nico Soultanakis and Singh, based on the 1981 screenplay Yo Ho Ho, by Valeri Petrov.
With: Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru, Justine Waddell, Daniel Caltagirone, Leo Bill, Jeetu Verma, Robin Smith, Julian Bleach and Marcus Wesley .

Commercial and music-video director Singh's second feature— his debut was the formulaic but visually stunning Jennifer Lopez thriller The Cell (2000) — is a tale-within-a-tale that glides between a hospital in 1915 Los Angeles and a surreal, fairy tale world of exotic adventure inspired by the Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho (1981).

Five-year-old Alexandria (Untaru), her collarbone and left arm awkwardly splinted, is recovering from the tumble she took while picking oranges with her mother and sister — they fled their Eastern European homeland after political unrest claimed her father and their home. Stuntman Roy Walker (Pace) broke his back while filming a Western and may never walk again; his girlfriend (Waddell) broke his heart when she threw him over for movie star Sinclair (Caltagirone). Outgoing and perpetually restless, Alexandria befriends the despondent Walker, who tells her an epic tale cobbled together from movie cliches and his own shattered dreams, periodically adjusted to suit Alexandria's firmly stated criticisms — she may not speak English fluently, but she knows when a plot point is stupid.

After some false starts, it settles into the story of a motley and colorful crew — tthe Black Bandit (Pace), a dreadlocked mystic (Bleach) who emerges from a blasted tree, an Indian prince (Verma), a former slave (Wesley), an Italian explosives expert (Smith) and Charles Darwin (Bill), who travels with a wise, talking monkey named Wallace — who band together to seek revenge on the man who has wronged each of them: Governor Odious (also Caltagirone). Along the way, they're joined by a princess (also Waddell) and the Bandit's long lost daughter (also Untaru). But Walker has an ulterior motive in captivating Alexandria, and her devotion to both the story and the storyteller ultimately endangers her life.

Although the film revolves around a child, it's not a children's movie: A cruel and bitter undertone runs through the fanciful adventures, and Walker's depression is no mere plot contrivance to be cured by Alexandria's childish enthusiasm. Singh's visual sense is stunning, but he's also attuned to the darker corners of children's imaginations. It's ultimately clear that we're seeing Alexandria's version of the story, not Walker's, and that she brings more to it than simply "casting" her friends and acquaintances as his characters — young though she is, Alexandria knows plenty about death and despair.


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Four Christmases

(2008)
Directed by: Seth Gordon.
Written by: Matt Allen & Caleb Wilson and Jon Lucas & Scott Moore, based on a story by Matt Allen & Caleb Wilson.
With: Reese Witherspoon, Vince Vaughn, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, John Voight, Dwight Yoakam, Tim McGraw, Jon Favreau and Kristin Chenoweth.

God save us from the curse of dyspeptic holiday films! Make no mistake: I hate Christmas as much as the next person — perhaps more, because unlike the Hollywood screenwriters who invariably cave in to holiday sentiment I have the courage of my convictions. For all of its snarky holiday/family bashing, Four Christmases wimps out in the third act and reaffirms all the traditional values it affects to mock.

Childless and happily unmarried Kate (Witherspoon) and Brad (Vaughn) dodge their holiday obligations by telling their respective divorced parents and assorted siblings they're doing overseas charity work when they're actually taking an indulgent couples' vacation in the sun. I can get sort of with that: I once claimed to be volunteering at a soup kitchen to avoid the family festivities. But I was young — like, in college young — and the next year I bit the bullet, skipped the excuses and just said I wasn't coming. Kate and Brad are in their 30s, plenty old enough to stand up for themselves. And boy, are their faces red when a local news crew catches them fuming at the Fiji Air counter after a mega-fog grounds all flights out of San Francisco, forcing them to put in appearances at four family get-togethers, each ghastlier than the one before.

Brad's father (Duvall) and no-neck brothers (actor-turned-director Favreau and country singer McGraw) are white-trash losers who mock him mercilessly for having had the temerity to get an Ivy league education and become a successful lawyer. Kate's mother (Mary Steenburgen) is dating mega-church messiah Pastor Phil (Yoakam) and presides over a coven of oversexed cougars (Chenoweth, Carol Kane and Jeanette Miller) who delight in reminding Kate that she was once a fat girl whose best friend was a dyke to watch out for, and Brad's hippie-dippy mom (Sissy Spacek) is sleeping with his former best friend. By the time they get to Kate's dad (Voight), who's finally settled down with a good, stable, age-appropriate woman, Brad and Kate are on the verge of breaking up, their picture-perfect relationship torn to shreds by their awful relatives.

So, do Kate and Brad come to the realization that family is the most important thing in the world? Well, gee, what do you think? And therein lies my problem with Four Christmases: For all the movie's jabs at puking babies, white-trash relatives, insidious underminers and selfish parents, it lacks the nerve to step up and admit that some families are so awful that their children are better off without them, and that some holidays are too debased for reclamation.

Which leads me to my favorite recent Christmas film, the documentary What Would Jesus Buy? (2007), about performance artist Bill Talen, a.k.a. the Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping. Once upon a time I found Talen annoying, but these days I find myself thinking that he's really on to something.


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Frost/Nixon


Directed by: Ron Howard
Written: by Peter Morgan
With: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon and Toby Jones.

It's hard to believe that once upon a time, some 30-odd years ago, millions of Americans turned on their TVs and sat riveted by 90 minutes of two men talking. Four times. Granted, one was the disgraced former president Richard M. Nixon, whose ignominious resignation three years earlier was still painfully fresh in the country's collective mind. But still. And UK writer Peter Morgan's play about the behind-the-scenes research, negotiation and fundraising that produced the Frost-Nixon interviews, may not sound like natural-born movie material: It too is a whole lot of talk. But the talk is choice, and the film, directed by Ron Howard, is mesmerizing.

In the 1960s, English TV personality David Frost (Sheen) was everywhere. He made his name as host of the live sketch-comedy show That Was the Week that Was, whose biting political humor briefly got it banished from the airwaves. A string of subsequent hits allowed the telegenic writer-producer-actor to live the life of an international bon vivant, jetting around the world accompanied by a series of beautiful women, including actresses Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson and siger Diahann Carroll. Not bad for the son of a dirt-poor minister from Kent. But by the mid-'70s, Frost's star was fading; he was in need of a career jump start, and found it in the glowering Richard Nixon (Langella). The man who had resigned from the highest office in American politics in disgrace and vanished into luxurious exile, shielded by a presidential pardon, had never spoken publicly about his precipitous fall from power. Nixon was the get of the century, and Frost got him.

The behind-the-scenes machinations required to pull off this media coup provide the film's plot and occupy the supporting cast, including Matthew Macfadyen as Frost's long-suffering producer; Rockwell and Platt as James Reston, Jr. and Robert Zelnick, longtime political journalists who coached Frost prior to the interviews; Bacon as Nixon's head of staff, Jack Brennan, and Jones as his cutthroat agent, Swifty Lazar. But the main event is the verbal thrust and parry between Nixon, whose first presidential campaign died by the camera, and Frost, who was to the medium born.

Morgan is an actor's best friend — just ask Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker, who won Oscars for The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. Sheen and Langella, who originated their roles on the London stage, have equally rich roles, but Langella's evocation of Nixon's sly wit, bitter paranoia and glowering demeanor is the stuff of fawning reviews and awards gossip, and poor Sheen, is stuck exactly where he was in The Queen: Delivering a subtly mercurial performance opposite a showstopper.


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Games People Play

(2004)
Written, produced and directed by: James Roland Whitney.

Just as TV's Candid Camera prefigured reality shows like Punk'd and Scare Tactics, the Candid Camera feature What Do You Say To a Naked Lady? (1969) paved the way for this independent spin on extreme pranking.

Writer-producer-director Whitney began his filmmaking career with Just, Melvin, a lacerating documentary about his own family's miserable history of child abuse that feels a little too lurid for its own good intentions. This feature-length provocation chronicles the first round of "America's Most Uninhibited Game," which Whitney concocted and orchestrates with smarmy glee.

Six contestants, handpicked from a grueling audition at which they must confess deep emotional traumas and improvise explicit sex scenes, are placed in a series of embarrassing situations, directed to accomplish certain goals and given points based on how well they fulfill their assignments. Over a 72-hour period, the three men and three women — Joshua Coleman, Scott Ryan, David Maynard, Sarah Smith, Dani Marco and Elisha Imani Wilson — must complete tasks that range from persuading complete strangers to give them a urine sample to seducing unsuspecting delivery boys. The most elaborate prank involves pairs of contestants coyly enticing a stranger to their hotel room for "a naked trio," only to reveal that what they meant was that the three of them were going to do a hokey nude song-and-dance number.

Between rounds they're questioned by the game's judges, mediagenic therapist Gilda Carle and singer-comic Jim Caruso, who encourage them to pick at their deepest psychic scars until they bleed. Drawing blood takes very little picking, since the contestants have a lot of issues: compulsive-eating, sexual disorders, childhood abuse, parents lost under traumatic circumstances, part-time hustling... the range of dysfunction is breathtaking. Is this the ultimate sleazy reality project, a contrived and degrading spectacle or a biting satirical expose of the lengths to which people will go for fleeting fame?

It's actually all of the above, and the twist ending proves that the attractive contestants have more going for them than sheer nerve. But explaining what they're doing spoils the ending as surely as shouting "Bruce Willis doesn't know he's a ghost!" at someone who hasn't seen The Sixth Sense (1999), and you have to put up with a lot of grubby stuff for the payoff. There's no denying the freak-show appeal and you don't see frontal nudity like this on TV, but otherwise it's all as contrived and artificial as Survivor.


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Gran Torino


Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Written by: Nick Schenk.
With: Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her.

Director-star Eastwood's bizarre cross between All in the Family and Death Wish is the kind of movie Don Siegel and Sam Fuller used to make, a blunt but perceptive slice of American discontent filtered through the prism of B-movie conventions.

Wiry former auto worker Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is the sum total of everything he's lost. The film opens at his wife's funeral, where his soft, self-centered children and their families can't contain or even bother to hide their boredom and impatience to get the hell out of there. Walt's job is gone, and even if it weren't, the Ford that spawned the mint-condition, 1972 Gran Torino crouched in his driveway — the one he helped build — is a thing of the past, as are his buddies from the line; they've died or moved. His neighborhood is overrun with foreigners and no one cares about old white guys like him; his grandkids have no respect, and their middle-aged parents wish he'd vanish into an old folk's homes and stop bitching about hard work and sacrifice. It's enough to make a man growl like a junkyard dog, and Walt does. Grrrr.

That Walt should ever befriend Hmong college student Sue (Ahney Her) and her younger brother, Thao (Bee Vang), seems the height of sentimental dramatic contrivance. But it happens the way things do when people of different races and similar finances wind up in the same neighborhoods. They walk the same streets, shop in the same stores, worry about the same things: Will that abandoned house become a crack den and haul down the whole block? Where are their taxes going, and will they still have jobs next year? Lives intersect. Walt spontaneously rescues Sue from some street corner thugs because he hates their profane, brutal bullying more than he hates her, even if she is, in Walt's formidablerepertory of racial slurs, a gook. Grrrr.

Thao gets off on every wrong foot possible: He first tries to borrow a set of jumper cables during the funeral reception and later, coerced by local gang, makes a pathetic attempt to steal Walt's Gran Torino. But Sue forces her brother into an abject apology, and pleads with Walt for a chance to mitigate the shame he's brought upon his family, by working for Walt. Neither Walt nor Thao is happy with the deal, but Sue is a breezily unstoppable force and Walt eventually discovers that Thao isn't a bad kid, though his gangbanging cousins are hellbent into hauling him into the kind of life that will chew him up and spit him out faster than you can say … well, anything Walt might say would be incendiary. Grrrr.

Sue even persuades Walt to come over for a party, where it can't fail to escape his notice that grandparents, aunties and uncles, parents, toddlers and teenagers are rubbing elbows. And those old ladies know how to cook, too. They're not some kind of Hallmark family or anything, but they beat the hell out of Walt's kids, who dutifully come by for his birthday bearing large-button phones and retirement-home brochures and dropping hints about what they'd like to inherit. Grrrrr.

Walt's growing engagement with the family next door comes to a dramatically expedient conclusion (if you introduce gangbanging cousins in the first act…), but it's surprisingly powerful. Gran Torino is a thornier movie than, say, Unforgiven, whose tone is clear from the outset. Gran Torino starts off on a note of queasy comedy; anyone old enough to have seen All in the Family when it first aired will recognize the exquisite discomfort engendered when Walt says something so casually, unthinkingly racist that you have to laugh. Something like, "Get me another beer, dragon lady. This one's empty," to Sue. It helps that she can hold her own: When Walt warns that she and her dog-eating family better stay away from his aging Labrador, she blithely retorts, "We only eat cats." So it's a little disorienting when Eastwood goes all Dirty Harry — foreshadowing, and the fact that if anyone is going to it might as well be him, notwithstanding.

But Gran Torino's discordances are also part of its appeal. It may be the story of a cranky old racist who learns to open his heart to a Laotian kid, but it's no sentimental hug fest. It doesn't end at a multicultural Thanksgiving table or simper that if we'd all just get along, everything else would work itself out. Schenk's script can be painfully obvious; we could do without hearing Walt bark, "Christ, I've got more in common with these gooks than I do my own family!" But there's a thrum of anxiety in the background, and it feels like Eastwood's doing: No one ever says that blue-collar jobs like the one that sustained Walt are vanishing, that low-income neighborhoods decaying because people like his kids flee to preplanned "communities" and cocoon themselves in consumerism, or that poor kids get seduced by thug life because as far as they're concerned, the American dream belongs to someone else. But you can sense larger social forces at work, and no small happy ending can make them go away.


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Iron Man

(2008)
Directed by: Jon Favreau.
Written by: Mark Fergus, Matt Holloway, Art Marcum and Hawk Ostby, based on the Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby.
With: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Leslie Bibb, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Clark Gregg, Bill Smitrovich, Sayed Badreya, Tim Guinee and the voice of Paul Bettany.

The red and gold super-suit is cool, but Iron Man belongs to Robert Downey, Jr.: His effortlessly nuanced performance as Tony Stark, a heedless, billionaire playboy and arms manufacturer cast into a brutal crucible that forces a top-to-bottom reassessment of his life so far, is a dark delight that combines pop-culture wit and genuine emotional depth.

Brilliant, hedonistic industrialist Tony Stark (Downey) inherited a clutch of companies invested in everything from medical research to alternative energy, but the pulsing heart of Stark Industries is weapons: The bigger and more destructive the better. Stark's sound-bite patriotism lies over a genuine, if not deeply considered, belief that Stark munitions are making the world safe for his fellow Americans, a position he's compelled to rethink after being wounded and taken hostage by Afghan terrorists during a mega-missile demo/photo op. Held in a mountain camp bristling with Stark products and tethered to a primitive device buried in his chest — the only thing standing between his heart and stealthy shards of shrapnel lurking in his flesh — Stark is ordered to build his captors their very own super WMD.

He instead forges an iron robo-suit and escapes; his first act back in the US is to make the startling announcement that Stark Industries is out of the weapons business until further notice. While Stark devotes himself to constructing an improved version of the suit that saved his life, rumors that he's suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome threaten to destabilize Stark Industries. The three people closest to him — loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow); friend and military liaison James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Howard); and longtime right-hand Obadiah Stane (Bridges) — react to this new Stark in very different ways, both before and after they discover exactly what he's been working on and what he plans to do with it.

Downey, 42, gets under the skin of a character whose devil-may-care arrogance, born of lifelong privilege, is viciously ripped away, an experience that makes him a better man, if not a particularly different one. He's still cocky, self-centered and superficially imperious, but he knows he's not untouchable, which has as much to do with being obliged to ask Pepper to plunge her hand into the perpetually open hole in his chest and adjust the device keeping him alive as it does his newly awakened conscience. Downey's performance grounds the film's fantastic trappings — from the sleek Iron Man armor to Pepper's ability to sprint in strappy, sky-high heels — in emotional reality.


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Jar City/Mýrin

(2006)
Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur.
Written by: Kormakur, based on the novel Tainted Blood, by Arnaldur Indridason.
With: Ingvar E. Sigurosson, Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson, Olafía Hronn Jonsdottir, Agusta Eva Erlendsdottir, Thorsteinn Gunnarsson , Atli Rafn Sigurosson and Rafnhildur Rosa Atladotir.

In Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur's downbeat procedural thriller, based on Indridason's literary thriller, the routine investigation of a "messy and pointless" murder leads to a 30-year-old crime whose ramifications extend into Iceland's ambitious and controversial gene-mapping project.

Four-year-old Kola (Atladotir) lies dying in her hospital bed, her grief-stricken father, Orn (Sigurosson), is petitioning the national data protection commission — charged with safeguarding the privacy of Icelanders who contributed genetic data to Iceland's Central Health Database — for information.

In Reykjavik, Detective Erlendur (Sigurosson) and his colleagues, Sigurour Oli (Haraldsson) and Elínborg (Jonsdottir), are called to a murder scene: Loner Holberg Jonsson (Gunnarsson) has been bludgeoned to death with an ashtray in his rank basement apartment in a quiet neighborhood. A thorough search turns up only one unusual item in his thoroughly depressing home: A photograph of a child's grave, which Erlendur finds taped to the underside of a drawer. The dead girl, Aude Kolbrunsdottir, turns out to have died of a brain tumor in 1974 at the age of 6; her mother, Kolbrun, committed suicide, and her birth certificate lists no father. Erlendur's dogged determination to find a link between Holberg and the long-dead child uncovers a sordid story of rape, blackmail and police corruption in the small coastal town of Grindavik, events whose poisonous legacy continues to blight lives three decades later. Like Swedish writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck novels (several of which have been filmed, including the American The Laughing Policeman, with Walter Matthau), Indridason's melancholy mystery novels are less about unraveling intricate clues than they are portraits of police officers and the particular confluence of geography, history and social circumstances that shape them. Erlendur's relationships with his colleagues and his drug-addicted daughter, Eva (Erlendsdottir), play out against the backdrop of a cold, geographically isolated country where three-quarters of the land is barren and almost everyone is related (hence the gene-mapping project) at the same time that family names — and by extension, lineage — are so inconsequential that they change from one generation to the next: "Aude Kolbrunsdottir" is literally "Aude, Kolbrun's daughter." Jar City builds slowly, but when all the dots are connected, the story that emerges is devastating. (In Icelandic, with subtitles)


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Jumper

(2006)
Directed by: Doug Limon.
Written by: David S. Goyer, Jim Uhls and Simon Kinberg, based on the novels Jumper and Exile, by Steven Gould.
With: Hayden Christensen, Jamie Bell, Samuel L. Jackson, Rachel Bilson, Michael Rooker, Annasophia Robb, Max Thieriot, Jesse James, Diane Lane and Tom Hulce.

Loosely based on two popular young-adult novels novels by science-fiction writer Steven Gould, Doug Liman's effects-heavy adventure fantasy revolves around a young man's discovery that nifty powers — like the ability to teleport himself around the world in a heartbeat — always come with a catch.

For Ann Arbor high-school student David Rice (Thieriot), life is unrelenting misery: His mother decamped when he was five, leaving David to be raised by his brutal, embittered and alcoholic father (Rooker). Jocks pick on the bookish 15 year old, and girls ignore him — with the exception of sweet-natured dreamer Millie Harris (Robb), who hopes one day to leave town and see the world. A near death experience changes David's life forever: One minute he's drowning, trapped between the frozen Huron river and a layer of ice, the next he's in the public library, soaked and shivering. Everyone assumes he's dead, so David vanishes, learns to control his new-found power and supports himself by robbing bank vaults.

Eight years later, David (Christensen) has a fabulous Manhattan apartment and an awesome lifestyle: Breakfast in Tokyo, surfing in Fiji, lunch atop the Great Sphinx, late-night hook-up in London… all in one day. But the fun ends abruptly when white-haired Roland (Jackson) turns up in his living room, armed with cruel high-tech gizmos that immobilize jumpers — yes, jumpers. David isn't the only person in the world who can teleport. After a hairsbreadth escape, David quickly reconnects with Millie (Bilson), takes her on a whirlwind trip to Rome and meets fellow jumper Griffin (Bell), who fills him in on Roland and the paladins, an ancient society dedicated to cleansing the world of space-bending freaks whose powers are an affront to God.

The appeal of Gould's Jumper novels lies in their canny mix of adolescent angst and gee-whiz cool stuff: What unhappy teenaged boy wouldn't want to ditch high school, chores and adults who just don't get how hard it is to be young for the freedom of global hop-scotching and money for nothing? But David Goyer's screenplay guts the material's emotional core, glossing over all the internal strife that makes David a character rather than a cartoon to focus on flashy fights and globe trotting vistas. Poor Griffin's tortured past is summed up in a scrap of dialogue that could have been lifted from a low-rent martial arts picture, and at a certain point his character simply vanishes. The film looks great, but at a brisk 88 minutes, there's no time to fill in back story, from the epic history of paladin persecution to the deeply personal mystery of David's mother, and the cliffhanger ending is so abrupt that the movie seems bizarrely truncated.


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Just, Melvin

(2000)
Written, produced and directed by: James Roland Whitney.
Documentary.

James Roland Whitney's documentary about his family's legacy of child abuse is so lurid that the tone threatens to overwhelm the material, particularly the allegation that his step-grandfather, Melvin Just, quite literally got away with murder.

But it's a fact that Just served eight years for child molestation and was suspected in the murder of county nurse Josephine Segel, and Whitney's mother, Ann, her three siblings, two half sisters and four step-sisters are clearly damaged; Ann attempted suicide repeatedly while Whitney was growing up.

Whitney (Games People Play) took refuge in studying dance and music, and later competed on the 1980s TV game-show Body Language and the talent contest Star Search. As an adult, Whitney delved into his family's miserable history, interviewing his aunts, uncle and step-aunts about their childhoods. With the exception of Whitney's mother and aunts, twins Jan and Jean, they're are a sad collection of life's casualties. Marginally employed Uncle Jim, whom Whitney says molested him as a child, lives in a trailer with his frail, failing mother, Grandma Fay, and tried to persuade his half-sister, Jerri, to become his live-in lover. Melvin Just was Fay's second husband, stepfather of Ann, Jan, Jean and Jim and father of June and Jerri; Just left Fay for a neighbor named Vernise, who had three small daughters: Pambi, Denise and Bobbie.

June and Jerri are both alcoholics who live in their cars. Pambi, born with congenital hip, knee and foot deformities, is withdrawn and sad; Denise and Bobbie say they saw Just kill Nurse Segel after she paid a surprise visit to their home and caught Just in bed with Denise. Jenise, Vernise's youngest daughter and her only natural child with Just, seems the best adjusted of her family; she lives in a trailer with her boyfriend and two children, Clarissa and Frankie. All have histories of alcohol and/or drug abuse; most have attempted suicide and struggle with violent fantasies rooted in deep, poisonous rage.

Whitney holds off introducing Just himself for nearly an hour, and even as a fat, wheelchair-bound old man, he radiates malevolence even as he denies everything. The film concludes with Just's funeral, which his extended family's conflicted emotions turn into a sad, sorry spectacle.

Whitney's willingness to exploit his family's misery is troubling, and his methods sometimes faulty, particularly the decision not to identify family members with onscreen supertitles — keeping nine sisters straight is difficult, especially at the beginning. But the film's train-wreck appeal is undeniable, and it's just about impossible to walk away unshaken. Whatever the bare-bones facts of the matter, it's clear that Melvin Just left a world of collateral damage in his wake.


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Kissing Jessica Stein

(2002).
Directed by: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld.
Written by: Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen.
With:Westfeldt, Juergensen, Tovah Feldshuh, Michael Mastro and Carson Elrod.

Two heterosexual girlie-girls decide to give lesbian love a try in this bi-curiously cuddly romantic comedy.

A veteran of the dating wars, high-strung, strenuously quirky New York City copy editor Jessica Stein (Westfeldt) is beginning to wonder whether she'll ever meet Mr. Right. Everyone says she's too picky — especially her mother (Feldshuh) and her boss, Josh (Scott Cohen), whom she dated in college — but is it really so unreasonable to expect a man not to say "self-defecating" when he means "self-deprecating?"

On a whim, Jessica answers a personal ad that includes one of her favorite quotations from Rilke, recklessly ignoring the fact that it's in the "women seeking women" section. The ad was placed by Helen (Juergensen), a sexually adventurous, downtown art-gallery curator looking for a new sensation; although she's never been with a woman, she's intrigued when she gets the once-over from a lesbian at a gallery reception and, with the encouragement of her gay friends, Martin and Sebastian (Mastro, Elrod), figures it couldn't hurt to give the girl/girl thing a whirl.

The first date is awkward — in fact, Jessica gets cold feet and tries to flee — but they wind up having plenty to talk about over drinks and dinner, and Jessica experiences a tangle of conflicting feelings when Helen impulsively plants one right on her lips. Their subsequent relationship is of the one-step-forward, two-steps-back variety: They flirt, Jessica freaks. They touch, Jessica freaks. They kiss again, Jessica freaks. "I'm a Jew from Scarsdale!" she exclaims — as much to herself as anyone else — by way of explaining her amazement that she should even be considering what she's considering. And after they finally take the plunge, Jessica is faced with a new set of problems. What should she tell her friends? How can she explain this to her parents? Why won't Helen just agree to keep their relationship a secret? Where is it all going?

Co-written by stars Westfeldt and Juergensen, actresses united by their frustration with the clichéd roles available to them, the film is relentlessly peppy, often quite funny, sometimes a bit too convinced of its own adorableness and ultimately as smoothly reassuring as a TV sitcom. Imagine a lesbian-experimentation episode of Friends ("The one where Rachel goes a little bit gay") with slightly franker sex talk, and you'll be right on this ingratiating trifle's wavelength.


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The Krays

(1990)
Directed by: Peter Medak.
Written by: Philip Ridley.
With: Billie Whitelaw, Gary Kemp, Martin Kemp, Susan Fleetwood, Charlotte Cornwell, Jimmy Jewel, Avis Bunnage, Kate Hardie, Alfred Lynch, Tom Bell, Steven Berkoff, Gary Love and Victor Spinetti.

Legendary East End gangsters Reginald and Ronald Kray inspire fiercely divided opinions in their native England; depending on who you ask, they're fondly recalled as the quintessential colorful gentleman villains or reviled as brutal, depraved thugs. Peter Medak's film, written by Philip Ridley, splits the difference, capturing the twins' self-conscious style without losing sight of the fact that they were stone killers.

Born in a working class London slum, Ron and Reg (brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, of the new wave band Spandau Ballet) are forged in the fire of WWII-era deprivation, doted on by women — notably their resourceful, strong-willed mother, Violet (Whitelaw), and her equally formidable sisters, Rose and May (Fleetwood, Cornwell) — whose men are either in the army or assiduously dodging the draft. Bullied as youngsters for being mama's boys, the twins remade themselves as amateur boxers and further toughened up in jail and the army, which to their anti-authoritarian way of thinking amounted to the same thing.

Thoroughly uninterested in being working chumps, Reg and Ron parlay their ruthlessness and panache into running a protection racket, then branch out into gambling, eventually acquiring a posh casino that caters to wayward aristocrats and celebrities. But beneath their united front, the twins' lifelong devotion is beginning to fray. Reg, the cooler-headed of the two, aspires to certain respectability, while Ron is becoming increasingly arrogant and reckless, perhaps even sociopathic.

You couldn't make up the Krays without being charged with lurid sensationalism: One gay and one straight, one mad and one calculating, both simultaneously flash and primitively savage, the Krays were bound by an intricate web of loyalty and love woven from birth by their mother, whose dreary life had a single bright spot — her very special boys. In their efforts not to glamorize the twins, Medak and Ridley err in the other direction; Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance (1970), which isn't overtly about the Krays at all, does a far better job of capturing the decadent, gutter glamour they embodied. But the Kemps go a long way to redressing the balance: Their performances mesh beautifully (not all real-life brothers are convincing as onscreen siblings), and the fact that they aren't twins — Martin is the elder by two years — actually works in their favor. As adults, the twins looked less and less alike, as though their dramatically different temperaments were actually altering their features.


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Last Chance Harvey

(2008)
Written and directed by: Joel Hopkins.
With: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kathy Baker, James Brolin, Liane Balaban, Richard Schiff and Eileen Atkins.

I wish I could say I loved the midlife-romance movie Last Chance Harvey, writer-director Hopkins' first feature since his 2001 debut, Spring Forward. But it's an awkward mix of formulaic contrivance and ruthlessly poignant moments, most of them Thompson's: Her unsentimental portrayal of a woman who's given up on love because it hurts too much when it goes wrong is quietly heartbreaking.

Harvey Shine (Hoffman) once dreamed of being a jazz pianist, but wound up writing commercial jingles. Now he's a graying veteran in a young man's business, and his pragmatic boss (Schiff) has started hinting that his best clients are looking for fresh, innovative talent, not the tried-and-true material Harvey has been delivering all these years. Naturally, Harvey's career crisis dovetails with his daughter Susan's (Balaban) wedding in London, an event fraught with its own set of tensions. Harvey and Susan have barely spoken in years, and his ex-wife's (Baker) second husband (Brolin) is everything Harvey isn't: A dignified, patrician WASP who never looks ruffled, sweaty or rumpled. Worse still, Harvey finds he isn't even staying in the same hotel as the rest of the wedding party and Susan has asked Brian to walk her down the aisle.

Never-married Kate Walker (Thompson) works at Heathrow Airport, nurses dreams of being a writer and escaping to a rural cabin and dutifully squanders her emotional energy on her needy, widowed mother (Atkins), who's convinced her next-door neighbor is a serial killer — he's always digging around his garden and anyway, he's Polish, and aren't foreigners capable of anything? Kate is so accustomed to disappointment that it's come to feel like a comfy blanket, and it's easier to put other people's feelings first than to bare her own. Harvey and Kate cross paths twice before meeting at an airport bar, where he's drowning his sorrows in scotch as she hides behind a book and a glass of wine. Is it too late for them to gamble on love one more time?

Hopkins doesn't miss a rom-com cliche: Kate's humiliating blind date with a callow hound dog; the street musicians who breathe a spark of life into Harvey and Kate's "getting to know you" walk around an impossibly glamorous London; Kate's bitter disappointment when Harvey fails (due, of course, to circumstances entirely beyond his control) to keep their first real date; the bad-dress montage that precedes Kate and Harvey's 11th-hour appearance at Susan's wedding, where heartstrings are tugged until they fairly scream. Hoffman mugs his way through the story's various complications and leaves Thompson to do the heavy emotional lifting, which would spell disaster were she not so effortlessly affecting. Without Thompson's valiant efforts, Last Chance Harvey would be too dismal for cable; with them it's simply a trifle.


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Layer Cake

(2005)
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn.
Written by: J.J. Connolly, based on his novel.
With: Daniel Craig, Kenneth Cranham, George Harris, Jamie Foreman, Sienna Miller, Michael Gambon, Marcel Iures, Tom Hardy, Tamer Hassan, Ben Whishaw, Burn Gorman and Sally Hawkins.

Producer Matthew Vaughn's directing debut is a briskly paced, stylish and bracingly bitter adaptation of J.J. Connolly's novel about a sleek London cocaine dealer who doesn't understand his business as well as he thinks.

That layer cake is a metaphor, alluding both to England's class system and to the stratification of the underworld, from gutter punks to polished crime lords. The nameless protagonist (soon-to-be James Bond Craig) — call him X — has made a pile of money in drugs, established a successful realty business as a front and laundered his ill-gotten gains through the same accountant used by his boss, prosperous, aging cockney hard-case Jimmy Price (Cranham).

X stays away from his product, never underestimates the police or chisels his associates and never, ever works with the kind of loudmouthed poseurs who inevitably screw up and bring down everyone in the immediate vicinity. X hates guns, but knows that to keep the peace you have to be ready for war and, above all, recognizes that you have to quit while you're ahead. He's about to do just that when Price drags him into a pair of gigs that reek of trouble: tracking down the junkie daughter of his old pal Eddie Temple (Gambon) — who, unlike Price, has managed to polish off some of his rough edges and rub elbows with the upper crust — and moving an enormous shipment of ecstasy from Amsterdam.

The ecstasy belongs to the Duke (Foreman), exactly the kind of volatile gangster wannabe X makes it his business to avoid and, more to the point, the ecstasy doesn't really belong to the Duke at all. He and his bumbling crew stole it from Serbian war-criminal Slavo (Iures), who's already dispatched a ferocious hit man to bring back both the goods and the head of the thief who took them. Suddenly X is getting the screws put to him from all sides, and no amount of spinning the situation reveals a way out.

Though style ultimately outweighs substance, the film is formidably entertaining. Vaughn, Guy Ritchie's producer on Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Snatch (2000) and Swept Away (2002), matches Connolly's drunk-on-words panache with a rapid-fire succession of arresting images, effortlessly gliding from woozy cool to high-voltage brutality. The result is so intoxicating, it hardly matters that you've heard it all before.


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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

(2003)
Directed by: Stephen Norrington.
Written by: James Dale Robinson, based on the comic book series by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill.
With: Sean Connery, Naseeruddin Shah, Peta Wilson, Tony Curran, Shane West, Stuart Townsend, Jason Flemyng, Richard Roxburgh, David Hemmings, Max Ryan, Tom Goodman-Hill, Terry O'Neill, Rudolf Pellar and Winter Ave Zoli.

Bloated and incoherent, this big-budget adaptation of Alan Moore's brilliant graphic novel jettisons its clever amalgamation of 19th-century pulp fictions in favor of 21st-century Hollywood action formulas. The product of this reverse alchemy is numbingly ordinary.

London, 1899: Acting on behalf of Her Majesty's government, the mysterious M (Roxburgh) assembles a group of peculiar and uniquely talented individuals: aging African adventurer Allan Quatermain (Connery), shape-shifter Dr. Henry Jekyll (Flemyng), immortal dandy Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), invisible cut-purse Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran), enigmatic submariner Captain Nemo (Shah), vampire Mina Harker (Wilson) and American detective Tom Sawyer (West). Their mission: To go to Venice, where a top-secret summit of world leaders is convening to avert a world war, and protect them from the nefarious Fantom, who seems determined to fan the flames of international conflict for his own benefit.

The issue isn't that screenwriter James Dale Robinson and director Stephen Norrington made radical changes to Moore's intensely literary, densely allusive work of steam-punk meta-fiction in the name of making it palatable to people who don't even read comic books, let alone 19th-century novels. It's that they turned an engaging story filled with flawed, complicated characters into a series of CGI-heavy action set pieces, each duller than the one before, and flattened the extraordinary personalities into one-note caricatures.

Connery, who also served as executive producer, delivers the "I'm the coolest, toughest white-haired sex symbol alive" performance with which he regularly delights fans for whom he remains the only true James Bond. But his derring-do seems rather too athletic for a character his age — even a legendary one; only Wilson's steely, damaged Mina achieves any sort of depth, though Townsend makes hay with the silkily wicked Dorian Gray who, ironically, isn't even in Moore's original story. For a big-budget effects extravaganza, the CGI is surprisingly fake looking, and much of the production design is less than wondrous. The League's custom-designed car — a sort of 19th-century Batmobile — is simply ridiculous looking, and the first appearance of Nemo's submarine, the scimitar-like Nautilus, is a terrible disappointment. The misshapen Mr. Hyde's torso and arms are so grotesquely overlarge that he looks as though he'd fall over in real life, and the disparity between the computer-generated invisible man and stubble-faced actor Curran in whiteface make-up is so striking it seems amateurish.


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The Liberty Kid

(2008)
Written and Directed by: Ilya Chaikin.
With: Al Thompson, Kareem Savinn, Raquel Jordan, Rosa Ramos, Anny Mariano, Johnny Rivera and Rayniel Rufino.

Brooklyn-based filmmaker Ilya Chaiken's follow-up to the sharply observed Margarita Happy Hour (2002) is a surprisingly expansive study of two young Latino men who lose their low-level service jobs after 9/11.

Tico (Savinon) and Derrick (Thompson) grew up together in Brooklyn. Both dropped out of high school when they were in their late teens, live at home and work at the Statue of Liberty ferry concession stand.

While Tico is content to drift through life partying, fooling around with girls and protecting his tough-guy reputation, Derrick is studying for the GED so he can go to college. He's also struggling to help his overwhelmed mother (Ramos) and support his twin 3-year-olds, who live with an ex-girlfriend. When the first plane hits the World Trade Center, Derrick and Tico's supervisor assures his staff that what they're seeing is just an accident; nothing to worry about. When the dust clears, the Statue of Liberty has been closed to visitors and Tico and Derrick are out of work. Nine months later, Tico is drifting into small-time drug dealing and Derrick, who's been unable to find a decent job, becomes his reluctant partner.

The film eventually covers several years in both men's lives, encompassing small victories, bitter betrayals, family upheavals, imprisonment, marriage and military service. Chaiken acknowledges larger social forces while keeping the focus tightly on Tico and Derrick:: 9/11 and the Iraq War impinge on the film to the exact degree that they irrevocably change the young men's day-to-day lives. Derrick and Tico aren't oblivious to what's going on in the world, but they don't have the luxury of thinking too much about the big picture, because the small picture is always on the verge of collapsing. Far from trivializing world-changing events like the navel-gazing A Broken Sole (2007), Chaiken's film drives home the fact that collateral damage comes in many forms and marginal lives are easily derailed. And though she keeps the Iraq War entirely off screen, the film's single shot of the smoldering towers, which Derrick watches through a coin-operated viewer, packs a visceral punch.


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Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies Of Wrestling


Writen and Directed by Ruth Leitman.
With: Gladys Gillem Lillian Ellison, Johnny Mae Young, Ida May Martinez, Penny Banner, Ella Waldek, Mars Bennett, Millie Stafford, Marie Laverne, Maria Bernardi, Nell Stewart, Diamond Lil, Sandy Parker, Rita Cortez-Lee, Sara Lee, Sylvia Hackney, Sputnik Monroe, Stu Schwartz, Cathy Brandi, Karin Dromo, Joyce Grable, Bonnie Watson.

Simultaneously generous and slyly tough-minded, Ruth Leitman's documentary about the pioneers of female wrestling features an all-star lineup of rough-talking, no-nonsense broads who escaped circumscribed futures for lives of down-market glamour. They paid for their freedom in chronic injury, sexual harassment, financial uncertainty and loneliness, but they're not whiners.

The girls, as they call themselves, took their lumps, gave as good as they got and survived to tell the tale. Some did wel for themselvesl: Pint-size Southern firecracker Lillian Ellison, "The Fabulous Moolah," parlayed wrestling celebrity into a lucrative career managing, training and booking other girls and lives in upper-middle-class comfort with her longtime partner, notorious "heel" Johnnie Mae Young and midget wrestler Diamond Lil. Others were less fortunate: Feisty Gladys "Killem" Gillem, by contrast, never rose beyond a paycheck-to-paycheck living and wound up wrestling 'gators and bears. But even brain damaged and poor, she lived her life her way and doesn't care who knows it. However it turned out in the end, they all exchanged grim, bitter futures picking cotton, caring for aging parents and waiting tables for the fame and excitement, however minor or fleeting.

And however much showboating went on in the ring, they wrestled as hard as they lived.

Whisky-voiced, Washington-state raised farm-girl Ella Waldek fled the drudgery of beet harvesting to become a roller-derby jammer and then discovered wrestling; she's still haunted by the memory of tackling a fledgling wrestler who went into the ring complaining of a headache and died after the match. Limber Ida May Martinez was abandoned by her mother, rejected by her grandmother and grudgingly raised by an aunt and uncle; wrestling was her path to self-esteem. Penny Banner grew up in a rough St. Louis neighborhood and started strength training to protect herself from the thug who tried to rape her. Young brawled her way out of Sand Springs, Okla., shocking the prim-and-proper girls who obeyed promoters' dictates that they should wear pretty dresses, heels and nail polish outside the ring with her mannish clothes, cigar smoking and foul-mouthed cussing. The shrewd, level-headed Ellison started out playing cheesecake sidekick "Slave Girl Moolah" to novelty wrestler the Elephant Boy.

With the exception of Young and Ellison, who continue to make novelty appearances in WWE-sponsored events, none of the women has anything good to say about the T&A world of contemporary female wrestling. They hung up their boots and bathing suits for marriage, motherhood and other careers, including nursing and private detective work. Ttheir nostalgia for the fun, friendship and glitz is colored by vivid memories of shattered relationships, exploitation and tragedy, but bracingly little regret.


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The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra

(2004)
Written and Directed by: Larry Blamire.
With: Larry Blamire, Fay Masterson, Brian Howe, Susan McConnell, Andrew Parks, Jennifer Blaire, Dan Conroy, Robert DeVeau and Darrin Reed.

Larry Blamire's pitch-perfect parody of poverty row horror/sci-fi pictures of the 1950s is a meticulous takeoff could easily be taken for the real thing, which is both its genius and its Achilles heel. In addition to being as charmingly silly as the films that inspired it, it also reproduces the inevitable dullness produced by murky photography, minimal action, cheapo special effects and long stretches of expository dialogue.

Scientist Paul Armstrong (Blamire) and his perky, bubble-headed wife, Betty (Fay Masterson), rent a cabin near the remote spot where a meteor recently landed. Nearby, Dr. Roger Fleming (Howe) is looking for the fabled lost skeleton of Cadavra Cave, whose legendary power Fleming hopes to harness for his own ends. And in the nearby woods, two aliens from the planet Marva — Kro-Bar and his wife, Lattis (Parks and McConnell) — are taking stock after the emergency landing that damaged their spaceship and allowed their dangerous mutant to escape. Dr. Armstrong locates the meteor, which contains a substance called atmosphereum, which happens to be what the skeleton requires to regain its strength and conquer the world — cue the power-mad skeleton laugh! — and the substance that powers Lattis and Kro-bar's spaceship. Dr. Armstrong, in turn, hopes his research into the nature of atmospherium will advance his scientific career.

And so everyone converges on the Armstrongs' cabin: Kro-Bar and Lattis posing awkwardly as regular Earth folks while Fleming secretly borrows their shape-altering "transmutatron" and transforms "four different forest animals" into feral seductress Animala (Blaire) to bolster his cover story. Adopting the relentlessly loopy logic of desperate screenwriters, Fleming reasons that it will seem more plausible that he's been stranded by a car crash if he's accompanied by his "wife"… even if she's a total weirdo in a beat-girl unitard. The persistently polite Armstrongs ignore the peculiar behavior of Animala, Lattis and Kro-Bar — it would be rude, after all, to draw attention to their guests' eccentricities — but after a local forest ranger (Conroy) stops by with the news of a mutilation murder nearby, even the Armstrongs realize something very odd is going on.

Shot in Bronson Canyon (a location whose otherworldly terrain was much-exploited by '50s genre filmmakers) and filmed in "skeletorama," Blamire's poker-faced pastiche is both affectionate and knowing, which makes it more fun than such smugly superior send-ups as Don't Ask, Don't Tell (2002). It was released with Ub Iwerks' inventive 1937 animated short Skeleton Frolics, which features seven minutes of inventive and highly influential graveyard high jinks.


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Margarita Happy Hour

(2002)

Written and Directed by: Ilya Chaikin.
With: Eleanor Hutchins, Larry Fessenden, Holly Ramos, Barbara Sicuranza, Amanda Vogel, Macha Ross, Kristin Dispaltro and Jonah Leland.

Loosely structured but sharply observed, this darkly comic drama revolves around a group of not-as-young-as-they-once-were scene makers trying to reconcile the conflicting demands of motherhood and a sex, drugs and rock-and-roll lifestyle.

Various feckless lovers have decamped or been given the heave-ho, leaving these one-time riot grrrls holding the baby bag; in one of the film's many throwaway ironies, the only married mom in the bunch may have to divorce her blue-collar husband to qualify their ailing baby for affordable health care. The group's center is Zelda ( Hutchins), an artist who shares a rambling Brooklyn loft with seven roommates, including boyfriend Max (Fessenden), an underemployed writer whose ambivalence about fatherhood is straining their relationship to the breaking point. Dressed like glam-punk sex kittens, the newly minted moms gather at the same Lower East Side Mexican restaurant they frequented as unattached scene makers, gossiping, trading tips about social services and sucking up $2.00 happy-hour margaritas while their toddlers romp underfoot.

Zelda and her friends, Graziella (Sicuranza), Raquel (Vogel), Sofia (Ross) and Marie (Dispaltro) are suspended in various stages of willingness to negotiate new self-images and the lives that go with them; some are making the trasition more easily than others. Zelda's life is complicated by the arrival of best friend Natali (Ramos), who's fresh out of rehab and hoping for a fresh start, but ripe for relapse. The fragile and directionless Natali needs more attention than Zelda has left to give after long days of looking after her daughter (Leland); negotiating freelance jobs (like a gig drawing busty ladies for Screw); and wrangling with Medicaid. Meanwhile, some of the happy-hour regulars have pooled their resources to buy a house upstate; there's still time for Zelda to join them if she's willing to kiss her New York life goodbye.

Written and directed by Ilya Chaiken, herself a single mother, the film's ensemble portrait of women caught between nostalgia for the tough, free-spirited babes they were (however much that freedom may have been illusory) and uncertainty about what their futures hold is almost painfully on target. And while the film's men are generally given short shrift, Fessenden's Max is a complex tangle of contradictory impulses, alternately protective and reckless, simultaneously devoted and irresponsible. The scene in which he almost picks up a woman in a bar, then sabotages his own opportunistic lechery by pulling out a photo of Zelda and Little Z, is a small, poignant gem.


Maximum Risk

(1996)

Directed by: Ringo Lam.Written by: Larry Ferguson.
With: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Natasha Henstridge, Jean-Hugues, Zach Grenier, Paul Ben-Victor, Frank Senger, Stefanos Miltsakakis, Frank Van Keeken, David Hemblen and Stephane Audran.

Until Maximum Risk, director Ringo Lam was known only to die-hard Hong Kong movie buffs and Quentin Tarantino haters who knew that the plot of Reservoir Dogs owed more than a little to Lam's City on Fire, unreleased in the US but made famous by the short film Who Do You Think You're Fooling?

This sleek and highly competent action thriller features Jean-Claude Van Damme as twins, as he did in 1991's gimmicky Double Impact. But there's little special effects trickery here: French cop Alain Moreau's (Van Damme) partner, Sebastien (Anglade), escorts him to a crime scene, where he comes face to face with a body that looks exactly like him. After discovering that the dead man, Mikhail Suverov, was also born on the same date as he was, Alain confronts his mother (Audran), who confesses that Mikhail was Alain's twin, whom she put up for adoption at birth. Mikhail was on his way to introduce himself to the brother he never knew when he was brutally murdered.

Alain follows Mikhail's trail to New York's Little Odessa, a little piece of Russia in Brooklyn, where everyone takes him for Mikhail, including his brother's gorgeous and profoundly practical fiancee, Alex (Henstridge). He soon learns that his brother joined the Russian Mafia as a teenager, but had recently devised a plan to get out, a plan that apparently involved the brother he never knew.

The plot holds together pretty well, which is not always the case in Van Damme's movies, and does not require the concoction of labored explanations for his pronounced accent. Lam stages the action with his trademark aplomb — the climactic battle in a meat warehouse is an impressively nasty piece of work — and the supporting cast includes such respected European actors as Anglade and Audran, who brings striking emotional power to the small role of Alain's mother.


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Miss March

(2009)
Written and Directed by: Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore.
With: Zach Cregger, Trevor Moore, Raquel Alessi, Molly Stanton, Craig Robinson, Hugh M. Hefner, Carla Jimenez and Geoff Meed.

What seems to be a pathetic excuse for a comedy is actually something even worse: A feature-length effort to reposition Playboy's brand of squeaky-clean titillation as relevant to young men weaned on internet porn.

High school sweethearts Eugene (Cregger) and Cindi (Alessi) are old-fashioned romantics who forgo taking their relationship to the next level until they're absolutely sure of their commitment to each other. But as senior prom looms, they decide it's time for them to consummate their relationship. Unfortunately, Eugene takes a tumble down a flight of stairs that leaves him comatose.

Four years later, Eugene's moronic best bud, horndog Tucker (Moore), snaps him out of it with a baseball bat. And boy, does he have news: Former Miss Abstinence Cindi is now Playboy's Miss March — ain't that a kick in the head! Eugene just wants to talk to Cindi — appearances notwithstanding, he wants to believe she hasn't turned into a airbrushed slut. And as it happens, the annual Playboy bunny convention (or something equally nonsensical) is taking place in three days' time at Hugh Hefner's Los Angeles mansion, and Tucker knows someone who could get them in: His old pal Horsedick.MPEG (Robinson), whose rap career blew up while Eugene was sleeping. Of course, the fact that Trip van Winkle has little control over his muscles and none over his bowels presents a problem. But hell, bunnies await and time's a-wasting, so Tucker hauls Eugene into his car and they strike out for Chicago in search of Horsedick.MPEG. Complicating matters is the botch Tucker made of his 13-month anniversary celebration with older girlfriend Candace (Stanton) — suffice it to say that a disco ball, an unfortunately timed epileptic seizure and assault with a deadly fork were involved — and she's out for vengeance, assisted by her brother (Meed) and his fellow firemen.

Written and directed by stars Cregger and Moore, of the five-man sketch comedy troupe Whitest Kids U'Know, Miss March is gross (in addition to the running diarrhea gag, there's unwitting dog-pee drinking and a visual gag involving Horsedick's dick), relentlessly juvenile (hot and horny lesbians, dude; and their foreign, too!) and painfully unfunny. Robinson and Stanton occasionally tease a glimmer of humor from their broadly written supporting parts, but that's as good as it gets. Hefner's cameo, in which he dispenses avuncular advice to Trevor, is simply sad: He's too old to be wallowing in lame trash that isn't going to do a thing for Playboy's faded image.


My Bloody Valentine

   

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Ned Kelly


Directed by Gregor Jordan
Written by John Michael McDonagh, based on the novel Our Sunshine, by Robert Drewe
With: Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Naomi Watts, Laurence Kinlan, Kiri Paramore, Nicholas Bell, Philip Barantini, Kris McQuade, Emily Browning, Kerry Condon and Joel Edgerton.

A dark western about the short life and bad times of "iron outlaw" Ned Kelly, Australia's answer to Jesse James.

Victoria Province, 1871. Born to an impoverished Irish convict in English-ruled Australia, young Ned's (Ledger) teenage joyride on a stray mare earns him three years in prison for horse theft. Older and angrier, Ned nevertheless returns home to his mother (McQuade) and younger siblings Dan (Kinlan), Kate (Condon) and Grace (Browning) determined to stay out of trouble.

Ned gets a job working for English gentleman rancher Richard Cook (Bell), but flirts incautiously with Cook's beautiful young wife, Julia (Watts), and feuds with perpetually drunken Officer Fitzpatrick (Paramore) of the Victoria Police. Fitzpatrick's lust for Ned's sister Kate starts the wheels of injustice turning: Dan gives Fitzgerald a hiding and Fitzgerald spreads the story that Ned, who wasn't even there, shot him. Ned can't use his alibi — Julia was with him but won't admit it for fear of ruining her reputation — so he and Dan decide to lay low until everything blows over. But it never does. Mrs. Kelly is arrested in their stead and the brothers, by now accompanied by longtime friends Joe Byrne (Bloom) and Steve Hart (Barantini), kill three police officers sent to gun them down.

With a government bounty on their heads, Kelly and company rob banks and share the loot with poor immigrant families, who embrace them as folk heroes and close ranks against the authorities. But the fugitives are eventually run to ground; pursued by a small army of policemen under the command of implacable Superintendent Hare (Rush), the 25-year-old Kelly and his gang, clad in homemade armor made from plowshares, stage their last stand in the isolated railway town of Glenrowan.

Adapted from Robert Drewe's 1999 historical novel Our Sunshine, the film sticks fairly close to the known facts but errs consistently on the side of pro-Kelly interpretation. The wholly invented character of unattainable love interest Julia Cook (the real Kelly once referred to an enigmatic "Julia" in a letter) is the film's weakest link and smacks of a desperate attempt to shoehorn a pretty woman into a story about grubby men with tangled beards. Ironically, though Kelly is all but unknown outside Australia, his story is so in line with 100 years of pulp-Western tropes that it feels cliched, though director Gregor Jordan's nightmarish vision of the Australian landscape is vividly haunting.


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No Country for Old Men

(2007)
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen.
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.
With: . Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper and Barry Corbin.

There's less to the Coen brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 somber thriller than meets the eye, but it's a hugely entertaining slice of sunbaked Gothic.

1980, West Texas: Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is the definition of ordinary: a Vietnam veteran living in a Desert Aire trailer park with his younger wife, Carla Jean (Scottish actress Macdonald), scraping out a living, driving a battered pickup truck, and partial to solitary hunting trips. It's on one such trip that Moss stumbles across the aftermath of a massacre: five trucks, half a dozen bodies (including a dog) and twice as many serious firearms, a dying man moaning for agua, a truckload of drugs, and a case crammed with $2 million. Moss knows better than to steal dirty money but does it anyway, and then lets his better nature ensure that he doesn't get away clean.

Haunted by the dying man's plea, he returns to the scene with a jug of water and runs smack into a shadowy pack of thugs. He escapes — barely, and battered — but knows his abandoned truck will lead them to his door. So Moss sends Carla Jean to her mother in Odessa and hits the road with the money, figuring he'll lay low and come up with some kind of plan to keep the money and disappear. But there are two men on his trail, utterly different but united in their dogged determination: laconic Sheriff Bell (Jones), whose rueful ruminations (many aimed at designated deputy dumbass Dillahunt) give the film its wryly comic edge, and stone psycho Anton Chigurh (Bardem), the supposedly humorless murder machine who whimsically favors a pneumatic humane killer for the disposing of rivals, witnesses and anyone who has the misfortune to get in his way.

There's a bit of Roadrunner vs. Wile E. Coyote to Chigurh's pursuit of Moss, but No Country isn't a goof: The Coens let Brolin, Bardem and late arrival Harrelson play their uber-noir roles dead straight. And despite the story's superficial echoes of Fargo (1996) — flyover state backdrop, horrific crime spree, local law officer whose quaint regional locutions belie a sharp mind. ones' Bell is no Sheriff Marge Gunderson (the role that earned Frances McDormand an Oscar); Marge is inadvertently funny, a decent oasis in a world of roiling chaos. Bell knows he's funny, and his gallows humor is no joke: It's a shield against his knowledge of the world's random, ineluctable cruelty. Without it, he'd be Jim Thompson's sadistic Sheriff Lou Ford. But engaging though the film is, it aspires to a profundity it doesn't achieve: It's unpredictable, gorgeously photographed by longtime Coen associate Roger Deakins, and genuinely smart, but its insights boil down to "Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you," and Edgar G. Ulmer's brilliantly bitter Detour (1945) got there first.


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Not Easily Broken

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Directed by: Bill Duke.
Written by: Brian Bird and T.D. Jakes, basked on the novel by Jakes.
With: Morris Chestnut, Taraji P. Henson, Kevin Hart, Eddie Cibrian, Jenifer Lewis, Maeve Quinlan, Wood Harris, Albert Hall and T.D. Jakes (cameo).

Tyler Perry owns the urban moral fable, but the handful of others clamoring for their piece of the pie include mega-church entrepreneur T.D. Jakes, who folds the same mix of comedy, drama and spiritual uplift into the story of a couple whose broken marriage is healed by the power of faith.

Married since 1995, the Johnsons may not make it to their next anniversary. Small-time contractor Dave's (Chestnut) dreams of playing professional baseball were scotched by a knee injury, while Clarice (Henson), a successful realtor, pays the bulk of their bills. And bulk is the word: Clarice's ambitions exceed even her considerable income, and she's too career oriented to be a good wife, let alone consider having the baby he so desperately wants. Dave channels his fatherly instincts into coaching an underprivileged little league team with comic relief buddy Tree (Hart), who's thoroughly under his wife's thumb, and token white friend Brock (Cibrian), a lawyer in the midst of a toxic divorce. Clarice bitterly resents the time Dave with the kids she contemptuously calls ""little gangbangers-in-training," and the marital discord comes to a roiling boil when Clarice is seriously injured in a car accident and her bitter, mouthy mama (Lewis) moves in to pour poisonous advice into her daughter's ear.

The film's awkward title comes from the braided rope Bishop Wilkes (Albert Hall) lays across the couple's shoulders at their wedding: Two strands represent the bride and groom while the third symbolizes God, whose love and guidance strengthens their union. Dave and Clarice, of course, have pretty much forgotten about Him: She's wrapped up in material things, so focused on getting ahead that she's even internalized racist attitudes about disadvantaged African-Americans, while Dave is too whipped to rise to the challenge of being the kind of man his wife can look up to.

Jakes, Perry and playwright-turned-filmmaker David E. Talbert (First Sunday) have their fingers firmly on the pulse of a sizable segment of the 21st-century African American community, for whom piety and bawdy humor are the spoonfuls of sugar that make the moral tale go down. Not Easily Broken hits all the familiar notes: Fathers who abandon their sons, women who equate strength with emasculation and drive their men into the arms of white women, children whose lack of moral guidance and family support leaves them vulnerable to drugging and thugging, mothers who teach their daughters to worship financial security rather than the Lord. But their underlying message makes Mildred Pierce look like a feminist tract: Men need to man up, women need to back off and meddling gal pals and mothers need to shut up.

This review first appeared in a slightly different form in Film Journal International


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Notorious

(2009)
Directed by: George Tillman, Jr.
Written by: Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker.
With: Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Anthony Mackie, Naturi Naughton, Antonique Smith, Christopher Wallace Jr. and Sean Ringgold.

George Tillman, Jr.'s biopic is a big, fat wet kiss of a tribute to Brooklyn-born rapper Notorious B.I.G., whose 1997 murder (chronicled in Nick Broomfield's 2002 documentary Biggie and Tupac (2002) ) remains unsolved more than 10 years later.

The chubby son of soft-spoken, fiercely proud Voletta Wallace (Bassett), nerdy little Christopher Wallace (Christopher Wallace Jr., the late rapper's son) dreamed of escaping the mean streets of Bedford Stuyvesant by becoming a rap star. Before he was out of high school, Wallace (Woolard) was well on the way to becoming just another cautionary ghetto tale, dropping out of school, selling crack and getting his girlfriend pregnant. He even does a stint in jail for dealing, but holds on to his dream and emerges to strike the inevitable deal with the devil, here in the guise of music-business entrepreneur Sean "Puffy" Combs (Luke). Puffy makes Wallace a star, freeing him to smoke weed, drink Champagne, bang banji sluts, get freaky with trash-talking Lil' Kim (Naughton) and marry platinum blonde dream girl Faith Evans (Smith). Wallace also befriends the charismatic Tupac Shakur (Mackie), only to see their friendship curdle when Shakur is shot and robbed in the lobby of a Manhattan recording studio. Believing that Wallace and Combs masterminded the attack because he refused to sign with Combs' Bad Boy Entertainment, Shakur moves to Los Angeles, signs with Suge Knight's Death Row Records and busies himself stoking the fires of a nascent feud between the East Coast and West Coast rap scenes.

Tillman's rags-to-riches tale, penned by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker (the author of Unbelievable: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G.), is a big, bad bundle of biopic cliches, a glitzy whitewash filled with wince-inducing dialogue and propelled by a smug, from-beyond-the-grave voiceover that allows Wallace to justify or dismiss his many personal failings. So what if he ignored his cancer-stricken mother, neglected his children and cheated relentlessly on his wife and girlfriends? It all turned out okay for them in the end — hell, even that pregnant lady he sold crack to cleaned up and seemed none the worse for wear. Say what you want about Walk the Line (2005): It at least doesn't let Johnny Cash off the hook so easily.


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Obscene

(2008)
Directed by: Daniel O'Connor and Neil Ortenberg
Documentary.

Daniel O'Connor and Neil Ortenberg's engrossing documentary about the life and times of publisher Barney Rosset, who spent much of his career advancing the cause of free expression, is a flawless match of style and subject.

Born into a wealthy Chicago family, Rosset grew up to be a restless free thinker with the means to drift through life, fraternizing with writers, artist and political rebels until he figured out what he wanted to do. The answer came in the form of a peace offering from his second wife, painter Joan Mitchell, who had just left him: A small, Greenwich Village-based publishing company called Grove Press, whose three-book catalogue consisted entirely of vintage obscuriana, was for sale. Rosset bought it and in 1958 published D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, copies of which the US Postal Service confiscated on the grounds that it was pornography rather than literature. Rosset went to court, won and proved the old adage about bad publicity.

Chatterley was a hit and Grove Press had a niche: Politically and socially controversial literature and non-fiction, including Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Allan Ginsburg's Howl, William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, a portion of Che Guevara's diaries and Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn.

Rosset created a separate imprint, Black Cat, to publish Victorian erotica; introduced a 1961 television production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot starring Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel; and briefly branched out into film distribution, starting with 1967's censorship-defying I am Curious (Yellow). He founded the magazine Evergreen Review, whose text and illustrations rivaled those of Grove Press' most provocative books; hosted a radio show; and made and lost several fortunes, at one point keeping Grove afloat by selling off chunks of prime East Hampton real estate he bought as a young man. Rosset made friends and alienated people in equal numbers, was spied on by the FBI, indulged liberally in drugs and alcohol, burned through four marriages and eventually sold Grove Press, only to be fired unceremoniously by the new owners.

Rosset is a hugely entertaining storyteller (the clips from his appearance on Al Goldstein's Midnight Blue are hilarious), and Ortenberg and O'Connor assembled a lively mix of archival materials and interviews with a wide-ranging selection of Rosset's friends, former employees, admirers and acquaintances


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Our City Dreams

(2009)
Written and Directed by: Chiara Clemente.
Documentary.

Chiara Clemente’s group portrait of five successful artists uses New York’s creative allure as a way of discussing the challenges and rewards of being a woman in the art world.

For full review, click here. This review appeared in Time Out New York.


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Push

(2009)
Directed by: Paul McGuigan.
Written by: David Boula.
With: Dakota Fanning, Chris Evans, Camilla Belle, Djimon Hounsou, Cliff Curtis, Neil Jackson, Ming-Na and Nate Mooney.

Between the unwieldy load of back story and the painfully underdeveloped characters, this infelicitous combination of Jumper, X-Men and TV's Heroes manages to be dull and exhausting at the same time.

Nick Gant (Evans) is a second-generation "mover" who inherited telekinetic abilities from his father. Nick saw his father murdered when he was only a child; his killer, Carver (Hounsou), is a "pusher" — someone who can put thoughts in other people's heads — employed by the Division, a secret government organization charged with creating super soldiers by isolating and enhancing paranormal abilities. The Division recruits gifted individuals willing to participate in their program and kidnaps the ones who aren't; the latter outnumber the former, perhaps because the word is out that the ability-boosting drug on which the Division's hopes are pinned has killed every single person on whom it has been tested.

The orphaned Nick somehow managed survive to adulthood and wahsed up in Hong Kong, where his priorities are staying under the radar and making a living as a gambler, something he should be better at given that he can manipulate dice with his mind. But he's not very good at this moving thing; chalk it up to a combination of youthful laziness, lack of focus and perhaps the stress of dodging government "sniffers," who can access people's memories by smelling their belongings, and "watchers," who see the future, albeit in ever-shifting bits and pieces. It turns out Nick isn't so good at the dodging thing either: Witness the sniffers who invade his apartment, looking for a girl who recently escaped the Division's hospital of horrors. She's the first person to have survived the drug, and the Division wants her back.

No sooner have they gone than 13-year-old watcher Cassie Holmes (Fanning) arrives, looking for Nick's help in pulling off a $6 million robbery. Nick isn't even done demurring when he and Cassie are attacked by triad goons who nearly kill him with their organ-pulverizing shrieks (an idea employed to far more chilling effect back in 1978, in Jerzy Skolimowski's metaphysical horror film The Shout). Cassie recruits a "stitch" to heal him and confesses that the robbery was a ruse: She needs Nick to help her find Kira (Belle), who's in possession of a suitcase that will somehow help Cassie rescue her mother, the most powerful watcher in history, from the Division. And wouldn't you know, Kira turns out to be both the Division runaway and Nick's old girlfriend, who's nursing a mighty grudge.

Push's flaws are many, starting with a back story that's simultaneously ponderous, unnecessarily complicated and vaguely offensive: Wouldn't you know the trouble started with Nazi medical experiments (as does everything — witness The Unborn, released a month earlier)? And the film's internal logic begins to crumble with the very first scene: Given the formidable telekinetic powers Nick's father possesses — he can knock holes in walls and hurl full grown men around with his mind — it's hard to figure out why the Division persists tinkering with a drug that has a 100% fatality rate… a drug they're still testing ten years later. Your tax dollars at work, folks. Oh, and if Nick's dad is a pusher, not a watcher (the movie never suggests that anyone gets more than one special ability), how did he know Nick would someday be approached by a girl holding a flower, a girl Nick will have to help for the greater good of the super-abled? How does this watching thing work, anyway? Sometimes the future is crystal clear, sometimes it's ridiculously vague and sometimes it seems more like a kind of telepathic tracking system.

None of this would be an issue if the characters were interesting, because you'd be caught up in their travails — a wandering mind is the worst enemy of trickily plotted thrillers and science fiction movies. But they aren't: Not one is more than the sum total of his or her wardrobe: White smock and ballet flats mean Kira is lost and vulnerable. Nick's nondescript t-shirts, jeans and pullovers brand him a slacker. Tailored suits and discrete ties mean Carver and his pet mover (Jackson) are stone-cold killers who've sold their souls to the man. Pinky (Mooney), the "shadow" who can baffle sniffers, is a hard-boiled hipster in an argyle cardigan and polyester shirt, while the stitch who heals Nick can't be trusted: Buttoned-up blouse + do-me heels = duplicitous bitch.

And Fanning's Cassie may be the least convincing performance of her career to date. From punky hair and street-smart urchin ensemble (miniskirt, combat boots, slouchy jacket and oversized messenger bag) to the tough talk and wise-child posturing she's a cartoon, and a slightly creepy one at that. Is there some compelling reason why Cassie should be dressed like a teenaged hooker?


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The Proposition


Directed by: John Hillcoat.
Written by: Nick Cave.
With: Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, David Wenham, Richard Wilson, Tommy Lewis, Tom Budge and John Hurt.

Director John Hillcoat's neo-spaghetti Western, written by musician Cave, transplants the genre's signature tropes to Australia circa 1880 and transforms the stark, surreal beauty of the outback landscape and grinding brutality of frontier life into a sweat-slicked, near-abstract ballet of blood and sand.

Squaring off at its center are lawman Captain Stanley (Winstone), brought from England by wealthy, pompous Eden Fletcher (Wenham) to civilize a small settlement in the desert, and outlaw Charlie Burns (Pearce), a native son who's raped, robbed and pillaged his way to infamy as part of the notorious Burns Gang. Under intense pressure to kill the Burns brothers after their latest outrage — invading the farm of an upstanding citizen named Hopkins, killing his entire family after raping his pregnant wife and leaving the house in smoking ruins — Stanley captures Charlie and his simpering, none-too-bright younger brother, Mikey (Wilson), in an annihilating shootout.

But Stanley really wants Arthur (Huston), the eldest brother and the gang's ringleader; Stanley believes that Arthur is the instigator and offers Charlie a deal. If Charlie will hunt down and kill his older brother, Stanley will spare 14-year-old Mikey the noose. Otherwise the boy will hang on Christmas Day, less than a week away. Charlie rides off in search of Arthur, who's dug in to the heart of Aborigine country. Stanley, meanwhile, hauls Mikey off to the local jail, much to the disgust of the bloodthirsty subordinates who are no better than the Burnses and consider Stanley weak because he values the rule of law above frontier justice and refuses to slaughter the local Aborigines without cause. The situation is a bone-dry tinderbox of heat, boredom, alcohol and endlessly whining flies, and it's just waiting for a spark.

Stanley retreats to the illusory haven of his home and genteel wife, Martha (Mortimer), while Charlie, gravely wounded by an aboriginal spear, recovers in the cave where Arthur is living with his new gang, aboriginal outcast Two Bob (Lewis) and weak-chinned sociopath Samuel Stoat (Budge).

Hillcoat works the classic Western paradigms faithfully — the iconic struggle between frontier and garden could hardly be clearer than in his shots of Martha's carefully tended stand of rose bushes, separated from an ocean of baking red sand by a tiny, whitewashed picket fence — but deploys them with a pitiless ferocity rivaling that of the most excessive Italian genre revisionists of the 1970s.


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A Quantum of Solace

(2008)
Directed by: Marc Forster.
Written by: Paul Haggis and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade.
With: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Gemma Arterton, Jeffrey Wright.

Here's the Bond problem in a nutshell: Dr. No (1962) rocketed Ian Fleming's superspy directly into the collective pop-culture consciousness, like Sherlock Holmes or Dracula, but the tales were set in a Cold War world very different from today's. Bond has to change with the times, but he can only change so much before he ceases to be Bond: The whole business is a high wire act, figuring out ways to snare new viewers without alienating the old ones. Fans never warmed to Timothy Dalton, perhaps because his unrelenting grimness leached the fun right out of The Living Daylights (1987) and License to Kill (1989). So bye-bye Dalton, hello Pierce Brosnan, who nailed the balance between 007's killer instincts and roguish sparkle.

Credit where it's due: Casino Royale (2006), may have been the biggest gamble in Bond history: Even giving M a sex change in 1995's GoldenEye doesn't come close. Casino Royale didn't just introduce a new James Bond — it rolled the series back to the beginning. Rough-trade Daniel Craig played Bond as a soulful thug with ambitions to better himself by doing dirty deeds for her majesty's secret service. He's as cheerless as Dalton, but now the performance is in sync with the times — audiences like their knights dark. And he's easily the most bluntly masculine Bond since Sean Connery (whom Fleming thought was miscast, by the way; the author had debonair David Niven in mind), a hard man learning that black tie is just a form of camouflage but not yet sufficiently polished to give a good goddamn whether his martini is shaken or stirred.

The two latest films' screenwriters, Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, took the title of Fleming's 1960 short story "Quantum of Solace" — an ironic tale of adultery into which Bond barely figures — and nothing more, except perhaps some vague notion about the corrosive legacy of betrayal. Driven by Bond's bloody-minded determination to find out whether Vesper Lynd, the lover and co-conspirator he failed to save, was actually a traitor who sold him out, it picks up directly where Casino Royale left off. Bond's personal business gets in the way of his actual business, which involves exposing a shadowy underworld organization so entrenched and insidious that it even had a mole within the service. That their man was M's (Judi Dench) personal bodyguard is salt in the wounded pride. Bond's mission leads him to smarmy eco-entrepreneur Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), whose environment-friendly façade masks his lucrative line in destabilizing third-world governments, manipulating markets and plundering natural resources. Along the way, Bond picks up a leggy, pouty sidekick named Camille (Olga Kurylenko), whose own vendetta intersects with his; and a tasty bit of collateral damage (Gemma Arterton) whose raison d'etre is to pay homage to Goldfinger.

If Casino Royale was a fresh start, Quantum of Solace is a bridge. It wraps up Casino Royale's unfinished business and charts Bond's gradual evolution from loose cannon to sleek, deceptively suave agent extraordinaire. It's not happenstance that the film ends with a new version of the classic Bond film opener: The view down a gun barrel, the silhouette dropping smoothly into firing stance, the bullet discharged directly at the camera, the bass-heavy theme. But Bond is still very much a work in progress: Having messily repaid M's leap of faith in taking him on in Casino Royale, he spends most of Quantum of Solace wreaking personal havoc on company time and generally giving the impression that he lacks the steely detachment his new line of work requires.

Quantum of Solace is far from the perfect Bond film — the consensus hands that honor to From Russia, With Love (1963). The credits sequence is ho hum, but the fact is, a lot them are: We remember the ones that kicked ass and forget about the rest. Craig's Bond bears no small resemblance to Matt Damon's Jason Bourne and Christian Bale's Batman — demon-haunted beneath the tough-guy façade — which I can't say bothers me: Surely the point of restarting the series is to let everyone in on Bond's evolution rather than deliver another variation on a fully formed icon. I'm willing to bet that a few films down the line he'll have hardened his heart and softened up his persona, and I'm willing to stick around for the ride.

Among the things I don't miss: Over-the-top stunts and nutty gadgets (which are here pared to a minimum); punning quips (entirely absent) and those attenuated multiple endings — at 106 minutes, it's the shortest film in the franchise. Some fans will miss these things, of course, and there's a good deal of truth in the notion that we love our first Bond best — for me it will always be Connery, and specifically the Connery of the first few films. But Daniel Craig has made me interested in Bond movies again, and that's no mean feat.


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A Real Young Girl

(1976)
Written and directed by: Catherine Breillat, based on her novel La Soupirail ("The Airduct).
With: Charlotte Alexandra, Bruno Balp, Rita Maiden and Hiram Keller.

French provocateur Catherine Breillat's first film — based on her novel, The Air Duct — is a disturbing study of a teenager coming to terms with her blossoming sexuality. Breillat and her producer, who apparently envisioned a soft-core picture in the David Hamilton mode, disagreed vigorously almost from the start about the film's tone, and in the end it was essentially abandoned, unfinished. When it was completed it received an X rating from the French censor and wasn't theatrically released in France until 2000, though it was shown occasionally at festivals.

Sullen,17-year-old Alice Bonnard (Alexandra) reluctantly returns home from school for summer vacation. Her grades are slipping — though she intercepts and alters her report card so her parents (Balp and Maiden) won't know — and is preoccupied with sex, which she both desires and fears. Alice's parents own a small sawmill and live in a rundown farmhouse; her mother is shrill and critical, afraid Alice will become pregnant and drop out before taking her baccalaureate exams, while her father is more indulgent. In addition to their inevitable mixed emotions at seeing their little girl mature, they're baffled by the entire younger generation: Alice's parents came of age during WWII, with all its attendant privations, while Alice and her peers are children of the privileged '60s.

Alice, meanwhile, is trapped in a maelstrom of conflicting emotions: Simultaneously self-conscious and exhibitionistic, she's convinced that people in town are staring at her and responds by bicycling bare-bottomed down country lanes. She flaunts her breasts but confesses to her diary that she can hardly bear to look at her body in the mirror, and fantasizes about one of her father's employees, Jim (Keller), alternately imagining scenes of giddy romance and sexual humiliation. Alice taunts her parents, behaving seductively towards her father (who's secretly having an affair with a much younger woman) and provoking her mother, who responds by calling her a whore. Inevitably, the summer ends badly.

Like Breillat's later movies (notably 1999's Romance), this early effort features a discomfiting mix of uncomfortably explicit sexual imagery and earnest philosophizing; it's as maddeningly self-centered and gloomily pretentious as Alice herself. But it's also savagely perceptive, and defiantly free of the clichés that define adolescent girls' sexuality in movies: Neither cheerfully naughty nor suffused with gauzy prurience, it evokes a time of turbulent (and often ugly) emotions with disquieting intensity.


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Reverend Billy & the Church of Stop Shopping

(2002)
Written and Directed by: Dietmar Post.
With: Bill C. Talen.

Dietmar Post's straightforward documentary chronicles the political performance art of Minnesota-born Bill Talen, 50, who uses his "Reverend Billy" persona to transform pointed criticism of transnational corporate practices into engaging street theater.

Beginning in 1997, Talen staged a series of "actions," marching into such temples of commerce as Disney retail outlets and Starbucks Coffee shops, exhorting customers to stop shopping, citing the companies' exploitative business practices and decrying the prefabricated colonization of American culture. Talen cites the influence of pioneering urban activist Jane Jacobs and Brazilian dramatist Augusto Boal, but the mischievous influence of '60s media manipulators Abbie Hoffman and Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters is evident in his slyly comic photo ops. Post documents three actions, all of which took place between 2000 and 2002: An anti-Starbucks preach-in on Manhattan's historic Lower East Side; a pre-Christmas anti-shopping sermon at the Times Square Disney store and a protest at a small, abandoned brick building near Washington Square Park where Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Raven.

The "Poe House" was slated for demolition by New York University, which has extensive real-estate holdings in lower Manhattan and a history of clashing with neighborhood preservationists.

Talen, who bears a striking resemblance to actor Kurt Russell, based Reverend Billy on real-life preacher Jimmy Swaggert and uses the distinctive rhythms and vocabulary of evangelical call-and-response sermonizing. He's sometimes accompanied by the Church of Stop-Shopping Gospel Choir, and is generally surrounded by a vocal cadre of acolytes. His goal, he says, is simply to educate people who've never considered the implications of corporate business practices or questioned the homogenization of mainstream culture. It's unfortunate that Post has no apparent interest in Talen's background or experiences outside the Reverend Billy phenomenon; After seeing him perform, it's hard not to want to know more about how the charismatic, Obie Award-winning playwright came to choose and shape his particular crusade.


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Revolutionary Road


Directed by: Sam Mendes.
Written by: Justin Haythe and Mendes, based on the novel by Richard Yates.
With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, Dylan Baker, Zoe Kazan, Jay O. Sanders, Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour.

Here is my problem with Revolutionary Road. Imagine this: After years of languishing in the limbo of fiercely cherished cult novels everybody wants to film and nobody wants to produce, Charles Webb's 1963 incisive tale of youthful alienation finally comes to the screen in 2008. The filmmakers meticulously recreate the fashions, decor and pop-culture ephemera of the time and cast it with fine, impassioned actors. But would The Graduate — 2008 version — capture an America in transition with painful vividness, or would it be a well-intentioned waxwork?

Adapted with great care and sensitivity from the 1961 novel by Richard Yates, which rubbed shoulders with such 1962 National Book Award finalists as Joseph Heller's Catch-22, J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, Edward Lewis Wallant's The Pawnbroker and Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. Sam Mendes' film is flawlessly acted and utterly bloodless; it's thoroughly of a place and time but was made five decades later, long after the discontents it identified with surgical precision had been so thoroughly parsed that there was nothing left to say about them.

Restless WWII veteran Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) met aspiring actress April (Winslet) at a hip soiree in Greenwich Village, where the magnetism of youth, beauty, restlessness and a deep-rooted determination not to sleepwalk through life like their parents drew them inexorably together.

But by 1955 Frank has become a sleek, restless adman, working for the same firm that employed his father so he can keep April and their two children in the cute little house on the oh-so-ironically named Revolutionary Road, where she's stewing in boredom and bitter regret. Her appearance in a community theater production of The Petrified Forest was an eye-opening humiliation, but April isn't quite prepared to relinquish the youthful dreams she and Frank once shared. Frank has successfully distracted himself with boozy, expense account meals, macho camaraderie and a listless affair with a young secretary, but April eats naked lunch every day and can't live with the knowledge that they've surrendered their most cherished belief about themselves — that they're special — to the shallow security of suburban conformity and corporate culture.

And so April proposes a radical escape plan: If she and Frank sell the house they can move to Paris, where she'll take a cushy secretarial job with the foreign service and support them while he finds a suitable outlet for his creativity. But fate keeps tossing logs on the road to freedom: First Frank is offered a lucrative in the up-and-coming field of computers, then April gets pregnant.

The core themes of Revolutionary Road are as relevant as ever: the different ways people react to realizing their youthful dreams have curdled into mid-life disappointment (April and Frank are only in their 30s, but in the late 1950s that made them middle-aged); the bitter emotional fallout that results from realizing you aren't as exceptional as you thought; the soul-corroding consequences of self-deception and the numbing hollowness at the center of an American Dream defined by lockstep conformity and conspicuous consumption. And the cast is extraordinary, beginning with leads Winslet and DiCaprio, whose perfectly coordinated performances are constructed of too-long pause, too-curt answers and the occasionally feverish outburst that hangs in the air like a noxious cloud. The supporting cast, which includes Kathy Bates as the realtor-cum-neighborhood booster who sells the Wheelers their frozen slice of suburban paradise, Michael Shannon as her piercingly intelligent but mentally unbalanced son, Dylan Baker as Frank's hardest-drinking co-worker and Zoe Kazan as the naive secretary who briefly winds up in Frank's bed, is every bit as impressive. They're all enough to make Revolutionary Road eminently watchable, they can't will it to life.

And yet the end result is chilly and academic, thoroughly admirable but one step removed from the very real angst of a movie like The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), adapted from the 1955 Sloan Wilson novel that begins, "By the time they had lived seven years in the little house on Greentree Avenue in Westport, Connecticut, they both detested it." Ironically, the self-conscious stylization of TV's Mad Men might have better served Revolutionary Road: It's artificial, but acknowledges that it's looking back at the American of half a century ago through the prism of everything that's happened since.


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RocknRolla


Written and Directed by: Guy Ritchie.
With: Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Idris Elba, Thandie Newton, Toby Kebbell, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Jeremy Piven, Jimi Mistry, Geoff Bell, Nonso Anozie, Karel Roden and Tom Hardy.

If it's a gritty gangster movie about London real estate, dishonor among thieves and old dogs resisting new tricks you want, get your hands on John Mackenzie and Barrie Keeffe's fatalistic The Long Good Friday (1980), which stars Bob Hoskins as a cockney villain whose house of cards inexplicably comes tumbling down just as he's on the verge of making a lucrative deal with American mobsters, Helen Mirren as his posh girlfriend and a young Pierce Brosnan as an IRA hit man. With Mike Hodges' brutally bleak Get Carter (1971), it ranks among Britain's finest crime films.

If, on the other hand, you're in the market for a mockney lark drunk on its own cleverness and bad-boy posturing, then dive right into Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla, an outlandish but sneakily entertaining romp through London's oh-so-colorful underworld. Now pay close attention, because if your attention strays you'll never pick up the threads of the ludicrously convoluted plot.

Roguish small-time crooks One Two (Butler) and Mumbles (Elba) — who, with pals Fred the Head (Bell) and Handsome Bob (Hardy), collectively style themselves "The Wild Bunch" — think they can make a killing by developing a decrepit but choicely located property. They borrow money from old-school crime boss Lenny Cole (Wilkinson) to buy it, unaware that they'll never get the permits they need because Lenny has the crooked politico (Mistry) who can grant them in his pocket. So Mumbles and One Two wind up mightily screwed: Lenny takes the property but doesn't forgive the debt. And to top it all off, there's a snitch in their midst, thanks to whom Handsome Bob is on his way to a long, lonely stretch in prison.

Lenny, meanwhile, is doing his own deal with gimlet-eyed Russian tycoon Uri Obomavich (Roden), who needs Lenny's connections to build a new soccer stadium. As a sign of good faith, Uri lends Lenny his lucky painting, which is promptly stolen right around the time Mumbles and One Two, who happens to be in cahoots (nudge nudge, wink wink) with Uri's sleekly duplicitous accountant, Stella (Newton), heist the dirty money he had earmarked for Lenny. By the time the last oh-so-ironic secret has been revealed, the confederacy of bottom feeders has expanded to include Lenny's despised, drug-addled stepson, supposedly dead punk rocker Johnny Quid (Kebbell); Johnny's former managers (Bridges, Piven); culture-loving thug Tank (Anozie); a pair of conniving junkies, Stella's effete, upper-crust husband and a couple of nightmarish Russian enforcers.

Richie is his own worst enemy. He systematically squandered the good will engendered by his gleefully stylized debut, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and by the time he cast his wife, Madonna, in an awesomely deracinated remake of Lina Wertmuller's bitterly provocative dissection of sexual and class warfare, Swept Away… by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August (1974), he was well on his way to the knackers with the rest of the one trick ponies.

RocknRolla may be a cynical attempt to reboot his career, but it's a smart one. The film is more of what people liked about Ritchie in the first place: Smarty pants dialogue peppered with witty East End slang; casual brutality mixed with enough cruel comedy to reassure viewers that it was just a bit of fun, nothing to take seriously; and a savvy mix of Tarantino-esque style and UK gangster iconography, dominated by swaggering celebrity sociopaths Reginald and Ronald Kray. Sure, the twins would shiv you as soon as look at you. But they didn't half have style, did they?


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Serbis

(2009)
Directed by: Brillante Ma. Mendoza.
Directed by: Armando Lao.
With: Gina Pareno, Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz, Coco Martin, Kristofer King, Dan Alvaro, Mercedes Cabral, Roxanne Jordan.

Three generations of Pinedas live together under one roof, but they're no bland advertisement for family values: They share that roof with the rundown porn theatre they own and manage, and their lives are almost as racy as the movies they show... For the complete review, please click here.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International


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Sexy Beast

(2000)
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer.
Written by: Louis Melli and David Scinto.
With:Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane, Amanda Redman, Cavan Kendall, Julianne White, Alvaro Monje, James Fox and Robert Atiko.

A color-saturated jolt of pure vicious energy, this darkly comic UK crime thriller has far more style than substance — but what style!

Forget the story, a tired rehash of "one last job" clichés: The main event is the Mamet-esque battle of foul words between vintage hard-case Ray Winstone and the seething sociopath played by Ben Kingsley. The film opens with middle-aged Gary "Gal" Dove (Winstone) sausaged into a brilliant yellow swimsuit and slowly broiling in the Spanish sun to the discordant strains of The Stranglers' "Peaches."

As Gal takes a half-hearted stroll around the pool, handheld fan buzzing, a gigantic boulder crashes into his pool, missing him by a hair's breadth. If Gal were superstitious, he'd recognize an omen. But he's just a laid-back thug who's left behind a life of bad deeds in England and settled into cushy, take-it-as-it-comes Costa del Sol retirement with his former porn-star wife, DeeDee (Amanda Redman). Even when best friends Aitch and Jackie (Kendall, White) show up quaking because gangster Don Logan (Kingsley) has called looking for Gal, he remains calm. Whatever Don wants, he'll just say he's not interested, Gal assures them. Don, it turns out, is assembling a crew for a London bank heist masterminded by oily boss-of-bosses Teddy Bass (McShane). They're going to rob a supposedly theft-proof safe-deposit vault by tunneling in from the Turkish bath next door, and Don wants Gary in — no ands, ifs or buts.

Gal goes, though because of the film's smoothly disjointed time frame — which glides sinuously between flashbacks, present-time action and the occasional dream sequence involving a deformed rabbit-beast — it's a while before we learn why Gal took the gig, or what prompted Don to pull a disappearing act that has the higher-ups in London asking pointed questions about when and where he was last seen.

Unlike many music video veterans, first-time feature director Jonathan Glazer is capable of getting out of an actor's way, and the movie benefits immeasurably. Viewers who persist in thinking of Kingsley as Gandhi will get a particularly rude shock from his performance here, which is by any standard a masterpiece of bubbling belligerence. The usually volatile Winstone is a slyly benevolent foil to his fury, and the supporting cast — notably McShane and seamy aristocrat James Fox, for whom slumming with villains ends exceptionally badly — hold up their end with apparently effortless aplomb.


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Sin City

(2005)
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller; Special Guest Director: Quentin Tarantino.
Written by: Frank Miller.
With: Josh Hartnett, Marley Shelton, Bruce Willis, Makenzie Vega, Nick Stahl, Powers Boothe, Mickey Rourke, Jaime King, Benecio Del Toro, Devon Aoki, Alexis Bledel and Jessica Alba.

Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels read as though the writer/illustrator fell into a hard-boiled vat of distilled Mickey Spillane, David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler and surfaced with eau de pulp oozing from his pores, and this ferociously faithful adaptation is the closest live-action filmmaking (extensively aided by CGI) has ever come to reproducing the visual aesthetic of comic-book art. Robert Rodriguez, who codirected with Miller, doesn't so much duplicate Miller's uncompromising black-and-white images spattered with gouts of primary color as cross them with the glistening grays of film noir and set them to a score that kicks off with a pulsating homage to Henry Mancini's "Theme from Peter Gunn."

The film opens with the vignette Rodriguez shot to convince Miller Sin City could be filmed, in which a soulful hit man (Hartnett) meets a fugitive dame (Shelton) in a glittering red dress, then launches into the story of world-weary, middle-aged Basin City Detective Hartigan (Willis). On the verge of retirement, he saves 11-year-old Nancy Callahan (Vega) from perverted rich boy Roark Jr. (Stahl), the son of powerful Senator Roark (Boothe), and works over Junior for good measure. The price of bucking a system firmly in thrall to the corrupt Roark family: Hartigan finds himself on trial for assault and child molestation.

As Hartigan is getting ground up in the wheels of injustice, hulking bad man Marv (Rourke, his face prostheticized into a cross between Jack Palance and an Easter Island monolith) has a date with an angel. Actually, she's a hooker named Goldie (King), but when she's killed and Marv is framed for her murder, he sets out on a single-minded rampage that leads to a freakish serial killer (Wood), corrupt Cardinal Roark (Hauer) and Goldie's twin sister. Elsewhere, stone-cold killer Dwight (Owen) comes home with a new face plastered over the same old bad attitude, and inadvertently sets in motion a chain of events that could lead to gang war in Old Town, where gun-toting hookers run the show.

Finally, the battered, eight-years-older Hartigan, 19-year-old stripper Nancy (Alba) and the vengeful, mustard-yellow monster that was once Rourk Jr. have their final showdown. The downside to fidelity to the graphic novels is that the stories are a hash of warmed-over genre clichés. But once you're good and drunk on the look, details like the tin-eared tough-guy dialogue (which sounds especially stilted issuing from flesh-and-blood mouths) don't seem so important. Tarantino fans take note: The "Special Guest Director" was responsible for a single scene involving Dwight and a chatty dead guy (Del Toro).


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Skeleton Frolics

(1937)
Directed by: Ub Iwerks.
Animated.

Black cats, spooky owls and a haunted tree bear witness to a late night jam session/dance off in the graveyard in animator Ub Iwerks' surreal, seven-minute, Technicolor remake Skeleton Frolics found a new audience when it was released with the sci-fi parody The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. of his own B&W short Skeleton Dance, made for Disney in 1929. Note the flauatist who gives his officious conductor the finger in Skeleton Dance: Some attitudes never change.


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Slumdog Millionaire


Directed by: Danny Boyle; Loveleen Tandan, co-director (India)
Written by: Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel Q&A, by Vikas Swarup.
With: Dev Patel, Tanay Hemant Chheda and Ayush Mahesh; Freida Pinto, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar and Rubina Ali; Madhur Mittal, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail; Anil Kapoor, Ankur Vikal and Irrfan Khan.

Adapted from first-time writer Swarup's 2005 novel, Q&A, UK filmmaker Danny Boyle's (28 Days Later, Trainspotting) picaresque tale follows its Candide-like hero from the gutter to the glittering heights of a TV game show that promises instant celebrity and riches. The story's contrivances wouldn't be out of place in a Bollywood musical, but they're wrapped in all-too-convincing squalor and misery that make the feel-good ending seem righteously earned.

Against all odds, 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Patel), the spawn of Mumbai's grimmest slums, has made it to the final round of India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and host/producer Prem Kumar (Kapoor, in his first English-language role), a sleek huckster with a gleaming shark smile, wants to know how. Better men than Jamal — doctors, lawyers, university professors — have failed where this stubborn slumdog has succeeded, and to add insult to hubris, he keeps on playing. He must realize he's already won more than he could reasonably expect to earn in a lifetime of serving tea to call-center employees, and yet he won't take the money and disappear, even though he risks everything with each new round. Kumar is convinced he's cheating, which is why, less than 24 hours before his last shot at the big brass ring, Jamal finds himself being brutally interrogated by a hard-nosed police inspector (Khan). The answer is both straightforward and preposterous: Jamal may be ignorant of things a middle-class 5-year-old would know, but the stars have aligned in his favor and the answer to question after question proves to be rooted the hardscrabble life Jamal relates to the inspector.

It begins in the fetid but vibrant shantytown where 7-year-old Jamal (Khedekar) and his older brother, Salim (Ismail), lose their mother during the 1992 Bombay Riots, when Hindu mobs armed with clubs and torches turned on their Sikh and Muslim neighbors. Orphaned and alone, the boys learn to fend for themselves, and street life quickly lays bare their fundamental natures. Pragmatic Salim purges himself of softness and sentiment, while Jamal stubbornly looks for evidence of good amidst Dickensian squalor and casual cruelty.

It's Jamal who spots the bedraggled Latika (Ali) shivering in the rain and persuades Salim to let her share their makeshift shelter, and Jamal's childish crush intensifies after the children are separated. His determination to find and rescue Latika insulates Jamal against the dog-eat-dog nihilism that eventually claims Salim (Mittal), but his quest seems doomed. Jamal has already found and lost her twice, once as an adolescent (Lonkar) and once as an adult (Pinto); what are the odds that he'll get another chance?

Strip away the exotic details and Slumdog Millionaire's roots become clear: It's Oliver Twist for the global world, a pitiless portrait of life defined and deformed by abject poverty made palatable by the promise that virtue will be rewarded. The injustices visited upon Jamal and Latika are as cruel as those Charles Dickens brought down on poor Oliver 170 years earlier. Slumdog's corrupt pied piper, Mamon (Vikal), who lures abandoned children into lives of crime and vice, is Fagin with a tan;-virtue's vindication comes in the form of a windfall tailored to the times — Oliver comes into an unexpected inheritance, while Jamal hits the game-show jackpot. Both are sophisticated fairy tales — anyone who thinks Dickens was a naïve sentimentalist hasn't read Great Expectations — and both are hugely satisfying. Who wouldn't like to believe, if only for two hours, that a steadfast heart and the power of love can transcend grinding poverty, violence, brutal exploitation and entrenched indifference? And I suspect cynics want to believe most of all.


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Southland Tales

(2007)
Written and Directed by: Richard Kelly.
With: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Curtis Armstrong, Joe Campana, Nora Dunn, Michele Durrett, Beth Grant, Wood Harris, John Larroquette, Bai Ling, Wallace Shawn, Jon Lovitz, Christopher Lambert, Mandy Moore, Holmes Osborne, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Lou Taylor Pucci, Miranda Richardson, Rebekah Del Rio, Justin Timberlake, Janeane Garafolo, Jill Ritchie and Zelda Rubinstein.

Poorly received at the Cannes Film Festival and viciously reviled by many reviewers, writer-director Richard Kelly's follow-up to 2001's Donnie Darko is a wildly ambitious, occasionally stunning vision of the pop apocalypse by way of David Lynch, the book of Revelation, Philip K. Dick, T.S. Eliot and Robert Aldrich's blistering adaptation of Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly.

July 5, 2005, Abilene, Texas: The first of a series of co-ordinated nuclear strikes against mid-sized American cities launches a shadow WWIII. Oil prices soar and the German-based Westphalen company — headed by new-age gargoyle Baron Von Westphalen (Shawn) — steps into the breach with a revolutionary source of hydro-electric energy called "fluid karma," which is also a powerful mind-blowing drug. The draft has been reinstated, Iraq-war veterans on offshore platforms patrol the California shoreline and cyberspace has been placed under government control via the USIDent corporation.

Action-movie idol Boxer Santeros (Johnson) — who's married to Madeline Frost (Moore), the daughter of powerful Republican vice-presidential candidate Senator Bobby Frost (Osborne) — was kidnapped under deeply mysterious circumstances and subsequently re-emerged in the Los Angeles area (the titular "Southland") stripped of his memory. He's now shacked up with hardcore porn princess and socially-conscious, aspiring queen of all media Krysta Kapowski (Gellar) — who's reinvented herself as Krysta Now! — with whom he co-wrote a screenplay called "The Power," which seems to predict the events leading into an ever-more dystopian future. Meanwhile, porn director/"international documentary filmmaker" Cyndi Pinziki (Dunn) is fomenting revolution, as are spoken word artists Dion and Dream (Harris, Poehler); left wing anarchist Zora Carmichaels (Oteri) and her lover, maniac cop Bart Bookman (Lovitz); arms dealer Walter Mung (Lambert), who plies his wares from an ice cream truck, and identical-twin nut-cases Roland and Ronald Taverner (Scott), one of whom is going to save the world. The film is narrated by Iraqi-war veteran Private Abilene (Timberlake) &mdash who gets a full-fledged musical number, to the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done" — and populated with the eccentric cast to end all eccentric casts: In addition to those already mentioned, Rebekah Del Rio (of Lynchs' Mulholland Drive), Janeane Garofalo as General Teena MacArthur, John Larroquette as political advisor Vaughn Smallhouse, slinky Bai Ling (as Von Westphalen's dragon lady, Serpentine), Miranda Richardson as First-Lady wannabe Nana Mae Frost, Sab Shimono as a deeply compromised Japanese premier and Poltergeist's diminutive Zelda Rubinstein.

And there's more… much, much more; though not as much as Cannes audiences saw — at 161 minutes it's a good 20 minutes shorter and clarified by Abilene's annoying voice over. But enough of that: Kelly's apocalypto stylings add up to less than the sum of their parts, but along the way Southland Tales delivers both overwrought tedium and mind-bending beauty, spiked with brilliant throwaway images that more than make up for Kelly's heavy-handed hot-button pretensions.


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The Spirit

(2008)
Directed by: Frank Miller.
Written by: Miller, based on the comic strips by Will Eisner.
With: Gabriel Macht, Samula L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, Louis Lombardi, Sarah Paulson and Paz Vega.

Miller's much-anticipated adaptation of legendary comics writer Will Eisner's The Spirit is a swell-looking dame of a movie, a noir-ish femme fatale whose mysterious beauty vanishes the minute she opens her mouth because Miller's screenplay is as nail-scrapingly tone-deaf as his imagery is seductive.

Once upon a time, Denny Colt (Macht) was a Central City beat cop, an idealistic young lawman felled in the line of duty. A sad story often told, except that Colt's had a twist ending: He crawled out of his grave and reinvented himself as the Spirit, a masked, pure-hearted vigilante devoted to making Central City safe for decent citizens. The Spirit has forged an alliance with gruff Police Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria) and found a flamboyant nemesis in the Octopus (Jackson), a rogue scientist attended by sexy sidekick Silken Floss (Johansson) and a small army of tubby, none-too-bright clones (Lombardi) with silly names. As luck would have it, both the Octopus and the Spirit's childhood girlfriend, Sand Seref (Mendes), are both looking for exotic ancient artifacts and wouldn't you know, each winds up in possession of what the other wants and all manner of contrived complications ensue. The Spirit, naturally, is caught right in the middle.

Though Miller is a well-known Eisner enthusiast, it's hard to imagine a worse choice to make The Spirit: His cynical, nihilistic sensibilities are the antithesis of Eisner's Depression-era humanism and deep empathy for the lost, downtrodden and forgotten. Worse, Miller tinkers with the Spirit's essential nature: He's a dead man walking, but that anomaly aside, he's a regular guy. No superpowers, no exceptional skills, no arsenal of high-tech crime-fighting gadgets, just a deep sense of justice and the willingness to take the punishment that would otherwise go to ordinary men, women and children just trying to get through the day.

Miller turns him into a superhero cliche by way of preternatural healing powers a la X-Men's Wolverine; the only way to kill him (again) is to cut him into tiny pieces and scatter them far enough apart that they can never stitch themselves back together, something the Octopus threatens in a lengthy, tastelessly imagined sequence in which he and Floss prance around in Nazi gear and sieg heil to the tune of Deutchland Uber Alles. The Octopus also kills a fwuffy wittle kitty named Muffin with an awful chemical of his own invention, a scene presumably intended to show what a dastardly supervillain he is but which comes dangerously close to equating six million murdered Jews with one wide-eyed kitten. And not to be super-geeky, but the scene in which he toys with a tiny mutated product of his lab — a tiny living head atop an oversized foot — is a shameless lift from the scene in 1990's Bride of Re-Animator (1990) in which mad scientist Herbert West is castigated for his "morbid doodling with human body parts."

Make no mistake: The Spirit is gorgeous, a symphony of silvery grey-tones punctuated by slashes of red. But looks can't compensate for Macht's tone-deaf voice-over ruminations (Harrison Ford's much-reviled voice-over in Blade Runner is pulp poetry by comparison), the shamelessly objectified female characters (Eva Mendes' ass gets so much screen time it deserves its own billing) and Jackson's insanely overplayed Octopus, whose excesses are scaled to an Austin Powers-style spoof.

Guaranteed to dismay those who love Eisner's original comic strips, The Spirit is also bound to disappoint fans of 300 and Sin City, beside which it seems arch, stilted and just plain dopey. It takes a certain genius to alienate two such completely different sets of potential viewers, but it's not the kind of genius that should be encouraged or bankrolled.


Stardust

   

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Stag

(1997)
Directed by: Gavin Wilding.
Written by: Pat Bermel and Evan Tylor, based on a story by Jason Schombing.
With: Mario Van Peebles, Andrew McCarthy, Kevin Dillon, Taylor Dayne, John Stockwell, John Henson, William McNamara, Jerry Stiller, Jenny McShane and Ben Gazzara.

A harrowing tale of a bachelor party gone very, very wrong, Stag debuted on HBO, slunk onto video with no fanfare and would have vanished without a trace had not actor-turned-director Peter Berg's Very Bad Things — a Hollywood production graced with a bigger budget, more generous advertising campaign and strikingly similar story — opened theatrically the following year.

Lawyer Michael (Mario Van Peebles) has planned a surprise bachelor for his soon-to-be-married partner Victor (Stockwell, complete with eight of Victor's closest friends — including Timan (Henson), Jon (McNamara), Vic's Uncle Frank (Gazzara), Danny (Dillon), a veteran with Gulf War Syndrome, and sleazy dealer Pete (McCarthy) — and a pair of strippers, sisters Serena and Kelly (singer Dayne, who scared a 1987 hit with "Tell it to My Heart," and McShane), who arrive with bodyguard Stoker (Prael).

The fun and games turn ugly when the increasingly inebriated guests do an Indian blanket toss with Kelly and drop her, breaking her neck. Stoker pulls a gun and shoots Danny; Pete returns fire. With Pete on parole and the others terrified that their reputations and careers are on the line, the panicked partygoers decide to hold Serena captive until they can decide whether they should try to buy her off or just kill her. Pete, meanwhile, has an ace in the hole: He's discovered that groom-to-be Victor is a closeted homosexual. As the night wears on, the friends inevitably begin to turn on each other.

One-time brat-pack cutie McCarthy's performance as the sleazy, repellent Pete is the film's highlight, but he's ably supported by Van Peebles, Dillon (later of TV's Entourage and veterans Stockwell, Stiller and Gazzara. Despite a flurry of media interest in the similarities between Stag and Very Bad Things, no legal action was ever taken.


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State of Play (2003)

(2003)
Directed by: David Yates.
Written by: Paul Abbott.
With: John Simm, David Morrissey, Kelly MacDonald, Bill Nighy, James McAvoy, Marc Warren, Philip Glenister, Polly Walker, James Laurenson, Michael Feast and Shauna MacDonald.

Written by Paul Abbott and directed by David Yates (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), this six-hour BBC thriller was remade as a 2009 Hollywood feature starring Ben Affleck and Russell Crowe.

London, 2003: A young black man runs through the streets of Soho, pursuded by a man who eventually kills him in cold blood; a bike messenger who happens by at the wrong time is coldly dispatched as well. By the time the investigation has run its course, it has focused a cold, clear light on the shady dealings of power brokers, spin doctors and wheeler dealers who generally stay well clear of the media and stained the lives of dozens of journalists, politicians and police officers.

Member of Parliament Stephen Collins (Basic Instinct 2 star Morrissey), a mediagenic up-and-comer who's being groomed for bigger and better things, is chairing a high-profile inquiry into energy policies. On the first day of public hearings, he's late to work because underground service was abruptly shut down in the middle of the morning rush hour. Collins is greeted with the news that his lead researcher, Sonia Baker (Shauna MacDonald), is dead, apparently by her own hand. Collins agrees to make public a statement, but his visible distress triggers a firestorm of rumors that he and Sonia were having an affair, which in fact they were.

As Collins' mentor, George Fergus (Laurenson), and spin-doctor Andrew Wilson (Feast) attempt to manage the situation, his already rocky marriage to Anne (Walker) implodes; it doesn't help that she first hears about the scandal on television. Unable to go home, Collins turns to old friend and one-time campaign manager Cal McCaffrey (Simm, of the original Life on Mars), who now writes for the muckraking "Herald." Thrust into an awkward ethical situation, McCaffrey simultaneously advises Collins about handling the press and begins investigating Baker's death. With his less-experienced but ambitious colleague, Della Smith (Kelly MacDonald), McCaffrey starts running down leads and comkes across the curious fact that 15-year-old purse snatcher Kelvin Stagg called Baker the morning they both died. What possible connection could there be between the murder of a teenaged crook and the accidental death of a government employee?

McCaffrey has stumbled onto the story of a lifetime, as his cynical yet fundamentally principled editor, Cameron Foster (Nighy), is quick to realize. That there's clearly a cover up progress, starting with the police department's insistence that Stagg was killed because he was a drug dealer — a charge Stagg's family vigorously denies — only makes it better. But the magnitude of the corruption McCaffrey uncovers shocks even the most cynical among his Fleet Street peers and the closer McCaffrey gets to uncovering the identity of the man at the center of the web, the more his last shred of faith in the order of things is shaken.

Like Traffik before it, Yates and Abbot's State of Play was radically simplified to fit the parameters of a two-hour theatrical film. And while the remake is admirably intelligent and well acted, the original surpasses it in every way, seamlessly weaving together the lives of politicians, journalists, junkies, businessmen, policemen and fringe players, most of whom have no idea that they're connected to each other. Like Traffik (), which was transformed into the Oscar-winning film Traffic (), the original State of Play has the luxury of time… time to develop subplots, flesh out characters and give the top-notch cast — which includes Kelly Macdonald (No Country for Old Men), Simms' Life on Mars co-star Philip Glenister (), Nighy, Walker and James McAvoy (as a relentless muckraker whose estranged dad just happens to be Simms' boss) — time to explore their characters' subtle nuances.

Smart, provocative and deeply satisfying the original State of Play is well-worth seeking out, regardless of what you thought of the US do-over.


The Strangers

   

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Surfwise

(2008)
Written and Directed by: Doug Pray.
Documentary

Chalk up another family for the Leo Tolstoy/Philip Larkin file: The Paskowitz family is unhappy in its own unique way and mum and dad fucked them up — they didn't mean to, but they did.

Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz was born on March 3, 1921 in Galveston, Texas, but found his calling – surfing -- in San Diego, where his family moved when he was a teenager. Paskowitz attended Stanford University, became a medical doctor and appeared headed for a successful career in public health administration and perhaps even politics.

But Paskowitz hated the mainstream rat race and loved riding waves, eventually reshaping his life to accommodate a world view rooted in such then-radical concepts as mindful eating, sustainable living and mind-body harmony. After two failed marriages, Paskowitz discovered holistic, guilt-free sex to his world view, and found his soul mate in his third and final wife, Juliette: They eventually raised nine children — eight sons and a daughter— in a succession of 24-foot campers, moving from beach to beach in search of the perfect wave and ruled by their father's dogmatic ideas about clean living, sexual openness and the evils of money. Doc Paskowitz admired the natural grace and holistic integrity of animals and tried to raise his children accordingly; but as Salvador, the next-to-youngest son, observes, being raised like apes is fine until you have to deal with people who weren't: When they boys left home, he says, they found that women "didn't want to be married to animals."

Documentarian Doug Pray's clear-eyed and even-handed portrait of the Paskowitz clan is provocative in the best sense of the word: It both recognizes the ideological prescience of Doc Paskowitz's off-the-grid life and acknowledges the inevitable fallout. He gives Paskowitz enough screen time to hang himself; his ideas about freedom and family are as narcissistic and self-serving as they are free-spirited, and his assertion that his family is a thoroughly conventional one is either disingenuous or self-deluded. Pray parses the difference between what outsiders saw – a handsome, healthy family living an enviable, gypsy-like existence, dedicated to surfing as a pure expression of harmony with nature – and the more complicated upbringing the now-adult Paskowitz children remember through their reminiscences, which never degenerate into whining. They all know their childhoods made them the creative, fiercely individualistic people they are (eldest son David suggests that they grew up like "nine only children"), but also left them woefully unprepared to live in mainstream society. And yet one still concludes that "a flawed family that sticks together is better than no family at all," and after ten years of estrangement, all accept Doc's invitation to attend a family reunion in Hawaii: Few documentaries parse the complexities of family dynamics so effectively.


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Taken

(2008)
Directed by: Pierre Morel.
Written by: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen.
With: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Olivier Rabourdin, Leland Orser, Xander Berkeley, Katie Cassidy, Gerard Watkins and Holly Valance.

A bizarre mix of sentimentality and bone-cracking violence, this Hardcore/Not Without My Daughter hybrid pits a determined father against the thuggish Albanian sex traffickers who kidnapped daddy's little girl as she vacationed in Paris.

Bryan Mills (Neeson) always put work ahead of family, which wasn't entirely his fault: When you're a covert government agent whose professional life is a never-ending tour of the world's hellholes, it can be tough to make those ballet recitals and father-daughter dances. But Kim (Grace, of TV's Lost) is nearly 17, and Mills realizes that without swift and appropriate action, he's going to lose his little girl for good. So he retires, moves to California to be near the palatial estate where Kim lives with her mother (Janssen) and super-rich, thoroughly devoted stepfather (Berkeley), and tries to repair the damage. It's not the kind of mission he's prepared for. Rescuing Kim when she's kidnapped on the first day of her European vacation with adventurous pal Amanda (Cassidy)… well, that's another story.

With a handful of clues, a little help from his friends and the "very particular set of skills" he amassed over the course of years spent doing bad things for good reasons. Mills sets out to rescue his little girl before she's transformed from a sheltered virgin with a bright future into a hopeless, drug-addicted, underage whore. Knowing that he has about 96 hours before she vanishes forever into the shadows of the international sex trade, Mills hurtles from sordid brothels to no-tell hotels to the haunts of the very rich and depraved, taking no prisoners but and a formidable arsenal along the way.

Taken doesn't hit the ground running, but it makes up for lost time once Mills' family problems and hard-boiled bona fides are established. Luc Besson protege Pierre Morel, who made his directing debut with the underrated District B13 — another hopped up tale of family ties and grueling feats of serring do — knows how to direct action and appears to appreciate the fact that he's got an actor of Neeson's caliber ho also looks as though he could deliver a serious beating. As well he should, because Neeson stands between Taken and direct-to-dvd idiocy: He's a convincing tough guy who isn't afraid to tear up at the thought of his daughter being manhandled by the scum of the earth. The screenplay, by Besson and frequent collaborator Robert Mark Kamen, quickly goes from over-heated to thoroughly preposterous, but Neeson's quiet gravity makes it feel almost believable until the sappier-than-sappy conclusion, which involves Kim's dearest wish and the unlikely gratitude of a pre-fab pop tart (Valance) whom Mills rescued from a backstage assassination attempt while working a freelance security gig. Imagine Britney Spears in the closing scene and you won't be able to stop laughing.


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300

(2007)
Directed by:Zack Snyder.
Written by: Michael Gordon, Kurt Johnstad and Snyder, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.
With: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Vincent Regan, Tom Wisdom, Michael Fassbender, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan and Rodrigo Santoro.

Do not — repeat do not — make the mistake of cribbing for ancient-history class by skipping Herodotus in favor of this larger-than-legend version of the Battle of Thermopylae, which pitted a coalition of Greek forces led by a mere 300 Spartan warriors against a Persian army so vast the earth shook when it marched. Zach Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller's ultraviolent graphic novel is pure brawny spectacle, teaming with beasts, blood, brains (splattered), battle axes and rock-ribbed warriors dressed in swirling scarlet capes and tiny, fetishistic, leather man-panties.

480 BC: Warned by an emissary from the Persian god-king Xerxes (Santoro, a sexually ambiguous vision in gold, and not much else) that his master is determined to enslave the entire known world, Spartan King Leonidas (Butler) gathers an elite cadre of warriors to defend the free citizens of Greece. The men set out for Thermopylae, a narrow pass near the coast where the martial expertise of the Spartans (supplemented by thousands of raw but enthusiastic volunteers from other Greek city states) may stand a chance against the sheer numbers under Xerxes' command.

And were it not for the hunchbacked traitor Ephialtes (Tiernan), they might have won. Much of the film's visceral (in both senses of the word) impact comes from seeing the Spartans and their allies repelling wave after wave of everything Xerxes can throw at them: Thousands of archers, armored elephants and rhinoceroses, Xerxes' 10,000 "Immortals" (whom Miller conceives as ninjas in silver kabuki masks) and much, much more, run aground on the sheer, sinewy strength of men raised from birth to fight to their last breath.

Meanwhile, in Sparta, Queen Gorgo (Headey, of TV's The Sarah Connor Chronicles) defends the home front against an opportunistic alliance of scrofulous mystic priests with rotted visages (the resemblance to STAR WARS' Emperor Palpatine is uncanny), and a group of rule-bound councilmen and weasels vulnerable to the machinations of the duplicitous, ambitious Theron (West, of TV's The Wire). Inspired by seeing the stodgy Hollywood epic The 300 Spartans (1962) as a child, Miller reimagined the Battle of Thermopylae in operatically mythic terms well served by full-out CGI: The actors and handheld props are real, but everything else is computer generated, free from the constraints of sets, locations (Thermopylae is now the site of a highway), weather and physical reality. The result is an alternate reality of metallic skies, desaturated landscapes and literally bestial foes, peopled with flesh-and-blood men so pumped and stripped of body fat that they look as heroically unreal as the digital demons. It may not be by-the-book history — a relative term in any event, when discussing the ancients whose worldview embraced men, gods and monsters — but what a spectacle!


The Three Stooges

 

A misbegotten attempt to revive the anarchic slapstick antics of the trio who scandalized generations of parents and update it for 21st-century audiences. Bottom line: However vulgar, corny and juvenile the real Stooges could be, they actually were funny.

We first meet the Stooges when a sack is rudely tossed onto the doorstep of an orphanage run by nuns. Inside are three babies whom the sisters find so adorable that they squabble—graciously, of course, as befits such pious ladies—over who gets to feed, bathe and cuddle them.

Cut to: Now ten, the boys are such hellions that the blessed brides of Jesus are reduced to squabbling rather less than decorously over who has to deal with them. After Mother Superior (Jane Lynch), whose belief in their fundamental goodness has survived a decade of challenges, discovers them preparing to perform surgery on Sister Mary-Mengele (Larry David), even she's up for getting rid of them. Enter the wealthy, childless Harters (Stephen Collins, Carly Craig), who are looking to adopt a child; with any luck the sisters can guilt them into taking the terrible trio. Of course, that means hiding all the other children, because no one in his or her right mind would choose Moe, Larry and Curly (Skyler Gisondo, Lance Chantiles-Wertz and Robert Capron) if they thought there were another option. In the end, the Harters choose Moe, only to return him when he decides he can't leave Larry and Curly and instead adopt the adorable Teddy (Jake Peck).

Cut to: Now adults, Moe (Chris Diamantopolos), Larry (Sean Hayes) and Curly (Will Sasso) still live at the orphanage, supposedly earning their keep as handymen and groundskeepers despite the fact that everything they touch sets off a chain reaction of escalating disaster: Send them up a bell tower to do repairs and you can be sure that the bell will come tumbling down and cold-cock someone. To be fair, though, they do love kids and kids love them—especially poor, sickly little Murph (Avalon Robbins)—and they're utterly devoted to the kindly sisters. So the boys are hit hard by the news that the orphanage will shut down in 30 days unless some miracle produces $830,000 to pay off its delinquent tax bill. How can they not try to raise the money?

Next thing you know, the boys immediately get themselves entangled in a murder-for-hire plot concocted by gold-digger Lydia (Sofia Vergara, of TV's American Family), who wants her much-older husband out of the way sooner rather than later. By the time their great adventure is over, they will have reconnected with the grown Teddy (Kirby Heyborne), donned drag to play nurses (apparently there are no male nurses in Stooge World), nearly killed a dolphin with a peanut, discovered the world of reality TV (Moe is tapped to join the cast of “Jersey Shore”), and exposed Lydia and her lover (Craig Bierko) for the very bad people they are.

The fact that writer-director brothers Bobby and Peter Farrelly have for years sung their devotion to The Three Stooges

to anyone who would listen makes the tone-deafness of this update just that little bit more perplexing. I'm no fan of the real Stooges—What woman is?—but could never deny that they had razor-sharp timing, all-in dedication to pushing a gag as far as it could be pushed and, above all, a chemistry that made their characters seem naively befuddled by the world's complexities rather than grotesque.

Diamantopoulos, Hayes and Sasso clearly did their homework and hit all the familiar notes, from n'yuk-n'yuk-n'yuk to wooo-wooo-wooo, but not one rings true; they come off as awkward imitations rather than organic reinterpretations. And that makes the brutal violence of their gags—from eye-pokes to bitch-slaps—all the more glaringly unpleasant: Any parent who wants to relive the fun of seeing the old Three Stooges shorts on TV with his kids (and yes, it would be his; moms looking to introduce their kids to such antics are thin on the ground) would do better to invest in a DVD of the real thing.


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The Tracker

(2003)
Written, Produced and Directed by: Rolf de Heer.
With: David Gulpilil, Gary Sweet, Damon Gameau, Grant Page and Noel Wilton.

A slow burn of a revisionist western, writer-director de Heer's spare, leisurely revenge drama has the brutally existential tone of certain lean, mean Italian westerns that were overshadowed in their own time by the operatic grandeur of films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). So stripped down the characters don't even have names, just functions, it begins in medias res.

1922, Australia: The aboriginal tracker (Gulpilil) leads a posse of three white men, the fanatic (Sweet), the follower (Gareau) and the veteran (Page), into the Outback. Their quarry: A black fugitive (Wilton) accused of murdering a white woman. As the group presses deeper into the scrubby, sun-baked wilderness, the fanatic terrorizes and murders an inoffensive group of aboriginal men and women, forcing the follower and the veteran to admit that their commanding officer is a sociopath. But they're also trapped: If they abandon the manhunt and manage to make it back to civilization, they'll face criminal charges; if they stay, they face a trip straight into the heart of darkness. The relationship between the fanatic and the enigmatic tracker, who obsequiously defers to his boss while joking slyly at his expense, dominates the story.

Convinced that aboriginal people are inferior to whites, the fanatic belittles the tracker and puts him in chains, yet speaks his tracker's language and deeply respects his wilderness skills. A long, eloquent speech that pivots on the notion of the white man's burden eventually exposes the extent of the fanatic's capacity for self-deception. De Heer probes a series of uncomfortable issues, including the racial theories that produced Australia's "stolen generation" (the subject of 2002's Rabbit-Proof Fence and gives David Gulpilil, who made his debut in 1971's Walkabout, the strongest, most complex role of his career.

But what many viewers will remember most strongly are the jarring devices with which de Heer undermines his film's overall sense of bleak reality. He represents the violent sequences through artist Peter Coad's primitive paintings and uses story songs performed by aboriginal musician Archie Roach to reiterate and comment on the action. De Heer's apparent intent is irreproachable — depicting violence without exploiting its lurid allure and using Roach's voice as an articulate counterpart to Gulpilil's near-silence — but the result is annoying. Still, the film's bleakly inevitable ending packs a wallop and its hauntingly desolate images linger long after the story is told.


The Unborn

   

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V for Vendetta

(2003)
Directed by: James McTeigue.
Written by: Andy and Larry Wachowski, based on the graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd and published by Vertigo/DC Comics written by Alan Moore (uncredited).
With: Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Tim Pigott-Smith, Rupert Graves, Roger Allam, Ben Miles, Sinead Cusack, Natasha Wightman, John Standing and Eddie Marsan.

Brutally gorgeous and seething with incendiary images, the Wachowski brothers' monumental call to revolution (don't be fooled by the fact that they're only credited as writers; it's their show all the way), based on Alan Moore's gloomy graphic novel about a masked madman who restores anarchy to the U.K., is a vivid but muddled pulp political parable.

England, 2020: The citizens of Shakespeare's "scepter'd isle" writhe beneath the boot of Big Brother-like leader Adam Sutler (Hurt), whose party snatched power from the chaos 10 years earlier. Where once there was rioting in the streets and the ever-present threat of a man-made plague, London is quiet and safe. The price: ruthless social conformity, constant government surveillance and swift, vicious retaliation against anyone who dares speak out against the suppression of personal freedoms. Sutler's totalitarian regime has purged England of degenerate art, immoral books and corrupting movies, scrubbed the airwaves clean of everything but censored news, smirking comedies and patriotic rants by hate-monger Lewis Prothero (Allam), and cleared the alleys and shadowdy doors of lurking thugs by recruiting them to serve as government enforcers known as "Fingermen."

A brutish knot of Fingermen is about to assault pretty Evey (Portman), a low-level office worker at the state-run TV service who's foolishly ventured out after curfew, when they're interrupted by a black-clad phantom in a grinning mask of Guy Fawkes, the 17th-century Catholic rebel who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the hopes of destabilizing the Protestant government. Evey's rescuer, who calls himself "V," merely blows up the Statue of Justice atop the Old Bailey courthouse, watching from a nearby rooftop with Evey at his side, then hijacks the airwaves to warn that one year hence, on November 5 — the anniversary of Fawkes' gunpowder plot — he's going to blow up the houses of Parliament.

That's more than enough to make him public enemy No. 1 even before Prothero is murdered and the investigation points to V, who may have survived a hellish sojourn in a secret government internment camp called Lark Hill. And though thrown in with V by merest chance, Evey is gradually persuaded that his vision of liberating anarchy may be England's only hope.

Moore had his name removed from the film's credits, but V for Vendetta isn't the flat-out disaster that League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) was. It is simplistic and mired in the Wachowskis' efforts to weave together current world events and attitudes firmly rooted in English discontents of the late 1970s. And there's something deeply ironic about the fact that its opening was delayed after July 2005 terrorist attacks on London's mass-transit system. The official story was that the filmmakers needed additional postproduction time.


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Very Bad Things

(1998)
Written and Directed by: Peter Berg.
With: Jon Favreau, Leland Orser, Cameron Diaz, Christian Slater, Jeremy Piven, Daniel Stern, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Joey Zimmerman, Tyler Malinger and Carla Scott.

Actor-turned-director Berg's vicious black comedy starts at a bachelor party and ends in some fetid circle of hell. The road that leads from one to the other is paved with the worst possible intentions and is frequently horrifyingly funny.

Groom-to-be Kyle (Favreau, who directedsuch films as Swingers and the 2008 blockbuster Iron Man) is a regular schlub ripe to be led astray. His fiancee, Laura (Diaz), has lived every minute of her life to date anticipating the perfect wedding, and nothing — nothing — will stop her realizing her cherished princess fantasies.

The friends who arrange Kyle's stag party are fast-talking Boyd (Slater), who's spent way too much time getting in touch with his inner Neanderthal; quiet Moore (Orser); and sparring brothers Adam and Michael (Stern and Entourage star-in-the-making Piven), respectively the mature family man and the boisterous ne'er-do-well. The bachelor bash they mastermind starts with drugs, liquor and general testosterone-fueled horsing around, and ends in the accidental death of a stripper (Scott), which is bad enough before Boyd persuades the others that their best course of action is to hide the body and pretend the whole thing never happened. What happens after is the stuff of nightmares.

Berg, who went on to direct the high-school football drama Friday Night Lights (2004), made an astonishing debut with Very Bad Things: Mordant comedy is fiendishly difficult to pull off (the adage should go, "Dying is easy, black comedy is hard"), and Berg nailed the slippery tone more regularly than many more experienced filmmakers.Frat-house hijinks notwithstanding, no one is spared Berg's withering gaze — not disabled children, not supportive wives and certainly not Laura, whom Diaz plays as the demonic twin of her sunny bride-to-be in My Best Friend's Wedding (1997).

Very Bad Things was the subject of some unwanted press when people began pointing out that its premise was strikingly similar to those of the 1997 Stag, which debuted on cable and quickly went to home video, but nothing ever came of it.


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The Visitor

(2008)
Written and Directed by: Tom McCarthy.
With: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass, Marian Seldes and Richard Kind.

Actor-filmmaker Tom McCarthy's second feature proves that his remarkable debut was no fluke: Like The Station Agent (2003), it's a beautifully acted drama about unlikely friendships taking root under unusual circumstances.

Widowed economics professor Walter Vale (Jenkins) began withdrawing from the world when he lost his wife, a classical pianist. He teaches by rote, barely interacts with his students and isn't writing his new book; pretty much the only thing he is doing is studying piano, joylessly and in spite of his evident lack of aptitude.

Forced to attend a conference in New York and present the paper he ostensibly cowrote with a promising younger colleague, he gloomily returns to the modest Manhattan co-op he's barely visited since his wife's death. To his shock, there's a young couple living in his apartment: A real-estate scam artist "rented" it to Lebanese-Syrian musician Tarek (Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Gurira).

They hastily pack their few belongings and go, but when it becomes clear to Walter that they have nowhere to go, his atrophied sense of common decency forces him to invite them to stay until they've made other arrangements. Against his will, Walter warms to the couple — Zainab maintains a politely wary distance, but outgoing Tarek is hard to resist; Walter even accepts his offer of drumming lessons. Both are undocumented and struggling to build a life far from their troubled homelands, eking out a living while trying to stay off the government radar: He plays the djembe with local jazz bands hile she sells custom-made jewelry at a Soho flea market.

But when Tarek is arrested — erroneously — for fare beating, his illegal status comes to light and he's detained pending deportation. Zainab can't get involved without risking deportation herself, so Walter steps in and gets a rude introduction to the Kafka-esque ways of post 9/11 Citizenship and Immigration Services. And then Tarek's mother, Mouna (Abbass), turns up, desperate to help her son and puzzled by this near-stranger who suddenly occupies such a significant place in his life.

While The Station Agent took place in a self-contained, slightly unreal world, McCarthy's follow-up is equally concerned with private lives and the larger cultural factors that shape them. It's a delicate balancing act, and the fact that McCarthy pulls it off is a minor marvel; in other hands, The Visitor could have beeen a saccharine tale of an anhedonic white guy getting his groove back via colorful colored folks.

But the issues don't overwhelm the relationships, and Zainab, Tarek and Mouna are never reduced to vehicles for the redemption of a privileged white man. McCarthy's flawless casting may be the film's greatest strength: Veteran character actor Jenkins and his costars vanish into their characters — their performances are so subtle and unforced that they don't feel like performances at all.


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Walk the Line

(2005)
Directed by: James Mangold.
Written by: James Mangold and Gill Dennis, based on Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography, by Johnny Cash.
With: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts, Dan John Miller, Larry Bagby, Shelby Lynne, Tyler Hilton, Waylon Malloy Payne, Shooter Jennings, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Dan Beene, Ridge Canipe, Lucas Till and Clay Steakley.

James Mangold's chronicle of the wild highs and hard lows of gravel-voiced country-music icon Johnny Cash is conventional to the core, but it gets a blast of pure, hard-driving energy from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon's vividly realized performances as the troubled Man in Black and the steady love of his life, June Carter Cash.

1968: As the 36-year-old Cash (Phoenix), a bona fide shooting star, prepares to record a live album at Folsom Prison — his first step back from an drawn-out personal and professional flameout — the film flashes back to Dyess, Arkansas, 24 years earlier.

Twelve-year-old John Cash (Canipe) and his slightly older brother, Jack (Till), quietly nurse dreams of escape from hardscrabble farm life; aspiring preacher Jack studies the Bible by candlelight and John thrills to voices on the radio, especially that of bubbly 15-year-old June Carter, whose family almost single-handedly dragged country music out of the hollers and into the mainstream. Their father, Ray (Patrick), drinks; their long-suffering mother (country star Lynne) retreats into gospel standards from the "Heavenly Highway Hymnal;" and everything goes to hell when Jack dies in a gruesome circular-saw accident. The Devil took the wrong boy, howls the distraught Ray, and by 1955 Johnny is well on his way to proving he really is bad to the bone. Married to his high-school sweetheart (Goodwin) and the father of a growing family, the up-and-coming singer-songwriter takes to the road with a gang of handsome hell-raisers, including Jerry Lee Lewis (Payne) and Elvis Presley (Hilton), more than keeping up with their pill-popping, hard-drinking, lady-killing antics. The lone girl on the tour is none other than June Carter (Witherspoon), whom Johnny woos through two marriages, one ugly divorce and single motherhood, even as his 10-year determination to win her love shatters his personal life and escalating substance abuse tarnish his professional reputation.

Drawn from Cash's Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography and supplemented by Mangold's interviews with Carter and Cash (who died within months of each other in 2003), Walk the Line hits the usual rags-to-riches notes: early rejection, fateful audition, initial thrill of success and drug-stained fall. But the draw is Phoenix and Witherspoon: Both do their own singing, and overall the Cash/Carter repertory, including "Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Jackson" and "Ring of Fire," sounds great. Phoenix's voice sometimes wavers, but he compensates with an uncanny evocation of Cash's gloomy, calculated swagger. And while the itty-bitty Witherspoon looks nothing like the lanky, raw-boned Carter, she nails her beguiling mix of girlishness, determination, uncertainty and mega-watt charisma. Together the two are hotter than a pepper sprout.


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Without Warning!

(1952).
Directed by: Arnold Laven.
Written by: Richard Laynor.
With: Adam Williams, Edward Binns, Harlan Wade, Meg Randall, John Maxwell, Byron Kane and Robert Shayne.

Often described as a "lost noir" film, this grim, sun-washed crime picture is an intriguing mix of police procedural and serial-killer tale .

Clean-cut, blandly handsome landscaper Carl Martin (Williams) has a dark secret life: He's compelled to butcher women who remind him of his estranged wife with gardening shears. After LAPD detectives Pete Hamilton and Don Warde (Binns, Wade) are called to their second crime scene in a little more than a month where the victim is a busty blonde, they realize there's a serial killer on the loose. As they investigate, Martin becomes fixated on the comely Jane (Randall), daughter of nursery owner Fred Saunders (Maxwell). Jane, whose husband is in the army and stationed overseas, is friendly without encouraging Martin's attentions, which drives him to pick up a barfly and murder her. The detectives, meanwhile, collaborate closely with the department's chemist and psychiatrist, Charlie Wilkins (Kane) and Dr. Werner (Shayne), who provide forensic and behavioral clues about the man they're seeking. Can they stop Martin before Jane falls victim to his twisted compulsions?

Without Warning!'s virtues are modest but compelling, from its unusual locations — including the lost Mexican-American neighborhood Chavez Ravine, razed in 1953 to make way for Dodger Stadium — to its emphasis on crime scene investigation and stark images of murdered women. Director Laven and writer William Raynor spent the bulk of their careers in series television, but this no-frills feature — Laven's debut and one of Raynor's first — compares favorably with Edward Dmytryk's Oscar-nominated The Sniper, which was released the same year. Difficult to see for decades, Without Warning! was released on DVD in 2005 by Dark Sky Films.


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What Would Jesus Buy

(2007)
Directed by: Rob VanAlkemade.
Documentary

VanAlkemade's documentary about performance artist/political activist Bill Talen — aka Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping— is steeped in what may be the ultimate postmodern irony: Talen's impromptu, defiant piece of performance art with political undertones has actually taken on a spiritual dimension.

A longtime resident of New York's fabled Times Square area, Minnesota-born playwright and performer Talen created the Reverend Billy in the late 1990s, as redevelopment of 42nd Street transformed it from a seedy downtown neighborhood with a unique place in New York history into an open-air mall dominated by corporate tourist attractions, notably a Disney store. Dressed in white and wearing a cleric's collar, Talen fulminated against the evils of corporate cultural domination in the style of the Deuce's street-corner preachers, who once stood outside porn theaters and drug dens and threatened sinners with hellfire and damnation. A decade later, "Reverend Billy" and the authentically soulful Church of Stop Shopping Choir are a polished act, equal parts street theater, grassroots political activism and consciousness-raising prank, and in 2006 they undertook a cross-country crusade decrying the commercialization of Christmas. Talen, who looks vaguely like Kurt Russell and has his holy-rolling mannerisms down cold, deplores the buy-now-pay-later culture of perpetual debt, hard-sell advertising aimed at young children, happy news reporters who not only make light of the seasonal shopping orgy but actually encourage it, the pervasive American belief that love equals expensive gifts, and the corporate entities who foster it because their business models demand ever-escalating consumption.

Reverend Billy is a carefully calculated construct, but he's no longer a joke: Talen's public witnessing has gotten him arrested and barred from every Starbucks in the continental United States, vividly demonstrating that such bedrock American rights as freedom of speech are no match for the forces of corporate image control. The crusade VanAlkemade documents takes Billy and his cohorts from New York to "the happiest place on Earth" — Disneyland, where Reverend Billy is, of course, arrested — with stops at malls, decimated small-town shopping districts and tightly controlled corporate enclaves. By the time they're done, they've made a convincing case that the spiritual bankruptcy of nonstop consumerism is not only psychologically corrosive but contributes to the destruction of the global environment, the concentration of American economic power in an ever-smaller number of hands, and the abuse of impoverished and politically disempowered workers in developing nations. Not bad for a fake preacher.


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The Wrestler


Directed by: Darren Aronofsky.
Written by: Robert D. Siegel.
With: Mickety Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Dylan Summers, Ernest Miller and Tommy Farra.

Mickey Rourke's mesmerizing, road-wreck performance as washed-up wrestler Robin "Randy the Ram" Ramzinsky is the only reason to sit through The Wrestler's cliches, but it's a damned good one.

Twenty years ago, Randy The Ram (Rourke) was a big deal, a golden-haired hero who rocked the ring to Quiet Riot's "Bang Your Head" and scored major mainstream magazine covers while pandering to the caveman fantasies of hard-core wrestling fans. But those days are long gone: Now he's hauling his battered flesh to local matches for chump change, peddling autographs at low-rent conventions and hoisting boxes at a local mega-store to pay his rent, which is still in arrears often enough that he's used to sleeping in his car. There's a disarming sweetness to Randy that emerges when he roughhouses with neighborhood kids or offers wearily avuncular advice to younger wrestlers. "Keep working, man," he tells Tommy Rotten (Farra), a tattooed mountain of Mohawked muscle trying to break out of the minor leagues. "The people who drive Cadillacs… they run the show. It ain't about ability, so you hang in there."

With Randy being estranged from his only child, Stephanie (Wood), what passes for his personal life is his relationship with veteran stripper Cassidy (Tomei), who's reminded every night that nothing trumps the power of fresh young flesh; she likes Randy but gets through the night by respecting the bright white line that divides customers and civilians.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Randy's one last shot at a comeback, a 20th-anniversary FanFest grudge match with The Ayatollah (one-time WWE wrestler Miller), his 1980s nemesis. But Randy has a massive heart attack after a match with old crony the Necro Butcher (WWE wrestler Summers), and bypass surgery leaves him permanently unfit to enter the ring.

Aronofsky hias an expansive eye and a blinkered mind, which is why he regularly makes gorgeous films that amount to less than the sum of their parts. If I had never seen boxing films like Body and Soul (1947), The Set-Up (1949), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), Fat City (1972), Cinderella Man (2005) or Raging Bull (1980), I might think more of The Wrestler's warts-and-all depiction of physical and spiritual devestation. But I have, and it doesn't hit a note that hasn't been played many times before. But even though The Wrestler is a compendium of sports-movie cliches, it's electrified by Rourke's performance, which owes as much to his ruined beauty as his considerable craft... it's no accident that Aronofsky keeps Rourke's face in shadow for the film's five minutes: The moment he reveals the wreck of Rourke's once delicately handsome features is as shocking David Lynch's first shot of John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980).

Ruined beauty has its own terrible eloquence, as the later films of Peter O'Toole amply illustrate. But Rourke isn't content to rest on the piteous spectacle of his physical degradation: His Randy is more than the total of his scars and calluses. Aronofsky's film is at its best when it captures the backstage comaraderie between wrestlers whose fearsome facades lie lightly over a ferocious devotion to each other — they stick together because no outsider knows the real pain they suffer in the name of artificial entertainment The movie's most devastating moment may be the one in which the Ayatollah realizes mid-match that Randy is truly, seriously hurt and whispers tenderly, "Ram, I'll take it from here," "it" being the punishment that makes for a good show.

Screenwriter Robert D. Siegel, former editor-in-chief of the satirical newspaper The Onion, simultaneously acknowledges the artifice of professional wrestling and celebrates the genuine blood, sweat and bruises that feed the illusion. Rourke may have given more nuanced performances — his doomed, flayed-nerve Motorcycle Boy in Rumble Fish (1983) comes to mind — but he's never given a more naked one.

Of related interest:

My Entertainment Weekly piece on Rourke's notorious Wild Orchid and other X-Rated mainstream films.

Beyond the Mat

Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling


 


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