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Movie Reviews

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    REVIEW | In the Middle: Dalia Hager and Vidi Bilu's "Close to Home"

    A barely perceptible atmosphere of dread hangs over the Israeli film "Close to Home." Co-written and directed by Dalia Hager and Vidi Bilu, the film has an intimate, almost slight feel to it, and features two young protagonists who are mostly concerned with the rather banal business of early adulthood. That these young women also happen to be performing their compulsory military service, patrolling Jerusalem and registering Arabs on the street, is almost incidental - until they are, on just a few occasions, directly confronted with the threat of violence, though it always lingers just outside Hager and Bilu's handheld frame. In "Close to Home...

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    REVIEW | Aftermath: Jasmila Zbanic's "Grbavica: Land of My Dreams"

    Jasmila Zbanic's feature debut, "Grbavica: Land of My Dreams" is unpretentious enough to address its subject matter, the shattered lives of postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina, with serious, grounded realism, but it's also too unimaginative to think of its central mother-daughter struggle in anything but the simplest of dramatic terms. A character-driven drama like "Grbavica" needs fully developed characters to work. It's not enough to slap a few traits onto each personality and then watch them collide - conflict! - with the smallest or least revealing of learned lessons offered as a final payoff. What might have been a cathartic exploration of the tr...

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    REVIEW | A Wink and a Smile: Daniele Thompson's "Avenue Montaigne"

    I doubt that anyone will ever match the balanced stridency and sentimentality that Jonathan Richman's song "Give Paris One More Chance" manages as a bursting, corny catalog of everything right about "the home of Piaf and Chevalier," but "Avenue Montaigne" takes a crack. The film's helmed by Daniele Thompson, a relative latecomer to direction but a professional screenwriter since 1966, with a resume that covers all of subsequent popular French cinema. I mean popular, not acclaimed: she had a hand in the eighties teen romp "La Boum," the generational impact of which in France was at the seismic level of John Hughes - if you think, based on the ...

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    REVIEW | Echo Chamber: Nina Toussaint and Massimo Iannetta's "The Decomposition of the Soul"

    In Nina Toussaint and Massimo Iannetta's documentary "The Decomposition of the Soul" two ex-inmates of Berlin-Hohenschonhausen, one of the most infamous Stasi prisons of East Germany, revisit the site of their incarceration. Sigrid Paul was arrested for harboring escapees from the Soviet zone, and once imprisoned was continually promised and denied a reunion with her sick child in West Germany; Hartmut Richter was detained for transporting political dissenters across the border and spent fifteen years behind bars. As they walk through airless cells, hallways, and interrogation rooms where psychological torture was daily meted out, they explai...

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    REVIEW | I Spy: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others"

    Curiously - or perhaps not - the four decades of economic hardship and political oppression endured by the citizens of the former German Democratic Republic have, in the years since reunification, given way to "Ostalgie," a pervasive nostalgia for life in the GDR (see, as an example, Wolfgang Becker...

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    REVIEW | More Tales of the City: Maria Maggenti's "Puccini for Beginners"

    Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) is a thirtyish lesbian author living the sanitary, Whole Foods la vie de boheme of sitcomized contemporary Manhattan. Having just been dropped by a long-term girlfriend over commitment issues, she doubly rebounds - into both sweet, pie-faced Grace (Gretchen Mol) and of all...

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    REVIEW | The Road to Hell: Philip Haas's "The Situation"

    Let's just get the nod to its good intentions out of the way from the start: Providing a window onto the U.S.-occupied chaos of Iraq - this country's first narrative film to do so - "The Situation" strives mightily to put a human face on Iraqis forgotten by mainstream media reports and documentaries (save the superlative "Iraq in Fragments"), which tend to focus almost exclusively on the American experience. That it attempts to achieve this through condescension, by using a Caucasian character as an entry point to accepting the Other - well, besides the basic knee-jerk response (so what's new? see Matthew Broderick in "Glory," Kevin Costner...

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    REVIEW | The Principles of Uncertainty: Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's "An Unreasonable Man"

    The success of the 2006 midterm elections may have tempered Democrats' long-held grudge against Ralph Nader, but "An Unreasonable Man" is set to reopen the nasty wounds left from his quixotic 2000 presidential campaign, when several hundred votes for the Green Party candidate arguably cost the Dems Florida and thus, lest we forget, the election. Whether Nader was right to run or just downright delusional and ultimately destructive to the liberal cause is the controversial heart of the matter in this content-over-form documentary. It's apt that the first 35 years of its subject's unrivaled career of progressive advocacy - from "Unsafe at Any S...

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    REVIEW | Back in the Saddle Again: David Von Ancken's "Seraphim Falls"

    It begins with a gunshot, as from a starter's pistol, and the race is on. Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) - heavily bearded, feral from chase - is pursued across a frozen landscape by the steady, vengeance-driven Carver (Liam Neeson) and his posse. Motives stay opaque; Carver's gang churns through the snow in implacable advance, Gideon doubles back to pick off stragglers, and both men rankle with a hidden hurt that they cannot or will not forget. Shot under the auspices of Mel Gibson's Icon Productions (with "Braveheart" cinematographer John Toll), David Von Ancken's marathon-man Western trades in Mel's favorite things: out-of-breath action filmmaki...

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    PARK CITY '07 REVIEW | The Girl Couldn't Help It: David Stenn's "Girl 27"

    My favorite David Stenn book is "Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow," a wonderful look at Hollywood's first blonde sex symbol and the dark and tragic circumstances regarding her too-short life. Insights about early Hollywood, sex scandals and ruthless exploitation by studio executives are similar themes in another Stenn book, the equally wonderful "Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild." Everything I enjoy about Stenn's writings can be found in his debut documentary, "Girl 27," a fascinating investigation into a late 1930s sex scandal involving MGM. In 1937, at a MGM sales convention, 17-year-old dancer Patricia Douglas was raped at a convention ...

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