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Movie Reviews

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    Slaughter Rule: Kevin MacDonald's "The Last King of Scotland"

    Call me a typically history-ignorant American, but before watching "The Last King of Scotland" I didn't know that much about Idi Amin's reign of terror as Uganda's dictator during the 1970s. I don't pretend to be proud of such an oversight -- nevertheless, that lack of knowledge worked to this viewer's benefit in experiencing the gripping paranoia of Kevin MacDonald's political thriller. What starts out as an awkward, wide-eyed bildungsroman and travelogue transforms (through more untamed verve than directorial precision) into a frantic, disorienting tragedy about the seduction of power, one that would make proud this film's not-so-unlikely p...

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    Dream Weaver: Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep"

    Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep" should have been the restorative after an unspectacular summer for movies -- a year, actually. One could put their blood into the profession if movies such as "Superman Returns," "Talladega Nights," or "Little Miss Sunshine" were abysmal or brilliant, extreme in either direction; it's the current state of pervasive mediocrity that has made recent criticism so burdensome. A Gondry film has normally been a destination date for its dogged innovation and sui generis worldview; it pained me, then, to see that while it has craft in spades and a smattering of quietly charming moments, Gondry's latest is ragged ...

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    Nature Boys: Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy"

    There is a scene midway through American director Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy," adapted from the novel by John Raymond, in which its two principals, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), share a conversation beside a roaring bonfire. They are en route to a secluded hot-spring in the Cascade Mountain region of Oregon. They have been forced to camp out because Kurt, who suggested the trip, has forgotten the way. Daniel, a father-to-be whose wife (Tanya Smith) had expressed reservations about his departure, is visibly frustrated with his old friend, but allows himself to be drawn into a discussion of Kurt's foray into night-school physics ...

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    Trivial Pursuit: Allen Coulter's "Hollywoodland"

    A concept in search of an intriguing tale to tell, "Hollywoodland" dredges up the true-life Hollywood scandal surrounding the death of TV's Superman, George Reeves in 1959. It's that old murky-glossy peek into the sordid flipside of fame, here coupled with wan commentary on American masculinity, the...

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    The Great Divide: Andrew Bujalski's "Mutual Appreciation"

    Is Andrew Bujalski the cinematic voice of a mumbling, inarticulate, moderately employable generation, or a talentless student filmmaker who's managed to spin a single badly done trick into an honest-to-goodness moviemaking career? There's not much I can say, and most certainly nothing in "Mutual Appreciation" itself, that would constitute a definitive answer. Unlike other scrappy micro-budget filmmakers who capitalized on indie success to turn out bigger-money abortions like Darren Aronofsky or Kevin Smith, Bujalski resolutely stuck to his guns and produced another shoestring work mired in, or consistent with (depending on your take), the co...

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    Silent but Deadly: Jamie Babbit's "The Quiet"

    Contemporary films taking "The Suburbs" as their setting and subject always make a point of poking holes in that wealthy, white facade of perfection that supposedly plagues America. The intended innovation of "The Quiet" is to present the obligatory collapse of this phony exterior from the perspecti...

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    Ham-Fisted: Bent Hamer's "Factotum"

    The effort necessary to excavate Henry Charles Bukowski from beneath the weight of his cult is significant; I've never been entirely convinced that it's worth the effort. At one time his might've been a rare voice that said exactly what a disgruntled few needed to hear -- reading a piece by Brendan ...

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    Deadlocked: Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson"

    History has never seemed more of a burden than it does in "Half Nelson." Simultaneously denying the easily redemptive narrative form that places a noble white teacher at the head of an inner-city classroom for meaningful school-of-hard-knocks lessons ("Dangerous Minds," anyone?), while also reinfor...

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    Culture Crash: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's "Quinceanera"

    What does it say about the state of American independent film when a movie like "Quinceanera" wins both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival? Perhaps nothing we didn't already know. That such an utterly bland movie can inspire enthusiasm from jurors and audiences...

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    End Game: Gela Babluani's "13 Tzameti"

    Oddly, the current greatest fear as reflected in our moviegoing consciousness isn't of widespread terrorism or megaton catastrophe. Yes, large-scale disasters and toppling monuments are served up for our delectation as always; they're still making as many "Poseidon"s and "War of the Worlds"s as you can shake a stick at, and no matter how much contemporary trauma is writ large on them, they're still gonna be cut from the same genre cloth. No, currently, true horror and panic onscreen has been reduced to something far more individually tactile, yet at the same time, so far from our comprehension. Human trafficking, forced prostitution, people b...

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