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August 2008

Holy Imax, Batman!

Warner Bros. Entertainment

 Critics have written many words about "The Dark Knight" since its release, and it might seem unnecessary to contribute more at this stage. But there is one aspect of the film that has been noticeably under-hyped. Christopher Nolan hasn’t gotten enough credit for the way he’s successfully managed to integrate Imax technology into the mainstream cinematic format.

Having seen "The Dark Knight" in both an Imax and a regular 35mm projection, I can attest that it is an excellent film in whichever presentation it’s viewed in. Its undeniable quality signals a coming-of-age for the comic-book genre, and the film demonstrates Hollywood moviemaking at the top of its game.

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One Giant Leap Backward for 3-D Animation

Fly Me to the Moon (2008)

Summit Entertainment

"Fly Me to the Moon" functions less as a movie than a 3-D demo reel. It exhibits all the latest in multidimensional effects, but forgets to tell a story to accompany them. For most of the film, Domonic Paris’s screenplay lifts wholesale from the actual transcripts of the Apollo 11 space flight. The production only departs from a simplified retelling of that tale in the narrative’s adoption of the perspective of three adolescent flies who have stowed away on the spaceship.

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Grapes of Wrath Enliven Napa Valley

Bottle Shock (2008)

Freestyle Releasing

Part oenological feast and part jingoistic underdog story, Randall Miller’s “Bottle Shock” uncovers some original territory amidst a clichéd outline. Mostly, it’s a loving tribute to wine aficionados and to a good old-fashioned American butt-whipping of the French, with period detail and dysfunctional family drama sprinkled in. Shot amidst the golden-hued, sweeping valleys of California’s wine country, it also serves as a visual treat and proof of Bill Pullman’s unexpectedly strong dramatic chops.

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Babushka Plays Surrogate Mother Russia

Alexandra (2007)

Cinema Guild

"Alexandra" takes place in Grozny, capital of the Republic of Chechnya, whose fight for independence from Russian rule led to it being carpet-bombed into near submission in the 1990s at a cost of more than 80,000 lives. The film centers on a Russian army camp in the present day where young soldiers nervously await their next clash with separatist forces. The central figure in the story wears no uniform, however. She is Alexandra, an 80-year-old woman, seemingly as grand and enigmatic as her name suggests.

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Daredevil Defies Death and Gravity

Man on Wire (2008)

Magnolia Pictures

There is a moment toward the end of James Marsh’s documentary feature, "Man on Wire," when our high-wire impresario protagonist Philippe Petit utters the words: "Life should be lived on the edge of life" – at once so perfectly and profoundly encapsulating the very essence of this mesmerizing story of the power of dreams and the pursuit of the impossible. Upon his arrest after completing the "artistic crime of the century" by tightrope walking between the newly constructed twin towers of the World Trade Center in August 1974, Mr. Petit recounts how he was met with one question: "Why?" His simple retort – "Why? There is no why," cheekily dismissing the question as "very American" – portrays a virtuous frontier spirit that is as admirable as it is foolhardy. That said, Mr. Petit is a rare breed, and his enthusiasm for his performance is little diluted 34 years on, but in part that is what makes his story so fascinating and relevant.

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To Hell and Not Back

Hell Ride (2008)

Will McGarry/Third Rail Releasing

Larry Bishop – best known for his starring roles in such Z-grade biker flicks as "Chrome and Hot Leather" – writes, directs and stars in "Hell Ride," a new, painstakingly self-conscious tribute to those not-so classics. That should basically tell moviegoers all they need to know about the tone, content and style here. The film apes the dated, simplistic focus on gang loyalties, comical bursts of overdone violence, and oppressive objectification of women so characteristic to the male-oriented genre.

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Venturing Down the Slippery Road

Frozen River (2008)

Jory Sutton/Sony Pictures Classics

“Frozen River” works as only the best movies can. It tells a taut, thought-provoking story featuring characters moviegoers care about, and does so in a place we’ve never seen before. The story involves the smuggling of illegal immigrants; the characters are two single mothers; the place is Plattsburgh, N.Y.; and the movie works because of the forceful authenticity writer-director Courtney Hunt brings to her depiction of this milieu. This is a movie completely without contrivance, one anchored by Melissa Leo’s great, introspective lead performance and the camera’s unembellished, straightforward eye.

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This Too Is England

Somers Town (2008)

Optimum Releasing

Shane Meadows now finds himself at a crossroads after the success of "Dead Man’s Shoes" and "This Is England." While both films saw him refining his talent for earthy naturalism and homespun humor into something more substantial, both films arguably fall just short of greatness because of Mr. Meadows’s reluctance to fully examine the more complex themes he’d begun to experiment with.

All eyes will now be on "Somers Town" for any evidence of continuing maturity, but in that respect the film will disappoint many. It’s a pleasant enough comedy and isn’t really a bad film at all – it can hold its head up high in comparison to most British comedies – but just feels something of a backwards step for Mr. Meadows.

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Maturity No Substitute for Clearasil

Hollywood Records

Once upon a time, Amelie Gillette of The Onion A.V. Club dismissed her intern’s gentle suggestion to include Miley Cyrus in The Tolerability Index. Everything associated with the Disney Channel seemed way below the radar of The Onion’s target demographics, despite the fact that stargazers have spotted The Sopranos cast members James Gandolfini and Steve Schirripa escorting their children to a New York Times talk featuring Ms. Cyrus and her achy breaky one-hit wonder father, Billy Ray. But things probably have changed at The Onion after the 15-year-old superstar stirred up controversy by baring her backside for Vanity Fair’s noted fashion photographer Annie Leibowitz, and the fact that Ms. Cyrus’s standalone debut album “Breakout” just debuted at No. 1 on Billboard.

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Has the Reel Run Out for a New York Blog?

Reeler_logo_200_2 Once the premier movie blog for the New York City audience, The Reeler lately seems like it’s hanging by a thread. In fact, more than a month has elapsed since the site’s last update. Most notably missing are contributions from its reviews editor Michelle Orange, whose work has been steadily appearing in The Village Voice. But The Reeler’s esteemed blogger, S.T. VanAirsdale, is apparently alive and well. A Google search yields results for the latest article from Mr. VanAirsdale appearing in The Huffington Post and The Village Voice this week.

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