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September 2008

Pound of Flesh as Bargaining Chip

Hunger (2008)

IFC Films

Winner of "Camera d’or" at Cannes Film Festival, British film artist Steve McQueen’s feature debut, “Hunger,” is perhaps the best cinematic treatment yet of the Irish Troubles. Indeed, just as Terry George and Jim Sheridan’s “Some Mother’s Son,” Mr. McQueen’s film revolves around the 1981 hunger strike led by the late Irish Republican Army volunteer and British parliament member Bobby Sands. But it ultimately achieves radically different results. While Mr. George’s beat-you-over-the-head approach was instantly forgettable, Mr. McQueen’s abstract yet visceral take on the same events truly gets under the skin.

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Mad Hot Classroom

The Class (2008)

Pierre Milon/Sony Pictures Classics

"Palme d’or" winner at the Cannes Film Festival and opener of the New York Film Festival, Laurent Cantet’s “The Class” is indeed powerful stuff. The film chronicles one year in a junior high school in an ethnically diverse arrondissement of Paris. François Bégaudeau, whose autobiographical book “Entre les murs” serves as the basis of the film, leads a cast of non-professional actors who play students and teachers. Here’s a real inspirational story without the kind of predictable “Dead Poets Society”-esque life-changing conclusion, about one French teacher attempting to instill something meaningful into a classroom full of overgrown infants who are rowdy, rebellious and combative. What most critics probably aren’t telling you about in their expectedly lavish praises of the film is its stereotypical and downright patronizing portrayal of race and ethnicity.

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First Rule of Strip Club

Choke (2008)

Jessica Miglio/Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Choke” marks the second big-screen adaptation of a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, a sardonic chronicler of our hidden neuroses and otherworldly fetishes. The first, David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” rode raw fight scenes, a stark vision of an anti-consumerist uprising and Brad Pitt’s muscles to cult-classic status. This one replaces Mr. Pitt with Sam Rockwell; the focus on pleasurable physical violence shifts to sexual perversion; and writer-director Clark Gregg’s film has an altogether less dreary tone than Mr. Fincher’s dark, deadly serious project.

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Why We Fight

The Lucky Ones (2008)

James Bridges/Roadside Attractions

Writer-director Neil Burger has transformed himself from a promising new talent to a major filmmaker on the strength of two showy, well-constructed films: the buzzed-about 2002 mockumentary “Interview with the Assassin” and the 2006 surprise hit “The Illusionist.” By contrast, his newest effort “The Lucky Ones” seems at first glance like an anticlimactic third act. It concerns three American servicemen stationed overseas who are back in the country on a one-month leave and embarking on an impromptu road trip because returning to their respective homes isn’t an option. The film actually has its share of smoke and mirrors just like Mr. Burger’s previous features, and these will surely catch moviegoers off guard given that the selling point here isn’t that anticipated giant plot twist. But perhaps the biggest surprise in store is how genuinely affecting “The Lucky Ones” turns out to be.

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Patrolling City of God

Elite Squad (2007)

David John Prichard/The Weinstein Company

The Brazilian crime drama “Elite Squad” – winner of the Golden Bear at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival – has generated plenty of controversy thanks to its supposed fascist leanings. While it does in some fashion celebrate the brutal, repressive tactics of BOPE – Rio de Janeiro’s elite police squad – José Padilha’s work just as openly questions the personal and psychological destruction brought on by membership in the unit. The problem with the movie is not its ideology, but the fact that it never breaks free from the most clichéd mold in Brazilian cinema: a story focused on cops, guns, drug runners and Rio’s favelas.

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Latex Dreams


Soho never sleeps. At 7:30 on a Sunday morning, there’s still music and flesh in the ballroom of London’s Soho Revue Bar, the house that porn baron Paul Raymond built. Disconcertingly, the music is a sweet piano rendition of “Begin the Beguine,” and the exposed skin is down to the rehearsal gear worn by the three friendly dancers warming up with pliés and turns. The result is a long way from Soho bump and grind.

Upstairs in the Piano Bar, it is a different story. A crew from ALM Talkies and February Films is jammed into the tiny space, and there's energy in the air – not least since director Abner Pastoll and his director of photography Kathinka Minthe are discussing how best to bathe the room in a deep red light. But the real spark in the room is coming from their subject. Against one wall, a brunette in a red latex dress split way up the right side is miming to playback of a song. She does it in silhouette, then in profile, and eventually looks to camera, backlit by the color of blood to no small effect.

This musical number and the feature film which it climaxes are her brain child. The film is “Dirty Step Upstage;” the lady is 27-year-old actress Amber Moelter. And despite the high style, the fetish outfit and the blood-red wash, she's here to tell a true story. Sort of.

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V.I.P. 'Cause You Know She Gotta Shine

The Duchess (2008)

Peter Mountain/Paramount Vantage

“The Duchess” – a handsome and eloquent costume drama – suffers from a case of genre fatigue. Well-directed and competently acted, filled with sweeping 18th-century estate vistas, large crowd scenes and passionate parlor games, it fits nicely in a niche previously carved out by almost every other entry in the genre. The story – which concerns an arranged marriage and illicit love unfulfilled against the backdrop of a changing Britain – feels completely pedestrian.

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Home Is Where the Horror Is

Lakeview Terrace (2008)

Chuck Zlotnick/Screen Gems

Neil LaBute completes his career 180 degrees turn into total hackdom with "Lakeview Terrace," an exceedingly silly thriller that only proves the filmmaker's misguided remake of "The Wicker Man" was not a fluke. The filmmaker's transition from intelligent, controversial social satire to low-rent genre craftsmanship is very hard to comprehend. It's almost as difficult to understand as Screen Gems greenlighting the overwrought, suspense-free screenplay by David Loughery and Howard Korder.

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Arab-American Beauty Trapped in Suburban Hell

Towelhead (2008)

Dale Robinette/Warner Independent Pictures

There’s no point criticizing “Towelhead” solely for its content – namely, the much buzzed about pedophilic subplot involving characters played by Aaron Eckhart and Summer Bishil. As Roger Ebert so often notes, it's not what a movie is about that makes it good or bad, but how it is about it. In other words: It’s possible to make a good movie about pedophilia. See “The Woodman” and “Happiness” for proof.

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Sexless in the City

The Women (2008)

Claudette Barius/Picturehouse

Some might call “The Women,” a remake of the 1939 George Cukor classic based on the Clare Booth Luce play, the ultimate “chick flick.” Let’s be clear: It might feature only women and it might be geared toward women, but both sexes will surely unite in contempt for it. The feature film directorial debut of “Murphy Brown” creator Diane English, the movie contains shrill characters, an almost total absence of a narrative and lots of boring conversing as filler.

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