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October 2008

And All the People Merely Players

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Abbot Gensler/Sony Pictures Classics

In “Synecdoche, New York,” Charlie Kaufman descends fully, firmly down the rabbit hole, lost in a dense world of complications, confusion and severe ambiguity. Whereas the Academy Award-winning screenwriter and first-time director’s better projects successfully imbue his unique, cerebral vision with a straightforward focus on matters of the heart, this one buries its humanity beneath an avalanche of high concepts. The film is original and well cast, but its insistence on being a sort of cinematic Rorschach test – open to a wide variety of interpretations and meanings – causes it to ultimately leave a rather negligible impact.

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W., T. F.

W. (2008)

Sidney Ray Baldwin/Lionsgate

Managing to release a biopic on a sitting-duck president mere weeks ahead of Election Day would be a respectable directorial accomplishment any year. That Oliver Stone has released a biopic about this president in this year – the year of a categorically historical American presidential campaign following an abysmal administration – is truly remarkable. Unfortunately, that’s one of the very few remarkable things about "W."

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My Blood-Thirsty Valentine

Let the Right One In (2008)

Magnet Releasing

Leave it to the Swedes to revive the now predictable conventions of the vampire genre with their unique brand of existential depth and stark aestheticism. To say that “Let the Right One In” is a modern horror classic may be true but understates the magnitude of its success as an unflinching take on the sometimes harrowing rites of passage of adolescence and a touching tale of first love. 

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New German Film Picks at Yet Another Old National Scab

The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

Constantin Film

Bloody hell – that about sums up the life of a terrorist on the run, whether today or in post-war Germany. The Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, orchestrated a reign of terror from the early 1970s to really not very long ago. Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtrau, the boyfriend in "Run Lola Run") liked to smash things up, while Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck, the heroine in "The Lives of Others") was the respected lefty journalist who crossed over into terrorism under the thrall of Baader and his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek, the sensible friend in the under-appreciated "Aimee & Jaguar"), who provided the theoretical justification. These three very real people gave up their children and any semblance of a normal life so they could – and I find myself unable to sum up what they wanted to achieve in a polite little sentence. What they really wanted to do, under a whole heap of fancy justifications, was fuck shit up.

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Let's Get Ready to Stumble

The Wrestler (2008)

Wild Bunch

Ever since its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” has been generating Oscar buzz – even prior to it having an American distributor or release date in sight. Before naysayers had a chance to jog their memory for other premature award-season contenders to compare it to (think “Inland Empire”), Mr. Aronofsky’s new film built on its momentum at the Toronto International Film Festival. Fox Searchlight emerged as the winner of the ensuing bidding war, and appropriately set Dec. 19 as the opening date.

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Gonna Take a Sentimental Journey

Summer Hours (2008)

Jeannick Gravelines/IFC Films

“Summer Hours” – which stands diametrically opposed to the globe-trotting B-movie tributes that have recently preoccupied writer-director Olivier Assayas – only serves to reaffirm his filmmaking range. It’s an intimate motion picture steeped in nostalgia, one that explores the ways our memories strangely bestow inanimate objects with great personal significance. With its idyllic views of the French countryside, piercing study of sibling relationships and ethereal renderings of the detritus of modern aristocratic life, the film looks and feels like something Eric Rohmer might have made.

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Israeli Filmmaker Draws on Memory

Waltz With Bashir (2008)

Sony Pictures Classics

In “Waltz With Bashir,” Ari Folman confronts a very specific national crisis, the ramifications of which reverberate today. To his great credit, however, he refuses to turn the film into a diatribe against the politics that permitted the crimes carried out by Christian and Israeli forces at the Sabra and Shantila massacres in Lebanon. “Waltz With Bashir” makes no attempt to connect the incidents to the recent Israeli excursion into Lebanon or, more generally, to the precarious politics of the modern Middle East. Instead, Mr. Folman’s abstractly animated, philosophical motion picture explores one of the great, unspoken casualties of all warfare: its profound lasting psychological toll.

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Bore on Terrorism

Body of Lies (2008)

François Duhamel/Warner Bros. Pictures

There’s an interesting movie hidden deep beneath the location-hopping techno-thriller surface of “Body of Lies.” It features a CIA agent working in Jordan and his romance with a local nurse. The ramifications of such a cross-cultural relationship – the suspicions directed toward them by her families and friends and his co-workers – and the ways in which the post-9/11 milieu affects the film could make for interesting, provocative viewing.

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The Passion of Bill Maher

Religulous (2008)


Bill Maher doesn’t like organized religion – hates it, in fact. Anyone familiar with his TV shtick already knows that, and anyone that hasn’t gotten the message will find it delivered early and often in “Religulous.” The film is his crack at the guerilla style combination of documentary and performance art that might as well be referred to as the Larry Charles special, after the director of this picture and “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”

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