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November 2008

Lovers of the Arctic Circle

Far North (2007)

Celluloid Dreams

The number of films shot on location in the Arctic could be counted on the blackened fingers of one frost-bitten hand. Hardly surprising, really, given the trials involved in working there. The makers of "Far North" filmed in Svalbard, one of the world’s most northern settlements, enduring night temperatures of minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the ever present threat of becoming a polar bear’s lunch.

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A Love Less Ordinary

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Ishika Mohan/Fox Searchlight Pictures

If nothing else, “Slumdog Millionaire” should prove that Danny Boyle is no fluke. He injects so much adrenaline into a classic Dickensian storyline that it will sweep moviegoers away long before they have a chance to catch a breath or even realize just how familiar it all is – this story of an orphan who grew up in the slums becoming a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in hopes of reconnecting with his childhood sweetheart. Indeed, even with a title that nearly spoils everything, one would still have to be made of stone to not walk out of this film with chills up the spine and tears down the face.

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Stop Making Nonsense

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Bob Vergara/Sony Pictures Classics

Dear Jonathan Demme,

You made one heck of a thriller, “The Silence of the Lambs,” back in 1991 and inspired a slew of hyper-stylized detective thrillers such as “Seven.” But whatever cache or goodwill you earned with critics and moviegoers you’ve surely squandered away in the ensuing 17 years. It’s understandable that the mechanisms of the genre probably bore you to death. But if “The Manchurian Candidate” remake is any indication, thrillers are seemingly the only kind of films you excel at. Unfortunately, you’ve allowed your bleeding liberal heart to get the best of you.

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A Terrorist Gets the Silent Treatment

Bullet in the Head (2008)


In FIPRESCI award-winning director Jaime Rosales's own words, his latest film is "really difficult for the audience." Citing inspiration from the silent era of cinema while making a metaphorical statement on the "noise, not words" of Spanish politics, Mr. Rosales pushes the boundaries of filmmaking with a study in audience patience by essentially delivering a silent film – just two words are uttered in the 84-minute running time – in which, as Mr. Rosales readily admits, "nothing happens."

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Farewell My Communism

24 City (2008)

MK2 International

Perhaps shamefully, this was the first film of Jia Zhangke’s I’d ever watched all the way through; my only previous experience of his work being approximately half of "Unknown Pleasures." I have probably always held a slight suspicion that he’s one of those extensively garlanded East Asian minimalists who owes a good portion of his reputation to the articulate patronage of the evangelizing critic Tony Rayns. I should probably reassess this reductive preconception because I enjoyed "24 City" very much, even though I get the impression it’s one of Mr. Jia’s minor works.

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Boyz II Menace

Role Models (2008)

Sam Urdank/Universal Studios

“Role Models” marks the third time director David Wain and co-writer Ken Marino – veterans of “The State” sketch comedy show – have tried to translate their particular brand of humor to the big screen. Finally, after the brainless “Wet Hot American Summer” and scattershot high-concept “The Ten,” they’ve made a movie that rejects the snarky attitudinal deficiencies of those prior efforts for a comic style more rooted in real experiences and genuine emotions. It works wonderfully, with every comic moment underlined by varied shades of sadness.

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Jungle 2 Jungle

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008)

DreamWorks Animation

Since "Bambi" – back at the beginning of animated features – animal-centric storylines have often tended to dart around that tenuous intersection of man and wild. From the invisible hunters in Disney’s original to the more recent (yet still obscured) sport fisherman in "Finding Nemo" and commercial fishers in "Happy Feet," these films largely revolve around the tension between the unfettered animal kingdom and the human civilization that lies at its perimeters. The total inversion of this structure is a large part of the first "Madagascar" movie’s success: Rather than a story having to do with humans encroaching on animal territory, here was a film that placed the animals smack in the middle of the human world from the beginning. What’s more – they liked it like that.

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No Soul Food, Just Mac and Lots of Cheese

Soul Men (2008)

Doug Hyun/Dimension Films

The development of “Soul Men” as outlined in its press kit instructively illustrates the wrong way to go about making a movie. The project originated not out of the organic creative need of screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone to tell the story at hand. Rather, it began with producers Steve Greener and David T. Friendly, who, according to the latter, had nothing but “the notion of these two guys (Samuel L. Jackson and the late Bernie Mac) in a movie.” That led to a meeting with the writers, at which “either Rob or Matt said, 'What if Sam and Bernie were back-up singers like the Pips? The leader of the group has died and they have to go to New York to do a tribute concert.' And I said, 'That’s it. That’s a movie.' ”

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Music of the Night

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

Steve Wilkie/Lionsgate

“Repo! The Genetic Opera” essentially consists of bad, campy torture porn interspersed within an incessant string of overwrought musical numbers. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the burden of filming the stage play by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich should fall on Darren Lynn Bousman, heretofore best known for directing the middle three “Saw” installments. “Repo!” deserves credit for its go-for-broke ambition but offers little more than 98 minutes of pure cacophonic excess. In many respects, it is as brutal an experience as the low-grade horror fare it apes.

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Interview With the Vampire

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Ralph Nelson/Universal Studios

Anticipation levels weren’t particularly high for the Times BFI 52nd London Film Festival’s opening film, perhaps because the latest effort from Ron Howard isn’t the kind of prospect to set a festival crowd’s pulses racing. Mr. Howard may also have seemed like a desperately uncool choice of director to adapt Peter Morgan’s hip play, but he in fact does a very good job with a script that leaves no room for his trademark mawkishness. He also delivers a film that’s much more cinematic than Stephen Frears’s direction of Mr. Morgan’s screenplay of "The Queen."

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