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December 2008

All He Sees Are Her Sympathetic Eyes

Last Chance Harvey (2008)

Overture Films

The critical response to “Last Chance Harvey” seems to have focused primarily on the plot’s adherence to the meet-cute romantic comedy blueprint, a deceptively dismissive way of looking at the picture. To characterize the movie as just another product of the rom-com assembly line is to ignore the depth of feeling Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson bring to their performances. It is also to neglect the wisdom of writer-director Joel Hopkins’s screenplay, the eloquent portrait it develops of the pain of aging alone and the ways the filmmaker illustrates the profound comfort of finding someone when all hope for doing so seems lost.

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If You're Going to Try to Kill the King

Valkyrie (2008)

United Artists

Given the avalanche of negative publicity that’s befallen “Valkyrie,” from the German government’s early refusal to let Bryan Singer shoot at his desired locations to the squabbling over the release date and the media’s oppressive scrutinizing of Tom Cruise’s personal life, it feels like the movie’s been in release for years. Getting to finally see it, then, becomes one of those much anticipated Holy Grail moments wherein one gets to ascertain precisely what the great big fuss has been about.

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Cider Without Rosie in the English Countryside

Better Things (2009)

The Times BFI 52nd London Film Festival

A no-budget, edgy first feature is becoming de rigeur for British directors looking to get noticed, such as Paul Andrew Williams's "London to Brighton" and Vicky Jewson's "Lady Godiva." Duane Hopkins has been just as brave with his first feature "Better Things." Its world is rural England, its cars and back bedrooms, hospital waiting areas and train platforms. Spaces are cramped and stifling. Most of the characters are young heroin addicts, but a few others are their grandparents. The intercutting between everyone's problems is subtle, and silent. There is little dialogue in the film, and less music. The emphasis on nature shots – grass waving in the wind, a car parked by a field, clouds in a gray sky – show a debt to the work of Terrence Malick. It doesn't sound appetizing, but the film builds with quiet power to an ending mercifully free of cliché.

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Field of American Dreams

Sugar (2009)

Fernando Calzada/Sony Pictures Classics

Some might find baseball the most boring of American sports to watch on television (it could have been the most boring of any, but British television airs both snooker and darts), so any movie about baseball automatically has an uphill climb. Previous successes such as "Field of Dreams," "Bull Durham" and others which don't star Kevin Costner have raked the sport over pretty thoroughly. But Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who co-wrote and co-directed "Sugar" and so refreshed the teacher-student genre with "Half Nelson," found an equally interesting new angle in this film. The eponymous hero (Algenis Perez Soto, making his movie debut) is a Dominican on contract to a training camp for the Kansas City Royals. Since Sammy Sosa made his name, we've all been dimly aware of the baseball fever which exists in Latin America, so it's interesting to learn what life in like for these young men. What makes "Sugar" really special is its focus on a young man who gets what he wants, only to realize it's not what he wanted after all.

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Morals for Sale

The Market (2008)

The Times BFI 52nd London Film Festival

"The Market" is set and filmed in eastern Turkey and Azerbaijan, a part of the world most Americans and Brits have never given a moment's thought. Films in these settings are always interesting, as they provide a little glance into a world most of us had not previously been aware of. What Ben Hopkins – a Brit who has built his film career in the less-explored settings – has made is a small social commentary on capitalism's impact on how people interact with each other. Despite the freshness of its setting, the film's main ideas are pretty used goods.

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Raising the Curtain on a Brechtian World

Theater of War (2008)

Michael Daniel/The Public Theater

No matter how one feels about epic theater and the application of dialectical materialism to the art world, there’s no mistaking the enormous, lasting imprint Bertolt Brecht left on all performing arts. One could convincingly make the case, for example, that there would have never been a French New Wave without him or an “Angels in America.” So it’s fitting that the hook director John W. Walter applies to “Theater of War,” his documentary about Brecht’s life, times and legacy, is to follow the development of the Public Theater’s recent production of “Mother Courage and Her Children” which played the second half of New York City’s 2006 season of Shakespeare in Central Park.

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Checking Into the Dragon Inn

Serbis (2008)

Regent Releasing

"Serbis," the latest film from director Brillante Mendoza carves out a day in the life of a sprawling, dysfunctional family living in the city of Angeles in the Philipines. The film barely steps into the streets, however; the action takes place solely within the movie theater where the Flor clan lives and works. Once a family destination, the theater now shows adult films and caters to locals who use it as a place to buy the "services" of young male hustlers.

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Suffer the Children to Come Unto Me

Doubt (2008)

Andrew Schwartz/Miramax Films

John Patrick Shanley plumbs the depths of the soul in “Doubt,” first a play and now a film that confronts the toxicity of the fallacious belief that one’s convictions should never change, no matter the circumstance. It begins with a sermon delivered by Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in which he says that “doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty” and segues into a compelling morality play surrounding that notion. Although the material worked better onstage – Mr. Shanley is a much better writer than he is film director – the big screen version boasts predictably terrific acting by Mr. Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams and all the power and wisdom of its maker’s unique insights into human nature.

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Fanning the Plame

Nothing but the Truth (2008)

Yari Film Group

“Nothing but the Truth” melds politics and journalism – the primary dramatic interests of writer-director Rod Lurie – into one nicely compact narrative package. Inspired by the recent Valerie Plame scandal, the film matter-of-factly tells a story of the conflict between journalistic and governmental ethics. To his great credit, Mr. Lurie does so with only a modicum of moralizing and without ever pandering to one side or the other. He has a point of view to be sure, but he never lets it color things to a poisonous extent; and his screenplay unfolds in shades of grey.

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Dead End Lives on South End Streets

What Doesn't Kill You (2008)

Yari Film Group

Brian Goodman – director and co-writer of “What Doesn’t Kill You” – grew up on the mean streets of South Boston and lived a drug and crime-fueled existence until a prison sentence spurred him to change his life. The steadfast, thorough authenticity that envelops the picture surely derives from that autobiographic connection to the material, and the film is undoubtedly better for it. Besides the verisimilitude that imbues the scenes set in and around the neighborhood with a sort of realist poetry, the movie also serves as a deeply affecting character study, telling the story of a weak man struggling to follow the right path.

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