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February 2009

Peeking Into the Presidential Suite

An American Affair (2009)

Screen Media Films

In "An American Affair," director William Olssen has chosen a story that seems ripe for cinema: the Cuban missile crisis, a young boy coming of age, a stranger next door and all that great imagery of America during the Cold War. The film starts out strongly enough, with photographs and footage of President John F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro as the opening credits roll. With these two charismatic leaders pitted against each other, the stage is set for action. But the writing, acting and directing all suffer from major weaknesses that threaten the foundation of the story.

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Angelenos Struggle Through Crash Course on Immigration

Crossing Over (2009)

Dale Robinette/The Weinstein Company

“Crossing Over” tosses into one convenient grab bag all the political rhetoric and literary clichés from the recent public debate on immigration. Interspersed with sprawling aerial shots of Los Angeles, the film’s episodic narrative and interconnected characters weave together something akin to a mash-up of recent entries such as “Crash” by Paul Haggis, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” “Under the Same Moon” and “Gran Torino.”

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Keeping a Friend Close as Enemies Get Closer

Flame & Citron (2008)

The Times BFI 52nd London Film Festival

The eponymous anti-heroes of this stylish and exciting thriller from Ole Christian Madsen were never mentioned in any history lesson that I ever took. Otto Von Bismarck, Winston Churchill and even the Venerable Bede were all present and correct during my studies but not "Flame & Citron." The latter might console themselves from beyond the grave with at least being well known in their native Denmark.

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In an Italian Ghost Town, Forging a New Life

Genova/A Summer in Genoa (2009)

The Times BFI 52nd London Film Festival

Michael Winterbottom has certainly enjoyed an eclectic directorial career. And while his subjects have been as diverse as the Bosnian War in "Welcome to Sarajevo," the Manchester music scene in "24 Hour Party People" and the plight of Gitmo inmates in "The Road to Guantanamo," his work has always paid particular attention to the human aspect of the story. Family relationships form the crux of his latest picture, "Genova," as he delivers an intimate portrait of the dynamics of a family dealing with loss, youthful rebellion, guilt and cultural change.

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Polish Master Seeks Truth and Reconciliation

Katyn (2007)

Koch Lorber Films

The great Polish director Andrzej Wajda has reportedly been waiting his entire life to tell the story of the Soviet massacre of Polish Army officers in the Katyn Forest during WWII. After experiencing “Katyn” – his studious, eloquent rendition of that terrible day and its aftermath – one understands exactly why. The film is not just about the buildup to the mass murder, its obfuscation by those responsible and the outpouring of national grief that followed it.

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Acknowledge No Evil

Three Monkeys (2008)

Pyramide International

If Nuri Bilge Ceylan had been born 100 years ago, he would have been a painter of some renown. No one has the ability to capture looming storm clouds the way he can. It’s easy to imagine the shots from the apartment rooftop becoming those large paintings which museums take such pride in displaying. Mr. Ceylan is also a photographer, and the composition of all of his shots is careful and considered, with the framing almost as important as what the image shows us. The pity is that this careful attention captures “Three Monkeys” in a bell jar.

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Vicariously Nailing Villainous Bank Execs

The International (2009)

Jay Maidment/Columbia Pictures

“The International” aims to be a thriller of the moment, gearing for topical relevance by making its villain a giant, faceless bank striving for world domination. While current events may have validated that notion, it doesn’t make for great suspense fodder despite the best efforts of director Tom Tykwer and screenwriter Eric Warren Singer. Unlike the similarly evil corporations prominently featured in films like “Three Days of the Condor” and “Michael Clayton,” the International Bank of Business and Credit’s corruption comes across in an easily quantifiable form. Its motives lack mystery and its methods prove wholly predictable.

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What Lurks Beneath


By Lauren Groff
Illustrated. 364 pp.
Voice/William Heinemann.

Lifelong readers will understand that the odds of discovering a novel that lives up to the term's adjectival meaning grow increasingly smaller as time goes on. It's a matter of familiarity with narrative and literary tropes: the more books one digests, the more difficult it becomes to find something that truly surprises and delights in the same way all new novels used to, once upon a time. But that's exactly what makes the experience of the gems like Lauren Groff's "The Monsters of Templeton" so special.

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Where's Joaldo?

Magnolia Pictures

James Gray aptly summed up the sideshow atmosphere that’s engulfed “Two Lovers,” his latest film.

Followed into the press roundtable room at Manhattan’s Regency Hotel by Casey Affleck – there filming a documentary about brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix’s sudden inexplicable transition from actor to rapper – the clearly agitated filmmaker turned around and virulently tossed him out.

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It's a Man's World, but Women Love to Shop in It

Martin Tsai/Critic's Notebook

The sight of people stripping down to their underwear between the racks to try on clothes rarely raises an eyebrow at the Barneys Warehouse Sale, or most any sample sale for that matter. Except for rookie loss-prevention personnel, everyone there knows the drill: no fitting rooms, no exchanges, no returns, and no place for modesty when there are bargains to be seized.

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