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March 2009

Has-Been Mentalist Draws More Tricks From His Sleeve

The Great Buck Howard (2009)

Magnolia Pictures

“The Great Buck Howard” works because writer-director Sean McGinly had the good sense to cast John Malkovich as the title character, and because Mr. Malkovich knew he could do wonders with the role and said yes. Although the screenplay adopts the perspective of Troy (Colin Hanks), assistant to the past-his-prime mentalist Buck Howard, this movie belongs to its star. A cauldron of limitless energy, maniacal narcissism and full-throttle passion for his art, the character casts such a giant shadow over the production that the picture lives or dies based on the success of his portrayal. Thankfully, Mr. Malkovich makes him one of the standout characters in a unique, prestigious career.

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Amores perros de hecho

Sin Nombre (2009)

Eniac Martinez/Focus Features

Most filmmakers keep things on a small, personal scale when making their first feature. Such isn't the case for Cary Joji Fukunaga, the Oakland-born writer-director of “Sin Nombre.” He immersed himself in an unfamiliar culture, shot his film in a foreign language, and came away with a work of great raw power. An immigration drama in the grand tradition of movies like “El Norte,” the movie is alternately brutal and affecting, filled with big dreams and crushing realities.

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Being Paul Giamatti in the City of Lost Souls

Cold Souls (2009)

2009 Sundance Film Festival

“Cold Souls” is a film made with such confidence and such a trained eye for nuanced storytelling, that one would be forgiven for mistaking first-time filmmaker Sophie Barthes for a seasoned pro. Deftly balancing its symbolic and philosophical underpinnings with deadpan human comedy, the movie successfully operates on multiple levels.

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When Bright Future Eludes, a Family Unites

Tokyo Sonata (2008)

Regent Releasing

"So·na·ta (n.): a musical composition of three or four movements of contrasting forms." – Dictionary.com.

In a curious exercise, Kiyoshi Kurosawa quite literally applies the musical definition of a sonata to his visual study of modern-day life in Tokyo. The subject is family, the unifying theme dysfunction. His characters are the instruments that play out his contradictions in style and form, juxtaposing the director's various genre practices against each other in one cumulative whole. The result: "Tokyo Sonata," a collection of narrative movements that feels as grand – and yet concise – as any musical sonata piece by Beethoven or Mozart.

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Sister Act Mops Up Blood and Tears

Sunshine Cleaning (2009)

Lacey Terrell/Overture Films

“Sunshine Cleaning” often adheres to Sundance archetypes, particularly those featured in another recent Sundance hit with “Sunshine” in its title. A happy-sad, quirky story of a dysfunctional family, the movie features wide shots of the main characters framed against off-kilter backdrops, close-ups on cathartic moments, Alan Arkin as a kooky grandpa and an oversized van.

However, the comparisons stop there, as “Sunshine Cleaning” quickly establishes itself as a work of more meaning and substance than its better know predecessor. It benefits greatly from the inspired casting by director Christine Jeffs and her team, and the insights into loss and motherhood professed by Megan Holley’s screenplay.

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Like a Fine Bordeaux, Getting More Robust With Age

Inspector Bellamy (2009)

The Film Society of Lincoln Center/Unifrance

Gérard Depardieu looks terrible these days. He’s always packed a few extra pounds, but right now he’s just obese. No doubt, the death of his son Guillaume last October has taken a toll on him, but who knows if that’s a factor in his letting himself go? He has made some lousy choices through the years, as have De Niro, Pacino and other fine, only-last-name-necessary actors of his generation. Even though time really hasn’t been kind to him, Mr. Depardieu can still generate some movie-star wattage and pull off the larger-than-life presence of a leading man. He has done it so expertly in “Inspector Bellamy” – a star vehicle made-to-measure by none other than Claude Chabrol – that one sometimes forgets he is lugging around some 200 extra pounds.

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Staging Musical Tradition as Theater

Fados (2007)

New Yorker Films

In the annals of film history, “Fados” will be most remembered for serving as the swansong release of New Yorker Films. The legendary, hugely influential label announced its closing last month, and “Fados,” which the New York Times reports company founder Dan Talbot bought with his own money, brings down the curtain on a remarkable era in cinematic history.

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City of Demons

The Informers (2009)

2009 Sundance Film Festival

“The Informers,” Bret Easton Ellis’s adaptation of his own series of short stories about the greed and decadence of 1980s' Los Angeles, plays like a rote museum piece evocation of the era. Director Gregor Jordan brings a sense of verisimilitude to his depiction, with pitch perfect hairstyles, wardrobes and me-first, cocaine-snorting snob attitudes on display. But he can’t compensate for a ludicrously concocted, thoroughly unconvincing narrative and the pervading sense of style supplanting substance.

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Restoring a Tarnished Life

Everlasting Moments (2008)

Nille Leander/IFC Films

Sweden apparently hasn’t always been the expedient society in which particleboard furniture and fast fashion are ubiquitous. It’s unfathomable that a century ago – before widespread electricity and the enlightenment by such luminaries as Ingmar Bergman and ABBA – the country was a white-trash wasteland inhabited by deadbeat, wife-beating drunkards who treated their impoverished households as baby farms and kept themselves busy during workers’ strikes by planting bombs and shacking up with mistresses. At the very least this was the case for Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt), the greasy, mustachioed husband of protagonist Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen) in Jan Troell’s Bergmanesque “Everlasting Moments.”

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Getting into a World of Troubles

Fifty Dead Men Walking (2009)

Whistler Film Festival

I’m an American who lived in Belfast for a year, and in that year met my husband. The whole of his family lives in Northern Ireland, and our circle of friends in London includes several from Northern Ireland. None of them are "political" – i.e., with direct involvement to paramilitary activity – although some do have family relationships or unwise connections from their youth, which they prefer not to discuss. Most of them recoil in horror at the thought of perpetuating the traditional nationalist-unionist struggle or indeed prejudice of any kind, although some are less enlightened. But regardless of their political outlook, religious belief, class, or personal experience of the Troubles, every last one of them I know from Northern Ireland adheres to the code: “Whatever you say, say nothing.” Everyone, but everyone, hates a grass.

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