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May 2009

Simmering Students to Perfection

Pressure Cooker (2009)

Los Angeles Film Festival

Movies often inflate the significance of the high-school experience. Typically, they’ll characterize the four years as the high time of life, a carefree collection of cliques, parties, sports, pretty girls, handsome boys and adult figures both memorable and dull. Sometimes, however, in the right context certain of the formula’s oft-repeated elements ring true. “Pressure Cooker,” a new documentary from Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker, co-opts the inspirational-teacher-changes-her-students-for-the-better storyline and makes it resonate.

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The Road to Hell Is Paved With Cruel Intentions

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Melissa Moseley/Universal Studios

“Drag Me to Hell” finds Sam Raimi returning to his schlocky horror roots, forgoing the polished world of the “Spider-Man” franchise for an enthusiastically made, tongue-in-cheek dose of low-budget horror. With a healthy comic sensibility and plenty of boo moments, it confidently evokes the B movies that groomed Mr. Raimi and many of his colleagues.

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The Burden on Those Left Behind

Fugitive Pieces (2008)

N. Nikolopoulos/Samuel Goldwyn Films

There is a certain air of familiarity surrounding “Fugitive Pieces,” which – thematically at least – treads similar ground to one of the year’s more successful releases, “The Reader.” Both films are based on much-lauded novels and concern a middle-aged, academic type coming to terms with a past which has been blighted, in some way, by Nazi atrocities. In “The Reader,” Ralph Fiennes played a lawyer mentally haunted by the woman who was his first love and the subsequent revelations of her true nature. Meanwhile in “Fugitive Pieces,” a writer named Jakob (Stephen Dillane) is obsessed with the fate of his older sister, who was seized by German soldiers and taken to an unknown but certainly tragic end.

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Spirited Awry

Departures (2008)

Regent Releasing/Here Media

In a surprise win over the much-hyped “Waltz with Bashir” and “The Class,” a modest film from Japan took this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. “Departures” is a beautiful, quietly moving film which hits the mark precisely because it does not try to be too ambitious in telling the simple story of a man finding his way in the world.

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Triumph of the Ill Will

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Francois Duhamel/The Weinstein Company

First and foremost, “Inglourious Basterds” is better than “Death Proof” - but then it would be some feat if it had actually been worse. This time, Quentin Tarantino's self-indulgence is relatively corralled, thanks to a bunch of voluntary narrative restraints that pretty much force the director to calm down. In “Death Proof,” Mr. Tarantino was in your ear constantly, fidgeting and giggling and nudging you in the ribs. There are whole stretches of “Basterds” where he shuts up. It must have been an almighty effort.

The problem is that he's achieved this zen condition by being relatively conventional. Or as conventional as a man with his crazy ear for speech patterns and keen eye for the female instep could ever be, when making a WWII epic set in a Nazi-occupied sector of the Twilight Zone.

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The Business of Strangers

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

Magnolia Pictures

Specificity is the name of the game in “The Girlfriend Experience,” the second of Steven Soderbergh’s planned slate of six digitally-made day-and-date releases. An arty work of direct cinema about specific people occupying a specific milieu during a specific time, it never pretends it’s anything grander. That frees its maker and his cast of non-professional actors (the lone exception being adult-film star Sasha Grey, who plays the lead) to experiment with style and improvised form.

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Next Stop Wanderland

O'Horten (2007)

Hans-Jorgan Osnes/Sony Pictures Classics

After a fling with American indiewood via a big-screen adaptation of Charles Bukowski’s “Factotum,” Norwegian director Bent Hamer has returned to familiar ground in every sense. His latest, “O’Horten,” invites comparisons to “Kitchen Stories,” his breakout hit here in America. Both films are set in Norway and revolve around men in the process of breaking free of their lifelong routines.

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Stomp the Junk Yard

Dance Flick (2009)

Glen Wilson/Paramount Pictures

“Dance Flick” should, theoretically, set itself apart from “Epic Movie,” “Disaster Movie” and every other sub-subpar genre parody of recent years. It replaces the dubious duo of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the men responsible for those atrocities, with the Wayans family. The comedy legends behind everything from “In Living Color” to “Scary Movie” surely could not make a film that’s only marginally better than its recent counterparts, right? Right?

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Field Trip of Dreams

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)

Twentieth Century Fox

Given the unfortunate pedigree of a mediocre predecessor and an awful trailer, if you’d told me “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” would actually be worth watching, I’d have trotted out a cruise ship to sell you. Yet, I sit here at my keyboard hours after seeing the film, and I’m in a state of shock. Not only is the movie not a product driven forth from the fieriest depths of family film hell, it’s a fun, spirited adventure story that works where the original failed.

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Bride's Head on a Platter, Revisited

Easy Virtue (2008)

Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures Classics

Noel Coward was best known for imbuing his work with incisive wit, even in plays regarded far less fondly than “Private Lives” or “Hay Fever.” It’s that spirit most closely preserved by director Stephan Elliott in his adaptation of “Easy Virtue,” which most experts consider a lesser entrant in the playwright’s oeuvre. Unfortunately, the combination of cleverly-constructed, snappy dialogue and the filmmaker’s concerted effort to fill the film with broad, audience-friendly comedy cannot compensate for the narrative thinness at its core.

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