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June 2009

Being Hit by a Smooth Criminal

Public Enemies (2009)

Peter Mountain/Universal Studios

“Public Enemies,” Michael Mann’s latest opus of organized crime, will divide its viewers into two camps. They will consist, respectively, of those who support the application of the harsh, grainy digital cinematography – that has become his preferred method of working – to a period piece and those who do not.

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Boogie Nights on Sunset Boulevard

Spread (2009)

2009 Sundance Film Festival

A timely satire of Los Angeles's young and shameless could and should have worked, but "Spread" is not that film. This one is a heavy-handed sex comedy that starts off weak and ends up as an outright bad idea. It features a parade of beautiful people being horrible to each other half-dressed and then going to bed to be more horrible to each other in the nude, but despite this it's hard to work up much enthusiasm. The film's real message seems to be that producer and star Ashton Kutcher would like to be Warren Beatty, and if you can handle that concept then kudos to you.

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Vanishing Within a Trace

The Missing Person (2009)

Strand Releasing

The contradictions in Noah Buschel's modern-dress noir, "The Missing Person," are all honed to a fine edge. Its booze-sodden, hard-boiled private dick can't comprehend the concept of a camera phone but can still discuss the finer points of Stravinsky with the Feds. The grizzled cabbie in the California desert turns out to be a New Yorker and a big admirer of Frank Serpico. And what looks like a general noirish rigmarole of dames, trains and automobiles actually hinges not just on the human catastrophe of New York's blackest day, but on the redemptive power of American art. It's a noir for the ages, and it's a treat.

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Taking the Jailbait

Fish Tank (2009)

Festival de Cannes

The inconvenient truth about films which prize naturalism above all else is that they can easily meet theatricality coming back the other way. There are elements in Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank" that set it above any previous British kitchen-sink drama, most especially a depiction of young female sexuality handled more deftly than a male director would manage, whatever his documentary credentials. But set against that, the film clanks to a halt at regular intervals to indulge stereotypes so familiar that you wonder what exactly Ms. Arnold was after.

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Let He Who is With Sin Cast the First Stone

The Stoning of Soraya M. (2009)

MPower Pictures

A simple purpose underlies “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” fulfilled without distractions by director Cyrus Nowrasteh. Based on the 1994 novel by Freidoune Sahebjam, it’s a streamlined, real-time depiction of the true event promised by the title: the brutal communal stoning of a woman that took place in newly post-revolutionary Iran. A fervent outcry against the abuses subjected on women not only in Iran – with which we’ve all become familiar during the past two weeks – but throughout much of the world, it successfully provokes feelings of uncontrollable outrage.

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Good Grief Hunting

Quiet Chaos (2008)

Chico De Luigi/IFC Films

Sandro Veronesi’s bestseller about a widower coming to terms with the accidental death of his wife serves as the basis for Antonello Grimaldi’s eponymous “Quiet Chaos.” But with Nanni Moretti scripting and starring, the film inevitably seems like an afterthought inspired by “The Son’s Room,” Mr. Moretti’s own much-lauded take on the grief process. The two films share thematic threads, but Mr. Grimaldi has extended every strand by a mile, including the tangential ones. Some manifestations of the mourning presented in “Quiet Chaos” do register as observant, while others strike as way off topic.

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Uncovering Clues on the Lost Highway

Surveillance (2008)

Magnet Releasing

To say that Jennifer Lynch's "Surveillance" is a chip off the old Lynchian block is alternately misleading and accurate. Whereas the films orchestrated by her auteur father, David, disturb by turning the viewer's brain into a battered punching bag, "Surveillance" achieves a similar feeling of psychological unease in a much more coherent manner. The film is a deviant surprise, an unwavering hell ride from the mind of a once left-for-dead filmmaker. After the critical drubbing and box-office tanking of her 1993 debut, "Boxing Helena," Ms. Lynch hadn't exactly put her name on the list of tomorrow's best filmmakers. In fact, her name had become somewhat of an afterthought, one of the many examples of unsuccessful nepotism. "Surveillance's" paralyzing tone and controlled ultra-violence, however, show that Ms. Lynch has emerged from Hollywood's time-out corner with a vengeance.

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More Than Sores the Eye, Robots in Disgrace

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Paramount Pictures

Movies do not get more painstakingly idiotic than “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” – an orgy of clanging metal, propagandistic wide shots, short declarative sentences passing for dialogue and uncontrolled camera pans. Where Michael Bay’s first crack at the “Transformers” franchise – though itself a dubious venture – managed to evoke a sort of silly, slapdash spirit, the sequel quickly collapses into unmitigated big-budget tedium, all dressed up with nowhere to go. It indulges all of its maker’s worst instincts, without demonstrating any of the muscular storytelling that’s become his true specialty.

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Keeper of Phantom Brother

The Disappeared (2009)

Lost Tribe Productions

Johnny Kevorkian’s debut feature is an eerie cross-genre thriller-horror that is sadly let down by its muddled final act. The puzzling denouement is a genuine shame, as for the first hour, Mr. Kevorkian delivers a gritty and intelligent study of the themes of loss and isolation. Matthew (a hugely impressive Harry Treadaway) returns home having been in psychiatric care following the disappearance of his younger brother Tom, and frictions soon arise between him and his father Jake (Greg Wise) as old wounds resurface and the blame game begins. As Matthew digs up the past after hearing Tom’s ghostly voice on a video tape of a police appeal, his world soon begins to unravel.

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Caught Between Iraq and a Hard Place

The Hurt Locker (2008)

Summit Entertainment

"The Hurt Locker" lays its cards on the table with the opening words: "War is a drug." Anyone at odds with that thought will have a tough time at Kathryn Bigelow's film, which gives the notion a good chewing over. Action movies can be a drug too, and luckily for addicts of the hard stuff, Ms. Bigelow finds in the dust of Baghdad a further evolution of her interest in blue-collar obsessives and the macho mindset, and the results are pretty combustible.

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