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July 2009

Waffling in a Belgian Conundrum

Lorna's Silence (2008)

Christine Plenus/Sony Pictures Classics

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have plenty of admirers as evidenced by their two Palme d’or wins. But their shtick is getting old, and they know it. So “Lorna’s Silence” marks a departure of sorts for the Belgian filmmakers, albeit one that doesn’t entirely work.

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Priest Takes Unholy Communion

Focus Features

A priest in a vampire movie usually has one of two functions: to explain the cursed origins of the subhuman creatures or to eventually help dispatch them via a cross, holy water and a wooden stake. But what if the priest is the vampire? In “Thirst” – winner of the Prix du Jury in Cannes – commercially and critically acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook uses this narrative twist to put his own unique and visceral spin on the vampire film’s familiar themes of contagion, morality and eroticism.

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Almost Died Laughing

Funny People (2009)

Tracy Bennett/Universal Studios

“Funny People” is an apt title for Judd Apatow’s latest, which clearly stands as his most personal movie yet. From its opening images — of home-video recordings of a young Adam Sandler sent into hysterics while making prank phone calls — to its last, the film unfolds in a world indelibly familiar to the filmmaker and his ensemble of frequent collaborators. Centering the action on the Hollywood stand-up comedy circuit, the picture adopts a multitude of perspectives to explore the joys and heartbreaks of trying to be funny for a living and the collateral damage caused by the accruement of too much fame too quickly.

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Bruised Almighty

The Answer Man (2009)

Magnolia Pictures

Jeff Daniels, a tremendously under-appreciated actor, gets one of his best roles as the lead in “The Answer Man,” a quirky romantic comedy from first time writer-director John Hindman. The actor is the primary reason to see the picture, a charming albeit slight piffle of the sort that routinely gets overpraised by the Sundance Film Festival, where it debuted.

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Child's Plague

Orphan (2009)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Boxcutter in hand and evil-as-sin scowl on her face, a nine-year-old girl hovers over a sleeping boy only a few years her junior. First pressing the blade to the boy's throat, she then moves her weapon downward, stabbing dangerously close to his privates. As the now awake and understandably petrified kid trembles, the girl says with dead-seriousness, "I'll cut your hairless little dick off before you even know what it's for."

This scene comes shortly before the one-hour mark of the latest creepy-kid horror film, "Orphan;" but it's the defining moment – the instance where what seemed to be a conventional psychological thriller officially turns into a freak show. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, whose only other film of note is 2005's sub-par "House of Wax" remake, "Orphan" is a rather ballsy entry into a sub genre inhabited by the good (1976's "The Omen"), the bad (1993's "The Good Son"), and the underrated (2007's "Joshua"). Cast an unknown kid with an unsettling disposition, and then let him or her raise hell. "Orphan," however, ups the ante on all fronts. It's a messy film, plagued by inconsistencies that become loudly apparent once the much-publicized twist presents itself. If taken as nothing more than trashy camp hidden underneath a glossy mainstream sheen, though, "Orphan" is also quite entertaining, sue-me-for-liking-it fun.

Just wait until that see-it-to-believe-it scene twists its sleazy head.

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Bend It Like Cantona

Looking for Eric (2009)

Festival de Cannes

With "Looking for Eric," Ken Loach, purveyor of the socialist struggles of the working class, unexpectedly delivers an uplifting, exceptionally funny film. Yes, there are the expected Loachisms running throughout – the broken marriages and the errant kids – but Mr. Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty manage to suffuse this tale of middle-aged postman Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) dealing with a mid-life crisis with some heart.

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All Is Scare When Love Is War

Homecoming (2009)

Paper Street Films/Animus Films

“Homecoming,” the new film from director Morgan J. Freeman, is stuck in a time warp. It stars Mischa Barton, who hasn’t been heard from since the heyday of “The O.C.” It joyfully applies trashy thriller tropes to the small-town high-school narrative popularized by the shows of the old WB network and turn-of-the-century cinematic fare such as “The Skulls,” that bent over backwards to turn R-rated narratives into PG-13-rated fare (although “Homecoming” is unrated). Gleefully, patently absurd, it’s hard to surmise exactly how the movie managed to avoid an unceremonious DVD dumping.

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Surviving the Survivor

Death in Love (2009)

Screen Media Films

“Death in Love” is such a bleak, downbeat experience that one literally suffers while watching it. It’s a relentless, oppressive cry of pain from writer-director Boaz Yakin – the story of miserable people living miserable lives without redemption, humor or hope. As if that weren’t enough of a reason to avoid the movie, the filmmaker fills it with endless, droning scenes rife with sadomasochism and a sense of self-seriousness that grows ever more stultifying as things wear on.

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Deadgirl (2009)

Harris Charalambous/Dark Sky Films

If necrophilia were ever to become a subdivision of sexual education, "Deadgirl" would be the cautionary film cited as required viewing in the course syllabus. However you've reacted to the preceding sentence should signify where you'll reside in "Deadgirl's" polarizing aftermath. If repulsed, steer clear; if uncomfortably intrigued, however, you'll find the debut film from directing duo Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel to be a welcome surprise. The first-time filmmakers clearly have a ball playing on the conventions of both the horror and teenage coming-of-age film genres, taking a familiar virgin-outcasts-on-the-sexual-prowl premise and supplementing stone-faced bleakness where raunchy gags and McLovin types normally exist. The result – while a bit too reliant on its horror inclinations – is certainly one of the more unique and interesting genre films of the year thus far.

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Pushing the Gay Panic Button

Humpday (2009)

Magnolia Pictures

“Humpday,” from writer-director Lynn Shelton, transforms a thoroughly outrageous premise into a thoughtful study of the burdens of 21st-century masculinity. Incorporating an improvised technique that lends an authentic sensibility to the proceedings, she and stars Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard and Alycia Delmore have created a film that defies all logic by seeming so relatable and real. What seems on paper to be destined for outsized satire instead becomes something that cuts deeper – a film that evokes the genuine humor of its central conceit and the pain that accompanies it.

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