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August 2009

All's Well That Ends Whaling

At the Edge of the World (2009)

AFI Dallas International Film Festival

Dan Stone’s “At the Edge of the World” is one of those rare documentaries that could easily function as a compelling fiction thriller. It’s a pirate story masquerading as a message movie, the tale of a band of environmental activist marauders who willingly surrender all material comforts and personal connections to spend months combating whaling ships in the southern seas. Superbly shot from a wealth of angles and perspectives and edited to emphasize the tension in their quest, it’s a grand entertainment that only offers time for reflection once the lights go up.

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Home for the Holiday

Halloween II (2009)

Marsha LaMarca/Dimension Films

Those dizzying, chilling and iconic synthesizers — the theme music for John Carpenter’s original 1978 “Halloween” — are nowhere to be heard throughout Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II.” In his first stab at reinventing “Halloween,” Mr. Zombie weaved Mr. Carpenter’s self-orchestrated score in and out of the film, from the most inspired of moments to the most unfitting. When the tune would creep into a mundane scene of dialogue, Mr. Zombie seemed pinned down to reminding audiences of his film’s predecessor. The 2007 version’s destructive second half — essentially Mr. Carpenter’s entire film lazily condensed into one hour — could be explained in similar fashion. “Halloween II” saves the synthesizers for its last shot (a final close-up taken straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”), a nod to Mr. Carpenter’s groundwork that’s more of an afterthought than a salute. Mr. Zombie’s sequel is only a traditional “Halloween” film by title and character names, more so for worse than better.

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Death Becomes Smoochy

World's Greatest Dad (2009)

Magnolia Pictures

It takes less than five minutes to realize that the moniker of “World’s Greatest Dad” could only be bestowed on high-school teacher Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) with the highest sense of irony. That’s about when it becomes apparent that the main character of writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait’s sharp new film – a single father raising teenage son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) – has failed at his most important job.

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Just One Word: Plastics

Post Grad (2009)

Suzanne Tenner/Fox Searchlight Pictures

More than four decades after “The Graduate,” the confusion of the first post-college summer — in which the familiar ecosystems of the university suddenly transform into the far more challenging ones of the real world — has remained a potent cinematic subject. Unfortunately, the makers of “Post Grad” pretty much botch it.

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A Woman Under the Voidance

The Headless Woman (2008)

Strand Releasing

An existential mystery about an amnesiac woman reorienting herself back to her world after sustaining a head trauma in a car accident, Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman” challenges our perceptions of class, gender, profession, memory and the interpersonal relationships that collectively form our identities. Mesmerizingly sweeping and hazy, the film follows Verónica (María Onetto) as she attempts to fake her way back into her marriage, job and daily routines as if everything is just fine, thank you. We gather clues to her former self by watching her passively allowing everyone in her life to take the lead in every interaction. But while she seems to be successfully fooling her family, friends and colleagues, Verónica loses her grip on reality when she comes to believe that she has accidentally killed someone in the very car accident that erased her memory.

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Baby Got Bite

Grace (2009)

GRC 04.25.08 (023)
Seattle International Film Festival

Not all short works of fiction need to be stretched into full-lengths. Imagine an entire movie based upon the plot of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” — 90 minutes of a depressed guy locked in his bedroom, succumbing to eerie sounds and claustrophobic paranoia. If handled properly, the set-up could make for the greatest Roman Polanski creepshow of all time; more than likely, though, it’d becomes the horror equivalent of a film based on a “Saturday Night Live” sketch — intentionally scary, that is.

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Show Time for Hitler and Germany

My Führer (2007)

First Run Features

Perhaps no figure in history has been more endless psychoanalyzed than Adolf Hitler. The natural human drive to comprehend the incomprehensible has lead to a rash of theories and studied observations that struggle to explain how such a blindly devoted cult of personality emerged around the man.

Into that realm leaps “My Führer,” a work of speculative fiction from writer-director Dani Levy that posits Hitler as, above all, a softie. As played by Helge Schneider, he’s a cripplingly depressed figure with lots of unresolved parental issues. When, towards the end of the Third Reich, he appears headed for a total breakdown, Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) imports Jewish professor Adolf Israel Grünbaum (the late, great Ulrich Mühe) from a concentration camp to snap him out of it in time to make a big speech.

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Got the World on Six Strings

It Might Get Loud (2009)

Eric Lee/Sony Pictures Classics

One could argue that in his latest film, Davis Guggenheim — the Academy Award-winning documentarian behind “An Inconvenient Truth” — has outdone the impressive accomplishment of imbuing an Al Gore slideshow with riveting dramatic heft. For “It Might Get Loud,” he’s assembled Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, three musicians who have never been especially prone to talking about themselves or their craft, and gotten them to candidly face his cameras and do just that.

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The Stuff Extremes Are Made Of

Taxidermia (2006)

Here Media/Regent Releasing

Based on short stories by Hungarian poet Lajos Parti Nagy, György Pálfi’s “Taxidermia” is a sweeping absurdist fantasy that spans three generations and half a century. Arriving in American theaters some three years after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, the film itself has traversed a similarly long and winding road. After wowing Tribeca festgoers in 2007, its domestic release was suddenly in limbo when its original distributor filed for bankruptcy.

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A Bug's Strife

District 9 (2009)

TriStar Pictures

“District 9” couldn’t have come at a better time. For a science-fiction genre that’s been noticeably stagnant in recent years, this feature-film debut from writer-director Neill Blomkamp feels like the start of something big, a seismic shift in both public attention and filmmaking creativity toward a once-potent landscape inhabited by aliens and flying saucers. Hyperbole is risky business of course, and thrusting such a weighty compliment upon “District 9” could end up being a premature miscalculation. It could earn placement within critics’ top-10 lists and nothing more. Better judgment, however, thinks not.

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