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September 2009

Cry Thraldom

Disgrace (2008)

Disgrace,post attack,16-3 058

While most works of literature and cinema centered on South Africa have focused on the experience of Apartheid, Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” — a Booker Prize winning novel published in 1999 — broke from that trend. An urgent piece of contemporary fiction that serves as a warning against false complacency in the post-Apartheid era, it reveals a country still torn at its roots despite the progress that had occurred earlier in the decade.

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Virtually Living Vicariously

Surrogates (2009)

Touchstone Pictures

There’s an interesting movie buried inside “Surrogates,” but it rarely emerges. From director Jonathan Mostow and screenwriters Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato, the film squanders a premise rife with potential on rote police theatrics. A lackadaisical adaptation of the eponymous graphic novel series penned by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, the picture trades in hoary Bruce Willis procedural clichés and underdeveloped conceits.

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This Woman's War

Heart of Fire (2009)

Senator Film Verleih

Making a kids’ movie about child soldiers should be impossible. The cruelty and horror of their daily existence seems like something it’s better not to discuss. On the other hand, to ignore something that awful can only serve to perpetuate it. “Heart of Fire” is based on a German bestselling memoir by Senait G. Mehari, who as a child was forced to fight in the Eritrean wars of independence. The film does an age-appropriate job of demonstrating how people always have choices, even in situations where they have no choice.

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Internee With Mussolini

Vincere (2009)

Festival de Cannes

Marco Bellocchio has tackled some of Italy’s most delicate historical and religious subjects with an inspired touch of surrealism. “Good Morning, Night,” Mr. Bellocchio’s treatment of the Red Brigade’s 1978 kidnapping and murder of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, took that singular event and expanded it into a broader allegory of a turbulent chapter in Italian history. Similarly, “Vincere” extrapolates Benito Mussolini’s ill-fated first marriage into a cautionary tale about the price of absolute power.

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He's Gonna Git You Sucka

Black Dynamite (2009)

BlackDynamiteStill2009 Los Angeles Film Festival

It’s a shame that the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez exploitation duet, “Grindhouse,” derailed at the box office, because “Black Dynamite” could have been billed as that double feature’s de facto sequel. Shot with the grainy texture of aged reels, director Scott Sanders’s tongue-way-past-cheek spoof of 1970s blaxploitation cinema plays like an expanded riff on the faux trailers that broke “Grindhouse” in half. Unfortunately for that Tarantino-Rodriguez project, today’s mainstream audience proved to be resistant toward winking big-screen throwbacks, aloof to — not in on — the joke. Which doesn’t bode well for “Black Dynamite.” As a straightforward comedy, the film lays the humor on thicker than Shaft’s mustache with mixed success. There in lies its dilemma: “Black Dynamite” is so married to its high-concept that story is sacrificed for shtick. That’s surely the intention, and “Black Dynamite” ultimately lives and dies by its own agenda.

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Watch Out, Boy, She'll Chew You Up

Jennifer's Body (2009)

JB-163Doane Gregory/Twentieth Century Fox

The moment when "Jennifer's Body" begins to go down in flames isn't tough to pinpoint. Jennifer, the sex-on-two-legs cheerleader played by Megan Fox, has dragged her quiet, socially-awkward B.F.F., Needy (Amanda Seyfried), to a local bar see a new indie rock band. During the band's set, an electrical fire quickly turns the venue into an inferno. The two girls manage to escape through a window; unlike its female leads, though, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody's sophomore effort is left to slowly dissolve. The film's first horror set piece, the sequence wants to evoke "Carrie"-at-the-prom nostalgia, but it's rushed and lifeless. Whereas Brian De Palma used split-screen and a palpable mean stream to his advantage back in 1976, "Jennifer's Body" director Karyn Kusama plays it safe, treating repeated shots of screaming people engulfed in flames as scary enough. It's undercooked barbecue with no dramatic meat, and an unfortunate sign of the dullness to come.

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The Inside Joke

The Informant! (2009)

TI-FP-0171Warner Bros. Pictures

Lest one be fooled by the presence of full-fledged movie star, Matt Damon. This should be clear: Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” continues the auteur’s ongoing penchant for experimentation with film form and genre. When considered in a career that includes “sex, lies, and videotape,” “Bubble,” “Full Frontal,” the “Solaris” remake, “Che” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” it’s further proof of Mr. Soderbergh’s admirable conviction to make exactly the movie he wants every single time out.

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The Three Burials of Forbidden Love

The Burning Plain (2008)

6Magnolia Pictures

Self-mutilation is now officially a cliché. It has become filmic shorthand to encapsulate within one scene years of psychological trauma visited on a person. It also seems quite redundant in the case of Sylvia, Charlize Theron’s character in “The Burning Plain,” who appears to be alarmingly promiscuous. If you also take into account the fact that it promises to be another one of those we-are-all-connected ensemble pieces, the film shapes up within the first 10 minutes to be a daunting task.

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Paris When It Fizzles

Paris (2008)

23Mars Distribution

Cédric Klapisch offered the definitive view of the City of Lights in 1996 with “When the Cat’s Away.” Starring mostly unprofessional actors from a deteriorating but ethnically diverse neighborhood, the film charmingly depicted a spirit of community enduring amid the changing times. It was infinitely more authentic than the obviously touristy treatments of the city such as that in “Amélie,” which went as far as digitally erasing graffiti on walls in a desperate attempt to create a romantic ideal that in fact does not exist.

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A Warholian Mosaic of an Iconoclast

Chevolution (2009)

Picture 002
Fortissimo Films

Everyone knows the image this film is about. Everyone might not know who he is or when or where the photo was taken, but he or she knows what the image means. It’s cool, edgy and rebellious. It’s got that little frisson that moves it beyond just another photograph to one of the most reproduced images of all time. It’s so famous that blind items can run in the gossip press about starlets getting their tattoos of it removed. In a London restaurant restroom, a mash-up of the image and the Mona Lisa hangs on the wall. And from its first appearance, it took very little time to morph into shorthand for — well, whatever you want it to mean.

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