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September 2009

Chevron Drinks the Amazon's Milkshake; Chevron Drinks It Up

Crude (2009)

David Gilbert/First Run Features

Environmentally-themed documentaries have been all the rage since Davis Guggenheim offered the previously unfathomable revelation that Al Gore giving a PowerPoint lecture could be made dramatic. In fact, multifaceted movies about our brewing natural crises — once the forte of activists and special-interest filmmakers — have become such a norm, that there’s a definite threat of oversaturation. This year alone has produced “Earth Days,” “No Impact Man” and “At the Edge of the World,” among others.

Yet director Joe Berlinger keeps “Crude” — his crack at eco-themed issue oriented filmmaking — from seeming passé. That’s because he’s chosen a voluble, compelling subject: the ongoing law suit filed by Ecuadorean natives against oil giant Texaco (now Chevron), alleging years of unmitigated pollution of their waters and lands. Embedded in the story — which alternates between scenes of lawyerly machinations, the compiling of sad stories of the victims and a look at the media’s representations of the case — are enough intriguing characters and moments of high human drama for it to function more like a piece of effective fiction than a work of overwrought agitprop.

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Greek Tragedy

Sorority Row (2009)

SROW-168 SR-02482
Michael Desmond/Summit Entertainment

Within its first 15 minutes, “Sorority Row” is already batting with a two-strike count. Before the opening credits even begin, the knowledge that the film is yet another tired horror remake is present, although the original in this case is a mostly-unloved piece of 1983 trash, “The House on Sorority Row.” The void of creativity sets in from jump, and once the central set-up — six sorority sisters stage a prank that follies into murder and then an agreed-upon cover up — is established, director Stewart Hendler’s cue seems to come directly from 1997’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Let’s tally the offenses up, now: “Sorority Row” is a remake (first strike) that totally plunders from a horror film that today’s generation knows well (there’s the second). Ask any lawyer worth his graduate-school diploma about what happens to double offenders. And then tell Mr. M.B.A. to behold an exception, because, some how, some way, “Sorority Row” overcomes such obstacles and chalks up one of the year’s most successfully executed horror films.

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Encounters With a Killer at the End of the World

Whiteout (2009)

Warner Bros. Pictures

The spirit of William Castle lives on in “Whiteout,” but for all the wrong reasons. The late horror director, known for promoting his pictures with elaborate gimmicks, was one of a kind when it came to audience interaction. For 1959’s “The Tingler,” Castle rigged buzzers to theater seats that jolted backsides whenever the movie’s titular antagonist would attack; that same year, an inflatable glow-in-the-dark skeleton zipped above the audience on a wire just as a skeleton terrorized Vincent Price’s fictional wife during the climax of “House on Haunted Hill.” “Whiteout” – the latest release from Joel Silver’s Dark Castle imprint, his salute to the gimmicky legend – unintentionally revives that brand of fourth-wall breaking. Set in Antarctica, it’s a lifeless murder mystery cloaked in C.G.I. snow blizzards. The filmmakers took the coldness too far, though; the frozen skills employed for “Whiteout” could literally numb viewers’ brains.

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HAL Freezes Over

9 (2009)

Focus Features

In these days of bloated budgets and excessive running times, a movie that clocks in at 79 minutes should be a cause for celebration. In the case of Shane Acker’s “9,” it’s actually the opposite – a cause for consternation and the bemoaning of a missed opportunity. Sadly, every bit of uniqueness found in Mr. Acker’s animated vision of a ravaged, post-apocalyptic Earth populated solely by sentient rag dolls is counterbalanced by the failure of his collaboration with screenwriter Pamela Pettler. Rarely has so much imagination been poured into one facet of a film at the expense of another.

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Trading Laugh Tracks for an R Rating

Extract (2009)

Sam Urdank/Miramax Films

“I am the Great Cornholio! I need T. P. for my bunghole!” What in the world ever happened to Mike Judge, who supplied such 1990s cultural milestones as MTV’s “Beavis and Butt-Head” and blazed the trail for the likes of Ricky Gervais with “Office Space” before dropping off the radar of popular culture? Perhaps only his most diehard fans were aware of the unceremonious release of 2006’s “Idiocracy,” which 20th Century Fox dumped onto about 100 screens without advertisements or trailers. No matter, Mr. Judge is back, and we have to settle for that sorry excuse for comedy known as bromance no longer.

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Grid-Iron Obsession Clotheslines Hapless Fan

Big Fan (2009)

First Independent Pictures

Paul Auferio (Patton Oswalt), the eponymous “Big Fan” of “The Wrestler” screenwriter and former editor-in-chief of the Onion Robert Siegel’s directorial debut, more than earns the title. He eats, sleeps, breathes and bleeds the New York Giants, loving the team down to the core of his being. All other concerns, such as interpersonal relationships and a job, fall to the wayside. His life is all Big Blue, all the time.

The scariest thing about Paul is just how realistic he seems; how utterly probable it is that there could be someone so single-mindedly obsessed with a sports team that it consumes their existence. Resisting any urge to condescend or judge, Mr. Siegel (who also wrote the screenplay) plops the character in a glum, depressed Staten Island milieu of strip malls, scuzzy bars and gray days and simply lets his story unfold. When a shocking accident — not to be revealed here — causes Paul to directly impact the team’s season, he’s faced with the utmost crisis of conscience.

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An Inconvenient Trudge

No Impact Man (2009)

Colin at Market
Oscilloscope Laboratories

In November 2007, Colin Beavan and his family concluded a yearlong “experiment” in which they used no form of carbon-emitting transportation, watched no television, used no electricity and ultimately made as minute an environmental impact as humanly possible. Zero impact was the initial intention, in fact; but the end result was closer to little than none. The fact that the world is still polluting and wasting energy in excess just as it was in November 2006 proves that Mr. Beavan’s endeavor hasn’t caused a worldwide change. Ironically, it’s precisely that questionable success of Mr. Beavan’s plan that gives “No Impact Man,” a documentary from Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein that chronicles the 365-day mission, its winning edge. The family’s good intentions aren’t used as abrasively guilt-pushing tactics, but as catalysts for a compelling study of the plights of nobility. Light and accessible in tone, “No Impact Man” succeeds as more of a human-interest piece than a green-conscious, save-the-world plea.

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