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October 2009

Siblings Rival in Tortured Artistry

(Untitled) (2009)

Parker Film Company/Samuel Goldwyn Films

What is art? Can a thumbtack on an otherwise blank wall be a picture? Can someone kicking a bucket filled with chains be music? Most of us with great reason would say no. It takes more inherent talent to make art. Listen to “Trout Mask Replica” by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band — 58th on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums, published in 2003. You may think there’s lots of improvising going on, but these songs were notated and practiced in order to be played the exact same way every time. Crazy, huh? Go to any modern art gallery, and you will more often than not see an entire display of large white canvases with one red dot or some variation thereof. It can’t be art if every single painting looks the same, right? Now, listen to Chuck Berry’s “School Days” and “No Particular Place to Go.” Pretty similar, yes? And have you seen Monet’s haystack series — different times of the day and year, but the same ol’ haystack?

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Decline Gets Better With Rage

44 Inch Chest (2010)

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

“Sexy Beast” scribes Louis Mellis and David Scinto team up once again with acting talents Ray Winstone and Ian McShane for a well-observed study of the male ego. Those hoping for a sequel of sorts will find themselves in aurally familiar territory, but this is a very different beast and it’s anything but sexy.

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Bless the Beasts and Children

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Spike Jonze has spent years putting together this ambitious adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” one of the iconic staples of 20th-century children’s literature. In so doing, he and co-writer Dave Eggers have had to find a way to transform a 337-word story into a full-length feature, padding out the themes of loneliness and mischievousness that characterized Mr. Sendak’s exploration of the child psyche.

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Double Dare the Devil

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Liam Daniel/Sony Pictures Classics

Any picture associated with directorial visionary Terry Gilliam is always going to rouse the public’s attention, yet the tragic death of Heath Ledger midway through filming has ensured that the name “Doctor Parnassus” has been on everyone’s radar for more than 18 months. Much has been made of Mr. Gilliam’s fervent determination to finish the film and particularly the ingenious casting of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to fill Ledger’s void. Mr. Gilliam executes it with gusto, and — as should be expected from such an auteur — transports the audience into a visually fantastical world tinged with a didactic message about the importance and power of the imagination.

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Collateral Savage

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

John Baer/Overture Films

In director F. Gary Gray’s revenge thriller “Law Abiding Citizen,” the vengeance is front and center. Acts of payback that range from robotic sniper machines to limb dissection keep the momentum in gear, the gory red stuff smeared like graffiti in surprising amounts. The plot’s crux involves a loving suburban father (Gerard Butler) who waits 10 years to wage violent retribution against the legal-system players (led by Jamie Foxx as a hotshot assistant district attorney) that let a murderer — the greasy, abhorrent deviant who killed the father’s wife and daughter — walk free. That Mr. Butler is behind bars as the plan unfolds lends an air of implausibility.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to grip any semblance of narrative fat. The cat-and-mice game orchestrated by Mr. Butler’s Clyde Shelton is so overpowering that any human elements are lost in the bloody translation. As his 2003 action triumph “The Italian Job” showed, Mr. Gray certainly knows his way around stylish anarchy, and the glossy brutality of “Law Abiding Citizen” is at times quite enthralling. Higher stakes, which could have been upped if the characters existed as more than archetypes, just aren’t in the cards.

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Sink or Scream

Triangle (2009)

Icon Film Distribution

Director Christopher Smith is slowly emerging as one of the most interesting young filmmakers currently operating in the thriller-horror genre. Having cut his directorial teeth on the superbly spooky London Underground-set “Creep,” Mr. Smith changed tack with his follow up, “Severance,” a grisly horror-comedy. Subverting the genre is clearly something Mr. Smith seems particularly comfortable with, even intrigued by, so it should come as no surprise that his latest offering, “Triangle,” ventures rather neatly into psychological thriller territory, albeit with a delicious twist.

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Cruise Without Control

Wah Do Dem (What They Do) (2009)

2009 Los Angeles Film Festival

Guerrilla indie filmmaking meets slacker road movie, “Wah Do Dem” is a well crafted black comedy that benefits from its raw, improvisational feel. Conceived when young filmmaking duo, Ben Chace and Sam Fleischner, decided to turn a cruise Mr. Chace had won in a raffle into a film project, “Wah Do Dem” follows the hapless Max (a well observed Sean Bones) as he embarks on a cruise from New York to Jamaica and subsequently stumbles from one misfortune to the next. It’s a touching and sometimes farcical tale that touches on cultural isolation, loneliness and how desperate situations can sometimes be a blessing in disguise.

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In-Between Daze

The Exploding Girl (2009)

Carolyn Drake/
The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

Bradley Rust Gray’s latest collaboration with wife So Yong Kim is an intimate and quirky (albeit incredibly lightweight) portrayal of a developing relationship that lends credence to the adage that sometimes what’s left unsaid is more important than what actually is.

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High School Debacle

St. Trinian's (2007)

Girls of St. Trinian's - St. Trinian's (c) 2009 NeoClassics Films Ltd.
NeoClassics Films

This sixth “St. Trinian’s" film, which opened in Britain in 2007 before finally earning its American release this week, attempts to reboot the franchise based on the work of Ronald Searle. Beginning with 1954’s “The Belles of St. Trinian’s” and culminating, or so it seemed, with “The Wildcats of St. Trinian’s” (1980), it’s a beloved comedy series in Britain, if only a semi-known one stateside.

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Drumstick It to the Man

Adventures of Power (2009)

Variance Films

You can’t crush a man’s dreams, even if his is to be the best air drummer in the world. That’s the premise in this “Rocky”-meets-“Napoleon Dynamite” picture written, directed and starring Ari Gold as the titular Power. He looks like a dorky Spike Jonze with a Members Only jacket and a perpetual sweatband. For some inexplicable reason, the powers that be refuse to begin the film’s title with some sort of definite article. One might assume they were going for a play on words, but that feels a little high-minded for this film. This movie is so chock full of quirk that none of the characters are even remotely believable. It’s geared toward the youth — kids and teens who thought the aforementioned “Dynamite” was hilarious and quoted it incessantly.

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