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November 2009

Touch of Evel Knievel

Me and Orson Welles (2009)

Liam Daniel/CinemaNX Films One

On paper, an adaptation of Robert Kaplow's novel "Me and Orson Welles" appears an unlikely breakthrough picture for Zac Efron. Yet the fact that it's the latest work of Richard Linklater, director of cult slacker movie "Dazed and Confused," is perhaps more surprising. Mr. Linklater's period piece charting Orson Welles's legendary 1937 production of "Julius Caesar" at the Mercury Theatre is an intriguing proposition that unfortunately never really delivers on its promise. While Mr. Efron's portrayal of naïve aspiring actor Richard Samuels will inevitably stir the public's interest, Mr. Linklater's picture in fact firmly belongs to Christian McKay's exceptional turn as the unpredictable Welles.

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Blast From the Past to Kingdom Come

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)

Screen Media Films

You’re sure to recognize Pippa Lee (Robin Wright Penn). She’s a pretty, devoted housewife, a regular at the stores near her Connecticut home. Her passivity — her devotion to the blandest of routines — blends her inextricably to her surroundings. They seem to have shaped every contour of her life; whoever she once was and wherever she came from buried beneath a sort of high-class suburban malaise.

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It's the Global Economy, Stupid

Mammoth (2009)

Memfis Film/P.A. Jörgensen/IFC Films

“Mammoth," the English-language debut of Lukas Moodyson (“Lilya 4-Ever”) takes itself very, very seriously. Were the ponderous visuals, mannered atmosphere and overwrought soundtrack not enough evidence of that fact, the endless stream of scenes featuring actors dramatically expressing their characters’ inner turmoil confirms it. It’s one of those international compendiums with various storylines centered on the same weighty themes, which mean to say so much about the human condition and modernity that they end up saying perilously little.

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Battle Royal of Wits

Red Cliff (2008)

Magnet Releasing

Once among the most prolific directors, John Woo has disappeared in the six years since the release of “Paycheck.” With the domestic opening of this streamlined version of “Red Cliff,” the most expensive Asian-financed film in history and setter of Chinese box-office records, he shows us all where he’s been.

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Just Like Starting Over

Nowhere Boy (2009)

Icon Film Distribution

Biopics of musical figures are becoming commonplace. What was fresh with "Ray" and "Walk the Line" is now not so much. And when the subject of your film is famously bigger than Jesus, it’s difficult to bring a unique selling point to your movie. John Lennon inspires deathless admiration for his music, his sardonic wit and his guitar playing. But this movie is not really about him. It’s about the women who brought him up.

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Lives Wired

We Live in Public (2009)

Donna Ferrato/Interloper Films

Well-known investment advice says never to put your money with the early adopters. The first company to break into a new sector will make mistakes that the second or third company to do will avoid, so that's where your money should go. In the same way, the initial idea for new format or style of doing something usually doesn't go mainstream without being watered down or changed in some way (think reality TV shows or anything shown on a fashion catwalk). But without the early adopters, where would we be?

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Once Upon a Time of the Wolf

The Road (2009)

Macall Polay/2929/Dimension Films

John Hillcoat’s book-to-film adaptation “The Road” does everything it can to repel. The cinematography — while quite remarkable — is layered in grime, depicting a landscape decimated after unexplained destruction. The very few actors seen in the film (prominently Viggo Mortensen and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) look distressed throughout, smeared in dirt and unrelenting desperation. A somber, bleak story of a father’s undying love for his son in the face of hopelessness, “The Road” even comes equipped with images of a pistol pressed against a little boy’s forehead and a father washing a man’s brains out of his son’s hair.

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Fright on the Button

The Box (2009)

Dale Robinette/Warner Bros. Pictures

The most cynical fans of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” consider 1963 to be the year that the immortal television series jumped the shark, albeit momentarily. In its fourth season, the beloved anthology program expanded its episodes from 30 minutes to a full hour with decidedly mixed results. For every superlative entry, such as the Martin Balsam-starring “The New Exhibit,” that justified the stretched-out running time, that uneven season also gave viewers interminable bores the likes of “I Dream of Genie.” What fans — along with Mr. Serling alike — learned in ’63 was that, on the whole, the tried-and-true “Twilight Zone” structure (three to-the-point acts leading to a head-smacking ending) worked best at a half-hour clip.

Richard Kelly — the 34-year-old, .500-batting filmmaker responsible for 2001’s wondrous “Donnie Darko” and its inferior follow-up, 2007’s all-kinds-of-wrong “Southland Tales” — should have sat with “I Dream of Genie” before taking on “The Box.” Based on Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story “Button, Button,” “The Box” operates with a pure “Twilight Zone” level, that of a morality tale disguised masked in creepy mood. Mr. Matheson wrote 16 of Serling’s “Twilight Zone” scripts, and saw “Button, Button” adapted into a sloppy episode of the show’s early 1980s revival. At least Mr. Kelly’s film is better than that. Still, at 110 scatterbrained minutes, Mr. Kelly’s film pushes Mr. Matheson’s perfectly fine short work to the point of narrative obesity. Two problematic 1963 “Twilight Zone” episodes for the price of one.

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Arrested Devolvement

A Prophet (2009)

Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics

This movie could have been called "An Education." Nineteen-year-old Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) arrives in an adult prison in France for a five-year stretch with only a hidden 50-franc note that’s immediately confiscated. He has no friends or family on the outside to send him money, and knows no one inside either. Immediately this isolation brings him to the attention of César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) — the godfather among the prisoners — who requires a favor. And if Malik doesn’t oblige, he will be killed.

"A Prophet" follows Malik and the ramifications of this favor throughout his prison career, as he works toward leaving his incarceration a very different man from the frightened teenager who came in. The prison is very obviously not realistic — just as dogs can be trained to sniff out drugs, they can also sniff out mobile phones, for one example — but the liberties taken are understandable dramatic license. Because what director Jacques Audiard has done is throw down the gauntlet for a revolution.

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Profit of Doom

Collapse (2009)

Vitagraph Films

In “Collapse,” documentary filmmaker Chris Smith subjects his audience to 82 uninterrupted minutes of the dire end-of-the-world scenario foreseen by former L.A.P.D. officer and freelance journalist Michael Ruppert. The protagonist — in his sure-footed intensity, unwavering commitment to his ideas and knack for what he proclaims to be, “conspiracy fact” — seems at first glance to be one of those nutty prophets of doom one periodically encounters around major American cities and in the murky depths of the Internet. The movie sounds insufferable, but it’s not.

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