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January 2010

Cashing a Payback

Edge of Darkness (2010)

Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures

Revenge tragedies should be hot-blooded and cold-hearted, but "Edge of Darkness" is blanded out into something just vaguely mild. It has the curiosity value of a returning Mel Gibson — now a very strange screen presence indeed — as Boston cop Thomas Craven on the trail of his daughter's killer, but that can't hide the fact that it's a weak thriller which forgets to do much thrilling.

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Courses for Horses

Horses (2010)

DCD Media

In 2004, Liz Mermin directed “The Beauty Academy of Kabul,” in which she followed a few fearless American hairdressers who decided to empower Afghan women through cosmetology. At one point, one of the students was asked about the future for women in her country now that the Taliban were not in charge. The student replied something along the lines that although she had a lovely husband herself, it was pointless to think that women would ever have equality with men since they would never allow it. The westerners fell into a stunned, depressed silence, and the eager-to-please student asked if she had said the wrong thing.

After that experience, it’s no surprise that Ms. Mermin has in her new film turned her back on people almost entirely. Filmed over a year at an Irish racing stable, “Horses” follows the fortunes of three horses belonging to a trainer named Paul Nolan, and explicitly identifies itself as a documentary where the animals are the stars. For obvious reasons, this doesn’t quite work.

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A Beautiful Mind Boggles

Creation (2009)

Paul Bettany in Jon Amiel's CREATION - photo courtesy of Liam Daniel
Liam Daniel/Newmarket Films

“Creation” achieves the impressive feat of reducing Charles Darwin and his work to fodder for stiff-lipped, cumbersome dramatics. It’s amazing that a story of the man behind the most revolutionary idea in human history could feel so flat and uninspired. But director Jon Amiel achieves the seemingly impossible by hewing to a stock chamber-piece approach that contradicts the wholly modern, innovative way his subject lived his life.

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Clear and Present Disease

Extraordinary Measures (2010)

CBS Films

“Extraordinary Measures” is not so much directed as processed, hewing closely to the cut-and-dry inspirational template. It’s a paste job down to the tiniest fibers of its being, with a soundtrack that contains Eric Clapton’s “Change the World” and lots of stock preaching about making miracles happen. The narrative effectively blends human interest with an engaging insider’s look at the biotech bureaucracy, but laziness is the operative mode here.

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Biting the Fairy Dust

The Tooth Fairy (2010)

Diyah Pera/20th Century Fox

For a cruddy kids’ movie-vehicle for Dwayne Johnson, “The Tooth Fairy” required a lot of screenwriters. Apparently Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, Joshua Sternin, Jeffrey Ventimilia and Randy Mayem Singer were all needed to come up with lines such as “may the tooth be with you,” “you can’t handle the tooth” and “thank you fairy much.” Okay, I don’t actually remember the last line in the movie, but spend enough time with puns being beaten into your brain (what primarily passes for dialogue here) and they’ll remain there mutating like a terrible disease.

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Out on an Artificial Limb

Kakera: A Piece of Our Life (2010)


Haru (Hikari Mitsushima) has her own apartment and a university schedule she used to enjoy, but for the most part she is drifting. All her education should have been building up to something, but she no longer seems to know to what. Her ambivalence about her future has also infected her personal life: Her boyfriend bores her; she dresses sloppily; and when she first meets Riko (Eriko Nakamura) in the park, there’s an embarrassing incident over a tampon.

Riko still lives at home over her parents’ dry cleaners, and works for a medical company which hand-manufactures replacement body parts such as limbs, of course, but also ears and breasts. She explodes into Haru’s life like a mash note filled with confetti, but Haru is so passive that she only comes along for the ride. Their relationship is a source of happiness for both of them, but Haru can’t decide what it means to her.

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The Road Less Raveled

The Book of Eli (2010)

David Lee/Warner Bros. Pictures

“The Book of Eli” takes place in a bleak, barren wasteland, with society’s detritus strewn about and the few remaining humans caked in dirt and grime. Set some 30 years after what’s called “the flash,” it occupies a standard post-apocalyptic milieu. Yet, at times the Hughes brothers — the filmmaking talents behind “Menace II Society” and “From Hell,” among others — dress it differently. They incorporate cinematography that emphasizes passing clouds and stark shadows, in a noir/graphic-novel approach; and they benefit from the charismatic presence of Denzel Washington as the loner title character.

Yet despite their best stylistic efforts — which include the incorporation of windswept Western gun fights and other such genre tropes — the movie entwines itself in a pedestrian chase-oriented narrative that drags along before descending into irredeemably inexplicable silliness.

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Puritan-Driven Snow Job

The White Ribbon (2009)

Films du Losange/Sony Pictures Classics

In “The White Ribbon” Michael Haneke does Bergman. That is to say, he approximates the Swedish master’s characteristically austere, rigidly formalist style that contains only the most slightly submerged sadistic undertones. The winner of the Palme d’or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, it’s an intermittently effective experiment that’s too often derailed by the pervasive sense of overcalculation.

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Casino Royale With Cheese

OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009)

Seattle International Film Festival

Before James Bond, there was Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath. It’s little known in the English-speaking world that, shortly before Ian Fleming began writing the Bond novels, a Frenchman named Jean Bruce wrote more than 90 books about France’s best secret agent. There was even a series of movies made about agent OSS 117 in the ’60s, although they didn’t attract much international attention. Since the successful reboot of Bond, the OSS 117 movies have been revived. The first one, “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” came out in 2006 to huge French acclaim and surprise global success despite the terrible title. “OSS 117: Lost in Rio” is the first sequel.

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Bullish in a China Show

The Founding of a Republic (2009)

China Film Group

Last October, the People's Republic of China commemorated its 60th anniversary: an event marked by small-scale celebrations across the country, a massive parade in Beijing and the release of a star-studded historical epic, "The Founding of a Republic." The film follows the struggles of Mao Zedong (Tang Guoqiang) and the Communist Party as they win a civil war, secure control of China and send Chiang Kai-shek (Zhang Guoli), the leader of the rival National Party, to Taiwan in exile.

I actually had no grand plans to see the film — I wandered into a movie theater and requested tickets for whatever was playing next. I sat in my (assigned) seat and waited for some melodrama or kung-fu film to fill the screen. It turned out to be "The Founding of a Republic." And while the film lacks some cinematic energy, it provided good food for thought about China's view of itself, its roots and its legacy. Like most stories of revolution, it's always a nice reminder that nations are not born in in a vacuum, and some of the more interesting moments of the film revolve around the construction of a national identity, by highlighting arguments over the design of a new flag, anthem and governing body.

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