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July 2010

Memoirs of a Gaijin

Enter the Void (2010)

IFC Films

“Vous avez 30 secondes pour abandoner la projection de ce film,” the title card’s boldface lettering and countdown rudely interrupted the proceedings of Gaspar Noé’s “I Stand Alone” before the climactic murder/suicide/incest. Sure, it was gimmicky, but the intensity of what ensued totally merited the warning. His follow-up, “Irreversible,” started out bracingly with the fire-extinguisher bludgeoning and the underpass rape, but ultimately fizzled due to its reverse chronology. Although Mr. Noé’s latest, “Enter the Void,” follows a more conventional time line, it unfortunately turns out to be just as anticlimactic.

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In the Penal Colony

Animal Kingdom (2010)

Narelle Sheean/Sony Pictures Classics

An Australian drama about the fracturing of a crime family, “Animal Kingdom” won the world cinema jury prize and lavish praise from critics at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. But honestly, the film is lame. It’s reminiscent of those duds that Bob Berney used to pick up for Newmarket (“Stander” comes immediately to mind) that are utterly unremarkable, yet seem to attract critical attention by virtue of being indie flicks about impoverished white folks speaking in tongues. (Given that Mr. Berney is currently in between jobs, Sony Classics has the distribution rights.)

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Hand-Wringing Migration

Last Train Home (2010)

Zeitgeist Films

"Last Train Home," a cinema vérité-style documentary by Chinese-Canadian director Fan Lixin, burrows so deeply into the lives of a select few migrant Chinese workers that it might take the viewer some minutes to readjust to their own familiar world after the credits roll. Set in southern and western China, "Last Train Home" follows Zhang Changhua and his wife Chen Suqin, who work in a clothing factory in Guangzhou, while their children live with their grandmother in Sichuan.

Mr. Zhang and Ms. Chen are just two out of 130 million migrant workers who eke out a living in the cities and send money back to their families in the countryside. If they can scrape together enough savings, they attempt to travel back to their hometowns for Chinese New Year (along with the rest of the country). The film calls it "the world's largest human migration." Mr. Fan deftly presents major issues such as overpopulation and urban poverty, but these matters hum under the surface of the beautifully woven-together narrative: an unsparing portrait of parents trying to survive, while simultaneously pushing their children to achieve bigger and better things.

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Making the Downgrade

Easy A (2010)

Adam Taylor/Screen Gems

“Easy A” purports to be about an unnoticeable high-school girl, Olive (Emma Stone), whose white lie about losing her virginity makes her the target of gossip and ostracism that she wholeheartedly embraces as a means to advance her wealth and notoriety. That premise sounds kind of cool, except that’s not what actually transpires in the final product.

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Snoop Dog-Eat-Dog

Salt (2010)

Andrew Schwartz/Columbia Pictures

Playing the real-world spy version of her “Tomb Raider” character, Angelina Jolie goes on a butt-kicking rampage in “Salt.” The spectacle of Angie torching and gunning down baddies while clad in a long-flowing overcoat or tight business attire is the primary selling point for Phillip Noyce’s absurd, twisty thriller, one that flirts at genuine intrigue before giving in to the worst impulses of subpar spy fiction.

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The Last Viking of Scotland

Valhalla Rising (2010)

IFC Films

“Bronson,” the last film from Danish writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn, told the story of Britain’s most notoriously violent criminal through frequent excursions into the character’s deranged subconscious. “Valhalla Rising,” Mr. Refn’s latest, feels like the sort of movie Charles Bronson might have made were he fascinated by Vikings.

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Full Mental Jacket

Life During Wartime (2010)

Francisco Román/IFC Films

Todd Solondz’s “Life During Wartime” is a ghost story. It’s not a horror flick, but various specters figuratively or literally haunt the lives of its characters: an absent father, the burdens of family and career, and, yes, a dead person’s disembodied spirit. The sequel to “Happiness,” “Life” revisits the three sisters from the controversial 1998 film. But Mr. Solondz here employs a brand new cast that bares no physical resemblance to the previous one, a strategy recalling the ever-evolving protagonist in “Palindromes.”

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Roger Ebert vs. the Future of Film Criticism

Roger Ebert recently graced Critic’s Notebook with his eminence and quoted our writer, Sarah Manvel, in his review of the documentary “45365.” Under most circumstances, this kind of exposure would be a major shot in the arm for any humble little website such as ours, where underemployed film critics are quietly plugging away for no money in hopes of slowly and steadily building an audience or landing the elusive paying gig.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ebert did not have nice things to say. He did not attribute the quote from Ms. Manvel’s review nor provide a link, but that did not spare her the public humiliation. It’s not exactly difficult to locate the original review with Google, and Mr. Ebert’s minions had little trouble finding us.

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To Ream the Impossible Dream

Inception (2010)

Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros. Pictures

Dimensions interweave; matter twists in physics-defying contortions; and entire worlds crumble as time stands nearly still in “Inception,” Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated, hugely ambitious summer daydream. Plunging headlong into the subconscious, the filmmaker’s “Dark Knight” follow-up offers a labyrinthine journey into the heart of the contrasts between what we are and what we perceive ourselves to be.

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Edinburgh International Film Festival '10: Notes From the Underground

Edinburgh International Film Festival

Since the Edinburgh International Film Festival's move from August to June, the films and guests available in the early summer slot have fallen nicely for the headline writers, culminating in last year's double whammy of "Antichrist" and "The Hurt Locker." This year fate was less kind, and the absence of true talking points only emphasized that most of the higher profile films were days away from wide release — though some ("Get Low," "Winter's Bone") were excellent. There was more action down in the festival's low-budget laboratories; but there, the trend to instantly dismiss exactly the kind of films that resist instant dismissal was in full effect. With odd vibes at the top and bottom, the result was a festival with a mild identity crisis.

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