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May 2011

Accidental Birth of an Anarchist

Mr. Nice (2010)

Internationales Filmfest Oldenburg

"How can you declare war on plants," muses Howard Marks, having become the biggest marijuana dealer in 1980s Britain without really trying and found himself squarely in the law's crosshair. "Ineffectually" turns out to be the answer, even when fighting someone born to be mild. Played by Rhys Ifans in full shaggy-dog mode in Bernard Rose's loose but very smart biopic "Mr. Nice," Mr. Marks appears to be as unhardened a criminal as they come, an amiable loafer who drifts into dope at Oxford University and never drifts out again.

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Breaking Eastern Promises

A Serbian Film (2010)

Invincible Pictures

Caveat: This review assumes your awareness of “A Serbian Film” and its notoriety. Readers casually browsing through this site who’ve never heard of the title before should stop right here and move on to something else. The sole raison d’être for this review is to advance — rather than initiate — the discussion on the film, as all other write-ups so far have been polarizing yet uniformly prudish. In order to fully engage, this review will spare no graphic detail. So before going forward, please consider yourself warned.

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Clipping the Ultra-Left Wing

United Red Army (2008)

Masayuki Kakegawa/Wakamatsu Production

“United Red Army” is a colossal recounting of how the 1960s student movement disintegrated from radical to extremist, with comrades in arms in the midst of a period of prolonged inaction at a remote training camp eventually giving up on daily drills to figuratively reenact “Lord of the Flies” — but with a much higher body count. The film is noteworthy because director-co-writer Koji Wakamatsu self-financed and distributed the $2.4-million production, defying a system and a culture that would rather forget uglier episodes in the nation’s history such as the Nanking Massacre.

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As the New World Turns

The Tree of Life (2011)

Merie Wallace/
Fox Searchlight Pictures

It’s the new Terrence Malick! It’s the Palme d’or winner! It’s Harmony Korine-meets-Stanley Kubrick! It’s the entire “Lost” series pared down to two hours and 18 minutes! Or — as some loudmouth overheard at another press screening put it — it’s two hours and 18 minutes of computer screen saver! Granted, the said loudmouth also believed Dominique Strauss-Kahn was set up. All joking aside, it’s interesting to see that even after his heirs apparent — namely, Mr. Korine and David Gordon Green — have respectively moved on to experimental video and Hollywood trash in the time span between two Malick projects, the old maestro continues to bear his own torch.

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After a False Start, a Second Chance at Love

Beginners (2011)

Focus Features

Sober and unsentimental, “Beginners” matter-of-factly dissects the life traps of a commitment phobe through his fuzzy recollections of childhood trauma and his late father’s coming out. But precisely because of its earnestness, the film is easily one of the most moving moviegoing experiences this year alongside the equally fascinating “The Arbor.” Coincidentally, both involve unloving families leaving their members scarred for life. But these films aren’t as bitter and cathartic as one might expect. In fact, they reach the kind of epiphanous wisdom that generally seems only attainable through years of therapy.

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I'll Be a Home Wrecker for Christmas

Tuesday, After Christmas (2010)

Lorber Films

The latest entry in the Romanian New Wave canon, “Tuesday, After Christmas” is curiously devoid of Romanian characteristics. In fact, if you know nothing about it from the outset, the film won’t even strike you as Romanian until actor Dragoş Bucur appears in a minor role and makes a self-referential in-joke about “Police, Adjective,” a film he starred in.

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Do Be a Menace to South London

Attack the Block (2011)

Optimum Releasing

It turns out the British sci-fi horror genre blender “Attack the Block” is largely a virginal affair. Most of the main players — including the writer-director, cinematographer, composer and a handful of young unknown actors — have never done a feature film before. And because of the relative inexperience of the cast and crew and the possibility the lack of season could have led to a complete disaster on screen, this film deserves some degree of kudos for being halfway decent. But mediocrity can only be praised so much.

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In an Ivory Eiffel Tower

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics

Critics must have desperately yearned for Woody Allen’s return to form, or else they wouldn’t have been reflexively hailing his every offering in the last decade as a return to form regardless of merit. Occasionally Mr. Allen has seemed happy to oblige, such as finally revisiting his fabled Manhattan with “Whatever Works” after a self-imposed four-year European exile. Although he has crossed the Atlantic yet again for his latest, “Midnight in Paris” deliberately channels the same deep-rooted fascination with the storied 1920s as did “Zelig,” “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Sweet and Lowdown.”

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Spoiling the Ship for a Ha'p'orth of Tar

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Pirates-of-the-caribbean-on-stranger-tides-johnny-depp-penélope-cruz-ian mcshane
Peter Mountain/Disney Enterprises

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise returns with its fourth installment “On Stranger Tides” without director Gore Verbinski or stars Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley onboard. In their place we have Rob Marshall at the helm and Penélope Cruz and Ian McShane joining veterans Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush and Kevin McNally. Although screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio — who scripted the first three installments — are also back, “On Stranger Tides” is a bit of a, well, shipwreck.

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Swallowing the Bride's Prejudice

Bridesmaids (2011)

Suzanne Hanover/Universal Studios

Annie (Kristen Wiig) is having a bad time. Her bakery recently folded and she lost a lot of money, so she's working an awful jewelry-store job her mom (Jill Clayburgh in her final role) got her as a favor. She lives with two weird British siblings (Matt Lucas and scene-stealing Rebel Wilson) where she's behind on the rent. Her mom is nice, but their relationship is a little fraught. And the guy she's "seeing," Ted (an uncredited — and hilarious — Jon Hamm), is a total prick.

So it's no surprise she is not entirely pleased that her best friend since childhood, Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is getting married. And she's even less pleased to learn that, through the engagement, Lillian has gained entry into a world of country-club membership, tennis matches and couture from which she has been kept away. This world is the natural home of Helen (Rose Byrne), Lillian's new best friend, whom Annie hates on sight. Annie is the maid of honor — but who is she really?

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