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July 2011

Certified Copycat

The Devil's Double (2011)

Sofie Van Mieghem/Lionsgate

"House of Saddam," a 2008 BBC-HBO production, was a brilliantly observed insight into the sordid brutality of Saddam Hussein's reign as leader of the Baath party. One of its greatest successes lay in Philip Arditti's masterful portrayal of Saddam's eldest son, the maniacal Uday Hussein, a man whose lustful, violent nature would put most Roman emperors to shame. Lee Tamahori's "The Devil's Double" delves deeper into the mythos of Uday (Dominic Cooper), utilizing the memoirs of Latif Yahia (also played by Mr. Cooper) — Uday's former classmate who was forced to become his fiday (body double) — as source material; and it certainly makes for fascinating viewing.

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The Good, the Bad and the Extraterrestrial

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Zade Rosenthal/Universal Studios

The prospect of a mashup between western and sci-fi seems inspired, though not terribly original after “Firefly” and “Serenity.” So it’s somewhat mind-boggling that Hollywood has optioned the 2006 graphic novel “Cowboys & Aliens” solely for its catchy title. Indeed, the adaptation evidently bares no resemblance whatsoever to the source material. The movie leaves you wondering why the filmmakers even bothered to attempt both genres, since director Jon Favreau has exhibited utter disinterest in tropes of the western throughout the early expositions.

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French Twist of Fate

Point Blank (2010)

Magnolia Pictures

Fred Cavayé’s directorial feature debut “Anything for Her” was so primed for Hollywood that our own Alan Diment presciently predicted a remake starring Russell Crowe. But what was reportedly a slick, nail-biting thriller landed in the hands of Paul Haggis and turned into a dud called “The Next Three Days.” Its dismal performance at the box office likely meant that the American audience would never get to see the original, and that Hollywood wouldn’t jump to remake Mr. Cavayé’s next film, “Point Blank.” On the upside, the new film does have American distribution.

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De die in carpe diem

Poetry (2010)

Kino International

Mija (Yun Jung-hee) lives a quiet life in South Korea. She has a small apartment which she shares with her grandson Wook (David Lee), whose mother works in a different city and is connected to them only by phone. Mija is a carer for Mr. Kang (Kim Hi-ra), an elderly man who has had a stroke and is housebound. For the most part she is cheerful and uncomplaining, although her grandson's manners leave a great deal to be desired. Then three things happen: The first of which is that she decides to take a poetry class.

Mija tells her daughter and Mr. Kang — who seems to be her only friend — that she has always felt like a poet, and has decided it's time to find out whether or not she has anything to say. The teacher of the class is male, but the students are mostly women who drink up his advice. The class is the exception in Mija's world, which seems primarily to consist of men telling her what to do and why she should do it. But Mija has her own ideas, and "Poetry" is about her learning to express them before it’s too late.

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History Repossesses French Flat

Sarah's Key (2010)

Julien Bonet/The Weinstein Company

"Sarah's Key" combines two initially different topics — the mass deportation of Parisian Jews in 1942 and modern-day Parisian property values — in a forthright, direct and respectful way. The main characters are two women of fearsome intelligence and drive. One is Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American expat and savvy journalist. The other is Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), a blonde 10-year-old who learns incredibly fast what it's going to take for her to survive. But the way in which the stories are combined doesn't make it clear for whom this movie is aimed.

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Swimming With Sharks, or Sinking to Their Level

Horrible Bosses (2011)

John P. Johnson/Warner Brothers Pictures

Hollywood used to be much better about dealing with issues of class. For starters, class used to be an issue addressed in its movies. During the Great Depression, when studios took the trouble to dress up their leading actors in glamorous and ridiculous situations, they also ensured the characters were at minimum aware of their privilege. Hollywood also used to be able to differentiate between people deserving of the audience's sympathy and a bag of tools. "Horrible Bosses" proves conclusively that Hollywood nowadays can do neither.

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When Harry Met His Fate . . .

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 (2011)

Warner Brothers Pictures

The end of the “Harry Potter” saga is more than the culmination of a decade-spanning big-screen standard. For the legions of fans that have devoured J. K. Rowling’s books and their movie adaptations, most of whom are now well into their college years and beyond, this is in many ways a coda to childhood itself.

So it’s no great surprise the crowds have turned out in droves and a record-breaking opening weekend is expected. The auditoriums showing “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2” after all are serving witness to what is essentially the world’s largest wake, a final chance to toast Harry, Ron, Hermione, Voldemort, Muggles, Hogwarts, Dumbledore, Snape and the other familiars before they go gently into the proverbial good night.

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A Life in a Dead Draw

Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011)


Some celebrities are born. Others are made through willpower. Rarer are celebrities who attain such status in spite of themselves due to their sheer talent. Bobby Fischer was one of these, a chess player of unusual skill who began as a child prodigy. His victory, watched by millions, over Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavik was a metaphor for the Cold War. And then he dropped off the radar.

This question of what happened is not really answered by director Liz Garbus in this documentary. Originally produced by HBO, it is being screened theatrically in Britain despite coming off very much like a made-for-TV documentary. This shows the hunger people still have for information about Fischer. But it is never clear what point Ms. Garbus, who has extensive documentary production experience, wanted to make about Fischer’s life.

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One Freaks Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The Ward (2011)

Arc Entertainment

A full decade since “Ghosts of Mars,” John Carpenter’s long-awaited return to directing has attracted no fanfare at all. In fact, “The Ward” will be unceremoniously showing on a single screen in New York, as well as Los Angeles, in addition to video-on-demand. It’s a shame, because it’s scary good. Not that it’s anywhere near Mr. Carpenter’s classics such as “Halloween” or “Escape From New York.” And it’s not going to renew his relevancy the way “Scream” did for Wes Craven. But that doesn’t mean you won’t shiver throughout your subway ride home.

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In the City of Desperate Living

Putty Hill (2011)

Andrew Laumann/Cinema Guild

Detroit is a city where people searching for work have abandoned whole neighborhoods. New Orleans is still in the process of rebuilding after Katrina. But it's Baltimore that has become the emblem of the problems facing America's working class. HBO's "The Wire" spent five seasons showing the nuances of the city and its war on drugs to a transfixed international audience. And now "Putty Hill," a small independent movie, shows what drugs have done to the white working-class sections of Baltimore as well.

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