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September 2011

Beauty Is Only Skinned Deep

Miss Bala (2011)

Eniac Martínez/Fox International Productions

“Miss Bala” is an endlessly grim anecdote about the vicious Mexican drug cartels as seen from the perspective of a beauty queen loosely based on Miss Sinaloa 2008, Laura Elena Zúñiga. Whereas the real-life Ms. Zúñiga was allegedly dating a high-ranking leader of the Juárez Cartel, her movie counterpart, Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), seems decidedly less complicit.

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A Brooklyn Cul-de-Sac

Carnage (2011)

Guy Ferrandis/Sony Pictures Classics

Roman Polanski hasn’t been to Brooklyn in more than three decades, and it shows. Just as almost everything about “The Ghost Writer” was pitch-perfect, almost everything about “Carnage” is misguided. Mr. Polanski’s first big mistake was to set his adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage” — about two couples attempting to settle their children’s fight — in Brooklyn, and it only went downhill from there. It could have certainly been set anywhere: The play premiered in Zurich in 2006, and was subsequently staged in Paris with Isabelle Huppert and in London’s West End with Ralph Fiennes before an Americanized version hit Broadway in 2009. It’s too bad Mr. Polanski did not have the good sense to pick a place he knows a thing or two about.

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Worlds of Wanwood Leafmeal Lie

Margaret (2011)

Myles Aronowitz/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Remember Kenneth Lonergan? It’s been 11 years since his art-house hit and double Oscar nominee “You Can Count on Me.” He started filming its follow-up, “Margaret,” in 2005, and it’s been mired in a legal battle until now. Unsurprisingly, the finished product is discernibly dated — from the post-9/11 debates about the Middle East in the dialogue to the late Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella in producing credits. But is it worth the wait? Absolutely.

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From Chelsea With Love

Jack English/Studiocanal

Borrowing a page from Darren Aronofsky's book, Tomas Alfredson takes steps to ensure that the new version of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" swims with visible grain. It's a fine piece of calculated shorthand and works wonders for the ambiance. Every time Gary Oldman as George Smiley speaks from the shadows, the audience peers at him through a fog of silver halide chemistry. When Sir Alec Guinness walked this way, he also frowned through the grain but had a cast-iron excuse: It was 1979, and film grain came naturally.

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Divorce Iranian Style

A Separation (2011)

Sydney Film Festival 2011

Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, “A Separation” is a gripping whodunit under the guise of a domestic drama. Set in a strikingly progressive Iran, the film plays out almost like a cautionary tale against Westernization. Two women’s defiance of their husbands set in motion a series of increasingly dire consequences. But unlike most thrillers, the film doesn’t rely on a cheap-shot twist to hit the audience like a ton of bricks. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi deftly foreshadows the proceedings without underestimating the moviegoers’ intelligence and sends more chills with each revelatory déjà vu.

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Printing All the News That's Fit

Page One: Inside The New York Times (2011)

Magnolia Pictures

In all the speculation over the probable death of newsprint, at least one aspect appears to have been overlooked: How will film and television cope if that great standby character, the investigative reporter, is forced into extinction? Who will have the dogged tenacity to hit the streets in order to uncover a trail of corruption that normally goes all the way to the top? Would "All the President's Men" have been so thrilling had Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein been able to sit back and wait for the latest tweet from Deep Throat or for video footage of the Watergate break-in to be posted on YouTube?

"Page One: Inside The New York Times" does not ask this question — at least not directly — but it still offers a pretty comprehensive debate on the rapid changes occurring in the world's media. Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack took a genuine fly-on-the-wall approach to their subject by pitching up inside the Times building and letting a variety of talking heads provide the commentary. These number not just employees of the Grey Lady, but also the likes of David Remnick from The New Yorker, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and even good old Mr. Bernstein himself.

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Secret Lip Service

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Jack English/Studiocanal

Some movies generate high expectations — often through overblown marketing, sometimes by virtue of the elements that have come together to create the two hours of entertainment you have coughed up your hard-earned dollars to see. "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" has ingredients that would leave even the most jaded of cinemagoers salivating: a director (Tomas Alfredson) who has already proved himself the master of understatement and the purveyor of claustrophobia-inducing tension with "Let the Right One In"; a glittering cast of British talent — Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch et al — gathered in such numbers that you would be forgiven for thinking you were at an awards ceremony already; source material of almost legendary status written by one of the greatest thriller authors of our times.

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The Fast and the Nefarious

Drive (2011)

Richard Foreman Jr./FilmDistrict

In spite of its high-octane title, “Drive” is neither fast nor furious. To be precise, this movie about a Hollywood stuntman and part-time getaway-car driver has only two car chases throughout its duration. The first is followed by an excruciatingly slow and wooden soap-operatic love triangle, and the second by a sporadically gruesome noir. The film has the glossy Hollywood polish, but also the intimacy of a chamber piece — complete with a corny Eurotrashy trance score. The groupthinking hipster critical mob is probably sparing no lavish praises trying to prove street cred and manhood. We, on the other hand, will just tell it like it is.

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My Own Private Idée Fixe

Restless (2011)

Scott Green/Sony Pictures Classics

Gus Van Sant seems to have devoted much of his filmography to rehearsing for that inevitable River Phoenix biopic. Indeed, the filmmaker has explored how young outcasts grapple with mortality from just about every angle — even the price-of-fame slant in the quasi-Kurt Cobain biopic “Last Days” — except one directly invoking Phoenix himself. Mr. Van Sant’s latest, “Restless,” continues this journeying, albeit this time in the timeworn boy-meets-terminally-ill-girl variety.

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Legends of the Ball

Moneyball (2011)

Melinda Sue Gordon/Columbia Pictures

Steven Soderbergh was unceremoniously fired from “Moneyball” about two years ago after revising an alleged grand slam of a screenplay from Steven Zaillian into a quasi-documentary that would devote 10 percent to interviews of real-life figures and another 10 to “reenactments of real events as remembered by the people playing themselves.” Those who read his script confirmed it was that bad, although we’d like to give Mr. Soderbergh the benefit of the doubt after seeing what he did with “Erin Brockovich.” At the very least, this biopic about Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane starring Brad Pitt could have been inspired and fun in Mr. Soderbergh’s hands. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the final score achieved by his late-inning relief, Bennett Miller.

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