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July 2012

Bear, the Brunt

Ted (2012)

Iloura/Universal Pictures

Erstwhile funnyman Seth MacFarlane — who in recent years has been tediously flogging that perennial dead horse “Family Guy” into the ground — has redeemed himself somewhat with his directorial feature debut “Ted.” Perhaps conscious of where his success stems from, Mr. MacFarlane dips his toe into live-action film while maintaining the core facets of what has made him such a star: namely, a razor-sharp script and quirky animation.

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Bat Out of Hell

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Ron Phillips/Warner Brothers Pictures

Although “The Dark Knight Rises" is chock-full of revelations and twists, this review doesn't reveal anything but the odd spoiler contained — so proceed at your peril.

Full disclosure: This reviewer is not much of a fan of superhero or comic-book films. In fact, I haven’t even seen “Marvel’s The Avengers” or “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which for some may disqualify me from being able to write about their rival in the 2012 summer blockbuster stakes, “The Dark Knight Rises.” Luckily, Batman is the least superhuman of all the comic-book heroes, blessed — as he is — with a distinct lack of superpowers. And Christopher Nolan hasn’t seemed particularly interested in making traditional comic book films in his helming of the franchise so far. As such, I really loved “The Dark Knight” and still believe it to be up there with the best American films (Hollywood or otherwise) of the last 30 years. But that was essentially a crime film, if a slightly fantastical one.

The first thing to say is that “The Dark Knight Rises” is a very different from its predecessor. If “Batman Begins” was a dark, psychological martial arts film and “The Dark Knight” was demented tech-noir, “The Dark Knight Rises” is in many ways situated in much more recognizable action/spectacular territory. It contains underground lairs, bombs with ticking countdown timers and a frenetic, bombastic finale which ends with everyone looking to the skies in broad daylight, rather than the grimy, dank back alleys that Batman (Christian Bale) slinked down at the end of “The Dark Knight." In this film, the story is opened out to the world outside Gotham in a way that seems uncharacteristic: We even see the U.S. president talking about Gotham on television at one point, like it’s some kind of late-’90s asteroid-collision movie.

There’s little point in recounting the plot because it’s been public knowledge for the year or so since the first of many trailers was released. What’s so enticing about that “twilight’s last gleaming” trailer in particular was Selina Kyle’s (Anne Hathaway) whispered warning to Bruce Wayne about the oncoming reckoning from arch-villain Bane (Tom Hardy), and her asking how he “could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” In that line is the suggestion that Bane might in some way be a warped hero for our time. In the years since the last installment, we in the real world have endured the bulk of the financial crash and a collapse in belief in many of our most respected societal institutions. Might billionaire Bruce Wayne be cast as the semi-villain of the piece and have to undergo a redemption and reincarnation of sorts to emerge as a recalibrated hero for our time?

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Troubles in Mind

Shadow Dancer (2012)

Rob Hardy/Sundance Film Festival 2012

In the growing portfolio of BBC Films — whose output is not to be sniffed at — "Shadow Dancer" sits comfortably in the same section as siblings such as "Page Eight." It's another polished, festival-friendly film that can easily fit into a second life on television without scraping the sides. It features a fine inwardly directed performance from Andrea Riseborough as a troubled I.R.A. informant in 1990s Belfast, a setting that also allows director James Marsh to return to perhaps the most highly charged example available of the environment he loves to film: insular British terraces of secrets and lies, crime and punishment, friends and enemies. The only thing missing is any actual cinematic impact.

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Pusher (2012)

Vertigo Films

After biding his time for 16 years, Nicolas Winding Refn seems to have sprung into action and lent his name to variants of his original "Pusher" film across Europe in an attempt to corner the market. Hence his executive producer credit on "Black's Game," a vibrant and darkly engaging story of Icelandic drug dealers at the turn of the millennium; and almost simultaneously the same credit on the new British remake of "Pusher" itself, from which anything engaging and vibrant seem to have been ruthlessly purged.

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CSI: Yunnan

Dragon (2011)


"Dragon" is theoretically a wuxia tale, built on a riotous barrage of martial-arts wire work, kinetic energy and busted heads; but it also happens to be blatantly tooled for Western sensibilities in pacing, editing style and magpie borrowings. It finds room for existential ponderings about the human condition and a dash of mysticism, while also sticking in some explanatory animations of blood clots, bruises and broken bones. No wonder The Weinstein Company's corporate antennae have twitched at the commercial possibilities.

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Viva la vida

7 Days in Havana (2012)

Rezo Films

Portmanteau anthology films — not exactly fashionable, but never quite extinct either — enjoy a shot in the arm every few years from producer Emmanuel Benbihy's Cities of Love franchise, the cycle that has so far produced "Paris, je t'aime" and "New York, I Love You." But Mr. Benbihy's all-star bite-size format feels like a shallower option than the approach tried in "7 Days in Havana," which lets seven diverse directors get their teeth into longer-form stories all penned by the same Cuban screenwriter, Leonardo Padura. The aim is to get under the skin of a city with enough juice in its veins to power any seven stories and another 70 to boot.

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