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October 2013

Lightning Nearly Strikes Twice

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Jay Maidment/Walt Disney Studios

Phase two of Marvel's cinematic takeover is well under way; and after a lackluster affair with "Iron Man 3," the burden to lift the series back up into the starry sky falls on the shoulders of the hammer-wielding Asgardian.

The film sets its stall out early in its "The Lord of the Rings"-style prologue — punchy, big and as glossy as Chris Hemsworth's well-oiled pectorals. There is definitely something for the ladies in this movie. The action keeps up this crunching pace, with big, brutish enemies for Thor to smash, and lots of bad guys trashing familiar landmarks. Asgard gets a bit battered; a little bit of London gets knocked all over the shop; and all the realms come under attack from Christopher Eccleston's cold-as-the-back-of-a-fridge Malekith.

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The Meaning of Life Unraveled

The Zero Theorem (2013)

Voltage Pictures

It’s one those enduring mysteries of cinema: How does Terry Gilliam continue to attract such cascades of goodwill? I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t dearly love the maverick to finally produce the masterpiece he’s been threatening his whole career. For many years now each new film has been a flawed, compromised release, but we always accept Mr. Gilliam’s word that it wasn’t his fault this time (the death of a principle actor, the Weinsteins) and eagerly come back for more, desperately hoping that this will be the one. You can imagine executives feeling the same, warming to his passion and unbridled energy and taking a chance on his perpetually roving and fearless imagination. Somehow, anyway, Mr. Gilliam managed to convince a new round of financiers to give him another shot, and from all accounts it was pretty much plain sailing this time.

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The Woman Who Fell to Perth

Under the Skin (2013)


Excitement about Jonathan Glazer’s third feature has been palpable at the 57th BFI London Film Festival. After a 7-year wait, the film divided crowds in Venice a couple of months ago, and then wasn’t given a press screening at all here in London, leading to a mad scramble for tickets and ever-increasing speculation.

The anticipation for many, based on early descriptions, was that Mr. Glazer had delivered one of those rare head-spinning exercises in genre experimentation, fractured narrative, retina-searing visuals and cochlear-crunching sound design that would go down in history as an all-time esoteric sci-fi classic. You know the type — I’m talking about some of our favorite films here: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Solaris,” “Stalker,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Altered States” and perhaps more recently, “Enter the Void.”

Well, even sometime after “Under The Skin” has settled in my subconscious, I can’t really be sure if it lives up to such expectations or not. What I can say for sure it that it definitely comes close enough to make it an essential film for fans of out-there cinema.

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Dead Ringers

The Double (2013)


Sometimes the scheduling at film festivals and the sheer volume and variety of consumed material causes some unlikely connections and comparisons to emerge that would otherwise pass unnoticed. “The Double” received its 57th BFI London Film Festival press screening directly after Terry Gilliam’s latest, “The Zero Theorem,” and for the first half an hour it felt like we’d been left stranded in Mr. Gilliam’s universe. Both films are notionally very different, but the opening act of Richard Ayoade’s second feature will draw comparisons with “Brazil” in the way it posits its hero amidst an unforgiving and absurdist bureaucratic nightmare.

In fact, “The Double” recalls several films visually and tonally, notably some works of Roman Polanski’s and Orson Welles’s “The Trial” in particular. Some may be surprised by Mr. Ayoade’s cine-literacy and visual expressiveness, certainly in comparison with his first film, “Submarine,” which was generally rooted in the humble origins of small-scale British comic drama, despite its lush cinematography and Wes Anderson-esque flourishes. This redoubling of cinematic flamboyance from the former comedian and actor may raise some eyebrows in Britain; while not being as incongruous a cultural rebirth as Takeshi Kitano’s was to Japanese audiences, it’s still roughly akin to Americans imagining, say, that Aziz Ansari had directed a film like “Black Swan.”

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Bye Bi Love

Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)

Wild Bunch

This year’s Palme d’or laureate, “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” and its reception exemplify how people — especially so-called allies — can be completely misguided about the LGBT community and remain blissfully clueless. The first thing any card-carrying LGBT member will point out about the film is the fact that its protagonist, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) — eponymous of the French title, “La Vie d’Adèle — Chapitres 1 & 2” — is in fact bisexual, effectively rendering anyone characterizing her as a lesbian to be uninformed and his or her opinion on the film irrelevant. It’s all the more embarrassing when someone does it blindly based on prerelease buzz or groupthink mentality.

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My Father's House

Nebraska (2013)

Paramount Pictures

Despite the monochromatic cinematography and the absence of Jim Taylor, “Nebraska” is recognizably an Alexander Payne picture. Aside from the obvious — the titular state where Mr. Payne hailed from and also where “Citizen Ruth,” “Election” and “About Schmidt” were set — the new film is a road movie like “About Schmidt” and “Sideways.” Supposing this being nothing new to be a valid criticism, it’s still the only criticism one can conceivably lodge against this masterpiece without seeming nitpicky.

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Father Figured

Starred Up (2013)

Sigma Films

British cinema has a long and distinguished tradition of prison dramas, from the slang-’n’-sodomy staple of Alan Clarke and Roy Minton’s “Scum” through to the more emotive exploration of Michael Winterbottom’s “Everyday.” Such a wearingly established genre has it become that prospective audiences could be forgiven for believing they really don’t need to watch another entry, but such an assumption would be badly misplaced. Director David Mackenzie and debut writer Jonathan Asser put a new spin on the genre that breaks free of the monotonous cycle of British social realism which always assumes that each new film has to be grimmer, tougher, meaner than all those that have gone before.

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Banished for Life

Closed Curtain (2013)

57th BFI London Film Festival

Most people reading this will be aware of the backstory by now: Director Jafar Panahi has been under house arrest and banned from filmmaking since 2010 for supposedly inciting insurrectionary activities in Iran. “Closed Curtain” is the second film he’s managed to direct while under house arrest (with the collaboration of Kambuzia Partovi) and again managed to miraculously smuggle out of Iran for the benefit of international audiences.

The first one was “This Is Not a Film” (made with a different co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb), and the early opinion on “Closed Curtain” seems to be that Mr. Panahi’s second attempt isn’t as interesting as the first. The novelty has worn off! The fact that such a fascinating film could be taken for granted in such a way suggests much about the impossibly high standards to which Iranian cinema is now held. We all, after all, have our expectations from Iranian cinema, which include in no particular order: the intermingling of documentary and narrative and resulting metatextual complexity, bold Brechtian devices, startlingly feminist viewpoints, sensational performances from amateur child actors, closeted allegories about Iranian society, submerged critiques of the ruling clerical elite and — if possible — all of the above conveyed with an unusual degree of heart, warmth and universality.

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Braking Bad

Homefront (2013)

Justin Lubin/Open Road Films

In many ways a movie is all about timing. What seems like a good hook when a script begins doing the rounds can lose its freshness by the time it makes the screen. And of course the trouble is television has gotten so good lately, it can be almost impossible for movies to keep completely separate identities. But “Homefront” is particularly unlucky, since it comes across as a mash-up of the two most distinctive settings of recent long-form television: “Breaking Bad” set in the world of “True Blood.”

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Publish and Be Slammed

The Fifth Estate (2013)

Frank Connor/Walt Disney Studios

Julian Assange's pre-emptive attempt to persuade Benedict Cumberbatch not to play the WikiLeaks founder in "The Fifth Estate" was probably a forlorn hope. As if Mr. Cumberbatch, now deep into that period when stars can be seen still visibly enjoying the work, was likely to refuse the opportunity of investigating a character as confounding and mannered as Mr. Assange. The actor's talent for mimicry has been put to good use before, but Bill Condon's film allows him to deploy it on a higher level altogether, and the results are a firework display. It's not his fault that the film comes not long after Alex Gibney's documentary "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks," which covered some of the same ground in more eccentric and inventive fashion, and did so with a harder focus on Mr. Assange than "The Fifth Estate" can pull off.

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