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    • P.S. I Love You

        Her husband may be gone, but for neurotic New Yorker Holly Kennedy (Hilary Swank), the charismatic Irishman lingers like a haunting refrain. Gerry seems charming and feckless in life, as seen in extensive flashbacks and the film’s opening scene, a drawn-out argument with dialogue ripped from Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Yet, after he dies from a brain tumor (which happens off-screen), a very different Gerry emerges, one who effectively micromanages his flighty wife’s life for the next year via the letters and a trip to his hometown in Ireland, where they met nearly a decade before. All of this is meant to be immensely romantic, but comes off as domineering and slightly creepy. Swank is in nearly every frame of this overlong film, and the usually tough-as-nails actress is feminized, but the result is a dolled-up Swank whose weepy, passive performance is devoid of her past powerful screen presence.
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    • Romance & Cigarettes

        At its heart, it’s a simplistic tale of love, betrayal and redemption. Nick is an ironworker on New York City’s network of bridges, and lives with his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) and three daughters — petulant punk Constance (Mary-Louise Parker), needy, love-struck Baby (Mandy Moore), and “not right” adoptee, Rosebud (Aida Turturro, who played Gandolfini’s sister on The Sopranos) — in a Queens bungalow defiantly stuck in the 1950s, both in décor and the attitude of its inhabitants. When it’s discovered that Nick is enmeshed in an affair with the fiery, flame-haired Tula (Kate Winslet, overtly slumming as a lower-class Brit), much anguished shrieking and impassioned singing follows, as everyone takes sides in this pitched battle of the sexes. It’s not hard to see where Turturro stands: he liberally quotes Charles Bukowski in portraying Nick as a befuddled romantic blindsided by his sexual desires (expressed in vivid, explicit language). The women are demanding harpies, walking open wounds oozing anger and resentment.
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    • The Page Turner

        To call The Page Turner a slight film isn't an insult. It's part of a vital tradition in French cinema that focuses the camera on the minute details of characters' lives — the subtle interplays and calmly devastating moments — and creates the movie equivalent of a great short story.
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    • Holly

        Patrick (Ron Livingston), an American expat aimlessly drifting from one poker game to the next, sees the child sex trade in Cambodia as an entrenched evil, part of a cycle of poverty and dependence. He explains to his enigmatic boss Freddie (the late great Chris Penn) that he’s learned to avoid making eye contact with the children selling trinkets or themselves. That is, until he encounters Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl living in a low-rent brothel. Well-aware of the future that awaits her, she’s resilient and resourceful, always looking for a way out without really understanding just how much the deck is stacked against her. A chaste but charged friendship that develops between Patrick and Holly, and it’s clear that he makes for an unlikely savior. But that’s the leap of faith Holly takes — that this self-centered man would upend his life to change the course of someone else’s. Despite a few clunky plot twists — including some convenient but highly improbable chance encounters — Holly rises above the usual preachy exposé. Much of this is achieved by the way it’s filmed: intimate widescreen images in sweat-soaked color combined with the immediacy of hand-held camerawork.
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    • 12:08 East of Bucharest

        Writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu uses the off year, as well as the off-the-beaten path locale of his hometown Vaslui, in northeast Romania, to create a mordantly funny exploration of post-revolution malaise. Porumboiu tackles the macrocosm of Romania, and the film takes place from dawn to dusk on December 22, 2005, as three men gather to discuss where they were at 12:08 pm in 1989 when Nicolae Ceausescu and wife Elena fled their palace in Bucharest, abdicating their absolute power. The film’s English title tries to express how far Vaslui residents were from the capital when this happened, but the Romanian title — “A fost sau n-a fost?” which literally means “Was it or wasn’t it?” — better captures Porumboiu’s dual meaning.
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    • Total recoil

        When Andreas Ramsfjell (Trond Fausa Aurvåg) finds himself dropped off in a lovely, well-ordered city, handed the keys to his apartment and a dossier detailing his new job, he’s befuddled but accepting. He gets along by going along with his cheerful and accommodating co-workers, including his boss Håvard (Johannes Joner), who’s more concerned with his happiness than productivity. Something is off, Andreas can feel it, but he seems to be the only one. Everyone around him seems satisfied to continually decorate their stylish homes, like his girlfriend Anne-Britt (Petronella Barker), and keep their surfaces shiny and immaculate. It isn’t until he hears Hugo (Per Schaanning), who uses the anonymity of a men’s room stall to unleash a tirade about how nothing has a taste anymore, that Andreas can begin to pinpoint his gnawing dissatisfaction. It’s as if his memory of a past life wasn’t sufficiently washed away, and he becomes grimly determined to break out of the suffocating cocoon, even if it means only a short time flying free. Expect the unexpected. Just when you think you know where screenwriter Per Schreiner is heading, the story swerves into uncharted territory.
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    • The Cave of the Yellow Dog

        With elegant simplicity, writer-director Byambasuren Davaa captures both the routine and the divine in her tale of a nomadic Mongolian family dealing with changing times. The film opens as eldest daughter Nansaa (Nansal Batchuluun) arrives home from boarding school. While her father (Urjindorj Batchuluun) admires her workbooks, her mother (Buyandulam Batchuluun) replaces the stiff, black and white school uniform with a soft, colorful deel. While marveling at how much she’s grown, her parents begin the discussion of how to best help their bright, imaginative daughter, who is now as comfortable in the city as on the steppe. Six-year-old Nansaa is a wonderfully complex kid, a mixture of intelligence and impulsiveness, charting her own course while embracing the warmth and closeness of the family yurt. Sent out one day to gather dung — in an age-old recycling practice, it’s used to fuel fires — she discovers a small dog hiding in a cave, and swiftly adopts it. White with black splotches, the dog is dubbed Zochor (Spot) and charms everyone in the family except her father.
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    • No Country for Old Men

        Their faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel is bloody, relentless and fatalistic, yet the story’s real focus is morality, not mortality. The ruminations of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who watches over the hardscrabble terrain of Terrell County, Texas, in 1980, are at its heart, and he’s one disheartened man. The influx of drugs, guns and money is making Bell’s brand of community policing quaintly outdated, and he’s concerned with the crumbling of polite society represented by a breakdown in manners: “Anytime you quit hearing ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am,’ the end is pretty much in sight.” What the Sheriff fears — a new kind of Wild West mentality — has come to pass, and it’s epitomized by the pitched battle between Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), an unemployed welder and Vietnam vet who finds a satchel of money from a drug deal gone bad, and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the relentless enforcer sent to retrieve it. These men aren’t simply the hero and villain — they embody the conflicting impulses of their amoral environment.
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    • Love in the Time of Cholera

        British director Mike Newell sees Love in the Time of Cholera as an epic love story, and he infuses it with vintage Hollywood grandeur. But something essential is absent from Ronald Harwood’s script, which pares García Márquez’s story to its basic plot points, and turns a central character, Fermina’s husband, Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), into an interloper and pesky distraction. It doesn’t help that the international cast — including Bardem (Spain), Mezzogiorno (Italy), Fernanda Montenegro (Brazil) and Catalina Sandino Moreno (Mexico) — all speak accented English, an old-school Hollywood convention that should have died off with the studio system. Even at nearly 2-1/2 hours, Love feels half-formed, a complex tale boiled down to a simplistic, almost medieval view of true love as emotional bondage that stunts the maturity of the devotee.
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    • The Red Balloon

        The elusive quality of whimsy permeates Balloon, where 6-year-old Pascal Lamorisse learns that an inanimate object can be a boy’s best friend. After finding a giant red balloon and carting it around Ménilmontant (a hilly neighborhood at the outer reaches of Paris), this schoolboy discovers that his new sidekick has a will of its own, and a mischievous streak. Lamorisse shifts from scenes that capture the feel of Paris in the 1950s to flights of fancy with seamless confidence. The restored Technicolor really makes the red of the balloon pop, its vibrancy contrasting sharply with the somber buildings. There’s a minimum of dialogue in The Red Balloon, which makes it surprising to note that it won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
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    • Sleuth

        What’s most surprising about the sleek, soulless Sleuth is that director Kenneth Branagh doesn’t trust in the power of two actors to hold an audience’s attention. He’s got Michael Caine and Jude Law firing on all cylinders, yet the first half is overwhelmed by gimmicky camerawork. The 1972 film version of Anthony Shaffer’s play contained a strong undercurrent of fear about the changing nature of English society. They were supposed to be fighting over a woman — Andrew’s wife became Milo’s lover — but their parlor game quickly descended into all-out class warfare. But here, playwright Harold Pinter strips the conflict of any social context and focuses on the preening egos of classless characters engaged in an elaborate pissing contest. In one corner is Andrew Wyke (Caine), a self-made mystery novelist, and in the other is Milo Tindle (Law), a marginal actor. Yet this battle feels like little more than an overblown acting exercise.
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    • Bella

        José (Eduardo Verástegui), a chef in the Mexican restaurant is taciturn and nose-to-the-grindstone reliable, until he suddenly walks out during the lunch rush to pursue Nina (Tammy Blanchard), a waitress just fired for tardiness. Looking like refugees from an off-Broadway play, they wander the streets and quickly bond. They leave the city and visit the small beachside town where José’s parents (Jaime Tirelli and Angelica Aragon) maintain the family home as a safe haven and lovingly tease their adult children. It’s here that Monteverde unravels his family reconciliation agenda, a very pat set of solutions for deep-seated guilt and trauma. Mexican director Alejandro Monteverde and his co-writer Patrick Million are overeager to offer their troubled characters redemption. What saves their mediocre film from becoming a sluggish muddle are heartfelt performances and a low-key style that keeps the film grounded.
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    • Lake of Fire

        It’s a near impossibility to make a calm, focused documentary about a subject that inflames passions as much as abortion, but director Tony Kaye has almost achieved that goal with Lake of Fire. Few issues epitomize the sharp divisions in American society more, yet Kaye eschews righteous indignation and opts for a cool, methodical approach, compiling news coverage along with footage of demonstrations, and weaves them together with an impressive array of interviews — activists and academics, philosophers and lawyers, journalists and politicians, nurses and protesters — that are notable for their thoughtful observations.
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    • My Kid Could Paint That

        Ostensibly, Amir Bar-Lev’s subject, 4-year-old painter and media darling Marla Olmstead, rose to prominence as a painter by freely expressing her creative impulses unencumbered by expectation or the corruption of the marketplace. Marla’s ascent was rapid, and her fall precipitous. As the media juggernaut was at full-steam ahead, the Olmsteads were profiled on 60 Minutes II. Using hidden camera footage, and the unchallenged opinion of one expert, Charlie Rose and company set out to debunk Marla as the sole creator of her work, and strongly imply that her father, Mark, is the real artist. Now Bar-Lev begins to look more closely at her parents, the jokey and breezy Mark, who dismisses Marla’s damning comments with blithe insouciance, and the cautious and concerned Laura, who wants to build a protective barrier between her precocious daughter and an increasingly hostile public.
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    • Rendition

        There are flashes of bravery in Gavin Hood’s robust direction. The South African native (who won an Oscar for Tsotsi) expertly contrasts the American life of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) — whose very pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) launches a one-woman campaign to find him after he fails to return from a chemical engineering conference — with the underground world he’s disappeared into, one that employs the guilty-until-proven-guiltier tactics of rendition and torture. At once immensely earnest and sharply disingenuous, Rendition aims to be a smart political thriller with a conscience, and falls short of the mark. As a senator who’s both the voice of moral authority and the embodiment of political finessing, Alan Arkin booms that if he took on the administration and intelligence community over “extraordinary rendition,” the test case would have to be rock solid. So too, audiences looking for a movie that encapsulates the topsy-turvy morality of the fear-fueled policies of the Bush administration will just have to wait. This isn’t it.
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    • Private Eyes

      Orwellian security-state drama holds unexpected twists
        Spending her days watching a bank of CCTV monitors, Jackie Morrison (Kate Dickie) is more of a compassionate Big Sister, looking over the residents of a dodgy neighborhood in Glasgow, Scotland. A quiet, self-contained widow, Jackie’s careful to keep her attention focused outward, onto the strangers she observes, while ignoring her own deep, suppressed pain. Then she spies ex-con Clyde Henderson (Tony Curran) blithely walking through her neighborhood — the one she oversees, not the one she lives in — and something snaps. The comfortable voyeur is compelled to leave her secure nest and get down to ground level to confront the man who happens to be connected to her own loss.
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    • We Own the Night

        Set in 1988, on a seemingly ordinary night, Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) visits his two families. Walking across the street from the jam-packed Brooklyn nightclub he manages, Bobby enters the warm embrace of owner Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov) and his extended Russian clan, where he’s treated as a surrogate son. Later, he takes girlfriend Amada Juarez (Eva Mendes) to Queens for a NYPD party honoring his rising-star brother, Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg), and where their father, Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall), a decorated and admired deputy chief, holds court. Without much affection for his hard-partying sibling (so lost to the Grusinsky macho tradition that he’s taken their late mother’s maiden name), Joseph announces he’s launching a major drug sting aimed at Marat’s dealer nephew, Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), a regular at Bobby’s club, and wants his brother to provide them with information. Bobby thinks he knows where he stands, but Gray quickly puts him through a testosterone-fueled rite of passage that’s downright operatic in its emotional extremes and improbable reversals of fortune. What saves We Own the Night is the absolute conviction of the actors, who treat the material as a no-nonsense morality tale.
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    • The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

        It’s fascinating to watch Brad Pitt as Jesse James. Onscreen, he’s the prankster alpha male with a hair-trigger temper. Off-screen, he’s a producer and above-the-title marquee name. His Jesse is resolutely middle-aged, remorseful and openly questions the value of his exalted position. As Robert Ford, Casey Affleck makes Ford a swooning fan of the James brothers mystique, chronicled in his collection of dime novels. When he meets a skeptical Frank (Sam Shepard), he tries to impress him with tales of untapped potential, only to have the elder James declare that Bob gives him “the willies.” But writer-director Andrew Dominik doesn’t overplay Bob Ford’s adoration and turn him into a demented stalker. And though there some action, most of the film is about the interplay between these wanted men, and the power dynamics of the last James gang.
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    • The Short Films of the Quay Brothers

        Twins Stephen and Timothy Quay, now 60, have been at the vanguard of stop-motion animation since the 1970s. Their movies have a creepy elegance that Tim Burton can only dream of, and eschew narrative niceties for a surrealism that taps right into the unconscious. Certainly, there are times watching a Quay brothers film that it feels more like an obligation to aesthetics than cinematic pleasure, but their rigor has its rewards. This five-film retrospective is packed with quintessential Quay moments, and also charts their evolution.
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    • The Jane Austen Book Club

        The Jane Austen Book Club falls squarely into the category of the chick flick. Although this label is rather dismissive, what it denotes is an optimistic worldview in which change, no matter how painful, will lead to growth and deeper happiness. And that relentless positivism infuses this Book Club, which follows a half-dozen Sacramento, Calif., folks during the six months they meet to dissect Jane Austen’s six novels. The heady rush to judgment in Pride & Prejudice or the achingly suppressed longing of Persuasion seem foreign to these Austen readers, who prefer their grand passions safely filed away in the pages of her books.
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    • The Heartbreak Kid

        After spending Valentine’s Day at his ex’s fairytale wedding, the marriage-shy Eddie meets Lila (Malin Akerman) when — in a display of Old World gallantry — he tries to stop a purse-snatcher. Soon, Eddie’s convinced that he’s finally ready to take the plunge by his randy, foul-mouthed dad (Jerry Stiller) and best friend (Robb Corddry), whose own marriage is an exercise in terror. So before the first flush of brain-fogging infatuation has worn off, Eddie marries Lila a few weeks later. On a road trip from San Francisco to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico — in a Mini Cooper that suddenly feels incredibly small — Eddie begins the painful process of discovering that the supremely annoying and clingy Lila is nothing like her lovely facade. But does this realization make Eddie any less of an asshole for pursuing Miranda (Michelle Monaghan), the real girl of his dreams, while on his honeymoon with Lila? It’s a toss-up.
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    • Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

        A tireless performer driven to advocate social change through song, folkie Pete Seeger found that the only audience he was allowed to cultivate was children. So he pursued this vocation with the same fervor he’d used to help organize labor unions and support Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace. Seeger didn’t start a political revolution, observes biographer David Dunaway, but he did launch a musical one. Extensive talking head interviews, from historians and protest participants to Seeger’s musical progeny (including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen), are at the core of this film, providing an exhaustive but entertaining look at the American century through the eyes of one of its most enthusiastic participants. But it’s Brown’s interviews with Seeger and his extended family that really make this portrait something special.
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    • The Game Plan

        At its core, The Game Plan is a hybrid of two Disney staples: the uplifting sports movie and the selfish-man-saved-by-a-wise-child morality tale. What makes all this calculation go down easy are the genuinely winning performances of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as football quarterback Joe "The King" Kingman, who discovers he has an 8-year-old daughter just as his team heads to the playoffs, and Madison Pettis, whose smart, confident Peyton is more on the ball than her playboy dad. The Rock has great comic chops, utilizing those outsized facial expressions he perfected as a professional wrestler, throwing himself into physical comedy without regard for his dignity. Director Andy Fickman (She’s the Man) seems to relish the scenes that bring the "freakishly large man" down to little girl size, and Johnson is always game. Not only does the former defensive tackle hit the football field again, he dabbles in ballet, sings an Elvis Presley tune, and thoroughly proves W.C. Fields wrong by successfully sharing the screen with a kid and an animal. (The King has a bulldog.)
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    • Manufactured Landscapes

        Director Jennifer Baichwal completed her 2006 documentary before relations soured between Chinese industrialists and the world media, capturing a fleeting moment of history that meshes perfectly with the philosophy of her film’s subject, Edward Burtynsky. The Canadian photographer has made a specialty of revealing the hidden splendor in landscapes manufactured by massive earthworks projects such as quarries and mines. These are places most people view as solid and immovable, but Burtynsky knows they’re actually fleeting and temporary, worlds in constant transition.
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    • Good Luck Chuck

        The current kings of the gross-out romantic comedy (that’s Judd Apatow and crew) have nothing to fear from Good Luck Chuck. Neither do former kingpins the Farrelly brothers — though director Mark Helfrich’s debut film here tries to mimic There’s Something About Mary. Good Luck Chuck has a great central premise, but suffers from a lack of anything resembling heart. Charlie Logan is a successful dentist and serial dater (always avoiding the three little words his girlfriends want to hear), who begins to notice a strange pattern in his life: After he breaks up with a woman, she goes on to meet her ideal mate and quickly gets married. Screenwriter Josh Stolberg sets Charlie up as a basically decent guy who must contend with the gift/curse of giving women what they (presumably) want most without ever falling in love himself. Ron Livingston or Luke Wilson could juggle Charlie’s warring impulses and make him endearing, but Dane Cook isn’t up to the task.
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