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Michael Hastings

  • Juno

      It is possible not to be charmed by Juno McDuff. The motor-mouthed 16-year-old martyr and the new movie that bears her name both take aim at some sacred cows of American culture: Teen sex, abortionists, suburban class warfare. To her credit, the actress playing this rebel dork is talented enough to make her character’s contradictions almost make sense. As played by Ellen Page, the defiantly pregnant Juno is a headstrong mix of know-it-all arrogance and hedonistic pride. She’s the type of kid you could see having sex for fun, regardless of the emotional consequences. But, for a film that claims to worship at the altar of ’70s punk — specifically Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and the Runaways — Juno sure as hell doesn’t rock. Reitman chooses instead to borrow more than a few tricks from the Wes Anderson Academy of Twee: hand-illustrated title cards marking off the four seasons, jokey cutaway scenes, and a wall-to-wall soundtrack of acoustic guitar with deliberately off-key vocals. (You’d think he’d avoid going so far as to include tracks by Anderson faves like the Kinks and the Velvet Underground, but perhaps imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.) All of which runs contrary to what Juno herself would drop onto her turntable: “When you’re used to listening to the raw power of Iggy and the Stooges, everything else just sounds kind of precious by comparison,” she says. If you’re accustomed to smart, truly acerbic teen flicks like Ghost World, Election, Rushmore or even Clueless, you could say the same thing about Juno.
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  • War and lies

    In sprawling WWII epic, the first casualty of conflict is still truth
      The new World War II romance has gaping, pus-filled wounds, love forbidden by social status, horses shot in the head, sibling sexual rivalry and bitter truths that go untold until they’re no longer able to do anyone any good. If you’re unfamiliar with Ian MacEwan’s book — or the film’s sweeping trailers — you might think you’re sitting down to a seething tale of class conflict and lust in the bucolic British countryside. And yet this isn’t stuffy, starched-collar Merchant Ivory territory: Director Joe Wright subtly foreshadows the impending war, as rich, impudent 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) becomes enamored of strapping, twentysomething servant Robbie (James McAvoy). Lies are told, constables are called, and what Briony thinks she sees on that lazy summer night becomes the “truth” that sends Robbie off to battle, in lieu of going to prison. What follows is the movie promised in the ads: the breathtaking crane shots, the separated-by-fate lovers chasing after each other in busy city streets, and the unsubtle visual allusions to Gone With the Wind.
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  • Nice device

    De Palma's most vital film in years
      It's nice to know that, at age 67, Brian De Palma has finally discovered something that really pisses him off. The director of Carrie, The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible has fashioned an entire career out of having a cool, ironic point-of-view and, more often than not, notably calorie-free material: For proof, look no further than the trashy decadence of 2002's Femme Fatale, in which Rebecca Romijn dons a catsuit and seduces the designer jewels right off another supermodel's ample cleavage. So what happens when this maestro of fetishistic violence, America's number-one Hitchcock necrophiliac, attempts a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of horrific military misconduct during the U.S. occupation of Iraq?
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  • Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

      The sad truth is that for all of its tantalizing elements, the film is essentially a drab little thriller that deserved a quick-and-trashy presentation, with an ample injection of jet-black humor. Instead, it has received a ponderous, would-be Shakespearean makeover from a long-in-the-tooth director and a talented but overindulged cast. What should’ve been an underrated straight-to-cable gem has become an overrated "return to form."
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  • Lights in the Dusk

      When watching a movie by the Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki, you have to remember to accustom yourself to silences. His movies are so grim, scrappy and loaded with irony, it’s best to just succumb to the emptiness and try to fill in the blanks yourself. You’ll have plenty of voids to contemplate in Lights in the Dusk. In rough outline, it’s a neo-noir, a classic tale of a lonely security guard everyman used and abused by an icy femme fatale. But the filmmaker’s careful, meted style prevents you from predicting what’s going to happen and when. Even as the movie seems inexorably headed towards nihilistic tragedy, it’s the asides — the weird, static shots of Helsinki’s factories and vistas, or the golden morning light creeping over the city — that make you think there might be more to this simple little story than meets the eye.
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  • Lions For Lambs

      Lions for Lambs is all lecture. At this point in the Iraq debate, it’s the last thing you want to hear — that is, what you already know — over and over again, for 90 straight minutes. Lions focuses on earnest professor Malley (played by Redford, who also happens to be the movie’s director) lecturing a cocky, apathetic student (Andrew Garfield) on Why Politics Matters. In another parallel conversation, the slick Senator Irving (Tom Cruise) harangues conflicted veteran reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) on his bold new ground strategy in Afghanistan. As political commentary, it’s merely thudding and obvious; as entertainment, it’s downright narcotizing. It’s clear that Redford really wants to tell us something. But he forgot that when fighting a battle of ideas, you have to actually engage people first.
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  • Bee Movie

      For his first major big- or small-screen role since Seinfeld, he has chosen the post-millennial refuge of the damned: The cartoon caricature. Barry B. Benson doesn’t even look like the 53-year-old actor. Not unlike the live-action, skit-based marketing blitz that preceded it, Bee Movie is a desperate, unfocused collection of bits, shtick and the by-now patented Dreamworks pop-culture references — “Look, Ma, The Graduate! A Few Good Men!” — that sends you out of the theater exhausted and unsatisfied. Seinfeld wrote the script with a few cohorts from his TV days, and it’s not without the occasional, vaguely edgy spark of invention. The central conceit, if you can call it that, involves Barry’s attempts to bring a class action suit against the human race for bee slavery and honey pilfering. But the filmmakers’ touch is so thudding and uncertain, that at any given moment it seems Bee Movie might be something else entirely: a right-wing parable about the evils of federal regulation; a brainless, whiz-bang rollercoaster ride; or maybe a standard-issue “don’t be a drone, be yourself” kids’ movie. Where a Pixar effort like The Incredibles jam-packed all of its grown-up references into its first 10 minutes, Bee Movie hems and haws from the start, offering not one but three swooping chase scenes in an attempt to placate the kids before settling into a tepid quasi-romance between Barry and insect-friendly florist Vanessa (Renée Zellweger, drawn to look like an even-more-robotic Jennifer Aniston).
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  • The final cut

    Black comedy about suicide will have you in stitches
      Director Goran Dukic’s feature debut is an indie like they used to make, back in the days when Jim Jarmusch would grab a few weird-looking bystanders and some borrowed equipment and make a low-key slacker masterpiece like Stranger than Paradise. Wristcutters betrays the influence of Jarmusch not just in its casting of professional hobo Tom Waits in a supporting role — asking the all-important question, "Do I look asymmetrical to you?" — but also in its deadpan way of observing life and its malcontents. What might at first seem like a cynical one-note joke mellows into a rich, well-told romance, the kind even Hollywood doesn’t know how to make anymore. If your idea of heaven is a place where you can smoke all you want, sleep all day and drink and drive with impunity, then you’ve found your cinematic pearly gates. Wristcutters is set in a very specific division of the afterlife — call it the suicide branch — where everyone goes to the same dingy bars, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" plays all the time on the jukebox and low-fat cottage cheese is the only thing in the fridge. The latest addition to this slate-gray, industrial world is Zia (Patrick Fugit), a disheveled loner still very literally nursing his wounds from a recent bad breakup. When he hears his ex might have followed suit — she’s somewhere in the desert of this purgatory — he sets out on a road trip in an ailing station wagon with his pal Eugene (Shea Whigham).
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  • Lars and the Real Girl

      Don’t let the fact this is about a slutty lump of inanimate silicone turn you off: Lars and the Real Girl is the sex doll movie for people who don’t like sex doll movies. The movie lives or dies on Gosling’s performance as Lars, but he has a way of making even his showiest work seem utterly natural. All of his little bits of business here are dead-on. Lars’ struggle to overcome his “delusion” is so outré, so mannered, that the movie needs a good straight man or two, and Gillespie has answered in kind by directing everyone else to be as deadpan as possible. The conceit works as long as you’ve got utterly natural performers like Patricia Clarkson (as Lars’ non-pushy doctor) and Paul Schneider (as his incredulous brother) to balance out Gosling’s high-wire act. They bring the movie back down to earth; even still, cynics in the audience will understandably wonder where this idyllic Wisconsin farm town’s mean, unaccepting bullies are. (At a seed convention, maybe?)
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  • Dan in Real Life

      Safe, warm and reassuringly middlebrow where his previous work was ironic, sardonic and righteously raunchy, the movie is further evidence of the softening of Steve Carrell. As the lovelorn widower Dan, Carrell scrunches up his shoulders, molds his doughy face into a pallid perma-frown and, for the most part, manages to suppress his considerable gift for physical comedy. The film centers around a cutesy extended-family gathering in New England, where sage old upper-middle-class lefties Nana (Dianne Weist) and Poppy Burns (John Mahoney) preside over a humongous, shabby-chic cabin straight out of a Pottery Barn catalog. Still-single advice columnist Dan arrives with his three uncontrollably precocious adolescent daughters and promptly devolves into a funk. Cue some unsolicited wisdom and homemade apple pie from Mom, and soon Dan escapes briefly for a little seaside reflection and a meet-cute with age-appropriate “hottie” Marie (a ghostly, soft-focus Juliette Binoche). No sooner does he proclaim this mystery woman his new love than does she arrive at the house, on the arm of his cocky little brother Mitch (Dane Cook, struggling to act his way around his ego). Despite the odd casting, Carrell and Binoche come up with some serviceable chemistry. But Hedges and co-writer Pierce Gardner don’t capitalize on the parallels between Dan’s female troubles and his cluelessness in dealing with his cusp-of-womanhood daughters.
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  • Means to an end

    Ian Curtis biopic chronicles and debunks Joy Division frontman
      The film concern's the British synth act Joy Division and its agonized frontman, Ian Curtis. Turning his sunken, blank eyes, distant monotone and spastic performance style into assets rather than debits, the epileptic Curtis rose to prominence a few short years before hanging himself, at age 23, inspiring legions of gloomy mourners. And it's a welcome surprise that director Anton Corbijn's new Curtis biopic demythologizes the man who launched a thousand goth bands. Curtis, played by newcomer Sam Riley, emerges as a sort of agoraphobic everyteen, prone to quoting Wordsworth and Lou Reed in equal measure, not a savant but rather an obsessive fan needing one big push into action. Riley's uncanny approximation of Curtis' jerky moves, shot with unerring authenticity, make for some of the most electric musical numbers in recent memory.
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  • Hollow man

    A portrait of a corporate fixer fascinates
      In Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut — a thriller as cool, calm and collected as they come — he and leading man George Clooney strip the veneer off the stereotype of the hotshot corporate shark, a figure we’ve been taught to envy since at least the early years of the Reagan era. Gilroy takes us into a world of clandestine, back-room poker games, 11th-hour negotiations and perks like hookers and hundred-grand luxury sedans.
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  • Lust, Caution

      Director Ang Lee, having won his second Oscar with the gay-cowpoke romance Brokeback Mountain, seems determined to devote his energies to crafting lush, majestic, emotionally complex movies for grown-ups, just like the ones Bernardo Bertolucci and Philip Kaufman used to make. Here he focuses on a very Western archetype — the femme fatale — and adds a layer of subtext to what is already a tale of conflicted East-West identity in WWII-era China. This is no ordinary “dragon lady”: As the duplicitous Wong Chia Chi, the stunningly self-possessed newcomer Wei Tang has soft, babyish features and a teenage innocence that evaporates unexpectedly whenever she’s within striking distance of her prey, the married government man Mr. Yee (played by Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung). Now if only Lee’s newfound aesthetic gonads could be balanced with a sense of when to say “when” in the editing room, he might have a true masterpiece on his hands.
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  • Trade

      Merging sub-Lifetime storytelling with the oh-so-fashionable shaky-cam style of Traffic and Babel, Trade tells the coincidence-laden tale of two kidnapped girls — a single teen mom from Russia (Alijca Bachleda) and a valuable-commodity virgin from Mexico City (Paulina Gaitan) — and the devoted family men who valiantly try to track them down. Though it wants to be seen as hard-hitting, it's simply over-the-top and ridiculous, lingering on abuse in a way that manages to be sleazy, laughable and unconvincing, all at the same time. Mostly, Trade is content to wallow in the morbidly predictable antics of Really Bad Men: If the abductors’ moustaches were any longer, they’d twirl them, and if there were a set of railroad tracks handy, no doubt the girls would be tied to them.
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  • Digging for doubloons

    Michael Douglas acts his age, almost, in a truly quirky new comedy
      Offbeat without being cute or cloying, California is one of those rare movies that can be undisparagingly described as “quirky.” Its characters and ideas seem to come from a real place — the movie is dedicated to writer-director Mike Cahill’s father — even if the situations are the stuff of pure Hollywood fantasy. Michael Douglas’ Charlie is introduced upon his release from a mental ward, and if he seems genuinely deranged at the outset, it doesn’t take long for him to soften into the kind of adorably loony behavior we generally associate with movie nutcases: No noticeable drooling, inappropriate touching or violent outbursts here. His daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) is the audience stand-in, a deadpan, self-sufficient high-school dropout who’s learned to live without authority figures all too well.
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  • Across the Universe

      You don’t have to love the Beatles to hate Across the Universe. The beauty of director Julie Taymor’s latest exercise in cinematic bombast — a deafening blur of Fab Four tunes rerecorded, recontextualized and retarded to fit a sappy, late-’60s romance — is that it can inspire the same stupefied reaction in both a Lennon-phile and a 13-year-old whose only experience with the band is through mall-restroom Muzak. It’s a reckless act of boomer necrophilia, a colossal miscalculation that trivializes its original source as it renders it lame to a whole new generation of potential fans. As each arbitrary musical number runs into the other, you beg for relief — or at least the closing credits — and you almost get it in the form of Salma Hayek, playing a naughty nurse in the “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” number. Slinking around a veteran’s hospital with an oversized syringe, she’s the only genuinely erotic creature in the movie. It helps that her song is the one instance where Taymor and company can’t shoehorn Lennon’s abstract lyrics into their paint-by-numbers narrative. If only the rest of Universe made as little sense.
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  • Halloween

      In Rob Zombie’s world, it’s always 1978. Dudes with hair the texture of greasy mops drive around in Trans Ams stocked with cafeteria-sized coolers of Schlitz. Dirty blonde chicks wear patchwork fur coats with secret pockets in the lining, tailor-made to store their one-hitters and weed stashes. Two out of every three words spoken are derivations of “fuck,” and Blue Oyster Cult is always playing on the 8-track. This might explain why Zombie has taken it upon himself to remake the seminal horror event of that year, John Carpenter’s legendary Halloween. If you’re not automatically opposed to the idea of redoing a classic — after three decades of ridiculously shitty Halloween sequels, how could you be? — then it might seem a decent pairing of director and material, especially when you consider that the Texas Chainsaw remake duties went to a far less-deserving guy. But this schizoid mash-up of junior-high psycho-babble, inept homage and trailer-park community theater proves that some things really are better left alone.
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  • The Nanny Diaries

      Despite a schizophrenically bouncy pop soundtrack and some slick daydream-fantasy sequences, Diaries isn’t the escapist fun it so desperately wants to be. There’s no real pleasure to be had in watching two aimless, unhappy women act out their insecurities on each other. The performers give it their best shot, though, and for a while, Diaries is a notch above the usual Dakota Fanning-Britney Murphy chick-flick fare. As the put-upon Upper East Side nanny Annie, she proves adept at physical comedy. The movie needs as much sweetness and light as it can get, considering that the queen bitch here is comic-book villainous: Mrs. X, as played by the razor-sharp Laura Linney, is a shrill, lacquered trophy wife with too much time on her hands and not nearly enough people to blame for it. Pulcini and Berman are obviously talented — they find countless ways to visualize some of the novel’s most tepid prose — but for all their newfound, big-budget trickery, they can’t hide that they’re working on material that’s beneath them.
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  • Mother’s milk

    An American kid’s take on Clockwork’s totalitarian and ‘tit’ glam-violence
      Something about Stanley Kubrick’s midnight-black adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel, for all its calculated shocks and grown-up controversies, speaks to the undeveloped mind in the way only a movie about a sociopathic, undeveloped mind can. From the staccato blasts of primary colors in the opening credits, to the sped-up, Looney Tunes orgy scene to the insatiable, only-child id that fuels McDowell’s stunning performance, it’s a brilliantly sustained piece of juvenilia, the first-ever X-rated episode of Sesame Street. It’s a movie that seems like it might’ve sprung fully formed out of the head of its antisocial antihero Alex, if he ever had the initiative to actually create something instead of smashing it like a sandcastle.
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  • Bratz

      Faced with the challenge of anthropomorphizing these little consumerist demons, their creators have made the bold decision not to just animate the damn thing — as they have with countless Bratz videos — but to cast real live girls. After what was surely a week or two of arduous filmmaking, this labor of love has finally reached the big screen, and it’s certain not to disappoint its target audience of spoiled 10-year-olds caught in the throes of bitter custody battles. Bratz: The Movie even makes a weird, half-hearted attempt to reflect — or more likely, pander to — the presumably broken home lives of its fans.
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