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21 GRAMS It takes about 15 minutes to start to make sense out of what’s going on in this movie because director Alejandro González Iñárritu, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and editor Stephen Mirrione have taken disparate, discrete units of footage of varying length, thrown them up in the air, then picked them up and strung them together in what seems to be no order at all. The first glance is soon superceded by second and third and fourth and fifth glances, until the bits of film begin to take shape in a pattern that imposes a considerable degree of narrative logic, though far from 100 percent. The stories of interlocking lives of three men and three women emerge. The men are Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro), a high-strung, authoritarian ex-convict and born-again Christian, scrabbling to keep his family together; Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), a mathematics professor with a wandering eye, a worn-out marriage, and a worn-out heart that will kill him within weeks if not replaced by a transplant; and Michael Peck (Danny Houston), an architect, nice guy, good husband, daddy of two young daughters. The women are Jack’s equally high-strung wife Marianne (Melissa Leo); Paul’s uptight insemination-seeking, insecure wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg); and Michael’s sweet, trim, appealing wife Christina (Naomi Watts), whose well-turned out exterior covers a now well buried proclivity for substance and alcohol abuse. A disaster that happens in one blinding instant sets all these separate lives pin wheeling and vectoring together in fateful – or fated – fusion. Playing citywide. (J. Tallmer)

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THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS Rémy is an unapologetic, libertine socialist. Sébastien, his estranged son, is a technocratic capitalist. Can they find common ground in a time of crisis? That’s the central dilemma that propels the new French-Canadian film “The Barbarian Invasions,” a heart-tugging crowd-pleaser at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. In less capable hands, such a sitcom-esque premise might make for a saccharine, tedious enterprise. But Denys Arcand, Canada’s most acclaimed writer/director, manages to infuse the material with rare warmth and textured panache, turning out a tender meditation on the myriad wild forces that make life wondrous… and frustrating. “The Barbarian Invasions” is actually a sequel of sorts, reuniting characters, and many of the same actors, from Arcand’s phenomenal 1986 film, “The Decline of the American Empire.” A lot of water has gushed under the bridge in the 17 years since these idealistic, sexually liberated friends loved and laughed together. Somehow, they’ve managed to mature and regress at the same time, much to our amusement. The film opens in the overburdened government hospital in Quebec where Rémy has landed. Morose patients on gurneys pack the halls. Webs of electric cords hemorrhage from the disheveled dropped ceilings. Only 51, the cantankerously passionate Rémy (played to snarky perfection by Rémy Girard) is too young to die and he knows it. He wrestles with the meaning of his life with convoluted recrimination. “I’m a total failure,” he laments. Landmark Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza. (D. Kennerley)

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Elephant An unsettling and thoroughly spellbinding new film from director Gus Van Sant, takes a distinctly different approach to his subject, a Columbine-style shooting, than countless filmmakers before him, who have tackled this and myriad other social problems in an obligatory cause-and-effect fashion. By contrast, Van Sant resolutely refuses to attempt to sum up the problem of school shootings. Nor does he offer explanations for any of the behavior depicted within his film. The events, which unfold in a deceptively dreamlike manner, are presented strictly as-is. Van Sant took top prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his work here, and deservedly so. “Elephant” features partially improvised performances by non-professional teenaged actors and truly mesmerizing cinematography. But the film’s most appealing attribute is an especially brilliant structure that ignores linear conventions and instead allows viewers to see events from multiple perspectives. We are introduced to the students in no particular order of importance. They include a sweet but overburdened slacker, a frumpy nerd, a genial gay photographer, a trio of cool girls, and the school’s reigning heartthrob. We are also introduced to a pair of outcasts. Despite the malevolent intentions, their day unfolds in an almost comically mundane manner. Passing time on what they expect to be the last afternoon of their lives, they sleep, hone their shooting skills first on a video game and then with a recently purchased weapon, play piano, and, notably, share a kiss and a shower. As the story heads, mercilessly, toward its inexorable conclusion, the camera’s measured pace and detached manner begin to feel overwhelmingly menacing. By lulling viewers into a complacent trance before hitting them over the head, Van Sant skillfully heightens dramatic tension. The ever-changing perspective reminds us that, for each of the students, school is a markedly different experience. Moreover, it demonstrates that, as in all matters, “ordinary” is in the eye of the beholder. Angelika Film Center.

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Lost in Translation Sweet, sublime, and a little subversive, director Sofia Coppola’s sophomore effort, “Lost in Translation,” is as dreamily transporting as cinema can be. Watching it is the closest you may ever get to an out-of-body experience. A loving look at the exotic beauty—and occasional oddity—of Japanese culture as viewed through American eyes, “Lost in Translation” is like something a master sushi chef might have conjured: a minimalist masterpiece that’s utterly exquisite, deceptively delicate, and indescribably satisfying. Small and subtle, it garners nonstop laughs and moments of heartbreaking poignancy (often simultaneously) thanks to a script full of keen observations, and, more importantly, stellar performances from its stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. This remarkable tale brilliantly encapsulates those amazing times when two mismatched people, brought together by unusual circumstances, make a connection that might not last, but leaves an indelible impression on each of them. Though rare, such situations are strange and wonderful things. Bittersweet and beautiful, “Lost in Translation” is strange and wonderful, too. Playing Citywide. (M. Rucker)

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LOVE ACTUALLY Love! If you’re in it, if you crave it, even if the cynic in you believes it can’t be found, writer director Richard Curtis brings you face-to-face with the widely misunderstood and in this case comedic emotion known as love. Curtis, responsible for writing the successful British romantic laughers “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” makes his directorial debut with the ensemble comedy “Love Actually,” short for, love is actually all around, proven so by a myriad of characters whose common thread is love and more importantly the quest for it. A brief but meaningful voiceover by the charming-as-usual bloke Hugh Grant at the start of the film instantaneously ignites a warm-and-fuzzy feeling and primes us for the love–lost, love-found themes to follow. The meaning of love, as it relates to each character in this six degrees of separation story, is depicted in varied forms. Love, lust, infatuation, infidelity, and even codependency are some of the dilemmas which unfold during the weeks before Christmas. Playing citywide. (J. Carsey)

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MY ARCHITECT Thomas Wolfe––who wrote “Look Homeward, Angel” and was always searching for his father and for himself––would have appreciated a documentary film called “My Architect.” You may never have heard of Louis I. Kahn, who died alone and broke in 1974 in the men’s room of the architectural disaster known as Pennsylvania Station. But virtually every architect living or dead owes something of a debt to Louis Kahn, and in this questing, occasionally aggravating, 116-minute cinematic exploration by his son, a half-dozen headliners tell you why. Philip Johnson: “How Lou ever got clients is a mystery. Artists don’t get clients… He was free compared to me.” I.M. Pei: “He once told me: ‘Go to Scotland!’ He also said: ‘The best is yet to come’… I’m a little bit more patient, because I’m Chinese. I’ll [get insulted by a client or a situation and] come back another day. I don’t think Lou would do that… Three or four masterpieces [of Kahn’s] are worth more than 56 successful buildings [by Pei]. Quality, not quantity.” Frank Gehry: “Lou was a breath of fresh air in America.” Film Forum. (J. Tallmer)

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MYSTIC RIVER One afternoon a pederast posing as a cop orders Dave Boyle, a young boy, into a car. Dave’s best friends, Jimmy Markum and Sean Devine, stand by watching. For the next four days, Dave is brutally molested until he escapes, apparently through the woods. Jump ahead 25 years: Dave has turned into Tom Robbins, Jimmy into Sean Penn, and Sean into Kevin Bacon. The guys no longer hang out together, even though the withdrawn Dave has married Jimmy’s cousin, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). The two have a withdrawn son, and Dave is now fascinated with vampire films. Jimmy, putting aside a stretch in prison, is a success. He now runs his own grocery story, has three beautiful daughters, and a very supportive wife (Laura Linney). Sean is a detective. The three, due to unexpected events, are going to have a reunion of sorts. The one major flaw in “Mystic River” is that the plot overly relies on a coincidence that appears a bit orchestrated. That fault is mitigated by the performances, however, which move the story along. Playing citywide. (B. Judell)

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PIECES OF APRIL It’s hard to believe the grungy Goth chick with the tattoos and combat boots at the center of “Pieces of April” is actually former “Dawson’s Creek” cutie-pie Katie Holmes. Made over here as a very credible East Village hipster, Holmes delivers a fantastic performance that all but erases any lingering memories of her girl-next-door TV alter ego, Josephine “Joey” Potter. The directorial debut of screenwriter Peter Hedges, who also penned “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “About a Boy,” this low-budget Sundance favorite might easily have been a maudlin affair. Inspired by Hedges’ own experience watching his terminally ill mother prepare to die, the story concerns an awkward attempt at reconciliation between a wayward daughter and the conservative family she left behind many years ago. Playing citywide. (M. Rucker)

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The Station Agent A startled supermarket checkout girl, discovering a human being at her waist level, says, “Sorry, didn’t see you.” Meant as an apology, it is the least felicitous thing she could say. Beetle-browed, barrel-chested Finbar McBride (Off-Broadway actor/playwright Peter Dinklage, well remembered from Tom DiCillo’s “Living in Oblivion”) happens to be just four and a half feet tall and in lives in a a station agent’s gingerbread-roofed clapboard living quarters––alongside some abandoned railroad tracks in a central New Jersey nowhere called Newfoundland. The Newfoundland of Tom McCarthy’s sweet, humane, quietly exciting “The Station Agent” is homeland for the walking wounded. If you sense the compassion and fatality of Carson McCullers in some of this, particularly her “Ballad of the Sad Café,” so do I, and there could be far worse paths for a decent moviemaker to follow. Within the 90 minutes of one very nice motion picture––the misery and the sorrow of the world will be transmuted, if only for a brief moment, into delight and mystery. Angelika Film Center, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, BAM Rose Cinemas. (J. Tallmer)

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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