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Set It Up

A solid romantic comedy with sharp dialogue, amusing characters, and a few surprises up its sleeve.

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A lazy, vulgar celebration of White Male American Dumbness.

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.

National Society of Film Critics falls for "Amour"

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Michael Haneke's "Amour," which won the Palme d'Or last May at Cannes, was voted Saturday the best film of 2012 by the prestigious National Society of Film Critics. The award, coming on the eve of voting for the 2013 Academy Awards, confirms "Amour" as a Best Foreign Film frontrunner. Other NSFC winners will also draw welcome attention.

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Introducing the films of Ebertfest 2012

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Something nice happened to us while we were preparing the schedule for Ebertfest 2012, which plays April 25-29 at the Virginia Theater (above) in Champaign-Urbana, Ill. We'd invited Patton Oswalt to attend with his "Big Fan. He agreed and went one additional step: "I'd like to personally choose a film to show to the students, and discuss it."

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Good people facing impossible questions

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In its own way, the success of the Iranian film "A Separation" is as remarkable as the success of "The Artist." Neither one seems made for an American audience. One is silent and black and white. The other is from Iran, a nation not currently in official favor. Both just won Academy Awards nominations, following their victories at the Golden Globes last week. "The Artist" had ten, and "A Separation" was nominated not only for best picture but, in a surprise, for Asghar Farhadi's original screenplay.

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Almodovar's limp noodle, Panahi's home movie

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This morning, Pedro Almodovar, Spain's biggest big-cheese filmmaker, handed us a limp noodle with "The Skin I Live In," his entry in the Cannes competition. The film stars Antonio Banderas (who began his career in Almodovar's early films) and Elena Anaya, who looks like a cross between Penelope Cruz and Audrey Hepburn. Even a second-best Almodovar film has its delicious moments, but "The Skin I Live In" is flat compared with his best work, including "Broken Embraces," "Volver," and his Oscar winner "All about My Mother."

Typical of Almodovar, the film is a melodramatic farce. Although it's based on the novel "Mygale" ("Tarantula" in English) by Thierry Jonquet, the story is also strongly reminiscent of the 1960 French horror classic "Eyes without a Face" by Georges Franju. In the Franju film, a surgeon kidnaps women in order to graft their faces onto the head of his disfigured daughter. In "The Skin I Live In," a plastic surgeon is engaged in highly experimental work in order to create synthetic skin as a tribute to his dead wife, who was burned to death in a car crash. He subsequently uses the results of his research in service of a unique punishment for his daughter's rapist.

This story has a lot of twists, and the element of surprise is important. I don't want to give away too much, especially since it's due to open in the U.S. in the fall. I haven't read "Mygale," but I understand that the narrative is fragmented into sections that all come together in the end. In this, Almodovar appears to have followed the structure of the book, perhaps too closely. One of the principle weaknesses of "The Skin I Live In" is that the story is scattered in pieces. Characters and subplots are introduced then dropped. They are loosely but not completely tied together in the end.

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Pirates of the Riviera

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It's another cool and overcast day in Cannes, but one that promises to be dominated by pirates and outlaws in the morning, and kids in the afternoon. The out-of-competition premiere European screening of "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" was scheduled for the Grand Theatre Lumiere at 8:30 am. This meant that European critics would flock, but Americans like me were freed up to roam elsewhere for our viewing. For my first film I opted to walk down the Croisette to see a pirate of a very different kind in "Porfirio," a Colombian film by Alejandro Landes, in the Quinzaine (Directors Fortnight) section of the festival.

"Porfirio" is a scripted and lightly fictionalized account of the life of a man the Latin American press had dubbed "the air pirate." Actual events reenacted in the film by non-professional actors, including the original central figure in the story, Porfirio Ramirez Aldana. Porfirio made headlines in 2005 for hijacking a plane to Bogota.

What attracted Landes to the case after reading a sensationalized newspaper account was the fact that the hijacker is paralyzed from the waist down, confined to a wheelchair, and was wearing diapers at the time. The director spent five years working with his subject and his family to develop their trust, and only revealed to the man a few days before shooting began that he would play himself.

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National Society: The last best critics awards for 2010

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Above: Best supporting actress winner Olivia Williams, "The Ghost Writer."

"The Social Network" has swept the major critics' groups honors (following NY and LA) with its best picture award from the National Society of Film Critics. From the NSFC website:

The Society, which is made up of 61 of the country's most prominent movie critics, held its 45th annual awards voting meeting at Sardi's Restaurant in New York City. 46 members voted. Scrolls will be sent to the winners.

BEST PICTURE *1. The Social Network 61 2. Carlos 28 3. Winter's Bone 18

BEST DIRECTOR *1. David Fincher 66 - The Social Network 2. Olivier Assayas 36 - Carlos 3. Roman Polanski 29 - The Ghost Writer

BEST ACTOR *1. Jesse Eisenberg 30 - The Social Network 2. Colin Firth 29 - The King's Speech 2. Edgar Ramirez 29 - Carlos

BEST ACTRESS *1. Giovanna Mezzogiorno 33 - Vincere 2. Annette Bening 28 - The Kids Are All Right 3. Lesley Manville 27 - Another Year

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Panahi gets six years; banned from film for 20

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David Bordwell sums up the terrible news from the totalitarian state of Iran about the outrageous sentence given to director Jafar Panahi ("The White Balloon," "The Circle," "Offside," etc.) after he was accused of conspiring to make an "anti-regime" film:

From Tehran comes the shocking news that Jafar Panahi, one of the finest of Iranian filmmakers, has been sentenced to six years in prison. The sentence also bans him from filmmaking for twenty years, forbids him to leave the country, and forbids him from giving interviews to the press, foreign or domestic. Panahi's collaborator Muhammad Rasoulof was also sentenced to six years in jail. [...]

The charges may be simply a pretext for silencing a prominent figure critical of current Iranian society. Panahi's films do not circulate legally there, and he is widely believed to be in sympathy with liberal forces. The government has sought to eradicate the most visible of these factions, the Green Party. Even Islamic clerics have been swept up in the crackdown. A parallel case to Panahi's is the attack on Mohammad Taqi Khalaji, a dissident cleric. Last January he was arrested and his computer and papers were seized. He too was incarcerated in Evin prison before being released on bail. Yet he was not formally charged with anything. His personal papers, including his passport, were not returned to him.

You can get some grim satisfaction for knowing that movies still matter in some parts of the world. Films have the power to shock bureaucrats and threaten authoritarian regimes. Instead of being simply "assets" or "content" to be extruded across platforms and shoved through release windows, cinema is in some places taken seriously as political critique.

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