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Thor: The Dark World
Distributor: Disney
Early on in “Thor: The Dark World,” the latest slab of briskly amusing, elaborately inconsequential 3D entertainment from the Disney/Marvel comicbook factory, an evil Dark Elf announces his sinister plan to “unleash the Aether.” What sounds at first like an arcane euphemism for breaking wind turns out to be just another way of stating what you probably already suspected: The megalomaniac of the month is about to activate the latest all-powerful weapon capable of triggering mass annihilation, necessitating yet another intervention by a popular superhero and his ragtag band of sidekicks. Still, as helmed by Alan Taylor, this robust, impersonal visual-effects showpiece proves buoyant and unpretentious enough to offset its stew of otherwise derivative fantasy/action elements.
— Justin Chang
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The Wind Rises
Distributor:
Touchstone Pictures
One man’s dream of flight and an entire nation’s dream of technological and military supremacy give rise to “The Wind Rises,” Hayao Miyazaki’s elegiac, hauntingly beautiful historical drama inspired by the life of aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed Japan’s A6M (or “Zero”) fighter plane. As grown-up as 2008’s “Ponyo” was tot-friendly, Miyazaki’s 11th feature draws a sober, socially astute portrait of Japan between the two World Wars, marked by flights of incredible visual fancy, harrowing images of poverty and destruction, and touches of swooning romance. Already a major hit at home (where it has grossed more than $80 million after six weeks in release), “Wind” will prove a trickier sell offshore than the helmer’s more familiar fantasy adventure pics, but should soar with animation and aviation buffs, and discerning arthouse goers of all stripes.
— Scott Foundas
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The Book Thief
Distributor:
20th Century Fox
Markus Zusak’s international bestseller “The Book Thief” has been brought to the screen with quiet effectiveness and scrupulous taste by director Brian Percival and writer Michael Petroni. This tale of Nazi Germany seen from a child’s perspective translates into solidly engaging drama, albeit one that may not be starry, flashy or epic enough to muscle its way into the front ranks of awards-season contenders. Bolstered by the novel’s fans, the Fox release (which opens limited Nov. 8) should ride solid reviews and word of mouth to midlevel prestige returns in line with such comparable medium-scaled WWII dramas as “The Reader” and “The Pianist.”
— Dennis Harvey
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The Armstrong Lie
Distributor:
Sony Pictures Classics
The disgraced hero at the center of one of the most compelling rise-and-fall narratives in recent years gets exhaustive and penetrating documentary treatment in “The Armstrong Lie.” Focusing primarily on the past four years of Lance Armstrong’s life — from his 2009 post-retirement comeback bid to his recent admission that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, despite vehement denials over the course of his extraordinary career — director Alex Gibney delivers not just a detailed, full-access account of his subject, in all his defiance, hubris and tentative self-reckoning, but also a layered inquiry into the culture of competitiveness, celebrity, moral relativism and hypocrisy that helped enable and sustain his deception. Although unlikely to match the TV audience for Armstrong’s revelatory interview with Oprah Winfrey in January, this authoritative and well-timed Sony Classics release should easily become one of Gibney’s more widely seen efforts.
— Justin Chang
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At Berkeley
Distributor:
Zipporah Films
On the surface, “At Berkeley” hardly breaks new ground: Frederick Wiseman’s 38th institution-centered documentary presents yet another unblinking, very long-haul study of a hydra-headed organization, in this case the eponymous U. of California campus, an account so austerely democratic in its gaze that no one, from the highest-ranking figure to the lowliest freshman, is ever formally identified. And yet, the result is one of Wiseman’s best, a summation of sorts of a career’s worth of principled filmmaking from a director in his ninth decade. Pic will teach class at niche venues and on upscale channels worldwide.
— Leslie Felperin
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Great Expectations
Distributor:
Lionsgate
“Great Expectations” is a passable feature-length adaptation that does little to burnish the estimable screen legacy of a Dickens classic. Working from a tightly compressed screenplay by David Nicholls, director Mike Newell strikes the beats of a deservedly oft-told tale with dour competence but little in the way of dramatic inspiration or visual flair. Still, juicy performances by Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes in the designated scene-stealing roles of Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch should prove enticing enough for arthouse patrons and Anglophiles to respond with favor.
— Justin Chang
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How I Live Now
Distributor:
Magnolia Pictures
The outbreak of World War III is viewed through the narrow but steadily captivating lens of an American teenager dwelling abroad in “How I Live Now,” a story of young love that quickens into a harrowing survival thriller. Held together by a forceful performance from the ever-resourceful Saoirse Ronan, director Kevin Macdonald’s uneven but passionate adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s prize-winning 2004 novel wisely sticks to its protagonist’s p.o.v. while avoiding a longer view of the calamitous events around her, making up in emotional immediacy what it lacks in broad dramatic sweep. Likely to be perceived as too violent for younger audiences but too goopily romantic for older arthouse-goers, the Magnolia release reps a tricky marketing proposition that will require ample critical support when it bows Stateside Nov. 8.
— Justin Chang
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Caucus
Distributor:
Bonfire Films of America and Rival Pictures/Om Film
A surreal slice of presidential primary campaigning is chronicled with dogged verite detail in “Caucus,” director AJ Schnack’s portrait of eight Republican nomination hopefuls engaged in good old-fashioned retail politics during the run-up to the 2012 Iowa caucus. As political contests go, this particular GOP race offers a fortuitously movie-ready dogfight complete with larger-than-life personalities and seismic shifts in the polls. Regardless, few viewers on either side of the political aisle are likely to be eager to revisit such a polarizing and already well-documented chapter of the recent past, signaling limited commercial prospects for Schnack’s fascinating but only intermittently insightful film.
— Geoff Berkshire
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Finding Mr. Right
Distributor: China Lion Film Distribution
Unwieldy and exasperating, but not without a certain pushy, ingratiating charm, Xue Xiaolu’s smash hit “Finding Mr. Right” turns out to have a bit more on its mind than its generic romantic-comedy title would suggest. Over the course of its leisurely 122-minute running time, this slick, saucy tale of a spoiled mainland princess who travels to Seattle to give birth manages to address the pressures of pregnancy and parenthood, the challenges of life in a foreign country, the temptations of material wealth, and the wan but enduring charms of “Sleepless in Seattle.” The whole thing might collapse were it not for Tang Wei’s irrepressible lead performance, redeeming an initially unbearable character through the sheer, unbridled force of her personality.
— Justin Chang
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Go for Sisters
Distributor:
Variance Films
According to writer-director John Sayles, had he given “Go for Sisters” a Spanish title, it would have been “La Chinesca,” the nickname for Mexicali’s Chinatown neighborhood. Sure enough, if it weren’t for the sheer intensity of the south-of-the-border sun, “Go for Sisters” would be a film noir, Jake, tracking a ball-buster parole officer who will stop at nothing to retrieve her grown son from the criminals he’s gotten himself mixed up with. True to his nature, Sayles places most of his attention on culture and character, rather than the stock-sounding plot, crafting a smart, if strangely forgettable, half-million-dollar arthouse alternative to megaplex procedurals.
— Peter Debruge
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A Case of You
Distributor: IFC Films
Sam (Justin Long) is a successful writer — albeit not a very fulfilled one, since so far he’s only published work-for-hire novelizations of “Twilight”-esque film franchise “Teen Vampire” — smitten with the girl behind the counter of his favorite Brooklyn cafe. Convinced that Birdie (Evan Rachel Wood) will be attracted to him only if he already has the “man of her dreams” characteristics, he goes overboard researching her “likes” on Facebook, claiming to have a number of skills and interests she finds “cool.” Thus he frantically enrolls in guitar, cooking and judo lessons, traipses along with her to ballroom dancing and rock-wall climbing, etc. That he enjoys (let alone is good at) none of these things is trumped by the fear that the mildly adventurous Birdie would dump him if she knew how boring he really was.
— Dennis Harvey
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Contracted
Distributor:
IFC Midnight
The ick factor is high in “Contracted,” a body-horror opus that will satisfy genre fans who like to be grossed out, but doesn’t have much to offer on any other count. It’s unclear whether this tale of an annoying young Los Angeleno whose physical well-being rapidly deteriorates after having unprotected sex with a stranger is making any deliberate statement about its many self-absorbed and shallow characters — or even whether the pic is aware they come off that way. In any case, Eric England’s well-made feature doesn’t earn much viewer empathy as its heroine quite literally falls apart. Opening in L.A. Nov. 8, the pic has performed well at horror fests, and should do well with the same audience in home formats.
— Dennis Harvey
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Reaching for the Moon
Distributor: Wolfe Releasing/Dada Films
The very private American poet Elizabeth Bishop was famously opposed to the confessional style favored by her peers: “Art just isn’t worth that much,” she once wrote to her friend Robert Lowell. It’s not damning, then, to say she’d have been mortified by Bruno Barreto’s intimate, affecting, somewhat lumpily paced biopic, which focuses chiefly on Bishop’s 15-year lesbian relationship with headstrong Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Boasting intelligent performances by Miranda Otto and Gloria Pires as the chalk-and-cheese lovers, attractively mounted pic could please older upscale auds, while also working the more genteel end of the LGBT fest circuit.
— Guy Lodge
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The Motel Life
Distributor:
FilmBuff
Two bad-egg brothers escape into stories of their own making to forget about their hard-knock existence in “The Motel Life,” from fraternal producers-turned-helmers Alan and Gabriel Polsky. But their adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s Nevada-set novel is so full of explanatory flashbacks and animated sequences visualizing the characters’ invented yarns that their real dramas are indeed almost obscured. However, the presence of Stephen Dorff and Emile Hirsch, the latter on a white-trash roll after “Killer Joe” and “Savages,” should help attract indie-loving eyeballs, at least on VOD and in Euro niche release.
— Boyd van Hoeij
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Medora
Small victories — indeed, victories of any sort — are all the more welcome for being so rare in “Medora,” a bleakly potent portrait of life in an economically devastated Middle American town. While focusing on the community’s chronically winless high school basketball team — whose players, like many grown-ups in town, have begun to accept defeat as a natural state of being — filmmakers Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart uncover and illuminate a strain of stoic resilience that could be the last best defense against bottomless despair. Unfortunately, as “Medora” repeatedly suggests, that invaluable resource may not be inexhaustible.
— Joe Leydon
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Ass Backwards
Distributor:
Gravitas Ventures
Indictingly titled “Ass Backwards” proves that no amount of comic talent can shine — or raise a chuckle — in the absence of even halfway decent material. This painfully unfunny vehicle for writer-stars June Diane Raphael and Casey Wilson is, depressingly, a comedy built on the amusement value of stupid people that is itself too stupid to be funny. Slick packaging and some cast names will make it viable for undiscriminating home-format buyers, but viewer beware.
— Dennis Harvey
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Approved for Adoption
Distributor:
GKIDS
It’s impossible not to be charmed on some level by Jung Henin and Laurent Boileau’s “Approved for Adoption,” though it’s best not to ask for too much. An autobiographical tale based on Henin’s graphic novel (the co-helmer usually goes just by “Jung”), the docu traces his path from Korean orphan to Belgian adoptee via a satisfying mix of animation and live-action. While his Belgian family’s motivations largely remain unclear, this voyage of discovery will provide throat lumps galore. Rainbow World recently bought North American rights, and is planning a theatrical run.
— Jay Weissberg
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Paris Countdown
Distributor:
Screen Media
Thousands of crime movies have made it clear: When things go bad, self-respecting criminals keep their mouths shut. Elegant yet empty, “Paris Countdown” illustrates the consequences of violating that rule when two French guys roped into a major Mexican drug deal give up their boss under extreme interrogation. (And who can blame them, when heavy beatings and a power drill are involved?) Six years later, their life becomes an imitation Nicolas Winding Refn thriller, all steaming streets and neon-lit atmosphere, as the two rats scurry around Paris to avoid a reckoning too unexceptional to draw many to a Nov. 8 Stateside release.

Peter Debruge
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The Stone Roses: Made of Stone
Distributor: 
Syndctd Entertainment
Brit helmer Shane Meadows turns his hand to documaking for the first time (if you don’t count mock doc “Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee”) with “The Stone Roses: Made of Stone,” a surprisingly conventional portrait of the titular Mancunian beat combo. Hugely admired rock stars back in the early 1990s, the now middle-aged and somewhat quarrelsome quartet is observed attempting a bumpy reformation and comeback in 2011-12.  An ardent fanbase has made this a niche hit in Blighty with a near-$750,000 cume on fewer than 50 screens since its June 5 preem, but theatrical roads look rockier offshore.
— Leslie Felperin
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It’s Me, It’s Me
Distributor: J Storm
“We’re multiplying,” says Hitoshi Nagano, a put-upon camera salesman in a giant Tokyo electronics store, and one of the many protagonists in Japanese writer-director Satoshi Miki’s “Its Me, “It’s Me.” Having played a modest run ($1.9 million) at the local box office this spring, this surreal black comedy about the ambiguity of identity opens in limited U.S. release this weekend.
— David Chute
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