dir. Rian Johnson

Novice writer-director Rian Johnson's $500,000 marvel Brick is one of those all-too-rare movies that sends my jaded affect flying out the window. This is the most honestly juiced I've felt about a film since I don't know when.

Brick is a hardboiled detective narrative retrofitted to high school, where homeroom lockers fill in for smoky offices, assistant principals (Richard Roundtree!) apply police-commissioner levels of heat, and everyone talks in a knowingly archaic, Miller's Crossing–ish rapid-fire patter. As a premise, it sounds cutesy-horrible, like an overlong episode of Jim Henson's Hammett Babies (or worse, a vaguely ped curio along the lines of 1976's Bugsy Malone), but the conviction and earnest wit involved carries it well past the conceptual experiment stage into a genuinely effective reinterpretation of classic noir. Save for a few well-timed winks (mainly involving the overly helpful mother of Lukas Haas's rec-room-dwelling kingpin), things are played hard and fast and mean and lean. (The resolution to one late-stage foot chase, in particular, is so sudden it's jarring.) Johnson's protagonists may still be at the learner-permit stage, but he doesn't cut 'em any slack.

His film might still sputter out at the amusing novelty level, though, were it not for the astounding central performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as a bespectacled, shaggy-haired loner whose quest to find a tardy ex-girlfriend drives the plot. (On the private-dick scale, he falls somewhere between the shambling oddball of Elliott Gould in Altman's The Long Goodbye and Ralph Meeker's pain-absorbing automaton in Kiss Me Deadly.) Whatever the genesis, his dogged, world-weary demeanor does the old-time gumshoes proud. So does this weird, glorious freak of a movie. ANDREW WRIGHT

Take the Lead

dir. Liz Friedlander

Based loosely on the life of ballroom-dancing revivalist Pierre Dulaine, Take the Lead is the familiar tale of teenage redemption via fox trot. The story arc is soothingly predictable: Latin dandy Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) shows up at a New York City public school, inexplicably yearning to teach merengue to the snarling masses. The beleaguered, no-nonsense principal (Alfre Woodard), after laughing in his ignorant face ("Life for these kids is like a fight to stay alive and a hustle to make ends meet, not ballroom dancing"), wearily agrees, and Dulaine's delinquents montage, montage, montage their way right into the Big Competition.

Take the Lead is neither as charming nor as satisfying as its documentary predecessor, 2005's Mad Hot Ballroom. The scripted progression of professional actors and dancers can't touch the exhilaration of watching spazzy preteens master it for real, but TTL's dancing is polished and entertaining nonetheless (the audience at my screening actually applauded after a particularly rousing tango number). It's the rest of the movie—vaguely racist, enthusiastically sexist, and weirdly anticlimactic—that stinks.

Screenwriter Dianne Houston, it seems, hasn't met a teenager since she was one. The kids in Take the Lead—played by Rob "you're the man now, dog" Brown, Yaya "America's Next Top Model" DaCosta, and Dante "Rufio" Basco (who, for the record, is 30 years old)—are goofy inner-city caricatures. They react to George Gershwin with "Yo, man! I need the remix!"; turn into hooting, writhing, Pavlovian monkeys at the mere suggestion of a hiphop beat; and won't rest till they've pimped every ride in town.

But most bizarre of all is the film's unrelenting and frighteningly unexamined reverence for chivalry—when Dulaine holds the door, secretaries faint; when a girl steps out on her own, his reprimand is kind: "The man leads. It is the woman's job to follow." So take the lead, ladies! Lead yourselves right into the kitchen and cook Mr. Dulaine some dinner. He's exhausted from empowering you all day. LINDY WEST

The Intruder

dir. Claire Denis

If I had to live inside the works of any filmmaker, I would pick up and move into the movies of Claire Denis. Her films, like all films, are made of light and sound; they're supposed to address your eyes and ears, not your inert flesh. But there's something uncanny about the way Beau Travail and Trouble Every Day and Friday Night (all of which were photographed by Agnès Godard) heighten visual texture to the point where it almost spills over into physical sensation. They're often about bodies—being one, fucking one, wanting one, eating one—and they demand that you pay attention with your nerve endings as well as your gaze.

The Intruder is about a man (Michel Subor) whose body is failing him. He lives on the border between France and Switzerland, tangling with some unreadable mythic figures (a gap-toothed dog breeder and a drifter/wood nymph), ignoring his son, and sleeping with a local pharmacist. After a traumatic heart attack, along with an indelible image of his hand compulsively grasping at sand, he buys a new heart on the black market. He then embarks on an increasingly paranoid journey to the South Seas, in what looks like an active attempt to slough off his flesh. The Intruder is a dreamscape of the wildest order, and yet it feels like you can put your fingers out and touch every artifact of Denis's hallucination. It defies logic, and it's great. ANNIE WAGNER


dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

I've always had a fondness for that quirk of premodern English that refused to assign children under three a gender. I love the way Victorians labeled their offspring with the cold, clinical term "infant," instead of shuffling, like we do, through precious, burbly names like "baby" and "toddler" and "kid" every time the child coos or wobbles forward on two feet or presents some other evidence of firing neurons and muscle coordination. And it's so cute—it is!—the way the Victorians always called their infants "it" (e.g., "It cried").

Or so I thought until I saw L'Enfant, a Dardenne brothers film whose title technically means The Child but whose false cognate, cleverly left hanging behind the untranslated title, is creepier and in some ways more apt. There are many children in the movie: the young semihomeless couple Sonia (dirty pretty thing Déborah François) and Bruno (a pockmarked Jérémie Renier), who steal to live and spend the rest of their time wrasslin' and tumblin' like a couple of lynx cubs; the slender schoolyard punk with an earring who does Bruno's dirty work; and of course, the bundle of blankets named Jimmy to whom Sonia has just given birth. Only Jimmy, however, is truly an infant, and Bruno treats it—him—as just another object to sell off for cash.

The incident happens soon after Sonia returns from the hospital. She has already recovered her apartment from the strangers Bruno sublet to while she was confined; she has already graciously received her government-mandated health visitor, who has already advised her that Bruno should get a job now that he is a father. Instead, Bruno offers to take the infant for a walk and then hustles it across town to exchange on the black market. We don't see the other transactors, but Bruno's soul is blackened to a carbonic crisp. ANNIE WAGNER

Lucky Number Slevin

dir. Paul McGuigan

This frenetic pastiche of a movie is about a pudgy-cute dude named Slevin (Josh Hartnett) who inadvertently wades into an all-out race war—excuse me, noble blood feud—between The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Sir Ben Kingsley). But most of the time Lucky Number Slevin looks like a movie about a pudgy-cute dude named Slevin who inadvertently wades into a feature-length advertisement for Target home décor. This film contains a seriously astounding variety of wallpaper. Red wallpaper with white polka dots. Interlocking gray-blue bubbles marching all the way down a hall. In one playful bedroom, the wallpaper is covered with huge ecru and pale-blue poppies. In a more masculine boudoir (is that a contradiction in terms?), tan flowers are layered with smooth round stones. And production designer Francois Seguin doesn't stop there. The Boss's lair (a penthouse sitting atop a skyscraper) is subdivided with walls of '70s-style glass bricks in hues of translucent burgundy and avocado. The Rabbi's chosen retreat (a matching penthouse opposite The Boss) features wrought-iron Hebrew letters fashioned into imposing gates.

It's a good thing there's so much to look at—even if the style choices are baldly budget-chic—because it's hard to care much about the convoluted tease of writer Jason Smilovic's plot. There are lots of murders and double-crossings and mistaken identities and novel terms for bloody sleights-of-hand, plus one reference each to North by Northwest and James Bond. An obligatory side story about a perky love interest (Lucy Liu) with way too much time on her hands and an important job as a coroner tried my patience more than my credulity. Lucky Number Slevin is no work of genius. But if you get bored, you can always imagine the grisly proceedings are actually taking place in some heretofore-uncharted corner of IKEA. ANNIE WAGNER


dir. Saverio Costanzo

The film begins with a family in a moment of crisis. The family, which is Palestinian, is being pressured by the state, which is Israeli, to turn over its home to a small army unit. The head of the house, the father (Mohammed Bakri), has the final word on what the family must do at the moment when—as in the Clash song "The Guns of Brixton"—the power of the state "knocks down [his] front door." Echoing another Clash song, the father decides to stay. The army eventually knocks the front door down, grabs the father, and orders him and his family to leave. The father refuses to do so. This is his house and nothing will make him move from it. The leader of the unit then offers a cruel compromise: The family can stay in their house but must live on the ground floor; the army will occupy the second floor, from which the family is forbidden. The father accepts these terms and the rest of the movie's plot is settled: The private is set directly against the public, love against violence, Antigone against King Creon.

Directed by Saverio Costanzo and shot on digital not in Palestine but in the arid southwestern region of Italy, Calabria, Private has several flaws, the worst of which is the dramatic tension that rises and falls rather predictably. For example, midway through the movie, the most sensitive of the family's three sons, Jamal (Marco Alsaying), finds and pockets a grenade neglected by the Israeli soldiers. From that moment on, we know something bad has to happen, and a lot of tension is built around that fact. What ultimately saves this movie is its central concept—the primary institution of ethical society (or sittlichkeit) challenged by the Repressive State Apparatus (or RSA). This powerful concept obliterates all of the problems with the plot. CHARLES MUDEDE

Lonesome Jim

dir. Steve Buscemi

The opening shot is of steel-lattice electrical towers and gray trees, rippling in the heat. Casey Affleck's face rises above the road's horizon, and then his whole body, running. He's handsome, but in a weak-featured, of-the-moment, Brooklyn sort of way, which is fitting, because his character has fled New York City after not being able to hack it, but it's not as fascinating a face as director Steve Buscemi seems to think it is. Affleck's character, Jim, is afflicted with chronic despair and, life-wise, he's run out of options. So he runs home to rural Indiana. He and his older brother (Kevin Corrigan) barely look at each other when Jim returns home, because that's how brothers sometimes are, but Jim's mom, played to perfection by Mary Kay Place, who has something wrong with her eyes, can't stop looking at him. "Mom sure is happy to see you," she says. "Yeah, you too Mom," he says unconvincingly. "I worry about my boy in the city," she says. "I'm not a boy now Mom." "Yes you are. You're my boy. You're a pretty boy." Later, she sidles up next to him as he's taking a bath.

He is pretty, and so is Anika (Liv Tyler). Jim meets her in a bar. She's wearing her nurse's uniform. He's wearing his Brooklyn haircut. He's sheepish about failing in Manhattan; embarrassed, he mentions he worked at an Applebee's. Without irony, she says, "I love Applebee's." They both identify as writers. The first time they have sex, it's in the hospital where Anika works. The second time, it's in Jim's bedroom, his walls covered with portraits of Hemingway, Parker, Richard Yates, Woolf, Plath—a who's who of suicidal literati. One day Jim tells his older brother, an even bigger loser, "I think about ending it all as it is, I can't imagine if I had your life," and then his older brother crashes into a tree and falls into a coma. There's a side story about a drug mix-up, there's a fat guy on a motorcycle, there's a moment when Affleck starts singing along to "If You Leave Me Now," but there's nothing very daring in this movie. It's not great. It's okay. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE

Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School

dir. Randall Miller

When the first scenes of a movie are tinged a deep, dolorous shade of blue, you know one of two things is true: Either the film colorist skipped a week of postproduction, or the main character is suffering from a debilitating, manly grief he literally cannot countenance. In the massively stupid Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School, sadness isn't written on Frank Keane's face (though it may be physiognomically divined from actor Robert Carlyle's weak chin); instead, the blues soak into his bread-baker's truck, and the dashboard-mounted portrait of his poor dead wife, and the road that leads him to a freak car accident. Soon thereafter, Frank learns the lindy hop, discovers life after widowerhood, and the cloud of azure lifts from the camera lens.

The plot of Marilyn Hotchkiss Dancing & Charm School is preposterous (it requires John Goodman to die for approximately 30 minutes), and for what? All that needs to happen is Frank needs to get his butt into a ballroom.

When a movie is so bad it defies description, it sometimes helps to compare it to a better movie. Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School is, in an odd sort of way, the inverse of Fight Club. Whereas Fight Club featured self-help-group parasites who found a way out of their addictions by punching each other in the face, Marilyn Hotchkiss features authentically grief-stricken self-help-group participants who make their way back to reality by doing the merengue. Fight Club got Meat Loaf (!) to sob. Marilyn Hotchkiss gets Donnie Wahlberg (!) to tango. Fight Club: dirty sex with Helena Bonham Carter in a dilapidated house. Marilyn Hotchkiss: floury sex with Marisa Tomei on a baker's kneading table. Of all the bad things about this terrible movie, it's the bread fetish that puts it beyond the pale. ANNIE WAGNER