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Life During Wartime

In Tangerines, old men pick fruit in a battle zone, and force two opposing soldiers into an uneasy truce.

While Tangerines may seem an odd title for a tightrope-tense wartime drama, stranger still is that the principal players actually spend most of their time onscreen sipping tea. “No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,” David Byrne yelps in the Talking Heads' “Life During Wartime” and, as though even this declaration is burning up valuable minutes, “I ain't got time for that now.” The talk of general paranoia and vans full of weapons in the song's lyrics definitely match the mood of Estonia's official 2015 Academy Award entry. As for “lovey dovey,” the closest thing to romance in writer-director Zaza Urushadze's Tangerines—in which all female characters, mothers, wives, granddaughters, are represented only as memories and photographs—is the idealistic way in which soldiers initially view the glories of battle or the way the older characters, believing themselves wiser, view the homes they've made for themselves and refuse to abandon as Estonians in the violently contested Georgian-Abkhaz territory circa 1992. But conflict or not, Tangerines’ main characters seem to have plenty of time to spare.

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The Fast & Furious’ Macho, Macho Men

Even guys who can’t parallel park seem to appreciate the vague, retro masculinity at the heart of the gearhead franchise.

Who's your daddy? Vin Diesel, obviously.

I don't know how to change the oil in my car. My wife drives our 1995 Toyota Camry almost everywhere, and she sure as hell parallel parks when it comes to that. Yet I've almost unintentionally seen every one of the half-dozen Fast & Furious films released between 2001 and 2013. Statistically speaking, many of the ticket buyers to this nearly billion-dollar-box-office franchise must fall a lot closer to me on the alpha male spectrum than they do to Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) or Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker), the chest-thumping, gearhead street racers at the heart of most of the Fast & Furious movies. That disparity may very well be the key to the films’ appeal.

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Love Fools

A pitch-black period comedy takes all the romance out of a Romantic-era suicide pact.

Set in Romantic-era Prussia, director Jessica Hausner's Amour Fou deliberately de-romanticizes every aspect of the real-life suicide pact it depicts. On the shores of a lake outside Berlin on November 21, 1811, Frankfurt-born writer and philosopher Heinrich von Kleist drew a pistol and killed Henriette Vogel (the terminally ill wife of another man) and then himself.

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A Monk, a Comedian, and a Therapist Walk into a Bar …

Not only is Eastern philosophy improving comedians’ lives, it’s making them funnier, too.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha might have been a great stand-up comic in another life. Seeking enlightenment in Nepal circa 525 B.C. didn’t give the namesake of the 1922 spiritual Bildungsroman much chance to develop an act, but Hesse’s description of his protagonist’s inner struggle could easily be applied to every clown caught crying, from Pagliacci to Louis C.K.: “He brought everyone joy; he pleased everyone. However, Siddhartha didn’t bring himself joy; he didn’t please himself.” This “seed of discontent” sprouting within him leads Hesse’s hero to join an order of self-denying proto-Buddhist monks who fast and meditate in the woods, but he soon becomes disillusioned with their practice and insights gained. “I could have learned it in any pub located in the whore’s district, there among the manual laborers and the gamblers,” he complains.

This route to self-discovery comes closer to the road traveled by more modern truth-seekers, comedians—legendary comic Lenny Bruce, for example, who probably did his best onstage act philosophizing as a strip-club MC. What Hesse suggests, decades before the rise of open mics and the two-drink minimum, is that the meditating monks and boozing barflies are actually seeking and achieving the same thing: “a brief escape out of the agony of self-existence … a momentary anesthetic against the pain and meaninglessness of life.” Bruce, who died of a morphine overdose, clearly sought the same. “After throwing needed light into America’s dark places,” critic Walter Goodman concludes, “by age 40 Lenny Bruce had nothing left to lighten the darkness of his final years.” Something similar could perhaps be said of each of the many talented comics who have since died of drug overdoses (Mitch Hedberg, Greg Giraldo) or outright suicide (Freddie Prinze, Richard Jeni, Robin Williams).

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Buckle Up for a ‘Wild’ Ride

Argentina’s foreign language film entry in this year’s Academy Awards puts even the Best Picture nominees to shame.

In all likelihood, Wild Tales, Argentina’s official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, is entirely too good for the insane, violent, and idiotic world it so expertly ridicules. Beginning with what has to be one of the ballsiest cold opens in recent cinema history, director Damián Szifrón’s anthology of thematically interconnected, darkly comic short films draws first blood with an explosive warning shot. By the time the opening credits show up, it’s apparent that Szifrón’s only interest in audience expectations is in hearing the sound of them shattering. A couple of the anthology entries fall short of the high standard set by the rest, but from that jaw-slackening opening sequence onward, Wild Tales seems calculated to draw audible gasps and giggles, and begs to be viewed in a packed theater.

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Jennifer Aniston’s Cake is Too Rich to be Relevant

The film features a wealthy Angeleno when the majority of chronic pain sufferers are low-income

Describing Mary Tyler Moore's Oscar-nominated performance as a grief-stricken mother in Ordinary People, film critic Pauline Kael wrote “Moore … seems to be doing penance for having given audiences a good time” as a beloved television comedienne by choosing film roles that require “performances locked in dreariness.” It'd be easy, but not very fair, to level a similar criticism at Jennifer Aniston, another actress who came to fame playing a beautiful young woman better known for her hairstyle than her ability to confront adversity.

Claire, Aniston's character in Cake, copes with her chronic pain with pills and wine and little else, openly, hostilely refusing all efforts to help her achieve real recovery from her largely unspecified injuries—apparently because, for reasons also largely unspecified, she doesn't think she deserves it. Instead, Claire’s dangerously enamored with suicide and possibly in the middle of a psychotic break. It's the kind of role that seems ripe for onscreen masochistic martyrdom, but had Aniston, who also acted as executive producer for the film, truly wanted to make us watch her suffer she might've insisted that her character be poor, as well.

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