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Opening This Week: This year’s ’60s music biopic, Ron Howard’s Oscar bid and one last superhero movie

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12012008_theblackballoon.jpgBy Neil Pedley

Providing the requisite stopgap between showy Thanksgiving distractions and award season stragglers, female directors and assorted indie debutantes are making a strong showing this week.

“The Black Balloon”
‘What’s Eating Elissa Down?’ is the question to ask as the award-winning director of Aussie shorts makes the jump to features with this semi-autobiographical tale of a frustrated adolescent on the verge of manhood weighed down by his responsibilities to his autistic younger brother. Daytime soap star Rhys Wakefield takes the role of the Gilbert Grape-esque Thomas, a burdened army brat charged with his brother’s care while his parents drag the two up and down the country until he meets Jackie, a free spirit who teaches him how to shed his bitterness. The always impressive Toni Collette anchors this teenage ensemble as the boy’s mother, Maggie. Luke Ford and Gemma Ward co-star.
Opens in New York and Los Angeles.

“Cadillac Records”
These days, it’s safe to assume that an Oscar season without a music industry biopic set circa 1960 can be taken as one of the signs (along with an indie film winning a golden guy for anything besides best screenplay) of the coming apocalypse. Making us safe (at least for this year) is writer/director Darnell Martin’s portrait of hugely influential record executive Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) and his Chicago blues label, Chess Records. While Chess was also the subject of the recent Toronto Fest entry, “Who Do You Love,” with Alessandro Nivola playing the famed producer, Martin’s film focuses less exclusively on Chess and finds time to pay homage to some of the great musicians who helped put him over the top, including the likes of Muddy Waters (Jeffery Wright), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and soul icon Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles).
Opens wide.

Malaysian-born filmmaker Yen Tan directs this tale of love and mourning about a man who receives a visit from his best friend’s Italian boyfriend, whom he’d met and only known online, a few days after that friend’s death.
Opens in New York.

At a time when 24/7 cable news networks and the Internet have rendered political scandal as almost passé, leave it to director Ron Howard to transport us back to a time when the country was still innocent enough to be shocked. In an adaptation by “The Queen” scribe Peter Morgan from his own stage play, Howard recreates the infamous 1977 televised face-off between two titanic egos. Fresh off a Tony win for playing the disgraced but prideful former president, Frank Langella reprises his turn as Richard Nixon alongside his stage adversary Michael Sheen as David Frost, the wily, opportunistic British broadcaster who brings him down.
Opens in limited release; opens wide on December 25th.

With a big question mark still hanging over the future of Guantánamo Bay, British helmer Steve McQueen’s poignant debut is a timely reminder of the harrowing story of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker who starved himself to death in a British prison in 1981 in protest of the denial of his political status. In an unflinching retelling of one of Britain’s most shameful hours, McQueen chronicles the rampant prisoner abuse and widespread political apathy that caused Sands (Michael Fassbender) and nine other prisoners to sacrifice themselves to bring light to the desperate hopelessness of their situation.
Opens in Los Angeles for a one week Oscar-qualifying run; opens in limited release on March 20th.

“Let Them Chirp Awhile”
There’s an unwritten law in the script business (Hey! Pun!) that every struggling young screenwriter must churn out at least one script about a struggling young screenwriter (after all, a slightly older Charlie Kaufman got an Oscar nom for it). Choosing to get his out of the way early, writer/director Jonathan Blitstein debuts with the dilemma of Bobby (Justin Rice), an aspiring Dalton Trumbo who realizes he’s too terrified to get a real job and too happy to be a tortured artist. While sweating out his latest script, Bobby gets caught up in a blackmail scheme involving his best friend (Brendan Sexton III) and a pompous theater director (Zach Galligan — Billy from “Gremlins”! One-time blogger!) — who wants to steal Bobby’s ideas for his own play.
Opens in New York; opens in Chicago on December 12th.

“Local Color”
Before entering into a successful career of writing buddy action comedies such as “Midnight Run” and “Bad Boys,” George Gallo was an aspiring painter, an experience that is the basis for this latest life-affirming, coming-of-age offering. Financed entirely on the goodwill of his friends, Gallo’s autobiographical story stars “Off the Black”‘s Trevor Morgan as John, a headstrong teen with a talent for the brush who tracks down an eccentric artist (Armin Mueller Stahl) at his idyllic Pennsylvania retreat in order to pester him for an apprenticeship and a few life lessons. Samantha Mathis, Ray Liotta, Ron Perlman, Charles Durning and Diana Scarwid co-star; check your cynicism at the (screen) door.
Opens in limited release.

“Nobel Son”
Following their feel-good underdog comedy “Bottle Shock,” Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman and Eliza Dushku reunite with husband and wife writer/director team Randall Miller and Jody Savin for this darkly sardonic kidnap caper. Rickman delivers another trademark Grumpy Gus performance as Eli Michaelson, a self-absorbed Nobel Prize-winning chemist whose newfound notoriety leads to unwelcome knocks on his closet crammed with skeletons. Armed with only his unflappable narcissism, Michaelson must juggle a host of enemies with their eyes fixed on his $2 million in prize money, including his blackmail-minded students and the kidnappers of his only son (Brian Greenberg), while fending off the suspicions of his forensic detective wife (Mary Steenburgen) and her partner (Pullman).
Opens in limited release.

“Punisher: War Zone”
Hit-and-miss factory Marvel Studios proves once again that while they might be able to put together a digital fireworks show to compete with the best of them, their so-called “darker characters” have all the psychological complexity of an emo kid’s Halloween costume. After the universally panned Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane editions, Ray Stevenson slips into the skull-emblazoned T-shirt of psychotic vigilante Frank Castle for The Punisher’s third go-round on the big screen. With the cheery disposition of the Terminator and a fraction of the personality, Castle turns his guns on Dominic West’s mob boss Jigsaw under the direction of Lexi Alexander, the “Green Street Hooligans” director and a former world champion in both kickboxing and karate, who hopefully knows how to stage an action sequence or two. Otherwise, this could be a late but worthy contender for worst film of 2008.
Opens wide.

[Photo: “The Black Balloon,” NeoClassics Films, 2008]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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