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“Harry Brown,” “The Duel” and “Ghost Bird”

“Harry Brown,” “The Duel” and “Ghost Bird” (photo)

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Daniel Barber’s “Harry Brown” will provoke justifiable comparisons to 2008’s surprise hit “Gran Torino” — geezer with a past decides to clean his neighborhood of punks — but in some ways, it feels closer to that winter’s other surprise hit “Taken” — likable actor kills legions of faceless hoods.

Michael Caine is the geezer in question — a former British soldier who was stationed in Northern Ireland, now widowed and living in a rundown council estate (the UK equivalent of a housing project) that’s going to the dogs. Mild-mannered Harry minds his own business, preferring to spend time in his local pub playing chess with his friend Leonard (David Bradley), even as drug transactions and acts of senseless violence increasingly swirl around him. When Leonard is killed, Harry loses it, deciding to take justice into his own hands. And… well, he does.

04282010_MichaelCaineHarryBrown2.jpgThis is pretty straightforward vigilante justice stuff — lean, mean, but also dispiritingly disposable. There are some nice touches — if you look closely, you might notice during a fleeting cemetery scene that Harry lost his daughter at a young age.

But they’re undercut by more significant moments of craven obviousness — when Harry goes to the local drug dealer’s door for the simple transaction of buying a gun, he is, for some reason, led into the comically deranged baddie’s ghastly pot/heroin/techno/homemade-porn/nearly-dead-naked-junkie-sex-slave den. (I half expected a Rastafarian Gary Oldman to jump out from behind one of the cannabis bushes.)

All that said, I’m not sure there’s a right way to do a movie like this. I could harp on screenwriter Gary Young and director Barber’s refusal to give the young punks Harry battles any kind of humanity — but do we really want the maudlin “good-kid-almost-gone-bad” storyline of “Gran Torino”? I could take them to task for giving Harry a background fighting in Northern Ireland without addressing the loaded questions it raises about that war, but would some sob scene monologue about all the horrid things Harry had to do in his youth be any better? I could complain about the film’s refusal to address the broader social or political context of crime among British youth — but would I be happier if the film suddenly detoured into excuses about The System or whatever?

The truth is that “Harry Brown”‘s main problem is also its main asset: Caine is just too good and too real for material this nasty. He brings too much humanity and radiates too much intelligence to play a killing machine. There’s a reason Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were making these kinds of films back when Caine was doing his Thinking Man’s Spy bit in films like “The Holcroft Covenant” and “The Black Windmill.” He commands the screen, to be sure — and while that makes “Harry Brown” occasionally quite compelling, it results in a fundamental disconnect.

04282010_AntonChekhovTheDuel.jpgThe Georgian-Israeli director Dover Koshashvili directed one of 2001’s strangest and most subtly electrifying films, “Late Marriage,” about a weak-willed Israeli bachelor whose relationship with a divorced single mother wreaked havoc in his old-fashioned family. You wouldn’t immediately think of him as the ideal director for “Anton Chekhov’s The Duel,” a film based on the dramatist/storyteller’s 1891 novella.

True, Chekhov also specialized in generally unlikable protagonists — a curious feature that lent his comedies of manners a certain Olympian perspective. But one needs some warmth and humor to pull him off; as with Kafka, too many adaptations have been hamstrung by their inability to tap into the inherent humor of the source material. And “Late Marriage,” though billed as a comedy, was a strangely unforgiving piece of work.

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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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