REVIEWS THIS WEEK:
When his godmother dies, young Emilio (Jose Eduardo) goes to live with postman Teo (Jorge Galvan), taking up his duties of not just delivering mail but reading letters from children who’ve made it to El Norte. In an effort to cheer the villagers up, he changes all depressingnews (“things are very bad here”) to cheerful reports of marriages made, jobs secured and trucks bought, stoking the wrath of nasty old Soto (Jaime Jimenez Pons), who loves beating up on the kid. Melodramatic and herky-jerky, the tone of Cartas A Elena is summed up in a shot of an old man biking to rapturous music, which keeps soaring after he keels over with a heart attack. Shots and scenes start and end throughout with similarly bewildering tone-deafness. The overall message? Stay home, don’t cross over, and don’t forget to go to church. This is an immigration saga Lou Dobbs could get behind. Criticwire grade: D- [Vadim Rizov]
Opens in Los Angeles on Friday. Self-release. Watch the trailer below:
If you’re a user of Netflix Instant, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the surge in random Asian cinema that’s appeared in the last six months, which run the gamut of Chinese “What Women Want” to the Indian remake of “Memento.” Because of that, there’s an earnest charm with David Chang’s “Double Trouble,” which follows two security guards (Jaycee Chan and Xia Yu) as they try to recover a stolen 400-year old painting stolen by a BDSM-minded art thief (Vivian Dawson) and his two stiletto-heeled thugs (supermodels Jessica “C” Cambensy and Shoko). The localized first thought at this buddy-”guard” comedy is how it feels so strangely like “Rush Hour,” except the differences being between mainland China and Taiwan played out in phonetic puns and colloquialisms of left and right directions.
The scary part is how watchable it is, but so many things are liable to be lost in translation. Like how the pro-Taiwanese gang put on performances of Journey Into The West could be lost on some, yet a tour guide’s constant reference to Simon Cowell and The X-Factor remind us how global pop culture can be. And yes, Jaycee is the son of Jackie, but don’t let that be a factor. “Double Trouble” is the Chinese “Rush Hour,” which is perfectly fine. But watch a few of these on Instant first and that’ll help you decide if you’re into the Chinese popcorn comedies. Criticwire grade: B [John Lichman]
Opens Friday in New York. Released by China Lion. Watch the trailer below:
For a character whose narration makes frequent mention of those who have “watched too many American gangster movies” or who are the “perfect gangster,” the protagonist of “For the Love of Money” (along with his colleagues) seems to have forgotten that it might be unwise to pilfer money from a Colombian drug kingpin or call a hardened criminal a certain five-letter word that might challenge his manhood. Yet these particular unwise decisions serve as the only catalyzing elements in the film.
The story of Izek and Yoni (Yehuda Levi and Joshua Biton), two friends from Tel Aviv who escape professional thugs in their home country only to encounter more of the same in Los Angeles, is based on a pair of real-life immigrants from the 1970s. But rather than using their story for a cohesive arc from the film’s beginning to end, the film plays out more like a series of vignettes of misfortune and quick resolution, all of which seem like a prologue to a greater conflict that never fully manifests.
Because most of the more interesting felony-prone characters get removed from the action in particularly violent ways, it becomes the story of Izek, whose successes and lucky escapes are largely in part to action that happens off screen. Even though the real Izek managed to escape many of these situations, the only attributes that seem to help the film version are pure intentions and fortunate intervention. The film never really addresses the aspects of the time period or of Izek and Yoni’s Jewish heritage that would add depth to a familiar story, but the usual elements of an escape-from-the-mob tale that have been honed in other films are executed effectively here. Like the soundtrack that backs so many of its scenes, the film may not be covering fresh territory, but it inhabits its area well. Criticwire grade: C+ [Steve Greene]
Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by Archstone Distribution. Watch the trailer below:
“Lola Versus” is directed by Daryl Wein and co-written by his partner Zoe Lister-Jones, but the its real auteur is Greta Gerwig. The actress plays the title character as if her career depended on it — which it doesn’t, but the movie does. Gerwig singlehanded carries this blithe, generally forgettable story of a neurotic New Yorker dealing with a botched engagement by applying an energy unworthy of the material.
Wein and Lister-Jones have also moved beyond the microbudget realm. “Lola Versus” is their first studio project following “Breaking Upwards,” an intriguing look at a couple (portrayed by the writing duo) attempting to break up in systematic fashion. The new movie takes the opposite approach by pulling the rug out from Lola’s feet in the credits sequence: After going through the motions planning a wedding with her longtime boyfriend Luke (Joel Kinnaman), Lola comes home to find that him pining for bachelorhood. Gerwig inhabits the character with a raw uneasiness that makes the market standard for romantic comedies look downright meek. Unfortunately, nothing else in “Lola Versus” keeps pace. With its blasé resolution and a tidy lineup of sitcom-ready characters, the best thing one can say about “Lola Versus” is that it successfully underwhelms. Criticwire grade: B- [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed on April 6. Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Fox Searchlight. Watch the trailer below:
Calvin Lee Reeder has been churning out intensely psychedelic short films for several years, borrowing liberally from vintage grindhouse movies while turning the genre on its head. Unsurprisingly, “The Oregonian,” Reeder’s first feature-length project, extends this bizarre stylistic proclivity, although the director’s familiar approach doesn’t make this zany midnight movie any less delectably strange.
The story of sorts opens with a woman (Reeder regular Lindsay Pulsipher) waking up in front of the wheel of her car in the immediate aftermath of a car accident. From that alarming opener, “The Oregonian” proceeds into an increasingly disturbing experimental narrative. The woman copes with visions of a demonic old woman in red, whose elusive appearance might have something to do with the wandering crash survivor’s murky past. Later, she hitches a ride from a mute stranger who unleashes red and black urine at a pit stop. Reeder excels at creating an organic drift between these scenes, exploring subconscious associations and hideous encounters with morbid events disassociated from any discernible context. The director nails the psychological thrills of the former and the random, batshit insane development of the latter. But at this early stage of his career, Reeder seems ironically frightened by the prospects of telling a coherent story. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed January 28, 2011. Opens Friday at the reRun Gastropub in New York. Released by Factory 25. Watch the trailer below:
When Stephen Kessler first sees his documentary subject in the flesh, he calls songwriter Paul Williams “my friend from the television.” In the 1970s, Williams had radio hits (“We’ve Only Just Begun”) and popular movie songs (“The Rainbow Connection”), but it was on television that the famously diminutive musician became larger than life, especially as court jester to Johnny Carson’s king of late night. Kessler makes excellent use of these TV appearances, from the highs (winning an Oscar for “Evergreen”) to the lows (strung out while guest hosting “Merv”), and “Paul Williams: Still Alive” works as a career retrospective. But it’s primarily a fan’s journey: Kessler’s gawky, endearing attempt to reconcile his childhood idol with the sober, challenging man whose life he’s observing. Williams is forthright about how alcohol and drugs affected his life and career. Kessler takes longer to explore the addiction to fame, particularly the hero-worship that both drives and debilitates him. Criticwire grade: A- [Serena Donadoni]
Opens June 8 in New York and June 22 in Los Angeles. Released by Abramorama. Watch the trailer below:
With “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding,” director Bruce Beresford returns to the comedic family dysfunction of “Crimes of the Heart” and “Rich in Love,” albeit without Beth Henley or Alfred Uhry. First time screenwriters Christina Mengert and Joseph Muszynski create a host of stereotypes, providing each with a distinctive lingo: effusive hippie Grace (Jane Fonda) recites mystical platitudes; her uptight conservative daughter Diane (Catherine Keener) uses a clipped cadence; and outspoken vegan granddaughter Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) cloaks experience in academic jargon. The characters talk at each other, but Fonda, Keener and Olsen keep the film from completely sinking into sitcom didacticism. They’re believable as a family whereas Zoe’s geeky brother Jake (Nat Wolff) functions as comic relief and plot device. When Diane drags her kids from Manhattan to her estranged mother’s house in Woodstock, it’s clear that wish fulfillment is in store for one and all. Just drive upstate, where scenic beauty and blissful romance await. Criticwire grade: C [Serena Donadoni]
Opens June 8 in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle and 18 other markets. VOD is available on June 15. Released by IFC Films.
It’s probably unfair to describe “Safety Not Guaranteed” as “Back to the Future” by way of “Juno,” as it certainly sets the bar too high. But in terms of entertainment value and tone, the shoe fits. Colin Trevorrow’s good-natured romantic comedy takes a handful of characters facing familiar conundrums — loneliness, family problems, the desire to follow your passion no matter how absurd it may seem — and sustains them with solid performances and impeccable good vibes. It’s the rare case of endearing quirkiness.
Derek Connolly’s screenplay takes as its starting point a famous advertisement placed by a man seeking a time traveling companion (“Safety not guaranteed” capped off the request), but there’s nothing truly science fiction about the plot. Instead, “Safety Not Guaranteed” follows Seattle magazine journalist Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and his interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni) as they investigate the peculiar Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who placed the ad.
Plaza takes center stage as a sad, confused college grad singled out to seduce Kenneth for the sake of the story, but drawn to his curious interest in a seemingly impossible task. Their unlikely courtship turns “Safety Not Guaranteed” into an allegorical romance that never overreaches, and only suffers from the half-formed character types surrounding its core relationship. Plaza’s frustrations remain wholly believable, as does her attraction to Kenneth. As Jeff puts it, “your weird mojo clicked with his weird mojo.” Likewise, the weird mojo of “Safety Not Guaranteed” clicks with its original premise. [Eric Kohn] Criticwire grade: B+
Originally reviewed January 25, 2011. Opens Friday in several cities. Released by FilmDistrict. Watch the trailer below: