This weekly column is intended to provide reviews of nearly every new indie release, including films on VOD. Specifics release dates and locations follow each review.
REVIEWS THIS WEEK:
Those unfamiliar with the provocative and polemical artwork of Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei may confuse the portly, bearded man for a tranquil sage. But as documentarian Alison Klayman's comprehensive portrait makes clear, Ai's charming exterior is merely a deceptive vessel for radical creativity. An established name in fine art circles for years, Ai's installation art, photography and experimental documentaries has grown increasingly critical of the Chinese government in the more recent stages of his career, a decision that has resulted in his frequent incarceration. He assaults censorship and negligence alike — neither the country's meager response to the earthquake nor nosey cops escape his judgement. More than an artist, he has become the country's preeminent voice of individualism.
Klayman follows Ai through various assaults on the Chinese Communist Party, allowing his caustic and often quite humorous approach to speak for itself: When Shanghai politicians decide to knock down his studio, for example, Ai throws a party among the ruins. Klayman's filmmaking is largely unobtrusive, but it develops an inherent tension as the stakes of Ai's activism grow increasingly clear and culminate with a police assault. Recently released from jail, Ai's full story remains to be told, but "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" competently summarizes his lasting relevance, regardless of what may happen next. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday in New York, San Francisco and Washington, DC. Released by Sundance Selects.
Swedish documentary filmmaker Fredrik Gertten was in his Malmö office preparing for the premiere of “Bananas!*” at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival when he received a thick package of papers. Producer Margarete Jangård joined Gertten and they began reading the lengthy cease and desist order from a Dole Food Company attorney. It was the first drop in a deluge. “Bananas!*” explores the effects of the pesticide DBCP on Nicaraguan plantation workers, and follows the American lawyers who successfully sued Dole on their behalf. But when a flamboyant attorney for the bananeros was charged with fraud, further lawsuits were put on hold. This allowed Dole to question both the veracity of “Bananas!*” and Gertten’s motives, effectively changing the narrative from corporate malfeasance to media irresponsibility. Missives from Dole and their PR firm flooded the inboxes of everyone from the LAFF (which removed the film from competition) to Swedish journalists and members of parliament. Frustration, fear and anger are palpable throughout “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*” even though Fredrik Gertten approaches the heated rhetoric with a cool head. He focuses squarely on the byzantine legal battle and astutely dissects the aggressive tactics that delayed the U.S. release of “Bananas!*” for nearly two years. The incisive “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*” defines victory as finally being heard amid the deafening cacophony of corporate spin. Criticwire grade: A [Serena Donadoni]
Opens Friday at the Quad Cinema in New York, and August 3 in Los Angeles. Released by WG Film.
Channeling both what we fear about global catastrophe and what we know about anything-for-a-buck pharmaceutical companies, Park Jung-woo’s "Deranged" turns its panicked gaze on a contagion consuming South Korea. Moving between the personal (the film’s hero is a beleaguered patriarch in professional servitude to big pharma) and the national, Park’s film sustains a fevered, frenzied pace which the director punctuates with memorable gross-out imagery such as the disease-causing spaghetti-like horsehair worms slithering out of their victims’ mouths. It’s an intensity the director can’t properly sustain over the course of the film’s nearly two hours. But despite a slightly sagging final act that gives way to creaky conspiracies and a tad too much easy sentimentality, Park’s movie marks a highly watchable, if hardly revelatory, addition to the outbreak film, falling somewhere between Elia Kazan’s semi-classic "Panic in the Streets" and Steven Soderbergh’s wholly superfluous "Contagion." Criticwire grade: B- [Andrew Schenker]
Opens Friday in several cities. Released by CJ Entertainment.
Any baseball movie that can feature a detailed explanation of the “infield fly rule,” rather than use it as a cheap joke prodding at the denser side of the sport’s strategy, deserves some credit. Unfortunately, many of the trajectories of the central characters involved more closely resemble ground balls to third base rather than towering, opposite field blasts. Matthew Lillard and Dean Cain’s feuding brother characters have ball-busting back-and-forths early on in the film that seem natural enough, but their reasons for wanting to outdo each other quickly become muddled and, by the end of the film, just plain petty. Their arguments take the form of games between rival little league teams, featuring a stock set of grade school misfits (including the kid who wears his jock strap outside his pants for tryouts). A stunted political subplot that only garners cursory acknowledgment is another strand that contributes to the narrative’s constant reshuffling. One of the film’s redeeming qualities is any scene where Lillard’s Joey is allowed to be a caring individual, a role that he inhabits with true sincerity. But with the pint-sized ballplayers, an undercooked romance and a cartoonish league commissioner taking their share of the attention, the result is a sports story that’s unfocused and largely aloof. Criticwire grade: D+ [Steve Greene]
Opens Friday in several cities. Distributed by Secret Handshake Films.
Returning to Tracy Letts' depraved universe with an adaptation of his 1993 crime-tinged play "Killer Joe," Friedkin has crafted another enjoyable slice of frenzied pulp minimalism. The entire movie revolves around four characters, none of whom are particularly likable or morally adept. With an eye for gritty, shameless fun, Friedkin unleashes the play's guilty pleasure center. Friedkin holds nothing back, but it's Letts' rambunctious plotting that enables the director to chart a path to the wild climax.
Even as the outrageous material and hyper-pulpy script are made palatable by the theatrical nature of the screenplay, it's tightknit cast that makes "Killer Joe" click more than anything else, their dedicated to the ridiculous task at hand on constant display. Emile Hirsch plays a wild-eyed backcountry cliché whose tough guy ambitions are frozen in place by Matthew McConaughey's cool-headed demeanor. For much of the time, "Killer Joe" plays like a low rent crime saga from the Coen brothers template without the complex cinematic vision, and yet even then it maintains a certain grindhouse-caliber thrill factor. Amusingly devoted to the mad energy at its core, "Killer Joe" ends with an outright ludicrous barrage of developments, but considering everything that came before, the destination is both inevitable and welcome. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed September 15, 2011. Opens Friday in New York. Distributed by LD Entertainment.
"Klown" features standup comics Frank Hvan and Caspar Christensen as fictionalized versions of themselves. In the opening scene, Hvan discovers through a friend that his girlfriend is pregnant, leading to a difficult conversation where she implies he might be unfit for fatherhood. Starting with an early scene where Frank inadvertently ejaculates on his mother-in-law (long story), Nørgaard makes it clear that "Klown" has no intention holding anything back. Caspar's treatise on "man-flirting" to get what he wants leads to a dicey sexual encounter only topped by the moment where he goads Frank into participating in a threesome with a reluctantly invasive finger. Frank's look of hesitation turns an unabashedly sophomoric yuk into great slapstick. For American audiences, each gag has added appeal because it contains an uneasy humor that's often explored but never fully exploited in these parts.
On the surface, "Klown" is familiar stuff: Frank keeps making wrongheaded attempts to man up and become the responsible person his girlfriend doesn't believe exists. Still, where most comedies of this sort might wind toward a neat conclusion, "Klown" constantly veers off-path and careens toward chaos, with moments of apparent tidiness used merely to emphasize the next inevitable fuck up. Because Frank can do no right, "Klown" does a lot of it. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed September 28, 2011. Opens Friday in Los Angeles, New York and Austin and on VOD. Distributed by Drafthouse Films.
One may initially object to the world of "Ruby Sparks" simply because its solemn leading man uses a typewriter. "Ruby Sparks," however, uses the antiquated prop to render its flighty high concept in material terms: When neurotic author Calvin (Dano) writes about the titular smiling young woman he sees in his dreams, he's stunned to find that she not only comes to life but behaves entirely in accordance with whatever he writes. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris frame the scenario in breezy terms but keep its provocative ramifications in play, particularly once they reach a tragic extreme that forces Calvin to confront the psychological hangups at root of Ruby's construction. "Ruby Sparks" remains connected to the real world, or at least the gulf between the real world and Calvin's version of it, where he's marooned for most of the movie.
Co-star Zoe Kazan, meanwhile, has written material for herself that allows her to show plenty of range. She mocks the manic-pixie-dreamgirl cliché (to those who despise that phrase, I'm sorry, but it definitely applies here in the service of irony) that her wide-eyed hipster performances could invite if she chose the wrong project. Instead, with movies like "The Exploding Girl," Kazan has shown cracks in that image. "Ruby Sparks" goes one step further by deconstructing it. Despite taking the form of a cautionary tale about romance, then, the success of "Ruby Sparks" makes it a testament to the possibility that not every love story is a fantasy on the brink of destruction. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed July 23, 2012. In theaters now. Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
A return to form for Chen Kaige, the Chinese filmmaker who scored big with "Farewell My Concubine" (1993) and "The Emperor and the Assassin" (1999), both featuring the great Gong Li. She's not in "Sacrifice," but the action epic, set in 5th Century China, is a winner nonetheless. A wicked general has all 300 members of the rival Zhao dynasty killed, but misses a just-born boy, who is spirited away by the village doctor who delivered him. The doctor even sacrifices the lives of his own wife and son to save the royal infant. But he vows revenge. The plot sometimes becomes dense and sentimental, but that doesn't lessen the film's visual flair. The superbly choreographed fight scenes include one in which Zhao tries to escape in a chariot that has only three wheels — the fourth side is held up by a servant running alongside. The acting is strong and the sets and costumes lush. Criticwire grade: B+ [V.A. Musetto]
Opening Friday in New York and Los Angeles and on video on demand. Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
When 1970s Mexican-American singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez faded from view, he'd never had much visibility in the first place. However, "Searching for Sugar Man," documentarian Malik Bendjelloul's remarkable chronicle of Rodriguez's neglect on his home turf and unexpected stardom in South Africa, compellingly argues for his place in the canon of great American rock stars, whether or not he wants the spot. It's the South African context that gives "Searching for Sugar Man" its meatiest hook. For a quarter of a century — unbeknownst to most Americans, including Rodriguez's original producers — the singer landed a massive following in the country where his humanitarian outlook provided an escape for many disgruntled youth struggling under apartheid, elevating him to the stature of a "South African Elvis."
The director makes a convincing case for Rodriguez as a phantom rock star, no less valid in its iconoclastic value than Bob Dylan, but never validated by the marketplace. "Rodriguez, as far as I'm concerned, never happened," a former producer sighs, but the truth is more spectacular: Rodriguez simply made peace with his professional failings, gaining popularity without the aid of industrial forces. His heroism happened by accident. Bendjelloul intersperses talking heads and concert footage with shots of Rodriguez — who looks like a cross between David Carradine and Michael Jackson but sounds like Dylan by way of Johnny Cash — walking through his Detroit streets with no particular destination. That ambiguity is the film's central flaw: His mission and personal desires never satisfactorily addressed, Rodriguez inhabits a complicated world that the filmmaker doesn't unravel. Still, that should not be considered a knock against the feel-good vibes that the movie establishes with the same enthusiasm that distinguishes Rodriguez's musical talent. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed January 20, 2012. Opening Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.