This weekly column is intended to provide reviews of nearly every new indie release, including films on VOD. Specific release dates and locations follow each review.
REVIEWS THIS WEEK:
Director Tom Morris was born after John Hughes made his suburban teen comedies, but he adopts a Hughesian view of high school for his feature debut, “General Education.” Promising tennis player Levi Collins (Chris Sheffield) chooses the court over a final presentation, gaining an athletic scholarship to his father’s alma mater, but flunking science. Levi opts not to tell his parents that he failed to graduate and attends summer school on the sly – all ten days of it. On a technical level, “General Education” is an accomplished indie, with crisp widescreen images and some standout performances (Janeane Garofalo immerses herself in quiet desperation as Levi’s neglected mom). What screenwriters Morris, Elliot Feld and Jaz Kalkat fail to build is dramatic tension: affable, extremely self-involved Levi easily skates around all obstacles. Their most baffling decision is creating a barefoot, black 13-year-old as Levi’s servile “sidekick.” Precocious yet immature, Charles (Skylan Brooks) seems poised to dive into the adolescent angst of Hughes’s marginalized teens, leaving the bland, entitled Levi in his wake. Criticwire grade: C+ [Serena Donadoni]
Opens Friday at Cinema Village in New York, and available as VOD on iTunes. Released by Pelican House Productions.
The freewheeling “Hit & Run” is a throwback to car chase movies of the 1970s, when relationships were forged on the road. Charlie Bronson (Dax Shepard) decides to drive girlfriend Annie Bean (Kristen Bell) from central California to Los Angeles in his souped-up 1967 Lincoln Continental. (The film celebrates Detroit muscle, both vintage and new.) She’s heading for a new future (an academic dream job) while he’s transported into the past. Unbeknownst to Annie, Charlie’s in the witness protection program, and their romance hits a sizable speed bump when the hot rodder reveals his criminal history. Soon friends (Tom Arnold’s needy, accident-prone U.S. Marshall) and foes (Bradley Cooper’s vicious, dreadlocked bank robber) are on their trail, and “Hit & Run” zooms by like a screwball comedy version of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Getaway.” Shepard wrote the script and co-directed with David Palmer (“Brother’s Justice”), constructing an ideal vehicle for the real-life couple’s spirited banter. Even when some of humor sputters, Bell and Shepard are firing on all cylinders. Criticwire grade: B+ [Serena Donadoni]
Opened wide on Wednesday, August 22. Released by Open Road Films.
Awarded the FIPRESCI prize after it premiered at Rotterdam, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s “Neighbouring Sounds” explores with acute circumspection a soon-to-be-gated community in the Brazilian town of Recife. When a private security firm arrives to offer its (dis)services in a middle class urban enclave, the sinister spectres of suspicion and mistrust come forth. The director convincingly conveys an evasive social mosaic where any civic contact is a potential confrontation and even a love story raises a fastidious sense of scepticism. Housewives get off on domestic appliances; fear is the ultimate community enforcer as the household becomes a fortress of solitude to be defended from any external intrusion. Mendonça Filho’s debut feature displays an uncommon ability in registering the equivocal nuances of paranoia and making them visible to the spectator. It’s a psycho-surveillance thriller about the benign dystopia of gentrification and its crime-free ghettoes in which the middle class is imprisoning itself. Criticwire grade: B+ [Celluloid Liberation Front]
Opens Friday at IFC Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York.
Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t go right on living. Take this bizarre, green-vomit-filled horror-comedy by director Kerry Prior, in which a United States soldier, Bart (David Anders) is killed in an ambush in Iraq, but rises from the dead back home in Los Angeles. He’s a vampire (technically a “revenant,” which comes from a French word meaning “to return”) and is able to function in society as long as he covers his colorless eyes with sunglasses and drinks lots of fresh human blood that he and his best pal (Chris Wylde) rob from lowlifes on the street. The blood also keeps Bart’s decaying body from stinking like hell and even allows him to get in some sack time with his financée.
“Revenant,” which was made in 2009 but is only now getting a theatrical release, has sickly funny moments, like a raid on a hospital blood bank and an encounter between a severed head and a dildo. But the story is familiar, recalling “Shaun of the Dead,” “Fido” and any number of other undead flicks. Bart is killed because he violated army rules and stopped to help a boy he thought had been injured. But the issue is immediately dropped and never developed, botching the film’s one chance to do something different. Criticwire grade: B [V.A. Musetto].
Opens Friday in New York, with a national release to follow. Also available via VOD. Distributed by Lightning Entertainment.
“Sleepwalk With Me” is based on writer-director Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show; on those terms, the standup comedian-turned-filmmaker has made a respectable debut. With the help of producer and co-writer Ira Glass (NPR’s “This American Life”), Birbiglia chronicles his struggle to find work as an aspiring comedian while fending off mysterious somnambulistic tendencies. The movie has no distinctive style despite oodles of charm, but Birbiglia’s perspective carries it along.
Unlike many chatty comedians with a tendency to share their personal lives, Birbiglia is the opposite of a narcissist, with a tendency to sound mopey rather than aggressive. That passivity makes it hard to absorb the comedian’s problems without focusing on his pathetic nature. However, his congeniality ultimately makes him an object of sympathy and thus a more reliable narrator than many comedians-turned-actors.
The narrative is structured around a series would-be crises Birbiglia must overcome: He wonders if he should marry his girlfriend or take a break to sleep with other people. This storytelling isn’t particularly intriguing, but Birbiglia’s charisma carries them with a personable brand of self-deprecation. That could make “Sleepwalk With Me” unbearable if it weren’t for Birbiglia’s sincere, levelheaded voice and a sense of humor that truly comes to life during his inexplicable sleepwalking episodes. No matter how troublesome Birbiglia’s behavior gets, he’s never a burden, which makes “Sleepwalk With Me” into the ideal advertisement for his live performances. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed on January 30, 2012. Opens Friday in New York at IFC Center and in several cities beginning August 31st. Distributed by IFC Films.
Chronicling the lives of four Chinese-born, American-adopted teenage girls, Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s doc Somewhere Between communicates something of the experience of dual nationality, being fully Americanized, but feeling the pull of your homeland. All abandoned by their birth parents because they weren’t born male, the central quartet show off their U.S.-based lives, which range from Berkeley privilege to Bible-Bet godliness. While the subjects successfully articulate their feeling of split identity – and one harrowingly recalls the vividly-remembered experience of being abandoned on the roadside – the film trades far too heavily in manufactured dramatic payoff. Thus, one girl’s reunion with the family that abandoned her is played too much for tear-streaked (and surprisingly non-bitter) redemption, while a young American couple’s decision to adopt a handicapped Chinese child is awash in overly triumphant bathos. Criticwire grade: C+ [Andrew Schenker]
Opens Friday in New York at IFC Center and in assorted cities beginning September 14th.
There’s nothing fresh about the premise of a grown single man living at home with his mother, but Danish director Mads Matthiesen’s first feature, “Teddy Bear,” has a unique strategy for rejuvenating the formula. Its lead, real-life bodybuilder Kim Kold, is a hulking mass of biceps and bulging veins. Physically, he dominates the room; emotionally, he’s a delicate flower.
Matthiesen, also the film’s screenwriter, establishes Dennis’ world with a quiet, gentle touch that relies less on dialogue — since Dennis rarely has the courage to speak up — than on the tension between the character’s massive appearance and the world that constantly alienates him. The scenes where Dennis finally manages to find his groove are respectably bittersweet, but they also hold back the material: When it settles into the story of a budding relationship, “Teddy Bear” strains from predictability and gets locked into a formulaic holding pattern.
While Kold’s distant gaze nicely conveys Dennis’ downbeat state, his physicality becomes the movie’s true centerpiece. A gigantic physique hides the fragile man beneath and Matthiesen ably follows the journey of that persona as it tunnels through mounds of muscle to reach the surface. In essence, the lion finds his courage. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed on January 22, 2012. Opened in New York on Wednesday and opens in Miami on Friday. Distributed by Film Movement.