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:
Whatever possessed three of Britain's most talented actors (Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law and Rachel Weisz) to join the ensemble cast of this discombobulated drama? Whatever the reason, the result is embarrassing. Another in a long line of variants on Arthur Schnitzler's 1897 play "La Ronde,'' the film, directed by Brazilian Fernando Meirelles ("City of God"), jumps from Vienna to London to Paris to Colorado as it follows a collection of loosely connected people with one thing on their minds: sex. Hopkins plays a father searching for his missing daughter, whom he fears is dead; Law is a British businessman who sets up a Vienna hotel date with a hooker while his wife (Weisz) is home having sex with her photographer boyfriend. A convicted sex offender (Ben Foster) joins the mix. The script overflows with unbelievable coincidences and the characters remain underdeveloped. Criticwire grade: C- [V.A. Musetto]
Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Also available on VOD. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
When persons of interest start dropping dead across Bulgaria, former FBI man Robert Diggs (Christian Slater) is called in to help identify the killer who’s responsible. But even before Diggs joins the investigation, the groundwork is set for a film that swings wildly in a handful of directions while never quite sure what to make of any of them. Donald Sutherland plays a U.S. ambassador who assigns Diggs to the case (complete with a visual nod to his “JFK” role) and Timothy Spall joins as a psychiatrist who's unsettling from the first frame he’s shown. Eventually, Diggs finds a love interest, a mysterious nightclub dancer who sparks mutual fascination for no other reason than exotic necessity. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t have the same energy as the few combat scenes, a lack of vibrancy that comes from storytelling that deals with its different threads as separate movies entirely, rather than elements that can be woven together. Much like one might expect from a mid-grade CBS crime procedural with a similar sheen, the identity of the assassin is continuously in flux, even after a late-film twist that feels more like an intrigue stack-up than a skillful reveal. The film’s central mystery is meant to be continuously reevaluated, but it’s hard not to imagine that those telling us the story don’t have a clear conception of what information is vital either. Criticwire grade: D+ [Steve Greene]
Opens Friday in several cities, including New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans and San Diego. Distributed by ARC Entertainment.
Despite an early montage during which the two make increasingly outrageous public attempts to do so, Tommy and Audrey (Paul Schneider and Olivia Munn) are having difficulty conceiving a child. While director Jay Chandrasekhar helps establish a believable couple, the surrounding elements feel relatively hollow. As it becomes clear that Tommy’s reproductive abilities are to blame for Audrey’s lack of a pregnancy, hardly any of the characters discuss the prospect of parenthood with any sense of responsibility, instead using it as an opportunity for a tiresome parade of juvenile euphemisms. When, out of narrative necessity, Tommy’s friends take center stage in the film’s second half, Audrey loses focus and gets shifted to the periphery, wasting Munn’s ability to bring depth to a thin role. What marginalizes most of the film’s strengths is that there are very few sequences during which the crux of the conversation isn’t about the ineptitude of Tommy’s sperm. With the relentlessness of the film’s central conceit, it ends up rendering any other development inconsequential. It’s a shame that Munn’s performance (along with Chandrasekhar’s in a decidedly more goofy turn) isn't at the heart of a film that gives it more room to breathe. Criticwire grade: C- [Steve Greene]
Opens Friday in several cities and on VOD. Distributed by Millennium Entertainment.
By the time we meet Celeste (Rashida Jones, who also has a writing credit) and Jesse (Andy Samberg), they have already decided to get divorced. Despite this decision, they carry on with their lives together under the cheery delusion that they have managed to evade heartbreak completely. Instead, they exist in pure denial, with Jesse living in the backyard shed of their former abode but remaining an inextricable part of his former high school sweetheart's life.
The tension must break, and when it does, "Celeste and Jesse" meanders in search of a mature, semi-dramatic treatment of the scenario despite its sitcom-ready guise. That's an admirable mission that flails too often to hold together. But Jones' dedication to the role frequently rises above the subpar material, even as Samberg inhabits less inspired turf (the question of his dramatic prospects are not answered here). Director Lee Toland Krieger gives the movie a polished touch that keeps the proceedings watchable until the bombardment of clichés begins. When the couple begins seeing other people, the climactic fallout hits familiar notes so hard that their effect is deafeningly familiar. The whole thing is a step above studio romantic comedies, but that's not saying much. Criticwire grade: B- [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
"If you took a snapshot of America today, what would it look like?" muses director Joseph Garner at the beginning of "Craigslist Joe." Setting out to find an answer with "only" an iPhone, laptop, backpack, a few shirts and a cameraman, Garner gives himself 30 days to live solely off the kindness of Craigslist strangers. Surely for reasons totally unrelated to mild curiosity about being in a movie, the people duly respond as Garner treks from California to New York and back again, demonstrating once and for all that technology is good for the soul and that America remains a non-threatening playground for traveling wayfarers carrying expensive technology. Inane and anodyne encounters with (largely) assorted bros suddenly curdle into the totally exploitative when Garner meets up with actress Fran McGee: once a bit player in 'Home Alone 2,' now a hoarder with clearly serious undiagnosed issues. If the rest of the movie's merely a stupid, endless assemblage of bromides about the kindness of strangers, this segment alone renders "Craigslist Joe" totally unpalatable, stock jangly indie soundtrack and all. Criticwire grade: F [Vadim Rizov]
Opens Friday in Los Angeles. Additional screenings to follow in several cities via Tugg.
The sort of unsolved mystery that begs for Errol Morris treatment (if not by the man himself then by any of the countless documentarians inspired by his approach), "Dreams of a Life" most certainly relishes the possibilities of its central enigma. Unfortunately, director Carol Morley's investigation into the seemingly humble world of the late Joyce Vincent, who died in front of her television in her North London flat in 2003 but wasn't discovered by authorities until three years later, does little to make the case for unearthing the details behind its subject's odd fate. Instead, through a mash-up of interviews with Vincent's former friends and family, Morley makes a cogent case for why the woman was neglected: Nobody cared too much about her in the first place. That point is made emphatically to solemn effect in a rash of talking heads, but otherwise "Dreams of a Life" unintentionally amounts to a mean-spirited snooze. Criticwire grade: C- [Eric Kohn]
Pip Chodorov packs a lot of information and love into his 82-minute documentary, a well-made introduction to avant-garde cinema that also can serve as a refresher course for viewers already versed in the genre. Experimental movies have been around for as long as film itself, Chodorov says, but the earliest ones that still exist were made at the close of World War I. Highlights of this doc are "Ghosts Before Breakfast," made in 1928 by German-born Hans Richter, in which bowler hats go wild, and a 1973 interview with Richter, when he was 85. (He died in 1976.) Ken Jacobs, Peter Kubelka, Robert Breer, Stan Brakhage and other "poets of cinema" also have their say. And, of course, we hear from Jonas Mekas, "the godfather of experimental movies." Appropriately, this documentary is unreeling (Aug. 3-9) at the Anthology Film Archives in the East Village, which Mekas co-founded and heads. Criticwire grade: A [V.A. Musetto]
Opens Friday in New York.
Idealistic Aaron (Rhydian Vaughan), introverted Liam (Joseph Chang) and opportunistic Mabel (Lun-Mei Gwei) are high school misfits bound together by attraction, rebellion and subversion. It’s 1985 in rural southern Taiwan and martial law has been in effect their entire lives. Mabel easily games the system while Aaron chafes under its restrictions. Quiet, closeted Liam supports their acts of defiance and watches the two people he loves the most become a couple. Five years later in Taipei, Aaron emerges as a leader in the Wild Lily student movement and their devotion begins to wane. But the real heartbreak comes when writer and director Ya-Che Yang envisions them as compromised adults still clinging to their adolescent fears and desires. Brimming with soaring pop songs, the exquisitely filmed “Girlfriend Boyfriend” (“Gf*Bf”) views coming of age as an ongoing process, during which the smallest sensation (the taste of bitter melon, the smell of camphor leaves) can awaken the pain and comfort of first love. Criticwire grade: B+ [Serena Donadoni]
Opens Friday at select AMC Theatres in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. and Cineplex Theatres in Toronto and Vancouver. Released by China Lion Entertainment.
In one corner: straight-A student Yolanda (Fenessa Pineda), whose scholastic diligence is never questioned by her parents. In the other: troubled but good-hearted BMXer Mari (Venecia Troncoso), who moves in across the street in the L.A. suburb of Highland Park. Will the goody two-shoes mentor her unlikely friend and help her get her academic act together? Will the rebellious-but-basically-nice-to-her-mom Mari help loosen up her unexpected new friend? Will the undercurrents of a non-platonic friendship actually lead to on-screen interaction more lustful than tentative stomach caressing? No to that last one, but otherwise predictable good intentions rule the day. By 20 minutes in, the troubled twosome are chums; 30 minutes in, their friendship is punctured by trivial disagreement, only to be swiftly resolved in arbitrary beat-by-beat fashion. A dozen or so shots of hands held in the breeze from vehicle windows later (signifying Poetic Immersion In The Moment), the formulaic affair winds to its tepid conclusion. In her first feature, Aurora Guerrero wants to do right by an ambiguous friendship, but the pro forma poeticism and clunky narrative are totally enervating. Criticwire grade: D [Vadim Rizov]
Opens Friday in New York.
A lot of recent horror movies have appropriated the "found footage" mold, but few used it to quite the startling effect of the relentlessly claustrophobic Spanish franchise kicked off by "[REC]" and continued with "[REC]³." The first movie was so well executed that it was remade essentially shot-for-shot in America as "Quarantine." Both movies take place within the confines of a creaky apartment building littered with maniacal, slobbering zombie-like victims possessed by a demonic force that assaults all remaining humans with continuously morbid results made especially potent by the constant first-person POV.
By those standards, "[REC]³" looks downright outmoded, once it inexplicably drops its own found-footage framing device 20 minutes into the mayhem and morphs into a subpar run-and-shoot-the-ghoul undead opus. If you can roll with the lower bar, however, it's still a basic blast: When the demonic possession invades an ostentatious wedding ceremony, the bride and groom fight through ample bloodshed to find each other again. Those unfamiliar with the earlier movies may not quite follow why the zombie attack happens in the first place, but "[REC]³" has in common with its prequels a pacing strategy that leaves little room to think things through. The finale, in which one gory moment is continually surpassed by an even gorier moment, deserves recognition for topping all the grisly imagery with a conclusive moment of sincere poignancy. There's enough freshness in those closing seconds to forgive the movie's dominant clichés, but if you make it that far you have probably already forgiven them anyway. Criticwire grade: B [Eric Kohn]
Available Friday via VOD. Opens in theaters next month. Released by Magnet.
The recent documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" delved into the shockingly delicate artistic process behind this emblematic Japanese food. Balancing that poetic work with sobering truths, Mark Hall's "Sushi: The Global Catch" provides the harsher reality behind sushi's dissemination. With a sometimes overly cerebral pile-up of discussions with fishing enthusiasts and other experts, Hall tracks the fairly recent explosion of sushi into a global industry that has quickly transformed into a serious threat to species of fish around the world.
Through the voices of environmental activists and progressive chefs willing to consider alternatives to wild fish, Hall outlines the possibilities of sushi continuing its popularity without the destructive side effects. But he also shows why it's an uphill battle. The arguments come from a number of directions and never fully congeal into a single takeaway. Nevertheless, any bona fide sushi fan stands to benefit from the general wake up call that "The Global Catch" provides in ample doses. Criticwire grade: B [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday at the Quad Cinema in New York.
Everyone’s least favorite real estate superstar is placed squarely in the crosshairs in Anthony Baxter’s doc “You’ve Been Trumped,” but the film is as much about the small Scottish community affected by the Donald’s latest venture as it is about the superstar developer himself. As such, it’s a pretty tepid affair, as the good townspeople can do little but watch in disbelief as their pristine landscape is transformed into a golfing resort, while registering some modest protests. Baxter captures it all with his on-the-fly camerawork, so indifferent that it fails to capture anything like the alleged beauty of the soon-to-be-defiled landscape. This David-versus-Goliath tale is both overly simplistic and narratively inert, only coming to life in the increasingly sparse moments when the cocky, lie-spewing Trump appears on screen. The celebrity developer may come off as being as vile as the townspeople say he is, but he provides the film with its few fleeting moments of dynamism. Criticwire grade: C [Andrew Schenker]
Opens Friday in New York at the Angelika Film Center and in Los Angeles August 17.