Each week, this column takes a look at the way critics in our Criticwire network has been responding to upcoming releases. We’ve tweaked the format somewhat to go along with our new design, but as always, the column aims to sift through various reactions to give you an idea of your latest movie options.
For more Criticwire rankings, go here.
The Pick: Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” has had a somewhat rocky Criticwire path to its wide theatrical opening. When it premiered just a few weeks ago at the New York Film Festival, the reaction was decidedly mixed. In our end-of-festival poll, “Flight” finished third overall in the “Most Disappointing Film” category. While some critics were satisfied, others expected more from star Denzel Washington and Zemeckis’ return to live-action filmmaking. Either way, “Flight” wasn’t a complete slamdunk.
But in the intervening weeks, it seems to have made a bit of a comeback. The movie currently holds a “B” average with grades submitted by 20 critics. Chronicling the aftermath of a devastating crash landing, “Flight” follows Whip Whitaker through the various revelations that alcohol may have contributed to the airplane’s complications. Revisiting familiar “Cast Away” territory in some aspects, Zemeckis is getting near unanimous acclaim in recent reviews for the effectiveness of the film’s inciting plane crash. Movies.com’s David Ehrlich faults the film for losing subtlety when the framework is in place for a story with refreshing and powerful nuance. “Some of the most nuanced work of Denzel Washington’s career is lost amidst the scattered debris of the film’s generic tendencies,” he writes. “His restrained but stellar performance vividly entreats us to a man who is at war with the value of the truth, and the extent to which the concept only makes sense when considered in multitudes.”
But, as one of the film’s defenders at NYFF, Eric Kohn argues that this is big-budget studio filmmaking that feels right at home amongst more festival-aimed fare. He echoes the effectiveness of Washington’s performance and downplays the poisoning nature of the film’s post-crash attitude. Addressing some third-act character developments and storytelling methods, Kohn writes, “There’s nevertheless a welcome form of comfort that can be derived from its blatant sentimentalism. Viewed in the context of the festival, ‘Flight’ epitomizes a dogged willingness to convey hope for the future while acknowledging the possibility of more dark days ahead.”
Battle of the Quartets: Yes, it’s easy to compare titles with a common word. But, in this case, the comparisons are apt, as “A Late Quartet” and “Quartet” both deal with aging, artistic craft and competing ideas of collective performance. (Plus, both films premiered at TIFF earlier this year, so they’ve had similar periods of temporal exposure.)
“A Late Quartet” features, at its core, Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener as members of the titular group. When gathered for a reunion performance of their string ensemble, they learn that Walken’s Peter is in the early stages of Parkinson’s. Kevin Jagernauth’s review at The Playlist sharply criticizes the film’s lack of focus, arguing the film suffers from juggling a few too many soapy plotlines. “But most disappointing of all,” Jagernauth writes, “the interesting world of classical music which all these characters orbit is never really felt, thus making the narratives feel like they ultimately could have been pulled from any Indie Drama 101.” The movie currently holds a “B-” average from nine critics.
But if “A Late Quartet” might be trying to do too much, “Quartet” is being evaluated largely for the elements where it hardly tries at all. The directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman, the film follows the exploits of the residents of a retirement home for musicians. However, you’d be forgiven if you forgot who was behind the camera, considering that much of the critical attention is being put squarely on the performance delivered by Maggie Smith. The iconic actress, playing a stuffy, pretentious former opera diva, gets to exhibit her usual biting wit and sarcasm, much to the delight of many critics. As Matt Brennan of Thompson on Hollywood puts it, “In an otherwise airless movie, Smith barrels through like a gust of wind.” While “A Late Quartet” tries to weave together a myriad of relevant story threads, The Telegraph’s Tim Robey points out that in Hoffman’s film, “the actual story feels faintly beside the point, except as an excuse for Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins to trade barbs and reap their standing ovations, while supplying subtler, more bittersweet notes about the pathos of reaching a career’s end.”
The Underachievers (and Why They Might Be Faring Thusly):
“This Must Be the Place”: “This Must Be the Place is a bewildering piece of work, a picture that may have initially been guided by a sweet impulse but takes a sharp left turn into crazytown.” – Stephanie Zacharek
“The Details”: “Caught between gently cheeky observation and ethical rendering, The Details is too committed to its central shithead for satirical intent, which would require a level of distanced criticism that [writer-director Jacob Aaron] Estes is incapable of but which might have been the only way for the film to break through a level of self-satisfaction that, in its ugliness, rivals that of its privileged hero.” – Andrew Schenker
The Best From Last Week: After fans had a chance to digest “Cloud Atlas,” it seems to be faring better with audiences than with critics. Of last week’s releases, the new film from the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer has the highest fan average, with a B+ average.