This weekly column is intended to provide reviews of nearly every new release, including films on VOD (and in certain cases some studio releases). Specifics release dates and locations follow each review.
REVIEWS THIS WEEK:
A high concept film that lives up to the concept, Matt Ross's "28 Hotel Rooms" transpires almost entirely in the eponymous way stations in which its illicit lovers (Chris Messina and Marin Ireland) meet for their bouts of passion. Each of the film’s 28 segments is introduced by a title card indicating the room number of the trysting place. In following the pair's progress from sex partners to potential life partners, Ross skillfully captures the fragmentary nature of clandestine long-term affairs (both get married to other people in the course of the film) as well as the claustrophobia that confines their activity to private enclaves. Even within the limited settings, the film believably traces the relationship's somewhat rocky arc, hitting the highs and lows of the coupling and charting the developing emotional intimacy of the pair. The naturalistic performances of the leads give the project credibility while Ross's aesthetic choices (overexposed backgrounds, abstracting close-ups of bodies) lend the romance a shimmering, out-of-time quality. Criticwire grade: B+ [Andrew Schenker]
Opens Friday in Los Angeles and next week in New York. Also currently available on VOD. Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories. Watch the trailer below:
French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée's time-bending romantic drama is a more manageable alternative to "Cloud Atlas," as both movies involve a pair of unrelated stories separated by time but drawn together by high faulting spiritual inspiration. However, whereas "Cloud Atlas" contains some six time periods, "Cafe de Flore" has two: Antoine (Kevin Parent), a DJ recently divorced and still working out his relationship with his ex-wife and children, struggles to move on; in 1960s-era Paris, an impoverished young woman (Vanessa Paradis) copes with being the sole parent of a child with Down's syndrome. Hugely compelling in individual moments, "Cafe de Flore" constantly hovers on the brink on some revelation it never quite arrives at. Both stories hold significant emotional weight — Antoine constantly battles to help his ex-wife confront her grief while the sixties plot eventually finds the frustrated child falling in love. There's enough potential to make one wish that Vallée had simply chosen his favorite plot strand and left the other alone; instead, the movie is a narrative seesaw from start to finish, with neither side emerging on top. Criticwire grade: B- [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday in New York and next week in Los Angeles. Released by Adopt Films. Watch the trailer below.
Veteran actress Bernadette Peters, her hair a flaming red, gives an enjoyably loopy performance in this messy drama. Peters' Diane is a former theater diva coping with the recession of the 1980s in Nashua, N.H., where she lives with her younger daughter, high schooler Alice (Rachel Brosnahan). Diane — her husband walked out on her six years earlier but she's still hanging on to his toothbrush — is a world-class drama queen who is liable to do something embarrassing at any moment, like bursting out into unwanted song at the wedding of her elder daughter, Cherie (Shannon Esper).
Also in the mix are the sleazy agent (Peter Friedman) for Diane's landlord, and Alice's schoolmate and next-door neighbor, Cat (Reyna De Courcy), who dreams of moving to New York City to escape her religious-nut mom. "Coming Up Roses," directed and co-written by Lisa Albright, has problems — a soap-opera plot and a twentysomething actress, Brosnahan, trying to pass for a 15-year-old — but it's worth seeing if only for Peters. Criticwire grade: B [V.A. Musetto]
Opens Friday in New York. Released by Bullet Pictures. Watch the trailer below:
Gorgeous actors, sumptuous locations and divine costumes can't make up for the fact that Korean director Jin-ho Hur's modern Mandarin-language adaption of "Dangerous Liaisons" plays like a two-hour period Louis Vuitton ad. In the 1930s, while the rest of China was under attack by the Japanese, and Shanghai was still enjoying its jazzy hedonistic heyday, a ruthless tycoon (Cecilia Cheung) challenges her former lover, a wealthy womanizer (Dong-gun Jang), to both deflower her ex-boyfriend's child bride-to-be, and woo and abandon a reserved and sensitive woman (Ziyi Zhang, of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") with whom he actually falls in love. The consequences are still tragic, yet much of the thread concerning the virginal young woman is done away with in the second half.
There are some engaging moments in the second hour of "Dangerous Liaisons," when the emotional stakes rise and the competent cast isn’t just cat-walking through lavish set pieces, breezily hitting plot points that never establish character depth. But when the film derails into total melodrama it does little justice to the original immorality play or the presumably serious political backdrop. Cheung, however, is a convincing ice queen and Zhang stands out as the only noble character of the lot. Criticwire grade: C+ [Natasha Senjanovic]
Opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu and Toronto. Released by Well Go USA. Watch the trailer below:
The title may be as amateurish as the filmmaking, but "Dick Night" is a passable horror-comedy about a jilted bride regaining her self-esteem. Wallowing in self-pity, Rachel (Jennifer June Ross) is urged to clean up her house, and find a roommate. She considers Dr. Lewis (Ben Huber), a similarly heartbroken guy who is “creepy in a cute way.” When they bond over their mutual need for rebound sex, Rachel is prompted to seduce Dr. Lewis. However, her plans are complicated by the arrival of Paul (Michael Uribes), a motor-mouthed pizza delivery guy, the unexpected arrival of Mark (James Wortham), her cad of an ex, and unwanted attention from Kyle (Boomie Aglietti), Rachel’s married best friend who is secretly in love with her. There are also some vampire-ish villains on the loose. As a frustration comedy, the low-budget "Dick Night" is mildly amusing. As a cheap horror flick, it is not particularly gory/scary. But despite these drawbacks, the film is a showcase for Ross, an ingratiating and sympathetic heroine who gives a charismatic performance. In the film’s best moment she decides to defend herself using her unopened wedding presents. "Etiquette?” one of the guys asks. "Fuck etiquette!" she retorts. The inelegant "Dick Night" could have used more fun moments like this. Criticwire grade: C [Gary M. Kramer]
Available now on VOD. Released by Film Buff. Watch the trailer below:
Korean director Hong Sang-soo's offbeat comedies are an acquired taste, but it's not hard to acquire it: Hong characters usually spend the duration of a Hong movie drinking, horsing around, arguing, sleeping and repeating the whole cycle several times over. "In Another Country" is a paragon of any given Hong movie's intrinsic charms, and yet it also manages to break from the pattern by including an English-speaking character as one of its leads. Isabelle Huppert stars as traveling French woman Anne visiting a quaint seaside resort where she alternately indulges and dodges the affections of various locals. The movie takes the form of three mini-stories, each of which star Huppert as variations on the same character, and in every case a comic blunder occurs within the restricted setting. The closest Hong will come to remaking "Lost in Translation," this characteristically eccentric take on tourism and miscommunication is funny in the moment and profound after the fact, which is the reason why even those befuddled by Hong's work should still keep giving him a chance. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Steven Spielberg's long-awaited treatment of Abraham Lincoln's life focuses on his persistence in passing the 13th Amendment during the tense period when he campaigned for members of Congress to ratify the constitution in early 1864. Tony Kushner's wise screenplay imbues the proceedings with intellectual fervor only noticeably undone on the few occasions when the Spielberg dial is turned up. (Virtually every speech delivered in the House of Representatives provides an excuse for John Williams' score to creep in). However, with Daniel Day Lewis predictably embodying the president's lanky figure, wise gaze and calculated delivery, "Lincoln" tracks much of these developments through low key exchanges alternately unfolding in backroom strategy sessions and in grand showdowns. Despite Lincoln's prominence, Tommy Lee Jones' Thaddeus Stevens routinely takes over as the rancorous Republican leader with more aggressive tactics than the president to get the job done.
At two and a half hours, "Lincoln" contains only a single battle scene in its opening seconds. The rest is pure talk, a keen dramatization of Doris Kearns Goodwin's tome "Team of Rivals," that delivers an overview of Lincoln's crowning achievement in chunks of strategy talk. Ostensibly a well-acted history lesson, it captures the turmoil of the period by observing Lincoln at work rather than wasting time valorizing him. Spielberg tracks the abolition of slavery as a series of negotiations with major ramifications only transparently stated in the final scenes. "This is history!" someone actually exclaims. Indeed it is, and with all that talking, "Lincoln" eventually runs out of breath, but not before making it clear that the 65-year-old Spielberg most certainly has not. Criticwire grade: B [Eric Kohn]
Read the full review here. Opens Friday nationwide. Released by Disney. Watch the trailer below:
A crude ode to Boy Scouts and camping, Nature Calls is (thankfully) an antidote to this year’s other missing scout film, the twee Moonrise Kingdom. Cult filmmaker Todd Rohal mines obvious humor from the adults—Randy (Patton Oswalt), his brother Kirk (Johnny Knoxville), and Kirk’s buddy Gentry (Rob Riggle)—behaving inappropriately (e.g., cursing) in front of their pre-teen charges. The plot involves Randy taking Dwande (Theicoura Cissoko), Kirk’s adopted African son, on an unauthorized camp out in the woods with a group of inexperienced 10 year-olds. Nature Calls is most amusing when it is offensive, mocking racial and sexual tensions as well as boorish masculinity and helicopter moms. Knoxville’s uptight Kirk gets to act like a jackass, and a scene of his ass catching fire, or flying through a windshield allow the stuntman in him to shine. Oswalt plays things rather straight, but it is hard not to detect a sly satire to his performance. In support, Maura Tierney, as Kirk’s exasperated wife, steals the film, responding with Marge Simpson-like class, rolling her eyes at both the macho bullshit and the odd advances of a young boy. Nature Calls may be more mild than wild, but that doesn’t detract from its guilty pleasures. Criticwire grade: C+ [Gary M. Kramer]
Opens Friday in Los Angeles. Released by Magnet. Watch the trailer below:
Making his first foray into the action arena, director Sam Mendes has carefully latched onto the familiar formula with a film that competently represents many of the familiar Bond ingredients that have the franchise with such monumental staying power, as well as the reasons why even at its best, the series remains tethered to familiar ground. For those more enticed by the prospects of playing it safe, you could do a lot worse than "Skyfall." Mendes' treatment of the material lacks that same ingenuity found in "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning" (now on VOD). However, as pricey tentpoles go, it's still a satisfying cut above for the sheer elegance of its visuals, due in large part to cinematographer Roger Deakins. Possibly the most evocative Bond movie of the 23 that have been made, it frames the succession of showdowns in wondrously expressionistic terms. That "Skyfall" looks strikingly beautiful may explain why it has already generated waves of positive buzz. At two hours and 25 minutes, the movie runs far too long, but has been artfully rendered to obscure its fundamental simplicity. The result is paradoxically enjoyable and tiresome (enjoyably tiresome?), but does the trick for a formula that needs only to stun, startle and titillate its audience to gain acceptance. Criticwire grade: B+
Read the full review here. Opens Friday nationwide. Released by Columbia Pictures. Watch the trailer below.
Focused on a pair of women in California's San Fernando Valley, "Starlet" lacks the same emotional consistency of director Sean Baker's earlier films ("Take Out," "Prince of Broadway"), but nevertheless succeeds as a compelling look at the vapidity of day-to-day life and the universal desire to escape it. The story revolves around 21-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway), a sleepy-eyed stoner who wastes her days hanging with her roommates Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone). Driving around town with her requisite Chihuahua — whose name provides the movie's title — Jane looks like a walking stereotype of American laziness. Her seedy profession, revealed at the beginning of the second act, only furthers this perception. (It shouldn't be a spoiler to mention it, but Baker positions it as such; curious types can figure it out with the help of a Google search.)
Although the details behind her arrival in L.A. never come up, it's clear that Jane has erected a mental wall that prevents her from making progress in life. Hemingway brings enough vulnerability to the character to make her an intriguing subject, but Baker has broader aims. After nabbing a random vase at a neighborhood garage sale, Jane faces a Talmudic conundrum when she discovers that it's filled with $10,000. Does she return the money or not? She tracks down the owner, reclusive 85-year-old widow Sadie (Besedka Johnson). Without revealing her intentions, Jane falls into a curiously supportive relationship with her. Using the same anthropological approach he brought to his previous films, Baker depicts Jane's lifestyle by stripping away its glamorous elements to peer at the reality beneath. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Read the full review here. Opens Friday at New York's Landmark Sunshine and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Other cities will follow. Released by Music Box Films. Watch the trailer below: