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
"Mea Maxima Culpa"
"Silver Linings Playbook"
With somber-eyed Keira Knightley in the titular role, one might expect the usual from "Anna Karenina": A mopey period piece with little to offer beyond the expected turmoil of Leo Tolstoy's classic. That superficial assumption ignores director Joe Wright's capacity as a visual stylist to inject the material with a greater amount of energy -- both in terms of the images and the way they flow together. Almost exclusively shot on a single sound stage, Wright's treatment of the material nimbly rejuvenates the familiar story of the titular Russian socialite (Knightley delivers a theatrical performance to the point where she blends in with the art direction) by veering in and out of a conventional narrative approach. Wright's extraordinary long takes draw you into the universe of "Anna Karenina" with a seamless approach that a straightforward literary adaptation could never accomplish. Buried in the role of her quasi-supportive husband, Jude Law is hardly more than a dyspeptic prop, whereas Aaron Johnson as Anna's lover Count Vronsky exhumes one-note romanticism. But it's easy to get lost in this familiar story through the imagery alone. Even if each twist reeks of familiarity, Wright's approach yields a truly cinematic achievement that's more attentive to mood than plot and holds together even when the fundamental story ingredients stagger toward the inevitable tragedy of the concluding act. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Focus Features. Watch the trailer below:
Remember your prepubescent years? Serving as an altar boy to get out of class, feeling like a badass for smoking a cigarette, accidentally embroiling yourself in a local drug war…kid stuff. Okay, maybe you never had those dangerous and fanciful experiences, but brothers Kevin and Matthew McManus use them to great effect in their new film, "Funeral Kings," an honest and laugh-ridden yarn about adolescent angst.
The film follows Andy (Dylan Hartigan) and Charlie (Alex Maizus), two suburban 14-year-old Catholic schoolboys suffering from delusions of gangsta. Things get a bit hairy when their third musketeer, Bobby (Brandon Waltz), absconds one night after dispatching a locked chest on Andy's doorstep. Bobby's altar boy replacement, David (Jordan Puzzo), a quiet goody-two-shoes with movie star good looks, proves a tough nut for the boys to crack. Each seeks to impress and thoroughly taint the newcomer, a process that gets them caught in some deep water. (Well, not water.)
"Funeral Kings" features a spot-on depiction of pre-teen experience, but its tone is something of a moving target, ranging from screwball to true-crime to quietly evocative in the spirit of early David Gordon Green. It's almost as if the McManus brothers feared they'd never make another film so they put as many emotional and stylistic strands as time allowed into this one. That said, they’ve put together an excellent first effort; I can’t wait to see what they come up with next. Criticwire grade: B [Jonathan Poritsky]
Opens Friday in Los Angeles. Released by Freestyle Releasing. Watch the trailer below:
A literature major who graduates to a dead-end job running a kiosk in post-Soviet Russia, Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimir Epifantsev) enters advertising as rogue capitalism takes over the land. A member of "Generation P" (for Pepsi), he excels at coming up with campaigns for foreign brands that make canny appropriative use of Soviet imagery. Working for a shifting series of bosses who get killed, Babylen graduates from selling brands to selling nationalism and, eventually, wholesale political fabrications for never-seen masters.
"Generation P" has the feverish paranoia of Oliver Stone, and director Victor Ginzburg has his aesthetic (on a good day). The difference is that Stone sees conspiracies with little empirical prompting, while Ginzburg --working quite closely from Viktor Pelevin's novel -- has every reason to indict malevolent higher-ups as Russia's true controllers. (A deep sense of recent Russian history isn't necessary to appreciate the film, just a decent knowledge of the news.) For nearly two ferociously entertaining hours, Ginzburg piles on hallucinogenic tour de forces as Babylen turns to drugs for inspiration and escape, climaxing with a sequence that may be a mushroom trip or —- more frighteningly -- the banal truth about how power is assigned in Russia. As entertaining as it is righteously cynical and angry, "Generation P" is a journey to the rotten, violent, media/power center of a country whose struggle to define its identity is corroded into a sinister advertising campaign. Criticwire grade: A- [Vadim Rizov]
Opens Friday in New York. Released by New World Distribution. Watch the trailer below:
Chanoch Ze’evi’s documentary "Hitler’s Children" tackles a potentially intriguing subject matter -- modern descendants of Hitler's Third Reich deal with their family members' terrible actions -- but gets almost completely mired in its uninventive filmmaking and repetitive material. As progeny of Heinrich Himmler, the subjects of the documentary -- Hermann Göring, Hans Frank, Hermann Höss, and Amon Goeth -- struggle to balance their pride in their German heritage with the horrible stigma put upon them by history. The film does have its moments: A standout is when Hermann Höss' grandson Rudolf speaks at Auchwitz to a group of Holocaust victims' families (the elder Höss is attributed to creating the death camp). While emotions do run high in scenes like this one, they cannot make up for the film's utter lack of artfulness -- with its by-the-book editing and lack of distinctive cinematography, it reads more like a History Channel special than anything else. Also, the bulk of the modern descendants' various struggles don't seem particularly trying -- one has to justify having a German food party, for instance -- which is just not convincing enough. Criticwire grade: C [Caitlin Hughes]
Opens Friday in New York. Released by Film Movement. Watch the trailer below:
In an early interview with Croatian Paralympian Darko Kralj, the titular subject of "The King," a poster of Kralj is slightly visible on the door behind him. In his hometown of Grubišno Polje, his prowess on the international stage is well known, evidenced by the hefty crowd gathered at the local airport to congratulate him upon his return from his most recent medal win. But rather than frontload this profile of Kralj with the origins of his track and field career or the details surrounding the loss of his left leg (the chronological order of which may surprise you), director Dejan Aćimović captures the man's life in intimate times with friends and neighbors and softer periods of self-reflection.
There's an economy to these moments, yet each fishing expedition, trip to the prosthetics-maker or stop at the local butcher shop is able to breathe despite the slim 75-minute runtime. The film's greatest trick is offering a day-in-the-life feel while spreading out these glimpses over what seems like months. To Aćimović’s credit, "The King" doesn't try to make Kralj representative of the greater Paralympic community. Instead, it quietly observes how one man's life can be inextricably linked to any number of others. By the time Kralj relays one of his more impressive shotputting feats towards the end of the film, his athletic accomplishments become a happy addendum to an otherwise compelling life, rather than its expected all-encompassing focus. Criticwire grade: A- [Steve Greene]
Opens Friday at the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. Released by Laemmle Theatres and DA Film. Watch the trailer below:
The award for best post-modern Brooklyn hipster satire of the year may already belong to "The Comedy," but writer-director Benjamin Dickinson debut feature comes a close second. Dickinson's hauntingly naturalistic look at disgruntled young adults trapped in the country following an urban disaster plays like "Martha Marcy May Marlene" transported to a post-apocalyptic survival narrative -- with lots of yoga and sex. Bearded yoga instructor Paul (Paul Manza, unsurprisingly a real-life yoga instructor) initially takes control, since it's his yoga treat, after all. But as temperaments rise and resources dwindle, the power structure crumbles along with their cynical attitudes. The character types, mostly self-important Brooklynites, seemingly hail from your average formula for American microbudget drama, but the wide open country setting introduces a more profound level of abstraction -- as does the end of the world. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday at Brooklyn's Videology screening room. Watch the trailer below:
"Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God"
Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney has grappled with the institutional failure of the military ("Taxi to the Dark Side") and capitalism ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"), but for his latest exposé he tackles a monolithic target bigger than both: The Vatican. Delving into the widespread problem of pedophilia in the Catholic Church, Gibney focuses on the crimes of Father Lawrence Murphy, the reigning priest of a deaf school in the 1960's, allegedly responsible for molesting countless boys. Now grown, the subjects offer chilling accounts of their treatment, the effusiveness of their sign language adding a layer of emotion to the stories that words can't touch (translation is smartly provided in voiceover). The former students' struggle first to spread awareness of Murphy's exploits and then virtually kick off a movement against other instances around the world. Gibney's narrative drags to some extent when the focus widens to explore the Vatican's overall policy for covering up sex scandals, but he successfully demonstrates the systematic failure of a system designed work flawlessly on the basis of spirituality that never existed in the first place. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday in New York. Airs on HBO in February 2013. Released by HBO Documentary Films. Watch the trailer below:
It is always tricky to make entertaining films about the workplace —- something most people dread and seek films to escape from. Michael Walker's "Price Check" underlines the pitfalls of this genre. Boasting a terrific, cutthroat performance by Parker Posey as Susan, a supervisor charged with turning around a flailing supermarket chain, the film excels as a showcase for her bitchy boss. As Pete, the put-upon office drone and attractive object of Parker's attention/affection, Eric Mabius makes a sympathetic everyman, but Walker boxes these fine actors and their characters into a cubicle. Susan wants a plaything and a promotion -- and she wants it on the back of her married colleague. It's only a matter of time before they sleep together -- and for their office romance to be discovered. Cue repercussions and anxieties for the personal and professional bad decisions the smart characters really should know not to make. "Price Check" lacks the gray morality it craves in part because Pete never quite has the advantage. And exasperating scenes of Parker forcing fun at Halloween parties, or Peter buying a pricey suit, do not count as character development. Ultimately, "Price Check" offers little new or novel to say about office politics, making it about as much fun as going to work. Criticwire grade: C [Gary M. Kramer]
Opens Friday in select cities. Also available on VOD. Released by IFC Films. Watch the trailer below:
When approaching the ostracism and deportation of Jews during World War II, French filmmakers cushion their regret (collaboration with the Nazis) and defiance (French Resistance) in subtleties. With the blunt, evocative docudrama "La Rafle," writer/director Rose Bosch rejects the guilt-soaked lyricism of "Au revoir, les enfants" and investigative framework of "Sarah's Key." She heads directly into 1942 Paris, where 11-year-old Joseph Weismann (Hugo Leverdez) and his hardworking family reveal their joys and anxieties before being swept away in the roundup of Jews by French authorities. In the horrific conditions of the Velodrome d’Hiver (13,000 corralled into a bicycle racing stadium with little food, water or sanitation), Protestant nurse Annette Monod (Mélanie Laurent) becomes an impassioned advocate for Jewish children, not realizing that the Vichy government has orchestrated their plight. Bosch doesn't cloak history in memory, allowing events to unfold with a powerful immediacy, and she plainly delineates between villains and heroes (Hitler's opulent mountain retreat is contrasted with the misery at the Beaune-la-Rolande internment camp). "La Rafle" is a history lesson shot in the lush, classical style of polite period films, but Rose Bosch's vision is clearly black and white. Criticwire grade: B- [Serena Donadoni]
Opens Friday at Quad Cinemas in New York, Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles, as well as theaters in Long Island, Orange County, Palm Springs, Cincinnati and Phoenix. Released by Menemsha Films. Watch the trailer below:
"Silver Linings Playbook"
Adapting Matthew Quick's novel both as solo screenwriter and director, David O. Russell assembles a bubbly cast for an unexpectedly charming romcom that frequently dances -- at one point, quite literally -- between cynicism and bittersweetness with largely winning results. As disgraced former substitute teacher Pat (Bradley Cooper) attempts to piece his life together in the wake of a mental breakdown, "Silver Linings Playbook" smartly engages with his legitimate dramas while infusing them with an upbeat spirit akin to the inspiration he seeks. Having caught his wife in the shower with another teacher, Pat gets shipped away for mental help. Before the story begins, he has been forced into psychiatric care; when his mother (Jacki Weaver) picks him up and returns him to their Philadelphia home, he still has plenty of baggage to work out. Advice comes his way from virtually everyone he knows: His shrink (Anupam Kher) encourages him to seek new romantic opportunities, while his mopey father (Robert De Niro) grouses about Pat's naivete. In his better moments, Pat tries to be an idealist (hence the title) but can't find the right path to realize his optimistic aspirations.
Potential catharsis arrives when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a fellow manic depressive whose breakdown involved a series of promiscuous acts in the wake of her husband's untimely death. Lawrence delivers a feisty turn that stands apart from her typically low key performances. After a few terse exchanges and mild flirtations that go hilariously wrong, Pat makes a deal with the limber Tiffany: He'll perform as her partner in a dance competition if she helps him get back in touch with his wife. Russell directs the proceedings without indulging in rote sentimentalism except while keeping the wit in check as well. American comedy is rarely so intense without turning dark, but the movie explores the fear of overcoming challenges by making it possible to laugh at them. Read the full review here. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday in several cities. Released by The Weinstein Company. Watch the trailer below: