Capsule Options is a new weekly column intended to provide reviews of nearly every new indie release. This week's capsules are written by Indiewire's Chief Film Critic, Eric Kohn along with other contributors as noted.
REVIEWS THIS WEEK
"Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story"
"The Broken Tower"
"The Giant Mechanical Man"
"The Highest Pass'
"Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment"
"sound of my voice"
"Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale"
Let's get the obvious question out of the way: The title is off by three minutes when it comes to the actual running time. Aimee Lagos' deconstruction of a carjacking takes us through the four characters and why one wound up with a gunshot. Whipping back and forth to explain how the jackers and victims come together, the story of Kevin (J. Michael Trautmann) and Dre (Evan Ross) becoming unintentional criminals is far more compelling than the type of pseudo-morality that Paul Haggis vomits out. While the relationship drama that Carley (Brittany Snow) and Lena Christian Serratos) deal with is clearly a B-plot, watching Kevin repeatedly try to get into the neighborhood gang is far more interesting. This is especially the case during a tensely editing sequence where a gas station attendant makes the mistake of calling him "son," which zips back and forth between a beating from one of his mother's boyfriends. "96 Minutes" veers into typical sleazy territory (Kevin demands Carley get naked at gunpoint randomly), but it's still a compact melodrama that plays on the usual fears of race, class and head wounds to the maximum effect. Criticwire grade: B [John Lichman]
Opens Friday in several cities. Released by ARC Entertainment.
Because Richard Linklater's latest work is an oddly endearing love letter to Southern eccentricities, it immediately calls to mind his iconic "Slacker." However, the comparison ends there: With its purposefully naive sense of self-mockery, "Bernie" is a shape-shifting genre vehicle set apart from anything else in Linklater's career. Set in the tiny East Texas town of Carthage, "Bernie" takes its inspiration from a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth about the true story of Bernie Tiede, a curiously ebullient mortician beloved by everyone around him. Bernie's supreme generosity makes him impossible to dislike -- which may enable him to get away with murder.
His endearing screen presence becomes Linklater's main coup.The twist arrives when Bernie's kindness to local sourpuss Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) works against him. A reclusive widow hated by the community, Marjorie eventually welcomes Bernie's presence in her life, and decides to trap him in it. Her cold, self-centered treatment eventually leads the frustrated mortician to grab a rifle and shoot the woman in the back, stuff her in the freezer and go about his life. Until, of course, the police come knocking. This isn't a spoiler: For one thing, it really happened; for another, Linklater leaves unclear exactly what happened because the entire movie takes its cues from unreliable narrators. "Bernie" regularly cuts to Carthage locals, some played by amateurs, discussing Bernie and his act in the conventional talking-head format. The movie shifts tonal gears in amusingly self-aware fashion. "You cannot have grief tragically become comedy," Bernie says while directing a community play, and yet Linklater does just that. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed June 17, 2011. Opens Friday in New York. Released by Millennium Entertainment.
"Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story"
An ideal companion piece to last year's "Black Power Mixtape," Raymond DeFelitta's urgent, powerful look at the seminal newscast shot by his father Frank of garrulous black waiter Booker Wright in 1965 chronicles the history of southern racism in unsettlingly intimate terms. When Wright, who also ran his own joint alongside his day job, spoke on camera about the need to smile in the face of racist clientele, he provided courage for countless others like him while putting his life in danger. The younger DeFelitta works in conjunction with Wright's granddaughter Yvonne Johnson to gather testimony from those who knew Booker and the racially divided climate surrounding him to construct a fascinating collage of deep-seated societal tensions still reverberating today.
Shot in black-and-white and set to a gospel soundtrack, "Booker's Place" is easy on the eyes, although at times its collage of voices repeat the same points several times, holding back the potential for a stronger takeaway. Nevertheless, by singling out Booker's famous improvised on-camera monologue about his method of defiance, DeFelitta makes a compelling case for how his late subject provided the soundtrack for a revolution. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Now playing on VOD and in Los Angeles. Opens Friday at New York's Quad Cinema. Also playing the Tribeca Film Festival. Released by Tribeca Film.
"The Broken Tower"
James Franco in "The Broken Tower."
James Franco directs and stars in this experimental biopic of poet Hart Crane. Although "The Broken Tower" requires active engagement rather than passivity, that doesn't mean it's worth the effort. Using Paul Mariani's biography "The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane" as a basis, Franco's narrative moves along as a succession of scenes, shot in a scrappy, handheld style nimbly lifted from early Godard, that's meant to represent Crane's creative process. Like much of the increasingly crowded, self-made genre based around Franco's output, "The Broken Tower" is predominantly a cerebral exercise in experimental analysis. Shot on video in black-and-white by Christina Voros (who also photographed Franco's superior "Saturday Night" documentary), the movie stars Franco himself as the mustachioed Crane, a gay romantic living through the jazz age but mostly trapped in his own head.
Much of "Broken Tower" feels stationary, repeating the same motifs and attitudes ad infinitum until the credits finally roll. Notwithstanding cameos from Franco friends and colleagues, including Michael Shannon in the fleeting role of a sailor, the movie has the qualities of an unfinished thesis project, more document of discovery than cinematic achievement. Regardless of what Franco thinks, it's not slowness that holds it down, but rather its overly ponderous nature, a trait only truly appealing to those with the same existing appreciation for Crane that Franco has. Criticwire grade: C+
Originally reviewed June 21, 2011. Opens Friday at New York's IFC Center; now available on VOD. Released by Focus World.
"The Giant Mechanical Man"
"The Office" star Jenna Fischer is an innately likable performer. She has a charming self-effacing quality; is cute without trying too hard; and has (what seems like) effortless comedic chops. All of that makes its way to the screen in her latest romantic comedy vehicle "The Giant Mechanical Man," but Fischer is left out to dry thanks to a clunker of a script (courtesy of her husband Lee Kirk, no less, who also directed this dud), that's as 'mechanical' as they come. In the Tribeca Films release, Fischer plays Janice, a woman in her 30s struggling to learn how to properly navigate adulthood. After getting fired from her dead-end temp job, she moves in with her overbearing sister (a one-note Malin Ackerman), and gets a job at the local zoo where she meets Tim (Chris Messina laying on the charm), a street performer with baggage of his own. The usually reliable Lucy Punch ("Bad Teacher") is completely wasted as Tim's heinous girlfriend everyone's supposed to hate, leaving Topher Grace to steal the show as Doug, a smarmy, wannabe self-help guru, who has the hots for Janice. His exchanges with Fischer make for the film's best, most awkward scenes, but they can't save what's a run-of-the-mill romcom, with nary a surprise. Criticwire grade: C-
[Nigel M. Smith]
Originally reviewed April 20, 2012. Opens Friday in New York; currently available on VOD. Released by Tribeca Film.
The heroes of great crime stories generally come equipped with extreme inferiority complexes. If there's a list ranking those wily characters, then Roger Brown, the daring art thief anti-hero of Morten Tyldum's widely enjoyable Norwegian action-comedy "Headhunters," belongs somewhere in the pantheon. Adapted from Jo Nesbo's novel by screenwriters Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg from the novel, "Headhunters" announces itself as a routine heist movie by letting Roger's perspective dominate. Not knowing that his self-made world will soon collapse around him, Roger (Aksel Hennie) as though he were a bite-size Danny Ocean, committed to his slick art thieving routine while managing to keep his supposedly loving wife Diana (Synnove Macody Lund) from learning about it. But a sudden incident finds Roger on the lam for unknown reasons; afraid for his life and trusting no one, he hits the road, at which point "Headhunters" transforms into an occasionally ingenious riff on "The Fugitive" as a bizarrely comic misadventure. Tyldum sticks close to formulaic guidelines, including a half-assed conclusion that's out of proportion with the energetic series of events leading up to it. After an exhilarating ride, however, it's no surprise that "Headhunters" eventually comes crashing back to Earth. Criticwire grade: B+
Originally reviewed August 7, 2011. Opens Friday in Los Angeles and New York. Currently available on VOD. Released by Magnolia Pictures.
"The Highest Pass"
"The Highest Pass," which follows a group of motorcycle riders on a spiritual adventure into the Himalayas, feels like a recruitment film for enlightenment. Bikers mount their Royal Enfields, traverse the anarchic traffic of India, and head for the road less traveled: a narrow, serpentine path carved into the mountains that reaches 18,000 feet. Director Jon Fitzgerald (a founder of Slamdance and film festival veteran) captures the grueling physical odyssey, but he’s always conscious of each rider’s inner journey. The young, charismatic guru Anand Mehrotra leads them from the birthplace of yoga to remote Buddhist temples, and recommends pushing their boundaries and embracing the divine as they face altitude sickness and possible avalanches. Writer and co-producer Adam Schomer is Anand’s most earnest disciple, getting on a motorcycle only weeks before their transcendental road trip. Whether you see Adam’s leap of faith as foolhardy or audacious will determine your willingness to ride along with him. Criticwire grade: B
Opens Friday in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex (Santa Monica) and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 (Pasadena). Released by Cinema Libre Studio.
"Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment"
In a brisk 80 minutes, Toby Perl Freilich traces the kibbutz movement from Utopian pioneers establishing agricultural communes on inhospitable terrain to marginalized communities at odds with contemporary Israeli society. A journalist and screenwriter making her directorial debut, Freilich skillfully blends a century’s worth of history with the recollections of kibbutzniks, revealing the contradictory nature of this grand social experiment. She makes the case that kibbutzim provided a model of collectivism and achievement for the new Jewish state, and also shows how this fervent minority is viewed as elitist.
Her most compelling interviews are with the disenchanted offspring of idealistic kibbutz founders, who were raised in the communal Children’s House. They describe it as a "paradise" and "hell," but the detractors still acknowledge beauty in the experience. This overview can’t dig deep into all areas of kibbutz life, but it's a thoughtful introduction to an insular world built upon an expansive ideology. Criticwire grade: A-
Opened April 25 at New York’s Quad Cinema. Released by First Run Features.
If a troubled Latino student —in this case, Jordin Juarez (E.J. Bonilla) -- is suspended for a week and instructed to think about his life, what are the odds he'll be reformed by his love for a booksmart but troubled girl (Veronica Diaz-Carranza)? Expanded from a 2007 short, Nicholas Ozeki's feature debut "Mamitas" is as by-the-numbers as they come. Jordin may call his well-meaning teacher a bitch, but really he's just a softy who takes care of his grandfather and is just waiting to be shown the intellectual light. No surprises here, except for maybe how shamelessly blunt the film is (Jordin's awakening is precipitated, no joke, by reading Kate Chopin's "The Awakening"). Bonillas has charisma and thespian skills to spare, shining even with this hackneyed material; if only he were in a better movie. Criticwire grade: C
Opens Friday in Los Angeles. Released by Screen Media Films.
The marvelous "Restless City" introduces 21 year-old Senegalese immigrant Djibril (Sy Alassane), a musician, eking out life on the streets of New York. His life, like the film, unfolds almost in slow motion; viewers must acclimate to the unhurried rhythms as scenes, such as those in a beauty parlor, slowly take shape. But don’t get fidgety. "Restless City" is more about atmosphere than plot. When one of the few action scenes takes place -- it involves gunshots in a nightclub -- the film doesn’t hurry to follow that storyline.
Instead, the drama focuses on Djibril meeting Trini (Sky Grey). He falls for her and they ride around the edgy city. Director Andrew Dosunmu’s highly stylized mood piece is luminously shot by the gifted cinematographer Bradford Young (Pariah). Every composition is artfully framed and unbelievably gorgeous. This romantic, wisp of a film steadily pulls viewers into its dreamlike vision, before it sadly rushes its ending. Criticwire grade: B+
[Gary M. Kramer]
Opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Released by the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement.
Reigning king of twenty-first century action movies Jason Statham ("Crank," "The Transporter") doesn't disappoint in Boaz Yakin's tightly choreographed genre exercise that he directed from his own script. While less blatantly outlandish than the usual cartoony Statham excursions, this hard boiled tale of mixed martial artist Luke Wright (Statham), whose wife is murdered by the Russian mob after he fails to lose a rigged fight, celebrates its formula with attitude to spare. Alternately on the lam and gearing up for revenge, Statham also takes on a protective fatherly role for 12-year-old Chinese immigrant Mei (Catherine Chan), also being pursued by Russian baddies. The scenario recalls the terrific Korean actioner "Man From Nowhere," as does the breathless pace, as Statham leaps through windows, dodges bullets and fires back plenty of his own. A sloven grindhouse indulgence nobody will remember in a year or two, "Safe" offers up its fleeting pleasures with a careless rebel attitude not unlike Statham's enjoyably archetypical onscreen persona. Criticwire grade: B+
Opens Friday in several theaters nationwide. Released by Lionsgate.
"sound of my voice"
Given a plot that may or may not involve time travel but definitely involves quasi-religious indoctrination, Zal Batmanglij's directorial debut "Sound of My Voice" essentially revolves around the struggle to understand the inexplicable. Batmanglij defies conventional genre expectations with this eerie tale of a potentially dangerous cult and the trenchant documentarian committed to unearthing its motives.
Non-fiction filmmaker Peter (Christopher Denham) and his partner Lorna (Nicole Vicius, best known for "Half Nelson") join a series of clandestine basement gatherings held in an unremarkable Southern Californian home, where the enigmatic Maggie (rising star Brit Marling) preaches proto-philosophical conceits and announces that she hails from the future. Nothing is what it seems, including the assumption that Maggie must be full of it. A closing scene suggests that there's more validity to her allegations than initially implied, and the sudden ending works with magnificent efficiency. Batmanglij generates a Spielbergian sense of wonder -- facing down forces that defy immediate rationalization, pitting them against cold objectivity, and letting the mystery linger with a single cut to black. Criticwire grade: B+
"Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale"
This war saga might hold the record for the most beheadings in one film, or at least come pretty close. Director-writer Wei Te-sheng's epic (his third feature) is set in the lush rain forests of Taiwan in the 1930s, as outnumbered members of the Seediq tribe battle their Japanese colonizers, who refer to the aborigines as "savages" and treat them as such. There isn't much of a plot, just nearly continuous combat using bows and arrows, guns, spears, mortars and rocks. Viewers' reaction will depend upon how much violence and gore they can handle in one sitting. The Taiwanese, two-part version -- which screened in Venice -- is a butt-numbing four-and--half hours long. The international version being released in the U.S. clocks in at "just" 150 minutes. But even at that length, the brutality gets tiresome after a while. Incidentally, "Seediq bale" means "true Seediq," ortribe members who have proven themselves worthy of their ancestors. Criticwire grade: C+
Opens Friday in Los Angeles. Released by Well Go USA.
In 1998's Megacities, Austrian sometime-documentarian Michael Glawogger devoted a brief, pungent segment to Mexico City strip/grope clubs. Whores' Glory follows up in a major way, with its final segment set in the border town of Reynosa, fearlessly recording an off-hour hooker in a crack-induced stupor. It's a long way down from the relatively light-hearted opening segment at an upscale Bangkok brothel, where women sit gossiping behind glass and waiting for their number to be called. The middle segment takes in a Madras enclosure full of underage girls, preparing viewers for the finale's hard-to-watch degradation. A valuable corrective to male filmmakers' common fetishization of prostitution (most recently Bertrand Bonello's "House of Pleasures"), "Whores' Glory" is, per usual for Glawogger, gorgeous, hypnotic and troubling all at once, despite the filmmaker's unfortunately elbow-to-ribs musical cues. (Was it really necessary to have P.J. Harvey sing "The whores hustle and the hustlers whore" over footage of actual whores?) Criticwire grade: B
Opens Friday at New York's Lincoln Plaza and Cinema Village. Released by Kino Lorber.