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Critical Consensus: Delayed "City of Life and Death" Tops Very Busy Week on criticWIRE

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire May 11, 2011 at 2:36AM

As Cannes kicks off in the south of France, a whopping 11 new films are opening in limited release Stateside. There's Dan Rush's Will Ferrell dramedy "Everything Must Go," Joseph Gordon-Levitt starrer "Hesher," and Justin Chadwick's film festival favorite "The First Grader," as well as the long delayed release of Lu Chaun's "City of Life and Death" and four new docs covering everything from a lesbian folk singing sister comedy duo to Yves Saint Laurent.
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As Cannes kicks off in the south of France, a whopping 11 new films are opening in limited release Stateside. There's Dan Rush's Will Ferrell dramedy "Everything Must Go," Joseph Gordon-Levitt starrer "Hesher," and Justin Chadwick's film festival favorite "The First Grader," as well as the long delayed release of Lu Chaun's "City of Life and Death" and four new docs covering everything from a lesbian folk singing sister comedy duo to Yves Saint Laurent.

Most of the films received quite positive notices from criticWIRE, with three - "City of Life and Death," Jack Cardiff doc "Cameraman," and Peter Mullan's UK import "Neds" all receiving "B+" averages. "City of Life and Death" edged the latter two out to become this week's critical consensus pick of the week, which is the film with the top grade average on criticWIRE (note: a film must have 5 or more grades to be considered the "critical consensus"). It has been a controversial path to theatrical release for the film. It had been scheduled to make its theatrical debut on March 31, 2010 via National Geographic. But negotiations with the Chinese film board stalled, and “City” looked like it might not ever see a U.S. release. But last December Kino International stepped in, and is going to release “City” this May. Set during the 1937 occupation of Nanking by Japanese forces, the film takes a look at life inside the walled and occupied city, telling a largely untold story of the Chinese resisters who fought back. indieWIRE's Eric Kohn offers his thoughts on "City," and a variety of other films opening this week:

In American cinema, war movies are often weighted with national pride. Not so in Lu Chuan's devastating "City of Life and Death," an epic look at the rape of Nanking through some of the soldiers involved in it. Lu's ensemble cast includes both Chinese and Japanese characters, delicately portraying both the perseverance of oppressed citizens and the moral quandaries of the oppressors. Despite this grave angle, however, it's still a bonafide entry in the war genre, with stunningly intense combat sequences shot in evocative black-and-white. Lu makes the tragic period seem at once gripping and deeply thoughtful, which is a lot more than you can say about "The First Grader"--also opening this week--Justin Chadwick's gooey tale of an 84-year-old Kenyan war veteran who enrolls in elementary school so he can learn to read. While loaded with earnest uplift, the movie loses much of its initial dramatic momentum with an overly sunny finale.

A third period piece hitting theaters this week has nothing in common with the other two. "Skateland" is set in 1983 and follows the disgruntled young manager of a Texas skating rink (Shiloh Fernandez) looking to get out and do something with his life. Competently acted and shot to capitalize the style of era, "Skateland" holds together as a solid coming-of-age story, but that's also what holds it down. Thoroughly conventional, Anthony Burns' directorial debut suffers from inevitable comparisons to another '80s-set coming-of-age story, Greg Mottola's vastly superior "Adventureland." Both movies nail the atmosphere of the decade, but only "Skateland," which contains music by the Talking Heads and Modern English, is frequently overshadowed by its soundtrack.

A better bet for those seeking teenage angst this weekend is "Hesher," which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an inexplicably insane, tattooed rocker type who enlists a wide-eyed youngster as his companion. Unlike the auteur with whom he shares initials, Jean-Luc Godard, Gordon-Levitt manages to experiment with his range without alienating a non-cinephile audience. But it's still pretty out there.

With its odd tone and punk spirit, the movie is incessantly entertaining in spite of its sloppy plot and pointless vulgarity. But Natalie Portman, as the kindly neighborhood gal from whom the two male leads compete for affection, displays a vastly different, more contained performance than anything else on her resumé released post-"Black Swan" (for the record, that would be "Your Highness" and "Thor," so not exactly big competition). And if you want to see a star do something different, the Portman-JGL coupling delivers much more satisfying results than Will Ferrell in "Everything Must Go," also opening this week. Ferrell plays an unemployed alcoholic abandoned by his wife with the same credibility that "Skateland" brings to the coming-of-age genre. Which is to say, he's not terrible, but there are enough other examples to justify looking elsewhere.

Check out the links below for more extensive takes on "Hesher," "Everything Must Go," "City of Life and Death," "Skateland," "The First Grader" and more. Also offered is the top ten criticWIRE scores for films already in theaters, which is currently topped by Clio Barnard's "The Arbor."

iW Film Calendar & criticWIRE:
criticWIRE | Opening this week | Opening this month | All Films A - Z

criticWIRE: Films Opening This Week
NOTE: The averages listed here are current as of the publishing of this article. They are subject to change as new grades come in, and will be updated in next week's edition of this article.

City of Life and Death (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

Cameraman: The Work and Life of Jack Cardiff (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

Neds (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

L'Amour Fou (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B

The Topp Twins (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B

How To Live Forever (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B

The First Grader (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B-

Everything Must Go (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B-

Skateland (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B-

Hesher (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: C+

The High Cost of Living (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: C


criticWIRE: 10 Best Bets Already In Theaters

1. The Arbor (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: A-

2. Le Quattro Volte (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

3. Meek's Cutoff (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

4. Certified Copy (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

5. Incendies (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

6. Jane Eyre (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

7. The Robber (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

8. Win Win (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B+

9. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B

10. Caterpillar (iW film page)
Average criticWIRE rating: B

Previous Picks of the Week:
May 4: Koji Wakamatsu's "Caterpillar,"
April 27: Clio Barnard's "The Arbor"
April 20: Denis Villeneuve's "Incendies"
April 13: Janus Metz's "Armadillo"
April 6: Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff"
March 30: Michaelangelo Frammartino's "Le Quattro Volte"