This weekly column is intended to provide reviews of nearly every new indie release (and in certain cases studio films), including some VOD titles. Specific release dates and locations follow each review.
David Mitchell's metaphysical 2004 novel "Cloud Atlas" encompasses six different time periods joined together by themes and incidents that mirror each other in wildly different contexts, a layering device that draws out the notion of individuals connecting across many lives without fully realizing it. Intentionally enigmatic in its fragmented structure, "Cloud Atlas" seemed insurmountable on paper. The three-director credit for the movie, a surprisingly faithful adaptation brought to life by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, underscores the magnitude of the challenge. Unfortunately, many of the factors that provoke contemplation in literary form struggle within the considerably different constraints of cinema. Criticwire grade: B- [Eric Kohn]
Read the full review here. Opens nationwide this week. Released by Warner Bros. Watch the trailer below:
The title is a clever bit of false advertising: There's little conventionally funny about "The Comedy," but its status as a provocation is a grand joke. Director Alverson ("New Jerusalem") has made a one-of-a-kind portrait of pathologically insecure and overpriviledged hipsters, crafting the finest awkward-bizarre character study since Ronald Bronstein's "Frownland." The first brilliant maneuver is its casting of Tim Heidecker as the supremely unlikable lead. Best known as one half of the irreverent comedy duo from "Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job!," Heidecker embodies a supremely obnoxious Williamsburg resident committed to wisecracks, regardless of whether or not anyone laughs. Usually, they don't -- and neither do we. That's the point.
Whether tossing vulgarities at the male nurse tasked with caring for his comatose father or engaging in racially tinged humor with a stunned group of African-Americans, Heidecker's Swanson knows no bounds. There are few mainstream precedents for a protagonist so intrinsically hard to like, but "The Comedy" gives Swanson enough screen time to put his psychoses in context. Sporting a scruffy beard and a flabby chest, he physically embodies the careless perspective he brings to his life. "I'm not a regular man," he says, in a rare moment of honesty, before reverting back to his cruel nature. Criticwire grade: A [Eric Kohn]
Read the full review here. Available on VOD this week ahead of a theatrical release in November. Released by Tribeca Film. Watch the trailer below:
"Least Among Saints"
Martin Papazian shouldn’t have to make his own films to prove that he can shine in complex, leading roles. But, thankfully, he has. In "Least Among Saints," his affecting directorial and screenwriting debut, Anthony (Papazian), a veteran Marine, returns from the Middle East as broken as his marriage, unable to make peace with the horrors of the past or so-called normalcy of the present. An unexpected friendship with his 10-year-old neighbor Wade (Tristan Lake Leabu), drowning in a family tragedy of his own, awakens in both the dream of a better future. Structurally, the plot of "Least Among Saints" is neither new nor entirely plausible, yet it still feels fresh and powerful, thanks to the director’s unwavering compassion for his characters, heartfelt writing and exceptional performances. Leabu is faultless as Wade, simultaneously vulnerable and tough, afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve but unable to hide it. For his part, Papazian’s restraint is profound. What Anthony battles to suppress is no less palpable than what he can express, in a hellish situation that offers no real way out. As Charles Dutton’s understanding cop tells him: "The nightmares never disappear, but the time between them gets longer." Which begs the question: Why are we so quick to send anyone to war if we can never truly bring them back? Criticwire grade: B+ [Natasha Senjanovic]
Expands to several cities this week. Released by Brainstorm Media. Watch the trailer below:
"The Loneliest Planet"
Julia Loktev's follow-up to "Day Night Day Night" deals with noticeably broader terrain and even includes a mid-size star (Gael Garcia Bernal). Both of those factors yield something closer to a conventional viewing experience than the intentionally prosaic momentum of her previous outing. It's a smart, mesmerizing and provocative expansion of her talents. Loktev follows spirited young couple Alex (Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) as they backpack across the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia a few months ahead of their wedding. Early fragmented scenes show them wandering through rural towns, exploring the bustling scene with the giddy expressions of lovers blind to the world's secrets but hypnotized by each other. Then they acquire a smooth-talking guide (Bidzina Gujabidze), head off into the wilderness, and the real journey unfolds: "The Loneliest Planet" contains long stretches of time where the three travelers walk and walk, surrounded by vast green hills, gently flowing streams and little else. At first, it becomes a game to wonder when that silence might break, but after awhile the inaction turns into an endless driving force heading nowhere in particular--which is exactly where Loktev wants it to go for the prolonged opening act. It should come as no surprise that sudden developments eventually shake up the characters' lives and call the couple's relationship into question, but the leisurely pace makes the first incident difficult to predict. Suspense is rarely delivered with such distinctive patience. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Read the full review here. Opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. Released by IFC Films. Watch the trailer below:
"Orchestra of Exiles"
Life-saving and advancement of the arts are neatly conflated in Orchestra of Exiles, Josh Aronson's documentary portrait of Polish violin whiz Bronislaw Huberman who founded the Palestine Symphony (later the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), recruiting his musicians from Hitler-threatened Europe. Although the film is a relatively straightforward telling of historical events, supplementing its talking heads and archival footage strategies with some rather hokey recreations, it manages to capture the unique frisson of the undertaking via a recollection of Huberman’s audition methods in which he hews to a strict objectivity knowing that those musicians he rejects are essentially sentenced to death. For the rest, though, Aronson's doc, is a more or less static presentation of facts and superlatives, recounting achievements rather than bringing their circumstances to vivid life. Instead, the movie relies on a simple unexamined narrative that rather smugly makes too much of the idea of bringing culture to the Palestinian "wilderness." Criticwire grade: C+ [Andrew Schenker]
Opens Friday in New York. Released by First Run Features. Watch the trailer below:
Moving the action from Copenhagen to London, this remake of Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 thriller ditches some of the eccentricities of the original and delivers a well made, albeit run-of-the-mill gangster yarn. The first English language film from Madrid-born director Luis Prieto does a good enough job, but given the rich recent history of the British gangster movie, it feels like Prieto is happy enough robbing the local bank rather than going all out to nab the crown jewels. At no point does he try to gazump the original. Frank (Richard Coyle) borrows money from Milo (Zlatco Zurič, reprising the role he played in the original trilogy) in the run up to a drug deal that goes horribly wrong. Stunt casting sees British model Agyness Deyn take on her first major role as Frank’s main squeeze. Criticwire grade: C+ [Kaleem Aftab]
Opens this week in New York and Los Angeles. Currently available on VOD. Released by RADiUS-TWC. Watch the trailer below:
"Seeds of Resiliency"
Susan Polis Schutz opens “Seeds of Resiliency” with an appeal to “appreciate the flowers that grow among the weeds,” a reminder of her background as co-founder of the greeting card company, Blue Mountain Arts. This hour-long documentary is a relentlessly positive look at the transformative power of tragedy, and it works best with very specific stories, such as the daredevil wheelchair athlete with a fearless can-do attitude and a formerly homeless alcoholic (exploited in bumfight videos) who emerges from despondency. Polis Schutz overreaches when she broadens the scope to include the calculated slaughter of the Holocaust or chaotic brutality of Ugandan refugee camps, but still manages to pinpoint the moment when her subjects find solace, see hope in their future and choose to help others. As a cinematic experience, “Seeds of Resiliency” doesn’t go beyond the perfunctory (talking heads and archival footage), but as a guide to the power of positive thinking, it does plant seeds for further consideration. Criticwire grade: C+ [Serena Donadoni]
Opens Oct. 26 at the Laemmle Music Hall and Laemmle Town Center in Los Angeles. Released by Iron Zeal Films. Watch the trailer below:
In the tradition of "Peeping Tom" comes Jaume Balagueró’s "Sleep Tight," a tautly disturbing thriller chronicling the day-by-day perversions of luxury apartment concierge César (Luis Tosar) as he sets out of make the lives of the tenants unhappy. He has his work cut out for him as he focuses his attention on the beautiful Clara (Marta Etura). Sneaking into her apartment every night, he hides under her bed until she falls asleep, at which point he puts chloroform over her face and performs unspeakable acts without her knowing -- until the walls start to close in on him. Balagueró creates a lot of palpable tension in this film, especially when César experiences close calls of being discovered -- the sight of a man lurking underneath a woman's bed never fails to create a sickening sense of unease. Tosar is also a standout as César, as he is able to make such a repellent character sympathetic. The film loses its way toward the end, however, throwing logic to the wind as authorities are inconceivably not skeptical of César, and continues to unravel until the film's less-than-satisfying conclusion. Criticwire grade: B [Caitlin Hughes]
Opens in New York on Friday. Also available on VOD. Released by Dark Sky Films. Watch the trailer below:
"Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning"
With few exceptions, franchises aren't known for increasing their quality as they move along. The "Universal Soldier" series, which began with Roland Emmerich's 1992 blockbuster that starred Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, stands out from the norm. Rather than riffing on the same appeal each time out, as the current spate of "Fast and Furious" sequels have done with continuing success, director John Hyams has dismantled a spate of direct-to-video "Universal Soldier" sequels as well as an ill-received theatrical follow-up by reinventing the entire attitude of the series. Upping his ambition after the decent reception for 2009's "Universal Soldier: Regeneration," with "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning," Hyams delivers a remarkably satisfying action-thriller hybrid that constantly pushes ahead. It's one of the best action movies of the year simply because it keeps hitting the right beats. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Read the entire review here. Available this week on VOD; opens in several theaters next month. Released by Magnolia Pictures. Watch the trailer below:
"The Zen of Bennett"
If you love Tony Bennett, you're destined to enjoy this affable portrait of the legendary crooner considering his life options while still at the top of his game at 85. And if you don't care for Bennett's music? The movie is still an endearing portrait of old age determination -- to a point. Director Unjoo Moon's authorized production mainly focuses on Bennett's star-studded recording sessions while developing his "Duets II" album, and the slew of people he brings into the studio neatly illustrate the range of his appeal: Both John Mayer and Aretha Franklin contribute, as does Amy Winehouse, in the film's dramatic sequence. Recording "Body and Soul" with Bennet only a short period before her death, Winehouse's simultaneously effusive presence not only illustrates her fragility but stands in sharp contrast to the stable work ethic that Bennett has cultivated over the course of his 60-year career.
Outside of that scene, however, the only time we see a modicum of conflict is an off-the-cuff moment when Bennett complains about attempts to pitch his work to younger audiences. "I sing for the whole family," he repeats many times over, one of many times when it seems that the sage-like veteran has become overly steeped in his own legacy. The movie, produced by Bennett's son and manager Danny, reflects that perspective so much that you either get swept up in the celebratory tone or simply acknowledge its subject's vitality -- a result equally obtainable by listening to Bennett's recordings. Criticwire grade: B- [Eric Kohn]
Opened this week in New York and scheduled for release in several other cities this fall. Available on Netflix in November. Released by Abramorama. Watch the trailer below: