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July 12, 2012 1:29 PM
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Out This Week: 12 Reviews of New Indie Releases

This weekly column is intended to provide reviews of nearly every new indie release, including films on VOD. Specifics release dates and locations follow each review.

Cillian Murphy in "Red Lights."
REVIEWS THIS WEEK

"Abel"

"Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes"

"Easy Money"

"Family Portrait in Black and White"

"Farewell My Queen"

"The Impostor"

"The Mars Underground"

"Ponies"

"Red Lights"

"Trek Nation"

"Trishna"

"Union Square"

_______________________________________________

"Abel"

Institutionalized since dad Anselmo (Jose Maria Yapzik) went to work in "gringoland" two years ago, young Abel (Christopher Ruiz-Esparza) is kicked out of his mental hospital. Mother Cecilia (Karina Gidi) has a week to decide whether he can stay at home or must be transferred to a public institution in Mexico City. First Abel's creepily mute, and then he turns into a much stricter version of his long-gone dad. Cecilia takes the doctor's advice and doesn't challenge Abel as he instills homework discipline, helps sister Selene (Geraldine Alejandra) with boy trouble, and acts as a better father to younger Paul (Gerardo Ruiz-Esparza) than the real thing. The family walks on eggshells, and Diego Luna's feature directorial debut never hits on a tone: Abel's disorder arbitrarily renders him a healing force for the sundered family and a danger to Paul. Queasily tugged in opposite directions between cuteness and disturbance, "Abel" is instead irresolutely affectless. Criticwire grade: C [Vadim Rizov]

Released this week on VOD via FilmBuff. Watch the trailer below:

"Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes"

There’s a moment near the end of M. Slinger’s look at the world of glass pipemaking when Slinger asserts that, decades from now, the members of the movement will be producing "significant art" that will bring them international renown. It's a fitting statement given that the rest of the film feels like a time capsule, ready to be discovered once the use of these pipes becomes an acceptable part of mainstream culture. However, when viewed in a contemporary context, the nebulous idea of "drugs" hangs over every discussion with hardly anyone wanting to acknowledge its presence.

The frequent use of technical jargon helps the overall effort come across as an insular project aimed at its biggest devotees. As a result, "Degenerate Art" becomes a work of advocacy for glass pipemaking as an art form, but without an effort to engage any of the profession's detractors. It's hard to imagine anyone denying the impressive nature of some of these incredibly intricate glass pieces, even if many of them are presented in a rote, slideshow format. But many of their products have an perfunctory nature that, even if taken as art, is impossible to extricate from any thorough look at those who craft them. Criticwire grade: C+ [Steve Greene]

Released this week on VOD via FilmBuff. Watch the trailer below:

"Easy Money"

A box office hit in Sweden, this slick crime thriller quickly propelled director Daniel Espinosa to Hollywood's attention. (He has since directed the Denzel Washington vehicle "Safe House.") Two Swedish "Easy Money" sequels are on the way; Zac Efron is attached to the American remake. What's with all the hype? Frankly, "Easy Money" delivers a smartly orchestrated look at a trio of conflicted men drawn into a web of corruption, exactly the kind of intelligent genre feat we rarely see these days. Its grimy atmosphere attracted no less than Martin Scorsese to add his name as a presenter for the U.S. release, but a better point of comparison than "Mean Streets" would be Christopher Nolan's Batman movies: Espinosa's Stockholm amounts to a grittier take on Nolan's version of Gotham City, a noir-inflected universe in which everyone appears trapped by ominous forces beyond their control.

Suave con man JW (Joel Kinnaman) joins forces with prison escapee Jorge (Matias Padin Varela) on a cocaine deal, only to run into trouble when conflicted hitman Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) tries to take Jorge out. The movie is so neatly stitched together that its construction often distracts from a fairly standard series of developments as they build toward the inevitable showdown. Once there, "Easy Money" piles up the running, jumping and shooting with palpable intensity, but far less substance than the events preceding it. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]

Originally reviewed July 11, 2012. Opens this week in New York and Los Angeles. Released by The Weinstein Company. Watch the trailer below:

"Family Portrait in Black and White"

Racial identity is at the heart of Julia Ivanova’s doc, Family Portrait in Black and White, a documentary that chronicles the lives of Olga Nenya, a rural Ukrainian woman and the several dozen largely mixed- race children she’s fostering. The offspring of African parents and white mothers, these unwanted children face considerable prejudice from locals who don’t consider them true Ukrainians. In turn, they dismiss immigrants they pass in similar terms, thus showing the surest way to assert one’s identity is
to deny others that same status. This existential confusion – unfolding against frightening footage of Kiev-based neo-Nazi groups – is the film’s richest vein, but Ivanova is as interested in mining the fraught relationship between the children and their somewhat tyrannical mother as it is tracking racial identity. This filial tension makes for good drama in its own right – especially when Olga’s attitude is revealed as increasingly forged in the narrower-minded thinking of Soviet-era life – but this focus means that other, more fruitful areas of inquiry are left inadequately investigated. Criticwire grade: B- [Andrew Schenker]

Opens in New York on Friday with more cities to follow. Released by First Pond Entertainment. Watch the trailer below:

"Farewell My Queen"

French director Benoit Jacquot tells stories with a strong command of cinematic form, but he might as well be a psychoanalyst: He puts repressed characters in close-up while their unstated desires slowly come to the fore. Berlinale opener "Farewell, My Queen" demonstrates this penchant with particular acuity, exploring the burgeoning French Revolution not from the perspective of the Queen but her official reader -- a natural side character given a welcome starring role.
 
Léa Seydoux (most recently seen as the femme fatale in the latest "Mission Impossible" sequel) plays Sidonie Laborde, a soft-spoken member of the Queen's entourage in the summer of 1789. As frantic word flows into Versailles about the uprising in Paris, the tranquil bubble surrounding Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) threatens to burst. Sidonie, attracted and protective of a woman barely aware of her existence, grows increasingly isolated as forces build beyond her control. By the end, while proceedings remain fairly cerebral, she emerges as a shrewd heroine whose aggressive nature exists out of time. Jacquot, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gilles Tauran from Chantal Thomas' novel, hints that it's possible to analogize the French Revolution to the greater sexual one nearly 200 years down the road. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]

Originally reviewed February 9, 2012. Opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 13. Released by Cohen Media. Watch the trailer below:

"The Imposter"

A documentary produced by the people who brought you "The Tillman Story" and "Man on Wire," Bart Layton's engaging non-fiction mystery has plenty in common with the mixture of suspense and intrigue of those earlier movies. The filmmaker's retelling of the investigation into a bizarre 1997 case in which a Spanish man impersonated a missing adolescent from San Antonio--convincing the boy's relatives that he was the real deal--combines legitimate detective work with oodles of ambiguity. Sustained by its weird-but-true hooks, "The Imposter" only suffers from being too enamored of its unknown variables to reach a satisfying whole.

The aforementioned documentaries provide a less apt description of the movie's central premise than imagining the prospects of "Catch Me If You Can" directed by Errol Morris; Layton's biggest coup involves a dominant interview with an outgoing Spanish man who remains unnamed for most of the movie. His espionage-like method of impersonating the missing boy, Nicholas Barclay, puts the movie firmly inside the anonymous man's head. Guided by a cosmic score and slickly constructed reenactments, "The Imposter" inhabits the con artist's perspective as he infiltrates a small Texas town, makes the local news and even manages to work his way back to high school. Easy to watch but littered with holes only noticeable once the credits roll, "The Imposter" borrows the sly methods of its hoodwinking protagonist to trick its viewers into the expectation of a single payoff. Instead, it offers several minor ones. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]

Originally reviewed January 25, 2012. Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Indomina. Watch the trailer below:


 

"The Mars Underground"

Dr. Robert Zubrin would make a fantastic subject for a feature-length Errol Morris film. While Zubrin's plan for a manned mission to Mars realizable within ten years sounds plausible enough to entertain to this non-scientist, his fanatical manner (he's been advocating the plan, to no avail, since 1989) and hunched intensity make him hard to regard without skepticism. Scott J. Gill's documentary allows NASA administrator Ed Weiler to voice some equally plausible objections, only to cut back to Zubrin pedantically, slowly rebutting them. Talking heads, bad CGI depicting the proposed mission, and hagiographic history are filled out with portentous rhetoric. "We decided to do Mars the way Lewis and Clark did America," he announces, insisting nothing could be more financially urgent ("There were many problems in Spain in 1492"). The effect's something like being cornered by a libertarian crank for 78 minutes: The arguments sound vaguely tenable, but you just want to get away. Criticwire grade: D [Vadim Rizov]

Released this week on VOD by FilmBuff. Watch the trailer below:

"Ponies"

Milk and honey are about as forthcoming ­as blood from the proverbial stone for the immigrants at the heart of Nick Sandow’s feature debut “Ponies,” from Michael Batistick’s critically acclaimed play, which the playwright adapted for the screen. Set primarily in a Brooklyn betting parlor, with the occasional flashback, “Ponies” spans 24 hours and hinges on a stolen taxi cab that involves three men as wary of one another as they are of their own fates. There’s Drazen (John Ventimiglia, outstanding), a shifty, spirited Croatian who needs to win at the ponies in order to buy his little girl a communion dress; Nigerian engineer-turned-taxi driver Ken (Babs Olusanmokum, reprising his heartbreaking stage role); and an impeccably eloquent Venezuelan cook, Wallace (an understated, riveting Kevin Corrigan). The dialogue is tight enough, the cast is great and the technical credits solid albeit perfunctory – a handheld camera moves constantly through the grain and grit of a post-9/11 New York. But there’s an over-earnestness to the story itself that gets in the way of empathy. Like Ventimiglia’s accent, which comes and goes, the film seems made by well-intentioned outsiders trying to capture and denounce a world they don’t fully understand. Criticwire grade: B- [Natasha Senjanovic]

Opens Friday at New York's Cinema Village. Released by Creative Chaos Ventures.

"Red Lights"

Rodrigo Cortes' last film, the appropriately claustrophobic "Buried," took place entirely inside a coffin; his follow-up is trapped only by a string of poorly conceived ideas. While initially compelling for its teaming up of Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy as cynical researchers intent on debunking paranormal events, the ensuing creepy fable piles up a series of confounding events when the pair face a new set of challenges when attempting to combat the claims of blind psychic Simon Silver (a sullen Robert DeNiro), with whom Weaver's character shares a dark past. When she backs off, Murphy's muckraking character embarks on an increasingly high stakes mission to take Silver down. Aided by his trusty disciple (Elizabeth Olsen), Murphy looks continually baffled as Silver pulls off apparent supernatural stunts to keep the skeptic off his tail. Some of these incidents maintain ample spookiness, but as they pile up, the movie runs out of fresh ideas and eventually hits a wall with an annoying conclusion that attempts to redefine the scenario too late in the game. But it starts heading that way much earlier: After an hour of false leads, "Red Lights" firmly plants it red flag and never manages to remove it. Criticwire grade: C- [Eric Kohn]

Opens in New York on Friday. Released by Millennium Entertainment. Watch the trailer below:

"Trek Nation"

Having the son of the creator of "Star Trek" at the center of an examination of the show's resultant fanverse is a decision that, in a lesser documentary, would have given way to a tiresome vanity project. But the sincerity that pervades the discussions of the life and work of the late Gene Roddenberry is propelled by the presence of Eugene, who acts as the narrator/tour-guide hybrid throughout the film. When interacting with fans of the seminal TV series, Eugene and director Scott Colthorp wisely eschew the "creatures in their habitat" approach that seems to accompany many portrayals of those inclined to attend fan conventions. The film also doesn’t let the elder Rodenberry escape from the imperfections of his home life, where his attention to the original series superseded that given to his immediate family. Eugene then becomes the logical sounding board for the complications of such a household, justifying his role as the film’s main storyteller.

Some of the interviews that Eugene conducts seem to span nearly a decade. As a result, some of his transitions can be a little jarring. To compensate, Eugene’s narration blends with moments that hinder the film’s momentum. But the its greatest strength, which transcends any superficial style choices, is its ability to weave imperceptibly through discussions of both Roddenberry and the show while treating them as distinct topics. One highlight is Eugene’s interview with George Lucas, which uses archival footage of Roddenberry to imagine an indirect debate between the two men on the merits of each’s creations. It’s light-hearted but engages directly with the artistic motivations behind the original "Star Trek" and its various iterations, like much of the film. Criticwire grade: B+ [Steve Greene]

Released this week on VOD via FilmBuff. Watch the trailer below:

"Trishna"

In recent years, Michael Winterbottom has developed an awful habit of making great movies that fall apart. Mirroring the equally mixed bag of 2010's "The Killer Inside Me," the director's heartbreaking adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel "Tell of the d'Ubervilles" is largely a brilliant fable about the journey of a young rural woman (Freida Pinto) to higher echelons of Indian society when the wealthy son of a property developer (Riz Ahmed) takes her under his wing. As the two develop an intimate romance, first under the constraints of religious order and then freely in the big city, the sheltered Trishna's eyes and ambitions slowly widen. Marvelously shot and paced to accentuate this transition, the movie maintains the involving aura a neorealist fairy tale -- until Trishna's new love starts to lose his mind, and the story suffers from an abrupt tonal shift that lacks any semblance of credibility. The darker turns feel like a forced, cheap stunt that negates much of the power driving the intelligent drama preceding them. Even then, however, Pinto -- head and shoulders above her restrictive "Slumdog Millionaire" role -- radiates pathos and complexity even as she remains a soft spoken enigma. The face of old and new worlds colliding, Pinto delivers one of the year's finest performances, barreling ahead when the material can't keep up and very nearly salvaging it. Forget Winterbottom; see the movie to marvel at Pinto's extraordinary accomplishment. Criticwire grade: B [Eric Kohn]

Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by IFC Films. Watch the trailer below:

"Union Square"

Hailed as one of a handful of exciting new female voices to emerge from the 1980s independent film movement, Nancy Savoca came out of the gate with the Sundance award-winning "True Love" in 1989. Little of Savoca's early spark is evident in "Union Square," the tale of two opposite sisters from the Bronx, but her dedication to women's stories in all six of her features is laudable. A caricatured character study scripted (by Savoca and Mary Tobler) to favor theatrical hijinx over believability, the story follows Jenny (Tammy Blanchard) and Lucy (Mira Sorvino) as they reunite during a period of family drama. Gum-smacking, stiletto-wearing Lucy asserts herself into her estranged sister's New York loft in Union Square. Lovely, well-spoken Jenny has so far hidden her messy family from her clean cut boyfriend, but her guard comes down as Lucy layers on a painful soap opera of truths -- adultery, addiction, depression and death. Criticwire grade: C+ [Rania Richardson]

Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by Dada Films. Watch the trailer below:

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