Capsule Options is a new weekly column intended to provide reviews of nearly every new indie release.
REVIEWS THIS WEEK
"Beyond the Black Rainbow"
"The Color Wheel"
"Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story"
"Never Stand Still"
"One Hundred Years of Evil"
“American Animal” begins with bombastic fanfare and a cursive-script title card that announces its arrival, establishing a relentless vibe that persists for much of its 95-minute running time. At its heart are two roommates, Jimmy and James, living in a spacious loft and subsiding off the wealth of unseen parents. Jimmy’s drug-induced morning routine is dished out amongst a sea of jump cuts against a backdrop with a palette far more vibrant and varied than the average college dorm. Determined to keep the pair inside all day, Jimmy enlists the help of a pair of friends (both named Angela) to create an eventful day at home, complete with Christmas-themed montages and whimsical costumes that make for laugh-out-loud sight gags.
While playing Jimmy (and also serving as writer/director), Matt D’Elia’s commitment to these unhinged indoor escapades is an impressive piece of physical comedy, made all the more impressive when Jimmy’s personality takes darker turns. Brendan Fletcher, as James, balances out the absurdity with a rationality that keeps the action grounded. Meanwhile, the pair of female companions (listed in the credits as “Blonde Angela” and “Not Blonde Angela”) seem to only exist as a vehicle for angsty commiseration and act very infrequently of their own free will. In the film’s latter third, the allegory strongly implied by the film’s title loses all of its subtlety. For a film so brash that handles much of its subtext with a knowing flare, its closing use of overblown symbolism is a misstep that, like the lack of developed female characters, keeps “American Animal” from becoming a transcendent case study of twentysomething slackerism. But D’Elia, asn an actor, is a true force who more than compensates for any minor shortcomings his writer-director alter ego might make. [Steve Greene] Critcwire grade: B
Opens Friday in New York ahead of a national rollout. Released by Screen Media Films.
"Beyond the Black Rainbow" is an incoherent audiovisual extravaganza for its own sake. Director Panos Cosmatos' feature-length debut unfolds as a wacky, carefully designed, totally inscrutable science fiction brainteaser. With a minimum of plot and extraordinary visual inspiration, Cosmatos delivers an intoxicating experience that defies logic in favor of a hypnotic rhythm.
The story takes place in some modified, futuristic version of 1983, in a mysteriously barren factory bathed in red lights presided over by the enigmatic Dr. Barry Nyle. An eerie advertisement in the opening minutes erratically displays explosive imagers on par with the most abstract Stan Brakhage concoction. In the commercial, the doctor promotes the services of the "Arboria" lab in hushed monotone, fleshing out how its "sensory therapy" can "guide you along the path to a new, better, happier you." It's not hard to detect the nefariousness at work here and Cosmatos wastes no time setting it up: In Nyle's creepy lair, he keeps psychically endowed teenager Elena (Eva Allan) as prisoner, hoping to absorb her powers for his own gain.
According to press notes, Cosmatos was inspired by "hazy childhood memories of midnight movies and Saturday morning cartoons," although "Black Rainbow" has more in common with the former than the latter. But what's equally beguiling and fun about a movie this unselfconsciously out there is it inhabits nostalgia rather than simply paying homage to it. [Eric Kohn] Criticwire grade: B+
Originally reviewed April 26, 2011. Opens in several cities and VOD on Friday. Released by Magnet.
Alex Ross Perry's black-and-white road trip comedy follows bickering brother and sister duo Colin (Perry) and JR (Carlen Altman, who has a co-writing credit) as they travel across the country when JR decides to move. Perry's previous credit was the trippy, quasi-"Gravity's Rainbow" adaptation "IMPOLEX," which meandered along the festival circuit in search of cult appeal. "The Color Wheel" has plenty of that offbeat style but much more accessibility, being a sheer delight of sarcasm and uneasy wit.
As Colin and JR continually trade barbs about each other and disgust everyone they encounter, Perry creates a blend of physical discomfort and awkward comedy unseen since Ronald Bronstein's "Frownland." (Perhaps not coincidentally, the two movies share a cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, whose grainy photography in "The Color Wheel" enhances the uncomfortable mood.) Perry has the irascible screen presence of a subversive Michael Cera, but his sub-literary persona suggests Woody Allen trapped in a nightmarish midnight movie. JR's former flame, a journalism professor played by filmmaker Bob Byington, accurately concludes that Colin is "a pathetic wreck of postgraduate stereotyping." Like everything else in "The Color Wheel" (especially its unnerving conclusion), the pronouncement teeters on the edge between comic put-down and tragic reality. [Eric Kohn] Criticwire grade: A-
Originally reviewed June 15, 2011. Opens Friday at BAM. Released by the Cinema Conservancy.
The closing night selection at Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar in 2010, this quietly suspenseful work from Russian director Andrei Zvyaguintsev ("The Banishment") focuses on an aging woman (Nadazhda Markina) committed to convincing her wealthy husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) to provide financial support for her impoverished son. Her repeated failure to accomplish this task leads to increasingly desperate measures, establishing Elena as one of sharpest agenda-driven onscreen female protagonists since Lisbeth Salander.
Elena's son from an earlier marriage leans on her mother to ask Vladimir for assistance in supporting his family. But the older man resists, leaning on a stringent work ethic and wondering why her son doesn't simply find a job. Elena fires back at him by pointing out the support he provides his own estranged daughter, a rebel whose cold worldview echoes that of her father's. He holds his ground: "I married you, not them," he says. Markina's face is tough to read: She takes his reaction into account, but the full impact that Vladimir's resolve has on his wife's familial allegiances never becomes entirely clear until she acts out. Once that happens, "Elena" transitions from an observational character study to an effectively suspenseful narrative made especially potent by the old woman's hidden agenda. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed May 22, 2011. Opens Friday at Film Forum. Released by Zeitgeist Films.
"Follow Me" is a hagiographic documentary portrait of Yoni Netanyahu, the late brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yoni was a star army officer who heroically saved Israeli hostages in Entebbe in 1976. The film, directed by Jonathan Gruber and Ari Daniel Pinchot, deftly uses photographs, poignant letters (tenderly read by Marton Csokas), as well as interviews with his brothers, ex-wife, and others, to celebrate this remarkable, charismatic man. Yoni was a Zionist who loved Israel and wanted a meaningful life. He was torn between being a soldier and a scholar. And when he re-enlisted in the army after being wounded, it took a toll on his marriage. "Follow Me" punctuates the parade of flattering talking-head interviews with news reports of the weeklong hostage crisis. It's a calculated approach, but it certainly reinforces the image of the attractive, sensitive Yoni as a fascinating, complex martyr. Criticwire grade: B- [Gary M. Kramer]
Originally reviewed on May 3, 2012. Opens in New York and Miami on Friday. Released by International Film Circuit.
Tanya Wexler's genial tale of a young Victorian-era doctor (Hugh Dancy) whose frustration with alleged medical techniques for assisting women with sexual frustration eventually leads him to invent the dildo avoids overindulging in its lurid premise in favor of constructing an inoffensive look at the earliest gestation period for women's rights. Maggie Gyllenhaal routinely steals the show as the daughter of Dancy's naive boss, although her soapbox speech-making tends to overstate the movie's purpose when, let's face it, "Hysteria" is still predominantly about the rise of the dildo. The invention scenes stand out more than the tangents involving the restrictions of Victorian society that prevent the doctor from treating patients the way he sees fit. But to Wexler's credit, she manages to render a seemingly crude premise with equal doses of giddiness and charm. A kind of cinematic dildo, if you will, "Hysteria" is fun while it lasts and not much else. Criticwire grade: B [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
As writer, director and editor of "Lovely Molly," Eduardo Sanchez -- aka one half of the duo behind "The Blair Witch Project," as it must always be noted -- has maintained the DIY approach that first put him on the map. But now he has also demonstrated that his filmmaking talent extends beyond the faux-documentary style that he helped commercialize. Featuring a breakout performance by newcomer Gretchen Lodge, the new movie revolves around a recovering drug addict and newlywed living in her deceased parents' isolated home, struggling with the demons of her past as well as the literal ones of the present: Something ominous is haunting Molly, a strange and possibly supernatural presence with unquestionably evil intentions. Steeped in understated creepiness as Molly slowly becomes aware of an invisible presence in her house, the movie conveys a remarkable amount of atmospheric dread. Sanchez spends so long building up the tension that it's a supreme letdown when he finally concedes with a comparatively uninspired finale in which much of what has been implied slovenly shows up onscreen. Still, over a decade after his smash hit, Sanchez has proven he's anything but a one-hit wonder or a horror shock jock -- and that's no small feat for "The Blair Witch" guy, even he still can't shake that association. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
One of the early zen-like koans in Morgan Spurlock's "Mansome" comes from Isaiah Mustafa (better known to the Internet as "the Old Spice guy"): "If you create a persona, you've got to stick with it." Image and presentation are two topics Spurlock knows best, and here he spreads his understanding of the male image across seven topics that are introduced by executive producers Will Arnett and Jason Bateman as they have a delightful spa day. A kind of fascinating parallel to Spurlock's "Episode IV: A Fan's Hope"-- the director has admitted he shot both around the same time on The Nerdist Podcast -- "Mansome" treats each segment with its own focus, but the whole thing still plays like a barrage of bad jokes. (When Jack Passion attends competitive beard growing events, Anthrax's Scott Ian cuts in to add, "I think beard or mustache competitions are, for lack of a better word, pretty gay.") The power of Spurlock, however, is he'll win you back with glimpses of brilliance, such as the Body, Hair and Face segments that touch on class, fashion, image issues, community and being accepted as a man. It would just be great if the same could be said for the first half, which plays out like an adaptation of Bros Icing Bros. Criticwire grade: C+ [John Lichman]
Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Paladin.
"People come here because they really love dance," Stockholm choreographer Jens Rosen gushes in "Never Stand Still," a valentine to Jacob's Pillow, the renowned dance theater-school in bucolic Becket, Mass. Filmmaker Ron Honsa uses interviews with dance greats like Merce Cunningham, Bill Irwin (who notes that Keaton and Chaplin influence his work), Mark Morris and Paul Taylor, as well as with up-and-comers. He throws in a potpourri of performances as well as vintage clips going back to the 1950s at what insiders call "the Pillow." Last year, the historic center -- which was founded 80 years ago by pioneers Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis -- received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama. "Never Stand Still" lacks the pizzazz of Wim Wenders' "Pina," and not just because it isn't in 3-D, but it entertains nevertheless. Criticwire grade: A- [V.A. Musetto]
Opens Friday in New York and other cities. Released by First Run Features.
Blurring the demarcations of reality and fiction, “One Hundred Years of Evil” transforms established history into subjective truthiness. What if Adolf Hitler didn’t die in his Berlin bunker but ended up in the United States along with the German rocket scientists who helped America compete in the space race? Directors Erik Eger and Magnus Oliv plug this premise into an investigative storyline: a documentary crew follows Swedish academic Skule Antonsen (Jon Rekdal) as he tracks down elusive Hitler doppelgänger Adolf Munchenhauser. This Adolf is portrayed as both a buffoon and the überpersuasive manipulator of important people (Joseph McCarthy) and events (Cuban Missile Crisis), but it’s his effect on Skule that drives the film. Antonsen begins as an inquisitive scientist researching the mechanism of lying and becomes a committed conspiracy theorist and relentless Nazi hunter. So what’s the biggest revelation in this mockumentary? That an expert on deception can be undone by his unwavering belief in the absolute truth. Criticwire grade: B [Serena Donadoni]
Plays May 19-25 at indieScreen in Brooklyn. Released by FilmBuff, which has also made the film available on VOD.
The directorial debut of French actress Maiwenn, this ensemble portrait of a Child Protections Unit has the breadth of a meaty TV show and the naturalistic flourishes of a documentary, but never commands the importance hinted by its length and formalism. Maiwenn ably juggles a plot that focuses on several members of the unit as they deal with both pithy and high-risk problems, alternating between intimate glimpses at the uneasy work's impact on their personal lives and a darkly comic look at the way the office habitat lends itself to a blasé treatment of dangerous issues (a scene in which a young woman makes inaccurate claims to suffering from sexual assault and gets drowned in laughter stands out). "Polisse" doesn't wear out its welcome so much as gradually disintegrate into a series of mini-incidents, culminating with a sudden act of violence only so that it conclude the proceedings with a bang. Maiwann has proven her directorial chops; now she needs a good editor. Criticwire grade: B [Eric Kohn]
Opens in several cities on Friday and available on VOD on May 25. Released by Sundance Selects.
A passable entry among the diminishing returns of the Samuel L. Jackson oeuvre, "The Samaritan" stars the actor as aging con man Foley, a moody figure recently released from prison after being forced to murder his best friend. Once out, the downtrodden and hopelessly alcoholic loner tries to keep his head low and stay out of trouble until trouble naturally finds him. Foley's unassuming existence evaporates when he finds himself facing his late friend's son (Luke Kirby), who urges the older man to help him out with a con and uses the luscious young Iris (Ruth Negga) to seduce him. All is not what it seems, and the movie contains one surprise twist that introduces an intriguing element of inter-generational turmoil to the drama, but even then it retains a generally lethargic atmosphere.
By the time secrets boil to the surface and Foley must confront the mistakes of his dark past manifesting in the present, "The Samaritan" has already established itself as an underwritten pulp exercise that goes through the motions in service of a formula that ran its course long ago. Jackson delivers in the early scenes by lending a credible solemnity to the character, but by the bullet-fueled conclusion even he looks exhausted by the lack of bright ideas. Criticwire grade: C- [Eric Kohn]
The plucky-band-of-misfits tale is a familiar trope in sports movies, as is the story of the down-on-his-luck former pro looking to retain a tenuous connection to his beloved sport. “The Yankles” manages to combine these two, albeit with some clunky, pre-credits exposition along the way. Charlie Jones, a one-time star whose on-field failures and off-field DUIs make him the object of derision, receives an unexpected offer from another former player, Elliot, now studying to become a rabbi. After some coaxing from Debra (Charlie’s estranged wife and Elliot’s brother), Charlie agrees to coach the newly formed baseball team at Elliot’s yeshiva.
The resulting meteoric rise of the Yankles from a fumbling assemblance of rabbinical scholars to a competent, often superior baseball team often feels preposterous. But in the few moments where the quirky personalities of the team members shine through, there’s a palpable joy and camaraderie. The obligatory parental redemption subplot involving Elliot’s nonreligious father is often too cartoonish in its prejudices to be of value, and the subplot surrounding the collegial sporting executives trying to thwart the Yankles’ ascendance could be excised without much detriment to the overall enjoyment of the film. With Charlie as their lead, filmmaking brothers David and Zev Brooks gradually ease into a world that feels somewhat recognizable. Had the rest of the film contained the same spirit as the pleasantly off-kilter end credits musical number, “The Yankles” might have been able to distinguish itself from other baseball fare. Criticwire grade: C [Steve Greene]
Opens Friday in Los Angeles. Released by Magnolia Pictures.