This weekly column is intended to provide reviews of nearly every new indie release (and, in certain cases, studio films). Specific release dates and locations follow each review.
"The House I Live In"
Jennifer Garner heads an impressive cast that includes Ty Burrell, Olivia Wilde, Hugh Jackman, Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone in "Butter," the Weinstein Company's Tea Party-lampooning comedy that unspooled last year in Telluride and Toronto to tepid responses. Blame that on the hype. With distribution honcho Harvey Weinstein at the helm, industry pundits figured he had an awards contender on his hands, only to be let down when the movie didn't fit into that predetermined mold. Although nowhere near as smart at lampooning small town types as "To Die For" (the most obvious predecessor), "Butter" still makes for an entertaining and hilarious romp thanks to a game ensemble and wacky premise.
Garner plays Laura Pickler, the wife of a former butter-sculpting champion who takes a stab at mastering the craft with aspirations of a career in politics. Her chances at taking over her husband's title are threatened when an African American girl named Destiny (Yara Shahidi) comes to town armed with a winning smile and major butter-carving talent. Garner is great
as a conservative housewife with a close relationship to God -- and an even closer one to butter -- but it's Wilde who dominates the comedy as a stripper hellbent on making Laura's life a living hell. Criticwire grade: B [Nigel M. Smith]
Opens in several cities this Friday. Released by The Weinstein Company. Watch the trailer below:
Director Gotham Chopra and his famous father agree on one thing: Deepak Chopra is not a typical guru. Instead of meditating in a remote ashram, this media savvy author is the globetrotting promoter of his own brand of enlightenment. Gotham (the comics aficionado anglicized his given name, Gautama) spent a lifetime observing his father connect with the faithful, and he's skeptical of the wise teacher/eager student dynamic. Groomed as the heir to Chopra's spiritual empire, Gotham has a tricky relationship with his distant dad, who seemingly has all the answers and is never reluctant to share them. "Decoding Deepak" is Gotham's attempt to reconcile his private father with the public celebrity sage, but the camera-conscious Chopra is always on, and continually tries to hijack the documentary’s narrative. Their push-pull results in a hyperactive portrait of a restless mind. While Deepak serenely accepts mass adoration, Gotham carefully points out his contradictions (embracing the tangible benefits of success while espousing impermanence), but can’t get a grip on the slippery figure he calls Papa. Criticwire grade: B [Serena Donadoni]
Opens Friday at the Quad Cinema in New York, Laemmle Monica 4 in Los Angeles and Camelot 3 in Palm Springs. VOD available on October 5 via Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and most cable systems. Released by SnagFilms. Watch the trailer below:
Our healthcare system is broken and spiraling out of control. In ten years, American healthcare costs could reach 20% of our gross domestic product, yet as a citizenry, we seem to be in the dark about this subject that impacts virtually every one of us. In "ESCAPE FIRE: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare," directors Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke break down the factors that contribute to this national emergency, illustrating an entrenched system of overmedication, escalating costs, insurance tangles
and physician quotas that mean less time with more patients.
In addition to several talking head experts, the high-quality documentary follows Dr. Erin Martin, a family practitioner in her journey to provide complete care to her patients, Sgt. Robert Yates as he transforms from a pill-popping vet to a pain-free yoga practitioner, and Safeway employees who receive benefits for health supportive practices. The film's distinguishing factors are the solutions it offers up: Lifestyle modifications, alternative medicine, and government, business, and medical initiatives that ameliorate the overwhelming nature of this topic. Criticwire grade: B+ [Rania Richardson]
Opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. Released by Roadside Attractions. Watch the trailer below:
While nearly 30 years have passed since the original "Frankenweenie" short that presaged Tim Burton's commercial success, the director's faithful feature-length adaptation retains much of the original's old-school appeal. A distinctly Burtonesque gothic comedy, the black-and-white "Frankenweenie" lovingly acknowledges a wide range of classic monster movies while showcasing the filmmaker's trademark blend of creepy imagery and compassion for juvenilia. While not Burton's greatest accomplishment, it's his most definitive work in years. Among bland California suburbs, Burton finds middle schooler and only child Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) leading a solitary existence making 8mm monster movies with his best pal Sparky, a peppy canine whose companionship shields Victor from the demands of the outside world. Even before we arrive at Sparky's untimely demise and Victor's now-familiar application of lightening to rejuvenate his dead pet, "Frankenweenie" constructs a stylishly gloomy atmosphere that hints at the creepiness hovering just above Victor's bland surroundings. Eventually hell breaks loose with darkly comic results. The movie barely delivers on its potential before arriving at a tidy resolution, but it's still a satisfactory showcasing of the ingredients that established Burton in the first place. In the wake of the director's recent movies, the reminder couldn't arrive at a more appropriate moment. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed September 30, 2012. Opens Friday nationwide. Released by Disney. Watch the trailer below:
"The House I Live In"
"The war on drugs" has been a part of the national vernacular for so long that it seems old fashioned. Eugene Jarecki's Sundance-winning documentary "The House I Live In" unravels that overused term and if his approach is exhaustive and sometimes overbearingly detailed, it also reveals a troubling and paradoxical system of hierarchical, lower-class oppression. Constructing a vast collage of voices from virtually every facet of the drug world, from dealers to officers and the people impacted by both sides, Jarecki examines every shard to reveal a severely broken system. Extending beyond talking heads, Jarecki inserts himself into the narrative to explain his reasons for making the movie. An introductory segment touches on the impact of the Holocaust on his family and why the "never again" philosophy that came out of that experience should have universal application. "The House I Live In" occasionally makes its point too strongly, circling back to a regular host of characters and suffering from repetition. However, Jarecki's biographical approach snaps into focus with a climax that reinforces the debilitating effect of drug abuse on family life. His documentary is a personal work not because the director chooses to make himself a part of the story, but rather because he implicates all of us in it. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Abramorama.
Is it too early to open a Christmas movie? The distributors of this comedy -- which will be forgotten by the time the holiday arrives -- obviously don't think so. Julian Farino, the director, is a TV veteran ("Sex and the City") and a lot of the cast members made their names on the small screen. No wonder "The Oranges" plays like a TV sitcom minus the laugh track. Leighton Meester is Nina, a college student who runs home for Thanksgiving after she finds her boyfriend fooling around in the bathroom with another girl. Nina's mom (Alison Janney) wants Nina to have "a real relationship with a real man." Instead, the hottie seduces her father's best friend (Hugh Laurie), who lives across the street in suburban New Jersey with his wife (Catherine Keener), son and frumpy daughter. You get the idea. If you want to see this concept done right, check out "American Splendor" instead. Criticwire grade: B- [V.A. Musetto]
Opens Friday nationwide. Distributed by Olympus Pictures. Watch the trailer below:
Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy" is a rare case of serious commitment to outright silliness. The director's follow-up to "Precious" takes the mold of an investigative period piece set amid racial tensions in late-'60s Florida, but Daniels fries the dramatic content with a blazingly absurd grindhouse style as extreme as the humidity bearing down on his characters. It's possible to enjoy aspects of "The Paperboy" if you assume a certain self-awareness behind the campier bits, but even then, the movie drowns in an overwhelming barrage of excess.
Daniels adapted the story from Peter Dexter's novel, but there's no doubting the filmmaker has taken the material into his own domain. Opening with a former black maid as its narrator, the movie flashes back to the experiences of newspaper reporter Ward James (Matthew McConaughey), a man driven to uncover the injustice behind the incarceration of death row inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), convicted of murdering a sheriff. Along with his assistant (David Oyelowo), Ward gets additional help from his younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) and the high-energy hair stylist Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a woman who fell in love with the prisoner when she became his penpal.
Although Ward initially begins his research in straightforward fashion, that's clearly not what interests Daniels. Instead, he emphasizes Jack's developing crush on Charlotte and the prevalent racial tensions that every character experiences. With the investigation quickly turned into a red herring, "The Paperboy" turns into a showcase of the weirdest performances ever put on by the each of the leads (with the exception of McConaughey, whose recent "Killer Joe" gives him a better outlet to express his fiery energy in exceedingly dark material). It's not a campy blast unless that's what you want from it. Criticwire grade: D+ [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed in May at the Cannes Film Festival. Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Millenium Entertainment.
French-Swiss director Ursula Meier burst on the international film scene with her 2008 feature debut "Home," about a peculiar family living next to a highway. Her follow-up, "Sister," lacks the same conceptual ambition but consolidates her skill with a tightly assembled narrative that brings supreme clarity to the mindset of a disgruntled young boy. Scheming 12-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) wastes his days at a posh ski resort in the Alps, where he regularly pilfers skis and other supplies and pawns them off to the world down below. He spends the rest of his time keeping restless sister Louise (rising star Léa Seydoux) at bay, as she drifts through an aimless life of unemployment and promiscuity. Their days in the valley form a tame, insipid routine that Simon only manages to tune out with his inevitably risky business, which reaches new heights when he partners with an older employee at the ski resort (Martin Compston) to complicate the endeavor.
Without revealing too much, it's safe to say that a late twist alters the way we perceive the two characters' relationship while avoiding the possibility of cheapening it; Meier uses it as a transitional point rather than a surprise finish. "Sister" may not arrive at a happy ending, but the lack of resolution -- capped off by the powerful last image --completes its journey to a place of rousing emotional clarity. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed February 14, 2012. Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by Adopt Films. Watch the trailer below:
Too often, handheld camcorder footage provides an excuse to eschew cinematic storytelling in favor of sloppiness, under the assumption that the amateur quality fits the narrative. The anthology horror movie "V/H/S" is a sharp rebuke to this laziness, delivering the creepiest first-person horror movie since the original "Paranormal Activity" while pushing the genre in a fresh direction. The camera never sits still and neither will nail-biting audiences. "V/H/S" contains contributions from some of the more ambitious microbudget American filmmakers working today, not all of whom exclusively work in horror. The concept's parameters were developed by Brad Miska, founder of the horror fan site Bloody Disgusting: A group of young hooligans are tasked with stealing a mysterious tape from an ominous home. When they come across a heap of unidentified footage, the framing device begins as each cassette contains another morbid encounter. The resulting experience is their own private horror festival, with shorts by known indie filmmakers David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Ti West and the online filmmaking collective known as Radio Silence. (Adam Wingard, whose "You're Next" was a breakout hit on the festival circuit last year, directs the wraparound segment.) Despite the chorus of indie names involved in its production, "V/H/S" maintains a surprisingly fluid structure; the lo-fi video quality and foreboding atmosphere carry over into each chapter. Most segments have a fair share of cheap scares, but they also delve into the art of the build-up, as if delivering a series of grim jokes with bloody punchlines. Consider it a 21st-century take on "Tales from the Crypt." Criticwire grade: A [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed January 26, 2012. Opens Friday in several cities; currently available on VOD. Released by Magnet. Watch the trailer below: