Out This Week is a weekly column intended to provide reviews of nearly every new indie release. Reviews are written by Indiewire critic Eric Kohn and other contributors where noted.
REVIEWS THIS WEEK
"Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap"
For his directorial debut (co-directed by Andy Baybutt) legendary MC Ice-T stuck to what he knows best. As its title suggests, the documentary goes to great pains to show the artistry of some of the world's most beloved rappers. Given Ice-T's access to the rap world, the film features a remarkable roster of hip-hop greats, including Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, Run-DMC, Afrika Bambaataa and a candid Eminem. The ensemble waxes on their love for the genre and how they do what they do. The filmmaking is as straightforward as it gets -- Ice-T drops down in New York, Detroit and finally Los Angeles to interview his friends with a camera -- but with Ice-T asking the questions, the chatter is refreshingly candid and raw. Fans of any of the artists mentioned above should most definitely seek this out. Criticwire grade: B [Nigel M. Smith]
Opens Friday in several cities. Released by ATO Pictures. Watch the trailer below:
"Cheryl Wright: Wish Me Away"
The relationship between country musicians and their fan base is intense and loyal, with fans responding to personal songs that echo their lives. "Like Me," the title of Chely Wright’s memoir, reflects that mutual identification (she is them, they are her). But Wright’s revelation that she's gay is considered a "betrayal" by country music’s conservative Christian core, making her more like the Dixie Chicks than k.d. lang. Before the book and her album "Lifted Off the Ground" hit stores, Cheryl Wright underwent a coming out boot camp to prepare her for the media blitz. Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf turn that experience into a relentlessly optimistic documentary, even when the people-pleasing Wright debates her decision in tear-filled confessions. The successful singer, who had cultivated a glamorous image, is unafraid to face the camera with raw, ugly emotions. "Wish Me Away" is most revealing when it counters Nashville’s manufactured intimacy with an insider’s hard-won honesty. Criticwire grade: B [Serena Donadoni]
Opens June 15 in Los Angeles. Currently playing in New York and available on iTunes. Released by First Run Features. Watch the trailer below:
"Timecrimes," the feature-length debut of Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, was a loopy shot of comic suspense about inadvertent time travel. Four years later, his sophomore effort seemingly has less daring aims. But the superficial exterior of "Extraterrestrial," about four acquaintances holed up in their apartment building while a UFO looms overhead, hides a much smarter parable about human behavior. Guided by Vigalondo's understated wit, the story never adheres to expectations. Whereas "Timecrimes" playfully doubled back on itself, "Extraterrestrial" wanders away from its alleged science fiction roots to focus on a sweetly unassuming love story made fresh by the unlikely backdrop.
The movie opens with Julio (Juliían Villagrán), an astute industrial design student, waking up in the apartment of the aptly named Julia (Michelle Jenner) after a one-night stand. While Julia initially wants to cast Julio to the curb before her boyfriend Carlos (Raúl Cimas) comes home, a quick glance out the window changes the terms of their situation. High above the city hangs a nondescript alien spaceship, the kind of obvious cliché that in most movies would imply a lack of new ideas. In this case, it's the start of one. Unsure whether their one-night fling might lead to something more, Julio and Julia continually dodge a neighbor's suspicions while keeping Carlos at bay. The flying saucer never moves, but its metaphorical appeal grows with time. Eventually, the only alien presence among the pile up of lies and hidden motives comes from the desire to tell the truth. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed September 25, 2011. Opens Friday in several cities as well as VOD and DVD. Released by Focus World. Watch the trailer below:
"The Girl From the Naked Eye"
As Jake (Jason Yee), a driver for a prostitution ring, holds the the lifeless body of Sammy, one of the operation’s main employees, (Samantha Streets), a revenge tale sets off in an unnamed city. Aside from his profession, his proclivity for gambling, and his desire to avenge Sammy's death, Jake is a bloodthirsty blank slate. But even while certain individual characters succeed, Jake's passive nature when he doesn’t have either his fists or a weapon in his hands leads to a few too many lulls in a movie that strives to be a measured character study about payback.
A pair of long takes in the film's opening minutes demonstrate some technical wizardry that surpasses the reliance on voiceover and flashbacks to fill in the various plot holes. Scenes with harsh shadows and red color filters are the film’s shorthand for setting up the gritty underworld where Jake has to go to for answers. These stylized moments, however, distract from an otherwise compelling redemption arc. Similarly, moments of levity are used to break the tension, but the lack of a consistent tone keeps the proceedings unfocused.
The real standout is Ron Yuan, who brings a composed conversational dynamic to the role of brothel ringleader, doing his best with the stilted nature of the hackneyed pulp dialogue without letting the character come unhinged. But Yuan's lasting contributions are as the action director, and he delivers a series of setpieces with fight choreography that's a cut above the pedestrian standard, including a continuous "Bolero"-backed quintet near the finale that is the film’s greatest asset. "The Girl from the Naked Eye" is at its best when either the camera or the characters are in motion. Criticwire grade: C [Steve Greene]
Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Tombstone Distribution. Watch the trailer below:
"Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present"
Documentarian Matthew Akers' recap of the titular performance artist's wildly popular 2011 MoMA exhibition pulls back the veil to provide a cogent overview of Abramović's prep work and her years of output preceding it. The result is a competent exploration of her methods that's also disappointing for the same reason.
One can glean so much from observing Abramović's art that the experience of explaining her procedure in clinical terms has the sterile effect of reading a spoiler. While theoretically interesting to hear the sober-minded Abramović break down her intentions, the weeks of build-up to her show deaden the aura of mystery surrounding it. Still, some areas of the documentary hold greater appeal: Abramovic appears at her most fragile when discussing her intimate days with former lover and fellow artist Ulay. Art, in this case, cannot defeat her lingering sorrow. However, Abramović's artwork maintains universal allure because it addresses a range of emotions familiar to everyone. But in "Marina Abramović," the artist is present, and she's shockingly normal. Criticwire grade: B [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed June 11, 2012. Opened Wednesday at Film Forum; premieres on HBO July 2. Released by HBO. Watch the trailer below:
In 2005 director Prashant Bhargava traveled to Ahmedabad, India. Nearly six years later, Bhargava has delivered a touching story of a family coming together to celebrate an annual kite festival. At the head of the family is Jayesh (Mukkund Shukla), a Delhi businessman who decides to travel back to his hometown, hoping to recapture his youth as he romanticizes about the slums he grew up in. During his stay he encounters a family from the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum.
Using a guerilla style to focus on actors' faces and chase them through the boisterous streets, Bhargava pulls together a simplistic story while remaining true to India in its purest form. The landscape combines a celebratory spirit with a poverty-stricken society, all set against a backdrop of swirling kites. The swirling objects, united in motion and color, reveal the movie's greatest theme: No matter our class, we are all human. [Niki Cruz]
Opens Friday in New York, Chicago and Toronto, followed by 18 other select cities in June and July. Released by Khushi Films. Watch the trailer below:
"Tahrir - Liberation Square"
A welcome contrast to the Western media's bird's eye view of the seismic January 2011 revolution in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the energetic verité documentary "Tahrir: Liberation Square" dives right into the action. As directed and shot by Italian filmmaker Stefano Savona, its principle strength is the immediacy of the content: Assembling a collage of young and old Egyptians united by the prospects of a post-Mubarak future, Savona allows the revolution to speak for itself.
The movie begins on January 30, 2011, the sixth day of the Tahrir Square protests (presumably when Savona first turned his camera on). A good portion of the documentary is made up of chants, most of which relate to the widespread poverty of Egyptian citizens and the gulf between their struggles and the posh lives of their leaders. Lacking any historical distance from the events that would allow for cautious dissection of their ramifications, "Tahrir" leaves open the lingering question of what its contents will look like in years to come, and whether they will merit a sequel. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed August 11, 2011. Opened Monday at the Maysles Cinema in New York. Released by Icarus Films. Watch the trailer below:
"The Woman in the Fifth"
Stalled one-time novelist Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) follows his estranged French ex-wife to Paris, winding up in Sezer's (Samir Guesmi) seedy boarding house. Strapped for cash and without a work permit, Ricks agrees to serve as Sezer's night guard at a mysterious off-site location, locking himself into a vault and refusing to ask questions about any blood on the floor. Though his ex has a restraining order, Tom makes fleeting contact with his daughter and takes up with mysterious older widow Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), who offers sexual gratification set to classical music in upper-class comfort. When, after an hour, bad things predictably happen, their exact nature is left coyly ambiguous. Frowningly reciting dialogue in bad French, Hawke renounces charisma. Pawlik Pawlikowski's film obviously wants its ambiguities to stir audiences to impassioned debate about the nature of creation and mental perception, but —- sensitive location shooting of off-the-books Paris aside —- the elisions and attenuated non-suspense frustrate already-eroded patience. Criticwire grade: C [Vadim Rizov]
Opens Friday in New York. Released by ATO Pictures. Watch the trailer below:
"Your Sister's Sister"
Lynn Shelton's "Humpday" made waves for its impressive combination of improvised dialogue and keen insight into human relationships, a tricky balance achieved while also seamlessly drifting between comedy and drama. Her follow-up doesn't expand her range but applies it differently. "Your Sister's Sister" is another highly enjoyable relationship comedy, but a far quieter and contained work.
"Humpday" co-star Mark Duplass plays Jack, an unemployed slacker whose brother Tom dies in an unspecified accident shortly before the movie begins. Tom's ex-girlfriend Iris (Emily Blunt, one of the two stars in "Your Sister's Sister" signifying Shelton's post-"Humpday" career boost) remains best pals with Jack, but worries about his emotional stability. On a whim, she offers up her family cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest so Jack can seek catharsis in solitude. Once there, however, he runs into Iris' sister Hannah (Rosemary DeWitt, that other star, in a role initially assigned to Rachel Weisz). A lesbian reeling from the abrupt end of seven-year relationship, Hannah finds solace in the affable Tom's unexpected presence, and the two bond over a long night of drinking. The blurry evening concludes with an awkward sexual incident made even worse by the oblivious Iris' sudden presence at the cabin the next morning.
While not an unbridled crowdpleaser on par with "Humpday," this smaller achievement is endearing for other reasons. The excessive chatter flows nicely thanks to fine-tuned performances and the chemistry to sustain them. Like "Humpday," it leaves the precise fate of the characters open-ended. Shelton's skill involves an ability to explore familiar situations with a flair for ambiguity, but plenty of payoff. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed September 12, 2011. Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by IFC Films. Watch the trailer below: