This weekly column is intended to provide reviews of nearly every new release, including films on VOD (and in certain cases some studio releases). Specifics release dates and locations follow each review.
"Waiting for Lightning"
So you like "Downton Abbey"? Then "Cheerful Weather For The Wedding" was probably made for you -- especially because, as with the show, Elizabeth McGovern remains the matriarch. But while it's well-acted and nicely shot, it trades the show's fun, soapy melodrama for predictability and a monotonous pace. Donald Rice's feature debut takes place in the 1930s in England (and adapts Julia Strachey's novel), with wealthy young bride Dolly Thatcham (Felicity Jones) prepping for her marriage to the priggish Owen (James Norton) when she is truly in love with Joseph (Luke Treadaway). Complications arise when Joseph comes to the wedding and brings back a flood of memories for Dolly, in addition to voicing his love for her. The main problem here is that the characters aren't very fleshed out; other than that she's beautiful and has a predilection for travel, we never really learn anything about Dolly, the main character, or anyone else for that matter. The film does feature notable cinematography, filled with saturated colors, and detailed costume design for added prestige. But while Jones and Treadaway have chemistry to burn, their romance is underwritten and the film ends with barely a whimper. Where's a nefarious housekeeper when you need her? Criticwire grade: C+ [Caitlin Hughes]
Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles on December 14. Currently available on VOD. Released by IFC Films. Watch the trailer below:
An understated, slow-burn thriller, "Deadfall" doesn't reinvigorate film noir rules but illustrates their lasting value. Director Stefan Ruzowitzky ("The Counterfeiters") takes an inoffensively straightforward approach to first-timer Zach Dean's old-fashioned screenplay, turning its blunt character types and derivative scenarios into enjoyable pulp fodder.
Set in a frosty Canadian border town on the eve of Thanksgiving, "Deadfall" features an icy landscape littered with crime to an implausible degree, but it gets a pass for its unabashed commitment to formula. Things have gone wrong before the credits even roll, with grown siblings Addison (Eric Bana) and Liza (Olivia Wilde) speeding down the snowy road on the lam from a heist; when the car suddenly flips, Addison mows down a passing cop and the duo continue their race to nowhere through the frozen woods.
Meanwhile, a completely unrelated crime is committed in the city, where former boxer Jay (Charlie Hunnam) has been released from jail after doing time for a fixed fight. Seeking revenge against an ex-colleague who set him up, Jay accidentally injures the man and also finds himself on the lam -- in this case, the same Canadian border town, where his family lives and expects him for Thanksgiving. Naturally, the two incidents must clash. Various action showdowns lead to less satisfying results, but the climax -- where virtually every strand collides over the course of a Thanksgiving dinner -- stands out because it eschews endless gunfire for tense conversation. Those final scenes turn "Deadfall" into a bonafide family drama, proof that the noir has humanistic roots. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Read the full review here. Opens December 7 in New York. Released by Magnolia Pictures. Watch the trailer below:
Ed Burns is back, with a comedy about an Irish-American family, this time set around the threat by a dead-beat dad (Ed Lauter) to return to spend the holiday with the wife and the seven children whom he abandoned. I won’t give the ending away, but "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas," starring Burns as usual, comes right out of the marketing department. Christmas is the top film-going time of the year in the US. And if Irish-American family life in this film is any indication, people in those families will be scrambling to do anything else but spend the holidays with each other. Maybe they’ll go see "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas." Hence the preview screening it received at the Toronto International Film Festival.
You don't know whether the Fitzgeralds should go into therapy or just go to confession – probably both. The director/screenwriter leads a cast of misfits who can’t seem to have relationships, or just get into bad ones. When they’re en famille, the repartee is deadly, with every memory repackaged into an insult -- and without any filter to protect anyone’s feelings, not even those of the family patriarch, a prodigal father with cancer who has a few months left to live. Think of an Irish wake with a corpse in training. Burns doesn’t have much time for filial piety, but he can write dialogue that will make you laugh as long as you’re not its target. Driven by talk (as Irish-Americans tend to be), his cheaply-made movie doesn’t need to look like much, and it doesn’t. If you’re a fan, you won’t mind that much of the talk sounds recycled. Criticwire grade: B [David D'Arcy]
Opens Friday in New York. Currently available on DVD. Released by Tribeca Film. Watch the trailer below:
Bill Murray is a man of many talents who has lately struggled to find the right outlet for them. The latest example, "Hyde Park on Hudson," finds Murray in a tame, mannered costume drama delivering his best FDR impression. The actor's pathos and deadpan skills are buried in the material, which also suffers from a continuous lack of inspiration. It's high-minded entertainment with low ambition.
Taking cues from playwright Richard Nelson's screenplay, director Roger Michell ("Notting Hill") follows a curious tangent of FDR's presidency, when during the summer of 1939 the president left the White House to spend time at his family home in upstate New York. While there, he invites the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Coleman) to pay him a visit to discuss Britain's mounting pressure to join the war against Germany. The meeting arrives around the movie's midpoint and contains ample entertainment value outside of the context of the story surrounding it.
Before that happens, however, FDR forms a different sort of special relationship -- with his neighbor, the shy and gullible Daisy (Laura Linney), also the movie's narrator. Taking Daisy on romantic trips through the town's natural splendor, FDR quickly romances Daisy and even assures her that he'll leave wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) and move into a home with Daisy when his presidency is complete. Naturally, FDR's charm hides his hogwash, a lesson that Daisy learns the hard way once his pattern of marital indiscretions becomes clear. That story comes across like a quest to turn history into entertainment, and as a result it lacks any lasting value. "I helped him forget the world," Daisy tells us at one point, but in "Hyde Park on Hudson," she also helps the movie lose its way. Criticwire grade: C [Eric Kohn]
Read the full review here. Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Focus Features. Watch the trailer below:
Handsomely shot in black and white, director Jose Henrique Foresca's biopic explores the self-destructive life of Heleno de Freitas, a soccer superstar in 1940s Brazil. The story jumps back and forth between Heleno's glory days and his final years, spent in a sanitarium suffering from syphilis, for which he refused medication in the belief that it would weaken him. (He died in 1959 at age 39.) His dreams of leading Brazil to a World Cup victory were dashed when the 1942 and 1946 events were canceled by WWII.
Handsome Rodrigo Santoro shines as Heleno, who bragged that his main interests were "goals, slim waists and Cadillacs.'' Alinne Moraes and Angie Cepeda are sultry as, respectively, his wife and his nightclub-singer mistress. Criticwire grade: B+ [V.A. Musetto]
Opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. Distributed by Screen Media Films. Watch the trailer below:
In a well-appointed country house in upstate New York, writer/director Brian Savelson carves out a Chekhovian landscape. Seth (Zach Gilford) has brought Andie (Jena Malone) there for the first time, expecting to use the quiet weekend to propose. He didn't anticipate the arrival of his contentious father Gil (John Slattery), accompanied by girlfriend Vicky (Gabrielle Union). It's a deceptively simple setup that could easily be played as farce: Brooklyn youth culture (activist, musician, vegan) versus the Manhattan establishment (corporate, highbrow, gourmet). Instead, Savelson allows this finely tuned quartet to find their groove, framing different pairings in widescreen images that capture the nuances of their interplay. Conversations are halting and revelatory, tackling the difficulties of compromise and reconciliation, with humor injected into the gravitas. Sitting on his childhood twin bed, Seth refuses to show Andie the engagement ring, as they dance around the subject of their future. This tender, funny scene displays their individual traits -- he’s sullen and stubborn, she's cheery and comforting -- while exposing both the fissures in their relationship and its solidity. Brian Savelson's accomplished first feature shows how a rarely used vacation house can help define the value of home. Criticwire grade: A [Serena Donadoni]
Opens Friday at the Cinema Village in New York. Released by Cinedigm and Flatiron Film Company. Watch the trailer below:
Beth Raymer sent chapters of her memoir to screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis, fast-tracking this lackluster dramatization. "Lay The Favorite," the book, delves heavily into the back-stories of the professional gamblers Raymer met, but the focus here is squarely on cinematic avatar Rebecca Hall's emotional ups and downs. The main soap opera component is her relationship with professional gambler Dink: in reality 6'4" and 280 pounds, but here a shout-y Bruce Willis. Their potential romance is short-circuited by Dink's wife Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who subsequently sanctions their professional involvement in return for a facelift. There's much more incident, including a stint working for illegal New York-based bookie Rosie (Vince Vaughn, whose Jewish accent verges on anti-Semitic caricature) and the threat of federal prosecution, though bubbly Beth's time as a boxer (!) has been omitted. Instead, director Stephen Frears rhythmless lurches through one weightless reversal of fortune after another. As for Willis' end-credits dance-floor rendition of The Twist, be warned it can never be unseen. Criticwire grade: D [Vadim Rizov]
Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by RADiUS-TWC. Watch the trailer below:
In "The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez," Ernest Borgnine doesn't so much deconstruct his gruff cowboy persona as indulge in a parody that would likely be as embarrassing to the late actor as it is to the viewer to watch. After suffering a back injury, retired radio DJ and failed western actor Rex Page (Borgnine) finds himself confined to a nursing home where the staff are all Mexican and thus in the eyes of this raised-on-oaters curmudgeon, “banditos.” But soon Rex sheds his casual racism and leads these hapless men and women in a war against the villainous owners and officials of the facility, a battle that director Elia Petridis stages as a mock-western complete with hokey sound effects. The fake cowboy movie shtick is painfully unfunny as Borgnine tries in vain to muster up the necessary bravado to at least be halfway convincing as a parody lawman, while the film’s attempts to tweak the racial dynamics of mainstream westerns by turning the Latinos into good guys doesn’t change the fact that they do little more than fawn over their great white savior. Criticwire grade: D [Andrew Schenker]
Opens Friday in Los Angeles. Released by Indican Pictures. Watch the trailer below:
Sibling documentarians Bill and Turner Ross first gained prominence in the documentary community for their 2009 portrait "45365," a perceptive look at small town American life in Sidney, Ohio. The movie's popularity stemmed from the filmmakers' ability to depict ordinary events in stunningly lyrical terms usually absent from the realm of vérité cinema, an approach they have now refined with the extraordinary New Orleans paean "Tchoupitoulas."
Whereas "45365" took the form of a scattered collage, with disconnected events and a vast ensemble of characters stitched together to represent a year of activity, "Tchoupitalas" brings greater clarity to a similarly diffuse canvas by situating it around a trio of innocent observers. These are the Zanders brothers, three black adolescents whose arbitrary ferry trip from across the water to explore New Orleans' sassy, vibrant nightlife leads them down a rabbit hole of new experiences. It's a deceptively clever framing device for a movie that otherwise has no specific narrative thrust other than a persistent desire to glorify its magisterial setting. And that it does with continuing visual flair. When considered alongside "45365," one can see a clear pattern developing in the Ross' work. It doesn't just have to do with distinctive titles. Both movies boil down American behavior turned into a series of otherworldly ritual, but only visible you put the effort into looking for them. In "Tchoupitoulas," a world comes to life after dark and vanishes by dawn, leaving behind the warm memory of a revelation. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Read the full review here. Opens Friday in New York. Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories. Watch the trailer below:
If you can ignore the blatant product placement -- many of the interviewees wear t-shirts sporting logos of the movie's sponsors, including the protagonist's mom -- Jacob Rosenberg's bio-doc "Waiting for Lightning" will introduce you to an uber-human you’ve probably never heard of: extreme skateboarding pioneer Danny Way. Already famous by the age of 10, not only does he hold the skateboarding world records in distance, height (23 feet, or over two building stories) and speed, he also built the world's biggest skate ramp in order to jump over the Great Wall of China. But Rosenberg
doesn't just trace the man's career or unmatched accomplishments. He uses archive footage from the 1980s and 90s, and commentary from Way, devoted family and friends and other skateboarding pros, to show that Way's superhuman skill was matched by a single-minded need to channel his grief over numerous tragedies into an emerging sport that he would later redefine.
It's not groundbreaking filmmaking (more TV than theatrical in terms of format), but the subject is interesting, the visuals are crisp and the soundtrack is brilliant. Even if you know the outcome, the lead-up to the Great Wall jump is genuinely gut-wrenching. Criticwire grade: B [Natasha Senjanovic]
Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films. Watch the trailer below: