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.
"A Late Quartet"
An actor's showcase by design, "A Late Quartet" revolves around a revered New York City quartet coming apart at the seams. When cellist Peter (Christopher Walken), the longtime head of the quartet, discovers he's suffering from Parkinson's disease, his decision to leave the group sets off a cascade of events that threaten to destroy their 25-year bond. Husband and wife violinists, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Juliette (Catherine Keener), quibble over whether it matters that Robert remains a second violinist, a seemingly innocuous dispute quickly blown out of proportion. Meanwhile, the sullen Daniel (Mark Ivanir) grows a little too close to Robert and Juliette's daughter (Imogen Poots) while teaching her violin.
Relentlessly sad and sometimes too focused on annoyingly stagy confrontations, director Yaron Zilberman's low key drama manages to overcome uneven dialogue issues with a consistently engaging scenario based around the quaret's upcoming performance. With the exception of Poots, the movie relies on a group of veteran actors with far better chemistry than their onscreen counterparts to convey the subtleties of their crumbling world. Zilberman's screenplay (co-written by Seth Grossman) taps into the subdued etiquette of the classical music world by contrasting it with the fiery issues of resentment bubbling to the surface. Eventually, Zilberman cedes control to the music for the final concert, leaving room for one final Walken monologue. The double-whammy of those two performances result in one of the best climaxes of the year: Leave it to Walken to upstage Beethoven. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Eone Entertainment. Watch the trailer below:
Barry Levinson isn't a natural fit for the horror genre, but with "The Bay," he dips his toes in the eco-thriller genre to curiously provocative effect. Although technically a found footage assemblage of incidents replete with shaky cam effects, "The Bay" contains a more advanced collage of media than one usually finds in this overdone style, coupled with a cogent basis in reality that often makes it closer to a documentary than an appropriation of the form. The story tracks a 24-hour period on July 4, 2009 when a parasitic infiltration of the water in Claridge, Maryland threatened to infect the entire town. While the rash of deaths and close encounters with the leech-like parasites borrow liberally from the traditions of zombie and alien invasion movies, the source of the chills never strays too far from the real world. The Bay" manages to scare up a real fear of environmental neglect. It's quite possibly the first example of jump scares used in service of activism. Criticwire grade: B [Eric Kohn]
Read the full review here. Opens Friday in New York and nationwide on VOD. Released by Roadside Attractions. Watch the trailer below:
It's not an overstatement to call "Bones Brigade" an autobiography: Skateboarder-turned-filmmaker Stacy Peralta formed, sponsored and guided the influential team. But Peralta puts himself in a supporting role, focusing on the young and promising misfits who became stars by dominating skateboard competitions and monetizing their individual achievements. Like "Dogtown and Z-Boys," this documentary is a heady mix of emotional interviews, exhilarating footage and a driving soundtrack. The intimate, revelatory "Bones Brigade" transports these pensive fortysomethings back to their amped-up adolescence. Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen (masters of vertical and horizontal skateboarding, respectively) were polar opposites in temperament, but both found crucial support in the camaraderie of the Bones Brigade. The stoic Hawk was a tireless perfectionist with an encouraging dad (Frank Hawk ran the National Skateboard Association), while the introspective Mullen was a creative innovator with a controlling father. At a crucial point in their careers, each developed an aversion to competition and ranking. Tony Hawk is now the face of skateboarding, but Rodney Mullen is its heart. The seemingly fragile Mullen displays a steely devotion as he articulates how Bones Brigade members pushed the sport to new heights, and marginalized boys turned skateboarding into their own language. Criticwire grade: A [Serena Donadoni]
Opens Friday at the IFC Center in New York, available as VOD on Nov. 6 and currently showing in theaters across the United States, Canada and Europe in one-night engagements. Released by The Film Sales Company. Watch the trailer below:
"Democracy at Work"
This would-be political satire might better be called "Stupidity at Work." Set five days before the election, it has something to do with an anonymous Internet rumor about a local candidate and how his people respond. First-time writer-director Wasko Khouri tries the scattershot approach, taking aim at several targets: politicians, NPR-style radio, shock jocks --- and a randy dentist hoping to bed his 19-year-old female assistant. Khouri misses on all accounts. Made on a shoestring budget (no more than $9.99), "Democracy at Work" features wooden acting, unimaginative direction and lame jokes. Khouri seems to find it hilarious that a candidate named Dick represents the 69th District. Fortunately, this disaster is opening at just one theater in the USA, where it is guaranteed to have a brief run. Criticwire grade: D [V.A. Musetto]
Opens Friday in Los Angeles. Released by Laemmle Theatres and Sand/Dollar Productions. Watch the trailer below:
In "The Details," Tobey Maguire plays Jeff Lang, a solemn doctor living a seemingly tranquil life in suburban Seattle with his wife Nealy (Elizabeth Banks) and their young child. It doesn't take long to puncture that fantasy: An introductory voiceover establishes that Jeff has lost interest in the restrictions of his mundane world. A string of incidents have led to catastrophe. Jeff tried to act out and instead threatened his stable existence. It's a familiar mold: the perils of suburban discontent have been so thoroughly explored that "The Details" plays like a hodgepodge of familiar circumstances on an assembly line to disaster. It takes only a handful of scenes before Jeff dials up an old friend (Kerry Washington) to moan about his desire for infidelity and winds up sleeping with her. He then must deal with the advances of his creepy neighbor (Laura Linney), an older single woman whose bizarre advances attract Jeff simply because they break from normality. Maguire's sullen gaze and Linney's ultra-looney delivery hold some interest for the level of cartoonish surreality they bring to the plot's downward spiral, but for the most part "The Details" struggles to imbue the proceedings with purpose or even allow the bizarre comedic eccentricities to win out. Criticwire grade: D+ [Eric Kohn]
Read the full review here. Opens Friday in several cities; also available on VOD. Released by RADiUS-TWC. Watch the trailer below:
"Jack and Diane"
With his first two features, "Salt" and "The Exploding Girl," Bradley Rust Gray established a patient, lyrical style in which form and content blended together with remarkably fluid results. "Jack and Diane" is an unfortunate break from that trend, a structurally messy and confusing attempt at magical realism that doesn't find the clarity it needs to justify the rampant strangeness. After a brief, inexplicable encounter between a bloody Diane (Juno Temple) and a monstrous presence, the movie flashes back to an earlier period: Confused young Diane hops off a New York City bus in search of her twin sister and wanders into the decrepit record shop where the instantly seductive and openly butch Diane (Riley Keough) stands behind the counter. A few knowing glances and bar drinks later, the newly introduced couple have spent a passionate night in each other's arms.
A longtime passion project for Gray, "Jack and Diane" was once set to star Ellen Page and Olivia Thirlby. The movie maintains a curious trajectory that occasionally clicks for the offbeat qualities Gray brings to his unconventional love story. Aided by special effects by the legendary animators known as the Brothers Quay, "Jack and Diane" contains terrific visuals and a contemplative soundtrack by Múm that justify the allegorical ingredients. But the screenplay, in typical Grey fashion, focuses on quiet moments and insinuations too cryptic to complement the fantasy sequences, resulting in a mush of half-formed incidents. The mystical allure of this long-awaited "lesbian werewolf movie" turns out to have more value than the real thing. [Eric Kohn] Criticwire grade: C+
Read the full review here. Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Also available on VOD. Released by Magnolia Pictures. Watch the trailer below:
"North Sea Texas"
Early on in "North Sea Texas," our shy teenage boy protagonist Pim helps to assemble a puzzle. Much as he puts together pieces on the dining room table, he's also sorting out feelings for his slightly older friend Gino, with whom he shares the occasional secret romantic interlude. Pim’s timid nature is tested repeatedly, as Gino picks up a girlfriend in a nearby city and as his single mother struggles with her questionable taste in men. The greatest supporting character in the story is nothing more than light, whether peeking through a backlit window or glimmering from a gaslamp in the tent where Pim and Geno share their first kiss. During the sequences where dialogue is sparse, brightness illuminates what Pim is afraid to confide in others, while shadow shrouds only some of the desires he chooses to remain hidden. Overall, the film is just as repressed as Pim. There are no showy moments of uninhibited emotions, only the muted simplicity of discovering a first love (or losing it). There's tragedy and triumph contained in the tiniest shifts of movement on Pim's face. Criticwire grade: B [Steve Greene]
Opens Friday in Los Angeles. Released by Strand Releasing. Watch the trailer below:
"This Must Be the Place"
The issue with "This Must Be the Place," Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino's first English language feature, has nothing to do with whether it makes light of the Holocaust. That might be a worthy debate if it didn't face other problems. Chief among them: An uber-campy Sean Penn performance, a gratingly quirky soul-searching plot, and character motives that barely make any sense. It's far too much of a godawful mess to merit serious moral scrutiny. Sorrentino's 2008 political thriller "Il Divo" was a brilliant black comedy about former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, brought to life with vampirish creepiness by Toni Servillo. In "This Must Be the Place," however, Sorrentino has inexplicably crafted a cheery portrait of a fading rock star that's anything but subtle.
Donning a subpar Alice Cooper impression, Penn plays the weary-eyed Cheyenne, a leather-clad middle-aged retiree spending his aimless days in a Dublin mansion. Hidden behind eye shadow and lipstick, his whiny delivery comes across like a John Waters script reject by way of Truman Capote. Early scenes find Cheyenne wandering through life in a daze. His boredom has drained him of a personality. "I'm a tad depressed," he finally tells his unexplainably normal wife, Jane (Frances McDormand). "Maybe you're confusing depression and boredom," she says, which could double as a critique of Penn's performance. Eventually, Cheyenne launches on a soul-searching journey to find the dying Nazi who tortured his recently deceased father in Auschwitz. Guided by an over-the-top Nazi hunter played by Judd Hirsch (clearly enjoying himself), Cheyenne begins a road trip through Middle American that goes nowhere, and Penn's mopey has-been routine starts to feel like a bad joke that just keeps getting worse. Accidentally or not, the script acknowledges as much: "We all play the fool sometimes," Cheyenne says. Indeed. [Eric Kohn] Criticwire grade: D+
Read the full review here. Opens Friday in several cities. Released by The Weinstein Company. Watch the trailer below:
A surprisingly enjoyable tongue-in-cheek New York comedy from "Clueless" director Amy Heckerling, "Vamps" teeters on the brink of not quite working and yet still routinely lands its laughs. Alicia Silverstone and Krysten Ritter take the central roles as undead vampires frozen in their dating years but bored by contemporary metropolitan life. The plot is little more than an excuse for actors to have fun with the material. Commanded by a freewheeling chief vampire (Sigourney Weaver, more flamboyant and strange than she's been in years), the girls look for ways of ending their frustration. Silverstone's Goody rekindles an old relationship with a man she knew back in the seventies (Richard Lewis), while Ritter's Stacy falls for the dashing son of vampire hunter Van Helsing (Wallace Shawn, hilarious as usual). Whenever the sitcom-ready proceedings start to grow ponderous, Justin Kirk surfaces as horny Romanian vampire always up to no good. "Vamps" first screened at a New York screening series programmed by Lena Dunham, an appropriate fit since the movie gives the impression of "Girls" with fangs. Heckerling's screenplay strikes an odd satiric tone that's both sincere and sinister, as the filmmaker sinks her teeth into the myth of chic urban life and at the same time celebrates it. Compared to the market standard for vampires these days -- you know the franchise I'm talking about -- Heckerling's sly treatment of the material is a welcome cut above. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Opens in New York this Friday. Currently available on VOD. Available on DVD and Blu-ray on November 13. Released by Anchor Bay. Watch the trailer below: