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.
"Won't Back Down"
"Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel"
Finally, something that can begin to capture, if never quite contain, the genius of one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. In this documentary, it takes a barrage of images from Diana Vreeland's heyday as the editor-in-chief of Vogue to even begin to capture the "rhythm, madness and surprise" that defined Vreeland's perfect taste. Though the portrait is supported by worshipful testimonials from aged beauties like Ali McGraw and Veruschka, these never take precedence over Vreeland's own aphorisms ("boring is a form of laziness"), which are mostly culled from a script based on interviews with her autobiography's ghostwriter/editor George Plimpton. But the actresses tasked with recreating Vreeland's reminiscences fall flat. While they do manage to capture the drama of her phrasings, they often miss the both the guttural qualities of her voice and the humor behind phrases like, "I really wouldn't know anything about Russians. What I love is 'RUSSIA.'" They might have considered hiring a drag queen instead. Criticwire grade: A- [Miriam Bale]
Originally opened last Friday; expands this week to several cities. Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films. Watch the trailer below:
"The Other Dream Team"
This inspirational sports documentary about Lithuanian national pride looks at politics, basketball, and the politics of basketball. Deftly mixing interviews, observations and news footage, director and co-writer Marius Markevicius nimbly tells the ultimate underdog story of how Olympic athletes sacrificed and overcame obstacles on the way to personal, professional, and political victory.
After the Soviet team -- comprised mostly of Lithuanian players -- beat the U.S. in basketball at the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul, the U.S.S.R kept their athletes from being drafted by American teams, and made them play against their will. Markevicius effectively cross-cuts the story of these famous players and Lithuania’s struggle for freedom from Soviet control with the tale of Jonas Valanciunas, a 2011 draft pick who represents a child of independence. The Other Dream Team features many absorbing stories—from discussions of culture shock at Western life and smuggling jeans and computers while on tour, to horrific tales of Siberian exile, KGB spies, and, curiously, how the Grateful Dead sponsored the Lithuanian’s 1992 Barcelona Olympic team’s rematch against the U.S. While the final results may be known, there is plenty of dramatic suspense, and footage of "The Other Dream Team" in action is simply poetry in motion. Criticwire grade: B [Gary M. Kramer]
Opens Friday in New York. Released by the Film Arcade. Watch the trailer below:
With Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his poutiest role to date, "Looper" delivers a rollicking dystopian sci-fi action-adventure about time travel that stands out for its sleek look and energizing first half. A reasonable broadening of director Rian Johnson's abilities, the first hour brilliantly expands on the noir antics the filmmaker originally demonstrated with his debut feature "Brick." Gordon-Levitt's character, a drug-addicted hitman who shoots victims sent to his time from the near future, faces a serious conundrum when his own future self (a generally robotic Bruce Willis) turns up on Gordon-Levitt's hitlist. AFter the older man makes a run for it, Gordon-Levitt gives chase, then crashes in the cornfields at the home of a shrill woman (Emily Blunt) whose son may or may not be the target of Willis' warpath as he aims to prevent the growth of a man oppressing him in the future.
Got all that? Fortunately, "Looper" is less about time travel complications than the style and character-based conundrums associated with the concept. The second half is nevertheless jarringly slow and tame compared to everything preceding it, but there's so much visual inspiration and enthusiasm for the genre's expansive abilities that "Looper" remains thrilling to watch even when it falls apart. Criticwire grade: B [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday nationwide. Released by Sony Pictures. Watch the trailer below:
"The Perks of Being a Wallflower"
In Stephen Chbosky’s largely endearing adaptation of his own young-adult novel, nothing says “I love you” like a painstakingly crafted mix tape. The early-‘90s setting for The Perks of Being a Wallflower means that the potentially precious references to Smiths songs are appropriate to the period even if the film – which touches on issues of sexual identity and mental illness – exhibits a more contemporary sort of frankness in regards to portrayals of teens on screen. Institutionalized after the suicide of his best friend, our loner hero Charlie (Logan Lerman) is none too happy about starting high school. But things look up when he befriends Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), two seniors who are proud to be misfits. (Paul Rudd also makes a brief appearance as an English teacher who encourages Charlie’s interests in reading and writing.) Though its episodic storyline and erratic momentum prevent Chbosky’s second directorial effort from reaching the vaunted heights of John Hughes’ high-school melodramas, it has considerable charm and no small amount of poignancy thanks to the performances. Miller is particularly strong as a less menacing kind of teen than the one he played in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Criticwire grade: B [Jason Anderson]
Opened last Friday; expands this week to several cities. Watch the trailer below:
"The Waiting Room"
In America's current health care system, public hospital emergency rooms are more than the adrenaline-jolting trauma centers of "E.R." They function as a last resort for the uninsured, providing services that would otherwise be handled by primary care physicians. Director Peter Nicks spent five months in an Oakland, California emergency room, and distilled that footage into a precise day in the life documentary. Staff members of Highland Hospital (where Nicks' wife works as a speech pathologist) are uniformly compassionate and resourceful, handling a steady stream of overflow crowds. While emphasizing the calm coordination of hospital administration, Nicks follows a handful of patients, including the newly unemployed, working poor and indigent, through the frustrating and worrisome process of receiving treatment (and arranging payment). "The Waiting Room" is beautifully filmed and masterfully edited, but feels too careful and polished to have the emotional impact of activist filmmaking. Nicks demonstrates how much individual attention affects medical care, while muting patients’ rage at a bureaucracy that diminishes their humanity. Criticwire grade: B [Serena Donadoni]
Now playing at IFC Center in New York and opens Friday, September 28 in Los Angeles. Released by International Film Circuit. Watch the trailer below:
"Won't Back Down"
Three name changes later, this controversial piece of propaganda is finally reaching theaters. Call it what you may, it's a failure. Maggie Gyllenhall and Viola Davis star as single moms, one a teacher, who want to change their kids' failing elementary public school in Pittsburgh into a charter school staffed by non-union teachers. It was shown at the Democratic and Republican conventions and, not surprisingly, has incurred the wrath of teachers' unions, which are depicted as villains. Its financial backers include right-wing billionaire Philip Anschutz. Director Daniel Barnz makes little attempt to hide his movie's union-bashing agenda. The union is depicted as a bunch of corrupt bureaucrats concerned only with saving their jobs while the crusading parents come off as righteous folk heroes. The parents' victory is never in doubt and the rah-rah finale plays like something from an old Frank Capra movie. For what it's worth, there were several loud boos at the end of a promotional screening in New York Monday night. C [V.A. Musetto]
Opens Friday nationwide. Distributed by 20th Century Fox. Watch the trailer below: