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. This week's reviews are all written by Indiewire critic Eric Kohn.
"Zero Dark Thirty"
Few directors focus on dark, existentially dreadful scenarios with the consistency of the great Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. Although not exactly heartwarming, "Amour" has a more contained vision of human relationships than Haneke's previous films without sacrificing its bleak foundation. It's his most conventional movie about death -- and the most poignant.
The story is simple enough: Aging couple Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) lead quiet, stable lives, enjoying their days together after retiring from careers as music instructors. Anne's sudden downward spiral, the result of an unforgiving brain tumor, rapidly alters their shared reality. As Anne slowly becomes less coherent and Georges struggles to care for her, the couple's middle-aged daughter (Isabelle Huppert) fights to play a bigger role in the care for her mother than Georges cares to allow. Because this is Haneke, it comes as no surprise than the formula for a family drama about death contains a particularly searing perspective on what desperation can do to family ties. "Amour" derives its central power from the two lead performances. However, Haneke maintains such a confident grip on the material that it never drags from familiarity. In its closing scenes, "Amour" transcends its grim, matter-of-fact foundation and enters an enticing realm of ambiguity by exploring the fantasies of one character and leaving several fates open ended. Criticwire grade: A-
Read the full review here. Opened in several cities this week. Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Watch the trailer below:
The plot of "Aqui y Alla" is so slight it barely exists. But the first feature from director Antonio Mendez Esparza balances out that limitation with a richly layered mood that steadily accumulates emotion from one scene to the next. Esparza constructs a family drama with supreme restraint while fleshing out his characters to the point where their problems take root in a fully realized environment where socio-economic conditions pull them apart. It's incredibly uneventful and devastating all at once.
Set in the desolate Mexican mountains, "Aqui y Alla" takes a chapter-based approach to exploring the return of Pedro (Pedro de los Santos), who left his wife and teenage daughters years earlier to find work in the U.S. Seemingly back in town for good, Pedro attempts to start a band with some old acquaintances and find a professional excuse to stick around. His mission vain from the outset, "Aqui y Alla" doesn't waste time trying to build up the possibility that Pedro could possibly succeed at this endeavor; from the earliest scenes when his children giggle at their father's musical ambitions, it's clear that the man is in denial. "Aqui y Alla" benefits tremendously from constant understatement. Pedro's most extreme reaction only arises through the hints of tears in his eyes in one fleeting shot. However, like many nuances in the movie, the slightest indication of sorrow speaks volumes about his conundrum, as well as the greater tragedy of its never-ending cycle. Criticwire grade: A-
Read the full review here. Opens Friday at the reRun Theater in Dumbo, Brooklyn for a one-week run. Watch the trailer below:
Christian Petzold's quietly affecting period drama revolves around the plight of the titular young doctor (Petzold regular Nina Hoss) stuck working in an East German hospital in 1980. While hoping to gain an exit visa and escape into warm embrace of her lover in the West, Barbara gets drawn into the plight of a teen patient whose needs to evade the demands of the socialist state outweigh her own. That conundrum is complicated by a burgeoning attraction to head doctor Andrew (Ronald Zehrfeld), whose motives are dubious as he takes an interest in Barbara's plight -- for personal or professional reasons, she can't be sure. Clearly positioned as the face of an era dominated by fear of the country's hawkish government scrutiny with systematic control over its inhabitants, "Barbara" maintains a disquieting tone that first creates a distancing effect from the material and then draws you deeper into it. The movie's stakes are alternately personal and political, but Petzold's skill truly comes into focus in the tense climax, when those two aims come together with a powerful act of defiance. Criticwire grade: A
Opens Friday in New York. Released by Adopt Films. Watch the trailer below:
Bringing a blockbuster vision to a large scale disaster that demands it, Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Impossible" delivers a visceral treatment of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami only hampered by the overwrought sentimentalism of the survival tale at its center. Adapting the real life experiences of a European family pulled apart while on vacation when the tsunami hit (and carried by admittedly committed performances by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts), Bayona reconstructs their survival through extraordinary technical prowess at odds with the warm, by-the-numbers sentimentalism that Sergio G. Sanchez's screenplay falls back on once the terror dies down. Criticwire grade: B-
Read the full review here. Opens in several cities on Friday. Released by Summit. Watch the trailer below:
Red flags go up when a filmmaker embarks on adapting a beloved classic. Walter Salles' long-gestating big screen treatment of "On the Road" spent years in development and the nearly-two-and-a-half hour treatment of Jack Kerouac's seminal novel of the Beat Generation invited immediate skepticism. Kerouac's autobiographical look at his friends and their journeys around the country in the late 1940s has become so closely identified with his prose that any attempt to replicate it would automatically create a certain distance from the material -- or it seemed. As it turns out, Salles' "On the Road" does the trick well enough. Overlong and unfocused in parts, Salles' adaptation nonetheless holds together about as well a movie can when the odds are so heavily stacked against it. Criticwire grade: B
Read the full review here. Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by IFC Films. Watch the trailer below:
Relishing the sights and sounds of the early '60s with a self-indulgence that makes "Mad Men" look restrained, "The Sopranos" creator David Chase's feature debut "Not Fade Away" reaches for a grand statement about the period's intergenerational tensions and instead simply channels nostalgia. Loaded with clips of TV hits and rock singles to supplement the struggles of a college-age Jersey kid looking to get out, "Not Fade Away" is easy on the eyes and ears but light on new ideas. Chase turns cultural ephemera into formula.
A personal ode to the seismic change taking place in 1963, writer-director Chase's story centers on disgruntled New Jersey college kid Doug (rising star John Magaro, whose enthusiastic performance bodes well for his future), an afro-laden rock junkie constantly adorned in sunglasses whose aspirations cull from the successes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and virtually every other popular group of the time. He wants to hit it big with style, much to the chagrin of his hardworking blue-collar father (James Gandolfini), who casts a discouraging gaze on Doug in virtually every scene they share. Doug joins forces with a trio of likeminded wannabe rockers (Brahm Vaccarella, Jack Huston and Will Brill) to start a band, eventually wrestling his way to the frontman role, and romances a soulful local girl (Bella Heathcote). You can get swept up by the details and appreciate Chase's willingness to put them on full display, but his wistfulness never reaches a deeper function. The movie is less an homage to early '60s identity crisis than a late-to-the-game example of it. Criticwire grade: C+
Read the full review here. Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Paramount. Watch the trailer below:
Over the course of its 134 minutes, Judd Apatow's "This is 40" maintains the false confidence that its subject matter holds great meaning for countless people who have endured rituals associated with aging family life. But despite a slew of broad jokes, the focus is pretty narrow: Married adults enduring the titular realization against a bland suburban backdrop; their constant struggle to enjoy each other's company, pay the bills and care for their children go unquestioned. Traditional values glue them into place even when they grow uneasy. Welcome to the world of white people problems, ground zero for the strain of American comedies that Apatow does best. But does he really?
"This is 40" certainly features deeply personal intentions on the part of the filmmaker, exploring a married couple's ritualistic passage into middle age by drawing from experiences he and wife Leslie Mann have recently endured. While technically a return to the universe of his much goofier (if similarly bloated) man-child opus "Knocked Up," the new movie is an attempt to position every yuk in a greater dramatic context. Supporting characters in "Knocked Up," Debbie (Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd) continue to eke out a stable existence while caring for their growing children Sadie and Charlotte (Apatow and Mann's real children, Maude and Iris). Unlike any of Apatow's earlier movies, none of the fundamentals of the main characters' situation are inherently funny. It's married life, the movie, with gags in place just to nudge things along. Criticwire grade: C
Read the full review here. Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Universal. Watch the trailer below:
With the killing of Osama bin Laden, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal had the chance to give this story a happy ending, but instead they smartly blanket it in shades of ambiguity. "Zero Dark Thirty" tracks a full range of emotions associated with the proverbial war on terror, from the naivete of its earliest stirrings to the spirit of vengeance that gave its apparent victory such a vital quality in the Western world. At the same time, the movie questions the certitude of the transition from despair to triumph, enabling "Zero Dark Thirty" to realize the power of its immediacy while giving the proceedings a lasting value. With ambitious young CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) embodying the mixture of thrill and fury driving the hunt for bin Laden, Bigelow's engaging nail-biter avoids the pratfalls of "spiking the football," as the President described the danger of celebrating bin Laden's death. Instead, it's an opportunity to sober up. Criticwire grade: A+
Read the full review here. Opened Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles ahead of a nationwide expansion in January. Released by Sony. Watch the trailer below: