This weekly column is intended to provide reviews of nearly every new indie release (and occasionally some studio films). Specific release dates and locations follow each review. In some cases, links to longer reviews are provided at the end of the capsule.
Equally a slick political thriller, intelligent period piece and sly Hollywood satire, Ben Affleck's "Argo" maintains a careful balance between commentary and entertainment value. Stepping beyond the raw thriller qualities that distinguished his first two directing efforts, "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," the actor-director successfully broadens those skills with a historical scope. This tense and frequently amusing reenactment of a covert 1979 CIA operation to smuggle assailed American political operatives out of Iran amid revolutionary chaos by disguising them as a film crew takes the material seriously while still having fun with it.
That's not to say that "Argo" breaks any new ground. As the story breathlessly shifts between CIA headquarters, the Canadian embassy in Iran where the Americans take refuge, and Hollywood studios where the CIA finds a pair of an unlikely allies to carry their scheme, characters often speak with the gruff cadences of Aaron Sorkin archetypes all too eager to please. The plight of the hostages isn't nearly as engaging as the attempts by CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck, in an impressively muted turn, buried under shoulder-length hair and a scrappy beard) to convince his colleagues the trick will work. Alexandre Desplat's thundering score sometimes overplays the drama. However, "Argo" navigates these familiar qualities through a nice calibration of performances and breezy pace that pulls you along with the increasingly risky stakes. Read the full review here. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday nationwide. Released by Warner Bros. Watch the trailer below:
"3.2.1…Frankie Go Boom"
This slipshod comedy mines its aggressive humor from its short-fused title character (Charlie Hunnam) experiencing a series of humiliations. When Frankie learns he was unknowingly filmed during an intimate and impotent moment, he must recover the non-sex sex tape his fresh-out-of-rehab brother Bruce (Chris O’Dowd) made and distributed. Over the course of the film, Frankie has to slap a gun-toting, jock-strapped Chris Noth on the ass, get covered by pig vomit, and examine an aging transgendered ex-con's (Hunnam's "Sons of Anarchy" co-star Ron Perlman) Brazilian wax job. Hunnam suffers the "wacky" indignities nobly, but "3,2,1…Frankie Go Boom" is never as outrageous as the filmmakers think it is.
An episode of breaking and entering and a biting incident fail to amuse; the dynamic between the brothers -- Bruce manipulates Frankie like Lucy goads Charlie Brown with the football -- never sparks. Why Frankie repeatedly succumbs to Bruce's bad ideas makes the title character less and less sympathetic. And Frankie's romance with the offbeat Lassie (Lizzy Caplan) strains credibility too. At least Nora Dunn is amusing as the boys' mom, and Perlman's scenes have the zany verve Frankie struggles to achieve. Criticwire grade: C- [Gary M. Kramer]
Opens today in New York and Los Angeles. Released by Gravitas Ventures and Variance Films. Watch the trailer below:
"The Iran Job"
One does not have to enjoy basketball to appreciate "The Iran Job," a highly engaging documentary chronicling African American Kevin Sheppard's year as a "journeyman" playing basketball in Iran. Hired as one of two foreigners for an Iranian Super League, the ingratiating Kevin teaches his teammates how to "get a W" while he learns about life in Iran under the regime. Filmmaker Till Schauder deftly presents Kevin's experiences. These range from his good-natured bonding over Bob Marley with shopkeepers to spending time with Hilda, his physical therapist, and her female friends Elaheh and Laleh, who educate him about women's rights (or lack thereof) and what is (il)legal in the country. But "The Iran Job" also delivers goosebumps when Sheppard is on the court scoring a three-point tiebreaker. And the film draws some canny political parallels between Obama's victory and the election protests in Tehran. Schauder's film broadly addresses perhaps too many themes -- but Sheppard is charming and this fascinating, winning film earns its W. Criticwire grade: B+ [Gary M. Kramer]
Opens today at the IFC Center in New York. Released by Paladin Films. Watch the trailer below:
"Middle of Nowhere"
The reality of Ruby's (Emayatzy Corinealdi) situation feels very fresh: She quits medical school to maintain her relationship with her recently incarcerated husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick). On paper, the stakes are quite high. While Corinealdi and Hardwick give their best shot at conveying why the fortifying of this relationship is so important, the chance of the two of them working anything out seems doomed from the beginning. While Sundance award-winning writer-director Ava DuVernay has brought to life an experience of black middle class characters that is otherwise absent in the contemporary American cinema landscape and the film is capably shot by DuVernay and rising cinematographer Bradford Young ("Entres nos," "Pariah"), Ruby's self-discovery is all too paint-by-numbers. It's easy to lose interest in Ruby's journey because we anticipate her actions and others' reactions to them. The film will be co-released by African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, the company DuVernay helped create. With AAFFRM, DuVernay is ambitiously reaching the audiences for her film and those of other African-American directors; after watching "Middle of Nowhere," one can easily foresee a future in which a DuVernay film will not need as much legwork to get the word out. Criticwire grade: C+ [Bryce Renninger]
Opens today in New York. Released by Participant Media. Watch the trailer below:
Creationists and scientists repeatedly clash in a fascinating war of the words throughout "The Revisonaries," Scott Thurman's enthralling look at the resistance to the theory of evolution among prominent members of the Texas Board of Education. While turning to former head board-member and Young Earth Creationist Don McLeroy as his main subject, Thurman nevertheless utilizes a remarkably even-handed approach, but his portrait contains enough fiery debates to let viewers pick their sides.
For those in agreement with McLeroy's deeply religious perspective on the (very, very brief) history of the world, the cheery southerner maintains a valiant quest to maintain reverence for the Bible in the classroom. Others will sit alternately mesmerized, amused and horrified at his endorsement of biblical theories over hard fact, including the assertion that dinosaurs rode Noah's Ark. That particular line of argument would baffle many people, but "The Revisionaries" boils down the reaction to a single point of view that belongs to Ron Wetherington, an SMU anthropology professor who serves as McLeroy's chief opposition.
First-time director Thurman avoids the trappings of didactic filmmaking by rooting his issue-driven movie in entertaining personalities and an engaging visual style that contrasts lovely images of Texas nature with the darker qualities of the feuds at hand. Despite the regional nature of the movie, the conversations threaded throughout the movie echo larger divisions in society, allowing "The Revisionaries" to address vast educational concerns with a broad philosophical scope. Thurman structures his story with an eye for its topicality: While McLeroy no longer sits on the board, neither he nor others like him have given up their cause; with seats open for reelection this November, the battle is just getting started. Read the rest of the review here. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Opens today in Houston and currently playing in Dallas. Opens in New York City and Austin on October 26 followed by more national markets in November. Released by Kino Lorber. Watch the trailer below:
Playwright Martin McDonagh's writing hits a unique pitch between dark, bloody satire and interpersonal conflicts that makes his finest work play like a combination of Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin. From "The Pillowman" to "A Behanding in Spokan," McDonagh's plays tend to begin with a ludicrous premise filled with colorful characters whose struggles eventually become real enough to allow for moving finales. With his second feature-length directorial effort following the gangster farce "In Bruges," you have to look closely to see beyond the absurdities and appreciate the insight, but that's only because the two ingredients are fused together with such enjoyably wacky finesse.
Despite its silliness, "Seven Psychopaths" bears the mark of a personal work if for no other reason than the lead character played by Colin Farrell is named Marty and suffers from a major case of writer's block. Attempting to construct a screenplay with the movie's title, he spends the runtime trying to figure out the identities for each of the psychopaths set to be featured in the story. Help arrives in the form of his two close pals, the peppy Billy (Sam Rockwell) and introspective Hans (Christopher Walken). Both actors appeared in McDonagh's New York stage production of "A Behanding in Spokane" not too long ago, and their ability to have fun with this freewheeling material is evident; Walken, in particular, delivers his best performance in years, a welcome return to the over-the-top mock seriousness that defines Walkenesque.
Marty also has to contend with real-life psychopaths, including a gun-toting Woody Harrelson, the gangster whose beloved Shih Tzu has been stolen by Billy and Hans. Harrelson, amusing deadpan as usual, launches a pursuit of the men that leads to a series of climaxes and revelations both confounding and entertaining for largely the same reasons. The problem is compounded by the ridiculous ingredients driving it. "You can't let the animals die," Billy insists when Marty complains about the gangster on their tail. "Only the women." Truth and fiction merge until even Marty can't quite sort it all out. Even if McDonagh doesn't mean to imply that writing is a psychopathic behavior, the proof is in the gory pudding. Read the rest of the review here. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Opens today in several cities. Released by CBS Films. Watch the trailer below:
A stylish pre-credit sequence sets the tone for this slick South Korean caper film. After a clever heist, Popeye's (Jung-Jae Lee) Korean gang reluctantly partners with a Chinese gang to rob a $30 million diamond called Tear of the Sun. The man behind the plan is Macao Park (Yun-seok Kim), who not only has a history with Popeye, but also with Pepsi (Hye-su Kim), who is fresh out of prison. As the gangs prepare to pull off the elaborate, intricate crime, double-crosses are unveiled and reversals of fortunes ensue. "The Thieves" is full of amoral, dishonorable characters, but the film has great fun at everyone’s expense. Director Dong-Hoon Choi keeps things lively during the various shootouts, and an action scene featuring character dangling against the side of a building is as dazzling as when a car crash seals the fate of two characters. Although slightly overlong, "The Thieves" is still wickedly entertaining. Criticwire grade: B+ [Gary M. Kramer]
Opens today nationwide. Released by Well Go USA. Watch the trailer below:
"A Whisper to a Roar"
Ben Moses' documentary charts the uneasy fights for democracy in five nations: Egypt, Malaysia, Ukraine, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. It details the cruelty that Hosni Mubarak, Robert Mugabe, Hugo Chavez and their ilk resort to in their misbegotten efforts to stay in power. And it chronicles the dedication of pro-democracy activists who risk torture and death. (In Ukraine, for instance, a journalist who asked too many questions was beheaded.) The film is timely, opening the same week that cancer-stricken Chavez was elected to his third term in 14 years as president of Venezuela, and it has an important story to tell. But at 106 minutes, it suffers from being overlong and sluggish. A bit of judicious editing would have helped. Criticwire grade: B- [V.A. Musetto]
Opens today in New York and Oct. 19 in Los Angeles. Distributed by Appleseed Entertainment. Watch the trailer below: