This weekly column is intended to provide reviews of nearly every new indie release (and, in certain cases, studio films). Specific release dates and distributor information follow each review.
Brooklyn Castle doesn’t quite posit chess (like sports before it) as the way out for inner city youth, but Katie Dellamaggiore’s engaging documentary about the championship chess program at the eponymous borough’s I.S. 138, does suggest that pushing pawns can teach valuable skills and focus critical attention for impoverished teens. Fair enough, even if the film hews pretty closely to the ghetto school sports doc template. Unlike, such recent entries in that genre, though, such as the Oscar winning Undefeated, Brooklyn Castle keeps the focus on the kids, not the white adults that coach them. Against budget cuts that continually threaten the chess team’s future, a handful of intimately profiled middle-schoolers prep for the national championships in Minneapolis. Dellamaggiore’s sympathetic portraits of the children are as effective as her uncanny ability to build suspense out of chess matches which, given the nature of the game, we’re actually not able to observe in any kind of detail within the confines of the feature-length film. Criticwire grade: B [Andrew Schenker]
Opens Friday in New York. Released by the Producers Distribution Agency. Watch the trailer below:
Could it be that former sex kitten Jane Fonda is now 74? She is, and still going strong as an actress. She delivers a charming performance in this dramedy, her first French film since Godard's "Tout va bien'' in 1972. This time she's Jeanne, a retired academic and one of five seniors who decide the best way to cope with old age is to live together in a comfy house in a Paris suburb. So she and her senile husband (Pierre Richard) move in with another married couple (Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie's daughter, and Guy Bedos) and a single friend (Claude Rich). Joining the quintet is a young anthropology student and dog walker who's studying the lives of old folks. "I often masturbate,'' Jeanne tells him. Soon they're cuddling with each other. The acting is uniformerly solid and Stephane Robelin, who also wrote the screenplay, directs with humor and sensitivity. Fonda, looking trim and fit, is to be congratulated for not being afraid to take old-lady roles. Criticwire grade: A- [V.A. Musetto]
Opens Friday in New York, Miami and Portland, Maine. Also available via VOD. Distributed by Kino Lorber. Watch the trailer below:
Twentysomething Martine is ostensibly an artist, working on a short film that befuddles everyone except Peter, the sound designer helping her with both studio work and a guesthouse to stay in. Director Ry Russo-Young momentarily taps into a meaningful connection between Martine’s work and the overall film when the intensity of sound that marks the genesis of Peter and Martine’s professional relationship sometimes creeps into the sound design of their everyday life. But rather than use that as a focal point for drawing deeper connections to Martine’s outlook, this stylistic choice gets dropped in favor of an escalating series of problematic interactions involving both Martine and the members of Peter’s family.
Rather than acknowledge that these characters have desires and flaws that desperately need addressing, the film represses their shortcomings just as much as the characters themselves. In lieu of passing judgment on the instigating characters who invite it most, the film villainizes big bad Los Angeles itself, seemingly a haven for those obsessed with either sex, themselves or both. As Peter’s wife Julie, the predictably stellar Rosemarie DeWitt internalizes her frustration, showing just enough incredulity at the disruption of her home and professional life without bubbling over into histrionics. There are intimate moments highlighting the quiet chaos of newly discovered feelings, but the comparable interactions marred by sleaze only neutralize that sincerity. The result is an ambivalence toward love that doesn’t benefit anyone. Criticwire grade: B- [Steve Greene]
Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Also available on VOD. Released by Magnolia Pictures. Watch the trailer below:
"Paranormal Activity 4"
After taking the “Paranormal Activity” series back to the ‘80s with the third installment, “Catfish” directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman fast forward to the (almost) present day with their second film in the franchise, bringing webcams and smartphones to the haunted house party. In “Paranormal Activity 4,” said devices belong to cute teenager Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her bumbling boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively). When Alex’s neighbor finds herself in the hospital, her family kindly takes in the woman’s creepy son. It isn’t long before things start to go bump in the night, causing Alex to have Ben set up cameras all over the house to prove to her parents that the new arrival is no ordinary child. Tying in nicely to the three films that came before it, “Paranormal Activity 4” will no doubt appeal to fans of the insanely successful franchise, curious to see how far the framework set up by the first entry can go. While a vague sense of
fatigue does settle in during the first half (despite the new gadgets, there’s no denying the pervading sense of déjà-vu), Joost and Schulman manage to execute some genuine ‘gotcha!’ moments along the way, and execute an unrelentingly terrifying climax involving kids, witches, and a flying knife. Criticwire grade: B [Nigel M. Smith]
Opens Friday nationwide. Released by Paramount. Watch the trailer below:
Originally titled "The Surrogate" when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, "The Sessions" follows the experiences of Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), the Berkeley writer stuck in an iron lung and desperate to find love. It's easy to see why the movie garnered attention at that festival, which favors cheery, heartwarming stories: Mark's desire to improve his experience by seeking a sexual encounter forms the bulk of this undeniably sweet, affecting movie as it explores the impact of physical bonds on personal contentment through O'Brien's heartbreaking commitment to a difficult task. Less dreary than uplifting, "The Surrogate" succeeds as a light romance with heavy material.
Following the suggestion of a therapist after an earlier caretaker breaks his heart, O'Brien hires the easygoing surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) for a series of six sessions to help him achieve sexual satisfaction. In other words, she has sex with him, but also evaluates his specific physical hangups to unearth the proper means of achieving the goal without shortchanging it.
Baring all and radiating an affability that defines the movie's tone, Hunt delivers her finest performance since "As Good As It Gets," but "The Surrogate" can't match her investment in the role. The screenplay, by writer-director Ben Lewin, falls into the trappings of valorizing its handicapped protagonist; O'Brien has no visible faults aside from his persistent naivete. His optimism keeps him alive even more than the iron lung. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Read the full review here. Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Fox Searchlight. Watch the trailer below:
"Tai Chi Zero"
It's not just the characters that get introduced at the beginning of "Tai Chi Zero," but the actors themselves, with on-screen text explaining significant past accomplishments of the relevant stars, be they kung fu film vets or triumphant gold medalists. It's a setup method perfectly in line with the rest of Stephen Fung’s just-frenetic-enough potpourri of martial arts riffs, continually drawing attention to its own artifice with the requisite sense of humor to justify it.
Yuan Xiaochao stars as Yang Lu Chan, a fighting prodigy stripped of his parents but determined to journey to an isolated village to acquire a secret set of kung fu skills never previously granted to an outsider. Between a silent-move backstory and a video-game aesthetic showdown with a preschooler (to name just two), every sequence employs a different style, each replete with enough graphics-based gags to outdo Scott Pilgrim. A plot synopsis of the film probably wouldn’t run longer than this capsule, but dazzling camerawork from Yiu-Fai Lai helps maintain forward momentum through visuals.
By linking the villagers’ plight against a steampunk behemoth threatening their existence to the hero's ability to learn the craft, the fight sequences are an intrinsic element of the plot. The final third of "Tai Chi Zero" suffers a bit from its own cleverness, but manages to be subversive even in its closing credits. Criticwire grade: B+ [Steve Greene]
Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Well Go USA/Variance Films. Watch the trailer below: