Capsule Options is a new weekly column intended to provide reviews of nearly every new indie release. This week’s capsules are written by Indiewire’s Chief Film Critic, Eric Kohn, but future installments will include additional contributors.
REVIEWS THIS WEEK:
“Blue Like Jazz”
Based on Donald Miller’s best-selling semi-autobiography about a sheltered Christian teen rebelling against his roots by attending the uber-liberal Reed College in Portland, director Steve Taylor’s adaptation (from a screenplay co-authored by Miller) is an inoffensive wash. Marshall Allman credibly embodies the perplexed young Miller as he slowly immerses himself in secular culture, pining for the affections of a fellow soul-searching undergrad (Clair Holt) while forming a curiously platonic relationship with a sultry lesbian (Tania Raymond). Overlong and weighed down by meandering monologues about belief systems and responsibility, “Blue Like Jazz” suffers from unearned self-importance, but Miller’s (surprisingly well-rendered) visions of himself as an astronaut hurtling through space epitomize the movie’s admirable willingness to reach for a greater significance behind its mundane plot. Criticwire grade: B-
Opens Friday in Manhattan, Garden City, Stony Brook, West Nyack, New Brunswick and Clifton. Distributed by Roadside Attractions.
An unabashedly crass blend of “House Party” and “The Pineapple Express,” director Cameron Casey’s amateurish stoner odyssey follows lazy pot-smoker Bud (Wesley Jonathan), who inadvertently comes upon the best stash of weed in the universe after storing a stolen crop under his house and finding that his plump buddy’s bathroom problems inadvertently fertilized the entire batch. Yes, this is low comedy, and not particularly original even by the guilty-pleasure standards excusing its illogical progression. Nevertheless, Casey’s screenplay lands a few solid gags as Bud’s antics pile up, culminating in problems with two local drug lords. There’s definitely a satisfying quality to the way “Budz House” foregrounds its identity as a loony African-American comedy about a believable gang of misfits, but much of the progressive qualities go up in smoke. Criticwire grade: C+
Opens Friday in 20 cities. Distributed by Phase 4 Films.
“The Cabin in the Woods”
The deceptively simple studio-mandated premise for “The Cabin in the Woods” points to a movie with a lot to hide: “Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods. Bad things happen.” Indeed, this Drew Goddard-directed effort, co-scripted by genre auteur Joss Whedon, ranks among one of the most wryly self-aware works of American pop culture entertainment in years. Relentlessly toying around with a meta story, “The Cabin in the Woods” is sometimes too clever for its own good. However, by successfully analyzing tired formulas, it gives them new life. This much we know from the start: The survivors exist in an apparent rat maze subject to the whims of their mysterious captors, whose headquarters resemble the backstage control hub of “The Truman Show.” Constantly dissecting the onscreen action, they sound more like neurotic screenwriters than mad scientists. If you’ve ever watched a crappy movie and wondered “Who writes this shit?”, look no further: It’s these guys. Criticwire grade: B+
Originally reviewed on March 10, 2011. Opens Friday nationwide. Distributed by Lionsgate.
“Comic Con: Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope”
“Comic Con: Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope” is the first Morgan Spurlock movie not blatantly about Morgan Spurlock. Removing himself from the picture, Spurlock reveals his documentary technique to have little distinguishable from the usual talking heads/verite approach. It’s a light, amusing collage of the titular event, but his absence makes it clear that the movie could have used a biting edge. “Comic Con” studies the annual San Diego convention without condescending to the subculture. Much as an anthropological approach might offer greater insight into the intersecting behaviors and marketplace concerns driving this colossal gathering, Spurlock has crafted an inoffensive love letter sure to please the contingency it represents. However, no matter the cheerful vibe, this is one portrait screaming for a critical eye. Criticwire grade: B-
Originally reviewed on April 2, 2012. Opens Friday in New York, Philadelphia and Boston (also available on VOD). Distributed by Wrekin Hill Entertainment.
A batshit insane and wildly discursive horror satire, this surprisingly entertaining genre mash-up from “Torque” director Joseph Kahn follows a group of high school students evading the rampage of a masked killer inspired by the onscreen antics of fictional movie franchise “Cinderhella,” but that’s not really what it’s about at all. Instead, Kahn churns out a breathless work of sarcasm that literally never slows down to contemplate its silliness. Shanley Caswell stars as alienated teen Riley, a smarmy outsider routinely ignored by everyone around her, save for her neighborhood pal (Josh Hutcherson), who’s currently taken by Riley’s ditzy ex-friend (Spencer Locke). That’s the only normal ingredient in a plot that also includes mind-swapping time travel, alien bears, a mean-spirited and foul-mouthed principal played by Dane Cook (so that’s where he’s been hiding!) and a creepy math genius trapped in detention for nearly two decades. Smarter and more insightful than the “Scary Movie” franchise, “Detention” is an earnest spoof that embraces the vapidity of teenage culture even while savaging it. The relentless stylization occurred to me as a cross between “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “Scream” even before I saw it listed that way in a topic on IMDb. Criticwire grade: A-
Opens today in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Miami, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle. Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Braden King’s meandering, humorless tale of a brief fling between an Armenian photographer (Lubna Azabal) and an American mapmaker (Ben Foster) originally took the form of an installation presented at Sundance’s New Frontier. That context helps explain the virtual absence of plot over expansive landscape imagery over the course of the two-hour affair, which encourages comparisons to “Before Sunset” for its premise alone. As the pair decide to travel the countryside together and enjoy their brief fling, “HERE” loses a lot of the grandiose lyricism it establishes right of the gate by failing to build on it in any substantial way, but for those willing to accept the lack of exposition, “HERE” provides a cogent analysis of the drive to explore new territory in both physical and psychological terms. Criticwire grade: B
Opens Friday at the IFC Center in New York. Distributed by Strand Releasing.
“Hit So Hard: The Life and Near-Death Story of Drummer Patty Schemel”
P. David Ebersole’s intimate chronicle of former Hole drummer Patty Schemel’s tempestuous relationship with the rest of her band and struggles with drug addiction routinely suffers from amateurish style and structure problems, but overcomes its superficial problems through the sheer strength of its narrative. A combination of talking heads (including a colorful and oddly endearing Courtney Love) and camcorder footage from the eighties and nineties, “Hit So Hard” is an engaging portrait of its title character’s current status as a survivor (it also features rare home movies of Kurt Cobain with his infant daughter). Through Schemel, a humble, forthcoming interviewee, Ebersole unearths an intimate history of nineties grunge rock, from its craziest moments to its current reverberations among the sober veterans left standing. Criticwire grade: B+
Opens in New York on Friday. Distributed by Well Go USA and Variance Films.
“Kids of Today”
Jérôme De Missolz’s dizzying experimental portrait follows young French punk rockers and their enigmatic guru, seventies rock critic Yves Adrien, a sullen philosopher who espouses the ethos of modern punk bands in religious terms. An intentionally fractured, reckless and erotic ode to underground culture, “Kids of Today” features energetic performances from the likes of Crystal Castles and Fuck Buttons. Rather than singling out most of its characters, the movie adopts the form of an erratic collage, filled with perplexing half-formed ideas and attitudes that combine into an endearing quest for true substance beneath the hard-partying vibe. Criticwire grade: B+
Opens Friday at the reRun Gastropub in New York. Distributed by Factory 25.
As giddy and playful as its absurdly punctuated title, “L!fe Happens” stars Krysten Ritter (credited as co-writer) as a single L.A. dog walker inadvertently knocked up by an actor who promptly abandons her a year later. Saddled with an infant and ambivalent roommates, the endlessly frustrated Kim leans on her writer pal Deena (Kate Bosworth) for assistance when Kim claims her kid belongs to Deena in order to romance the charming stud (Geoff Stults) whom Kim meets at a bar. An intermittently funny chick flick with nothing new to offer, “L!fe Happens” plays it safe and comes up mostly uninspired, by Ritter continues to prove that she has firmly replaced Zooey Deschanel as the rare pixie-eyed performer with serious onscreen attitude, and it’s that ongoing appeal that makes the movie endurable. Criticwire grade: B-
Opens today in 10 cities. Distributed by PMK*BNC Films.
In both premise and execution, “Lockout” combines elements of producer Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element” and “Escape from New York,” clinging to those and countless other movies’ B-movie thrills so faithfully that it at least remains watchably bad. The filmmakers know the kind of movie they want to make: a rowdy space action-adventure with a proto-John Wayne anti-hero gunning his way through hordes of baddies and trading barbs with the damsel in distress he’s assigned to rescue. That would be Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace), the daughter of the president on this near-future Earth where much of the grimier aspects of society–most notably, prisons–have been relegated to orbit. It’s here that requisite badass Snow (Pearce), arrested for a crime of espionage he didn’t commit, gets a chance for redemption by infiltrating a prison colony gone amuck. From a purely technical standpoint, “Lockout” consists of disciplined action pastiche, but much of its thundering engine borrows from better movies. But filmmakers frame the material in a typical routine of shooting and screaming that diminishes its more engaging qualities, including a committed self-deprecating turn by Pearce. However, “Lockout” isn’t really directed at all so much as assembled out of a patchwork of gruff confrontations and loud, jarring noises. Criticwire grade: C-
Originally reviewed on April 10, 2012. Opens Friday in wide release. Distributed by FilmDistrict.
The classroom drama has become such a popular genre for social analysis that it can be boiled down to a few essential ingredients: Good-natured but internally conflicted instructor takes on intellectually capable but emotionally stunted class and figures out a way to tame them. Oscar-nominated “Monsieur Lazhar,” the fourth feature from Quebec-based filmmaker Phillippe Falardeau, fulfills these clichés while at the same time transcending them. It has neither the gritty edge of “Half Nelson” nor the screwball energy of “Hamlet 2” but a combination of realism and wit that relates it to both of them. The light, charming exterior services darker tragedies at the root of the story, in which Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (actor and writer Fellag) shows up at an elementary school to replace a teacher that committed suicide. Accurately described by a colleague as “‘Incendies’ meets ‘The Class,'” Falardeau’s perceptive work grapples with issues of racial conflict and education as a single, unified whole. Despite the cultural specificity of the setting, Bachir’s ability to workshop his troublesome immigration experience by dealing with his students’ problems turns the classroom into a microcosm of larger concerns for everyone involved, and a better sanctuary for Bashir’s purposes than any government can provide. Criticwire grade: A-
Originally reviewed on August 9, 2011. Opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Distributed by Music Box Films.
Everyone and everything is either dead or dying in Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s “Post Mortem,” a chilling exploration of the 1973 Pinochet coup soaked in metaphor but rooted in dreadful fact. The movie’s star, Alfredo Castro, watches nonplussed as the mounting dictatorship gradually surrounds him, his lanky figure and blank expression creating the appearance of a Frankenstein’s monster constructed from the wreckage of a crumbled society. “Post Mortem” functions as a kind of spiritual prequel to Larraín’s previous feature, the delirious black comedy “Tony Manero,” which took place in the midst of the Pinochet dictatorship and also starred Castro in an unsettling performance taken to a different sort of extreme. With “Post Mortem,” Larraín adopts a subtler approach. The reclusive mortician’s assistant embodied by Castro is a straight-faced oddball named Mario Cornejo–not a blatant lunatic but evidently quite disturbed and repressed. The character’s symbolic value matters less than the implications of his personal culpability in a government cover-up. As a character study, “Post Mortem” conveys the plight of a middle aged loner with considerable intrigue, although Mario’s inscrutable face lends a certain one-note feel to the proceedings. In total, however, “Post Mortem” effectively portrays the specter of dictatorship through the lens of one man’s private hell. Criticwire grade: B+
Originally reviewed on April 9, 2012. Opened Wednesday at Film Forum in New York. Distributed by Kino Lorber.