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Capsule Options: From ‘First Position’ to ‘Mother’s Day,’ Here’s 10 Reviews of New Indie Releases

Capsule Options: From 'First Position' to 'Mother's Day,' Here's 10 Reviews of New Indie Releases

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 along with other contributors as noted.

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

“The Connection”

“First Position”

“Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story”

“Last Call at the Oasis”

“A Little Bit of Heaven”

“Meeting Evil”

“Mother’s Day”

“The Perfect Family”

“You Hurt My Feelings”

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

It’s little wonder the British retiree dramedy “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a hit in the U.K. The film follows the template similar to the one that made “Mamma Mia!” a massive hit in the same territory: Transplant a top tier crop of actors over the age of 50 to an exotic locale and let them loose (minus the Abba tunes). Based on Deborah Moggach’s book “These Foolish Things,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” brings together some of Britain’s finest thespians (Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton and Tom Wilkinson) for a life-affirming lark about a group of old Brits who venture off to India to take up residence at the Marigold Hotel, an establishment set up to host retirees and run by a young man in over his head (a hammy Dev Patel). With a cast this large, the plot at times feels more suited for a BBC miniseries, but thanks to reliable director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Debt”) — who’s proven himself adept at handling big ensembles — “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a charming, if predictable, diversion. Criticwire grade: B [Nigel M. Smith]

Opens Friday nationwide. Released by Fox Searchlight.

“The Connection”

Shirley Clarke’s 1962 cult hit, newly restored by Milestone Films, illustrates an artist both ahead of her time and firmly within it. A mockumentary of sorts, in which a pompous documentarian attempts to capture a group of junkies in their decrepit West Village apartment, “The Connection” cleverly mocks the notion of objectivity espoused by the cinema vérite movement while at the same time using the language of that movement to construct an incredibly intimate look at the darker side of the Beatnik subculture. Based on Jack Gelber’s play, the movie uses the smooth jazz performed by several castmembers as its toe-tapping Greek chorus.

Along with 1967’s “David Holzman’s Diary,” Clarke’s use of fictional characters in a nonfiction context results in an incredibly involving experience in which the participants address the camera in soulful monologues — none greater than the confessions of the connection himself, Cowboy (played by future Clarke lover Carl Lee) — and the filmmaking process itself becomes a part of the story. Outside of its clever formalism, however, “The Connection” also burrows deep into the mentality of outcasts struggling to justify their ways — it anticipates “Trash Humpers” as much as the countless found footage projects made these days. Criticwire grade: A [Eric Kohn]

Opens Friday at New York’s IFC Center. Released by Milestone Films.

First Position

Bess Kargman’s documentary debut could just as easily be about competitive grand piano or youth bowling. It only incidentally concerns the Youth America Grand Prix student dance competition, providing a flattened cross-section of human-interest stories rather than examining ballet in any depth. The kids —adopted Sierra Leonea Michaela, battling skin pigmentation issues along with the greater stigma against black ballet dancers; Columbian Sebastian, sent to America to get a better job and life through classical dance — are nice, but the filmmaking couldn’t be more rote. Odd that a film presumably devoted to showing a lovingly warts-and-all celebration of ballet’s most ardent youth devotees can’t show more than 10 seconds of these dances before dissolving or cutting away to yet another teary face. Criticwire grade: C- [Vadim Rizov]

Opens Friday in Los Angeles and New York. Released by Sundance Selects.

“Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story”

“Follow Me” is a hagiographic documentary portrait of Yoni Netanyahu, the late brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yoni was a star army officer who heroically saved Israeli hostages in Entebbe in 1976. The film, directed by Jonathan Gruber and Ari Daniel Pinchot, deftly uses photographs, poignant letters (tenderly read by Marton Csokas), as well as interviews with his brothers, ex-wife, and others, to celebrate this remarkable, charismatic man. Yoni was a Zionist who loved Israel and wanted a meaningful life. He was torn between being a soldier and a scholar. And when he re-enlisted in the army after being wounded, it took a toll on his marriage. “Follow Me” punctuates the parade of flattering talking head interviews with news reports of the weeklong hostage crisis. It’s a calculated approach, but it certainly reinforces the image of the attractive, sensitive Yoni as a fascinating, complex martyr. Criticwire grade: B- [Gary M. Kramer]

Opens Friday in Washington D.C. followed by other cities in subsequent weeks. Released by International Film Circuit.

Last Call at the Oasis

Veteran documentarian Jessica Yu’s all-encompassing survey of the global water crisis is a scattershot overview with enough talking heads for an entire miniseries, but at least she turns to authoritative voices. These include activist Erin Brokovich and environmental scientist Peter Gleick, both of whom sound the alarm on the issues of clean water and its dwindling supply. The message takes its time to get going, but eventually finds a few entertaining grooves (hiring Jack Black to promote recycled toilet water to see if consumers are willing to drink it) and makes the case for greater awareness of water scarcity with ample urgency. Viewers will come away thirsty–and more likely than ever to fix a leaky faucet. Criticwire grade: B [Eric Kohn]

Opens Friday in New York. Released by ATO Pictures.

A Little Bit of Heaven

Marley Corbett (Kate Hudson) is an ad exec in the middle of an idyllic lifestyle filled with an occasional casual hookup, a strong liver and a trusty bulldog named Stanley, when out of nowhere, she’s diagnosed with cancer and given little chance of beating the disease. Despite Marley’s prognosis, much of the film seems as unconcerned with confronting the consequences of the disease as its protagonist. Gael García Bernal plays Marley’s doctor, whose impossible boyishness naturally complements Marley’s impossible cheeriness. Even though both of their main personality traits are intensified to an often absurd degree, Bernal and Hudson inhabit their puppy dog and carefree life-lover roles comfortably. The ensemble does about as much as they can do with what material they’re given (oh, to spin this off into a buddy comedy starring Romany Malco and Peter Dinklage!), much of which is overshadowed by the blissful ignorance of the obligatory romance that emerges between the two leads. The glossy sheen that envelops the entire film blunts the impact of some potentially moving moments, as any discussion of mortality or religion seems like a tangential afterthought. This glaring absence is most evident in the last few sequences, which, to some, likely border on disingenuousness. “A Little Bit of Heaven” is ostensibly a story about illness and life and redemption — and as fluffy as the clouds in the opening title sequence. Criticwire grade: C [Steve Greene]

“Meeting Evil”

Next time a stranger rings your doorbell and asks for help, be very, very careful. You don’t want to end up like John Fleton, the middle-class husband and father of two played by Luke Wilson in this so-so crime thriller. The stranger is an arrogant gentleman named Richie (Samuel L. Jackson), who says his car has stalled in front of John’s house.
John’s life is falling apart — he’s lost his job as a real estate agent because he’s having an affair with a co-worker (Peyton List), he’s mired in credit-card debt and his spacious yellow house is going into foreclosure. Still, John offers to help, but soon wishes he hadn’t. Richie, it seems, is a serial-killer obsessed, we’re not sure why, with John, his wife (Leslie Bibb)  and his son and daughter.  
Director-writer Chris Fisher builds a goodly amount of suspense and dread as the two men take a hellish ride together and the bodies pile up. But the script leaves a lot of loose ends dangling and doesn’t always ring true. (The antics of two inept cops, for instance.)  If you are able to overlook these technicalities, “Meeting Evil” can be a fun way to waste an hour and a half. Criticwire grade: B [V.A. Musetto]
Open Friday. Released by Magnolia Pictures.

“Mother’s Day”

There’s good news and bad news about this slasherfest, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, who helmed three “Saw” sequels. The good: an over-the-top performance by Rebecca De Mornay as a psychotic mom. The bad: an overlong (112 minutes) and convoluted script with gratuitous and sickening violence and gore.
After a bank robbery gone wrong, Momma’s three boys, one seriously wounded, and innocent daughter seek refuge at their mother’s house, only to discover that she has lost the property, somewhere in Kansas, in a bank foreclosure. The fugitives take the new owners and some of their friends hostage and await the arrival of the family matriarch.
She ups the violence, and one by one the captives meet their demise at the hands of the family from hell. The movie might have worked as a hostage thriller along the lines of “The Desperate Hours,” the subtle 1955 drama with Humphrey Bogart.  But that’s too much to expect in this era of cinematic excess. So Bousman insists on heavy-handed violence entirely lacking in humor and social comment. Your best bet is to catch this on DVD, fast-forwarding through scenes without De Mornay. Criticwire grade: C [V.A. Musetto]
Opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Released by Anchor Bay.

The Perfect Family

Rigid Catholic Eileen (Kathleen Turner, in late Elizabeth Taylor mode) is the kind of woman who tells lesbian daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel) she’s “living in sin” and who, learning of son Frank Jr.’s (Jason Ritter) affair with manicurist Theresa Henessey (Kristen Dalton), shows up and flashes a bottle of “Harlot Red” polish. At brittle near-breaking point, Eileen’s desire to win “Catholic Woman of the Year” is a quest for validation as a manifestation of her desire to beat more glamorous lifelong rival/arch-bitch Agnes Dunn (Sharon Lawrence). Humorlessly homophobic, Eileen learns her lesson after thoroughly alienating everyone in her family. The frankly embarrassing film works overtime to make sure it doesn’t lose any potentially on-the-fence mildly Catholic audience members by making sure Shannon’s relationship is of the “Lesbians: They’re Just Like Us!” kind (on not showing her wedding dress before the big day: “I warned you —I’m traditional!”). Criticwire grade: D+ [Eric Kohn]

Opens Friday in Los Angeles and on VOD. Released by Variance Films.

“You Hurt My Feelings”

Steve Collins’ tender drama “You Hurt My Feelings” revolves around three characters stuck in a solemn mood. The story begins with John (festival programmer John Merriman), a plump, bearded young man working as the nanny for two hyperactive toddlers. In an amusing prologue, he wanders through the frozen countryside, growing weary in his attempts to contain them. Although clearly not enjoying himself, he desperately wants to change that, as later scenes make clear: His ex-girlfriend, Courtney (Courtney Davis) left him for unspecified reasons relating to his irresponsibility, and he has taken the children into his care in a last-ditch effort to prove otherwise. Over the course of a year, John increases his attempts to win back Courtney while falling into a comical friendship with Macon (Macon Blair, “Murder Party”), a slovenly man-child whose hilariously lackadaisical demeanor suggests Courtney has less-than-perfect taste in men. That’s nearly the entire story arc of “You Hurt My Feelings,” which maintains a lyrical quietude in every scene, more or less functioning like a silent film. John has no more than a dozen or so lines; Courtney has even fewer. There are almost no extended conversations at all. Nevertheless, the emotions stand strong, mainly thanks to the actors’ complex expressions, and the delicate images of natural beauty (captured by “Putty Hill” cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier) filling their countryside environment. Appropriately, “You Hurt My Feelings” is entirely composed of them. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]

Opens Friday at New York’s reRun Gastropub. Originally reviewed June 19, 2011.

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