This weekly column is 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.
REVIEWS THIS WEEK:
“At the end of this film, Emilia dies and Julia remains alone.” So begins the voiceover in the opening minutes of Chilean director Cristián Jiménez’s charming second feature, which follows struggling writer Julio (Diego Noguera) in two separate time periods. Adapted from Alejandro Zambra’s novella, the movie finds Julio losing a gig to transcribe a famous author’s manuscript and then pretending do it anyway to avoid humiliation from his girlfriend. For inspiration, he draws on the aforementioned ill-fated romance from eight years earlier, in which he initially falls madly in love with Emilia (Nathalia Galgani) and then slowly touch with her. The story shifts between these two periods with ease, using an impressive combination of dry humor and quirk matched with emotional sensitivity. In the present day, the bearded Julio drifts through life searching for meaning while the wide-eyed student Julio discovers the possibilities of a deep romance with ample naivete. The movie’s opening spoiler takes the focus off specific events and instead clarifies its philosophy on the transience of everyday experience. The titular metaphor compares the bonsai plant, in need of constant care, to the writing process — but it also applies to the way “Bonsái” eloquently deals with the fragility of life itself. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday at New York’s IFC Center. Released by Strand Releasing.
It takes a horse less than four minutes to cross two miles of turf and win the prestigious Melbourne Cup. In 2002, everyone expects top jockey Damien Oliver (Stephen Curry) will be riding the winner, but there are doubts about his mount, the tempestuous gelding Media Puzzle, trained by Irishman Dermot Weld (Brendan Gleeson). Even Damien’s brother Jason (Daniel MacPherson), a fellow jockey, questions the wisdom of an untested foreign horse competing in Australia’s foremost thoroughbred race.
Director Simon Wincer (“Phar Lap,” “Free Willy”) expertly captures the intricacies of this rarefied world: the time, effort and money exerted, and the interactions between humans and animals. When Damien gets a devastating reminder of the sport’s inherent danger, he’s seriously shaken, but this docudrama continues steadily on course. Wincer and co-screenwriter Eric O’Keefe are more interested in relating this true-life tale of grace under pressure than in really exploring the costs of horse racing. Criticwire grade: B- [Serena Donadoni]
Opens Friday in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Miami, Minneapolis, Orlando, Phoenix, Seattle and Tampa. Released by Myriad Pictures.
If “Freaky Friday” began after the body switch, their relationship would look a lot like the one between single mother and waitress Grace (Eva Mendes) and her quirky, fact-wielding daughter Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez). Despite being able to deliver a professional-level video presentation to her high school class, Ansiedad (or “Anne,” as she eventually insists on being called) devises an archetypal coming-of-age for herself in order to attain a certain level of maturity. Martinez handles her precocious-to-a-fault charge quite effectively, but the film never provides any reason for the adult-like poise, vocabulary and command of storyboarding she has at the story’s outset.
Whether it’s Grace’s married doctor boyfriend (Matthew Modine) or the rebellious teen girl that Ansiedad befriends as part of her self-inflicted bad girl phase, the landscape of “Girl in Progress” is littered with so many unlikeable characters that, when Anne renounces her own redeemable features, there’s simply no one to root for. Grace and her restaurant co-workers, along with Anne’s schoolmates, represent an explosion of irresponsibility and general meanness that make the film’s few moments of uplift seem both out of place and undeserved. It’s a story too filled with caricatures to be recognizable and too polished to be compelling. Criticwire grade: D [Steve Greene]
Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Lionsgate/Pantelion Films.
Now firmly established as a director of black comedy rather than merely a screaming eighties comedian, director Bobcat Goldthwait’s disdain for America’s narcissistic culture reaches a fever pitch with this lively “Bonnie and Clyde” update that finds Joel Murray playing a disgruntled office drone eventually driven to kill off reality television stars with the assistance of an equally batty 16-year-old girl (Tara Lynne Barr). Goldthwait writes some of his best monologues in years for his loony leading man, but while “God Bless America” rants about society’s downward slide into a media-fueled oblivion — it’s Goldthwait’s “Idiocracy” — the movie also serves as a bold indictment of pop culture’s destructive potential, and a catharsis for anyone willing to confess that beneath the Murray character’s blatantly psychotic behavior, his targets are spot-on. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday in several cities; also available on VOD. Released by Magnolia Pictures.
A burnout mystery writer (Jean-Paul Rouve) who has run out of ideas stumbles upon the perfect inspiration for his new novel in the body of a blonde corpse in the snow while driving in the “Nowhere Land” between the French and Swiss borders. Under blinking fluorescent lights in the morgue, this blonde looks eerily familiar, like a Laura Palmer who dreams she’s Marilyn Monroe. In shot after shot, these two references are slickly and reverentially quoted until the viewer feels trapped in a Groundhog Day of reruns. One of the suspects in this mystery mash-up is a BOB (Bobby Kennedy & BOB rolled into one), clearly emphasizing the fact that this bearded Parisian isn’t the only one who has run out of ideas. The only originality comes in the last few minutes, not enough to redeem this hackneyed refashioning of overfamiliar myths. The film’s only saving grace is its original French title: “Poupoupidou.” Criticwire grade: C- [Miriam Bale]
Opens Friday at New York’s Cinema Village. Released by First Run Features.
Once upon a time, Juliette Lewis was the actress most likely to play a jail bait nymphet. (Remember “Cape Fear” and “Natural Born Killers”?) Now 40, Lewis finds herself as the mother of one of those nymphs in this rambling road movie, directed by Derick Martini. She’s Tammy, and the film opens with her daughter, Luli, celebrating her 13th birthday at a barroom party. This being redneck country, one of Luli’s gifts is a 45-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol, courtesy of an uncle.
Anxious to escape her boozy parents, pistol-packin’ Luli (Chloe Grace Moretz) decides to leave her home in Nebraska and thumb her way to Las Vegas in search of “a sugar daddy.” In no time, she hooks up with two unsavory characters: Glenda (Blake Lively, better than you’d expect), a coke head who turns Luli on to the white powder and enlists her help in a robbery, and Eddie (Eddie Redmayre), a young, Stetson-wearing pervert with a pronounced limp.
Mortez (“Kick-Ass”) gives a respectable performance, especially considering what she has to work with. In a funny scene that harkens back to “Taxi Driver,” she stands in front of a mirror in her panties, twirling her pistol and spouting lines from old movies, including Norma Desmond’s zinger in “Sunset Blvd.”: “It’s the pictures that got small.” (Like “Hick.”) But Martini is never able to pull his movie together, providing instead a series of disjointed incidents and underwritten characters. Not even a cameo by Alec Baldwin can help. On the plus side is the eclectic musical soundtrack, which ranges from Bob Dylan to the Mills Brothers. Criticwire grade: C [V.A. Musetto]
Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by Phase 4 Films.
Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest textured family drama doesn’t gloss over the deeper substance of his scenario in favor of good vibes. Instead, he spins a unique blend of melancholy without getting mopey about it. Providing yet more ammo to those who compare his youth-centric dramas to Ozu, Kore-eda’s latest story of alienated children is both simple and profound. In the wake of their parents’ divorce, 12-year-old Koichi (Koki Maeda) and his younger brother Ryunosuke (Oshiro Maeda, Koki’s real-life brother) have been split up against their will: Koichi has been stuck with his grandparents in the low-key neighborhood community of Kagoshima, an island region in the shadow of a volcano that endlessly spouts fumes into the air. Ryunosuke lives a comparatively spirited life with the brothers’ indie-rock father in the north.
Unaccustomed to change, Koichi grows intent on reuniting the family and believes to have found a panacea in the construction of a new bullet train connecting the two towns. Through a childlike process of reasoning that the movie takes at face value, Koichi determines that when the two trains pass each other in opposite directions, their wishes will come true.
Kore-eda only uses this premise as a backdrop to let its world sink in. The director Kore-eda keeps the proceedings almost alarmingly devoid of drama. However, despite the meandering plot, there’s always the sense that the filmmaker has control of the characters and their situation. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed May 7, 2012. Opens Friday in New York with a national roll-out to follow. Released by Magnolia Pictures.
The opening sequence of “Otter 501” is a simple, touching glimpse at the genesis of a rescue narrative, with only ambient sounds and the cry of a baby otter as it floats on the surface of the ocean. Sadly, much of that natural spirit diminishes when the remainder of the film takes on the artifice of the summer video maintained by Katie, a young woman volunteering in an otter care program on the central coast of California. The discovery, captivity and rearing of a baby otter are told through a series of videos on Katie’s Facebook wall, as are snippets of the history of the species decline and regeneration.
“Otter 501” is, at its core, a basic tale of the survival of a young member of an endangered group of animals. However, when much of the screen time is given over to laptops and iPads and kayaking sessions around coastal inlets, the story of the titular critter sometimes seems superfluous. While some narration is needed to give context to the painstaking process of reintroducing the growing otter back into its natural habitat, much of the explanation seems unnecessary when the inherent tension stems from watching the animal’s interactions. Essays could be written about how adorable that otter is. But the rules for otter pup rehabilitation and the movie about it share one thing: The less human involvement, the better. Criticwire grade: C [Steve Greene]
Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Paladin Films.
Andrew Shea’s art-scandal documentary “Portrait of Wally” tracks the lengthy history of legal battles surrounding Egon Schiele’s 1912 oil painting of the same name. Schiele’s work was known for its sexual audacity, but his portrait of Wally stands in contrast as a demure depiction of his lover Valerie “Wally” Neuzil. Seized by the Nazis in 1939, the painting’s owner Lea Bondi and her family spent the next 60 years trying to reclaim their property, taking on major museums in Austria and New York in the process.
Art history buffs will eat up this tale of sleazy museum politics and dogged determination to find justice for a decades-old crime. “Portrait of Wally” is a bit one-sided since major players like the Museum of Modern Art and NPR declined to comment for the film, but their silence speaks volumes. The painting represents an entire legacy of art stolen from Jewish families during World War II, and “Portrait of Wally” shows just how greed and bureaucracy conspired to keep it away from its rightful owners. The film’s talking head format might be a little dry for some, but open-minded viewers will find a surprisingly engaging account of a landmark case that shook up the art world. Criticwire grade: B [Devin Fuller]
Opens Friday in New York ahead of a national release. Released by Seventh Art Releasing.
It’s unclear why Yam Laranas’ barely competent, five-years-in-the-making “The Road” has been chosen to become the first Filipino film to receive wide American distribution. Rebellious, “you don’t follow the rules” cop Luis (TJ Trinidad) is called in to find two missing girls. Obviously they shouldn’t have busted down the gate to a private road, and they definitely should’ve turned back when they saw a driverless car. Three parts that flash back some 20 years flesh out what’s going on in tediously redundant fashion: No matter the time period or characters, you’re basically waiting for some cretin to pop up, preceded by loud music to prepare you and courteously make sure there’s no chance of actual fright. The outdoor digital shots make impressive use of nighttime darkness, but the repetitive shabbiness of what’s basically a single-set shocker makes for slow going. Criticwire grade: C- [Vadim Rizov]
Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Freestyle Releasing.
Musicians Adam (Luke Treadaway) of the band Make and Morello (Natalia Tena) from the Dirty Pinks instantly loathe each other. But after they are handcuffed together for 24 hours during Scotland’s T in the Park festival, they naturally fall in love. Navigating everything from their relationships with their respective lovers to going to the bathroom, Adam and Morello find their awkward situation initially restive and then ultimately liberating. They re-evaluate their lives in micro and macro detail while the whole time remaining shackled.
David McKenzie’s low-budget, low-concept, musical romance — shot with a handheld camera at the 2010 musicfest — will annoy viewers whose patience is as thin as the plot. But the film does have several charming moments, and the leads are appealing when they share the stage or fight in the mud. “Tonight You’re Mine” also suffers from a dumb subplot involving Luke’s manager, but in its favor, the film boasts a catchy soundtrack. Criticwire grade: C+ [Gary Kramer]
Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by Roadside Attractions.
Joe Berlinger’s enlightening overview of the recording, acclaim and subsequent controversy surrounding Paul Simon’s seminal “Graceland” album in South Africa during the heat of apartheid drama nimbly juggles cultural history and ethical debates thanks to the accessibility of its central figure. Modern day footage follows Simon to South Africa for a terrific reunion performance with his original “Graceland” colleagues, while archival material from the original recording sessions bring a personal dimension to the album’s mythological history.
No stranger to the criticism of his album as an outsider’s perspective on a society he couldn’t understand, Simon ably navigates conversations from the past when faced down by apartheid survivors (like activist Dali Trumbo, who enjoys the album but claims “at that time, it was not helpful”). Imminently watchable but narratively scattered, the movie is essentially a conversation piece. Berlinger lets Simon play the hero but keeps the debate open-ended, which extends the movie’s appeal beyond mere celebration of the album’s 25th anniversary. Of course, there’s plenty of celebration, too, with no less than Oprah deeming “Graceland” her favorite album of all time. As usual, she speaks for the masses, and so does “Under African Skies.” Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Lebanese writer-director Nadine Labaki’s Cannes-acclaimed quasi-musical-comedy about Muslim and Christian women in a small town banding together to keep their husbands from going to war is lightly charming and nothing more. That’s contrary to its reputation, which, like Labaki’s previous effort “Caramel,” derives much of its buzz from the filmmaker’s ability to craft a genial, female-centric crowdpleaser set in a part of the world usually depicted through bleaker genre traditions. The women’s ongoing attempts to distract their husbands and fathers from mounting tensions include a rather incredulous faked miracle other feats written in a sketch-like manner that comes at the expense of believable characters. But the stakes are relatively high, which keeps the movie’s suspense intact, if not as much as its display of self-satisfaction over its very existence. Criticwire grade: B- [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
With his first feature, Toronto-based video artist Daniel Cockburn delivers a more advanced rumination on the fragility of human consciousness than any of the dream levels in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” But fan sites won’t delve into his intentions with similar vigor because solving the astute psychological puzzles of “You Are Here” would ruin the alternately frustrating and revelatory cinematic experience Cockburn has carefully built.
The puzzle pieces are manifested in highly sophisticated but somewhat obtuse narrative fragments. Cockburn opens with a video of rolling ocean waves matched to the voiceover of an anonymous lecturer (R.D. Reid). Discussing “the awareness of the self as a solitary construct,” he dares his unseen audience to ignore a laser pointer that he directs at the screen, and instead focus their attention on the waves. With that broadly conceived mindgame, Cockburn launches a seriously heavy look at the elusive nature of identity.
Shifting to a new setting every few minutes, he makes it difficult to contemplate any given strand for too long, extending the laser pointer challenge to an endlessly boggling structure. Another voiceover narration introduces “a crowd of people named Allan” stuck in a cycle of transportation, nabbing cabs to random street corners when they’re ordered to do so by a group of undefined office drones constantly working the phones. Yet before that premise has time to sink in, Cockburn moves on to explore the life of an obsessive archivist (Canadian actress Tracy Wright, in one of her final performances before succumbing to cancer in June 2010). With the exception of Wright, whose dazed expression reveals her character’s internal confusion, “You Are Here” suffers from stilted, humorless performances and some clunky pacing issues. Fortunately, the ideas sustain it. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed August 11, 2010. Opens Friday at the reRun Gastropub in Brooklyn.