So “The Avengers” knocked it out of the park, huh? With a $600 million intake worldwide and lots and lots of good reviews, Joss Whedon and the folks over at Marvel can probably even one-up James Cameron at the next Masters of the Hollywood Universe fete. (That sounds fun, doesn’t it? I’d go to a party like that.) This weekend is a little smaller, but looking good nonetheless. A number of foreign films that have done well in the festival circuit, and the latest eyefeast from Burton and Co. hit theaters today, providing quite a lot of competition – if not dazzling CGI and budget – for the massive blockbuster winner of last week. Let’s see how they measure up.
Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows,” an adaptation of a 1960s television show, opens this weekend, with Johnny Depp playing Barnabas, a wealthy landowner-turned-vampire that is awoken after a 200-year nap in the ground, only to find that his descendents have squandered his fortune and good name. Good-hearted attempts to reinstate the family’s glory are thwarted by a similarly undead nemesis, the witch Angelique (Eva Green), who, in a jealous and lovesick rage, attempts to keep Barnabas from his great-great-great grandson’s nanny (Bella Heathcote), who may or may not be the reincarnation of his soul mate. Though the sets and costumes are terrific, typical of Burton’s stellar visual style, the story hardly matches up. There is little sense of structure or consistency through the film, and many potentially interesting plotlines are left frayed or just unfinished. Moreover, the raucous wall-to-wall soundtrack and less-than-great performances make for a fairly unpleasant viewing experience. Helena Bonham Carter, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloë Grace Moretz and Jonny Lee Miller co-star as Barnabas’ motley crew of a modern-day family, yet none of these stars brings their A-game. Our review says the film “is, at its absolute best, an awful movie, an unfocused mess, and a top-notch piece of production and costume design in search of a story.” Rotten Tomatoes: 43% Metacritic: 56
For anyone who’s ever wanted to rear-end the person who cut them off on the highway, an everyman succumbs to life’s road rage and goes vigilante in this week’s “God Bless America,” from director Bobcat Goldthwait. Joel Murray (Freddy Rumsen from “Mad Men” is back!) plays Frank, a recently terminated insurance agent who has just been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Feeling simultaneously furious and helpless, he decides to get back at a sick, twisted, terrible world by assassinating a spoiled brat reality television star. Frank’s rage against the machine doesn’t stop with the one revenge kill, however, as young Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) encourages him to continue on a murderous cross-country spree, joining the righteous crusade against the social ills of America. The blackly humorous moments (Frank and Roxy take out several self-absorbed teenagers talking on their cell phones during a movie) are balanced with acute parodies of some of the foulest figures in entertainment and politics, all the while providing a truly humanist, and even optimistic, perspective. Our first review says, “Goldthwait’s latest is a big accomplishment, and it puts him on a plane alongside some of the movies’ best satirists and social commentators, balancing humor with substantial insight and easy outrage with more difficult truth.” However, not everyone on the team agreed, and in our second review, we noted that “while still occasionally humorous amidst its lazy-boy-chair narrative, you expect much more from a film that initially sells itself as a counter-culture handgun wedged in your mouth. If you’re going to assassinate loathsome targets it might be nice if the attack was deeper than using dynamite on a barrel of fish.” RT: 61% MC: 53
“Hick,” from Derick Martini, who also co-wrote the script with Andrea Portes, author of the source novel, opens in theaters this weekend. The film follows 13-year-old Luli (Chloë Grace Moretz again) as she ditches her drunken parents in Nebraska for a better life in Las Vegas. Yes, well, you see how the story is set up now. Rape, murder, drugs, and physical abuse litter Luli’s road trip, as she encounters Alec Baldwin, Eddie Redmayne, Ray MacKinnon, and Blake Lively, who acts as this poor young thing’s mentor (and drug supplier). Moretz is wonderful, but the script is awful: each moment of terror and pain that Luli experiences is somehow undercut by humor or Americana charm, or both. Our review calls the film “a classic example of how not to handle transgressive material involving teens and pre-teens — and as an object lesson for a young filmmaker in what missteps and clumsy errors to avoid. ‘Hick’ was intended to be a calling card for all parties involved to point at as evidence of their talent and bravery; instead, it’s a black blot of shame for everyone who had a part in its making.” RT: 0% (no consensus) MC: 28
The French “Sleepless Night,” from writer-director Frederic Jardin, and co-writer Nicholas Saarda, is a containment action thriller that lobs its characters into a claustrophobic, tense environment from which escape is the only goal. Local mob boss Marciano (Serge Riaboukine) kidnaps the son of crooked policeman Vincent (Tomer Sisley) and uses him to ransom a boatload of cocaine the cop stole. The two make a deal, and agree to meet at Marciano’s nightclub, but their exchange is hijacked by the arrival of other police officers that immediately finger Vincent and relieve him of the drugs. Suddenly, Vincent is running from the mob and the cops alike, all while trying to save his son. Humanized villains, a hero that’s just as much gangster as good guy, and abundant plot twists generate a film that’s as exciting as it is smart: the story is peppered with intriguing and multi-dimensional characters that keep the audience wondering about their respective fates. Our review says, “as a whole, ‘Sleepless Night’ is not unlike its central location in that it’s less uniquely designed than just extremely well-crafted, combining a variety of familiar ideas into one cohesive, streamlined and supremely effective effort.” RT: 93% MC: 76
Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda’s “I Wish” is the rare film told from a child’s perspective that actually uses a child’s perspective, not one synthesized through cuteness and precociousness machines to make it suitable for adult viewers. The movie uses a free-spirited, childlike tone and child actors to explore the adult-geared complexities of two brothers separated by their parents’ divorce. Fully fleshed-out characters, strong performances, stylish and beautiful cinematography, and a solid script that is as devoted to the small moments as it is to the big, create a delightfully realistic and moving film. Our review comments on the themes “explored by Koreeda with such a deft, nuanced hand that it seems as if the gifted filmmaker must know something we don’t. It’s probably more realistic that he’s just a good listener; he pays attention to the little things. One thing’s for sure: he clearly knows how to work with child actors, and he’s successfully filtered all those themes through the perspective of children.” RT: 90% MC: 78
Based on the novel by Alejandro Zambara, the Christián Jiménez-directed “Bonsái” is a quiet Chilean film that packs a powerful message and a big dose of painful authenticity. Julio (Diego Noguera), failing to secure a position as a transcriber for a famous novelist (famous also for handwriting all his stories), but not wanting to disappoint his girlfriend (Trinidad Gonzáles), begins a complicated charade that involves writing a novel of his own that he can later type. When Julio uses his own history – the story of a lost love – as inspiration for the book, and his current lover begins to read it, the power of communication, honest and otherwise, becomes apparent. Jiménez’s talented direction and wonderful acting further solidify the film. Clever, intermittently funny, and extremely realistic, “Bonsái” – which was the Un Certain Regard selection at Cannes last year – finds victory and tragedy in the slices of life. Our review says the film “succeeds without having the vulgar energy of style or genre or sex or violence or controversy to drive it forward. Like the miniature tree-shaping art it’s named for, ‘Bonsái’ reminds us that just because something’s small and finely crafted doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful enough to evoke big ideas.” RT: 94% MC: 63
The Gen X fear of “Nesting” downs the walls of yuppieville in the indie dramedy from director John Chuldenko. Neil (Todd Grinnell) and Sarah (Ali Hillis) are bored with the distinct non-rock-and-roll-dom of their 10-year relationship and thirtysomething selves, and decide to rekindle the fire of their youths with a road trip along the California coast while their home in LA is (of course) remodeled. Yet they only make it to the outlying neighborhood of Silver Lake, their old stomping grounds, before nostalgia sets in. They call off the trip, become squatters in their former apartment, and throw a rager, in true twentysomething fashion. The film doesn’t necessarily add anything to the conversation about Generation X all grown up, but it isn’t necessarily trying to either, preferring to employ married people tropes and insider LA jokes as its main conceits. “Nesting,” in its best moments, offers a fun and simply appealing ride up the coast. Or down the freeway. RT: 0% (no consensus) MC: 37