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Out This Week: 7 Reviews of New Indie Releases

Out This Week: 7 Reviews of New Indie Releases

Out This Week is a weekly column intended to provide reviews of nearly every new indie release.



“Beauty is Embarrassing”


“For Ellen”

“Keep the Lights On”

“The Inbetweeners Movie”

“Toys in the Attic”


Three high-pitched female specimen of Homo Americanus are asked to be bridesmaids at the wedding of a former classmate they used to poke fun at back in college. The implications: How masochistic of her to invite them, how sadistic of them to go. She is fat though; perhaps she deserves it, doesn’t she?

Unsurprisingly, the run-up to the wedding consists of a series of mildly entertaining fuck-ups. The bride’s dress gets ripped, soiled and lost propelling the three shell-shocked mademoiselles on an eventfully boring night out. Their nocturnal perambulations are graced by the presence of three metropolitan cavemen. The poetic essence of the film is encapsulated in a scene where one of the main characters shares her blowjob philosophy with a stranger on a plane. She proceeds to graphically describe and grade the different ranks of oral intercourse she can deliver and the material gain they are conceded upon. Distinguished members of an advanced and civilized society approaching adult life yet behaving like untamed adolescents: Social horror? Anthropological armageddon? Western realism? No, it’s supposed to be a comedy.  Criticwire grade: C [Celluloid Liberation Front]

Opens Friday in several cities; also available on multiple VOD platforms. Released by RADIUS-TWC. Watch the trailer below:

“Beauty is Embarrassing”

A documentary about pop artist Wayne White, best known, if know at all, for his Emmy-winning  work on the irreverent TV show “Pee-wee”s Playhouse,” for which he created and gave voice to the puppets Randy and Dirty Dog. First-time director Neil Berkeley traces Tennessee-born White’s career from his days as an underground cartoonist in downtown New York through his success designing and animating for other kids” shows (like “Beakman”s World”) and music videos for Peter Gabriel and Smashing Pumpkins. More recently, White  has concentrated on painting — taking cheap lithographs he finds in thrift stores and superimposing witty slogans on them. “My mission is to bring humor into fine art,” White says. Judging by this fawning but entertaining  film, he has succeeded. Criticwire grade: A- [V.A. Musetto]
Opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle. Distributed by Future You Pictures. Watch the trailer below:


Documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have proven themselves masters of the vérité approach with the first-rate documentaries “Jesus Camp” and “12th and Delaware.” In both cases, they managed to engage hot-button issues in a miraculously even-handed fashion, pitting radical-conservative attitudes (about religion and abortion, respectively) against liberal opposition without alienating either side. Their latest topical effort, “DETROPIA,” lacks the same clearly defined battle lines that make their earlier films so galvanizing, but nevertheless delivers a snapshot of Detroit’s dire financial straits and struggling middle class.

The bulk of the movie is a collage of Detroit residents complaining about the city’s downward economic spiral. As the auto industry flails, countless organizations dependent on their support fight to stay alive. Union workers bemoan cutbacks and proclaim they have nothing to lose. A local blogger waxes nostalgic about the city’s faded dreams of building a 21st-century metropolis. The whole experience is one long rant in radiant colors. Criticwire grade: B [Eric Kohn]

Originally reviewed January 2, 2012. Opens Friday at New York’s IFC Center. Released by Sundance Selects. Watch the trailer below:

For Ellen

Nobody else could fit the role of a crestfallen rocker that Paul Dano embodies in director So Yong Kim’s “For Ellen.” Kim’s delicate feature takes the conventional deadbeat dad formula and rejuvenates it by letting Dano’s naturalistic performance lead the way. The actor portrays a perpetually lost young man with a combination of innocence and utter confusion as he wanders through his life in a total daze. Sporting a clichéd getup of black-painted fingernails, grungy hair and an unkempt goatee, Dano’s Joby wanders through an icy landscape attempting to preempt the efforts of his estranged wife (Jena Malone), who wants to divorce him and take custody of their young daughter.

Set against a snowy backdrop, “For Ellen” takes its time establishing Joby’s hopeless routine, adding a literal touch in the opening minutes when he smashes his car on the side of the road. Several scenes drag by before his main conundrum becomes clear. Facing down his wife and her lawyer, Joby earnestly pleads his case, but his lawyer pal (Jon Heder, more subdued than ever before) provides little support. As Joby gradually sinks to deeper levels of desperation, Kim resists opening up the story to many new details and instead simply observes her angry antihero. Dano rises to the challenge. Criticwire grade: A- [Eric Kohn]

Originally reviewed January 28, 2012. Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Tribeca Film. Watch the trailer below:


Keep the Lights On

“Keep the Lights On” looks like what it is: An incredibly personal work for writer-director Ira Sachs. The story of Danish documentarian Erik (Thure Lindhardt) living in New York and enduring a tumultuous relationship with the drug-addicted Paul (Zachary Booth) spans a decade with an unhurried pace attuned to the on-again, off-again pattern that the men endure. Sachs’ quiet, observational style conveys the rich texture of the characters’ ever-changing behavior. It’s deeply affecting, even when nothing much happens.

Perhaps to remind himself that other people have it worse, Erik quickly falls for Paul, a closeted lawyer whom he sleeps with after responding to his ad. Initially, they engage in a clandestine affair behind the back of Paul’s girlfriend, but eventually the facade fades away and the duo appear to settle into a more conventional life together. Paul’s drug use, however, sticks around and becomes the focus of the story. The two actors engage in furious debate and quiet postcoital discussions with an impressively low-key delivery that complements Sachs’ naturalistic framing of their world. The immersive nature of “Turn Off the Lights” makes it palpably heartfelt, but not overly sentimental. However, while the up-and-down trajectory of their relationship rings true, it can also grow repetitive. Even so, Sachs skillfully explores dangerous extremes–not only drug addiction, but the slipperiness of attraction, both to other people and oneself. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]

Originally reviewed January 28, 2012. Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by Music Box Films. Watch the trailer below:

“The Inbetweeners Movie”

As four high school friends attempt the ideal graduation summer send-off, Crete becomes the backdrop for friendship-defining hijinks in this adaptation of the hit British comedy. Although the TV series surely lays the groundwork for the four-person team-up, aside from a passing mention about being mates since grade school, there’s little to convincing evidence to suggest that these four would want to stick together aside from the convenience of their shared antics. But then again, maybe that’s all it takes.

The female companions that the quartet meet on their excursion help to dampen some of the teens’ less desirable attributes, but that perfunctory nature is one of the only ones they serve. It’s high school senior wish fulfillment on a globe-spanning scale, with all the relationship depth that implies, complete with a vicarious lack of consequences.

Thankfully, university-bound Will (Simon Bird) regularly emerges as the voice of reason, with plenty of entertaining, gap-filling voiceover to boot. While none of the other three are as likable or dynamic as Will, Bird grounds the group and establishes the middle ground between helpless nerddom and suave infallibility that the film’s best moments inhabit. Criticwire grade: B- [Steve Greene]

Opens in Los Angeles on Friday. Released by Wrekin Hill Entertainment. Watch the trailer below:


“Toys in the Attic”

There is some dazzling old-fashioned stop-motion animation at work in “Toys in the Attic,” Czech filmmaker Jiří Barta’s impressive 2009 film now getting a U.S. release. From a (live) black cat dressing up—and even wearing cat’s eye eyeglasses—to a “storm” made from pillows as clouds and blue patterned sheets as water, the images are as vivid as they are memorable. Four toys — Buttercup (voiced by Vivian Schilling), a wordless doll; Teddy (Forest Whitaker), a bear; Mr. Handsome (Cary Elwes), a marionette who speaks in rhyme, and Laurent (Marcelo Tubert), a ball of clay—play in secret until the evil Head (Douglas Urbanski) kidnaps Buttercup. As her friends try to rescue her, each has various adventures. There are some nifty moments of Teddy and Mr. Handsome hanging from a clothesline, and amusing scenes of Laurent splattering himself and reassembling. “Toys in the Attic” is slight on plot, but Barta compensates by including some wondrous scenes featuring animation within animation — as when Teddy has a nightmare — and some clever bits where real humans intrude. [Gary M. Kramer] Criticwire grade: B+

Opens Friday in several cities. Released by Hannover House. Watch the trailer below:

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