Category Archives: New In Theaters

Reviews of what’s out now

Worthy of a White Flag

 

by George Wolf

 

From 1973 to 1998, Terrence Malick created a grand total of three films. He must be slamming down the energy drinks, because it just the last eight years, he’s finished three, with three more currently in post-production.

The latest release is To the Wonder, a sort of companion piece to the brilliant and beautiful The Tree of Life from 2011. This time, Malick’s mind is on the mysteries of love, both physical and spiritual.

Those who were perplexed by the abstract nature of The Tree of Life will be even more challenged by To The Wonder. Unlike Tree, it does not have a tangible narrative at its core, existing mainly as a series of exquisite montages undercut with whispers of philosophical dialogue.

Of course, writer/director Malick does have a philosophy degree from Harvard, so he’s in his element.

The film’s abstract centerpeice is the relationship of Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). They meet while Neil is traveling in Marina’s native Ukraine, eventually settling (along with her 10 year old daughter) in his home state of Oklahoma.

When things get rocky, she finds emotional comfort through Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest who has begun to question his own faith. As Neil and Marina pull farther from each other, Neil reconnects with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a girlfriend from years past.

Malick is often elusive, and it would be easy to dismiss To the Wonder as a beautifully filmed commercial for a dating service, as lovers playfully chase after one another,  romping in tall grass with adoration in their eyes.

Look deeper, and you’ll find a meditation on troubled souls struggling for spiritual fulfillment.  Affleck is rarely held in the frame and barely heard, suggesting his character may not represent flesh and blood at all, but rather a faith-based spirit with which the other characters are striving to bond.

Much like the love Malick is exploring, his film requires a certain amount of surrender. Though not the wondrous success The Tree of Life was, To the Wonder is worthy of a white flag.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pretty as a Picture

Renoir

By Hope Madden

Want to see something pretty? Gilles Bourdos has your movie. His latest effort, Renoir, offers a lush imagining of one summer in the great Impressionist’s waning years.

Bourdos’s eye for sumptuous, colorful beauty creates its own work of art worthy of the topic. Hopefully the bathing, posing and lunching in the lush backdrop is enough entertainment for you, though, because Bourdos is more in this for the picturesque glory of it than for any hard storytelling.

Yes, his story is slight. Within what amounts to an extended family gathering, what tale there is centers on the new life brought to the group by the artist’s final muse, and his son’s first.

Christa Theret plays Andee, a fiery beauty who reinvigorates the old painter and beguiles his son Jean. Theret injects Bourdos’s restrained loveliness with what drama it has to offer, and her performance matches her beauty.

Michel Bouquet offers an authentic, curmudgeonly turn as Renoir the elder, while the smitten Jean (Vincent Rotthiers) and the unhappy Coco (Thomas Doret, so wonderful in The Kid with a Bike) likewise benefit from solid performances.

But, like the Renoir men, you’ll miss Theret when she’s not around because everything else is a bit too tame.

Throughout the whole serene, gorgeous, relatively uneventful 111 minutes, the most interesting bits involve the actual act of painting. Bourdos’s camera often squares on the image of a bandaged, arthritic old hand as it dabbled white onto a canvas with the muted figures of an image you’ve certainly seen before. How did he manage to capture the active recreation of famous works in their early stages?

He hired Guy Ribes, a convicted art forger once jailed for faking Renoir works, to act as Renoir’s hands. Nice!

Such is the length the filmmaker is willing to go to create a film that looks for all the world like a Renoir. It doesn’t do much else, to be honest, but if you are looking for a lulling and lovely way to waste a couple hours, here’s your film.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

For more complete information on the artist, visit Artsy’s Pierre-Auguste Renoir page HERE

Going Boldly

by George Wolf

 

Look, when you’re wrong, you gotta wear the hat, so fit me with a big Star Trek sombrero.

Four years ago, I thought rebooting the franchise with an origin story was a silly idea. Silly me. In the hands of director/producer J.J Abrams, it has taken on a new relevance, and the second effort from Abrams, Into Darkness, is a spectacular success on all fronts.

From the opening sequence, Abrams settles into a breakneck pace, filling the screen with a rousing combination of action, effects, heart and humor that rarely lets up.

The ace up Abrams’s sleeve? His cast. These are characters ingrained into pop culture, and our emotional investment in them is rewarded. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban play Kirk, Spock and Bones with the mischievous twinkle of youth. Without resorting to caricature, all three actors are utterly believable as younger versions of these rogues we know so well.

They are surrounded by an able supporting cast, most notably Benedict Cumberbatch as Harrison, the deadly villain with mysterious motives and a great big Enterprise surprise.

Star Trek screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman return, joining with Damon Lindelof to script a thrilling adventure filled with multiple callbacks to previous film installments and TV episodes.

Quite simply, there isn’t much to dislike. Into Darkness is a finely crafted spectacle, all that a summer blockbuster should be. It is joyously nerdy, yet cool enough for those who wouldn’t know Nurse Chapel from Nurse Ratched. It’s funny, and true to its sci-fi roots while offering sly parallels with today’s political climate.

Next up for Abrams is a new Star Wars sequel, and fans should rest easy. Into Darkness is more proof the man knows a thing or two about making a franchise live long and prosper.

What I mean is, boldly go to the theatre.

Sorry.

Kirk out!

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

Greetings from Father and Son

by George Wolf

 

You might expect a film biography of legendary singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley to provide a heroic overview of his short life and conclude with his stirring version of Leonard Cohen’s iconic “Hallelujah.”

Greetings from Tim Buckley doesn’t cater to such cliches. Instead, it focuses on a brief period in Buckley’s pre-stardom days to carve out a satisfying look at a young artist struggling to find his voice.

Much of that struggle involved coming to terms with the legacy left by Tim Buckley, the father he barely knew. Tim released nine albums before his fatal overdose at age 28, and director/co-writer Daniel Algrant anchors the film around a 1991 tribute concert held in Tim’s honor.

That show was also Jeff Buckley’s performing debut, and Algrant intersperses Jeff’s nervous preparation with flashbacks to Tim’s nomadic life on the road in the 1960s.

A movie such as this rises and falls on the lead actor, and Penn Badgley, known mostly from TV’s “Gilmore Girls,” delivers a star-making performance. He not only has the look, but Badgley does his own singing in the film, coming damn close to Buckley’s haunting wail.

Though there are a few moments of TV movie mentality, when moody pouting is meant to convey inner turmoil, Badgley and Algrant prove to be a formidable team.

By ’91, Jeff had yet to conquer the New York club circuit, and was still three years away from making Grace, his only studio album. In bypassing the more well-known aspects of Jeff’s story, the film gains a spark of originality. Small, contrasting moments, such as Jeff”s playful vocal outbursts and his quiet desire to drop by one of his father’s old apartments, provide effective glimpses of a young man not knowing quite what to make of his destiny.

In a similar vein, crisscrossing the lifelines not only provides father and son an ethereal connection on film, but also reinforces the scars left by the lack of any actual bond.

Sadly, Jeff also met an early grave, drowning in 1997.  Through Algrant’s respectful treatment, and Badgley’s effective portrayal, Greetings from Tim Buckley should please fans and give the uninitiated an urge to look deeper into the family legacy.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzPFzewscKg

 

 

 

 

 

Fundamentally Flawed

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

By Hope Madden

“Have you ever been brought a split second of pleasure at arrogance brought low?”

This line and the moments in The Reluctant Fundamentalist preceding it require the skill of a nimble actor; one who has not yet betrayed his character’s allegiances or true nature and who can balance what’s been revealed with what has yet to be unearthed.

Riz Ahmed is not that actor.

He’s proven his mettle in previous efforts – most ably in the dark comedy Four Lions – but he can’t rise above the condescending tone director Mira Nair creates as his character – Pakistani born, Princeton educated Changez – spins an enlightening tale to an American journalist (Liev Schreiber).

The son of a poet, Changez grew up hungry for the financial opportunities offered by the American dream, but chasing that dream during the upheaval of 9/11 caused him to rethink his priorities, his heritage, and his relationship with the US. Back in Pakistan, he finds himself a person of CIA interest when his white colleague at the university is abducted.

An international thriller seems an odd choice for Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake), but the tender, internal complications of a culture clash are certainly in her wheelhouse. Unfortunately, she does not deliver the tempo of a thriller, and her cast underwhelms with the emotional turmoil.

Nair’s team of screenwriters reworked Mohsin Hamid’s novel, clarifying ambiguities, patronizing characters and audience alike, and generally strangling the prose into submission. The film is after the element of audacity in the author’s work, but neglects the underlying earnestness that earns it.

The cast doesn’t help much. Ahmed may be in over his head, but Kate Hudson fails entirely. Her grieving lover unready for a relationship feels more like an intellectually stunted, artistically talentless flirt who’s only just awakened from a nap.

The usually reliable Schreiber has little opportunity, but his final image dooms his performance as well. Meanwhile, Keifer Sutherland is miscast and Nelsan Ellis once again settles for stereotype rather than character.

Characteristically, Nair mines the work for unexpected humor, which helps the film keep an unsure footing. Given the story being told and lessons being learned, this is an important victory. Her visual flair adds vibrancy to the sometimes dry story as well, and there are elements of Hamid’s work that still shine brightly enough to command your attention throughout the film’s running time.

Plus, let’s be honest, as culture clash and terrorism on film go, at least it’s not Java Heat.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfC45oq_drU

Funnier than Twilight

Java Heat

By Hope Madden

The low-rent exotic thriller Java Heat is best if viewed as a comedy. It does, indeed, get off two intentionally funny lines, flanked on all sides by hundreds of unintentionally yet no less hilarious bits.

Kellan Lutz (the weirdly muscular vampire from Twilight) is Jake, an American beefcake suspiciously on hand when a suicide bomber kills the Sultana of Indonesia. Hashim (Ario Bayu) – the last good cop in Java – reluctantly teams up with the pec-tasatic American because this crime scene doesn’t pass the smell test.

Can the reserved and spiritual Hashim teach the hotheaded American to listen first, act later? Might it have been possible for the moderately skillful Bayu to teach the utterly talentless Lutz to act, period?

Nope and nope.

Lutz ably undresses, shouts Semper Fi, smirks, undresses again, frowns. The real problems arise when he tries to deliver lines.

Lutz is bad in a way that exposes a profound lack of talent. As the flamboyant villain Malik, Mickey Rourke is bad in the manner of a genuine talent whoring himself out after a career of bad decisions. Think Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau, only with a sketchy interest in little boys and a wildly ludicrous French accent. I believe it was supposed to be French. He  has that Pepe Le Pew thing going on.

Given his unnatural appearance, Rourke has been relegated to the role of a freak in basically every gig since the mid Nineties. I doubt he even delivers scripted lines anymore – just puts on a leopard print poet’s blouse and some Zubaz, affects a project-inappropriate accent, and fondles an exotic pet. The films just kind of happen around him.

What happens here is a poorly written exercise in culture clashing and learning to appreciate our differences. Because it’s not religion that’s tearing us apart, it’s greed. Except when it is actually also religion.

Writer/director Conor Allyn’s high concept about human dignity and cultural respect is admirable. I’m sure it must have seemed downright adorable to Rahayu Saraswati, who plays the hooker that’s riddled with bullets while handcuffed in her underpants.

Jave Heat is not the kind of film you expect to find on a big screen. It’s the kind of film fans of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Michael Pare might expect to see in their Netflix recommendations. Between the big release and loads of laughs, it’s already an unexpected success.

Verdict-1-5-Stars

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YChHiWgJd8

Not So Simple Simon

Simon Killer

By George Wolf

If you’re in the market for a creepy guy, I suggest Brady Corbet.

Corbet, while probably a perfectly nice young man, is proving to be skilled at acting creepy, most notably in Melancholia, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and the American version of Funny Games.

He gets his meatiest role to date in Simon Killer, a film he also co-wrote. Corbet shines as the title character, a recent college graduate who takes off for Paris after a mysteriously nasty break-up.

Struggling to fit in, he strikes an uneasy relationship with a local prostitute, and soon hatches a plan to make them both big money by blackmailing her clients.

Director Antonio Campos sets the film up as a possible thriller, then slowly draws you into what becomes a character study of a manipulative sociopath. While some may  wonder what the point is, there is a hypnotic nature to the film that keeps you interested in Simon, and what he is capable of.

Corbet skillfully creates a character that’s easy to hate, yet impossible to ignore, while Campos, obviously influenced by director Gaspar Noe, utilizes pulsing rhythms and disorienting visuals to craft his dark world.

Pretentious in spots but ultimately fascinating, Simon Killer is a creepy keeper.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Gatsby? What Gatsby?

The Great Gatsby

By Hope Madden

A Moulin Rouge spin on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of decadence, longing, and the brutal carelessness of the wealthy could have been awesome. Isn’t that what we kind of expected when Rouge helmsman Baz Luhrmann signed on to direct The Great Gatsby, especially when he unveiled his hip hop and jazz soundtrack? What better way to bridge the gap between eras, to help today’s audience fathom the indulgent lifestyle of the filthy rich in the roaring Twenties?

Somehow, though, Luhrmann can’t quite pull it off.

It isn’t his cast. A more perfect actor-to-character match is hard to imagine. Though some may miss Robert Redford’s stiff, humorless Gatsby, Leo DiCaprio fills the screen with the vulnerability, flash and charm that made the character leap off Fitzgerald’s page. Likewise, the ever wide-eyed Tobey Maguire wanders amiably through Gatsby’s world as though he was born into Nick Carraway’s life.

Not surprisingly, it’s the great Carey Mulligan who almost effortlessly steals the film. Her voice full of money, her languid flirtations both lovely and sad, Mulligan’s marvelous Daisy Buchanan becomes so human, she’s probably more sympathetic than the character deserves to be.

Even with a strong concept, brilliant source material and a perfect cast, Luhrmann stumbles. He just tries too hard. One of the most efficiently written, perfectly crafted novels ever penned, clocking in at barely 300 pages, morphs in to a 143 minute film? Why? Needless complications.

For instance, co-writing the adaptation with frequent collaborator Craig Pearce (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge), Lurhmann opens the film on a depressed, alcoholic, insomniac Nick Carraway telling the sad tale of his neighbor Jay Gatsby to his shrink at the sanitarium.

What?

Lame.

But the film’s greatest misstep is probably the overwrought, surprisingly lifeless style. Luhrmann aims to mirror the gaudy, hopelessly shallow glamour of the era. He succeeds in spurts, but his approach is so heavy handed it overwhelms the film. Gimmicky and uninspired, the directorial vision serves mostly to draw your attention away from all that’s right about his picture.

It doesn’t kill the effort so much as undermine it. Luhrmann had something really remarkable to start with. He just needed to be a little more trusting of his cast and source material and a little less self-indulgent.

So, The Great Gatsby remains a lesson in the evils of self indulgence. Too bad, because it could have been a good movie instead.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuQhprtLJ3k

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 

I Predict Drunken Angels

The Angels’ Share

by Hope Madden

How does a young Scottish thug turn his life around to become the father his infant son needs? He relies on national resources: a kilt, some good Scotch, and the music of the Proclaimers. Done.

The Angels’ Share follows Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a wayward youth facing charges of beating and disfiguring several other young Scots. The judge chooses leniency because of the positive influence of Robbie’s girlfriend and his impending fatherhood, so he’s facing community service rather than prison time. Too bad the judge’s good nature won’t help him with his girlfriend’s dad or those same disfigured toughs.

Working again with longtime collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, filmmaker Ken Loach’s eye for social commentary twinkles a bit. Like many of the duo’s films, The Angels’ Share situates us within the generations-deep custom of poverty and criminality in the UK’s lower classes. Loach’s trademark spontaneous realism is on display, but this film offers more cheek and charm, possibly less social relevance than his more famous works.

Loach’s efforts are aided by generous, naturalistic performances from a cast heavy with newcomers. (How novice and natural? Expect accents so thick you’ll be grateful for the subtitles.) But it’s veteran character actor John Henshaw who provides the spark that turns the film from grim street crime tragedy to buoyant tale of resilience. His role could easily have fallen into the realm of cliché, but the seasoned performer keeps the characterization honest. Anything else would have felt wildly out of place.

In his film debut, Paul Brannigan anchors the adventure with an understated turn that realizes the burden of self loathing and the fire of a man’s determination to change his destiny. His performance is tender and charming, not to mention terribly impressive for a novice.

He’s flanked on all sides by fresh and endearing comic foils. The supporting characters are edgy enough to broaden the image of not-quite-working-class Scotland, but Loach, Laverty and a talented supporting cast give each an individual struggle and a clear personality.

What the film lacks, finally, in social relevance it makes up for with unexpectedly joyous adventure.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

Does this Suit Make Me Look Super?

 

IRON MAN 3

by George Wolf

After making some really super friends last year, Tony Stark is flying solo again, reaching some pretty impressive heights.

With an infusion of hip from a slick new filmmaker and the continued excellence of its star, Iron Man 3 re-establishes the high-tech suited one as the anchor of The Avengers franchise.

Of course, Robert Downey, Jr. can go a long way toward making even weak films entertaining, but even he seems to have more pep in his step this time thanks to director/co-writer Shane Black.

Black, given the keys to this valuable engine from executive producer Jon Favreau, does not disappoint, filling IM3 with snappy dialogue, clever plot twists and intelligent subtexts addressing self-doubt and terrorism. Oh yeah, and plenty of the impressive 3D visual wizardry that’s required of a superhero blockbuster.

The story catches up with Stark enjoying his fame as usual, but also suffering bouts of insomnia and anxiety while trying to come down from the Avengers battle royale.  He stays up all night crafting more toys for his alter ego, only to be plagued by nightmares when he does manage some sleep.

It doesn’t help when an old acquaintance (Guy Pearce) shows up with a business offer and an eye for Stark’s love Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), or when one of Stark’s old conquests (Rebecca Hall) joins the soap opera with some mysterious warnings of her own.

And then, as if Stark didn’t have enough on his mind, international terrorist “the Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley) starts blowing everything up!

Black and Downey Jr., re-teaming after the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang from 2005, know that the best comic book- inspired stories turn darker as they age, and they both show good instincts toward how to best apply that formula to their story. They break Stark/Iron Man down mentally, physically and mechanically, while managing to keep the film smart, funny, and often spectacular.

There’s plenty to keep you engaged, and keep you guessing, with the impressive cast of actors providing downright gleeful performances.

Ironically, IM3’s biggest weakness comes from sometimes having too much of a good thing. With Patriot (Don Cheadle) by Stark’s side in the explosive finale, there might be one too many suits, near deaths and breathless escapes.

That’s nit-picking I know, and not enough to derail Iron Man 3 as a thrilling start to the blockbuster season.

Verdict-3-5-Stars