Category Archives: New In Theaters

Reviews of what’s out now

Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!


By George Wolf


When Nirvana blew up the music scene with their 1991 album Nevermind, they drew instant comparisons to many legendary bands of the past.

Fleetwood Mac wasn’t one of them.

But to business owner Tom Skeeter, Nirvana was “Fleetwood Mac all over again,” as both bands recorded their breakthrough records at his Sound City recording studio during periods when it was badly in need of success stories.

Now, former Nirvana member Dave Grohl tells the story of that legendary studio in Sound City, his informative and endlessly entertaining documentary.

Grohl, who has gone on to massive success with Foo Fighters and various producing projects, proves an able documentarian, filling the story with a genuine love for the human element in music and indeed, in all things.

Through interviews, still photos, and some classic behind the scenes footage, Grohl traces the history of LA’s Sound City. It was, by all accounts, a dump of a place that just happened to have a great staff, a first rate drum room and one of the best recording consoles in the world.

Word spread quickly, and as early critics (like Tom Petty’s producer, caught on camera saying “this place should be firebombed”) became converts, Sound City played host to a litany of big names.

Of course, the rise of digital recording posed a threat to Sound City’s traditional methods. Grohl brings the story full circle by recruiting such legends as Trent Reznor and Paul McCartney to illustrate how, in the right hands, the two approaches can effectively mesh.

A sentimental yearning for “the way things used to be” is hardly groundbreaking, but Grohl and his friends present a solid case for less digitized rock and roll. For music geeks, Sound City is a must, and even casual fans will be won over by the film’s humor, heart, and passion.

Rock on!

4 stars (out of 5)


The Notebook it Ain’t


Amour – the sure winner February 24th in Oscar’s foreign language category – comes to the Drexel just in time for Valentine’s weekend. It is a love story, after all. The Notebook, however, it is not.

This French-language film is the handiwork of Michael Haneke, also nominated by the Academy for his efforts in writing and directing the film. Those unfamiliar with the filmmaker should look into his catalogue; he’s never made a film undeserving of multiple viewings.

Indeed, Amour is not even Haneke’s first masterpiece. (See: The White Ribbon. Seriously. You should definitely see the film The White Ribbon.) In fact, Amour is his second Golden Palm takeaway from Cannes, and his second Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s his first nod for best film altogether, though. With Oscar leaving such brilliant movies as The Master and Moonrise Kingdom empty handed in the Best Picture nomination department, Amour has a lot to live up to.

Meticulous and unsentimental, Haneke seems an unusual helmsman for this tale of an elderly couple facing the devastating physical and emotional consequences of a stroke. In fact, he’s perfect. He sidesteps every inclination to be maudlin, melodramatic or sentimental and instead delivers a film as quietly devastating as it is beautiful.

Oscar nominee for Best Actress, a flawlessly honest Emmanuelle Riva compliments the equally genuine Jean-Louis Trintignant, as the two create a truthful love story wrapped in the unadorned poetry of decay.

The understatement and authenticity work together to detail a lived-in love, a livelong merging of the soul that transcends all other worldly entanglements. There is not a false note, not a single moment of sap or romanticism. There is much tenderness, though, and that’s what will demolish you.

Amour is a film like no other: an intimate, unsentimental portrait of aging, love and death. Who but Haneke has the nerve to pull that off?

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Side Effects may include unusual career choices

by Hope Madden

Director Steven Soderbergh has worked with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns three times now, each instance a bit weaker than the last. Their first collaboration, The Informant!, was an unhinged gem of a flick owing as much to Matt Damon’s outstanding performance as to Burns’s knack with the English language. Next came Contagion, a better box office performer, but a less inspired effort.

Their third collaboration, Side Effects, offers a mystery thriller inside the world of pharmaceuticals. As is often the case with mystery thrillers, to say much more would be to give away too much. Coursing with Soderbergh’s cynicism and varnished with his laid back style, the film has more in store for you than the diatribe against Big Pharm it appears to deliver at first.

Unfortunately, plot holes seriously interrupt the impact of the mystery, but a solid cast helps bridge those gaps. Jude Law evolves cleverly from the modern doctor – overworked and ambitious – to something more raw, dirty and real. As his patient, Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) carries the film. It’s her picture, and she does with it what she wishes, thank God.

Like Soderbergh’s last several efforts – all mid-budget, off-season genre pics – Side Effects is an absorbing bit of entertainment you’ll dismiss after viewing. It’s better than most February releases, but worse than most Soderbergh pictures. What a funny turn for a career that began with the game changer Sex, Lies & Videotape.

3 stars (out of 5)

A Tale of Two Sandys



By George Wolf

As far back as his childhood days in the 80s as Ricky Schroder’s wise-cracking friend Derek on Silver Spoons, Jason Bateman has displayed flawless comic timing. Melissa McCarthy, on the other hand, has burst on the scene in the last few years, with 2011’s Bridesmaids firmly establishing her as a major comic talent.

Put them together in a road picture, and you’ve got comedy gold, right? Well….

Don’t get me wrong, Identity Thief does deliver some laughs, just not as many as these  two stars would suggest.

Bateman is Sandy Patterson, a financial manager in Denver who deflects constant comments about his first name (“it’s not feminine, it’s unisex!”) while wondering if his jump to a new job at a start-up firm is a good move for his growing family.

McCarthy is also Sandy Paterson, the illegal Florida version. That is, after she makes him her latest identity theft victim and starts racking up credit card bills and arrest records in his name.

As the real Sandy discovers why his life is unraveling, he hatches a plan to travel South and bring the veteran conwoman back to Colorado authorities so she can prove his innocence.

After some great moments of physical comedy as Bateman struggles to apprehend McCarthy, the film settles in as a cross between Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Due Date.

Director Seth Gordon, fresh from the very funny Horrible Bosses (also with Bateman), does his best to bring the same breezy, ad-libbed approach to his latest, and that is a wise move. Writer Craig Mazin’s script, weak on its own, is rescued by the sheer talent of the two leads.  Even when the story makes the inevitable turn toward sentimentality, Bateman and McCarthy keep it from collapsing.

3 stars (out of 5)

If this Snake has an Ass, Jet Li will Find and Kick It


By Hope Madden


Siu-Tung Ching, the Hong Kong action director who crafted 1987’s high flying spooktacular A Chinese Ghost Story, turns his attention to demon legends and computerized FX for his latest, weightlessly entertaining but somewhat disappointing feature, The Sorcerer and the White Snake.

The White Snake demon (Eva Huang) falls for a human herbalist and takes on the form of a woman to marry him. A tenacious Abbot (Jet Li) committed to keeping all demons out of the human realm makes trouble for the newlyweds.

It’s a cross between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Van Helsing – combining the colorful flying, swooping action of the former with the ludicrous monster preoccupation and even more ridiculous FX of the latter.

The film offers an interesting take on the events as they unfold in that it’s never clear which side to root for – both are as repellant as they are compelling. Oh, the rash audacity of love!

Any religious, moral or romantic considerations – ironic or otherwise – are treated so superficially, though, as to be almost invisible next to the eye candy of the computer generated action sequences. Altogether the film is a silly, sugary spectacle worth eyeballing on the big screen for true fans, but skipping entirely for anybody else.

2 stars (out of 5)

The Bond of Two Broken Souls


By Hope Madden


Why do strangers Stephanie and Ali form such a fierce bond in Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os) ? Stephanie (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard) trains orcas and struggles with tragedy, while Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) lives in the present moment, accepting any offer, opportunity or bit of fun that presents itself without a thought of the consequences to himself or his young son.

Writer/director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) doesn’t provide all the answers in his challenging exploration of their relationship.  His drama, in French with subtitles, is a gritty, punishing  tale of sexual redemption between two broken people unconventionally well suited to each other. The chemistry between the leads keeps the film taut, and Audiard’s wandering storyline and loyalty to his characters forever surprises.

4 stars (out of 5)



Hot Zombie Love


By George Wolf


Around the time Twilight ruined vampires and werewolves, horror fans began to cling to zombies as the only real monsters left. You can’t Twilight a zombie, right?  They aren’t wolf-boys who can’t keep their shirts on, they are stinking, rotting corpses out to eat your brain. Nothing romantic there.

If you’re thinking, “What about zombie Michael Jackson from the “Thriller” video?” I say, good point, but Zombie MJ was more dancer than romantic lead

Well, it took Hollywood a while to catch up, but Warm Bodies shows they have figured out how to Twilight a zombie. They even hired that girl who looks exactly like a blonde Kristin Stewart (Teresa Palmer)  to play romantic lead in this teen romantic comedy version of Romeo and Juliet.

Of course, in this particular case Romeo (Nicholas Hoult, “Beast” from X-Men:  First Class)  is a reanimated corpse that the young ladies should have no problem swooning over.

Working from Isaac Marion’s novel, screenwriter/director Jonathan Levine (50/50) mines adolescent anxiety for a sweetly charming if less than thrilling romance. Hoult is instantly likeable, while Rob Corddry and Analeigh Tipton draw a few chuckles.

While Warm Bodies falls far short of the greatest romantic comedy with zombies, Shaun of the Dead, it is harmless fun that would serve as a fine date night for the younger crowd.

3 stars (out of 5)

Review: Frozen River

It’s hard to decide what is most surprising about Frozen River: its ability to uncover glints of redemption in the bleakest circumstances; the powerful honesty in its story and its performances; or the fact that this masterful, confident output is writer/director Courtney Hunt’s first feature film. Or maybe the true surprise is that a film this powerful, absorbing, and intimate is still being made at all.

An iced-over section of the St. Lawrence River running between the US – Canadian border in Upstate New York creates a solid, if only seasonal, link between two pieces of a Mohawk reservation, allowing a window of opportunity for a small band of smugglers moving Chinese and Pakistani immigrants from Canada into America. One trailer park mom, facing a new level of destitution just before Christmas, falls almost unwittingly into the organization, and soon she is taking remarkable risks in an effort to claw her way out of a financial hole.

Frozen River works in many ways, from the unmuddied honesty in the portrayal of American poverty to the flawless performances of its leads to the simplicity of its narrative. Melissa Leo, whose beautiful work in both 21 Grams and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada predicted this ability, turns in the most authentic performance I’ve seen in any film this year.

Leo’s Ray is a loving mom, and her every gesture tells the story of a life hard-lived, of disappointment atop disappointment. Her grizzled determination is balanced by co-star Misty Upham’s equally honest portrait of a much younger woman facing no fewer shattering realities.

Upham’s Lila, the young Mohawk smuggler, inadvertently pulls Ray into the fold for no other reason than the trunk space in her Dodge Spirit. Her soft, round features counter Leo’s lean, fighter’s build, but the same world-wearied look haunts both women.

Their story is sometimes terrifying, but more than anything it is breathlessly honest. This is not a romantic presentation of a woman making poor decisions. You will wonder whether, under the same circumstances, you would do anything differently. This is a picture of poverty that shuns melodrama and manipulation, and is all the more bracing for it.

The weather itself may behave too conveniently, providing exactly the ice storms and thaws necessary to create crises and push the narrative forward. While this weakness is a bit exasperating, it only stands out because the film is so truthful otherwise.

You must simply overlook it, because to allow so slight a flaw to distract you from one of the most impressive American independent films of the last decade would be unconscionable.

Originally published in The Other Paper, September, 2008