Film Reviews: '12 Years a Slave,'

A critical digest of the week’s latest U.S. theatrical releases.

12 Years a Slave
Distributor:
Fox Searchlight
Had Steve McQueen not already christened his previous picture thus, “Shame” would have been the perfect one-word title to capture the gut-wrenching impact of his third and most essential feature, “12 Years a Slave.” Based on the true story of free black American Solomon Northup’s kidnapping and imposed bondage from 1841 to 1853, this epic account of an unbreakable soul makes even Scarlett O’Hara’s struggles seem petty by comparison. But will audiences have the stomach for a film that rubs their faces in injustice? As performed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Northup’s astounding story is too compelling not to connect with American audiences, and important enough to do decent business abroad as well.
— Peter Debruge
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All Is Lost
Distributor:
Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions
As close to pure existential cinema as American filmmaking is likely to get these days, “All Is Lost” finds writer-director J.C. Chandor decisively avoiding the sophomore slump with a picture that could scarcely be more different from his 2011 debut, “Margin Call.” An impressively spare, nearly dialogue-free stranded-at-sea drama that strips characterization down to basic survival instinct, this emotionally resonant one-man showcase for Robert Redford faces a fair number of marketing challenges, given its audacious minimalism and proximity to a much splashier castaway adventure, “Life of Pi.” Still, critical support and high-concept talking points could help “Lost” find its legs as an upscale specialty release.
— Justin Chang
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Carrie
Distributor: Sony/Screen Gems
“You will know her name,” scream the posters for the new bigscreen version of “Carrie,” as if anyone could forget it after seeing Brian De Palma’s brilliant 1976 movie or reading the original Stephen King novel. Aimed at captivating a new generation of viewers unfamiliar with the tale of a cruelly unloved high schooler who unleashes telekinetic revenge on her classmates, director Kimberly Peirce’s intermittently effective third feature eschews De Palma’s diabolical wit and voluptuous style in favor of a somber, straight-faced retelling, steeped in a now-familiar horror-movie idiom of sharp objects, shuddering sound effects and dark rivulets of blood.
— Justin Chang
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Escape Plan
Distributor:
Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment
Considering the degree to which slavish fan service has come to dominate the development process for genre pics, it’s amazing that no one managed to load ‘80s action gods Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger into a true co-starring vehicle until now. With that in mind, the highest compliment one can pay “Escape Plan” is that this prison-break actioner plays much like the kind of film the two might have made in their heyday, albeit with far more scripted downtime for its sexagenarian stars. Mercifully free of tongue-in-cheek meta-humor, “Escape Plan” is a likably lunkheaded meat-and-potatoes brawler that never pretends to be more sophisticated than it is, and though “Expendables”-level B.O. numbers will be out of reach, genre fans and international auds should lap it up.
— Andrew Barker
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The Fifth Estate
Distributor:
Touchstone Pictures
Ripped from headlines that still feel wet (even if its subjects might feel that phrasing gives print media too much credit), “The Fifth Estate” dramatizes the fast, controversial rise of anonymous-whistleblower website WikiLeaks and its figurehead, Julian Assange. Aiming to provide the kind of speculative personality portrait behind another sweeping digital-age change in communication that touches nearly everyone, a la “The Social Network,” helmer Bill Condon and scenarist Josh Singer’s film must also stuff in a heavy load of global events, all in a hyperkinetic style aping today’s speed of information dispersal. Results can’t help but stimulate, but they’re also cluttered and overly frenetic, resulting in a narrative less informative, cogent and even emotionally engaging than Alex Gibney’s recent docu “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.” Initial interest should be high, though likely mixed critical and word of mouth response may dampen B.O. staying power.
— Dennis Harvey
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<p>Daniel Radcliffe, Ben Foster and Jack Huston portray Beat writers Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, and Dane DeHaan plays Lucien Carr.</p>

Kill Your Darlings
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
A mysterious Beat Generation footnote is fleshed out with skilled performances, darkly poetic visuals and a vivid rendering of 1940s academia in “Kill Your Darlings.” Directed with an assured sense of style that pushes against the narrow confines of its admittedly fascinating story, John Krokidas’ first feature feels adventurous yet somewhat hemmed-in as it imagines a vortex of jealousy, obsession and murder that engulfed Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac in the early days of their literary revolution. The picture’s pansexual content and intellectual focus will limit its specialty-market reach, but it should court a small, discerning audience.
— Justin Chang
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Seduced and Abandoned
Distributor:
HBO
Spirited, highly amusing and endearingly shambolic, James Toback’s “Seduced and Abandoned” seeks to represent an “uncategorizable” work about film, money, Cannes and death, roughly in that order. In other words, it’s basically a documentary that tracks the writer-helmer himself and co-conspirator Alec Baldwin as they schlep around the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and beyond, trying to hustle up coin for a loose remake of “Last Tango in Paris,” and meeting other filmmakers, financiers, studio execs, and stars along the way. Ultimately, the pic offers a timely, melancholy-tinged tribute to those fighting quixotically to make enduring, ambitious art rather than revenue for revenue’s sake.
— Leslie Felperin
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American Promise
Distributor:
Impact Partners
Filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson dedicated 12 years of their family’s life to “American Promise,” and the payoff turns out to be more than just a glorified homemovie. In this intimate look at what it’s like to be young, black and male in a largely white private school, Brewster and Stephenson chart the progress of their son, Idris, and his friend and peer, Seun, through Middle School at New York’s prestigious Dalton School, and then as they go their separate ways, to high school. The result isn’t as revelatory or dramatic as like-minded landmark “Hoop Dreams,” but remains riveting nonetheless.
— Geoff Berkshire
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Camille Claudel 1915
Distributor:
Kino Lorber
The idea of severe French formalist Bruno Dumont taking on a costume biopic, and with a major star in the lead to boot, initially seemed an aberration, perhaps the auteur equivalent of Dylan going electric. As it turns out, “Camille Claudel 1915,” a measured, moving account of a brief period in the later life of the troubled sculptress, could hardly be the work of anyone else, with its sparseness of technique and persistent spiritual curiosity. Juliette Binoche’s mesmerizing lead turn may earn this wider distribution than Dumont’s last few films, but it remains a challenging arthouse property.
— Guy Lodge
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The Human Scale
Distributor:
Kimstim
Taking as its model the work of Danish architect Jan Gehl, “The Human Scale” makes an excellent case for designing cities around people instead of automobiles, traffic flow having dominated city planning since the 1960s. Andreas M. Dalsgaard’s documentary examines cities, from New York to Chongqing, which demonstrate various problems, solutions and possibilities for urban development, each example illustrated by distinctive, well-composed cityscapes and discussed by local talking-head officials, planners and architects. If Dalsgaard’s advocacy of Gehl’s utopian vision largely ignores the socioeconomic forces arrayed against it, the film should nevertheless enthuse pedestrians, bike riders and public-space proponents everywhere.
— Ronnie Scheib
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Peaches Does Herself
Venue:
Quad Cinema, New York City
Peaches Does Herself” finds the Canadian expat electroclash pioneer doing her outrageously (and often hilariously) sexual thing in a rock-opera form consisting of back-catalog songs and an elaborate, entertaining stage presentation. This high-grade concert film will enthrall fans and amuse more open-minded newbies, though it suffers from the most dynamic material being largely clustered in the pic’s front section. Continuing to play one-off dates and festivals a year after its Toronto fest premiere, often with its director/writer/producer/composer/star in attendance, it opens a theatrical run Oct. 18 at New York’s Quad Cinema.
— Dennis Harvey
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Blood Brother
Distributor: Blood Brother/Tugg
Documentaries don’t come any bigger-hearted than “Blood Brother,” a highly worked yet non-manipulative first feature for Steve Hoover that requires no string-pulling to achieve its inspirational impact. The subject could hardly be more of an at-first-glance turnoff for most auds — American goes to India seeking fulfillment, finds it among a community of abandoned women and children with AIDS — but, almost from the get-go, is so engaging and joyful that word of mouth could well make it a viable theatrical proposition. Broadcast sales are inevitable.
— Dennis Harvey
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Boss
Distributor:
Viacom 18
The deafening Bollywood action comedy “Boss,” directed in broad, heavy strokes by Anthony D’Souza (“Blue”), is a relentless hard-sell star vehicle, a two-and-half-hour string of sledgehammer fighting and dancing sequences. In the end, it is little more than an extended high-energy commercial for the mugging wonderfulness of its leading man, veteran scenery-chewing megastar Akshay Kumar.
— David Chute
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Chinese Zodiac
Distributor: AMC Entertainment
Original title: “CZ12″
Taking more than a dozen credits, including helmer-scribe, Jackie Chan emerges a Jackie-of-all-trades and master of none in his 101th film, “Chinese Zodiac.” Toplining the 58-year-old Hong Kong star as a bounty hunter rescuing Chinese national treasures around the globe, the pic reps an uneven ride that is repeatedly stalled by grandstanding anti-colonial screeds. Chan’s stunts may not wow as much as they have before, but longtime fans will still be moved by his self-punishing physical efforts and go-for-broke spirit.
— Maggie Lee
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The Taiwan Oyster
The two Americans at the center of “The Taiwan Oyster” moved to the eponymous Asian hot spot to escape responsibility, spending their time abroad getting wasted and smoking pot, but responsibility is what they find after tragedy curtails their carefree ways. Disguised as a drunken cartwheel through expat paradise, Mark Jarrett’s striking feature juggles questions of mortality along its rowdy cross-country path. Though the film will likely see more play from international fests than from domestic exhibs, it helps that Jarrett knows the territory from personal experience, drawing from literature and life to bring resonance to his evocatively exotic debut.
— Peter Debruge
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Cut to Black
A neo-noir shot in black-and-white, “Cut to Black” neither hides nor flaunts its anachronistic quality, which squarely coincides with its protagonist’s fatalistic, world-weary sense of having outlived his time. Serving as producer, director, writer and star, Dan Eberle pushes noir’s down-the-rabbit-hole descent into nightmare to its subjective extreme, as his disgraced ex-cop hero continually awakens to find his blood on his pillow and his past associates knocking at the door. Eberle’s three previous indies have gained largely local critical recognition; his latest cuts a wider swath, but still may skew too esoteric for major arthouse play. Perhaps talent, like murder, will out.
— Ronnie Scheib
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Lost for Words
Sufficiently sweet to serve as a date movie for all ages, “Lost for Words” comes across as almost subversively retrograde in its old-fashioned approach to charting the slow blossoming of a cross-cultural romance. There’s doubtless a simpatico audience out there for helmer Stanley J. Orzel’s leisurely paced drama about the bond that forms between an American IT specialist and a Chinese ballerina in contemporary Hong Kong. But it’s doubtful that many of the folks most likely to enjoy this modestly engaging love story will succumb to its charms until it reaches home-screen platforms.
— Joe Leydon
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Haunter
Distributor:
IFC Films
Imagine “Groundhog Day” as a haunted-house thriller, and you’re ready for “Haunter,” a modestly inventive variation on genre conventions that could attract a respectable audience in limited theatrical release and homescreen platforms. Director Vincenzo Natali (“Splice”) is more effective at sustaining clammy suspense than hiding all the holes in Brian King’s script. But top-billed Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) is effective enough to generate a rooting interest in the plucky protagonist of the piece, and to sustain interest when narrative logic turns fuzzy.
— Joe Leydon
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Hellbenders
Distributor:
Film Arcade
Writer-director JT Petty mines a few good laughs from the promising premise of “Hellbenders,” an aggressively foul-mouthed horror-comedy about exorcists forced to keep themselves in a constant state of disgrace. But even receptive genre fans will walk away with a nagging awareness of opportunities missed and potential squandered. Little more than a slapdash “Ghostbusters” rehash in which characters repeatedly fire F-bombs, pic should fleetingly tour niche fests before haunting homescreen platforms.
— Joe Leydon
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2 Jacks
Distributor: Breaking Glass Pictures
Casting Danny Huston and nephew Jack Huston as father-and-son filmmakers on two sides of a stark generational divide is the only inspired element of “2 Jacks,” Bernard Rose’s fourth ultra-low-budget Leo Tolstoy adaptation. While digital filmmaking has evolved significantly since Huston and Rose first collaborated on 2000’s “Ivansxtc,” the same can’t be said for Rose’s faux-New Wave style. Negligible interest awaits in simultaneous theatrical and VOD release.
— Geoff Berkshire
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Enzo Avitabile Music Life
Distributor:
Shadow Distribution
Few labels are as meaninglessly reductive as “world music,” yet there isn’t another term to describe the range of Italo musician Enzo Avitabile’s inspirations, captured in Jonathan Demme’s “Enzo Avitabile Music Life.” Unlike the helmer’s docus featuring mega-star tunesmiths, his latest takes a gamble with a performer of devoted but limited international recognition; perhaps that’s why Demme keeps things modest, though it doesn’t explain the sense of a film put together in a hurry. Involving rhythms, great jam sessions and, most of all, Demme’s name will spark moderate interest among music docu fans.
— Jay Weissberg
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Torn
Distributor:
Dada Films
Earnest drama “Torn” approaches hot-button issues of terrorism, racism and bullying from the standpoint of parents dealing with highly mixed emotions after their kids are killed in a mall explosion — and authorities suspect one of the teens was responsible. This modestly scaled, moderately involving enterprise from director Jeremiah Birnbaum and scenarist Michael Richter seems unlikely to stir much interest in limited theatrical play starting Oct. 18. VOD and possible broadcast prospects might look brighter.
— Dennis Harvey
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