Gravity Movie

A critical digest of the week’s latest U.S. theatrical releases. Where applicable, links to longer reviews have been provided.

Gravity
Distributor:
Warner Bros.
About halfway through Alfonso Cuaron’s astonishing “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock, playing a lost astronaut stranded 375 miles above Earth, seeks refuge in an abandoned spacecraft and curls into a floating fetal position, savoring a brief respite from her harrowing journey. Of the many sights to behold in this white-knuckle space odyssey, a work of great narrative simplicity and visual complexity, it’s this image that speaks most eloquently to Cuaron’s gifts as a filmmaker: He’s the rare virtuoso capable of steering us through vividly imagined worlds and into deep recesses of human feeling. Suspending viewers alongside Bullock for a taut, transporting 91 minutes (with George Clooney in a sly supporting turn), the director’s long-overdue follow-up to “Children of Men” is at once a nervy experiment in blockbuster minimalism and a film of robust movie-movie thrills, restoring a sense of wonder, terror and possibility to the bigscreen that should inspire awe among critics and audiences worldwide.
— Justin Chang
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Runner Runner
Distributor: 
20th Century Fox
Whatever his shortcomings as a director, Brad Furman clearly has a knack for timely casting. 2011’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” was a watchable yet unremarkable courtroom drama elevated above its station by a lead turn from Matthew McConaughey just as his late-career resurgence was taking flight. Debut feature “The Take” boasted a key supporting part from recent Emmy winner Bobby Cannavale. And now with “Runner Runner,” Furman snags Justin Timberlake in an intermission between blockbuster album releases, and Ben Affleck between directing an Oscar-winning film and beginning his term at Wayne Manor. Yet despite his stacked deck of a cast, “Runner Runner” adds up to little more than a charmless, paint-by-numbers thriller unlikely to escape the forces of “Gravity” in its early October release.
— Andrew Barker
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Parkland
Distributor:
Exclusive Releasing
A painful retelling of the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President Kennedy in which the two least important players seem to be JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald, “Parkland” dramatizes the immediate impact of that tragedy on the lives of civilians, professionals and others tangentially involved. Comparisons with “Bobby” can’t be helped, since it took a similar approach to the equally shocking death of Robert F. Kennedy, though that film seems like a masterpiece compared with this inadvertently tacky restaging of events. Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, this Oct. 4 release will swiftly be forgotten in the face of more tasteful mementos.
— Peter Debruge
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Almost Christmas - (USA) – World Premiere, Narrative - SPOTLIGHT SECTION

All Is Bright
Distributor:
Anchor Bay Films
Original title:
“Almost Christmas”
A belated follow-up by Phil Morrison to his 2005 feature “Junebug,” “All Is Bright” is an odd-couple two-hander pairing two Pauls, Rudd and Giamatti, as ex-partner thieves from rural Quebec. Giamatti plays Dennis, a morose, down-on-his-luck loser just out of the pen, while Rudd is Rene, a cheerful, devil-may-care optimist who stole the affections of Giamatti’s ex-wife and daughter. As the two embark on a month-long trip to New York City to sell Christmas trees, this engaging if somewhat underwhelming tale of unlikely redemption builds a funny-sad web of intersecting interactions around its strong central perfs. Result could translate into a solidly marketable holiday release.
— Ronnie Scheib
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Vikingdom: The Red Eclipse
Distributor:
Epic Pictures Releasing
Mighty Thor is the bad guy in “Vikingdom: The Red Eclipse,” which also distinguishes itself from his recent Marvel screen adventures by having been produced on a fraction of their budgets. This first serious stab at Western markets by Malaysia’s Kru Studios is a cheerfully silly action fantasy more comparable to the vintage juvenile likes of Italian sword ‘n’ sandal epics, Ray Harryhausen pics, kiddie-matinee serials and goofy kung fu fantasies than to today’s superhero tentpole extravaganzas; fanboys, of course, will howl in pain nonetheless. Day-and-date U.S. release on Oct. 4 (with some screens showing 3D prints) is likely to get a kinder reception on the VOD side; rollout in numerous other territories continues through year’s end and beyond.
— Dennis Harvey
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A Touch of Sin
Distributor:
Kino Lorber Films
Not exactly your grandmother’s Jia Zhangke movie, “A Touch of Sin” marks an arresting but unpersuasive change of pace for a filmmaker hitherto lauded for his placid, perceptive snapshots of contemporary China (“Still Life,” “The World”). Once again exploring the many varieties of social, political and economic oppression at home, Jia crams together four very uneven stories of four troubled individuals, all climaxing in horrific acts of violence that send the film swerving into Grand Guignol territory. Likely to court solid arthouse attention, plus some controversy despite its official Chinese sponsorship, this is unquestionably Jia’s most mainstream-friendly work, if also his most schematic and, blades aside, least penetrating; its ripped-from-the-headlines relevance is decidedly at odds with its giddy geysers of blood.
— Justin Chang
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Concussion
Distributor:
Radius-TWC
The unjust dearth of Sapphic cinema helps explain, more than excuse, the desperate “Concussion,” a head injury of a film in which a middle-aged suburban femme with a frigid wife and a bump on the noggin starts turning tricks for a distaff clientele at $800 a pop. That this queer “Belle de Jour” favors style over substance without really getting down and dirty befits its shrewd bid to titillate an aud that scratches itches by mouse click — which is to say that the Radius-TWC pickup stands to score almost exclusively via VOD.
— Rob Nelson
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Pulling Strings
Distributor:
Lionsgate
Think of it an old-fashioned love song rearranged to a mariachi beat. “Pulling Strings” is a lightly engaging bilingual trifle that benefits greatly from the charm of lead player Jaime Camil, a Mexican TV and film star who evidences smooth self-assurance at the wheel of what could be his crossover vehicle. Several acres of familiar ground are covered in the storyline about a Mexico City single dad who falls for a U.S. embassy employee while seeking a visa for his young daughter. Even so, this undemanding but pleasant pic should find an appreciative audience in theatrical and homevid release.
— Joe Leydon
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Let the Fire Burn
Distributor:
Zeitgeist Films
Building with the awful inexorability of Greek tragedy, Jason Osder’s riveting documentary “Let the Fire Burn” chronicles the escalating confrontations between the Philadelphia police and a back-to-nature African-American collective called Move. The conflict culminated in 1985 with the death of 11 Move members, six of them children, and the immolation of 61 homes in the surrounding black working-class neighborhood when police bombed the group’s fortified house. Drawing exclusively from contemporaneous found footage, Osder and editor Nels Bangerter fashion a mesmerizing account of how paranoid racism turns cultural differences into armed overkill. Further theatrical, educational and ancillary play should follow the pic’s initial run.
— Ronnie Scheib
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Linsanity
Distributor:
Ketchup Entertainment
An example of long-term documentary filmmaking paying off in ways few could have anticipated, “Linsanity” energetically recounts Jeremy Lin’s astonishing rise to NBA stardom. Capturing the excitement that erupted when the 23-year-old point guard galvanized the New York Knicks and became a global icon of Asian-American progress, Evan Jackson Leong’s film makes the most of its superior access and exciting basketball footage, overcoming repetitive stretches by sheer dint of a tremendous underdog story. Docu’s strong but wholly appropriate Christian overtones may alienate some fans, but this is rousing fare destined for theatrical bookings and robust sports-cabler play.
— Justin Chang
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I Used to Be Darker
Distributor:
Strand Releasing
A movie of careful entrances and exits, Matt Porterfield’s “I Used to Be Darker” chronicles the dissolution of a marriage through the eyes of a runaway cousin who drops in unannounced. This outsider presence, catching only fragmented snatches of the overcharged emotions engulfing the family, allows the film ample room to distance an otherwise tense situation. The fact that the couple are musicians (on and offscreen) further defuses the angst, sometimes sending it spinning into song. At once emotionally charged, formally abstract and narratively laidback, Porterfield’s third feature should sustain the indie cred enjoyed by his much-lauded earlier films.
— Ronnie Scheib
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A.C.O.D.
Distributor: The Film Arcade
Assembling a terrific cast is the main achievement of screenwriter Stuart Zicherman’s directorial debut, “A.C.O.D.” (an awkward acronym for “Adult Children of Divorce”), but the ensemble’s crack comic timing can only go so far to compensate for uneven scripting. Essentially just another movie about a thirtysomething guy unable to make a romantic commitment and grappling with the reasons why, the short and fitfully laugh-out-loud picture will make its strongest connection with audiences on the smallscreen or VOD.
— Geoff Berkshire
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The Summit
Distributor:
Sundance Selects
Also known as the Savage Mountain, K2 is a beast that famously defeats one in four hardy explorers who attempt the climb. Freshman feature helmer Nick Ryan, meanwhile, has some difficulty conquering the subject in “The Summit,” a heartfelt, handsomely mounted but structurally slipshod doc about an ill-fated 2008 climbing mission that saw 11 out of 25 mountaineers perish under mysterious circumstances. Clearly targeting the crowd that made “Touching the Void” a surprise success in 2004, this reconstruction-heavy pic isn’t quite galvanizing enough to be an equivalent crossover hit, while its questionable Irish bias may rankle some auds.
— Guy Lodge
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A River Changes Course
Distributor:
Cat & Docs
“A River Changes Course” offers an impressionistic portrait of life among three rural Cambodian families over a two-year timespan. Pollution, clear-cutting and other typical developing-nation woes are making their livelihoods more difficult, though those causes aren’t spelled out here, and that lack of contextualizing makes this verite feature best viewed by those already familiar with the country’s recent history and politics. Still, Kalyanee Mam’s graceful docu should get plenty of fest travel and lure select broadcast sales.
— Dennis Harvey
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Grace Unplugged
Distributor:
Lionsgate
The makers of “Grace Unplugged” deserve at least some credit for resisting temptations toward melodramatic excess in spinning their story about a young Christian singer’s flirtation with secular stardom. But even though they may be successful at preaching to the converted, their tepid and predictable pic isn’t likely to attract crossover audiences. Expect fair to middling niche-market B.O., and slightly better numbers in homevid sales.
— Joe Leydon
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The Dirties
Distributor:
Phase 4 Films
Since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have used their creativity to get back at the jerks who bullied them. Slamdance grand jury prizewinner “The Dirties” takes it one step further, suggesting that a pair of movie-obsessed teens repay their aggressors first by making a documentary about their abusive behavior, and eventually by staging and recording their own school shooting. Unconvincingly presented as a verite account of a student film project turned ugly, this sloppy, button-pushing black comedy reveals a crew desperately in need of counseling — less in anger management than in the fundamentals of screenwriting, camerawork and structure.
— Peter Debruge
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Babygirl
Venue:
Quad Cinema, New York
A sophomore feature (and first U.S. production) for Irish writer-helmer Macdara Vallely, “Babygirl” is steeped in his current living environs as a resident of the Bronx, and member (by marriage) of its Puerto Rican, aka “Nuyorican,” community. That sense of place and people is much better defined than the story, which hinges on the flying-wedge figure of a man who comes between a close-knit mother and daughter, but who remains the script’s most underdeveloped aspect. Nonetheless, this slender pic’s unpretentious appeal could score modest exposure. It won the Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema at the Santa Barbara fest.
— Dennis Harvey
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Bad Milo!
Distributor:
Magnolia Pictures
Original title: “Milo”
Yet another attempt to blend gross-out humor, bloody mayhem and monster thriller cliches into a hodgepodge sufficiently appealing to achieve cult status, “Bad Milo!” seems ready-made to serve as homescreen entertainment for rowdy fratboys and undiscriminating genre geeks. Magnet Releasing, which picked up this over-the-top mashup shortly after its world premiere at SXSW, doubtless hopes for at least some theatrical action. But it’s questionable whether there’s much of an aud outside of fests and what remains of the midnight-movie circuit for a pic about a guy plagued by a bloodthirsty demon that uses his colon as a condo.
— Joe Leydon
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Nothing Left to Fear
Distributor:
Anchor Bay Entertainment
That strange black mold creeping across the walls of your home — and the face of your teenage daughter — may be a sign that a demon is afoot, or simply that this particular slice of religious horror is well past its sell-by date. Notable mainly as the film producing debut of erstwhile Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, the fittingly titled “Nothing Left to Fear” (which Anchor Bay opens Friday for a token theatrical run) features fewer small-town scares than a rerun of “Dawson’s Creek” and more wooden acting than a marionette theater. Memo to Rob Zombie: Don’t fear the competition.
— Scott Foundas
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Aka Doc Pomus
Venue:
Village East, New York
Sometimes during Peter Miller and Will Hechter’s docu, it feels as though half the music world has gathered to pay heartfelt tribute to Hall of Fame songwriter Jerome Felder, aka Doc Pomus. The portrait emerging from this deft assemblage of homemovies, work tapes and interviews is further invigorated by 1980s interviews with Pomus and a dynamite soundtrack of his rock ‘n’ roll perennials, like “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “This Magic Moment.” A strong candidate for limited release, the pic thrusts a forgotten pioneer back into the limelight while illuminating a part of rock history.
— Ronnie Scheib
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The Dead Man and Being Happy
Venue:
Museum of Modern Art, New York
A dying Spanish hitman makes his final journey through the interiors of Argentina and himself in the quietly surreal, intermittently intriguing road movie “The Dead Man and Being Happy.” As free-rolling and unstructured as the journey itself, the pic demands submission to the helmer’s skewed, ironic take on just about everything his protag encounters, and as with his two previous films, reactions will be divided between those who appreciate Rebollo’s look-at-me auteur quirks and those for whom they’re cinematic death. The approach is likely to translate into fest appearances and Euro arthouse bookings.
— Jonathan Holland
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