Film Reviews: Opening This Week (April

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

Oblivion
Distributor: Universal
Although Universal’s publicity department has asked that journalists refrain from spilling the secrets of “Oblivion,” the major revelations, once they arrive, will hardly surprise anyone familiar with “Total Recall,” “The Matrix” and the countless other sci-fi touchstones hovering over this striking, visually resplendent adventure. Pitting the latest action-hero incarnation of Tom Cruise against an army of alien marauders, director Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up to “Tron: Legacy” is a moderately clever dystopian mindbender with a gratifying human pulse, despite some questionable narrative developments along the way. The less-than-airtight construction and conventional resolution may rankle genre devotees, though hardly to the detriment of robust overall B.O.
— Justin Chang
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In the House
Distributor:
Cohen Media Group
A manipulative student (Ernst Umhauer) hooks his high school lit teacher (Fabrice Luchini) with a series of scandalous stories written for class in Francois Ozon’s “In the House.” More inspired by than adapted from Juan Mayorga’s play “The Boy in the Last Row,” this low-key thriller feels like a return to form for Ozon, whose pics lost their psychosexual edge after the helmer stopped collaborating with Emmanuele Bernheim (“Swimming Pool”). Here, he returns to the intriguing, barely post-pubescent trouble explored in “Criminal Lovers” and “Sitcom.”
— Peter Debruge
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The Lords of Salem
Distributor: Anchor Bay Films
Less inferno than slow burn, Rob Zombie’s retro witch thriller “The Lords of Salem” has plenty of portent but not much payoff. Likely to disappoint die-hard fans of “The Devil’s Rejects” and other Zombie atrocities, this milder brew still has ’70s-esque style to spare and sports a likable lead perf by Sheri Moon Zombie as a DJ seemingly spun by Satan’s spawn into the lower depths. Theatrical play will pale beside the pic’s ancillary afterlife, although “Lords” isn’t potent enough to rule in either realm.
— Rob Nelson
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Filly Brown
Distributor:
Pantelion Films
Presenting a tough profile but revealing a soft inner core, “Filly Brown” tells a familiar saga of a no-nonsense Latina rapper and her struggles at home and in the biz. Despite the contributions of no fewer than four writers, including co-directors Youssef Delara and Michael D. Olmos, the resulting film is a trite piece of storytelling, with character development and plot points that feel not so much lived in as borrowed from other movies. Slick surface, a song-filled soundtrack and lots of young faces will draw buyers, but commercial prospects are limited.
— Robert Koehler
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Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Drugs, cancer, bankruptcy, unpaid royalties and unresolved resentments have rendered Levon Helm a 70-year-old chunk of Arkansan gristle. But as suggested by the title of Jacob Hatley’s quasi-biopic, “Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm,” his story is about survival, and singing in the face of death. The muscle in his music, the poignancy of his story and the underlying theme of what kind of life is worth living should provide this fascinating if not entirely revealing portrait with a reasonably robust existence, including select arthouse exposure.
— John Anderson
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Unmade in America
Distributor:
7th Art Releasing
China caps its film imports at 20 features a year, but director Gil Kaufman had a workaround — or so he thought. After failing to get his lonelygirl15-inspired thriller off the ground in Hollywood, the helmer took the script to China and tried to make it there on the country’s own terms. The experience was a disaster, running into trouble with corrupt officials, incompetent crew and censors, all of which Kaufman rather gleefully admits in this casual spilt-milk tell-all to friend Tanner King Barklow. Composed largely of footage lifted from a festival Q&A, “Unmade in China” occasionally suggests the meandering hilarity of a Spaulding Gray monologue, as when Kaufman describes puppy-torture scenes added by a script “translator” or major recasting decisions made without his input. But mostly, it’s just a sloppy account of a doomed-to-fail endeavor in which Kaufman retroactively feigns naivete about an assignment with too many obvious red flags.
— Peter Debruge

Oconomowoc
Distributor: What Prods.
At last count, 15,792 people live in Oconomowoc, Wisc. That’s about 15,000 more than will see the film that bears its name, a slender absurdist riff on the man-child coming-of-age comedy. A mid-20s white guy (affable but average Brendan Marshall-Rashid) returns home to sort out his life; instead, he finds himself wasting time with the same old losers he left behind, including the weirdo (Andrew Rozanski) who married his mom, an obnoxious old friend whose costume consists of blue briefs, bare chest and polka-dotted bathrobe. Expanding on his 2008 short, “Cookies and Lemonade,” writer-director Andy Gillies (who also appears in the film) seems awfully enamored of twee indies, channeling the likes of “Bottle Rocket” and “Garden State,” though the first glimmers of an original voice peek through the mostly mundane proceedings. Practice-run pacing and a homemade soundtrack (with longtime friend Joe Haas’ help) give everything a made-for-YouTube feel.
— Peter Debruge

War on Whistleblowers
Venue:
Quad Cinema, New York
Robert Greenwald’s docu paints a sobering picture of a national security state, a secret superstratum with no controls, no accountability and no oversight — a bureaucracy whose objective is less to protect the nation’s security than to safeguard the interests of corporations, agencies and politicians. According to Greenwald and his impressive roster of reporters and whistleblowers, the Obama administration, far from fostering greater transparency in government, has indicted more people for secrecy violations than all previous administrations combined; one journalist succinctly asserts, “Speaking truth to government is a criminal act.” Greenwald’s approach tilts toward scattershot, bombarding viewers with multiple bits of news and samplings of cases first introduced and then reprised later on, mainly emphasizing the repercussions on the beleaguered truth-tellers themselves, but with due diligence given to these governmental policies’ unfortunate impact on freedom of the press. “Whistleblowers” bows limited on April 19th prior to probable smallscreen airings.
— Ronnie Scheib

Girl Rising
Distributor:
Gathr Films
Part anthology, part plea for girls’ education, part fundraiser, “Girl Rising” never loses sight of its message: Educating girls makes sense on every level – culturally, socially and, particularly, economically. Consisting of nine sections featuring nine different girls from nine developing countries, from Cambodia to Egypt to Nepal, and penned by a different female writer from each nation, the stories are voiced by the likes of Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett and Alicia Keyes. Filmed in varying styles, with statistic-filled interstitial materials, this is a brightly colored, highly cinematic equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation.  The high-grossing docu, now reopening “by popular demand” in selected theaters, could draw additional mother-daughter auds.
— Ronnie Scheib

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