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.

42
Distributor: Warner Bros.
The Jackie Robinson who titled his 1972 autobiography “I Never Had It Made” — and meant it — is scarcely present in “42,” a relentlessly formulaic biopic that succeeds at transforming one of the most compelling sports narratives of the 20th century into a home run of hagiography. Thick with canned inspirationalism and heroic platitudes, but only occasionally pushing past the iconic to grapple with the real human drama of Robinson’s life, this personal passion project for Legendary Pictures chairman-CEO Thomas Tull should enjoy a decent first inning with audiences, but won’t surpass Robinson’s famed jersey number in box office millions.
— Scott Foundas
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Scary Movie 5
Distributor:
Dimension Films
Talk about fast turnaround: Movies as recent as “Mama” and this month’s “Evil Dead” remake find themselves sent up in “Scary Movie 5,” the numbingly inane if cheerfully up-to-the-minute new entry in a franchise thought to have breathed its last seven years ago. One scene inspired by “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” features a roomful of chimps hurling their feces at the wall, providing a perhaps unintended metaphor for the writing process behind this unwelcome resurrection. Still, insofar as past installments have proved frighteningly lucrative (more than $800 million worldwide), there may yet be some commercial life in this pop-culture barf bag.
— Justin Chang
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To the Wonder
Distributor: Magnolia
Terrence Malick continues to take bold risks, courting ridicule and rapture in equal measure, with “To the Wonder,” his first full-on treatment of that oldest of movie subjects, romantic love. Staying in the semi-autobiographical vein of “The Tree of Life,” the suddenly industrious writer-director finds tenderness and beauty in a whisper-thin story of passion, marriage and betrayal that all but erases the line between the secular and the sacred. Those who can’t abide Malick’s spiritual reveries will steer clear, but flaws and all, this is ravishing work from a filmmaker who hasn’t lost his capacity to move and surprise.
— Justin Chang
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The Angels’ Share
Distributor: IFC/Sundance Selects
An amiable comedy about young Glaswegian roughnecks discovering the world of whisky, “The Angels’ Share” finds helmer Ken Loach and long-term screenwriting partner Paul Laverty in better, breezier form than their rebarbative prior effort, “Route Irish.” Set in Laverty’s native Scotland, the locale for some of the duo’s strongest collaborations (“Sweet Sixteen,” “My Name Is Joe”), the pic has a pleasantly scratchy realist look, even if its corny heist plotline could have inspired a 1960s Children’s Film Foundation quota quickie. Although upbeat a la “Looking for Eric,” “Angels” has no heavenly names attached, and so should make only niche coin.
— Leslie Felperin
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Antiviral
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Possibly setting a record for most images of needles piercing human skin in a motion picture, Brandon Cronenberg’s syringe-tastic “Antiviral” suggests the fledgling filmmaker has some corporeal-horror preoccupations in common with famous dad David. Set in an icy near-future where celebrities’ diseases are sold like crack vials, this creepy speculative satire tends to hit the same notes in its dissection of seriously unhealthy celebrity obsession, but exerts a queasy fascination regardless. Overlong Canadian production may prove too clinically distanced for gorehounds and too yucky for specialty auds, though the Cronenberg imprimatur is sure to stir theatrical interest.
— Justin Chang
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Disconnect
Distributor: LD Entertainment
For technophobes still overwhelmed by such newfangled phenomena as AOL and Google, “Disconnect,” docu director Henry-Alex Rubin’s first narrative feature, might carry sobering truths about human communication in today’s device-fixated world. For the rest of us, however, this well-meaning but dated and frequently risible issue-drama packs rather less of a punch. Braiding the stories of a disparate ensemble variously affected by the malleability of online identity, all arriving at the same predictable moral conclusion, this decently acted pic should easily secure distribution on the strength of its big-name cast. Auds, however, might feel the connection more in ancillary.
— Guy Lodge
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Fists of Legend
Distributor:
CJ Entertainment
Bloated but energetic, entertaining but interminable, tortured but strangely satisfying, “Fists of Legend” spends two-and-a-half hours unraveling the knotty saga of three middle-aged fighters, their shared dark past and their rocky road to redemption. A mixed-martial-arts competition sets in motion this maximalist male melodrama from Korean blockbuster helmer Kang Woo-suk (“Silmido,” the “Public Enemy” trilogy), which careens wildly from brutal bouts to father-daughter angst to reality-TV satire to violent high-school flashbacks, like a wrestler forever teetering on the brink of exhaustion as he shows you one crazy move after another.
— Justin Chang
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Arcadia
Distributor: Film Movement
Debutante writer-helmer Olivia Silver’s “Arcadia” features a dysfunctional family taking a road trip and stars John Hawkes: In every respect, it feels like a typical Sundance film, except that it wasn’t actually there (although the short it’s based on, “Little Canyon,” played Park City in 2009). By the same token, this amiable-enough indie entertainment would be right at home on an upscale movie channel, but the script is soporifically predictable, and perfs and direction are all adequate but no more.
— Leslie Felperin
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It’s a Disaster
Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
A toxic device detonated in downtown Los Angeles ruins an otherwise routine couples’ brunch in the slow-to-start, fun-to-finish “It’s a Disaster,” a smart, character-driven chamber play in which the cataclysmic offscreen event escalates the tensions between four already testy pairs. Premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival alongside the similarly themed “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” writer-director Todd Berger’s second feature boasts a strong enough script and cast to attract modest indie distribution, marking a solid resume-builder for all involved.
— Peter Debruge
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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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Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Well structured and dynamically edited, “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” relies on the famed magician himself to wax autobiographical with his usual charm, humor and panache. Jay’s fascination with the history of his craft — conveyed here with 19th-century illustrations and 20th-century kinescopes, tapes and film excerpts — and his vision of himself within an evolving tradition of legerdemain seamlessly enlarges the film’s perspective. Directed by Molly Bernstein and co-helmer Alan Edelstein, this thoroughly engrossing, highly entertaining docu should delight fans and newcomers alike, meriting theatrical play before cable snaps it up.
— Ronnie Scheib
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This Ain’t California
Venue: Maysles Cinema, New York
“Dogtown and Z-Boys” meets “The Lives of Others” in “This Ain’t California,” a spirited not-quite-documentary portrait of the skateboarding subculture that flourished in East Germany in the early 1980s. Ostensibly forged from a treasure trove of Super 8 homemovies and archival footage, some of which is quite literally too good to be true, writer-director Marten Persiel’s debut feature is a rather ingenious fabrication, with reams of uncanny period re-creations (right down to the stonewashed cutoffs and knee socks) and at least one fully fictional character (though possibly more) masquerading as fact. Currently receiving a single-screen New York theatrical run after a long life on the fest circuit, where it picked up several documentary prizes, this multilayered curio should enjoy a long shelf life with the surf/skate crowd and spark much debate among nonfiction purists.
— Scott Foundas
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American Meat
Venue: Cinema Village, New York
A low-key, fairly evenhanded look at industrial vs. organic methods of raising livestock, “American Meat” curiously leaves behind the outrage and dire warnings that characterize most docus on the subject, such as “Food, Inc.” Instead, the film registers more as a feel-good celebration of farming in general and organic tillers in particular, with cautionary notes on built-in problems in both arenas of meat production. While the economic crisis has seriously decimated the number of smaller commodity farms, technical innovations and a growing demand for grass-fed, free-range products have encouraged a younger generation of farmers to return to the land and invent alternative means of distribution — or such is the cautiously upbeat message promulgated by helmer Graham Meriwether and “lunatic farmer”/organic guru Joel Salatin in this most laid-back of advocacy docus.
— Ronnie Scheib

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