Film Reviews: Opening This Week (May 13-17, 2013)

Francis Ha Movie Review

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

Frances Ha
Distributor: IFC Films
You gotta love Greta Gerwig: Even as the radiant mumblecore star’s Hollywood stock continues to rise, the actress remains true to her dramatic roots. In “Frances Ha,” Gerwig collaborates with co-writer/director Noah Baumbach to create a character whose unexceptional concerns and everyday foibles prove as compelling as any New York-set concept picture, delivering an affectionate, stylishly black-and-white portrait of a still-unfledged Gotham gal. With Baumbach’s help, Gerwig seems to have found the right vessel for her voice, capturing the spirit of a generation in a film whose appeal should resonate well beyond the demographic it depicts.
— Peter Debruge
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Drafthouse Films
After detours spent wandering around Europe for “Amen” and gazing navel-ward in “Arirang,” Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk is back on home turf and up to familiar tricks with “Pieta,” his most commercial pic in years. That said, Asian films featuring brutal violence, rape, animal slaughter and the ingestion of disgusting objects aren’t as commercial as they used to be, even if “Pieta” is relatively tame by Kim’s extreme standards. Nevertheless, this tidy, ultimately moving thriller about a loan shark who meets a woman claiming to be his mother offers up the director’s vintage blend of cruelty, wit and moral complexity.
— Leslie Felperin
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The English Teacher
Graded on a curve, “The English Teacher” is an affable if familiar high-school comedy populated by bright pupils, badly behaved teachers and amateur theatricals. Clearly inspired by — but never as inspired as — the likes of “Election,” “Rushmore” and “Glee,” this feature directing debut for smallscreen vet Craig Zisk (“Weeds,” “The Larry Sanders Show”) benefits from a brisk pace, witty banter and engaging performances, yet still fades from memory faster than a final exam on the first day of summer vacation. A world premiere at Tribeca, which is also partnering with Cinedigm on the pic’s VOD and theatrical distribution, “Teacher” should perform best with the study-from-home crowd.
— Scott Foundas
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Black Rock
Distributor: LD Distribution
Straining to be a distaff “Deliverance,” indie thriller “Black Rock” is unable to shock, much less convince. Following a trio of twentysomething female friends (including Kate Bosworth) whose camping trip to a remote island — unexpectedly inhabited by trigger-happy young war vets — becomes a nightmare, the short pic overstays its welcome through inauthentic chick-flick banter and survivalist action so ineptly staged as to appear laughable. Acquired at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival by LD Distribution, “Black Rock” could sink like a stone in the likely absence of positive reviews and buoying word of mouth.
— Rob Nelson
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Distributor: Music Box Films
The complex relationship between 19th-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and one of the most famous “hysterics” he treated is charted with intelligent nuance in “Augustine,” an impressive debut for Gallic writer-helmer Alice Winocour. Anchored by two intense, intertwined perfs by veteran Vincent Lindon and relative newcomer Soko, a musician who also composed the pic’s growling, atmospheric score, this period drama offers a coolly febrile study of madness, Victorian sexual politics and power. Fests are likely to treat this well, and the film could pick up patients in need of its cerebral arthouse medicine as a niche release offshore.
— Leslie Felperin
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33 Postcards
Gravitas Ventures
A bright performance by newcomer Zhu Lin can’t prevent severe credibility gaps and abrasive tonal shifts from harpooning the heartwarming intentions of “33 Postcards.” Centered on a Chinese orphan who arrives in Sydney to discover her “perfect Aussie” sponsor is doing time for murder, pic is an awkward mishmash of components, ranging from family-friendly contempo fairy tale to heavy-duty prison drama. A top-billed Guy Pearce will assist marketing, but it’s hard to imagine any demo embracing all the disparate elements of this Australian-Chinese co-production. “Postcards” will be delivered in theaters later this year in China and Oz.
— Richard Kuipers
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State 194
Participant Media
While there seems to be an international consensus that Middle East peace requires a two-state solution, acts of terrorism or new Israeli settlements continually interrupt political negotiations. Inspiring docu “State 194″ traces some positive developments that may pave the way to peace, or perhaps an independent Palestine accepted by the United Nations. Israeli helmer Dan Setton follows Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad from 2009-11 as he effectively builds the bedrocks of civil society in preparation for nationhood. Despite playing at times like a celebratory infomercial, the broadcast-ready pic deserves dates on pubcasters and cable worldwide.
— Alissa Simon
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Hating Breitbart
Freestyle Releasing
Not so much a probing examination as a fulsome celebration, “Hating Breitbart” belies its ironic title by painting an enthusiastically approving portrait of Andrew Breitbart, the aggressively outspoken conservative media critic and agent provocateur. Documentarian Andrew Marcus obviously intended to provide a slickly packaged counterpoint to his subject’s many critics by depicting Breitbart as an admirable, even heroic figure. But Breitbart’s sudden death at age 43 last year — only fleetingly acknowledged here during the closing credits — makes it difficult to perceive the pic as anything but a hagiographic eulogy. As such, only friends and admirers likely will take notice.
— Joe Leydon
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