Film Reviews: Opening This Week (March 24-28, 2014)

Noah Movie Darren Aronofsky

Having made movies about obsessive characters looking for God — or something like Him — in the numerology of the Kabbalah (“Pi”), at the end of a heroin needle (“Requiem for a Dream”), and in the outer reaches of the galaxy (“The Fountain”), surely it was only a matter of time before Darren Aronofsky got to making one about a man with a direct line to the Creator. And so we have “Noah,” in which the world’s most famous shipwright becomes neither the Marvel-sized savior suggested by the posters nor the “environmentalist wacko” prophesied by some test-screening Cassandras, but rather a humble servant driven to the edge of madness in his effort to do the Lord’s bidding. Counterintuitive, perhaps, but by no means sacrilegious, Aronofsky’s uneven but undeniably bold, personal, visually extravagant take on the Old Testament tale will surely polarize critics and audiences while riding a high sea of curiosity to strong initial worldwide B.O. Only time — and word of mouth — will tell if it can stay the course for anywhere near 40 days and nights (and top “Black Swan’”s $329 million global cume).
— Scott Foundas
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The Raid 2: Berandal
(Sony Classics)
With its blissfully crude setup and ferociously inventive fight sequences, Gareth Evans’ “The Raid: Redemption” (2011) was an exhilarating, exhausting treat for those who like to take their genre poison straight. If “The Raid 2: Berandal” disappoints somewhat by comparison, it’s not for lack of ambition: At nearly two-and-a-half hours, this sensationally violent and strikingly well-made sequel has been conceived as a slow-burn gangster epic, stranding the viewer in a maze-like underworld that doesn’t really get the adrenaline pumping until the film’s second half. Once the carnage kicks in, Evans’ action chops prove as robust and hyperkinetic as ever, delivering deep, bone-crunching pleasure for hardcore action buffs. Still, given its diminished novelty and hefty running time, the Sony Classics item (set for U.S. release in March) may have trouble wooing as many viewers theatrically as it will in homevid play.
— Justin Chang
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(Open Road)
In writer-director David Ayer’s last law-enforcement drama, the remarkable “End of Watch,” there wasn’t a moment that didn’t feel lived-in and true. The same cannot be said of Ayer’s “Sabotage,” a gruesome and frequently preposterous B-grade actioner about an elite team of DEA agents who run afoul of a ruthless Mexican cartel — and each other. That the team’s battle-scarred leader is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the best and most substantial of his post-Governator comeback roles, gives a mild kick to this otherwise strained attempt at a latter-day “Wild Bunch” or “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” updated to the mean streets of metro Atlanta. Likely to repel even some of the hard-R action crowd with its intentionally scuzzy milieu and lack of a rooting interest, this $35 million Open Road release will be hard-pressed to top sleeper hit “End of Watch’s” $41 million domestic haul.
— Scott Foundas
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Cesar Chavez
A passion project about a passionate man takes surprisingly flat form in “Cesar Chavez,” demonstrating that however effective the tactic may be in real life, starving oneself for social justice doesn’t necessarily make for the most compelling screen entertainment — but then, preaching the virtues of nonviolence has never been cinema’s strong suit. Recognizing that Chavez’s victory in earning equal rights for migrant workers remains scandalously under-taught in classrooms, director Diego Luna responds with a biopic that feels more polite than political, counting on the worthiness of his subject and the participation of a well-meaning ensemble to galvanize mostly Latino auds.
— Peter Debruge
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Finding Vivian Maier
(Sundance Selects)
An aptly obsessive study of obsession, “Finding Vivian Maier” sifts through the volumninous work and scant personal details of the titular street photographer, posthumously recognized as a genius of the form and a master of cultivated mystery. That this initially playful, ultimately haunting documentary is co-produced and co-directed by the principal owner and chief curator of Maier’s art, John Maloof, raises questions of self-promotion that could never be directed at the subject, who kept her many thousands of photos hidden from view. But Maloof also makes a compelling corollary to the compulsive shutterbug, resulting in the docu equivalent of double exposure.
— Rob Nelson
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Breathe In
(Cohen Media Group)
Convincingly playing a character younger than she did in Drake Doremus’ last film, “Like Crazy,” Felicity Jones once again beguiles in “Breathe In,” this time as a foreign-exchange student whose presence complicates a superficially ideal New York household. If that sounds like a step in a less mature direction, think again, as Doremus and co-writer Ben York Jones try to examine the late-career insecurities of the family patriarch (Guy Pearce). While the plot — too low-key to be called a thriller — points toward obvious extramarital cliches, delicate changes in the overall mood reveal deeper truths likely to resonate with middle-aged arthouse patrons.
— Peter Debruge
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The playwright Harold Blumenthal is already dead at the start of “Blumenthal,” and so, for the most part, is the movie, a limp facsimile of a Woody Allen ensembler set in a familiar world of New York Jewish intellectuals — minus only the wit, and the intellect. An extended cameo by Brian Cox as the eponymous scribe proves a mildly amusing balm in this otherwise resoundingly unfunny affair designed as a showcase for writer-director-star Seth Fisher, whose comic gifts remain well hidden even after the end credits have rolled. Following an undistinguished fest run in 2013, the pic opens in limited theatrical release this weekend with VOD soon to follow.
— Scott Foundas
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Hide Your Smiling Faces
(Tribeca Film)
American independent cinema hasn’t wanted recently for sun-baked meditations on male adolescent angst in scenic rural surroundings. Still, while Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “The Kings of Summer” may boast more audience appeal, Daniel Patrick Carbone’s hushed but assured debut feature, outdoes them both for elegance and insight. Narratively oblique yet emotionally acute, this richly lensed mood piece about two brothers plunged into a state of nascent death anxiety by the strange passing of a friend has already received significant exposure on the festival circuit, though its low-key solemnity seemingly remains a challenge to distributors. VOD may be the best route to ensure that “Faces” isn’t hidden for too long.
— Guy Lodge
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Mistaken for Strangers
Mistaken for Strangers,” a documentary about indie group the National, comes off like an exercise in self-deprecation. As much a diary film as a rockumentary, it almost compulsively veers away from its ostensible subject, the band’s world tour, probing the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his kid brother Tom (who helmed the film) as though worrying a sore tooth. It remains ambiguous to what extent the director’s screen persona, which raises schlubbiness to an art form, is legit. But with its wry humor and fantastic mix of music and images, the pic could carve out a solid theatrical niche.
— Ronnie Scheib
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Brothers Hypnotic
(Maysles Cinema, New York)
After spending several years chronicling the rise of fiery eight-member brother band the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, first-time filmmaker Reuben Atlas manages to capture most of the elements that make the group such a sui generis force. Lively, funny and at times philosophical, “Brothers Hypnotic” tackles the challenges of maintaining an independent music career, as well as some knotted generational conflicts, and handles it all with great sensitivity.
— Andrew Barker
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Boys of Abu Ghraib
(Vertical Entertainment)
An ambitious first feature, if one that ultimately doesn’t say much about the issues it’s taken on, “Boys of Abu Ghraib” is writer-director-star Luke Moran’s fictive take on an average U.S. military grunt’s experience at the titular prison outside Baghdad. Set before news of the detainee abuse/torture scandals broke in 2004, the narrowly focused film is effective enough for a while in portraying the tense relationship between the captors and their possible-terrorist captives. But when the fadeout hinges on those highly public revelations, it becomes clear the pic hasn’t provided enough insight to understand such widespread, pervasive abuse. Already available for download, it should achieve modest impact in its limited March 28 theatrical launch, gradually finding its audience primarily through home formats.
— Dennis Harvey
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Cheap Thrills
(Drafthouse Films)
Cheap Thrills” is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, which doubtless will be the strongest selling point for this worst-case scenario about steadily escalating dares and degradations. Playing like the mutant offspring of Harold Pinter and Quentin Tarantino, yet fueled by its own distinctive strain of darkly comic misanthropy, helmer E.L. Katz’s debut feature was voted audience fave among midnight pics at SXSW, indicating its potential appeal with extreme-taste auds. Fanboy press and word-of-mouth buzz could possibly attract a few mainstream moviegoers, but it’s more likely that this Drafthouse Films release will remain an acquired taste for an appreciative cult.
— Joe Leydon
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Greencard Warriors
(New World Cinemas)
Uncle Sam wants you, but not quite enough to give you your citizenship. At least that’s the message imparted by “Greencard Warriors,” a well-meaning but leaden and predictable inner-city drama about the hardscrabble lives of Mexican illegals trying to survive the violent streets of Central Los Angeles. We’ve been here before — and better — in films by Gregory Nava (“Mi familia”), Edward James Olmos (“American Me”) and Chris Weitz (“A Better Life”), which offered finely detailed atmosphere and character work where Dutch writer-director Miriam Kruishoop offers mostly tiresome ghetto cliches. After playing the fest circuit last year under the title “Crosstown,” the pic rolls out in select AMC theaters this weekend via distrib New World Cinemas.
— Scott Foundas
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Locker 13
(Brothers’ Ink Prods.)
Only those scared of being bored to death need fear “Locker 13,” an omnibus of horror stories that could hardly be more tame, talky and tepid, both individually and as a whole. This feature from Arizona collective Brothers’ Ink Prods. — some of its segments originally shot as shorts four to seven years ago — makes its theatrical and VOD bows March 28, with DVD release following April 29. In any format, it’s bound to raise the hackles of any genre fans unlucky enough to pay money in the hopes of some entertainment value.
— Dennis Harvey
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