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Film Reviews: Opening This Week (June 17-21, 2013)

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

World War Z
Distributor: Paramount
Rising from an early grave of negative pre-release publicity, director Marc Forster and producer-star Brad Pitt’s much-maligned “World War Z” emerges as a surprisingly smart, gripping and imaginative addition to the zombie-movie canon, owing as much to scientific disaster movies like “The China Syndrome” and “Contagion” as it does to undead ur-texts like the collected works of George Romero. Showing few visible signs of the massive rewrites, reshoots and other post-production patchwork that delayed its release from December 2012, this sleekly crafted, often nail-biting tale of global zombiepocalypse clicks on both visceral and emotional levels, resulting in an unusually serious-minded summer entertainment whose ideal audience might be described as comicbook fanboys who also listen to “Democracy Now.” Opening a week apart from the more four-quadrant-friendly “Man of Steel” in most markets, “World War Z” should post solid enough numbers at home and abroad, but with a rumored final cost well north of $200 million, it’ll need more than a bit of kryptonite up its sleeve to push far into profitability.
— Scott Foundas
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Monsters University
Distributor:
Disney
Not even attempting to scale the heights of Pixar past, “Monsters University” finds Disney’s toon studio operating at a pleasantly middling level of artistic achievement. Tracing the friendship of scarer-in-chief Sulley and one-eyed sidekick Mike Wazowski back to its college-rivalry roots, this zippy, colorful, bright-minded prequel scarcely needed to exist, yet makes for perfectly agreeable entertainment now that it does. Given that 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” remains one of the studio’s top B.O. earners, Pixar’s 14th animated feature can be counted on to eek out similarly robust biz among family audiences, who will respond warmly to the easy, ingratiating comic sensibility at play here.
— Justin Chang
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The Attack

The Attack
Distributor: Cohen Media Group
A well-esteemed Palestinian surgeon working in Israel is overtaken by an all-consuming need to comprehend seemingly inexplicable circumstances after learning that his wife died in a suicide bombing in “The Attack.” Fascinating in the sense that it covers the aftermath of an act of terror from the perspective of someone the bomber left behind, this streamlined adaptation of Yasmina Khadra’s bestselling novel strips the source of nearly all its profundity, focusing instead on the good doctor’s dangerous journey into the depths of the terrorist organization responsible. Prominent fall fest berths should clear the path somewhat for this tricky pic.
— Peter Debruge
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A Hijacking
Distributor:
Magnolia Pictures
Hostage thrillers are all-too-often shrill affairs, with clock-watching screenwriters wringing maximum melodrama from spiraling disorder. Not so Tobias Lindholm’s superb “A Hijacking,” which actually grows more chillingly subdued as its nightmare scenario unfolds. A fictional but sweatily plausible account of a Danish cargo ship ambushed by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, which alternates between tensions onboard and in the Copenhagen negotiation chamber, it’s a formidable sophomore feature from the already accomplished writer-helmer. Though not the high-octane genre piece suggested by the premise, “Hijacking” should find itself sailing far friendlier international waters after a healthy festival run.
— Guy Lodge
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Unfinished Song
Distributor:
The Weinstein Co.
Original title: “Song for Marion”
A sentimental tearjerker targeted at the over-50s who made “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” a box office hit (and already sold to some major territories, including the U.S.), “Unfinished Song” centers on an elderly curmudgeon caring for his ailing wife, who joins the community choir for her sake. This formulaic dramedy marks a change of pace for U.K. helmer-writer Paul Andrew Williams (gritty realist thriller “London to Brighton”), here working with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Luckily, Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave, with Christopher Eccleston as their son, wring maximum emotional resonance from the frequently clunky script.
— Alissa Simon
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Somm
Distributor:
Samuel Goldwyn Films
A stimulating intro course on wine appreciation gets blended with a narrowly focused contest-doc format in “Somm,” which follows the efforts of a handful of young American connoisseurs to earn the title of Master Sommelier. Only 197 candidates in 40 years have passed the almost impossibly difficult membership exam, a Herculean feat that all but requires advanced degrees in wine theory, history, geography, service and, most crucially, tasting, all of which director Jason Wise examines in crisp, quaffable if overlong fashion. Accessible subjects and sparkling execution should lend this personality-driven documentary some, ahem, legs as a VOD rental following its limited run starting June 21.
— Justin Chang
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Maniac
Distributor:
IFC Midnight
A shocker of a remake, equal parts stylish and scuzzy, “Maniac” only marginally softens the grindhouse sleaze of William Lustig’s 1980 original, still notorious for being the “Taxi Driver” of slashers. With an intense Elijah Wood in the title role of a wigged-out psycho killer who affixes the scalps of his female victims to fly-drawing mannequins, this merciless work of anti-entertainment is arguably admirable for being as disturbingly disgusting as it wants to be.
— Rob Nelson
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Three Worlds
Venue:
Quad Cinema, New York
Worlds don’t so much collide as politely bump into each other in “Three Worlds,” a glossy, well-meaning but dramatically listless study of class relations in contemporary Paris. Charting the protracted fallout from a hit-and-run accident that links an aspirational working-class car dealer, a bourgeois medical student and a struggling Moldovan immigrant, the thoughtful pic is somehow both plotty and inert, a disappointment from director Catherine Corsini after the tighter melodramatic pleasures of 2009′s Kristin Scott Thomas starrer “Leaving.” Without an equivalent international star, this one seems unlikely to fulfill the crossover promise of its title.
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