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Film Reviews: Opening This Week (May 27-31, 2013)

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

After Earth
Distributor:
Sony
The last time M. Night Shyamalan tried his hand at a big-budget “Man vs. Wild” episode, with 2008’s “The Happening,” the unseen villainess was none other than Mother Nature herself. In the decided non-happening that is Shyamalan’s latest, “After Earth,” the threats lurking on a post-apocalyptic blue planet include baboons, predatory birds and a giant alien beastie that looks like a rejected prototype from H.R. Giger’s workshop. (At least there are no Tom Cruise clones.) But it’s Shyamalan’s career, and that of producer-director Will Smith, that seem to be struggling for survival in this listless sci-fi wilderness adventure — a grim hodgepodge of “Avatar,” “The Hunger Games” and “Life of Pi” that won’t come anywhere near equaling those juggernauts with the ticketbuying public. Opening in a very crowded summer frame, the pic will prove an even greater litmus test of Smith’s continued drawing power than 2008’s ill-conceived Christ allegory “Seven Pounds.”
— Scott Foundas
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Now You See Me
Distributor:
Lionsgate/Summit
The tricks are as flashy as the plotting is flimsy in “Now You See Me,” an illusion-filled caper from director Louis Leterrier that poses no serious challenge to Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” or David Mamet’s “The Spanish Prisoner” in the pantheon of cinematic sleight-of-hand. Thanks to some accomplished hocus pocus and an appealing cast, this would-be “Ocean’s Eleven” of the magic world remains watchable throughout, even as it plods along without ever quite fulfilling its potential. Pic’s title portends its fortunes at a crowded summer box office, with considerably more robust ancillary prospects in store. Indeed, “Now You See Me” feels like nothing so much as a passable time-filler stumbled across by chance on latenight cable.
— Scott Foundas
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Popular on Variety

The East
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Having rattled off an ingenious story of cult subterfuge in his low-budget 2011 debut, “Sound of My Voice,” writer-director Zal Batmanglij plays with some of the same ideas on a broader, more polished canvas in “The East.” The second picture in a fascinating collaboration with producer-writer-star Brit Marling, this clever, involving spy drama builds to a terrific level of intrigue before losing some steam in its second half. Still, the appreciable growth in filmmaking confidence here should translate into a fine return on Fox Searchlight’s investment, and generate good word-of-mouth buzz among smart thrill-seekers.
— Justin Chang
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Shadow Dancer
Distributor:
Magnolia Pictures
The drama of a young mother’s act of betrayal during the last days of the Irish Troubles comes together with measured intelligence and artfully apportioned suspense in “Shadow Dancer.” British director James Marsh’s highly disciplined filmmaking costs this slow-burning IRA thriller a bit of narrative drive, and its taut but methodical accretion of details and revelations will play best to attentive viewers. But there is much here to savor, starting with a fine performance by Andrea Riseborough, which should stand the classy production in good stead in prestige festival slots and arthouse berths at home and offshore.
— Justin Chang
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The Kings of Summer
Distributor:
CBS Films
Original title: “Toy’s House”
Although it acknowledges that a real world may, in fact, exist, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ debut feature is a full-on fairy tale, and one that could win plenty of friends with its absurdist, caustically funny take on adolescent agitation. The fantastical premise is far-fetched — three pals, sick of their parents, build their own house in the woods and learn, with no lasting damage, how not to survive — but nothing else in Chris Galletta’s script can be taken too seriously, either. Still, there are enough laughs and bright performances that neither viewers nor distribs will likely mind.
— John Anderson
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Hannah Arendt
Distributor:
Zeitgeist Films
The daring ideas about the banality of Nazi evil advanced by political philosopher Hannah Arendt receive a distinctly non-daring treatment in director Margarethe von Trotta’s latest film study of great women. Unlike her previous film, “Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen,” Von Trotta’s Arendt biopic feels like a movie stuck in another era, stolid and rote, more of an outline for a dramatic treatment than the real thing. This is unfortunate, since Arendt’s notions deserve constant renewal and discussion.
— Robert Koehler
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Triumph of the Wall
Distributor: First Run Features
In 2001, jack-of-all-trades Chris Overing began constructing a 1,000-foot dry stone wall on a Quebec estate and cinematographer/editor Bill Stone began documenting the eight-week process. Eight years later, the wall remains uncompleted, with first-time director Stone obsessively questioning why Overing continued to toil away at the project and why he himself kept filming the endeavor. A wryly absurdist meditation on art, obsession and pure stubbornness, “Triumph of the Wall” lingers on grass, rocks, trees, birds, caterpillars and dragonflies to underline the back-to-nature rationale for the years-long task. Daunted by the difficulty of seamlessly fitting together oddly shaped rocks, assistants come and go; Overing often disappears to work on other landscaping jobs, while Stone treks to New England and finally Scotland to explore more intricate dry-stone structures and interview articulate, accomplished wall-builders. Audiences should enjoy the comic contrast between the film’s serenely Zen-like imagery and the soundtrack’s fragmented disquietude.
— Ronnie Scheib

Student
Distributor:
Global Film Initiative
A roughly faithful adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” despite its setting in contempo Almaty, Kazakh filmmaker Darezhan Omirbayev’s “Student” unspools a stark, Bressonian tale of a young man who commits an almost random act of murder. With its deadpan perfs, retro visual style and crime-story plot, the pic almost feels like an Aki Kaurismaki movie but without the jokes or rockabilly music, just the despair. “Student” is bound to study abroad at fests, especially given Omirbayev’s reputation (after “Killer”) as one of Kazakhstan’s most accomplished helmers, but distribution will be minimal beyond the CIS and Germany, where so many Russian-speakers reside.
— Leslie Felperin
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American Mary
Distributor:
XLrator Media
The “ick” factor is high in “American Mary,” though to the credit of sophomore feature writer-helmers Jen and Sylvia Soska, those squirms are induced as much psychologically as by graphic surgical imagery. This tale of a violently disillusioned medical student’s wade into the weird world of extreme body modification doesn’t develop all its narrative and thematic ideas to the fullest. But the polished pic is still outre and entertaining enough to please most jaded horror fans.
— Dennis Harvey
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The Wall
Distributor:
Music Box Films
A tale of a femme Robinson Crusoe with evergreens instead of palms and mountain peaks instead of sandy beaches, “The Wall” reps another showcase for the mesmerizing face of thesp Martina Gedeck. Austrian TV vet Julian Roman Poelsler imbues his widescreen adaptation of the Marlen Haushofer novel with a certain visual majesty, but since the protag is always alone, the film relies exclusively on voiceover to suggest her thoughts, inadvertently turning it into something akin to a well-illustrated audiobook.
— Boyd van Hoeij
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The History of Future Folk
Distributor:
Variance Films
Close encounters of the charming kind infuse “The History of Future Folk,” which will likely be remembered as the first neo-hipster Brooklyn sci-fi movie. A fable of what happens to two distant travelers from Planet Hondo once they arrive on Earth, the pic amounts to a reverse-engineered backstory for the two characters played by Nils D’Aulaire and Jay Klaitz in their jaunty and humorous two-man band, Future Folk. Smart fests and distribs alike looking for aud-pleasing outlier titles should pick up the signals.
— Robert Koehler
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I Do
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
The combustible possibilities surrounding a same-sex marriage involving partners of different nationalities is turned into rather tepid stuff in “I Do,” a romantic-comedy melodrama that’s too gentle by half. Writer-producer-star David W. Ross and director Glenn Gaylord set up all the pieces on the board, with Ross playing one-half of the couple as an emotionally torn Englishman in New York, but the pic’s execution is soft and formulaic, which may provide it with a comfy commercial home in gay-targeted theatrical runs and vid deals.
— Robert Koehler
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