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Film Reviews: Opening This Week (Nov. 11-15, 2013)

Nebraska
(Paramount)
After making side trips to California’s Central Coast and Hawaii (for “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” respectively), Alexander Payne returns to his home state of Nebraska for his sixth directorial feature, a wistful ode to small-town Midwestern life and the quixotic dreams of stubborn old men. Sporting a career-crowning performance by Bruce Dern and a thoroughly impressive dramatic turn by “SNL”/“30 Rock” alum Will Forte, Payne’s first film based on another writer’s original screenplay (by debut feature scribe Bob Nelson) nevertheless fits nicely alongside his other low-concept, finely etched studies of flawed characters stuck in life’s well-worn grooves. Black-and-white lensing and lack of a Clooney-sized star portend less than “Descendants”-sized business, but critical hosannas and awards buzz should mean solid prestige success for this November Paramount release.
— Scott Foundas
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The Best Man Holiday
(Universal)
Back in 1999, Malcolm D. Lee’s debut feature, “The Best Man,” had all the hallmarks of a low-key groundbreaker: Smart, sophisticated and effortlessly charming, the film was a sleeper success at the B.O., and seemed to point toward a lucrative future for cosmopolitan romantic comedies featuring actors of color. Fourteen years later, it’s disappointing to note just how few features seem to have followed in its footsteps, and almost as discouraging to see Lee return to the same well with such disjointed results in “The Best Man Holiday.” The returning ensemble cast remains eminently watchable here, and should help position the Universal release as a profitable counterprogrammer, but the cluttered, overlong narrative never really finds its footing.
— Andrew Barker
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The Great Beauty
(Janus Films)
Rome in all its splendor and superficiality, artifice and significance, becomes an enormous banquet too rich to digest in one sitting in Paolo Sorrentino’s densely packed, often astonishing “The Great Beauty.” A tribute to, and castigation of, the city whose magnificence has famously entrapped its residents in existential crises, the pic follows a stalled author gradually awakening from the slumber of intellectual paralysis. Very much Sorrentino’s modern take on the themes of Fellini’s “La dolce vita,” emphasizing the emptiness of society amusements, “Great Beauty” will surprise, perplex and bewitch highbrow audiences yearning for big cinematic feasts.
— Jay Weissberg
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12-12-12
(The Weinstein Co.)
Great chefs can take leftovers and dress them up with enough flourishes and new flavors to make entirely palatable new dishes, but even then, one never forgets that they’re still leftovers. Directors Amir Bar-Lev and Charlie Lightening prove to be excellent cooks in that regard, and their wonderfully shot, expertly edited “12-12-12,” documenting last year’s massive Hurricane Sandy relief concert, is an impressive yet drama-less concoction that can’t totally disguise its slightly stale aftertaste. Offering solid musical footage and candid backstage moments, the film entertains without ever quite justifying its existence.
— Andrew Barker
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Sunlight Jr.
(Gravitas Ventures/Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Incandescent performances by Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon and an unerring grasp of strip-mall-dominated Florida distinguish “Sunlight Jr.,” the latest feature from writer-director Laurie Collyer (“Sherrybaby”). Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon topline as a hard-luck couple scrabbling to keep their heads above water; she works as a cashier at the convenience store that gives the film its title, while he’s in a wheelchair, collecting disability. To deal with daily frustrations, he drinks, while she struggles to stay off pills. This in-depth study of minimum-wage purgatory could earn a healthy theatrical run in specialty release.
— Ronnie Scheib
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Faust
(Intl. Film Circuit)
Alexander Sokurov brings his singular vision to “Faust,” though it’s difficult to categorize the accomplishment. Forget Marlowe, Goethe, Gounod and Murnau, or rather, lay them aside, since the idiosyncratic helmer adds his own spin on the classic legend, and an over-familiarity with Faust’s previous incarnations will likely hinder understanding. Sokurov conceived the film as the final part to his tetralogy of power (“Moloch,” “Taurus,” “The Sun”), and established fans — the only audience for this largely impenetrable though undeniably impressive indulgence — will fill many pages discussing how the unholy trinity became a foursome.
— Jay Weissberg
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Charlie Countryman
Original title: “The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman”
(Millennium Entertainment)
“Charlie Countryman” stars Shia LaBeouf as a Ratso Rizzo-impersonating American tourist bumbling through the Romanian netherworld in search of Evan Rachel Wood, whose accent and demeanor suggest that someone dumped a truckload of Ambien into the Bucharest water supply. Strained attempts at magic realism will leave viewers more irritated than enchanted; a name cast, which includes the usually wonderful Mads Mikkelsen, could well lead to theatrical play, but Fredrik Bond’s direction and Matt Drake’s screenplay deliver a charisma-free trip into a world of gratuitous violence, contrivances and tedium.
— John Anderson
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Narco Cultura
(Cinedigm)
An eye-opening examination of Mexico’s blood-soaked drug war and its unsettling pop-culture side effects, “Narco Cultura” is as overwhelming as it is absorbing. War photographer-turned-director Shaul Schwarz focuses on two very different individuals — crime-scene investigator Richi Soto in Juarez, Mexico, and musician Edgar Quintero in Los Angeles — to illuminate the reality and the fantasy of drug cartels’ impact on both sides of the border. If audiences reject the film’s topic as too unsavory or depressing to contend with, they’ll simply be proving one of the filmmaker’s key points: Despite the staggering statistics, not enough people are paying attention.
— Geoff Berkshire
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Cold Turkey
Original title: “Pasadena”
(FilmBuff)
A fine performance by Peter Bogdanovich lends some — but not nearly enough — vitality to “Cold Turkey,” a middling dysfunctional-family dramedy set inside a sleek modernist house in the SoCal burg of Pasadena. The title of writer-director Will Slocombe’s third feature seems intended to invoke both a place and a state of mind, though with the exception of Bogdanovich’s splenetic paterfamilias, the characters and their attendant crises are so broadly drawn, we might just as soon be in “Encino” or “Toluca Lake.” Pic should see modest traction with Amerindie-centric fests following its Sarasota world premiere and possible limited theatrical exposure, en route to a VOD platform near you.

Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey
A trek across the Himalayas to raise climate-change awareness is respectfully packaged as inspirational comfort food in “Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey.” Spearheaded by Buddhist leader the Gyalwang Drukpa, the titular event was a 2010 “walking pilgrimage” that attracted some 700 participants to hike 440 feet across frequently perilous terrain, collecting litter and spreading eco-education along the way. Tyro helmer Wendy J.N. Lee’s modest, amiable documentary should find a following within the cross-section of environmentalists and Eastern spirituality enthusiasts.
— Geoff Berkshire
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