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Film Reviews: Opening This Week (Sept. 2-6, 2013)

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

Riddick
Distributor:
Universal
Having been left for dead in more ways than one after the critical and commercial failure of 2004’s “The Chronicles of Riddick,” Vin Diesel’s futuristic fugitive Richard B. Riddick gets his lean, mean, R-rated mojo back for “Riddick,” an improbable but very enjoyable sequel that recaptures much of the stripped-down intensity of Diesel and director David Twohy’s franchise starter “Pitch Black” (while treating “Chronicles” like the dream season of “Dallas”). Once again pitting Diesel’s eponymous anti-hero against human and alien adversaries on a rugged desert planet, this exuberantly gory chase pic won’t orbit the same box office galaxy as the star’s “Fast & Furious” series, but will have no trouble recouping its reported $38 million budget (one-third the cost of “Chronicles”).
— Scott Foundas
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Salinger
Distributor:
The Weinstein Co.
Unlike its titular subject, who could map out the deepest recesses of the human psyche with a few surgically crafted paragraphs, Shane Salerno’s “Salinger” takes a rather long time to get to a rather simple point. After more than two hours of broad-yet-shallow biography, exhaustively researched yet often garishly presented, the film drops its bombshell: The notoriously reclusive author completed five works prior to his death, which are set to be published between 2015 and 2020. With that ultimate unveiling in mind, much of what precedes it ends up feeling like a long-winded carnival-barker pitch, even though a goodly number of genuine gems are buried within its noisy confines. Promoted alongside an identically named new biography, it should be a solid draw with arthouse crowds.
— Andrew Barker
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Adore
Distributor: Exclusive Media
Original title: “Two Mothers”
A ludicrous melodrama that begs to be handled as an over-the-top sex farce is instead treated with the solemnity of a wake, albeit one with a rather lenient dress code, in “Adore.” Fully embracing the narcissism and misplaced priorities of its four hopelessly inseparable characters, Anne Fontaine’s film about two lifelong friends who fall for each other’s sons is all vapidly beautiful surface, an impeccably tasteful picture about some awfully tasteless decisions. Typically classy performances by Naomi Watts and Robin Wright lend the material more dignity and interest than it warrants, spelling lucrative inroads with distaff audiences in arthouse play.
— Justin Chang
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Populaire
Distributor:
The Weinstein Co.
A perky young secretary seems to be just the type for a French insurance agent in “Populaire,” a colorful and impeccably styled romantic comedy that manages to turn the speed-typing competitions of the 1950s into entertaining cinematic fodder. Helmer Regis Roinsard’s classy first feature stars handsome, terrific actors Romain Duris and Deborah Francois, and ably balances melodrama, romance and humor, even if the story never quite takes an unexpected turn or reveals any deeper emotions. The local, Nov. 28, release will be a sizable hit; the Weinstein Co. has already signed on the dotted line for U.S. rights.
— Boyd van Hoeij
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Touchy Feely

Touchy Feely
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Trading her improv-based filmmaking style for a more traditional screenplay-grounded model, Lynn Shelton delivers an uneven mix of half-formed conflicts in “Touchy Feely.” Set in her hometown of Seattle, this mystifying dramedy involves a masseuse who develops an unexplained repulsion toward human skin, a fuddy-duddy dentist spontaneously granted the healing touch, and a handful of others affected by a sudden energy shift in their lives. It’s not much to go on, but the promise of Shelton’s previous features, “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister,” should draw optimistic auds, just as it did this higher-caliber cast.
— Peter Debruge
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99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film
Distributor:
Participant Media
A film as messy as the movement it tries to portray, “99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film” possesses energy, passion and about a dozen docs inside it yearning to break free. A little late to the party — better documentaries on Wall Street and hacktivism have already been done — the pic nevertheless achieves a kind of catharsis through sheer volume: Cataloguing the financial crimes, police misconduct, economic disparity and constitutional crises of the past several years makes for an emotional experience that will appeal to young auds in particular. Theatrical will be limited; will corporate TV take the plunge?
— John Anderson
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A Teacher
Distributor:
Oscilloscope Laboratories
If cinema can be divided into paintings and sketches, “A Teacher” is an example of the latter, a slender, 75-minute glimpse into the life of a high-school English teacher having an affair with one of her students that leaves audiences none the wiser for having seen it. Remarkable only in its refusal to judge the situation, writer-director Hannah Fidell’s script eschews dramatically constructed scenes for a series of observed moments, shifting the burden to Lindsay Burdge’s pent-up performance. The actress renders the character so very ordinary, one can almost relate, though few will, given pic’s serious-minded, yet willfully noncommercial approach.
—  Peter Debruge
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Winnie Mandela
Distributor:
RLJ Entertainment/Image Entertainment
Original title: “Winnie”
“Winnie Mandela” tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s second wife and co-crusader in broad, black-and-white terms. Premiered in rough form at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival, “Cry the Beloved Country” director Darren James Roodt’s TV-style treatment reduces South Africa’s struggle to the status of an impediment in the blooming romance between life-imprisoned Mandela (Terrence Howard) and his strong-willed partner (Jennifer Hudson), who kept step, only backwards and in heels. Decently acted despite screenplay shortcomings, pic is best suited to femme-friendly cable.
— Peter Debruge
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The Ultimate Life
Distributor:
High Top Releasing
Both a prequel and a sequel to 2007′s inspirational theatrical bomb (but DVD hit) “The Ultimate Gift,” “The Ultimate Life” once again soft-pedals gentle messages of Christian charity and family values destined to appeal strictly to the converted. Frequent faith-based filmmaker Michael Landon Jr. displays great determination, and even more folly, in his attempt to mount a “Giant”-sized family saga with the production values of “Sharknado.” Terminally dull result faces grim theatrical prospects on its way to endless Hallmark Channel reruns, where it will challenge even the most forgiving viewers to stay awake and alert throughout.
— Geoff Berkshire
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American Milkshake
Distributor:
Phase 4 Films
Original title: “Milkshake”
“American Milkshake” sucks all the flavor out of a tasty premise: Jolie Jolson (Tyler Ross), great-great-grandson of jazz singer Al, wishes he were black. Innocuous at least, amiable at best, director/co-writer David Andalman’s microbudget debut feature promises a comedic exploration of racial mimicry and settles for a half-hearted high-school love triangle, the amusingly dated lingo of its mid-’90s setting aside. “Thugged-out,” black and pregnant, Jolie’s g.f. (Shareeka Epps) doesn’t like that her man, a benchwarmer on the basketball team, has been double-dribbling with Caucasian cheerleader Christine (Georgia Ford). Phase 4′s Sundance pickup might fool the VOD set, but not for long.
— Rob Nelson
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Hell Baby
Distributor:
Millennium Entertainment
Tedious and tasteless in equal measure, the lazy horror parody “Hell Baby” gives grossout comedy a bad name. The latest collaboration from “Reno 911!” creators Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant will play only to the duo’s most faithful fans, providing anyone can tolerate a pileup of poorly improvised scenes and repetitive gags demonstrating zero flair for either satire or straightforward comedy. Congratulations are most definitely not in order.
— Geoff Berkshire
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Fire in the Blood
Distributor:
Intl. Film Circuit
While “How to Survive a Plague” and “We Were Here” have commendably essayed the U.S. end of the AIDS crisis, the devastation the disease has wrought in the developing world is a topic that has long merited a documentary of equivalent substance. Enter “Fire in the Blood,” a basically constructed but rivetingly researched examination of the global fight for affordable antiretroviral therapy against Western pharamaceutical companies, whose restrictive patent laws amount to a death sentence for millions of Third World HIV/AIDS patients. Impassioned, persuasive film won’t have trouble spreading its essential message across the fest circuit and beyond.
— Guy Lodge
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Out of the Clear Blue Sky
Distributor: Area 23a
A unique take on 9/11, “Out of the Clear Blue Sky” registers the shock of the World Trade Center attacks as experienced by the bereaved families and survivors of one company, Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 658 employees overnight. Mainly focusing on Cantor’s CEO, Howard Lutnick, whose teary reaction made him first a favorite of the press and then its chosen villain, Danielle Gardner’s docu tracks the changing dynamics of the firm’s de facto family. With its dramatic arc and intimate closeups of devastation (Lutnick and Gardner both lost brothers on 9/11), pic could benefit from DocuWeeks exposure before smallscreen play.
— Ronnie Scheib
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Good Ol’ Freda
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
“Who would want to hear a secretary’s story?” asks Freda Kelly, who served as Brian Epstein’s assistant while running the Beatles fan club from 1962 until the band broke up. After keeping her silence for decades, Kelly shares sentimental memories of the boys — intimate but hardly earth-shattering revelations. Beginning with a rare Beatles Christmas recording (in which a shout-out by the band gives the docu its title) and featuring four of the band’s signature tunes, this demure artifact was intended for her grandson, but will mean more to those of Kelly’s generation.
— Peter Debruge

Best Kept Secret
Distributor:
IFC Films
“You have to learn to let go,” a social worker admonishes Janet Mino, an enthusiastic, dreadlocked, obsessively dedicated teacher of autistic children whose entire class is set to graduate — or “fall off the cliff,” as it is termed in their case. Unlike the majority of autism docus about white, middle-class children, Samantha Buck’s film examines the poverty of options available to working-class black and Latino young adults once they leave the safe confines of the classroom. Filtered through Mino’s growing anxiety as she visits varied adult daycare centers, work programs and art therapy classes, which represent all that stands between her struggling students and regression in latchkey homes or in institutions, the docu follows three young men as they transition from the positive enforcement and personal attention they receive at Newark’s disabled-friendly JFK School to the sink-or-swim indifference of the “real world.”  Tube play and educational venues beckon.
— Ronnie Scheib

Red Obsession
Distributor:
Filmbuff
Red Obsession” begins as a paean to Bordeaux vineyards and their centuries of tradition, celebrating their prime vintages as works of art with shots of cultivated land stretching to the horizon, serried rows of casks in “caves,” and sturdy horses pulling plows between the vines as the owners wax poetic. But Warwick Ross and David Roach’s documentary abruptly switches to the business side of wine and the tremendous demand in China for premium Bordeaux, driving prices to astronomical heights. The film’s rather simplistic cultural juxtapositions, pitting artistic appreciators against status-seeking philistines, work best when narrowly focused on the subject of wine.
— Ronnie Scheib
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TV Man: The Search for the Last Independent Dealer
Venue:
Laemmle’s Monica 4, Los Angeles
Charged by alternating currents of nostalgic bemusement and wistful melancholy, “TV Man: The Search for the Last Independent Dealer” evinces all the amiable enthusiasm and discursive rambling one might expect from a do-it-yourself labor of love. Tyro filmmaker Steve Kosareff takes a sentimental journey to a handful of hamlets in California and Oregon, seeking anyone who can repair his decades-old, deeply cherished Zenith Jetlite, a 12-inch black-and-white TV set. Interviews and observations culled from that journey make for a pleasant doc best suited for viewers old enough to have once purchased a similar appliance.
— Joe Leydon
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