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Film Reviews: Opening This Week (July 22-26, 2013)

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

The Wolverine
Distributor:
20th Century Fox
The Marvel team has recast the Incredible Hulk three times in recent years, but when it comes to its most popular hothead, Wolverine, there’s only one actor fit to wear the claws: Hugh Jackman returns for his sixth screen appearance as the adamantium-reinforced superhero in James Mangold’s smart, Japan-set “The Wolverine,” an entertaining and surprisingly existential digression from his usual X-Men exploits. Though Wolvie comes across a bit world-weary and battle-worn by now, Jackman is in top form, taking the opportunity to test the character’s physical and emotional extremes. Fans might’ve preferred bigger action or more effects, but Mangold does them one better, recovering the soul of a character whose immortality left something to be desired.
— Peter Debruge
Read the full review

Blue Jasmine
Distributor:
Sony Pictures Classics
San Francisco has been good to Woody Allen, from his 1969 directing debut with “Take the Money and Run” to his lead turn in 1972′s “Play It Again, Sam,” and a long-overdue return visit provides just the shot of artistic adrenaline he needs in “Blue Jasmine.” It doesn’t hurt that this serious-minded but ruefully funny work is centered around a mesmerizing performance by Cate Blanchett as a neurotic Allen heroine for the ages, a desperate New York socialite who heads West after losing her husband and their ill-gotten fortune. Probing the allure of romantic fulfillment and upward mobility with rigor, emotional generosity and a pleasing sense of dramatic balance, this Sony Classics release won’t do “Midnight in Paris”-sized numbers, but solid critical response should pull in more than just the Woodman faithful.
— Justin Chang
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The To Do List
Distributor:
CBS Films
The “R” rating stands for maximum raunch in the case of “The To Do List,” an exuberantly vulgar tale of a high-school valedictorian’s efforts to earn a 1600 on the SATs of intercourse. Featuring a few gags that might make even Judd Apatow blush, this rare femme-centric addition to the loss-of-virginity canon (dominated by the likes of “Porky’s,” “Risky Business” and “American Pie”) hits its fair share of outrageously funny highs amid lots of so-so filler, but stays buoyant and likable throughout thanks to the winning presence of “Parks and Recreation” star Aubrey Plaza in the lead. Arriving at the height of palpable blockbuster fatigue, tyro scribe-helmer Maggie Carey’s low-budget laffer should earn passing marks from auds and score solid sleeper biz for CBS Films.
— Scott Foundas
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Tiny Times
Distributor:
China Lion Entertainment
Trotting out more high heels and far-fetched plot twists than an Almodovar film, “Tiny Times” is China’s tween girl-power fantasy extraordinaire. Adapting his bestselling serial about four bosom friends dreaming of love and success in Shanghai, novelist and first-time director Guo Jingming doesn’t have the best grasp of film language, but with its intoxicating sense of luxury it effectively taps into the nation’s aspirational drive. “Times” broke mainland opening-day B.O. records with about $11.9 million, then went on to gross more than $76.1 million in 18 days. Offshore, it’s the fetching cast, rather than the blinding bling, that will prove the hotter selling point.
— Maggie Lee
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Drug War
Distributor:
Variance Films
Hong Kong action maestro Johnnie To takes his genre filmmaking savvy to the mainland in “Drug War,” a nail-biter that’s actually quite light on action but so well-scripted and shot, it’s nonetheless edge-of-your-seat material. Co-penned by regular collaborator and fellow Milkyway producer Wai Ka-fai, To’s procedural follows a group of Chinese cops who get a busted drug-factory owner to work with them on a complex sting operation in and around Tianjin, China’s fourth-largest metropolis. More realistic than the helmer’s prior actioners, the pic should prove a refreshingly different good time for To’s genre fans worldwide.
— Boyd van Hoeij
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Frankenstein’s Army
Distributor: MPI Media Group
Mighty Mother Russia meets her match in “Frankenstein’s Army,” an enterprising addition to the found-footage horror canon that gleefully and gorily imagines what might have happened if the grandson of Victor Frankenstein had gone to work for the Nazis creating deranged mutants out of mixed-and-matched human and industrial parts. Feature directing debut for veteran concept and storyboard artist Richard Raaphorst is short on plot and long on ingeniously gruesome creature designs and practical special effects that hark back to the industrious 1980s schlockfests churned out by the likes of Frank Henenlotter and Stuart Gordon. Only the genre faithful need apply, but “Frankenstein’s Army” (which is getting a limited theatrical run in concert with a July 26 VOD release) should succeed at putting Raaphorst on Hollywood’s radar.
— Scott Foundas
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The Time Being
Distributor:
Tribeca Film
The spectacular look bestowed on Nenad Cicin-Sain’s debut, “The Time Being,” by d.p. Mihai Malaimare Jr. (“The Master”) is symptomatic of its ills: all seductive surfaces, nothing to grab hold of. As a somnambulistic Wes Bentley and a poisonous Frank Langella face off as a young artist and his older, prickly benefactor, there’s little reason to think any of it remotely true, as beautiful as it may be. Cicin-Sain generates a dark mood (and dark rooms), but the artistic subject and gothic atmosphere won’t be enough to generate arthouse interest. A plot twist comes too early; emotional payoff never arrives.
— John Anderson
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Terraferma
Distributor:
Cohen Media Group
A changing world drives Italian fishermen to leave their island at the same time African immigrants risk their lives to get there in the unchallenging social drama “Terraferma.” The kind of pic that lays everything out nice and neat so auds can easily digest the arguments and feel good about themselves for not wanting people to die, this is a well-made movie with no pretension but also no crying need to be at a major film festival. Arthouse auds expecting something along the lines of Emanuele Crialese’s previous works, especially the superb “Golden Door,” will be disappointed.
— Jay Weissberg
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Breaking the Girls
Distributor:
IFC Films
A lipstick-lesbian riff on “Strangers on a Train,” “Breaking the Girls” is a watchable but somewhat routinely pulpy mix of sex, blackmail and murder, a polished low-budgeter that doesn’t rise above the neo-noir formulaics of Mark Distefano and Guinevere Turner’s screenplay. Picked up by IFC for U.S. theatrical release, Jamie Babbit’s film seems more likely to find its audience via cable and streaming formats.
— Dennis Harvey
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Wasteland
Distributor:
Oscilloscope Laboratories
To label a director’s first feature as a “learning experience” or a “test run” often screams of condescension, but debutante writer-director Rowan Athale’s Toronto entry “Wasteland” can be so described with no malice intended. It’s an overlong Northern British heist caper with a wildly uneven tone and a needlessly scrambled narrative, but it suggests a higher intelligence beneath, waiting to flower down the road. Though its miniature reunion of “Harry Potter” thesps Timothy Spall and Matthew Lewis could draw some attention, play will likely be limited to fests and the U.K.
— Andrew Barker
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Stranded
Distributor:
RJL/Image Entertainment
Another crew of astronauts comes in contact with another hostile alien life form in “Stranded,” another blandly competent, thoroughly forgettable low-budget sci-fier assembled from the stray parts of other, better movies. Compared with the epic disaster that was “Battlefield Earth,” this latest effort from director Roger Christian feels fairly benign in its straightforward, uninspired execution, to the point where even our intrepid space explorers seem less concerned about surviving than ensuring the picture ends on time. Commercially, the film seems likely to live up to its title in simultaneous theatrical and VOD release.
— Justin Chang
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Neander-Jin: The Return of the Neanderthal Man
Venue:
Quad Cinema, New York
Debuting German director Florian Steinbiss’ English-language feature is a woefully unfunny caveman-in-modern-civilization feature that visits every satiric cliche about present-day society’s ills, from its obsession with money to its love for reality television, without getting within a mile of a gag. When a hairy, drooling, beetle-browed subhuman (Jon Chardiet) appears in Neandertal, Germany, he unleashes a media feeding frenzy. Several would-be exploiters, including a sleazy, low-level TV newsman, a crass celebrity anthropologist from the U.S. and a big-shot British TV producer, fight for custody of the troglodyte. Meanwhile, an idealistic environmentalist (Sarah Muehlhause), a beauty once she sheds her glasses and loosens her bun, pursues romance with this slobbering “natural man.” Certain compositional niceties do nothing to elevate Steinbiss’ flat farce above its half-baked characters and execrable comic timing; for all its Teutonic vulgarity, the film never attains appropriate levels of honest-to-goodness slapstick.
— Ronnie Scheib

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