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Film Reviews: Opening This Week (May 6-10, 2013)

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

The Great Gatsby
Distributor: Warner Bros.
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that bling in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” which arrives six months after its originally scheduled December release date but maintains something of a gussied-up holiday feel, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as staged by Liberace. Indeed, it comes as little surprise that the Aussie auteur behind the gaudy, more-is-more spectacles “Moulin Rouge” and “Australia” has delivered a “Gatsby” less in the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel than in that of its eponymous antihero — a man who believes bejeweled excess will help him win the heart of the one thing his money can’t buy. Cinema audiences can prove as fickle and elusive as Daisy Buchanan, too, but it’s a fair bet that a starry cast (and soundtrack) and sheer curiosity value will power this Warner/Roadshow co-production to career-best box office numbers for Luhrmann (a record currently held by “Australia,” at $211 million), if not quite enough to justify its supposed $127 million budget.
— Scott Foundas
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3View: “The Great Gatsby”


Domestic comedy “Peeples” may appropriate its entire premise and plot structure from “Meet the Parents,” but its heart is suffused with French cinema. Not the cinema of Godard or Rivette, exactly, but rather that specific strain of heated, horny, hyperactive farce that Gallic auds actually attend. Set amid the bourgeois black upper class rarely glimpsed on film, and driven by the discreet charm of lead Craig Robinson, writer-helmer Tina Gordon Chism’s debut pic deals out generous doses of anarchic hijinks without stressing over the narrative connective tissue in between, and the end product holds together just well enough. Modest B.O. beckons.
— Andrew Barker
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Popular on Variety

Distributor: IFC Films
Hot on the heels of “Kill List,” British director Ben Wheatley applies his unique blend of run-and-gun naturalism and scabrous black humor to “Sightseers,” a wicked little pic in which a tacky couple discovers that cross-country road-tripping makes it surprisingly easy — and fun! — to knock off the more obnoxious characters they encounter en route. After their pilot proposal was deemed too dark for the telly, sketch comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram refashioned the idea into a feature whose built-in cult appeal should make a modest killing for IFC, which acquired the twisted Directors’ Fortnight title while touring Cannes.
— Peter Debruge
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And Now a Word From Our Sponsor
Distributor: 108 Media, Paladin
Plop plop. Fizz fizz. Oh, what a missed opportunity it is! In the well-cast but seldom funny satire “And Now a Word From Our Sponsor,” the CEO of a major Chicago ad agency suffers a nervous breakdown that leaves him speaking exclusively in slogans, which those around him interpret as either signs of insanity or pearls of profound wisdom. If that sounds like the start of a promising social commentary, it could be, though the pic’s imagination runs out at the concept phase, giving its promo-spewing savant nowhere to go. Bruce Greenwood and Parker Posey’s involvement could attract a few in micro-release.
— Peter Debruge
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What Richard Did
Tribeca Film
Shifting from the dregs-of-society and working-class milieus of his first two features, “Adam & Paul” and “Garage,” Hibernian helmer Lenny Abrahamson sets his latest, “What Richard Did,” among Dublin’s posh teenagers to craft a low-key but compelling morality tale. Promising young thesp Jack Reynor particularly impresses as the title character, a handsome, affable kid who makes a fatal mistake and then grapples with guilt. Looser and more improvisational in tone than Abrahamson’s previous work, but just as elegantly shot on digital as the striking “Garage,” “Richard” will do all right as a specialist item locally.
— Leslie Felperin
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Venus and Serena
Magnolia Pictures
“Venus and Serena” is an engaging, warts-and-all look at the Williams sisters, who have dominated the professional tennis circuit for more than a decade, breaking ground for female and African-American athletes. The docu, from respected producers but first-time helmers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major, world-preemed at the Toronto fest just after Serena won the U.S. Open for the fourth time, marking her 15th Grand Slam victory just days before her 31st birthday. Of interest to more than just sports fans, the pic should earn further fest outings and specialty engagements before segueing into robust broadcast and ancillary business.
— Alissa Simon
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Gleefully trashy “Aftershock” applies a grindhouse sensibility — minus the faux-oldie stylings of other recent exploitation homages — to a disaster-survival thriller that acts more like a horror film. The English-language debut of Chilean director Nicolas Lopez (“Fuck My Life”) toplines “Hostel” helmer Eli Roth, no stranger to tasteless cinema, as an American caught in a major Valparaiso earthquake. This Dimension pickup is a hectic, sometimes hilarious guilty pleasure that should delight genre geeks. Still, as Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” proved, mainstream audiences can be fickle when it comes to smart, in-jokey versions of dumb movies, seemingly preferring the real dumb thing.
— Dennis Harvey
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Desperate Acts of Magic
Independent Pictures
Given the recent B.O. tanking of Warners’ “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” there’s probably even less of an audience for “Desperate Acts of Magic,” an amiable low-budget diversion that should nonetheless prove a decent calling card for debuting directors Tammy Caplan and Joe Tyler Gold (who also jointly produced and edited). Gold plays Jason, a promising but naive Los Angeles thirtysomething trying to make it in the highly competitive world of professional prestidigitation. Helped (but more often hindered) by his slicker, more successful friend (Jonathan Levit, one of several pro magicians in the cast), Jason winds up falling for the foxy, feisty Stacy (Valerie Dillman), one of the few women in their card-shuffling, coin-flipping trade. Gold’s conventional script is enlivened by engaging performances, authentic tricks and amusing noir-parody touches as it delves into the often unsavory institutional politics of the magic industry. Assembly is polished, the 86-minute running time just right.
— Justin Chang

He’s Way More Famous Than You
Gravitas Ventures
Self-pity, self-parody and self-destruction are blurred to cringe-inducing effect in “He’s Way More Famous Than You,” a mirthless meta-comedy starring actress Halley Feiffer as a thoroughly unpleasant, pathetically deluded and (hopefully) exaggerated version of herself. Six years after appearing in 2005 indie darling “The Squid and the Whale,” Halley (Feiffer), now a boozy wreck, plans to jumpstart her career by writing and starring in her own semi-autobiographical indie project. The result is an inside-Hollywood satire that repeatedly becomes the butt of its own in-jokes: Drinking her way from one obstacle to the next, Halley stalks and harasses the likes of Jesse Eisenberg, Ben Stiller and Ralph Macchio, who, appropriately enough, look faintly embarrassed to be participating. As directed by “Ugly Betty” thesp Michael Urie (also playing a version of himself), Feiffer’s shrill performance doesn’t portray a state of desperation so much as embody one.
— Justin Chang

Winner Pictures
Four long-serving ex-cons, sitting side by side, recount their messed-up childhoods, addictions, lives of crime and transformations into responsible taxpayers within the confines of an Off Broadway play in “Released.”  The pic largely consists of performances of a theatrical piece called “The Castle,” staged at both a theater and a prison, with occasional forays into the outside world to illustrate past criminal hangouts or present-day habitats of respectability. Philip Messina’s film showcases the three men and a woman as they take turns emotionally recounting different phases of their journeys and pay homage to the Fortune Society, whose highly effective halfway-house facility allowed them to become exceptions to the high prison recidivism rate.  This change-affirming docu’s minimalist lack of polish or stylistic affect almost becomes a plus, its stark, bare-bones presentation somehow befitting the tales of abuse and incarceration so baldly proclaimed within.
— Ronnie Scheib

Java Heat
IFC Films
If the essential purpose of film criticism is to evaluate how successfully a film achieves its own objectives, then “Java Heat” — seemingly intended only to appeal to hardcore action fans and to prove that young director Conor Allyn knows his way around a flashy fight scene — has to register a success. In this case, the technically proficient pic, concerning a culturally mismatched pair’s attempts to investigate an Indonesian terrorist attack, also offers the tangential pleasures of Indonesian star Ario Bayu in a convincing role, some effectively vibrant lensing of Javanese locations, and Mickey Rourke in gloriously batshit slumming mode as an indefinably European villain. The potential fun is all thoroughly undone, however, by an eye-roller of a script and a leaden lead performance from “Twilight” heartthrob Kellan Lutz, who misses his action hero marks so widely that the role almost scans as parody.
— Andrew Barker

The Second Meeting
Quad Cinema, New York
Back in 1999, an American F-117 stealth fighter was brought down over Serbian airspace. Its pilot, Dale Zelko, was ejected and eventually rescued by American troops; the Serbian who shot him down, Zoltan Dani, was laureled as a hero by his countrymen. A decade later, the two visited one another’s homes to discuss the fateful night and attempt a sort of reconciliation, a fascinating situation rendered in drab tones by Zeljko Mirkovic’s docu “The Second Meeting.” Sequences of the oversharing Zelko as he drives around, sits on airplanes and plays audio recordings of his grandfather reciting Bible verses eat up inexplicable amounts of the film’s short runtime, while the taciturn Dani, who now lives a humble life as a baker, never seems remotely comfortable in front of the camera. It’s lovely to see the two former adversaries greet one another as friends, but neither they, nor the film itself, seem to have any idea what to do afterward.
— Andrew Barker

One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das
Zeitgeist Films
Tracing the surprising spiritual journey of Jeffrey Kagel from morose Jewish suburbanite rock-and-roller to devoted disciple of Maharaji-ji to Grammy-nominated American celebrity Krishna Das, Jeremy Frindel’s workmanlike docu proceeds in a matter-of-fact manner that neither ignores nor belabors the inspirational aspect of its story. Recounted by KD himself along with other noted ’70s enlightenment-seekers, such as author/religious guide Ram Das, psychologist Daniel Goleman and music producer Rick Rubin, the film taps archival photos and 8mm homemovie footage shot in India to chronicle Kagel’s initial trip to the Himalayan foothills, where he embraced beloved guru Maharaji-ji. “One Track Heart” finds KD frankly discussing his struggles with depression and his addiction to free-base cocaine after Maharaji-ji’s death, but also his discovery of his calling as a kirtan chant-master. Compelling concert coverage of KD engaging with enthusiastically tranced-out, thousands-strong audiences suggests cable play and specialized DVD sales targeting his dedicated fanbase.
— Ronnie Scheib

The World Before Her
Cinema Village, New York
Women and India are the ostensible subjects of “The World Before Her,” but Nisha Pahuja’s docu hangs a big, fat question mark over the future of humankind itself. Will the world grow increasingly Westernized and, some would say, licentious, a la the Miss India competition chronicled in the film? Or will fundamentalist zealotry turn back the clock on individual freedom, as per the extreme Hindus who provide the film’s counterweight? Walking a tightrope over a vat of hot-button topics, and boasting plenty of sex appeal with its beauty contestants, this Tribeca prizewinner could well break out of the festival ghetto.
— John Anderson

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