This week, Manohla Dargis is back. So are the French, but it's the documentaries that look most interesting, so that's where we'll begin. Of course, the true documentary nature of the Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix collaboration I'm Still Here is a hot topic (and rapidly cooling), but we're tracking those reviews (among them, Manohla Dargis's) here. This roundup begins with a far more intriguing sort of eccentricity.
"The virtuoso Canadian pianist Glenn Gould is one of those performers, like James Dean or Maria Callas, whose life and legend nearly overshadow their artistic achievements. But since Gould also insisted on keeping his private life shielded, he would seem to be a particularly elusive and unlikely choice for a documentary film that presumes to call itself Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould."
Larry Rohter interviews Canadian filmmakers Peter Raymont and Michèle Hozer and others for a piece on the doc's making; the NYT's review comes from AO Scott: "Genius Within is a tour de force of archival research and dogged interviewing, and the portrait it presents is remarkably complete. While the playful, cerebral, avant-garde spirit of François Girard's 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) might have gone further toward capturing (and mimicking) the essence of Gould's art, that art is well served in this more conventional documentary. It presents strong evidence that he was not just a gifted instrumentalist but also a hands-on cultural thinker, infusing both his recordings and other projects — including audio-visual essays like The Idea of North — with the range and energy of his intellect."
Eric Henderson, though, writing for Slant (and doing a fine job of succinctly explaining why Gould was both of and counter to his times), finds this portrait "bloodless and conservative in execution, which only Gould's harshest critics accused the pianist of embodying. For anyone who would insist the life experiences inform the performer's art, Genius Within doesn't offer much to support Gould's mystique."
More from Richard Brody and David Denby (New Yorker), Mark Jenkins (NPR), Nick Pinkerton (Voice), Amy Taubin (Artforum), Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York) and James van Maanen.
"John Scheinfeld's bio-doc Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) is both a psycho-analytical appreciation and an oral history," writes Joseph Jon Lanthier in Slant. In the Voice, Andrew Schenker notes that the doc "traces a familiar trajectory, moving from its subject's humble beginnings through commercial and artistic success to that inevitable rock-star decline of drugging, boozing, and bankruptcy." But, according to Time Out New York's David Fear, "the film makes a strong argument for rediscovery and reappraisal — even if it occasionally indulges in a sentimentality that its subject would've mocked." The AV Club's Noel Murray agrees that it "isn't as innovative as the man it's about.... Still, there's been so little written about Nilsson or archiving of his work that Who Is Harry Nilsson is a godsend just for bringing together so much rare footage."
More from Ben Greenman (New Yorker) and AO Scott (NYT).
"The career of Ruth Gruber — reporter, photographer, civil servant, memoirist, humanitarian — is remarkable, and not only for a woman of her generation," writes Andy Webster. "Not that the indefatigable but mild-mannered Ms Gruber, now 98, would trumpet its singularity; to her it probably simply makes sense, given the aspirations of her youth. But Ahead of Time, a graceful documentary portrait directed by Bob Richman, illustrates just how extraordinary her life has been."
Also in the NYT, John Anderson talks with Richman and tells us a little more about his remarkable subject: "The precocious product of 'a shtetl called Brooklyn,' Ms Gruber made headlines in 1931 when, at 20, she earned a doctorate in literature from the University of Cologne in Germany. She journeyed to the Soviet Arctic in 1935 while reporting for The New York Herald Tribune; was a special assistant to Interior Secretary Harold Ickes during World War II; escorted 1,000 Jewish refugees to Oswego, NY, during the war; covered the Nuremberg war-crimes trials; and accompanied the globe-trotting Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry as it examined the question of Jewish refugees and Palestine."
More from Aaron Hillis (Voice) and Joseph Jon Lanthier (Slant).
"Much of Sequestro looks, basically, like COPS," suggests Nick Pinkerton in the Voice. "Cameraman joins task-force rush, following bristling guns through a kicked-in door. The stakes are higher in Jorge W Atalla's documentary, though — over four years, Atalla's crew shared the case-a-day workload of São Paolo's DAS Anti-Kidnapping Squad." Chuck Bowen in Slant: "Sequestro has a simple structure that slowly overwhelms you — alternating between interviews with recovered kidnapping victims and footage of the Anti-Kidnapping division counseling families and coercing intelligence from underlings and raiding lairs of perpetrators." More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT). At the IFC Center.
Vadim Rizov in the Voice: "Self-made dealer of vintage auto parts, biking crank, health nut, and all-round angry dude: If you didn't know otherwise, Biker Fox (given name: Frank P DeLarzelere III) would seem like he'd come straight from a Tim and Eric sketch. But he's real, and — aside from an opening-credits sequence blue-screened to 80s music-video hell, complete with a tacky zoom into Fox's spandex-clad crotch — this is no condescending comedy." More from Lauren Wissot (Slant). Biker Fox is at Brooklyn's reRun Gastropub Theater.
"In Race to Nowhere, the first-time filmmaker Vicki Abeles tries to condense a Hydra-headed problem — America's overstressed, overscheduled, overcompetitive school kids — into a single, clear narrative," writes Jeannette Catsoulis in the NYT. "The bad news is that she doesn't entirely succeed; the good news is that she and her co-director, Jessica Congdon, admirably convey the complexity of the issue with considerably more compassion than prescription." In Slant, Jesse Cataldo finds the film "hews too closely to the claims and protests of its student subjects to ever feel truly objective." At the IFC Center.
"Chosin, a documentary about the two weeks of fighting around the Chosin Reservoir that became the emblem of the brutality and privations of the Korean War, is an inside job. The director, Brian Iglesias, and his co-writer, Anton Sattler, are former Marines, and the film was supported by a web of veterans' and Korean War legacy groups.... This insularity is both a weakness and a strength." The NYT's Mike Hale explains.
On to the narratives. Two of the best reviews to appear this week are, to one degree or another, pans. For Movieline, Eric Hynes describes an unsettling moment having to do with Katie Holmes before setting up The Romantics: "In Galt Niederhoffer's adaptation of her own novel, seven post-college friends convene for schematic reckonings over a seaside wedding weekend. Prim Lila (Anna Paquin) is marrying sexily disheveled Tom (Josh Duhamel), who still pines for his ex-girlfriend, Laura (Holmes), who was also Lila's former college roommate and current maid of honor. Party girl Tripler (Malin Akerman), her wise-cracking partner Pete (Jeremy Strong), straight-laced Weesie (Rebecca Lawrence) and her mopey-cute partner Jake (Adam Brody) round out the self-proclaimed Romantics, an incestuous clique still toking on notions of emotional and sexual freedom faintly derived from the poetry of Wordsworth, Byron, et al. Several years have passed since graduation, and the wedding affords them all a chance to reconnect, take stock of their lives, and reconfigure." Then he gets on with the good bits, justifying his grade of 4 on a scale of 10.
In the Voice, Nick Pinkerton attacks the film with a bit more venom, crescendoing around two thirds in before settling down on to his point, which is that nothing "keeps The Romantics from playing as an elementary game of who-gets-who musical chairs, involving nasty behavior among pretty and thoroughly unconvincing aesthetes, but it's fatuous dinner theater next to, say, James Ivory's The City of Your Final Destination, where the high-culture references were used to reveal souls, not as accessories. When Tom holds up the text of 'Ode to a Nightingale' on his iPhone as a mating call, the reference registers as Cusack, not Keats."
More from Simon Abrams (New York Press), Ian Buckwalter (NPR), Gary Goldstein (Los Angeles Times), Jesse Hassenger (L), Stephen Holden (NYT), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon, where Matt Zoller Seitz argues the case for more "adult" movies), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY), Nick Schager (Slant) and James van Maanen. Movieline's ST VanAirsdale interviews Adam Brody.
"A movie can't open by ogling a bikini-clad beauty to the riffs of 'Son of a Preacher Man' and expect anyone to take it seriously," writes Henry Stewart in the L Magazine. "Even if it's in French. And stars Romain Duris."
"For the past half-decade," writes Melissa Anderson in the Voice, "Romain Duris has been French cinema's go-to brooder, trapped between Bach toccatas and lowlife thuggery in The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), curled up from near-crippling depression in Dans Paris (2006), confronting his own mortality in Paris (2008), and fending off both a stalker and a girlfriend in Persécution (2009). Diversifying his saturnine handsomeness, Duris gives his artfully disheveled brunet mop and permanent three-day stubble a workout in the overextended, hopped-up Heartbreaker, which puts the 'antic' in romantic comedy."
Here, "Duris is practically the Mother Teresa of men paid to make women in dysfunctional relationships fall in love with him," writes Nathan Rabin at the AV Club. "Naturally, it's only a matter of time until he stumbles upon an assignment that makes him reconsider his life's work. That gig comes in the fetching, gap-toothed form of pop star Vanessa Paradis.... Considering Heartbreaker's blinding slickness and reverence for formula, the forthcoming Hollywood remake is bound to feel awfully redundant."
More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NPR), David Denby (New Yorker), Marcy Dermansky, Stephen Holden (NYT), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY), Andrew Schenker (Slant), Kenneth Turan (LAT), James van Maanen, Armond White (New York Press), Alison Whitwham (BOMBLOG) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline). Interviews with Duris: Eric Hynes (Reverse Shot, video), Susan King (LAT), Kimber Myers (Playlist), Stephen Saito (IFC) and Nigel M Smith (indieWIRE). Viewing (33'06"). David Poland interviews Chaumeil, Duris and Paradis.
"One of the pleasures of Hideaway (Le Refuge), from François Ozon, an erratic talent of satisfying films like Under the Sand and misfires like 8 Women, is its insistence on ambiguity," writes Manohla Dargis in the NYT. "The slowly unfolding narrative isn't particularly novel... and the ending can be glimpsed before it's tied up rather too neatly. But before then, Mr Ozon brings us close to Mousse [Isabelle Carré], an often opaque, prickly, at times unlikable character who proves more complex than her addiction and her pregnancy might suggest."
"Ozon's reputation has risen and fallen over the past decade," notes Steve Erickson in Gay City News. "[F]or many, the promise of his first few films was never really fulfilled. While he had an arthouse hit with Swimming Pool, a thriller featuring copious female nudity and English-language dialogue, his 2007 film Angel, an elaborate melodramatic pastiche, was never released theatrically in the US. 2008's Ricky, an oddball mélange of neo-realism and fantasy, suggested that Ozon's inspiration had returned. That impression is confirmed by Hideaway."
More from David Denby (New Yorker), David Fear (TONY), Ernest Hardy (Voice), Michael Koresky (Reverse Shot), Benjamin Strong (L), Scott Tobias (AV Club), James van Maanen, Bill Weber (Slant) and Armond White (NYP). Peter Bowen talks with Ozon for Filmmaker.
"Is there an age limit for meeting cute?" asks Neil Genzlinger in the NYT. "Apparently not, because Nik Fackler has his lead characters do it in Lovely, Still, and they are played by Ellen Burstyn, now 77, and Martin Landau, 82. You may spend a good bit of Lovely, Still wondering what these two respected actors are doing in a movie this treacly." More from Nick Schager (Slant) and Ella Taylor (Voice).
"Filmed in the town of Walton in upstate New York, The Afterlight moves to the somnolent rhythms of the changing landscape, the motility of the light creating hypnotic shifts of mood," writes Jeannette Catsoulis in the NYT. "Tempering the film's oppressive emotions, the cinematographer Zoë White's exquisite compositions charge leaden rain clouds and rustling branches with eerie life, and dusty indoor corners with shadowy secrets."
Ella Taylor for NPR: "Enjoyable and forgettable in equal measure, the lovably cheesy Australian movie Bran Nue Dae is a must for children bitten by the musical-revival fever, for all who heart American Idol, and for anyone who came of age in the late 1960s — and is willing to hear the beloved pop standards of their youth massacred for a new age. That's mighty inclusive for a tale of Aboriginal liberation, and though Bran Nue Dae is unlikely to make quite the splash in this country that it did back home, Native Americans and African-Americans will likely also warm to a saga of repression and nascent freedom that mirrors their own to an uncanny degree." More from Ed Champion, Cliff Doerksen (Time Out Chicago), Gary Dretzka (Movie City News), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), Stephen Holden (NYT), Adam Keleman (Slant), Wesley Morris (Boston Globe), Noel Murray (AV Club), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Matt Prigge (Philadelphia Weekly) and James van Maanen.
"A week after Robert Rodriguez's Machete brought the grindhouse to the multiplex, a far better exploitation derivation slithers out from the sticky-floored theater from whence it came," writes Eric Hynes in the Voice. "A handmade, endearingly disreputable valentine to no-budget, maximum-impact cinema, Modus Operandi is seriously seedy and truly inspired. Sprung from the mixtape mind and masturbatory id of Milwaukee-based underground aesthete Frankie Latina, it anchors machine-gunned references and meticulous sight gags in home-schooled filmmaking virtuosity." More from Simon Abrams (NYP), Diego Costa (Slant), Mike Hale (NYT) and Justin Stewart (L). At the IFC Center.
"A decade ago, American Pie and The Blair Witch Project were the surprise hits of summer 1999, and it's only taken 11 years for someone to figure out how to merge their formats of teen sex comedy and mockumentary," writes Zack Smith in the Independent Weekly. "The resulting Will Ferrell/Adam McKay-produced flick, The Virginity Hit, is a queasy paean to modern youth's obsession with voyeurism that achieves the odd result of being both too sleazy and not sleazy enough." More from John Gholson (Cinematical), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies), Richard Larson (Slant) and Nathan Rabin (AV Club).
"Having floundered with a series of stock actioners, WWE Entertainment attempts to earn cinematic credibility via an Amerindie template with Legendary, a down-home fable of familial healing that asks wrestling star John Cena to hold his weight opposite Patricia Clarkson," writes Nick Schager in Slant. "It's a severe mismatch." More from Melissa Anderson (Voice), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), David Fear (TONY), Stephen Holden (NYT), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Nathan Rabin (AV Club) and James van Maanen.
Paul WS Anderson's Resident Evil: Afterlife is out today and Glenn Kenny's seen it maybe one or two more of the franchise's products, and he's enjoyed them, though he's also "found them to be the most utterly subtext-free of any zombie movies, or any horror movies period, that I've ever seen. There's not there except for the there, as it were; the stuff is pure sensation. If that notion's even vaguely troubling or offensive to you, this might be a film to stay away from. For myself, as empty visual and aural calories go, I was amused. So I say, if you see just one 3D zombie film based on a video game this weekend, you should definitely make it this one." More from Peter Hall (Cinematical), Eric Hynes (Movieline) and Nathan Rabin (AV Club). And at GreenCine Daily, John Lichman tries to wrap his head around the series' success.
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