"Higher Ground," "Our Idiot Brother," More

What the critics are saying about this week's theatrical releases — and a few of last week's as well.
David Hudson

Vera Farmiga's Higher Ground "admirably tries, on a minuscule budget, to evoke the spirit of American cinema from 35 years ago: the age of Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall, an era much more hospitable to serious roles for women than the current one." Melissa Anderson in the Voice: "As reported in a New York Times Magazine cover story on the actress in 2006 (three years before her Oscar-nominated performance in Up in the Air), Farmiga has expressed her disgust with the roles offered her by setting scripts on fire: 'I stack up all those crass female characters, all those utterly ordinary women, all those hundreds and hundreds of parts that have no substance or meaning and turn them into a blazing pyre.' It's a shame, then, that Higher Ground never really ignites."

Farmiga plays "Corinne, a Midwest rural woman who embraces a hippie-inflected but paternalistic evangelical community with her high school-sweetheart husband (Joshua Leonard) after a brush with death in a van accident." Bill Weber in Slant: "The script, based on a memoir by co-writer Carolyn S Briggs, simultaneously telegraphs Corinne's dissatisfaction with the strictures of the sect… and broadly lampoons the more orthodox congregants… Laugh-trolling gags aside, Farmiga's moribund visual style of medium static shots and cutting on dialogue tends to camouflage the gifts of Winter's Bone cinematographer Michael McDonough…. From a dreary youth passage with bellbottoms and aviator glasses to an anticlimax in which Corinne reluctantly confesses to her emptiness before the altar, Farmiga hasn't put much that's lifelike into Higher Ground aside from immersive riverbank baptisms and an unresolved desire to have done it as a Diary of a Godly Housewife satire."

More from Mark Asch (L), Richard Corliss (Time), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Anthony Lane (New Yorker), Michelle Orange (Movieline, 8/10), Tasha Robinson (AV Club, C+), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY, 5/5) and AO Scott (New York Times). Interviews with Farmiga: David Fear (TONY), Susan King (Los Angeles Times), Peter Martin (Twitch) and Lorenza Muñoz (Daily Beast). Earlier: Reviews from Sundance.

"In Jesse Peretz's Our Idiot Brother, Paul Rudd plays Ned, a kind of upstate New York version of 'The Dude' Lebowski — a man out of time, blinkered enough to be living the hippie dream." As Karina Longworth explains in the Voice, after a bout behind bars, "Ned enters a world in which slippery language covers for adaptable notions of right and wrong, and the process by which he realizes this — and even tries to good-naturedly fight against it — is the movie."

For Glenn Kenny at MSN Movies, this is "a genuinely smart, pointed, lively and ultimately benign modern comedy of manners and mores and sex, and all the more successful for having a relatively refreshing viewpoint, as its sweet but very socially awkward title character is seen throughout through the prism of not one but three female perspectives."

The three sisters, played by Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks and Zooey Deschanel, are "variously wanton, manipulative and unfulfilled," writes the NYT's AO Scott, and Ned "functions as a kind of holy fool, exposing the hypocrisy and unhappiness of everyone around him." Andrew Schenker in Slant: "While the film does seem to propose the same celebration of insensible ingenuousness as Forrest Gump, in this case by contrasting Ned's earnestness and honesty with several less noble big-city lifestyles, Peretz's movie plays as far less reductive, both because Ned, for all of his cluelessness, lives according to a conscious positivism that looks for the best in other people, and because Paul Rudd's performance is far richer than Tom Hanks's smiley obliviousness."

More from Sam Adams (TONY, 3/5), Alex Carnevale (This Recording), Jonathan Kiefer (Faster Times), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Mary Pols (Time), Nathan Rabin (AV Club, C+), Dana Stevens (Slate), Jim Tudor (Twitch) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 7/10). Erik Adams talks with Rudd for the AV Club. Earlier: Reviews from Sundance.

"Graham Greene's 1938 masterpiece Brighton Rock is an enduring curio of fiction: A literary pulp novel ahead of its time, a gangland allegory of sin and the cost of redemption, and perhaps most fascinating, a pre-WWII oracle anticipating the traumatic British century to come." Movieline's ST VanAirsdale: "It's a prism through which all the harrowing perils of class strife, organized crime and romantic love bend and refract into Greene's glowing white weave of language, which, when projected onto a screen, have yielded both an equally classic 1947 screen adaptation and now Rowan Joffe's troubled updating. A screenwriter (The American, 28 Weeks Later) here making his feature directing debut, Joffe clearly has deep affection for both Greene's novel and the earlier film… But where Joffe purposely departs from Brighton Rock deprives his movie of the book's most revelatory element: Faith. Gorgeous, ambitious and daring as it often is, Brighton Rock has no soul."

More from Stephen Holden (NYT), Karina Longworth (Voice), Keith Phipps (AV Club, C+), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY, 4/5), Dana Stevens (Slate) and Bill Weber (Slant, 1.5/4). Brandon Harris talks with Joffe for Filmmaker. Earlier: Reviews from Toronto and London's 2010 editions, plus the UK release in February.

At indieWIRE, Peter Knegt introduces a new weekend feature, a "retrospective box office chart" cued by one the current week's openers. "Today, iW is taking a look at the track record of lesbian dramas, in honor of Circumstance, Maryam Keshavarz's Iran-set drama about a young woman rebelling against archaic cultural norms in her sexual relationship with someone of the same sex." And he lists "the top 10 grossing lesbian or bisexual female-themed films of all time, without adjusting for inflation."

As for Circumstance, here's David Fear in Time Out New York: "It's not that writer-director Maryam Keshavarz's portrayal of the abuses and humiliations women suffer in a repressive patriarchy — from foot-fondling cabbies to interrogation-room violations — isn't based in fact, and you'd have to be a fundamentalist or a fool to view the country's treatment of homosexuals as anything but regressive. What you can take issue with, however, is the way Circumstance clumsily negotiates through middlebrow melodramatic territory, regardless of whether the film focuses on sapphic desire or simply conflates it with other subversive activities. The closer this parable inches toward tragedy, the more you can feel the gap between good intentions and generic exotica-grandstanding widening into an unbridgeable chasm."

More from Sam Adams (AV Club, B-), Melissa Anderson (Voice), Mark Asch (L), Gary Goldstein (LAT) and AO Scott (NYT). Earlier: Reviews from Sundance and New Directions/New Films.

"A polish on a fondly remembered 1973 TV movie, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has been promoted as 'Guillermo Del Toro's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark,' which by the evidence here is both unmistakable and deceptive," begins Scott Tobias at the AV Club. "Del Toro co-wrote the script (with Matthew Robbins) and served as a producer, and there are distinct echoes of past work like Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone in its child's-eye-view of a scary, fantastical universe. Yet strong direction tends to be the make-or-break element of haunted-house movies like this one. Really, it's the atmosphere that changes; the stories are more or less the same. Here those duties fall to Troy Nixey, a comics illustrator making his feature debut. And though Nixey carries it across with some style, some intensity, and some graphic imagination, the whole isn't quite the sum of its somas."

More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT), Ed Gonzalez (Slant, 1.5/4), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Betsy Sharkey (LAT), Chuck Wilson (Voice) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 6/10). Interviews with Guillermo del Toro: Simon Abrams (Vulture) and Eric Kohn (indieWIRE; part 2).

"There's one fantastic reason to see the silly new action movie called Colombiana," writes Scott Weinberg in Twitch, "and her name is Zoe Saldana." That said: "Despite Ms Saldana's effortlessly enjoyable lead performance (and some pretty impressive tough-gal physicality), there's just too much here that we've seen before, very often, and presented much more cleverly in previous films. Hell, you've seen made-for-TV movies that have fresher ideas and smarter scripts."

New York's David Edelstein isn't even won over by Saldana: "She's dressed and shot to emphasize her sylvan frame, with its endless thighs and tidy derriere, and she steals across rooftops and wriggles through ventilator shafts with aplomb, like Feuillade's Irma Vep crossed with Besson's la femme Nikita." But: "She's too listless and strung-out and weirdly disembodied to make you feel much empathy."

More from Mike Hale (NYT), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 3.5/4) and Michelle Orange (Movieline, 7.5). James Mottram meets Saldana for the Independent.

"A portrait of gender- and job-transcending ennui, Special Treatment paints a vulgar picture of two apparently interwoven professions: prostitutes and shrinks." Michael Nordine for Slant: "On one end of the spectrum is Alice (Isabelle Huppert), a middle-aged 'specialist' who caters to the upper crest of Parisian society; the other is seen through Xavier (Bouli Lanners), a psychoanalyst whose marriage is on the rocks." Naturally, their paths cross, and: "What results is a veritable sparring match of dissatisfaction that would almost seem Dickensian were it not for the fact that everyone involved is so well-off; think of it as A Tale of One City focusing solely on the worst of times."

More from Ed Champion, Ernest Hardy (Voice), Stephen Holden (NYT) and Alison Willmore (AV Club, B-). Earlier: Reviews from Toronto.



Time Out New York's David Fear on House of Bamboo: "Yes, we like Fuller's movies for a certain over-the-top B-movie rush, but those who say he's a brute with an occasionally poetic touch have it backward. And there's no better proof of that than his 1955 cross-cultural crime thriller, a masterpiece that pinpoints the sublime in Fuller's sensationalism and earns every inch of its widescreen real estate." See also Alt Screen's roundup and Vadim Rizov's review for GreenCine Daily. At Film Forum for one week.

"Tales from the Golden Age, an anthology film organized, written, and co-directed by Cristian Mungiu (best known for his 2007 abortion thriller 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), addresses ostalgie in its Romanian form," writes the Voice's J Hoberman. "Each of its six essentially comic episodes dramatizes an urban legend from the 1980s, the worst period (and self-described 'golden age') of Nicolae Ceausescu' s Communist dictatorship, as well as the decade in which Mungiu and the four novice directors who work with him here were in or about to enter their teens. Bracketed by the Ceausescu anthem, the movie recalls a social disaster in painstaking detail and with a measure of ambivalent love." More from Nicolas Rapold (L), Andrew Schenker (Slant, 2/4) and AO Scott (NYT). At the IFC Center through Tuesday.

Victoria Ellison in the LA Weekly: "Ross Lipman, an award-winning UCLA film preservationist, has restored or reconstructed work by Kenneth Anger, John Sayles and Charles Burnett. But his own cinema-based artwork is almost the opposite: not the re-establishment of a single original work but the deconstruction and blending of many video documents into a new work. His latest, The Book of Paradise Has No Author, gets its LA premiere Aug. 26-27 at Inquiry Towards the Practice of Secular Magic, a cross-disciplinary event at piXel (+) freQuency, curated by Los Angeles Filmforum."



A few of the films that opened last week are still noteworthy — not necessarily meaning good, of course, just noteworthy.

"I love the idea — I mean the platonic ideal — of John Sayles," begins Time's Richard Corliss. "A one-man regional-film movement, Sayles has shot his stories in West Virginia (Matewan), Texas (Lone Star), Florida (Sunshine State), Colorado (Silver City) and Alabama (Honeydripper) — not just because of state incentives but because his stories are so strongly linked to their locations. He must believe that each state is its own country, has its own spirit, and he their wandering critic and troubadour. Historian, too: his novels and films have dealt with radicals in the 1960s, Appalachian coal miners in 1920, Cuban exiles in 1980s Miami. He has written scripts on the Rosenbergs, Alexander Litvinenko and the Tasmanian penal colony in 1820. Now Sayles addresses, in miniature, the gigantic issue of American imperialism. Amigo compresses the US colonizing of the Philippines, after its 1898 liberation from Spanish rule, into the tale of a few occupying soldiers in a village whose people may be sympathetic to the rebels in the jungle nearby. That's a plangent premise. But be warned: there is the Sayles the inspirational icon and Sayles the less-than-thrilling director."

For Fernando F Croce, writing in Slant, Amigo finds Sayles "rather closer to his worst, alternating gracelessly between fleshing out the characters caught in the middle of international conflict and turning them into dots and arrows in a flowchart of historical relevance, in the process flattening a worthy topic into a facile chunk of Yankee-go-home proselytizing." More from David Fear (TONY, 3/5), J Hoberman (Voice), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Will McCord (L), Patrick Z McGavin, Michelle Orange (Movieline, 5.5/10), Tasha Robinson (AV Club, B), AO Scott (NYT) and Matt Singer (IFC). Earlier: Reviews from Toronto. Interviews with Sayles: Brian Brooks (indieWIRE), Dustin Chang (Twitch), Alan Frutkin (New York), Matthew Groves (Alternative Chronicle), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY, where he also recommends a few "Sayles movies to start with") and Mark Zhuravsky (Playlist).

"Maybe you feel like you've seen too many ultra-violent Spanish Civil War-related vengeful-clown horror-romance-comedies," concedes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, "and you're just bored to death with that whole genre. It's also possible, I suppose, that a movie as deranged and grotesque and spectacular as Álex de la Iglesia's near-masterpiece The Last Circus, an overcooked allegory that's been dialed to 11 in all directions, simply doesn't appeal to you. But if you like your baroque sex and violence with a side dish of heavy-duty symbolism, and if the idea of an unholy collaboration between, say, Guillermo del Toro, Federico Fellini and William Castle appeals to you, then put The Last Circus on your must-see list right now." More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT), Steve Dollar (GreenCine Daily), Aaron Hillis (Voice), Nick Schager (Slant, 3/4), Drew Taylor (Playlist) and Keith Uhlich (TONY, 3/5).

"On paper, Mozart's Sister reads like one more surface-deep period piece whose alleged 'feminism' consists principally in the historical distance that allows the viewer a privileged position of superiority to the mores of a bygone era." Andrew Schenker in Slant: "While there's little question that René Féret's 18th-century-set film revolves around just such an ironic distancing and that it often spells out its talking points ('Imagine how different our destinies would be if we were born boys,' one young woman reflects to the titular heroine), as enacted by a uniformly effective cast and presented in scenes replete with unhurried, detailed nuance, the movie frequently breathes fresh life into decidedly unpromising material." More from Ed Champion, Manohla Dargis (NYT), David Fear (TONY, 3/5), Ernest Hardy (Voice), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE) and Noel Murray (AV Club, B).

Alison Willmore at the AV Club on Griff the Invisible: "Superheroes have been made mainstream, made gritty, made realistic, made tragic, and made meta, and with this Australian romance from actor turned writer-director Leon Ford, they've now been made twee." More from Manohla Dargis (NYT), Dennis Harvey (San Francisco Bay Guardian), Glenn Heath Jr (Slant, 2.5/4), Michelle Orange (Voice) and Matt Singer (IFC).


Guy Lodge at In Contention: "'I love you, Dexter, I just don't like you anymore,' a radiantly moist-eyed Anne Hathaway tells a radiantly plastered Jim Sturgess at a crucial emotional juncture in One Day, Lone Scherfig's attractive, involving and curiously unmoving attempt to replicate the cosy, literate-but-not-too-literary British comforts of her 2009 An Education." The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw: "David Nicholls's hugely loved bestseller One Day, whose distinctive orange jacket design adorns beaches and train-carriages all over the country, has now, unfortunately, been turned into a slushy, mawkish and weirdly humourless romance with a sub-Richard Curtis style and more endings than Lord of the Rings."

More from Ty Burr (Boston Globe, 1/4), Dave Calhoun (Time Out London, 3/5), Kimberly Chun (SFBG), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3/4), Alison Hallett (Stranger), Jesse Hassenger (L), Logan Hill (Vulture), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 2/5), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Karina Longworth (Voice), Geoffrey Macnab (Independent, 3/5), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Mary Pols (Time), Tasha Robinson (AV Club, C), Tim Robey (Telegraph), Andrew Schenker (Slant, 2.5/4), Tom Shone (C+), AO Scott (NYT), Matt Wolf (Arts Desk) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 5.5/10).

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Vera FarmigaJesse PeretzRowan JoffeMaryam KeshavarzTroy NixeyOlivier MegatonJeanne LabruneSamuel FullerCristian MungiuRoss LipmanJohn SaylesÁlex de la IglesiaRené FéretLeon FordLone Scherfig
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