"Two new films bookending the life of John Lennon, who would have turned 70 on October 9, elide his momentous trajectory through the 1960s," begins Graham Fuller at Artforum. "Although Nowhere Boy (2009), a fictional movie directed by the artist Sam Taylor-Wood, shows how Lennon (Aaron Johnson) met Paul McCartney and George Harrison and brings him to the eve of their band's departure for Hamburg, the Beatles aren't mentioned by name. The film nods ironically to the Liverpool glory years in a scene in which drunken young John is turned away from the Cavern Club, but it is concerned with something more primal than creativity and fame: how Lennon's troubled mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) fought a battle of wills for emotional possession of her son with her stable older sister, his widowed Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas). The emotional upheavals it depicts see the emergence of the cruel and self-destructive side of Lennon's personality — chickens that came home to roost in his 30s according to LennonNYC (2010), which was made for PBS's American Masters by Michael Epstein."
And here's the roundup on that one. For now, though, Nowhere Boy and Manohla Dargis in the New York Times: "The film's best and boldest move is how it brings maternal love and sexual desire into play with artistic longing and youthful ambition.... It's a treat to watch John watch Elvis gyrate in a newsreel and form the Quarrymen and talk mean to a scrawny kid with undeniable guitar skills named Paul (Thomas Brodie Sangster). It's a pleasant-enough creation story to revisit, one weighted down by melodrama and lifted up by some rocking tunes."
From here, we'll let Slate's Dana Stevens segue us into the next film at hand, but first: More from Eric Hynes (Voice), Joseph Jon Lanthier (Slant), Michelle Orange (Movieline), Keith Phipps (AV Club), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York), Betsy Sharkey (Los Angeles Times), James van Maanen and Armond White (New York Press). Interviews with Taylor-Wood: Bruce Handy (Vanity Fair) and Tom Shone (New York). Interviews with Johnson: Lizzy Goodman (Vulture), Amy Kaufman (LAT) and Jenni Miller (Cinematical). And Miranda Siegel talks with Kristin Scott Thomas for Vulture, where you'll also find a slide show: "The Many Onscreen John Lennons: Who Nailed Him and Who Failed Him." Meantime, the Popdose staff is celebrating Lennon's 70th.
Ok, Dana Stevens notes in Slate that both Nowhere Boy and Secretariat are "well-executed but conventional biopic treatments.... Both of them argue that their subject's seemingly preternatural gifts were a direct consequence of their relationships with their powerful, doting, often flawed mothers. And both the boy from Liverpool and the colt from Virginia had adoptive mothers who were crucial to their adult success. Lennon's unstable, depressive birth mother, Julia, farmed him out as a small boy to her stern but loving sister Mimi, who would raise him to adulthood. As for Secretariat, his equine mother, Somethingroyal — about whose emotional stability little is known — entrusted him after weaning to his fanatically dedicated owner, Penny Chenery [Diane Lane], who, for reasons that the movie never makes clear, somehow knew that this horse was destined for racing greatness.... There's not much I can add to Andrew O'Hehir's marvelous reading of Secretariat as a fantasy fable for Tea Partiers nostalgic for a prelapsarian America that never existed. I'm not sure I saw all that in the movie, but honestly, I found it hard to pay attention long enough to see much at all."
So why is everyone (well, relatively speaking, of course) talking about Andrew O'Hehir's review in Salon? IFC.com's Alison Willmore extracts the money quote: "I enjoyed it immensely, flat-footed dialogue and implausible situations and all. Which doesn't stop me from believing that in its totality Secretariat is a work of creepy, half-hilarious master-race propaganda almost worthy of Leni Riefenstahl, and all the more effective because it presents as a family-friendly yarn about a nice lady and her horse." Roger Ebert objects: "In its reasoning, his review resembles a fevered conspiracy theory."
For the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris, "Lane dominates Secretariat with nothing more than confident poise," while, according to Time Out Chicago's Ben Kenigsberg, "As eccentric Quebecois trainer Lucien Laurin, [John] Malkovich appears to be trying to sabotage the movie."
More from Simon Abrams (Slant), Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle), Manohla Dargis (NYT), Roger Ebert (his actual review, that is, for the Chicago Sun-Times), Ann Hornaday (Washington Post), Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune), Keith Phipps (AV Club), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY), Nick Schager (Voice), Kenneth Turan (LAT), James van Maanen, Mike Wilmington (Movie City News) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline). John Anderson has a backgrounder in the NYT. Interviews with Diane Lane: Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune) and Tasha Robinson (AV Club).
"Robert De Niro's alarm must have finally gone off," announces Nick Schager in Slant: "[I]n Stone, the actor seems more awake than he has been in years. De Niro is Jack, a prison corrections officer who, abandoning all professional and common sense, foolishly screws himself by screwing Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), the wife of the corn-rowed arsonist inmate Stone (Edward Norton), whose parole case he must soon rule upon." Bottom line: "At odds with its own lofty and base instincts, Stone ultimately channels neither compellingly."
"The writer Angus MacLachlan (Junebug) and the director John Curran (The Painted Veil, in which Mr Norton starred) bank on your familiarity with genre conventions," writes the NYT's Manohla Dargis, "and they count on your expectations of what happens when those conventions are deployed in a movie that looks and talks as tough as this one. By the time Lucetta is making like Gloria Grahame, dragging on a cigarette outside the prison, it's easy to believe that she's a moll who's about to spring her man and beat it to Mexico in a 1953 sedan with shot springs." At one point, though, "the narrative takes a hard, sharp turn away from the pulp-fiction terrain they have effectively mapped out. The results prove disappointing, simultaneously over the top and underwhelming."
More from Josef Braun, Jesse Cataldo (Slant), Anthony Cohan-Miccio (L), David Fear (TONY), Michelle Orange (Movieline), Michael Phillips (Tribune) and Scott Tobias (AV Club). Earlier: Reviews from Toronto. Karina Longworth talks with Norton for the Voice, while Sam Adams talks with Norton and De Niro for the LAT.
"With Sugar, the follow-up to their powerful debut feature Half Nelson, the writer/director team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden defied the expectations and conventions of the baseball movie to an almost perverse degree," writes Nathan Rabin at the AV Club. "It simply refused to give audiences the heartwarming payoffs they're accustomed to getting. The arthouse duo appears to be making up for lost time, however, with It's Kind of A Funny Story, an adaptation of a popular young adult novel that lovingly embraces all the crowd-pleasing formula that Sugar and Half Nelson eschewed."
Mike D'Angelo in the Las Vegas Weekly: "Fully living up to its halfhearted shrug of a title, It's Kind of a Funny Story chronicles the mildly engaging exploits of Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a high-school brainiac who voluntarily commits himself to a psych ward following a bout of suicidal depression. Aghast to learn that he's now stuck there for at least five days, Craig has no choice but to learn Valuable Life Lessons from his fellow nutters, including a conveniently hot self-mutilator (Emma Roberts) and a gregarious, manipulative mentor (The Hangover's Zach Galifianakis). Everybody's problems are fairly benign, and crises are few, allowing plenty of down time in which the ensemble cast can, for example, perform a embarrassing fantasy lip dub to 'Under Pressure.'"
More from Grant Brissey (Stranger), Ty Burr (Boston Globe), David Fellerath (Independent Weekly), Ann Hornaday (Washington Post), Eric Hynes (Voice), Kimberley Jones (Austin Chronicle), Guy Lodge (In Contention), Brett Michel (Boston Phoenix), Michael Phillips (Tribune), Matt Prigge (Philadelphia Weekly), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY), Hank Sartin (Time Out Chicago), Nick Schager (Slant), AO Scott (NYT), Matt Singer (IFC) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline). Earlier: Reviews from Toronto. IFC's Matt Singer has a couple of video interviews, one with Boden and Fleck and the other with Galifianakis. Peter Keough (Boston Phoenix) also talks with Galifianakis, and the AV Club's Scott Tobias with Boden and Fleck. The L's Mark Asch interviews Ned Vizzini, who wrote the book the movie's based on.
"Tamara Drewe, directed by Stephen Frears and written by Moira Buffini, plants its cheeky flag at the crossroads of sex farce, pastoral and high literary polish," writes AO Scott in the NYT. "Posy Simmonds's graphic novel, on which it is closely based, is a loose and whimsical adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, Hardy's 1874 novel about the romantic travails of Bathsheba Everdene. The book was memorably filmed by John Schlesinger in 1967, with Julie Christie as Bathsheba. In this updated version, the character has been reimagined as Tamara Drewe, a newspaper columnist played by Gemma Arterton, who returns to her childhood home after a long absence to find herself caught in a thicket of entangled and clashing desires." All in all, "there is something shallow and cautious about this film, which strains to maintain a glib, cheery demeanor that is not always appropriate to the details of the story. It is more honest and clever than most recent romantic comedies, but that may not be a sign of progress. Earlier in his career Mr Frears made his name with My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, three movies about England and sex (among other things) that, in their riskiness and insight, make Tamara Drewe look like a big step backward."
More from Julien Allen (Reverse Shot), Fernando F Croce (Slant), J Hoberman (Voice), Noel Murray (AV Club), Nick Schager, Justin Stewart (L), Keith Uhlich (TONY), James van Maanen, Armond White (NYP) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline). Earlier: Reviews from Cannes and Toronto. Interviews with Frears: Stephen Saito (IFC) and ST VanAirsdale (Movieline, where he also talks with Arterton).
"There's a sparse elegance to writer-director Klaus Härö's Letters to Father Jacob, a lean, engrossing character study about loneliness, redemption, and the power of faith," writes Ernest Hardy in the Voice. "Largely centered on just two people, it's a brisk-moving film whose unsentimental but deep emotion derives from smart performances."
"Moon-faced, mannish and with the shoulders of a hod carrier, Leila (Kaarina Hazard) is not your average movie heroine," writes Jeannette Catsoulis in the NYT. "Mysteriously pardoned after serving 12 years of a life sentence (for what, we can initially only imagine), Leila grudgingly accepts a position as personal assistant to Father Jacob (Heikki Nousiainen), a blind priest holed up in a rundown rural rectory." In the end, "Letters transforms a picture-postcard location and odd-couple narrative into a pretty, and pretty predictable, snooze. Yet the acting is flawless, the tone gentle and observational, and Leila's transformation, when it occurs, is unforced and unaccompanied by pious lecturing. Anyone looking to kill 74 minutes between the early-bird special and bingo could do a great deal worse."
More from Nick Schager (TONY) and Andrew Schenker (Slant).
Karina Longworth in the Voice on Life As We Know It: "Set up on a blind date by their married best friends, Holly (Katherine Heigl) and Messer (Josh Duhamel) show each other the worst of themselves ('You look like you read,' he says disparagingly. Trust me, she doesn't) and separate in a huff before making it to dinner. Soon, the best friends die, leaving custody of a baby daughter to the 'incompatible' twosome. Guess how long it takes the barely mourning singles to fall in love?"
The Guardian's Cath Clarke: "You know the drill: odd-couple hilarity with baby poo." The Telegraph's Tim Robey: "[T]he Heigl/Duhamel hostilities are so persuasive their entire movie balls itself up into a shrill domestic nightmare. When they get together, it feels like something to do with careers, contracts and romcom necessity; nothing to do with life."
More from Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle), Josh Bell (Las Vegas Weekly), Ty Burr (Boston Globe), Roger Ebert (Sun-Times), Stephen Holden (NYT), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies), Michelle Orange (Movieline), Michael Phillips (Tribune), Keith Phipps (AV Club), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Lisa Rosman (TONY), Hank Sartin (Time Out Chicago), Paul Schrodt (Slant) and Armond White (New York Press).
"There's nothing more tiresome than a clumsy, amateurish film attempting to engage weighty issues and failing miserably," writes Glenn Heath, Jr in Slant. "Jim, a super low-budget character study concerning genetics, cloning, and faith, tries to do just that, clumsily fusing a dystopic slice of sci-fi wherein worker clones make up Earth's populace with the modern melodrama of a distraught widower named Jim (Dan Illian)." More from Mike Hale (NYT), Keith Uhlich (TONY) and Chuck Wilson (Voice).
"Bombay Summer sounds like a Bollywood film, but the only singing or dancing takes place on battered LPs (good) or in a cocaine-infested nightclub (bad)." Mike Hale (NYT): "Written and directed by Joseph Mathew-Varghese, who is based in New York, it's the rare film set in India that speaks the melancholy language of the international art house." For Diego Costa (Slant), it "feels a little without consequence, an exercise in fetishizing the city or in filling up the gaps between the classes with startling gloss," while for Nick Pinkerton (Voice), "Bombay Summer's keen sense of nostalgia for a fleeting present is the real heartbreaker."
"With a title that could be an uncharitable joke about the careers of leads Cary Elwes, Andie MacDowell, and Frank Whaley, as-bad-as-expected As Good As Dead is a graveyard of 90s celebrity posing as a political white-knuckler," writes Nick Pinkerton in the Voice. More from Jesse Cataldo (Slant), Neil Genzlinger (NYT) and Eric Hynes (TONY).
"Exactly the sort of mysterious and almost holy experience you hope to get from documentaries and rarely do, Jeff Malmberg's Marwencol is something like a homegrown slice of Herzog oddness, complete with true-crime backfill and juicy metafictive upshot," writes Michael Atkinson in the Voice. "It begins with context: In 2000, Mark Hogancamp, an Upstate New York resident, was beaten outside a bar by four men so badly that he incurred a brain injury and woke up to a life he barely remembered. Slowly, he discovered that he'd once been married (we never find out what happened to his foreign bride), that he'd been an accomplished artist (the drawings we see are wild and Crumb-like), and that he'd been a raging, ruinous alcoholic. Now seriously disabled mentally, he has existed since the beating by mopping floors and making diner meatballs in his destitute little trailer town."
The AV Club's Noel Murray picks it up from there: "He also developed a therapeutic hobby: building a tiny Belgian town he called 'Marwencol' in his backyard, populated by dolls who resemble his friends and neighbors, all made to enact Hogancamp's utopian World War II fantasies. Then he photographed the town, using the snapshots almost like panels in a comic book, to tell stories about a peaceful place that has been threatened by violence but is ultimately protected by good men and women."
John Sylva in the L: "The film takes an exciting turn when Tod Lippy of Esopus magazine takes note of Hogencamp's story and arranges for an exhibition of Hogencamp's stunning Marwencol photographs in New York City. Uneasy at first about a public display of such a personal nature, Hogencamp quickly decides NYC it is; if people aren't to accept his quirky fashion choices in Greenwich Village (he has a certain fondness for wearing high heels), then where? Watching the exhibition unfold, with many curious spectators in attendance and dozens of Hogencamp's photos on display, offers the kind of spontaneous magic that could comes only from the spectacularly unpredictable nature of real life filmed simply. And as Hogencamp exits his wholly successful opening sporting the high heels he so badly wanted to wear at the night's beginning but didn't out of fear of public humiliation, he becomes an unexpected icon for the American dream of today."
More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT), David Fear (TONY) and Lauren Wissot (Slant).
"Just Vision, the organization that executive produced Julia Bacha's latest multiple award-winning feature documentary, has a singular mission: to increase the power and legitimacy of Palestinians and Israelis working together for nonviolent solutions to the never-ending conflict in the region they share," writes Pamela Cohn at Hammer to Nail. "Budrus is a powerful testament to the potential success of such a partnership, a riveting, modern-day illustration in sound and vision of just how effective nonviolent resistance can be. It is a story filled with hope about people with very little, engaged in the kind of human-scale triumph that is so much more triumphant considering what these protagonists are willing to sacrifice." More from Mike Hale (NYT), Nick Schager (TONY) and Ella Taylor (Voice).
Melissa Anderson in the Voice on Rachel: "A hushed, solemn investigation, Simone Bitton's documentary about the death of 23-year-old American peace activist Rachel Corrie — who was crushed by an Israeli army bulldozer in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on March 16, 2003, while protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes — still speaks loudly and unequivocally. Born in Morocco, the filmmaker, an Arab Jew with dual Israeli-French citizenship, presents all sides of the horrific incident: from the activist's fellow members in the nonviolent, Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement — who, as eyewitnesses, insist that she was deliberately run over — to Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson Avital Leibovich, who maintains that Corrie's death was an accident (with slides and other documentation to argue her case). Bitton, thorough in her research, shows but never tells, letting the evidence speak for itself." More from David Fear (TONY), James van Maanen and Andy Webster (NYT).
"In Going Blind, a documentary pegged to his own glaucoma, Joseph Lovett seems largely interested in convincing himself that losing his sight won't be so bad," writes Neil Genzlinger in the NYT. "That leaves the film feeling less like a hard look at the fears and challenges of being visually impaired and more like a cheerleading exercise." More from Simon Abrams (TONY) and Ernest Hardy (Voice).
No stars — nix, nada — from Nick Schager in Slant for GhettoPhysics.
"It's a Wonderful Afterlife may be a busy trifle, but it has its good-natured charms and agreeable gross-outs." That's actually the last sentence in Andy Webster's review for the NYT, so back to the top: "Four gastronomic murders (a chicken-tikka kebab in the neck, suffocation by naan) have hit Southall, an Indian neighborhood in London, and the hunky cop Raj Murthy (Sendhil Ramamurthy, from Heroes) is sent undercover to investigate. The perpetrator is Mrs Sethi (the venerable Shabana Azmi), a widow whose passionate defense of her full-figured daughter, Roopi (Goldy Notay), has taken a homicidal turn. Mrs Sethi, you see, feels she cannot join her husband in death until she has married off Roopi, whom the victims made the mistake of mistreating.... The director Gurinder Chadha (the winning Bend It Like Beckham) brings her exuberant touch to this morbid comedy, which pokes fun at the Bollywood staples of fretful parents and arranged marriages. Ms Chadha lightly stirs in other Bollywood elements (a colorful wedding dance sequence, a propulsive bhangra soundtrack), but defies them where it counts (a full on-screen kiss)."
For Nick Pinkerton, though, writing in the Voice, "every gag is smothered by the prevailing tone of labored zaniness and generic, plucky 'mischief music' alerting discerning viewers to abandon all hope of laughter." 2 out of 4 stars from Diego Costa in Slant.
"The impulse to remake any even moderately successful horror movie of the 70s and 80s hits rock bottom with I Spit On Your Grave, which has the odd effect of cheapening one of the era's rankest, most notorious pieces of exploitation trash," writes Scott Tobias at the AV Club. "It's not clever or multi-layered or stylized in an interesting way, and it doesn't have a point, other than to appeal artlessly to the audience's worst instincts.... The revenge part of the rape-revenge equation is where writer Stuart Morse and director Steven R Monroe try to get creative by turning I Spit On Your Grave into Saw VIII, losing much of the homemade crudeness that made the 1980 version so nauseatingly effective."
"Actually, I didn't think the original was that bad," confesses New York's David Edelstein. "Ever since Carol Clover's paradigm-shifting book Men, Women, and Chainsaws — which offered the arguable but disarming thesis that no matter how much torture 'the final girl' endures, her triumph over the monster is you-go-girl empowering — I've had to control the reflexive jerking of my knee until I think things through. Crude though it was, I Spit on Your Grave said what all revenge pictures say but in hot pants and a halter top: I'll dress how I want, I'll go where I want, and if you mess with me I'll cut off your dick. In close-up." As for this new version, its second half is "the sickest kind of pleasure.... I'm not going to get moralistic: I knew going in what the movie would be, and it was all that and more."
"I Spit on Your Grave, old and new, remains interesting and something of a dirty little secret for how it presents Jennifer's eye-for-an-eye rampage as a rebuke of sorts to anyone who says they're above Old Testament-style retribution," writes Ed Gonzalez in Slant. Both he and Edelstein mention the "anti-slasher-movie campaign" (Edelstein) that Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel launched in response to the first one. Not surprisingly, Ebert despises this remake just as thoroughly.
More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT), Ben Kenigsberg (Time Out Chicago), Nick Pinkerton (Voice), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY) and Henry Stewart (L).
"Red White & Blue, the latest feature from the British director Simon Rumley, builds a triptych of character studies into an engrossing — and profoundly distressing — tale of random connection and specific revenge," writes Jeannette Catsoulis in the NYT. "Like Mr Rumley's bizarre 2006 feature, The Living and the Dead, Red White & Blue proves the director a bona fide storyteller with more tools in his arsenal than shock and awe. There is horror here, but never groundless: just people fumbling with emotions too big to contain and instincts too raw to discipline."
"The style is haute-horror in a grungy Austin setting," notes Nicolas Rapold in the Voice. "By the time the twisted revenge violence happens, the story has built up an undertone of maddened grief and confused rage that's unnerving." For Time Out New York's David Fear, this "Amerindie's horror elements are actually its least interesting aspects; you wish that British director Simon Rumley had stuck with that first half's beguiling look at a new, weird Americana and left the exploitation trappings to lesser filmmakers."
Brandon Harris talks with Rumley for Filmmaker. At Brooklyn's reRun Gastropub Theater.
Marc Savlov in the Austin Chronicle: "Neither so awful as to be enjoyable nor eerily artful enough to be anything other than a snoozy also-ran in the perpetually poor plotting machine that is the demon-child cinematic subgenre, Case 39 is exactly as forgettable as, I'd wager, the 38 previous ones."
Writing in Slant, though, Rob Humanick finds it "refreshingly free of bullshit. An amalgamation of the recent Orphan and Drag Me to Hell, this supernaturally tinged tale only goes skin-deep and is proud of it, wasting little time in establishing narrative basics and getting to the good stuff. In the pantheon of John Carpenter-esque genre goods, there's nothing remarkable going on here (with the exception of an early showdown in a kitchen that features some of the tightest blocking and editing in any recent horror film), but for all of its familiarity, Case 39's storytelling efficiency and game performances render the proceedings as delightfully glib fun."
Maybe "in terms of unintentional humor?" wonders Nick Schager in Time Out New York. "From a bevy of cheesy jolt scares (alarm clock! barking dog!) to the embarrassing sight of [Renée] Zellweger and Ian McShane treating this Orphan-style B-movie silliness with grave seriousness, the film proves to be one hokey-horror riot."
IN THE UK
In Mr Nice, Rhys Ifans "plays Howard Marks, the Oxford-educated Welshman who, chaotically and bizarrely, stumbled into the game of importing hashish from Pakistan to the UK in the early 70s, back in the days when this lucrative and unexplored market was still open to gentleman amateurs," writes the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw. "Bernard Rose, who has crafted brilliant Tolstoy modernisations in the shape of Ivansxtc and The Kreutzer Sonata, creates a fluent, watchable story, in which this lovable rogue is digitally inserted into period clips of 60s and 70s Oxford, London, Kabul and Karachi.... Chloë Sevigny plays his wife Judy – not a terribly interesting part – and Marks also finds that an old Oxford contemporary, played by Christian McKay, tries to recruit him to MI6, and offers to help out in exchange for information.... It all has, weirdly, a stranger-than-fiction ring of truth, and despite our antihero's Welshness, it is a very English tale of a bumbling drug empire built almost by accident. You have to take it with a pinch of salt: but it's entertaining."
More from Ryan Gilbey (New Statesman), Nick Hasted (Arts Desk), Anthony Quinn (Independent), Tim Robey (Telegraph) and Ben Walters (Time Out London).
For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow The Daily Notebook on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.