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"The Milk of Sorrow," "Mesrine," "Centurion," More

Let's begin this weekly roundup of critical voices on theatrical releases with The Milk of Sorrow, winner of the Berlinale's Golden Bear in 2009.

"In this wonderfully strange, hypnotically beautiful second feature from writer-director Claudia Llosa (MADEINUSA), the traumatic experience of the 1980s civil war on Peruvian women is passed down through song and, it is said, through their mothers' milk," writes Ella Taylor in the Voice. "Fausta (Magaly Solier) is a shy young villager so terrorized by memories of rape sung to her by her mother that she keeps a potato in her vagina as protection ('Only revulsion stops revolting people'). The poker-faced young woman carefully trims the roots as they grow — just one instance of Llosa's visceral approach to sex, death, and the body, and her confident handling of the thin line between tragedy and black comedy."

"The Milk of Sorrow could be accused of miserablism and, simultaneously, of false uplift, but it's always more complex and challenging than a simple synopsis would lead one to expect," writes Chris Wisniewski in Reverse Shot. "Because of its direct engagement with her country's recent past, it is tempting to focus any discussion of The Milk of Sorrow on its place within contemporary Peruvian cinema, just as its Oscar nomination, in a year that saw another South American film (The Secret in their Eyes, from Argentina) win the trophy, both reflects and fuels heightened international interest in Latin American cinema more generally. Such attempts to situate the filmmaker and her work are inevitable and necessary, but The Milk of Sorrow also stands on its own. National or pan-national cinemas aside, it confirms Llosa's gifts as a visual storyteller and her status as a major young talent."

More from Jeannette Catsoulis (New York Times), Benjamin Mercer (L), Noel Murray (AV Club), Michelle Orange (Movieline), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York), James van Maanen, Armond White (New York Press) and Alison Willmore (IFC). Brandon Harris talks with Llosa for Filmmaker.





Benjamin Strong in the L Magazine: "Mesrine: Killer Instinct — the first installment of a two-part biopic about the notorious bank robber and jailbreaker — debuted at Lincoln Center's annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series in 2009, along with the concurrently shot sequel, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1. (The latter will be released here next month). Together they make for a stylish, distinctly Gallic take on the American gangster picture."

"Rumor has it that the film rights to the life story of Jacques Mesrine, France's most notorious and popular tabloid criminal, were first offered to Jean-Luc Godard, shortly after the subject's violent death in 1979." Julien Allen in Reverse Shot: "After 243 minutes of film... the audience for Jean-François Richet's much heralded and decorated 2008 movie (three Césars, including Best Actor and Director) could be forgiven for wondering wistfully how Godard's version might have turned out.... [T]his epic production, albeit competently directed and possessing a sense of grandeur, feels like a low point in contemporary French cinema, a Vichy-style surrender to the aesthetics and methodologies of Hollywood (brought to you by the guy who remade Assault on Precinct 13)."

For the Philadelphia City Paper's Sam Adams, "the movie's main asset, and not an insignificant one, is its performances: not just the feral [Vincent] Cassel, but a bloated Gérard Depardieu as his gangland mentor and wry Roy Dupuis as his Canadian cohort. If as much thought had gone into the movies as the actors put into their roles, we might have had something here."

More from Simon Abrams (Slant), Ty Burr (Boston Globe), Cliff Doerksen (Time Out Chicago), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), Stephen Holden (NYT), Anthony Lane (New Yorker), Shawn Levy (Oregonian), Michelle Orange (Movieline), Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Nicolas Rapold (Voice), Tasha Robinson (AV Club), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY), Duncan Shepherd (San Diego Reader), Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times), James van Maanen and Armond White (NYP). Eric Pape has a longish backgrounder in the LAT. Interviews with Cassel: Kyle Buchanan (Movieline), Ed Champion (audio), KJ Doughton (Film Threat), Gary Dretzka (Movie City News), Bilge Ebiri (IFC), Susan King (LAT), Erik McClanahan (Playlist), Scott Tobias (AV Club) and Anne Thompson (video).





"For a director with the best horror film of the past decade under his belt (The Descent), it's been hard to get a handle on Neil Marshall, what with his triumph being bookended by the slight-but-fun Dog Soldiers and, more recently, the fan-wank love letter to 80s B-movies Doomsday, an undisciplined mess of a film almost saved by sheer exuberance." Andrew Wright in the Stranger: "Happily, Marshall's latest, Centurion, manages to split the difference between his earlier films, resulting in a taut, suspenseful war film that can also go deliriously excessive when warranted."

"When was the first time an imperial power overreached itself and got mired in some remote and seemingly primitive backwater, confronted with a numerically and technologically inferior foe who could not be defeated?" asks Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "Centurion captures the Roman Empire's second-century frontier, in what we'd now call Scotland, as a cautionary example. This is such a well-rehearsed kind of movie — the bloody, filthy, sword-and-sandal epic, customarily starring Russell Crowe or Mel Gibson or some other handsome dude with 'tude — that it's startling to discover how compelling a good example can still be. Centurion has its moments of manly cornpone camaraderie and certainly isn't blazingly original, but it offers riveting storytelling, gorgeous cinematography and scenery, loads of gore, and a politically complicated history lesson."

But for the AV Club's Scott Tobias, "Centurion offers little beyond viscera for its own sake, without anything like the bold abstraction of Valhalla Rising. Before long, Marshall loses interest in the Ninth Legion as Afghanistan metaphor (at one point, Pict territory is called a 'graveyard of ambition'), and the addition of a sympathetic local (Imogen Poots) with eyes for Quintus [Michael Fassbender] pushes the film deeper into conventionality."

More from Roger Ebert (Sun-Times), FX Feeney (Voice), Stephen Holden (NYT), Wesley Morris (Boston Globe), Nick Schager (Slant), Keith Uhlich (TONY), James van Maanen, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (here in The Daily Notebook), Scott Weinberg (Cinematical) and Armond White (NYP).





"Produced by Eli Roth and the trio of producers behind Children of Men and the Dawn of the Dead remake, The Last Exorcism drops subtle winks to its cinematic forerunners (in particular Lucio Fulci's The Gates of Hell and, surprisingly, Jack Starrett's terminally underrated Race With the Devil) while managing to keep things very interesting via restrained effects work and an eerily satisfying score by Nathan Barr." The Austin Chronicle's Marc Savlov: "It's a creep-out of the first order."

"The last exorcism of the title belongs to a preacher played by Patrick Fabian, a Baton Rouge Bible-thumper with a career dating back to his childhood," explains Keith Phipps at the AV Club. "Plagued by a nagging conscience and a crisis of faith, he decides to let a documentary crew film an exorcism in rural Louisiana, exposing himself and others like him as charlatans." They "find a sweet, creative 16-year-old (Ashley Bell) who believes she's possessed by the devil. As Fabian fakes his way through another exorcism, evidence suggests she might be right."

Nick Schager in Slant: "Pitted against both liberal secularism and populist piousness, Louis's [Louis Herthum] old-school Old Testament faith emerges victoriously legitimized, lending the theologically engaged proceedings a hardcore red-state vibe that proves to be the film's only novel and captivating element, what with the action otherwise defined by its derivative faux verité first-person POV, out-of-place non-diegetic sound effects, and severe absence of tension. Employing suspenseful tricks that feel as old as the Good Book itself, and constantly suggesting unseen terrors that never materialize (culminating in a tepid finale that manages to blatantly rip off two different genre classics), [director Daniel] Stamm's chiller proves a flaccid scare-tease."

More from Todd Brown (Twitch), Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT), John Golson (Cinematical), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies), Drew McWeeney (Hitfix), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Nick Pinkerton (Voice), Ernie Piper IV (Stranger), Mary Pols (Time), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY), Mike Russell (Oregonian), Jesse Singal (Boston Globe), Benjamin Strong (L) and Genevieve Yue (Reverse Shot). Matt Dentler talks with Stamm and Twitch's Todd Brown interviews Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell.





"Middling, middle-class entertainment aimed at the midpoint between comedy and drama, mass appeal and sophistication, Change of Plans is eager to please and easy to dismiss," writes Eric Hynes for Movieline. "Riffing on a familiar premise, director Danièle Thompson (Avenue Montaigne, Jet Lag), working from a script she wrote with her son Christopher Thompson, puts 10 Parisian professionals together for a dinner party and lets the sparks, secrets and passions fly.... Critics suddenly become Karl Marx when it comes to face-value depictions of the wine-and-cheese set, dropping the guillotine at every glimpse of marble countertops or recessed lighting — quelle horreur! Some of the best and smartest films, from City Lights to L'Enfant, explore the ways in which we're all defined by class, but we needn't ask every film to restate or push against those definitions every time out. Alas, Thompson's film suffers from a different sense of entitlement — despite an appealing, committed cast ruminating on life and love from first to last, Change of Plans has very little to say."

"At the very least, this mush pot reminds us that countries other than ours also produce melodramatic mediocrities," writes TONY's David Fear. "It also, however, gives work to great French actors: A who's who of notable names — among them Karin Viard, Patrick Bruel, Marina Hands, Emmanuelle Seigner, the estimable Patrick Chesnais — play friends and relatives who convene for an evening of food, drink and middle-class bitching. As the story flips between that game-changing night and a year later, the cast does their best to make us marvel at the soiree's reverberations (someone's now paraplegic! also, new haircuts!), but even the film's galaxy of stars can't keep this black hole of c'est la vie soap-operatics from collapsing upon itself."

More from Melissa Anderson (Voice), Noel Murray (AV Club), Andrew Schenker (Slant), AO Scott (NYT) and James van Maanen. Listening (29'47"): Ed Champion talks with Thompson.





"Based on a true story and unfolding, we are told in the film's opening moments, 'exactly as it happened,' Daniel & Ana takes a dispassionate look at the aftermath of a particularly heinous crime," writes Jeannette Catsoulis in the NYT.

Slant's Ed Gonzalez explains that "siblings Daniel (Darío Yazbek Bernal) and Ana (Marimar Vega) are kidnapped at gunpoint and forced by underground pornographers to have sex with each other before being returned to their parents' posh Mexico City manse" and "though director Michel Franco isn't titillated by Daniel and Ana's sexual relations, he does effusively fixate on the siblings' post-traumatic stress, which he conveys throughout fancily composed — and classically scored — scenes (going solo to the movies, lying in bed in the fetal position, standing frozen at crosswalks) that suggest parodies of Michelangelo Antonioni's ennui-clogged style."

"[I]t's not surprising that they're reluctant to acknowledge the experience to anyone, even each other," writes Lisa Rosman in TONY. "Why disrupt the austere surfaces they inhabit? It's a common enough response to such extraordinary trauma, but director Michel Franco takes his cues a bit too well from his characters' disassociation."

For Violet Lucca (L), this is "a quietly potent 90 minutes," and Andrew Schenker (Voice) would be inclined to agree, but: "Too bad the director blows it with a last act that tips the film's delicate balance over into lurid grotesquerie, even as his staging remains as consciously muted as ever."





"Remember when Paul Walker had a career, Matt Dillon had indie credibility, Jay Hernandez was just a cute face, and Chris Brown was an R&B singer without a rap sheet?" asks Paul Schrodt in Slant. "If you're feeling nostalgic for those days, then there's Takers, one of those late-summer ensemble action movies that feels vaguely like a recreation of another action movie recast with out-of-work celebrities."

"Takers is all about impossibly handsome, chiseled men in exquisitely tailored suits looking thoughtful and sophisticated while enjoying fine liquor poured from crystal decanters in a series of glossy, glamorous urban locales," writes Nathan Rabin at the AV Club. "There’s also a heist or two, plus the requisite chases, gunfire, and betrayals, but that all seems incidental to the film’s real purpose: allowing a cast of handsome young men to live out their Rat Pack fantasies — and by extension, the audience’s."

The NYT's AO Scott: "If there were such a thing as GQ Jr or Esquire for Kids — a young-dude analogue for magazines like Seventeen or Teen Vogue — it might be something like Takers, a primer in juvenile, aspirational cool for guys who might not be able to handle the suavity of the Ocean's 11 franchise or the leathery angst of The Expendables.'"

More from Ty Burr (Boston Globe), Michael Phillips (Tribune), Mary Pols (MSN Movies), Eric D Snider (Cinematical), Gabe Toro (Playlist) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline).

 

BRIEFLY


"The product of a genuinely unique sensibility, the sort-of-zombie-movie Make-Out With Violence is inventive without being twee, quirky without being overly Wes Anderson, and suffused with a late-adolescent sense of longing as palpably felt as it is understated." That's Andrew Schenker in the Voice. Chuck Bowen in Slant, on the other hand, finds it "ludicrously self-involved and woefully unaware of how silly it is." For Henry Stewart (L), "The film's conspicuous failings are especially unfortunate because, visually, Make-Out is so easy to enjoy." Jeannette Catsoulis in the NYT: "Filled with clear, bright images and moments of skewed genius, this delicate debut effortlessly evokes those languid summer doldrums, when even a rotting girlfriend is better than no girlfriend at all." At the reRun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn.

 



Tim Grierson in the Voice on a film based on the early life of Louis Armstrong: "Director Dan Pritzker's playful silent comedy features beautiful women cavorting in frilly lingerie, a jazzy score overseen by Wynton Marsalis (which he'll perform with an ensemble at the film's Apollo Theater screening), and a shooting style that mimics the look of pre-talkies cinema. So why isn't Louis more fun?" More from Andrew Schenker (Slant).

Nick Schager in the Voice: "Working from a what-if premise it has little idea how to handle, Baghdad, Texas follows the sitcom exploits of three Texas ranchers in 2003 after they accidentally run over an apparent illegal 'wetback' who, it turns out, may in fact be Saddam Hussein." More from Neil Genzlinger (NYT).

"At the beginning of Highwater, Dana Brown, its writer, director and narrator, expresses some ambivalence about the highly commoditized circus that surfing has become," writes Mike Hale in the NYT. "Mr Brown knows which side his board is waxed on, however — his family has been deeply involved in the mythmaking that sells surfing gear ever since his father, Bruce, made The Endless Summer in 1966 — and Highwater settles into celebratory mode." More from Dan Kois (Voice), Joseph Jon Lanthier (Slant), Keith Uhlich (TONY) and James van Maanen.

Flipped is opening in a few more cities. Ben Kenigsberg in Time Out Chicago: "With its target viewership maxing out at around age 12, [Rob] Reiner's insipid but fundamentally sweet adaptation of Wendelin van Draanen's young-adult novel will not be mistaken for the second coming of Stand by Me." More from Ty Burr (Boston Globe), Roger Ebert (Sun-Times), Stephen Holden (NYT), Michael Phillips (Tribune), Nathan Rabin (AV Club), Ray Pride (Newcity Film) and Nick Schager (Slant).

 

IN THE UK


Scott Pilgrim vs the World opens in the UK today, sort of a homecoming for director Edgar Wright after opening the film in the US to mostly favorable reviews and relatively disappointing ticket sales (at least as compared to its cost, as Anne Thompson explains). I've been updating the entry for the film all along, and now, there's a fresh batch of British reviews rounded up there as well.

The Leopard returns to screens in the UK; the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw explains: "Visconti's 1963 historical epic, based on Lampedusa's novel, notoriously had 40 minutes chopped from the running time for its (dubbed) American release. The full 185-minute Italian-language original was not widely seen for another 20 years. This complete version had a British rerelease seven years ago, prior to a big DVD reissue, and now this has been digitally restored — itself a corrective to suggestions that as well being cut, the original's colour had been garishly altered." Now more than ever, then, it remains a "rich and gorgeous film, crowned with a magnificent, extended ballroom scene."

 



"Of all the films to have obtained UK release so far in 2010, number seven in my personal top ten would be director/co-writer Sebastián Silva's The Maid, a very smart, very sharp Chilean drama with darkly comic elements." Neil Young for the Tribune: "It's been earning plaudits and awards on the festival circuit since premiering at Sundance last January — including when making its British debut at Edinburgh the following June — and arrives on our screens just as Silva's follow-up Old Cats is being prepared for its unveiling at the select New York Film Festival (Sep 24 – Oct 10)." More from Nigel Andrews (Financial Times), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian) and Anthony Quinn (Independent).

Update: Criterion's posted its weekly roundup of repertory screenings around the world. More localized tips: Ty Burr (Boston Globe) and JR Jones (Chicago Reader).

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