"Winter's Bone, warmly embraced at this year's Sundance Film Festival, belongs, at least at first glance, to one of that festival's familiar genres: the regional-realist morality tale." AO Scott in the New York Times: "These days, American independent cinema abounds in earnest stories of hard-bitten people living in impoverished corners of the country, their moral and emotional struggles accompanied by acoustic guitars and evocative landscape shots and generally uninflected by humor.... What distinguishes [Debra] Granik's film from, say, Courtney Hunt's Frozen River — to cite another recent Sundance favorite with cold weather in its title and grim Americana on its mind — is that this harshness is not there to illuminate a sociological condition. Something more primal, almost Greek in its archaic power, is at stake in Winter's Bone, and its visual and emotional starkness do no not feel like simple badges of authenticity."
"The story is practically Odyssean," agrees Slant's Ed Gonzalez. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) "learns that her absent, recently imprisoned father put their house up for his bail bond before subsequently vanishing, and unless she can prove that the man is dead, she and her siblings, as well as their silent, obviously traumatized mother, will be homeless. Making her way from home to home, asking but never begging for help from an interconnected network of dirt-poor neighbors (some friends, some family, many just strangers) with ties to the production of crystal meth in the region, you get a very strong sense — and quickly too — of a community that can be dangerous to anyone who doesn't abide by certain unspoken rules. Danger hangs thick in the air, and it feels as hard and winter-beaten as the film's near-monochromatic color palette."
"Clearly, Granik doesn't intend to condescend to her characters," writes Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek. "But there's no getting around the fact that to her they represent a mysterious 'other,' mountain people with customs unto themselves, and too often in Winter's Bone, they come off more as symbols than as human beings."
"Some filmmakers (say, Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier) would settle for their masks of indifference or malevolence, because that would clinch the case, Q.E.D., that these clannish Ozark hill folk were born to, or just worn down to, pure evil," writes New York's David Edelstein. "This director, Debra Granik, doesn't let the actors go dead: There is movement, barely perceptible, under the surface. Some vein of compassion, however thin, must be down there. Somewhere.... For all the horror, it's the drive toward life, not the decay, that lingers in the mind. As a modern heroine, Ree Dolly has no peer, and Winter's Bone is the year's most stirring film."
More from Bruce Bennett (IFC), Mike D'Angelo (AV Club), Glenn Kenny, Dan Kois (Voice), Keith Phipps (AV Club), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York), Nick Schager, Henry Stewart (L), Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail), Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) and Jessica Pallington West. At the AV Club, Noel Murray talks with John Hawkes about his wide-ranging career. Michelle Orange talks with Granik for IFC.com. Movieline's Kyle Buchanan talks with Granik, Hawkes and Dale Dickey. Ioncinema has a ten-minute video interview with Granik. Bilge Ebiri interviews Lawrence for Vulture.
"Joan Rivers — where have you been all my life?" asks the NYT's Manohla Dargis. "That, at least, is what I thought after watching (twice) the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, this convulsively funny movie takes an up-close and sometimes queasy-personal approach to its motormouth subject, who, when she's not making you howl with laughter (or freeze up in horror), brandishes her deeply held hurts, fears, prejudices, poor judgment and bad taste as if they were stigmata."
"For all the frenzied activity, Joan Rivers is less informative dish than infomercializing cliché," finds the Voice's J Hoberman. "It may be a revelation to see an entire wall in Rivers's fantastic Louis XIV–style apartment ('where Marie Antoinette would live if she had the money') devoted to the card catalog in which she files all of her jokes. It's less illuminating to be told, repeatedly, that a performer craves attention. (Oh, please!) Nice to know that Joan is a real person (she comes across as a warm, good-natured, unembarrassed egomaniac) but it's the character she invented and plays that makes her interesting. Unlike Mr Warmth, John Landis's kindred portrait of Don Rickles, Joan Rivers is disappointingly stingy with shtick — so much so that you have to wonder if Rivers intuited that putting too much of her stand-up on film might be a potential threat to her bookings."
Still, for the AV Club's Nathan Rabin the doc is "funny, heartbreaking, and casually profound about the insatiable need for validation and approval that fuels so much stand-up comedy."
More from David Edelstein (New York), Tim Grierson, Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Mary Pols (Time), Andrew Schenker (Slant), Keith Uhlich (TONY), James van Maanen, Armond White (New York Press) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline). Sam Adams interviews Rivers for the AV Club; and she's a guest on Fresh Air, too.
"Few films begin with the argumentative lucidity and utilitarian lyricism of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky," asserts Joseph Jon Lanthier in Slant. "In spite of a plethora of dramatic flaws (icy performances, sloppy temporal transitions, and a lackadaisical third act), the movie must be conservatively applauded for attempting to render the epochal 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring with not only accuracy of espirit (if not quite material details), but an unprecedented sympathy toward virtually every apocryphal permutation of the event that has been subsequently asserted."
But for Olivia Giovetti, writing in TONY, that opening simply "sets the scene for an anticlimactic biopic, which could have been sumptuously potent had this dual portrait of artists in love been trimmed... or at least hemmed."
"Lit like a David Fincher music video and shot with a gliding camera approximating a wandering eye, Stravinsky strains to convince that its lascivious pleasures have historical import," writes Karina Longworth in the Voice. "In the film's 1:1 correlation between erotic indulgence and creative innovation, hot, home-wrecking sex is justifiable only if it directly leads to the invention of Chanel No. 5. Stravinsky is the second corset-ripping French-language romance about the legendary fashion designer to hit American screens in seven months. Here, Coco's cast as a femme fatale who preys on a helpless nebbish — the Audrey Tautou–starring Coco Avant Chanel was much more fun."
More from Stephen Holden (NYT), Eric Kohn (iW), Michelle Orange (Movieline) and James van Maanen. Damon Smith talks with director Jan Kounen for Filmmaker and Aaron Hillis interviews Mads Mikkelsen for IFC.com, where Vadim Rizov looks back on the "Battle of the biopics: Eight rival pairings of movies about the same person."
"The story of a township boy-turned-slumlord millionaire, Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema is a South African crime epic with plenty of vigor, violence and vengeance, as one might expect from a rags-to-riches tale cut from the same cloth as City of God, Goodfellas and Scarface." Robert Abele in the Los Angeles Times: "But writer-director Ralph Ziman deserves props for his skewed take on private enterprise post-apartheid, when a bright, struggling man like Lucky Kunene (played by Jafta Mamabolo as a teen, Rapulana Seiphemo as an adult) can learn how to go from hijacking cars in Soweto to hijacking Johannesburg tenements from negligent white landowners."
For Bruce Bennett, writing at IFC.com, this is "almost a throwback to Depression-era 'society is to blame'-tinged gangster pictures like William Wellman's The Public Enemy and Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar.... Ziman, who made his mark with scores of high-budget short form works (Faith No More's eye-catching 1990 video 'Epic,' among them) and a handful of low-budget feature credits, demonstrates admirable restraint by not resorting to self-consciously dizzying camerawork to amp up the onscreen energy, as is so often the case in latter-day regional crime pictures."
More from Mike Hale (NYT), Michelle Orange (Movieline) and Nick Schager (Voice). Ioncinema's Eric Lavallee interviews Ziman.
"Cherish this moment," advises Jonathan Kiefer in the Faster Times. "There will never be a better movie combining Liam Neeson's newfound badassery, Bradley Cooper's bankable smarm, the appealing oddity of District 9's Sharlto Copley, and UFC champ Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson's talent for the body slam. Plus: Jessica Biel. As to the necessity of combining those things in the first place, there is none. Just as there is no reason to plumb the depths of decades-old television for movie properties. Yet here we are. The beauty of making The A-Team into a film is that it involves zero risk of masterpiece violation." More from Chris Barsanti (PopMatters), Manohla Dargis (NYT), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune), Nathan Rabin (AV Club), Andrew Schenker (Slant), Eric D Snider (Cinematical) Steven James Snyder (Techland) and Kenneth Turan (LAT).
"The saddest thing about the new remake of The Karate Kid isn't that it exists in the first place, though that alone is more than a little depressing." Simon Abrams in Slant: "What really rankles the nerves about this film is that despite a commendably boisterous score and some sufficiently cocky wire stuntwork during its cacophonous fight scenes, this remake doesn't show any signs that its creators believe the Eastern self-improvement mumbo-jumbo its characters espouse. Though little Dre Parker's (Jaden Smith) quest to learn kung fu is nominally about training oneself to be a better person by being a better fighter ('Everything is kung fu,' solemnly intones Jackie Chan's Mr. Han), that reason is pretty flimsy in light of the lazy and lifeless storytelling used to make it stick." More from Ed Champion, Richard Corliss (Time), Roger Ebert (Sun-Times), Todd Gilchrist (Cinematical), Brian Lam (Boing Boing), Michael Phillips (Tribune), Nick Pinkerton (Voice), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY), Hank Sartin (Time Out Chicago), AO Scott (NYT), Zack Smith (Independent Weekly), Dana Stevens (Slate), Scott Tobias (AV Club), Armond White (NYP) and Mary Elisabeth Williams (Salon). Video slide show at Slate: Grady Hendrix on the "Genius of Jackie Chan."
"Often effective on its own terms, which are frequently those of a feature-length infomercial, The Lottery insufficiently dares a more probing documentary approach in addressing the crises surrounding inner-city education," writes Bill Weber in Slant. More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT), Eric Hynes (TONY) and Michelle Orange (Movieline).
Local roundups. Ty Burr (Boston Globe), JR Jones (Chicago Reader), the LA Weekly and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
IN THE UK
"There aren't many British horror films you could call Bergmanesque with even slim justification, but Christopher Smith's Black Death is out of the ordinary," writes the Telegraph's Tim Robey. "This stark and often brutal movie lives under a cloud of foreboding, as if waiting out the bad news, close to Ingmar's heart, that we live in a godless world. The opening caption – The Year of Our Lord, 1348 – announces its bleak ironies: if this pestilent year, which brought the bubonic plague on Europe, truly belonged to God, was He an absentee landlord or just a sadist?"
"Based on a fluid, intelligent screenplay by Dario Poloni, it marks Smith out as Britain's most talented, least appreciated genre filmmaker," argues Nigel Floyd in Time Out London. "Striking visuals, confident storytelling, authentically grubby settings and an unsettling moral relativism combine to make his fourth feature emotionally involving, action-packed and thought-provoking."
More from Anne Billson (Arts Desk), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, where Ryan Gilbey surveys the "new wave of British horror films"), Kate Muir (Times) and Anthony Quinn (Independent).
"Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), the heroine of Tetsuya Nakashima's pitch-black drama Kokuhaku (Confessions), teaches a coed class of junior-high freshmen, but has given up trying to contain the chaos," writes Mark Schilling in the Japan Times. "She has a reason for her disconnected calm, which is like the numbness of a trauma victim: She is quitting her job — and taking her revenge on those who have destroyed her life.... Nakashima, best-known abroad for such colorfully imaginative, blackly comic films as Shimotsuna Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls) and Kiraware Matsuko no Issho (Memories of Matsuko), does Kokuhaku differently from the usual sort of commercial entertainment.... Despite its artiness and oddities, Kokuhaku, has, like much of Nakashima's work, a strange power. There is no catharsis, no redemption, no hope, but the chill of seeing into the dark heart of evil — and grief — remains."
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