This Week on Demand: 22/09/2013

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Editor’s Note: Reviews this week are by Ronan Doyle and Jaime Burchardt

When 56 Up made its debut on Netflix back in July, I recommended it heartily, particularly given that series’ other seven instalments were also available to instantly stream. It turns out, of course, that they may have not been; Netflix’s perplexing penchant for pulling content and putting it back some time later (constantly done with the James Bond films) was in full swing, but fret not! Seven Up! Through 49 Up are re-added this week, as well of course as the huge mountain of content covered below. It’s a diverse week indeed, and a very fine one too, with a handful of foreign delights that might just be among the year’s finest films.


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Along Came Polly

Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller) just got married, and he thinks life is going well, but then his wife goes and cheats on him on their honeymoon. To make things more complicated, his old schoolgirl crush Polly (Jennifer Aniston) comes into his life right at a time when thinks he doesn’t need any more distractions… or maybe she’s just the thing he needs. Getting out of your comfort zone for the first time, trying new things… yeah, nothing can go wrong. Writer/director John Hamburg has certainly gone onto better things since this 2004 debut—the better being I Love You, Man—and while his first outing isn’t bad, it’s severely overambitious. There are moments when Stiller and Aniston’s chemistry works, but most of it feels forced and unconvincing. Unfortunately the rest of the movie plays out the same way. At least we all know now that Hamburg is capable of much, much more. AVOID IT. ~JB


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Boy

A quietly cute Kiwi comedy that doesn’t ignore the dramatic realities of life, Taika Waititi’s Boy is an offbeat delight of a coming-of-age film. Centred on the eponymous eleven year-old and his younger brother as they finally meet the absentee dad whom they’ve always idly idolised, it’s a low-key and lovely coming-to-terms with a father’s feet of clay. Played by the writer/director, this returning parent, ostensibly back to spend time with his boys, really seeks a buried bag of cash he left behind; the tragedy, and so much of the comedy too, comes from Boy’s determined belief that this is a man who really cares about him. Hearty, thickly-accented performances from the young James Rolleston and Te Aho Eketone-Whitu are the heart of the piece, their wide-eyed innocence aptly evoking the ‘80s setting in all its glory. Waititi has made a finely funny follow-up to Eagle vs Shark here, if one perhaps a little easy to see coming. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Children of a Lesser God

After going from school to school, renowned speech teacher James Leeds (William Hurt) decides to take his particular teaching skills to a school for the deaf. It’s not too long before he meets Sarah (Marlee Matlin), the school custodian and former student who is not only deaf, but also she’s never once tried to speak. What originally starts as helping friendship turns into a romance so passionate that the breaking point between their two worlds and styles becomes all but inevitable. The production has quite the back story: both Hurt and Matlin actually became romantically involved after the film’s production, and Matlin won an Oscar with the first centralized deaf role in a flick in almost six decades. For a fresh set of eyes, does the movie live up to its near thirty-year hype? Yes, yes, yes. The two deliver performances so outstanding it wears the definition of “mesmerizing” like a blanket. Dare to take your eyes away from their chemistry. MUST SEE. ~JB


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Critical Care

The late, great Sidney Lumet handled such a wide variety of genres across his fifty-year career with such a reliable rate of success that it’s small wonder he so wonderfully works with the strange mish-mash of death-centric drama, hallucinogenic fantasy, and institutional comedy that characterises 1997’s Critical Care. James Spader is on fine form as the up-and-coming medical doctor who finds himself at the centre of a difficult case when the half-sister siblings of a wealthy comatose patient. Helen Mirren leads an excellent supporting cast who, along with Lumet’s consummate direction, help an extremely odd and often out-there screenplay over its plentiful hurdles. Few are better than Albert Brooks, delightfully disguised as the hospital’s crackpot administrator and nailing the comedy’s cynicism throughout. As does Spader, who here takes a mostly reactionary role through various seductions and suspicious meetings with attorneys. Albeit often just for the tonal absurdity, Critical Care is an absorbing watch. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD


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F

Ably evoking an atmosphere of difficult social drama in its opening half, F—alternately known as The Expelled—effectively establishes its setting and characters before botching both with an ill-advised turn toward horror territory. Set in a school filled with troubled kids and disillusioned teachers, it’s an immediately promising but ultimately poor effort whose move from direct engagement to real-world issues to dismissive extension of a “kids these days” attitude constitutes a sad waste of solid directorial talent. Johannes Roberts, for all his sleek skills with the camera, just isn’t a horror director, and it shows in his sub-Ils sinister shadows and lurking bad guys. It’s continued to show, too: Storage 24 is his latest, which adds the insult of sub-par comedy to the injury of uninteresting horror. F, at least, retains some semblance of effect: humdrum though the horror may be, its aims are clear. SO-SO. ~RD


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Gimme the Loot (Read our full review)

Nothing shy of a naturalistic joy of a movie, Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot is a magnificent debut feature that feels equally indebted to Spike Lee and Woody Allen, for whom Leon worked in a clerical role on two (lesser) films. Like Do the Right Thing without quite the same mounting sense of racial tension—though not absent of those themes—it unfolds across two sunny summer days in New York, spending its time in the company of the young graffiti artists Sofia and Malcolm, who decide hitting the Mets’ Home Run Apple is the quickest way to make a name for themselves. Quietly hilarious and dramatically economic, Leon’s script is a wonder, brilliantly creating these characters with Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson’s pitch-perfect performances and excellent rapport. If Gimme the Loot seems less urgent than Lee’s work, it’s only because it’s so effectively hidden by Leon’s ingenious evocation of modern youth. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis

It seems only right to dismiss any effort to “spice up” an indomitable classic of cinema with a peppy pop-rock soundtrack, colourisation, and a new cut as an abhorrent assault on film history. Yet somehow Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis, the Oscar-winning composer’s 1984 passion project, earns less ire than might be expected. Yes, it’s a patently absurd take on Fritz Lang’s masterpiece that somehow manages, most of the time, to miss the movie’s real point, but there’s no denying the alternate energy evoked by seeing the Maschinenmensch set to the tune of Bonnie Tyler and the likes. It’s interesting to think that, at the time, this was essentially the most complete form of the film available to see; how fortunate we are, three decades on, to have access to a near-perfect restoration of Lang’s vision (also available on Netflix, and recommended in lieu). The Moroder version is a fascinating curiosity, but a curiosity and no more. SO-SO. ~RD


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If I Were You (Read our full review)

It’s a testament to the terrific screen presence of Marcia Gay Harden that If I Were You, a terribly trite little comedy of errors seeing an exasperated woman covertly befriending her husband’s mistress, manages to be as watchable it is. Joan Carr-Wiggin’s is not a terribly good set-up, nor indeed terribly well set up, yet such is Harden’s magnetic allure that one can’t help but be charmed by her hilarious portrait of this woman on the verge of a nervous of a nervous breakdown. Leonor Watling does well, if not wonderfully, as the younger woman, found at the film’s opening in a state of suicidal depression, which the movie views with the most uneasy comedy imaginable. Still, for all its bizarre approaches, not least of all an allegorical employment of a staging of King Lear, If I Were You is a fine little comedy anchored by Harden’s wonderfully humane work. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD


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I Killed My Mother

Currently earning yet more rave reviews on the festival circuit with his fourth feature Tom at the Farm, Xavier Dolan has carved himself quite the cinematic career at just the age of 24. He was, astonishingly, only 19 when he shot I Killed My Mother, his passionate and powerful debut tale of a gay teen and his single mother, and the explosive tensions between the two. Candid black and white confessionals knowingly play with the title’s inherent expectations between alternating scenes of aggression and adoration. Anne Dorval gives an astounding performance as this put-upon matriarch, at once entirely sympathetic and yet understandably annoying to the quick-to-anger protagonist. It’s much more a portrait of youthful insolence than an indulgence therein, as its detractors claimed; Dolan, here less given to stylistic excess than in his later work, creates a relationship as hilarious in its arguments as it is heartbreaking, as twisted as it is—crucially—so true to life. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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La Sirga

Like the wounded country in which it sits, the eponymous guesthouse of La Sirga, Colombian writer/director William Vega’s debut feature, is a collapsing wreck desperately held together by the lingering faith of a precious few. A haunting glimpse through thick fog of a corpse impaled on a pike is the harrowing introduction to the war-torn setting from which nineteen year-old protagonist Flora escapes to her uncle’s inn, where he allows her to aid in its perpetual repair. If the allegory seems simple, it’s only in retrospect; Vega’s entrancing cinematography, favouring long takes graced with contemplative silence, finds sparse beauty in a world evidently racked with the ugliness of chaos. Alternating between candlelit scenes in the dead of night and alluring expeditions into the mist that lays atop the great lake by which the inn sits, Vega frames Floralba Achicanoy’s formidable lead performance in a disquieting aura of impending doom, culminating in the most devastating conclusion. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Love, Actually

The holiday season is in full effect; Christmas is around the corner and everyone’s handling it differently. Believe it or not, there was a time before dross like Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve came out. There used to be a time when a star-studded cast would be backed up with filmmaking that’s just as grand as they are. Love, Actually wasn’t the first, and it hopefully won’t be the last, but it’s certainly one of the best. Long-time British writer Richard Curtis made his directorial debut count with the gathering of charming, wonderful actors to make his excellent writing come to life. The casting itself it something to be admired: these names aren’t the biggest box office draw, but like most productions of the Curtis name, quality comes first. The movie is filled with the kind of feelings that make you want to jump for joy. Corny, but true. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~JB


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Nine

How Rob Marshall might have managed to attract so astonishing a female cast to Nine is clear enough, given the presence of then-two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis as Guido, the film’s director-in-crisis protagonist. What’s less clear, particularly given the rarity with which he accepts projects, is why Day Lewis himself signed on. Marshall’s movie is a mess, a terrible idea—to remake in musical form, essentially—given a terrible execution, salvaged only, and only relatively so, by its extraordinary collection of acting talent. Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, and Penelope Cruz are chief among them as the key women in Guido’s life, who perform elaborate fantasy song-and-dance numbers as the film’s aggravatingly episodic structure plays out. The actual narrative itself might well consume less than the end credits’ ten and a half minutes, a testament to the enormous resources available here, every one of them wasted on a story as dull as it is devoid of development. AVOID IT. ~RD


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Poetry

What an immense performance is Jeong-hie Yun’s in Poetry, the story of a sexagenarian in the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease who discovers a terrible truth about the layabout grandson in her care. There’s a scene at one point in the movie, perhaps a touch familiar, where she breaks down in the shower under the weight of all around her. However overdone such a sequence may be, Yun’s breathtaking work makes it—and all else—seem utterly, entirely fresh. She would make a bad movie seem brilliant, but director Chang-dong Lee surrounds her with elements every bit as effective, from his pensive shooting style to the script’s bedrock of moral exasperation. How harrowing an experience Poetry is, bare and brutal at every turn as it exposes the desperate difficulty of this situation and the dreadful sadness of its protagonist’s future. There can be no question that Yun’s is one of modern cinema’s greatest performances. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Shadow Dancer (Read our full review)

Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough are the best things by a long stretch in Shadow Dancer, an involving but ultimately unsatisfying tale of an IRA informant and the conflicted MI5 agent intent on protecting her. Adapting his own novel, Tom Bradby makes engaging creations of these characters, yet struggles to really locate them logically within the plot twists that ensue. Best known for his documentaries, director James Marsh brings a verité feel to the drama, extracting from his cast the very same legitimacy Bradby’s plotting here and there lacks. Still, for all the scripting setbacks, Shadow Dancer is a fine evocation of the ‘90s conflict and its moral and political complexities, gripping from its tension-ridden opening sequence to the inevitable scenes with which it concludes. Domhnall Gleeson is the finest of a formidable supporting cast that also includes an interesting, effective role for Gillian Anderson. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Side Effects (Read our full review)

The purportedly penultimate picture of Steven Soderbergh’s career is, like the vast majority of this last batch of movies he’s dropped upon us with typical craftsmanship and prolificacy, a technically impeccable and terrifically entertaining take on a genre story that might, in less capable hands, come off with a great deal less success. Rooney Mara is suitably mercurial as the clinically depressed wife of a recently-released insider trader who begins trials of an experimental new drug. The radical twists and turns to which the title alludes are exquisitely enacted by Soderbergh’s regular roster of supporting players, including Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Jude Law in a turn that reminds just how talented an actor he is. Dipping in its final act as the pieces of the puzzle come a little clunkily together, Side Effects is nonetheless another beautifully constructed piece of pure movie magic, the kind of film to remind us just what we’re losing with Soderbergh. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Simon Killer

Making excellent use of both his title’s inbuilt expectations and the lingering shadow of Funny Games on his leading man’s star persona, Antonio Campos creates a striking character study with Simon Killer, the story of an American graduate vacationing in Paris after a difficult break-up. Narratively and stylistically eerie, it’s carried by Brady Corbet’s commanding, unsettling performance, at once sinister and sympathetic. Campos uses his long takes as an interesting establishment of psychological space; we learn far more of this character from the way he’s shot than from anything he says or does. Once the film moves more toward some semblance of plot, though, it loses a certain sense of its atmospheric oddity; the move toward narrative robs it of the elusive mystique that previously made character and movie both so arresting. Still, Campos is skilled enough in his direction to make his closing act, if not quite cohesive, at least as compelling as what came before. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD


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Somebody Up There Likes Me (Read our full review)

Wes Anderson fans repeatedly baffled by the accusations of empty whimsy levelled by his detractors might better appreciate how his world looks to a non-believer when watching Somebody Up There Likes Me, a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-Anderson slice of tightly-framed twee that’s little more than enormously annoying at every turn. Following some thirty-five years in the life of three restaurant employees and the various births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and betrayals that characterise their friendship, it’s a movie not without its particular charm, though no less unbearably self-satisfied in its more indulgent moments for it. Keith Poulson and Nick Offerman, whose slightly-changed hairstyles are the only ironic indication of their characters’ aging, make of the lines what they can, and a passable number land to laugh-worthy effect. More, though, fall foully flat, and serve only to embellish the cloying quirk that makes this film so often unbearable. AVOID IT. ~RD


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Something in the Air

The prominent personal parallels between the late teenage years of Olivier Assayas and the protagonist of his latest film make it difficult not to view Something in the Air as, at least partially, autobiography. And therein lies precisely the problem: this story, evidently so interesting to its teller, has a good deal less in both emotional attachment and general interest for its audience. It’s not that this tale of burgeoning cultural revolution in Paris circa 1968 is without intrigue, just that the character Assayas opts to centre it on, be he self-cipher or not, simply isn’t a terribly relatable lead. He, well-played by newcomer Clément Métayer, is an awfully passive presence in proceedings, mostly observing as things happen around him rather than actively engaging in the paradigm shift. It’s a far less engrossing movie than it is, perhaps, a memory: whatever draws Assayas to relive these years is hardly apparent on screen. SO-SO. ~RD


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The Kids Are All Right

Inevitable as it was, perhaps, it hurt to see Annette Bening denied the Oscar she so desperately deserved in favour of the perfectly fine Natalie Portman for Black Swan. Bening’s turn in The Kids Are All Right is ravishing, an authentically emotional powerhouse that elevates what might otherwise be a mildly interesting indie curio to the realms of stirring family drama. Great too is Julianne Moore as her long-time partner and co-parent to their two now-teenaged kids. Hinging the drama on the arrival into their seemingly idyllic life of the sperm donor who made this family possible, director Lisa Cholodenko gives us these characters at both high and low, allowing us in the process to understand them, their relationships, and the intricate intimacy of this wonderful unit. Undoubtedly a performance piece, it’s no surprise both of the younger cast members have gone on to bigger things, not to mention the marvellous Mark Ruffalo. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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The Robber

It’s always odd to see a particular country reliably excel in a particular genre, as though success in that mode of storytelling where somehow engrained within the cultural identity of the place. The Robber is yet another terrifically tense existential crime drama from Austria, joining the likes of Revanche, What You Don’t See, and Breathing to boldly brood over the consequences our actions have. This is by far the most thriller-esque of the group, though: much as director Benjamin Heisenberg may concern himself with examining the moral standing of his bank robber protagonist, his consummate craftsmanship also construes no shortage of nail-biting sequences nonetheless. The classic stoic, Andreas Lust offers a fine performance as a man whose motivations never seem quite clear to him, let alone us: there’s the sense, sometimes, that this is simply all he knows how to do, a sombre sentiment that lends the movie a movingly tragic trajectory. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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The Silence

Or is that sense of existential criminality more generally Germanic that especially Austrian? The Silence certainly makes that case: a beautifully shot and beguilingly sombre drama tracing the perpetrators of a terrible crime as closely as its victims’ families, it offers an impressively overarching perspective of all aspects of this incident, somehow finding sympathy for all involved without ever losing tact. A good deal of that is down to the casting: Ulrich Thomsen is as sadly lonely as this rapist-murderer as is Burghart Klaußner as the retired detective daunted by memories of the case he let go. But Baran bo Odar’s is a film that never attempts to explicitly humanise its evil, rather to allow us to recognise the inherent traits of humanity that allow these horrors to happen at all. There’s darkness in us all, The Silence says, we ought to overcome it lest it overcome us. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Yossi (Read our full review)

It’s easy to forget, with a Hollywood system so dominated by sequels of often sub-standard quality, that the follow-up is an artistic device all of its own, allowing us to revisit characters whose changed circumstances attest some similar change in the world around. That’s precisely the case with Etyan Fox’s latest film, a return to the world of Yossi & Jagger and one defined by the absence its title and eponymous character both so clearly bear. Having moved on from the Israeli army following the death of his secret lover, Yossi has adopted life in the modern world, if not adapted to it. The film, rooted in Ohad Knoller’s wonderful performance, hinges on the reality that for all the leaps and bounds of acceptance made in Israeli society, the wounds of the past are hardly healed. What a tenderly sad movie this is, bitterly pained and yet somehow so hopeful. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.