This Week on Demand: 03/11/2013

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

A bonus bumper edition is our way of apologising for leaving you high and dry last week, giving you everything you would have had anyway, but with less time to explor… okay it’s not a bonus, fine, but it’ll just have to do. Last week’s dull delivery is less of note than the latest, November’s twist on the typical first-of-the-month flood. There are plenty of picks here to satisfy all needs, from some of this year’s finest to one of its most deplorable, from the Oscar-feted films of yesteryear to some underrated oddities of times gone by, from America to Africa and any number of places in between.


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Blancanieves (Read our full review)

“The high concept was gone,” said Pablo Berger of the moment he discovered The Artist was about to take the world by storm, and thus render his own novel conceit that much less so. But Blancanieves, his silent, black and white, bullfighting-based update to the Snow White story, suffers little for its stylistic similarities to the Oscar-winner. That’s chiefly thanks to its comparative craziness; taking chief inspiration from the European pioneers rather than the Hollywood heyday—though not without those influences too—Berger crafts a film that’s as narratively out-there as it is visually, matching his eclectic editing and expressive angles with no shortage of subversive story. Delightfully scored and meticulously framed, the world he creates is a wonder to behold, a joy for the eyes and ears in spite of the prevailing darkness of the story it tells. That that story, unavoidably familiar of course, still manages to engage is a testament to Berger’s terrific work. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Broadcast News

Like an easier, less acerbic Network, Broadcast News channels the extensive experience of James L. Brooks—by then a three-time Oscar-winner—into a sly satire masquerading as a straight romantic comedy. Wonderfully witty, it’s a film that thrives first and foremost on the chemistry of its characters, a delightfully-realised trio each as good in the flesh as they are on the page. Utilising the inimitable charm of another Brooks, fellow TV satirist Albert, the writer/director channels the comedy through his character, a dejected admirer of Holly Hunter’s producer, herself infatuated by William Hurt’s anchor, who happens to embody everything she abhors about the business. Brooks’ script is sharp and smart, never pandering to the audience despite a slightly standard setup, and always mining the greatest laughs from every situation, though never to the drama’s detriment. It’s a character piece first, a satire second, and that’s fine: Brooks does what he knows; he knows it well. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Charlotte’s Web

Back in 2006, late director Gary Winick’s follow-up to his wonderful 13 Going on 30 was tackling one of the most beloved children’s books of all time. No easy feat, that’s for sure. So how the heck did Winick make it look so easy? Fern (Dakota Fanning) befriends a pig named Wilbur, who is scared that he’ll end up as the family dinner one day. He receives help from a kind soul of a spider named Charlotte, who turns Wilbur’s life into something extraordinary. At the time the production seemed iffy, but Winick and screenwriters Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick pulled it off with such a sweet and gentle touch. Nothing’s pushed too far, but it’s not boring either. There’s that sort of nirvana that all kids’ flicks try to achieve: entertain the young ones while not turning the adults’ brains into mash. With this flick, consider the nirvana reached. Watch Winick’s last great movie before his untimely death. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~JB


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Death Becomes Her

The Robert Zemeckis Happy Fun Time was basically kicked off at Netflix with this new slew of releases, and what better way to start it all off than with a back and forth… and back again. Way, way before Zemeckis left the world of live-action for a good while he directed this particularly giddy yet nasty flick. Death Becomes Her features some horrible acts of humanity all without featuring a single sympathetic character. Think about it… that’s kind of a feat. Two long-time rivals (Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn) accidently discover the cure for the aging process, with some pretty messy side effects. I mean… really messy. Poor Bruce Willis gets roped into doing body repairs for them both, until the poor schmuck gets to his breaking point. Zemeckis is completely in love with this story, so much so that the flaws it has are engrossed more than smoothed out, and that’s a shame because this could have been a true standout in his career. SO-SO. ~JB


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Flight (Read our full review)

Zemeckis’ animation journey ended prematurely when A Christmas Carol bombed and his motion-capture company eventually went under. Flight is his first live-action venture in twelve years, and you can’t help but feel that he wanted to come back on his own terms, in his own way. The movie tells the seemingly simple story of an airline pilot (Denzel Washington) who pulls off the miraculous feat of saving everyone on board his plane as it’s crashing down. That’s all well and good until details are uncovered about him that turn his act of heroics into something quite the opposite. Zemeckis comes back to live action with a vengeance. He directs Washington and the script from John Gatins—both of whom received Oscar nominations—with such ferociousness it does nothing short of flattening you with the bravado of it all. The movie seems pretty divisive, which is quite a shocker to me. See for yourself. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~JB


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Kon-Tiki (Read our full review)

It’s no surprise, given its stature as the most expensive Norwegian film ever made, that Kon-Tiki should so closely channel blockbuster tropes in telling the story of Thor Heyerdahl’s legendary 1947 expedition to prove Polynesian settlers could have arrived from South America on nothing more than light rafts. It’s a testament to the movie’s success in channelling that blockbuster spirit, of course, that co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have since been snapped up to helm the next instalment in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Theirs is an epic visual style, suitably vast in its presentation of the ocean all around and effectively intense in evoking the perilous nature of this journey, if a little too keen to invent excuses for tension. Occasionally a little desperate in its derivation of drama, it’s a movie unashamedly given to spectacle more than substance, and why not: as an exciting, enthralling blockbuster, it gets the job done. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD


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Olympus Has Fallen (Read our full review)

Like 1997 (Dante’s Peak/Volcano) and 1998 (Deep Impact/Armageddon) before it, 2013 saw the release of two different movies attempting the same action story. Olympus Has Fallen may have been the dark horse of the two White House-assault movies, but the dust has settled and it came out the victor… and for good reason. Through a tragic backstory, a former secret service agent named Mike (Gerald Butler) sees himself behind a desk until the president (Aaron Eckhart) gets kidnapped in his own house. Blood, guts and chaos reign supreme in the opening attack, and now it’s up to Mike to save the day. The plot is silly, as is its use of CGI and cinematography, but director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Brooklyn’s Finest) brings an energy here that cannot, and will not, be denied. Thanks to him and the eagerness of a screenwriting duo’s first outing, this ends up being a blast to watch. RECOMMENDED. ~JB


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Redemption (Read our full review)

Acclaimed screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) makes his feature-length debut with a somewhat miscalculated but admirable British crime saga. Joey (Jason Statham) is homeless and helpless when a chance encounter with some thugs sets off a chain reaction that lets him assume the identity of another person. He climbs up in the ranks while doing the dirty work of crime lords, until he sees enough to set him on a journey of righting all the wrong he sees, hence the title (it’s also known as Hummingbird). If anything, Redemption is a nice reminder that Statham can be a darn fine actor when he’s given the right material (this would make for a good promotional double feature with The Bank Job). Knight’s screenwriting isn’t called into question, but his direction is. On the surface it’s all over the place, trying to impress everything while missing much. But at the core, it means well. You decide. SO-SO. ~JB


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Silent Running

Returning to special effects work some three decades after his last credit for Blade Runner, self-described “mad scientist” Doug Trumbull reminded the world with 2011’s The Tree of Life just how much could be achieved with a little imagination. But that came as little surprise to anyone familiar with perhaps his greatest work, his 1972 directorial debut Silent Running, funded for next-to-no money by Universal as part of an initiative to take chances on new young directors. Lucky that they did; arguably one of the finest sci-fi films every produced, Silent Running’s incredibly imaginative visuals make vividly real the biodome-trawling spaceship on which the action unfolds. Bruce Dern has scarcely been better, playing the increasingly unhinged botanist who refuses an order to destroy the cargo, originally intended to reforest a decimated Earth. Casting obvious shadows over everything from Wall-E to Moon, Silent Running is essential sci-fi cinema. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Tabu (Read our full review)

Heralded by many as among last year’s finest films, Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is less a throwback to silent cinema than it is, simply, a sublime utilisation of images above all. Divided into distinct halves, its opening follows a trio of women in Portugal who share an apartment building, and the investigation into the mysterious past of the oldest of them. Gorgeously shot with subtly cinematic effects that draw the viewer deep into the drama, it’s an effective introduction to the extended flashback that comprises the bulk of the film. Scarce with his words, Gomes here defers the majority of the movie’s meaning to its imagery, beautifully captured in black and white. Gorgeous as it is to behold, however, Tabu’s timidity is often off-putting, the wistful way Gomes allows his narrative to unfold seeing it sometimes seem slighter than it should. Still, it’s an uncanny experience indeed, its archival aesthetic more like a window into history than a modern fiction. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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The English Teacher (Read our full review)

There’s a line that lands in The English Teacher, delivered by the habitually hilarious Nathan Lane, that’s as good a gag as any other in any movie this year. It’s indicative, albeit to an extreme degree, of the waste this mediocre movie comprises. Directed by Craig Zisk from a script by Dan and Stacy Chariton, it’s an often amusing but predominately passive experience, twice stepping back for every move forward it takes. Julianne Moore is criminally underused in the eponymous role, struggling against a suspect old maid role that consistently feels like precisely the stereotype the story should be seeking to subvert. Still, her presence is always a plus, and fine supporting work from Michael Angarano and Greg Kinnear does much to make things not quite as creaky as they might otherwise be. The occasional laughs that land, if not enough to make of The English Teacher a success as such, at least allow it to overcome its greatest failings. SO-SO. ~RD


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The Ghost and the Darkness

Of all the thrillers that came out in the ‘90s, a select few truly deserve to be remembered. And even from that crop, only a handful probably deserves all the praise the genre can offer. A chunk of those turned out to be forgotten, and The Ghost and the Darkness is definitely—and sadly—one of them. It certainly sticks out in that group. The movie boasts the fact that it’s based on a true story—even the most outrageous parts—though it may not have needed it due to the tension it already creates. Val Kilmer plays a bridge engineer whose vision of a bridge being built in Africa gets rocked when man-eating lions start to take his crew. Michael Douglas comes in to help get rid of the beasts, but they soon make a startling discovery about them. From the direction to the script to the outstanding performances, this one is a true treasure of ‘90s thrillers. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~JB


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The Polar Express

Let’s continue the Zemeckis train with his first entry into motion-capture animation. It’s hard to believe that The Polar Express was 9 years ago; it honestly feels like it’s a lot older than that. The expectations that were held for this movie were big, almost to the point of being unfair. The adaptation of the popular children book seemed like it would be a fitting connection to the ambition of the project, and Zemeckis was faithful to it. A kid that’s down on Christmas Eve gets to ride the train of all trains to hopefully meet Santa Claus. It’s a joyride, and nothing more. But it got panned for not having a more of a story, and even the animation style got a few licks (remember the complaint about the eyes?). The Polar Express isn’t a fantastical movie, but it’s no slop either. It fits well with a marathon of Christmas movies come winter time. Mission accomplished. RECOMMENDED. ~JB


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The Sapphires (Read our full review)

It’s the charming comedy of Chris O’Dowd that saves The Sapphires, a terribly ordinary musical biopic, from being quite as forgettable as it script should make it. He, playing the manager who brings the eponymous Aboriginal act of soul-singing sisters (and a cousin) on a tour of wartime Vietnam, is a joy to watch, landing jokes left, right, and centre with an amiability to make the movie’s otherwise immateriality entirely forgiven, if not exactly forgotten. That O’Dowd is so good doesn’t mean the film follows suit: his presence may enliven its action, but it’s far from a resounding success, its dully-delivered narrative progression taking most of the wind right out of its sails. Thankfully, at least, the music itself is a joy to behold; the uplifting impact of the harmonisation shows us, even if the narrative does not, just why this story has survived to be told some forty-five years later. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD


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This Is Not a Film

“If we could tell a film then why make a film?” asks Jafar Panahi with heartbreaking desperation at one point in This Is Not a Film, the documentary—co-directed with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb—detailing a day in his life under house arrest. Banned for twenty years from making movies by the Iranian government against whom his films—Offside chief among them—have railed, the director utters these words with a weary sigh of resignation as he quits in his efforts to enact one of his unproduced script. Smuggled out of the country on a USB drive hidden in a cake, the comic cheekiness of the film’s production belies the profound seriousness of this censorship, and the sombre sadness into which Panahi descends across the course of his day. The subtle construction that structures the film shows, in the least showy of ways, an essential artist at work; Panahi’s problems, this brilliant movie demonstrates, are as much ours as his. MUST SEE. ~RD


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Top Cat: The Movie

Managing only a mere thirty episodes across its early ‘60s run in the US, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon comedy Top Cat found far more success across the border, where the Mexican youth embraced it—and continued for decades to do so—far more than their American equivalents. Hence a native studio’s adaptation some five decades down the line, bringing “Don Gato” to the big screen at last. Quite how something that should be so innocuous has wound up so insulting is as strange as the revival itself: that Top Cat: The Movie is one of the most awfully animated aberrations of our time is bad enough; that it’s studded with rape gags and other such appallingly unsuitable material is just unbelievable. It is uncomfortably bad, unfathomably bad: the kind of movie that might be dubbed misjudged if it only it seemed to have involved any judgement at all. Cover the children’s eyes and ears; heck, cover your own too. UNWATCHABLE. ~RD


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Twixt

“the small scale of a film like Tetro has brought out the long-dormant best in Coppola” is what I wrote of the director’s 2009 effort when it arrived on Netflix just a few months back. Twixt, his latest, is somehow smaller yet, so low-key that it couldn’t secure theatrical release and went straight to DVD. It’s less for its scale, alas, than its quality that that’s happened: Twixt is a meandering mess of a movie, deliberately dreamlike but no less dull for the intentionality of its oddness. Looking often like a gothic slant on The Lovely Bones, its bizarre aesthetic complements the story of a has-been horror writer searching through his dreams for clues to the mystery of a murdered girl, yet Coppola’s contained sense of surreality—mounted with an expertise that evidences his still-strong skills—never manages to achieve the intended effect. Problematic performances are the final straw, pushing Twixt from kooky curio to bizarre bore. AVOID IT. ~RD


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V/H/S/2 (Read our full review)

Last year, V/H/S attempted to reinvigorate the anthology sub-genre in the horror world. The success rate is still debated today. And what was the reaction producer Brad Miska and crew had for that? Make a sequel, of course! The process wasn’t that simple; something different happened here. V/H/S/2 was released to a fence of doubt, only to smash it down in deservedly cocky manner. The wraparound story involves a private detective couple that is hired to find a college kid. They find his house, with a dozen monitors and countless tapes. The tapes include medical experiments gone wrong, a bike ride that turns gory, a cult on its last day of existence, and a slumber party that no one quite recovered from. Not only is this a better movie than its predecessor, but it’s a highlight for the genre for 2013. As a whole, this movie is simply insane and, even better, confident. MUST-SEE. ~JB


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¡Vivan las Antipodas!

So jaw-droppingly gorgeous across every last shot that one can’t help but gasp in awe after every cut cut, Victor Kossakovsky’s cross-continental documentary takes an investigation of antipodes as the excuse for stunning sequences distilling the natural beauty of the world into a series of sublime tableaux. Painterly in its representation of workers in fields and landscapes illuminated by the light of the setting sun, ¡Vivan las Antipodas! achieves its cinematic stature thanks to Kossakovsky’s cameras breathtaking acrobatics, spinning through the sky to take in things from every conceivable angle. It’s the spellbinding effect of this effulgent film—just as indebted to Alexander Popov’s elating score—that makes so impactful its unassumingly immense ideas of internationality. So quietly contemplative, so powerfully peaceful, it presents us the pervasive beauty of our world that prevails no matter where on it we may reside; all this awe is ours to share. MUST SEE. ~RD


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We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

Documentarian Alex Gibney is already a fan favorite with documentaries like Taxi to the Dark Side and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Recently, he tackled the heavy and extremely sensitive issue of WikiLeaks, and its creator Julian Assange. Gibney explores the creation of the site, its exponential rise thanks to a young soldier who had to release the truth, and how Assange starts to handle the pressure his action brings. Recently, a narrative film was released about this same story called The Fifth Estate. The exceptional cast and crew of that movie still don’t hold a candle to the energy Gibney brings here. Even though it’s clocked at 130 minutes, it moves fast, as if it’s trying to play catch-up with Assange’s mindset. It does all the right things a documentary should: inform, entertain, and in some cases, freak you out. RECOMMENDED. ~JB

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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.