This Week on Demand: 10/11/2013



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

Urm… truth be told, I’m too tired to think of an intro this week. Enjoy the movies.


Computer Chess

Mumblecore meets mockumentary in Computer Chess, Andrew Bujalski’s bizarre infusion of the pared-back, dialogue-driven style of earlier efforts Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation with the dry-witted deadpan of the best of Christopher Guest. The result is unusual, to say the least, seeing scenes of increasing absurdity mounted with an unwavering sense of straight-faced seriousness. The lo-fi aesthetic only adds to the amusement with its own verisimilitude; this is a movie that might easily be mistaken for a recently uncovered relic of its time. It’s a joke that can only go so far, though, and eventually Bujalski’s effort can’t but feel strained in its comic sensibility at least. More intellectually, though, he excels: Computer Chess is first and foremost a wickedly smart film, using its offhand look at this integral time for manmade intelligence to investigate our relationship to technology, and just what that does to our relationship with reality. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


Dead Man Down

The trailer for Dead Man Down could probably win that coveted award for being great and wildly misleading at the same time. Usually when a trailer is misleading, it’s for the greater good: change up elements to give a nice surprise come viewing time. The trailer did that. Too bad it also tried to sell us on something coherent as well. Niels Arden Oplev (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) makes his English-language debut with a story about revenge, betrayal, discovery, then revenge again, then betrayal on top of betrayal… oh screw it, it’s a mess of a plot sandwich that pours onto the chips. Hey, some people like that. Not much makes sense here, but that doesn’t stop the leads from giving a good show, and there’s some particularly nice cinematography work done thanks to Paul Cameron (Collateral). You just ask yourself, do you like the kind of sandwich that gets stuck on the roof of your mouth? SO-SO. ~JB


Europa Report (Read our full review)

It’s the must-go route for any originally inventive film concept grappling for new ideas: to space! Like Jason Voorhees and much more before it, the found footage film boldly goes into the beyond with Europa Report. And why shouldn’t it; it’s nice to see sci-fi, a genre too often restricted to those with the benefit of a big budget, approached in such an undeniably indie way. Alas, Sebastián Cordero’s film does little more than showcase exactly why these kinds of stories are so expensive to stage. The film’s visual effects are lacking in the extreme, seemingly more worthy of a ‘90s PC game than a movie in the 21st century. Cordero’s ideas, sadly, aren’t much more fresh: his diverse cast have the ring of Alien; his decidedly restrained has the touch of 2001; his what-you-don’t-see sequences point prominently to the similarly low-budget Monsters. Europa Report, in the end, is left with little of its own to play with. SO-SO. ~RD


Ping Pong

What a joy is Ping Pong, Hugh Hartford’s vivacious sports documentary following the over-‘80s table tennis tournament in Mongolia. Pegged on interviews with eight international participants, each a prime exemplar of that wonderful candidness that comes with age, it’s a film that openly embraces the idea of death and finds via its funniness the levity of life. And oh, how funny it is: competitive in a way to put people a quarter their age to shame, these octogenarians are hilarious to behold, taunting and teasing with viciousness and vulgarity to spare. Sure to capitalise on the ample opportunities for such his subjects provide, Hartford touches on topics of death and disability, love and loss, family and friendship. Moving but never maudlin, his interviewees expound affectingly on life and its impending end, discussing their decline as honestly as they can. That the table tennis proves to be so tense is indicative of just well he endears us to these elders. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


Robot & Frank

There’s a terrible twist at the end of Robot & Frank that pushes the movie into precisely the sort of sentimental territory it all along did so well to avoid. Disappointment though it may be, it’s also an interesting indication of just how delicate the erstwhile balance was: debut director Jake Schreier handles the tone terrifically throughout, mounting the story of a retired cat burglar whose son forces a robot helper on him with commendable poise. So much of that, too, is down to Frank Langella, who makes of his namesake an old-timey curmudgeon one step removed from Clint Eastwood. He holds the screen alone, essentially, his gruff retorts to his robot friend all we have for much of the running time to keep us amused. The dramatic side of the story is less effective, despite Langella’s adeptness; Schreier tends toward cloying, though cleverly resists more often than not. DoP Matthew J. Lloyd’s a definite plus: upstate New York’s scarcely seemed so nice. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


Skyfall (Read our full review)

Let’s be honest, after Marc Forster left behind the ungodly mess that was Quantum of Solace, the next Bond adventure had nowhere to go but up (although the opposite has been proven before). Careful steps were taken for Bond 23, extra special care. John Logan (Rango) was brought into the writing team, and director Sam Mendes came forth to see what could be done. Skyfall had to be something good. What we got instead was something miraculous. The Bond adventure template was given a deserved punch to the face. It was beaten and humbled, introduced to familiar working tricks and taught new ones. The humanity of Bond was given the spotlight, and my god… it is brilliant. Everyone on all fronts (especially Mendes, Craig and cinematographer Roger Deakins) delivered some of the best work of their careers to give us Bond in the brightest of forms. Skyfall is one of the best Bonds of all time… perhaps THE best. MUST SEE. ~JB


The Host (Read our full review)

The road of decline is still the path for writer/director Andrew Niccol. After striking out with his last two efforts (Lord of War, In Time), the hope for his new project was also hope that the extraordinary quality that was first shown to us in 1998 with The Truman Show would return. Those hopes were severely cut in half with it was revealed that the project would be an adaption of the Twilight author’s take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Imagine pulling off a good movie from an uphill battle like that. Well, keep imagining. Even with a solid lead actress in Saoirse Ronan, The Host is garbage that doesn’t even try that well to disguise itself otherwise. The effort all around felt like something rushed to take advantage of a tagline, and we all know how movies turn out when they chase that dragon. Niccol of old, please come back to us. AVOID IT. ~JB


The Lifeguard (Read our full review)

The older woman is the indie trend of this year, no shortage of stories in smaller films focusing on such impromptu romances. The Lifeguard does well to distinguish itself; hinged on an effective performance from Kristen Bell, it’s concerned with her flight from city life to her Midwestern hometown, where her move back to her childhood home gives the film a certain shade of Albert Brooks’ Mother. It’s nowhere near as funny—it wouldn’t be fair to expect that—and nor does it particularly try: director Liz W. Garcia’s register is more dramatically oriented than that, a problem given her inability to really define her characters beyond the relationship roles they hold. A surplus of subplots hardly helps, and the ensuing sprawl far beyond the story with which the movie ought to be concerned leaves things lacking in the extreme. Still, there’s something sweet about the effort made; The Lifeguard may be far from a resounding success, but it’s not a film without effect. SO-SO. ~RD


The Perfect Stranger

Few film actors have as far-ranging supporting careers as does Irishman Colm Meaney, whose record tenure on various Star Trek series and peripheral presence in blockbusters aplenty makes his a deservedly familiar face. He’s too rarely afforded a leading role, which makes so promising the prospect of The Perfect Stranger, in which he plays a man whose arrival in a small Spanish town sparks speculation that he’s here to revive the old store and with it the area’s flailing economy. Unfortunately he’s underused in the extreme; much as director Toni Bestard’s decision to keep his role primarily free of dialogue might push Meaney to exploit his more subtle abilities, the other characters’ writing never leaves him much to work with. The result, particularly when paired with the less-than-satisfactory story that eventually comes to reveal itself, is less a convincing character than an immediate insight into an actor’s experience understanding nothing on set. SO-SO. ~RD


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.