New Releases 01/14/14

Top Hits
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (historical drama, Forest Whitaker. Rotten Tomatoes: 73%. Metacritic: 66. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “Nobody who has seen Shadowboxer, Precious, or, heaven knows, The Paperboy would mistake Lee Daniels for a realist. Nonetheless, his new film — released, as a result of a ridiculous film industry food fight, with the ungainly official title Lee Daniels’ The Butler — is a brilliantly truthful movie on a subject that is usually shrouded in wishful thinking, mythmongering and outright denial. Taking inspiration from an article by Wil Haygood in The Washington Post about the life of Eugene Allen, who worked as a butler in the White House during eight presidential administrations, Mr. Daniels has told the story of the civil rights movement in the bold colors of costume pageantry and the muted tones of domestic drama.” Read more…)

Riddick (sci-fi/action, Vin Diesel. Rotten Tomatoes: 59%. Metacritic: 49. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: :”Movies like Riddick, a satisfyingly primitive spectacle, help explain the unlikely ascendancy of Vin Diesel as a man of cinema. With his hypertrophied body and Barry White purr, Mr. Diesel — much like his more sweetly appealing brother in brawn, Dwayne Johnson — embodies a particularly salient caricature of masculinity, one that appears to transcend obvious racial identity to make him an ideal modern Everybrute. If Arnold and Sly became the cartoon emblems of Reagan-era might, Mr. Diesel has come into his own as a contemporary hero, one who suggests a postrace ideal, even as he affirms old-fashioned power with displays of annihilating violence.” Read more…)

Carrie (horror, Julianne Moore. Rotten Tomatoes: 49%. Metacritic: 53. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “The last time we saw Carrie White, she was looking a little, well, red around the gills. She had just taken a splashy blood bath in Brian De Palma’s 1976 horror freakout Carrie, and then settled in for what looked like the big sleep. Stephen King’s tormented teenager proved a restless soul, though, and returned in a 2002 television movie and a short-lived 1988 Broadway musical that was revived off Broadway again in 2012. Now she’s back, as they like to say in movie ads, in a fine, largely faithful screen remake, directed by Kimberly Pierce that stars Chloë Grace Moretz as its goddess of gore. It’s hard to keep a franchise crazy down, especially one that can be retrofitted for today’s fears.” Read more…)

Runner Runner (thriller, Justin Timberlake. Rotten Tomatoes: 9%. Metacritic: 36. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “In Runner Runner, directed by Brad Furman from a script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake face off, cleft chin to cleft chin, in a battle for … well, what, exactly? The attention of the audience? Of Gemma Arterton, who plays virtually the only female character in the movie not employed as a hooker or a stripper? Huge sums of money? All of the above, or whatever.” Read more…)

Fruitvale Station (drama, Michael B. Jordan. Rotten Tomatoes: 94%. Metacritic: 85. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “In the early hours of Jan. 1, 2009, Oscar Grant III, unarmed and lying face down on a subway platform in Oakland, Calif., was shot in the back by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer. The incident, captured on video by onlookers, incited protest, unrest and arguments similar to those that would swirl around the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida a few years later. The deaths of these and other African-American young men [Mr. Grant was 22] touch some of the rawest nerves in the body politic and raise thorny and apparently intractable issues of law and order, violence and race. Those matters are hardly absent from Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s powerful and sensitive debut feature, which imaginatively reconstructs the last 24 or so hours of Oscar Grant’s life, flashing back from a horrifying snippet of actual cellphone video of the hectic moments before the shooting. But Mr. Coogler, a 27-year-old Bay Area native who went to film school at the University of Southern California, examines his subject with a steady, objective eye and tells his story in the key of wise heartbreak rather than blind rage.” Read more…)

Short Term 12 (drama, Brie Larson. Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Metacritic: 82. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “A delicate intensity of feeling shapes Short Term 12, a drama about young, lost people hoping to be found. These aren’t like the strays who anxiously drift through other contemporary American movies — whose lack of purpose is reflected both in the groping camerawork and the uncertainty of a budding filmmaker behind the camera. The young director of Short Term 12, Destin Daniel Cretton, may have adapted some of the techniques of low-budget independent features, including a suggestion of tentativeness in the hand-held cinematography. But he’s clearly thought through his choices and found a subject that has earned its heartache.” Read more…)

You’re Next (horror, Sharni Vinson. Rotten Tomatoes: 74%. Metacritic: 66. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ Times review: “Injecting the home-invasion thriller with fresh DNA, Adam Wingard’s You’re Next strays just enough from formula to tweak our jaded appetites. That it does so without spraying the gore to geyserlike excess says a great deal about Mr. Wingard’s sensibility. Never one to linger ghoulishly over violence — or to rely on bloodletting to plug a weak script — he prefers to strike and move on.” Read more…)

The Spectacular Now (romance, Miles Teller. Rotten Tomatoes: 92%. Metacritic: 82. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “James Ponsoldt’s new film, The Spectacular Now, overcomes echoes of familiarity as [teenager] Sutter [Keely] finds his way through the end of high school and the responsibilities looming after graduation (that perennial movie horizon) in his small town. Much of this patiently achieved success flows from Miles Teller’s winning, seemingly effortless performance as Sutter, in all his laziness and charm, open-mindedness and fatalism, always with a glimpse of the unease beneath. ” Read more…)

Enough Said (romantic comedy/drama, James Gandolfini. Rotten Tomatoes: 96%. Metacritic: 79. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “Now is the time to state that Enough Said is very funny indeed. Line for line, scene for scene, it is one of the best-written American film comedies in recent memory and an implicit rebuke to the raunchy, sloppy spectacles of immaturity that have dominated the genre in recent years.” Read more…)

A Single Shot (thriller, Sam Rockwell. Rotten Tomatoes: 51%. Metacritic: 53. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “During its initial quiet stretch, when about the only things on the screen are a man, his gun and the kind of lonely feeling meant to gnaw at the soul, A Single Shot drifts along on its woodsy scenery and vaporous promise. The man, John Moon (a fine Sam Rockwell), lives his spartan existence in a beat-up trailer in the middle of Nowhere, U.S.A. It’s the kind of atmospherically desolate place where, at least in fiction, men and their destinies are rarely alone for long. And so it is for Moon, who soon has to deal with a dead woman and a stash of cash.” Read more…)

20 Feet From Stardom (background singers, Darlene Love. Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Metacritic: 83. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “The song that plays over the opening titles of 20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville’s new documentary, is Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side,’ a provocative choice and also an appropriate one. The notorious lyrics of the chorus — ‘and the colored girls sing/doo, da-doo, da-doo, doo doo doo doo … ‘ — establish the movie’s subject and also its reason for being. This generous, fascinating documentary about the careers of backup singers, most of them African-American women, seeks to rewrite the history of pop music by focusing attention on voices at once marginal and vital.” Read more…)

New Blu-Ray
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Fruitvale Station
Enough Said
Riddick
Carrie

New Documentaries
20 Feet From Stardom (background singers, Merry Clayton, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Metacritic: 83. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “The song that plays over the opening titles of 20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville’s new documentary, is Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side,’ a provocative choice and also an appropriate one. The notorious lyrics of the chorus — ‘and the colored girls sing/doo, da-doo, da-doo, doo doo doo doo … ‘ — establish the movie’s subject and also its reason for being. This generous, fascinating documentary about the careers of backup singers, most of them African-American women, seeks to rewrite the history of pop music by focusing attention on voices at once marginal and vital.” Read more…)

New Music
20 Feet From Stardom (background singers, Darlene Love, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Metacritic: 83. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “The song that plays over the opening titles of 20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville’s new documentary, is Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side,’ a provocative choice and also an appropriate one. The notorious lyrics of the chorus — ‘and the colored girls sing/doo, da-doo, da-doo, doo doo doo doo … ‘ — establish the movie’s subject and also its reason for being. This generous, fascinating documentary about the careers of backup singers, most of them African-American women, seeks to rewrite the history of pop music by focusing attention on voices at once marginal and vital.” Read more…)

(The other) Hank’s Recommendations 01/14/14

Hank_Hoffman_Picks_Image_sketch_WebAfter a bit of a dry spell, the DVD taps are opening again and a rush of long awaited releases is upon us. Coming out this week are two highly anticipated movies dealing with race in America: LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER and FRUITVALE STATION.

The Butler—the director’s name was appended to the title because of a lawsuit over the rights to the unadorned “The Butler”—was the star-studded, big budget release. Based on a true story, it tells contemporary African-American history through the perception of Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker), a butler who served seven Presidents at the White House. Gaines, who witnesses his father being gunned down in a cotton field by the son of the white plantation owner, flees the Jim Crow South for Washington, D.C., taking with him the deferential attitudes towards white supremacy that was often necessary for survival under segregation. But, as Bob Dylan sang, the times are a-changing. Gaines lands a position in the Eisenhower White House at a time when the civil rights movement is challenging the old racial order.

Gaines keeps his head down but his son Louis gets caught up in the social ferment, landing in jail for participating in nonviolent civil disobedience and precipitating a rift with his father. The Butler is a serious movie but not necessarily a deep one. In trying to present some fifty years of tumult in a little over two hours, it touches on a historical events—civil rights marches, Vietnam, Watergate—like a stone skipping over the surface of a lake. Still, Daniels’ effort is enlivened by the fine performances of Forest Whitaker in the title role, Oprah Winfrey as his wife Gloria and David Oyelwo as his son Louis.

Fruitvale Station is an exceptional film, small-scale but ambitious. Where Lee Daniels’ The Butler tries to encompass the sweep of a half-century of social history, Fruitvale Station focuses on a single day—the last day of Oscar Grant’s life. Directed by first-time director Ryan Coogler, it is also based on a true story, the New Year’s Day 2009 killing of unarmed 22-year-old Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit patrolman. This focus enables Coogler to dig deeper, to really uncover the tragedy and humanity behind the headline. Michael B. Jordan—a young character actor who played Wallace in HBO series THE WIRE—plays Grant with immense feeling and sensitivity.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler dramatizes how much things have changed. But Fruitvale Station demonstrates how, in important ways, things have changed too little. How did Oscar Grant end up shot in the back in the titular train station? By following his mother’s advice to be safe by not taking the car for his New Year’s Eve revels with his girlfriend Sophina (played by Melonie Diaz) and his friends. But there is still no safe place for a young black man in America.