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Film Reviews: Opening This Week (Aug. 12-16, 2013)

Variety Staff

Variety

7:30 PM EDT, August 16, 2013

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A critical digest of the week's latest U.S. theatrical releases. Where applicable, links to longer reviews have been provided.

Lee Daniels' The Butler
Distributor:
The Weinstein Co.
The director of "Precious" and "The Paperboy" plays things relatively straight in "Lee Daniels' The Butler," a sprawling, highly fictional biopic of longtime White House butler Eugene Allen that also positions itself as a panoramic snapshot of the African-American experience across nine decades. But if Daniels has tamped down the kinky sexuality and outre stylistic flourishes for his first PG-13 outing, his handprints can still be found in the film's volatile mix of acting styles, gratuitous sentimentality cut with moments of real emotional power, and a tone that seesaws between serious social melodrama and outsized chitlin'-circuit theatrical. At its root the kind of starry, old-fashioned prestige pic the studios used to make, this stealthy late-summer release from the Weinstein Co. (smartly moved up from its original fall date) stands to make a modest killing with oxygen-deprived adult moviegoers, whom the pic will have pretty much to itself between now and the start of awards season.
-- Scott Foundas
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Kick-Ass 2
Distributor:
Universal
A crudely entertaining genre hybrid that merges smart-alecky comicbook satire and semi-plausible vigilante fantasy to weird and wobbly effect, "Kick-Ass 2″ improves on its 2010 predecessor in at least one respect: It doesn't make the mistake of trying to pass off its bone-crunching brutality as something shocking or subversive. Chloe Grace Moretz remains the standout asset of a series that, like Hit Girl herself, has entered an awkward adolescent stage; as diverting as this action-packed caper often is, it feels not just weightless but emotionally and morally stunted whenever it veers into grown-up dramatic territory. Still, thanks to a fresh infusion of comic energy from writer-director Jeff Wadlow, the screw-loose sequel is certain to command a degree of attention, despite or perhaps even because of its maddening unevenness.
-- Justin Chang
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Jobs
Distributor:
Open Road Films
The casting of Ashton Kutcher turns out to be the sole risky element of "Jobs," a smooth, reasonably engaging but not especially revealing early-years account of Steve Jobs' storied career. Offering a creditable take on the 20-year period in which the determined young tech whiz founded, lost and eventually regained control of Apple, helmer Joshua Michael Stern's biopic avoids outright hagiography, but more or less embodies the sort of bland, go-with-the-flow creative thinking Jobs himself would have scorned. Widespread interest in the late entrepreneur and his legacy could spark moderate audience interest.
-- Justin Chang
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Paranoia
Distributor:
Relativity Media
Director Robert Luketic's thriller "Paranoia" has a host of problems, but the biggest seems to be that no one in it is nearly paranoid enough. This is a film in which titans of industry discuss nefarious world takeover schemes with the discretion of Bond villains, tech whizzes work on top-secret military projects in the middle of dive bars, and corporate henchmen chase targets through crowded restaurants with guns drawn to deliver messages most people would send via text. Indifferently made and nearly tension-free, this Liam Hemsworth starrer should generate moderate opening weekend B.O.; after that, it would be well advised to look over its shoulder.
-- Andrew Barker
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Opens: Aug. 16 in theaters, on demand Aug. 23<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
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Ain't Them Bodies Saints
Distributor: IFC Films
Bowing at Sundance, David Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" landed with the excitement of a bold new voice, and yet, there's also something undeniably old-fashioned in his approach, suggesting a lost artifact freshly unearthed from the 1970s, or the origin story behind a half-forgotten folk ballad about criminal lovers whom prison couldn't keep apart. Slow as molasses but every bit as rich, Lowery's gorgeously shot third feature (following two tiny indies) may be too lyrical for mainstream expectations, though strong reviews and a star cast should make this romantic deconstruction of classic outlaw pictures a powerful indie player.
-- Peter Debruge
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Austenland
Distributor:
Sony Pictures Classics
Genial "Austenland" stars Keri Russell as a die-hard Janeite who hopes her real-world-incompatible dreams of Regency Era courtship will come true at the titular English literary theme park. Adaptation of young adult writer Shannon Hale's cleverly conceived first grown-up chick-lit novel likewise lightly amuses, though those hoping for refined wit more in line with the original prose lioness's creations may be taken aback by the generally broad humor here. Jerusha Hess' directorial bow will thus require marketing finesse, but as one of this year's most clearly commercial Sundance entries, the pic should attract buyers in various territories and formats.
-- Dennis Harvey
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The Patience Stone
Distributor:
Sony Pictures Classics
Sensual and horrifying, "The Patience Stone" plays like a mesmerizing, modern take on the tales of Scheherazade and a parable on the suffering of Afghan women. Afghanistan-born, France-based helmer Atiq Rahimi adapts his own novel set in a Muslim country torn apart by war, where a beautiful woman in her 30s cares for her comatose husband, relieving her burden by confessing her frustrations, dreams and desires. Featuring a tour-de-force performance by exiled Iranian thesp Golshifteh Farahani ("About Elly"), Eastern rhythms and Euro production polish, this opened-up chamber drama should engage niche arthouse audiences in the West without testing their forbearance.
-- Alissa Simon
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Cutie and the Boxer
Distributor:
Radius-TWC
Although Brooklyn-based artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara may not be the first pair that come to mind when one is asked to name famous artist couples, charming observational docu "Cutie and the Boxer" should certainly garner them greater recognition. Capturing colorful lives dedicated to artistic practices that have so far garnered scant financial success, multihyphenate debut helmer Zachary Heinzerling's five-years-in-the-making pic is a warts-and-all portrait of love, sacrifice and the creative spirit, which should please auds who frequent the alternative exhibition circuit of cinematheques and art museums, before it segues to broadcast and other home formats.
-- Alissa Simon
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Herblock: The Black & the White
Distributor:
TSC Distribution Services
Herbert Lawrence Block, the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist who created his signature by compressing his name, is the subject of a warmly celebratory portrait in "Herblock: The Black & the White." But wait, there's more: While detailing the decades-long career of the Washington Post illustrator who sometimes drew blood while drawing 13 successive U.S. presidents, documaker Michael Stevens also constructs what amounts to a history lesson in 20th-century progressive political philosophy. Limited theatrical exposure should generate favorable buzz for the pic's eventual release in home-screen formats. Moreover, "Herblock" doubtless will have a long shelf-life as a college-level teaching tool.
-- Joe Leydon
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Inch'Allah
Distributor:
Entertainment One
A sober, intelligently made drama, "Inch'Allah" offers a strong albeit deeply depressing look at the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians chafing under occupation. Tackling incendiary subject matter in a realist style, Quebecois writer-helmer Anais Barbeau-Lavalette tells an occasionally too-neat story from the perspective of a young obstetrician who is working at a United Nations clinic in the Ramallah refugee camp, but living in Jerusalem. Sure to be controversial for putting a human face on an inhumane act, the pic reps niche arthouse material for brave distribs.
-- Alissa Simon
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Standing Up
Distributor:
ARC Entertainment
Original title:
"Goat Island"
Quietly screened in the Cannes market the same day Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" kicked off the fest proper, "Standing Up" offers an alternate, more realistic tale of two summer-camp runaways roughing it in the woods alone. Based on Brock Cole's controversial young-adult novel "The Goats," this low-budget passion project from "Eagle Eye" director D.J. Caruso offers a practical solution to the issue of adolescent bullying, as its two young protags respond to a case of vicious hazing not with despair or retaliation, but through teamwork and character-building. Marketing challenges aside, this quality coming-of-ager deserves a proper release.
-- Peter Debruge
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This Is Martin Bonner
Distributor:
Monterey Media
Saintliness and cinema are an odd couple, enough so that auds will be caught off-guard by "This Is Martin Bonner," a mood piece, a character study and an exercise in poetic gesture possessed of a sort of evanescent, secular spirituality. Helmer Chad Hartigan's second feature (after "Luke and Brie Are on a First Date") is Americana of a very immediate sort, a tale of redemption that may leave its viewers with an uncanny sense of peace. The unconventional, imagistic approach to narrative will leave some folks out, but those aren't the viewers Hartigan is after.
-- John Anderson
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The Happy Sad
Distributor:
Miasma Films
The intensely knotted psychological complications of open relationships and sexual identity get a mostly breezy, surface-level treatment from director Rodney Evans in "The Happy Sad," yet strong acting and occasional dives into deeper territory make it worth the while. Full of warmth and refreshingly matter-of-fact sexuality, the film has its heart in the right place, yet it's ultimately a bit blander than its subject matter ought to demand, and its chamber-piece intimacy and pileup of coincidences scan particularly awkwardly given its convincingly wide-open depiction of New York. Metropolitan arthouse screenings should be well attended.
-- Andrew Barker
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You Will Be My Son
Distributor:
Cohen Media Group
Original title: "Tu seras mon fils"
Fermenting daddy issues prove a headier concoction than any vintage produced at a French chateau in "You Will Be My Son," a classy, full-bodied family drama from Gallic scribe-helmer Gilles Legrand ("Malabar Princess"). Grouchy character thesp Niels Arestrup ("A Prophet," the upcoming "War Horse") is ideally cast as the coldhearted, overly pragmatic owner of a Saint-Emilion winery who considers his milquetoast son an unsuitable successor -- though not for lack of trying. Locally, the pic became the first surprise hit of harvest season and is glossy and mainstream enough to entice distribs offshore. It's also a shoo-in for a California-set remake.
-- Boyd van Hoeij
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Spark: A Burning Man Story
Distributor:
Paladin and FilmBuff
There are no spectators at Burning Man, only participants. But that core principle doesn't apply to "Spark: A Burning Man Story," a documentary that purports to offer an inside look at the annual DIY festival of self-expression and artistic freedom that materializes every Labor Day weekend in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. Armchair voyeurs can soak it all in when the film launches Aug. 16 in limited theatrical release and Aug. 17 on VOD, though they may be disappointed with carefully curated imagery more suggestive of a promotional video than of a fully immersive experience.
-- Geoff Berkshire
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