(Capsule reviews by Melissa Anderson, Michael Atkinson, Dan Kois, Michelle Orange and Nick Schager.)
Animal Kingdom Happily sampling nasty beats and riffs from the Scorsese catalog, the new Aussie crime saga Animal Kingdom begins with a hushed but breath-holding set piece: A gawky lad watches TV on the couch next to his dozing mum . . . until the already-summoned EMTs arrive and the boy calmly tells them she's OD'd on smack. As it becomes clear she's dead, his eyes continually, habitually veer back to the stupid game show on TV. First-time writer/director David Michôd limns a dank and lost family history in just these few barely conscious gestures.
The alienated teen is Joshua (James Frecheville), who, with nowhere else to go, moves in with his garrulous grandmother Smurf and is accepted into her roiling nest of pathology. This chintzy suburban house is where up to half of the movie plays out, dominated by Smurf's three sons: Darren (Luke Ford), a surly post-teen visibly uneasy with following the family line; Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a tattooed coke brute; and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the oldest, a bank robber off his meds and hiding out from the fuzz. With Joshua's narration, the template is GoodFellas but without the crescendos. No speeding bullet, Michôd's film luxuriates in its own exaggerated sense of tragedy, observing the family as it self-destructs under pressure. But the director's strenuous efforts to accumulate tension are often only just that. Still, Animal Kingdom is a work of obvious ambition, and seeing a debut filmmaker swing for the fences like this is its own kind of satisfaction. Michael Atkinson
113 minutes Rated R
Down Terrace U.K. TV vet Ben Wheatley's zingy, caustic first feature about the pathetic dad-son kingpins of a two-bit syndicate in Brighton plays as a kitchen-sink black comedy--one clogged up with a nasty hairball of filial rage, parental scorn, regression, and humiliation. The more gruesome violence stems not from criminal behavior but from the intractable muck of the nuclear family. The film's autobiographical elements nicely heighten the domestic queasiness: Robin Hill (who also co-scripted with Wheatley and edited) and his real-life father, Robert, star as Karl and Bill, recently sprung from jail and back home with constantly aggrieved Mum/wife Maggie (Julia Deakin); almost all the action takes place in the elder Hill's own two-story residence, where the younger Hill grew up. Karl, 34 years old but prone to the tantrums and sartorial style of a toddler, starts the corpse pile-up by furiously responding to a dim-witted club runner who unknowingly casts doubts on his paternity claims to an ex-girlfriend's baby bump. Fatherhood, it seems, is always fragile: "That's what dads do--they die," Bill scoffs earlier to the same lunk, as the greasy-haired oaf fondly remembers his gangland pop, summing up Down Terrace's bitter, witty takedown of puffed-up but impotent patriarchs. Hailed as "The Sopranos meets Mike Leigh," Wheatley's movie might be more fruitfully compared to last year's stand-out British satire In the Loop: In both films, verbal aggression makes for the biggest laughs and the surest signs of moral decay. Melissa Anderson
93 minutes Rated R
Freakonomics A quartet of uneven TV pilots posing as a full-length documentary, Seth Gordon's anthology Freakonomics pulls case studies from Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt's bestselling book of pop-math and hands them over to famous doc filmmakers to make their own. Gordon (King of Kong) knits together the resulting shorts with interludes that attempt to build a coherent thought narrative out of clever animation and talking-head interviews with the authors. Though that overarching throughline never really materializes, one of the pleasures of Freakonomics is seeing how very different filmmakers--Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), and the team of Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp)--approach basically identical material. "Pure Corruption," Gibney's meditation on sumo wrestling and corporate malfeasance, is the most artful and thoughtful of the four segments; Jarecki's is the weakest. The final section, Grady and Ewing's "Can You Bribe a Ninth Grader to Succeed?," drops us in the middle of a study examining how kids respond to being offered $50 a month for decent grades. The simple question of whether the two profiled underachievers will collect their money gives Freakonomics a welcome jolt of narrative energy. And while the study isn't exactly a success, watching these economists sort-of-fail tells viewers more about real research--the messy and difficult process by which thinkers in all disciplines make sense of the world--than anything else here. You can get ur Freakon; I'll take Econ. Dan Kois
106 minutes Rated PG-13
Jack Goes Boating Jack Goes Boating is Philip Seymour Hoffman's movie--it's his directorial debut; he stars as its namesake sad sack; he wears his hair in those terrible dreadlocks that he covered with a big woollen hat at the Oscars last spring--but let's talk about John Ortiz instead. Yes, Hoffman is the famous face of Jack--just as he was at New York's LAByrinth Theater, which he co-directed for many years with Ortiz, making it a downtown incubator for sprawling, poetic drama--but Ortiz, who plays Jack's best friend, Clyde, is the film's urgent, beating heart. Clyde drives for the same limo company as Jack, and as the grown-up of the pair--he's in a long-term relationship with Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and taking night classes--he has set himself to bettering Jack's life. He finds Jack a girl, prickly mortuary assistant Connie (Amy Ryan); arranges for cooking lessons; teaches him to swim. If it accomplished nothing else, Jack would be worthwhile just as the calling card that gets Ortiz better film roles. Luckily, there's plenty else to appreciate, starting with the movie's three other leads. Connie, as written by Bob Glaudini (who adapted his own LAByrinth play), is a bundle of neuroses, but Ryan makes her recognizable and worthy of Jack's devotion. Rubin-Vega--another theater vet--finds the roots of Lucy's ongoing exasperation with Clyde. And Hoffman is Hoffman, which is to say, he's great. Not to mention that he transfers to film his theater company's ethos of an ensemble performing with ruthless honesty encouragingly well. Dan Kois
89 minutes Rated R
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Paper Man An artist-in-crisis piece run through a drab but quirk-conscious indie processor, Paper Man is everything a film like Lost in Translation fought not to be. Even its moments of dark mirth and the few grace notes between its stars wind up falsified by writer/directors Kieran and Michele Mulroney's played-out tricks and plainly sentimental overtures. Deposited during the off-season at his Sag Harbor home by his surgeon wife (Lisa Kudrow), failing writer Richard (Jeff Daniels) is tasked with finishing that stubborn second novel. Joining him is a naysaying superhero named Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds), an imaginary friend who is more crutch than muse. "Have a productive week," is Kudrow's deadly refrain: Richard is in the throes of a terrifying block, and will conjure a jinx if there's not one handy. Enter Abby (Emma Stone), a local teenager who accepts Richard's bogus offer of a babysitting gig; bonding, soup-making, and rejuvenative storytelling sessions ensue. Stone is radiantly endearing as the smart kid stuck in a shit town with shit dudes; trailed by her own personal Duckie (Kieran Culkin), she makes a host of narrative contrivances feel more natural than they should. The exorcism of Captain Excellent and reckoning of Richard's marriage are even more uninspired by comparison. Michelle Orange
110 minutes Rated R
Stone Robert De Niro's alarm must have finally gone off--in Stone, the actor seems more awake than he has been in years. De Niro is Jack, a prison corrections officer who, abandoning all professional and common sense, foolishly screws himself by screwing Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), the wife of the corn-rowed arsonist inmate Stone (Edward Norton), whose parole case he must soon rule upon. Jack's failing is nominally one of the flesh, yet it's spiritual and moral deep-rot that truly plagues him, with AM-dial Christian radio blather providing an incessant backdrop for both Jack and Stone's dual quests for deliverance. Director John Curran's sure hand is most evident in pre-credit intro passages that create unnerving dissonance from jumps between locations, time periods, and incidents, as well as in an atonal soundscape of undulating chimes, drones, and overly symbolic bee buzzes. However, despite a restrained, internalized performance by De Niro that refuses to turn Jack into an aged version of Cape Fear's Max Cady, as well as Norton taking a hoary, rough-neck caricature and infusing him with unexpected blissed-out tranquility, the B-movie-tawdry and unpersuasive plotting undercuts the material's sober concerns about sin and salvation. At odds with its own lofty and base instincts, Stone ultimately channels neither compellingly. Nick Schager
105 minutes Rated R