By Steve Greene | Criticwire November 21, 2012 at 10:13AM
As Americans celebrate around the country this week, box office reports will report on the prestige films gunning for votes and alongside the first round of holiday-positioned family fare. One of this week's top-reviewed releases fits that description, while a few others fall outside the usual Thanksgiving week expectations.
The Pick(s): Since the announcement came that it would open the 50th New York Film Festival (and, really, ever since production on the film started), Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" has faced high expectations. Working from a beloved novel and using technical and visual advancements to bring it to life, the movie has overcome cynical expectations stemming from its source material. What has emerged from many reviews is a three-way dispute surrounding the script, the 3D-laden visuals and the film's overall philosophical approach to faith. Summarizing a popular strain within these reviews, Jordan Hoffman explains at Film.com that "if you come to 'Life of Pi' looking for answers, I think you will be very disappointed. (Or, if you do find answers, you are a very easy mark.) As filmmaking, however, it is a knockout."
Echoing that the scenes at the opening and closing don't quite carry the same emotional wallop as the scenes of the film's main character lost at sea, Kristy Puchko concludes her Cinema Blend review by ascerting that the movie is a "marvel that takes 3D to new heights with its crisp rendering of dreamlike landscapes and its fierce yet fascinating feline co-star, all while delivering a poignant and inspiring story of human endurance." In other words, come for the 3D, stay for the spirituality, if that's your sort of thing.
Expectations of a different kind followed "Rust and Bone" when it first played at Cannes back in May. Although critics were reserved in their praise compared to the response to director Jacques Audiard's previous two efforts, "The Beat that My Heart Skipped" and "A Prophet," general approval has strengthened over the past few months. As with other films from this year's Cannes competition (see: "Like Someone in Love"), some of the original naysayers have been displaced by a new wave of reviews from outside the festival circuit. Most critics acknowledge that a synopsis of the film -- a romantic bond marked by tragic events -- tends to read like a corny, made-for-TV premise. The extent to which the film succeeds is based on how much it manages to overcome that narrative restriction.
Hope Lies' Adam Batty writes that "Audiard’s tale of misfortunate infinitum plays out like Martin Scorsese via Marcel Carné, a modern day fairytale of heightened reality, with what might come across as mawkish melodrama in other hands spun in to something genuinely affecting and marvellous instead." Still, the criticism of those like Michał Oleszczyk persist: that the film's concept is "way too small for Audiard, whose driving ambition seems to be to include as many heart-tugging clichés as possible. He eagerly cashes in on many a predecessor’s success in administering various brands of mush—we get an Old Yeller sob, a Way Down East moment of icy danger-and-rescue… and more, much more." Either way, pank a hanky or two and brace for some swells of emotion.
ABC will air Spike Lee's "Bad 25" on Thanksgiving night and, while audiences may be expecting a lavish tribute to the late Michael Jackson from one of film's most opinionated craftsmen, critics say that the is more straightforward. The AV Club's Noel Murray notes that the chronicle of one of the King of Pop's most notable achievements "has no real structure beyond covering each song on Bad, in order; and even at over two hours, the movie feels rushed, with some subjects (like the media backlash against Jackson in the late ‘80s, and the mountain of never-released Bad demos) getting mentioned and then abruptly dropped." On the use of testimonials and the participation of some of Jackson's most admiring peers, Variety's Guy Lodge explains, "Though very much a gathering of a one-way admiration society, 'Bad 25' is refreshingly uninterested in celebrity mythos, focusing principally on the practical and physical nuts and bolts of Jackson's talent as a songwriter, producer, dancer and vocalist." A step-by-step appreciation guide with not much heavy-handedness to weigh it down? Sounds like the ideal end to Turkey Day.
This weekend also sees the opening a documentary of the more socially conscious variety. "The Central Park Five," co-directed by Ken Burns with daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David MacMahon, delves into the story of a quintet of falsely accused assailants of 28-year-old female jogger on an April night over 20 years ago. Where the film falters slightly, in the estimation of Movies.com's Christopher Campbell, is in comparison to miscarriage-of-justice profiles from recent years. "The central story of the doc is well told but not too remarkable next to better films such as 'Murder on a Sunday Morning,' 'Scenes of a Crime' and the 'Paradise Lost trilogy'…The real story is about how terrible our society is in relation to the terrible problems of the judicial system, not the latter in and of itself."
But what the filmmakers do manage to craft is a cautionary tale from the recent past, beginning with the end and working backwards. This stylistic choice is a key selling point for The Independent's Kurt Brokaw, who writes, "Because Burns has removed the suspense factor from the filmic process, you may feel more sadness than outrage as you watch the misery index climb higher and higher." It's more demanding material than pop music, Both films maintain a B+ average.
This Week's Underachiever (and Why It Might Be Faring Thusly):
"Red Dawn": "The notion of kids with guns has been branded, marketed and sold, no matter how many school shootings take lives, so the idea of turning children into action figures is long past its transgressive appeal. Take that away and you have another generic actioner set in another generic town." - Gabe Toro
Fan Appreciation (and Enthusiasm): Last week, "The Cabin in the Woods" received the highest rating from general users (the green grade viewable on any of our film pages). A few other films have joined its ranks since then. In addition to being one of last year's best-reviewed films (or potentially because of it?), Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" maintains an A+ average. Even though the film was polarizing among critics (as was "To the Wonder," Malick's latest), for the time being, Criticwire users willing to add their ratings have reached a consensus.
Perhaps it's the same fervor that gripped "Cabin" audiences, but the film that's been graded by the most fans since Criticwire relaunched two months ago is Rian Johnson's "Looper." The movie's puzzle-like story and susceptibility to theory-based discussions make its popularity unsurprising in this context.
For a full list of films opening this week along with their Criticwire averages, click through to the next page.