By Steve Greene | Criticwire May 9, 2012 at 1:13PM
With a majority of the new releases rated by members of Indiewire's Criticwire Network landing a B average or higher, there are plenty of viable choices opening this week. Among those, a French action movie opening in theaters but also available on VOD received the most high marks, making it our Criticwire Pick of the Week. ("Nobody Else But You" technically has the highest average, but only received a single grade.)
After featuring in our Tribeca wrap-up as a top circuit performer, Frederic Jardin’s "Sleepless Night" has the opportunity to gain a wider audience. The film, on its most basic level, is about a shady police officer’s time-crunched attempt to save his child and escape a nightclub filled with hostiles. Premiering at Toronto (and drawing immediate and subsequent comparisons to "The Raid," given the two films’ programming proximity and cramped location-based narrative), "Sleepless Night" is gaining critical admiration largely for what it doesn’t include.
In his A+ review, Alex Billington from FirstShowing.net explains that the film "isn't exactly an all-out action film, it's a contained thriller that uses genius storytelling and screenwriting, as well intimate cinematography, to ramp up the intensity and keep the audience guessing." (The link to that review also contains a short video blog with Billington's live, post-screening reaction from Toronto.) The Playlist’s Todd Gilchrist also emphasizes the film’s simplicity, writing that "'Sleepless Night' is not unlike its central location in that it's less uniquely designed than just extremely well-crafted, combining a variety of familiar ideas into one cohesive, streamlined and supremely effective effort." (Given its previous on-demand availability, "Sleepless Night" was also a previous installment of our VODetails series.)
On the non-fiction side, the documentary that stands out is Joe Berlinger’s "Under African Skies." The film delves into the creation of "Graceland," the Paul Simon album that bridged Western music and traditional South African melodies and is considered one of the most acclaimed singer/songwriter creations ever (not to be confused with the recent Tribeca film of the same name). Celebrity interviews give perspective to the album's musical impact, while another significant ingredient follows a reunion between Simon and members of Ladysmith who also appeared on "Graceland."
Writing at Movies.com, Christopher Campbell argues that there’s plenty to appreciate about the film, even for non-Simon fans. “Sure, Simon was that mix of white tourist and savior that critics often have problems with in “racist” fictions like 'The Help' and [Kevin] Macdonald’s 'The Last King of Scotland,'” he adds, “but I’ve personally never faulted films with white audience identifiers as gateways when the film's end result inspires hope and harmony.”
Another notable release this week is "I Wish," from Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (B+). Chronicling the efforts of two young brothers trying to reconnect their torn-apart family, Kore-eda brings a certain pathos that Indiewire’s Eric Kohn describes as "a unique blend of melancholy without getting mopey about it." Kohn also adds that “In the West, the family drama has been exhausted and largely abandoned, partly because audiences have grown too cynical for it. Through that lens, 'I Wish' is something of a revelation." But, as one critic sees Kore-eda’s emotional touch as a helpful asset to the film: Michael Nordine, writing for Slant Magazine, classifies it as a detriment. "Both buoyed and brought down by its focus on these two brothers, 'I Wish' has a tough time balancing the heartfelt with the saccharine and too often feels slight," he writes. "Considering Hirokazu's track record, this comes as a disappointment."
This week also marks the opportunity for audiences to experience one of the past eight months’ most polarizing outputs, Bobcat Goldthwait’s "God Bless America" (B-). We gathered much of the film’s reaction out of SXSW in our Review Capsule, but there are enough reviews on both sides of the ledger to make audience reaction difficult to gauge.
(Some readers may note that some of the films in this weekly preview have a higher aggregate grade than our network’s Pick of the Week. Going forward, a film must receive at least three votes from Criticwire members in order to be considered as our Pick of the Week.)