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The Tower

Joining the ranks of unimaginatively titled movies about exciting things happening in tall buildings is Kim Ji-hoon’s The Tower, a romantic-comedy-turned-disaster-epic that starts out like another Grand Hotel imitator before deciding it would rather be The Towering Inferno instead. The main thrust of Ji-hoon’s hybrid—which is already a hit in its native South Korea, where it opened on Christmas Day—is a budding romance between a hotelier and the in-house restaurant manager that gets cast aside when a helicopter crashes into the 108-floor Tower Sky, setting the luxe establishment on fire and causing the usual movie chaos. The deceptively calm first act is by far the worst: Ostensibly comic moments include a small dog being kicked and a newbie firefighter getting tricked into running through the station naked. Once Ji-hoon ditches such goings-on, he and his ensemble manage to put together a passable action flick. As with The Impossible, however, genre thrills bearing a resemblance to real-life events aren’t always enough for engrossing drama. Kim attempts a harmonious union between these two moods at certain points throughout, usually to poor results; even at its best, The Tower is beholden to unearned emotional payoffs. Despite its genuine attempts at proving otherwise, the film doesn’t end up revealing much other than how unpleasant it would be to get stuck inside a slowly collapsing skyscraper—something most New Yorkers are probably already aware of. Michael Nordine

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What a Man

If your main qualm with the steady stream of disposable romantic comedies is that they’re products of Hollywood rather than Germany, then friend, look no further: Save for its Teutonic origins, director/co-writer/star Matthias Schweighöfer’s What a Man is scarcely distinguishable from the No Strings Attached school of rom-coms. Mostly harmless but also irksome in its bland simplicity, the film follows your average too-nice-for-his-own-good everyman who sets about proving his masculinity after being cheated on by his caricature of a girlfriend. In the process, he spends an impossible-to-believe amount of time either not realizing or not accepting that his closest female friend (Sibel Kekilli) was the real catch all along. (If movie logic didn’t make their inevitable union obvious from the
moment we meet her, then the two flashbacks demonstrating her kindness shoehorned into the first 30 minutes certainly help the process along.) Schweighöfer and Kekilli have some genuine chemistry, but though the first-time filmmaker’s writing and direction are rarely less than competent, they’re also suggest complacency. It’s like he’s spinning his wheels before having won his license. If What a Man serves any real purpose, it’s less to answer the vague rhetorical question implied by its title and more to remind us why most of the foreign films that make it to America are of the art house variety: Imitating generic Hollywood product and then exporting it back to the States tends to provide few rewards for anyone, least of all the audience. Michael Nordine

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28 Hotel Rooms

In its stripped-down, episodic approach—the film consists entirely of two lovers’ hotel-room liaisons, with each encounter announced via an intertitle giving the room number—28 Hotel Rooms aims for the sort of honest portrayal of romance the movies are often said to lack. The paradox is that writer-director Matt Ross has made a movie about two people (Marin Ireland and Chris Messina) truly getting to know each other without either character ever feeling genuinely fleshed out. In eliminating all the filler, it ends up feeling like nothing but. There’s no context other than what they tell each other either in passing or in depth, and so the husband she’s betraying and the books he’s writing never much matter to us. Not showing us every aspect of their lives is a fine, even novel, approach, but merely telling us about them instead feels like a fruitless middle ground. There’s certainly emotional layover among the many segments, but rarely enough for the whole affair to feel like more than a series of acting exercises. Although rarely disingenuous or affected, nearly every moment meant to carry weight feels either unearned or detached from the emotions it’s meant to convey—since, well, it usually is. By its halfway point, 28 Hotel Rooms comes to feel like a short unwisely expanded to feature length; typical third-act plot points aside, there’s little going on in rooms 10 through 28 that the first nine or so didn’t already cover. Michael Nordine

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They Call It Myanmar

“This country is unique . . . there’s no country like Burma,” a woman says minutes into They Call It Myanmar. This is true insofar as the isolated Southeast Asian nation’s culture and history are indeed unique, but the military junta under which it has lived in one form or another since 1962 has all too many corollaries around the world—and most of those countries have at least been able to keep their real names. Often verging on the apolitical, novelist-turned-filmmaker Robert H. Lieberman’s documentary on the “former rice bowl of Asia” is less a transparent call to arms featuring nifty graphics and more an affectionate portrait of the now-impoverished nation driven by raw footage of its citizens’ daily lives, most of which highlights beauty rather than sorrow. But the same thing that makes it a refreshing change of pace—the hopeful approach and lack of ulterior motives—is also what makes it occasionally feel directionless. The subtitle, Lifting the Curtain, clues us into the fact that merely capturing so many images of this dangerous-to-document country is meant to be a draw unto itself (consider how difficult it would be to make a similar movie about North Korea, for instance), which takes it far but not quite all the way. And yet it still works, so buoyed is the film by its open and honest take on a subject that would have been all too easy to turn into another marketable tragedy. Michael Nordine

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Backwards

The title of Ben Hickernell’s Backwards refers to the motions of competitive rowing, but also to its heroine’s seeming regression from almost-Olympian to high school coach—a movement that, as luck would have it, turns out to be an uplifting process of self-discovery. In the film, Abi Brooks (Sarah Megan Thomas, a former rower who also wrote the script) moves back home for a spell after failing to realize her dreams, slow dances to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” despite being at prom in the capacity of a chaperone, and rekindles an old flame with her high school boyfriend (James Van Der Beek). At no point are the implications of these backward motions explored in depth or even really acknowledged. Instead, Abi channels her passion for rowing through two young girls in whom she sees promise (as well as something of herself) and learns an important lesson in expectation management. Hickernell and Thomas do occasionally touch upon darker territory—once she’s done as a rower, Abi is actually done; despite a promising offer, there’s no comeback to be found here—but always with too light a touch to get their hands dirty and move their film along with any sense of genuine urgency. Subplots are introduced only to be resolved within minutes, characters jettisoned at a moment’s notice. Those who can’t do, teach; those who settle apparently end up pretty happy. Michael Nordine

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The Well-Digger’s Daughter

In one of The Well-Digger’s Daughter‘s most telling scenes, 18-year-old Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) spends several minutes on the verge of tears as she defends her honor to a would-be inamorata (Nicolas Duvauchelle) whose lewd advances she has just spurned. An appropriate response, to be sure, but one that plays out in a way that’s too stately and reserved to get under either character’s skin—a problem the film runs into time and again. In one of many acts of restraint, co-writer/director Daniel Auteuil elides the offending act itself and leaves it to us to imagine the particulars. Here and elsewhere, though, this tale of an unwed mother doesn’t give us much reason to assume that what we don’t see is much more scandalous than what we do. There’s some striking imagery—late-afternoon sunlight peeking through wheat stalks, a quiet stream running through the French countryside, bright interiors—and an airy, evocative score courtesy of Alexandre Desplat, but the characters’ dealings with one another (whether romantic, businesslike, or otherwise) are too routine to live up to the formal elements encasing them. Stirrings of dignified outrage via the eponymous well-digger eventually go a long way toward energizing the film, which improves markedly once it shifts its focus from the World War I–era milieu toward how quickly a naive young girl can turn into a fallen woman and the ways in which that fallout affects her father, her family, and apparently most importantly, her name. Michael Nordine