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Muddled Thriller Survivor Pits Jovovich vs. Bronson vs. Boredom

There may be nothing less exciting than the intrigue of international visa authorizations, and yet that lame narrative focus is only one of many reasons Survivor is an espionage fiasco.

Former Wachowskis protégé James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) handles both action and interpersonal drama with equal gracelessness throughout his story about a U.S. intelligence operative (Milla Jovovich) stationed in London who stumbles upon a conspiracy involving scientists trying to sneak into America, and then finds herself framed for all sorts of terrorist crimes.

Intent on blowing up people in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and determined to kill Jovovich’s spy at all costs, the shadowy bad guys employ a dapper assassin who’s known as The Watchmaker (Pierce Brosnan) because, when not crafting bombs, he builds watches. That lack of subtlety is par for Survivor’s course, given its raft of blunt and/or pointless scenes, conversations in which lines of dialogue don’t match, and plot developments and character relations that change at random.

The overarching sense is of a thriller awkwardly stitched together in the editing room, and still failing to fix its many flaws — not least of which is the fact that Jovovich, an actress with considerable action-cinema credentials, is reduced to merely looking harried while fleeing pursuers like the CIA’s biggest scaredy-cat.

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We Are Still Here Is the Rare Horror Film for Grown-Ups

Instead of the nubile young things who normally populate horror movies, a grieving middle-aged couple is at the center of Ted Geoghegan’s Seventies-evoking We Are Still Here. We meet Anne and Paul (Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig) after the death of their son; they’re moving into a new house and unable to connect with each other.

It’s a mature problem that seems betrayed by the genre; imagine In the Bedroom with jump-scares. Anne feels the presence of malevolent spirits and mistakes them for their son. Paul shrugs it off, deepening their rift — and then the burning ghosts in the basement start murdering people.

Early scenes overplay the shock of these phantasms, but just as you expect Geoghegan to crank up the effects, the film mixes in some subtler scares. After a couple is picked off, the house resets itself to erase any evidence they had ever been there — my skin crawled.

Anne’s spiritualist post-hippie friends (Lisa Marie and Larry Fessenden) lend color and exacerbate the haunting, particularly during a refreshingly lo-tech séance scene. Even better is Monte Markham as a neighbor who knows more than he lets on — he carries himself with such creature-feature portent that even the dread feels vintage.

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Buddy Comedy Doomsdays Makes Hanging Out With Home Invaders Too Much Fun

Thoughtful buddy comedy Doomsdays makes spending time with manic man-children a lot more fun than it should be.

You wouldn’t want to hang with serial home invaders Dirty Fred (Mutual Appreciation‘s Justin Rice) and Bruho (Kids‘ Leo Fitzpatrick) in real life, a truth that writer-director Eddie Mullins underscores every time Fred tricks Bruho into fighting irate homeowners on his behalf or Bruho takes out his anger issues on whatever object is within arm’s reach. But Fred and Bruho are charming within the context of Doomsdays‘ escapist scenario, and Mullins doesn’t try to cure his protagonists of their characteristic dickishness.

Their impish, unrepentantly destructive behavior actually proves endearing, even when Fred tries to seduce two skeptical barflies by pulling a George Costanza and bluntly describing himself as a “solipsistic fuckwad [who doesn’t] care about anybody.” Even Jaidon (Brian Charles Johnson), a relatively innocuous fair-weather companion, is a charming asshole, as in the scene where he air-drums obliviously while Fred and love interest Reyna (Laura Campbell) try to hook up in a sauna. In playful, admirably composed long takes, Mullins shows us that Fred and Bruho’s immoral actions have amoral consequences, like when Bruho flees in a huff after he stumbles on Fred masturbating while he spies on a timeshare’s noisy, sexually engaged inhabitants.

Doomsdays is winsome because it embraces its narcissistic subjects without asking viewers to forget that they’ve just befriended a couple of selfish dillholes.

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Robert Duvall Rides Again With Wild Horses, Which Actually Needs More of Him

The archetypal film cowboy is a man with rawhide skin, an unshakable moral code, and a firearm to enforce it. Wild Horses‘ Scott Briggs is no different; to him, gays are evil, his land is sacred, and if you trespass he will shoot your legs out from under you, right after he gets help climbing onto his horse.

In his latest directorial vision, Robert Duvall takes up the saddle as the octogenarian Briggs to explore how his prejudicial value system has torn his diverse family apart. Coinciding with the estranged family’s reunion is an investigation into the disappearance of Briggs’s outed son’s lover, led by Samantha, a Texas Ranger. These competing narratives are connected haphazardly by visual transitions that feel like someone sat on the DVD remote, plus jarring tonal shifts between intimate conversations and tire-spinning car chases.

Every laborious minute spent with Luciana Duvall as Samantha, in a subplot that goes nowhere, is 60 seconds spent wishing the film stuck with Briggs’s richly dramatic and ultimately underdeveloped familial relationships. Despite the hogtied narrative momentum, Duvall has crafted a lifelike portrait of rural Texas life. Here small-town rumors and politics are the greatest threats to family, and being seen as different is an unforgivable sin.

Duvall fills his frames with nonprofessional actors to sell the authenticity of the place; of particular note is Briggs’s bearded cook, who brings a roasted, grinning goat to the dinner table. James Franco and Josh Hartnett hold their own as Briggs’s sons when paired up against Duvall’s fierce performance; their scenes manage to imbue Wild Horses‘ disjointed and sometimes inert script with real life, particularly in one amusing brotherly barroom brawl.

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Doc Dukale’s Dream Reveals Hugh Jackman’s Real-Life Coffee-Related Heroism

Actors are accustomed to studying a subject for a brief, intense period and then being treated like experts. Hugh Jackman’s advocacy for fair-trade coffee began with that burst of enthusiasm, but settled into a business that distills complex global economics into a simple message: We are what we consume. Josh Victor Rothstein (3 Points) documents Jackman’s journey in Dukale’s Dream, which falls somewhere between an infomercial for World Vision Australia and an earnest exploration of celebrity philanthropy.

The story begins in 2009 when the actor and his wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, travel to Ethiopia on a visit coordinated by Tim Costello, described as Australia’s “moral signpost.” The World Vision CEO shows these longtime supporters of the charity how economic aid affects farmers in a country known more for famine than coffee beans.

The trip looks like a typical celebrity charity meet-and-greet, until Hugh Jackman is introduced to Dukale and they spend a day working together on his farm. The gregarious Jackman and gracious Tura develop a genuine rapport, which transforms their camera-ready meeting into a vital alliance. With X-Men Origins: Wolverine and hosting duties at the Oscars (which Rothstein chronicled for a never-released documentary), Jackman hit career milestones, but getting to know Dukale shifted his focus.

Rothstein had turned their encounter into a 2010 short (Seeds of Hope), and here adds follow-up footage that makes Dukale’s Dream more than a vanity project. This documentary exudes Jackman’s can-do optimism, but the real star is an Ethiopian coffee grower who’s just as enterprising.

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Underground Railroad Drama Freedom Is More Interested in Jesus Than Slavery

Using a slavery narrative to advance an unrelated agenda is pretty tasteless, bordering on offensive. The product of an “inspirational” production house, a white director, and an Asian-American screenwriter who once wrote a film that was actually called Fakin’ Da Funk, Freedom expunges the real histories of millions of people by elevating the consolation of religion above the actual experience of enslavement.

But more broadly, any kind of didacticism just kills art, like product placements on TV shows. A narrative of the Underground Railroad, the film is practically a musical — the characters frequently burst into hymns from a variety of early American religious traditions, in styles refined and rural. It seems unlikely that during secret smuggling journeys through Northeastern forests, under threat of execution for their actions, abolitionists would burst into clamorous banjo gospel songs.

Without all the music, Freedom would be about 30 minutes long. Further chop out all the conversations about Jesus (please), and it would be nothing but credits. In the tale of Samuel Woodward (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his flight from thralldom with his family, every scene and conversation eventually pivots on faith, the lack of faith, the reacquisition of faith, faith’s awesomeness, and very occasionally addresses the costs and cruelty of slavery.

A parallel story set a hundred years earlier relates the narrative of a heroic white slave-ship captain (Bernhard Forcher) who is redeemed by the faith of his slave translator. For a religious musical, that’s pretty damn tone-deaf.

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In World War I Drama Testament of Youth, Alicia Vikander Is Worthy of Lillian Gish

With Testament of Youth, our collective poppy-strewn dream imagery of a decimated generation of the gallant young men of WWI — and their noble horses too — might undergo a sea change. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), simultaneously poignant and powerful as Vera Brittain, the writer who fought her way into Oxford then chucked that to go to the front as a nurse, gives another indelible performance, her tragedies foretold by the forlorn-looking women at the train station sending off their jolly soldiers.

Brittain’s bestselling autobiographical novel was never part of the U.S. women’s-studies canon; it’s a surprise to see Brittain handily handling “our” issues of career, love, family. But add the war and a triumvirate of deaths: her great love, the dashing poet Roland (Kit Harington, spirited but tortured); a would-be suitor, Victor (Colin Morgan); and her brother Edward (Taron Egerton). If the camera didn’t adore Vikander, you’d have to look away from the tragic pileup.

There are relieving flashbacks — some too lingered-on — to a green-gold, elegiac time. Ingeniously, the standard war imagery of the close combat so devastating during the “war to end all wars” is not used; instead there’s a startling, surrealistically lit scene of a human-less battleground after the battle (cinematography by Rob Hardy). And the director, James Kent, cuts to trench-trapped soldiers — like photographs from Hell.

Vera’s search for her wounded brother is edited so that you feel her panic; her turn while helping a German soldier die is worthy of a young Lillian Gish, as emotions silently fly over her face. Without the epic sweep of a Doctor Zhivago, it’s an intellectual and emotional landscape Vera traverses: grief to survival and, finally, pacifism.

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Romance Becomes Unsettling Terror in the Polanski-Inspired Hungry Hearts

Saverio Costanzo unfolds Hungry Hearts as a series of vignettes that veer from romantic comedy to horror. Jude (Adam Driver) and Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) meet-cute while trapped in a Chinese restaurant’s basement restroom.

What initially seems like a delightful, throwaway opening is loaded with portents: the uptight engineer experiencing digestive issues in the uncomfortably tight space; the isolated Italian transplant battling a congested New York City that’s constantly assaulting her senses. A pregnancy and marriage follow in quick succession, but when Jude and Mina settle into his top-floor apartment, the already angled walls close in on them.

Mina, who barely ate during pregnancy, sees most food as “poison” and the “outside” as toxic, and dismisses medical advice that contradicts her instinctual certainties. When Jude gives their severely underweight infant son baby food (or any meat), she counters with a powerful laxative. The Italian writer-director avoids using hot-button language (anorexia, postpartum depression, anti-vaxxer) to categorize Mina’s behavior, and doesn’t explore her assertion that their “indigo child” possesses special powers (a mystical aspect more prevalent in the source material, Marco Franzoso’s novel Il Bambino Indaco).

Hungry Hearts owes much to early Polanski (especially Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby), but Costanzo prizes ambiguity over tension. Even the film’s malevolence is amorphous: Driver’s passionate concern looks more like parental love than Rohrwacher’s possessive aloofness, but neither perspective is fully embraced. After intimately following their struggles, Costanzo infantilizes these young parents by taking the most important decision out of their hands.

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Urgent Doc Every Last Child Reveals Pakistanis Standing Up to the Taliban to Fight Polio

Throughout Every Last Child, voices stay hushed until they are shouting — in pain, in worry, in command. Set largely in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, Tom Roberts’s urgent, tender documentary has the pulse of a noir film as it follows families and healthcare workers scrambling to vaccinate their children against polio, though the Taliban has forbidden it.

Polio is a potentially fatal disease, and leaves even its survivors irrevocably altered, their limbs stiff or shriveled, immobile. Meanwhile, the Taliban will kill those they find disobeying the ban on vaccinations. The Taliban, whom we in the West tend to hear more about than the civilians whose lives are affected by their power, can seem mythic. That’s part of what makes this film so powerful: its humanity, its smallness, its search for beauty and kindness in the face of death. Roberts opens with a band of men strapping on weapons, facing a speaker who reminds them that their work is a jihad, a holy struggle to save lives.

Amid the cacophony of hospitals and call centers, the film finds its rhythm in sweeping shots of empty streets in early morning, fog rising — beauty in the ordinary. Of the many dedicated workers interviewed, most compelling is a calm and insightful man who lost the use of his legs due to polio and pulls himself along, either in a wheeled conveyance or by his hands. He refuses to give up, while acknowledging how difficult polio has made his life. In a long tracking shot, we see him wheeling across empty train tracks. This film is a wakeup call in the best sense: urgent, clear, understated. The World Health Organization called Pakistan’s polio epidemic a global health crisis, and it is — but it’s also a crisis of humanity, and it’s through humanity that we survive.

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Indie Fantasy Patch Town Is Almost Fascinatingly Bad

It’s one thing for a fantasy film to make no sense, but Patch Town’s problem is that its premise isn’t just unintelligible — it’s downright dumb.

Based on his short film, director Craig Goodwill’s feature concerns a magical factory (ostensibly located, in secret, on the outskirts of mainstream society?) where a wicked businessman (Julian Richings) has assembly-line workers remove babies from cabbages and then use a machine to turn those babies into children’s dolls, which he sells to little girls. When those toys are eventually abandoned by their all-grown-up owners, they return to this factory to work as reanimated people.

That situation doesn’t sit well with portly, mop-topped Jon (Rob Ramsay), who with his wife (Stephanie Pitsiladis) in tow, and with the help of a wisecracking Indian bus driver (Suresh John), surreptitiously travels to the real world to find his former owner (Zoie Palmer), to whom he refers as his “mother.”

As inane as that setup might sound, it’s nothing compared to the story’s execution. Director Goodwill employs a fanciful style that recalls Jean-Pierre Jeunet minus the flair, whimsy, or originality, all while eliciting performances from his cast that range from barely amusing to excruciatingly cartoonish. And if that weren’t painful enough, these grating characters frequently burst into songs that are not only ill-fitting, but also — as with every other aspect of this indie — awful.