On TV: ‘Hell and Back Again’

If you’re living in a region with a public television station that’s smart enough to air Independent Lens, one of the nation’s greatest resources for getting the best indie films before a bigger audience, then tonight you’ll be able to watch Hell and Back Again. A raw and brutally evocative piece of work that flips back and forth between a Marine trying to survive the crucible of conflict in southern Afghanistan and his attempts to adjust to life back home, was one of the greatest practically-unreleased documentaries from 2011.

Make sure to check it out, if not on PBS, then on DVD. My review is at filmcritic.com.

New in Theaters: ‘The Samaritan’

Sometime in between playing his pivotal role as Nick Fury in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, starring as Martin Luther King, Jr. on Broadway, and gearing up for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Samuel L. Jackson decided to star in and executive produce this little noir-ish exercise from Canadian director David Weaver. It’s difficult to understand why, because with the exception of one especially shocking plot twist about an hour in, there’s nothing in this film that hasn’t been done at least ten-thousand times previously—and at least nine-thousand of those films did it better…

The Samaritan is playing now in limited release. You can read my full review at Film Journal International.

Books: The Nebula Awards

There are six novels nominated for this year’s Nebula Award, which will be announced May 19th. They cover the future, the present, and the indefinable. They feature shy faeries, magicians who wield bugs like weapons, and a postapocalyptic steampunk traveling circus. What they don’t do much of is splash about in that shallow, mucky pool of vampire/alien/cop/erotica/fallen angel serial potboilers (new variations ever-spinning off as though generated by some genre virus) being snapped up by ever more readers. Only two of the six Nebula nominees are series books, the rest are novel-novels – left to live or die on their own, no cliffhangers to entice you back…

You can read “Worlds Beyond Your Ken: A Guide to the Nebula Awards” over at The Millions.

New in Theaters: ‘Bernie’

After making so many films about basically decent people, it’s good to know that Richard Linklater had some Hitchcock in him. In his deft comedy Bernie, Linklater brings not just the winsome touch that’s made his lighter work like The School of Rock so broadly appealing but also a more acidic and satirical tone that darkens the shade under the bright Texas sun. Hitch would have sharpened his hooks more, particularly for a film set in such a busybody-riddled small town, but he would have appreciated Linklater’s steady accumulation of detail and grievances, not to mention the resolutely straightforward handling of the murder itself. What Linklater brings to this curious and fact-based story, which just about no other American filmmaker of the moment could, is his expansive sense of character and genial lack of judgment. This is a film about a really nice guy. A murderer, for sure, but just the nicest murderer you’re ever likely to meet…

Bernie is playing now in limited release; check it out. You can read my full review at filmcritic.com.

New in Theaters: ‘Sound of My Voice’

It’s tempting to look for easy sociological explanations for the mini-bubble in films about cults and small extremist groups. Such reasons aren’t likely to be found, beyond the broadening disinclination of people in the West (no matter how quickly they’ll “join” a social media group) to be members of classically cohesive collectives like churches, the Rotary Club, or even bowling leagues. Zal Batmanglij’s canny and suspenseful head-knotter Sound of My Voice initially seems of a piece with films like Martha Marcy May Marlene, United Red Army, and the new festival film First Winter. It, too, revolves around a small gang of earnest believers following a leader whose motives are suspect at best. Where Batmanglij’s film stands apart is in its unalloyed skill and confidence — this is one of the most assured feature debuts in recent memory — and in his ability to turn this exploration of cult indoctrination into both a profound character study and a nail-biting thriller. But for a conclusion that arrives long before the audience is ready for it to be over with, this would have been the runaway indie hit of the year… 

Sound of My Voice is playing now in limited release. You can read my full review at filmcritic.com.