Upstream Color (June 8/13)
There's little doubt that Upstream Color marks a huge leap forward for filmmaker Shane Carruth, as the film, though consistently inscrutable, has been infused with an almost hypnotically cinematic feel that proves impossible to resist and hooks the viewer from the word go. The narrative, which has something to do with the off-kilter romance that ensues between Carruth's Jeff and Amy Seimetz's Kris, boasts a decidedly impenetrable feel that is, for the most part, simultaneously frustrating and exhilarating, with Carruth's emphasis on head-scratching elements ensuring that one is never entirely sure just what's going on - yet, by that same token, it becomes increasingly difficult to resist the pull of the film's dream-like atmosphere (which is perpetuated by Carruth's lush visuals and haunting score). The writer/director's puzzle-like sensibilities go a long way towards elevating even the most mundane of sequences (eg Jeff and Kris' initial discussion about childhood memories devolves into something far more ominous), and it's subsequently clear that the movie's mysterious atmosphere only grows more and more compelling as time progresses. By the time the riveting final stretch rolls around, Upstream Color has confirmed its place as an unusually engrossing cinematic experiment that far eclipses the potential (yet disappointment) of Carruth's first effort, 2004's Primer.
Oblivion (June 15/13)
An almost astonishingly dull big-budget extravaganza, Oblivion follows Tom Cruise's futuristic character as he's tasked with extracting (and protecting) the remaining resources on our dying planet - with problems ensuing as Cruise's Jack slowly-but-surely discovers that all is not quite as it appears. Filmmaker Joseph Kosinski, along with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, has infused Oblivion with a striking visual sensibility that, along with Cruise's expectedly charismatic turn as the pained protagonist, initially draws the viewer into the proceedings, with the almost incongruously deliberate pace, as a result, initially not quite as problematic as one might've feared. It goes without saying, however, that Kosinski's laid-back modus operandi inevitably does become a detriment to one's enjoyment of the film, as the thin narrative is increasingly suffused with elements of a transparently padded-out nature - with the inclusion of such subplots and diversions serving only to emphasize the inherent emptiness of Michael deBruyn and Karl Gajdusek's screenplay (ie there's just nothing compelling at stake for any of the movie's sketchily-drawn characters). And although the movie has been peppered with a small handful of engrossing moments (eg an automated drone attacks Jack in his sleek apartment), Oblivion, stripped of anything resembling momentum, grows more and more tedious in the buildup to its anticlimactic, nigh incoherent finale - which ultimately cements the movie's place as an interminable and shockingly irrelevant sci-fi offering.
The Manor (June 24/13)
A terminally uninvolving documentary, The Manor follows Shawney Cohen as he returns home to assist his family during a trying time - with the twist being that the clan, which consists of patriarch Roger, matriarch Brenda, and sibling Sammy, owns and operates a strip club just outside of Toronto. First-time director Cohen admittedly does a strong job of establishing the title establishment and the various figures that reside within, although, as becomes clear soon enough, the fledgling filmmaker is simply unable (or unwilling) to explore/exploit the movie's premise to an engaging or entertaining degree. Cohen's close relationship to his subjects ensures that the experience of watching The Manor is, by and large, akin to viewing somebody else's home movies, as the film has been suffused with an almost incredible number of asides that just aren't interesting in the slightest (eg Roger's stomach surgery and subsequent recovery). There's little doubt, also, that Cohen's refusal to explore the more salacious aspects of life within the Manor contributes to the movie's less-than-engrossing atmosphere, and one can't help but wish that the director had offered up a few tidbits related to the day-to-day operations of a strip club (ie the process for hiring new employees, the manner by which rowdy patrons are dealt with, etc). And although the film does include a small handful of intriguing sequences (eg Shawney and Sammy talk about their fractured relationship), The Manor ultimately comes off as a flat, irrelevant documentary that is, for the most part, unable to justify its very existence.
Now You See Me (June 24/13)
Directed by Louis Leterrier, Now You See Me details the chaos that ensues after four magicians (Jesse Eisenberg's Daniel Atlas, Woody Harrelson's Merritt McKinney, Isla Fisher's Henley Reeves, and Dave Franco's Jack Wilder) successfully manage to rob a bank during their larger-than-life Vegas show - with the film subsequently following the foursome as they attempt to both top themselves and avoid the advances of two dogged cops (Mark Ruffalo's Dylan Rhodes and Melanie Laurent's Alma Dray). The rather irresistible premise is, at the outset, employed to compulsively watchable effect by Leterrier, as the filmmaker, working from a script by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt, has infused Now You See Me with a slick and impressively fast-paced feel that proves impossible to resist. The glossy atmosphere does, however, begin to wear out its welcome as the movie unfolds, with the pervasive lack of substance compounded by an almost total lack of character development or narrative momentum (ie the script is, for the most part, primarily concerned with moving from one over-the-top set piece to the next). And while some of this stuff is kind of intriguing - the aforementioned bank robbery remains an obvious highlight - the film is simply unable to hold the viewer's interest in the stretches between the central foursome's illicit exploits. (Leterrier's frenetic, swooping camerawork exacerbates the film's progressively uninvolving feel.) By the time the admittedly unexpected third-act twist rolls around, Now You See Me has definitively established itself as a missed opportunity that never lives up to its strong opening - with the curious lack of actual, palpable magic certainly ranking high on the movie's list of missteps.
American Mary (June 29/13)
Directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska, American Mary follows medical student Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) as she turns to body modification as a way of earning money on the side - with complications ensuing as Mary's drawn further and further into this seedy world. It's a decidedly twisted setup that is, at the outset, employed to promising effect by the filmmaking siblings, with the impressively cinematic atmosphere, coupled with the strong performances and inclusion of several cringe-inducing moments, going a long way towards compensating for the movie's obvious low budget. (The most apparent stumbling block in the film's early stages is an ongoing emphasis on needlessly surreal elements, as the Soskas pepper the storyline with asides that wouldn't seem out of place within a David Lynch flick.) The rough-around-the-edges vibe becomes more and more problematic as American Mary stumbles into its meandering midsection, however, as the overlong running time has been padded out with tangentially-related subplots that aren't terribly compelling or interesting. The almost excessively uneven narrative does, in the end, cancel out the effectiveness of the film's positive attributes, and it's finally impossible to label the movie as anything more than a sporadically intriguing yet distressingly half-baked horror endeavor (ie this probably would've worked better as a short).