Backcountry: Time for chow


Backcountry expresses a novel way of getting rid of a partner who has become a drag in your relationship. Go on a backpacking trip together and hope he or she is eaten by a bear. That’s the only real surprise in this effective, but effectively predictable, backwoods thriller from director Adam MacDonald, which requires that an REI ad-ready pair named Jenn and Alex must make a lot of stupid mistakes in order to become potential bear chow. Claw past the clich├ęs and you’ll find decent performances and several tense moments, but more often than not you’ll be rooting for the bear.

Approaching the Elephant: Direct cinema, indirect magic


Approaching the Elephant, a striking, DIY documentary available for rent or purchase only on the iTunes streaming option, is the first film by director Amanda Rose Wilder. Documenting the inaugural year of an experimental elementary school in New Jersey, Wilder, working alone, adopts the style of direct cinema filmmakers such as Albert Maysles (Salesman) and D.A Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back). She avoids narration, talking heads, soundtrack music, or any manipulative point-of-view, planting herself in the classroom as the virtual personification of a fly-on-the-wall. The classic technique, which can more often than not tumble slowly down the hallways of tedium, requires–when done well–not only a firm and patient commitment on the part of the filmmaker, but also subject matter that lives up to the investment of a viewer’s time. In the case of this film, what begins as a sometimes shambling, unfocused experiment gathers an absorbing, even visceral power.

Buzzard: The movie eats you up


When we first meet Marty, the impudent slacker in director Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard, the impression he makes suggests we’re about to see a film we’ve seen before: another rude, jokey portrait of an unappealing loser. Marty is running a little scam on the bank where he works, closing out his checking account and then immediately opening a new one to score the $50 signing bonus the bank is offering. Marty’s face, long and bug-eyed, is captured in one unbroken, five-minute shot, his sour expression barely concealing his disdain for the system he is gaming. Even though we might admire his petulant audacity, we also want to slap him. The scene, which slowly sinks its talons into you, sets the unsettling tone of Buzzard, a surprisingly compelling and often brilliantly original independent film. By the time it’s over, whatever skepticism you brought to the movie has been torn to shreds.

What We Do in the Shadows: Bite me


The knuckleheaded Nosferatus in the new vampire spoof, What We Do In The Shadows, are your typical male slackers. They dress in thrift shop hand-me-downs, sleep until dusk, leave a mess of dirty dishes in the sink, and stay up late clubbin’. They occasionally invite people over for a bite and a drink, but it’s usually BYOB (bring your own blood), and their guests never leave the same way they came. The carpet stains, needless to say, are a real pain to clean up. That’s the set-up for what is essentially a one-joke movie, a joke that pays off in a few deadpan laughs and mordant chuckles, but also a joke stretched very thin by the time the film’s threadbare 86 minutes come to an end.

Maps to the Stars: Cronenberg's satirical sideshow


David Cronenberg may have discovered the perfect setting in which to conduct another of his emotionally refrigerated examinations into perversion. Hollywood is a petri dish for the kind of parasites the director likes to watch breed and consume their human hosts. In this case the evil germ is narcissism, which mutates into a thoroughly distasteful vehicle for all sorts of ugly behavior. Murder, self-immolation, insanity and particularly incest are the main characteristics on display here, and they make for a film that is fascinating to watch but impossible to like.

Leviathan: Of vodka and monsters


Leviathan, the damning and ruggedly beautiful Oscar-nominated film from director Andrey Zvyagintsev, begins as a story about a property dispute, and ends up being a fable about God, fate and vodka. It charts a relentlessly brutal and unforgiving path in which a marriage, a family, a friendship and a future are savagely transformed. The film can be read as an example of life within the perpetual corruption and baffling bureaucracy of post-Soviet Russia, in which the corrosive ills of the state are medicated by epic quantities of alcohol. But it’s also an allegory about God’s mercurial wrath, and the sins that are most likely to be forgiven. For Kolya, the tragic homeowner at the center of the tale, the answer is none too pretty.

A Most Violent Year: A most non-violent misfire


J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year could be called his “difficult third film.” More ambitious than his star-studded debut Margin Call and more expansive than his second picture, All Is Lost, the movie is admirably controlled, powerfully atmospheric and studiously paced. It is well-acted and designed, and it simmers with a minor key tension. But it’s also emotionally thin, repetitious and, sorry to say, rather dull. Since I’ve found Chandor’s first two films to be fine, intelligent works that even improve with second viewings, the thud of A Most Violent Year ranks as an irksome disappointment.