PEOPLE's movie critics sound off on the films opening this weekend and more

By Alynda Wheat Patrick Gomez
January 31, 2014 12:30 PM
Dale Robinette/Paramount Pictures

Are you heading to the movies this weekend? We’ve got you covered!

Our take on the new releases: Labor Day is every bit as gooey a romance as you’ve heard, but it still works – thanks, in part, to its stars, Oscar winner Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.

On the other hand, Zac Efron’s romantic comedy That Awkward Moment can’t quite get over itself – though it does have its moments … and its merits.

Plus, why you should check out this year’s Oscar-nominated shorts.

Labor Day

What is it about bad romance that feels so good? Labor Day is an unapologetically gooey exercise in infatuation, a Bridges of Madison County for a younger, post-millennial audience. And the simple truth is that I fell for it anyway.

Adele (Kate Winslet) is a fragile woman. Divorced, depressed and anxious to the point of shaking when she’s forced to venture out into the world, she’d be lost without her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). One senses that if pushed even the slightest bit in the wrong direction, Adele would shatter, irreparably. Which is why what happens to her is so curious – and so involving.

While shopping on a sweltering September day, Adele and Henry are accosted by Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict looking to hide out in their house until he can hop a train. This being a long weekend, though, he’s out of luck. Trains aren’t running, but police dogs are. They’re combing the town looking for him. All he can see, though, is Adele.

The romance that develops feels genuine, if rather swift, as Adele gives Frank not just companionship and affection, but a sense of purpose. He, in turn, lends her strength and the possibility of a new beginning. It’s a strange coupling but one that makes a kind of sense, particularly when it’s handled so sensitively by Winslet and Brolin, who are both fully invested in spite of the treacle-y material.

What makes the film work, though, is the fact that these characters aren’t allowed to exist in a hermetically sealed love nest. There’s Henry – protective of his mother to the end – Adele’s ex, her neighbors and the ever-present threat of the police. Tension mounts as the couple hatches more elaborate (read: desperate) plans for escape. Whether they get away is almost beside the point. The minor miracle is that they found each other at all.
Alynda Wheat

Tim’s Vermeer

It’s a shame this gem of a documentary missed the cut for an Oscar nod, because it sure deserved one. Tim Jenison is a tinkerer and a thinker, an inventor who made his money in the early days of the tech boom. Now, he finds ingenious ways of spending it, like delving into the techniques of Dutch master painter Johannes Vermeer. Specifically, Tim is captivated by Vermeer’s use of light, and puzzled at how the old master achieved it, particularly since the effects he captures aren’t visible to the naked eye. To make a rather involved story short, Tim comes up with a theory about how Vermeer painted – then sets out to prove it.

The film, directed by Teller (the silent half of Penn and Teller), raises fascinating questions about the nature of art (Was Vermeer talented or just clever? If Tim succeeds can he call himself an artist?), while also detailing the stunning lengths to which Tim goes to prove his theory. In an effort to recreate The Music Lesson, he spends eight years and I don’t even want to know how much money jetting to England and Holland for peeks at original Vermeers, consulting with artist David Hockney, building a replica of the room in which the original was painted (including making his own furniture), and finally, sitting down with his own hand-ground pigments. It’s dizzying and exhausting, but also exhilarating for anyone who appreciates art.
Alynda Wheat

They don’t get enough attention, but the Oscar-nominated short films are now playing across the country (with more theaters to be added in the coming weeks). There are short features and documentaries, but my favorites are always the animated films. This year’s slate includes the phenomenal Get a Horse, in which classic footage of Mickey Mouse is interwoven with new to ingenious effect, as well as Room on the Broom, from the same folks who made The Gruffalo, plus several other entries. Find out where they’re playing in your area.

That Awkward Moment

That Awkward Moment – much like the 20-something characters it centers around – is intermittently charming and multitasks well, but spends much of its 94-minute running time being, well, awkward.

Zac Efron plays to his strengths (hotness) as Jason, a New York ladies man, who is as gifted at flirting as he is at avoiding commitment with the many women on his “roster.” When Jason and his best friend, Daniel (The Spectacular Now‘s Miles Teller), learn that their college buddy Mikey (Fruitvale Station‘s Michael B. Jordan) has been dumped by his wife, the guys make a pact to stay single until they turn 30 – but darn if love doesn’t get in the way.

The actors’ chemistry is evident, and screenwriter (and first-time director) Tom Gormican is adept at balancing their storylines, but Gormican’s dialogue is often clunky and the jokes expected. Equal parts rom-com and ’80s sex comedy, That Awkward Moment prefers to – just as Mikey did with his wife – “check all the boxes” as it attempts to appeal to Efron lovers and their boyfriends, while failing to deliver a well-balanced meal for the viewer.

There is one shining light throughout the film, though: British actress Imogen Poots, whose charm and understated sex appeal make it easy to understand why Jason would fall in love with her and why audiences should as well.
Patrick Gomez