Patti Cakes

Chronicling a small-town underdog who dreams of fame and fortune, Patti Cakes features a tune you’ve heard before that’s never been sung quite like this.

Even if it’s set within a familiar coming-of-age framework, this gritty crowd-pleaser about a young New Jersey woman shattering perceptions and stereotypes to pursue her dreams of hip-hop stardom finds an appealing rhythm.

Patti (Danielle Macdonald) is an overweight white girl — that’s three strikes in some rap circles — whose in her twenties yet still living with her disapproving former nightclub-singing single mother (Bridget Everett) in their fledgling blue-collar town.

While enduring nicknames such as “Dumbo” and “White Precious,” she takes out her insecurities and self-esteem issues on a different kind of music — her vicious rhymes that she shares only in impromptu rap battles and with her optimistic friend, Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), between bartending gigs.

Caught between her dream of breaking free from her downtrodden environment and resigning herself to living within it, Patti forms a makeshift band with her small group of friends and fellow social outcasts who exemplify the cultural melting pot in their setting.

Besides Hareesh, there’s a painfully shy outsider (Mamoudou Athie) with a secret stash of recording equipment, and even Patti’s depressed grandmother (Cathy Moriarty), who contributes some unlikely background vocals for a demo track the group hopes can find the right ears.

On the surface, the screenplay by rookie director Geremy Jasper feels like a female companion piece to 8 Mile, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Yet the project keeps itself grounded with a wry sense of humor and appealing character dynamics that proudly and authentically embrace diversity.

More than anything, the film benefits from Macdonald’s enthusiastic performance and a feisty underdog spirit. Her character acts too naïve given that her lyrics and swagger suggest otherwise, although the Australian actress generates sympathy for Patti by exploring her inner conflict.

Sure, Patti Cakes stretches credibility — it’s not quite this easy to make it big in the real world — but sidesteps rags-to-riches clichés.

Accompanied by a feisty girl-power spirit, the film brandishes a confident style and attitude, managing broad-based appeal that transcends cultural backgrounds and musical tastes.

 

Rated R, 108 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Aug. 18

Gook

Although it’s rough around the edges, the expected low-budget trappings work mostly to the benefit of this gritty and evocative drama from director Justin Chon, who also stars as a young Korean-American man who has inherited — along with his slacker brother (David So) — his late father’s fledgling Los Angeles shoe store in 1992. The siblings form a surrogate family for a streetwise young black girl (Simone Baker) just as the Rodney King verdict sets off the L.A. riots, turning the city into racially charged chaos. The black-and-white film is uneven in its narrative structure, but passionate about its message of inclusion without turning heavy-handed. (Not rated, 94 minutes).

 

Shot Caller

Despite a committed performance by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“Game of Thrones”) in the lead role, this ultraviolent thriller from director Ric Roman Waugh (Snitch) is more familiar than fresh. Coster-Waldau plays a former Los Angeles businessman sent to prison for causing a car accident that killed a passenger. After enduring a brutal 10-year sentence, he emerges to find himself unable to get his life back on track, as the film illustrates through flashbacks to his former life, instead becoming a gangster caught up in a criminal lifestyle. Some compelling sequences chronicling brutal prison life can’t compensate for the film’s logically dubious premise and subsequently lazy plotting. (Rated R, 121 minutes).

The Glass Castle

We’ve seen plenty of cinematic stories about dysfunctional families, even those that embrace their shortcomings. But in The Glass Castle, it’s less about the eccentricities of the parents and more about the lingering effects on their children.

The flawed if fascinating film adaptation of the bestselling memoir by Jeannette Walls softens some of the episodes of her troubled childhood from which she emerged remarkably well-adjusted, perhaps in an effort to position itself for mainstream big-screen consumption.

Yet despite its muddled structure, the strong performances and even-handed perspective on irregular parenting and lasting family bonds successfully translates most of the narrative texture from page to screen.

The film tells parallel stories of Walls’ relationship to her family both as a child and as a young adult. She and three siblings grew up in the Appalachian foothills during the 1960s, living a nomadic lifestyle subject to the whims of her father, Rex (Woody Harrelson), whose grifting and fiercely independent methods were borderline abusive if rooted in good intentions — not to mention life lessons about resourcefulness and nonconformity.

Her mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) was an artist and caregiver who despite some ideological differences with Rex, tolerated his outbursts and remained loyal.

The parallel storyline finds Walls (Brie Larson) living in New York during the late 1980s, working as a gossip columnist in New York and trying to reconcile her feelings about her family, particularly her impoverished parents, while preparing to marry a financial adviser (Max Greenfield).

The film marks the second collaboration between Larson and director Destin Cretton (Short Term 12), who also co-wrote the screenplay. His stylish visual approach captures the family’s impulsive lifestyle and rejection of conventional authority.

Harrelson offers a ferocious and fully committed performance that recalls Viggo Mortensen’s Oscar-nominated work in Captain Fantastic, which would make an intriguing companion piece.

Some might feel sympathy for Rex — whose motives and possible condition aren’t fully clarified — while others express contempt. Although the film makes its stance a bit too clear, it leaves just enough ambiguity so that both sides can find emotional common ground.

The Glass Castle struggles to bring its two time periods together (and might have been better off focusing exclusively on one or the other), even if it also sidesteps clichés about redemption or nostalgia. You don’t need to share the film’s optimism to appreciate its authenticity.

 

Rated PG-13, 127 minutes.

The Only Living Boy in New York

For a film about authors, The Only Living Boy in New York could use a couple more rewrites. Instead, this examination of fractured families through the eyes of stuffy artistic types is more pretentious than profound.

The latest example of aristocratic New Yorkers lamenting about failed relationships doesn’t do justice to either Woody Allen or to the eponymous Simon & Garfunkel tune on the soundtrack.

The story centers on Thomas (Callum Turner), an aspiring novelist waiting for his breakthrough as he deals with a host of personal issues. His even-keeled girlfriend (Kiersey Clemons) seems reluctant to commit. His mother (Cynthia Nixon) is struggling with mental illness. And his overbearing father (Pierce Brosnan) is a fledgling book publisher involved in an affair with a subordinate (Kate Beckinsale), prompting Thomas to seek both revenge and approval.

Then there’s W.F. (Jeff Bridges), an alcoholic neighbor in Thomas’ apartment building who dispenses pearls of wisdom while lamenting about the city’s literary scene. His motives remain cloudy as he harbors secrets about his past.

There are some intriguing character dynamics in the screenplay by Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty), although it’s difficult to connect with the film’s batch of self-absorbed writers and schemers, most notably Thomas, despite his many relatable qualities. He’s slightly awkward, somewhat charming, moderately intellectual, and rather uncertain about what he wants to do with his life. But does that mean we root for him?

Bridges is engaging as the sage busybody, mostly through his sardonic narration. His performance adds a layer of subtlety that effectively masks his inner turmoil, although the dime-store philosophy gradually turns from amusing to annoying. “He’s surrendered too much of his past to give up on his future,” he theorizes about Thomas.

As directed by Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), you wish The Only Living Boy in New York conveyed a better sense of time and place. Instead, Manhattan is talked about more than seen, with a rant about the city’s gentrification during an early dinner-party sequence providing a highlight.

A third-act twist tries to steer the entire narrative in an almost arbitrary — and unfortunately sentimental — new direction, except that the film never earns its desired emotional payoff. Despite a few compelling chapters, the result winds up as shallow and superficial as its characters.

 

Rated R, 88 minutes.

Good Time

You can’t accuse Good Time of false advertising, although its title certainly holds true for the audience more than the characters.

This visceral crime thriller from sibling directors Josh and Benny Safdie (Heaven Knows What) benefits from a fully committed performance from Robert Pattinson and a gritty visual texture.

Pattinson plays Connie, a New York hoodlum who commits a bank robbery alongside his mentally disabled brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), only to have the scheme unravel during the several hours that follow.

During the getaway, Nick stumbles and is captured, which prompts an all-night effort by Connie to free him, either through legal means or otherwise. Connie’s girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) agrees to help with bail, but that doesn’t go as planned. Making matters worse, Nick’s grandmother (Saida Mansoor) keeps blabbing about their unscrupulous behavior to anyone who will listen.

As Connie’s anguish turns to desperation, he finds reluctant allies in a wayward teenager (Taliah Webster) and a drug-dealing parolee (Buddy Duress) who Connie meets through a hilarious case of mistaken identity.

Amid its nocturnal odyssey, the film yields tension through a constant sense of unease — conveyed through abundant tight close-ups, the pulsating techno score, and the antics of the impulsive loose-cannon protagonist at its center.

Although technically polished, it maintains a distinctly rough visual style that’s more than just gimmicks, providing an immersive glimpse into its uncompromising world of crime and punishment.

Good Time also provides a showcase of Pattinson’s versatility, as his ferocious transformation leaves behind the brooding British heartthrob persona on which he established his career. Surrounding him, once again the Safdies manage to coax authentic performances from a collection of several novice actors.

The screenplay by Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein puts a fresh spin on familiar themes such as sibling bonds, tormented crooks and urban socioeconomic despair. The film doesn’t provide an easy path to redemption or catharsis, which makes it more challenging to sympathize with this quirky batch of oddballs with few benevolent qualities.

A good time might not necessarily be had by all. Yet even if the characters are unsavory and their environment is seedy, the film’s scrappy urgency and hyperkinetic energy make them compulsively watchable.

 

Rated R, 99 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Aug. 11

Annabelle: Creation

Almost inevitably, this sequel to a spinoff is an unnecessary genre exercise, but at least it’s a stylish improvement upon its predecessor. This follow-up to the 2014 film that follows the demonic doll from The Conjuring tells its origin story — about a dollmaker (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife (Miranda Otto), who are still grieving the death of their young daughter when they welcome a nun and six girls from a shuttered orphanage into their farmhouse, only to watch the deceased girl get revenge. The film delivers some scattered frights to please fans of the series, although the script isn’t original enough to generate much genuine suspense. (Rated R, 109 minutes).

 

Pilgrimage

If you aren’t familiar with the Norman wars in Ireland, then this brutal action saga won’t do much to fill in the historical gaps, except for the brutal part. Against the backdrop of a 13th century Norman invasion, a handful of monks are chosen to transport a valuable religious relic to Rome, with their journey growing more perilous by the day. Among those who must protect their lives as much as the cargo are a young novice (Tom Holland) and a hot-tempered mute (Jon Bernthal). The film is stylish but emotionally distant, more concerned with bloody fights and weaponry than any meaningful character or thematic depth. (Not rated, 96 minutes).

 

Planetarium

Although Natalie Portman tries her best as a psychic medium, she can’t resurrect this tedious French drama from director Rebecca Zlotowski (Grand Central) that lacks the payoff to match its intriguing concept. It takes place in 1930s Paris, where Portman in a spiritualist who stages séances with her younger sister (Lily-Rose Depp) for aristocrats willing to pay up. One of them (Emmanuel Salinger) envisions film roles for the siblings, who reluctantly agree to his wishes. Despite some visual flourishes and strong performances, the film’s bilingual screenplay detours in different directions without establishing a firm foundation in character or tone. It flashes but squanders its potential. (Not rated, 105 minutes).

 

Whose Streets

Its topical relevance is almost startling, yet the effectiveness of this provocative documentary following the rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement is about more than simple good timing. It provides an incisive glimpse into the aftermath of the 2014 police-involved shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, by chronicling the events from the perspective of community activists and family members of slain teenager Michael Brown. Obviously, the film’s resonance transcends the specifics of its setting. Yet even if the infuriating (in a good way) result is naturally one-sided — plus lacking in broader context — it’s also passionate and persuasive, and might prove galvanizing to those with an open mind. (Rated R, 90 minutes).

The Dark Tower

The checkered legacy of Stephen King adaptations for the big screen takes a significant downturn with The Dark Tower, a disastrous effort to launch a fantasy franchise that fails its source material on nearly every level.

What was an ambitious mix of genres and settings on the written page becomes a woefully incoherent mess of overwrought action and watered-down subtext that won’t please either fans or newcomers to King’s acclaimed series of novels.

The film apparently is meant to be a sequel of sorts, while incorporating prior narrative elements. Yet what results is mostly awkward and consistently confusing, with jarring shifts in tone — involving elements of time travel, old-fashioned Western hero archetypes, supernatural monsters, a metaphysical universal order, and more — along with a basic failure to explain simple rules or motives.

The story starts in the present day, where Jake (Tom Taylor) is a precocious youngster whose drawings reflect nightmares he insists are true. And indeed, while his parents dismiss his visions, Jake is soon thrust into a sprawling battle for intergalactic supremacy involving parallel dimensions.

He is transported to a post-apocalyptic future, where he finds an ally in Roland (Idris Elba), a beleaguered leader of the Gunslingers trying to save the universe from Walter (Matthew McConaughey), a demonic wizard trying to unleash evil beings through harvesting the minds of children who are key to destroying the Dark Tower, which protects Earth and other planets.

Danish director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) crafts some haunting imagery from a combination of splashy effects and striking landscapes — whether the glossy sheen of contemporary Manhattan or the stark desolation of a futuristic Western wasteland.

However, any visual appeal is compromised by the hopelessly muddled screenplay, which exhibits a blatant disregard for extracting any character depth or sociopolitical context from the books, and maintains a frustrating emotional distance from its characters and their plight.

Indeed, it’s difficult to generate much sympathy for Jack, a nerdy moppet with a Justin Bieber haircut, as he battles against a cartoonish villain with slicked-back hair, greasy skin and a trench coat channeling a cut-rate illusionist lacking the magic to rescue this train wreck.

The film reduces a complex mythology to a glorified video game that funnels its thinly sketched subplots into an obligatory final showdown. But for a concept with the future of mankind in the balance, the film itself feels inconsequential.

 

Rated PG-13, 94 minutes.

Detroit

While its true story takes place a half-century ago, Detroit practically feels like it’s been extracted from present-day headlines.

That’s the point of this harrowing history lesson made more impactful by the abundant contemporary resonance in recreating a weeklong series of racially motivated riots in 1967 that spotlighted systemic discrimination, police brutality and the justice system.

The film marks the third collaboration between director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty), and their first that doesn’t concern military conflicts in the Middle East. Rather, this powerful effort hits significantly closer to home, both geographically and emotionally, by depicting on ongoing war that shows no signs of stopping.

The film takes a broad perspective on the violent street riots by black residents against the city’s largely white police force, triggered by ongoing socioeconomic inequality, mutual suspicion and distrust, and other factors bubbling beneath the surface.

It generally follows a handful of characters, including a morally conflicted black security guard (John Boyega) who tries to make peace, an aspiring Motown singer (Algee Smith) and his teenage friend (Jacob Latimore), and a hot-tempered white cop (Will Poulter) with an antiquated view on race relations.

As the city descends into widespread looting and anarchic chaos, with state and federal troops dispatched to assist, the men all converge on a rundown hotel, where the sound of gunfire leads to a sadistic night of interrogation that spirals out of control.

While it’s gritty and evocative look into a specific time and place, the film succeeds in transcending a single setting or instance of civil disobedience. The hand-held camerawork creates an immersive documentary feel that enhances the film’s keen attention to period detail.

Boal’s script is based on real characters and events, but speculative when it comes to some details of the central incident. The film lacks context in spots and flattens out in some of its quieter character-driven moments, yet is bolstered by an even-handed perspective and a strong ensemble cast.

Intense and provocative, it’s a gripping and emotionally draining drama that is, by necessity, difficult to watch at times. Perhaps the subject matter renders it easier to admire than enjoy.

Glimmers of hope aside, the residual feelings of anger and shame after watching Detroit aren’t an indictment against the titular city, but rather an indictment on all of us.

 

Rated R, 143 minutes.

Wind River

Many times, the image of red blood on white snow is as beautiful as it is haunting. With the arrival of a fresh coat of snow, the blood might be covered up, but it doesn’t disappear.

Such is the case with Wind River, a stylish and suspenseful thriller from director Taylor Sheridan (the screenwriter of Sicario and Hell or High Water) that benefits as much from its evocative wintry landscapes as from its strong performances and its layered murder mystery.

The film takes place on a rural reservation in western Wyoming, where a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracker named Cory (Jeremy Renner) — he “hunts predators,” he says — discovers the dead body of a teenage girl who apparently was raped.

Still reeling from a series of personal setbacks, Cory has ties to the tribal community, and begins asking questions along with the local lawman (Graham Greene). Then an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to launch an investigation that becomes bogged down in bureaucratic red tape over jurisdictional disputes between federal, county, and tribal authorities.

Nevertheless, their combined persistence brings them into contact with some seedy folks who inhabit the surrounding lands, including the victim’s family and some oil-rig workers with questionable ethics.

Taken on its own, the plot — which apparently is inspired by true events — doesn’t add up to much. Yet the atmospheric touches elevate the proceedings, as Sheridan immerses you in a world in which winter lasts almost year-round, where the primary mode of transportation is a snowmobile, and where lingering hostility toward outsiders often causes frontier justice to rule.

Although the timeframe is contemporary, it feels like a throwback to simpler times, without the intrusion of technology or big-city chaos. There’s an authenticity to the film’s depiction of life on the reservation, with its socioeconomic volatility and harsh climate proving both daunting and isolating.

Sheridan’s character-driven approach yields some top-notch portrayals, with Renner demonstrating his versatility as a loner whose emotions remain largely internalized. Meanwhile, Greene is terrific, and so is Gil Birmingham as the grieving father of the victim.

Provocative without turning heavy-handed, Wind River is deliberately paced but gradually ratchets up the tension. Even as it shifts toward more conventional Tarantino-style melodrama in the brutal final act, the film downplays the narrative specifics in favor of more textured chills dictated by its setting.

 

Rated R, 107 minutes.