Baywatch

Sand, surf and finely sculpted beach bods — that about sums up the positive attributes of Baywatch, which otherwise leaves moviegoers with the cinematic equivalent of second-degree sunburn and saltwater in the eyes.

In some ways, this lackluster big-screen adaptation of the cheesy 1990s television series delivers on its low expectations, even if its sophomoric humor is targeted at a young demographic that might not even remember the source material.

For those needing a refresher, the concept goes behind the scenes with lifeguards at fictional Emerald Bay, headed up by Mitch Buchanan (Dwayne Johnson). During the annual rigorous vetting of new recruits to the team, he clashes with the arrogant Brody (Zac Efron), a disgraced former Olympic swimmer who needs some community service hours.

Once Brody falls in line, he finds himself ill-equipped to handle the rigors of the job, especially when the overzealous Mitch continually ventures outside of his jurisdiction to flex his detective muscle. The latest example is a drug deal that leads to the murder of a councilman on a boat, a subsequent cover-up, and the investigation of a corrupt resort owner (Priyanka Chopra).

The crude and uninspired screenplay can’t decide whether it wants to poke fun, pay tribute, or simply re-create the shallow and cheesy nature of the show. But it never really succeeds at any of them. As Brody exclaims early on: “Are you guys being serious right now? I honestly can’t tell.”

At any rate, the film manages some intermittently amusing sight gags and one-liners, yet most of the raunchy jokes are stale and obvious.

Johnson and Efron — the latter channeling a “Jersey Shore” refugee — each make an effort to elevate the subpar material, although they doesn’t capture the same mismatched buddy chemistry that propelled 21 Jump Street, for example. As the primary female lifeguards, Kelly Rohrbach and Alexandra Daddario are called upon to model their wetsuits, and not much more.

While director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) captures the sun-drenched scenery, David Hasselhoff shows up in a throwaway cameo to pass the torch, and there are some requisite slow-motion dramatic rescues for those seeking nostalgia.

Appropriately enough, Baywatch is a parade of chiseled abs, tanned torsos, and jiggling cleavage. However, the film drowns in its convoluted and melodramatic storyline, apparently unaware that that’s not what we came to see.

 

Rated R, 116 minutes.

Capsule reviews for May 26

Berlin Syndrome

Strong performances bolster this uneven psychological thriller from director Cate Shortland (Somersault) that’s noteworthy more for its setup than its payoff. It follows Clare (Teresa Palmer), an Australian photographer on a solo vacation in Berlin, where she hopes to find herself. Her fling with schoolteacher Andi (Max Riemelt) starts innocently enough, but takes a dark turn after he locks her inside of his apartment for the day, and she realizes it was deliberate. There are familiar themes of obsession, vulnerability and gender politics, but this stylish cautionary tale about foreigners in strange lands manages to generate consistent suspense while mostly avoiding contrivances and genre pitfalls. (Rated R, 116 minutes).

 

Black Butterfly

Lots of head games and macho posturing fails to yield much tension in this thriller that takes place at a rural Rocky Mountain cabin, where fledgling writer Paul (Antonio Banderas) is struggling with his finances and his personal life when he encounters an unstable drifter (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in town and offers him a place to stay. While a serial killer wreaks havoc nearby, the interloper becomes both helpful and destructive as he watches Paul’s continuing downward spiral. It’s modestly compelling for a while, with some solid genre touches, before the screenplay flies off the rails in the second half as the twists become more implausible. (Rated R, 93 minutes).

 

96 Souls

It might someday achieve cult-favorite status among so-bad-it’s-good aficionados. But that’s where the plaudits end for this painfully laborious low-budget science-fiction thriller, which one assumes must be some sort of failed Troma-style spoof instead of something meant to be taken seriously. The plot tracks a scientist (Grinnell Morris) whose accident involving chemicals in the lab gives him the ability to intermittently view the thoughts of those around him, except there are negative ramifications. As it detours into supernatural nonsense with cheap effects, the story is incoherent both from a scientific and a narrative perspective, and the constant mugging of the actors is more obnoxious than amusing. (Not rated, 112 minutes).

 

Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation

Although the intentions outweigh the execution, you don’t need to be a lacrosse fan to admire this insightful documentary that chronicles the Iriquois Nationals lacrosse team hosting 12 countries on Native American soil for the 2015 World Box Lacrosse Championships. Through interviews with players and organizers, the film explains how the Iriquois shaped the history of the sport, and their attempts to use it as a vehicle for cultural understanding, specifically in the face of oppression. The result concentrates too heavily on game footage at the expense of context, yet it conveys a positive message while allowing viewers to appreciate the sport and its unique history. (Not rated, 102 minutes).

Everything, Everything

Next off the assembly line of big-screen adaptations from young-adult novels comes Everything, Everything — a teenage romance that’s not for everyone, everyone.

The target demographic seems to be adolescent girls and fans of the book by Nicola Yoon, who might be more accepting of the cute contrivances and more willing to overlook the film’s sugary sentimentality and abundant narrative flaws.

“My immune system sucks.” That’s how Maddy (Amandla Stenberg) describes her affliction, diagnosed by her physician mother (Anika Noni Rose) as severe combined immunodeficiency, which has caused her to remain inside her carefully sanitized suburban Los Angeles home throughout her 17 years. Venturing outside apparently puts her at risk of disease and death, leaving her nurse (Ana de la Reguera) as the only source of meaningful interaction.

Enter Olly (Nick Robinson), an outsider whose family has moved in next door. The two exchange glances through their respective bedroom windows, and deepen their relationship using social media. Eventually, they give into temptation and arrange to meet in person behind the back of Maddy’s mother, who forbids physical contact.

The screenplay by Mills Goodloe (The Age of Adaline) masquerades as life-affirming until a late revelation will change the perspective of the uninitiated. Meanwhile, director Stella Meghie (Jean of the Joneses) employs a slick visual approach that includes an imaginative re-enactment of text-message conversations through fantasy sequences.

Stenberg (The Hunger Games) bolsters the material with an expressive portrayal that brings depth and complexity to a character who craves normalcy, not pity, and remains upbeat without dwelling on her predicament.

She also generates a reasonable chemistry with Robinson (The Kings of Summer) that makes the film charming in spots, even after a cheesy meet-cute involving a wayward Bundt cake. In fact, their romantic rapport adds a layer of authenticity to a film that otherwise indulges in emotionally manipulative tactics — from intrusive music, to trivialized details about Maddy’s affliction, to increasingly ridiculous plot twists that cause the whole enterprise to fly off the rails in the final act.

What starts out as a reasonably fresh take on stories about debilitating illnesses and unrequited young love winds up as a heavy-handed melodrama that lacks the courage to follow through on its convictions.

 

Rated PG-13, 96 minutes.

Wakefield

On the surface, Wakefield is an incisive look at a marriage in turmoil as seen through the eyes of an ordinary man enduring an apparent midlife crisis.

Yet there’s more to this provocative and mildly unsettling character study, based on an E.L. Doctorow short story, that provides an acting showcase for Bryan Cranston as a man who’s difficult to like but more difficult to dismiss.

Cranston plays the title role as Howard, a successful Manhattan attorney whose personal life is crumbling behind the scenes — at least in his eyes. So one day, without notice or direct provocation, rather than going home to his wife (Jennifer Garner) and two daughters, he impulsively withdraws to the attic of his suburban garage, and spies on his family through a window.

As they worry, days turn into weeks and months, and Howard remains a recluse, almost adopting the life of a bum as he scrounges for food and clothing. Along the way, he questions his intentions and whether it’s possible to rewind his life to better days. And when he eventually does emerge, what will his family think?

The screenplay by director Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club) delves inside the psyche of Howard, who spends the entire film trying to justify his actions to himself through a darkly amusing inner monologue. He asks: “Who hasn’t had the impulse to just put their life on hold for a moment?”

As he sarcastically describes the events next door, moviegoers are left to decide whether he’s just being cruel or brutally honest. Perhaps it’s an act of defiance against middle-class conformity, as he rationalizes.

It would be easier to pity or despise such a character, but Cranston earns sympathy through a performance rich in depth and complexity. He’s forced to act by himself almost from beginning to end, which makes the challenge even more daunting.

Of course, Howard’s voyeurism becomes kind of creepy after a while, and we’re not given enough context to surmise his true motives outside of what we’re told. The structure becomes repetitive, and the overall impact isn’t as profound as it aspires to be.

Still, those willing to suspend their disbelief will find that through its ambiguity, Wakefield develops an intriguing what-if scenario regarding contemporary relationships. It might even be relatable, even if nobody would admit that.

 

Rated R, 106 minutes.

Capsule reviews for May 19

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Both intriguing and frustrating, the latest documentary from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) won’t exactly renew your lost faith in the American financial system. It looks back at the 2008 economic downturn through the eyes of a Chinese immigrant family that ran Abacus Federal Savings, a small bank in Manhattan that became the target of a federal mortgage fraud indictment while their larger competitors received bailouts instead. Structured like a legal thriller, the film invites cynicism and frustration for such unfairness, yet James keeps his focus on the people on the kind-hearted people behind the scenes, which adds charm even if it subtracts suspense. (Not rated, 88 minutes).

 

The Commune

Despite its heartfelt intentions, this semiautobiographical period piece from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (Far from the Madding Crowd) doesn’t have much overall nostalgic or dramatic value. It shows how life changes, not always for the better, after an impulsive Amsterdam couple invites some acquaintances to share a communal living arrangement during a period of sociopolitical turbulence in the 1970s. The period re-creation is a highlight, although considering its title, the film needs more supporting character development to flesh out its central domestic drama. Vinterberg values mood over plot here, and he achieves some powerful moments, even if the result feels too disjointed and emotionally distant. (Not rated, 111 minutes).

 

The Lovers

It’s not the best date movie in the world, but this sharply observed and well-acted drama about a philandering suburban couple provides an intimate and insightful glimpse into contemporary relationships. With their relationship on the rocks, Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) have no clue that they’re cheating on one another, or that the other is secretly plotting to leave their longtime marriage. But will a tense weekend visit from their son (Tyler Ross) spark second thoughts? The mildly contrived screenplay by director Azazel Jacobs (Terri) not only leaves uncertainty with regard to the outcome, it provides reason for emotional investment in both characters. (Rated R, 94 minutes).

 

Radio Dreams

The global pursuit of the American Dream hits the airwaves in this frequently hilarious deadpan comedy about an Iranian radio station in San Francisco, where the owner has arranged an on-air jam session with a Kabul rock band and Metallica. The promotion leads to a much-needed surge in ratings and advertising revenue, although as the hours pass without any signs of the featured guests, the station’s programmer (Mohsen Namjoo) becomes both agitated and desperate. The uneven but amusing script by director Babak Jalili (Frontier Blues) celebrates the unifying powers of art and culture — not to mention capitalism and commerce — while layering such observations with sociopolitical context. (Not rated, 94 minutes).

 

The Survivalist

This deliberately paced post-apocalyptic thriller rewards patience with a character-based approach that gradually builds suspense. It follows a man (Martin McCann) who lives in an isolated cabin in the woods, farming a small plot of land to ward off starvation. But his solitude is disrupted when he reluctantly welcomes two female visitors seeking food and shelter — but perhaps with ulterior motives — which forces him to confront past demons while their safety is threatened. The screenplay by rookie director Stephen Fingleton doesn’t share much context about his characters or their plight, although the well-acted film is rich in unsettling atmosphere, which balances out the inconsistent narrative momentum. (Not rated, 103 minutes).

Snatched

It might feature a choice pairing of big-screen comediennes past and present, but Snatched doesn’t play to the strengths of either of its multitalented stars.

Indeed, both Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn have their moments in this raunchy road-trip comedy about American tourists stranded in the Amazon jungle, even if the story is too thin and predictable to supplement the scattered big laughs.

The film opens with a series of setbacks for Emily (Schumer), a slacker who’s fired from her job as a store clerk and dumped by her boyfriend (Randall Park) just before their trip to South America. Saddled with nonrefundable tickets, Emily reluctantly chooses her slightly overbearing and very paranoid mother (Hawn) to join her.

What starts as a week of bonding on the beach turns sour after a local takes them on a scenic route back to their resort. They’re subsequently kidnapped and held for ransom in a remote village, causing them to confront their fears and differences in a quest for freedom.

In her second vehicle, Schumer doesn’t slide into her role as effortlessly as she did in Trainwreck, which she wrote. In this case, her mischievous shtick feels more obnoxious than endearing, although she does achieve a reasonable chemistry with Hawn, who conveys an effortless charm while returning at age 71 from a 15-year hiatus.

However, the screenplay by Katie Dippold (The Heat) emphasizes its low-brow tendencies while relying on contrived female bonding and strained intergenerational gags. The daughter is hip and adventurous, while the mom is oblivious and overcautious.

Snatched especially bogs down in the second half, once it abruptly transitions into more of a thriller about foreigners trapped in paradise. Yet since the eventual outcome is obvious, there’s never a feeling that our damsels in distress are in any real peril.

Most of the genuine amusement comes from a handful of throwaway jokes — with Schumer nailing some sardonic zingers — and periphery characters, such as Emily’s nerdy, agoraphobic brother (Ike Barinholtz) who tries to become an unlikely hero.

As directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50), the film squanders some picturesque tropical scenery — with Hawaii standing in for Ecuador and Colombia — and it won’t become a favorite of tourism officials in the region. Those involved might have gotten a free exotic vacation, but all we got was the cinematic equivalent of a lousy T-shirt.

 

Rated R, 91 minutes.

Capsule reviews for May 12

Paris Can Wait

This guided tour through the French countryside comes courtesy of director Eleanor Coppola (wife of Francis) and actress Diane Lane, who stars as Anne, the wife of a workaholic filmmaker (Alec Baldwin) whose seven-hour car trip to Paris to catch a flight turns into an adventure with her driver (Arnaud Viard) that covers two days’ worth of fine restaurants, sightseeing and stories. Even if the cross-cultural insight is hardly groundbreaking, Lane’s endearing performance conveys an open-minded curiosity that resonates with moviegoers. The charming result feels stretched at feature length, but it’s a mouth-watering showcase for exotic cuisine that takes full advantage of its scenic surroundings. (Rated PG, 92 minutes).

 

Tracktown

Runners tend to be their own unique breed, and that comes across in this quirky low-budget comedy that follows Plumb (Alexi Pappas), a distance runner intensely training for the high-pressure Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon — the city belonging to the titular nickname. However, her routine is thrown off-track by an injury, prompting a day of rest during which she meets a barista (Chase Offerle) who changes her outlook. Pappas, who’s also a co-director, is convincing enough as she conveys the focused dedication of an elite athlete. However, the breezy film can’t quite go the distance with its string of earnest platitudes and distracting contrivances. (Not rated, 87 minutes).

 

Urban Hymn

While exploring themes of redemption and socioeconomic class, this coming-of-age drama from director Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy) ultimately sings a familiar tune. It follows a London social worker (Shirley Henderson) who takes a juvenile delinquent (Letitia Wright) under her wing by asking her to join the choir. But the teenager can’t escape her past, especially her loyalty to a best friend (Isabella Laughland) with a penchant for violent outbursts and criminal activity. The result is heartfelt but heavy-handed, with the strong performances compromised by a crowd-pleasing approach that feels more sanitized than authentically gritty. Outside of a surprising late plot twist, it’s formulaic and off-key. (Not rated, 114 minutes).

 

The Wedding Plan

There’s a fresh approach to familiar material that drives this modest Israeli romantic comedy, even if the overall impact is forgettable. It centers on Michal (Noa Koler), an Orthodox Jewish woman is dumped by her fiancée just weeks before their nuptials. But rather than canceling the wedding, she becomes determined to find a new groom before the big day, in an ultimate test of faith. As the clock ticks, however, her ensuing encounters with eccentric men only lead to desperation. The script by director Rama Burshtein (Fill the Void) introduces an intriguing spiritual perspective to Michal’s quest, yet the genuine laughs are more sporadic than consistent. (Rated PG, 110 minutes).

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

As you might expect, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a lot like the 2014 blockbuster from which it spawns — only bigger, faster and louder.

The latest high-stakes adventure with the ragtag group of intergalactic heroes features another cool 1970s mixtape and overflows with nostalgic charm, yet lacks the freshness of the first film. Since we’re familiar now with the characters and their antics, the sequel can’t coast as easily on enthusiastic banter, and doesn’t have the narrative clout to compensate.

To recap, the eccentric collection of misfits includes unassuming leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), green-skinned alien Zamora (Zoe Saldana), tough-guy enforcer Drax (Dave Bautista), wisecracking raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), the pint-sized offspring of the anthropomorphic tree from the initial outing.

Nemeses on their perilous odyssey through the cosmos include a mixture of established faces and malevolent newcomers, including Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the ever-present Ravagers, who try to divide and conquer the Guardians. Meanwhile, Peter, a.k.a. Star-Lord, gains elusive clues to his mysterious background when he meets his father (Kurt Russell), while learning little about his motives.

The original film suffered from trying to force its unique characters and imaginative world into a conventional superhero framework. This installment includes more of the same — both strengths and weaknesses — in an effort to appease fans more than newcomers.

The screenplay by returning director James Gunn includes a generous array of amusing sight gags and one-liners. And at least there’s an attempted emotional arc, as he makes an effort to further develop the existing characters, touching on themes including parenthood and surrogate families, instead of resorting to a common sequel crutch of merely introducing new blood.

However, despite some taut action sequences and seamless visual effects, this effort falls victim to many of the same pitfalls as other comic-book adaptations these days. It’s an exercise in spectacle over substance, trying to fill every frame with hyperkinetic visual chaos while incorporating inside jokes and obligatory links to its respective fantasy universe.

As such, Guardians Vol. 2 is a functional enterprise that seems content more to repeat the accomplishments of its predecessor rather than to branch out in ambitious new directions. In other words, it’s content to fit in rather than stand out, and its characters deserve better.

 

Rated PG-13, 136 minutes.

The Dinner

Eating is the least important aspect of The Dinner, an uneven but intriguing drama that includes plenty of dirty laundry and family dysfunction on its menu.

As two couples gather at a posh restaurant to renew acquaintances under difficult circumstances, the encounter is tense from the get-go, and even more so as details are gradually revealed, both about the characters at the table and the meaty main course that has them at odds.

Specifically, Stan (Richard Gere) is a congressman running for governor, a move that his younger wife (Rebecca Hall) views as an opportunity to climb the social ladder. Things aren’t going nearly as smoothly for Stan’s estranged brother, Paul (Steve Coogan), who isn’t getting much support from his wife (Laura Linney) in his misguided efforts to connect with their rebellious teenage son, Michael (Charlie Plummer).

A scandal threatens the campaign when video surfaces online of Michael committing a violent crime, causing the family to contemplate a cover-up strategy under the rationale of protecting him.

The screenplay by director Oren Moverman (The Messenger) is based on a book by Dutch novelist Herman Koch, and makes plenty of changes to the source material — both geographically and thematically — to reflect issues ranging from parental responsibility, to socioeconomic class, to sibling rivalry, to mental illness, to wealth and privilege.

While the dialogue is taut, the performances tend to outshine the material, which struggles in the translation from page to screen. Moverman tries to spice up the action with abundant flashbacks and cynical narration, although such a structure too often stalls the narrative momentum. With most of its action confined to a single setting, perhaps The Dinner would be more impactful on stage.

These are deeply flawed yet fascinating characters for whom it’s generally difficult to sympathize. However, as the story veers in unexpected directions and confronts its moral complexities head-on, the actors add depth amid the bickering and posturing — sometimes in lighthearted ways.

Coogan provides some deadpan laughs with his character’s sardonic misanthropy, which masks inner turmoil and lingering hostility. The film as a whole offers some comic relief as it pokes fun at pretentious eateries.

The messy result is nevertheless relevant and provocative. It’s the kind of film that could generate plenty of dinner-table conversation afterward, which hopefully will be more comfortable by comparison.

 

Rated R, 120 minutes.