Capsule reviews for March 3

Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe

The venerable style of dance revue is alive and well according to this documentary, which chronicles a handful of performers both on and off the stage who use their provocative moves as an outlet — either for the sake of creativity, or fashion sense, or personal growth or self-confidence. While the film — through, ahem, revealing interviews — has fun capturing the personalities that help to perpetuate this subculture, it doesn’t put their stories into broader context or offer insight into the contemporary appeal of the shows. It aspires to clear up misconceptions and portray burlesque as an art form, yet doesn’t provide sufficient depth toward that goal. (Not rated, 76 minutes).

 

Headshot

The title might accurately describe the impact to moviegoers of this relentlessly violent action saga from Indonesia, which stars Iko Uwais (The Raid) as a stranger who arrives in an island village with amnesia, and is nursed back to health at a local hospital. Not long afterward, however, he becomes the target of ruthless gangsters and assassins while still uncertain about his own identity, let alone why these guys want him dead. Yet while his memory is still fuzzy, his fighting skills remain sharp, leading to a barrage of visually dazzling martial-arts sequences. Genre aficionados might enjoy the ultraviolent intensity, even if the result feels repetitive. (Not rated, 118 minutes).

 

Lavender

Style trumps substance in this atmospheric and mildly creepy low-budget thriller, which follows a photographer (Abbie Cornish) who is diagnosed with mild amnesia following a car accident, which causes her to experience hallucinations tied to past trauma in her life. She has a particular fondness for pictures of old houses, which prompts her to visit the family farm where she grew up, now operated by her uncle (Dermot Mulroney), to sort things out. Unfortunately, some stylish visuals from director Ed Gass-Donnelly (The Last Exorcism Part II) support a screenplay that bogs down in contrivances and fails to build consistent suspense. It’s more build-up than payoff. (Not rated, 92 minutes).

Get Out

The marketplace is loaded with horror films that either subvert or indulge in genre conventions, but Get Out does both with a clever audacity that’s both invigorating and thought-provoking.

Despite a few jump scares, this assured feature directorial debut from comedian Jordan Peele is more subtle and subdued than traditional horror — a clever balance of subversive frights and social commentary that still manages to keep you guessing.

After a startling opener that sets an appropriate tone, the film settles into the story of Rose (Allison Williams), who is planning to introduce her new boyfriend, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), to her parents during a weekend at the family’s rural estate. She assures him that because he’s black, and she’s white, it won’t cause any friction.

Upon arrival, preconceived notions on both sides yield some awkwardness with the outspoken dad (Bradley Whitford), the hypnotist mom (Catherine Keener) and the loose-cannon brother (Caleb Landry Jones), with Chris feeling especially uneasy after meeting a black maid and gardener who act strangely.

The discomfort escalates during a party with some family friends, when a bizarre encounter with a familiar face from his past (Lakeith Stanfield) leads Chris to suspect some more sinister intentions behind his visit that may or may not be racially motivated.

Get Out gradually builds suspense with its lighthearted yet provocative examination of racial tensions, achieved through an adept recombination of familiar elements with regard to relationship dynamics.

It’s a stylish and well-crafted genre exercise with a concept that isn’t exactly original. Horror aficionados can get their fill of random weirdness and creepy twists. Still, while the narrative logic isn’t completely immune to scrutiny, the film’s character-driven texture helps to overcome some of the more forced or formulaic aspects.

Peele’s script tweaks perceptions and stereotypes, as well as mainstream expectations, in ways that are both funny and unsettling. Given the involvement of a filmmaker who is best known for his comedic background, most of the material is played with a straight face.

British actor Kaluuya (Sicario) brings depth to the lead role, which acts as the audience’s window into the family secrets that drive the plot, especially in the final act. However, even in its more standard conclusion, there’s plenty going on beneath the surface.

 

Rated R, 104 minutes.

Collide

Plenty of expensive cars were harmed during the making of Collide, a low-octane crime thriller in which the most compelling characters aren’t the ones with two legs, but those with four wheels.

This collection of chases and shootouts, staged with minimal urgency and only moderate visual flair, charges through exotic European locales while taking itself far too seriously.

The action begins with an American tourist named Casey (Nicholas Hoult) striking up a romance with Juliette (Felicity Jones) after they meet at a rave in Germany. He’s smitten to the point that after promising to clean up his past filled with petty crime, Casey is lured back into his unscrupulous past when Juliette experiences a medical emergency and can’t afford a life-saving procedure.

He agrees to a job transporting drug shipments for a gangster (Ben Kingsley) to make some quick cash. When the scheme goes awry, he becomes a target for a ruthless rival (Anthony Hopkins) of his boss.

Most of the film features Casey on the run from nondescript bad guys in various vehicles, incorporating gratuitous use of slow-motion and a pulsating techno soundtrack for emphasis. Yet while weaving in and out of traffic in an SUV to a chorus of squeaking tires and revving engines might provide some thrills for gearheads, it hardly qualifies as a classic cinematic car chase.

Plus, the film’s central romance lacks conviction, which really doesn’t matter because any plot developments — along with the abundant brooding and macho posturing — function merely to set up a barrage of far-fetched action sequences.

Although it develops some mild intrigue once it gets into gear, the screenplay by Scott Frazier (XXX: Return of Xander Cage) and director Eran Creevy (Welcome to the Punch) isn’t much concerned with character depth or narrative logic. The storytelling is pedestrian and predictable, without enough stylish set pieces to compensate.

The film wastes the talents of some actors who have done much better work elsewhere. Among the two Oscar winners, at least Kingsley chews the scenery in amusing fashion, growling through a German accent while sporting some awesome retro shades.

However, despite some impressive stunt work, Collide doesn’t achieve the desired adrenaline rush.

 

Rated PG-13, 98 minutes.

A United Kingdom

Most of us have probably never paused to consider Botswana’s road to independence, but as A United Kingdom illustrates, the oppression and conflict that the southern African nation was forced to overcome had its unlikely roots in romance.

Specifically, this true-life period drama puts a fresh spin on familiar themes by detailing how racial segregation and colonialism caused a political movement built more on unity than division.

What starts as a courtship between a 1940s law student (David Oyelowo) and a London office clerk (Rosamund Pike) encounters a host of unforeseen ramifications after they are married. He’s Seretse Khama, the heir to the throne of his tribe in the British colony of Bechuanaland. She’s Ruth Williams, a white English girl from an influential family.

Their interracial relationship meets with disapproval on almost all fronts. Seretse’s uncle (Vusi Kunene) has some pull with the British government, particularly with a high-ranking ambassador (Jack Davenport), and arranges to have his nephew banished before he assumes the throne. Even though Seretse remains popular back home for his visionary ideas, his exile keeps him separated from Ruth, who remains in Africa to avoid bureaucratic obstacles.

There are other factors in play, too, such as the rise of the Apartheid movement in neighboring South Africa and the discovery of valuable diamonds through a top-secret mining operation. However, Seretse is forced to watch from afar.

Oyelowo (Selma) again showcases his versatility in his portrayal of a man who wouldn’t settle for choosing between love and power, but was willing to fight for both. Pike (Gone Girl) also brings depth to her role while conveying a convincing chemistry with her co-star. And that’s Oyelowo’s actual wife, Jessica, playing his rival’s wife on screen.

British director Amma Asante (Belle) manages to avoid heavy-handed clichés during the film’s impassioned speeches about equality and freedom. And the material is staged with sufficient attention to historical context and detail.

That also carries over to the screenplay by Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky), which seems to skim the surface on race relations during that era, yet develops intrigue by weaving together its intimate love story with broader geopolitical issues integral to Seretse’s homeland.

Although the slick crowd-pleaser doesn’t take nearly as many risks as its protagonist, the underlying message in A United Kingdom manages to cross geographic and generational boundaries.

 

Rated PG-13, 111 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Feb. 24

Bitter Harvest

Lovers torn apart by conflict. One of the most tried-and-true cinematic formulas is given another whirl in this woefully heavy-handed period piece about the Holodomor, a genocidal attack on Ukraine by the Stalin regime during the rise of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. That’s when an artist (Max Irons) joins a resistance movement to help free working-class Ukrainians from starvation while trying to reunite with his childhood crush (Samantha Banks). Any intriguing historical context is jettisoned in favor of absurd embellishments that lack subtlety and authenticity. Worse, the film’s slick ineptitude exploits the efforts of the real-life freedom fighters it aspires to salute. (Rated R, 103 minutes).

 

Punching Henry

A showcase for the unique comic and musical talents of its star, this deadpan comedy finds Henry Phillips essentially portraying himself, as a struggling performer playing empty clubs while awaiting a breakthrough that never comes. That’s until he meets a reality-show producer (J.K. Simmons) who presents Henry with a show concept that’s more mean-spirited than self-deprecating, causing him to choose between art and commerce. Inside jokes and cameos abound as Phillips provides some solid laughs with his genuine stage and screen presence, which balances bumbling antics with offbeat charm. The result is endearing but also an incisive look at redemption and the fringes of fame. (Not rated, 95 minutes).

 

Rock Dog

Considering the title, you’d at least expect that this lackluster animated comedy would have better music. Instead, this off-key adventure never finds a consistent rhythm, in either its audio or visuals. Bodi (voiced by Luke Wilson) is a young Tibetan Mastiff who develops an affinity for rock music and leaves home against the advice of his disapproving father (J.K. Simmons) to track down a reclusive rock-star cat (Eddie Izzard) in the big city. Plenty of anthropomorphic animal hijinks ensue, which ultimately makes it feel more familiar than fresh. At any rate, despite lessons for kiddos about following your dreams, the film’s humor most often falls flat. (Rated PG, 80 minutes).

A Cure for Wellness

Don’t drink the water. It’s sound advice when visiting foreign countries, and it could have saved the characters in A Cure for Wellness quite a bit of trouble.

Rich in atmosphere but poor in substance, this slow-burning psychological thriller from director Gore Verbinski (The Ring) winds up more tedious than terrifying.

The film follows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a young executive at an American company on the cusp of a merger, who is dispatched to Europe to retrieve the firm’s troubled CEO (Tom Flynn) from a sanitarium in the foothills of the Swiss Alps.

When he arrives, Lockhart finds his mission complicated by some strange happenings at the facility, exacerbated by a car accident that turns him from a short-term visitor into a long-term patient. Still haunted by nightmares from his own past, he becomes suspicious of the head doctor (Jason Isaacs) and his connection to a strange girl (Mia Goth) who receives special treatment.

The doctor convinces the patients to constantly drink water that supposedly comes from an aquifer and has accelerated healing powers. But Lockhart is skeptical and winds up in a fight for his life as he pieces together the truth.

For a while, the film puts a fresh spin on territory that’s familiar — to those who’ve seen Shutter Island, most notably — with its appropriately claustrophobic setting and its random hallucinations and incidents of bizarre behavior that confuse fantasy and reality.

Verbinski (who helmed the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies) deserves credit for his stylish visual approach that peppers the material with unsettling imagery that largely refrains from cheap thrills and over-reliance on special effects.

The screenplay by Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) provides some clever twists and character quirks that keep things interesting for a while before turning into a rambling, self-indulgent genre exercise in the final hour that might elicit fewer scares and more snickers. In particular, the creepy low-key mystery runs off the rails with an incoherent finale that clouds character motives and drains much of the suspense preceding it.

DeHaan (Chronicle) offers a compelling portrayal, although his efforts are stifled by a project that seems more intent on visual rather than visceral frights. By the end, A Cure for Wellness might drive you insane.

 

Rated R, 146 minutes.

The Great Wall

If you missed the chapter in your history book about ancient China being attacked by an army of giant flesh-eating lizards, then The Great Wall can happily fill you in.

This big-budget adventure from director Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers) is an extreme exercise in spectacle over substance in which eye-popping visuals take precedence over narrative coherence.

At least the film is up front about separating fact from “legend,” and which side it falls on. But does that excuse a generic period action movie with stiff dialogue and shallow characters? The lush cinematography and seamless 3D visual effects are certainly impressive, even if the bilingual screenplay doesn’t bother with much historical context.

The story ostensibly takes place shortly after completion of the wall, although the exact time frame isn’t clear. Matt Damon stars as a warrior from an outside land who becomes imprisoned along with his colleague (Pedro Pascal) while trying to purloin some ammunition.

When they reveal an encounter with a vicious supernatural creature, which turns out to be one of many such beasts planning an attack on the Chinese people, the outsider is freed to join the local military — at the request of an alluring female commander (Jing Tian) — and lead the effort to prevent mass destruction.

Amid the far-fetched nonsense, Damon’s character provides some unintentional laughs along the way with his ridiculous facial hair and macho lines such as: “I’m alive today because I trust no one.”

Only sporadically does the film hint at more intriguing explorations of spirituality, cultural tradition and the sociopolitical landscape of the time. But then another monster attacks, bearing its massive teeth, ready to devour any dramatic depth while it’s still hot.

Indeed, there’s some fun to be had if you check your brain at the door. The bulk of the film is a barrage of visually spectacular action sequences with menacing creatures, slow-motion shots of arrows and fireballs, and death defying swordplay — with the 5,500-mile wall as the centerpiece. So while it’s not exactly a wonder of the world, it’s certainly not boring.

There’s a somewhat intriguing backstory to the international nature of the production for those who care to investigate. As for what’s on screen, it all leads to a predictably elaborate final showdown showing that conveys the cheesy intent. When it comes to emotional investment, The Great Wall crumbles.

 

Rated PG-13, 103 minutes.

In Dubious Battle

If John Steinbeck isn’t rolling over in his grave over the new big-screen adaptation of In Dubious Battle, he’s probably at least shaking his head.

While it’s faithful to the author’s text, this heartfelt effort from prolific actor-director James Franco misses an opportunity to bring sufficient contemporary relevance to its incendiary Depression-era source material.

The setting is familiar for Steinbeck readers: It takes place in California during the 1930s, at an apple orchard where the fruit pickers are being gouged by a greedy landowner (Robert Duvall) during desperate times.

Franco plays Doc, a radical instigator who wants to organize a strike. He sways a young sidekick (Nat Wolff) and a respected family man (Vincent D’Onofrio) to join his cause. But once the protestors dig in and management refuses to buckle, Doc’s forceful style starts to wear thin on the laborers.

However, despite the dwindling morale, Doc’s commitment can’t be denied. He even helps deliver a baby for a young woman (Selena Gomez) who’s been displaced, in between his troop-rallying speeches and negotiations on behalf of workers’ rights.

The film assembles an impressive ensemble cast, considering its limited budget. It benefits from a roster of recognizable faces including Ed Harris, Bryan Cranston, Sam Shepard, Zach Braff and Josh Hutcherson in smaller roles.

Despite some heavy-handed narration and a blunt closing-title plea, Franco’s attempts to provide a connection to modern-day protesters or a more general salute to grassroots activism feel more strained than sincere. “People wanna know their lives matter,” his character explains pedantically.

A similar lack of subtlety pervades the oversimplified screenplay by Matt Rager, who also collaborated with Franco on his adaptations of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. The film has charisma and ambition, even if it’s missing a consistent sense of narrative urgency.

To a certain extent, In Dubious Battle shares the same feisty and resilient attitude as its characters, and also shares the ability to be admired more for effort than execution. Still, as a defiant working-class call to action, the result lacks the texture and depth of Steinbeck’s original. In the social-media age, it hardly feels worthy of a hashtag.

 

Rated R, 110 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Feb. 17

American Fable

This low-key thriller is never more than mildly chilling or unsettling, but provides an example of how ambition and atmosphere can help overcome muddled storytelling. It takes place in the 1980s and follows a fledgling farmer (Kip Pardue), whose socially awkward young daughter (Peyton Kennedy) befriends a stranger (Richard Schiff) imprisoned in a nearby silo. However, secrets about the man’s identity and motives prompt a sinister revenge plot. The screenplay by rookie director Anne Hamilton has a few intriguing twists to mask its contrivances — and it avoids becoming too heavy-handed about the plight of the American farmer. Meanwhile, her filmmaking is appropriately stylish yet restrained. (Not rated, 96 minutes).

 

Fist Fight

Cyberbullying might be all the rage these days, but two teachers agree to settle their feud the old-fashioned way in this lackluster variation on Three O’Clock High. A timid high-school English teacher (Charlie Day) inadvertently causes a hot-tempered colleague (Ice Cube) to be fired on the last day of school — amid a bevy of senior pranks — leading to the titular after-school challenge along with a social-media frenzy. Instead of a timely satire on the burdens of teachers in contemporary public schools, the film defaults to low-brow gags that feel completely detached from reality. There are some big laughs amid the predictable build-up to the fracas. (Rated R, 91 minutes).

 

From Nowhere

Recent headlines have added a layer of urgency to this otherwise modest drama about immigrants chasing the American Dream. In this case, the bittersweet film follows a trio of undocumented teenagers from different backgrounds attending high school in the Bronx — a Guinean boy (Mallory McCree), a Peruvian girl (Raquel Castro) and a Dominican girl (Octavia Chavez-Richmond). As they tackle cultural issues in their everyday lives, they also encounter plenty of bureaucratic red tape with immigration officials. What it lacks in technical polish and unique context, the film compensates with heartfelt performances from its leads and gritty insight into its characters. It’s easy to root for them. (Not rated, 89 minutes).

 

Voodoo

Some outtakes from Blair Witch iPhone fan fiction might as well comprise this amateurish micro-budget horror exercise that’s more consistently cheesy than frightening. Using the tired found-footage conceit, the film tracks an emotionally fragile New Orleans woman (Samantha Stewart) during her California vacation to visit a cousin (Ruth Reynolds), only to realize that some sinister family secrets have followed her. After rambling through some bad accents, annoying female bonding and a Ron Jeremy cameo, the film sends its lead character literally to Hell, at which point at least some creativity kicks in. Unfortunately, it’s more gimmicky than scary. And little of it makes any sense. (Not rated, 84 minutes).

 

You’re Killing Me Susana

It would be easy to dismiss this low-budget Mexican romantic comedy for its broad approach and familiar narrative structure, yet there’s a perceptive cross-cultural texture beneath the surface that causes it to rise above typical relationship squabbles. It follows a fledgling telenovela star (Gael Garcia Bernal) with a history of infidelity and alcoholism whose wife (Veronica Echegui) leaves him one night without explanation. He quietly tracks Susana to an Iowa university where she’s pursuing her writing dream, although he’s now an outsider, both physically and emotionally, seeking redemption and reconciliation. Solid performances cause the film’s character-driven moments to resonate beyond its more formulaic trappings. (Not rated, 102 minutes).