Wonder

We’re not supposed to judge someone solely by their appearance, as Wonder tells us, but the film itself tends to delve only skin-deep.

The well-meaning drama could find a soft spot with anyone who’s felt like an outsider, especially during their formative years. Yet by lacking subtlety and tugging too aggressively at the heartstrings, it misses an opportunity to be more impactful.

The story centers on Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), who was born with severe facial deformities that required several surgeries, prompting his mother (Julia Roberts) to homeschool him as he bashfully wears an astronaut helmet in public.

As fifth grade starts, Auggie’s father (Owen Wilson) decides to place him in a mainstream private school to encourage social interaction, knowing the risk for bullying. Alongside the stares and taunts from classmates, the precocious yet painfully shy Auggie manages to make a few friends, with some assistance from the kind headmaster (Mandy Patinkin).

His travails have unexpected consequences for those around him, including his teenage sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), whose adolescent crises become lost in a domestic world that constantly  revolves around Auggie’s need for attention.

The screenplay takes a structural cue from its source novel by R.J. Palacio by devoting chapters specifically to the backstories of some key characters, but it doesn’t fully commit itself to such a strategy. Arguably, Via is the most intriguing player, although her story too often is shoved to the backburner by a main narrative that feels false in its awkward conclusion.

As directed by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), the film has its heart in the right place, and it’s genuinely powerful in spots. However, equally as often, its character-driven charms are replaced by sentimental platitudes and music cues in an attempt to accentuate the inspirational nature of the material.

Still, Tremblay (Room) showcases remarkably versatility for such a young actor, and the rest of the youngsters in the cast bring depth and authenticity to what could have been standard-issue roles.

Wonder makes a worthwhile plea for acceptance, both for others and for yourself. Yet unlike the 1985 drama Mask, which covers similar subject matter, the film unfortunately provides depth to its circumstances over its characters.

 

Rated PG, 113 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Nov. 17

Almost Friends

Some intriguing coming-of-age concepts are lost in a heavy-handed mishmash in this lightweight romance about Charlie (Freddie Highmore), an aspiring chef who has a crush on a local barista (Odeya Rush), whose boyfriend is an arrogant jock (Jake Abel). Besides that obstacle, Charlie must contend with his own social awkwardness and a family life thrown into disarray by a sudden visit from his estranged father (Christopher Meloni). The two stars develop an offbeat chemistry, although the screenplay by director Jake Goldberger (Don McKay) pushes an abundance of cutesy contrivances to muddle the emotional payoff. Despite some solid moments, there’s not enough freshness amid the familiarity. (Not rated, 101 minutes).

 

Angelica

There’s not much substance beneath the Gothic horror surface in this mildly unsettling but mostly tedious psychological thriller from director Mitchell Lichtenstein (Teeth). It takes place in Victorian London, where a mother (Jena Malone) experiences hauntings after a troubled birth, which prompts some overprotective maternal instincts that cause alarm with her high-society husband (Ed Stoppard). Amid the muted emotions and pretentious supernatural trappings, the handsomely mounted film hints at deeper Freudian explorations of sexual repression and gender politics. Yet it remains cold and emotionally distant, and not especially creepy, only somewhat redeemed by an intensely wacko finale that at least should generate discussion afterward. (Not rated, 95 minutes).

 

Cook Off

It shouldn’t be a surprise that this ensemble comedy feels so stale — it was made about a decade ago and is just now finding its way to theaters. That also explains the presence of a much younger Melissa McCarthy as one of a handful of eccentric contestants who bring their wacky recipes to a national cooking contest to compete for a million-dollar prize. The mostly improvised dialogue and mockumentary structure provides only intermittent chuckles in this lampoon of reality cooking competition shows, except the film is neither witty nor insightful in its comic observations, instead relying on low-brow gags and stereotypes out of desperation. (Rated R, 98 minutes).

 

Porto

The titular Portuguese coastal city provides a resplendent backdrop for this gritty yet evocative romance in which the performances are deeper and more complex than the material. It follows the relationship ups and downs of an American expatriate (the late Anton Yelchin) and a French student (Lucie Lucas) who each have powerful memories of the passionate one-night stand they once shared. While the overall impact is slight and the nonlinear script — bittersweet and deliberately paced — feels disjointed in spots, rookie director Gabe Klinger mixes film styles to craft some lovely imagery. Plus, the two actors have an appealing chemistry that conveys both intimacy and poignancy. (Not rated, 76 minutes).

 

Sweet Virginia

Strong performances elevate this slow-burning thriller set in the appropriately chilly backdrop of Alaska, where former rodeo star Sam (Jon Bernthal) is the night manager at a rundown motel, where he befriends one of the guests (Christopher Abbott), unaware that he’s a hitman with ties to recent murders in the area, including the husband of Sam’s mistress (Rosemarie DeWitt). Things become more complicated from there, thanks to a web of deception that ominously tightens as the desperation for each of them increases. Some stylish neo-noir touches from director Jamie Dagg (River) compensate for some uneven stretches before the suspense ratchets upward in the final act. (Rated R, 93 minutes).

Murder on the Orient Express

The biggest mystery concerning Murder on the Orient Express might be why Agatha Christie’s venerable novel lacks a spark in its translation from page to screen.

Indeed, this new big-screen adaptation from director Kenneth Branagh (Thor) features slick visuals and a first-rate ensemble cast, yet falters in the second half, when the central whodunit should be at its most suspenseful.

The film retains the book’s setting in 1934, aboard an intercontinental voyage on a lavish locomotive crowded with well-to-do passengers. One of them is eccentric and elaborately mustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh), seeking some rest and relaxation after solving a recent case.

However, the train becomes stranded after an avalanche causes a partial derailment. Then a shady gangster (Johnny Depp) turned up dead overnight in his sleeping quarters, meaning the perpetrator is someone else on board. And it’s up to Poirot to sort everything out.

The multicultural ensemble of potential suspects has some clout, with actors including Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr., and Derek Jacobi.

This version lacks some of the breezy, old-fashioned charm of the 1974 adaptation, directed by Sidney Lumet and likewise featuring an all-star cast, including Albert Finney as Poirot.

It’s not a remake, but rather a reinterpretation of the source material, with a screenplay by Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) that makes a few minor tweaks while mostly retaining the throwback vibe — not only to the setting, but also the dialogue and the methodical structure with which the mystery unfolds.

Branagh keeps the train on the tracks from a visual perspective, showcasing some lovely mountain scenery while emphasizing the claustrophobic confines of the exquisitely detailed period railroad cars.

Still, the potential mayhem is fairly subdued in a film that curiously lacks emotional urgency as plot twists are unspooled, red herrings are tossed around, and suspicions are cast in various directions. The most appealing element is Poirot, charismatically portrayed by Branagh, since the other passengers generally aren’t developed much beyond some quirky snobbery — rendering the resolution practically inconsequential.

Such issues might be inherent in translating the material from the get-go, yet as the tension dwindles, Murder on the Orient Express gradually runs out of steam.

 

Rated PG-13, 114 minutes.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Don’t be so quick to dismiss a form of advertising you might lump alongside the Yellow Pages and newspaper classifieds, because Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri knows how to attract attention.

This exhilarating mix of biting dark comedy and taut crime drama from British filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) showcases some terrific performances and a sharp-tongued script packed with incisive sociopolitical subtext.

“Raped While Dying. And Still No Arrests? How Come, Chief Willoughby?” That’s the message plastered across three dilapidated billboards along a rural road by Mildred (Frances McDormand), whose daughter was murdered seven months ago.

She blames the terminally ill police chief (Woody Harrelson) for a lack of progress in the case, and takes out her frustration on a dimwitted and ethically challenged deputy (Sam Rockwell) who becomes the first of many to confront her about the messaging.

While others come out of the woodwork, mostly to voice their displeasure with Mildred, we meet others affected by the scheme, including her exasperated teenage son (Lucas Hedges), the advertising agent (Caleb Landry Jones) who sold her the space, and an ex-husband (John Hawkes) who’s now dating a young bimbo.

Although the titular locale is fictional, its Midwestern anonymity could resonate with small towns across America, where a controversial act of defiance divides the citizenry with cries of inequality or moral outrage.

McDonagh’s crackling, multilayered screenplay weaves a compelling mystery around Mildred’s plight while also prompting discussions, subtle or not, about racial profiling and organized religion. In fact, one highlight comes when Mildred lambastes a Catholic priest for denouncing the billboards, claiming he has no moral authority concerning crimes against children.

Mildred is motivated by a desire for both closure and vengeance, and the film provides a fascinating probe into revenge psychology and other moral complexities while acknowledging the desperate and humorous absurdity in her quest.

Three Billboards will likely draw comparisons to the work of the Coen brothers, especially with the presence of McDormand, who masterfully embodies a fearless balance of sorrow, remorse, anger, and determination in a galvanizing performance.

However, the film brings together more than a dozen richly textured characters with shifting loyalties and a penchant for violence who might likewise divide moviegoers. With its clever twists and ambiguous ending, it also refuses to pass judgment, either on Mildred or the audience.

 

Rated R, 115 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Nov. 10

Amanda and Jack Go Glamping

You could create a drinking game from the number of times the word “yurt” — which is admittedly amusing — is uttered in this lackluster relationship comedy about struggling author Jack (David Arquette) and his wife, Amanda (Amy Acker), who decide upon a luxury camping trip as a method of rekindling the spark in their marriage. But when their trailer winds up double booked by a flirty resort owner (Adan Canto), the getaway turns into a group outing, much to David’s chagrin. The screenplay by director Brandon Dickerson provides some scattered quirky laughs, although it strains to be heartwarming and stumbles while attempting to satirize the social-media age. (Not rated, 91 minutes).

 

Daddy’s Home 2

A few humiliating knocks to the groin must be worth the payday for a top-notch cast in this low-brow sequel that adds a holiday flavor to the patriarchal pugilism. This time, Brad (Will Ferrell) has made good with Dusty (Mark Wahlberg), the father of Brad’s stepchildren. But the chaos resumes with the arrival of both Brad’s lovable dad (John Lithgow) and Dusty’s bullying papa (Mel Gibson) with plenty of hate to go around. The result overdoses on testosterone-fueled misogyny with a barrage of slapstick gags that feels strained and predictable. Lacking both good taste and good cheer, it reeks of a cash grab for all involved. (Rated PG-13, 99 minutes).

 

Mayhem

If you think you’re having a bad day at the office, watch the predicament of the law clerk in this ultraviolent revenge saga from director Joe Lynch (Everly). Derek (Steven Yeun) is fired after becoming the scapegoat for an act of incompetence toward a client. But his attempts to confront executives over the injustice and regain his job are thwarted by the spread of a mysterious virus that causes his co-workers to act out their most prurient and violent impulses. The film skewers white-collar corporate snobbery through its abundant brutality and gore, gleefully choreographed to maximize the visceral impact. The intense result is exhausting yet amusing. (Rated R, 86 minutes).

 

The Price

You can see why Seyi (Aml Ameen) is stressed out — he’s created a rift with his Nigerian immigrant parents over his father’s recent stroke, he takes desperate measures to avoid the latest round of layoffs at a Wall Street firm, his Adderall prescription is running out, and he’s taking out his frustrations on his new girlfriend (Lucy Griffiths). Plus, his character deserves a more intriguing film than this well-intentioned debut from director Anthony Onah, which lacks subtlety and surprise while as the obstacles mount during Seyi’s downward spiral fueled by corruption and corporate greed. Ameen’s performance is heartfelt, yet the film needs more polished insight. (Rated R, 91 minutes).

 

Thelma

What begins as a captivating character study winds up muddled and emotionally distant in this deliberately paced coming-of-age melodrama from Norwegian director Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs). Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a shy college student in Oslo whose strict religious upbringing prompts supernatural occurrences and sends her into panic-induced seizures when she drinks alcohol or flirts with a female classmate (Kaya Wilkins). The resulting examination of spirituality and independence is mildly unsettling and provocative, yet ultimately bogs down by trying to juggle too many disparate elements, with the tension gradually dwindling as a result. Trier only sporadically puts a fresh twist on familiar material. (Not rated, 116 minutes).

LBJ

Those unfamiliar with Lyndon Baines Johnson before watching LBJ might think he belongs on Mount Rushmore.

This modestly intriguing cinematic portrait of the tall Texan who became the 36th president of the United States doesn’t always provide an even-handed perspective, preferring to focus on the Democrat’s early political successes while ignoring his later failures.

That might be expected of director Rob Reiner, an outspoken political lefty. But the film benefits from a committed portrayal by Woody Harrelson, wearing a prosthetic nose, who brings depth and complexity to LBJ in more than just quirks and mannerisms.

The film is not a comprehensive biopic, focusing primarily on two segments of his career — his role as a behind-the-scenes negotiator for the Civil Rights Act, and his volatile working relationship with the Kennedys.

Of course, he started as a Kennedy rival, losing the 1960 primary to John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) before securing a vice presidential slot, much to the chagrin of Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), whose trust he never earns.

After JFK’s assassination in 1963, LBJ latches on to the Civil Rights Act as his method of following through on his predecessor’s agenda. He also views it as a path to a seamless transition, and a signature accomplishment that would help him in the 1964 election. But passage of the bill requires that LBJ mend relationships with his former Southern Democrat colleagues in Congress, including Georgian Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) and fellow Texan Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman).

The screenplay takes a few historical liberties and doesn’t delve much into LBJ’s personal life, virtually ignoring his wife, Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Yet the film pays tribute to its subject’s tenacity and his ability to maneuver and compromise as a consummate politician.

He’s ornery and stubborn, and not an easy target for sympathy. As he tells staffers in one scene: “Never underestimate the intensity of a martyr’s cause or the size of a Texan’s balls.”

Too often, the film feels content to play the highlights rather than provide deeper insight. And its choppy re-creation of the fateful events in Dealey Plaza pales in comparison to other projects.

Yet those are minor quibbles with Reiner’s consistently compelling history lesson, which puts the spotlight on a man forced to navigate the country through one of the most pivotal periods of the last century — even if it cries out for a less flattering sequel.

 

Rated R, 98 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Nov. 3

Blade of the Immortal

The latest samurai epic from prolific director Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer) is another ultraviolent exploration of brutality and Japanese legends that winds up an exhausting exercise in overkill. It also dabbles in the supernatural with its story of an immortal assassin (Takuya Kimura) who agrees to help a young girl (Hana Sugisaki) avenge the murder of her parents, and save his soul in the process. For moviegoers, of course, the resulting mission is less about character motives and more about the barrage of creatively choreographed fights and swordplay. In that sense, it delivers for Miike devotees, although the film itself needs to be sliced. (Rated R, 141 minutes).

 

Lady Bird

Perceptive and heartfelt, the directorial debut for actress Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) manages to balance an intimate approach with universal relatability. It puts a fresh twist on familiar coming-of-age themes by chronicling the gently comic adventures of Christine (Saoirse Ronan) — who prefers the titular nickname — trying to navigate her senior year at a Catholic high school while applying to colleges, dealing with relationships, and enduring her overbearing but well-meaning mother (Laurie Metcalf). Gerwig’s screenplay reflects sincerity and compassion in its depiction of a young woman striving for independence while balancing adolescent obligations. Ronan finds depth in a character that could have been constrained by clichés. (Rated R, 93 minutes).

 

Most Beautiful Island

This raw and powerful glimpse into the everyday experience of undocumented immigrants is a striking debut for director Ana Asensio, who also stars as Luciana, driven to desperation while struggling to pay bills in New York. On the advice of an acquaintance (Natsha Romanova), she takes a vague but potentially lucrative job working at an upper-crust “party.” However, the experience turns both unpredictable and dangerous. Asensio’s screenplay condenses the narrative into a single day, and doesn’t provide much context with its verite style, preferring to have Luciana be the audience’s window into her life. The low-budget result is modestly suspenseful and unsettling without turning heavy-handed. (Not rated, 80 minutes).

 

Singularity

Combine science-fiction mumbo-jumbo about artificial intelligence gone amok with an unintentionally hilarious turn by a villainous John Cusack, and you get this inept post-apocalyptic thriller. Cusack plays the head of a robotics firm whose latest project is intended to end human warfare on Earth, except that it massively backfires, leaving mankind on the verge of extinction and a pair of teenagers (Julian Schaffner and Jeannine Wacker) as the best hope for survival. What’s meant to be a cautionary tale about technological overreach and corporate greed turns into a mess of clichés and contrivances without much reason for emotional investment in the characters or their perilous plight. (Rated PG-13, 92 minutes).

Suburbicon

You know that combination of racial tension and socioeconomic despair that permeates our suburbs today? It’s been going on for decades.

That’s the backdrop for Suburbicon, an ambitious but uneven period piece that combines suburban satire, low-key crime thriller, and coming-of-age drama. George Clooney’s latest directorial outing lacks the persuasive punch it needs to achieve its desired contemporary resonance.

Taking place in 1959, the film weaves together parallel stories from Suburbicon, an ldyllic, bustling subdivision that boasts diversity in its marketing — except when it includes potential minorities.

So when the black Meyers family moves in, it causes an uprising in the otherwise wholesome neighborhood to which Gardner (Matt Damon) and his family seem immune.

That’s because they’ve got bigger issues involving a visit from mobsters to collect on a debt. The subsequent death of Gardner’s wheelchair-bound wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), leads to talk of insurance fraud once an investigator (Oscar Isaac) coming poking around with suspicious questions for both Gardner and Rose’s twin sister (also played by Moore) who’s now part of the family.

Meanwhile, Gardner’s young son (Noah Jupe) handles the chaos pretty well, just wanting to play baseball after befriending Andy Meyers (Tony Espinosa) while his parents are the target of persecution.

Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov reworked an original screenplay by the Coen brothers that generally feels like a lesser effort, only hinting at the moral complexity that should be front and center.

The script relegates the Meyers to subplot status, which was likely intentional as a method of showing how easily public outcry over the most trivial of matters can obscure the real issues troubling a community. Yet saddled with such anonymity, the protests feel like mere background noise that distract from, rather than enhance, the primary storyline.

The film is visually striking, with its vibrant re-creation of middle America at the time — the exact location is never revealed — that colorfully emphasizes perfectly manicured green lawns and perpetually sunny dispositions of neighbors toward one another, with the squeaky-clean happiness concealing a dark underbelly.

Incorporating elements of noir amid the generally sardonic tone, Suburbicon manages some moments of scattered amusement. However, although the satirical targets are broad, the film is both muddled and obvious, lacking the depth to distinguish itself among the other cookie-cutter cinematic houses in Anytown, USA.

 

Rated R, 104 minutes.

Thank You for Your Service

Overflowing good intentions give a solid boost to the uneven Thank You for Your Service, which offers a compassionate salute to our service members who struggle to integrate back into civilian life after returning from active duty.

The film offers an intimate glimpse into one of the hidden horrors of war — how post-traumatic stress disorder irrevocably and subconsciously changes people. And even if the execution fails to match the effort, at least it confronts a worthwhile subject with heartfelt sincerity.

The film follows Adam (Miles Teller) and other 2-16 Infantry soldiers coming home to Kansas after a harrowing tour of duty along the front lines in Iraq, where a member of his battalion died on Adam’s shoulders, leaving him racked with lingering guilt and resentment.

Adam’s wife (Haley Bennett) tries to understand why he seems so withdrawn and unable to share his pain with her and their two children before her patience wears thin. The situation is worse for Will (Joe Cole), whose wife has already left the apartment empty before he gets there. And Adam’s closest confidant, Solo (Beulah Koale), is suffering from a brain injury that strains his relationship with his pregnant wife (Keisha Castle-Hughes) to the point of physical violence.

The directorial debut of screenwriter Jason Hall (American Sniper) doesn’t provide much broad-based insight that most folks won’t already know with regard to the proliferation of PTSD. Yet it reflects solid research into the specifics of the true-life source material, scrutinizing the stigma involved with PTSD and other mental disorders, and the limited treatment options and VA red tape that only exacerbate the problem.

Teller’s performance generates sympathy by conveying Adam’s inner turmoil, moreso through facial expressions and body language than because of the melodramatic contrivances. Amy Schumer is effective in a change-of-pace extended cameo as a grieving widow.

First and foremost, Thank You for Your Service is a passionate call to action, for better and worse. As a tribute to courage and sacrifice, the film mixes moments that are alternately powerful and heavy-handed, aggressively tugging at the heartstrings and the guilty conscience of moviegoers.

Ultimately, Hall’s script would be more persuasive with a subtler touch, which could retain its raw authenticity while deepening the valuable underlying message.

 

Rated R, 109 minutes.