Capsule reviews for Aug. 4

Four Days in France

More reliant on mood than traditional storytelling, this deliberately paced oddity follows a gay man (Pascal Cervo) who abandons his lover (Arthur Igual) one morning in favor of an odyssey across the French countryside — prompted by social media — during which he meets various eccentrics. What the film lacks in narrative coherence and momentum, rookie director Jerome Reybaud compensates with a layered character study about sexuality and fulfillment, an incisive glimpse into its bucolic setting, and a sometimes playful examination of technology’s influence on relationships. Bolstered by Cervo’s performance, the result is intriguing if meandering, with its adventure providing a few unexpected turns along the way. (Not rated, 141 minutes).

 

Fun Mom Dinner

There’s not much fun to be had by anyone else, either on screen or off, with this thinly sketched addition to the subgenre of raunchy comedies about girls behaving badly. This installment finds four suburban mothers bonding over a night of cutting loose from the daily routine that includes plenty of weed, booze, mischief and wandering eyes, while their husbands and children bungle around at home. The familiar concept produces some scattered laughs (with a Paul Rudd cameo providing a highlight), but it’s neither edgy nor sincere enough to make an emotional impact. The spirited cast includes Toni Collette, Molly Shannon, Katie Aselton and Bridget Everett. (Rated R, 81 minutes).

 

Kidnap

Halle Berry is much better at driving than she is at parenting in this lackluster child-abduction thriller. Berry plays Karla, a single mother locked in a custody battle when her 6-year-old son (Sage Correa) is kidnapped in a crowded city park, sending Karla into a frantic vigilante quest — behind the wheel of a red minivan — to find him. The resulting cat-and-mouse struggle tests her resiliency and resourcefulness. As directed by Luis Prieto (Pusher), the film is meant to pay tribute to the power of maternal instincts, but while Karla is a tough-minded heroine, the ill-conceived script lacks common sense and gradually becomes totally detached from reality. (Rated R, 94 minutes).

 

Some Freaks

What seems like an ordinary teenage comedy about cliques and bullying on the surface is actually a modestly perceptive and touching glimpse into the ways in which we transition from adolescence into adulthood. Specifically, it follows a pair of outcast classmates who fall in love — a boy with one eye (Thomas Mann) and an overweight goth girl (Lily Mae Harrington). After heading off to college, they struggle to keep their friendship together when their priorities change. The character-driven screenplay by rookie director Ian McDonald puts a fresh spin on familiar material and mostly sidesteps clichés, while the actors generate sympathy in the film’s quieter moments. (Rated R, 97 minutes).

 

Step

You don’t have to be an aficionado of the art form known as stepping to find the crowd-pleasing appeal in this documentary about the female step team at an inner-city Baltimore charter school that becomes a safe haven for teenagers amid volatility in their families and community. It explores the influence of social unrest in Baltimore on the girls and their routines, which galvanizes a turnaround in the fledgling program. But rookie director Amanda Lipitz smartly keeps her focus behind the scenes, allowing us to root less for the team to grab a competition trophy and more for the steppers to graduate to a better life. (Rated PG, 82 minutes).

Atomic Blonde

With so much style and attitude to spare, Atomic Blonde maintains an infectious level of kinetic energy even if won’t exactly tax the brain.

This ultraviolent espionage thriller approaches sensory overload as it follows a female secret agent caught up in a web of deception and betrayal while taking out bad guys with almost video-game precision.

Taking place in the days prior to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the film follows Lorraine (Charlize Theron), who refuses to trust anyone while able to match brains and brawn with just about any of the male adversaries she encounters.

Her latest mission for British intelligence, told mostly in flashback to her superiors in London, finds her in Germany, trying to retrieve a valuable dossier with compromising information about MI6 from the hands of a Russian defector (Eddie Marsan) and various henchmen.

Along the way, Lorraine cautiously finds allies in David (James McAvoy), a fellow agent with loose-cannon tendencies, and Delphine (Sofia Boutella), an alluring French operative whose lesbian advances toward Lorraine seem to have ulterior motives.

Theron’s charismatic performance puts a feminist spin on 007 territory as the strong and sultry action heroine who whispers and mumbles most of her dialogue, preferring to let her fists and feet do the talking.

Meanwhile, the ubiquitous 1980s pop soundtrack provides a pulsating rhythm while capturing a nostalgic era of boom boxes and break dancing. In one amusing sequence, Nena’s “99 Luftballons” (fun fact: originally conceived as a German antiwar anthem) serenades the beating of a random thug to a bloody pulp with a skateboard. Another example features Lorraine systematically bludgeoning a whole building’s worth of East Germans, set to George Michael’s “Father Figure.”

As directed by rookie David Leitch (a former stuntman who served as a co-director on John Wick), the film’s dazzling array of vibrant color schemes and camera movements provides some over-the-top eye candy.

Amid its backdrop of political volatility, the screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (300) — based on a British graphic novel — yields a few mildly intriguing twists but mostly is just a functional bridge between the barrage of brutal action scenes.

So Atomic Blonde is ultimately an exercise in spectacle over substance. Still, even if the well-choreographed fights, chases and shootouts don’t add up to much, they do provide quite the adrenaline rush.

 

Rated R, 115 minutes.

The Last Face

In the opening credits, The Last Face sets its tone with a statement as muddled as it is maddening, claiming that the 21st century civil wars in Liberia and Sudan are “a corruption of innocence known only through the brutality of an impossible love between a man and a woman.”

Thus begins this example of “white savior complex” at its most pandering — an ill-conceived attempt to shine a light on human-rights atrocities featuring a tone-deaf perspective that tends to exploit victims of war and oppression in favor of glorifying their outsider rescuers.

Perhaps deep down they mean well, yet the esteemed cast and director Sean Penn are better off striking this misfire from their respective resumes.

Wren (Charlize Theron) is the organizer of an agency whose relief mission lands her in Sudan, where she encounters a doctor (Javier Bardem) who also happens to be her ex-lover. Flashbacks reveal the extent of their relationship, which links to their combined efforts during another period of civil unrest in Liberia a decade earlier.

The primary focus becomes not how many lives they can save from the carnage, but whether they can rekindle their spark against such a backdrop.

Of course, to criticize the film is not to condemn the tireless courage and frequently unsung heroism of international humanitarian workers who thrust themselves into harm’s way. Nor does it mean they can’t fall in love and draw inspiration from one another. However, even as you applaud the relief efforts, you might cringe when, for example, Wren and Miguel exchange flirtatious glances while delivering the baby of a Liberian woman.

Along with its questionable ethics, the pretentious and heavy-handed screenplay tends to oversimplify conflicts. It provides minimal sociopolitical context or room for emotional investment in anyone of color — merely showing the faces of cute children caught in the crossfire does not count as character development.

Such an approach might be more tolerable if the central romance was more involving. Instead, the film is saddled with a lethargic pace, pedantic narration, overbearing score, and a surprising lack of sincerity.

Penn (Into the Wild) has proven himself as a capable filmmaker in the past, and The Last Face is technically proficient, with moments of harrowing violence. But as a provocative account of the need for aid in contemporary war-torn Africa, it’s hardly worth the price of a cup of coffee.

 

Rated R, 130 minutes.

Capsule reviews for July 28

A Family Man

Some truths about corporate greed and absentee parenting are buried deep within this superficial redemption melodrama that’s more predictable than provocative. Dane (Gerard Butler) is a cutthroat Chicago headhunter whose obsession over profit-making schemes tends to distance him from his wife (Gretchen Mol) and young son (Max Jenkins). But when the family confronts a medical crisis, Dane’s priorities are tested, along with his loyalty to his ruthless boss (Willem Dafoe). As Dane transforms from boiler-room brute to doting daddy, plenty of lessons are learned along the way, delivered with sledgehammer subtlety by Butler and rookie director Mark Williams. But he hasn’t earned our sympathy. (Rated R, 108 minutes).

 

From the Land of the Moon

Marion Cotillard can’t rescue some mediocre material in this deliberately paced French drama from director Nicole Garcia (Place Vendome) featuring some pretty scenery and not much else. Cotillard plays an unstable woman in a post-World War II small town whose romantic dreams don’t match her reality. She flees an arranged marriage by checking into a sanitarium, where she falls for an ex-soldier (Louis Garrel) who’s also a patient. However, they’re torn apart, causing her midlife crisis to resume. Instead of any meaningful exploration of mental illness, the film exploits the affliction of its protagonist for a meandering romantic melodrama with an unconvincing final-act twist. (Rated R, 119 minutes).

 

Menashe

This tender and heartfelt Yiddish drama is a gritty example of familiar themes being given fresh life within unique settings. The title character (Menashe Lustig) is a widower in Brooklyn whose refusal to quickly remarry has made him an outcast of sorts in the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, causing him to fight for custody of his son (Ruben Niborski) from his smarmy brother-in-law (Yoel Weisshaus). Rookie director Joshua Weinstein emphasizes authenticity in the film’s setting, which benefits this low-budget if uneven examination of how rigid customs sometimes conflict with basic human emotions. Bittersweet yet charming, the result is both intimate and relatable for parents everywhere. (Rated PG, 82 minutes).

 

Person to Person

There’s a familiarity in both the setting and the structure of this low-budget ensemble drama, which intercuts five stories of relationship troubles among New Yorkers, from an eager journalist (Abbi Jacobson) tracking a murder case to a jazz aficionado (Bene Coopersmith) chasing down a rare vinyl record. The approach is grounded in gritty realism, but while it manages some scattered moments that are both amusing and affecting, the disjointed film doesn’t yield much of a cumulative effect because its stories don’t really intersect. It’s essentially five shorts cut together, with some segments better than others. The cast includes Michael Cera and Philip Baker Hall. (Not rated, 84 minutes).

 

Strange Weather

Holly Hunter’s committed performance and an evocative depiction of life in the blue-collar Mississippi Delta region can’t quite rescue this earnest melodrama about guilt and redemption from its formulaic trappings. Hunter plays a college administrator facing job uncertainty while still mourning the suicide of her adult son six years ago. As she sets out on a cathartic odyssey with a friend (Carrie Coon) to get some answers, a revelation about one of her son’s friends fuels a desire for revenge. The screenplay by director Katherine Dieckmann (Diggers) is a heartfelt and modestly poignant examination of maternal grief, yet it’s consistently undermined by plot mechanics and clichés. (Rated R, 92 minutes).

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

There’s always a lot happening in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, even if little of it seems to make sense.

Indeed, this visually ambitious science-fiction epic from French director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) values spectacle over substance, with the dazzling technical proficiency unable to compensate for a pretentious storyline that becomes lost in space.

Following a stunning opening sequence, the bulk of the film takes place in the 28th century and follows the adventures of Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who are cops charged with maintaining peaceful coexistence among humans and creatures in a distant galaxy.

Zipping between solar systems and other dimensions, their primary threat comes when they travel to Alpha, a bustling city of diversity that’s being threatened by a mysterious force. Their perilous investigation leads to encounters with a military commander (Clive Owen) whose motives are cloudy and a shapeshifting extraterrestrial (Rihanna) who masquerades as a dancer. Soon, the fate of the universe is at stake.

Besson’s vision and audacity are commendable. His big-budget array of computer-generated effects are impressive, as is his committed depiction of an imaginative futuristic world filled with elaborate cityscapes, high-tech weapons and gadgetry, travel between dimensions, and alien species both friendly and hostile.

However, his screenplay, based on an acclaimed French comic-book series, finds character development in much shorter supply amid all the surreal visual chaos. Some playful banter between the two leads is hardly sufficient to generate emotional investment.

Although Besson doesn’t cut corners, the dense narrative requires more attention than most viewers are likely to supply. “It’s our mission that doesn’t make any sense,” laments a defiant Laureline who, along with the rest of us, needs only to wait for the gap to be filled, until a couple of final-act monologues.

The result is intermittently exciting and amusing, with offbeat touches (and an eclectic supporting cast) surrounding an uneven mix of chases, shootouts, and muddled social commentary.

The film obviously is intended to launch a franchise (the realization of which will be determined by box-office performance, of course), and perhaps this installment is intended primarily to lay the groundwork for what’s to come. Whether moviegoers will agree to another intergalactic voyage with this crew is the bigger question.

 

Rated PG-13, 137 minutes.

Capsule reviews for July 21

The Fencer

Featuring lessons about both the basics of fencing and Estonia’s position in World War II, this sincere if heavy-handed Finnish drama tells the true-life story of Endel Nelis (Mart Avandi), a new physical education teacher at a small school in rural Estonia. But his upstart fencing club is jeopardized by a principal (Hendrik Toompere) with ulterior motives, various sociopolitical obstacles, and with a secret from Endel’s past that has him constantly looking over his shoulder. The film is an awkward mix of sports underdog saga and political thriller, yet even when its edges are soft instead of sharp, the crowd-pleasing result provides depth and historical insight. (Not rated, 99 minutes).

 

Girls Trip

If success is more about the journey than the destination, then this raunchy yet sentimental comedy about the bonds of sisterhood is modestly successful. Because there certainly isn’t much subtlety or surprise in this adventure of four ex-college friends who reunite for a weekend at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, where chaos and debauchery ensue while the ladies deal with past wounds and rekindled friendships. It’s familiar territory for director Malcolm Lee (The Best Man), yet amuses primarily because of its scattered big laughs, unique cultural perspective, and the breezy chemistry between its stars including Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall, and Tiffany Haddish. (Rated R, 122 minutes).

 

Killing Ground

The setup outweighs the payoff in this low-budget Australian thriller that might make you reconsider your next camping trip. The nonlinear concept follows two young families who become entangled with the sadistic perpetrators of a violent crime in the woods, with one couple becoming the victims, and the other essentially the witnesses. The screenplay by rookie director Damien Power jumbles the chronology to mostly clever effect, essentially starting parallel near the beginning and the end, and culminating in the middle. Yet that narrative strategy starts to feel like a gimmick to disguise the formulaic nature of a story that culminates in some obligatory blood and gore. (Not rated, 88 minutes).

 

Landline

The amusement is more scattered than sustained in this heartfelt comedy about a mildly dysfunctional family dealing with a philandering patriarch. It takes place in 1990s New York, where Dana (Jenny Slate) is engaged to Ben (Jay Duplass) but dealing with commitment issues, while her younger sister (Abby Quinn) discovers that their father (John Turturro) is having an affair. The lighthearted period touches of director Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child) give the material a well-defined sense of time and place. Yet in this case, the blend of raunchy comedy and darker domestic drama is awkward, becoming caught up in final-act contrivances that essentially lead to ambiguous shoulder-shrugging. (Rated R, 93 minutes).

Capsule reviews for July 14

Blind

A noteworthy cast is squandered in this woefully absurd redemption story from rookie director Michael Mailer (son of Norman) that indulges heavy-handed melodrama at the expense of any realistic exploration of contemporary relationships. It centers on a blind writer (Alec Baldwin) still bitter after losing his sight in a car crash that killed his wife. Then he finds an unlikely connection with the wife (Demi Moore) of a corrupt executive (Dylan McDermott) serving jail time for a deal gone bad. Their subsequent affair proves therapeutic for both, although not for moviegoers, who must endure an aggressive parade of pretentious clichés while wondering who to root for. (Rated R, 105 minutes).

 

Lady Macbeth

It’s not Shakespeare, but rather a 19th century Russian novel that provides the inspiration for this chilling low-budget period drama of female empowerment run amok. In a rural British estate, teenager Katherine (Florence Pugh) is trapped in a subservient marriage to an impotent older husband. When he’s away on business, she starts a passionate affair with a servant (Cosmo Jarvis) that prompts vengeance against the men who have suppressed her. And indeed, hell hath no fury like this scorned woman during a riveting final act of psychopathic rage. The gritty result is an uneven exploration of gender politics and socioeconomic class, but Pugh is a powerhouse. (Rated R, 89 minutes).

 

Lost in Paris

There are perhaps worse problems to have than the titular quandary, which in the case of this breezy French romance — marking the latest collaboration of married filmmakers Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, who also star — finds a happy ending for all of those astray. Gordon plays a Canadian librarian summoned to Paris by her aging aunt (Emmanuelle Riva). Among her ensuing quirky encounters, Fiona meets an outspoken homeless man (Abel) who changes her life in unexpected ways. Slight but amusing, the innocuous film takes advantage of its surroundings, highlighted by a throwback style of slapstick and vaudeville-style comedy accompanied by a charming dose of romantic whimsy. (Not rated, 83 minutes).

 

Swallows and Amazons

Celebrating childhood innocence and the power of imagination, this old-fashioned charmer might ultimately appeal more to nostalgic adults than kids in the social-media age. It takes place in 1935 at a remote British lake, where five siblings, while their mariner father is at sea, convince their mother (Kelly Macdonald) to let them sail to a nearby island, which leads to an adventure involving fake pirates, possible real-life spies, and strange new lands. The film, adapted from a series of children’s books, overdoses on cuteness and might peeve cynics with its anachronisms and twee tendencies. Yet it captures the mischievous sense of discovery for its wide-eyed youngsters. (Not rated, 97 minutes).

 

The Wrong Light

If only some manipulative filmmaking hadn’t gotten in the way, this documentary exposing the unethical tactics of a Thailand charity could have been more impactful. Nevertheless, it offers a compelling glimpse into Mickey Choothesa, who founded an organization as part of a crusade ostensibly to stop sex trafficking of underage girls. However, what starts as a celebration of those efforts veers in a different direction once his stories don’t check out. Some eye-opening revelations spark the appropriate outrage. Yet eventually, the film isn’t about Choothesa or the innocent children as much as it is about the directors, whose journalistic motives likewise invite scrutiny for their authenticity. (Not rated, 78 minutes).

A Ghost Story

Given its generic title, fans of mainstream horror might be shocked by A Ghost Story, and not in the ways they suspect.

This elliptical tale of apparitions from the afterlife by versatile director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) isn’t scary in the conventional sense, although it’s certainly haunting in ways that resonate beyond the usual jump scares and cheap thrills.

The filmmaker carefully crafts a character-driven examination of the grieving process that’s both poignant and provocative, for those with the patience to withstand its downbeat and deliberately paced approach.

The story begins with an unnamed couple, played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, bickering over whether to move out of their modest rural Texas house. The husband subsequently dies in a car accident, prompting his widow to grieve and eventually move out. But he remains behind, in the stereotypical form of a ghost represented by a corpse in a white sheet, struggling to come to terms with his own death and the presence of those who later live there.

The first half of the film essentially follows the married couple through the bereavement period that follows his death. Then the screenplay detours into a Malick-style meditation on memories and the passage of time, through the eyes of the ghost and its beloved house, which spans generations.

Lowery not only subverts genre conventions — with some playful touches that break up the mostly solemn proceedings — but his ambitious vision makes a powerful impression with its meticulous attention to imagery and atmosphere.

Hypnotic yet ambiguous, the result isn’t for all tastes. The film is excessively slow-paced, with Lowery favoring long takes (often static and silent, in a narrow aspect ratio) with little verbal communication. During one early stretch, we watch Mara, without saying a word, devour a sympathy pie straight from the tin for several unbroken and intentionally painful minutes.

In fact, Will Oldham is the actor with the most dialogue, and he appears in only a single scene while delivering a rambling existential monologue at a house party — under the watchful eye of the titular specter, of course.

Even when it’s difficult to grasp exactly what A Ghost Story is trying to say in some of its more head-scratching segments, the film commands appreciation for its vision and audacity. You might not see ghosts the same way again.

 

Rated R, 87 minutes.

Capsule reviews for July 7

Austin Found

The premise might feel ripped from the headlines, but this lackluster comedy too often seems to come straight off the assembly line instead. It follows an overbearing pageant mom (Linda Cardellini) who desperately schemes for fame and fortune by arranging for her ex-boyfriend (Skeet Ulrich) and his simple-minded friend (Craig Robinson) to kidnap her precocious daughter (Ursula Parker), and then benefiting from the resulting publicity. As things come unraveled, the uneven screenplay struggles to generate much emotional investment in its off-putting characters or their plight—awkwardly shifting between broad comedy, misguided poignancy, and sensationalistic media cynicism. Either an edgier or softer approach would have been preferable. (Not rated, 104 minutes).

 

City of Ghosts

Perhaps the biggest compliment for this provocative and timely documentary from director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) is that it might change your perspective about the Syrian refugee crisis. That’s the intent in chronicling the harrowing efforts of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a collective of courageous grassroots journalists who risk their lives to share the truth about living conditions in their ISIS-controlled hometown. The powerful film is a tribute to their work, but also provides new insight into the Syrian conflict and explores the evolution of activism and journalism in the social-media age. It skillfully handles difficult subject matter in ways both suspenseful and sorrowful. (Not rated, 93 minutes).

 

Hickok

This compendium of Western clichés isn’t a comprehensive biopic about the notorious Old West gunslinger, but rather focuses on the brief period during which he served as marshal of Abilene, Kansas, in 1871. That’s when “Wild Bill” Hickok (Liam Hemsworth) tries to sort out the riffraff in a small town beset by violence while reconnecting with an old flame (Cameron Richardson). He has the support of the mayor (Kris Kristofferson), yet runs into trouble with a bar owner (Trace Adkins) and his bandits seeking revenge. Despite some stylish shootouts, the mildly compelling if haphazardly assembled oater lacks historical context and fires too many narrative blanks. (Not rated, 88 minutes).

 

The Little Hours

The filmmakers behind this raunchy comedy about promiscuous nuns need to confess — not for their blasphemous subject matter, but for not carrying their mischievous one-note premise successfully to feature length. However, there are some scattered moments of deadpan hilarity within this story of a 14th century servant (Dave Franco) forced to flee to a convent, where he poses as a deaf-mute while trying to resist the flirtatious advances of the resident sisters (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci). The subversive script by director Jeff Baena (Life After Beth) deserves credit for audacity, yet the outrageous laughs start to wear thin well before the finish. (Rated R, 90 minutes).

 

Swim Team

The title might be ordinary, but the same can’t be said of the Jersey Hammerheads, a competitive Special Olympics swimming program in New Jersey that consists entirely of young athletes on the autism spectrum. The heartwarming film follows their inaugural season as the team brings out the best in its swimmers both inside and outside the pool. Specifically, it focuses on three athletes whose participation leads to improved social skills and self-esteem, in addition to gold medals. The glossy treatment leaves some unanswered questions, yet it’s easy to root for the inspirational youngsters, whose moving stories just might change your perspective regarding inclusion and disabilities. (Not rated, 100 minutes).