Capsule reviews for June 9

Beatriz at Dinner

A ferocious performance by Salma Hayek propels this modestly amusing yet mostly unsettling drama from director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl). Hayek plays the title role, a massage therapist whose car breaks down after an appointment at the mansion of a client set to host an important business dinner. The homeowners reluctantly invite Beatriz to stay, not knowing that she would become awkwardly intrusive, and start an especially uncomfortable exchange with a billionaire developer (John Lithgow). The sharp screenplay maintains a frustrating ambiguity at times with regard to motives and backgrounds, but builds to a provocative examination of socioeconomic class, corporate greed and the immigrant experience. (Rated R, 83 minutes).

 

The Hero

Sam Elliott deserves a role like the lead in this sharply observed character study about aging and redemption. So it comes as no surprise that the veteran character actor is terrific in the title role, playing a washed-up actor struggling to find work who must make amends in his messy personal life after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. He reaches out to his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) to mend a longstanding rift, and finds companionship with a younger comedian (Laura Prepon) with issues of her own. The deliberately paced film treads familiar territory yet achieves a modest emotional resonance without settling for cheap sentimentality. (Rated R, 93 minutes).

 

The Hunter’s Prayer

The transparent goal of this frenetic cat-and-mouse thriller from director Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown) is to keep the action moving so viewers don’t pause to contemplate the narrative incoherence behind it. Lucas (Sam Worthington) is an assassin hired to kill the teenage daughter (Odeya Rush) of a corrupt American executive, who’s also a target. But after tracking the girl to a posh European boarding school, circumstances prompt a change of heart. The film is technically proficient and features a handful of taut chase sequences, although the formulaic script offers little suspense or surprise, and as a result, moviegoers are unlikely to invest much emotion in the outcome. (Rated R, 91 minutes)

 

I Love You Both

Once you get past the contrived concept, this low-budget romantic comedy offers a fresh take on contemporary relationships that’s both amusing and heartfelt. It follows fraternal twins Donny and Krystal (played by real-life siblings Doug and Kristin Archibald) — he’s gay, she’s straight — whose codependency is tested through a friendship with a bisexual artist (Lucas Neff) that turns into mutual attraction. The result is better than it sounds, with quirks limited to moderate doses and unpredictable character-driven twists that resonate with authenticity. Perhaps that’s because the Archibalds, who also collaborated on the semiautobiographical script, know their material. Or because they just have a solid sense of humor. (Not rated, 87 minutes).

Captain Underpants

If the title isn’t enough of a hint, Captain Underpants also features a villain named Professor Poopypants whose primary mode of transportation is a giant toilet.

However, while crude humor rules the day in this animated adventure, there’s also a good-natured playfulness that provides some solid laughs above the belt.

It follows precocious best friends George (voiced by Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), linked by their affinity for comic books and their mutual desire to make life miserable for the hot-tempered principal at their elementary school, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms). Think of a pint-sized Ferris Bueller or Bart Simpson, times two.

When one of their pranks crosses the line, Krupp arranges to separate George and Harold into different classes, effectively ending their friendship. In a last-ditch effort, the duo hypnotizes Krupp using a ring from a cereal box, turning him into Captain Underpants, a dim-witted superhero from one of their treehouse comic strips.

As they struggle to control their principal’s dual identity and keep it secret, they must also contend with an evil new science teacher (Nick Kroll) with an elaborate scheme that threatens the fun for everybody.

The target demographic comprises those who will best identify with the film’s mischievous, prepubescent protagonists. But some scattered sight gags and one-liners should connect with accompanying adults, who might even find a nostalgic connection with their own hellraising days.

The screenplay by Nicholas Stoller (Neighbors) doesn’t dwell on parental wisdom or didactic life lessons, although it does function as a simple tale of the value of boyhood friendships and the power of imagination.

As directed by David Soren (Turbo), the film showcases an amusing mix of computer-generated animation styles with hand-drawn roots, especially during the infrequent comic-book sequences.

The result is thin and predictable, and relies too heavily on its low-brow tendencies, yet succeeds on its own modest terms. Still, the goofy premise yields a sense of constant chaos that becomes exhausting after a while.

Don’t expect Captain Underpants to make the cut as a classroom time-waster. While youngsters should appreciate the rambunctious chemistry between the two charismatic leads, overzealous school disciplinarians might not. At least it’s brief.

 

Rated PG, 89 minutes.

Capsule reviews for June 2

Band Aid

An amusing concept is overwhelmed by self-help preaching in this otherwise edgy comedy from rookie director Zoe Lister-Jones. She stars as a fledgling novelist moonlighting as an Uber driver whose relationship with her slacker husband (Adam Pally) has hit a rut, in large part because of a recent tragedy So they hatch a plan to start a garage band with a neighbor (Fred Armisen) and air their grievances through their lyrics. The quirky character dynamics contribute to some scattered big laughs. However, whether spoken or sung, all of the film’s angst-ridden millennial bickering becomes tiresome after a while, especially considering the requisite suspension of disbelief. (Not rated, 91 minutes).

 

Churchill

A committed performance by Brian Cox in the title role outshines the material in this intimate portrait of the iconic British leader in the hours leading up to the D-Day invasion in 1944. Churchill was the British prime minister at the time, and had the final say on whether to execute the audacious mission that struck a critical blow to the Nazis. Structured as a character-driven thriller, the film’s historical embellishments — and its deliberate pace — detract from its suspense for those familiar with the true-life events. Cox effectively gets inside the head of his subject, even if the film’s overall impact isn’t especially insightful or compelling. (Rated PG, 104 minutes).

 

Dean

Demetri Martin (Taking Woodstock) channels Woody Allen in his latest offbeat comedy that balances deadpan humor with poignancy. The semiautobiographical story follows a neurotic New York cartoonist struggling with relationship issues while grieving his mother’s death. While he impulsively visits California and meets a woman (Gillian Jacobs), his father (Kevin Kline) tries to sell their house. With his directorial debut, Martin crafts an amusing vehicle for his usual mix of self-deprecation and social awkwardness, while also poking fun at technology, boorish millennials and other absurdities. The result is an acquired taste, but those in the right mood should find it both heartfelt and frequently hilarious. (Rated PG-13, 87 minutes).

 

The Exception

World War II contained enough true-life excitement without the trumped-up nonsense in this fictionalized espionage thriller, which follows a German officer (Jai Courtney) dispatched to the Dutch mansion of Kaiser Wilhelm (Christopher Plummer), the elderly and unstable former leader now living in exile. While he investigates spy rumors surrounding Wilhelm, the officer falls for a housekeeper (Lily James) who also happens to be Jewish. Plummer’s performance is a highlight, and the film is modestly amusing when it almost veers into campy melodrama. Yet while it aims for provocative historical speculation, the bulk of the film is too absurd to generate much suspense or emotional investment. (Rated R, 107 minutes).

 

Vincent N Roxxy

After flashing some imaginative style and attitude, this ultraviolent crime thriller devolves into a routine tale of outsider romance and revenge. The titular young loners meet when Vincent (Emile Hirsch) saves Roxxy (Zoe Kravitz) from a brutal assault by a drug dealer (Scott Mescudi). They retreat to his family farm, and Roxxy finds a job as a bartender alongside Kate (Zoey Deutch), who’s dating Vincent’s brother. Yet as their relationship deepens, secrets are revealed and the past starts to catch up. The film meanders through predictable genre paces with fleeting bursts of energy and originality, leading up to a brutal finale that’s more spectacle than substance. (Rated R, 102 minutes).

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 taut 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. Amid familiar themes of obsession, psychosis and gender politics, this stylish cautionary tale about foreigners in strange lands manages to generate consistent suspense within an intriguing moral framework while avoiding 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).

 

Drone 

The topicality and moral complexity in this thriller about intelligence leaks and the war on terror is undermined by its preposterous plot twists. The story follows a suburban CIA contractor (Sean Bean) working a classified job as a drone pilot. His guilty conscience stems more from his father’s recent death than from his job. But that changes when a mysterious Pakistani man (Patrick Sabongui) shows up at his doorstep. The bulk of the film chronicles the ensuing confrontation, which starts innocently enough. One goal might be to put a face on innocent civilian casualties overseas, although the muddled result feels more exploitative than provocative. (Not rated, 91 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 amateurish 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 emotional depth and moral 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 conspiracy theories regarding the injustice of it all, yet James keeps his focus 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.