The Only Living Boy in New York

For a film about authors, The Only Living Boy in New York could use a couple more rewrites. Instead, this examination of fractured families through the eyes of stuffy artistic types is more pretentious than profound.

The latest example of aristocratic New Yorkers lamenting about failed relationships doesn’t do justice to either Woody Allen or to the eponymous Simon & Garfunkel tune on the soundtrack.

The story centers on Thomas (Callum Turner), an aspiring novelist waiting for his breakthrough as he deals with a host of personal issues. His even-keeled girlfriend (Kiersey Clemons) seems reluctant to commit. His mother (Cynthia Nixon) is struggling with mental illness. And his overbearing father (Pierce Brosnan) is a fledgling book publisher involved in an affair with a subordinate (Kate Beckinsale), prompting Thomas to seek both revenge and approval.

Then there’s W.F. (Jeff Bridges), an alcoholic neighbor in Thomas’ apartment building who dispenses pearls of wisdom while lamenting about the city’s literary scene. His motives remain cloudy as he harbors secrets about his past.

There are some intriguing character dynamics in the screenplay by Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty), although it’s difficult to connect with the film’s batch of self-absorbed writers and schemers, most notably Thomas, despite his many relatable qualities. He’s slightly awkward, somewhat charming, moderately intellectual, and rather uncertain about what he wants to do with his life. But does that mean we root for him?

Bridges is engaging as the sage busybody, mostly through his sardonic narration. His performance adds a layer of subtlety that effectively masks his inner turmoil, although the dime-store philosophy gradually turns from amusing to annoying. “He’s surrendered too much of his past to give up on his future,” he theorizes about Thomas.

As directed by Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), you wish The Only Living Boy in New York conveyed a better sense of time and place. Instead, Manhattan is talked about more than seen, with a rant about the city’s gentrification during an early dinner-party sequence providing a highlight.

A third-act twist tries to steer the entire narrative in an almost arbitrary — and unfortunately sentimental — new direction, except that the film never earns its desired emotional payoff. Despite a few compelling chapters, the result winds up as shallow and superficial as its characters.

 

Rated R, 88 minutes.

Good Time

You can’t accuse Good Time of false advertising, although its title certainly holds true for the audience more than the characters.

This visceral crime thriller from sibling directors Josh and Benny Safdie (Heaven Knows What) benefits from a fully committed performance from Robert Pattinson and a gritty visual texture.

Pattinson plays Connie, a New York hoodlum who commits a bank robbery alongside his mentally disabled brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), only to have the scheme unravel during the several hours that follow.

During the getaway, Nick stumbles and is captured, which prompts an all-night effort by Connie to free him, either through legal means or otherwise. Connie’s girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) agrees to help with bail, but that doesn’t go as planned. Making matters worse, Nick’s grandmother (Saida Mansoor) keeps blabbing about their unscrupulous behavior to anyone who will listen.

As Connie’s anguish turns to desperation, he finds reluctant allies in a wayward teenager (Taliah Webster) and a drug-dealing parolee (Buddy Duress) who Connie meets through a hilarious case of mistaken identity.

Amid its nocturnal odyssey, the film yields tension through a constant sense of unease — conveyed through abundant tight close-ups, the pulsating techno score, and the antics of the impulsive loose-cannon protagonist at its center.

Although technically polished, it maintains a distinctly rough visual style that’s more than just gimmicks, providing an immersive glimpse into its uncompromising world of crime and punishment.

Good Time also provides a showcase of Pattinson’s versatility, as his ferocious transformation leaves behind the brooding British heartthrob persona on which he established his career. Surrounding him, once again the Safdies manage to coax authentic performances from a collection of several novice actors.

The screenplay by Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein puts a fresh spin on familiar themes such as sibling bonds, tormented crooks and urban socioeconomic despair. The film doesn’t provide an easy path to redemption or catharsis, which makes it more challenging to sympathize with this quirky batch of oddballs with few benevolent qualities.

A good time might not necessarily be had by all. Yet even if the characters are unsavory and their environment is seedy, the film’s scrappy urgency and hyperkinetic energy make them compulsively watchable.

 

Rated R, 99 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Aug. 11

Annabelle: Creation

Almost inevitably, this sequel to a spinoff is an unnecessary genre exercise, but at least it’s a stylish improvement upon its predecessor. This follow-up to the 2014 film that follows the demonic doll from The Conjuring tells its origin story — about a dollmaker (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife (Miranda Otto), who are still grieving the death of their young daughter when they welcome a nun and six girls from a shuttered orphanage into their farmhouse, only to watch the deceased girl get revenge. The film delivers some scattered frights to please fans of the series, although the script isn’t original enough to generate much genuine suspense. (Rated R, 109 minutes).

 

Ingrid Goes West

The film itself goes south when it comes to satirizing technological addiction in the social-media age, even if in this case, a shallow perspective also seems appropriate. Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) has ruined friendships through online stalking and obsessing over followers. So she moves to California to start over, only to see her troubling habits resurface when neediness derails her friend requests for an Instagram star (Elizabeth Olsen) and a landlord (O’Shea Jackson). Some amusing character-driven moments and deadpan cynicism help cover for a lack of depth in the screenplay that tends to be more muddled than provocative. Yet ultimately, it’s difficult to sympathize with Ingrid. (Rated R, 97 minutes).

 

Pilgrimage

If you aren’t familiar with the Norman wars in Ireland, then this brutal action saga won’t do much to fill in the historical gaps, except for the brutal part. Against the backdrop of a 13th century Norman invasion, a handful of monks are chosen to transport a valuable religious relic to Rome, with their journey growing more perilous by the day. Among those who must protect their lives as much as the cargo are a young novice (Tom Holland) and a hot-tempered mute (Jon Bernthal). The film is stylish but emotionally distant, more concerned with bloody fights and weaponry than any meaningful character or thematic depth. (Not rated, 96 minutes).

 

Planetarium

Although Natalie Portman tries her best as a psychic medium, she can’t resurrect this tedious French drama from director Rebecca Zlotowski (Grand Central) that lacks the payoff to match its intriguing concept. It takes place in 1930s Paris, where Portman is a spiritualist who stages séances with her younger sister (Lily-Rose Depp) for aristocrats willing to pay up. One of them (Emmanuel Salinger) envisions film roles for the siblings, who reluctantly agree to his wishes. Despite some visual flourishes and strong performances, the film’s bilingual screenplay detours in different directions without establishing a firm foundation in character or tone. It flashes but squanders its potential. (Not rated, 105 minutes).

 

Whose Streets

Its topical relevance is almost startling, yet the effectiveness of this provocative documentary following the rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement is about more than simple good timing. It provides an incisive glimpse into the aftermath of the 2014 police-involved shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, by chronicling the events from the perspective of community activists and family members of slain teenager Michael Brown. Obviously, the film’s resonance transcends the specifics of its setting. Yet even if the infuriating (in a good way) result is naturally one-sided — plus lacking in broader context — it’s also passionate and persuasive, and might prove galvanizing to those with an open mind. (Rated R, 90 minutes).

The Dark Tower

The checkered legacy of Stephen King adaptations for the big screen takes a significant downturn with The Dark Tower, a disastrous effort to launch a fantasy franchise that fails its source material on nearly every level.

What was an ambitious mix of genres and settings on the written page becomes a woefully incoherent mess of overwrought action and watered-down subtext that won’t please either fans or newcomers to King’s acclaimed series of novels.

The film apparently is meant to be a sequel of sorts, while incorporating prior narrative elements. Yet what results is mostly awkward and consistently confusing, with jarring shifts in tone — involving elements of time travel, old-fashioned Western hero archetypes, supernatural monsters, a metaphysical universal order, and more — along with a basic failure to explain simple rules or motives.

The story starts in the present day, where Jake (Tom Taylor) is a precocious youngster whose drawings reflect nightmares he insists are true. And indeed, while his parents dismiss his visions, Jake is soon thrust into a sprawling battle for intergalactic supremacy involving parallel dimensions.

He is transported to a post-apocalyptic future, where he finds an ally in Roland (Idris Elba), a beleaguered leader of the Gunslingers trying to save the universe from Walter (Matthew McConaughey), a demonic wizard trying to unleash evil beings through harvesting the minds of children who are key to destroying the Dark Tower, which protects Earth and other planets.

Danish director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) crafts some haunting imagery from a combination of splashy effects and striking landscapes — whether the glossy sheen of contemporary Manhattan or the stark desolation of a futuristic Western wasteland.

However, any visual appeal is compromised by the hopelessly muddled screenplay, which exhibits a blatant disregard for extracting any character depth or sociopolitical context from the books, and maintains a frustrating emotional distance from its characters and their plight.

Indeed, it’s difficult to generate much sympathy for Jack, a nerdy moppet with a Justin Bieber haircut, as he battles against a cartoonish villain with slicked-back hair, greasy skin and a trench coat channeling a cut-rate illusionist lacking the magic to rescue this train wreck.

The film reduces a complex mythology to a glorified video game that funnels its thinly sketched subplots into an obligatory final showdown. But for a concept with the future of mankind in the balance, the film itself feels inconsequential.

 

Rated PG-13, 94 minutes.

Detroit

While its true story takes place a half-century ago, Detroit practically feels like it’s been extracted from present-day headlines.

That’s the point of this harrowing history lesson made more impactful by the abundant contemporary resonance in recreating a weeklong series of racially motivated riots in 1967 that spotlighted systemic discrimination, police brutality and the justice system.

The film marks the third collaboration between director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty), and their first that doesn’t concern military conflicts in the Middle East. Rather, this powerful effort hits significantly closer to home, both geographically and emotionally, by depicting on ongoing war that shows no signs of stopping.

The film takes a broad perspective on the violent street riots by black residents against the city’s largely white police force, triggered by ongoing socioeconomic inequality, mutual suspicion and distrust, and other factors bubbling beneath the surface.

It generally follows a handful of characters, including a morally conflicted black security guard (John Boyega) who tries to make peace, an aspiring Motown singer (Algee Smith) and his teenage friend (Jacob Latimore), and a hot-tempered white cop (Will Poulter) with an antiquated view on race relations.

As the city descends into widespread looting and anarchic chaos, with state and federal troops dispatched to assist, the men all converge on a rundown hotel, where the sound of gunfire leads to a sadistic night of interrogation that spirals out of control.

While it’s gritty and evocative look into a specific time and place, the film succeeds in transcending a single setting or instance of civil disobedience. The hand-held camerawork creates an immersive documentary feel that enhances the film’s keen attention to period detail.

Boal’s script is based on real characters and events, but speculative when it comes to some details of the central incident. The film lacks context in spots and flattens out in some of its quieter character-driven moments, yet is bolstered by an even-handed perspective and a strong ensemble cast.

Intense and provocative, it’s a gripping and emotionally draining drama that is, by necessity, difficult to watch at times. Perhaps the subject matter renders it easier to admire than enjoy.

Glimmers of hope aside, the residual feelings of anger and shame after watching Detroit aren’t an indictment against the titular city, but rather an indictment on all of us.

 

Rated R, 143 minutes.

Wind River

Many times, the image of red blood on white snow is as beautiful as it is haunting. With the arrival of a fresh coat of snow, the blood might be covered up, but it doesn’t disappear.

Such is the case with Wind River, a stylish and suspenseful thriller from director Taylor Sheridan (the screenwriter of Sicario and Hell or High Water) that benefits as much from its evocative wintry landscapes as from its strong performances and its layered murder mystery.

The film takes place on a rural reservation in western Wyoming, where a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracker named Cory (Jeremy Renner) — he “hunts predators,” he says — discovers the dead body of a teenage girl who apparently was raped.

Still reeling from a series of personal setbacks, Cory has ties to the tribal community, and begins asking questions along with the local lawman (Graham Greene). Then an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to launch an investigation that becomes bogged down in bureaucratic red tape over jurisdictional disputes between federal, county, and tribal authorities.

Nevertheless, their combined persistence brings them into contact with some seedy folks who inhabit the surrounding lands, including the victim’s family and some oil-rig workers with questionable ethics.

Taken on its own, the plot — which apparently is inspired by true events — doesn’t add up to much. Yet the atmospheric touches elevate the proceedings, as Sheridan immerses you in a world in which winter lasts almost year-round, where the primary mode of transportation is a snowmobile, and where lingering hostility toward outsiders often causes frontier justice to rule.

Although the timeframe is contemporary, it feels like a throwback to simpler times, without the intrusion of technology or big-city chaos. There’s an authenticity to the film’s depiction of life on the reservation, with its socioeconomic volatility and harsh climate proving both daunting and isolating.

Sheridan’s character-driven approach yields some top-notch portrayals, with Renner demonstrating his versatility as a loner whose emotions remain largely internalized. Meanwhile, Greene is terrific, and so is Gil Birmingham as the grieving father of the victim.

Provocative without turning heavy-handed, Wind River is deliberately paced but gradually ratchets up the tension. Even as it shifts toward more conventional Tarantino-style melodrama in the brutal final act, the film downplays the narrative specifics in favor of more textured chills dictated by its setting.

 

Rated R, 107 minutes.

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.