Capsule reviews for Dec. 1

A Bad Idea Gone Wrong

The title might be a little harsh as a critique of this low-budget heist comedy, because the concept itself is fairly clever, certainly outweighing the uneven execution. It follows bumbling small-time burglars Marlon (Matt Jones) and Leo (Will Rogers), who break into an unoccupied house for a quick robbery, then become trapped after they trip the alarm system. Then they find another intruder (Eleanore Pienta), who awakens with possible ulterior motives of her own. The screenplay by rookie director Jason Headley provides some scattered big laughs, although it stumbles when trying to generate sympathy for these would-be criminal masterminds who are both morally and intellectually bankrupt. (Not rated, 85 minutes).

 

Gangster Land

Although it ambitiously re-creates Prohibition-era Chicago on a shoestring budget, such attempts at authenticity don’t extend throughout this thriller about the tension leading up to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. Specifically, it follows underground boxer Jack (Sean Faris) as he joins the Italian mafia and eventually becomes the right-hand man to Al Capone (Milo Gibson) during notoriously violent clashes with Irish gangsters, while also meeting his eventual wife (Jamie-Lynn Sigler). However well-intentioned it might be, the script is woefully overburdened with genre clichés and historical embellishments while treading familiar territory that’s been done much better elsewhere, from The Untouchables to “Boardwalk Empire.” (Not rated, 88 minutes).

 

Kepler’s Dream

This earnest coming-of-age drama takes its title from the name of a 17th century astronomer, but its predictable story of precocious children and fractured families suffers from 21st century clichés. It centers on Ella (Isabella Blake-Thomas), an 11-year-old from a big city who spends the summer with her old-fashioned grandmother (Holland Taylor) on a New Mexico ranch while her mother (Kelly Lynch) undergoes cancer treatment. While there, the youngster adapts and finds a possible path toward connecting with her estranged father (Sean Patrick Flanery). The film is heartfelt and modestly charming, yet the flat characters and contrived screenplay don’t offer much incentive for emotional investment. (Not rated, 87 minutes).

 

The Tribes of Palos Verdes

Solid performances can’t rescue a subpar screenplay in this familiar tale of suburban dysfunction that follows a family’s disintegration after it relocates to an upscale neighborhood in seaside California. While the emotionally vulnerable mother (Jennifer Garner) finds her marriage crumbling, twin siblings Medina (Maika Monroe) and Jim (Cody Fern) begin a downward spiral after struggling to mesh with their privileged classmates and integrate into the local surfing culture. Some mildly provocative concepts about affluence and acceptance transcend the setting, yet the feature debut of sibling directors Brendan and Emmett Malloy strains credibility while detouring into heavy-handed melodrama, and doesn’t provide many avenues for audience sympathy. (Rated R, 104 minutes).

 

24 Hours to Live

If nothing else, give this ridiculous high-adrenaline thriller credit for jamming as many genre clichés into a single feature as possible. It concerns an ex-CIA assassin (Ethan Hawke) who puts off retirement for a lucrative assignment to kill an informant in South Africa, but when the plan goes awry, he’s forced to partner with a female operative (Qing Xu) to plot revenge against a former partner (Paul Anderson). The action sequences are capably staged, but the plot twists become progressively dumber as the film plows through a narrative checklist that includes car chases, shootouts, a medical lab, a stolen memory card, and ticking clock. (Rated R, 93 minutes).

Coco

By definition, a family film should appeal to young and old alike. Take Coco, the latest computer-animated gem from the Pixar juggernaut, which is visually dazzling, packing every animated frame with vibrant colors and meticulous background detail.

Still, the primary strength of this coming-of-age adventure is its ability to sensitively tackle tougher issues such as mortality, family legacies, and the afterlife from a child’s perspective, without feeling watered down or heavy-handed.

That balance is achieved through a story about the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos — meant to honor deceased family members — and specifically by following Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a small-town boy who dreams of  becoming a famous guitarist, even though it goes against his family’s wishes.

Rebellious yet resourceful, the youngster embarks on a journey that literally involves life or death over the course of the three-day weekend in question. He accidentally finds himself in the bright and joyous Land of the Dead, where he encounters some of his ancestors, meets a desperate performer (Gael Garcia Bernal) with hopes of his own, and seeks his musician idol (Benjamin Bratt).

Unfortunately, Miguel’s desire to probe his family’s past is endangered by a need to cross back over to the living before it’s too late.

As directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), the film provides a vivid an imaginative rendering of the Land of the Dead iconography — a majority of the characters are skeletons, after all — even if the bilingual screenplay sometimes overdoses on eccentricities.

The film also pays loving tribute to Mexican folklore and traditions such as food, music, fashion, holidays, and more, without indulging in too many clichés or stereotypes.

While children will enjoy the lively pace and quirky characters, they might also relate to Miguel’s curiosity that proves both haunting and enlightening — and could even learn a lesson about genealogy. Then comes the third-act twist that unspools a powerful message about forgiveness, family ties, and the power of memories that should resonate across cultural and generational lines.

It might draw comparisons to The Book of Life, another recent animated charmer about Dia de los Muertos mythology. However, both efforts stand out in distinct ways, by finding beauty in the macabre.

Within a familiar framework, Coco is both amusing and touching, using a celebration of death to prompt a fresh perspective on life.

 

Rated PG, 109 minutes.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

It generally might be difficult to sympathize with lawyers, yet Roman J. Israel Esq. certainly gives it a shot.

However, this awkwardly titled character study from director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) overdoses on quirks and stale platitudes about social and legal injustice, leaving its intriguing title character in search of a better film.

Roman (Denzel Washington) is a legal savant who has spent three decades working as the right-hand man to a Los Angeles defense attorney whose best days came during the civil-rights movement. Despite noble intentions toward finding justice for the disenfranchised, his out-of-touch cadences and inability to follow protocol makes it easy to see why he’s not the face of the firm.

When his boss dies suddenly, his family opts to shutter the fledgling firm with the assistance of a hotshot lawyer (Colin Farrell) who doesn’t account for Roman’s persistence, and winds up finding a way to utilize his skill set almost out of pity.

Meanwhile, Roman befriends the leader (Carmen Ejogo) of a legal nonprofit who sees the compassion beneath the clumsiness. But an impulsive decision while defending a case involving dangerous gang members is what precipitates his downfall.

Gilroy’s screenplay frames its protagonist as an underdog crusader who represents countless others working tirelessly behind the scenes for little or no credit. Roman’s passionate idealism stretches credibility, although the film provides balance through character flaws, mostly related to his extreme social awkwardness and lack of sufficient money management skills.

Some of his eccentricities are endearing. When a client asks him about the self-imposed “esquire” title, his explanation is that it’s a special designation “slightly above gentleman and below knight.”

Washington offers another committed performance, embodying Roman through a physical transformation that includes an Afro, a paunch, oversized glasses, hunched posture, and an entire closet’s worth of cheap suits.

Like his wardrobe, Roman is a bit of a relic from a bygone era. Yet the film, to its credit, doesn’t dwell on the specifics of his generational deficiencies, other than a couple of amusing references to his gigantic briefcase and reliance on handwritten note cards.

Ultimately, his greatest strength is also his biggest downfall. In making that point, the film projects the same cynicism and heavy-handed moralizing as Roman. Amid the ensuing third-act contrivances, much of the moral complexity becomes lost in the process. The verdict is mixed.

 

Rated PG-13, 122 minutes.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

If Al Gore is the man who invented the Internet, than it’s possible that Charles Dickens is The Man Who Invented Christmas, with all due apologies to Santa Claus and the birth of Christ.

Of course, the title of this speculative historical drama isn’t meant to be taken seriously, and neither is the film itself — a supposed chronicle of the creative inspiration behind the author’s A Christmas Carol that feels considerably more embellished than authentic.

It takes place in Victorian-era London, with Dickens (Dan Stevens) under pressure to regain his popularity after following his smash debut, Oliver Twist, with a handful of flops.

Haunted by a series of nightmares involving a greedy miser named Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) with a contemptuous view of the working class, Dickens sets out to craft a novella that would both heal socioeconomic strife and rekindle the spirit of Christmas in Britain.

Along the way, he confronts some inner demons while enduring some of the same spiritual crises as the fictional character he chronicles. However, he needs to get the book into stores before Christmas to ensure it will reach the masses. As he races toward his deadline, the question remains: Do his motives spring from genuine holiday cheer or financial opportunism? It’s probably both.

The film essentially is a Dickens biopic that offers flashbacks to his troubled blue-collar upbringing with his now-estranged father (Jonathan Pryce), as well as how his workaholic habits distance Dickens from his pregnant wife (Morfydd Clark).

The brainstorming process might not be very cinematic, although director Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) incorporates some stylish period touches, while Susan Coyne’s script provides a glimpse into the nature of literary fame well before an era of movie stars or viral videos.

Even if it lacks meaningful insight into the creative process, the idealistic film celebrates the power of imagination and inspiration. Like the novella, it promotes optimism while dismissing cynicism — an attitude that the ghosts of adaptations past would share — while prompting the same lessons about seasonal kindness and generosity.

Yet by comparison, The Man Who Invented Christmas simply doesn’t convey the same intimate charm, and it would benefit from a more subtle approach (and less grating score). The classic story of redemption still resonates, but in this case, the author is less compelling than his characters.

 

Rated PG, 104 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Nov. 22

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

The title has a double meaning in this documentary about the glamorous actress nicknamed “The Most Beautiful Woman in Film” during the 1930s and 1940s, who also happened to invent a weapons communication device during World War II, which was later used by the U.S. Navy. Using fresh interviews and abundant archival footage, rookie director Alexandra Dean effectively combines these disparate elements, as well as other biographical tidbits about an Austrian immigrant who fled Nazi persecution for Hollywood, dated Howard Hughes, and later pioneered technology that eventually was incorporated into modern Wi-Fi. Even for those familiar with its subject, the film is compelling and insightful. (Not rated, 88 minutes).

 

Mr. Roosevelt

Some familiar concepts are given a fresh twist in this slight yet amusing character-driven comedy that marks a promising directorial debut for Noel Wells, who also wrote the screenplay and stars as a fledgling comedian who returns to her roots in Austin, Texas, to tend to family medical matters. But she’s forced to come to terms with her past while staying with her ex-boyfriend (Nick Thune), who now has a new girlfriend (Britt Lower). It’s not especially profound as an examination of self-discovery and modern relationships, but the film is sharply observed, with an endearing quirky sense of humor and a genuine affection for its setting. (Not rated, 90 minutes).

 

On the Beach at Night Alone

Although its excessively deliberate pace can be frustrating, this intimate Korean relationship drama rewards patience by evolving into a powerful meditation on loneliness and regret. Younghee (Kim Min-hee) is an actress rendered emotionally vulnerable after her affair with an older filmmaker is broken off, prompting her to sort out her feelings during a vacation with a friend before returning to confront him. Much of the emotional payoff is ambiguous in the screenplay by veteran director Hong Sang-soo (Right Now, Wrong Then), especially in the titular sequence. Yet the film also manages moments of unsettling and heartbreaking authenticity, thanks in part to Kim’s perceptive performance. (Not rated, 101 minutes).

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.