The Circle

You might be reading this on a smartphone, through a social media app while sharing your current location with your online friends. The Circle would like to make you paranoid about doing that.

The satirical thriller is meant as a cautionary tale about how we’re seduced by the convenience and cool factor in the latest high-tech gadgets and shortcuts, while simultaneously letting our guard down with regard to potential dangers.

However, this adaptation of a Dave Eggers novel squanders a top-notch cast in a muddled examination of such issues as online privacy and political transparency in the age of WikiLeaks, smart homes, Facebook Live and rampant security breaches.

The story follows Mae (Emma Watson) as she lands a job at the titular tech firm, at which the office culture seems to perpetuate a cult-like atmosphere with regard to the constant connectedness of its chipper employees.

She’s kindly warned to be careful by an apprehensive colleague (John Boyega) who pioneered an innovation that forms the basis for the company’s data acquisition efforts.

When the company’s tech guru (Tom Hanks) unveils a new camera that will allow for complete access into the life of its wearer — and those around them — ostensibly to assist in advocacy efforts and spur widespread accountability, Mae becomes an enthusiastic supporter. “Without secrets, we can finally realize our full potential,” he cryptically explains.

Naturally, the endgame is really money and power, which Mae realizes too late, after she’s already caused relationships with her boyfriend (Ellar Coltrane) and her parents to deteriorate.

Mae, whose idealism runs counter to the film’s underlying cynicism, is meant to be the audience’s eyes into this world of connectivity taken to the extreme, of course. But she comes off as too naïve and desperate — failing to acknowledge the abundant red flags — to earn sufficient sympathy once she gets in too deep.

This cutting-edge thriller is certainly topical, yet also heavy-handed and contrived. The screenplay by Eggers and director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) lacks subtlety and surprise, and isn’t as provocative as it aspires to be.

While it’s nice to see Hanks effectively playing against type, the intriguing concept for The Circle makes the lackluster execution that much more disappointing. Still, its unsettling depiction of connectivity to the extreme might be just scratching the surface. There’s plenty of incentive to go home and unplug.

 

Rated PG-13, 110 minutes.

Capsule reviews for April 28

Buster’s Mal Heart

It’s part unsettling psychological thriller, part absurdist dark comedy, and part existential meditation. Yet for a film that skillfully weaves together so many elements, this muddled low-budget drama remains at an emotional distance. Told in flashback, the story is set amid Y2K paranoia and conspiracy theories, following a disheveled homeless man (Rami Malek) who has become a fugitive after a personal tragedy involving his wife and young daughter, the details of which are gradually revealed. Yet despite Malek’s haunting performance and the visually assured approach of director Sarah Adina Smith, the narrative puzzle pieces in her screenplay never quite fit together in the final act. (Not rated, 96 minutes).

 

How to Be a Latin Lover

The latest bilingual vehicle for Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez is another uneven combination of slapstick and sentiment that might please his devotees without significantly expanding his fan base. Derbez plays Maximo, a scheming womanizer who is dumped by his octogenerian wife, who he married just for the money. So he moves in with his estranged sister (Salma Hayek) and forms an unlikely bond with his young nephew (Raphael Alejandro), only to return to his gold-digging ways with a plot to seduce a widowed billionaire (Raquel Welch). The life lessons about valuing family over money aren’t delivered with much subtlety, but there are a few solid laughs. (Rated PG-13, 115 minutes).

 

One Week and a Day

Adroitly balancing hilarity and poignancy, this bittersweet Israeli comedy puts a fresh spin on films about grief, taking place during 24 hours after Eyal (Shai Avivi) and his wife, Vicky (Jenya Dodina), finish sitting Shiva for a week to mourn their late son. Both struggle to restart their lives and begin acting erratically, with Vicky awkwardly returning to her job as a teacher while Eyal steals a stash of marijuana to enjoy with their obnoxious neighbor (Tomer Kapon). The uneven but amusing script by rookie director Asaph Polonsky captures the chaos, resentment and absurdity that comes with returning to the daily routine after a horrible tragedy. (Not rated, 98 minutes).

 

Rupture

Both illogical and incoherent, this psychological thriller feels like watching someone else navigate an escape room while knowing that you could get out much faster with a little common sense. In other words, it’s a frustrating experience watching Renee (Noomi Rapace), a single mother who’s abducted and taken to a top-secret lab, where she becomes the subject of experiments involving fear and genetics, with only cryptic clues to their purpose. Despite some creepy visual touches from director Steven Shainberg (Secretary), the resulting puzzle is more pretentious than suspenseful, filled with derivative contrivances that compromise much of the intrigue and originality in the unsettling concept. (Not rated, 102 minutes).

 

Voice from the Stone

There’s little substance beneath the atmospheric surface of this slow-burning thriller that takes place in 1950s Tuscany, where a sculptor (Marton Csokas) hires a nurse (Emilia Clarke) to care for his young son (Edward Dring) who has become mute while mourning the death of his mother. However, the newcomer soon finds out that dark family secrets lie within the walls of the castle. Rookie director Eric Howell supplies some evocative visual flair considering the limited budget, and the screenplay gradually develops some suspense before faltering in the final act with a payoff that doesn’t match the build-up. The result is more creepy than truly compelling. (Rated R, 94 minutes).

The Promise

A few films have tried, but none have really succeeded on a large scale, in doing justice to the story of the Armenian genocide on the big screen.

We can add The Promise to that unfortunate list. This handsomely mounted period drama has sweeping epic aspirations, yet tends to downplay its historical context in favor of romantic melodrama that diminishes the intended emotional impact.

The film takes place in 1915, on the brink of considerable pre-World War I upheaval in the Middle East. That provides the backdrop for the story of Michael (Oscar Isaac), a medical student who becomes engaged before heading off to school, vowing to return to his village for the wedding.

But when he arrives in Constantinople, he falls for a tutor (Charlotte LeBon), whose hotheaded journalist boyfriend (Christian Bale) naturally becomes suspicious. But when war breaks out shortly afterward and Michael’s homeland is threatened, all three form a reluctant alliance while trying to save lives and promote peace.

More than a century later, the Turkish government still has not accepted official responsibility for the genocide, for which real-life tensions continue to linger among descendants of the victims.

The Promise is actually the second film this spring — the other being The Ottoman Lieutenant — to use a love triangle (think Doctor Zhivago) as a springboard for exploring the final days of the Ottoman Empire, and specifically the conflict between the Turks and Armenians.

Conspiracy theorists have noted that the two films take opposite perspectives in somewhat suspicious fashion. But for most of us, the most critical shortcoming isn’t about politics, but the narrative deficiencies in each of them.

In this case, the screenplay co-written by director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) buries the most compelling material by focusing on a sentimental wartime romance among characters who aren’t all that intriguing to begin with. The increased suspense in the final act feels tacked-on by comparison.

Perhaps the film is meant to be considered on that more intimate level, and the three lead actors do their best to enliven mediocre material. However, considering its worthwhile subject matter, the film feels like a missed opportunity, preferring to offer sledgehammer examples of heroism and sacrifice — even suggested by the altruistic title — that feel more contrived than convincing.

 

Rated PG-13, 132 minutes.

Unforgettable

As it ticks through its genre tropes, you keep hoping that Unforgettable will become something other than what you expect. But it never happens.

Instead, this tawdry psychological thriller feels like a run-of-the-mill cable television potboiler about vengeful affluent housewives that’s devoid of subtlety and surprise.

Divorce can be hard on children, but it’s the adults battling for the affections of young Lilly (Isabella Rice) who seem to have the most difficulty coping with the new arrangement.

Her father (Geoff Stults) is running a successful small-town brewery and trying to rebuild his family with Lilly and his new fiancée, Julia (Rosario Dawson), who’s adjusting to life away from the big city and trying to move on from an abusive relationship in her past.

None of this sits well with Lilly’s condescending mother, Tessa (Katherine Heigl), who’s still reeling from the breakup and resents the restricted access to her daughter. So she targets her fury at Julia by unleashing an elaborate revenge scheme, both online and in person, with gradually escalating ramifications.

The directorial debut of veteran producer Denise Di Novi (Ed Wood) features some stylish visual touches, although that hardly seems necessary to support material that allows the mayhem to play out with a straight face, inviting snickers instead of gasps as its silly twists are unspooled.

The screenplay by Christina Hodson (Shut In) attempts a half-hearted examination of gender politics, absentee parenting, social-media privacy, and even mental illness. Yet it seems oblivious to the fact that its best moments are of the campy and catty variety.

Dawson and Heigl develop an amusing adversarial chemistry as the film becomes completely detached from reality and builds to its inevitable final confrontation — no spoilers here — punctuated by bloody comeuppance.

Stand-up comedian Whitney Cummings, playing Julia’s snarky best friend, scores a big laugh by referring to Tessa as “psycho-Barbie.” And former “Charlie’s Angels” star Cheryl Ladd, playing Tessa’s overbearing mother, chews the scenery effectively while refusing to take this mess seriously.

The target demographic appears to be the Fifty Shades of Grey crowd, who’ll find it both too tame and lacking in tension. Ultimately, Unforgettable is just the opposite of its title.

 

Rated R, 101 minutes.

Free Fire

With style and attitude to spare, a first-rate ensemble cast, and some big laughs along the way, Free Fire has the ingredients that make it a shoo-in for the midnight-movie canon.

However, this low-budget thriller can be enjoyed at any time of day, especially by action-movie buffs who can enjoy watching the bullets fly early and often in what essentially amounts to one long, bloody shootout in a single location.

The latest from British filmmaker Ben Wheatley (High-Rise) features a simple concept, and firearms aficionados should appreciate this showcase for an impressive array of weaponry that builds up to an elaborate finale filled with gratuitous gunfire.

The setting is a nondescript warehouse in 1970s Boston, where representatives of two rival gangs are meeting to complete a weapons deal. There’s tension from the beginning, with the broker (Brie Larson) struggling to maintain control amid a testosterone festival that includes a slick negotiator (Armie Hammer), the wisecracking South African seller (Sharlto Copley), a level-headed buyer (Cillian Murphy), and various henchmen who can’t keep their mouths shut.

Before long, everybody is settling disputes by firing at one another and the encounter devolves into anarchic chaos, although nobody wants to get the cops involved.

The deliberately over-the-top film relies largely on its throwback technical bravado, since there’s not much character or plot development. You’ll be lucky if you can keep track of everyone’s names, let alone what side they’re on or what hidden motives they might have.

Indeed, it’s difficult to find a rooting interest within this collection of unscrupulous lowlifes. Still, the actors’ enthusiasm for the material — Hammer and Copley are especially hilarious — is infectious. Plus, the period re-creation spotlights some great leisure suits and facial hair.

Of course, the whole premise collapses if you take it too seriously, but the screenplay by Wheatley and Amy Jump — his wife and frequent collaborator — includes some amusing banter that covers the enormous gaps in logic and breaks up the repetitive action.

Free Fire celebrates the art of the big-screen shootout while at the same time offering a subtle critique of the absurdity of gun violence beneath the surface. That’s how the result hits the target.

 

Rated R, 91 minutes.

The Lost City of Z

Even if he never realized it, British explorer Percy Fawcett’s obsessive search for civilization in the Amazon jungle was more about a search for himself.

A biopic about his adventures might not reach the terrifying scale of Heart of Darkness, but The Lost City of Z is an evocative and well-crafted drama that puts a face to the legend.

As the film opens, Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is an officer in the British army sent on a two-year mission to draw borders between Bolivia and Peru, thereby settling a dispute between the South American nations. Perhaps more importantly to Fawcett, the trip presents an opportunity to clear his middle-class family’s name after a past incident involving his father.

Leaving his wife (Sienna Miller) at home, Fawcett and his military colleague (Robert Pattinson) arrive in the harsh jungle, encountering angry natives and flesh-eating piranhas along the way. Plus, they uncover evidence of an ancient city, the validity of which is dismissed by the prejudiced aristocracy back home.

Between obligations involving his growing family and World War II, Fawcett spends the ensuing decades returning to the site of his alleged discovery, including a perilous voyage to bond with his son (Tom Holland) harboring resentment for his absenteeism.

The contemplative screenplay by director James Gray (We Own the Night), adapted from the book by David Grann, offers an even-handed glimpse at how Fawcett’s curiosity turns into full-blown fixation, threatening to tear apart both his personal and professional life.

The film is sumptuously shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris) in a way that makes the lush setting both sprawling and intimate, and a timeless source both of calm and danger.

Meanwhile, Hunnam smartly balances strength and vulnerability in his performance.

Gray treats the material as an old-fashioned epic of sorts, for better and worse. The deliberate pace leads to some rambling in the middle section, although the depth and complexity with which Gray explores familiar themes — physical, emotional, and spiritual — is a refreshing antidote to the contemporary glut of effects-driven blockbusters.

The Lost City of Z is comparatively small in scale and lacks the sort of definitive metamorphic payoff that some might anticipate. Yet like its protagonist, this worthy portrait of a fascinating figure drifts off the mainstream path. The result is appealing to both the eyes and the brain.

 

Rated PG-13, 141 minutes.

Their Finest

For the major players on both sides of the camera in Their Finest, the title is a bit of a misnomer.

Indeed, the primary actors and director Lone Scherfig (An Education) have each done finer work elsewhere, although this breezy and heartfelt comedy exudes some crowd-pleasing charm along the way.

It’s a lighthearted look at World War II-era cultural propaganda and wartime paranoia from a British perspective, although the modest insight into the period is overwhelmed by sentimentality.

The film follows Catrin (Gemma Arterton), a young clerk assigned to the film division of the British government’s Ministry of Information. Their assignment is to create a feature film that will boost morale among citizens after the Blitzkrieg without being transparent about those intentions. “Authenticity with optimism” is the mantra.

Catrin’s writing skill slowly earns the respect of her male counterparts, including a fellow writer (Sam Claflin) who finds her tenacity alluring, even as her idea to portray a story of everyday heroism connected to the recent Battle of Dunkirk quickly turns into a fiasco filled with script embellishments, budgetary constraints and acting foibles.

Catrin becomes an unlikely crusader for gender equality, both on and off the screen, in addition to a voice for the working class. As her script is picked apart, her priority becomes saving the female leads from the cutting-room floor.

In their flirtations, Arterton and Claflin show glimpses of the type of chemistry you’d find in an old-fashioned screwball comedy. And Nighy is a notorious scene-stealer who supplies a healthy dose of hilariously sardonic pomposity.

Scherfig and her crew effectively re-create the period, even if it’s overly sanitized and wistfully nostalgic. The “authenticity” they’re portraying doesn’t jive with the reality right outside the studio walls, which is symptomatic of the film’s awkward shifts in tone.

Likewise, the screenplay by veteran British television writer Gaby Chiappe includes some scattered moments that are amusing and affecting — including some jabs at unrefined American moviegoing tastes — but generally it lacks subtlety and surprise, not to mention wartime context.

Utlimately, Their Finest shares plenty of parallels with its film-within-a-film (which supplies many of the biggest laughs), whether intentional or not. Both struggle to find a satisfactory ending, and both suffer from insufficient “authenticity with optimism.”

 

Rated R, 117 minutes.

Capsule reviews for April 14

Finding Oscar

The subject matter of this informative and intriguing documentary makes it difficult to watch at times, but also worthwhile. It looks back on an extended period of civil war in Guatemala, specifically focusing on the massacre of villagers by military forces during the 1980s, which led to a massive government cover-up. Many of these details certainly aren’t common knowledge, as director Ryan Suffern coaxes personal details and memories out of both family members still grieving their missing loved ones, and former soldiers who reluctantly participated in the genocide. Although uneven in structure, the powerful result is quietly compassionate while adding some hope amid the heartbreak. (Not rated, 95 minutes).

 

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo

While it never really takes off, this documentary makes a worthwhile effort to pay tribute to those behind the scenes of the Apollo space missions and their lasting impact on the American space program. The film offers a straightforward chronicle of life at NASA during the 1960s, through interviews with several flight directors — including Apollo 13 legend Gene Kranz — and other key personnel on the ground. And while rookie director David Fairhead (a veteran editor of space documentaries) makes a persuasive case for their vital roles in the missions, the film’s dry presentation doesn’t provide much new insight nor historical value outside of some compelling anecdotes. (Not rated, 101 minutes).

 

The Outcasts

Abundant brooding and teenage angst rules the day in this woefully predictable Mean Girls ripoff for the social-media age. It takes place at suburban high school, where a nerdy loner (Victoria Justice) is humiliated after a prank by a group of pretty and popular girls, prompting her best friend (Eden Sher) to organize a rebellion of geeks and brainiacs to issue some comeuppance. And she even manages to find a boyfriend (Avan Jogia). This innocuous, mildly amusing wish-fulfillment fantasy comes right off the assembly line of this unfortunate subgenre, destined to bore even the least discriminating teens with its aggressive barrage of clichés and stereotypes. (Rated PG-13, 95 minutes).

 

A Quiet Passion

This handsomely mounted biopic of famed poet Emily Dickinson embraces the challenge of finding compassion and sympathy in a reclusive and pretentious true-life character. That’s a credit to director Terence Davies (The House of Mirth) and to the performance of Cynthia Nixon as Dickinson, whose immense talent and outspoken views on religion and gender roles made her an American feminist icon, but whose inner demons caused a life of heartache and isolation. The mannered film is deliberately paced but rewards patience as it captures Dickinson’s sardonic wit while chronicling her Deep South upbringing during the Civil War, and melancholy adulthood filled with physical and psychological turmoil. (Rated PG-13, 125 minutes).

 

Tommy’s Honour

Golf aficionados tend to appreciate tradition more than most, yet this biopic of a Scottish father-son duo that helped shape the sport’s early days doesn’t require putting proficiency to be enjoyed. It takes place in the 1860s, when golf was gaining popularity in Britain, and specifically chronicles the volatile relationship between links champion Tom Morris (Peter Mullan) and his talented but headstrong son, Tommy (Jack Lowden). The film’s insights into golf history are modest, and the screenplay is contrived in spots. Yet director Jason Connery (son of Sean) offers an affectionate and convincing period re-creation that supplements the fine performances. So the result scores a birdie. (Rated PG, 112 minutes).

Going in Style

It’s always fun to see Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin on screen separately, let alone together. However, Going in Style is a forgettable comedy that generally squanders its talent on both sides of the camera.

This lackluster if good-natured remake of a 1979 film of the same name clearly targets an older demographic that might find the jokes nostalgic instead of stale.

The story follows longtime buddies Joe (Caine), Albert (Arkin) and Willie (Freeman) whose retirement income is cut off when a merger involving their former employer cuts off their pension.

Faced with foreclosure on his house, and with the others facing similar financial desperation, Joe proposes they rob the same bank that’s essentially robbing them. He figures, what have they got to lose?

While organizing their unlikely scheme and subsequently facing scrutiny from a detective (Matt Dillon), each of the men deals with personal issues. Willie is hiding a medical condition, Albert is flirting with a grocery clerk (Ann-Margret), and Joe tries to reconcile with his deadbeat son-in-law (Peter Serafinowicz).

Whatever energy the film achieves is due to the effortless chemistry of its three stars, who have fun with the material and elevate it whenever they’re able. While it’s true that they’ve all done better work elsewhere and are content to be cashing a paycheck here, at least they have some fun.

Only a fraction of that fun spreads to the audience, however, thanks to a breezy screenplay by Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures) that’s predictable from start to finish, and straightforward direction by Zach Braff (Garden State) — notably working without his own script — that tosses in a few visual gimmicks and some cool tunes on the soundtrack, but otherwise lacks subtlety and surprise.

And it’s not like they’re butchering a classic. The original film — which was directed by Martin Brest and starred George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg — suffered from some similar pitfalls.

Going in Style features plenty of self-deprecating gags about aging, some mildly amusing instances of male bonding over bocce and reality television, and a half-hearted commentary about corporate greed. But mostly it’s all a transparent excuse for three geriatrics to get into some far-fetched mischief, and kudos to them for almost pulling it off.

 

Rated PG-13, 96 minutes.