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).

Wonder Woman

© 2017 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC ENTERTAINMENT, LLC

GAL GADOT as Diana in WONDER WOMAN, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo: Clay Enos/ TM & © DC Comics

The best thing about WONDER WOMAN will be all the little girls emulating their heroine the way I and my friends emulated Indiana Jones when we were kids.  The worst thing about WONDER WOMAN is that it’s a D.C. film.  The in-between isn’t great but it isn’t entirely bad, either.

Director Patty Jenkins enters into a beleaguered franchise, opposite industry giant Marvel and rather late to the game.  The hope, perhaps, was that they might rush a product out ahead of CAPTAIN MARVEL and have bragging rights to being magnanimous toward women.

On the isle of Themiscira (based on the region, Themiscyra, of Greek myth) the Amazon women live, learn and train in armed combat like men of Sparta under the tutelage of Antiope (an under-utilized Robin Wright).  The world of men, they believe, is corrupted by the god, Ares.  Queen Hippolyta’s (Connie Nielsen) daughter, Princess Diana (Gal Gadot, also played by Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey), is born and bred for war, but raised with the Amazonian values of maintaining peace.  This cannot last, as World War I falls on their doorstep, literally, when Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) plane crashes at their shores, followed by German battleships.

WONDER WOMAN has the temperament of Joe Johnston’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER.  Aside from shifting the Trevor timeline to World War I, there are benefactors (David Thewlis) and there are rogues (Saeed Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock) in a race to stop the destructive Danny Huston—err, Ludendorff, who feels too much like a Nazi caricature (Weimar Republic be damned).  Destined to play villains, Huston and his congenital scowl just can’t catch a break.

Written by Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and Zack Snyder, the anemic story exsanguinates after the facile introduction to Diana’s home, the Great War, and the vaguely evil plot—to deploy a kind of mustard gas which, as far you see on screen, makes people sleepy—facilitated by a scientist, Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), grotesquely twisted inside and out.

In spite of these challenges, uneven pacing and the weak third act (typical of Snyder), Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot prove that Wonder Woman herself, contrary to studio excuses, is not and never was the problem.  And while Chris Pine’s levity establishes a usefulness beyond what his phallic gags imply, Gadot shines in a light entirely of her own making.

She cinches Wonder Woman with the same combination of awkwardness and sincerity that made Christopher Reeve the golden standard of superheroes in Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN (1978)—note the alleyway stickup nod to to the latter.

Central to D.C.’s failures with Batman and Superman reboots is this notion that the protagonist must be miserable in equal proportion to the world around him.  Marvel, then, did the obverse with Chris Evans and Captain America, first in Johnston’s love letter to American optimism, and again with a darker poignancy in the Russo brothers’ WINTER SOLDIER, testing a hero’s resolve in the darkest hour with deliberate callbacks to 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR and THE PARALLAX VIEW.  The key, as the School of Donner taught us, is that the world is a mad, cynical place, and what defines a superhero is how they never lose their nerve.

Somewhere betwixt profligate abuse of slow-motion shots of cartwheeling daredevilry, Diana Prince scolds a roomful of stodgy Brits of the War Council.  As if to point a finger back at the studio executives who rationalized why audiences won’t buy into a female lead, Diana looks these men square in the eye and declares that leaders don’t make excuses and hide behind desks while sending poor, young men to die in war.  Leaders, she argues, charge into battle with their troops.

To wit, it only took two women to right a ship that dozens of male D.C. executives, writers and directors, have tried their damnedest to sink.

Through every generation of the human race there has been a constant war, a war with fear. Those who have the courage to conquer it are made free and those who are conquered by it are made to suffer until they have the courage to defeat it, or death takes them.

–  Alexander III of Macedon

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).

Alien: Covenant

M & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Katherine Waterston as Daniels in Ridley Scott’s ALIEN: COVENANT.  Photo Credit: Mark Rogers. TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Fifteen years after archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) encountered a parasitic species while attempting to chase down the alien origins of humanity, a colonization mission to Origae-6 goes awry when a radiation burst cripples the ship.

Like the previous expedition, funded by the eccentric Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the human crew is accompanied by an android, Walter (Michael Fassbender). Unlike his predecessor, David (so named for Weyland’s fondness for wearisome metaphor vis-a-vis Michelangelo), Walter’s intelligence is curbed. This seems peculiar, as it was Weyland’s intent to crew an android as a sort of HAL-9000 with an ulterior motive.

ALIEN: COVENANT is the second part of Ridley Scott’s prequel series to the 1979 horror film starring Sigourney Weaver as the protagonist, Ripley. While science fiction cinema has had elements of horror in its mid-century roots, ALIEN emphasized claustrophobia and terror as the primary elements, pushing the science fiction to the backdrop. Ridley Scott, however, hasn’t seemed to successfully move away from the tropes he helped popularize–namely, the Final Girl. Instead, he works backwards from them stuck in a kind of causal loop of intense mediocrity.

The surviving members of the crew are systematically picked off by the “neomorph”—like “xenomorph” but, you know, new… except this is a sequel, so shouldn’t they be protomorphs? Never mind. Scott’s modern Ripley, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming engineer aboard the Covenant, happens upon another android who leads them (unsurprisingly) to a trap.

THE SPOILER: Yes, the villain is David… In spite of escaping a completely unrelated star system, in all the vast universe, somehow the cosmic radiation accident led the Covenant to the exact place where David and Elizabeth landed. And yes, David is going to double-cross them. And yes, he uses a trick that would make Hayley Mills proud (or nauseated). To his credit, Fassbender invokes the same creepy ethical vacancy of Ash in the original ALIEN.  And maybe there’s something to reintroducing that 1970’s-era distrust of technology into cinema at a time when our own fears about the surveillance state are coming to fruition.  In a back room, H.R. Giger’s early concept designs strewn across a table, we discover that David is a eugenics hobbyist, synthesizing and curating the “perfect” being in an attempt to recast himself from servant of one species to god of another.

Sidenote: Fassbender also supplies a hint of homoeroticism or, perhaps, auto-eroticism… but it’s merely titillation, eclipsing that hint of Sgt. Lope’s (Demián Bichir) marriage to Sgt. Hallett (Nathaniel Dean).

A prequel could conceivably take any number of routes to get you to where you’ve been, but Scott seems to be repeating the same storyline again and again only peppering us with bits of mythology like the interesting clues that lead nowhere in the television series, LOST. In the end, they’re all dead anyway.

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.