Capsule reviews for Oct. 6

Barracuda

Considering its backdrop in the world of country music, this low-key thriller appropriately finds an appealing rhythm. Of course, its tune is potentially more sinister when considering the relationship between Merle (Alison Tolman) and her half-sister, Sinaloa (Sophie Reid), both daughters of a deceased musician. Sinaloa visits Merle’s home in Austin with intentions that seem innocent enough at first, but soon are revealed to be darker with regard to her stake in the family legacy. Some intriguing character dynamics and strong performances bolster a screenplay by Jason Cortlund — who also co-directed — that gradually ratchets up the tension and offers a fresh take on familiar material. (Not rated, 98 minutes).

 

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Any doubts about Vince Vaughn’s underused versatility can be quieted by this ultraviolent thriller from director Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) that vividly depicts the chaos suggested by its title. Vaughn plays a drug-dealing brute who rarely shows his softer side, except when it comes to defending his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter). Jailed after a drug bust, he’s blackmailed into targeting a fellow inmate by a crime boss on the outside while dealing with a corrupt warden (Don Johnson). This leads to plenty of testosterone-fueled brutality within a textured if self-indulgent revenge saga that employs an effectively gritty throwback visual style amid its narrative meandering. (Not rated, 132 minutes).

 

Dina

Dina Buno might not be a conventional movie star, but this documentary shows that a working-class 49-year-old woman from the Philadelphia suburbs is worthy of the spotlight. She’s eccentric but charming as the film chronicles her attempt at cohabitation with her fiancé, Scott, a Walmart greeter who — like Dina — is on the autism spectrum. From there, directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles (Mala Mala) chronicle their struggles to achieve intimacy and fulfill each other’s unique needs as their wedding approaches. By using a verite approach, the result manages to balance sympathy for their situation without resorting to cheap sentiment, even if the approach lacks true objectivity. (Not rated, 103 minutes).

 

My Little Pony: The Movie

Most in the target demographic for this egregiously wholesome animated adventure aren’t old enough to read this. It’s a big-screen incarnation of the brightly colored equine dolls (and their eponymous television series) that finds the perky inhabitants of Equestria invaded by an evil force attempting to steal their magic, which causes them to flee and tests the limits of their friendship. While it might charm small kiddos enough to spark toy sales, the film resembles a throwback to Saturday morning cartoons, with rudimentary animation and dialogue like, “Come on, every-pony!” It would be more tolerable without the forgettable songs that needlessly pad the running time. (Rated PG, 99 minutes).

 

The Osiris Child

It might take place in another galaxy, but the clichés in this incoherent science-fiction thriller come straight from Earth. The futuristic story follows the rogue efforts of a soldier (Daniel MacPherson) trying to save his young daughter (Teagan Croft) from a deadly virus unleashed by evil forces on a colonized planet. He reluctantly teams with a prison escapee (Kellan Lutz) to battle intergalactic thugs and lowlifes, in addition to some menacing creatures. Australian director Shane Abbess (Infini) employs some ambitious low-budget visuals that lend some style to a convoluted and chronologically jumbled script. Yet amid the violent chaos, the film never achieves its desired emotional payoff. (Not rated, 99 minutes).

 

So B. It

An exploration of childhood curiosity is undermined by contrived sentimentality in this well-intentioned coming-of-age story from director Stephen Gyllenhaal (Losing Isaiah) that consistently strains credibility. Heidi (Talitha Bateman) is a precocious girl living with her mentally disabled mother (Jessica Collins) and agoraphobic caretaker (Alfre Woodard) in a Reno apartment. Carrying only a gift for good luck at the slot machines, the youngster embarks on a cross-country bus trip seeking answers to questions about her fractured family. The scattered episodes of character-driven charm become lost amid the accumulating afflictions and strained attempts to yank at the heartstrings. There’s not much subtlety or surprise along the way. (Rated PG-13, 98 minutes).

 

Una

Two powerhouse performances skillfully elevate some difficult subject matter in this intimate drama about a vulnerable young woman (Rooney Mara) who tracks down a factory boss (Ben Mendelsohn), then confronts him about a sexual encounter from 15 years ago, when she was only 13. Their respective psychological wounds have evolved in various ways since, as their feelings for one another are rekindled in unexpected ways. The film isn’t interested in contrived revenge, but rather an honest portrayal of the residual damage inflicted by sexual predators. Although the direction sometimes is overwrought, the result has a raw intensity in its character-driven moments that’s both powerful and unsettling. (Rated R, 94 minutes.).

 

Walking Out

The vivid wintry landscapes in this low-key drama provide a harrowing backdrop for a suspenseful tale of survival that’s much more than just father-son bonding in the great outdoors.  It follows a rebellious big-city teenager (Josh Wiggins) who agrees to join his estranged father (Matt Bomer) on a hunting trip in the Montana wilderness. As they struggle to connect, violent circumstances bring them closer out of desperation. The film is much heavier on dialogue than action, yet although it sometimes feels too bleak, it’s well acted and evocatively captures its remote setting to the extent that you can almost feel the chill in the air. (Rated PG-13, 95 minutes).

American Made

There’s an element of nostalgia in seeing Tom Cruise back in the cockpit in American Made, and not just because it takes place in the early 1980s.

While watching this engaging true-life story of drug cartels, weapons smuggling, money laundering, and government corruption, you realize that it’s been more than 30 years since Top Gun, and Cruise has aged really well since then. Plus, the star’s charisma makes him an ideal fit for a fledgling commercial airline pilot who becomes a pawn in an international maze of greed and excess.

Cruise plays Barry Seal, whose flying expertise combined with a tendency to sneak cigars through customs makes him the ideal candidate for Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), a CIA operative circa 1978 seeking someone to get intelligence on Communist hideouts in Central America from Nicaraguan officials in exchange for government cash.

Soon, his actions catch the attention of a ruthless Colombian drug cartel operated in part by Pablo Escobar, who needs a vessel for cocaine trafficking back to the States. Then the conflict in Nicaragua takes a turn, causing Schafer to add guns to Barry’s cargo — meant to arm the Contra rebels in their fight against the Sandinista regime.

Soon, it all spirals out of control for Barry, whose backdoor dealings leave his loyalties conflicted. But that doesn’t matter as long as the money keeps flowing to his wife (Sarah Wright), who raises their kids in a nondescript Arkansas town where they’ve been given a home and 2,000 acres. Barry realizes only too late that the endless riches come with a price.

The film’s breezy and lighthearted approach is appropriate considering the multifaceted absurdity in Barry’s situation, with enough time having passed to gently mock the intertwined sleaziness in which he becomes inextricably complicit.

While it embellishes some historical details, the screenplay skewers the sociopolitical climate at the time — such as Reagan-era foreign policy, domestic economic volatility, and Cold War espionage — with a clear yet restrained cynicism. Its exploration of the moral complexities for Barry is more muddled. He becomes the hero almost by default.

In the end, there’s not much contemporary resonance, yet Cruise and director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) offer a slick sales pitch that convinces you the material is all true (even if most of it really is). A serious treatment might have been more informative, but probably not as entertaining.

 

Rated R, 115 minutes.

Battle of the Sexes

Forget what happens on the tennis court in the titular match. In Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King trounces Bobby Riggs in screen time.

Indeed, this chronicle of the events leading up to the 1973 exhibition match places a worthwhile spotlight on King’s role as a feminist pioneer in sports — and tennis, in particular — prior to the Title IX era, at the expense of much perspective on his brash opponent or his motives.

Still, the film features shining performances on both sides of the net and manages a fair amount of intrigue, even for those who know the outcome, while volleying tones both dramatic and comedic.

As the film opens, King (Emma Stone) is lamenting unequal prize money for women’s tennis players to a tournament executive (Bill Pullman). So she and seven other top female stars branch out to form their own tour with a cigarette sponsorship and publicity from a magazine publisher (Sarah Silverman).

King’s rise to fame coincides with turmoil in her personal life. With her doting husband (Austin Stowell) at home, she begins an affair with a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough), and the resulting stress impacts her performance. After all, she knows disclosure of her bisexuality could negatively impact her image and career during such a pivotal period.

Meanwhile, Riggs (Steve Carell) is an opportunistic former Grand Slam men’s champion who, at 55, challenges King to a match at Houston’s Astrodome for a $100,000 jackpot. After hesitating, she later agrees, sensing an opportunity to quiet doubters and broaden the appeal of women’s tennis. Riggs plays up the match as a “male chauvinist pig versus a hairy-leg feminist,” yet in reality, he’s really a hustler burdened with gambling debts who feigns chauvinism to fuel publicity.

As directed by the tandem of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), the film shrewdly captures the visual texture of the period through more than just throwback fashions and a nostalgic soundtrack.

The straightforward if uneven screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) provides a glimpse into the passion and competitiveness that made King one of the greatest and most influential players of all time. And it doesn’t do much to reverse Riggs’ reputation as a disgraced sideshow.

Battle of the Sexes conveys both the absurd spectacle and underlying high stakes in its true-life tale, while staging the climactic on-court action with crowd-pleasing flair.

 

Rated PG-13, 121 minutes.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

When the most natural comparison is a classic like All the President’s Men, almost any movie is bound to feel inferior.

That’s true of Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, a straightforward biopic that adds a layer of contemporary relevance and a slightly fresh perspective to the events surrounding the Watergate scandal.

Yet considering it’s been more than four decades since the most notorious political scandal in our country’s history, at least so far, you’d expect this portrait of the infamous whistleblower nicknamed “Deep Throat” to contain more insight and suspense — and to fill in more gaps.

The film begins in 1972 with the death of longtime FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, which leads his highly respected deputy, Felt (Liam Neeson), to assume he’d be promoted to the role, having developed a stellar reputation with a belief in the bureau’s independence from the White House.

When the Nixon administration instead chooses outsider Pat Gray (Marton Csokas) for the top post, the unassuming Felt becomes disgruntled but agrees to remain. Then the Watergate scandal breaks, leading to cover-ups and backdoor deals between Gray and corrupt Nixon officials trying to scuttle the resulting investigation.

When classified information starts leaking to the press, most notably the Washington Post, almost every agent at the FBI becomes a target except Felt — the most obvious suspect but also the last person you’d suspect, with his loyal patriotism and quiet determination to maintain the dignity of his office.

Timely parallels abound in the screenplay by director Peter Landesman (Concussion), which opens with a sequence involving the White House discussing the consequences of firing Hoover. The story, of course, also chronicles accusations of election tampering, government leaks, cries about obstruction of justice, and an administration embroiled in constant turmoil.

Neeson is solid, as always, even if the film’s portrayal of Felt borders on left-wing hero worship. Landesman provides some intriguing biographical tidbits but seems content to scratch the surface with regard to the motives and moral complexity behind Felt’s decision to go rogue, and the turmoil in his personal life, especially his volatile relationships with his wife (Diane Lane) and disenfranchised daughter.

Given that it depicts events long before the dawn of social media and 24-hour news cycles, the film offers a valuable history lesson. However, just like in 1974, a deeper investigation is still warranted.

 

Rated PG-13, 103 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Sept. 29

Lucky

You get the feeling that the late Harry Dean Stanton wasn’t that much different from the title character he plays in this offbeat examination of spirituality and mortality. Lucky plays by his own rules while living alone in a rural house. He drinks milk, he does yoga, he watches game shows, he smokes a pack of cigarettes, and he visits the same diner and bar every day, where he interacts with the quirky townsfolk. The bittersweet film moves and speaks deliberately, like its protagonist, while allowing Stanton to explore Lucky’s vulnerabilities and insecurities hidden beneath an irascible shell. Both humorous and heartwarming, it’s a lovely showcase. (Not rated, 88 minutes).

 

The Sound

Some intriguing concepts become lost amid all the supernatural nonsense in this thriller about a blogger (Rose McGowan) whose skepticism about ghosts brings her to an abandoned Toronto subway station, where she looks to debunk rumors of a haunting by using a technique involving low-frequency sound waves. But her cynicism turns to fear after she meets some weird folks and begins hallucinating amid the silence. The film tries to convey a sensory horror experience but manages only intermittent tension. It’s more worthwhile for its scientific theories than its formulaic chills — neither of which are exciting enough to carry the flimsy premise to feature length. (Not rated, 92 minutes).

 

Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton

As with other surfing documentaries, this portrait of the legendary big-wave daredevil has its best moments on the water, with some breathtaking shots of its subject in action in exotic locales around the globe. Yet this compelling if straightforward effort from director Rory Kennedy (Last Days in Vietnam) doesn’t drown during its sequences on the shore, when it examines Hamilton’s upbringing, his innovative techniques, his critics, and his sometimes volatile personal life. The glossy film certainly focuses on his achievements more than his shortcomings, and it’s probably best suited for aficionados who will appreciate this salute to the legacy of a pioneer more than outsiders. (Not rated, 118 minutes).

 

Te Ata

As good as the intentions might be, this earnest biopic of a pioneering Chickasaw actress and musician could use more subtlety and deeper context. Te Ata was the adopted stage name for Mary Thompson (Q’Orianka Kilcher), who had Broadway dreams growing up in Oklahoma (then called Indian Territory) during the early 1900s. With encouragement from drama professor (Cindy Pickett) but against the wishes of her pragmatic father (Gil Birmingham), she begins touring the country with a one-woman show to promote stories from her tribal heritage. She’s a worthwhile subject, although this dry and deliberately paced cinematic treatment hardly does justice to her talent or legacy. (Rated PG, 105 minutes).

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Compared to its predecessor, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is more about quantity than quality.

This sequel to the 2014 big-budget action saga ratchets up the technical bravado and the stunt casting within its globetrotting tale of espionage, while forgetting to incorporate a compelling story worthy of advancing the fledgling franchise.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the newcomer to the titular clandestine British spy organization in the first film, is now one of its most loyal and trusted agents, having adopted the same Galahad nickname as his late mentor (Colin Firth). As this installment opens, he’s ambushed by a former rival (Edward Holcroft) with a bionic arm that he uses to relay secrets to his new boss, Poppy (Julianne Moore), a ruthless international drug tycoon living in a jungle utopia.

Poppy’s plan for world domination — besides kidnapping Elton John (gleefully playing himself) for her own personal entertainment — involves exploiting the world’s drug addicts by adding a deadly toxin into trafficked shipments of marijuana, cocaine, and more.

She also dispatched henchmen to destroy the Kingsman headquarters in a London tailor shop, prompting Eggsy and his colleague, Merlin (Mark Strong), to flee to the United States, where they partner with an equivalent organization run by Champagne (Jeff Bridges) that’s housed inside a Kentucky whiskey distillery. Their combined efforts to locate Poppy before her scheme runs its course are endangered by conflicting loyalties and other complications.

From its opening fight sequence set inside a cramped taxicab, to the ensuing chase involving the aforementioned souped-up vehicle, to the two hours that follow, Kingsman: The Golden Circle keeps the pace lively. Between the seamless visual effects and the hyperkinetic action sequences — choreographed and edited together with creative precision — the film has style and attitude to spare.

The ensemble cast features plenty of recognizable faces, some of which only contribute for a few scenes (such as Channing Tatum and Halle Berry) and are presumably meant to contribute more to future sequels.

However, the convoluted screenplay by Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class), who also collaborated on the first film, doesn’t have much substance to supplement the spectacle. The villain seems one-dimensional, and there’s a lack of sociopolitical context given the contemporary climate in which the story is set.

As a result, the final showdown seems more predictable than provocative, revealing the film to be a compilation of half-realized ideas that never come full-circle.

 

Rated R, 141 minutes.

The Lego Ninjago Movie

It’s part Lego movie and part Ninjago movie, but forcing the two of them together proves a challenge that The Lego Ninjago Movie can’t handle.

While this hyperactive send-up of ninja films, Asian legends, and other pop-culture targets is ambitious and moderately imaginative, the Lego concept is no longer fresh after having spawned three films in short order.

In fact, there isn’t sufficient justification for using the plastic brick-style visuals at all, unlike the previous two installments, even if it spawned from a popular line of Lego toys and accompanying television series.

The story is told through flashbacks from bookend live-action sequences about a shopkeeper (Jackie Chan) sharing wisdom with a sad-sack youngster (Kaan Guldur). The latter has plenty in common with Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco), a bullied young builder in Ninjago City who bands with his five friends to form a group of secret ninja warriors.

The problem for Lloyd is that their arch nemesis, the powerful Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), also happens to be his estranged father, from whom he desperately seeks approval and recognition — and not in a Darth Vader-Luke Skywalker kind of way.

At any rate, the whole thing predictably funnels into a series of elaborate action sequences filled with urban destruction, leading up to an inevitable final father-son showdown, without much time for meaningful character development elsewhere.

Six screenwriters provide some scattered big laughs, mostly through throwaway jokes and non sequiturs. The sardonic villain is by far the most amusing character, and some recognizable voices are peppered throughout the voice cast. The result will probably appeal more to children with short attention spans than to adults craving nostalgia or fresh satire.

More exhausting than endearing, the film tries to jam every frame with as many sight gags and one-liners as possible, presumably to cover a plot that plays out like a silly Power Rangers-style superhero saga.

By now, the franchise has strayed so far from the charming spirit of the original Lego movie that such a comparison practically is irrelevant. The Lego Ninjago Movie feels inspired more by financial than creative means. This toy story isn’t worth telling.

 

Rated PG, 101 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Sept. 22

Friend Request

Your Facebook account is probably safe as long as it doesn’t feature any advertisements for this laughably incoherent psychological thriller about popular college student Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) who befriends shy art scholar Marina (Liesl Ahlers) out of pity, then regrets the decision when Marina becomes aggressively clingy. Soon afterward, Laura’s social-media friends start dropping dead. The film hints at a more serious examination of cyberbullying, online privacy and the addictive allure of social media. But instead it becomes a predictable revenge saga focusing on witchcraft and the supernatural. Feeling outdated and lacking genuine frights for genre aficionados, this is an easy choice to unfriend. (Rated R, 92 minutes).

 

The King’s Choice

More than 70 years later, movie screens are still peppered with compelling true-life World War II stories. Take this visually striking chronicle detailing a three-day period in 1940 during which German war ships sailed into waters near Oslo, prompting King Haakon (Jesper Christensen) to confront the Nazis — and specifically an envoy (Karl Markovics) who favors a diplomatic resolution — rather than surrender, during an attempt to occupy the capital. The screenplay is sketchy in terms of specifics, yet even if there are missed opportunities along the way, director Erik Poppe (A Thousand Times Good Night) capably provides a broad overview of a pivotal chapter in European history. (Not rated, 133 minutes).

 

Last Rampage

Most of the true-life intrigue is drained from this tedious big-screen drama about Gary Tison (Robert Patrick), a notorious convicted killer who escaped from an Arizona prison in 1978 after his sons carried a cooler full of firearms into a jail visit. With the exception of Gary’s wife (Heather Graham), the family tried to flee to Mexico, becoming involved in another gruesome murder spree as a determined sheriff (Bruce Davison) tracks them. The bulk of the film focuses on that time period, with brief bursts of violence bridged together by quieter, character-driven moments. That’s when Patrick’s performance as a manipulative, scripture-quoting sociopath rises above the formula. (Rated R, 93 minutes).

 

Stronger

Jake Gyllenhaal’s committed performance carries this straightforward biopic from versatile director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) about Jeff Bauman, a blue-collar man who was wounded in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, then became a hero after helping to identify the perpetrators while having both of his legs amputated in the hospital. During his arduous rehab, he tries to reconcile with his girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany) while dealing with the exploitative nature of celebrity in a culture of trite hashtags and soundbites. By digging beneath the headlines, it’s an intimate yet uplifting character study that conveys gritty authenticity rather than settling for sentimentality or cheap catharsis. (Rated R, 119 minutes).

 

Woodshock

There are excessive shots of people sleeping in this lugubrious meditation on grief, and some moviegoers might join them. It follows an employee (Kirsten Dunst) at a northern California cannabis dispensary struggling with a guilty conscience stemming from a recent tragedy. Her drug-induced paranoia causes her to becomes withdrawn from her logger boyfriend (Joe Cole) and aggressive toward her boss (Pilou Asbaek). Sibling filmmakers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who come from the fashion world, capture some haunting imagery amid the redwood forests. But their obsession with extraneous sounds and mundane details severely compromise the narrative momentum. The deliberately paced result doesn’t make much sense. (Rated R, 101 minutes).

Mother!

While it might be tempting to admire Mother! for its distinct vision or its technical prowess, the film is considerably more difficult to embrace on a narrative or emotional level.

This abstract exploration of a crumbling relationship from filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) starts as a cautionary tale about excessive kindness to strangers and winds up spiraling into incoherent insanity. The muddled result admirably tries to inject moral complexity into a familiar scenario, but overall is more pretentious than provocative.

The story takes place almost entirely inside a rural house being renovated by a nameless poet (Javier Bardem) struggling with writer’s block and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who can’t commit to having a baby.

One night, a mysterious man (Ed Harris) knocks on the door, claiming to be a doctor needing a place to stay. She almost immediately claims the nosy interloper has become too intrusive, with the writer’s generosity causing some tension in their marriage. And that’s even before secrets are revealed, starting with the outsider’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) sharing some bitterness and resentment.

Along the way, plenty of creepy imagery and exaggerated sound effects suggest something more sinister that can’t be revealed here — except that the arrival of more visitors brings more chaos.

This bizarre combination of domestic drama, supernatural thriller and pitch-black absurdist comedy clearly isn’t for all tastes. Genre aficionados or Lawrence fans might become frustrated with the lack of traditional frights. For extended stretches, the film is heavy on mood and atmosphere but light on narrative momentum. It subversively tweaks familiar concepts, such as unwelcome intruders and nighttime noises in a creaky old house.

However, there are much bigger ideas about marriage, spirituality, fame, and life-versus-art packed into Aronofsky’s screenplay, which derives some suspense from its intriguing character dynamics.

The film is unsettling in spots and head-scratching in others, yet remains difficult to dismiss because of its audacious visual flourishes, such as the abundant use of hand-held close-ups as the camera follows the title character around the house.

Still, it’s easy to find annoyances. Lawrence’s character is too passive and helpless. The film is overstuffed with quirks and affectations. Despite the physical intimacy, the film remains emotionally detached.

The latter is the most problematic, as the superior craftsmanship is overwhelmed by Aronofsky’s relentlessly cynical outlook on humanity. The film might have you screaming for the wrong reasons.

 

Rated R, 121 minutes.