Monday, February 29, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi **** Directed by Jafar Panahi. Panahi is banned from making movies by the Iranian government. So he masquerades as a Tehran taxi driver and, as he shuttles a procession of idiosyncratic fares across the bustling city, a dashboard camera captures their candid conversations. A film of quiet but profound outrage, laughing on the surface, but howling in anger just beneath. It’s an act of defiance that’s also a sublime piece of cinema, and it ranks among the director’s finest work.

Room ***½ Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. After being abducted, raped and imprisoned in a small windowless room, a young woman (Brie Larson) gives birth and is forced to raise her son, Jack (Jacob Trembly), in the same improvised space. But after five years, Jack’s mother begins planning their escape. The film, never sensational or saccharine, is a tough but tender tribute to the creative power of maternal love — a terrific movie, one that has two outstanding performances, confident direction and a story line that is both harrowing and moving.

Creed ***½ Directed by Ryan Coogler. The former World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) serves as a trainer and mentor to Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the son of his late friend and former rival Apollo Creed. This is no Raging Bull — it’s a little too long and throws in an unnecessary disease to gin up the emotional content of the third act — but it’s surprising proof that iconic franchises that started in the 1970s can be revived in all the right ways.

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry ***½ Directed by Mary Dore. A documentary that resurrects the buried history of the outrageous, often brilliant women who founded the modern women’s movement from 1966 to 1971. The updating of the story is thin; some dramatizations, though short, are distracting, but the over-all impression, of a time of constant meetings and conversations that gave voice to stifled frustrations and united untapped energies, remains visionary and heroic.

Sunshine Superman *** Directed by Marah Strauch. A documentary portrait of Carl Boenish, the father of the BASE jumping movement, whose early passion for skydiving led him to ever more spectacular and dangerous feats of foot-launched human flight. This might seem like a niche story, with its focus on stunts that most people wouldn’t dream of actually doing, but the documentary feels universal. It’s simply an examination of how one man fully embraced life while charting his own path.

The Danish Girl **½ Directed by Tom Hooper. In 1930, Danish painter Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) elects to have gender-reassignment surgery to become Lili Elbe, with the blessing of his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander). The subject is fascinating, the talent is undeniable, but the humanity that made Lili Elbe so memorable gets lost along the way.

Youth **½ Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. A retired orchestra conductor (Michael Caine) is on holiday with his daughter (Rachel (Weisz) and his film director best friend (Harvey Keitel) in the Alps when he receives an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to perform for Prince Philip’s birthday. The film — its melancholy and splendor too often at odds — never rises above feeling like a pretty, meandering gallery show.

Miss You Already **½ Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. The friendship between two life-long girlfriends is put to the test when one (Drew Barrymore) starts a family and the other (Toni Collette) falls ill. It’s a sad, emotive, important subject but it deserves a more detailed, heartfelt film than this.

Life **½ Directed by Anton Corbijn. A photographer (Robert Pattinson) for Life magazine is assigned to shoot pictures of James Dean (Dane DeHaan). It’s not a terrible film, and succeeds in giving us a play by play of an alleged dynamic between two individuals, but as a whole feels like a missed opportunity.

The Night Before **½ Directed by Jonathan Levine. On Christmas eve, three lifelong friends (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan, Anthony Mackie) spend the night in New York City looking for the Holy Grail of Christmas parties. It’s enjoyable, but it’s also trite.

Legend ** Directed by Brian Helgeland. Tells the story of the identical twin gangsters Reggie (Tom Hardy) and Ronnie (Hardy) Kray, two of the most notorious criminals in British history, and their organized crime empire in the East End of London during the 1960s. It’s worth the price of a rental just to see Hardy’s Reggie performance, which is up among his best work. Still, the story could have perhaps used a more inspired hand at the helm.

The BoyDirected by William Brent Bell. An American nanny (Lauren Cohan) is shocked that her new English family’s boy is actually a life-sized doll. The movie’s overriding concern is telegraphed enough in advance that fans of Gothic suspense will almost certainly have guessed it 45 minutes in.

Don VerdeanDirected by Jared Hess. A self-professed biblical archaeologist (Sam Rockwell) who has fallen on hard times starts to bend the truth in order to continue inspiring the faithful. I kept thinking one thing during most of this film: What would Christopher Guest do with his company of ace ad-libbers with such material? And the answer suddenly came to me — toss it in the trash and start all over again.

The IntrudersDirected by Adam Schindler. Anna (Beth Riesgraf) suffers from agoraphobia so crippling that when a trio of criminals break into her house, she cannot bring herself to flee. Riesgraf, who at times recalls the young Teri Garr, is gutsy and committed, but not even Meryl Streep could make this hokum credible.

Narcopolis * Directed by Justin Trefgame. Frank Grieves (Elliot Cowan) is a narcotics officer in a future where recreational drugs are legal as long as they’re distributed by pharmaceutical companies. When a banned substance turns up in a corpse, Frank suspects corruption. Boasting the canny use of suitably atmospheric, futuristic-looking locations, Narcopolis is far more impressive visually than narratively, with its tangled film noir plot making Raymond Chandler seem straightforward by comparison.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A few (unpleasant) thoughts about ‘The X-Files’ reboot

It seems difficult to believe, for me at least, Chris Carter launched The X-Files close to a quarter a century ago, on Sept. 10, 1993, to be exact. I was a big fan of the show through it’s first five seasons and one of the things I loved about the program was the way it was winking at the viewer. "Hey, don’t take any of this seriously," the show seemed to be saying. "This is simply a bunch of all-the-wall writers sitting around coming up with all these far-fetched ideas, attempting to be as outlandish as possible, and we hope you get as much a kick out of watching them as we did creating them."

I also loved the fact that David Duchovny as FBI agent Fox Mulder always approached his role as though he was in on the joke. "Isn’t this a lark?" he seemed to be saying each week. Wink, Wink, And Gillian Anderson, as his partner FBI agent Dana Scully, was Duchovny’s perfect foil, the ideal female variation of "the straight man."

Perhaps my favorite bit during those first five seasons were the "oily eyes," and if you’re a regular follower of the series you know exactly what I’m referring to. You talk about feeding the paranoia?

I also often wonder what direction the show would have taken had Anderson not become pregnant during season 2. To cover for her absence during the latter stages of her pregnancy, Carter cooked up this scenario in which Scully is kidnapped by alien abductee Duane Barry to be his sacrifice to the abductors. I never cared for that side trip and it took the show off into unfortunate areas that too often bogged it down.

But those episodes not involving Carter’s going-nowhere conspiracy theories provided some of the best drama to be found on television during the ‘90s, episodes such as "Humbug," "Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose," "War of the Coprophages" (which contains my all-time favorite line in the history of the series when Scully says, oh so deliciously, "Bambi? Her name is Bambi?"), "Jose Chung’s From Outer Space," "Quagmire" (in which the writers allowed Scully’s cute little dog to be eaten by a water monster — trust me, it’s funny), the unbearably frank and raw "Home," "Leonard Betts," "Small Potatoes," and "Bad Blood." And Season 5's "The Post Modern Prometheus," filmed in black and white as a modern-day re-telling of the Frankenstein monster story, improves with each viewing.

But, then, Carter offered a bridge between seasons 5 and 6 with the first X-Files movie and things went downhill from there. I think Duchovny belatedly realized Carter was drinking his own Kool-Aid and that’s why he effectively left the series the last two seasons.

Which brings me to the 6-episode series concluded last night that’s being billed as Season 10. Except for parts of the third episode, "Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-monster," this was an unmitigated disaster. I understand the ratings were good, but I think, much like a Donald Trump rally, this was more the result of curiosity than support. It also allowed Carter to film additional hospital bedside scenes. Has anyone ever counted the total number of hospital bedside scenes contained in the 10 seasons of The X-Files?

But here’s the deal. I realized during the last two episodes, this had nothing to do with extending the stories of Mulder and Scully (and both Duchovny and Anderson acted like they wished there were doing something else), but it was simply a marketing ploy by Carter who wants to reboot the concept featuring the agents Einstein and Miller. Does anyone really want to see those two in an X-Files-type series? Hey, I like Lauren Ambrose, the actress who plays Einstein. She has acquitted herself well in a number of Law & Order guest appearances. But she lacks the gravitas of Anderson, unless Carter plans on the Einstein character taking on Mulder’s personality playing against Miller’s foil. But Robbie Emell, the actor portraying Miller, has all the magnetism of a wet, dirty wash cloth.

Shame on Carter. A move like this could irreparably sully the reputation of what, for five wonderful seasons at least, was some of the best television to be found.

Monday, February 22, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Spotlight **** Directed by Thomas McCarthy. Revealing a string of cover-ups stretching back decades, a team of Boston Globe reporters exposes the Catholic Archdiocese’s history of keeping reports about child molestation and other priest-initiated abuse under wraps. Inspiring stuff, the stuff of Hollywood all the way back to Frank Capra and before: a story of scrappy underdogs, determined to get to the truth, and toppling the mighty in the process. A snapshot of what happened at a particular time and place that doesn’t try to glamorize its subjects or make any larger points about what it all means. By refusing to do so, by celebrating the process over the outcome and the work over the reward, it becomes a special experience, a movie that matters. A gripping detective story and a superlative newsroom drama, a solid procedural that tries to confront evil without sensationalism.

Brooklyn ***½ Directed by John Crowley. After emigrating from Ireland, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) readily adapts to the vastly different New York City, where she falls for a young Italian. But when tragedy pulls her back to her hometown, she finds her loyalties divided between two nations and two men. Endows its characters with desires and aspirations, but not with foresight, and it examines the past with open-minded curiosity rather than with sentimentality or easy judgment. It grabs us, holds us and moves us on its own. Emotionally it’s a killer.

Racing Extinction ***½ Directed by Louie Psihoyos. In the face of accelerating species extinctions worldwide, a diverse team of activists, scientists and inventors work together to come up with technologies and regulations that could forestall this seemingly unstoppable global tragedy. It’s the film’s sounds that will tug at your emotions. If you’ve ever wondered what a breaking heart sounds like, it’s right here in the futile warble of the last male of a species of songbird, singing for a mate that will never come.

Becoming Bulletproof ***½ Directed by Michael Burnett. A diverse group of disabled people from across the United States take on leading roles in a costume drama Western, filmed on vintage Hollywood locations. As a piece of filmmaking, this documentary is haphazard and overloaded with talking heads. But as a window into the lives of some of these disabled actors, it’s often moving.

The Girl in the Book *** Directed by Marya Cohn. Set in the world of New York publishing, a young book editor (Emily VanCamp) is forced to confront a troubling chapter from her past when a bestselling author (Michael Nyqvist) re-enters her life. Cohn displays deep sympathy with her protagonist’s intersecting emotional crises, scripting a narrative that’s intensely perceptive without becoming mired in mawkishness.

The Good Dinosaur **½ Directed by Peter Sohn. Visualizing an Earth where the great dinosaur extinction never occurred, this animated saga follows an Apatosaurus named Arlo as he makes his way through harsh terrain. During the course of his journey, he’s befriended by a human boy. The film is amiable, pretty, and charming in all the right ways — even if it ultimately settles for a fairly typical tale of a late bloomer finding his way.

Entertainment **½ Directed by Rick Alverson. En route to meet his estranged daughter and attempting to revive his dwindling career, a broken, middle-aged comedian plays a string of dead-end shows in the Mojave desert. The on-stage moments in this film are revelatory but, unfortunately, some of the in-between meat of the film doesn’t quite connect.

The Summer of Sangaile **½ Directed by Alante Kavaite. Though 17-year-old Sangaile (Julija Steponaityte) is fascinated by the feats of aerobatic pilots, her fear of heights prevents her from taking wing until her relationship with the audacious young Auste (Aiste Dirziute) inspires the boldness that Sangaile needs. Distractingly lovely to look at, the film can’t make Sangaile’s struggles or triumphs matter. Its soaring conclusion feels anticlimactic, the story drifting off into air.

I Smile Back **½ Directed by Adam Salky. Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman) does bad things. Married with kids, she takes the drugs she wants, sleeps with the men she wants, disappears when she wants. Now, with the destruction of her family looming, and temptation everywhere, Laney makes one last desperate attempt at redemption. This is a case of good acting saving a movie from its own poor choices.

Yosemite **½ Directed by Gabrielle Demeestere. Set in 1985 California, this drama follows three suburban fifth-graders as they navigate shifting friendships, grapple with death for the first time in their young lives and encounter danger after a mountain lion is spotted in town. Although evocative and nicely observed, this coming-of-age drama ultimately proves too low-key and elliptical to make much of an impression.

Secret in Their Eyes ** Directed by Billy Ray. Thirteen years after a colleague’s (Julia Roberts) daughter is savagely murdered, a former FBI investigator (Chiwetel Ejiofor) remains haunted by the unsolved case. Ejiofor, one of our top-tier film actors right now, is on good form throughout, and the others act their hearts out, too. But they are somewhat left out to dry in a production that feels more like syndicated television than a feature film.

MoonwalkersDirected by Antoine Bardou-Jacquet. After failing to locate the legendary Stanley Kubrick, an unstable CIA agent (Ron Perlman) must instead team up with a seedy rock band manager (Rupert Grint) to develop the biggest con of all time — faking the moon landing. Takes a brilliant idea and runs it to the ground thanks to a confused and illogical screenplay, an atonal execution, and a bizarre addiction to Tarantino-level gleeful ultra-violence awkwardly crammed into what was obviously supposed to be a biting satire.

DiabloDirected by Lawrence Roeck. A young civil war veteran (Scott Eastwood) is forced on a desperate journey to save his kidnapped wife. A violent and grimly obvious frontier thriller that Clint Eastwood might have made during his Spaghetti Days.

My All-AmericanDirected by Angelo Pizzo. Chronicles the true story of Texas Longhorns safety Freddie Steinmark (Finn Wittrock), who, days after his team became national champions in 1969. was diagnosed with a malignancy that cost him his leg. Strict adherence to the playbook may work in sports, but this movie shows the pitfalls of that approach with movies.

Extraction * Directed by Steven C. Miller. A former CIA operative (Bruce Willis) is kidnapped by a group of terrorists. When his son (Kellan Lutz) learns there is no plan for his father to be saved, he launches his own rescue operation. Miller, working off a script by Max Adams and Umair Aleem, keeps things moving at a breakneck pace in an attempt, it seems, to help mask the film’s convoluted plotting, one-note performances and bad dialogue.

Monday, February 15, 2016

This week's DVD Releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Steve Jobs ***½ Directed by Danny Boyle. Focuses on three product launches as well as personal and professional relationships to tell the story of a digital visionary who changed the world. In many ways the film reflects its hero’s brilliance. It’s a scintillating construction, though one that sometimes feels like a product launch in its own right.

The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution ***½ Directed by Stanley Nelson. A documentary that relates the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, one of the 20th century's most alluring and controversial organizations that captivated the world's attention for nearly 50 years. This is a forceful, initially uplifting, ultimately sobering illustration of how much protest matters, how far those in power will go to stifle it, and how ugly and criminal those efforts look in hindsight.

The Iron Ministry *** Directed by J.P. Sniadecki. In the years since World War II, China's vast interior has slowly become connected with the rest of the country by the expansion of the state railway. This documentary resulted from three years of touring and filming the colossal and vital network. While cerebral in intent and planning, the film doesn’t feel overly straitjacketed by theory and offers unexpected moments of amusement.

Black Mass *** Directed by Scott Cooper. The story of Whitey Bulger (Johhny Depp), the brother of a state senator and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf and then, after being indicted himself, eluded authorities for more than 15 years, until his arrest in 2011. A tightly wound piece of work, and Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) keeps its many small parts moving with ease. He's skillful at merging telling, minute details with bigger, looping schemes. Depp's instinct for observing, underlaying and keeping things in, then letting it all out when required, pays big dividends here in a performance far more convincing than his previous big gangster role, John Dillinger in Michael Mann's Public Enemies; it's unexpected, very welcome at this point in his career, and one of his best.

Labyrinth of Lies **½ Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli. In 1958, prosecutor Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) follows up on a reporter's tip and uncovers a trail of evidence connecting a host of public-sector employees to atrocities perpetrated at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Nazi regime. It's to the film's credit that truth-telling here looks as hard as it does noble, and that the Holocaust is not treated just as a suspense story's macguffin.

Trumbo **½ Directed by Jay Roach. The docudrama of 1940s screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), whose refusal to testify before the congressional House Un-American Activities Committee resulted in a prison sentence and being blacklisted as a communist. It feels terrestrial rather than cinematic, but the joy of the film is in the heroism of its subject and an amazing performance from Cranston.

The 33 ** Directed by Patricia Riggin. Chronicles the 69-day effort to rescue 33 Chilean miners who were trapped more than 2,000 feet underground. What these men endured is remarkable, and the logistics of the rescue are remarkable as well. The film, however, settles for an unremarkable chronicle of that endurance test. Even the brilliant Juliette Binoche, a welcome presence in any film, is reduced to whipping up empanadas and looking wistfully beyond a fence — basically standing there and doing nothing. And this is one of the most developed characters in the movie.

Criminal Activities ** Directed by Jackie Earle Haley. Four young men make a risky investment together that puts them in trouble with the mob. A surehanded, tight and minimalist amateur-kidnapping thriller that benefits from a cast of some repute and a few nods to Tarantino within its 94 minutes.

Monday, February 8, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Click on the title to see the film’s trailer

Welcome to Leith ***½ Directed by Christopher K. Walker, Michael Beach Nichols. A documentary chronicling the attempted takeover of a small town in North Dakota by white supremacist Craig Cobb. This is as well-balanced and observed a documentary as there is, even if no sane human being could side with Cobb and his people.

Grandma *** Directed by Paul Weitz. A teenager (Julia Garner) facing an unplanned pregnancy seeks help from her acerbic grandmother (Lily Tomlin), a woman who is long estranged from her daughter (Marica Gay Harden). This film was clearly made on modest resources and can look a little rough and ready in places. Viewers will, however, be more than willing to overlook its imperfections because it is so funny and engaging and because Tomlin is such a joy to behold.

99 Homes *** Directed by Ramin Bahrani. A recently unemployed single father (Andrew Garfield) struggles to get back his foreclosed home by working for the real estate broker (Michael Shannon) who is the source of his frustration. An urgent work, the burning anger of which will viscerally connect with many viewers, who will recognize themselves or people they know up on the screen.

Crimson Peak **½ Directed by Guillermo del Toro. In the wake of a family tragedy, young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) impulsively weds the disarming Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). But after moving into Sharpe’s isolated mansion in Northern England, Edith discovers that the house and her husband are hiding secrets. A curious hybrid of grim fairytale and gory horror, del Toro’s ninth feature is striking but sorely lacking in surprises. Great ghosts, but del Toro is capable of so much more.

Spectre **½ Directed by Sam Mendes. A cryptic message from James Bond’s (Daniel Craig) past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organization. The first act is great, full of dark portent and bravura film-making flourishes. However, the final hour disappoints, with too many off-the-peg plot twists and too many characters conforming to type.

MI-5 ** Directed by Bharat Nalluri. When a terrorist (Elyes Gabel) escapes custody during a routine handover, Will Holloway (Kit Harington) must team with disgraced MI5 Intelligence Chief Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) to track him down before an imminent terrorist attack on London. Led by the honorably dour Firth and the charisma-free Harington, this film is convoluted and dull, though Harry’s revenge against that dastardly mole is pleasingly diabolical. But it’s too little too late.

PauletteDirected by Jerome Enrico. Elderly widow Paulette (Bernadette Lafont) lives alone in a tumbledown Parisian housing project after being forced to close the bakery she ran with her husband. Desperate to pay her bills, Paulette approaches a local cannabis dealer and asks him for a job. With Enrico mining the material for only the most obvious gags, the social commentary of the central joke never rises to the level of hard-hitting satire, instead settling on a broadly observed collection of types.

Love the Coopers * Directed by Jessie Nelson. When four generations of the Cooper clan come together for their annual Christmas Eve celebration, a series of unexpected visitors and unlikely events turn the night upside down. A Christmas comedy of numbing tedium and tackiness.

Monday, February 1, 2016

February 1st Oscar Predictions

Of course things could change radically when the Directors Guild announces its winners, but right now, among the top eight Oscar categories, there seems to be suspense over the winner in only two of them — picture and director. The best picture race seems to have narrowed down to Spotlight and The Big Short. I liked The Big Short, but I don’t think it carries the weight of a best picture Oscar winner. I know the movie has a lot of die-hard fans and I will apologize for not sharing your enthusiasm, but I simply think Spotlight is, by far, the more significant film and more worthy of the top prize.

Interestingly enough, I don’t think the directors of either of those two films has a shot at the director’s Oscar. I’m seeing that as a contest between Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu for The Revenant and George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road and my prediction is based on the fact that I don’t think the Academy wants to award Innaritu two years in a row and the members might think they will never have another shot at honoring Miller.

It also appears Mad Max: Fury Road is going to be the night’s big winner, taking home seven Oscars, far more than any other film under consideration. Spotlight and The Revenant seem to be the only other films with a chance to win more than one Academy Award and I only see them winning two each.

The other categories in this year’s Oscar race look, to me at least, like slam dunks. So here I go with my predicted winners, serving notice I have the privilege of changing my mind right up until the last minute.

Picture: Spotlight
Director: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Actress: Brie Larson, Room
Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Original Screenplay: Spotlight
Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short
Cinematography: The Revenant
Costume Design: Cinderella, although Carol has an outside shot
Film Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Makeup and Hair Styling: Mad Max: Fury Road
Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road
Score: The Hateful Eight
Song: "Till It Happens to You," The Hunting Ground
Sound Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Sound Mixing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Visual Effects: Mad Max: Fury Road
Animated Feature: Inside Out
Documentary: Amy
Foreign Film: Son of Saul
Animated Short: Sanjays Super Team
Documentary Short: Body Team 12
Live Action Short: Ave Maria

This week's DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Bridge of Spies ***½ Directed by Steven Spielberg. During the Cold War, an American lawyer (Tom Hanks) is recruited to defend an arrested Soviet spy in court, and then help the CIA facilitate an exchange of the spy for the Soviet captured American U2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers. Hanks could do this kind of role in his sleep; luckily he doesn’t. Like Spielberg, we probably take him and his gifts for granted. Between the two of them, they make this film a movie that works as a period piece and a timely commentary on how we live now. If that sounds like faint praise, it shouldn’t. Because it’s not.

Breathe ***½ Directed by Melanie Laurent. When the worldly and charismatic Sarah (Lou de Laage) enrolls at Charlie’s (Josephine Japy) high school, they soon become the best of friends until a holiday at the beach leads to emotional complications. Conveys an uncanny insight into the psychology of late adolescence, when lingering childhood fantasies can combust with burgeoning adult sexuality in a swirl of uncontrollable feelings.

He Never Died *** Directed by Jason Krawczyk. Cursed with immortality and a hunger for human flesh, Jack (Henry Rollins) lives a cloistered life, feeding his appetite by purchasing blood from a hospital intern. But Jack’s life is upended when some gangland thugs and his long-lost daughter enter the picture. Isn’t as fleshed out as it could be, but what the film lacks in vivid supporting characters and rich plotting it gets back from Rollins, whose innate charisma carries the film.

Man Up *** Directed by Ben Palmer. A single woman (Lake Bell) takes the place of a stranger’s blind date, which leads to her finding the perfect boyfriend (Simon Pegg). This destined-for-romance story in the spirit of You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle has just enough edge to distinguish it from a Lifetime movie. It also has Bell and Pegg, versatile and likable actors who help the mild story considerably.

Suffragette *** Directed by Sarah Gavron. Dreaming of the right to vote, working-class Maud (Carey Mulligan) eagerly joins the early feminist movement. But when the peaceful protests of the suffragettes accomplish nothing, they’re driven to more radical methods of effecting change. The most startling aspect of this film, which for better or worse is a standard-issue historical drama, well constructed but not especially capacious or original, is its depiction of how far female activists were willing to go in order to prove that they could stand alongside men.

Meadowland *** Directed by Reed Morano. Anguished by their son’s disappearance, Sarah (Olivia Wilde) and Phil (Luke Wilson) struggle to keep their bearings. But as months pass without word of their child, Sarah’s desperate search for answers drives her to take increasingly greater risks. What saves this film from being an exercise in masochism is the acting. Wilson and Wilde have a light touch that makes them perfect for the comedies they often make. Here, Morano leads them to much darker places, and they plunge right in.

Truth **½ Directed by James Vanderbilt. Newsroom drama detailing the 2004 60 Minutes report investigating then-President George W. Bush’s military service, and the subsequent firestorm of criticism that cost anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) their careers. As high-class cheese goes, this film slips down fine. It’s a noisy, one-note rally for the converted that gets your pulse racing even if you’re rolling your eyes.

Kahlil Gilbran’s The Prophet **½ This animated treasury of tales combines the work of various artists and directors to relate the story of dissident writer Mustafa (voice of Liam Neeson) and 8-year-old Almitra (voice of Quvenzhane Wallis), whose paths cross the day Mustafa is released from confinement. A hit-and-miss affair, easy on the eyes but nothing to write home — or a term paper — about.

Extraordinary Tales **½ Directed by Raul Garcia. An animated anthology of five stories adapted from Edgar Allan Poe. Offers a CliffsNotes encapsulation of Poe’s most enduring works for viewers unacquainted with them.

The Keeping Room **½ Directed by Daniel Barber. Left without men in the dying days of the American Civil War, three Southern women — two sisters (Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld) and one African-American slave (Muna Otaru) — must fight to defend their home and themselves from two rogue soldiers (Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller) who have broken off from the fast-approaching Union Army. Attempts a blend of sexual curiosity, home invasion horror and elegiac drama, that doesn’t quite work, but whose ambitions are nonetheless compelling.

The World of Kanako ** Directed by Tetsuya Nakashima. As former detective Akikazu (Koji Fujishima) searches for his missing daughter, Kanako (Nana Fujishima), he soon learns she has a mysterious secret life. While there’s something compelling about an antihero whose obsession is poised on the razor’s edge between love and hate, this film buries it in grinding, agitated repetition.

A Ballerina’s Tale ** Directed by Nelson George. A documentary on African-American ballerina Misty Copeland that examines her prodigious rise, her potentially career ending injury alongside themes of race and body image in the elite ballet world. It’s a complicated story that requires digging deep into uncomfortable questions about ballet’s rigid aesthetic standards and the economics and availability of training. George doesn’t give it the depth or analysis it requires.

Effie Gray ** Directed by Richard Laxton. A look at the love triangle involving Victorian art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise), his teenage bride Effie Gray (Dakota Fanning), and Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge). Slow, dreary, clumsily staged, and lacks a compelling lead.

Our Brand Is Crisis ** Directed by David Gordon Green. A battle-hardened American political consultant (Sandra Bullock) is sent to help re-elect a controversial president in Bolivia, where she must compete with a long-term rival (Billy Bob Thornton) working for another candidate. The attempt is to create a reality wide enough to accommodate the extremes of absurdity and hard political truth, but the pieces never cohere, and so we end up with a rattling bag of disparate elements.

Freeheld ** Directed by Peter Sollett, A New Jersey police lieutenant (Julianne Moore) and her registered domestic partner (Ellen Page) battle to secure the lieutenant’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Good intentions can only take you so far. So it is with this, a well-meaning movie whose sterling intentions, timely and provocative subject and terrific cast are muted to near oblivion by uninspired storytelling and direction.

ShelterDirected by Paul Bettany. A heroin junkie (Jennifer Connelly) and a Nigerian immigrant (Anthony Mackie) fall in love while homeless on the streets of New York. A well-intentioned film that edges into misery porn.

American HeroDirected by Nick Love. Melvin (Stephen Dorff), a reluctant superhero, lives only for crime, women and drugs until he realizes that the only way he will ever get to see his estranged son is to go straight and fulfill his potential as a crime fighter. Starts off seeming as if it is going to be a fresh take on superheroes, but Love, who wrote as well as directed, turns out to have nowhere to go with his intriguing premise.

Big Stone GapDirected by Adriana Trigiani. In a small town nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, a self-proclaimed spinster (Ashley Judd) finds her life shaken up and forever changed after learning a long-buried family secret. As thin as a picture postcard.

The Last Witch HunterDirected by Breck Eisner. Bent on destroying humankind, a powerful coven aims to unleash a devastating plague on New York City and it’s up to an immortal witch hunter (Vin Diesel), a priest and a good-hearted young witch to thwart the lethal plan. Like its star, the film is big, overblown and frequently incomprehensible.

HellionsDirected by Bruce McDonald. Home alone on Halloween night, a pregnant teen (Chloe Rose) ends up fighting for her life when a band of masked, demonic trick-or-treaters shows up. A jumbled third act and an indifferent ending ultimately make this film disappointing. But there’s a bit of fun to be had in its opening frights, and in trying to figure out what these costumed little monsters really want.

Rock the Kasbah * Directed by Barry Levinson. A down-on-his-luck music manager (Bill Murray) discovers a teenage girl (Leem Lubany) with an extraordinary voice while on a music tour in Afghanistan and takes her to Kabul to compete on a popular television show. The cast of old pros (including Bruce Willis as a soldier of fortune) amble through amiably enough, but a few laughs here and there aren’t enough to make this movie come together in a satisfying way.

Martyrs ½* Directed by Kevin and Michael Goetz. A woman (Troian Bellisario) and her childhood friend (Bailey Noble) seek revenge on those who victimized and abused them. The movie feels like a thin excuse to show image after image of women being abused. It has the bones of its predecessor, but it’s been bled dry.