Rated PG for thematic elements throughout.
Running time: 120 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
“War Room” is the most slickly made faith-based film I’ve seen yet in terms of production values, but that doesn’t make it quote-unquote good, per se.
It certainly looks better than, say, the Nicolas Cage version of “Left Behind,” a dull groaner about the end times. It’s not nearly as top-to-bottom atrocious as the hilariously inept “Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas” (although it’s just about as subtle). And it has more moments of emotional honesty than the overtly wacky “Moms’ Night Out,” although not many.
Despite its glossy visuals — including lean camerawork and smooth editing — it’s still stuck with a script that repeatedly hammers you over the head with its proselytizing. Which is strange given that it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing “War Room” who wasn’t already a true believer. And it’s a fervent audience, as evidenced by the movie’s No. 1 status at the box office this past weekend, beating out “Straight Outta Compton.” I had to see a matinee of it out of sheer curiosity, if nothing else.
And “War Room” is indeed a curiosity — a strange beast with sleek packaging and a silly script. It basically preaches that a woman can transform her lying, sneaking, stealing husband out of his evil ways through prayer. From the outset of the film from director and co-writer Alex Kendrick (whose previous faith-based efforts include “Fireproof” and “Courageous”), it’s clear that Tony Jordan (former pro football player T.C. Stallings) is not a good dude. A traveling pharmaceuticals salesman, he’s charismatic when he’s out on the road — especially with the foxy ladies who cross his path — but abrupt and dismissive once he returns to his expansive North Carolina home.
His wife, successful real estate agent Elizabeth (Priscilla C. Shirer, a preacher making a surprisingly confident acting debut), tries to stay strong and withstand his cruelty for the greater good of the family, but their sweet, bright daughter Danielle (Alena Pitts) has a hard time hiding how much her father’s distance hurts her. (Pitts gives the most authentic performance of the entire cast, by the way. The few decently moving scenes feature her in moment-of-truth conversations with each of the actors playing her parents. But then she gets stuck anchoring an awkward subplot involving competitive double-dutch rope-jumping, which apparently is a real thing.)
Just in time, though, Elizabeth takes on a new client: the elderly and pious Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), a widow who’s ready to sell her 100-year-old house. Miss Clara is such an egregious example of the Magical Negro figure — even in a film populated predominately by black actors — she’s borderline offensive and unintentionally hilarious. She’s pushy and outspoken but also clairvoyant, apparently, because within minutes of meeting Elizabeth, she senses that her marriage is in trouble. Clearly, going to church more is the answer. But Elizabeth must go further than that. She must do what Miss Clara has done, which is remove all the clothes, shoes and handbags from one of her closets and turn it exclusively into a room for prayer. This is the war room of the film’s title: the place to strategize with scripture. (Viewers who live in lofts — or anywhere in New York City, for that matter — will have trouble replicating this exercise at home.)
And magically, it works! In no time, Tony has opened his heart to Jesus and admitted the error of his wicked ways. First, he (almost) cheats on Elizabeth and loses his job when he gets caught selling samples on the side. But really, all her prayers are answered pretty quickly. Tony even gets in on Danielle’s double-dutch action, which held no interest for him previously. The Lord truly works in mysterious ways.
But “War Room” is also about Satan, as evidenced by Elizabeth’s bizarre monologue in which she walks around her house — and even steps outside into the yard — shouting at the devil to leave her family alone as overwhelming, inspirational music swells in the background. Kendrick (who co-wrote the script with his brother, Stephen) doesn’t even bother with the obvious cutaway shot of baffled neighbors reacting to this late-night rant for a quick laugh. This climactic moment is deadly serious. Such is the bubble of piety in which this film exists.
Miss Clara gets the last word, though. In increasingly passionate tones, she wails on and on about the need to create an army of prayer warriors throughout this land, once again perpetuating the notion of Christian persecution. As her booming narration continues — I mean, she’s actually shouting at this point — images of people all over the world and various walks of life flash across the screen. They’re all praying. They’re all united. I’m sure it’s a fortifying message for the faithful in the audience, but it’s unlikely to reach the people who’d rather use their closets for hanging clothes.
When it came time for Chris Evans to direct his first film, he strayed far from the behemoth Marvel movies that made him a superstar. “Before We Go” is a walking-and-talking New York City romance in which Evans and Alice Eve co-star as strangers who connect in the middle of the night. Despite their individual charms, they’re stuck with a terrible script. My RogerEbert.com review.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for language throughout, drug use, sexual content and some nudity.
Running time: 96 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
Similar to “Paper Towns,” “We Are Your Friends” is a movie that I liked but I would have loved if I were 20 years younger. It’s about making mistakes in your 20s, about dancing all night and drinking too much and hooking up with random people, but also about yearning and striving to escape the trappings that have defined you throughout your life. It’s about the youthful, idealistic desire to be great. Like, right now.
Director and co-writer Max Joseph’s debut feature is also a straight-up blast to watch, with great energy, a joyous soundtrack, some clever visual tricks (as well as some that get annoying) and gorgeous actors running around a Los Angeles that’s both gritty and glamorous. Cinematographer Brett Pawlak, who also shot the intimate and insightful “Short Term 12,” really captures the hot sprawl of the San Fernando Valley: the soaring cypress trees, buzzing electrical lines and block after block of nondescript, mid-century tract houses.
That is where aspiring DJ Cole Carter (Zac Efron) is stuck alongside his childhood friends Mason (Jonny Weston), Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer). He shares a bedroom in Mason’s house where he sits in front of his laptop all day, headphones clamped to his ears, pressing various buttons that make various blippy sounds. (Your enjoyment — or even your tolerance — of electronic dance music will greatly influence your reaction to “We Are Your Friends,” which takes its title from a song by Justice.) Sometimes he helps Mason fix the roof. Sometimes he smokes a joint. Mostly he dreams of riches and stardom but doesn’t seem to work terribly hard to achieve them.
That is, until he meets one of his idols one night at a club: a longtime DJ named James Reed (Wes Bentley) who exemplifies the kind of jet-setting life he covets. In no time, James has taken Cole under his wing: bringing him to parties, welcoming him into his home and studio and helping him hone his sound. James is a wreck — a sellout and a functioning alcoholic — but he’s also charismatic as hell and the voice of reason. Bentley rides a tricky and fascinating line between charm and menace (although the facial hair alone suggests he’s not to be trusted) which makes “We Are Your Friends” more compelling and substantive than you might expect.
Efron, though, is easy to underestimate because he’s so damn pretty. He’s made eclectic choices in recent years (“Neighbors,” “The Paperboy”) which simultaneously showcase and subvert his looks. His character here isn’t so deeply drawn as others he’s played post-“High School Musical,” but Efron makes the arc believable. Both his cockiness and his comeuppance seem effortless.
Both characters are understandably drawn to Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), a Stanford dropout who’s as brainy as she is beautiful. She’s James’ personal assistant/live-in girlfriend, but she becomes Cole’s running buddy and, eventually, something more. At first, it seems as if Ratajkowski is merely playing a version of the role she played in the “Entourage” movie (which was a version of herself), but the script from Joseph and Meagan Oppenheimer eventually allows her to reveal some spine and some melancholy shadings, both of which are appealing.
Speaking of “Entourage,” the comparisons are inevitable. Cole and his pals come off initially as a douchey, “Muppet Babies” version of the dudes from that HBO series. There are even four of them, each of whom (sorta) jibes with those characters. But then it occurred to me afterward that perhaps that was the point — that they’re intentionally rendered as bro stereotypes as a commentary on the idiocy of their bravado, and to allow them to quote-unquote learn something throughout the course of the film, which they do through a couple of subplots that force them to grow up.
It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, this story of an aspiring artist/athlete/investment banker/fill in the blank who finds himself under the tutelage of a seductive but damaged mentor, whom he ultimately tries to usurp. But it’s done with great style: words popping up to accompany the narration, or an art-gallery drug trip rendered in rainbow-hued animation. And if you’ve ever wondered what the ideal tempo is to get the dance floor grindy and sweaty, it’s 128 bpm, which we learn through an amusing tutorial that fuses science and music.
The final performance scene before a packed crowd in downtown Los Angeles bursts off the screen, and Efron’s evident catharsis feels earned. It’s the perfect one-last-blast movie for the end of summer.
The unfortunately titled “Zipper” is the kind of tawdry sex drama you’d watch late at night on cable and hate yourself for in the morning. Patrick Wilson leads a strong cast as a political star on the rise whose obsession with high-priced escorts threatens to ruin his career ambitions. Sound familiar? My RogerEbert.com review.
Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence and drug use.
Running time: 147 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
For a movie about a groundbreaking, risk-taking group like N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton” is surprisingly conventional in its adherence to music biopic tropes. The rise-fall-rise-again structure, the groupies and the drugs, the beefs over money and acclaim and the general mayhem that gets magnified when egos get in the way — it’s all there. You’ve seen it all a million times before (which is why the parody “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” which I love dearly, is so brilliantly spot-on).
But in its execution, “Straight Outta Compton” is so electrifying and so powerfully acted, you probably won’t mind.
Director F. Gary Gray starts strong by depicting the seminal rap group’s early days on the mean streets of L.A. with great intimacy and verve. (The great Matthew Libatique, Darren Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer, bathes these mid-’80s scenes in a warm haze of late afternoon sunlight, pot smoke and nostalgia.) Seeing young, scrappy Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) hustling to make a name for themselves is a visceral thrill, and all three of these key roles were expertly cast. It may sound like a gimmick to have Ice Cube’s son playing Ice Cube — and damned if he doesn’t look exactly like a younger, thinner version of his dad — but he’s also got the glare and the swagger down cold, and he more than rises to this formidable challenge in both the dramatic moments and the stage performances.
“Straight Outta Compton” is surprisingly funny off the top, though, as these guys and their pals (including Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella and Aldis Hodge as MC Ren) tool on each other mercilessly both in and out of the studio while recording their first tracks. Paul Giamatti is also beautifully brash as their decidedly uncool, white manager, Jerry Heller, the first person who ever believed in N.W.A. (and, later, a surprisingly moving source of ambiguity and poignancy).
But even through the good times and wild parties (where women dismayingly are depicted as little more than objects and playthings) as the group’s fame and influence are on the rise, there’s a constant, simmering undercurrent of tension. Between poverty and drugs, gang battles and police brutality — the very fiber of the rap group’s lyrics, er go we have a little ditty called “Fuck Tha Police” — there’s the pervasive threat that something terrible could happen at any point. And it often does.
Sometimes the highs and lows coexist in the same moment, as in the recreation of the notorious night in 1989 when N.W.A. performed “Fuck Tha Police” at a packed Detroit concert — which they’d explicitly been told not to do — sparking rioting and chaos. In contrast with the first part of the film, this segment is glossy, crisp and vibrant; it’s such a massive blast and it’s so immersive, it makes you feel like you’re a part of the audience, or at least wish you had been.
The pace slows, though, as the three begin mistrusting not only each other but also their manager. It’s no less significant in the group’s development — after all, these rifts led to Ice Cube and Dre forging formidable solo careers. But the film’s final third turns quieter, less flashy and more introspective, especially as the once-dynamic Eazy-E finds his health failing him. (He died of AIDS in 1995 at just 31.)
Yes, there is some revisionist history going on, as is so often the case in bringing a famous person’s life to the screen. As my friend and fellow critic Andrew Barker points out, this is glaringly true in the scene where Dre “comes up with” the synth riff for “Nuthin’ But a G Thang”; also, Dre’s history of violence against women has been omitted entirely. (He, Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s widow serve as producers on the film.) And if you’re a neophyte and don’t know the significance of Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) or Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose) in this whole twisted, hip-hop saga, the script from Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff isn’t about to go out of its way to enlighten you.
At the same time, the film unfortunately couldn’t be more relevant; the same bloody racial struggles with police Ice Cube wrote about nearly 30 years ago are still going on today in cities across the nation, which gives it an added a layer of pointed commentary.
None of that stops “Straight Outta Compton” from being entertaining as hell, though, from start to finish. And based on the screening I attended, it’s very easy to imagine sing-along showings cropping up for years to come.
The tricky combination of sweet, slacker romance and slick, super-violent action flick proves especially jarring in “American Ultra.” Blending such disparate genres requires a more deft touch than the one that’s on display here. My RogerEbert.com review.
Harper and Allie are terrible people: selfish, clueless Brooklyn 20somethings who are so inept, they can’t go for an afternoon bike ride to the beach without turning it into a debacle. But by the end of this vicious indie comedy, you’ll surprisingly find yourself caring about whether they make it to their destination — and what happens if they get there. My RogerEbert.com review.
20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, and for language.
Running time: 106 minutes.
One star out of four.
So we just got back from a two-week East Coast sweep — Montreal, Vermont, New Hampshire, Boston and back up again — wherein I believe I ate all of the lobster. All of it. There’s none left. (Sorry for that.) And I promised myself I wouldn’t work at all while we were away, to the extent that I actually made the bold decision to leave my laptop at home — hence, you haven’t seen anything new on here in a couple of weeks. (Sorry for that, too.)
But it was impossible to avoid the developing debacle that was “Fantastic Four.” Watching the reviews pop up in my Facebook and Twitter feeds and seeing the number steadily drop on Rotten Tomatoes (where it’s currently hovering above the ground around 9 percent) provided a morbid fascination. How bad could this movie possibly be? The cavalcade of criticism actually made me want to see it more — so much so that I tried to persuade Nicolas, who’s almost 6 and obsessed with all things Marvel, to come with me to a matinee in Montreal. Seeing it in French and not understanding it could only be an improvement, right?
He wouldn’t bite — but playing catch-up once we returned to Los Angeles was one of our top priorities yesterday, alongside grocery shopping and laundry. I hate to pile on at this point because that just seems needless. Clearly, this movie is terrible on multiple fronts and a case study of soulless summer spectacle gone wrong. But I wanted to share a few thoughts:
— The beginning holds promise. When young, nerdy Reed Richards (Owen Judge) and young, scruffy Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann) are tooling around in Reed’s garage back in 2007, making a teleportation device out of scraps from Ben’s family’s junk heap, there’s a youthful sense of wonder and possibility that’s intriguing — not unlike the one that infused director Josh Trank’s high-school sci-fi flick “Chronicle.” You get the feeling this is what Trank was talking about in that ill-advised, now-deleted tweet in which he criticized 20th Century Fox for not releasing the movie he’d envisioned.
— But then the script is really flimsy. (Trank shares credit with Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg.) You never get a firm grasp on who these four characters are, either before or after they get zapped by whatever it is they come into contact with in another dimension. Even trying to describe them in the most basic terms proves difficult. Reed (Miles Teller) is smart and … socially awkward? Sue Storm (Kate Mara) is smart and … likes music? Her brother, Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), is smart and … reckless? Grown-up Ben (Jamie Bell) is even tougher to pin down. He might be smart. He’s basically just Reed’s best friend, who makes the mistake of answering the phone in the middle of the night when Reed calls and says: “Hey, let’s go jump into this machine I made with some pals from school.”
— And the actors don’t get to do much. Just as elusive as who these people are is how they feel about their new-found superpowers. Thrilled? Scared? Angry? They’re changed eternally — which, in theory, is kind of a big deal — and they never take a moment to work through that. Hell, Ben is now a walking, talking, 500-pound pile of rocks known as The Thing, but it’s not even clear whether the actor playing him also provides his voice. (Poor Bell really fares the worst of the four.) Jordan, the “Fruitvale Station” star who could not be more charismatic, turns ironically cold and flat once he becomes the Human Torch. Teller has shown daring and range in a variety of roles in recent years, most notably the Oscar-winning “Whiplash,” but he gets saddled with some of the clunkiest expository lines once he turns into the twisty Mr. Fantastic. And Mara truly is relegated to playing The Girl. After designing the team’s clothing, her primary function as the Invisible Woman is to stand there with her hands outstretched in a bubble, looking as if she’s straining to break free, and do you blame her?
— Which brings us to the special effects. Which aren’t exactly special. They’re actually laughably cheesy, bordering on “Zardoz” levels of low-tech simplicity. This is especially true during the big, climactic. battle between the Fantastic Four and the possessed Dr. Doom (Toby Kebbell), their former colleague turned glowing, green goon. That battle, by the way, provides not the slightest thrill or bit of suspense; it’s an action sequences that feels tacked on and slapped together. The fate of the world is at stake, we are told, but it’s totally unclear what’s happening, how the characters got here or how they fix it. This is the moment that’s supposed to send us all out with a bang, but it’s more of a shrug.
Even my kid — who was all excited about the “Fantastic Four,” having played the Lego Marvel Superheroes video game — knew he’d seen something empty and unsatisfying. As we were walking through the lobby afterward, I asked him:
“Did you like it?”
“Yeah,” Nic said, rather unconvincingly.
“Was it scary?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“‘Cause they defeated Dr. Doom really easily.”
Maybe we should have seen it in French after all.
20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for some language, drinking, sexuality and partial nudity — all involving teens.
Running time: 109 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
“Paper Towns” is a movie that I really liked, but I probably would have loved if I’d seen it when I was 13. If it had come out when I was in high school, I would have felt like it was speaking directly to me, with its mixture of angst and restlessness, romance and melancholy.
It actually reminds me a lot of the movies I loved best back in the ’80s: those of the late, great, John Hughes. It’s a comparison I don’t make lightly. Based on the novel by John Green (and, mercifully, not a shameless weepy like his mega-best seller “The Fault in Our Stars”), director Jake Schreier’s film features all those classic teen-movie tropes. You’ve got members of a rigid social hierarchy stripping away their notions of each other, neighbors who climb into each others’ bedrooms through upstairs windows, late-night deep discussions and even the raging party at the rich, popular jock’s mansion. (Oh, and the most important part of all: a near-total lack of parental involvement.)
As a grown-ass person who’s seen a lot of movies in my life, I recognize all these elements and find them kind of derivative, albeit charmingly executed. What makes “Paper Towns” really work is the chemistry between its stars — all of whom get the opportunity, at one point or another, to say just the right poignant thing at just the right time. As in “The Fault in Our Stars,” which screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber also adapted, these kids are hyper-verbal and self-aware. And that’s OK — because that’s a crucial part of this particular kind of teen movie, too.
This is especially true of Cara Delevingne’s beguiling and mysterious central character, Margo. With her husky voice and quirky demeanor, the Victoria’s Secret model-turned-actress is essentially doing Emma Stone doing a manic pixie dream girl — or at least, that’s what the calculated mythology surrounding her character would suggest. Confident Margo moved in across the street from the sweetly geeky Quentin (a warm and deeply authentic Nat Wolff) when they were kids in suburban Orlando, Florida, and they became instant friends out of sheer proximity, if nothing else. Now they’re seniors in high school running in very different circles. Quentin remains sweetly geeky, but Margo has become even more of a force of nature: the rebellious and impossibly popular cool girl.
One night, though, she climbs through his window like old times and recruits him to help her with an elaborate revenge mission. Inherently cautious, but recognizing that this could be one of those Nights That Change Everything — and pathetically in love with Margo — he says yes to her meticulous itinerary of breaking and entering, vandalism, bodily harm and humiliation. It is indeed the Night That Changes Everything for Quentin. Then the next morning, Margo is gone.
And this is actually the point at which “Paper Towns” becomes more compelling. The self-consciousness of Margo and Quentin’s analytical banter — she’s the one who gives the film its title in a monologue about superficiality — gives way to legitimate self-discovery in her absence. In true manic pixie dream girl fashion, reminiscent of the journey Kirsten Dunst sets Orlando Bloom on at the end of “Elizabethtown,” Margo leaves a series of clues for Quentin as to her whereabouts. A scavenger hunt around town evolves into a road trip to upstate New York, but what gives this adventure both smarts and heart is the fact that Quentin brings his two best friends with him.
We’d gotten appealing glimmers of trash-talking Ben (Austin Abrams) and self-serious Radar (Justice Smith) leading up to this trip as they walk down the halls, chat in the band room or play video games at Quentin’s house. But the loveliness of their friendship and the effortlessness of their chemistry truly shines once they band together for this mission. All three are distinctly drawn and don’t feel like wacky adolescent types. They’re smart but also sensitive, and fiercely loyal to the others in a way they’re not afraid to show.
Also along for the ride are a couple of welcome and well-acted female figures: the beautiful and popular Lacey (Halston Sage), Margo’s best friend who’s desperate to know what’s become of her; and the strong-willed, no-nonsense Angela (Jaz Sinclair), Radar’s girlfriend, with whom he hopes to lose his virginity on prom night. (Ah yes, another teen-movie staple: prom, which is fraught with expectation and disappointment.)
Again, you may think you’ve seen all this before — and you have — but since we’re discussing cliches here, the journey truly is the destination, and this one may not necessarily head in all the directions you’d expect.
The premise may sound like something you’d see on the Lifetime channel: An inner-city high school teacher finds out she’s pregnant at the same time as her star student. But director and co-writer Kris Swanberg’s execution is warm, funny and understated. And the two lead actresses — Cobie Smulders and Gail Bean — are great together. My RogerEbert.com review.