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Film Reviews: Opening This Week (Aug. 17-21, 2015)

Hitman: Agent 47
During a rare moment of quiet amid the glass-smashing, brain-bashing mayhem of “Hitman: Agent 47,” a character offers the wise observation that we are all a bit more complicated than our internal circuitry might suggest. Applying this logic to the movie itself, it’s fair to conclude that while Aleksander Bach’s directing debut is indeed the junky, incoherent shoot-’em-up we feared it might be, to dismiss it as just another late-August studio craptacular doesn’t quite do it justice. But what to call it, exactly? The 47th best action film of 2015? A feature-length Audi commercial, or a promo reel for the Singapore Tourism Board? The most unnecessary artistic contribution ever made by someone named Bach? Fox is surely hoping that “surprise box office hit” might be a plausible alternative, though the best one will likely be able to say on that front is that where disastrous franchise relaunches are concerned, it’s no “Fantastic Four.” (Justin Chang)
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Sinister 2
Jason Blum’s Blumhouse production shingle is known for its factory-like efficiency in churning out profitable low-budget horror properties, but with “Sinister 2,” director Ciaran Foy’s follow-up to Scott Derrickson’s 2012 hit, the company achieves a rather extreme level of economy. Rather than cook up sequel after sequel of steadily diminishing quality until the franchise runs out of gas, “Sinister 2” cuts straight to the chase, presenting a retread of such brainless, shameless lameness that it’s hard to imagine anyone begging for another installment. Its name-recognition value and the dearth of chiller competition on the calendar should make it a lucrative investment for its backers, but anyone who found the original a cut above the average horror pic will likely leave the theater disappointed, if not downright insulted. (Andrew Barker)
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American Ultra
In a summer film slate awash with reboots, sequels and dutifully box-checking superhero product, it’s refreshing to see a genre film made from a completely original screenplay. Yet “American Ultra,” a stoner action-comedy directed by Nima Nourizadeh from a script by Max Landis, too often plays like an earnest yet unsatisfying adaptation of a cult graphic novel, with most of the charm lost in translation. Full of clever ideas, bloody violence so cartoonish that it’s almost cuddly, and an eminently likable leading pair in Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg, the film has a lot going for it but, like a fridge-clearing omelet prepared after too many bong hits, it can’t manage to cook all these goodies into a palatable whole. Box office should be modest, though more couch-bound demographics may well embrace it on homevid. (Andrew Barker)
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Some Kind of Beautiful
There comes a point in “Some Kind of Beautiful” when a boy, his father and his grandfather stand together on a pier, unzip their flies and proudly urinate into the Pacific Ocean — a scene of intergenerational bonding that Salma Hayek watches from afar with an affectionate “Aww, isn’t that sweet” expression on her face. It’s a wretched moment for any actress to have to play, though it’s certainly preferable to the one in which Hayek imitates a series of noisy, grunting male orgasms in front of two prim school administrators, whose expressions of withering unamusement will likely be matched by the audience’s own. From first frame to last, “Some Kind of Beautiful” is some kind of hideous, a perfect storm of romantic-comedy awfulness that seems to set the ailing genre back decades with the sheer force of its ineptitude. Commercially and artistically, this Lionsgate atrocity is pretty much pissing in the wind. (Justin Chang)
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Grandma
Elle Reid, a tart-tongued septuagenarian author who charges through life like a bull in a china shop, is the sort of character Lily Tomlin might have created decades ago and added to her repertoire alongside Ernestine the indiscreet telephone operator and Edith Ann, the philosophical 5-year-old in her oversized rocking chair. But it’s doubtful the 75-year-old Tomlin could have played Elle then with the same deep reserves of anger and sorrow she brings to “Grandma,” an initially breezy family comedy about mothers, daughters and abortions that slowly sneaks up on you and packs a major wallop. A most impressive detour into low-budget DIY filmmaking for writer-director Paul Weitz (“American Pie,” “About a Boy”), this constantly surprising character piece should spark deserved awards chatter for Tomlin and at least one of her co-stars, as well as solid (if far from “Juno”-sized) indie box office. (Scott Foundas)
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She’s Funny That Way
Screwball comedy was already a retro affair when Peter Bogdanovich mastered it in 1972 with “What’s Up, Doc?” Forty-two years later, that ageless throwback is the standard to which the director aspires in “She’s Funny That Way,” an enthusiastic but low-fizz romantic farce that gets by principally on the charms of a cast speckled with gifted funnymen (and, more particularly, funnywomen). At once invoking genre forebears like Ernst Lubitsch and contemporaries like Woody Allen, this busy tale of a Brooklyn callgirl wreaking havoc among the romantically frustrated cast and crew of a dud Broadway play accumulates the necessary narrative chaos without ever building a full head of comic steam. The diverting result will find a modest audience principally among those old enough to recall Bogdanovich’s glory days. (Guy Lodge)
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Digging for Fire
Joe Swanberg continues his march toward the mainstream even as he deepens his signature brand of hangout film in “Digging for Fire,” a lovely slice of everything and nothing centered on a housesitting couple who discover possible evidence of a murder. There are feints toward a bona fide mystery plot, but that genre element is just a pretext for a stealth marital drama, held together through strong improv, tight editing (by Swanberg himself), moody cinematography and a synth score (from Dan Romer) that parties like it’s 1991. This is Swanberg’s starriest picture to date — even if some appearances, like Jenny Slate’s, amount to glorified walk-ons — making breakout success eminently possible. (Ben Kenigsberg)
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Learning to Drive
Two very fine actors do what they can to enliven a bland cross-cultural bonding exercise in “Learning to Drive,” the story of a brief encounter between a Manhattan literary critic (Patricia Clarkson) and an Indian-American cab driver (Ben Kingsley) who have much to teach each other in matters of life and love. Winner of a runner-up audience prize in Toronto, this moderately likable but mostly lead-footed drama is a much more palatable effort than some of director Isabel Coixet’s recent misfires  (“Another Me,” “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo”), and its star duo and easygoing premise should ensure a measure of theatrical interest. Still, as filmmaking goes, “Drive” is pretty pedestrian. (Justin Chang)
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Guidance
There are trace elements of “Strangers with Candy,” “Role Models” and the contrastingly serious “Half Nelson” in “Guidance,” but that doesn’t stop Pat Mills’ debut as writer-director-star from being a delight on its own terms. This comedy about a former TV child star turned train wreck who decides to take a high-school guidance counselor job — or rather, pose as someone appropriate for that position — is consistently amusing and surprisingly uncynical in the end. It’s certainly got modest sleeper potential, though outside Canada, the pic may find more of a welcome in home formats than in theaters. (Dennis Harvey)
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The Mend
Debutant feature writer-helmer John Magary directs with a great deal of verve, imbuing even the most drawn-out scenes (as his frequently are) with a clipped, punkish energy. He has a perfect counterpart in leading man Josh Lucas, who approaches his loathsome, destructive drifter character with almost unhinged ferocity. So it’s disappointing that two such committed artists have a produced a film like “The Mend,” which seems reluctant to commit to much beyond its own meandering transgressive impulses. Worth watching for its genuinely strange combination of wildly underplayed emotional beats and wildly overplayed surface anarchy, this ultimately exhausting compendium of bad brotherly behavior will likely bore (or repel) mainstream auds. (Andrew Barker)
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Being Evel
An exercise in hero worship that doesn’t shy away from its subject’s least admirable traits, “Being Evel” attempts to deliver a complex portrait of a man who preferred to be seen as a self-styled myth. In some ways that’s a cinematic daredevil act worthy of Evel Knievel himself, and even if Daniel Junge’s documentary falls a bit short of its goal, it deserves points for trying. Produced by and essentially starring Knievel fan Johnny Knoxville as lead talking head, the Sundance-premiered pic has above-average marketability as a platform-release docu, though it should connect more strongly with its base on the smallscreen. (Geoff Berkshire)
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The Park Bench
Say this much for “The Park Bench”: It delivers on its title. Viewers get all the bench they can handle in writer-director Ann LeSchander’s exceedingly modest two-hander, but there’s a shortage of compelling conversation from its occupants. Though broken up by chapter titles, bits of animation and the occasional flashback, the vast majority of the action rides the pine, pairing a high-strung tutor with an earnest literature student for a flirty semester. Nicole Hayden and Walter Perez are winning in the lead roles, but LeSchander barely skims the surface of her book-smarts and his street-smarts, much less the cultural forces that keep them apart. A wisp of a romantic comedy at 78 minutes, the pic stands to come and go quickly from theaters, too, and its ancillary future seems limited to a showreel for its first-time filmmaker and stars. (Scott Tobias)
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The Iron Ministry
For those absolutely convinced of the genius of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s “Leviathan,” along comes J.P. Sniadecki (“People’s Park”) with his sensory documentary “The Iron Ministry.” Sniadecki, co-director with Paravel on “Foreign Parts” and also a member of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, spent three years shooting on trains in China — old and new, congested and spacious. Designed as a broadly impressionistic vision of the ways the country’s vast railroad system is used, the pic is non-ideological and intermittently engrossing, catering to viewers especially drawn to this type of non-narrative docu filmmaking. (Jay Weissberg)
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Mateo
It’s easy to see what drew filmmaker Aaron I. Naar to his eponymous subject in “Mateo,” but it’s almost impossible to share his enthusiasm or even feel much sympathy for a figure who, for a good chunk of this sluggish yet disconcerting documentary, comes across as a genuinely creepy person. Indeed, if “Mateo” were a dramatic feature, a viewer would be entirely justified, after its first hour or so, in expecting a final scene involving violent outbursts, bloody mayhem and/or neighbors expressing amazement that such a quiet man would ever do such very bad things. (Joe Leydon)
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The Curse of Downers Grove
Although it’s being marketed as a horror film, “The Curse of Downers Grove” turns out to be something else — a messy hash of teen soap opera, stalker thriller and whatnot whose titular, possibly supernatural aspect is basically irrelevant. This pileup of elements never meshes or becomes convincing in Derick Martini’s screenplay, co-adapted by exec producerBret Easton Ellis from Michael Hornberg’s 1999 novel. Nonetheless, the pic’s combination of familiar faces and genre tropes should give it a decent leg up in home formats. It opens at the AMC Burbank Town Center 8 this Friday, simultaneous with its digital HD launch; VOD release follows on Sept. 1. (Dennis Harvey)
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