Film Reviews: Opening This Week (Aug. 3-7, 2015)

Fantastic Four
Joining Spider-Man in the annals of dizzyingly rapid reboots, Fox’s second stab at “Fantastic Four” comes just eight years after the first try and its sequel, which didn’t set the bar inordinately high. Yet if this latest version, with a significantly younger cast (one’s tempted to call it “Fantastic Four High”), clears that threshold, it’s just barely, drawing from a different source to reimagine the quartet’s origins without conspicuously improving them. All told, the movie feels like a protracted teaser for a more exciting follow-up that, depending on whether audiences warm to this relatively low-key approach, might never happen. (Brian Lowry)
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Ricki and the Flash
Like David Bowie joining Bing Crosby for a medley of Christmas carols, “Ricki and the Flash” combines a number of promising elements that don’t seem to have any business being anywhere near each other, though the disconnect exerts a strange appeal all its own. Offering half an acerbic family dramedy (from screenwriter Diablo Cody, in “Young Adult” mode), and half a Jonathan Demme-directed concert pic that just happens to feature Meryl Streep as the frontwoman, this is a shaggy, easily distractible film that consistently defies expectations to both charming and baffling effect. Whether audiences will know what to make of it is an open question — if the actual film is a collision of several clashing tones, its trailer introduces a different one entirely — though acolytes of the Cult of Meryl could rally some support at the box office.
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The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Translating tricky source material to the screen with flying colors, actress Marielle Heller’s feature directing debut, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” manages to plunge into the too-precocious sex life of a 15-year-old girl without turning exploitative or distasteful. This adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s heavily autobiographical novel is ideally cast and skillfully handled, making for a salable item likely to stir some attention-getting controversy and win favorable reviews in territories where the subject matter (which is depicted not graphically, but with a fair amount of nudity) doesn’t create daunting censorship problems. (Dennis Harvey)
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The Gift
The sins of the high-school cafeteria come home to roost in “The Gift,” a coolly unsettling thriller that begins as an unironic homage to late-’80s/early-’90s yuppies-in-peril dramas like “Fatal Attraction” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” before taking a turn toward the moral and existential minefield of Michael Haneke’s “Cache.” A modest but accomplished directing debut for actor and screenwriter Joel Edgerton (who also gives himself a plum role here), “The Gift” is a more psychological, slow-burn genre exercise than the psycho-stalker shocker it’s being sold as by DIY horror specialists Blumhouse and Robert Simonds’ newly launched STX Entertainment. But some supremely effective chills and good word of mouth could spell sleeper success for this Aug. 7 opener. (Scott Foundas)
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Cop Car
Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea for Kevin Bacon’s corrupt small-town sheriff to leave the keys inside his unlocked patrol car. And maybe he should have thought twice before tossing his gunbelt in the backseat and stuffing a beaten-and-bound criminal in the trunk. But all those bad decisions make for B-movie gold in Jon Watts’ “Cop Car,” a tight, easily marketable genre exercise that pushes its lean premise and all-around disrespect for authority to entertaining extremes, taking wicked delight in imagining what might happen if two 10-year-olds were to stumble upon an abandoned police cruiser and take it for a joyride. (Peter Debruge)
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Call Me Lucky
A tribute to an underappreciated comedic talent that takes a startling midpoint shift toward much graver material, “Call Me Lucky” is a terrifically engaging surprise. Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary feature manages to avoid both excessive cronyism and soapboxing as it traverses from a portrait of his professional mentor, influential standup Barry Crimmins, to something that could scarcely be less of a laughing matter. (Dennis Harvey)
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Shaun the Sheep Movie
Conventional wisdom may have it that sheep are dumbest of all livestock, but the woolly ones’ wits get a collective sharpening in “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” a sweet-natured but cleverly off-kilter feature-length debut for Aardman Animations’ plucky farmyard hero. Retaining the gentle, non-verbal comedy and daffy sight gags of the popular stop-motion TV series — itself a loose spinoff from Aardman’s cherished “Wallace and Gromit” franchise — while assigning Shaun and his flock an urban escapade more expansive than their usual short-form gambols, the film should reward small fry and parents jaded by more synthetic kiddie toons. (Guy Lodge)
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The Runner
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill takes a back seat to the sticky personal and career complications of an idealistic Louisiana Congressman in “The Runner,” an earnest but lifeless political drama that makes an average hour of C-SPAN seem like “House of Cards” by comparison. One of the innumerable low-budget indies Nicolas Cage has turned to in a combined move toward career revitalization and tax-debt payback, this uninspired directing debut for producer Austin Stark (“Happythankyoumoreplease,” “Infinitely Polar Bear”) features solid work by its star but is far too staid and familiar to earn either arthouse prestige or the kind of cult that flocked to Cage’s 2009 Bayou State romp, “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” (Scott Foundas)
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Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet
Think of “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet” as a gift: a work of essential spiritual enlightenment, elegantly interpreted by nine of the world’s leading independent animators, all tied up and wrapped in a family-friendly bow by “The Lion King” director Roger Allers. A longtime passion project for producer Salma Hayek (credited here as Salma Hayek-Pinault), Lebanese philosopher-poet Gibran’s cherished guide to life, death, love, art and so forth doesn’t naturally lend itself to bigscreen interpretation, and at first, the pic’s framing device seems too silly for such soulful subject matter. But the freshly scripted wraparound doesn’t shy away from grown-up concerns, while potentially broadening the book’s reach to younger audiences as well. Although Hayek had hoped to land a higher-profile distrib, she will probably have better luck with the toon champs at GKids, whose white-glove release efforts have netted six Oscar nominations so far. (Peter Debruge)
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Sneakerheadz
With equal measures of bemusement and amazement, co-directors David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge zip around the world to examine a shoe-centric subculture in “Sneakerheadz,” their fleet and fly documentary about the designing, retailing, trading and fanatical stockpiling of unique sneakers — or kicks, as those who know the lingo call them — that drive obsessed collectors to a variety of extremes. The film’s zippy pacing, simpatico p.o.v. and sheer entertainment value doubtless will help stoke want-to-see enthusiasm among its target youth demographic when it hits multiple platforms in the fall. But don’t be surprised if respectful reviews and admiring word of mouth entice even older viewers who haven’t worn the sort of footwear exalted here since they sweated out high-school P.E. classes. (Joe Leydon)
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Tap World
Veteran TV crime show producer Dean Hargrove (“Columbo,” “Diagnosis: Murder”) finds a new groove and generously shares his enthusiasm in “Tap World,” an infectiously spirited and pleasingly celebratory documentary about the globe-spanning appeal of American-style tap dance. If the movie has any flaw worth noting, it’s a sin of omission: Although he presents several engaging mini-portraits of tap masters in locales ranging from Taipei to Tokyo, Hell’s Kitchen to Harrisburg, Penn., Hargrove offers only teasing snippets of rehearsals and performances. Even so, this slickly produced and briskly paced doc could find receptive audiences in a variety of platforms, and might even inspire some novices to put on their own dancing shoes. (Joe Leydon)
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Harbinger Down
Made by and for aficionados of ’80s-era sci-fi/horror thrillers, “Harbinger Down” ranks somewhere between self-consciously cheesy SyFy Channel fare and better-than-average direct-to-video product in terms of production values, performance levels and overall ability to sustain interest while generating suspense. Theatrical exposure will be fleeting, but this small-budget, high-concept trifle could attract home-screen traffic if favorable word of mouth is sparked by the enthusiasm of genre-friendly websites and bloggers. (Joe Leydon)
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The Falling
A peculiarly English current of terror — agitated, eccentric and politely unspoken — courses through “The Falling,” an imperfect but alluring study of psychological contagion that marks an auspicious advance in the field of narrative filmmaking for acclaimed documaker Carol Morley. Observing the fallout of a hysterical fainting epidemic that mysteriously strikes a well-to-do girls’ school in late-1960s England, Morley marries a quasi-Victorian premise with a modernist technique that feels drawn from her film’s own milieu: There are shades here of Joseph Losey and Ken Russell, albeit with a staunch feminist perspective. The storytelling may waver in conviction after a woozily riveting setup, but not enough to impede healthy domestic arthouse prospects. (Guy Lodge)
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