Film Reviews: Opening This Week (Aug. 10-14, 2015)

Straight Outta Compton
The ferocious rhymes of hip-hop icons N.W.A.’s controversial 1988 anthem “F–k tha Police” scarcely seem to have aged when they blast on to the soundtrack of “Straight Outta Compton,” echoing into a world where the abuse of black Americans at the hands of law-enforcement officials remains common headline news. But if “Compton” is undeniably of the moment, it’s also timeless in its depiction of how artists and writers transform the world around them into angry, profane, vibrant and singular personal expression. A conventional music-world biopic in outline, but intensely human and personal in its characterizations and attention to detail, director F. Gary Gray’s movie is a feast for hip-hop connoisseurs and novices alike as it charts the West Coast rap superstars’ meteoric rise, fractious in-fighting and discovery that the music business can be as savage as the inner-city streets. A very smart piece of counter-programming in a summer dominated by lily-white tentpole movies, Universal’s Aug. 14 opener should keep the studio clocking much dollars at the late-summer box office. (Scott Foundas)
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The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Whatever tough-guy notion of 1960s masculinity Robert Vaughn and David McCallum once embodied as reluctantly paired Cold War rivals has clearly gone the way of the Berlin Wall in the otherwise retro-flavored “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” a PG-13-rated loose-nukes caper whose target audience is too young to remember the classic spy show that inspired it — much less the once-frosty deadlock between American capitalism and Soviet communism that pits its distractingly handsome leading men against one another. Starring Henry Cavill as American art thief Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer as KGB operative Illya Kuryakin, Guy Ritchie’s latest feels more suave and restrained than his typically hyperkinetic fare, trading rough-and-tumble attitude for pretty-boy posturing. And though the pic is solidly made, its elegant vintage flavor simply doesn’t feel modern enough to cut through the tough summer competition. Those seeking stylish spies will surely wait for “Spectre” or that promised “Kingsman” sequel instead. (Peter Debruge)
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Mistress America
Midway through Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s “Mistress America,” the movie arrives at a long, zany setpiece so inspired and brilliantly sustained that it alone would be worth the price of admission (or the wait in a long Sundance queue). But there’s much else to admire in “Mistress,” which finds the crown prince of New York intellectual self-loathing and his ebullient co-writer/muse returning to the terrain of their 2012 “Frances Ha” — intense female friendships and eager young people trying to find their places in the world — while pushing even closer to full-tilt screwball farce. One of Baumbach’s warmest and purely funniest films, this Fox Searchlight pickup may lack the name cast of the filmmaker’s other 2015 release, “While We’re Young,” but positioned properly it could reach Baumbach’s broadest audience since 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale.” (Scott Foundas)
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Tom at the Farm
Lusciously coiffed Quebecois prodigy Xavier Dolan overreached with 2012’s “Laurence Anyways,” a three-hour transgender saga that overindulged his admittedly striking stylistic affectations. Perhaps even he agreed, since “Tom at the Farm,” the 24-year-old hyphenate’s delicious fourth feature — and first excursion into genre terrain — is a trimmer, tarter effort all round. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also his first collaboration with another writer. A kinky queer noir detailing the dangers awaiting a gay Montreal hipster (Dolan) as he journeys to the homophobic heartland for his lover’s funeral, it’s an improbably exciting match of knife-edge storytelling and a florid vintage aesthetic best represented by Gabriel Yared’s glorious orchestral score. It’s Dolan’s most accomplished and enjoyable work to date. (Guy Lodge)
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Return to Sender
One has to feel for Rosamund Pike: No actor deserves to have their Oscar-nominated breakout role tailed by the likes of “Return to Sender,” a queasy but strangely gutless exploitation pic that plays not unlike a tardy dry run for “Gone Girl.” As it is, the tight-lipped froideur that she brought to David Fincher’s adult blockbuster provides the only notes of curiosity or complexity in Fouad Mikati’s otherwise unsurprising rape-revenge thriller. As an uptight surgical nurse taking a roundabout way toward closure after surviving a brutal home invasion, Pike constructs a dark-hearted heroine who could potentially beat Amy Dunne at her own game — if armed with a less misogynistic script and a lick of human credibility. Without these, “Return to Sender” looks like nothing more threatening than VOD fodder for Stateside distrib Image Entertainment; paltry B.O. numbers show U.K. auds have already refused delivery. (Guy Lodge)
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Meru
Harrowing and ultimately moving, “Meru” charts the efforts of three of the world’s best mountain climbers to conquer an “impossible” Himalayan peak that has never been successfully scaled before. There’s no lack of high drama here, with some of the most hair-raising developments taking place between the trio’s attempts to climb the titular pinnacle. Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi’s Sundance audience award winner is one of the best sports documentaries of its type in recent years, with the potential to break out beyond extreme-sports enthusiasts to a broader demo. (Dennis Harvey)
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Ten Thousand Saints
A love letter to a bygone era of New York City, namely the late ‘80s, “Ten Thousand Saints” sees directing duo Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini returning to a more personal approach to filmmaking — or at least as personal as possible when adapting another’s material, in this case the debut novel by author Eleanor Henderson. Part teen romance, part awkward love triangle, part generational-clash portrait, and almost all powered by nostalgia, this warmly conceived dramedy will likely resonate strongest with audiences who have a direct connection to the story’s place and time. Otherwise, there’s not much to suggest a theatrical windfall, and only slightly better odds in ancillary. (Geoff Berkshire)
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People, Places, Things
Sporting the most absurdly universalizing title since “Men, Women & Children,” “People, Places, Things” contains no insights into the human condition so profound as to warrant staking a claim on the world’s nouns. The cutesy story of a New York comicbook artist grappling with parenting after a breakup had its world-preem audience chuckling appreciatively at one-liners, but this mild crowdpleaser won’t be able to count on critics’ help in reaching people and places. (Ben Kenigsberg)
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Final Girl
Little Miss Sunshine goes the way of La Femme Nikita in “Final Girl,” a mildly intriguing thriller of comeuppance that leaves you wanting more — not more archly stylized violence or repetitive revenge fantasy, perhaps, but more insight into the connection between the eponymous assassin (Abigail Breslin) and her highly skilled mentor (Wes Bentley). Then again, with its seemingly deliberate absence of context or character development, this patchy, underwritten thriller could almost pass for a critique of any number of genre forebears in which the mere presence of a hot, ass-kicking female avenger is meant to seem subversive. Drawing out a thin, largely tension-free payback scenario involving four murderous jocks with a penchant for sweet young blondes, Tyler Shields’ so-so but promising directing debut could get a boost from its name leads in otherwise modest theatrical and VOD play. (Justin Chang)
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We Come as Friends
A masterfully composed and suitably outraged look at the neocolonialist exploitation of South Sudan, “We Come as Friends” is, after “Darwin’s Nightmare,” the second part of Austrian documentarian Hubert Sauper’s proposed trilogy about the contemporary plight of African countries. Six years in the making, the film observes South Sudan becoming independent, politely pillaged for its resources, and devastated by war; according to Sauper, a number of the villages seen in the docu no longer exist. Amazingly, Sauper helped design a homemade airplane with which to travel the country at will; the film, too, is a purposeful vehicle, lofty in its aims. (Rob Nelson)
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One & Two
A brother and sister cursed with special powers live in a rural farmhouse encircled by a tall, impenetrable wall in the enticingly conceptual North Carolina-based indie “One & Two.” Why are they sequestered? And is the wall there to protect them from people on the other side, or the other way around? Like an M. Night Shyamalan movie without the twist, Andrew Droz Palermo’s narrative debut (following Sundance-winning small-town docu “Rich Hill”) offers a tense, attenuated supernatural fable full of atmosphere and tantalizing possibility, yet sorely lacking in the kind of resolution that would justify mainstream audiences’ extended suspension of disbelief. (Peter Debruge)
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Air
The future is short of breath in “Air,” a sci-fi chamber piece with Norman Reedus and Djimon Hounsou as two grunts charged with maintaining an underground government bunker after chemical warfare has rendered the Earth’s surface uninhabitable. This irst feature for videogame designer/writer Christian Cantamessa has an intriguing premise and two capable stars, none of which is utilized as memorably as one might hope. Competently crafted but ultimately just OK, the suspenser should be able to parlay its cast names’ appeal into decent returns in home-format sales. Limited theatrical opening on 15 U.S. screens Aug. 14 is occurring simultaneously with a VOD launch. (Dennis Harvey)
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The Boy
Though the body count is ultimately higher than in “Psycho,” seldom has a stay at a homicidal rural motel seemed quite so endless and dull as in “The Boy.” The titular figure is a 9-year-old whose budding sociopathy (or whatever it is) stubbornly refuses to become vivid, let alone scary, in Craig William Macneill’s inert, ersatz thriller. Soporific as a genre exercise, and lacking the kind of psychological depth or anything else that might lend it substance as a drama, the pic faces weak commercial prospects. (Dennis Harvey)
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Prince
An uneven but engaging new talent arrives on the scene with “Prince,” Sam de Jong’s brightly stylized writing-directing debut about a Moroccan-Dutch teenager trying to find his way in a world that doesn’t yet extend far beyond his Amsterdam housing project. Life is bleak but also sweet in this red-bricked enclave, where brash young men sling insults, exaggerate their sexual prowess, and are exposed early on to the ever-present temptations of crime and violence, but where the fundamental goodness of human nature prevails in the fairy-tale fashion suggested by the movie’s title. A slender, morally simplified fable that makes up for its tonal and narrative imprecisions with considerable visual energy, musical pizzazz, and a panoply of colorful characters, “Prince,” now in limited theatrical release Stateside, should do its part as a calling card for de Jong and his appealing cast. (Justin Chang)
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Fort Tilden
Fort Tilden,” Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers’ day-in-the-life chronicle of two vapid twentysomethings on an ill-fated odyssey through “deep Brooklyn,” contains several scenes that manage to skewer the infantile predilections of the Williamsburg jet set with truly ruthless, subtle precision. Unfortunately, it fails to find much humor in them, and its potent sense of place and underlying ideas never compensate for the tiresome millennial musings that constitute most of its runtime. (Andrew Barker)
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Amnesiac
Remembering is hard for Wes Bentley in “Amnesiac,” but viewers will find it easy to forget this ineffectual mystery-thriller. Helmer Michael Polish and his spouse-star, Kate Bosworth, were reportedly attracted to the project for the change-of-pace role it afforded her. But even beyond its sketchy screenplay, the pic’s main problem is that Bosworth lacks the villainous authority required to make Mike Le and Amy Kolquist’s tricky if undercooked screenplay work. Theatrical launch on Aug. 14 at Los Angeles’ Arena Cinema is unlikely to do much more than raise “Amnesiac’s” profile a tad for its simultaneous home-format release. (Dennis Harvey)
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