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Film Reviews: New Releases for Feb. 3

Knock at the Cabin, 80 for Brady, Saint Omer, Baby Ruby, The Amazing Maurice


Abby Quinn, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Dave Bautista and Rupert Grint in Knock at the Cabin - UNIVERSAL PICTURES
  • Universal Pictures
  • Abby Quinn, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Dave Bautista and Rupert Grint in Knock at the Cabin
80 for Brady *1/2
It’s a perfectly fine idea to put a bunch of veteran actors in a movie together and let them play off of one another—in which case, it might be a good idea if you actually let them play off of one another. Set in 2017, it follows four long-time Boston-area friends—Lou (Lily Tomlin), Trish (Jane Fonda), Maura (Rita Moreno) and Betty (Sally Field)—who resolve to head to the Super Bowl in Houston, where their beloved Tom Brady (playing himself) is leading the New England Patriots. Shenanigans ensue, involving the kind of stuff that is depressingly common in stories focusing on seniors, like finding it inherently hilarious if one of them still has a libido, or if they happen to get stoned (spoiler alert: they do). But the real absurdity of 80 for Brady is that the screenplay by Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern is so concerned with their superficially sentimental individual character arcs and side quests that the foursome rarely gets any time for satisfying interaction; Sally Field literally has more meaningful screen time with Food Network personality Guy Fieri than with any of her three primary co-stars. Meanwhile, the entire climax of the movie involves watching the Patriots’ big comeback against the Atlanta Falcons, reducing the actors to sitting in their stadium seats and cheering. Nearly every decent laugh comes from the supporting cast and the weird revisionist history, leaving four legends to celebrate their collaboration by not really collaborating. Available Feb. 3 in theaters. (PG-13)

The Amazing Maurice **
If you ever want to really appreciate the work done by artists at Pixar, DreamWorks or other major CGI animation studios, take a look at one of the lower-rent versions where the animation is just sort of … there. This adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s book The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents offers sort of a spin on The Pied Piper of Hamelin, with the titular talking cat Maurice (Hugh Laurie) serving as a sort of carnival barker in a traveling scam operation in olden-days Europe, with pipe-playing human Keith (Himesh Patel) “driving out” the mutated-to-intelligence rats they bring into town with them. In one such town, however, they discover another problem: All the food is disappearing, with a mysterious masked figure (David Thewlis) somehow involved. Emilia Clarke also turns up as a young woman enthusiastically familiar with the tropes of fairy-tale storytelling, and the filmmakers do get a bit too pleased with themselves at their meta-references (including a late reference to Disneyland). But while the plot moves along briskly and the voice performances are generally solid, there’s just no emotion to the narrative, whatever hand-waving there may be at a theme of taking responsibility for your moral choices. The biggest problem there is that the characters just aren’t expressive enough to create that sense of real personality. Everything can be clicking along functionally, but when the technology and artistry behind bringing it all to life feels like too often, the decision makers are signing off on a sequence with a resigned, “Good enough, I guess.” Available Feb. 3 in theaters. (PG)

Baby Ruby ***1/2
The existential fears of motherhood aren’t exactly untapped territory for horror movies, but playwright/first-time director Bess Wohl finds something fresh in her psychological thriller by connecting that notion to the unique pressures of the social-media era. Noémie Merlant plays Jo, the entrepreneur behind a successful lifestyle blog approaching the birth of her first baby with husband Spencer (Kit Harrington). But while she anticipates the event as just the next step in promoting her brand, she’s not ready for the constant crying, the sleeplessness, and the sense that something about baby Ruby might be just a bit … off. Wohl demonstrates remarkable visual instincts for a stage veteran/screen rookie, creating a montage of Jo’s growing maternal. frustration with compositions that suggest an almost hallucinatory passage of time. And she augments the creepier moments with a wicked sense of humor, including two of the biggest laughs a movie has given me in ages. Most incisively, though, she writes a role for Merlant—who brings a unique flavor to Jo’s mounting madness—that takes the notion of postpartum depression and combines it with the way we now develop online versions of ourselves with the illusion of perfection, and how that illusion harms the psyches of those who realize they can’t live up to it. Those expecting a more sinister payoff might be surprised to find something where a mother fears that the biggest threat her child faces is coming from inside the house. Available Feb. 3 in theaters. (R)

Knock at the Cabin **
There are occasions when it’s a curse to know the changes a movie has made from its source material—and hoo boy, is that ever the case with this adaptation of Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World from co-writer/director M. Night Shyamalan. His set-up remains the same: At an isolated cabin, gay couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) are enjoying a vacation with their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui), before the arrival of Leonard (Dave Bautista), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn) and Redmond (Rupert Grint). They claim that they’ve received visions that the apocalypse is nigh, and that they must avert that catastrophe by forcing Eric and Andrew into a cruel choice. Shyamalan still understands how to construct the occasional high-tension set piece, and Bautista turns in a great performance as someone haunted by what he feels compelled to do. But the key changes Shyamalan and co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman make from the resolution to the original story radically alter the meaning, in a way that feels cruel and cowardly. Tremblay’s powerful, audacious allegory for the idea that some fervent beliefs—no matter how sincerely held, and no matter whether delivered by a higher power—are not morally worthy of being followed, instead becomes a shallow, simplistic piece of genre nonsense that actively undercuts those ideas. Seriously, folks: Go read the book instead. Available Feb. 3 in theaters. (R)

Saint Omer **1/2
For much of its running time, writer/director Alice Diop’s feature teases with he possibility that could be about any one of a dozen different potentially fascinating things, only to leave the sour aftertaste that it’s not really about anything in particular. The premise finds Paris-based writer/academic Rama (Kayije Kagame) traveling to the city of Saint Omer for the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda)—a woman accused of abandoning her 15-month-old daughter by the ocean to drown—as source material for her latest book. It also so happens that Rama is pregnant, and that her common Senegalese background with Laurence has Rama contemplating her fraught relationship with her own mother. The majority of the film consists of Laurence’s trial itself, with Diop capturing the testimony in long master shots that initially emphasize Laurence’s seeming impassiveness, and the enigma of her actions. But that testimony also weaves in components from Laurence’s background, leading to questions about how much cultural specificity should factor into legal decisions. There’s also an early sequence of Rama teaching one of her classes that suggests Rama sees her book about Laurence’s trial as a way to redeem the shame of her subject. Rama, unfortunately, remains almost more enigmatic than Laurence, and the late sequence involving the closing arguments of Laurence’s defense attorney, puts its thumb on the scale when we never hear the prosecutor’s argument. Is Saint Omer about institutional bias based on culture, race and gender? About mothers and daughters? About academic arrogance? Or is it content to seem subtly about so many things, so inadequately, that it tries to pass for profound? Available Feb. 3 at Broadway Centre Cinemas. (PG-13)