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What to Watch This Weekend

Unique 'Wonderstruck' is ambitious, imperfect and wonderful

 Wonderstruck, PG
Todd Haynes, talented director of 2015’s critically acclaimed Carol, has adapted Brian Selznick’s 2011 best-selling novel Wonderstruck for the big screen. It features two kids on parallel Manhattan quests, one set in magical black-and-white 1927, the other in colorfully scuzzy 1977. The 1927 part is a silent film starring the superb young hearing-impaired actress Millicent Simmonds, whose character tracks down her idol, a Lillian Gish-ish star (Julianne Moore, 56). The scenes from 1977, which also include Moore in a different role, are focused on a boy (Oakes Fegley) who's searching for his missing father. This more modern story falls short of the older one, and the coincidences connecting the two are lame and unsatisfying.

But everything else about the film is tastefully ambitious, moving, gorgeous, original (even when it’s pastiche) and gloriously acted (Moore creates vivid characters with zero dialogue — a risky, fascinating achievement). Flawed as it is, like any of Haynes’ films it soars into a weird empyrean nobody but he can reach. —Tim Appelo



Also New in Theaters

 Only the Brave, PG-13

Only the Brave is a superhero movie about real people — Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots forest fire crew, which saved a whole town in the calamitous 2013 Yarnell wildfire. Great performances abound from Jeff Bridges, 67, who makes the most of a smallish but emotionally pivotal part as Prescott’s Fezziwig-like wildland division chief, and Jennifer Connelly, in an unusually vivid role for a hero’s wife, but the main love story, of course, is between the firefighters, and their dedicated boss, Eric Moss (expertly played by Josh Brolin, 49) and his newest, greenest recruit, Brendan “Doughnut” McDonough (Miles Teller in top form). The story, based on GQ disaster correspondent Sean Flynn's Granite Mountain article, could have easily been a rote, phony macho flick. Instead, it’s an authentic, acutely sensitive and pulse-pounding study of young lifesavers in action. FULL REVIEW

Still in Theaters

Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in 'The Florida Project'

Courtesy A24 Films

Brooklynn Prince, 7, lives at a low-cost motel near Disney World and spends a lot of time with Willem Dafoe, 62, the motel handyman — turned father figure — in "The Florida Project."

The Florida Project, R  
The best, most heartbreakingly inspiring film of the year is The Florida Project, about the destitute kids in the no-hope motels in sight of Disney World’s nightly fireworks. Directed by low-budget miracle worker Sean Baker, 46, it’s a kids’-eye view of this real-life dysfunction junction, originally envisioned by Walt Disney himself as a clean, perfect City of the Future (which he called “the Florida project”). Willem Dafoe, 62, is considered the number-one front-runner for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the saintly manager of the ghastly Magic Castle Motel — a father figure struggling to find ways not to evict $35-a-night tenants like Moonee (played brilliantly by Brooklynn Prince, 6) and her stripper-turned-hooker mom (Bria Vinaite, 24). The film, though, is from Moonee’s perspective, as she leads her child gang, grifts free ice cream and waffles, frolics in swamps and strip malls, and burns down an abandoned drug house.

It should be depressing as a Sundance social-issues picture, but these little rascals are ebullient, often as happy as they are scrappy. Innocent of dishonest Hollywood sentimentality, the movie makes you feel like Moonee’s growing up in the most magical place on Earth because to her it is. —Tim Appelo

Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller in 'The Meyerowitz Stories'

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller play brothers who struggle to connect with their father in "The Meyerowitz Stories."

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Not Rated
The entire cast shines in this family drama — now in theaters and on Netflix — especially Adam Sandler, 51, as Danny Meyerowitz, a musically gifted, recently divorced underachiever. Dustin Hoffman, 80, offers a nuanced performance as his dad, an arrogant sculptor, whose two sons (Danny’s hyper-successful half brother is played by Ben Stiller, 51) struggle for their frustrating father’s acceptance. It's a deeply affecting film from director Noah Baumbach, 48 (Frances Ha), and Netflix’s best yet. FULL REVIEW

Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford in 'Blade Runner 2049'

Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros.

In "Blade Runner 2049," Ryan Gosling, left, and Harrison Ford play current and former blade runners who run away from authorities.

 Blade Runner 2049, R

Ryan Gosling is exceptional in Blade Runner 2049, the 164-minute science-fiction sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece. He stars as K, who — like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in the original film — is a blade runner: a police officer and newer-model humanoid replicant who hunts and kills older models in a dystopic near-future Los Angeles. K’s journey is meandering, and the long film can drag, but Gosling’s performance (he communicates better with his eyes than most top actors do with their words) and stunning cinematography more than make up for the slow pace. It’s both a worthy successor to the original and a chilling meditation on what it means to be human. FULL REVIEW

 Lucky
Harry Dean Stanton died at 91 just before the release of this movie, which brings us the talented actor in his biggest role since Paris, Texas and Repo Man in 1984 made him a star at 58. He plays small-town loner Lucky, who lives to smoke and swap barstool philosophy. He’s like a Samuel Beckett hero, silent and eloquent, exhausted and inexhaustible, desolate and droll. (He's also a terrific singer; Stanton was once a hobo folk singer who dueted with Bob Dylan and Art Garfunkel, and he sings movingly in Lucky.) He’s incorrigibly solo, yet his gaunt gaze deeply engages everyone at the bar: fellow WWII vet Tom Skerritt, 84 (from M*A*S*H and Picket Fences), the bar owner’s slick boyfriend James Darren, 81 (Gidget’s Moondoggie), a young lawyer (Ron Livingston, 50, Loudermilk), a doctor (Ed Begley Jr., 68), who diagnoses him as “old and getting older.” If you treasure oddball talky films by Jim Jarmusch or Richard Linklater, this one’s for you. If not, Stanton is still for you: Check out his more mainstream work in Pretty in Pink, Alien and Big Love. —Tim Appelo

Tom Cruise in 'American Made'

Bob Mahoney/Sony Pictures

Tom Cruise plays Barry Seal, a pilot who flies drugs and money for the CIA, in "American Made."

American Made, R
Tom Cruise, 55, hits a recent career high in Doug Liman’s American Made. He plays Barry Seal, an impulsive, daredevil pilot who flies drugs, money and hired killers for the CIA, Pablo Escobar and undercover Marine Oliver North. It’s fun, fast, amoral and wild, freewheelingly based on a true story weirder than fiction. The “crazy gringo who always delivers,” as the Colombian drug lords call Seal, gets recruited by a shady CIA guy (Domhnall Gleeson) who provides him with a cool spy plane to snap closeups of Sandinistas (the Reagan administration’s Nicaraguan leftist enemies) and Medellin drug lords. We’re never sure which bits aren’t true (did the real Seal escape DEA pursuers on a kid’s bike with his face white with cocaine?) and don’t care. This is not a docudrama or biopic, but a stylish romp and a return to movie-star form for Cruise, whose antihero charms us against our better judgment. —Tim Appelo

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, PG-13
Deep Throat, the legendary leaker whose tips helped propel the Washington Post’s Watergate investigation, came forward in 2005 as FBI lifer Mark Felt. He’s a complex character, and Liam Neeson, 65, carries the weighty role perfectly in this absorbing film, making the cost of conscience in a dirty world something dramatic and real. Set within the sleek, film-noirish background of nighttime Washington, it’s thrilling to watch Throat set in motion his intricate game. He’s a bit like Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards character, but rather than use his finesse on behalf of his own power drive, Felt is devoted to something more abstract: the rule of law. FULL REVIEW  

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in 'Battle of the Sexes'

Melinda Sue Gordon/Twentieth Century Fox

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in "Battle of the Sexes."

Battle of the Sexes, PG-13

Anyone who wasn’t around for the circus that was the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs may think Battle of the Sexes is a wild satire of women’s-lib-era sports and media culture, when it’s actually a fairly faithful account. Emma Stone shines as a champ who’s quietly overcoming off-court passivity about both her bargaining clout and her sexuality. But the movie is stolen by putative supporting player Steve Carell, 55. He’s so able to find the heartrending desperation behind Riggs’ show-biz chauvinism that he might have viewers developing a rooting interest in the wrong side of history. When the triumphal score swells as the feminist heroine inevitably starts walloping the huckster who was 26 years her senior, the weight of Carell’s hilarious but poignant performance almost makes you feel like they’ve put on the wrong music. —Chris Willman

 Kingsman: The Golden Circle, R
This movie has everything. Colin Firth, 57, parodying 007. Mark Strong, 54, as his Q-like tech guru. Fisticuffs in a speeding car. Channing Tatum, Pedro Pascal, Halle Berry, 51, and Jeff Bridges, 67, as their U.S. spy colleagues. Cool electric lariats, bulletproof bumbershoots and Gatling guns. Julianne Moore, 56, as the world’s top drug dealer in a jungle hideout where irritable Elton John, 70, is held prisoner. Startlingly crude, a bit violent, with funnier cannibalism gags than Mother! Director Matthew Vaughn has made six better films, including the first Kingsman, but this sequel’s fun. —Tim Appelo

Victoria & Abdul, PG-13
Judi Dench, 82, is masterful as Queen Victoria (Dench has channeled the enigmatic queen before, in 1997's Mrs. Brown) in this film, where she starts out a sad captive of her own castles but is soon drawn to her Urdu teacher, India’s hunky young Abdul Karim (Furious 7’s Ali Fasal). Unfortunately, as their relationship progresses the movie does little to explain Abdul, a cipher with illegible motives. Is he a great guy or a scammer manipulating Victoria for profit, as the racist imperialist court thinks? No way to tell from Victoria & Abdul, which is just good enough to hold your interest, and no better. But if you crave a fix of Brit royalty while waiting for The Crown Season 2 — or are a Dench fan, and who isn’t? — this is your jam. FULL REVIEW 

 Brad's Status, R
Navel-gazing Sacramento insomniac Brad (Ben Stiller, 51) shares his narcissistic agony via voiceover, categorizing his shortcomings while sweating through a Harvard visit with his caring, unconflicted piano prodigy teen (The Walking Dead's Austin Abrams). Writer-director Mike White (School of Rock) has Brad desperately obsess about his more successful besties from Tufts (not Harvard!): preening TV pundit Michael Sheen, hedge-fund plutocrat Luke Wilson and White’s own character, who hosts Hollywood’s hottest pool parties. Very humorous, but it also smells of desperation, a comedy of declining white male privilege. Male critics have much more patience with this guy. —Thelma Adams

Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris in 'Mother!'

Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures

Oscar nominees Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris play creepy guests in "Mother!"

 Mother!, R 
Darren Aronofsky’s horror flick stars Jennifer Lawrence as a woman few seem to heed as her house becomes a nightmare world, but the real news is the mysterious couple who invade her home: Ed Harris, 66, who is never less than excellent, and Michelle Pfeiffer, 59, back at the top of the actor pack after five years out of the limelight. —Tim Appelo

 American Assassin, R
American Assassin is an expertly dumb film by the exquisitely smart guys who brought you Showtime's Homeland and FX's The Americans. It stars terrific new action hero Dylan O’Brien as a kid who loses his fiancée to an Islamist terrorist attack on a beach and then trains for vengeance as a terrorist killer under CIA mentor Michael Keaton, 66. The dialogue is riddled with clichés and the plot is predictable, but the chase scenes are better than Logan Lucky’s and the pulse-pounding, terrorist-stomping narrative will hold your interest right until the end. FULL REVIEW

Bill Skarsgard in 'It'

Brooke Palmer/Warner Bros.

Behind all this makeup is Bill Skarsgard. He plays Pennywise the clown in "It."

 It, R
Based on one of Stephen King’s most celebrated and scariest works, It is a true fright-fest that will satisfy anyone who loves the horror genre, regardless of age. Starring a septet of brilliant young actors — plus Bill Skarsgard, 27, who's terrifying as Pennywise the Dancing Clown — It doesn't rely on cheap jump cuts for its scares; it frightens and unsettles on a multitude of levels, including suspense, gore and repressed fear. While at some points the movie’s effects get in its own way (certain CGI monsters provoke more confusion than fright) and some of the main characters feel slightly underdeveloped, it's a thrilling entry in the genre and one of the better King adaptations. If clowns give you nightmares, though, be prepared for some sleepless nights. —Garrett Schaffel

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