BLACK SEA. Director Kevin Macdonald, known best for The Last King of Scotland (2006) and more recently for the documentary Marley (2012), switches here to action-thriller-undersea-heist mode, with some socio-economic commentary thrown in for good measure. The result is a well-acted, intermittently tense muddle with a narrative incapable of supporting its own substantial weight.
After being unceremoniously laid off by the marine salvage conglomerate that has employed him for 11 years, submarine captain Robinson (Jude Law, with Scottish accent) is left with a paltry severance check and an appointment at the jobs office. His wife and son have defected to some rich guy because of the prolonged underwater absences of his now-dead career. So when a likewise discharged friend informs him of some valuables on the floor of the Black Sea, Robinson is all ears. Rumor has it that in 1941, facing economic collapse, Hitler begged a loan from Stalin. The deal was done and a German U-boat was dispatched to the Black Sea, filled with gold bars and sunk on the return trip. It has rested on an accessible ridge for the intervening decades, just waiting for some enterprising pirates to come spirit away the bullion. With the help of the corporate weasel Daniels (Scoot McNairy) and a shadowy investor, Robinson cobbles together a half British, half Russian crew to sail a rusty, diesel-powered Soviet-era sub on the treasure hunt. Tensions, both cultural and interpersonal, begin to mount almost immediately: bad news for such close quarters.
There's an element of mystery story to Black Sea, so I won't spoil the rest of the plot, which thickens precipitously as it moves along. Macdonald maintains tension effectively, although filming interiors in a submarine takes care of atmosphere by default. The main problem is in cultivating personalities for 12 characters in the midst of such a high-concept, high-tension storyline. Most of the Russians are vaguely sinister shades, and the Brits boil down to: the Indispensable Psycho (the great Ben Mendelsohn); the Level Head (Michael Smiley); and the Unfortunate Newbie (Bobby Schofield), whose mere presence causes no end of trouble. Somewhere along the line, Robinson remakes himself as a wild-eyed class warrior, bent on the idea that salvaging this gold will let Us put a thumb in the eye of Them.
By the end, the movie strays from its initial genre path, losing most of its momentum in the process. The idea of interjecting some social commentary is commendable, but that thread, like most of the characters, isn't sufficiently developed to work. R. 114m.
JUPITER ASCENDING. Speaking of things that don't particularly work, here's the latest dazzling dud from the siblings Wachowski. By way of admitting bias, I like Bound (1996) and The Matrix (1999); both are clever, stylish, ambitious approaches to different genre movies. Since then, though, the Wachowskis have repeatedly indulged their penchant for overinflated philosophical nonsense, gigantic digital canvasses and general silliness. Of which this is perhaps the most pointed example.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), the daughter of a Russian woman and a British astronomer who's murdered before her birth, cleans apartments in Chicago. She lives with her mother and her extended family in an inelegantly reinvented Cinderella scenario. Because she really wants to buy an expensive telescope on eBay, she lets a cousin convince her to sell her eggs to a fertility clinic. But in the middle of the procedure, things turn sinister and the doctor, really a disguised ne'er do well, tries to kill her. To the rescue comes Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), an outer-space-wolfman bounty hunter in hover boots. As it would happen, there's a bounty on Jupiter's unwitting head. She is of great value to the three remaining siblings from a dynasty of gene-harvesting weirdoes (like Caine, they're also from outer space). The fate of humanity is at stake, Jupiter and Caine get into a whole "will they or won't they," and Sean Bean plays a commando who worships bees. As primary bad guy Balem Abrasax, Eddie Redmayne may be the most interesting part of the show, playing it like a glam-rock vampire with a vocal cord condition.
In terms of plot and characterization, Jupiter is an abject disaster. It is characterized, though, by impressive leaps of imagination, gorgeous backdrops and spectacular visual effects. Wachowskis! PG13. 127m.
— John J. Bennett
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Girl meets boy with sex dungeon and their passion ignites a marketing frenzy. Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson star in this book-club-bodice-ripper adaptation. R. 125m.
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE. A London ruffian (Taron Egerton) turns bespoke agent in this action/comedy from the director of Kick Ass. With Colin Firth as mentor and Samuel Jackson as a good-time bad guy. R. 128m.
AMERICAN SNIPER. Bradley Cooper plays a Navy SEAL in an intense and moving biopic/war movie that doles out adrenaline and domestic devastation in equal measure. R. 132m.
BLACK OR WHITE. Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer play grandparents battling for custody of a biracial girl. PG13. 121m.
THE IMITATION GAME. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing in a biopic about the mathletes and cryptologists trying to crack the German code in World War II. PG13. 114m.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. An intense and thought-provoking film about an actual legitimate businessman (Oscar Isaac) whose moral code is tested by his mob-daughter wife (Jessica Chastain) and his gangland enemies. R. 125m.
PADDINGTON. A South American bear moves in with a London family and dodges a museum taxidermist in a live-action adaptation of the children's stories. PG13. 128m.
PROJECT ALMANAC. Brainy teens build a time machine. Don't worry, they'll probably make good choices. PG13. 106m.
SEVENTH SON. The Dude and Julianne Moore go D&D in a fantasy adventure with witches, dragons and Ben Barnes as the chosen savior. PG13. 102m.
THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER. He of the square pants leads his undersea crew onto land in this animation and live action mash-up. PG. 93m.
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT. Marion Cotillard plays a woman trying to hang onto her job by convincing her co-workers not to sell her out. In French. PG13. 95m.
WHIPLASH. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons play a young jazz drummer and his bandleader who pushes him to his limits in this breathless intensive on the nature of greatness. R. 107m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill