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Small(er) Movie Roundup, ‘Gone Girl’–Free Edition

Smaller movie roundup: ‘Men, Women & Children,’ ‘Annabelle,’ ‘The Two Faces of January,’ and ‘Pride.’

Men, Women & Children, directed by Jason Reitman

This is one of the worst movies of the year — maybe the worst. It’s set amid a group of families connected by an Austin, Texas, high school. The parents are worried about the kids’ lives on the Internet, but the movie argues that digital technology is a greater danger in adult hands. It’s to social media what Crash is to racism: a movie about The Way We Live that never leaves its maker’s living room.

The uptight mother Jennifer Garner plays is such a prison warden that her daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) has to swap out her SIM card to have any social life. She’s seeing the guy (Ansel Elgort, from The Fault in Our Stars) who just quit the football team so he can log more hours on his multiplayer game. That decision mystifies his ex-jock father (Dean Norris), who will pick the exact wrong moment to air his concerns. Meanwhile, the nice mom Judy Greer plays isn’t troubled by the porny site she built to advance the burgeoning celebrity career of her vampy-virginal cheerleading daughter (Olivia Crocicchia). The cheerleader is trying to sleep with the porn-addicted son (Travis Tope) of Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt, who’ve turned to sex sites to embark on secret extramarital adventures. There’s more, including a subplot involving a romantically obsessed girl who spends time in an eating-disorder chat room.

Lest we fail to find these people and this world interesting, lest we forget that humanity stands at some crossroads, lest we miss the irony of the simultaneous connectivity and disconnection, the movie pulls way out to space, for a shot of Earth and some narration meant to give the end of civilization proper perspective. But it isn’t just any narration. It’s narration that says “classy,” that says — with a wink, of course — “Americans are fools,” that says, “Hey, fussy voice-over worked for Todd Field’s vaguely similar Little Children.” Emma Thompson is the narrator. Could Reitman really have thought it would give his movie humor and profundity to use judgy British diction to guide us through a scene in which Sandler’s character hunts for a suitable computer to serve as a masturbation aid? That’s what Crash is missing: Mary Poppins rolling her eyes.

Reitman builds to a climax that brings the overlapping plots to a head, and the obviousness of the coincidences and shallowness of the conclusions are shocking. Even with Thompson’s narration, this isn’t satire or farce or even half-enlightened commentary. It’s a set of phony ironies. There are certainly demonstrable pitfalls in social media and gaming, but this movie makes them generically generational.

The big themes aren’t all that embarrass Reitman, who, with Erin Cressida Wilson, adapted the novelist Chad Kultgen’s pretentious reach for depth. It’s the poor execution. The respective trysts, for instance, of Sandler and his call girl (Shane Lynch) and DeWitt and her lover (Dennis Haysbert) are anti-sensual. It’s like watching people pretend to like food they find disgusting.

You feel for Reitman in a way you don’t for Paul Haggis, who wrote and directed Crash. Haggis works with nauseating certitude. Reitman just seems lost. Between this and Labor Day, one of last year’s most risible movies, it’s as if Reitman were trying to tell us something — about himself, if not us — but lacks the taste or talent to say it. He has adult ideas but isn’t enough of an adult to do much with them. The scenes that work in Men, Women & Children all involve Elgort, who just has a way with suffering that gets to you. He’s Natalie Wood in Tim Robbins’s body. Elgort’s reluctant jock feels like an unconscious stand-in for Reitman, a son so desperate to be unlike his (famous) father that it’s killing him. Reitman might not have to get over it. But his movies do.

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Annabelle, directed by John R. Leonetti

What about this movie is supposed to scare us? The toddler-size doll, with the big, bloodshot eyes, on the movie’s billboards and previews? The doll’s refusal to remain in the trash once a pregnant Southern California housewife (Annabelle Wallis) instructs her husband (Ward Horton) to de-doll the baby’s room, after a couple from a Manson Family–esque Satanic cult breaks into their home and stabs the expectant mother in the stomach? Is it the inanimate objects — a sewing machine, an electric stove, bedroom doors — that come randomly to life? Is it that the pregnant woman is named Mia Gordon and her husband is John, and these are all names of actors from Rosemary’s Baby? Is it that after Mia gives birth — it’s a girl, a badly acted one, too! — Alfre Woodard shamelessly shows up to protect its soul from whatever is going on with the doll, the same way Viola Davis raised babies in The Help?

This is supposed to be a prequel to James Wan’s The Conjuring, last summer’s sleeper hit. After only 20 minutes, the good staging and cinematography that distinguished that movie peter out here (Wan was just a producer on Annabelle). There are some smart lighting choices around a horned demon who hides in the dark. But what’s left, ultimately, are Wallis’s meager performance and scenes suggesting horror that have nothing to do with anything: a crayon rolling into a hallway; people and objects being yanked about; a little ghostly child who, as she charges toward Mia, becomes a full-grown woman. The writing here isn’t on the wall. It’s literally on the ceiling.

The ton of money this movie made over the weekend suggests that we fell for the ads, which lean hard on that doll. Some of us miss the Chucky doll from Child’s Play, a killer who kills with his hands. Horror is still under the spell of Japanese and Korean nightmares and the Wayans’s Scary Movie parodies. It’s gotten passive-aggressive and hilariously, lazily vague. The sewing machine in Annabelle gets up to more than that doll does. At one point, the doll levitates from the floor and the shot lasts long enough to see that somebody evil is lifting it up very slowly. It’s a new low for fright. Why pay for this? We can do that trick at home.

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The Two Faces of January, directed by Hossein Amini

How much is the brim of a hat supposed to do? Not long before the end of this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 50-year-old novel, Oscar Isaac tries to avoid capture at a Turkish train station by lowering his head beneath a trilby and walking this way and that. It’s like using an umbrella to obscure a jet. But it seems to work — for Isaac’s expat scam-artist-poet-tour-guide (it’s 1962) and almost for the movie. It’s not much (neither was the book, particularly by Highsmith’s standards), but Amini gives it some style and some glamour and a whiff of menace.

This is another of Highsmith’s poison travelogues. The poet, Rydal Keener (Isaac), slips into the life of Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen), an American con artist vacationing in Athens with his wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst). He can’t slip out. Rydal is attracted, it would initially seem, to both MacFarlands. He happens upon Chester disposing of a body and agrees to whisk the couple farther east, to Crete and Istanbul. Colette doesn’t know about the body and carries on with cautious contentment (she’s not blind about Chester). The tangle among the three of them turns into a knot — though Amini could have made it tighter.

It’s not exactly credibility you’re after with a movie like this, it’s suffocation. At her best — in Strangers on a Train, Deep Water, and the Tom Ripley books — Highsmith gives you envy, misanthropy, and those last gasps of moral air. Amini’s approach is mostly air, blown in from the sea. What the movie lacks in suspense, it could make up for with erotic tension. That’s missing, too. Whatever draws Rydal to Chester evaporates after the first handful of scenes. Rydal says Chester reminds him of his father, but that’s not what I saw pass between them on the street. Amini makes Colette and her conscience the hinge between the two men.

Dunst needs more to do, but she’s now the sort of actor who can take a bite out of an underwritten part. Isaac has Al Pacino’s physical slightness. He runs cooler than Pacino, but he sits the way Pacino does in The Godfather, like a jacket that’s been folded over a chair. Mortensen is the reason to see the movie. His short haircut goes wavy in the heat. There’s a cigarette in his mouth for most of the movie and a sour desperation that comes over him as the plot winds down. With Mortensen, a hat brim would make the right shadows. Only when the camera’s on him do you believe the movie’s set in 1962 — and that’s because he seems as if he’s on the lam from the film noirs of 20 years before.

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Pride, directed by Matthew Warchus

Margaret Thatcher was great for a class of little British we-think-we-can movies. She steps on the people’s throat, and the people form a soul band (The Commitments), start a business (My Beautiful Laundrette), strip (The Full Monty), or become Ken Loach or Derek Jarman. Pride is set during the miners’ strike of 1984 and 1985, and it’s as idiosyncratic in its focus as 2000’s Billy Elliot (Thatcher stepped, Billy danced). It’s a fictionalized version of the true story of the London gay-and-lesbian outfit that came out in support of the miners and, on their behalf, staged a concert headlined by Bronski Beat and Jimmy Somerville. The movie is like a burst piñata. You know what’s inside, but sugar is sugar. And the sugar here is very good.

Initially, the group — led by an Irishman named Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) — is looking for a cause to which it can affix its agenda. The miners’ plight seems right. But the movie releases that kind of opportunism almost immediately and narrows its focus on a miners club in Onllwyn in South Wales whose membership is square but socially heart shaped. The staff of the club is played by radiant, exuberant actors like Paddy Considine, Jessica Gunning, Nia Gwynne, a taciturn yet forceful Bill Nighy, and Imelda Staunton, in her tough-old-broad mode.

The town rejects “the gays,” as Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners is called. For the gays, the timing is less than ideal. Ashton and his friends bear the brunt of resentment from activists who think LGSM is insane not to cast its last lot with the fight against AIDS. But Ashton feels an affinity for and a moral duty toward the suppressed miners, as all the male members of LGSM do. (Faye Marsay is terrific as the group’s first lesbian.)

There’s only one place for a movie about homophobia and class unrest to go: a pride parade. But before the movie gets there, forsaken sons return to and walk out on their mothers, lessons are learned and tears are shed — mine included. Mostly, they’re tears of happiness. Warchus is a theater director who hasn’t directed a film in 15 years but knows where the camera ought to be at all times — on the holding of hands and on the grinning and crying. A movie like this — well written (by Stephen Beresford) but thematically familiar — comes down to choices and tone. Warchus opts — as Stephen Daldry did with Billy Elliot — to make a kind of vibrantly acted musical, one that doesn’t stint on the politics but makes them digestible, one that stages the dance sequences in the town hall as if everyone’s lives depended on their energy.

Dominic West plays LGSM’s eldest (by about 20 years) and most dramatically scarfed member, an actor named Jonathan Blake. He’s mocked for basically being a Golden Girl. (Imagine a dude pretending to be Ian McKellen.) But during a long sequence, in which the soundtrack segues from Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” to Shirley & Company’s “Shame Shame Shame,” West moves from the rear of the ensemble to the focal point of the miners hall, spinning and sweating among the Welsh, loosening up the more uptight among them like a political muscle relaxer. West throws his body into the song, flapping his arms and thrusting his neck. You don’t know whether to smile or truss him.

Warchus choreographs the sequence so it uses most of the song and the best of West. He follows West around the hall, cutting away to the facial and bodily reactions of the other characters. It’s so corny. It’s also perfectly done. The movies don’t have musicals anymore. The culture barely has music videos the way it once did. Warchus really knows how to stage musical theater for the movies. He makes you want to dance. More amazing, however, is that he also makes you want to vote.