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Afternoon Delight, Passion, Our Nixon: Vulture’s Labor Day Weekend Movie Roundup

Vulture's movie critics, David Edelstein and Bilge Ebiri, want to make sure you're well advised on how to spend your last summer weekend at the cinema. Here are reviews of three new movies and their takes on those that have been out for several weeks.

Opening This Weekend

Afternoon Delight
It doesn’t quite jell, but Jill Soloway’s increasingly sober comedy about a rich Silver Lake housewife, Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), who fixates on a stripper named McKenna (Juno Temple) is deliciously suggestive. Rachel’s love life with her husband has cooled and she might well be sexually attracted to the soft-boned little dancer and sex worker, who eventually moves in and becomes a truly bizarre nanny, padding around the house in shortie dresses and rushing off for out-calls. The rubber-faced Hahn is a gifted comic actress and a surprisingly effective dramatic one, while Temple’s monotonic twitter keeps the girl a tantalizing enigma. —David Edelstein

Our Nixon
There has never been an uninteresting angle on Richard Nixon — the man was too twisted — but Penny Lane’s documentary sees him from several especially compelling new vantages. After his election, three of Nixon’s most loyal (and later infamous) associates H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin set out to film daily life in the White House, and their silent home-movie cameras show a president who is never, ever at home in his own body, let alone the presidency he’s paranoid about losing from the get-go. The home movies end as Watergate begins, so the premise goes out the window halfway through. But there’s so much period footage and interviews — and so much in Nixon’s Oval Office tapes to fill up the soundtrack — that you might find yourself endlessly thanking the gods of comedy (and grateful our checks and balances kept this lunatic’s power from being absolute). —David Edelstein

Passion
Entrancing and narcotizing in about equal measure. Brian De Palma remakes Alain Corneau’s Crime d’amour as an erotic ballet with the camera as principal dancer. It glides around the sleek modern offices and living spaces of Christine (Rachel McAdams), a white-blonde, sugar-and-steel advertising executive who takes credit for an ingenious idea by her underling, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace). De Palma’s use of his cherished motifs — masks, doppelgängers, hidden cameras — is so abstract that little in the film feels especially urgent (or passionate). But the centerpiece is a marvel: a sliding-split-screen cinematic pas-de-deux in which a stark production of Afternoon of the Faun dances side-by-side with the stalking and murder of one of the film’s main characters. Bravo! Also available On Demand and at Amazon and iTunes. —David Edelstein

… and in Theaters Now

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
David Lowery’s flowery attempt to put a new spin on the lovers-on-the-run tale — with nods to Badlands, Thieves Like Us, and others — is beautifully shot and admirably earnest. But it’s undone by arty attempts at elliptical storytelling that undercut whatever emotional investment we might have in the characters. Rooney Mara is great, though, as a young mother with a criminal past and a whole lot of conflicted feelings. (Casey Affleck is her mewling lover.) —Bilge Ebiri

The Grandmaster
Wong Kar-wai’s kung fu movie, ostensibly a biopic of the Wing Chun master (Tony Leung) who would one day train Bruce Lee, is, visually, a study of bodies flying through the air, torrents of exquisitely lit rain, and the incense-filled interiors of a bygone era. The epic story takes a large swath of twentieth-century Chinese history and turns it into one of Wong’s characteristic meditations on romantic yearning and loss. It’s been recut for U.S. release, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it on a big screen. —Bilge Ebiri

In a World…
An exceedingly likable comedy, written and directed by and starring the new comedy "It" girl (and New York cover model) Lake Bell. She plays a voice-over artist who’s competing with her father (Fred Melamed) to land a coveted gig on a new Hunger Games–like film series. But can women be the “voice of God” that sells movies? Melamed’s readings are too broad — they push the film into sitcom territory when it ought to seem casually observed. But the rest is on-pitch, especially Bell’s scenes with the excellent Michaela Watkins as her sister and Demetri Martin as a co-worker with a crush. —David Edelstein

 Jobs
Ashton Kutcher does a decent Steve Jobs impersonation. But it’s to little end in this biopic that, for all its attempts to show the visionary late Apple co-founder being occasionally terrible to his colleagues, family, and competitors, is still just an overbaked hagiography — the feature-length equivalent of a slow-clap. —Bilge Ebiri

Kick-Ass 2
The bumbling teenage wannabe superhero Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his demonstrably more physically gifted partner (don’t call her a sidekick) Hit Girl (Chloë Grace-Moretz) are back in this sequel that ups the violence and the depravity, but can’t quite match the original’s intensity and visual flair. As a result, its provocations feel calculated, almost corporate. Jim Carrey is also in there somewhere. —Bilge Ebiri

Lee Daniels’s The Butler
Crudely powerful. You can object to the bludgeoning direction and script that’s a series of signposts, but not the illuminating premise. An elderly black man, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), sits in the White House and rethinks his life and its two separate faces, the fully engaged one he shows to his own people, the other blankly subservient: the more masterly he is, the more impotent. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and LBJ grapple with civil rights and Cecil holds his tongue — while his activist son (Daniel Oyelowo) is beaten to a pulp. Daniels works in elegiac Oscar-bait mode and the puttyish makeup on the white actors playing presidents (Robin Williams, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber) is laughable. But the actors — among them Oprah Winfrey — stay raw and true. —David Edelstein

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
A teenager gets introduced to the magic world of demonhunters in this totally generic variation on the Twilight/Harry Potter YA nexus, complete with complicated love triangles and in-one-ear-out-the-other mythology. This one at least is fast, and occasionally funny, but that can’t save it from feeling like another uninspired rehash —Bilge Ebiri

Paranoia
A corporate thriller in which young, ambitious hotshot Liam Hemsworth gets roped into helping his evil boss Gary Oldman spy on competitor Harrison Ford. A throwback to slick genre fare like The Firm and The Devil’s Advocate, this suffers from Hemsworth’s almost complete lack of charisma. Not as terrible as everyone says — Oldman and Ford are in fine form — but still not very good. —Bilge Ebiri

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters
The teenage demigods are back! You know, the ones from … that movie. The one with the … wait, was it Zeus? Poseidon? No, not Clash of the Titans, the other one. No, not Immortals. This one’s more modern. No, not Harry Potter! The kids are older in this one. No, not Twilight. Wait, was it Twilight? Sigh. —Bilge Ebiri

Planes
A totally regurgitative Disney animated flick in which a lowly cropduster competes in a big-time around-the-world race against an international cast of spruced-up planes. With tie-ins to Pixar’s Cars series, this is more an attempt at corporate synergy (it was made by the folks who make Disney’s straight-to-video sequels) than an effort to tell a real story. But kids will eat it up, because planes. —Bilge Ebiri

Prince Avalanche
Two men (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) spend their days fixing up a road that was destroyed by a massive forest fire in David Gordon Green’s ambling, low-key comedy, which goes from feeling like a naturalistic character study to something infinitely more surreal and symbolic. Perplexing, yet surprisingly powerful. —Bilge Ebiri

Short Term 12
A triumph of humanist filmmaking. Brie Larson (in a breakout performance) plays Grace, a counselor at a supposedly short-term resident foster facility for at-risk kids. But many of her charges stay years. And Grace herself profoundly is damaged. Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton has a clear design: Grace and her lover and colleague Mason will have a breakthrough with a kid and we’ll think, That’s it, he or she is over the hump. Then the kid will have another outburst — a tantrum or a bout of self-cutting — and the process will begin again. We don’t see the abusers — only the consequences. Two of the young actors, Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Deaver, are especially remarkable. —David Edelstein

2 Guns
A DEA agent (Denzel Washington) and a Navy Intel man (Mark Wahlberg), both undercover, wind up double-crossing each other in a drug bust gone wrong. But when they themselves are betrayed by others, and the CIA gets on their tail, it’s the start of a beautiful friendship, in this fast, fun, funny, ridiculous action flick — the guy-iest of this summer’s guy movies. —Bilge Ebiri

We’re the Millers
A few funny bits and a hefty helping of raunch can’t really save this comedy about a drug smuggler (Jason Sudeikis) who enlists a stripper (Jennifer Aniston), a dork (Will Poulter), and a runaway (Emma Roberts) to pose as his family on a trip to Mexico. Neither Sudeikis nor Aniston have the requisite edge to pull off their parts, leaving the supporting cast, in particular Ed Helms, to try to liven things up. —Bilge Ebiri

The World’s End
Alcoholism is a howl in the sci-fi action comedy The World’s End, the third uproarious collaboration of director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost following the zombie flick Shaun of the Dead and buddy-cop blowout Hot Fuzz. The first half-hour distills (and tops) every dumb American bromance movie, the rest takes off into the sci-fi stratosphere in Wright’s syncopated, percussive, hyperbolic style. The thing to remember is that Wright isn’t satirizing dumb genre conventions. He’s using dumb genre conventions to satirize us — our inability to grow up, over-reliance on drugs, and pod-person conformity. By "ours," I mean "mine," but maybe yours, too. I wouldn’t know. —David Edelstein

You’re Next
Sadistic, stupid, and inept, this indie horror film about an anniversary celebration that turns into a gorefest thinks it’s turning horror clichés inside out. In reality, it’s an ill-conceived hodgepodge of tones — goofy-funny one minute, “realistic” the next — that never manages to create the necessary atmosphere for us to suspend our disbelief and accept some of its more far-fetched conceits. —Bilge Ebiri

Photo: The Film Arcade