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Reviews: Supernatural thriller ‘Stray,’ dystopian ‘Level 16,’ Jean-Claude Van Damme and more

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Karen Fukuhara, left, and Christine Woods in the movie “Stray.”
(Screen Media)

‘Stray’

Anchored by a compelling performance by Christine Woods as Murphy, a haunted cop (is there any other kind?) investigating a pair of supernatural-oriented murders, “Stray” falters in the narrative department but looks good and holds interest.

When a woman named Kyoko (Saki Miata) is found seemingly charred to death in an abandoned warehouse, Murphy, recently returned to the force and reunited with ex-husband — now boss — Jake (Ross Partridge), finds herself on an unprecedented trail of discovery involving a mystical power with ancient roots.

It turns out that Kyoko and her family — ill-fated mother, Saeko (Takayo Fischer); teenage daughter, Nori (Karen Fukuhara); estranged, older son, Jin (Japanese pop star Miyavi) — all have said power, an emotions-based super-ability (just go with it), that can be used for good or bad ends.

Although Murphy relies on Nori’s input and guidance, the film, directed by Joe Sill from a script by J.D. Dillard and Alex Theurer (story by all three), doesn’t bind them together deeply enough to create a sufficiently meaningful central relationship. The Murphy-Jake dynamic is far more interesting, as are the procedural aspects, which outweigh the more vaguely drawn otherworldly elements.

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Still, Sill, with a strong assist from cinematographer Greg Cotten, presents a vivid, butterscotch-coated, neo-noir world of shadowy offices, apartments and diners that deftly elevates the L.A.-shot film and makes the first-time feature helmer a talent to watch.

— Gary Goldstein

“Stray”

Not rated

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Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes

Playing: Starts March 1, Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills; also on VOD

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‘Level 16’

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Katie Douglas in the movie “Level 16.”
(Dark Sky Films)

The spectre of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is strong in “Level 16,” an indie gloomburger from Canadian writer/director Danishka Esterhazy that introduces an antiseptic, dimly lit, windowless secret “academy” for young girls indoctrinated for years on end in obedience, cleanliness and supposedly “feminine” virtues, with the promised hope of someday being adopted by an elite family.

Even the tiniest exposure to dystopian fiction or a few episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” however, will tell you that these isolated captives — overseen by Russian-speaking guards and a severely dolled-up taskmaster named Miss Brixil (Sara Canning) — aren’t being groomed for sunshine and freedom, and that sharply observant teenage pals Sophia (Celina Martin) and Vivien (Katie Douglas) will need to figure things out quickly before their fate is sealed.

As horror metaphors go for society’s treatment of burgeoning womanhood, it’s all fairly obvious, and regrettably heavy on the mannered acting too often associated with tales of surreal oppression. That leaves a lopsided burden on suspense mechanics to maintain one’s interest. There, at least, Esterhazy shows some visual confidence in establishing a no-false-moves claustrophobia from this sterile, monochromatic environment, while nurturing a solid message of strength-in-solidarity when Sophia and Vivien team up. But as it sputters toward its curtain-exposing conclusion, “Level 16” stays disappointingly thin, both as a dark-future cautionary saga and a genre exercise.

—Robert Abele

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“Level 16”

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall; also on VOD

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‘Beers of Joy’

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Ryan Daley in the documentary “Beers of Joy.”
(Gravitas Ventures)

Overlapping with the content of other suds-themed documentaries that have preceded it, “Beers of Joy,” profiling a quartet of enthusiastic ale aficionados, is tediously tapped out long before it hits the all-too-apparent two-hour mark.

As with last year’s “Brewmaster,” the glossy film is structured around the prestigious Master Cicerone exam, presided over by Ray Daniels, which finds Joe Vogelbacher, a brewing company CEO, and Ryan Daley, an educator at a business unit of Anheuser-Busch (one of the film’s producers), vying for the beer equivalent of wine’s Master Sommelier certification.

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While the two earnest young men feverishly cram for their upcoming exam, internationally acclaimed brewmaster Tonya Cornett heads farther afield, traveling on a beer-making pilgrimage to Bavaria; while home brewer and self-taught chef Sean Z. Paxton favors early Americana, participating in old school log cabin cooking and brewing reenactments.

Filling out the less-than-effervescent proceedings with a lineup of predominantly male, wholly Caucasian brewers, historians and educators, co-directors and self-professed beer enthusiasts David Swift and Scott Owen serve up plenty of Instagram-worthy glamour shots but bring little that’s fresh or uniquely crafted to the table.

Ultimately coming across more like a bloated, corporate infomercial, “Beers of Joy” will undoubtedly leave only those who know their ABV (Alcohol by Volume) from their IBU (International Bittering Units) thirsty for more.

— Michael Rechtshaffen

“Beers of Joy”

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Playing: AMC Citywalk, Universal City; also on VOD

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‘The Iron Orchard’

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Jeff Gibbs, left, and Lane Garrison in the movie “The Iron Orchard.”
(Mathieu Plainfossé / Santa Rita Film Co.)

Based on Tom Pendleton’s out-of-print novel, “The Iron Orchard” wants to be a decades-spanning epic about an oilman’s rise and fall, but it has all the draw of a dull school reading assignment. In 1930s Texas, Jim McNeely (Lane Garrison) begins his career laying oil pipe, but he works his way toward becoming a wildcatter, plumbing the Lone Star State soil for black gold.

Though there are some well-framed shots from cinematographer Mathieu Plainfossé, the script from Gerry De Leon and director Ty Roberts is lifeless, covered in a layer of dust that the cast can’t rouse it from. Garrison’s McNeely damns the overlong film; he’s neither a good man nor a good character, someone that we can’t care about or care to watch.

— Kimber Myers

“The Iron Orchard”

Rating: R, for language and some sexual content

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Playing: Starts MArch 1, Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood

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‘Pretty Broken’

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Adam Chambers and Jillian Clare in the movie “Pretty Broken.”
(Leonian Pictures)

There are grief dramas, and there are wacky family comedies, and there are films about charming screw-ups, but the degree of difficulty for one film to pull off all three at once is incredibly high. The disjointed “Pretty Broken,” written by Jill Remesnyder and directed by Brett Eichenberger, doesn’t clear the bar.

Our hapless heroine, Lindsey Lou (Jillian Clare) is in the midst of a divorce when her geologist father (Peter Holden) goes missing on Mt. Everest. In a trauma tailspin, she decides she’s going to find her dad, which means she needs money to fund her misguided Himalayan adventure, leading her to a job on a used car lot working for her childhood TV crush Jerry Carlyle, aka “Troy Thunderbolt” (Tyler Christopher), and a subsequent love triangle with her own mother (Stacy Edwards). Also, her teen brother is a burgeoning psychic.

“Pretty Broken” coasts hard on the assumed likability of Lindsey, who asks Siri how to plan a trip to Mt. Everest, won’t sign her divorce papers, and requires a child’s bank manual to manage her money. The film rather mistakenly presumes that the audience will have sympathy for the deeply unlikable and spitefully bratty Lindsey, whose brittle charisma is not enough to connect these random events and outlandish, yet unfunny situations. A budding romance with mountain store clerk Scott (Adam Chambers) is the film’s only bright spot, though even that story is woefully distracted by the hijinks and drama elsewhere.

—Katie Walsh

“Pretty Broken”

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

Playing: Starts March 1, Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood

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‘Smaller and Smaller Circles’

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Sid Lucero, left, and Nonie Buencamino in the movie “Smaller and Smaller Circles.”
(Uncork’d Entertainment)

Adding to the chorus of narratives addressing abuses covered up by the Catholic Church, Raya Martin’s well intentioned if unremarkable “Smaller and Smaller Circles” is adapted from the novel of the same name by author F.H. Batacan — where two priests aid law enforcement in their search for a ritualistic serial murderer.

Headed by Father Gus Saenz (Nonie Buencamino), also a forensic anthropologist, the overwrought procedural intertwines his efforts to repel the impunity granted to pedophiles within the church, with the gruesome discovery of the mutilated bodies of young boys from a poverty-stricken neighborhood. Though the parallels the plot draws serve as commentary on religion’s unchecked influence, they fall short of being clearly resonant.

The slickly photographed crime thriller is clumsily told, as it concentrates its efforts on a wide array of inconsequential characters, confusing voiceover narration, and additional underlying themes (e.g. corruption) in an attempt to hide the killer’s identity. It succeeds at keeping one guessing, but not particularly engaged.

Despite “Smaller and Smaller Circles” being visually proficient, stagy performances fueled by formulaic dialogue do little to steer the film’s narrative. Saenz’s understanding of faith in the face of barbarity is hinted at but never unspooled at length. Yet, considering the prominence of Catholicism in the Philippines, Martin’s issue-driven feature deserves some credit for reiterating that “time and forgetfulness are the allies of abusers.”

— Carlos Aguilar

“Smaller and Smaller Circles”

In English and Filipino with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Playing: Starts March 1, Laemmle Glendale; available March 19 on VOD

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‘Something’

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Michael Gazin and Jane Rowen in the film “Something.”
(Subspin)

As bland as its title, “Something” is a horror film with few scares and a mystery without answers. A new mother and father (Jane Rowen and Michael Gazin) live in fear of waking their baby, existing with little sleep and lots of stress. Soon they begin to see a mysterious menacing figure in a mask in their home, but they’re unsure whether it’s really there or just in their heads.

There’s a solid premise somewhere in “Something,” and it should be the perfect type of single-location film that benefits from the isolation and anxieties of being a new parent. But while first-time writer-director Stephen Portland does offer some unsettling images, this is ultimately a frustrating film that doesn’t adhere to its own logic.

— Kimber Myers

“Something”

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

Playing: Starts March 1, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; available March 5 on VOD

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‘We Die Young’

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Jean-Claude Van Damme in the movie “We Die Young.”
(Lionsgate)

Fear of the international crime gang MS-13 drives “We Die Young,” which stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as Daniel, a PTSD-stricken Marine veteran who lives in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Washington, D.C. He comes to the aid of Lucas (Elijah Rodriguez), a 14-year-old drug runner who wants out of the gang after they recruit his younger brother, Miguel (Nicholas Sean Johnny).

Director Lior Geller brings an aggressive energy and jittery style to this action movie, but his sketch of a script feels like an all-caps reactive tweet to some news story about MS-13, a real problem in the D.C. area. Despite getting top billing, Van Damme doesn’t have a ton to do, but fans should be glad to see him back in action.

— Kimber Myers

“We Die Young”

Rated: R, for violence, language and some drug material

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Starts March 1, AMC CityWalk 19, Universal City; also on VOD

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