"Pain & Gain" may supply the R-rated muscle at the box office this weekend but there are plenty of other movies, most in limited release.
3 1/2 stars = Very good
Like the cottonmouth snake that once sank its fangs into Mud (Matthew McConaughey), this Southern adventure latches onto you.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter," "Shotgun Stories") explores what it means to be bitten -- by snakes, by fierce first love, by a fairy-tale idea of romance and by a thirst for revenge. It's part "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," part "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and a showcase for Mr. McConaughey, dirt-stained and with a chipped front tooth, and a pair of newcomers.
Two 14-year-old boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), go in search of a fiberglass boat wedged high in a tree on a Mississippi River island. Turns out they're not the first ones drawn to the flood-related oddity; a mysterious, superstitious man named Mud who is on the run has claimed it as his own.
He enlists the help of the boys in his plan to escape and reunite with a woman he's adored since he was a teen. Although Neckbone is initially wary, Ellis is surprisingly taken by Mud's plight, which comes as he develops his first real crush on a girl and realizes his parents' marriage and their way of life at the river's edge are in jeopardy.
In addition to Mr. McConaughey, the established stars include Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon and an underutilized Michael Shannon as Neckbone's uncle and guardian. But the movie turns on the two teens, and while Tye played the youngest son in "The Tree of Life," Jacob is an Arkansas boy making his acting debut, and they make a winning team.
They provide the necessary dose of innocence, independence (disappearing for hours at a time on a boat or motorcycle), daring and risk-taking that make the story work. Mr. McConaughey has to dig deeper than his shirtless charmer in "Magic Mike" and keep the audience wondering if he's blinded by love, corrupting gullible boys or trying to trade heartbreak for freedom once and for all.
PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking. Opens today at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront, Cinemark Robinson and Galleria in Mt. Lebanon.
2 1/2 stars = Average
As the ratings spike for "The Bible" miniseries proved, the world is hungry for faith-based entertainment.
But TV watchers or moviegoers often want a project with recognizable names, a timeless or inspirational tale and content that merits a G, PG or PG-13 rating, unless you're talking about "Passion of the Christ."
"King's Faith" benefits from the casting of James McDaniel (Lt. Arthur Fancy on "NYPD Blue") and Lynn Whitfield ("The Josephine Baker Story") but stacks the deck too much in terms of the story about a reformed bad boy they welcome into their home.
They are the 18th foster placement for teenager Brendan King (Crawford Wilson), who has a history of misdemeanors, felonies and convictions along with a relationship with God forged when he was locked up. An accidental act of heroism -- Brendan rescues a classmate, Natalie, from a burning car -- changes his life, for better and worse.
"You being there was no accident. God has a plan. I hope you believe that," Mike (Mr. McDaniel), the world's most patient and understanding teacher or parent, tells Brendan. But news accounts of the accident lead his old gang pals to him and that means trouble.
If that were not story enough, the foster parents are grieving the loss of their son, a cop friend is suspicious of Brendan and homecoming queen Natalie has a predictable secret gnawing at her.
The movie, filmed in Rochester, N.Y., by director and co-writer Nicholas DiBella, suffers from a simplicity in how it approaches or resolves problems. However, it provides no easy answer for the death of the couple's only child and stands firm in its religious beliefs about healing, forgiveness and an 18th chance to finally get family right.
PG-13 for violence, some drug content and thematic elements. Opens at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront.moviereviews