** When a political drama that screams "Oscars!" ends up as a mid-January release, it's tempting to anticipate defects. But really, the only problem with this real-life death penalty drama from Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle, Short Term 12) is that it's quietly average. Michael B. Jordan stars as civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, and Jamie Foxx plays a wrongly convicted death row inmate in rural Alabama. On the one hand, the unsensational approach of Just Mercy is noble: There's more silence than grandstanding, and the film is direct and unsparing about the racial biases that plague the American judicial system. But all of that responsibility is worn like a stiff shirt. Jordan, one of the most charismatic actors alive, plays his heroism so somberly as to be almost dull. And the script lacks artistic insight on its chosen issue. Instead, Just Mercy is a noble word salad of how truth is justice and justice is truth, and don't forget hope. The best you can say for this starchy message movie is that it successfully dramatizes how holding onto the death penalty as some wishful hypothetical for punishing the demonic leads all too swiftly and barbarically to scapegoating instead. PG-13. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Dine-In Progress Ridge 13, AMC Vancouver Mall 23, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Regal Bridgeport Village ScreenX & IMAX, Cascade, Cinema 99, City Center, Division, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Lloyd, Sherwood, Tigard.
*** Troop Zero doesn't reinvent the "misfits on a mission" genre: It owes its inspiration to everything from Little Miss Sunshine to Little Giants to The Dirty Dozen. Rather, it's the sheer specificity of Beasts of the Southern Wild co-writer Lucy Alibar's script that lends this Amazon Studios family comedy its charm. In 1977 rural Georgia, an alien-obsessed girl named Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace) forms her own "Birdie" scout troop to compete for a NASA-sponsored prize, and it doesn't get any less distinct from there. Christmas spends her endless summer days winning over a bully named Hell-No, and dutifully trying to open Budweisers for her Atticus Finch-wannabe father (Jim Gaffigan) with her teeth. The movie's best feature, though, is a vastly overqualified Viola Davis playing troop leader Miss Rayleen. Davis carries the movie by treating the children (both as characters and actors) like adults, cherishing them as sounding boards for self-reflection. "I wish I had you all around when I was little and dumb and sweet," she wistfully confesses to her wide-eyed scouts. While a troop rivalry with overly prim Allison Janney is probably its most contrived feature, Troop Zero balances a convincing little ode to the losers who must first admit to themselves they deserve a win. PG. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Amazon Prime Video.
* In an all-time weird bit of Hollywood trivia, the year 1989 yielded four separate movies about deep-sea divers encountering alien life (The Abyss being the best and best known). This is to say, the similar plot of Underwater feels indebted to a different era. And in some ways, it literally is. This Kristen Stewart vehicle was filmed almost three years ago as a midsized Fox genre play now unceremoniously dumped into the January doldrums by Disney. Unfortunately, it doesn't deserve much better. While Stewart plays her role of traumatized engineering expert with tact and sobriety, the rest of the movie is a dour game of "pick off the supporting cast," which includes Vincent Cassel and T.J. Miller in a part filmed before his sexual assault allegation came to light in 2017. As the Mariana Trench divers succumb to monsters and air pressure alike, Underwater resists having any fun with its high-stakes stock premise. The jump scares are monotonous, the patter doesn't pop, and even the exploitative "rule" about stripping down to one's underwear to fit into scuba pants doesn't wink at the audience. Ultimately, Underwater is a still-not-quick-enough 90 minutes, during which you'll wonder how they spent $80 million to make water look so gray. PG-13. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Dine-In Progress Ridge 13, Mill Plain 8, Vancouver Mall 23, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Cornelius, Eastport, Oak Grove, Bridgeport, Cascade, Cinema 99, City Center, Division, Evergreen Parkway, Lloyd, Pioneer Place, Sherwood, Tigard, Vancouver Plaza, Scappoose.