Silver Screen: The Score Card, August 1, 2013 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
Before Midnight (R, ****1/2): The best movie of the summer is a sequel, but there are no superheroes or Avengers involved. Writer/director Richard Linklater collaborates with his two talented leads (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) for the third installment in his introspective series about the realities of romantic love. In the first movie they met cute during a European vacation, then reunited nearly a decade later after he wrote a book about their liaison. Now another eight years down the road, Jesse and Celine are living together with twin daughters, but a long fight one fateful night in a hotel room in Greece calls into question the foundation of their union. The individual lines of dialogue have never been better, and the conversation is just as heady and compelling as ever. The movies' sensibilities are growing and maturing along with Linklater and his performers, and each new chapter adds layers of richness to the preceding installments while posing new questions, perhaps the most salient of which is: When can we see another one?
The Conjuring (PG-13, ***1/2): Director James Wan (Saw, Insidious) has never developed a distinctive style of his own, but he's excellent at taking moves from other people's playbooks. Here we get a little Shirley Jackson, a little Blair Witch, a little Stanley Kubrick, and a lot of Paranormal Activity. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson costar as husband-and-wife paranormal investigators who attempt to cast a demon out of a haunted house before it possesses one of the owners (Lily Taylor and Ron Livingston). The plot is boilerplate, but the execution is well above average. The first hour is almost unbearably suspenseful, as Wan uses a combination of atmosphere, shadow, and creaking doors with occasional flashes of gory effects to generate some big scares, especially during a harrowing game that involves the family members blindfolding themselves for a game of hide-and-seek. The end devolves into a lot of Exorcist-style hokum that reaffirms the power and glory of the Catholic Church. The clichés will keep it from being even a minor classic, but it’s good for a few summertime screams.
Despicable Me II (PG, ***1/2): The followup to the ho-hum computer-animated comedy about a bad guy (Steve Carell) who goes good after he adopts a trio of little orphan girls is sharper and superior to the original in almost every way. With the characters firmly established, the returning crew of creators and directors delves into them more deeply, and with much success. Carell’s Gru must navigate his youngest daughter’s first crush on a boy while dealing with his own romantic issues with new partner Lucy (Kristen Wiig), who has enlisted him to help catch a secret supervillain who’s gone undercover to hatch a world-domination scheme. It’s fun stuff, with a lot of the best gags provided by the Minions, Gru’s goofy yellow, pill-shaped followers, who’ll get their own spinoff movie next year. Before long the Minions might be as annoying and ubiquitous as former pop-culture aggravations like the Noid or the California Raisins, but at least for now they’re pretty damned funny. In 2D and 3D.
Fruitvale Station (R, ****): The Wire’s Michael B. Jordan gives a stellar performance in this day-in-the-life tale of Oscar Grant III, whose murder at the hands of transit police in Oakland was captured on cell-phone video on New Year’s Day 2009. Echoes of the Trayvon Martin case are inescapable, but first-time writer/director Ryan Coogler avoids making his movie explicitly political. And while we know Grant’s fate thanks to that grainy, haunting cell-phone footage, which Coogler shows during the opening moments of the film, the movie is far more than a countdown to a murder. This slice of urban life is a compelling chronicle of a troubled young man’s struggle to mature into adulthood and leave behind the legacy of his bad decisions. Featuring standout supporting performances from Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer.
Grown Ups II (PG-13, zero stars): This is the least-effective representation yet of Adam Sandler's increasingly tiresome formula. Expect fart jokes, relentless mockery of the overweight and unattractive, cheap cameos from unfunny celebrities, an unlistenably cheesy soundtrack, and an appearance by a music icon from decades past. Of course, that's Sandler's last five movies, but this is the new nadir, an uninspired follow-up to the tepid 2010 family comedy about five old pals reconnecting. Now there are four old pals (Rob Schneider has been decommissioned like an old ship), but David Spade, Kevin James, and poor Chris Rock, far and away the most talented of the bunch, humiliate themselves to no end. The scattershot plot revolves around various bullies, all of whom are either beaten up or won over when Sandler's Sandlerian Sandler character throws a big party. I was rooting for the bullies.
The Heat (R, **1/2): This programmatic buddy-cop comedy would be tolerable but perfectly forgettable if not for costar (and SIU alumna) Melissa McCarthy, who shines in seemingly any situation. Here she’s a loutish Boston detective paired with an uptight FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) to bring down the world’s most generic drug ring. A great cast of supporting players, including Jane Curtin, Bill Burr, Tom Wilson, and Southern Illinois’s exceptional homegrown talent Ben Falcone, help compensate for the thin plot, while Bullock holds her own without bringing anything distinctive to the table. Cops in these movies always gripe that they work better alone and don’t need a partner. In McCarthy’s case, it’s probably true.
Iron Man III (PG-13, **1/2): Writer/director Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) takes over the Iron Man franchise, which seems particularly lackluster post-Avengers. A bevy of subplots and superfluous supporting players isn’t enough to distract from a stupefyingly simple plot and one-note characters motivated by nothing more than plot necessity. An evil terrorist leader called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who is from a country that is not China, is somehow in cahoots with an evil scientist (Guy Pearce) driven to villainy after being snubbed once a party. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) must contend with this, plus distractions galore from his girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow) and generic best friend (Don Cheadle) in between quips and lackluster action sequences-- although admittedly the final setpiece, featuring an armada of Iron Man suits, is pretty damn cool. Downey’s charisma has been reduced to a cheap special effect in this bland blockbuster. In 2D only.
Man of Steel (PG-13, *): Christopher Nolan produces and Zack Snyder directs this god-awful update of the Superman story, stripping it of brightness and levity and making having superpowers seem like a total drag. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is actually Kal-El, the last son of Krypton, raised by his adopted parents (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner) after his planet was destroyed. The few remaining Kryptonians, led by General Zod (Michael Shannon), come to Earth looking to turn it into New Krypton, and only Kal can stop them. It’s a straightforward story mangled into nonsensicality by a lot of unnecessary diversions and embellishments. The awkwardly structured script keeps the story from ever settling into a rhythm, so the final product turns out to be a relentlessly nonsensical, decontextualized group of action sequences. The performers, including Amy Adams as Lois Lane, do their best, but there’s nothing they can do to redeem this occasionally pretty but consistently moronic, self-serious material. In 2D only.
< The Lone Ranger (PG-13, ***): The confused, overstuffed, but occasionally thrilling reboot casts white guy Johnny Depp as a sage but slapstick version of Native American Tonto and turns the titular masked man (Armie Hammer) into his sidekick. The best moments of the movie play like a buddy-cop flick in a western setting, with the two vigilantes frequently at odds as they attempt to find the outlaw (William Fichtner) who killed the Ranger’s brother and massacred Tonto’s tribe. An overload of subplots and extraneous characters, not to mention a tone that veers between screwball silliness and funereal reverence, keeps the movie from ever gaining significant momentum. But in its better moments, especially the glorious finale, it’s a delightful ride.
< Monsters University (PG, ***): This able sequel to 2001’s Monsters, Inc. is suitable but uninspired, answering the question nobody asked after leaving the theater post-Monsters, Inc.: “I liked Sully and Mike, but I still have a lot of lingering questions about their secondary education.” Turns out Mike (Billy Crystal) was a hardworking student with little chance of success, while Sully (John Goodman) was a legacy student coasting on his monstrous looks and his dad’s name. When they both wash out of the program, they are forced to team up with a fraternity full of castoff losers to win a competition against the preppy jock monsters. It’s familiar stuff, and surprisingly uninspired beyond the colorful, creative monster designs. While it gets the job done, it’s not terribly exciting, and seems to have been born of commercial consideration rather than inspiration. In 2D only.
Pacific Rim (PG-13, ****): This summer’s best big dumb fun movie is plenty big, and not too awfully dumb. Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, and Rinko Kikuchi play pilots who control giant robots designed to fight Kaiju, the Japanese term for giant monsters, which emerge from a portal deep beneath the sea. That’s really all you need to know about this epic-scale sci-fi smackdown, which packs just enough plot to justify its grand computer-generated imagery disasters. Director Guillermo del Toro delivers the goods when he has to, and even if the movie sags a little in the middle, the thrilling opening and long, loud, beautifully rendered climax are more than enough to justify the price of admission. This isn’t an artful exercise like del Toro’s best work, the dark allegory Pan’s Labyrinth, but in a summer full of movies trying and failing to deliver expensive cheap thrills, this is one of the few that actually makes good on its promises. In 2D only.
The Way, Way Back (PG-13, ****): Descendants screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash cowrite and direct their first feature, a familiar but endearing coming-of-age tale about a lonely teenager (Liam James) forced to spend his summer vacation with his mother (Toni Collette) and her douchebag boyfriend (Steve Carell). The kid comes out of his shell thanks to the help of his new mentor Owen (Sam Rockwell), the motormouthed caretaker of a semi-dilapidated water park. Even in its moments of relative mediocrity, this smartly written, well-acted dramedy lays flat the Goliaths of summer. Terrific performances from a rarely funnier Rockwell and a wonderfully loathsome Carell help buoy a simple story that earns both its laughs and its sentimentality.
< White House Down (PG-13, ***): This is a tough one to grade, as it’s a zero-star movie that’s so delightfully stupid it works brilliantly as an action-comedy sendup. The line between spoof-er and spoof-ee is entirely blurred, as though Top Gun and Hot Shots were rolled into one movie. Here a low-level lawman (Channing Tatum) is on a tour of the White House with his impossibly precocious daughter (Joey King) when a coalition of white supremacists and anti-government mercenaries attack. Our hero must team up with the president himself, played by Jamie Foxx, a hilariously idealized version of Obama who’s not only willing to forsake a second term for his liberal principals, he’ll fire a rocket launcher out of the window of a moving limousine if necessary. An array of ace supporting players including Richard Jenkins, Jason Clarke, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods, and Lance Reddick help make this one of the most unintentionally hilarious movies of the year. Director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla, 2012) couldn’t have made such a great wink-and-nudge pseudo-comedy if he tried, but that’s the beauty of this perfectly stupid piece of non-art, which is such a sterling example of brainless summer moviemaking that it becomes a referendum on the whole callous, pandering enterprise.
< World War Z (PG-13, **): A perfect example of a dumb summer blockbuster trying to fake its way through on budget alone. Brad Pitt does his best to hold together this disorganized, meandering thriller about the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse, but with multiple directors-- Marc Forster is ultimately credited-- and a cadre of screenwriters, the story goes in four directions at once without ever really getting anywhere. Pitt traipses from episode to episode with no real connectivity between them, en route to a climactic solution that doesn’t make sense even by the film’s own shoddy, internal logic. The only thing to marvel at is the occasional broad shot of whole city blocks teeming with zombie chaos, but the big disaster sequences turn dull whenever the camera dips down to street level and we see that this horrifying horde is really just a cluster of generic, digitally rendered videogame villains. In 2D only.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters (PG): Sequel to this American Harry Potter riff finds the titular hero (Logan Lerman) battling gods and sea monsters in his quest to find a magical totem that will save the world, like they always do. In 2D and 3D.
Red II (PG-13): Sequel to the old-folks’ action movie about retired secret agents (Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich) who can’t stay out of the action, this time hunting down a rogue nuclear weapon. Morgan Freeman, who failed to live through the last one, is replaced by Anthony Hopkins.
R.I.P.D. (PG-13): This supernatural-action comedy, which seems reverse-engineered from the title, follows a slain cop (Ryan Reynolds) who partners up with a cantankerous veteran (Jeff Bridges) in a unit of undead police officers. Featuring Mary-Louise Parker and Kevin Bacon. In 2D only.
The Smurfs II (PG): Remember the live-action Smurfs movie from a couple years back? This is the second one. In 2D and 3D.
Turbo (PG-13): Computer-animated family comedy about a speedy snail who’s determined to win a big race. Featuring the usual plethora of celebrity voices, here including Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Hader, and Snoop Dogg. In 2D and 3D.
> Two Guns (R): Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg costar as a Drug Enforcement Administration agent and an undercover Navy officer who have been duped by the mob into investigating one another for a crime neither committed in this lighthearted action flick.
> We're the Millers (R): A low-level drug dealer (Jason Sudeikis) hires a stripper (Jennifer Aniston), a thief (Emma Roberts), and his goofball neighbor (Will Poulter) to pose as his family on a run to pick up a shipment of pot from Mexico. Also featuring Ed Helms.
The Wolverine (PG-13): Fan favorite X-Man Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) gets a second attempt at a solo outing, this time traveling to Japan to face demons from his past. And ninjas and robots, but hopefully nothing related to X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In 2D and 3D.