Silver Screen: The Score Card, September 12, 2013 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
Blue Jasmine (****1/2): The latter half of Woody Allen’s remarkable career has been most notable for the merging of his two earlier forms: goofball Woody dressed as a giant sperm and sadface Woody doing bleak riffs on his favorite European arthouse directors. His latest film is a realist melodrama with comedic undertones that hits the sweet spot between drama and comedy as well as any of his work since the excellent Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona. Cate Blanchett stars as a disgraced socialite who lost her Tiffany crystal marbles when her wealthy husband (Alec Baldwin) turned out to be a Bernie Madoff-style fraud. Near penniless, she moves to a middle-class neighborhood in San Francisco to stay with her estranged sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), causing an interpersonal class conflict that does not go unnoticed by Ginger’s blue-collar chorus of boyfriends (Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale, and Louis C.K.). The interplay between the mega-rich and the struggling middle class is timely, but played subtly and always in deference to the well-constructed characters. This is some of Allen’s best work, thought-provoking and nuanced yet consistently entertaining. It’s the work of a master craftsman who never stops refining his technique.
The Butler (PG-13, ****): This true-life tale of a butler who served in the White House for three decades is ambitious to the point of overreaching, but director Lee Daniels manages to craft something affecting and nuanced in between broad historical strokes. Butler Cecil Gaines (an exceptional Forest Whitaker) devotes his life to working for a series of presidents, played to varying degrees of effectiveness by Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, and Alan Rickman. Cecil’s dedication to working inside the establishment causes a rift between him and his oldest son (David Oyelowo), who fights on the front lines of the civil-rights battle. In its worst moments it’s a heavy-handed historical highlight reel, but the central conflict is complex and compelling, and the film smartly articulates some difficult, contradictory truths of the civil-rights struggle. Whitaker’s gravitas grounds the movie whenever it threatens to drift away into distraction, but he’s buoyed by a stacked supporting cast doing excellent work, including Clarence Williams III, Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr., and even frequent O magazine cover model Oprah Winfrey.
< 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 only.
Elysium (R, **): Neill Blomkamp's debut, District Nine, was a clever if unsubtle sci-fi allegory about apartheid made on the relative cheap. His followup is more expensive but significantly less clever, and somehow even less subtle. Matt Damon stars as a prole living on overpopulated Earth. When he's hit with a fatal dose of radiation at work, he gets some fancy futuristic guns and decides to head into space to infiltrate the space station Elysium, where the world's mega-rich lead lives of peace and leisure. Blomkamp seems to have spent months inventing Damon's newfangled arsenal and about ten minutes constructing the story, which is borderline nonsensical, stumbling both as metaphor and as a plain old action-movie ride. District Nine’s Sharlto Copley has a fun turn as a black-humored mercenary, while Jodie Foster is exceptionally irritating as a villain with an inexplicable scheme and an even more inexplicable accent.
< Jobs (PG-13, **): The fascinating life of visionary tech guru Steve Jobs gets shoehorned into the familiar biopic format in this intermittently successful but consistently underwhelming portrait of one of the most significant figures in modern history. Swing Vote director Joshua Michael Stern, working from a script by newbie Matt Whiteley, focuses most of his attention on the span of time between the founding of Apple, its founder's ouster from the company, and his triumphant return. Ashton Kutcher is imperfect but better than you might expect in the lead role, although he's outmatched by superior character actors in bit parts (J.K. Simmons, James Woods, Matthew Modine) and even by Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak, the prototypical computer nerd who dreamed up the skeleton of the modern personal computer. You may leave Jobs awed at the force of raw creativity and innovation, but you’ll wish that same spirit was actively applied to the film itself.
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.
Star Trek into Darkness (PG-13, ****): J.J. Abrams’s sequel to his pretty nifty Star Trek reboot is sleeker and shinier than the last installment, but not smarter. Almost all traces of the franchise’s fondness for moral dilemma and cosmically rendered social-justice issues have been swept aside in favor of breakneck action sequences that are undeniably pretty thrilling. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the rest of the crew (Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and Anton Yelchin) venture toward hostile Klingon territory to seek vengeance on an assassin (Benedict Cumberbatch) who attacked Starfleet, only to discover their target is one of their oldest and deadliest foes, and that they may have been manipulated by forces back home. There’s some too-clever inversion of the original series’ second movie, but a dynamite cast and some awe-inspiring images of space, along with a great turn by Cumberbatch, keep it exciting even if it is all pretty frivolous. In 2D only.
This Is the End (R, ***1/2): Seth Rogen’s directorial debut, with partner Evan Goldberg, is both a standard Seth Rogen movie and a parody of Seth Rogen movies. Rogen and his frequent onscreen pals (Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, Michael Cera) all play cartoonish versions of themselves as they hole up at James Franco’s house trying to ride out the Biblical apocalypse. The big armageddon jokes are impressive in scale, but most of the comedy still comes from the bickering and bantering among a gang we’ve become so familiar with at this point it feels like we’re a part of it. That’s what makes the movie work so well, but also why this hopefully really is the end for this cycle of filmmaking. This is either going to be the capstone to a fun cycle of comedies with a rotating troupe or the jump-the-shark moment we’ll recognize only in hindsight, when we really are lining up to buy tickets to Pineapple Express II.
< 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.
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.
The World's End (R , ****): Director Edgar Wright and cowriter/star Simon Pegg reteam for the third time in this slow-burning comedy that finds Pegg washed-up and drunk, convincing his old friends to rekindle their relationships and retrace the path of the pub crawl that defined their epic final night of high school. The group, including Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, and Paddy Considine-- all fantastically funny-- are already at odds when their uncomfortable reunion is interrupted by extraterrestrial robots plotting world domination. Absurdly, they continue the pub crawl while trying to sort out their personal problems and also escape with their lives. Wright lets the movie build slowly, and it’s nearly an hour in before the From Dusk Till Dawn-style twist. That works brilliantly, because ultimately the wilder aspects of the story are secondary to what we learn about the characters as a consequence. It’s consistently funny and increasingly bizarre, but also surprisingly touching. One of the year’s most enjoyable films.
< You're Next (R, **1/2): A bunch of directors (writer Simon Barrett, actors Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Amy Seimetz, and actual director Adam Wingard) get together to make a movie inspired largely by another movie (Scream) that was inspired by several other movies, most of them not very good. That’s both a lot of inspiration, and not very much of it. This generic horror flick, about a family vacation interrupted by bloodthirsty masked intruders, is full of clever industry in-jokes and lacking any kind of substance. It might be less annoying if it didn’t consistently seem to find itself so clever, when in fact the only thing to recommend about it is the handful of nice gore shots and a few cheap-but-effective startles.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
< Closed Circuit (R): Rebecca Hall and Eric Bana costar as lawyers put in danger when they learn the terrorist attack their client is accused of committing may have been caught on film, revealing a deadly truth. Also featuring Jim Broadbent and Ciarán Hinds.
> The Family (R): Robert De Niro stars as the head of a crime family having trouble adjusting to their new life in France under the witness-protection program. Featuring Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones.
Getaway (PG-13): Ethan Hawke stars as a man who must blindly follow the orders of a mystery man who has kidnapped his wife in order to force our hero to do his bidding. Featuring, oddly enough, Selena Gomez and Jon Voight.
> Insidious: Chapter II (PG-13): Saw coconspirators James Wan and Leigh Whannell reteam for a sequel to their followup, a moderately effective but generic haunted house story. Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson return. And it’s called chapter two, like a book, so it’s probably real smart!
< The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (PG-13): In yet another horror-themed story based on a book for teens, a seemingly normal girl (Lily Collins) discovers she's the heir to a clan of warriors who stop monsters and demons from crossing over and taking control of our world. Costarring Lena Headey.
One Direction: This Is Us (PG): Behind-the-scenes documentary and concert footage of the current boy-band du jour. Notably, this one is directed by Morgan Spurlock, most famous for his McDonald’s exposé, Super Size Me. In 2D and 3D.
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 only.
Planes (PG): Cropduster Dusty (Dane Cook) attempts to overcome his fear of heights to win a famous race. Also featuring the voices of John Cleese, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Teri Hatcher, Stacy Keach, and Brad Garrett. In 2D only.
> The Spectacular Now (R): Miles Teller stars as a charming young alcoholic on the verge of going nowhere after high-school graduation. His life changes when he begins an improbable relationship with a seemingly unremarkable younger girl (Shalene Woodley). Featuring Kyle Chandler, SIU alum Bob Odenkirk, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Riddick (R): Vin Diesel returns to the role of the calculating killer he played in the excellent sci-fi horror movie Pitch Black and its awful sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick. Here our antihero must contend with threats new and old when he's stranded on a blazing-hot planet.
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.