Silver Screen: The Score Card, September 26, 2013 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
For more film reviews and capsules, see the Nightlife section of <http://www.CarbondaleRocks.com>.
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.
< 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.
Insidious: Chapter Two (PG-13, ***): Despite the pretentious title and hodgepodge horror plot, this sequel to director James Wan’s first haunted-house movie packs in plenty of PG-13 scares. The convoluted story-- about a family still haunted due to their son’s ability to cross over into a limbo world between the living and the dead-- borrows bits from The Shining, The Exorcist, Paranormal Activity, and The Haunting. There’s too much going on to really care about any of it, but even though the horror remains at a surface level, Wan is an excellent technician. He engineers frights with great atmosphere and a killer sense of timing. It’s a bit of a shame he already topped himself with his own other haunted-house movie, the summer’s earlier, superior The Conjuring, which also costarred Patrick Wilson. Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, and Ty Simpkins also return.
< 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.
Prisoners (R, ****): This beautifully gloomy, compelling thriller brings more artistry to the screen than its pulpy premise suggests. When two young girls are kidnapped and the police dismiss the prime suspect (an extra creepy Paul Dano), a father (Hugh Jackman) launches his own vigilante investigation. Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve takes a slow-paced approach to the material, dwelling on the psychological implications of the crime on the characters before stealthily leading the plot in a more hysterical direction. Like a frog in a pan of water that doesn’t notice the steadily rising heat, we’re not aware we’re in a potboiler until it’s already boiling away. It works, thanks to a solid script from Aaron Guzikowski; strong ensemble work from Jackman, Danno, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bellow, and Melissa Leo; and gorgeous cinematography from the great Roger Deakins, whose muted tones underscore the story’s foreboding momentum.
Riddick (R, ***): Vin Diesel returns to his other big dumb franchise in this second sequel to Pitch Black, which honors that first film better than the grandiose, misbegotten Chronicles of Riddick. Here writer and director David Twohy borrows liberally from Conan the Barbarian to make a simple, brutal movie that's at its best during the long stretches with sparse dialogue and uncompromising action. The intergalactic fugitive finds himself trapped on a sun-blasted planet with no means of escape, so he finds a distress beacon and turns himself in-- but only so he can kill the bounty hunters who come to arrest him and steal their ship. He and the warring bands of bounty hunters duke it out while various alien beasts try to make a meal of them. It's too digitized and greenscreened to inspire any awe, but the movie is an impressively ruthless, focused bit of genre fare. If only it were as lean and efficient as its title character, instead of plodding for too long toward a lackluster climax, it would be a likely candidate for its own cult following. Instead, it's still a pretty fun diversion.
The Spectacular Now (R, ****): An unlikely relationship between the life of the party (Miles Teller) and a mostly unpopular straight arrow (Shailene Woodley) changes the course of both their futures as they contemplate life after high school. It's a familiar tale, but director James Ponsoldt imbues all the familiar beats with such nuance and texture that it all sounds fresh again. Woodley and Teller are fantastic, and they're working in front of one of the year's best supporting casts, which includes SIU alumnus Bob Odenkirk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Andre Royo. A brief detour into the melodramatic at the end is a blatant and unfortunate deviation from the movie's small-scale realism, but ultimately it does little to detract from what turns out to be one of 2013's more affecting films, one with a dramatic undercurrent but a surprisingly light touch.
< 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.
< 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.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> Baggage Claim (PG-13): Paula Patton stars in this romantic comedy about a woman who travels cross country to audition ex-boyfriends to see if they've become marriage material.
Battle of the Year (PG-13): Noted abuser of women Chris Brown costars with Lost’s Josh Holloway, former Disney cog Josh Peck, and Laz Alonso in this dance movie that, like all dance movies, is about people trying to win a dance contest. In 2D and 3D.
> Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs II (PG): Sequel to the computer-animated kiddie comedy about a scientist whose catastrophic food-creating machine goes haywire-- again. Featuring the voices of Bill Hader, Anna Faris, Will Forte, and Neil Patrick Harris. In 2D and 3D.
> Don Jon (R): Joseph Gordon-Levitt writes, directs, and stars in this comedy about an internet-porn addicted lothario who contemplates changing his ways when he meets the girl of his dreams, played by the girl of our dreams, Scarlett Johansson.
The Family (R): Robert De Niro stars as the head of a crime family having trouble adjusting to a new life in France under the witness-protection program. Featuring Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones.
The Grandmaster (2013): Kar Wai Wong spent years on his biopic (several by others are readily available on DVD) about Yip Man, the kung fu master who taught Bruce Lee. The American release was reportedly edited into a fragment of Wong’s original version. Starring Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, and Cung Le.
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.
> Rush (R): Ron Howard directs this biopic based on the rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Costarring Olivia Wilde.
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.