Silver Screen: The Score Card, December 52013 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
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.
Captain Phillips (PG-13, ****): Paul Greengrass, who directed the powerful docu-dramas Bloody Sunday and United 93, once more brilliantly orchestrates the chaos of a historical calamity. Here it’s the taking of an American cargo ship by pirates off the coast of Somalia, an incident trivia-minded newshounds may remember led to a dramatic intervention by the Navy SEALS and the first major success of the then-new Obama administration. Tom Hanks gives a terrific, restrained performance as the no-nonsense captain of the title, whose steadiness and valor helped minimize the damage when his boat was overrun by a group of armed mercenaries led by a desperate young man (Barkhad Abdi). The timeline is tight, the pacing is fleet, and the suspense is nearly unbearable.
Dallas Buyers Club (R, ****): Matthew McConaughey gives an outstanding performance as Ron Woodruff, a small-time Texas lothario who contracted HIV in 1985. Undeterred by his doctor’s grim prognoses, he puts his skills for lawbreaking to use to find treatments in Mexico that the Food and Drug Administration was slow to approve. Out of a cheap motel room he founded a club for people, nearly all of them gay men, to gain access to these drugs. If it sounds depressing, it certainly doesn’t play that way. The movie captures Woodruff’s irrepressible fighting spirit as he fast-talks his way across the globe in search of the best treatments for him and his club members, along the way gaining an appreciation for the plight of his fellow AIDS patients, particularly through his transgendered business partner Rayon (Jared Leto). Woodruff remains gruff and edgy to the end, and director Jean-Marc Valée makes Woodruff’s transition from selfish riff-raff to enlightened riff-raff slow and believable. By focusing on the personal rather than the didactic, the film inspires a righteous rage.
< Ender’s Game (PG-13, ***): This decent adaptation of the 1985 young-adult novel does a nice job of compressing a complicated story into two hours, but in doing so most of its characters are reduced to plot points. Ender Wiggum (Asa Butterfield) is the most promising recruit in the history of a futuristic military academy designed to train soldiers for war against the invading alien Formics. The school’s steely military commander (Harrison Ford) conscripts Ender to be the leader of a new army— but to what purpose? The battle simulations are fun to watch and the climactic battle sequence is impressive, but the film feels too chilly and removed to be really affecting, although the twist near the end is a nifty shocker.
< Gravity (PG-13): Alfonso Cuarón writes and directs this amazing survival tale set in space, and while it may or may not be a great movie, it’s definitely a unique and thrilling theatrical experience. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney costar as astronauts blasted out into the infinite void when disaster strikes during a space walk. Cuarón’s chronicle of their attempt to reconnect and survive counterintuitively uses the immense scope of space to reaffirm a kind of prideful humanity. The visual effects are so rich and stunning, they perhaps won’t convey the same power on a small screen, but in a theater— especially in 3D— Cuarón’s slowly swooping views of the solar system are sublime. This is the nexus of storytelling, cinematography, and technology that could not even have existed ten years ago. It’s a marvel. In 2D only.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (PG-13, ***1/2): The second installment of the blockbuster series based on the young-adult novel series is better than the first, largely because it doesn’t have to spend as much time establishing the complex and sometimes dopily illogical framework of the story. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have survived the contest, but Katniss has become a symbol of revolution around the blighted country. To snuff her out, the nefarious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has Katniss, Peeta, and twenty-two other former Hunger Games winners thrust back into the competition, but this time it’s the players and not the government that has a trick in mind. Director Francis Lawrence does a far superior job with the action and outlandish visuals than Gary Ross did with the first movie. The cast remains top-notch, especially Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, although the believably tough but glamorous Lawrence remains the movies’ greatest asset.
< Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (R, *1/2): The earlier Jackass movies were supersized installments of the show, but here star and ringleader Johnny Knoxville attempts to shift the enterprise into a Borat-style narrative, with interstitial scenes providing a narrative arc to a series of unscripted pranks. The trouble is the storyline, in which Knoxville’s cantankerous grandpa, Irving Zisman, must ferry his estranged grandson across the country to live with his deadbeat dad. The narrative seems to exist for no one’s benefit— the filmmakers seem disinterested in it, and the audience has proven it needs no connecting tissue between bouts of outrageousness. Worse, though, the pranks fall flat as often as not, partly because they’re often uninspired, but mostly because they’re targeted at average folks who mostly seem to want to help. There’s none of the vindictive pleasure Borat found from mocking racists and bloviating politicians. What did these people do to deserve this? And what did we do?
Thor: The Dark World (PG-13, *): The worst Marvel movie of the Avengers era finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth) drained of any intriguing character traits save for a hammer and a nice bod. In this especially pointless outing, he must do battle with a generic villain with vague motives played by a little-known actor seeking to gain control of an ill-defined MacGuffin for no particular purpose. Five credited screenwriters attempt to hide how little is going on both in the plot and in the hero’s head by overstuffing it with distractions, including some thoroughly un-intriguing intrigue about Thor’s homeworld of Asgard as well as painfully protracted sequences of comic relief by superfluous supporting players Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård. If you want to know how bad the movie is, just look into the eyes of female lead Natalie Portman. No matter what line she’s delivering, those big, beautiful peepers are full of boredom and distaste, as though she’s being forced to eat an incredibly bland meal prepared in unsanitary conditions. In 2D only.
Twelve Years a Slave (R, ****1/2): Director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the memoir of Simon Northup, a free black man drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in the mid-1800s, is as harrowing as it is essential. McQueen is a chronicler of suffering whose previous two movies have focused on physical deprivation. Here he turns that same interest on the visceral horrors of slavery, where we follow Simon (an excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) from the dehumanization of the market to a pair of plantations, one run by a genteel, conflicted master (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the other by a sadistic drunk (Michael Fassbender), to examine their different forms of horror. A recurring theme is the wrenching contrast between the sublime countryside settings and the elegance of McQueen’s compositions with the destitution and misery of the circumstances. At times McQueen’s art-school framing and chilly aesthetic removes us from the drama of the material, but far more often it deepens the horror. A truly remarkable, unsettling film, featuring great performances all around from the aforementioned actors, as well as Paul Giamatti and Lupita Nyong’o.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
The Best Man Holiday (R): Malcolm D. Lee writes and directs this sequel to his 1999 breakout. The ensemble dramedy reunites Terrence Howard, Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Regina Hall, and Morris Chestnut.
Black Nativity (PG): Inspirational tale about a troubled teen (Jacob Latimore) who travels to New York to spend Christmas with his extended family. Featuring Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, and Tyrese Gibson.
> Blue Is the Warmest Color (NR): Lea Seyduox and Adele Exarchopoulos costar in this expansive, emotional, and sexually explicit drama about the life of a relationship between a young woman and a beautiful blue-haired girl.
> The Book Thief (PG-13): Adaptation of Markus Zusak’s young-adult novel about a young girl in World War II-era Germany who steals books to share them with the Jewish refugee living in her home. Starring Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, and Emily Watson.
< 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 only.
Delivery Man (PG-13): Vince Vaughn stars in this comedy about a slacker who learns he’s the father of more than five-hundred children thanks to his sperm donations two decades ago. Director Ken Scott remakes his own French-language movie, Starbuck, which was released only two years ago, in case you hate reading subtitles.
Frozen (PG): Computer-animated, Disneyfied adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale about a girl (voiced by Kristen Bell) who makes a polar journey to convince her powerful sister to lift the Kingdom’s eternal winter. Also featuring the voices of Alan Tudyk and Josh Gad. In 2D and 3D.
> The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (PG-13): In the middle installment of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of a slender kids’ book, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his cohorts fight to restore the realm of Erebor from the dragon Smaug, who is somehow or another played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Homefront (R): When a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent moves to the country, he soon runs afoul of local meth lords. Cowritten by Sylvester Stallone but starring James Franco, Jason Statham, Kate Bosworth, Winona Ryder, and Rachelle Lefevre.
< Last Vegas (PG-13): This comedy featuring Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline, about three guys taking their friend to Vegas for a bachelor party, could smugly be described as The Hangover for old guys. Or just accurately described as The Hangover for old guys.
> Out of the Furnace (R): Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper cowrites and helms this dark drama starring Christian Bale as a man who resorts to vigilantism to find his missing younger brother (Casey Affleck). Featuring Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, and Sam Shepard.
> Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas (PG-13): Tyler Perry’s sassy, kid-slappin’, cross-dressin’ character brings her crazy ways to a holiday in the country when she teams up with a friend to surprise her daughter. Featuring Chad Michael Murray, Alicia Witt, Kathy Najimy, and Larry the Cable Guy.