Silver Screen: The Score Card, December 19, 2013 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
The Book Thief (PG-13, **): This stiff, self-congratulatory World War II drama is a testament to the power of literature for people who don’t like to read. Young Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is mysteriously shipped off to live with surrogate parents (Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush) just before the dawn of the war. She learns to read with the help of her adoptive father and Max (Ben Schnetzer), a young Jewish man they’re hiding in their basement. Tragedy looms, of course, as Liesel’s coming of age dovetails with her growing awareness of the horrors of her homeland. But most of the movie’s horrors are remote, and even its should-be-devastating conclusion is an oddly bloodless, weightless anticlimax. This boilerplate drama takes few risks and spends more time espousing storytelling (and, by proxy, the tellers of this story) than conveying the fragile state of being in prewar Europe. The movie’s lone audacity is to have the story narrated by the Grim Reaper himself, and Death turns out to be a dry-humored gasbag who’s as in love with his own florid language as the movie is taken with its own perceived self-importance.
< 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.
Delivery Man (PG-13, ***): Canadian director Ken Scott helms this straightforward remake of his 2011 French-language comedy Starbuck, with Vince Vaughn stepping into the role of an irresponsible delivery truckdriver who learns that his sperm donations from twenty years ago have resulted in him being the biological father of 533 kids. Despite pleas from his semi-competent lawyer and best friend (Chris Pratt), he begins tracking the kids down and anonymously intervening in their lives. It’s a nifty comic premise the movie doesn’t fully exploit, thanks partly to a distracting subplot about Vaughn’s character owing $100,000 to a loan shark. But mostly it’s played for low-key, sweet sentimentality, with some solid jokes that evolve naturally from the characters and their strange connections. Vaughn is as charming as he’s been in ages, and despite its inconsistency the film finds real warmth in its high concept.
< Homefront (R, *1/2): Sly Stallone penned this generic action movie with dramatic pretensions for himself, but by the time he got it made ten years later he was too old to play the lead, so Jason Statham is called in to play a widower whose violent past as a Drug Enforcement Administration agent comes back to haunt him after a seemingly harmless incident. His young daughter (Isabela Vidovic) beats up a schoolyard bully, angering her vindictive mother (Kate Bosworth), who enlists her own meth-slinging brother Gator (James Franco) to even the score. When Gator discovers Statham’s former undercover cop is still wanted by a biker gang he infiltrated, he decides to team up with the outlaws to make bigger money. Director Gary Fleder’s film mistakenly takes itself to be a thoughtful meditation on violence as opposed to a showcase for it. A couple of Statham’s fistfights thrill, but otherwise it’s simultaneously silly, turgid, and inauthentic.
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.
< Out of the Furnace (R, *): Director Scott Cooper mistakes bleakness for profundity in this slog of a crime drama, which piles layers of pretension atop a tired B-movie plot for a movie that’s neither soulful nor entertaining. A miscast Christian Bale stars as the world’s unluckiest roughneck, who eventually finds himself pitted against the law and a syndicate of redneck gangsters in order to avenge his sensitive but troubled brother (Casey Affleck). Cooper’s realist aesthetic clashes with the outlandish storyline, which strains for authenticity but never comes remotely close to achieving it. The resulting picture is dull, depressing, and condescending to its subjects. Its most redeeming quality is consistently solid acting from supporting players like Willem Dafoe and Woody Harrelson, even if their characters are either under- or overwritten. Affleck truly shines, though, in a performance that’s far better than the movie itself.
< 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
> American Hustle (R): A con man (Christian Bale) and his partner in crime (Amy Adams) are forced to go undercover to help nail crooks way out of their league. Costarring Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Shea Whigham, and Louis C.K., and directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook).
Anchorman II: The Legend Continues (PG-13): Will Ferrell’s bumbling god of the newsdesk returns with his co-anchors (Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, and David Koechner) to front for a new network in the era of twenty-four-hour news. Director Adam McKay returns along with enough celebrities to start some weird new religion.
< 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 Christmas Candle (PG): Holiday-themed fairy tale about a small town in rural England where every twenty-five years an angel blesses a candle that sparks a Christmas miracle. Produced by former senator Rick Santorum’s new film company.
> Forty-seven Ronin (PG-13): Keanu Reeves goes full Tom Cruise and stars as a samurai in this supernatural-tinged action flick about a group of warriors out to avenge their master’s murder. In 2D and 3D.
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.
> Grudge Match (PG-13): This oldtimer comedy pits Bobby “Raging Bull” De Niro against Sylvester “Rocky” Stallone against one another as rivals who come out of retirement for one last fight. Featuring Alan Arkin, Kevin Hart, and Kim Basinger.
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. In 2D and 3D.
Saving Mister Banks (PG-13): The Blind Side director John Lee Hancock helms this blatant Oscar bait that tells the true story of Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) attempts to let him adapt Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers’s (Emma Thompson) book into a film. Featuring Jason Schwartzman, Paul Giamatti, and Colin Farrell.
> The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG-13): Ben Stiller directs and stars in this adaptation of the classic James Thurber short story about a lonely office worker who lives an elaborate fantasy life that he must suddenly actualize. Previously made into a 1947 classic starring Danny Kaye. Featuring Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, and Patton Oswalt.
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.
> Walking with Dinosaurs (PG): Animated film that attempts to immerse the audience in a prehistoric adventure. In 2D and 3D.
> The Wolf of Wall Street (R): Martin Scorsese directs this adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s shocking memoir of excess and fraud in the financial sector starring Leonardo DiCaprio and featuring Jonah Hill, Jon Favreau, Spike Jonze, Kyle Chandler, and Matthew McConaughey.