Silver Screen: The Score Card, January 16, 2014 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
American Hustle (R, ****1/2): The opening disclaimer says it all: “Some of this actually happened.” Director and cowriter David O. Russell intertwines details about the real-life Abscam sting with his fictionalized ensemble of incredible characters for this hysterically funny and near perfectly executed tale of cops, crooks, mobsters, and one flimflam man’s ability to bilk them all. Christian Bale is fantastic as Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time scammer who hooks up with bunco babe Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) for bigger scores, but when they’re busted by an ambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), they’re forced to help the Feds hatch an elaborate plot to catch corrupt politicians. This may be a case of style over substance, but that style is substantial. The production design is incredible, from the sets to the costumes, plus a killer soundtrack and the year’s best ensemble cast, which includes Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Robert De Niro, and a never-better Jennifer Lawrence. Rarely are prestige movies this much fun, and even more rarely does a movie so thoroughly entertaining come with such a high pedigree.
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.
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.
Inside Llewyn Davis (R, *****): At this point it’s just expected that a new movie by Joel and Ethan Coen will be excellent, but they’ve outdone themselves with their latest, which has similar cerebral concerns as A Serious Man but is executed more casually and gracefully. The title character is a singer/songwriter struggling to stand out in Greenwich Village’s emerging folk scene circa 1961. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a couch-crashing mooch who lives on favors, but his goodwill is in short supply. He’s out of cash, his record is tanking, and Jean (Carey Mulligan), half of a folk duo with his best friend Jim (Justin Timberlake), is pregnant with a baby that might be Llewyn’s. During the course of a week he confronts secrets from his past, travels to Chicago with a heroin-addled jazzman (John Goodman), and relentlessly searches for a lost cat. Along the way the Coens slip in a quiet revelation that changes our entire perspective on Llewyn, who’s abrasive but undeniably better attuned to the times that are a-changin’. But the struggle to make pure art is not always rewarding, and being right at the wrong time is a problem all its own. The Coens’ latest is complex and thoughtful, but good-humored and warm, thanks in part to terrific musical performances by Isaac and his costars, all orchestrated by the Coens’ go-to music man T-Bone Burnett.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG-13, ****): Ben Stiller may be best known for commercial pabulum like the Night at the Museum and Fockers franchises, but more importantly he’s one of the greatest comedian-directors in America. His perfect record (Zoolander, Tropic Thunder, Reality Bites, and, yes, The Cable Guy) continues with this, his most flawed film so far, but also his most ambitious and affecting. Stiller stars in this significantly altered remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye film about a lonely man who escapes into elaborate daydreams. But when he’s faced with being fired from his office for losing a photograph, he goes on a transcontinental journey to track down the free-spirited photographer (Sean Penn), living a real adventure for the first time while also undertaking a more significant inward journey. It’s sincere as hell, but far from humorless, as Stiller’s deftness with small comic moments is long-established. Some awkward plotting and truly egregious product placement stick out sorely among the rampant earnestness, but the film still manages at times to evoke real wonder and joy. Stiller is both funny and no joke.
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.
The Wolf of Wall Street (R, ****): Martin Scorsese’s brash, loud, and long adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s memoir of his days of white-collar crime and druggy excess is a spiritual sequel to Goodfellas and Casino. The comparison to both of those movies reveals this film’s fatal flaw, which is that it refuses to examine the machinations of the antihero’s criminal enterprise. Star Leonardo DiCaprio, in voiceover, often literally tells the audience they wouldn’t be interested to know how he swindled thousands of people out of millions of dollars, but we came to see a movie with Wall Street in the title. It’s Casino without the casino. Still, there’s a lot to like here, both in memorably outlandish scenes (many of which involve a hilarious Jonah Hill) of bad behavior, and the sheer improbability of Belfort’s truly astounding misadventures. Despite all the liberal hand-wringing about Scorsese’s failure to turn the thing into an activist condemnation of unregulated capitalism, the commentary is there if you’re willing to look for it, and think for one second more.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
< 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.
> August: Osage County (R): John Wells directs this star-studded adaptation of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a darkly comic dysfunctional family reunion in Oklahoma. Featuring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Juliette Lewis.
> Devil's Due (R): A newlywed couple (Allison Miller and Friday Night Lights’ Zach Gilford) discover their new baby might be the antichrist as a result of a bizarre occurrence during their honeymoon.
< 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 only.
< 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.
Her (R): Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) writes and directs this unconventional love story about an emotionally withdrawn man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with the voice of his smartphone (Scarlett Johansson). Featuring Rooney Mara and Amy Adams.
> Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (PG-13): The late Tom Clancy’s spy hero gets rebooted with a more modern origin story. Now played by Chris Pine, the CIA agent must stop a Russian plot to blow up America’s economy, which we can’t quite seem to do on our own. Featuring Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, and director Kenneth Branagh doing double-time as the movie’s villain.
The Legend of Hercules (PG-13): Renny Harlin, an unrepentant hack who’s made some of the worst movies of the last twenty-five years, directs and cowrites this flashy update of the Hercules myth, starring Kellan Lutz.
Lone Survivor (R): War drama based on the true story of a disastrous mission untaken by four Navy SEALs (Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, and Josh Berry) sent into enemy territory to hunt down a terrorist leader. Directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Very Bad Things).
> The Nut Job (PG): Computer-animated kiddie comedy about an exiled squirrel who plans a heist on a nut store. Featuring the voices of Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson, Maya Rudolph, and racist puppeteer Jeff Dunham. In 2D and 3D.
< Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (R): The shaky-cam horror franchise with increasingly diminishing returns reboots by moving the action to an urban Latino neighborhood, where a pair of buddies (Andrew Jacobs and Jorge Diaz) encounter a demon spirit in an abandoned apartment.
Ride Along (PG-13): Kevin Hart stars as a fast-talking goofball who must prove his manhood to his future brother-in-law (Ice Cube), a hard-nosed cop, by going on the titular ridealong in his squad car in this comedy by Tim Story.
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 adapt Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers’s (Emma Thompson) book into a film. Featuring Jason Schwartzman, Paul Giamatti, and Colin Farrell.
< Walking with Dinosaurs (PG): Animated film that attempts to immerse the audience in a prehistoric adventure. In 2D and 3D.