Silver Screen: The Score Card, January 23, 2014 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
by 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.
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.
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 3D only.
Her (R, ***1/2): Director Spike Jonze's first original screenplay shows the influence of his collaborator Charlie Kaufman, who is a master at smoothly integrating a seemingly outlandish gimmick into an emotionally affecting story. Jonze isn't quite as deft at juggling big ideas, although he does pull off a most daring leap of narrative convention by making us genuinely care about the relationship between a cagey introvert (Joaquin Phoenix) and the voice of his sentient smartphone (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Jonze's movie has a lot to say about the fragility of romance between two minds separately evolving, as well as our own infatuation with technology and the private, isolated worlds it can help build. But for all its big ideas, the parts of Her are superior to its sum total, which becomes a slog during the second hour as the metaphor is literalized. For the whole last hour I kept wanting to check my phone, which bodes well for Jonze's thesis but isn't such a great sign for the movie.
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.
Lone Survivor (R, ***): Director Peter Berg adapts Marcus Luttrell's book about his harrowing real-life experience caught behind enemy lines with a team of Navy SEALs. The title of Luttrell's book pretty much tells you what's going to happen: Star Mark Wahlberg is going to make it, but his buddies (including Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, and Emile Hirsch) won't be so lucky. Knowing the ending doesn't alleviate the tension but rather enhances it and casts a foreboding shadow across the early scenes. The whole middle of the movie is a breathless, sharply staged firefight set in the mountains of Afghanistan. Berg is adept with action— a little too adept, as he adopts a first-person-shooter perspective that mimics a videogame aesthetic, turning this true-life tragedy into something like a particularly grim Call of Duty mission. Berg's tendency toward military fetishism and modern-day Rambo superheroics hampers the movie's credibility even as it evolves during its final act— complete with a fictional firefight to adhere to narrative convention— a little more thoughtful than the earlygoing leads viewers to expect. The result is a good movie about a battle instead of what could have been a great movie about the men who fought it.
< 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 new adaptation 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 of bad behavior (many of which involve a hilarious Jonah Hill), 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
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.
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.
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.
> I, Frankenstein (PG-13): The Frankenstein story has been chopped up and reassembled into a menagerie of cinematic creatures, but perhaps never so monstrously as here, where the mad doctor's unholy creation is reimagined as a superhero who must stave off a demonic horde. Starring Aaron Eckhart. Also, the title is wrong. You not Frankenstein. Frankenstein is doctor. You Frankenstein's monster.
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.
> Nebraska (R): Saturday Night Live's Will Forte makes an impressive dramatic turn as a dutiful son who takes his aging alcoholic father (Bruce Dern) on a roadtrip to claim a lottery prize he knows is a scam in this thoughtful comedy costarring June Squibb and SIU alumnus Bob Odenkirk.
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.
> Philomena (PG-13): Steve Coogan (The Trip) stars as a snarky journalist who gets personally involved in a story as he helps a plucky older woman (Judi Dench) search for her long-lost son in this dramedy directed by Stephen Frears and cowritten by Coogan.
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.