Silver Screen: The Score Card, February 20, 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.
August: Osage County (R, ****): Beware, all who enter, Tracy Letts’s adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning stageplay, here directed by John Wells, is caustic, brutal stuff. But Letts’s tale about deep dysfunction in an Oklahoma family is shot through with the blackest of humor, and the barbed dialogue is sweet savagery. When the family patriarch (Sam Shepard) goes missing, hysterical pill-popping mother Violet (Meryl Streep, awesome, of course) calls for a reunion of her far-flung family, which includes her soon-to-be-divorced eldest daughter (Julia Roberts), the flighty middle child (Juliette Lewis), and the helpless family they bring in tow (including a sheepishly adulterous Ewan McGregor, slimy-slick Dermot Mulroney, and tempestuous Abigail Breslin). The convergence quickly turns sweaty and brutal, and the dredged-up family secrets are more reminiscent of Greek tragedy than the Tennessee Williams dramas that serve as Letts’s clear inspiration. Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, and Margo Martindale round out a stellar cast that plays with the sharp dialogue the way pro athletes might pass around a ball. It’s not for the faint of heart, but those with a penchant for acidic humor will revel in Letts’s language, which turns the malevolent into something oddly mellifluous.
The Lego Movie (PG, ***): Cowriters and -directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller inject a significant amount of cleverness into this crass computer-animated cash-in about an ordinary Lego Joe (Chris Pratt) who discovers he’s the chosen one who must stop the evil President Business (Will Ferrell) from using a super-weapon that will glue the entire universe together. Lord and Miller’s stroke of semi-genius is to model the plot after the different ways kids play with Legos, some rigidly sticking to the instructions while others mix and match pieces into their own creations. This idea reaches full fruition in the movie’s big meta-gag, which plays like a kiddie-movie version of a Charlie Kaufman twist. For all their inventiveness and lip service to creativity, they’ve done little more than inject a bit of ingenuity into a corporate property cross-promoted to tie into other corporate properties, including Batman, Superman, Gandalf, and Han Solo. It’s a series of tiny commercials built into a one-hundred-minute-long Lego commercial. The filmmakers laud visionaries who build new and unexpected things, but all the pieces they’re playing with are not just familiar, they’re trademarked. In 2D and 3D.
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 Monuments Men (PG-13, ***1/2): George Clooney’s relatively light but still rich drama is an old-fashioned war picture, clearly on the other side of the Maginot Line of Saving Private Ryan’s blood-and-bone visceral horrors. But despite having an Old Hollywood sheen, it’s not anachronistic, even if it does get a bit sentimental. Clooney’s Frank Stokes leads an international platoon of art historians and museum curators (including Bill Murray, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban) on a mission into Germany at the tail of end World War II to retrieve all the art stolen by Hitler before the Nazis destroy it. Clooney, who cowrote the script with partner Grant Heslov, based on the popular book by Robert Edsel, makes an impassioned case for the importance of art and cultural preservation, and he does it without coming off like a self-important blowhard. The incredible ensemble adds significant depth to the film, especially Murray and Balaban, whose scenes as rivals in the art world turned unlikely Army buddies are hilarious but also strikingly poignant. Structurally, the movie is a bit of a mess, as Clooney and Heslov struggle to find a clear narrative in the story. That results in more than a few tangents, including a long, mostly unnecessary stretch featuring Cate Blanchett as a French museum employee working for the resistance against the Nazis. But a little extra Cate Blanchett isn’t such a bad thing, and even if the film doesn’t always hold together, from scene to scene it’s a pleasure.
Nebraska (R, ****1/2): Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Election) directs this understated but tremendously affecting dramedy about an aging alcoholic (Bruce Dern) convinced a junk-mail scam is actually a million-dollar sweepstakes winner. Though he knows it to be a hoax, dedicated son David (Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte, in a fine dramatic turn) agrees to drive the old man from Montana to Nebraska to claim the prize. Along the way they reunite with relatives, and David learns the secret past his repressed parents kept from him all these years. Payne’s latest is meditatively paced and shot in black and white, but it’s no test of patience. The movie is propelled forward with gentle good humor that often belies subtle but significant insights. An excellent supporting cast that includes SIU alum Bob Odenkirk as David’s self-obsessed small-town news-anchor brother, June Squibb as their short-tempered mother, Stacy Keach as a boozy blowhard, and a host of honest-to-goodness Nebraska folk help make this one of 2013’s most unpretentiously artful, relatable, winning films.
Ride Along (PG-13, **1/2): Comedian Kevin Hart singlehandedly elevates this boilerplate cop comedy with a sweet premise squandered on clichés. A motormouthed security guard (Hart) tries to win the respect of his future brother-in-law (Ice Cube), a hard-nosed cop, by going on a ridealong with him as his partner for a day. All the two find is buddy-cop comedy clichés, from the ruddy faced captain shouting about Cube’s constant procedural violations to a MadLibs-generated conspiracy and a cartoon villain. The casting of that secret villain, an unseen kingpin named Omar, turns out to be the movie’s only pleasant surprise. Hart’s performance, however, is no surprise. He’s been very funny in some excellent movies, and very funny in some less-than-excellent ones. Here he turns a benignly bad movie into something passably entertaining through sheer force of will, mugging, riffing, and doing improv with the calculated fury of a plate spinner. It’s good for a laugh in the depths of winter, but the only thing that will be memorable about this also-ran is that it cemented Hart’s status as a real-deal movie star.
RoboCop (PG-13, ***): José Padilha’s remake of the 1987 Paul Verhoeven pseudo-classic at least distinguishes itself from the original rather than lazily retracing the same ground while sanitizing it to make it PG-13-safe. Padilha even makes a real character out of Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a cop laid low by assassins who’s retrofitted with a robot suit to dispense justice in near-future Detroit. This RoboCop isn’t a machine with traces of humanity but a man trapped inside a machine, although his individuality is tempered with drugs from his creators (Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton). Padilha stages some sharp action sequences as RoboCop tracks down first his killer and then the corrupt corporate masters who manipulate him, but the director is less concerned with conventional shoot-‘em-up excitement than he is in critiquing the marketeers and demographers who try to focus-group RoboCop into something acceptable to the masses. Trouble is, that’s exactly what Padilha’s movie is doing, whether he likes it or not, and ultimately it conforms to the template established by the boring and overrated Batman Begins, which has become the de facto model for big-money fantasy-franchise cash-ins.
< That Awkward Moment (R, 1/2*): The first truly awful movie of 2014 is this atrocious hodgepodge of filched comedy tropes forced into the template of Sex and the City. Improbably successful business partners Jason (Zac Efron) and Daniel (Miles Teller) spend their afterhours time cultivating their “rosters,” the list of girls they’re sleeping with but not dating. When their college pal Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) is laid low by an impending divorce, the three vow to stay single and be bros together. The movie’s non-conflict: They want to just hang out, but all these hot chicks want to keep having sex with them, and that’s a problem until they realize they can still be bros and bang the hot chicks. Happily ever after, the end. The god-awful script from writer/director Tom Gormican borrows from several popular franchises of the last decade (the aforementioned Sex and the City, Judd Apatow bromances, Farrelly brothers-style grossout gags) without stealing anything worthwhile. Efron, who has never once made a good movie, is a talented entertainer who’s perpetually unable to rise above the level of script with which he works. Jordan has serious dramatic chops but proves less adept with comedy. Only Teller, the breakout star of The Spectacular Now, is able to traverse the wooden dialogue without tripping all over it. Hopefully all three of these guys are headed toward bigger and better things.
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
About Last Night (R): High Fidelity and Grosse Point Blank writer Steve Pink directs the second big-screen adaptation of David Mamet's darkly funny play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, this one costarring Kevin Hart, Michael Ealy, Regina Hall, and Joy Bryant as two couples navigating modern romance.
Endless Love (PG-13): Rich girl Gabriella Wilde falls for a charming peasant boy to the dismay of her parents in this teen-romance drama.
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 a singalong version, too.
< Labor Day (PG-13): A departure for comedy director Jason Reitman, who adapts this Joyce Maynard novel about an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) who takes a single mother (Kate Winslet) and her son hostage only to get drawn into their lives. Featuring Tobey Maguire and J.K. Simmons.
> Non-Stop (PG-13): Liam Neeson stars as an Air Marshal fighting to solve a mystery aboard his transatlantic flight before hijackers destroy it. Featuring Julianne Moore.
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.
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.
> Pompeii (PG-13): Effects-heavy action hooey set against the historical backdrop of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which finds Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington fighting to rescue his girlfriend (Emily Browning) from an evil Roman senator (Kiefer Sutherland). From videogame-movie hack director Paul W.S. Anderson. In 2D and 3D.
> Three Days to Kill (PG-13): The fact that Luc Besson makes almost exclusively terrible action movies doesn’t stop him from writing half of them, including this one about a Secret Service agent (Kevin Costner) who agrees to take on a deadly assignment in exchange for an experimental drug that may save his life.
< Vampire Academy (PG-13): A teen girl navigates social awkwardness and an elaborate fantasy mythology as she attends an elite school for vampires. Just call it Twilight Potter. Featuring Zoey Deutch, Gabriel Byrne, and Olga Kurylenko.
Winter's Tale (PG-13): Adaptation of Mark Helprin's lovely and fantastical novel set in a mythical version of New York City, where a thief (Colin Farrell) falls for a terminally ill heiress (Jessica Brown Findlay) while on the run from a gangster (Russell Crowe) with delusions of grandeur. Featuring William Hurt, Will Smith,