Silver Screen: The Score Card, June 26, 2014 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
< The Amazing Spider-Man II (PG-13, ***1/2): At this point, Spider-Man’s greatest foe must be déjà vu. Many of the events of this sequel to the reboot were already covered in Sam Raimi’s disastrous Spider-Man III. Once more a generic loser is turned into a supervillain by an unlikely act of science (this time it’s Jamie Foxx as Electro) at the same time that Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) realizes his father’s legacy and becomes the Green Goblin in order to kill his former best friend Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and his girlfriend (Emma Stone). The big difference is, this time around it’s fun, with Garfield’s likable, good-humored Spider-Man cracking silly jokes and having a good time saving the people of New York City from some pretty impressive special effects. It’s uneven and overstuffed, but Garfield and Stone make an appealing couple. Director Marc Webb shows a continuing facility with comedy and romance while significantly stepping up his game with the action sequences, which are brighter and more thrilling.
Blended (PG-13, **1/2): Adam Sandler’s latest family comedy, his third pairing with Drew Barrymore, isn’t up to the standards of their first collaboration, The Wedding Singer, which remains his most fully realized comedy. But the broad, sometimes treacly family comedy does have some heart and at least rises to the basic standards of its star’s significant talent. Sandler costars as a widower who, via some unnecessarily complex plot machinations, is paired up on a blended-families retreat in South Africa with a struggling divorcée (Barrymore). It’s a pleasant family comedy that’s as blandly inoffensive as the big-box stores and corporate-chain bar-and-grills Sandler serenades, like the poet laureate of the interstate-exit strip malls, but the stars’ chemistry remains, and bit players like the great Kevin Nealon and the always-funny Terry Crews score some big laughs. It’s not one of Sandler’s gems, but it’s broadly appealing and nicely suited to its target audience.
Chef (R, ****): Jon Favreau rose to fame as the writer and costar of the indie comedy hit Swingers, then became an improbable crossover success as the director of Marvel’s hugely successful Iron Man franchise before the studio unceremoniously dumped him before the third installment. The parallels between Favreau’s plight as a moviemaker and that of his character, chef Carl Casper, are at the forefront of this charming dramedy about a workaholic chef who gets fired after he beefs with a food critic (Oliver Platt) and disobeys his restaurant’s unimaginative owner (Dustin Hoffman). His improbably supportive ex-wife (Sofía Vergera) helps him secure financing for a food truck with one of her former flames (Robert Downey Jr. in one brief, funny scene), which Carl, his faithful sous chef (John Leguizamo), and Carl’s semi-estranged son (Emjay Anthony) must drive from Miami to Los Angeles. Along they way they stop at foodie hubs to sell their brand of artfully executed street food and learn various life lessons. Chef is about the joy of working in an artform for the pure pleasure of craftsmanship. To grouse about the movie’s conventional arc or its so-gentle-it’s-barely-there brand of conflict is to miss the point entirely. Favreau’s rejection both of and by the Hollywood-studio system doesn’t mean he’s eager to set a course for avant-garde experimentalism; it’s about returning to authenticity of expression and a direct human connection. It’s a success, with a terrific cast and some feel-good insights that, like any great food, are a little more complex and nuanced than they first seem.
Edge of Tomorrow (PG-13, ****): The concept for this blockbuster in which Tom Cruise repeatedly reawakens on the same day to fight off an alien invasion may sound not just familiar, but meta familiar. Groundhog Day, G.I Joe, Elysium, and Cruise’s own War of the Worlds and Oblivion have staked out this territory. But this thoroughly thrilling sci-fi shoot ‘em up repeatedly finds fresh angles on the premise and pays as much attention— well, almost as much attention— to the humanity of the situation as it does to plot mechanics and computer-generated aliens. Cruise stars as a reluctant military man who overcomes his cowardice by becoming stuck in a time loop, and with the help of secretive warrior Rita (Emily Blunt) must find a way to subvert the battle rather than win it. Director Doug Liman crafts a breathtaking beach-landing sequence that self-consciously attempts to become the sci-fi version of Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day recreation— and it succeeds. As rewritten by Cruise’s frequent collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, the script is surprisingly gritty and intense, but never humorless. This is a big-budget movie that looks truly epic in scale. It’s also one of the few summer movies that’s not a sequel, remake, or installment in a trilogy, which makes it an unlikely underdog.
The Fault in Our Stars (PG-13, ****): As with the bestselling novel on which it is based, director Josh Boone’s big-screen version of John Green’s teens-with-cancer romance is an unabashed tearjerker, but there’s much more to it than maudlin sentiment and emotional manipulation. Shailene Woodley stars as Hazel, a seventeen-year-old with a terminal diagnosis who has spent most of her childhood contending with cancer. She has no friends and spends her days obsessively rereading an obscure novel, at least until she meets fellow survivor Gus (Ansel Elgort) at a support-group session. Romance blossoms in the shadow of a grim prognosis, as Gus conspires to take Hazel to Amsterdam to visit the reclusive author of her favorite novel. If you know much about romance, melodrama, and irony, the ending of The Fault in Our Stars is pretty easy to predict. That doesn’t deprive the story of resonance, however, as the substance of the story is more significant than its form. Even dedicated cynics will have a hard time keeping stiff upper lips throughout The Fault in Our Stars. It’s a nice evocation of first love, even without the amped-up stakes and impending mortality, but it works even better as a manifesto for those who refuse to suffer the fate as one defined by suffering. Props to Laura Dern, who gives the movie’s most soulful performance as Hazel’s concerned but not overbearing mother, which is moving but largely relegated to the background.
Godzilla 3D (PG-13, **1/2): Godzilla is really two movies. One is a five-star action movie featuring gorgeous, awe-inspiring scenes of terror and destruction that takes Toho Studios’ biggest star to new aesthetic heights. Unfortunately, that movie is only about fifteen minutes long. The other hour and forty-five-minutes is a turgid family drama full of empty character moments in which the uninspiring Aaron Taylor-Johnson attempts to save his wife (Elizabeth Olsen), something his own, increasingly obsessive father (Bryan Cranston) could not do fifteen years before when an accident at a nuclear plant killed his own wife (Juliette Binoche). Director Gareth Edwards made a remarkable low-budget creature feature in Monsters, but in several critical ways he fails to up his game here. Monsters wore its cheapness on its sleeve and worked mostly through shadow, sound, and implication, but this is a big-league, zillion-dollar Godzilla movie; it’s time to show, not imply. The eye-popping monster fight is almost worth sitting through the rest of the production, although you might just consider showing up an hour late.
How to Train Your Dragon II (PG, ***): This sequel to the delightful, surprise hit about a pipsqueak Viking lad (voiced by Jay Baruchel) who befriends an injured dragon and convinces his fellow villagers not to fear the majestic beasts lacks both the whimsy and heart of the original. The cobbled-together story feels like two not-that-great movies mashed into one, as our dragon trainer meets up with a mysterious figure from his past while trying to stave off a generic tyrant who wants to control the dragons to use as his own personal army. But what the movie lacks in its mediocre story it makes up for in spectacular visuals that surpass even the kinetic thrills of the original, one of the few movies to really justify the extra couple of bucks spent on 3D glasses. Not only do the flying sequences remain dizzying and dazzling, the sleek, slick-looking Toothless the dragon is joined by a horde of fellow creatures all with their own distinctive designs. Whenever the story lags, just sit back and enjoy the gorgeous aesthetic and top-notch computer animation. Plus, it’s got enough dragon action to fill fifty seasons of Game of Thrones. Featuring the voices of Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, Djimon Hounsou, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse.
< Million Dollar Arm (PG, **1/2): The über-charismatic Jon Hamm stars as real-life sports agent J.B. Bernstein, who practically colonizes this story about the first two Indian men signed by a Major League Baseball team. The first hour of the film crackles with surprising energy as J.B. travels to India with a curmudgeonly scout (Alan Arkin) to hold a contest and recruit a pair of potential pitchers (Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal). It becomes a sporting-Scrooge redemption tale with all the familiar, too-convenient beats once the crew returns Stateside and J.B. must learn the true meaning of family while training the guys and romancing his neighbor (the lovely Lake Bell). Screenwriter Tom McCarthy dodged most of the sports-movie clichés in his wonderful Win Win, but this cookie-cutter production smacks of interference from the Disney producers— or someone— who shoves the compelling story into a template that fits all the clichés. Still, a strong cast, including Indian actors Pitobash and Darshan Jariwala plus Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi and Bill Paxton, help elevate the material.
< A Million Ways to Die in the West (R, *1/2): Seth MacFarlane cowrites, produces, directs, and stars in this surprisingly inert, unfunny Western sendup about a sensitive, progressive sheep farmer (MacFarlane) who falls for the wife (Charlize Theron) of a deadly gunslinger (Liam Neeson) after he’s dumped by his haughty girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried). The thin plot is stretched over nearly two hours of running time, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the jokes weren’t so flat, the timing so off, the characters so bland and unlikable. MacFarlane, who does the movie no favors by casting himself in the lead, is known for the rapid-fire style of his signature creation, Family Guy, but the pacing here is flat and the solid gags few and far between. It’s a limp followup to his hilarious feature debut, Ted, and hopefully a brief misstep in an otherwise impressive career. Only Theron and costar Neil Patrick Harris are able to generate movie-star charisma in what otherwise plays like a protracted, poorly conceived TV sketch.
The Rover (R, **): David Michod’s post-apocalyptic road-trip murder quest is actually more bleak than that description sounds. Undeniably Michod has a clear vision and the ability to realize it. Trouble is, he conveys the kind of petty nihilism and emotional repression teenage boys so often mistake for profundity. A solitary traveler (Guy Pearce) has his car stolen by a gang of outlaws. He finds their abandoned truck, which would seem to be the better end of the trade, but he wants his car back. He takes a hostage, Rey (Robert Pattinson), a gutshot dimwit left behind by his brother (Scoot McNairy), one of the thieves with our man’s car. Rey wants revenge on his brother, so he and Pearce’s flinty loner set off on a grim road trip across the sun-blasted Outback seeking retribution. It’s a nicely crafted but utterly depressing slog, slow and contemplative and broken up by fits of stark violence. Michod ponders the horrors of living in a society without structure or consequence, but none of these insights are significant enough to compensate for ruining two hours of your life having an awful time watching awful people have an even more awful time.
Twenty-two Jump Street (R, ***1/2): The improbably funny big-screen incarnation of Twenty-one Jump Street got to have its reheated cake and eat it, too. The movie mercilessly mocked the conventions of TV-to-movie cash-in adaptations while simultaneously cashing in on that very same brand recognition. The slightly insipid hypocrisy was leavened by its lax attitude and barrage of mostly good jokes. The sequel, Twenty-two Jump Street, applies this same formula to unnecessary and illogical sequels. Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are back, but the budget and the stakes are slightly raised, as explained by their hyperbolically angry police captain (Ice Cube). Now they’re infiltrating a college to find the dealer repping for drug runner Ghost (Peter Stormare). The plot isn’t just secondary; its flimsiness is one of the movie’s many running gags. Like its predecessor, Twenty-two Jump Street is a haphazard collection of dick jokes and meta-references to its own shabby Hollywood pedigree. Some of the gags run a little too long— the frequent references to Jenko and Schmidt’s partnership being like a gay relationship are inoffensive but tired— but the movie is consistently funny from the opening sequence to the closing credits and beyond. It’s an ideal summer-matinee movie with nary a hint of seriousness in sight and a haphazard but delightful barrage of jokes, nicely corralled by directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, propped up by some solid performances, including supporting turns from Nick Offerman and the Lucas brothers.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (PG-13, ***): This dour, convoluted superhero soap opera unites the casts and timelines of the first three X-Men movies and the First Class prequel crew via a time-travel plot that sees Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) go back to 1973 to stop the assassination of an anti-mutant scientist (Peter Dinklage), whose death will lead to the rise of a robot army that destroys the world fifty years later. Bryan Singer, returning to the director’s chair for his first installment since series highlight X2, remains a master of spectacle, and a couple of his action setpieces are worth the price of admission alone. Highlights include a prison break undertaken at super-speed by new character Quicksilver (Evan Peters, the only castmember in tune with the movie’s silliness) and an awe-inspiring image of Michael Fassbender’s Magneto floating a sports stadium over Washington, D.C. The stacked cast, which also includes Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Ellen Page, and Halle Berry, helps make the movie’s stiff, expository dialogue sound like actual human sentences, although it would be interesting to see what such a talented group could do if they were able to play characters rather than just advance and explain complicated plot points.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
Jersey Boys (R): Clint Eastwood directs this adaptation of the popular stage musical about the emergence of the Four Seasons. John Lloyd Young reprises his Broadway role as Frankie Valli. Also featuring Christopher Walken and The Sopranos’ Steve Schirripa.
Maleficent (PG): Another vaguely feminist revisionist fairytale, this one from the perspective of the so-called evil queen (Angelina Jolie) who roofies Sleeping Beauty (Elle Fanning).
Think Like a Man Too (PG-13): In this sequel to the surprise hit based on comedian Steve Harvey’s relationship-advice book, the crew of pals (Michael Ealy, Kevin Hart, Jerry Ferrara, Terrence Jenkins, and Romany Malco) head to Vegas for a wedding that might not happen after romantic misadventures ensue. Featuring Meagan Good, Taraji Henson, Regina Hall, Gabrielle Union, and Dennis Haysbert.
> Transformers: Age of Extinction (PG-13): Age of extinction? Don’t tease. Michael Bay’s mostly unwatchable live-action adaptation of the kids’ toy commercials continues with a fourth installment because Bay doesn’t know the meaning of the words “too” and “much.” This time around Mark Wahlberg represents the humans scrambling around beneath the Autobots and Decepticons. Also featuring Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, T.J. Miller, and the voices of John Goodman, Ken Watanabe, and Peter Cullen.