Silver Screen: The Score Card, July 10, 2014 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
< 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.
Deliver Us from Evil (R, *): This dreary, hilariously conservative effort from Sinister director Scott Derrickson begins as a mediocre police procedural and gradually becomes a programmatic horror movie. A world-weary cop (Eric Bana) who’s lost his faith must partner with a hunky demonologist (Édgar Ramírez) when a series of interrelated cases takes a supernatural turn. A domestic assault, a disappearance, and a woman who throws her child into the lion cage at a zoo are all potentially linked by a mysterious man in greasepaint who looks like he got made up during a hasty car ride to a Marilyn Manson show. Ramírez’s priest plays like the rebellious power fantasy of a disgruntled altar boy, all Boondock Saints swagger but with Jim Carroll melancholy: he’s a hard-drinking, chain-smoking former heroin addict with a sexy backstory. Ramírez has the gravitas to pull off this ridiculousness for a bit, until the inevitably silly exorcism scenes when the possessed character spits and contorts while the exorcists strain to just believe hard enough to vanquish the demon. The movie ends with a title card reminding you that this— a movie in which a hatchet-wielding war veteran in scary clown makeup gets in a blade fight with an adrenaline junkie cop (played by Joel McHale, oddly enough)— is all allegedly based on a true story, despite, of course, resembling in form, function, and execution at least a half dozen other untrue stories currently available on Netflix.
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.
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.
Jersey Boys (R, **1/2): Clint Eastwood’s genial, slow-paced adaptation of the hit Broadway musical tells the story of the rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons from New Jersey neighborhood mooks to singing sensations. The best bits of the film come early, when young Frankie (John Lloyd Young, reprising the role he created for Broadway) is viewed as a golden-throated talent with endless promise by everyone around him, from the cops to his friends to the local Mafioso (Christopher Walken). He gets in trouble with his shady pal Tommy (Vincent Piazza), the Four Seasons’ founder and the film’s primary narrator. Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) joins the group and starts penning classic tunes. From there the movie shifts more toward the style of the jukebox musical from which it spawned, turning into more of a hit parade than a narrative. Young sings Valli’s songs impeccably, although neither his performance nor the script finds any layers of psychological complexity to the character. As for the New York/New Jersey neighborhood milieu circa the 1950s, it’s a genteel recapitulation of the same world that’s been better evoked by the people who were actually there: Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets and Goodfellas, Robert De Niro in A Bronx Tale. Still, it’s competently rendered and benignly entertaining, an ideal weekday matinee to which you can take your grandmother.
Tammy (R, **1/2): Comedy superstar and SIU alumna Melissa McCarthy headlines her first film, three years after her career-making performance in Bridesmaids. The movie is a mixed bag that isn’t able to reconcile its tonal shifts from big-comedy setpieces and quieter, sometimes morose character moments, but it does give McCarthy ample opportunity to showcase her impressive range. She plays the title character, a good-natured buffoon with a hot temper who we meet on the worst day of her life. After crashing her car, getting fired, and discovering her husband’s infidelity, she hits the road with her saucy, sauced grandma (Susan Sarandon) for a road trip that turns out to be pretty aimless. Tammy hotdogs on a jetski, drives through a campground, robs a fast-food joint, sets fire to a car, and attends a lesbian Fourth of July party, but to what avail? The movie’s central flaw is that we never really know what it is that Tammy wants. It is funny, though, just intermittently and unsteadily, but even its flaws suggest further promise from director, cowriter, and SIU alum Ben Falcone, who errs on the side of more ambitious character-driven comedy than slapstick chicanery. McCarthy is as wonderful as ever, but aside from Sarandon and bit players Kathy Bates and Gary Cole, the rest of the stacked cast— which includes Dan Aykroyd, Sandra Oh, Nat Faxon, Allison Janney, and Toni Collette— doesn’t have much to do.
Transformers: Age of Extinction (PG-13, 1/2*): The Transformers cartoon of the 1980s was created as a marketing scheme: Rather than pay for commercial airtime to shill for their action figures, Hasbro made a half-hour advertisement posed as a cartoon that the networks would pay them to air. That same spirit pervades Michael Bay’s insultingly awful third sequel to the briefly amusing live-action adaptation, which prioritizes product placement above all things. There are commercials for Oreo, Beats, Victoria’s Secret, beer, ethanol, and even the Chinese government shoehorned into this unstructured, incoherent, relentless, repetitive assault of indistinguishable computer-generated robot fights that accomplish little more than beating your senses into submission so the marketing messages can seep in. Mark Wahlberg replaces the outgoing Shia LaBeouf as the friend of the Autobots who must help Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) fight off a new breed of Decepticons engineered by a Steve Jobsian inventor (Stanley Tucci) working with an American bureaucrat (Kelsey Grammer). It’s as unpleasant an experience as you’re likely to have in a movie theater that does not catch fire, and the running time stretches out to two hours and forty-five minutes, just five minutes shy of The Godfather. Awful, awful, awful.
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
> America (PG-13): Conservative conspiracy theorist Dinesh D'Souza’s latest so-called documentary, which no doubt blames all of the nation’s ills on the Clintons and Barack Obama and liberals. Yawn. (Wissmann)
> Begin Again (R): A fetching young singer (Keira Knightley) loses her bandmate and lover to a major-label deal and new girlfriends, but a new manager (Mark Ruffalo) helps get her mojo back.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (PG-13): In this sequel to the surprisingly excellent 2011 Apes reboot, a group of human survivors struggle to forge a fragile peace with the ape overlords who have overrun the planet. Andy Serkis returns as ape leader Caesar, with a whole new cast that includes Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, and Judy Green, plus new series director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In).
Earth to Echo (PG): Family friendly found-footage movie about a group of kids who band together to help a wayward alien. You might think of the alien as an extraterrestrial, or an E.T. of sorts. Perhaps. I mean, come on.
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.