Silver Screen: The Score Card, July 31, 2014 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
Begin Again (R, ***1/2): Writer-director John Carney’s latest doesn’t stray too far from the territory he carved out in his biggest hit, Once, an Oscar-nominated musical love story about a pair of buskers who express their growing love in the tunes they write and perform. Here Keira Knightley stars as one half of a songwriting couple who broke up after the other half (Adam Levine) found big success with a movie soundtrack. Adrift, she crosses paths with a down-on-his-luck music producer (Mark Ruffalo) who decides she’s the next big thing, or at least the next good thing. His not-so-great idea is to launch her career with a demo of songs recorded entirely on the streets of New York City, an acoustical nightmare this romanticized pseudo-realist movie finds perfectly acceptable. The movie’s stakes are almost criminally low, but the characters are nicely fleshed out and well-acted by the leads (as well as a solid supporting cast including Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, Mos Def, and James Corden). Most importantly, the songs are pretty good. It’s a bauble, but a pretty one, and a nice showcase for Ruffalo and Knightley, the latter of whom is a convincing singer.
< 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.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (PG-13, ****1/2): Matt Reeves’s followup to the surprisingly good reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the Godfather Part II of ape movies— or The Dark Knight of ape movies, if you prefer. Research project turned super-intelligent ape Caesar (based on the motion-captured performance of Andy Serkis) led an uprising of his fellow creatures, whom he dosed with the same chemicals that led to his enlightenment. A decade later the genetic mutation has spawned the simian flu, which has killed off most of mankind, while Caesar has formed an ever-evolving society outside San Francisco. When a group of humans (led by Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke) stumble across the apes’ enclave, both societies are thrown into an uproar. Clarke’s levelheaded man of action works with Caesar to forge a peace, but the reactionaries on both sides push for war. Reeves and his team of screenwriters do a wonderful job of balancing heady concepts and eye-popping spectacle. The apes are brilliantly rendered and more emotionally complex than their human counterparts. This is the summer’s best blockbuster— smart, thrilling, and richly imagined. Also featuring Keri Russell.
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.
Lucy (R, ***): The entire premise of writer/director Luc Besson’s new sci-fi action mashup is based on the misconception that human beings use only ten percent of their total brain capacity. That makes this a high-concept movie whose concept is entirely incorrect. Yet Besson’s gleeful stupidity and manic enthusiasm, along with a real flair for the frenzied and garish, help to create a fun, breezy blockbuster, even if enjoying it requires that you use way less than ten percent of your own mind. Scarlett Johansson stars as the title character, a party girl accidentally caught up in a deadly transaction with a Korean gangster (Oldboy’s Min-Sik Choi) inexplicably living in China. She’s forced to mule a new synthetic brain-boosting drug, but when she’s accidentally exposed to it she becomes a hyper-intelligent, constantly evolving badass-cum-superheroine who blasts her way through mobsters on her way to a higher plane of consciousness. The movie’s breakneck pace and hand-holding exposition (provided by Morgan Freeman) help viewers ignore the less-adroit leaps in logic and bizarre inconsistencies and just enjoy this madcap, clueless, but ambitious piece of genre candy.
The Purge: Anarchy (R, **1/2): If you ignore that it was in no way good, 2013’s The Purge is ideal sequel fodder. The star wasn’t the top-billed actor, but rather the hysterical high concept that in near-future America, crime and poverty and have been significantly alleviated by a new program called the Purge, an annual twelve-hour event during which all emergency services are suspended and all laws nullified. The original confined itself to the home of one hapless family, recalling John Carpenter’s 1976 classic Assault on Precinct Thirteen. In the sequel, writer and director James DeMonaco amps up the Carpenterian social commentary (and attending love of gun violence and wonderfully hysterical metaphors) and takes the action to the streets, focusing on a group of disparate strangers (Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Carmen Ejogo, and Zoe Soul) as they follow a nameless, revenge-driven antihero (Frank Grillo) through the chaos of Purge-night Los Angeles in search of safety. Evidence of a conspiracy mounts, hinted at early on in viral videos of revolutionary leader Carmello (Michael K. Williams). Frustratingly, all the substance of the larger plot is left to implication and vague suggestion (along with hints of elaboration in a teased second sequel). The social commentary swings between blunt and garbled, a not-so-deadly combination of secondhand insights embellished with a meaningless hodgepodge of subversive iconography. But the end result is dark, shrill fun that at least has the courtesy to hark back to the work of better, more compelling filmmakers.
Sex Tape (R, *): Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz costar as a bored married couple who make a sex tape, only to find out they accidentally sent digital copies to their friends and family in this limp, unsatisfying comedy. Rather than deal with the intriguing and very real modern problem of inadvertently broadcasting intimate moments to the public, director Jake Kasdan, working from a script by Segel, Nicholas Stoller, and Kate Angelo, turns the story into a one-crazy-night romp in which the two stars dash around town trying to recover all the various iPads onto which they uploaded their sex session. It turns the sex tape into a MacGuffin and an excuse for broad comic setpieces rather than the subject of the movie itself. The jokes are mostly flat and come seemingly at random. Why does costar Rob Lowe have a tattoo of rapper Easy-E and paintings of famous Disney scenes with his face superimposed on them? Absolutely no reason at all. Worse than the film’s squandering of a solid premise and barrage of uninspired gags is its unpleasantly sex-negative attitudes, in which a happy, hardworking married couple are punished for indulging in the most minor of conjugal kinks. Only America could produce a movie that’s simultaneously so vulgar yet chaste and repressive.
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.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
And so It Goes (PG-13): Michael Douglas stars as a realtor who must adapt to family life with the help of his neighbor (Diane Keaton) after his estranged son unexpectedly leaves him in charge of his granddaughter. Directed by Rob Reiner.
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)
> Get on Up (PG-13): Does anyone’s life seem less likely for a PG-13 retelling than wildman and Godfather of Soul James Brown? That’s the version The Help director Tate Taylor brings to the screen, although he has a secret weapon in star Chadwick Boseman, the best part of Forty-two and Draft Day. Also featuring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Dan Aykroyd.
> Guardians of the Galaxy (PG-13): An American pilot (Chris Pratt) with half-alien ancestry recruits a team of intergalactic oddballs (including Zoe Saldana and the digitally modified Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper) to rescue a mysterious object, foil a villain, and save the universe— standard stuff for Marvel’s latest superhero movie, which has a dry-humored tone and is directed by modern B-movie favorite James Gunn.
Hercules (PG-13): Dwayne Johnson stars in the title role as the demigod son of Zeus who here must lead an army in battle against hordes of computer-generated monsters with the help of his trusty friends (including Deadwood’s Ian McShane) and some supermodels (Irina Shayk, Barbara Palvin). Directed by Brett Ratner.
> I Origins (R): Mike Cahill explores the relationship between science and religion in this sci-fi film starring Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, and Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead). (Wissmann)
< Persecuted (PG-13): In an elaborate conspiracy, Christians are persecuted for their beliefs. As if Obama were Caligula. (Wissmann)
Planes: Fire and Rescue (PG): Sequel to the Cars spinoff about airplanes, in particular a plucky cropduster (voiced by Dane Cook) who takes a job as an aerial firefighter, because if there’s one thing sentient planes hate, it’s deforestation. Also featuring the voices of Cedric the Entertainer, Teri Hatcher, Stacy Keach, and Hal Holbrook.
< Third Person (R): The latest Altman-esque attempt to tie together disparate storylines by often-overrated director Paul Haggis (Crash). Starring a pretty amazing cast, including Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, James Franco, Mila Kunis, and Adrien Brody. (Wissmann)
> Wish I Was Here (R): Zach Braff makes his first return to directing since 2004’s well-received Garden State. This one seems to explore the anxieties of thirtysomethings— basically the kind of characters who populated Garden State, but about ten years later. (Wissmann)