Silver Screen: The Score Card, August 28, 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.
Boyhood (R, ****1/2): Time is the unbilled costar of Richard Linklater’s quiet but audacious film twelve years in the making. For more than a decade Linklater and his cast spent a few weeks each year shooting scenes for this coming-of-age drama so that the movie’s young protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane) could grow up in real time. Linklater mostly avoids high drama and rites of passage in favor of small moments and modest epiphanies. Mason is raised by his beleaguered single mother (Patricia Arquette) along with his domineering older sister (Lorelei Linklater), but his absentee father (Ethan Hawke) eventually settles into maturity and reluctant fatherhood. Linklater’s significant appeal is the balance between his intellectual curiosity and grounded, workmanlike approach, and here he brilliantly merges concept art with plainspoken narrative. He’s so keen to avoid turning Mason’s childhood into a series of episodes and signposts pointing toward some kind of destiny that occasionally he errs on the side of making the boy’s life too uneventful, so much so that the character is at times indistinct. Still, it’s a remarkable, affecting, thought-provoking movie, a towering achievement that’s also extremely enjoyable to watch. This is no arthouse chore. The two-hours-and-forty-five minutes of screen time rush past, propelled forward by a timely soundtrack and the momentum of the years.
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.
Guardians of the Galaxy (PG-13, ***1/2): James Gunn’s sci-fi/superhero mashup gallivants through the cosmos, but it seems to exist in some different universe altogether where such movies are actually fun. Gunn’s candy-colored pop fantasy is the opposite of Christopher Nolan’s dreary Batman movies, and it’s driven more by tone than narrative. The shaggy-dog space comedy exists within a fairly familiar structure that, ultimately, doesn’t matter much at all. The plot— about the search for a missing gemstone that can destroy entire worlds— is secondary, an excuse to gather together the bickering team of genetically modified, gun-toting raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), his sentient tree-man bodyguard Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), the green-skinned rebel daughter (Zoe Saldana) of cosmic overlord Thanos (Josh Brolin), and literal-minded hulk Drax (wrestler Dave Bautista) under the leadership of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a fast-talking spaceman thief. The movie flits from one brightly colored sci-fi setpiece to another, disposing with its good ideas as quickly as its bad ones. There’s as much nutritional value here as you might find in a box of Pixy Stix, but it tastes just as sweet. This is pure, inconsequential frivolity, but then again, when did we start taking superhero movies so seriously?
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.
Let’s Be Cops (R, ***1/2): Summer 2014 turns out to be an awkward time in America to pretend to be a police officer. Lucky for director and cowriter Luke Greenfield, this summertime comedy is too frivolous and laid-back to bump up against any social issues, which is both a saving grace and a setback. Two college buddies (The New Girl’s Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr.) who flounder after graduation find themselves earning undue respect when they put on a pair of police uniforms to attend a costume party. It’s such an easy way to meet women that they push the gag a step further and start trying to do actual policework, inadvertently foiling a criminal scheme and rousing the ire of a bloodthirsty gangster (James D’Arcy). Whenever actual plot development enters the fray, the comic momentum is Tazed into submission. Mostly, though, director and cowriter Luke Greenfield lets his stars run amok on the streets of Los Angeles to great effect. Johnson and Wayans Jr. are an excellent pair, aided by ace supporting players Rob Riggle and Keegan-Michael Key. Satire is supposed to use laughter to expose deeper truths, but sometimes even effective comedy can have the opposite result and, through repetition, reduce real horror to a familiar punchline. This movie only positions itself as lightweight fun, but in these tumultuous times it has to be held accountable for being the opposite of food for thought.
< 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.
< Magic in the Moonlight (PG-13, **): Woody Allen’s output of a movie every year since 1982 has yielded many great films— and a few trifles in the years between the more inspired efforts. His latest seems particularly compulsory, a result of a reflexive creative approach. Stage magician and semiprofessional skeptic Stanley (Colin Firth) is enlisted by a wealthy family to prove that cutie-pie psychic Sophie (Emma Stone) is a fraud looking to swindle their lovelorn heir (Hamish Linklater). When Stanley is unable to disprove Sophie’s seemingly supernatural abilities, his eyes open to a new world of possibilities— including big feelings for the little medium. Magic in the Moonlight’s greatest asset is Firth, who’s nicely cast as one of Allen’s acerbic curmudgeons, but he has absolutely no chemistry with the separately adorable Stone. The age discrepancy is a big problem, but an even bigger one is the script’s total lack of reason for the two to fall for one another. A plot twist late in the film makes their relationship even more improbable in retrospect. Firth gets off a few good quips, but most of the dialogue is exceptionally stiff, and for a movie with magic in the title it feels awfully rote and programmatic.
< A Most Wanted Man (R, ***1/2): The late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final starring role reminds us why he was one of the great actors of his time. Even with the specter of his tragic demise looming over this final project, he still manages to force the audience to suspend disbelief as he disappears into the role of Gunther Bachmann, the leader of a secret counterterrorism agency operating out of Hamburg, Germany. Bachmann’s team has eyes on Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen militant and devout Muslim who arrives in the city illegally, with mysterious purpose. The rest of the international-intelligence community, including an inscrutable American agent (Robin Wright), wants Issa brought in immediately, but Bachmann insists on keeping him free to set up a local spiritual leader and philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) who’s potentially a major financier of global terrorist cells. The film is based on the novel of the same name by John le Carré, whose spy stories are the antithesis of Ian Fleming’s James Bond power fantasies. Bachmann’s world is lonely, secretive, and claustrophobic— he’s trapped on all sides by grim realities and overlapping, often conflicting truths. Hoffman’s powerhouse performance is laced with subtle hesitation and regret. He pushes his weight out in front of him like a self-guided wrecking ball and rarely makes eye contact, not because he’s intimidated but because he’s thinking of three other things at once. The movie lags a little when he’s offscreen and it’s left to the devices of Rachel McAdams as a sympathetic liberal lawyer, but when Hoffman is onscreen he dominates. Especially wonderful are his handful of scenes with Willem Dafoe as a banker caught between family loyalty and legal obligation. Director Anton Corbijn’s film is fine and well-controlled, one of the better le Carré adaptations, but it exists mostly as a showcase for Hoffman, who reminds us once more how greatly he will be missed.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (PG-13, *): Director, producer, nostalgia-monger, and caricature of a human being Michael Bay oversees this reboot of the popular 1990s toy-and-cartoon marketing behemoth about four mutated turtles who learn karate from their talking-rat sensei in order to battle the oppressive Foot Clan gang. Bay, along with never-good director Jonathan Liebesman and a cadre of screenwriters, stuff the Turtles tropes into a readymade superhero origin-story mold. The result saps most of the kooky, campy fun and leaves only a soulless barrage of frenzied but uninspired digital effects. The Foot Clan is reduced to a generic paramilitary organization and their leader, Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), is hidden inside a preposterous, anime-inspired suit made of swords and hyperbole; it looks like someone turned HBO’s Iron Throne setpiece into a winter coat. When the Turtles aren’t onscreen, wacky sidekick Will Arnett does his best to mug and riff some life into the inert movie, which drags as it lingers over the backstory of plucky, vacant reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox). The Turtles at least retain a bit of wisecracking energy, although their bulky redesign in this slightly grimmer incarnation makes them look heavy and overburdened, yet not quite aligned with their real-world setting. The leaps lack gravity, the punches have no impact, and often the combat is reduced to a frenzied motion blur. Bay succeeds, though, in that this was only ever about marketing tie-ins and the perpetuation of a franchise by perfunctorily programming its own sequel. Because Michael Bay doesn’t make things, Michael Bay makes more of things.
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
> As Above, so Below (R): A group of explorers (including Mad Men’s Ben Feldman) descend into the catacombs beneath Paris for an expedition and discover hidden evil in the latest from director and cowriter John Erick Dowdle, whose earlier work includes the English-language remake of Quarantine and the endearingly schlocky Devil.
< 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.
The Expendables III (PG-13): Third installment in the series whose plots are secondary to their catch-all cast list of former action stars, here including Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Antonio Banderas, and Jet Li, along with, inexplicably, Kelsey Grammer.
Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (R): Nine years after the original, comic-book artist and writer Frank Miller reteams with cowriter and director Robert Rodriguez to adapt another anthology of his highly stylized hardboiled stories about the cops, crooks, and victims in a gritty neo-noir fantasy city. Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, and Powers Boothe return alongside newcomers Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ray Liotta, Eva Green, and Christopher Lloyd.
The Giver (PG-13): Before The Hunger Games, there was Lois Lowry’s young-adult dystopian novel about a young boy (played in this adaption by Brenton Thwaites) living in a seemingly pain-free society who is chosen to learn the realities that keep the world in order. Featuring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, and Taylor Swift.
The Hundred-Foot Journey (PG): Helen Mirren stars as the prickly manager of a French restaurant who is put off by the arrival of an immigrant family who opens a nearby eatery, but whose icy façade melts when she sees the talent in young chef Hassan (Manish Dayal), who falls for one of her employees (Charlotte Le Bon).
If I Stay (PG-13): Chloë Grace Moretz stars as a young girl put into a coma by a car accident where, during an out-of-body experience, she must decide whether or not to return to life.
Into the Storm (PG-13): Townsfolk and storm chasers must combine forces to survive a deadly series of computer-generated tornadoes that descend upon a Midwestern hamlet in this disastersploitation flick.
The November Man (R): Pierce Brosnan stars as a former CIA agent who must come out of retirement to contend with his former trainee (Luke Bracey). Featuring former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko.
< What If (PG-13): Daniel Radcliffe continues to dodge his Harry Potter superstardom in this low-key indie film about two best friends who might just be in love. Zoe Kazan costars. (Wissmann)
When the Game Stands Tall (PG): Jim Caviezel stars in this inspirational sports flick about real-life high-school football coach Bob Ladouceur, whose team won 151 consecutive games. Featuring Michael Chiklis and Laura Dern.