Silver Screen: The Score Card, September 11, 2014 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
As Above, so Below (R, ***1/2): The catacombs beneath Paris make the perfect spooky location for a scary movie, and a late plot twist in this cheapie from cowriter and director John Erick Dowdle turns it into the mother of all horror-movie settings. It’s something of a shame that Dowdle, who also helmed the American remake Quarantine, relies yet again on the found-footage gimmick, although perhaps it’s the only approach that suited the small budget. Regardless, he and his cowriter, brother Drew Dowdle, provide the first good scares of 2014 in this atmospheric if occasionally silly flick. Perdita Weeks stars as an archaeologist carrying on her father’s quest to find the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, which she thinks she’s located in a secret vault in the catacombs. To retrieve it she recruits her reluctant ex-crush (Mad Men’s excellent Ben Feldman) along with a cameraman (Edwin Hodge) and a group of local urban explorers (Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, and Ali Marhyar). The first half-hour is a clunky pile of exposition, and occasionally the Dowdles show a lack of imagination and resort to stock scares off the bottom shelf, but once the action heads belowground, the movie builds palpable menace and keeps the tension ratcheted up until the final minutes.
< 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.
< Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (R, 1/2*): You’re excused for forgetting that Sin City was already a movie back in 2005, back in the early days of the comic-book movie trend when such an adaptation at least had novelty on its side. Nine years later, codirectors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller return for a second spin through Miller’s monochromatic comic-book world, but it goes nowhere. The end result is a useless pile of types, tropes, and hyperbole utterly lacking in substance or entertainment value. A strip club serves as the hub of activity where three or four B-movies’ worth of shady characters rub elbows. There’s Dwight (Josh Brolin), a hotheaded killer willing to do anything for the seductive Ava (Eva Green). Bullheaded bruiser Marv (Mickey Rourke) still spends his nights drooling over star attraction Nancy (Jessica Alba), but he’s willing to take a break every now and then for some semirandom murder. Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a gambler on a hot streak whose luck threatens to turn when he confronts a sleazy senator (Powers Boothe) with a family secret. The title story, a ho-hum James Cain riff done much better by dozens of other writers, especially James Cain, is the only one of any interest, thanks mostly to a dynamite, just-self-aware-enough performance from Green, whose nipples get more screentime than her prominently billed costar Bruce Willis. Other than Green, only Boothe has the ability to transcend the camp, and with his gravitas he towers over the rest of his costars in Miller’s self-indulgent ode to himself. The primary appeal of Miller’s popular comic books was always his blocky, hyper-stylized art, and they were always better to look at than to actually read. This vapid adaptation can’t even be improved with a mute button.
The Giver (PG-13, ***1/2): Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel was published during an era of hope and prosperity, but in retrospect it seems like the template for the current craze of dystopian young-adult fiction. Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) lives in a rigidly controlled society risen from the ashes of a long-ago war. The council of Elders (led by Meryl Streep) impose strict rules on language and thoughts, and keep the population thoroughly medicated. Jonas is chosen to be the community’s Receiver, the one member of the group allowed access to the shared memories and cultural history of the old world. In his lessons from the former Receiver (Jeff Bridges), Jonas learns the complexities and risks of the ideas and emotions now forbidden, and begins to suspect that the new order is an unsuitable replacement for the messier but freer society it replaced. Phillip Noyce’s mostly faithful adaptation is as deliberate and controlled as the world it creates, but flush with heady ideas and intense emotion. It’s slower and talkier than its contemporary counterparts, without the action-adventure power fantasies of blockbuster fare like The Hunger Games and Divergent, but the commentary is more pointed for it, assuming today’s teen audience has a tolerance for a chatty movie shot partly in black and white. Like Lowry’s excellent book, the film version is aimed at a younger demographic but never panders to it, and with superb performances by Bridges and Streep, as well as a heartbreakingly naïve Alexander Skarsgård, The Giver becomes the most thoughtful entry in an overcrowded genre.
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.
< 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.
The November Man (R, **): Roger Donaldson’s spy thriller based on Bill Granger’s novel series aims to split the difference between the superspy shootouts of James Bond and the existential crises and geopolitical machinations of John le Carre and Graham Greene, and in doing so it misses both targets. The movie certainly wears its 007 pedigree prominently: It stars former occupant of the tuxedo Pierce Brosnan alongside former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko. Brosnan’s Peter Devereaux is a CIA agent in retirement until he’s brought back to rescue a colleague and find a first-hand witness who can testify in a war crimes trial against an ascendant Russian politician. Kurylenko’s resourceful social worker aids him with the search, but several interested parties are in the hunt as well, including Devereaux’s estranged protégé (Luke Bracey). The crux of the movie should be the rivalry between the student and the master, but that plotline keeps getting tossed aside for chase scenes and gunfights to speed the action along. Bracey is decent but lacks the charisma to match his vastly more charismatic sparring partner. Watching their handful of scenes together is a bit like sitting through a woefully lopsided tennis match— it doesn’t even look like that much fun for the winner.
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.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> Dolphin Tale II (PG): In this sequel to the family friendly tearjerker, a group of marine biologists (including Morgan Freeman and Harry Connick Jr.), along with the help of a plucky kid (Nathan Gamble), must find a mate for their rescued dolphin. Also featuring Ashley Judd and Kris Kristofferson.
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.
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).
The Identical (PG): Two brothers, both musicians but separated by birth, experience completely different levels of success. Starring Blake Rayne in a dual role as both brothers.
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.
> No Good Deed (PG-13): A suburban housewife (Taraji P. Henson) does a favor for a mysterious stranger (Idris Elba) that puts her life in jeopardy in this latest in a recent spate of home-invasion thrillers.
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.