Silver Screen: The Score Card, September 25, 2014 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
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.
The Drop (R, ****1/2): This understated, affecting adaptation of a short story from novelist and screenwriter Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, The Wire) succeeds in large part because of its narrow scope and tight focus, but the small scale of the plot doesn’t diminish the movie’s emotional wallop. Cousins Bob (Tom Hardy) and Marv (James Gandolfini) go through the motions of running a dingy bar that’s actually a front for Chechen gangsters. The boys are jolted out of their torpid routine by a pair of incidents: Bob adopts an abused dog with the help of a troubled neighbor lady (Noomi Rapace) with a vindictive ex-boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts), and Marv’s bar is robbed of $5,000 of the Chechens’ money. The seemingly unrelated incidents stir up secrets of the past and force the men to reconcile long-buried animosities in this devastating, slow-burning crime story that favors character development over tired noir tropes. Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead) perfectly captures the rhythms and textures of the neighborhood in all its dilapidated glory. He makes a truly cinematic movie out of a great script that would work nearly as well as an intimate stageplay. Everyone in the small cast shines, but Hardy and Gandolfini excel, the former draping his bulky frame in oversized sweaters that can’t quite hide his simmering physicality, the latter struggling to turn his world-weariness and lifetime of regrets into some kind of goomba Buddha wisdom. This is the last film with the late, great Gandolfini, and it’s a small mercy that his swan song is so elegant. Perhaps the greatest endorsement Roskam’s wonderfully textured movie could receive is to say that it’s deserving of being the actor’s final work.
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?
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.
The Maze Runner (PG-13, ***): The latest adaptation of a dystopian young-adult novel distinguishes itself from the crowded pack by mostly shirking the pandering adornments and special-effects flourishes of its contemporaries in favor of focused storytelling. Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) awakens with no memories in a verdant clearing surrounded on all sides by a massive concrete maze. He joins a society of similarly mind-wiped boys who have formed a society as they search for a way out of their elaborate confines—and for answers as to who put them there. First-time feature director Wes Ball does a nice job of keeping the pace crisp and the high-concept premise clear. The movie benefits greatly from a lack of overly complicated backstory, although during the final ten minutes the piper must be paid and some of the mysteries must be solved. The answers, alas, point to an overarching storyline that’s too familiar and which seems destined to collapse into sci-fi absurdity in the same way the TV series Lost came apart when it had to start answering questions rather than posing them. Despite the unsatisfying conclusion and likelihood of seriously inferior sequels, this installment at least remains engaging throughout. Featuring a strong young cast that includes Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter, Ki Hong Lee, and Aml Ameen.
No Good Deed (PG-13, *): Making a pun on the title is a movie critic’s lamest retort, but you can’t make a movie as terrible as No Good Deed and put No Good right there on the poster. This unsubtle clunker wants to be a home-invasion thriller with psychosexual undertones, but only winds up imbuing a straight-to-DVD-caliber story with icky subtext that suggests the movie’s trusting, neglected housewife victim (Taraji P. Henson) and her sexually voracious best friend (Leslie Bibb) partly invite doom on themselves when they fall for the charms of a seductive stranger (Idris Elba) who comes to the door seeking help. Director Sam Miller, working from Aimee Lagos’s tin-eared script, wants to posit Elba’s calculating psychopath as a kind of blue-collar Hannibal Lecter, but the movie isn’t nearly smart enough to capture the evil complexity of such a character, even if Elba himself is more than up to the task. Henson’s helpless housewife-turned-heroine is at turns presented as naïve, overly cautious, streetwise, clueless, oversexed, and resourceful— no wonder she can never get a handle on the character, who’s infuriatingly obtuse right up until she suddenly transforms into a wily survivor, long past the point we’ve stopped caring.
< 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
> The Boxtrolls (PG): The impressive stop-motion animation studio responsible for Paranorman and Coraline presents another animated family friendly feature, this time about a boy who discovers the secret underground world of trash-collecting trolls. Based on the children’s book Here Be Monsters, and featuring the voices of Ben Kingsley, Tracy Morgan, Simon Pegg, and Elle Fanning.
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 Equalizer (R): Training Day director Antoine Fuqua and star Denzel Washington reunite for this big-screen adaptation of the mostly forgotten 1980s TV series. Washington plays a loner with a past as a professional killer who is inadvertently caught up in a struggle with the Russian mob when he comes to the aid of a young girl (Chloë Grace Moretz). Featuring Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman.
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 Identical (PG): Two brothers, both musicians but separated at 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.
> My Old Lady (PG-13): Writer / director Israel Horovitz leads an excellent cast about an American man (Kevin Kline) who inherits French real estate, but his father’s will allows a woman (Maggie Smith) to remain there for the duration of her life with her daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas).
This Is Where I Leave You (R): A stacked cast including Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Connie Britton, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, and Dax Shepard play members of a family reunited following the death of their patriarch in Jonathan Tropper’s adaptation of his own novel, directed by Night at the Museum’s Shawn Levy.
A Walk Among the Tombstones (R): AARP-approved badass Liam Neeson plays a private investigator paid to find out who killed the wife of a crime boss in this adaptation of a Lawrence Block novel from Scott Frank, whose debut caper flick was the wonderful, underappreciated The Lookout.
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.