Silver Screen: The Score Card, October 2, 2014 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
For more film reviews and capsules, see the Nightlife section of <http://www.CarbondaleRocks.com>.
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 Equalizer (R, **): Antoine Fuqua’s latest begins with the patient rhythms and careful composition of a more thoughtful and nuanced movie, but it turns out to be like sitting in a high-backed chair at a white-tablecloth restaurant to eat a frozen pizza. After a compelling slow-burn of a first half-hour leads to a startling, thrilling run-in between retired killer Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) and a group of Russian gangsters, the movie gives way to cartoon silliness that’s dissonant with its grim, bloody aesthetic. McCall becomes a kind of aging superhero that even an army of machine-gun-toting killers can’t stop, even if he’s armed with nothing more than the stock, off-the-shelves hammer at his local Home Depot. The movie too often shows its roots as a mostly forgotten 1980s action series, cramming a full season’s worth of subplots and murders into a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute slog.
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.
A Walk Among the Tombstones (R, ***): Liam Neeson plays yet another weary killer whose dormant skills are called back into operation. The names are changed, but almost everything else is the same. This time around he’s Matthew Scudder, a former cop who forsook his badge and his booze after a tragedy and now works as a private investigator. He’s paid $40,000 by a drug runner (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) to find the men who abducted his wife and killed her despite receiving the ransom. Director and screenwriter Scott Frank has previously adapted a particularly successful pair of Elmore Leonard novels, Get Shorty and Out of Sight, but their jauntiness and delightfully dizzying tone give way in this riff on the far grimmer, more lurid Lawrence Block, who specializes in cheap, queasy concoctions of sex and death. Frank’s assured direction and keen ear as well as Neeson’s overqualified presence help elevate the movie slightly above the below-average marks it deserves. The most improbable, clichéd subplot, involving Scudder’s plucky homeless teen sidekick (Brian “Astro” Bradley), turns out to be the ray of light the movie needs, even if some of the notes there do ring false.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> Annabelle (R): This spinoff of The Conjuring focuses on the demonic doll featured in that film’s story-within-a-story, who here terrorizes a couple following their brush with Satanists. Featuring Alfre Woodard.
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 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.
> Gone Girl (R): David Fincher adapts Gillian Flynn’s excellent mystery novel about a husband (Ben Affleck) accused of complicity in the disappearance of his wife (Rosamund Pike) when their marriage hits the skids. Featuring Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry.
> The Good Lie (PG-13): Reese Witherspoon stars in this inspiring true story about an employment-agency worker in Kansas who helps a group of African refuges known as the Lost Boys of the Sudan.
> Left Behind (PG-13): The bestselling series of thrillers/Christian propaganda first went into a dreadful straight-to-DVD series starring Kirk Cameron and now gets a more elaborate treatment. Nic Cage stars as an airline pilot struggling with the reality of being left on Earth with a handful of other sinners and survivors following the Biblical rapture. Shoulda paid those taxes, Nic.
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.
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.