Silver Screen: The Score Card, October 16, 2014 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
Annabelle (R, ***1/2): One of the highlights of last year’s enjoyable haunted house flick The Conjuring was a little story-within-a-story that played like a self-contained short film, in which a creepy doll menaces an apartment full of student nurses. That doll, Annabelle, gets her own spinoff courtesy of first-time screenwriter Gary Dauberman and Conjuring director of photography John Leonetti. Annabelle’s first appearance succeeded in large part because of its brevity— how long can you string out the clattering footsteps and tiny shadows of a killer-doll tale?— but here the filmmakers find a way to expand the story without exhausting the tropes of the evil-dummy movie. Annabelle comes to be possessed by a dying cult member following a Manson Family-esque attack that scars newlyweds Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton). They relocate, but a series of strange disturbances follows them, not to mention the damned doll, who John can’t seem to effectively throw away. Eventually the movie does dole out some classic killer-doll iconography in the form of clip-clopping feet and tiny shadows, but screenwriter Dauberman’s innovation is to make the doll a totem for the ghost rather than a literal reincarnation of the dead girl. That allows solid cinematographer Leonetti to play with seriously spooky images, including an age-changing ghost and a fearsome horned demon. The movie is just as silly as you want a killer-doll movie to be... but not so silly it might not cross your mind later that night when you turn out the lights.
The Boxtrolls (PG, ****): This wonderful stop-motion-animated feature from the studio that created ParaNorman and Coraline is a storybook tale heavy on the allegory but never just heavy. In the peculiar town of Cheesebridge, nefarious social climber Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley) schemes to rise to the top of the town hierarchy by promising to rid the streets of the boxtrolls, a harmless group of cardboard-dwelling gremlins who love to build rather than destroy. Snatcher frames the boxtrolls for the kidnapping of a child who is actually an orphan adopted by the subterranean critters, who raise the tot, named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright). With the help of his new friend Winnie (Elle Fanning), a preteen Eggs must ascend to the city streets to prove his adopted family means humans no harm. The Boxtrolls has just the right amount of salty satire; the city elders (led by an especially funny Jared Harris) spend all their time eating fancy cheeses in “the tasting room,” not to be distracted by petty endeavors like building a children’s hospital. Snatcher’s henchmen (voiced by the great trio of Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan) ponder the nature of thugdom and come up with a philosophy eerily similar to “We were just following orders.” But this dynamite debut from relative newcomers Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi isn’t dour, it’s delightful, and its titular creatures are lumpily endearing. They speak their own silly, indecipherable language, yet their personalities are clearly distinguished and emotions beautifully conveyed through the pure animation of gesture and expression thanks to more stellar work from the folks at the independent animation studio Laika.
< 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.
Gone Girl (R, ****1/2): Director David Fincher helms this fantastic adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s terrific novel, the book everyone is talking about that you can’t talk about without spoiling the surprise. The entire, meticulously constructed plot hinges on a big revelation that pivots the story into an entirely new direction without sacrificing fidelity to what has come before it. But this is no one-note M. Night Shyamalan reversal. The film is deliriously twisty throughout and maintains an incredible amount of suspense for the entire duration of its generous but not excessive two-and-a-half hour running time. Here’s what you can know going in: Ben Affleck stars as Nick, one half of an unhappy couple forced into humility by the recession and family health issues. When his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, the investigating detective (Kim Dickens) is suspicious of the kidnapping story. Evidence begins to mount against Nick, who suspects the culprit may be one of Amy’s obsessive ex-boyfriends (Neil Patrick Harris and Scoot McNairy). The truth is startling— and don’t let anyone tell you what that truth is before seeing this for yourself, one of the year’s most intoxicating movies, a truly unnerving psychological headtrip that earns its place among the pantheon of unforgettable thrillers by the likes of Thomas Harris and Ira Levin.
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?
The Judge (R, *1/2): The presence of powerhouse actors Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. can only do so much to steady this wildly uneven attempt at a prestige picture, which mashes together a legal thriller and syrupy homecoming drama. Slick Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) is the kind of fast-talking, self-assured prick movies love to put in their place with a double dose of homespun wisdom plied by a feisty ex-girlfriend and the forgotten townsfolk. There’s plenty of that when the prodigal son of a bitch returns for his mother’s funeral, but while he’s back his domineering father (Duvall), an aging judge, is accused of murdering a guilty man he once set free. The film works much better when it shifts into legal-thriller mode. Downey is fairly well-anchored, but the movie sways uneasily around him, and in its worst moments trawls for sympathy with a mentally challenged character played alternately for pathos and laughs. Actually, in its worst moments it teases an incest subplot, then playfully downgrades it to a lesser form of incest. So, happy ending? Supporting players Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton, Dax Shepard, Grace Zabriskie, and Dennis O’Hare are all reliably good, but the film’s handful of strong scenes can’t be neatly separated from the rest of the mess.
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.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> Addicted (R): When a gallery worker falls for an artist, her life spins out of control. Directed by Bille Woodruff.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (PG): Judith Viorst’s popular kids’ book comes to the big screen featuring Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Bella Thorne, and newcomer Ed Oxenbould as Alexander, who wakes up with gum in his hair only to find that his day gets much, much worse from there.
> The Best of Me (PG-13): The ninth feature film by writer Nicholas Sparks features a pair of young lovers (Liana Liberato and Luke Bracey in flashback, Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden in the present) reunited after a torturous separation. With the south and beaches and an evil rich guy, and all the Nicholas Sparks stuff.
> The Book of Life (PG): In this computer-animated family friendly fable studded with pop songs, young Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) must travel through three worlds on a grand journey to win the love of his lady (Zoe Saldana). Featuring the voices of Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Danny Trejo, and Christina Applegate.
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.
Dracula Untold (PG-13): In this effects-centric prequel story, Dracula (Luke Evans) is a noble royal willing to make a deal with the devil to gain the powers necessary to stop an evil horde from overtaking his kingdom.
Fury (R): A flinty tank commander (Brad Pitt) leads a crew of men (including Michael Pena, Shia LaBeouf, Scott Eastwood, and Logan Lerman) on a dangerous mission into enemy territory in the waning days of World War II in the latest from writer-director David Ayer (End of Watch).
< 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.
> A Matter of Faith (PG): Fundamentalist Christian antievolution agitprop about a father who fears his daughter’s mind is being tainted by a college professor who believes in science. Sadly, starring Night Court’s Harry Anderson as the professor.
< 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.
< Unfair: The Movie (NR): One-night only screening of an antitax documentary diatribe that puts the ire in I.R.S.
< 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.