Silver Screen: The Score Card, November 6, 2014 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
< 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.
Dracula Untold (PG-13, **1/2): This prequel to Bram Stoker’s classic horror tale answers all the burning origin-story questions you never had any interest in asking, such as “Did Dracula used to be a real good dad?” and “Before he was a bloodthirsty creature of the night, how were his sword-dueling skills?” In this revisionist take, Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) is a hunky soldier who feels really bad about all that impaling he did. He’s forced to make a deal with a demonic creature (the wonderfully menacing Charles Dance) to gain the powers of the vampire to save his family and kingdom from a horde of invading Turkish soldiers. The result is much less a horror movie than an episode of Game of Thrones that, in an ironic twist, has been softened and edited for content to be suitable for the big screen. Director Gary Shore wisely keeps it brief, and it is passably entertaining as pure dum-dum spectacle. The sight of Evans exploding into an army of vengeful bats and wreaking havoc on armies is fleetingly cool, although it fails to resonate half as much as Charles Dance using shadows, prosthetic fingernails, and the timbre of his voice to creep you out. It’s a shame this all wasn’t a five-minute flashback in the spooky Dracula movie we’d all rather see, starring the imposing Dance, who shows the potential to be an heir to the greats like Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., and Christopher Lee.
< 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.
Fury (R, ***): Writer/director David Ayer makes a familiar war-is-hell case in this story about an American tank crew storming into Germany during the waning days of World War II, but the movie’s brutal realism is sometimes undercut by the movie’s queasy bursts of nihilistic glee. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) has led his men through three years of fighting without a casualty until April 1945, when his gunner is shot and replaced by a fresh-faced innocent (Logan Lerman). Wardaddy and his cohorts (including Michael Peña, Shia LaBeouf, and Jon Bernthal) indoctrinate the newbie into the ways of combat, which forces them to examine their own lost humanity. This is an intense, viscerally powerful movie, but too often Ayer’s insistence on leering at every mangled corpse and exploding head threatens to tip it into war porn. His fidelity to realism unfortunately stops when the tank battles begin and the action is clear and thrilling in a way that thrills just when the movie should be repelling. The nods toward verisimilitude don’t carry over to the inside of the tank, which isn’t particularly grimy, smoky, or claustrophobic. Fury is solid and well-acted, but inferior to the subtler, more affecting Israeli film Lebanon, where the action is confined almost entirely to the inside of the tank.
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. It’s a truly unnerving psychological headtrip that earns its place among the pantheon of unforgettable thrillers by the likes of Thomas Harris and Ira Levin.
< John Wick (R, ***): In this stylish action thriller, Keanu Reeves plays the titular hitman who comes out of retirement when the son of a Russian mob boss kills his dog. Not unlike Wilson’s far superior Yip Man, in which Donnie Yen dispatched a legion of assailants with his bare hands, John Wick makes no pretense that anyone stands a chance against its ruthless hero. We are asked simply to marvel at his deadly artistry. Stuntmen turned codirectors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski stage some excellently choreographed action sequences, and the excellent supporting cast includes Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, Dean Winters, and Lance Reddick. That said, it’s also a grim, dehumanizing bummer. If you can’t get me to care about your story without graphically beating a puppy to death, maybe you shouldn’t be in the storytelling business.
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.
Nightcrawler (R, ****): Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s debut feature, about a sociopathic freelance news journalist, works infinitely better as a character study than an alarmist media critique. His hand-wringing about the increasing salaciousness of TV news is woefully outdated and belongs back in the 1970s with the movie’s primary influences, namely Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. But when Gilroy delves into the icily unknowable Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose total lack of empathy makes him perfectly suited to a job flitting around the fringes of tragedy, it sings. Gyllenhaal gives the best performance of his career, which is significant given his outstanding résumé (Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, Zodiac, Prisoners). The weight he lost for the role sharpens his softer features and gives him a scarecrow’s hollow-eyed visage. With the help of his guileless right-hand man (Riz Ahmed), he patrols nighttime Los Angeles in search of footage for a desperate, craven news director (Rene Russo). The chase doesn’t drive Louis to extremes, but rather reveals the extremes lurking within him the whole time. Gilroy’s impressive first outing is most compelling when making the case that Louis isn’t so much a media monster as a monster who found a comfortable home in the media.
Ouija (PG-13, *): A horror movie based on a Parker Brothers board game was probably never going to be great, but it didn’t have to be this bad. Rather than use the titular game as a plot device in a more free-standing horror story, director and cowriter Stiles White fashions an entire movie around the Ouija rules— who knew there were rules?— yet can’t stick to his own set of silly guidelines. It’s never clear exactly how this group of teenagers, played by thirty-year-old actors, is being killed, or how they might be able to stop it, which drains away the suspense and makes all the deaths seem both inevitable and arbitrary. What’s left is a shoddy, atmosphere-free ghost story about a girl (Olivia Cooke) trying to contact her dead best friend (Shelly Hennig) and stumbling on a few other, less-friendly spirits. The movie is blatantly cheap, but it’s not a grungy, enjoyably sloppy cheapness; the aesthetic is far less do-it-yourself-punk than it is plastic Walmart knockoff. Thanks to its limited ambition, though, it’ll probably earn back its tiny budget several times over. If that dooms us to a sequel, allow me to humbly suggest a Monopoly board that can actually send you to jail.
Saint Vincent (PG-13, ***): This by-the-numbers dramedy about a crusty codger and the little boy who melts his heart is competently executed but would be otherwise unmemorable minus its stellar cast, most notably Bill Murray, king of the cynics and wiseasses. Murray gives Vincent a blue-collar soulfulness only hinted at in the script. His ability to charm without betraying his character’s world-weariness is what allows him to sell that redemption without sacrificing authenticity. He’s nicely matched with Melissa McCarthy, showing some real range and serious dramatic chops as a beleaguered single mother caught between a bad solution and an impossible choice. Even the kid, newcomer Jaeden Lieberher, is subtler and smarter than your average precocious movie moppet. The movie is bogged down by several superfluous subplots, most notably a tiresome diversion with a pregnant Eastern European prostitute (Naomi Watts) and a tangent about a vengeful bookie (Terrence Howard). Despite the distractions and some shameless heartstring-tugging from writer/director Theodore Melfi— not to mention two separate medical melodramas— Murray, McCarthy, and Lieberher form an emotional core that perseveres.
< Saw (R, ****): A decade has passed since James Wan’s grimy, gory cheapie of a horror movie launched one of the most odious franchises in film history. Despite its abysmal legacy of diminishing returns, however, the original remains a B-movie delight with a pulpy premise and a killer twist ending. A doctor (Cary Elwes) awakens in a dingy warehouse handcuffed to a radiator. Across the room, a stranger (writer Leigh Whannell) is in the same position. A handful of tape-recorded clues give only hints of how they came to be in this mysterious predicament. Their only hope for escape is a rusty saw... but it won’t cut through metal. The movie introduces the obnoxiously self-righteous Jigsaw killer (Tobin Bell), but before he became a cartoon of George W. Bush’s bloody moralizing he was actually pretty damned scary.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
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.
< Before I Go to Sleep (R): Excellent writer Rowan Joffe (The American, Twenty-eight Weeks Later) steps into the director’s chair for this thriller, in which Nicole Kidman’s character suffers from memory loss— a situation that could lead to her experiencing paranoid delusions or living in the center of real terrors. If the plot sounds like that of Memento, Joffe could certainly have looked to worse places for inspiration. (Wissmann)
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.
> Big Hero Six (PG): Disney-produced, anime-influenced cartoon about a prodigy (voiced by Ryan Potter) who turns his friends into a high-tech superhero team with the help of an affable robot. Featuring the voices of Scott Adsit, T.J. Miller, Damon Wayans Jr., James Cromwell, and Alan Tudyk.
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.
> Interstellar (PG-13): Christopher Nolan reteams with his writer/brother Jonathan for this sci-fi tale about astronauts who explore faraway worlds with the help of a wormhole through space. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow, and familiar Nolan players Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine.