Silver Screen: The Score Card, December 4, 2014 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (R, ***1/2): Director and cowriter Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s hallucinatory Hollywood satire is by turns wrenching, arch, meandering, self-congratulatory, and solipsistic as it follows Riggan (Michael Keaton), a fallen superhero blockbuster star trying to reinvent himself as a Broadway auteur. His stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a disaster even before he brings on enfant terrible of the theater scene Mike (Edward Norton), whose tempestuous offstage behavior threatens to sink the production before it opens. Riggan, meanwhile, is trying to reconnect with both his estranged daughter (Emma Stone) and perhaps his sanity as he secretly believes he possesses actual superpowers. The movie’s technical accomplishments are beyond reproach. Iñárritu stages each scene as a protracted take, each one transitioning smoothly into the next so the film takes on the quality of a surreal, neverending nightmare. The performances are dynamite, too, especially the immensely talented Keaton and a rarely funnier Norton. But the movie is also smugly satisfied with its own metafictional cleverness and relentlessly panders to audience members willing to pat themselves on the back for getting the jokes. What starts as a satire shifts into a self-aggrandizing ode to moviemakers, and Iñárritu is unable to tie together all the dangling plot threads and loose themes. A series of awkward, false endings finally gives way to a coy conclusion that proves ambiguity is not inherently profound. Featuring Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, and Amy Ryan.
Dumb and Dumber To (PG-13, ***): As a comedy, the return trip for Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as dimwitted duo Harry and Lloyd is a better-than-average episodic road trip sporting some great lines, two very funny performances, and a few great gags. As a followup to a kinda classic, it fails to live up to the warped legacy of the original. Alas, directors and cowriters Peter and Bobby Farrelly too often retreat to the benign safety of callbacks to the original film. The storyline is as blatant an attempt to recapitalize on the original as the uninspired Hangover Part II or Weekend at Bernie’s II. Harry and Lloyd (this time searching for Lloyd’s long-lost daughter) are dispatched to deliver a mysterious package and in the process get caught up in a murder plot hatched by a scheming spouse. The sequel sags under the weight of the original, straining to reclaim glory rather than find new laughs. Even a middle-of-the-road script, however, can’t contain Carrey, who shows that he can slip into his trademark comic persona as gracefully as ever, even if he’s lately inclined to the polar opposites of kiddie fodder and darker, more dramatic stuff. Daniels remains solid. Rob Riggle and the sweetly daffy Rachel Melvin offer the only notable new contributions. It’s funny in fits and starts but fails almost entirely to live up to the loopy legacy of the original.
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.
Horrible Bosses II (R, **1/2): This head-scratcher of a sequel is never able to overcome the initial conundrum of its own improbability. The three regular dudes (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day) who learned their lesson last time when they attempted a Hitchcockian plot to have their respective bosses killed decide to try essentially the same scheme again when their new company is threatened by a corporate raider (Christoph Walz). They enlist the help of old friends and enemies alike (Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Jaime Foxx) to kidnap the boss’s even slimier son (Chris Pine). The movie isn’t unrepentantly silly enough to shrug off its own ridiculousness, nor smart enough to think its way around the obstacle of its shaky plot logic. But worse, it fails to justify its own existence, even as a joke-delivery machine. Can anyone spout quotes from the original, or even name the three narrowly defined main characters? What magic is it we’re supposed to be recapturing here, anyway? The stacked cast keeps the quality control to a reasonable level, but its consistently unremarkable.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (PG-13, ***): If any doubt lingered that the filmmakers split the final installment of The Hunger Games into two parts entirely for financial reasons, the final moments of this thumb-twiddling time-waster confirm it. When last we left Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), she, along with several fellow competitors, escaped the arena and the clutches of the Capital to seek refuge in the underground hideout in District Thirteen, where insurgents are plotting a revolution. Then the story pauses for a full two hours while Katniss, under the guidance of rebel president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Hunger Games architect Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), makes a series of propaganda videos intended to inspire revolt. It’s a flagrant distraction complete with a lot of pseudo-philosophical pontificating about the dehumanizing nature of advertising and agitprop, which does little to mask the series’ stalling. The movie regains its sense of urgency in the last scene or two, which would have made for an excellent and truly compelling first act, something both prior Hunger Games movies lacked. Both Lawrences— star Jennifer and returning director Francis, no relation— prove more than capable with the material, but the film flails for structure and some kind of internally coherent arc. Ultimately it plays like one girl’s heroic quest to film the DVD extras for Mockingjay Part II. Featuring a slew of great supporting players, including Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, and Elizabeth Banks, as well as returning hunks Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson
Interstellar (PG-13, ****): Christopher Nolan’s generous, episodic space adventure doesn’t quite live up to its ambitions, but that seems inevitable for a movie that seeks to save the human race, peer into a black hole to glimpse the secrets of the universe, and reveal the next evolution of mankind. Nolan’s facility with relatable characters and dialogue has always been outshone by his technical proficiency and fussily intricate plotting, which is again the case as a team of astronauts (led by Matthew McConaughey and including Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, and David Gyasi) shoot through a wormhole into a new galaxy to find a homeworld to replace the dying planet Earth. As a filmmaker, Nolan is a combination of Rube Goldberg and Swiss watchmaker, and his challenge has always been to imbue his machinery with some soul. Those struggles persist, but this is his most humane movie, complete with dazzling vistas of space and some breathtaking setpieces. He borrows heavily from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, but puts his own stamp on material that’s consistently compelling if occasionally frustrating. The excellent cast also features Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, and Matt Damon.
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.
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.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
Beyond the Lights (PG-13): Romantic drama from writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, Secret Life of Bees) about a troubled pop star (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who finds solace in a relationship with a policeman (Nate Parker). Featuring Danny Glover and Minnie Driver.
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.
Penguins of Madagascar (PG): This spinoff of the computer-animated kiddie comedy Madagascar stars a group of secret-agent penguins on a mission to save the world from a nefarious supervillain. Featuring the voices of Benedict Cumberbatch, John Malkovich, and Werner Herzog.
Saving Christmas (PG): Kirk Cameron vows to “put the Christ back in Christmas” with this faith-based family flick in which K.C. and J.C. team up to perk up his humbugging buddy (writer/director/costar Darren Doane). Pssst, Kirk: It’s right before the mas.
Theory of Everything (PG-13): Biopic about the great physicist Stephen Hawking, who has lived far beyond expectations with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis while shaping in fundamental ways our understanding of the universe through his book A Brief History of Time, among other endeavors. Starring Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as his wife.