Silver Screen: The Score Card, December 18, 2014 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
Big Hero Six (PG, ***): The most notable feature of this unambitious but pretty entertaining adaptation of an obscure Marvel Comics property is the setting, which is quite literally a Japanophile’s dream. The action takes place in the city of San Fransokyo, which boasts the topography of the City by the Bay but is textured with Japanese architecture, greenery, and the neon lights of Tokyo. It’s a nifty literalization of the movie’s aesthetic, which mashes together muted anime tropes with a storyline straight from American superhero comics. Brainy orphan Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) loses his beloved older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) in a fire during a science fair, and later suspects the disaster was deliberately created to steal his own revolutionary invention. With the help of his brother’s science-geek friends (Damon Wayans Jr., Jamie Chung, Genesis Rodriguez, and T.J. Miller), as well as a gentle robot designed by Tadashi, Hiro forms a high-tech superhero team to find his brother’s killer. Despite a double-dose of Mighty Marvel pathos in the form of three different dead relatives, the movie is a candy-colored confection, bright and shiny and boasting almost no nutritional value. It’s no game-changer, but it plays the game well, boasting a better-than-average number of gags and a thrilling, somewhat trippy climax. Is it good for you? Maybe not, but it’s pretty sweet.
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 Harry’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.
Exodus: Gods and Kings (PG-13, *1/2): It’s never clear exactly what audience Ridley Scott’s revisionist Bible epic is intended for. Scoffers and heathens will find the straightfaced two-and-a-half-hour slog to be like sitting through church, while the converted might bristle at the movie’s attempts to scientifically rationalize the miracles and play coy about the source of Moses’ alleged divine inspiration. It’s all scowls, swords, and sandals as a badass-fighter version of Moses (Christian Bale) must abdicate his place at the right hand of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton) when he learns he’s descended from the Hebrew slaves. After some pontificating and a crack on the head from the rock that may or may not make him hallucinate an incarnation of God, Moses returns to Egypt to free the slaves via some computer-generated swordfighting. This Moses doesn’t part the Red Sea, he just notices the tide is receding and urges everyone to cross. It’s this kind of uninspiring change to the source material that renders the movie flat and joyless without concocting much in the way of a convincing counter-theory. The only thing truly impressive about this bobbled Bible tale is its size and scope, but there’s only so long you can admire crowd scenes and elaborately rendered backgrounds of pyramids and sphinxes before you get distracted. Scott does inadvertently rephrase the classic Christian riddle, “Can God create a boulder so heavy he cannot lift it?” by posing his own puzzler: “Can Ridley Scott make a movie so boring that not even God himself could finish it?”
< 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.
< The Pyramid (R, **1/2): The most unique element about this mildly entertaining, minimally ambitious horror cheapie is a major inconsistency. For the first two-thirds of the mercenary eighty-five-minute running time, first-time director Grégory Levasseur charts the progress of his team of archaeologists on digital cameras mounted to the characters’ heads and one attached to a remote-controlled robot. A set of necessary but convenient excuses forces them to make a hasty expedition inside the ancient structure, where they discover dark secrets and something living inside. Then, with less than half an hour to go, after several characters have been picked off, Levasseur switches to third-person perspective shots for the sake of ease. It’s a subtle distinction at first, but it becomes jarring. As with the rest of the movie, it’s not terrible but the overt laziness is grating. A potentially cool creature is rendered somewhat silly through overexposure; the monster is outright freaky in the shadows, but the shoddy digital effects make it the modern equivalent of a guy in a rubber suit. Veteran character actor Denis O’Hare (Dallas Buyers Club, HBO’s True Blood) livens up the proceedings as best he can, but the movie never makes a case why you shouldn’t just skip it and watch the similar but superior As Above, so Below.
The Theory of Everything (PG-13, ***1/2): This biopic about legendary cosmologist Stephen Hawking is structured around his relationship with his first wife, whose memoir served as the inspiration. At its best, the film does an exceptional job of humanizing Hawking, a man so smart he seems almost unknowable. Played wonderfully here by Eddie Redmayne, Hawking is presented as an awkward but slyly funny student sometimes unable to focus his off-the-charts intelligence quotient. A diagnosis of lateral sclerosis seems to be the end of his academic success and, sooner rather than later, his life, but his steadfast girlfriend Jane (Felicity Jones) refuses to accept the pessimistic prognosis and helps Stephen struggle to not just cope with his illness, but persevere in spite of it. Director James Marsh, working from a script by Anthony McCarten, wants to recontextualize Hawking’s achievements through a humanist lens, which he does quite deftly for the first hour. But the impulse to make a more traditional biopic proves too strong, and the back half of the film lapses into a jarringly fragmented, unfocused litany of greatest hits— he gets the computer voice! He writes A Brief History of Time!— and Marsh fails to trust his audience to connect the young, hopeful intellectual in love with the titan of math and science as we know him. Flawed as it is, the film is still illuminating and wonderfully acted, especially by Redmayne, but also Jones and supporting players David Thewlis and Charlie Cox.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> Annie (PG): New version of the stage musical about the little orphan girl with the hard-knock life, here played by Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhané Wallis. Jamie Foxx is her Daddy Warbucks, here renamed Will Stacks, a mayoral candidate who takes in the little tyke. Singing and more singing ensue. Featuring Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne, and Bobby Cannavale.
> Big Eyes (PG-13): Tim Burton reteams with his Ed Wood screenwriters for this biopic about Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) and his wife Margaret (Amy Adams). Walter turned the art world upside down with his mass-market approach, but the hidden secret was that his shy spouse did all the actual painting. Featuring Terence Stamp, Danny Huston, Jason Schwartzman, and Krysten Ritter.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (PG-13): In the final installment of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and company must stave off a slew of opposing forces as well as the dragon Smaug. Featuring Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Hugo Weaving, and the dulcet tones of Benedict Cumberbatch.
> The Interview (R): Seth Rogen and James Franco costar as empty-headed trash-TV purveyors who get a chance to shine as real journalists when they score an unlikely interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, only to find themselves conscripted into a CIA assassination plot. This troublemaking comedy costars Lizzy Caplan and Randall Park as the not-so-great dictator.
> Into the Woods (PG): Rob Marshall (Chicago) adapts Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale mashup musical costarring Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, and Tracey Ullman.
> Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (PG): In the second Night at the Museum sequel, Ben Stiller and his menagerie of revived historical figures travel to London to uncover the source of their reawakening. Featuring Ben Kingsley, Owen Wilson, Dick Van Dyke, Steve Coogan, the late Robin Williams, and a monkey.
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.
> Top Five (R): Chris Rock writes, directs, and stars in this comedy about a funnyman trying to reinvent himself as a legit actor even as his wife wants to turn their relationship into reality-TV fodder. The stacked cast includes Kevin Hart, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, Romany Malco, and a bevy of standup comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Tracy Morgan, Brian Regan, Cedric the Entertainer, Whoopi Goldberg, and J.B. Smoove.
> Unbroken (PG-13): Angelina Jolie directs this biopic about the remarkable Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympic athlete who became a source of inspiration after he was shot down while fighting in World War II and found himself in a Japanese prison camp. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s excellent book and adapted by the Coen brothers.
> Wild (R): Reese Witherspoon stars as writer Cheryl Strayed in this adaptation of her bestselling memoir about a voyage of self-discovery on a thousand-mile hike. Featuring Laura Dern and directed by Dallas Buyers Club’s Jean-Marc Vallée.