Silver Screen: The Score Card, February 12, 2015 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
American Sniper (R, ***1/2): Clint Eastwood’s war movie, based on Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s bestselling memoir, is thrilling and problematic. It’s thrilling in that it’s Eastwood’s most exciting movie in years, filled with tense standoffs and impressively chaotic scenes of combat. It’s problematic in that the veracity of Kyle’s autobiography has been called into question, and subsequently debunked claims in later interviews suggest he’s something of an embellisher. (That he served four harrowing tours in a warzone and amassed more confirmed kills than any other sniper in American history is not in dispute; the details, however, get fuzzy.) Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall would bear some responsibility for unquestioningly adapting a work filled with potentially questionable claims, but they leave propriety and objectivity behind when they muddle the true story with tall tales about Kyle pursuing two archnemeses through Iraq, real terrorists turned into comic-book villains to provide the war with a clear purpose, structure, and conclusion. These are claims Kyle never made, but they’re integrated into the “true” story as vital components of the movie. It further muddles an already dubious film that preaches exactly the kind of simplistic, black-and-white morality that led us into the Iraq War in the first place. Bradley Cooper, thickened and drawling, is impressive as Kyle, and Sienna Miller does a fine job as his increasingly weary wife raising their new family back Stateside. The film’s treatment of veterans’ issues is commendable, and its perspective on war and the life of a soldier is an important one that represents the views of millions of Americans. Alas, it’s undercut by the crassness of its own manipulations.
< 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 those of 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.
< 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 Capitol 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
The Imitation Game (R, ****): The astonishing wartime exploits of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) aren’t inherently cinematic, but director Morten Tyldum, working from a script by Andrew Hodges, turns a math problem into a layered mystery about codebreaking, espionage, and the psychic costs of secrecy. It’s a tightly focused biopic that works on its own merits as a historical thriller. Thorny British mathematician Turing is put in charge of a project to break the Nazis’ complex Enigma code. His invention led to the great innovation of the twentieth century and helped turn the tide of the war— although the movie slightly oversells the latter fact. His genius, however, couldn’t save him from a personal secret that would lead to his persecution. Cumberbatch, star of British TV’s Sherlock, is right at home as an emotionally distant genius struggling to master interpersonal communications to further his work. Turing’s story could be told from several different angles: a spy tale, an inventor’s biography, or a study of outrage for bigotries still lurking in the present. Tyldum deftly balances them all without turning the movie into a highlight reel. Costarring Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, and Charles Dance.
< Project Almanac (PG-13, **): This mildly competent but lazy sci-fi trifle borrows the plot of The Butterfly Effect and the low-fi production values of Chronicle. Trouble is, it borrows the wrong parts from both movies, and as such lacks the simmering character drama and audacious of the latter and the lurid absurdity of the former. Science geek David (Jonny Weston) and his sister (Virginia Gardner) discover a time machine created by their inventor father. With the help of their pals (Allen Evangelista, Sam Lerner, and Sofia Black-D’Elia) they complete the device and use it to goof around in the recent past. But when minor changes to the timeline cause a disastrous ripple effect, David must find a way to reconcile the mistakes of the past without endangering the future. Trouble is, those changes to the future aren’t particularly sweeping or dire, and the movie cops out just when it should be shifting into high gear. The movie isn’t smart enough to have any new or surprising ideas, nor loose enough to have a good time with its premise. The gaping flaws in the time-travel logic and the inconsistently applied found-footage aesthetic are forgivable. The absence of any discernible thrills is not.
< Selma (R, ****1/2): Ava DuVernay’s powerful portrait of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is never quite able to penetrate into the mind of its hero, but rather orbits around him as though both drawn in and held at a slight distance by his gravitational force. It works well in this context, which is less of a conventional biopic than an ensemble piece exploring the complex and emotionally charged machinations behind the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to raise awareness for equal voting rights. King is the movie’s epicenter, but a large cast of talented actors (most notably Carmen Ejogo, Wendell Pierce, Stephan James, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, and Dylan Baker) help demonstrate that his power lay in the resilience he inspired in others. Oyelowo conveys the burdens on King with the slight sag of his shoulders and flickers of weariness in his eyes. DuVernay and her ace cinematographer Bradford Young keep the action tightly controlled and intimate up until the scenes of protest, when they drop back for wide-angle vistas that stretch to take up every inch of the screen. The film is a stirring accomplishment that never stiffens into dry historical reenactment but rather breathes life into a grim but glorious struggle.
Taken III (PG-13, **): Take me once, shame on you. Take me twice, shame on me. Taken again? Seriously? The second sequel to the surprisingly enjoyable B-movie shootout, elevated from its straight-to-Redbox status by the gravitas of star Liam Neeson, is barely even trying. There’s only some token taking, really, almost as an afterthought. The rest of the film is a generic revenge thriller barely resembling the first two, save for its endless series of bloodless PG-13 kills. Retired assassin Bryan Mills (Neeson) is still reconnecting with his family (including daughter Maggie Grace, the original takee) when his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) is murdered in his house. To clear his name and find her killer, Mills goes underground with the help of some fellow former government killers (including Jon Gries and the perennially underrated Leland Orser), all while a suspicious and superfluous detective (Forest Whitaker) tracks his every move. Returning director Olivier Megaton slaps together some choppy, awkwardly edited action sequences that are every bit as perfunctory as the lazy plotting. This is a programmatic actioneer rescued from total obscurity only by its thin connection to an earlier, somewhat more inspired B-movie.
< 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.
< Whiplash (R, *****): The best movie of 2014 is a tightly focused, breathtakingly intense study of ambition run amok. Andrew (Miles Teller) is an aspiring jazz drummer studying at New York’s most prestigious music college. He falls under the spell of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a tyrannical teacher whose abrasive tactics lead to perfection or implosion. Writer/director Damien Chazelle sets his story within the cloistered subculture of jazz obsessives, and it confidently keeps its drama within the confines of its chosen arena. For a movie that doesn’t resort to gunplay, courtroom theater, or (much) violence, this is as intense as it gets. Chazelle’s story is as laser-focused as his protagonist, perfectly played by the talented young Teller. It’s a high compliment to him that he’s never fully eclipsed by Simmons, who conjures the fanaticism of a drill sergeant in his memorable portrayal of a character driven to the verge of madness is his pursuit of perfection. The final ten minutes are as darkly fitting and nerve-wracking as any movie you’ll ever see without a body count.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
Black or White (PG-13): Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer costar in Mike Binder’s heartstring-tugger about grandparents fighting for custody of their mixed-race granddaughter (Jillian Estell). Featuring Anthony Mackie, Gillian Jacobs, and Bill Burr.
> Fifty Shades of Grey (R): Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan star in the big-screen adaptation of E.L. James’s sub-literate erotica about a curious girl drawn into the bondage fantasies of a mysterious billionaire.
Jupiter Ascending (PG-13): Matrix creators Andy and Lana Wachowski reteam for this loopy, effects-heavy sci-fi/action flick about a lost princess (Mila Kunis) and her genetically enhanced protector (Channing Tatum). Featuring Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean.
> Kingsman: The Secret Service (R): Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) returns to comic-book adaptations with this tale of a gadget-wielding British spy (Colin Firth) training a new agent (Taron Egerton) to fight threats to the throne. Featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine, and Mark Hamill.
< The Loft (R): Director Erik Van Looy remakes his own 2008 Dutch thriller for American audiences, in which a group of married men get an apartment where each can conduct his own secret sexual liaisons. When a woman turns up dead on the property, however, one of the renters has gotten too kinky— but which one? (Wissmann)
Paddington (PG): This adaptation of Michael Bond’s popular children’s stories mixes live action and animation to tell the story of a talking bear from Peru who comes to live with a British family. Costarring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent, and Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington.
The Seventh Son (PG-13): A young warrior (Tom Ward) trained to fight evil spirits must contend with more than he bargained for when an evil queen (Julianne Moore) is loosed while his master (Jeff Bridges) is away. Featuring Djimon Hounsou, Olivia Williams, and Kit Harington.
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (PG): The delightfully oddball Nickelodeon cartoon creation voiced by Tom Kenny goes live action when he and his animated pals must venture onto dry land to recover Mister Krabs’s burger recipe. Featuring Antonio Banderas and the voices of the whole SpongeBob crew.
> Still Alice (R): Julianne Moore stars in the title role as a women suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. The strong supporting cast includes Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and Alec Baldwin. Moore’s acclaimed performance has led to an Academy Award nomination for best actress.
Wedding Ringer (R): A soon-to-be-married loner (Josh Gad) hires a professionally charismatic party guest (Kevin Hart) to be his best man in this buddy comedy.