Silver Screen: The Score Card, February 19, 2015 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
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.
Fifty Shades of Grey (R, 1/2*): Amateur writer E.L. James famously tweaked her bondage-themed Twilight fan fiction into the bedroom read of the decade. Not sure about the book, but the film adaptation is confoundingly contradictory: a bondage movie for people who think bondage is disgusting. Domineering billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) is a megalomaniac who spends the entire movie trying to cajole virginal audience surrogate Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) into indulging him in offbeat sex fantasies. His kinky tastes— which are never terribly kinky, at least as evidenced by the sex onscreen— are treated as a pathology. Rather than being empowered by her sexuality, Ana is half afraid of it and uses it as a bargaining chip to enjoy the trappings of material wealth. She’s shallow, he’s borderline abusive, and nobody smiles or has any fun. It is, as the French say, “un petite boner killer.”
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.
Jupiter Ascending (PG-13, 1/2*): Yet another tiresome blend of mysticism and sci-fi from the Wachowskis, who haven’t made a watchable movie since 1999’s The Matrix. The sibling team spend so much time gilding their story with gaudy outlandishness that they don’t bother trying to inject any innovation into a boilerplate story, this one about a reincarnated princess (Mila Kunis) who must be rescued by a grumbling loner antihero (Channing Tatum) to save the world. This hyperstylized mess is a foul-tasting stew of disparate influences. The giddy outlandsishness of Flash Gordon, the baroque costuming and maddeningly complicated political asides of Dune, and the Byzantine bureaucracy of Brazil all combine to make a grade-school-level capitalist critique more interested in flashing lights and bleep-bloop computer sound effects than ideas. The movie strives to be high-minded and giddily frivolous at the same time. Instead it only alternates between inducing naps and headaches. The only minor bit of fun is watching Eddie Redmayne play the aristocratic villain as a gasping blue blood who sounds like Jim Backus during an asthma attack. He channels the spittle-spraying rage of Gary Oldman circa 1997’s The Fifth Element, another sci-fi debacle that’s so awful it serves as a perfect point of comparison.
< 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.
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.
> The DUFF (PG-13): Arrested Development’s Mae Whitman (her?) stars as a high-school senior shocked to learned she’s her friends’ DUFF, or Designated Ugly Fat Friend, in this teen comedy featuring Bella Thorne and Allison Janney.
> Hot Tub Time Machine II (R): In this somewhat inexplicable sequel, a Jacuzzi with mystical powers transports our schlubs (Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Clark Duke) on time-traveling adventures, this time into the future where they meet the son (Adam Scott) of their missing-in-action best pal (John Cusack).
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.
> McFarland, USA (PG): Kevin Costner stars in this true sports story about a high-school track coach who inspires the children of migrant workers to become champions. Featuring Maria Bello.
< 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.