Silver Screen: The Score Card, March 5, 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.
The DUFF (PG-13, ***1/2): This teen comedy in the mold of Mean Girls and Easy A handles a potentially melodramatic premise with surprising subtlety and grace. Bianca (Mae Whitman) is distraught when her old pal and next-door-neighbor Wesley (Robbie Amell) informs her that she is the DUFF of her group— Designated Ugly Fat Friend. This cruel dismissal distances Bianca from her pals and sets her on a path of self-discovery, but director Ari Sandel never treats her as an ugly duckling awaiting her transformation into a swan, but rather a rough-around-the-edges duckling learning to be a beautiful, self-confident swan. The characters are nuanced enough to be recognizable as actual humans, or at least better-looking Hollywood versions of humans. Even jerk Wesley is more kindhearted and understanding than he first seems, agreeing to help Bianca unlock the best version of herself if she’ll tutor him out of academic probation. The resulting riff on Pygmalion winds up with an improbable romance, of course, but it’s executed with sharp jokes and real empathy for all the characters, save for Bella Thorne’s cartoonish, one-note, mean-girl antagonist. Some more prominent costars, especially Ken Jeong and Romany Malco, are underused, but no worries because the wonderful Whitman carries the film with ease. She’s terrific in this teen comedy that’s funnier and more affecting than most of the grownup fare in theaters.
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.”
Focus (R, *): Will Smith stars as a con man who takes a beautiful but less-experienced swindler (Margot Robbie) under his wing. Their brief fling creates a tension that plays out three years later when their paths cross again as they both try to bilk a cocky Formula One driver (Rodrigo Santoro) out of millions. That sounds like the plot to a breezy, fun film, but Focus is too serious and self-satisfied to play for laughs. Instead cowriters and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa manipulate the audience with wildly improbable, overly complicated plotting. The audience doesn’t get to join in on Smith’s schemes; they’re treated as rubes and marks right along with the villains. It’s lazy, disingenuous stuff that would be forgettable if the movie had a sense of humor. Instead it pawns off counterfeit David Mamet edginess without any of the insight or wit. The stars are pretty but unremarkable, especially a never-more-robotic Smith. They’re both upstaged by bit players B.D. Wong, Adrian Martinez, and even Gerald McRaney, who’s great despite the misconception that he’s in a far more intense movie.
< Hot Tub Time Machine II (R, 1/2): The first Hot Tub Time Machine was a pretty funny eighties nostalgia comedy, with the titular device played as a blatantly silly, self-aware gimmick that just got the plot where it needed to go. In the befuddling sequel, the throwaway gag becomes the centerpiece of the movie. John Cusack, the star of the first installment, is missing-in-action here, save for a brief appearance in a photograph, and even there he looks shamed. Now it’s up to tagalongs Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, and Adam Scott (the latter playing Cusack’s illegitimate son) to bumble through a time-travel plot that’s both head-scratchingly complicated and totally irrelevant. Mostly the movie is an awkward attempt to tie together a bunch of tangentially related sketches. It doesn’t work. The usually funny Corddry is insufferable here as the ostensible lead, although he’s also the antagonist. If that sounds like it makes no sense, it doesn’t, really. Some talented people are trapped in a mirthless vortex. Robinson and Scott at least retain their charm, even if they’re not able to do much with it in this Hot Mess Time Waster.
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 spends 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.
Kingsman: The Secret Service (R, **): The creative team behind Kick-Ass— director Matthew Vaughn, screenwriter Jane Goldman, and series creator Mark Millar— reteam for a similarly slick, callow, sneering action-comedy. Consider that either a warning or an endorsement, based on your enjoyment of the previous film. For my money, this affected, hyperviolent riff on James Bond-style spycraft is too glib and lazily hateful to be much fun. Cheeky young thug Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is recruited by dapper spy Galahad (Colin Firth) to join his secret agency, which is unaffiliated with any government. Teaming up with fellow Continental ops Michael Caine and Mark Strong, they must foil the plans of an eccentric tech tycoon (Samuel L. Jackson) who wants to send the world into chaos via secret mind-control devices hidden inside his smartphones and tablets. The movie is best when mashing up polite British culture with new-millennial brashness, best personified by Firth, who makes for a surprisingly credible ass-kicker. Egerton does nice work too, as do the rest of his cohorts, but the movie is too in love with its own affected political incorrectness and dunce-cap humor to be much more than an outlet for fourteen-year-old boys with rage issues who can’t tell the difference between put-on cynicism and hard-earned misanthropy.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> Chappie (R): In this straightfaced action-movie riff on Short Circuit from District Nine director Neil Blomkamp, a deadly police robot is reprogrammed to think and feel emotions. Starring Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Sharlto Copley, and Dev Patel.
The Lazarus Effect (PG-13): Horror flick about a team of medical students who develop a technique that can bring patients back from the dead, probably because they don’t know about Flatliners or consequences. Featuring Olivia Wilde, Evan Peters, Donald Glover, and Mark Duplass.
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 Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (PG): In this surprising sequel to the gentle indie breakout hit, hotelier Sonny (Dev Patel) ponders opening a second location when he’s overrun with charming guests who include Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Judi Dench, and David Strathairn.
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 for best actress.
> Unfinished Business (R): Three businessmen (Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, and Dave Franco) on a trip to Europe get distracted by sex, booze, and mayhem as their deal threatens to collapse in this comedy from Starbuck/Delivery Man director Ken Scott.