Silver Screen: The Score Card, March 26, 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.
< Chappie (R, *): Neill Blomkamp’s third movie is both easy and difficult to describe. It’s easy to describe the plot, which is an almost fifty/fifty mashup of Short Circuit and Robocop. When automated killing machine Chappie is damaged in battle, he reawakens (with the help of a programmer played by Dev Patel) with the ability to think and feel human emotions. The military-industrial group that designed him wants to frame him in order to deploy their latest machine, a walking tank that’s a startlingly accurate replica of Robocop’s villainous ED-209. What’s difficult to describe, or even conceive of, is what exactly Blomkamp was going for here. He attempts to interweave myriad genres without even having a solid grasp on any of them, so the blinged-out, jive-talking Chappie himself seems to have walked out of a funnier movie than the dour, heavy-handed commentary he’s trapped in. It doesn’t help that his primary costars are insufferable gutterpunks played by the members of the band Die Antwoord, who go by their real names, wear their own band merch, and put a Die Antwoord sticker onto Chappie. Hugh Jackman’s right-wing caricature villain, a mullet-sporting, gun-loving Jesus freak, is supposed to be the antagonist, but he’s so over-the-top you can’t even hate him, unlike Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yolandi, who you can hate on just fine. Aside from a pair of impressively staged battle sequences to bookend the movie and some nicely incorporated digital effects, there’s little to recommend about this blunt, unpleasant slog.
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.
The Gunman (R, **1/2): Sean Penn enters the Action Movie Senior Tour with this competent but dour action flick about a former mercenary forced to confront the ripple effects of his violent past. Penn stars as Jim Terrier, a mercenary who assassinated a Congolese government minister in 2006 on behalf of a mining company. A decade later he’s back in Africa to find out why one of his old business partners wants him dead while he seeks out the girlfriend (Jasmine Trinca) he left behind. This being a Sean Penn movie, it opens and closes with a lecture about geopolitics. On the other hand, it’s the rare action movie with a conscience and a sense of consequences. Eventually director Pierre Morel (Taken) can’t resist upping the body count and lingering on some gaping head wounds, but it’s an admirable attempt to infuse serious drama into a shoot-’em-up. Penn makes for a pretty decent action hero, and Javier Bardem is fun as a drunken, impulse-driven bad guy. Aside from a fun supporting turn by Ray Winstone, nobody else has much of anything to do, not even the fantastic Idris Elba, who’s utterly wasted in a brief role as a generic lawman.
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.
Run All Night (R, ***1/2): The latest installment of Liam Neeson’s Action Hero Senior Tour is one of his best, even if the gimmick is growing a bit tired. The script from writer Brad Inglesby (Out of the Furnace) is a bit more textured and deliberately paced, and even when it does eventually shed its crime drama/action hybrid motif for more outlandish setpieces, director Jaume Collet-Serra stages them with verve. Neeson is yet again an aging hitman, but in this case the years and bloodshed have taken their toll. His Jimmy Conlon is broken and long estranged from his straight-laced son Michael (Joel Kinnaman), who witnesses a murder at the hands of Danny (Boyd Holbrook), the son of the gangland boss (Ed Harris) employed Jimmy to do all his dirty work. The four men are put on a tragic collision course that’s Shakespearean in its best moments (pretty much all of which are between Neeson and Harris) and cheesy fun at its worst. There’s a better movie hiding inside of this one, but Neeson and Harris elevate the material enough to make it work with the help of some great character actors and some welcome stylistic flourishes from Collet-Serra.
< 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.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
Cinderella (PG): Kenneth Branaugh directs this live-action version of the fairytale starring Lily James as the put-upon stepdaughter whose glass shoe fits like a glove. Featuring Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Hayley Atwell, and Stellan Skarsgård.
Do You Believe? (PG-13): From the small-C creators of God’s Not Dead comes another evangelical Christian movie that explains its premise in its title. A streetcorner preacher spurs a complacent pastor into doing lots of nice things because of God. Featuring Ted McGinley, Mira Sorvino, Delroy Lindo, Sean Astin, and Lee Majors.
< Four Blood Moons (NR): This documentary looks to find scientific evidence to back up Christian theology in part through interviews with convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza.
> Get Hard (R): Kevin Hart stars as an ex-con who’s paid by a convicted white-collar criminal (Will Ferrell) to help him prepare for his stint in prison in this comedy based (sorta) on a true story, also featuring Alison Brie and T.I.
> Home (PG): An alien on the run finds refuge with a young girl in this computer-animated kiddie comedy featuring the voices of Jim Parsons, Rihanna, and Steve Martin.
Insurgent (PG-13): In the sequel to Insurgent, based on the popular teen-book series, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) and her boyfriend Four (Theo James) must lead a revolution against the conspiracy they discovered pulling the strings of their post-apocalyptic society. Featuring Kate Winslet, Ansel Elgort, Octavia Spencer, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, and Jai Courtney.
> It Follows (R): Indie horror film in which a seemingly innocent sexual encounter unleashes terrifying consequences.
< 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.