Silver Screen: The Score Card, April 9, 2015 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
< 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.
Furious Seven (PG-13, ****): Very few movie series get better as the sequels stack up, but since stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker reteamed in the fourth entry, Fast and Furious, this has become the go-to franchise for eye-popping, outsized action extravaganzas. The latest installment features some of the most smartly executed absurdity yet, with cars being dropped out of planes, cars jumping between buildings, cars fighting predator drones, cars crashing into other cars, and then, every now and then, dudes having serious conversations while standing next to cars. These hyper-masculine flicks have always had a soft side— they use the word “family” more often than Warren Jeffs or any given Juggalo— but the death of Paul Walker serves as a nitrous boost for the emotions. It’s an oddly touching and well-earned tribute. That said, the movie is still about wreaking beautiful havoc with a sexy, diverse cast, and that it does. Jason Statham plays the bad guy, which gives him a great excuse to fist fight with the Rock, making for the greatest title bout since King Kong versus Godzilla. The plot barely exists and the dialogue never gets out of first gear, but it hardly matters— you’re having too much fun to notice. Featuring Ludacris, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster, and series newcomers Kurt Russell and Nathalie Emmanuel.
Get Hard (R, *): Comedy is all about opposites and extremes, which makes a movie about an ex-con (Kevin Hart) training a white-collar criminal (Will Ferrell) for his upcoming stint in prison something like a sure thing. How do you screw that up? Director Etan Cohen does it by not even really doing it at all. Hart’s hardworking carwash owner Darnell isn’t really a criminal, he’s just mistaken for one by Ferrell’s clueless financial titan James King. King isn’t a crook, either—his future father-in-law (Craig T. Nelson) frames him in a hokey plot twist that comes straight out of the laziest 1980s comedy. So many of the jokes, too, seem pilfered from a less-enlightened era, particularly the queasy, recurring prison-rape gags. Hart and Ferrell are too funny not to generate a few laughs, but they’re not just going up the river here, they’re swimming upstream. They could be a comedy dream team in an alternate version of the movie that has enough courage in its convictions to dole out some actual convictions. Instead, they’ve pled down to something far lesser.
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.
Insurgent (PG-13, 1/2*): The sequel to the shoddy, shameless Hunger Games knockoff Divergent is even more poorly conceived than the original— if in fact the first one could be in any way called original. The talented but miscast Shailene Woodley continues to lead a group of rebels against the oppressive leaders of her dystopian society, where everyone is divided into five factions and must live according to the explicit rules of the rigid system. She’s a Divergent, meaning she has traits of all five factions, which is inexplicably considered the worst possible state of being in this society. Here in the sequel it also means Woodley’s lame-ass Tris is also the only one who can open the magical Macguffin box, which evil government leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) is certain will contain some vital information that will help her dastardly plot, even though she herself has no clue what is inside. New director Robert Schwentke continues the Divergent tradition of borrowing its aesthetic whole cloth from The Hunger Games, contrasting improbable high technology with a post-apocalyptic backdrop. Shiny special effects fail to hide how the action sequences are inert and not much is ever really happening in this grim, perfunctory slog, where only a couple of the actors playing villains get to have any fun: Winslet with her Cruella DeVil sneer, Jai Courtney oozing menace and masculinity, and Miles Teller as the only person allowed to smile or tell a joke. Also featuring Naomi Watts, Theo James, Ansel Elgort, and Mekhi Phifer.
It Follows (R, ***1/2): David Robert Mitchell’s unnerving teen-sex metaphor is one of the most original, smartly conceived horror movies in years, even if the execution is wildly uneven. Maika Monroe, who plays Jay, the classical beauty in her crew of indolent teen drinking buddies, leads the cast of mostly unknown actors. When she sleeps with her new boyfriend (Jake Weary), he passes along a rather literal curse: Now a shape-shifting monster will slowly pursue her everywhere she goes. The only way to get rid of it is to sleep with someone else and pass it along. The sexually transmitted disease connection is unsubtle but supremely effective, and that slow-moving creature conjures incredible menace whether it’s onscreen or ominously lurking somewhere just out of sight. Some basic storytelling problems mar the back half, when the teens, a little too indolent here, do absolutely nothing smart or proactive to combat the creature. What may serve the metaphor and Mitchell’s portrayal of teenage aimlessness also stops the plot cold. Yet in its best moments, It Follows is wonderfully creepy. And like the most dire consequences of sex, It Follows sticks with you whether you want it to or not.
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.
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.
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.
> The Longest Ride (PG-13): Another maudlin weepie from junkmaster novelist Nicholas Sparks. As is his usual formula, the love life of a pair of youngsters— here a rodeo rider (Scott Eastwood) and his lady (Britt Robertson)— is contrasted with the doomed romance of a nostalgic older character (Alan Alda). Also featuring Jack Huston and Melissa Benoist.
> Woman in Gold (PG-13): Helen Mirren stars as Maria Altmann, a Jewish woman who lost her art collection when she fled the Nazis during World War II. The movie, based on a true story, is about Altmann’s battle to regain her property.