Silver Screen: The Score Card, April 30, 2015 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
Ex Machina (R, ***1/2): Author Alex Garland makes his directorial debut with this cerebral sci-fi thriller that plays like Stanley Kubrick by way of Neil LaBute. It’s a movie of big ideas and small scale, set entirely inside the secluded luxury compound belonging to Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive tech genius working on a groundbreaking new invention. Naïve programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to visit the inventor-turned-guru for a week to test out his secret new product, a fully articulated humanoid machine powered by artificial intelligence. While Caleb tests this robot lady, named Ava (Alicia Vikander), he begins to suspect that obsessive, domineering Nathan is running a grander experiment on them both. The film works better as a sci-fi head-scratcher than an outright thriller, although the explorations of toxic misogyny are nicely twisted in the movie’s final act as it becomes a kind of feminist horror story. The handsome aesthetic and ominous, slow-burning script make for an impressive movie, but stretched out to nearly two hours, it’s consistently admirable but only fitfully enjoyable, perhaps better suited to life as an especially sharp episode of Black Mirror.
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.
< 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.
The Longest Ride (PG-13, **1/2): The latest installment in what has become a yearly dose of Nicholas Sparks tearjerkers brings back so many of the author’s favorite tropes: love letters, parallel flashbacks, a possibly fatal medical condition, South Carolina tourism porn, and a reassuring implication of destiny and grand design. An old-school rodeo rider (Scott Eastwood) falls for a feisty art-gallery intern (Brit Robertson) in what seems to be a doomed opposites-attract romance. They learn a lesson about love from an old man (Alan Alda) they rescue from a car wreck, who shares with them the story of his late wife. It’s the older story, told in flashbacks featuring Game of Thrones’ Oona Chaplin and Boardwalk Empire’s Jack Huston, that’s most compelling. The flashbacks are tinged with melodrama without drowning in it, and the nicely matched pair of actors convey a fuller, more nuanced relationship than the standard Sparks fare. Alas, these flashbacks mostly exist to pay off the more caricatured story of Eastwood’s cartoon-character cowboy. Director George Tillman Jr. injects some excitement with the bull riding scenes, which are surprisingly imagistic and thrilling. He achieves the material’s principle goal, which is to trick the audience into crying. At the very least, there’s a decent movie nested inside of a bad one.
Unfriended (R, ****): The gimmick to this improbably clever horror flick seems untenable, or at the very least unwatchable. All the action of the movie plays out in real time on the screen of a single laptop. The actors appear only in individual chat windows during a group Skype session that’s interrupted by a mysterious character who claims to have ties to their friend Laura, who committed suicide one year before, after a shaming video of her was posted on the internet. The title and the concept both seem to grasp for timeliness, yet somehow director Levan Gabriadze makes it work. Being forced to stare at someone else’s computer screen as they type and click away is frustrating at first, but as the story gathers momentum the gimmick becomes less distracting, and Gabriadze uses it to his full advantage. Exposition is deftly disposed of by quick glances at Facebook profile pages and Google search histories, and the tics and limitations of technology— frozen screens, dropped audio, buffering— are transformed into instruments of suspense. The theme of cyberbullying isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s employed for more than just a standard-issue revenge thriller. The dominant terror of the movie is not ghosts, but rather the fear that your own dark secrets might be put on public display.
< While We’re Young (R, ****): Noah Baumbach, one of the savviest chroniclers of the Age of Anxiety, examines the gulf between the young and the newly old in this acerbic comedy. A married but childless pair of documentary filmmakers (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) are smitten by an energetic younger couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), but infatuation curdles into weariness when they attempt to adopt their lifestyle. Baumbach’s latest is a perceptive exploration of the way the next generation can seem so foreign to people who still think of themselves as young. The writer/director spreads his empathy around and doesn’t choose sides, finding hidden depth’s in Seyfried’s tagalong girlfriend and Stiller’s caustic, crusty crank alike. The Woody Allen influence has never been stronger or more direct, with clever nods to both Crimes and Misdemeanors and Manhattan leaving no question where Baumbach learned to be so deadly with the non-sequitur quip and devastating dialogue. But his style and voice have evolved to be fully his own and are on great display here, even if his weakness for plotting is, too. The four leads are terrific, but ace supporting casting is a great asset, in particular Charles Grodin as an aging filmmaker and Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz as a stay-at-home dad.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
The Age of Adaline (PG-13): Blake Lively stars in this romantic drama as a woman who becomes ageless in the aftermath of an accident. Decades later, she finds love but must confront her own confounded mortality. Featuring Harrison Ford and Ellen Burstyn.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (PG-13): In the sequel to the massively successful Marvel Comics superhero teamup, the crew (Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, and Jeremy Renner, led by Samuel L. Jackson) must reunite to battle a horde of sentient robots (voiced by James Spader). Newcomers Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson join the squad, too.
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.
> Clouds of Sils Maria (R): Juliette Binoche (Chocolat, The English Patient) plays an actress who returns to a play that made her famous two decades earlier, and the process raises uncomfortable issues about youth and aging. Also starring Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz.
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.
Little Boy (PG-13): Faith-based story about a young boy who hopes to find a way to bring his father home safely from World War II. Featuring Kevin James, Emily Blunt, and Tom Wilkinson.
Monkey Kingdom (G): Tina Fey narrates this Disney-produced nature documentary that follows a female monkey and her offspring as they vie for a place in their group's complex society.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop II (PG): Kevin James’s bumbling mall cop stumbles upon a criminal enterprise while vacationing with his family in this comedy specially made for people who liked Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
< Seymour: An Introduction (PG): Ethan Hawke directs this documentary about piano great Seymour Bernstein. Based in no way on J.D. Salinger’s novella of the same name. (Wissmann)
< 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.