Silver Screen: The Score Card, May 14, 2015 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (PG-13, ***): Writer/director Joss Whedon delivers on the most basic level in this sequel to the apex predator of summer blockbusters: He reunites the allstar cast, cracks some jokes, and destroys a city. But whereas the first Avengers film was a culmination of several movies’ worth of buildup, the followup feels like it’s serving too many masters. Whedon juggles a slew of subplots as he attempts to integrate characters and storylines from preexisting movies and Marvel TV shows like Agents of SHIELD all while setting up another sequel for the Avengers as well as several of its individual members. The resulting mess of a movie is intermittently fun but never finds its own rhythm and self-contained storyline. The major through-plot involves the titular tyrant, an artificial intelligence (voiced by James Spader) that seizes control of a fleet of Iron Man drones. Spader’s delightfully hammy robot villain is hastily established with some expository dialogue and birthed in a couple quick scenes, all while Whedon spends the lion’s share of his time setting up pins for other directors to knock down in forthcoming stories. Several new, not particularly interesting characters are introduced, including speedster Pietro Maximov (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), his telekinetic twin sister Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), and baffling robot-alien-gemstone hybrid Vision (Paul Bettany). As a consequence, ostensible stars Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, and Jeremy Renner are nearly crowded out of their own movie, relegated to a few quips and poses.
< The D Train (R, **1/2): This dark comedy from cowriters and directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul is structured around a twist near the center of the film. How shocking you find it will depend on your personal politics, but it’s a surprising development regardless, one that energizes this interesting but hard-to-watch tale about a small-town schlub (Jack Black) who still yearns for the beer-swilling camaraderie and glory days of high school he never had. He tries to raise his status in town by personally wrangling former coolest guy in class Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) to come to the twenty-year high-school reunion. He successfully convinces Oliver to attend, but at a price that forces him to lie to his loving wife (Kathryn Hahn) and supportive boss (Jeffrey Tambor) and question his own identity. The thorny central conceit is dealt with deftly and gives way to the movie’s most pertinent insights, but a seemingly endless barrage of awkward subplots overplays the cringe humor and turns it into one long cringe. It’s a movie easy to admire but hard to watch, even though the leads are excellent, with a never-better Marsden proving he’s as improbably well-suited to comedy as Black is to drama.
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.
Hot Pursuit (PG-13, *): Director Anne Fletcher’s latest, produced by one of its two female stars, aims to be a screwball comedy without the balls. Bumbling, uptight cop Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) is assigned to escort a witness (Sofia Vergara) to testify, only to be waylaid by crooked cops and cartel hitmen. All the boys are chasing this mismatched pair, who squabble their way through a plot that harks back to the action-comedy teamups that dominated the 1980s. Unfortunately, the jokes appear to be a couple decades old as well. The ladies escape a series of groan-worthy scenarios by claiming one of them is on her period (which totally freaks out those criminals, yuck!) and later by feigning lesbianism, which is presented as a similarly gross scenario. Witherspoon and Vergara expend maximum energy trying to cover for lazy writing, which makes poor use of their more-than-capable talent.
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.
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.
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.
> Dior and I (2014): A documentary about the Christian Dior fashion company and a new line its new artistic director is preparing to launch.
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.
> Mad Max: Fury Road (R): More than twenty-five years after the premiere of the grimy, low-budget Mad Max, original writer/director George Miller returns to his post-apocalyptic action franchise with Tom Hardy in the title role, here teaming up with Charlize Theron to battle the motley hordes.
< 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.
> Pitch Perfect II (PG-13): A cappella group the Bellas must return to form to repair their good name after a disastrous performance in this musical comedy reteaming Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Adam DeVine, and Elizabeth Banks, the latter of whom directs.