Silver Screen: The Score Card, September 17, 2015 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
< American Ultra (R, **1/2): A stoner burnout (Jesse Eisenberg) struggling to maintain his modest lifestyle with his saintly girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) discovers he’s a decommissioned government assassin outfitted with amnesia and a series of psychological tics to keep him in line. When his old bosses come to kill him, he must draw on skills he never knew he possessed. The film, written by Max Landis, is attempting a strange tonal mashup— something like The Bourne Lebowski— but there was confusion somewhere between his script and director Nima Nourizadeh’s execution. The movie is fitfully entertaining but can’t find a balance between the dark, dry humor of Eisenberg’s predicament and the broad genre parody of the scenes pitting his antagonist, a sleazy bureaucrat (played by Topher Grace) and his trusty former handler (Connie Britton). It’s a movie equally difficult to love or to hate. Eisenberg and Stewart, reteamed after the underrated Adventureland, drum up some emotional investment in the leads, and bit players Walton Goggins, Tony Hale, and John Leguizamo find a few laughs, but the disparate elements never come together. Like an improperly rolled joint, it looks sturdy but burns unevenly, crumbles in the middle, and generates a lot of smoke with little effect.
Ant-Man (PG-13, ***1/2): Original director Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim versus the World) ushered this improbable B-list superhero onto the big screen only to depart the project prior to filming. The screenplay (credited to several different writers) still bears his name, and traces of his influence remain. But too often the movie veers away from a zanier tone in favor of increasingly tired conventions of the Marvel superhero universe. Star Paul Rudd makes for an appealingly distinctive superhero. His Scott Lang is neither a soldier nor a concave-chested geek chosen by fate. He occupies neither side of the power fantasy divide, and instead is a sort of kindhearted underachiever whose criminal status gets him mixed up in a tech war between brilliant scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Pym’s former student Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Cross wants to hijack his old mentor’s revolutionary shrinking formula, so Pym convinces cat burglar Lang to steal it and keep it safe. Once in possession of the super-shrinking formula and matching suit, Lang is transformed into Ant-Man. This is far more lighthearted than the other Avengers-related films, with the exception of the superior Guardians of the Galaxy, which was allowed to embrace its own weirdness. Ant-Man is goofy, smirking fun except when it has to pause for obligatory fights with a generic villain (no fault of the talented Stoll). Replacement director Peyton Reed injects several scenes with real verve, but it’s tough to imagine Wright helming any action sequences as stodgy and formulaic as some of this movie’s more familiar fisticuffs. Ant-Man is still refreshing in the era of increasingly dour, destructive blockbusters, breezing along on its charming cast and good humor. Also featuring Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, and Bobby Cannavale.
< Fantastic Four (PG-13, 1/2*): One of the worst superhero movies in years manages to transform the story of Invisible Girl, Fire Guy, Rock Man, and Stretch Armstrong Ph.D. into a grim, uneventful slog. Science nerd Reed Richards (Miles Teller) finds a way to transport matter— and eventually his friends— to another dimension. A misbegotten secret trip to that other dimension leaves Reed and his pals with superpowers: he can stretch, Sue (Kate Mara) turns invisible, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) can fly and emit flames, and Ben (Jamie Bell) is transformed into a hulking rock monster. But the movie takes an hour to get there, dragging out the prologue without stopping to add insight to the characters or chemistry to their non-existent relationships. When at last the movie starts, well, moving, it doesn’t last very long, skipping around in time to hurry toward a rushed, visually uninspiring showdown with fellow scientist Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbel). The appealing young cast fails to shine, not due to a lack of talent, but because the glacially paced incoherence of the project drains everything in its orbit of joy or excitement. This is brazenly cheap, massively defective filmmaking, perhaps the fault of director Josh Trank (Chronicle), who claims his allegedly erratic behavior was the result of constant studio interference. Regardless, the movie is destined for year-end worst-of lists in this dimension, and possibly other ones as well.
The Gift (R, **1/2): Actor Joel Edgerton makes his debut as a feature writer/director in this thriller that takes a little too long to twist its familiar premise into something more interesting, but the simmering suspense takes on real urgency in the second half. A married couple (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) are menaced by an old high school chum (Edgerton) who wants to be friends again and won’t take no for an answer. Edgerton toys with the stalker/home-invasion horror plot in order to pose more disturbing questions, and he succeeds with the help of his talented cast, which includes bit players Allison Tolman (Fargo), Busy Philipps (Freaks and Geeks), and Wendell Pierce (The Wire). Alas, he takes one twist too many, and the movie’s Twilight Zone-inspired reveal is a little too implausible and deplorable to sit right. The gender politics at play turn out to be pretty ugly, but the error is more haphazard and driven by the narrative than it is rooted in sinister ideology. The end does ruin the fun, but there’s fun to be had before that, and despite its unevenness, the film suggests that Edgerton might well turn out to be a much better-than-average filmmaker.
Inside Out (PG, ****1/2): Animation innovator Pixar’s latest is one of its most high-concept hits to date, but its cerebral premise doesn’t surrender any of its deeply felt emotion. Preteen girl Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) deals with her first bout of grownup stress when her parents move from a bucolic Minnesota town to cramped, unfamiliar digs in San Francisco. The real action, though, takes place inside the complex inner workings of her mind, where a literalized team of emotions— Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith)— tries to guide Riley through her day. The sudden shift in environment has caused Sadness to act up, and when team leader Joy tries to reset the machinery, she and Sadness are accidentally exiled from the control room. They must journey through the deepest recesses of Riley’s mind while the other emotions struggle to maintain control. Cowriters and directors Peter Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen’s most remarkable achievement is to make such a heady concept so accessible and intuitive. They pack an incredible number of clever ideas and brilliant jokes into an hour and a half. It’s a dizzying achievement, perhaps less visually stunning than Ratatouille or Wall-E, but more cerebral. It’s a total delight, with nifty new twists on the premise flowing right through the closing credits, and some excellent supporting voicework from a host of notables, none of whom can surpass the great character actor Richard Kind’s turn as the surreal, imaginary friend Bing Bong.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (PG-13, ****): Like improbably youthful star Tom Cruise, the Mission Impossible movies keep getting better with age. It’s counterintuitive, but somehow Cruise, as secret agent Ethan Hunt, is a more convincing action hero than ever. Here he leaps, dives, and dodges his way through a series of thrilling, complex setpieces while avoiding the unnecessary plot as best he can. All you need to know: Hunt and his team (including Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Ving Rhames) find themselves on the outside when a shadowy cabal of former international agents frames Ethan and gets the the Impossible Missions Force disbanded by a CIA bureaucrat (Alec Baldwin). Much fighting and spying ensues. Frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie takes over directing duties and nearly outdoes Brad Bird’s fine work in Ghost Protocol. McQuarrie wisely retains Bird’s zippy physical comedy, and his big action sequences are crisp and tightly controlled without ever feeling programmatic or mechanical. It’s pure popcorn-cinema bliss, perfect for a summer matinee, and the sort of exuberant escapism Hollywood tries so hard to capture but rarely succeeds at. Unlikely as it is, Cruise and his signature series keep getting better. Apparently it only seems impossible.
No Escape (R, *): Owen Wilson returns to his rarely seen man-of-action form for this thriller about a family man trying to lead his wife (Lake Bell) and their two young daughters to safety in a foreign land besieged by a coup. Wilson’s humbled engineer has been forced to take a job in an unnamed southeast Asian country that collapses just as they arrive. The revolutionaries, rendered literally faceless with bandanas, are specifically killing officials and white people, so the engineer must lead his trio of stereotypically terrified women through the carnage of their besieged hotel, through the streets, and to the safety of the Vietnam border. (This, geographically, means they have to either be in Laos or Cambodia, but whatever.) Despite a last-second, barely elaborated twist that the company Wilson works for is responsible for the revolutionaries’ fervor, no effort is made to contextualize or humanize them. They’re a teeming mass of frightening foreigners who only exist as a backdrop against which the humbled white patriarch can regain his agency and authority. After a compellingly tense first half-hour, the movie has no charms to offer save for Pierce Brosnan playing a kind of cantankerous, debauched James Bond-type, whose boisterous skuzziness is refreshingly honest compared to the rest of the movie’s coy xenophobia.
< Sinister II (R, 1/2*): This defiantly slapdash sequel to the surprisingly scary 2012 horror film starring Ethan Hawke applies the demystified tropes of the original to a stock horror-movie setup. In the first movie, a struggling writer finds a box of videotapes depicting the gruesome, simultaneous murders of several families. Turns out the tapes were made by children possessed by the demon Bughuul, who commands them to kill their parents and siblings. In the followup, single mother Courtney (Shannyn Sossaman) brings her two kids (real-life brothers Robert and Dartanian Sloan) to an abandoned farmhouse to hide out from her abusive husband (Lea Coco). When one of the boys stumbles upon another box of tapes, the ghostly minions of Bughuul begin to urge him toward murder. New director Ciaran Foy sets this up early, then waits an interminable eighty minutes or so for the inevitable to play out. One of horror’s most essential elements is the unknown, and knowing the details of the Bughuul mythology drain Sinister II of much of its power, especially as this sequel makes no attempt to expand on its predecessor. The only pleasant distraction here is the lone returning actor from the original, James Ransone, playing a character so inessential he doesn’t have a name (he’s credited as “Deputy So and So”). Ransone plays the bumbling do-gooder with enough goofball charm to bring a bit of levity to this otherwise grim, programmatic slog.
Straight Outta Compton (R, ****): The expansive, thrilling biopic of gangsta rap pioneers NWA is as fascinating and problematic as the group themselves. Versatile director F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Italian Job) attempts to make The Godfather of hip-hop movies, and though he bites off more than he can chew in the overcrowded second half, he has made the first rap epic. Jason Mitchell is dynamite as Eric Wright, also known as Easy-E, frontman to the now-legendary crew that included Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Cube’s real-life son). The other members are shuffled to the background to focus on the relationship between the trinity, who introduced the raw truths and social controversies of gansta rap to mainstream America and changed the face of music. What Gray gets most right is the potent blend of music, drugs, police brutality, and black subculture that provided the context from whence the group and their bombastic hits emerged. The film loses focus when it becomes overly concerned with contract negotiations between Easy, manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), and newcomer Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), while Gray struggles to find time to include as much as possible from that busy, influential era of 1990s West Coast rap, including the rise of Snoop, Tupac, Death Row Records, MTV hip-hop, and the aftershocks of the L.A. riots. It’s a visceral film filled with great performances, thrilling concert footage, and more raw energy than a whole summer’s worth of blockbusters.
The Visit (PG-13, ***1/2): M. Night Shyamalan’s reputation has taken a deserved pummeling during the past decade, but this small-scale return to his horror-movie roots is a return to form— for all the good and ill that entails. Shyamalan still struggles with plausible emotions and dialogue from his characters, who are more ideas of people than anything like real human beings. Here, teen heroine Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is a gratingly precocious budding filmmaker out to shoot a documentary about her estranged grandparents, whom she and her younger brother (Ed Oxenbould) have never met. The perfectly fine DeJonge is forced to make casual references to “denouement” and “mise-en-scène” sound natural, while Oxenbould is asked to perform not one but three lengthy freestyle raps for strained comic relief. That said, when they do arrive for their weeklong stay with Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), Shyamalan’s instinct for patiently paced menace and knee-slapping twists kicks in. The movie works when it counts, as the writer/director turns the tone from darkly comic to flat-out terrifying. The final twenty minutes are breathlessly intense. All those groan-worthy lines and tedious asides early on fade into memory, but images of Dunagan rampaging through a dark house or the unsettling sounds of what turns out to be the world’s most upsetting Yahtzee game linger in your brain for days.
A Walk in the Woods (R, ***): Bill Bryson’s funny, insightful nonfiction bestseller receives a somewhat improbable big-screen translation. The early scenes in the film seem calculated to safely bring up the heart rates of its white-haired demographic, as an edgelessly cranky Robert Redford, playing a less-delightfully irascible version of the real-life Bryson, attends a funeral and suffers a mid-end-of-life crisis. He decides to reaffirm his vigor by hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. It’s an endeavor his wife (Emma Thompson), defined by her eye-rolling indulgence, shoots down for safety’s sake lest he find a hiking companion. Enter Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), Bryson’s dilapidated former traveling companion. Nolte’s cantankerous energy jolts the movie alive, and his saltiness keeps it palatable through the blander moments. Director Ken Kwapis, a smart sitcom director but a pap-master on the silver screen (License to Wed, He’s Just Not That into You), puts his veteran stars through a series of low-stakes hijinks. They flirt with vaguely age-appropriate women, engage in safety-padded slapstick, and encounter the inevitable bears. But the movie gains confidence as it goes along and allows two fantastic and intriguingly mismatched actors the time to pontificate about age, death, vice, love, and what they’ve learned in eight or so decades. When it stops trying for cheap entertainment, the movie truly engages, thanks in large part to the still absurdly composed Redford and Nolte’s shabby, shamanistic presence.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> Black Mass (R): Johnny Depp stars as eccentric, legendary Boston mafia figure Whitey Bulger in this bizarre true crime tale from Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper. The ace supporting cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Peter Sarsgaard, and Dakota Johnson.
> Captive (PG-13): Based on the real-life experiences of Ashley Smith (Kate Mara), who was kidnapped by courtroom escapee Brian Nichols (the excellent David Oyelowo) after he murders his judge and other judicial and law-enforcement officials.
> Grandma (R): Lily Tomlin stars as a woman whose granddaughter runs into trouble and needs cash. Tomlin’s character is broke, however, and dealing with a recent breakup, complicating the acquisition of funds from her friends. Starring a pretty awesome cast: John Cho, Sam Elliott, Julia Garner, Judy Greer, Marcia Gay Harden, and Nat Wolff. Paul Weitz (American Pie, Admission) directs.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (PG-13): Guy Ritchie writes and directs this reboot of the 1960s spy show about a secret multinational organization, here including Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, as they attempt to foil a nuclear terrorism plot. Also featuring Alicia Vikander, Hugh Grant, and Jared Harris.
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (PG-13): Having escaped the deadly maze in which he was mysteriously imprisoned, Dylan O’Brien must lead his fellow captives through the post-apocalyptic wasteland that waits outside in this sequel to the sci-fi action flick based on the young-adult novel franchise. Featuring Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Giancarlo Esposito, and Lili Taylor.
Ninety Minutes in Heaven (PG-13): After a man dies in a car wreck, he returns to life an hour and a half later. Supposedly based on a true story, but starring Hayden Christensen— so is this the Dark Side of the Force at work or one of Stephen Glass’s concocted stories? With Kate Bosworth and Dwight Yoakam. (Wissmann)
The Perfect Guy (PG-13): A career woman (Sanaa Lathan) is torn between her mysterious new guy (Michael Ealy) and an ex-boyfriend (Morris Chestnut) who claims he knows a dark secret about his romantic rival in this thriller.
Ricki and the Flash (PG-13): Meryl Streep stars as an aging rock star who returns home to make amends with the family she left behind in this lighthearted drama from Jonathan Demme, written by Diablo Cody (Juno). Featuring Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, and Rick Springfield. Yeah, that Rick Springfield.
< Shaun the Sheep (PG): A sheep who leads his flock astray must return them home in this claymation family comedy.
The Transporter Refueled (PG-13): Ed Skrein steps into Jason Statham's accent (and shoes) in this reboot of the popular franchise about a Continental badass, here pitted against Russian mobsters and vengeful ladies.
< Vacation (R): In this sequel/reimagining of the popular National Lampoon movie series, Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms), inspired by his father Clark (Chevy Chase), takes his own family on a trip to Wally World. From Horrible Bosses team John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, featuring Christina Applegate, Leslie Mann, Beverly D’Angelo, Chris Hemsworth, Keegan-Michael Key, and Charlie Day.
War Room (PG): Christian-themed drama about an old person who fixes a broken modern family with her Jesus-based advice. Written and directed by Kirk Cameron cohort Alex Kendrick (Fireproof, Courageous).