Silver Screen: The Score Card, September 24, 2015 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
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.
Black Mass (R, ****): Johnny Depp’s turn as notorious Boston-born gangster James “Whitey” Bulger should win him a spot among Hollywood’s scariest movie monsters. He’s not at his scariest when he’s machine-gunning an old man in a country-club parking lot, but rather in his terrifying quiet moments when there’s nothing left for him to say, which means there’s only one thing left for him to do. He’s vampiric— not a seductive Dracula, but a grotesque Nosferatu, with sallow cheeks and thinning white hair stretched over a knob of skull. That’s the difference between director Scott Cooper’s chilling biopic and potentially similar gangster fare by the master, Martin Scorsese: There’s no good in Cooper’s fellas. He traces Bulger’s ascendency through the Boston underworld in the 1980s and the toxic effects it had on everyone around him, including former boyhood pal John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), now an FBI agent who tries to build his career by forming a dark alliance with the mob. This is a beautiful, intense, and consistently frightening movie, so compelling it overcomes its sometimes clunkily on-the-nose voiceover narratives and overload of machismo. Featuring exceptional ensemble performances by a slew of terrific actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown, Jesse Plemons, and Julianne Nicholson.
< 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.
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (PG-13, *1/2): The first Maze Runner slightly distinguished itself from fellow Hunger Games knockoffs with its more singularly focused plot: Who trapped a bunch of teenagers inside a massive, elaborate labyrinth, and how can memory-wiped new kid Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) lead them out? The pro-forma sequel lapses into a dutiful checklist of modern apocalypse-movie tropes— and that’s before a terminally disinteresting mid-movie twist that reveals the whole thing to be a complicated setup to the umpteenth zombie movie. Thomas and his pals (who include Ki Hong Lee and series newcomer Jacob Lofland) are trapped in a facility run by the maze makers, until an escape plan sends them out into the zombified hellscape known as the Scorch. Thomas’s girlfriend (Kaya Scodelario) thinks megacorporation agent Janson (Aiden Gillen) really has their best interests in mind back at the scary dystopian science lab, but he thinks they’re safer among the computer-generated man-eaters as they search for a rebel army of character actors including Giancarlo Esposito and Lili Taylor. Just because the movie slows down doesn’t mean it can’t be consistently boring. The hodgepodge of too-familiar ideas scattered amongst slick but uninspired visuals from director Wes Ball amount to an awful lot of nothing.
< 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.
< 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
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.
> Everest (PG-13): Jake Gyllenhaal leads a group of climbers on a doomed expedition up Mount Everest in this survivalist thriller featuring Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, and Emily Watson.
< 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 Green Inferno (R): Shockmeister Eli Roth returns to the torture-fetishism game with this Cannibal Holocaust-inspired horror flick about clueless student activists meeting a grim fate in the Amazon jungle.
> Hotel Transylvania II (PG): In this sequel to the family friendly animated comedy, Dracula (Adam Sandler) must help his human grandson embrace his inner monstrosity so he can keep working at the hotel staffed by famous beasts. Also featuring the voices of Andy Samberg, Kevin James, and Selena Gomez.
> The Intern (PG-13): An overwhelmed entrepreneur (Anne Hathaway) learns lessons about life and business from her older-than-average intern (Robert De Niro) in this dramedy from Nancy Meyers also featuring Rene Russo, Adam DeVine, and Nat Wolff.
< 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.
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)
> Pawn Sacrifice (PG-13): Another film about the late Bobby Fischer’s 1972 chess victory against world champion Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union. Directed by Edward Zwick and starring Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber. (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.
< 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.
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).