Silver Screen: The Score Card, October 1, 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.
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 among slick but uninspired visuals from director Wes Ball amounts to an awful lot of nothing.
< Pawn Sacrifice (R, ***): This conventional, rigid, and generally uninsightful biopic about troubled chess master Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) might be better off sticking with checkers. But the movie is consistently watchable and occasionally riveting, thanks mostly to a quartet of fantastic performances by some of the most underrated actors of the day. Maguire, whose glassy-eyed ponderousness makes him look like he’s always working out a chess game in his head anyway, convincingly channels Fischer’s manic, temperamental brilliance as he moves toward a duel with his Russian nemesis, Boris Spassky. A pair of Americans are conscripted by a never-named government operator to help Bobby prepare his mind, and to keep it together. Michael Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard work quiet wonders as Fischer’s defacto agent and trainer, respectively. Director Edward Zwick, however, makes just about every wrong move in the biopic genre: The timeline is too broad, filled with too many montages set to a soundtrack so blunt it’s distracting. Three actors play Bobby when one would suffice, and yet still Zwick must show us a few frames of the “real” Bobby, adding no value but crumbling the film’s artifice. The power of the fascinating true story and the generosity and nuance of the performances overcome the mistakes. It’s worth watching, even if you’re always a few moves ahead of Zwick.
Sicario (R, ***1/2): This self-satisfied drug-war drama is beautiful to look at and riveting scene to scene, thanks to talented Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins. But for a movie this smug and condescending, it offers precious little insight, instead covering the same bleak territory as the far superior and more metaphorical No Country for Old Men, and, to a lesser extent, The Counselor. Both those movies were written by Cormac McCarthy, and you’d swear this one is too but for its lack of stylized dialogue like grim poetry. The flinty Emily Blunt stars as Kate, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent conscripted into the quasi-legal underbelly of the drug war. Her new bosses (Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro) won’t even tell her who they work for, and battling the complex inter-agency protocols becomes almost as fraught as shootouts with drug runners. The greatest sin in the film is naïveté, and like its characters, the movie itself seems to sneer and roll its eyes at the audience, affecting an unearned superiority that becomes increasingly onerous as it fails to live up to its own lofty promises.
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.
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.
> Hell and Back (R): This rare adult-oriented animated comedy follows a pair of pals who go to Hell to rescue their accidentally damned friend. Featuring the voices of SIU alumni Bob Odenkirk, Nick Swardson, Mila Kunis, T.J. Miller, Susan Sarandon, Maria Bamford, and Danny McBride.
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 Martian (PG-13): Ridley Scott directs this adaptation of Andy Weir’s thrillingly wonky sci-fi survivalist tale about a lone scientist (Matt Damon) stranded for months on the Red Planet while the best minds at NASA (led by Jeff Daniels) scheme to get him home. Featuring Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Donald Glover, and Sean Bean.
< 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.
> Sleeping with Other People (R): A pair of philanderers (Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis) make a friendly, uncommitted romantic arrangement that’s ruined when some action romance sets in. Written and directed by Leslye Headland and featuring Adam Scott, Amanda Peet, and Adam Brody.
Southpaw (R, *1/2): This overheated boxing melodrama from Olympus Has Fallen and Training Day director Antoine Fuqua and Sons of Anarchy writer Kurt Sutter tries to be both an inspirational sports drama and a gritty revenge flick, but winds up indulging in the clichés of both genres without fully committing to either. Commitment is no problem for its star, though. Jake Gyllenhaal is rippled and veined near the point of grotesquerie to play our swole hero Billy Hope, a thick-headed palooka whose life is carefully managed by his brassy wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). But when she’s gunned down in a mysterious tragedy that is curiously never resolved, Billy spirals out of control and loses custody of their daughter (Oona Laurence). To get his life and career back on track he enlists the help of wise, cantankerous trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker). Gyllenhaal is terrific, and his scenes with Whitaker hint at a more interesting movie that never materializes. The fight choreography is atrocious, cribbed from either the first Rocky or the Nintendo classic Mike Tyson’s Punch-out. Fuqua and Sutter fritter away time on two or three subplots only to abandon them halfway through in favor of a big fight that’s somehow both inevitable from the first five minutes of the movie but also curiously underdeveloped.
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).