Silver Screen: The Score Card, December 10, 2015 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
Creed (PG-13, ****1/2): Fruitvale Station’s Ryan Coogler writes and directs a franchise reboot that breathes new life into the Rocky series. This rousing reboot taps into the spirit of the 1976 original with a renewed focus on the characters’ relationships and gritty street life of Philadelphia, with stunning results. The premise is simple but elegant: Former heavyweight champ Apollo Creed had a son out of wedlock who was eventually raised by his widow (Phylicia Rashad). Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the lost boy turned child of privilege, rejects a lucrative career path to follow in his father’s footsteps. For help he turns to his dad’s greatest friend and opponent, the Italian Stallion himself. An older, wiser, wearier Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) agrees to train his young charge for a big fight that turns into an even bigger one. It closely follows the formula of the original, but Coogler subtly innovates throughout and invigorates it with fresh ideas. Stallone might not have been this good since 1976; it’s a soulful, heartbreaking performance perfectly matched by his powerful protégé. Adonis has a plucky girl of his own (Tessa Thompson), but though she’s no wallflower, it’s the mentor-mentee relationship that dominates this heartfelt, truly inspiring film, which balances the character study of the original with thrilling fight choreography. You’ll cheer, you’ll hum the theme, and you will most certainly root for Adonis Creed in this, the best sports movie of the new millennium.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II (PG-13, *1/2): The popular dystopian teen-lit adaptation lumbers to a conclusion in this halting, poorly paced, anticlimactic final installment. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) rejects her new role as the mouthpiece of the revolution and hitches a ride with a group of soldiers toward the front lines, where she plans to storm the Capitol and kill President Snow (a wonderful Donald Sutherland). The first two-thirds of the movie are bogged down by a lot of moping, and the ineffectual action— most of it just an inconsequential blur of computer effects— largely takes place in a dingy sewer. The actual climax is almost literally over before you know it, giving way to a tedious series of false endings that would make Peter Jackson twiddle his thumbs in frustration. Most of the interesting characters (and better actors) are shuffled to the side. There’s both too much and not nearly enough going on here, thanks in part to the screenwriters’ oppressive fidelity to author Suzanne Collins’s flawed text. The whole blockbuster franchise turns out to be something of a bust. It’s one-and-a-half good movies spread across eight-plus hours of running time. Its ultimate legacy will be as a starmaking platform for the excellent Lawrence, who elevated the material until it couldn’t keep up with her any longer.
The Night Before (R, ***): This crass but good-natured holiday-themed comedy attempts to strike a balance between cynicism and seasonal sentimentality. It succeeds in the latter but indulges in the former far too much, especially when it devolves into a series of celebrity cameos and meta-references. In its best moments, though, director and cowriter Jonathan Levine’s film is a warmhearted bit of silliness about two pals (Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie) trying to cheer up their best pal (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who never fully recovered from his parents’ death around Christmas more than a decade prior. On what is to be the final installment of their annual holiday tradition, the hijinks go to drunken extremes as they careen around the city, running into angry Santas, Ethan’s lovely ex-lady (Lizzy Caplan), and a magical weed dealer (a very funny Michael Shannon). Some of the plots work better than others, and Levine shoehorns in several implausible, annoying characters (specifically Ilana Glazer’s self-appointed hipster Grinch) in order to gin up conflict where none really exists. Ultimately it’s a bit like store-bought eggnog— not great, but good enough to satisfy at the right time of year.
The Peanuts Movie (G, ****1/2): Perhaps no beloved children’s entertainment is less-suited to slick modernization than Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, which is why it’s so heartening to see director Steve Martino (working from a script cowritten by Schulz’s son Craig) brilliantly preserve the essence of the comic strip while translating it to a computer-animated feature. The defiantly low-fi antics of Charlie Brown and his gang seem downright revolutionary today, but the gentle, slightly morose themes that made newspaper strip and animated specials so appealing still resonate. The film is something of a greatest-hits collection, distilling many of the classic tropes and themes of the strip and fashioning them into a longer, if somewhat episodic, story. Charlie Brown struggles to find a way to impress the new kid in school, the Little Red-haired Girl, while his faithful dog Snoopy engages in imaginary aerial combat with the Red Baron. The quality of the computer animation here is key, favoring a clean, rudimentary design reminiscent of stop-motion animation, one that nicely splits the difference between Schulz’s clean linework and the dominant Pixar style of the last two decades. Martino makes use of more dazzling imagery in Snoopy’s literal flights of fantasy, swooping and diving the camera with rollercoaster glee, while Charlie Brown’s musings are rendered in those familiar squiggly black-and-white lines. It’s simple but not simplistic, thoughtful and affecting, a treat for nostalgists and younger fans alike.
Secrets in Their Eyes (R, ***1/2): The dig against this thriller is that it’s a superfluous remake of a recent Spanish-language film that won an Academy Award in 2010. Fair enough, but for those who haven’t seen the original version, the remake is a solid thriller that relocates the action to the United States and twists the story nicely around post-September 11 paranoia. A team of investigators (including Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Dean Norris, and Michael Kelly) working to bring down a terrorist sleeper cell are confounded when the daughter of one of their own is found dead outside the mosque they’re surveilling. More than a decade later, one of them refuses to let the case go. Director and writer Billy Ray nicely adapts the material and maintains consistent intensity with the split narrative, which alternates between the present and the weeks after the crime. It’s a smart, sharply acted thriller with a handful of memorable moments. If you see this one instead of the Argentine original, I won’t tell anybody.
Spectre (PG-13, ***1/2): The fourth Bond movie of the Daniel Craig era pushes the story away from the grim, relatively more realistic Casino Royale toward classic 007 territory. We’re not talking Moonraker here, but the plot takes a turn for the delightfully outlandish as Bond (Craig) learns about an overarching plot that ties together loose threads from the previous three outings. At the hub of it all is Spectre, a shadowy organization (literally shadowy, when they’re introduced) led by the mysterious Franz Oberhauser (born Bond villain Christoph Waltz). With the help of a supervillain’s estranged daughter (Léa Seydoux), Bond must untangle the confusion on his own while the double-oh program is menaced by bureaucratic meddling and both M (Ralph Fiennes) and Q (Ben Whishaw) are pushed out. This latest 007 outing kicks off with a thrilling, visually sumptuous action sequence it can never quite top. But despite being a little thick in the middle, it’s a thoroughly entertaining entry in the series with a few eye-popping sequences and all the hallmarks that make this formulaic series pleasantly familiar rather than frustratingly repetitive.
Trumbo (R, ****): Bryan Cranston gives a powerhouse performance in this uneven but mostly fascinating biopic about the great writer Dalton Trumbo, who was jailed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and blacklisted from Hollywood. Undeterred, he channeled all of his cantankerous energy into bullying his way back into the film business, using pseudonyms and fronts to write B-movie schlock and also some Oscar-winning classics like Roman Holiday, The Brave One, and Spartacus. Director Jay Roach gets a little high on star worship (and its opposite) in his deserved vilification of chumps like John Wayne and Hedda Hopper and feisty heroes like Kirk Douglas. But the movie is most compelling when it focuses on all the people behind the camera, including Trumbo’s plucky family (including Diane Lane as his wife and Elle Fanning as his daughter), his sublimely self-interested B-movie collaborators the King brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root), and his commie writer pals (Louis C.K. and Alan Tudyk, among others). It’s a rousing, inspiring picture that finds its groove as Trumbo fights back from the confines of his bathtub where he cranks out a seemingly endless series of classics. Though it begins like one of those perfunctory, self-satisfied Hollywood history lessons, it gains thrilling momentum and explores all the nuances and contradictions of its subject, ultimately evolving into a tribute befitting of the man himself.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
The Good Dinosaur (PG): Pixar’s latest was a troubled production largely scrapped and reworked. It’s about a dinosaur who befriends a human boy, so perhaps it’s based on “research” from the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Featuring the voices of Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn, Anna Paquin, and Sam Elliott.
> In the Heart of the Sea (PG-13): Ron Howard directs this seafaring adventure tale about a group of whalers stalking a deadly beast, based on the true story that inspired Moby Dick. Featuring Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, and Brendan Gleeson.
Krampus (PG-13): Horror-tinged holiday comedy about the anti-Santa, a vengeful spirit who comes to punish the ungrateful when a squabbling family (including Adam Scott, David Koechner, Toni Collette, and Allison Tolman) get together for Christmas. Fans of the Bourbon Knights already know what’s up.
< Love the Coopers (PG-13): It’s hard to believe Nancy Meyers didn’t direct this gentle generational holiday comedy in which the world’s whitest family attempts to have the world’s whitest Christmas. Featuring John Goodman, Diane Keaton, Amanda Seyfried, Marisa Tomei, Olivia Wilde, Ed Helms, and Anthony Mackie.
> Star Wars: The Force Awakens (PG-13): In this indie drama, survivors of a political coup must watch as their children bear the repercussions of their actions. In space! With Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, and Lupita Nyong’o. Without George Lucas.
< Victor Frankenstein (PG-13): This revisionist take on the Frankenstein story is told from the perspective of Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), the stooped assistant to the demented doctor (James McAvoy) who brings life to a stitched-together corpse. Of course, there was no Igor in Mary Shelley’s story, or James Whale’s Universal classic. But hey, we said it was revisionist.