Silver Screen: The Score Card, January 26, 2017 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
Arrival (PG- 13, *****): This thoughtful, deliberately paced sci-fi masterpiece has a rare balance of cerebral concepts and character-based emotional impact. Amy Adams stars as a linguist tasked with the nearly impossible challenge of communicating with decidedly unhumanoid alien beings when they land twelve spacecrafts at different points around the earth. Standout director Denis Villeneuve dives right into the premise, but takes a deliberate approach to make a procedural film, both in terms of speculative first-contact protocol and linguistic puzzle. The result is a brilliantly acted, beautifully stylized story that earns its every heady conceit and pays off every startling twist. Costars Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg are fine, but this is the Adams and Villeneuve show, pretty much perfectly realizing a terrific adaptation of a short story from acclaimed writer Ted Chiang. One of the year’s true can’t-miss movies.
< Fences (R, ****): Denzel Washington and Viola Davis costarred in a revival of August Wilson’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning play on Broadway. Now Washington himself adapts that production for the screen. Washington stars as Troy, a charismatic former baseball player slightly too old to play in the Majors following Jackie Robinson’s desegregation. The former ne’er-do-well Troy has mostly settled down and made a life for himself, providing possibilities to his two sons (Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby) that he never had. But he can’t shake the resentment of his own stolen opportunities, and he chafes against the confines of the past. He can’t reconcile his true legacy with the one he dreamed about, which puts him at odds with his obliging wife Rose (Davis). Troy’s inner conflicts play out in his relationships with his sons, the youngest of whom has the athletic opportunity he could only dream of. There’s also Troy’s relationships with his best pal Bono (Stephen Henderson), Rose, and his older brother (Mykelti Williamson), who was gravely wounded in the war. Washington’s understandable fidelity to the source material keeps him from making the kind of minor alterations that might have helped make his adaptation feel more like a film and less like a stage piece filmed from several different angles, but the acting is phenomenal and the story is a timeless classic.
Hacksaw Ridge (R, ***1/2): Mel Gibson’s gory but old-fashioned war film is a grim, bloody homage to the powers of peace and grace. Only such a profoundly conflicted director as Gibson could attempt such a confounding thing, much less pull it off so well. He turns the real-life story of war hero, Army medic, and conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) into a series of familiar war-movie styles— love story interrupted by the Big One, basic-training coming-of-age story, courtroom drama, Stage Door Canteen sketch, and ultimately a meat grinder of a combat narrative. Among Gibson’s elegant but near apocalyptic scenes of carnage and suffering runs pacifist hero Doss, saving the lives of his fellow soldiers on a contested bit of land in Okinawa. Garfield is good, the ensemble is strong, and Gibson is as artful as ever in his panoramas of punishment— but here, perhaps inspired by the truly courageous Doss, he finds a little more light at the end of that long, dark tunnel. Featuring Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn, and Sam Worthinton.
Hell or High Water (R, ****1/2): This soulful crime drama from director David McKenzie and Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan is the rare film that’s both meditative and incredibly suspenseful. Chris Pine and Ben Foster costar as down-and-out Texas brothers who hatch a bank-robbery scheme to save their family farm. Meanwhile, a soon-to-retire lawman (Jeff Bridges) and his beloved but put-upon partner (Gil Birmingham) slowly but relentlessly pursue the pair. The sharp script takes time to linger in the moments of male bonding, be it impromptu wrestling matches between the brothers or the Texas Rangers sharing a smirk at a waitress meaner than both of them put together. But these good-humored and well-earned slice-of-life moments are suffused with the quiet tension of the inevitable moment when the four men’s paths will cross. The whole cast is exceptional, especially thespian Buddha Bridges, for whom deep pathos and quick humor are always immediately within reach, and the underrated Ben Foster, who bends every movie into his own gravitational pull.
La La Land (PG-13, ****): Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle infuses the old-fashioned musical with a twist of modernity in this unapologetic song-and-dance romance. Emma Stone’s wide-eyed wannabe actress finds love with Ryan Gosling’s stubborn jazz pianist, but the trajectories of their careers in the capricious world of showbiz threatens to pull them apart. After the big opening number, an impressively staged citywide singoff during a traffic jam, the music remains consistently pleasing but never especially memorable. The romantic storyline is the movie’s really catchy hook. It’s a straightforward, pretty gimmick-less love story that excels on the strength of deeply felt emotion and pretty much perfect casting. Stone and Gosling have fantastic natural chemistry. They’re immensely appealing separately and even more so together, where Stone’s brass and pluck pair perfectly with Gosling’s odd balance of clumsy and suave. Yes, it’s a self-congratulatory ode to the already self-obsessed, and the hero is a white guy who thinks that the only reason people don’t love jazz is they haven’t heard the right jazz. But it’s worth it for the surfeit of romance— in the tunes, the setting, the cinematography— and a terrific love story with real emotional resonance.
Patriots Day (R, ****): Peter Berg directs this sturdy ensemble drama about the hours before and after the Boston Marathon bombings. Mark Wahlberg leads the cast as Tommy, a vaguely cantankerous but otherwise sinless Boston cop who is present for the bombing as well as key moments during the subsequent manhunt. He’s at his best playing blue-collar bros, as in his earlier Berg collaboration this year, Deepwater Horizon— surprisingly plausible given his previous “Good Vibrations” credentials. But screentime is divvied up among a wide cast of characters that includes other cops (J.K. Simmons, John Goodman), runners and well-wishers caught in the bomb’s blast (Rachel Brosnahan, Christopher O’Shea), Federal Bureau of Investigation investigators (Kevin Bacon), a Chinese immigrant forced into the pursuit at gunpoint (Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang), and the bombers themselves (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze). Berg takes a removed, semi-documentary approach. He carefully orders the individual events, then weaves between the stories with little comment, his nominally dispassionate display of events colored in by our own awareness and allegiance. It’s understandably reverent, but a little stifled by that same admiration. Still, Berg has crafted a taut drama that captures the intensity of the events without exploiting them for thrills, and in its best moments Patriots Day captures the breadth of Boston as a city and the intricate mechanics of its various parts all working toward the common good.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (PG-13 , ***): The Disney assembly line is working at full force, now churning out Star Wars movies with the consistency of a tax bill. This is the first semi-standalone film in the series, a prequel that sits in the gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope but follows a new set of characters, a ragtag set of non-Jedi space jocks. Felicity Jones is the hero here, Jyn, yet another orphan cajoled by ghosts of her past to get involved in a plot featuring the Death Star. In this case the planet-killing battle station was designed by her own father (Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist forced into servitude to the Empire by an evil middle manager (Ben Mendelsohn) who works for Darth Vader. Yep, Vader shows up, at least briefly, in two of the movie’s most interesting scenes. For a standalone movie, this effort from Monsters director Garth Edwards leans awfully heavily on references to the earlier movies (hey, there’s that guy we know!) to carry it through an exceptionally dull first hour and a half. The reward is a cool space battle that dispatches with a lot of characters whose names you’re hard pressed to learn in the first place.
Split (R, ****): M. Night Shyamalan doubles down on an overused potboiler premise to great effect in this nifty psychological thriller, which takes the hoary old multiple-personality disorder and cranks it up to eleven. Shyamalan turns this largely discredited condition into a kind of urban myth, which, according to a sympathetic psychologist (Betty Buckley) enables the afflicted to have mental control over their own physiology. Twenty-three personalities live inside the head of Kevin (James McAvoy), and several of them have conspired to kidnap three girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) for ominously mysterious purposes. McAvoy is stellar here, throwing subtlety to the wind but somehow never veering into camp while playing a whole host of characters menacing the hero (Taylor-Joy), a tremendously sympathetic character whose backstory gives the whole silly production serious emotional resonance. The result is a fun, frightening movie that’s almost straightforward by Shyamalan’s standards, although he does toss in an interesting final twist.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
The Bye Bye Man (PG-13): Horror flick about three friends who discover the titular Bye Bye Man (Doug Jones, known in Australia as the G’Day G’Day Man), a demonic figure who compels people to do evil low-budget stuff. Featuring Faye Dunaway, Carrie-Anne Moss, Saw writer Leigh Whannell, and the best worst title in a long time.
> A Dog’s Purpose (PG): The story of a dog (voiced in internal monologue by Josh Gad) who finds multiple ways to connect with humans across several lifetimes. Yep, that’s right, you’re going to have to see a dog die multiple times, in a movie whose filmmakers allegedly abused the canine stars, which a video leaked to the internet purportedly shows them doing. Enjoy!
> Gold (R): Matthew McConaughey stars as a modern-day prospector who teams up with a geologist (Édgar Ramirez) in an attempt to find hidden reserves of gold in the Indonesian jungle. Featuring Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, and Bill Camp, directed by Traffic and Syriana writer Stephen Gaghan.
Hidden Figures (PG): Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monae costar in this true historical tale about the unheralded African American women whose mathematical formulas helped NASA first venture into space. Also featuring Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, and Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali.
< Live by Night (R): Ben Affleck directs and stars this adaptation of another Dennis Lehane novel, this time as a Prohibition-era gangster caught in a gangland conflict that stretches from Boston to Florida. Featuring Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana, and Chris Cooper.
Moana (PG): In this Hawaiian-set animated flick from Disney, a Chieftain’s daughter (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) must go on a journey to end an ancient Polynesian curse. Featuring the voices of Dwayne Johnson, Alan Tudyk, and Jemaine Clement.
Monster Trucks (PG): Live-action/animation combination that seems pretty self-descriptive— except that the monsters aren’t vehicles (Herbie, Transformers), the beasts lurk within them. (Wissmann)
Moonlight (R): Writer/director Barry Jenkins’s stirring coming-of-age tale about a young African American boy (Ashton Sanders) coming to terms with his sexuality and the tough Miami neighborhood where he’s raised. Featuring Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, and Andre Holland.
Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (R): Promise? Seriously, you swear this is the last installment of the videogame-inspired horror-action franchise in which gun-toting babe Milla Jovovich battles the monstrous legion of an evil corporation after the apocalypse. So, promise: No takebacksies.
The Resurrection of Gavin Stone (PG): Christian-themed film about a former child star forced to perform community service in a church, where he joins a theatrical production and redeems himself. (Wissmann)
Sing (PG): Computer-animated animals stage a singoff to save their struggling theater in this paean to pandering featuring the voices of most of Hollywood, including Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett Johansson, Reese Witherspoon, and Seth MacFarlane.
Sleepless (R): Jamie Foxx stars as a crooked cop coerced into pulling a heist to save his kidnapped son, all under the nose of a suspicious fellow cop (Michelle Monaghan). Featuring Dermot Mulroney, Gabrielle Union, and Scoot McNairy.
< Trespass Against Us (R): After a failed robbery, a criminal (Michael Fassbender) must flee not only the police but his own criminal father. (Wissmann)
xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (PG-13): Vin Diesel returns to the action series that originally tried to position the title character as an American answer to James Bond. (Wissmann)