Silver Screen: The Score Card, February 16, 2017 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
Fifty Shades Darker (R, *1/2): In the sequel to 2015’s prestige softcore hit, Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) must attempt to smooth over a breakup with her boyfriend (Jamie Dornan) while dealing with his crazed ex-girlfriend, his uptight mother, and his life-defining fetishes spawned from years of childhood abuse. Sexy, eh? Despite their cloak of eroticism, these Fifty Shades movies are confined by a Hays Code of the mind that only lets them view sex as the cause or consequence of something bad. It doesn’t help that the title hunk, Christian Grey, is a controlling billionaire with a barely repressed lust to grab women between the legs, which is so last season. Only Dakota Johnson brings a spark of life to this handsomely shot, dramatically weightless slog. She’s Hollywood’s heightened idea of girl-next-door pretty, and she’s able— with her looks, or with a relatable gesture or expression— to blaze onscreen in sharp contrast to the movie’s otherwise dull Pottery Barn catalogue aesthetic.
John Wick: Chapter Two (R, ***1/2): There aren’t many surprises in the followup to Chad Stahelski and Derek Kolstad’s surprisingly good shoot ‘em up, which pioneered its own fighting style and founded another franchise for ageless action star Keanu Reeves. But while the cocreators, now dividing up the writing and directing duties, are content to stick with what works, at least they know why it works and how to do it again. Once more the titular widowed hitman is pitted against a ruthless gangster (this time Riccardo Scamarcio) on a principal-driven quest for revenge. It’s not a question of will John Wick dispose of all the baddies, but the brutal grace with which he’ll do it. Reeves returns as an avenging angel who racks up a massive body count and guns through a gauntlet of ingeniously crafted stuntwork, from a demolition-derby karate fight with cars to a tumble down endless tiers of ancient Roman stairs. It’s simplistic, sure, but it delivers exactly as promised, and expounds a bit on the shadowy secret mythology of an underworld of assassins. That means even more Ian McShane as dapper hotelier-for-hitmen, along with return engagement for Lance Reddick and John Leguizamo, as well as an appearance by the fantastic Ruby Rose.
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.
Manchester by the Sea (R, ****1/2): Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful portrait of grief and forgiveness is not the relentless bummer it’s rumored to be. Lonergan simply scours the dramatic conventions away from a familiar scenario to reveal its true form. But in taking away those cinematic milestones that guide us through the story, he leaves the audience alone, wandering through fraught territory. This gives tremendous power to a familiar scenario: Loner uncle Lee (Casey Affleck) must return home to care for his orphaned teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) following the death of Lee’s brother (Kyle Chandler). Writer/director Lonergan lets the situation play out with uncanny realism, revealing along the way moments of subtle but profound sadness, and also a lot of humor, even if much of it is of a darker variety. The real gut-punch comes from Lee’s backstory, revealed mostly in devastating flashback, where we learn what drove him away from town and his ex-wife (Michelle Williams). Near the end of the movie they share the best scene of 2016. Lonergan has done his best work yet, fusing the flawed ambition of Margaret with the richly satisfying humanity of his debut, You Can Count on Me.
< Rings (PG-13, *): This plodding update of the Japanese-import horror franchise about a ghost that haunts a spooky video squanders a couple of neat ideas and a terrific opening sequence. Instead of straining toward daffy and demented, as it promises to at first, F. Javier Gutiérrez’s remake rushes back to dull familiarity. When a dopey college student (Alex Roe) gets entangled with a professor (Johnny Galecki) running a dangerous experiment with the cursed videotape, the bro and his credulous girlfriend (Matilda Lutz) retreat to a generically eerie northwestern town in search of the ghost’s origins. The nadir comes when our intrepid heroine is fleeing from a psychotic blind man, and her solution for escape is to turn off all the lights. Alas, it’s only this howlingly dumb in fits and starts, so it’s neither the fun B-movie it threatens to be early on, nor sublimely terrible.
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 Comedian (R): Robert De Niro helped produce this film, in which he also stars, about a comic who is trying to escape the expectations of an audience who only remembers him as a young TV actor. A heck of a cast includes Leslie Mann, Cloris Leachman, Edie Falco, Jimmie Walker (maybe a little to on-the-nose in terms of casting), Gilbert Gottfried, Billy Crystal, Harvey Keitel, Danny DeVito, and SIU alum Hannibal Buress. (Wissmann)
> A Cure for Wellness (R): Gore Verbinski (The Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean) returns to horror with this tale of a CEO (Dane DeHaan) shipped off to a spa with sinister methods and secret intentions.
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!
> Fist Fight (R): Two public schoolteachers, a scary one (Ice Cube) and a not-at-all-scary one (Charlie Day) agree to fight after the final bell in this comedy featuring Tracy Morgan, Christina Hendricks, and Kumail Nanjiani.
> The Great Wall (PG-13): Chinese cinema icon Yimou Zhang (Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers) helms this joint American/Chinese production about the men of yore who built the Great Wall of China— to keep out a horde of monsters. Featuring Matt Damon, Andy Lau, and Willem Dafoe.
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.
The Lego Batman Movie (PG): A superhero spoof spun off the improbably successful Lego Movie. Here the egomaniacal, clueless Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) must juggle the responsibilities of crime-fighting and raising his new adopted son, Robin (Michael Cera). Featuring an anti-Trump protest’s worth of celebrities, including Rosario Dawson, Conan O’Brien, and Ralph Fiennes.
Lion (PG-13): As a result of a mistake, a child from the Indian countryside ends up in the city of Calcutta. As an adult, he attempts to find his way home to his birth family. Nominated for six Oscars. (Wissmann)
Passengers (PG-13): Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt costar in this sci-fi romance about civilian space travelers inadvertently taken out of cryogenic hyper-sleep decades too soon. How will they pass the time?
< 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.
< The Space Between Us (PG-13): Sci-fi love story about a blooming romance between a boy (Asa Butterfield) living alone on Mars, sharing a long-distance relationship with an earthbound girl (Britt Robertson). Featuring Gary Oldman, Carla Gugino, and B.D. Wong.