Silver Screen: The Score Card, February 23, 2017 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
A Cure for Wellness (R, **): There’s a lot to like about Gore Verbinski’s atmospheric horror movie about a businessman (Dane DeHaan) sent to a mysterious sanitarium, but ultimately Verbinski can’t get to the point quickly enough to make the film compelling.
The Great Wall (PG-13, **1/2): Revered Chinese director Yimou Zhang was best known Stateside not for his internationally lauded 1990s dramas but for his eye-popping martial-arts extravaganzas, like Hero and House of Flying Daggers from the early 2000s—that is, until he orchestrated the staggeringly elaborate opening ceremonies to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was a brilliantly orchestrated nationalist statement that spoke to the immensity and collectivist power of China. That’s mostly what this film is really about as well, even if it comes in the guise of a fantasy action flick in which Matt Damon helps thousands upon thousands of ancient Chinese warriors guard the Great Wall from a horde of reptilian alien monsters. The concept of the Great Wall as a bulwark against fantastical threats is a neat one, but Zhang seems to have little use for story and fantasy silliness. As an action movie, it drags terribly after the thrilling first act. But Yimou’s perfectly ordered regiments of soldiers marching in perfectly color-coordinated armor, the complex machinations of their weapons, and hundreds of men and women working together to create a kind of massive human machine— this is what he cares about. And it is truly a spectacle. While Yimou’s latest might be boring to watch, it’s wonderful to look at.
< 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.
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
> Collide (Autobahn) (PG-13): Nicholas Hoult and Felicity Jones are on the run from drug smugglers on the high-speed Autobahn in this action flick featuring Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley.
< 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.
> Get Out (R): Comedian Jordan Peele writes and directs this wry, racially charged horror movie about a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) who uncovers frightening truths when he goes home with his fiancée (Allison Williams) to visit her family. Featuring Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener.
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?
> Rock Dog (PG-13): Animated musical about a country dog who heads to the city to make it as a rock star. (Wissmann)