Silver Screen: The Score Card, March 9, 2017 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale.
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
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.
Get Out (R, *****): Sketch comedian par excellence Jordan Peele takes a seeming left turn into the horror genre, and the result is a brilliant detour. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) goes on a weekend trip with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to visit her wealthy parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener). What starts as the cringe comedy of uncomfortable race relations— Whitford calling Chris “my man,” the implication dripping from his comments about Obama— gradually reveals itself to be something far more sinister. Writer/director Peele demonstrates an exceptional ability to shift tones as the movie veers into outright terror. The increasingly outlandish plot is allegorically rich and fully grounded by the movie’s heavy themes. This is uncompromising satire that doesn’t just exploit horror-movie tropes, it lives within them. The result is both a thrilling and upsetting movie. The tension is punctuated by some big laughs—often thanks to ace comic relief by Lil Rel Howery— but it’s the profound unease that lingers after the lights come up.
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.
Logan (R, ****): Hugh Jackman’s ninth and presumably final outing as Wolverine finds the fan-favorite X-Man in distinctly dire straits. It’s the year 2029, and the combination of a catastrophe and a cure has nearly rid the world of mutants. A haggard Logan drives a limo in a Texas-Mexico bordertown so he can buy meds for the elderly Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose superpowered mind has been transformed into an unstable weapon of mass destruction by dementia. When old man Logan and his older mentor run across the first new mutant (Dafne Keen), they take her on a cross-country roadtrip to safety while pursued by a paramilitary force. The movie’s R rating finally lets Wolverine use those claws to maximum bloody effect, but more importantly it lets director James Mangold step outside the increasingly familiar superhero-movie mold to create something far more distinctive. The result is frequently thrilling but also surprisingly emotional, dominated by a sense of regret that feels fully earned.
Moonlight (R, ****1/2): Director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins’s coming-of-age tale about a gay black child facing life on the streets of Miami may sound like a chore or a grind or a social obligation. It’s not. This incredibly elegant film doesn’t shy away from any grim realities, but it’s defined by beauty and hopefulness. Jenkins splits the story into three segments, in each of which a different actor portrays young Chiron: Alex Hibbert at age nine, Ashton Sanders at sixteen, and Trevante Rhodes as a wayward twentysomething. Semi-abandoned by his drug-addled mother (a de-glammed Naomie Harris), Chiron is taken under the wing of a conflicted, world-weary drug dealer (the fantastic Mahershala Ali) who tries to help him have the self-assurance he needs to survive as a gay black youth growing up in poverty. It’s a deeply emotional movie, but never a coy or manipulative one. The ensemble cast is terrific and includes ace performances from Janelle Monáe and the underrated (but hopefully not for long) André Holland.
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
Before I Fall (PG-13): Zoey Deutch stars as a young woman who must relieve the last day of her life over and over until she can solve the mystery of her own death.
< 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.
< 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.
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.
Kong: Skull Island (PG-13): This King Kong reboot (presumably intended to reestablish the character so he can fight Godzilla, because this is Hollywood 2017) finds a ragtag group of experts cajoled into exploring an island full of fantastical beasts, including the greatest of apes. Featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, and Corey Hawkins.
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)
Rock Dog (PG-13): Animated musical about a country dog who heads to the city to make it as a rock star. (Wissmann)
The Shack (PG-13): Sam Worthington stars as a grieving father in this faith-based fantasy where he must reconnect with God in the mystical, titular shack. Featuring Octavia Spencer, Radha Mitchell, and Tim McGraw.