Silver Screen: The Score Card September 9, 2010 Edition
> Opening this week (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< Leaving Carbondale this Friday.
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
< Despicable Me (PG, **1/2): Moderately entertaining but underwhelming computer-animated kiddie comedy about a sort-of criminal mastermind (Steve Carell) who adopts three little girls as part of his plan to outdo his upstart rival baddie, Vector (Jason Segel). Our villain's heart melts a little, of course, forcing him to choose between his new charges and infamy. It's less a cohesive feature than a forty-five-minute movie padded with as many minutes of comedy sketches, a few of which generate some laughs, and several of which don't. The movie's more interesting elements are frequently undercut by the incessant butt/fart/toilet gags and its ambling pace. In 2D and 3D versions.
< Dinner for Schmucks (PG-13, *1/2): There’s a decent enough idea for a movie here— even one that potentially splits the difference between broader American comedy and the significantly lighter touch of the French film Le Diner de Cons, on which this is based— but Meet the Parents director Jay Roach isn’t the man to find it. Paul Rudd’s passive protagonist Tim is given the thinnest veneer of an excuse why it’s kinda okay for him to participate in a sleazy dinner at which his rich coworkers vie to see who can drum up the stupidest guest. Enter Barry (Steve Carell), a clueless IRS worker and amateur taxidermist who makes Tim’s life into something that’s supposed to resemble a comic nightmare en route to the big dinner, which is even more overplayed than the rest of the movie. Not even Rudd can smarm and charm his way to likability in this simultaneously too soft and too mean debacle that gropes for slapstick when satire is called for. Several funny actors, including the leads and Zach Galifianakis, give performances that are better suited to a funnier movie.
Eat, Pray, Love (PG-13, ***): Director Ryan Murphy (the creator of Glee and Nip/Tuck) turns Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir about her spiritual journey into a lovely looking travelogue with vague ambitions. It’s partly his conventional approach, but also the limitations of the medium that keep the movie focused more on the surface of Gilbert’s book than its depths. But Julia Roberts does a fine job as Gilbert, who leaves her flaky, aimless husband (Billy Crudup) after a decade to find herself— in the Oprah sense of the phrase— by taking a yearlong trip to dine in Italy, learn meditation in India, and kick it with her main medicine man in Bali, where she also happens to meet the swarthy and charismatic Javier Bardem, who provides the “love” part. Murphy’s adaptation is unremarkable, but it’s not bad, either. It’s well-intentioned, beautifully shot by cinematographer Robert Richardson, and nicely acted by Roberts and some better-than-the-material supporting performances from bit players like the great Richard Jenkins. It’s absolutely pleasant, if pleasant is what you’re looking for.
The Expendables (R, **1/2): Sylvester Stallone’s latest action flick is all about stunts— but there’s at least as much of that in the casting as in the fight scenes. Think of it as the Traveling Wilburys of action movies. Sly teams up with Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham, plus mixed martial arts champ Randy Couture and rassler Steve Austin to do battle with the puppetmaster of a military dictatorship (Eric Roberts). Bruce Willis and even Governor Badass make cameos. Where for art thou, Jean-Claude Van Damme? This knowingly dumb throwback is modestly entertaining in its own right, even though director and cowriter Stallone lacks the vision to capture a solid action sequence, and he’s become increasingly fond of computer-generated blood geysers. It’s exactly what it purports to be, which is both good and bad.
< Grown Ups (PG-13, *): Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Kevin James, David Spade, and Rob Schneider costar as old friends from a basketball team who get together for a long holiday weekend with their families to commemorate their old coach's passing. What ensues is a weirdly offkey mashup of broad kids’ movie gags, adult-ish grossout gags, and tired riffing. Each character gets a one-sentence character description and a single, easily remediable conflict on the way in, and each one checks out one conflict lighter and no different at all. Some excellent comedians (Sander, Rock, and bit players Tim Meadows and Maya Rudolph) and some very often tolerable performers of comedy (James, Spade, Schneider) are unable to sell more than a line here and there of the creaky dialogue as the characters saunter, pretty aimlessly, from one low-intensity situation to the next.
Inception (PG-13, ****1/2): Christopher Nolan's fifth Batmanless film is his best since Memento, and his most visually stunning work to date. Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play thieves who specialize in entering people’s dreams and stealing information from their minds. When an industrialist (Ken Watanabe) hires them to actually plant an idea in the mind of an heir to an energy monopoly (Cillian Murphy), they bring in a brilliant young girl (Ellen Page) to help them with their most difficult assignment yet. This is big, beautiful, plot-driven, mind-bending sci-fi weirdness. It's a rare creature: a complex effects-driven blockbuster that demands intense focus from the audience. The puzzle comes together nicely, although Nolan does seem to run low on ideas near the end (Arctic commandos?). Still, it's dazzling.
Last Exorcism (PG-13, ***1/2): Daniel Stamm uses the faux-documentary approach popularized by The Blair Witch Project to great effect in this surprisingly thoughtful, nuanced scary movie about a skeptical preacher (Patrick Fabian) called to a remote farmhouse to expel a demon from a sheltered teenage girl (Ashley Bell). Though Stamm ultimately arrives at gore, sprints through the dark, spooky woods, and other horror-movie money-shots, he uses the earlygoing to build character and atmosphere to great success. Preacher Cotton Marcus’s crisis of faith is treated seriously, and the movie neither panders to nor denigrates either side of the religion/atheism divide. Solid performances from Fabian, Bell, and Louis Herthum as the girl’s widower father help elevate this haunting film above simplistic scares, even if Stamm and his screenwriters aren’t always able to maintain the integrity of the documentary gimmick.
Machete (R, **): Robert Rodriguez adapts his hilarious two-minute fake trailer from Grindhouse into a not very hilarious, nearly two-hour-long real movie. Wonderful character actor Danny Trejo gets a star turn as an ex-Federale whose wife and child are killed by a pan-ethnic drug lord (Steven Seagal). He survives a would-be-killing and hops the border to live a quiet life, only to be drawn back into murder and mayhem when he’s hired to kill a state senator for conspiring with vigilante border guards to build an electrified fence between Texas and Mexico. The plot is surprisingly complicated, but aside from the occasional loaded gag like our hero dispatching suit-clad thugs with various gardening implements, the movie’s anti-anti-immigrant ideology is muddled to the point of stupidity. The real thrill is watching Trejo live out perhaps the first above-board Mexploitation movie as the south-of-the-border Shaft. But Rodriguez’s fondness for trash, occasionally thrilling though it is, only carries Machete so far, and it’s not long before the nudging and winking gets tiresome. It’s less a movie than a series of hit-and-miss gags and some stunt casting, all in the name of making a bad movie that pretends to be a good movie pretending to be a bad movie. Dios mio.
The Other Guys (PG-13, ***): Will Ferrell reteams with his Anchorman co-conspirator Adam McKay for his funniest movie in quite awhile. The premise is paper-thin parody fodder— a pair of incompetent, desk-bound cops (Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg) attempt to break a major case and replace fallen supercop heroes (Samuel Jackson and Dwayne “Do You Smell the Supporting Performance the Rock Is Cooking?” Johnson). But director McKay opts out of the genre riffing that turned this year’s Cop Out into a snooze and instead packs his film with enough clever sketch concepts and running gags to keep it consistently funny. Wahlberg isn’t much help as a hotheaded screwup, but Ferrell does solid work as a paper-pusher whose secret past has equipped him with the skills for the streets. Michael Keaton reminds us how funny he can be as the atypically soft-spoken police captain. Also featuring Steve Coogan and Eva Mendes.
< Piranha 3D (R, ***): There’s absolutely nothing to this even-more-directly-referential remake of the 1977 Jaws knockoff than boobs, blood, blood, and boobs— but then again, that’s exactly what it’s selling. If the new 3D technology serves any real purpose, it’s to jazz up frivolous genre exercises like this. The latest from Alexandre Aja, about a school of killer prehistoric fish loosed from the bottom of a lake to feast on bathing beauties during spring break, is pure prurience, but it’s awfully fun if your tastes run toward the lowbrow. The stunt casting of Richard Dreyfus in the opening scene almost oversells the joke, which plays out over a lean hour-and-a-half in a rather literal orgy of blood. Elisabeth Shue is the Chief Brody stand-in, while Adam Scott is the post-Dreyfus Dreyfus who comes in to use his scientific expertise to battle the starving beasties. Both are totally wasted in the movie, although the same cannot be said of its insipid lead, Steven R. McQueen, grandson of that Steve McQueen. Not for the easily offended, faint of heart, or serious-minded.
Scott Pilgrim versus the World (PG-13, ***1/2): The latest from Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead and the disappointing Hot Fuzz) is the candy-colored, distractible, frenetic, pop-culture-steeped bleeping-and-blooping embodiment of hipster youth culture. It’s all there— indie rock, manga and anime, American comics, sitcoms, videogames, and a megadose of irony. That sounds as irritating as your emo nephew who won’t stop texting at Thanksgiving dinner, but the sparky, energetic film is surprisingly fun, even for aspiring codgers. The one-note Michael Cera plays that note pretty well as a mediocre bass player who falls for a totally standard-issue manic pixie dream girl (the overpoweringly lovely Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and then learns that to win her over he must defeat her seven evil exes in combat— as in, actual combat. One of the most familiar stories of all is recast as madcap fantasy, and the clash between the often mundane lives of teens and twentysomething teens at heart and the movie’s over-the-top digital fantasy aesthetic makes some awesome noise. It’s an artful, low-culture mashup, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, and it’s going to have a cult following before you can say “Twitter.” Featuring Jason Schwartzman, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, and several other smirking young actors with better musical taste than yours.
Takers (PG-13, *1/2): There’s not even really product placement in this flavorless heist movie, just people placement among the products. It’s a catalogue adapted for the big screen, with exactly the kind of dialogue viewers would expect from a movie based on a catalogue. Rapper T.I. and rhythm-and-blues singer Chris Brown costar in and coproduce what is essentially Ocean’s Eleven without all that intrusive charisma getting in the way. T.I. is Ghost, a recently sprung con left for dead by his partners in crime during a caper gone wrong. He returns from the joint and proposes to knock off an armored car, but his former crew (Idris Elba, Michael Ealy, Paul Walker, Hayden Christensen, and Brown) must decide if it’s a payday or payback— all while contending with a dogged detective (Matt Dillon, who basically made the same movie last year with Armored). The movie’s high points all involve Ealy and Elba, two intense, always-compelling actors who actually make the material seem workable, but they’re weighed down by the rest of the ensemble. The lovely Zoe Saldana is treated like just another product to be placed among the props, and is thus, unfortunately, wasted.
< Toy Story III (G, ****): The toys are back for a second sequel that feels a little perfunctory, although the joy and cleverness that made the first two films so endearing remains. Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and the rest of their toy crew are donated to a daycare center when owner Andy goes off to college. The daycare turns out to be a prison camp for toys run by a sadistically laid-back teddy bear, so once more Woody must lead his plastic pals to safety. The pathos is a little thick this time around, and a little too familiar— the conflict is really no different than that of the second movie— but a slew of excellent jokes and Pixar’s winning animation style win the day. The real treat, though, is the stellar opening short cartoon, “Day and Night,” which is as inventive as this movie should have been. Featuring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Michael Keaton, Ned Beatty, and others. In 3D.
> The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (PG-13, *1/2): This installment of the goth teen romance/melodrama is the easiest to watch, but that’s a relative statement. David Slade, the third director in as many films, does the best job so far, bringing a little more credibility to the horror elements of the series, as much as possible considering all the bloodsuckers are sparkly dreamboats. Bella (Kristen Stewart) is still planning to give her life over to Edward (Robert Pattinson), but she continues to harbor a crush on hunked-out werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner). The two rivals for her affection must form a truce to stave off the evil vampire queen Victoria (an underutilized Bryce Dallas Howard) and her army of foundlings. Though competently made and more straightforwardly plotted, it’s still a slop of yearning and moping, undercut by three wooden, under-emoting leads peddling suspect ideas to the teen fanbase it so unabashedly indulges.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
The American (R): George Clooney stars as an American assassin laying low in Italy and waiting for his target, but he gets in trouble when he befriends some townspeople, including bella ragazza Violante Placido.
> Get Low (PG-13): What a cast— Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Sissy Spacek. Novice director Aaron Schneider leads them in a film about a reclusive man, Felix (played by Duvall), about whom wild rumors abound. Get Low follows Felix as he steps into town and begins engaging the public during the process of planning his own funeral.
> The Girl Who Played With Fire (R): The further adventures of Lisbeth Salander (played by the incredible Noomi Rapace), the titular character of the excellent, but disturbing, whodunnit The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The film will hit DVD in October, blunting the rush to see it in theaters. (Wissmann)
Going the Distance (R): Romantic dramedy about a couple (Drew Barrymore and Justin Long) struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship. Featuring Ron Livingston, Christina Applegate, Charlie Day, and Jim Gaffigan. Documentarian Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture, American Teen) makes her feature debut.
< Lottery Ticket (PG-13): Bow Wow, now regular-sized after a tenure as Lil Bow Wow, stars as a lottery winner who must hang onto his golden ticket during a long weekend fraught with comic turns from Ice Cube, Mike Epps, Charlie Murphy, Terry Crews, Loretta Devine, and Keith David.
Nanny McPhee Returns (PG): The not-even-remotely sequel follows the glowering, magical nanny (Emma Thompson) as she seeks to tame the rambunctious charges of wartime homemaker Isabel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in this kiddie flick. Featuring Ewan McGregor and Maggie Smith.
> Resident Evil: Afterlife (R): The action-horror franchise based on the popular videogame gets a third theatrically released sequel, because life isn’t fair. Milla Jovovich returns as the spindly ass-kicker who must try to find safe-haven in a world ravaged by a zombifying virus created and unleashed on the population by the nefarious Umbrella Corporation. Costarring Ali Larter and Wentworth Miller. Writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson returns, which at least prevents him from ruining other things. In 3D and 2D versions.
The Switch (PG-13): Wally (Jason Bateman), the best friend of a single mom (Jennifer Aniston), reveals that he switched the sperm samples in her artificial insemination and secretly fathered her child in this comedy costarring Jeff Goldblum, Juliette Lewis, and Patrick Wilson.
Vampires Suck (PG-13): As if all the currently ubiquitous, pretentiously overwrought vampire films and television shows didn’t already exceed the President's Council on Physical Fitness standards for exercise in self-parody, along come Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer with the kind of genre spoof that Mel Brooks rarely made funny— and that Friedberg and Seltzer (Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans, Epic Movie, Date Movie) never have. (Wissmann)