Silver Screen: The Score Card , September 23, 2010 Edition
> Opening this week (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< Leaving Carbondale this Friday.
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
The American (R, ****): Anton Corbijn's debut feature film, based on Martin Booth's Graham Green-esque novel A Very Private Gentleman, is equally evocative of paranoid 1970s conspiracy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and the Parallax View and meditative European fare of the era, notably Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger. Our distant, chilly hero, an assassin who calls himself Jack (George Clooney), and later Edward, faces disastrous consequences of his never-explained actions in Sweden, and must flee to the Italian countryside to hide out. He befriends a priest (Paolo Bonacelli), hires a prostitute (Violante Placido), and takes on a small job making a sniper rifle for a beautiful and mysterious woman (Thekla Reuten), but his real goal is to escape his past. "You Americans think you can outrun history," the priest scolds, and he's right. This slow-paced, cerebral thriller's plot still packs a little bit of a punch, but mostly the movie is a character piece, and a stirring one thanks to Corbijn's patience, screenwriter Rowan Joffe's script, and a wonderful performance from leading man Clooney, who shows his range by playing the exact opposite of the delightful, motormouthed lunatics he takes on in Coen brothers' films.
Devil (PG-13, ***): This silly but entertaining horror flick isn't quite high concept-- more like medium concept, at best. Five strangers (Geoffrey Arend, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Logan Marshall-Green, and Jenny O'Hara) are trapped in an elevator together, and one of them happens to be Satan himself. A police detective (Chris Messina) must figure out how to free them before Mean Mister Mephistopheles turns them against each other and leaves them all for dead. M. Night Shyamalan cooked up the delightfully preposterous premise, but thankfully he doesn't direct. As a consequence, the movie has a better sense of its own absurdity, and at just more than eighty minutes of running time it plays like the overlong episode of The Twilight Zone that it is. It's a nice apé ritif for the Halloween season.
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.
Easy A (PG-13, ***1/2): This broadly appealing teen comedy in the vein of Clueless and Mean Girls is a riff on, not a retelling of, The Scarlet Letter. The even more broadly appealing Emma Stone stars as Olive, a straight arrow who pretends to sleep around with closeted gay guys and nerds to help them better their reputations. But she feels the backlash of her fake sexual liberation when she's ostracized from her friends, castigated by her teachers, and targeted by a group of evangelical Christians (led by Amanda Bynes). This saucy look at hypocrisy, teen sex, and double-standards is occasionally too quirky for its own good, but the Gilmore Girls-style rapid-fire banter and a winning performance from star Stone make this teen girl-centric movie accessible to a wider audience. Funny stuff, and smart to boot. More Emma Stone, please. Also featuring Thomas Haden Church, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, and Lisa Kudrow.
< 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.
< Going the Distance (R, ***): Drew Barrymore and Justin Long don't evince much chemistry in this semi-serious-minded romantic comedy, but surprisingly that doesn't kibosh the whole project, which splits the difference between ciné ma vé rité and genre conformity. Barrymore's grad student meets Long's record-industry middleman at a New York bar just weeks before she must return to school in California, but they decide to keep the relationship going anyway. First-time feature director Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture, American Teen) and first-time screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe explore the perils of the long-distance relationship with significant fidelity to the truth, even if the movie's cast of supporting characters (including the hilarious Charlie Day and Jim Gaffigan, as well as Christina Applegate in full-on shrew mode) seem to have stepped out of a more conventional movie. The strong supporting cast, plus cameos from good comics like Mike Birbiglia and Rob Riggle, keep the jokes moving, while Long and Barrymore play out something a lot more like a drama. It's an occasionally dissonant fusion, but a good one nonetheless that aims for honesty and hits the mark more often than not.
< 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.
< 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.
< 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
Alpha and Omega (PG-13): Animated kiddie fare about a pair of wolves, one a loser voiced by Justin Long, and the other the pack's most sought-after bitch (hey, that's the term!) voiced by Hayden Panettiere, who are separated from the group and must work together to survive. Only in the 2D version.
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)
> Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (PG): This family friendly computer-animated fable about a new recruit in an army of brainwashed soldier owls is improbably helmed by Three-hundred and Watchmen director Zack Snyder. Featuring the voices of Abbie Cornish, Helen Mirren, Geoffrey Rush, and Sam Neill. Available only in the 2D version.
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.
The Town (R): Ben Affleck cowrites, directs, and stars in this crime drama about a bank robber whose relationship with a girl from the right side of the tracks (Rebecca Hall) threatens to bring down his criminal enterprise even as an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) works to bring him down. Featuring Jeremy Renner and Chris Cooper.
> Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (PG-13): Oliver Stone's improbable sequel to his classic 1987 morality play on film about the destructive impulses of Ü ber-capitalist Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Following the events of the first movie, Gekko is paroled only to find an even more atavistic financial system at work, and he's roped back into the game by his daughter's ambitious boyfriend (Shia LaBeouf). Also featuring Carey Mulligan, Josh Brolin, and Susan Sarandon.
> Winter's Bone (R): When a drug-dealing Ozark Mountain man jumps bail after using the house as collateral, the rest of the family faces eviction and homelessness. It falls to his seventeen-year-old daughter, Ree Dolly, to play Dog the Bounty Hunter. Directed by Debra Granik, Winter's Bone actually looks more like a family drama than an actioneer. (Wissmann)
> You Again (PG-13): A successful businesswoman (Kristen Bell) returns home for her brother's wedding only to find out that he's marrying her high-school nemesis (Odette Yustman). Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis costar as the girls' similarly rivalrous mothers, and Betty White also shows up, because that's just what happens now.