Silver Screen: The Score Card, January 20, 2011 Edition
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
> Opening this week (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< Leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Black Swan (R, ****): Darren Aronofsky's feverish retelling of Swan Lake is another stylistic triumph for the director, and a cerebral stunt that's also backed up by a solid story and defiantly toes (and screams across) the line of melodrama without quite tipping into it. Natalie Portman is excellent as the ambitious but frail, sheltered ballerina Nina, who is daunted by the psychological strain of both creating art and navigating the hazards of her industry. Repressed by her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), pushed to the edge by her manipulative director (Vincent Cassel), and threatened by her seductive potential replacement (Mila Kunis), Nina finds that losing yourself into art can be not unlike just plain losing yourself. It's a trippy flick, and Aronofsky exploits the grotesquerie lying behind the images that are so beautiful from afar. Always intense, occasionally frightening, it's one of the season's most bombastic and provocative films.
The Fighter (R, ****): It's Christian Bale, ostensibly the supporting player, who dominates David O. Russell's true-life boxing tale. But that's apropos, as the crux of the drama is little brother and future title contender Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) struggling to escape his fallen pugilist sibling's shadow. He's held back by bad habits and affection for his self-motivated family members (not just his brother but his domineering mother, played by Melissa Leo, and a gaggle of ghastly sisters). His new girlfriend (Amy Adams) presses him to strike on his own for one last shot at greatness in the ring. Russell cut his teeth as a maker of interesting, oddball films (from the hilarious Flirting with Disaster to the increasingly weird and wonderful I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings), but here he proves he can work with a straight story, too, and proves that an inspirational sports movie can come by its inspiring swells of bravado honestly. Bale is electric, and the rest of the ensemble shines around him.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I (PG-13, ***): After more than a decade of Harry Potter hype, it's hard to conjure up much enthusiasm for the seventh and penultimate installment of the film adaptations, especially considering ninety percent of the action in the book takes place in the last hundred pages. After an exciting escape-and-battle sequence, Harry, Ron, and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) wander about in the woods staring glumly at a magic locket, which is just one of the talismans they must destroy to vanquish the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). The novel had no real middle point, so the first part of the bisected finale just ends, giving the movie the aimlessness and shapelessness of the first Lord of the Rings movie. Despite director David Yates being the most deft of the Potter directors (aside from perhaps the too-stylish Alfonso Cuaró n), this is the dullest installment since the lackluster first movie.
How Do You Know (PG-13, ***): The once great, now good James L. Brooks's latest romantic dramedy is unbalanced and unfocused, but it's still pretty ingratiating. Reese Witherspoon fills out the film's most interesting character, Lisa, a former Olympic athlete facing the beginning of the end of her playing career. Romantically adrift as well as professionally so, she's torn between a rich but vapid, carousing baseball star (Owen Wilson) and a wrongly indicted company man (Paul Rudd). Brooks's love triangle is too unbalanced to garner even an ounce of dramatic tension, but the interactions between the three stars are lively. Interestingly, it's the movie's most aimless moments that often prove to be its best, providing flashes of wit and insight when not moving along a plot that's mostly going nowhere. Also featuring Jack Nicholson, who makes fairly little impression in his small handful of scenes.
The King's Speech (R, ****): The story of King Edward VIII's abdication of the throne in favor of the love of an American woman has been told many times before, but director Tom Hooper's excellent film follows a much less salacious consequence of the royal changeover, which is the ascension of Edward's brother, King George VI (Colin Firth), and his struggles with a speech impediment. The smaller-scale story becomes a microcosm of the newly crowned little brother's struggle with the responsibilities of leadership and the psychological baggage that comes with royal life. Geoffrey Rush is fantastic as the Australian speech therapist whose unconventional methods help Firth's staid ruler find his footing. Hooper's focus on this singular conflict amidst a more sweeping backdrop-- World War II is looming-- helps humanize the characters and cut through the faç ade of the monarchy without ever sinking to the level of lurid tell-all. Helena Bonham Carter costars as the future queen.
< The Tourist (PG-13, **): Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp costar in this limp attempt at light entertainment from Oscar-winning German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Jolie is the wayward girlfriend of a crooked accountant on the lam from Scotland Yard as well as the gangsters he ripped off, and to help reunite herself with her Prince Scamming (and his money) she picks out a random jerk (Depp) from Wisconsin to serve as a patsy to feed to her pursuers. Depp's charmingly clumsy math teacher becomes infatuated with the mystery woman and follows her at his own peril, leading them to a series of adventures that aren't nearly as much fun as von Donnersmarck seems to think they are. The movie packs a few nice surprises, but they come too late, and the most interesting ideas in the film are sublimated in an attempt to service a twistier-than-necessary plot. The two stars evince too little chemistry to warm up this lackluster, lukewarm bit of throwaway entertainment.
True Grit (PG-13, ****1/2): It's not surprising that the Coen brothers' take on Charles Portis's novel, previously filmed as a classic John Wayne vehicle, is both distinctive and exceptional, but it is startling how the brothers can impress even when expectations are set high. We should be able to surmise what the dark-humored auteurs would do with proven source material, a bevy of fantastic actors, and master cinematographer Roger Deakins, yet somehow the movie still bowls you over. Jeff Bridges does wonders with the mantle of Rooster Cogburn, a cantankerous lawman for hire who begrudgingly teams up with an eccentric Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) to help a steely teenaged girl (Hailee Steinfeld) find the assassin (Josh Brolin) who killer father. It's not an ironic commentary on the western as archetype, metaphor, or cinema history. It's a western-- rugged, beautiful, and spiked with morbid mirth. Bridges somehow manages to keep getting better, and Steinfeld is exceptional in her feature-film debut.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (PG): Michael Apted takes over the franchise based on C.S. Lewis's classic fantasy series, turned into computer-effects soup by Hollywood. The Pevensie children return to Narnia where they reunite with the Christ lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) to sail on a magical ship toward the edge of the world.
> Country Strong (PG-13): Gwyneth Paltrow stars as a washed-up country singer attempting a comeback and striking up a relationship with a young songwriter (Garrett Hedlund). Costarring Tim McGraw.
The Dilemma (PG-13): A happily married salesman (Vince Vaughn) discovers that the wife of his best friend and business partner (Kevin James) is cheating on him, bringing up the titual quandary of to tell or not to tell. Directed by Ron Howard and costarring Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, and Channing Tatum.
The Green Hornet (PG-13): Gleefully stylish indie director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) tries his hand at a big-budget superhero movie, or at least a comedic riff on one. Seth Rogen stars as the title do-gooder, who is actually a rich schlub who mostly pays his right-hand man Cato (Jay Chou) to do all of the ass-kicking. Featuring Cameron Diaz, Christoph Waltz, and Tom Wilkinson. In 2D and 3D versions.
Gulliver's Travels (PG): In this modernized, further Disneyfied version of Jonathan Swift's classic satire, our hero (Jack Black) is a modern-day journalist who gets transported to a land of tiny people while en route to the Bermuda Triangle, then reinvents the strange new world in his own slacker imagine. Sorry, Johnny Swift. Featuring Emily Blunt, Billy Connolly, and Jason Segel.
Little Fockers (PG-13): This is the third installment of a series that started as a middle-of-the-road trifle and became an icon of pandering, tasteless but banal schlock with the financially successful sequels. Be warned. Once more, nervous son-in-law Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) must prove his worth to his gaggle of parents (including Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Barbra Streisand) as a husband and father. Featuring Owen Wilson, Jessica Alba, Teri Polo, and Harvey Keitel.
> No Strings Attached (R): Ivan Reitman directs this romantic comedy about a pair of longtime friends, a writer (Ashton Kutcher) and a doctor (Natalie Portman), who embark on a fling but promise not to develop romantic feelings for one another. Featuring Kevin Kline, Greta Gerwig, Cary Elwes, and Ludacris.
Season of the Witch (PG-13): Long-shelved action-horror flick starring Nicolas Cage as a Crusader waylaid on his way back from the war by a small town harboring demonic secrets and a woman who may be responsible for the Black Plague. Featuring Ron Perlman.
Tangled (PG): Yet another fairytale recycled through the Disney-o-Matic machine. This time it's the long-haired captive in the castle tower (voiced by Mandy Moore) being rescued by a Prince Charming (Zachary Levi) from boredom and a nitpicky mother. Featuring the voices of Paul F. Tompkins, Jeffrey Tambor, Ron Perlman, and Brad Garrett. In 2D only.
Tron: Legacy (PG-13): In this update to/reboot of the schlocky 1980s videogame-centric action movie that helped launch computer-generated imagery, the inventor of a game (Jeff Bridges, playing both himself and a younger version of himself thanks to some real-life computer magic) is swallowed by his own creation, prompting his son (Garrett Hedlund) to enter the digital fray in order to save him. Also featuring the lovely Oliva Wilde, the British Michael Sheen, and Daft Punk (?). Only available in the 2D version.
> The Way Back (PG-13): Cerebral director Peter Weir's latest tells the true story of a group of escapees from a wartime Soviet gulag who walked all the way to India to reach freedom. Starring Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, and Jim Sturgess.
Yogi Bear (PG): Disastrous-looking computer-animated big-screen outing of Jellystone Park's most notorious resident, a pic-a-nic-basket-loving bear (voiced by Dan Aykroyd) and his pal Boo-Boo (voiced by Justin Timberlake), as they concoct zany schemes to steal food despite amiable opposition from Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanagh of TV's Ed). Also featuring Anna Faris and T.J. Miller.