Silver Screen: The Score Card , February 24, 2011 Edition
> Opening this week (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< Leaving Carbondale this Friday.
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
< 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.
< Blue Valentine (R, ****): This intense, heartbreaking film tells the story of a marriage, but the narrative is split into two parallel stories: One in which sad, lost Cindy (Michelle Williams) meets aimless but amiable blue-collar dilettante Dean (Ryan Gosling), and the other in which the two not so mutually decide to end their marriage after a long, disastrous night in a cheap hotel room. Director and cowriter Derek Cianfrance does a remarkable job with this heavily improvised, hyper-realistic film, which rings wrenchingly true. Exceptional performances by both leads make this incredibly hard-to-watch film definitely worth the pain.
< 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.
I Am Number Four (PG-13, *): This off-brand superhero knockoff, based on a pseudonymous novel from coauthor and noted liar James Frey, is tangled up in its own silly mythology before it ever gets off the ground. The stilted, almost comically uncharismatic Alex Pettyfer stars as the fourth of nine alien beings sent into hiding on Earth after their planet was colonized by the evil Mogadorians, a nefarious alien race that looks like someone tried to recreate the villains from Dark City from memory but did a poor job. The Mogs hunt our bland hero, who, with his expendable protector (Timothy Olyphant), must navigate the mundane world of high school despite seemingly having a lot else on his plate. A silly climax involving lots of laser guns, a football field, and a shapeshifting alien puppy give rise to what is clearly supposed to be the launch of a franchise. Let's hope I Am Number Four turns out to be the only one.
Just Go with It (PG-13, *): Adam Sandler is an incredibly likeable performer, and even though the majority of his movies are lazily constructed around a similar template (sweet-natured manchild irresponsibly acting out meets a pretty girl and learns to be marginally more adult), he often manages to make them work. Not this time. Here he plays a megarich plastic surgeon whose sympathy-grab of a backstory (claiming to be an abused married man) attempts to provide a reason for why he lies to presumably dozens of women to get them to sleep with him-- at least until he meets a bikini model (Brooklyn Decker). He convinces his not-hot-until-she-takes-off-her-glasses assistant (Jennifer Aniston) to pretend to be his wife, and to loan him her kids, to complete an elaborate ruse he's constructed to be with the model... but has true love been under his surgically altered nose the whole time? Of course it has been, which isn't the problem-- the problem is an endless succession of dissonant tit and poop jokes that are too racy for kids and too dumb for adults, not to mention an escalating series of absurd plot machinations that drive the empty characters toward the inevitable climax. Only a late appearance by Nicole Kidman and singer Dave Matthews as a self-obsessed married couple lend any laughs to this grueling clunker.
< 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 Mechanic (R, **1/2): Reliable action star Jason Statham is nicely paired with a scruffy Ben Foster in this remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson vehicle. After Statham's master assassin reluctantly agrees to bump off his own mentor (Donald Sutherland), he decides to aid the man's violent but misguided son (Foster) by teaching him the ins and outs of the hired-killing game. But allegiances are divided both by the past and the shady dealings of our antihero's employer, a wealthy cabal led by the wonderfully villainous Tony Goldwyn. The remake retains enough of the slower pacing and character focus of the seventies original-- relative to the genre, of course-- to be interesting, and the nicely paced action leads up to a nicely executed if predictable climax.
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. Inevitably, of course, this friends-with-benefits accord leads to the two developing feelings for one another. No Strings Attached rarely deviates from the standard constructs of its genre-- it not only lacks a gimmick, it's almost plotless, consisting almost entirely of quiet moments and appealing banter, occasionally implausible but always character-driven and surprisingly amiable. Featuring Kevin Kline, Greta Gerwig, Cary Elwes, and Ludacris.
< 127 Hours (R, ****): Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) directs this true story about outdoorsman Aron Ralston (James Franco), who needed to cut off his own arm after an accident in the wilderness trapped him under a boulder. Flashbacks to Aron's youth give the movie substance, exploring the dark undercurrent of unhappiness that prevented the energetic, type-A Aron from fully living his life and connecting to the people around him, perhaps too willing to construct his lifestyle around his character flaws rather than facing them. More than a daring piece of filmmaking and a compelling drama, 127 Hours is an emotionally resonant experience that lingers in the mind long after the visceral shock of the climax fades away.
< The Rite (PG-13, *): Deadly dull exorcism flick that never deviates from the formula of the genre. The uninspiring Colin O'Donoghue stars as a skeptical would-be priest who goes to Italy to study under exorcist Father Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), only to encounter a demon and rediscover his faith. It's mostly a watered down Exorcist-knockoff masquerading as a character study, but it packs absolutely no punch. Skip it and check out Daniel Stamm's far superior The Last Exorcism instead, which basically attempts to do everything this movies does, only Stamm actually succeeds sometimes.
The Roommate (PG-13, *1/2): Though it's not credited as a remake of 1992's tawdry psychosexual drama Single White Female, this cheesy thriller copies the earlier film note for note, from the pet-killing (borrowed originally from Fatal Attraction, of course) to significantly cleaned-up versions of the prominent sex scenes. The setting is in college, but it might as well be any given generic apartment building, as one TV actress (Leighton Meester) terrorizes another (Minka Kelly) after they're randomly assigned to bunk together. As with last year's similarly tame and vapid Sorority Row, you have to wonder why bother making a bloodless, mostly sexless version of a sex-and-blood movie.
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
Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son (PG-13): In the improbable second sequel to the cross-dressing action-comedy semi-hit, Martin Lawrence returns as a detective who dresses as a pushy older lady-- way before Tyler Perry turned the gimmick into preachy melodrama-- to solve crimes. This time around he's aided by his similarly gender-bending son (the extremely likeable Brandon T. Jackson), who must don the dress to infiltrate an all-girl school.
> Drive Angry 3D (R): Nicolas Cage stars as a grieving father-- and by grieving, I mean a longhaired badass with a shotgun-- who returns from Hell to avenge the death of his daughter... in 3D! That's one bonus dimension of revenge. Featuring Amber Heard, David Morse, and William Fichtner as the Mephistophelean villain.
< The Eagle (PG-13): Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland) directs this action-adventure tale about a Roman soldier (Channing Tatum) attempting to reclaim his family's honor by recovering a lost artifact. Featuring Jamie Bell and Donald Sutherland.
Gnomeo and Juliet (G): Computer-animated kiddie comedy about two lawn gnomes from adjacent yards who fall in love despite a war between the neighbors. Featuring a lot of Shakespeare jokes and the voices of James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, and Jason Statham. In 2D and 3D versions.
> Hall Pass (R): The Farrelly brothers return from a four-year break and a long cold streak with another raunchy comedy, this one about a pair of married schlubs (Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis) who are given a week off of their marital commitments by their wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate) to try and score. Also featuring Richard Jenkins and Stephen Merchant.
Never Say Never 3D (G): This concert film is a documentary biopic of helmet-haired tween-pop star Justin Bieber that leads up to a big performance at Madison Square Garden. I'm going to go ahead and say I will never see this. In 2D and 3D versions.
< Sanctum (R): James Cameron-produced 3D adventure thriller based loosely on a true story about a group of explorers who are trapped in an underwater cave during a freak rainstorm. Featuring pretty much nobody, said nobodies including Richard Roxburgh (the queeny Dracula from Van Helsing) and Ioan Gruffud (the forgettable Mister Fantastic from the failed Fantastic Four series).
Unknown (PG-13): A doctor (Liam Neeson) narrowly survives a car crash only to wake up and find that neither his wife (Mad Men's January Jones) nor anybody else remembers who he is, with another man (Aidan Quinn) comfortably fit into his life. Jaume Collet-Serra (The Orphan) directs this thriller also featuring Frank Langella and Downfall's Bruno Ganz.