Silver Screen: The Score Card, March 3, 2011 Edition
> 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.
Hall Pass (R, *1/2): Grossout kings Peter and Bobby Farrelly make the first half of a marital comedy decent in this ultimately painful flick about a pair of suburban doofus husbands (Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis) who are granted one week off from marital commitment by their wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate). The bros bungle their way through the singles scene en route to discovering that prison of monogamy actually made for happy homes, but not before stumbling through a lot of perfunctory crudity and obnoxious comic set-pieces. Only supporting player Stephen Merchant (Ricky Gervais's regular collaborator) gets enough laughs to justify his existence here, while the two stars flounder in this limp sex comedy.
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.
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.
< 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.
Unknown (PG-13, ***): Liam Neeson continues to age into Grandpa Badass in this solid thriller about a doctor vacationing in Germany who wakes up to discover that his wife (January Jones) doesn't remember him and another man (Aiden Quinn) is living in his place. With the help of a cab driver (Diane Kruger) and a former Secret Police investigator (the excellent Bruno Ganz), he sets about unraveling a conspiracy. The movie is better as a paranoid, Continental private-eye flick than the action movie it turns into, but Neeson carries it off splendidly, and the story packs just enough credible twists to stay interesting. Worth watching for the combined well-aged flintiness of star Neeson and costars Ganz and Frank Langella.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> The Adjustment Bureau (PG-13): A young congressman (Matt Damon) falls for a ballerina (Emily Blunt) only to discover he's interrupted the plans of a vast conspiracy that controls fate. Featuring Terence Stamp and Mad Men's John Slattery, and based on a short story by paranoid mind-bender Philip K. Dick.
> Beastly (PG-13): Alex Pettyfer stars as a hunk who has it all-- until a witch (Mary-Kate Olsen) puts a curse on him that turns him ugly, which will remain intact forever unless he can find someone to love him within one year. Vanessa Hudgens costars in this remake of Beauty and the Beast.
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.
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.
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, and a "director's fan cut."
> Rango (PG): Johnny Depp provides the voice for the title character in this computer-animated kiddie comedy about a lizard who is mistaken for the sheriff come to clean up a desert town populated by dastardly critters. Also featuring the voices of Isla Fisher, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, Stephen Root, and Alfred Molina, and directed by Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring).
> Take Me Home Tonight (R): Topher Grace stars as an MIT grad languishing at a video-store job who decides to pretend to be a success to win his dream girl (Teresa Palmer) at a wild party in this 1980s-nostalgia comedy. Also featuring Anna Faris.