Silver Screen: The Score Card, September 8, 2011 Edition
> Opening this week (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< Leaving Carbondale this Friday.
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
< Bad Teacher (R, ***): Cameron Diaz stars as an amoral conwoman shortchanging her students and scheming against her coworkers while she barely works as a junior-high teacher. She decides she needs $10,000 to pay for a boob job to woo a potential sugar daddy, a wealthy but naï ve new teacher (Justin Timberlake), which prompts her to actually try to be good at her job-- sort of. The basic plot of the movie, not to mention the lead character, is strikingly similar to that of Bad Santa, a far superior dark comedy, but this one works at the very least as a joke-delivery system and a showcase for talented supporting players, including Jason Segel, Lucy Punch, and, too briefly, Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet. It almost but never quite comes together, but it’s funny enough along the way. Directed by Jake Kasdan (Zero Effect, Freaks and Geeks).
< Captain America: The First Avenger (PG-13, **): Director Joe Johnston helmed the underrated 1991 superhero movie The Rocketeer, and unfortunately this pre-Avengers film looks like it was made only a year or two later. Cheap-looking effects and inertly staged battle sequences significantly hinder this bland actioneer in which a puny soldier wannabe circa World War II (Chris Evans) is injected with a super-soldier serum that turns him into the ü ber patriot Captain America. He battles the ridiculous-looking and utterly uninteresting Red Skull with the help of his anachronistically empowered girlfriend and multiethnic band of ragtag soldiers. Only the climactic fight scene provides some thrills, which is all Marvel really needed to have happen-- it’s all a big, expensive tease to the Avengers movie next summer. In 2D only.
Cars II (G, *1/2): Pixar’s first misfire is a mess of shoddy plotting and market-driven logic. While the rest of the first movie’s cast is relegated to cameos bookending the rest of this too-long movie, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) and his pal Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) go to Europe for a three-tiered race to promote alternative energy that gets sabotaged by a big oil conspiracy. The film takes on an ill-conceived espionage story as hapless Mater bumbles through the spy plot while McQueen races pretty much in the background. New characters add next to nothing, while the clash of cash-in logic and a shoehorned pseudo-environmentalist message add to the dissonance. It doesn’t even look all that sharp, and only a sequence on the streets of Tokyo comes close to dazzling audiences the way most Pixar films do from start to finish. Featuring the voices of Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, and Eddie Izzard. In 2D only.
Cowboys and Aliens (PG-13, ***): Blandly satisfying big-budget popcorn-movie extravaganza in which aliens descend on a sleepy post-Civil War Arizona mining town. Mysterious outlaw Jake (Daniel Craig, flinty and awesome) and tyrannical cattle rancher Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) team up and lead a posse to find the creatures' hideout and rescue the abducted townsfolk. Director Jon Favreau plays the material surprisingly straight, and to his credit it never lapses into unintentional parody. At best, though, it's a blandly satisfying action flick that delivers exactly what it promises without ever hinting at anything new or particularly interesting. The movie is buoyed somewhat by a strong supporting cast that includes Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, and Walton Goggins.
Crazy, Stupid, Love (PG-13, **): Semi-ambitious misfire that attempts to be The Usual Suspects of romantic comedies, which is as awkward as it sounds. When he’s dumped by his restless wife Emily (Julianne Moore), Cal (Steve Carell) befriends local lothario Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who vows to help him learn the ways of being a ladykiller. But Jacob finds himself increasingly vulnerable after he meets a beautiful, high-strung law student (Emma Stone). The screenplay by Dan Fogelman strikes false notes at nearly every turn, from improbable plotlines to clunky dialogue and implausible characters. A side plot involving Cal’s son’s crush on a pretty babysitter (talented newcomer Analeigh Tipton), who herself has a crush on boring Cal, is particularly dissonant. The whole cast is strong, and Gosling and Stone are especially good, but they can only render their material tolerable. A respectable failure from directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who generally do excellent work (Bad Santa, I Love You, Phillip Morris).
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (R, **): Atmospheric but ultimately dull remake of the fondly remembered 1973 TV movie in which a little girl (Bailee Madison) is relocated to live with her estranged father (Guy Pearce) and young stepmother (Katie Holmes) in a cartoonishly spooky old house that turns out to be home to a tribe of tiny ancient creatures that emerge from the darkness only to feed on the teeth of children. What sounds spooky starts off as an overload of atmosphere but eventually descends into a straight-faced but not particularly scary version of Gremlins. All the eerie whispers and dark corners in the world can't mask the movie's utter lack of payoff, which plays out conventionally and fails to raise the heartrate even a little. You won't be afraid of the dark, but you might be bored by it.
Final Destination V (R, **): Perhaps the single most formulaic active franchise in movies returns with the same setup. A young person foresees an impending disaster (bridge collapse) and escapes it with a group of lucky survivors (his coworkers from a paper plant) only to find them each subsequently reclaimed by death via a series of gruesome accidents (failed gymnastic equipment, malfunctioning factory, laser eye-surgery machine). The concept is silly and easily replicable enough that there are still some guilty-pleasure giggles, but the blandness of the execution coupled with the squandering of the one new idea the movie presents makes it a bit of a drag for a 3D movie that barely runs more than an hour and a half and spends most of its running time on cartoon carnage. In 2D and 3D versions.
Fright Night (R, ***): This remake of the lighthearted second-tier 1980s horror classic is utterly unnecessary, but it’s fun anyway. Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) stars as an affable teenager who comes to believe his new next-door neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) is a vampire planning to prey on his mother (Toni Collette) and girlfriend (Imogen Poots). With some help from his nerdy friend (Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and an egomaniacal Las Vegas stage magician (former Doctor Who David Tennant, hilarious doing a riff on Criss Angel), he seeks to rid his suburb of the bloodsucker. As remakes go, it’s not particularly inspired, but director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) has a deft visual touch and a nice sense of humor and pacing. That and a jaunty soundtrack help turn this into a delightful trifle in a similar vein to Disturbia’s retread of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. In 2D and 3D.
< One Day (PG-13, **): Lone Scherfig (An Education) directs this dreary romance by David Nicholls, adapting his own novel about twenty years in the life of a star-crossed couple. Emma (Anne Hathaway) is a would-be writer burdened by a lack of direction and self-confidence, while her college crush and now best friend Dexter (Jim Sturgess) becomes a minor celebrity hosting British chat shows. The driving gimmick is that the two begin their friendship on July 15, and the film charts their evolving relationship by highlighting every July 15 for the next two decades. But Nicholls flinches from the premise and, rather than letting it work organically, shoehorns nearly every major moment in their long courtship onto the same day. It’s a big-time cheat that might have been forgivable if Hathaway weren’t so grating and overexerted and Sturgess was nearly as dashing as he seems to think he is. A ridiculous, maudlin twist ending caps off this pathos-laden slog, so perhaps it’s best that the dunderheaded conclusion didn’t muck up anything worth ruining anyway.
Our Idiot Brother (R, ***): Inveterate charmer Paul Rudd keeps this lazy but affable comedy functioning, if not thriving. Rudd stars as Ned, a lovable, too-trusting hippie who winds up serving a brief jail stint for selling pot and gets booted from his organic farm and estranged from his beloved dog Willie Nelson. Homeless and trying to find a way to get his pooch pal back, he bounces around between the homes of his three semi-tolerant sisters, a matronly doormat (Emily Mortimer), a flighty bohemian (Zooey Deschanel), and a bitchy career woman (Elizabeth Banks). All three sisters are too simplistic and narrowly defined, walking problems with pretty faces and nice hair, and Ned deals with them one at a time, fixing their troubles on the way to remedying his own. It's all too tidy, even though it's fun enough to watch, thanks largely to Rudd, as well as nice turns from supporting players Adam Scott, Rashida Jones, and a particularly funny T.J. Miller.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (PG-13, ****): In a summer chock full of remakes, this update/prequel to the classic 1970s series is surprisingly fresh, reimagining the uprising primates not as people in monkey suits but actual animals rendered with impressive nuance by computer effects. James Franco stars as the scientist who inadvertently gives his pet chimpanzee an evolutionary leap forward while working on a drug to combat the Alzheimer's afflicting his father (John Lithgow). This is one of the rare instances in which special effects add to the subtlety of the story, rather than just making for glossy scenes of chaos-- although there are a few of those in the movie's slam-bang climax. The net effect is a move away from the racial themes of the original to an animal-rights message, but director Rupert Wyatt nicely juggles theme and story without sacrificing plot momentum. Add a deliciously evil supporting turn from the fantastic Brian Cox as the nefarious owner of a patently ridiculous primate holding facility and you've got the delightful mashup of the silly and cerebral not seen since Chuck Heston dueled with Roddy McDowall in 1968.
< Thirty Minutes or Less (R, ***1/2): Ruben Fleischer’s followup to the surprisingly fun Zombieland is somehow even more frivolous than his debut, but it’s breezy fun for its entire eighty-three minutes. A cold-hearted loser (Danny McBride), with the help of his dunderheaded buddy (Nick Swardson), hatch a scheme to bump off his rich father (Fred Ward) for his inheritance. To raise the $100,000 they need to hire a hitman (Michael Peñ a), they kidnap a pizza-delivery man (Jesse Eisenberg), strap a bomb to his chest, and force him to rob a bank. It’s a convoluted, utterly improbable scheme very loosely based on a real-life tragedy, but the madcap plot it sets in motion-- and moves forward at a brisk pace-- lays the groundwork for a lot of fun interactions between McBride (doing his usual schtick), a particularly funny Swardson, and Aziz Ansari, who steals the show as Nick’s high-strung best friend. Eisenberg is miscast as the slacker antihero, more caustic and calculating than burned out, but he’s deft with comedy and makes a nice pairing with Ansari. It’s an Elmore Leonard story for the Judd Apatow set.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
Apollo 18 (PG-13): Blair Witch Project-style found-footage horror movie featuring faux-archival video that shows the real purpose for America’s manned missions to the moon and the alien horrors that await there. From Spanish director Gonzalo Ló pez-Gallego, and written by a more successful Brian Miller.
> Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star (R): Vehicle for frequent Adam Sandler collaborator Nick Swardson (they cowrote the script) in which he stars as a clueless Midwestern boy who learns his parents were 1970s porn stars and sets out for Hollywood to reclaim his legacy. Featuring Christina Ricci, Don Johnson, Kevin Nealon, and Edward Herrmann.
Columbiana (PG-13): Action flick from the Luc Besson factory in which the beautiful Zoe Saldana plays a woman who becomes an assassin after the death of her parents.
< Conan the Barbarian (R): Revamp of Robert E. Howard's pulp classic about the titular barbarian, played here by Jason Momoa (Khal Drogo in HBO’s Game of Thrones), as he slashes and screws his way through a land filled with monsters, soldiers, and slave girls while he seeks to avenge his slain parents. Featuring Ron Perlman, Rose McGowan, and Rachel Nichols. In 2D and 3D.
> Contagion (PG-13): Cerebral indie star Steven Soderbergh directs this more plot-driven thriller about an airborne virus that threatens to wipe out humanity. Featuring a stellar cast that includes Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
> Creature (R): The title creature-- a half-man, half-alligator-- menaces a group of young adults on their way to party in New Orleans. Luckily, one of the kids is a Navy SEAL.
The Debt (R): Helen Mirren fronts this remake of an Israeli thriller about a trio of aging Mossad agents (Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds) who must deal with the consequences of a secret mission they undertook decades before to track down a Nazi war criminal. Also featuring Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington.
The Help (PG): Adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel about a quirky Southern gal (Emma Stone) who attempts to bridge racial divides by writing a book about the secret lives of the African American women who work in the homes of the well-to-do. Scandal and, of course, understanding ensue. Costarring Viola Davis, Cicely Tyson, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Jessica Chastain.
> Sarah's Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah) (PG-13): Kristin Scott Thomas stars in this French film about an American journalist living in France who discovers that she’s living in a house that belonged to a Jewish family that the Vichy French sent to die in the Holocaust. As she learns more about her house and the family that owned it, she must deal with her own personal struggles.
Seven Days in Utopia (G): Matt Russell’s directoral film tells the story of a struggling golf pro stranded in Utopia, Texas. Starring Lucas Black, Melissa Leo (HBO’s Treme), and the great Robert Duvall.
Shark Night 3D (PG-13): Here’s all you need to know about this movie: It’s about sharks attacking people in a freshwater lake, it’s in 3D, and it’s rated PG-13 so the nudity and gore will be minimal. Everything else is superfluous. In 3D and even 2D.
< The Smurfs (PG): The annoying, hive-minded band of blue creatures living in a cartoon forest make the brutal transition to live-action when they’re chased into the real world by Gargamel (Hank Azaria). Neil Patrick Harris stars alongside animated smurfs voied by Jonathan Winters, Katy Perry, Wolfgang Puck, Paul Reubens, and Jeff Foxworthy. In 2D only.
Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D (PG): Another sequel in writer-director Robert Rodriguez's candy-colored kiddie action series in which a pair of super-tweens (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) team up with their folks (Jessica Alba and Joel McHale) to foil the villainous Jeremy Piven, who is probably also playing a villainous character. In 2D only.
> Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (NR): Baliwood film about a man who gets engaged and goes on a roadtrip to Barcelona with two friends to celebrate.