Silver Screen: The Score Card, September 22, 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).
Contagion (PG-13, ****1/2): Indie darling Steven Soderbergh plays it pretty straight in this intense medical-disaster thriller, but he definitely brings his cerebral, controlled approach to the project, both working within and subverting the genre conventions. The ensemble piece is a kind of mosaic of scenes and events centering on an outbreak of a deadly virus that threatens to claim hundreds of millions of lives. The key players are patient zero (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her husband (Matt Damon), the head of the Centers for Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne), a divergent team of doctors and immunologists (Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, Demetri Martin), a military leader (Bryan Cranston), and an unscrupulous journalist (Jude Law), among others. The virus in the movie is both subject and metaphor, as the film ultimately concerns itself with the spread not just of illness but of information, rumor, and panic. It's a horror movie about globalization that doesn't treat global interconnectivity as a force of good or evil, just as a fact. An otherwise nifty climax hits some of the themes a little too on-the-nose, but a stellar cast and a smart script from Scott Z. Burns help make this a near-perfect blend of thrilling and thought-provoking.
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).
The Debt (R, ***1/2): Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain play the same character across separate timelines in this post-Holocaust thriller based on the Israeli film Ha-Hov. A trio of Mossad agents (Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Martin Csokas) infiltrate Soviet-controlled East Germany to bring back an escaped Nazi war criminal. But when their plan is bungled, they must ask themselves how best to serve justice to their captive. The ramifications of that decision will echo throughout the rest of their lives. The conflict is continued decades later when the three (played in the later scenes by Mirren, Ciará n Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson) are forced to reconcile with the legacy of their choice. The film works best in the flashback scenes, as the pacing droops in the later scenes, but director John Madden is able to keep the twisty story straight while making a worthwhile tangle of the moral conundrum at its center.
< 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.
Drive (R, ****1/2): Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, the Pusher trilogy) directs this stylish, brilliantly paced genre flick that mashes together caper and action genres but remains surprisingly pensive. Ryan Gosling stars as the nameless Driver, a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman for mid-level crime bosses (including an excellent Albert Brooks). When he falls for a girl in trouble (Carey Mulligan) and tries to help her out of a jam, he gets caught up in a double-cross in which everyone views him as expendable. The plot is simple, but the execution is fantastic, with a unique aesthetic and a well-earned momentum that eschews jittery editing and camerawork for longer, more contemplative takes. The underbaked love story is flat and dull, no fault of Mulligan’s, and that drains the story of any real power, but as a methodically paced, visceral thriller, it doesn’t get much better. Gosling and Brooks are a dream team, and nicely supported by Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Ron Perlman, and Christina Hendricks.
The Lion King (G, *****): The animated 1994 classic returns, this time in 2D and reconfigured 3D.
< 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 among 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.
Shark Night 3D (PG-13, 1/2*): Abysmal, even for a movie with the words “Shark,” “Night,” and “3D” in the title. The PG-13 rating means the gore and nudity are kept to a minimum, which makes the experience of watching the movie pretty similar to chugging a bottle of non-alcoholic vodka. The loopy premise really cries out for lurid distractions, too, as a sullen bikini babe (Sara Paxton) returns with some friends to the lake house of her youth only to find that her murderous, racist ex-boyfriend has filled the saltwater lake full of man-eating sharks in an astonishingly elaborate and implausible revenge scheme. There's surprisingly little shark action, which, considering the hilarious awkwardness of the computer-animated killer fish, is almost a blessing. One of the worst movies to hit theaters in a long, long time. In 3D and even 2D.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> Abduction (PG-13): Broody Twilight werewolf Taylor Lautner stars in this thriller about a young man who discovers that he was kidnapped as a child-- and is inadvertently thrust into the center of a dangerous conspiracy. Directed by John Singleton.
> Bodyguard (NR): Bollywood movie about a man hired to protect a naï ve but mischievous young woman and the dynamic between them.
< 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.
> Dolphin Tale (PG): Disney heartwarmer about a young boy who helps nurse an injured dolphin back to health with the aid of a wounded American soldier. Featuring Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, and Harry Connick Jr. In 2D and 3D.
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.
I Don't Know How She Does It (PG-13): Chick-lit-based dramedy about a working gal-- working for a hedge fund, that is-- played by Sarah Jessica Parker who must balance her high-finance job with a kid, a faltering marriage to a nice guy (Greg Kinnear), and a growing attraction to her new coworker (Pierce Brosnan).
Kevin Hart: Laugh at My Pain (R): A film of the popular actor (Death at a Funeral, The Forty-year-old Virgin) and standup comedian in concert at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live.
> Killer Elite (R): The pretty badass trio of Clive Owen, Robert De Niro, and Jason Statham star in this barely sort of based on kind of true story about a British secret agent sent to dispatch three fellow government-trained assassins.
> Moneyball (PG-13): Brad Pitt stars as real-life baseball manager Billy Beane, whose unconventional, statistics-based approach to recruiting helped revolutionize the game. Based on Michael Lewis's book, featuring Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
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.
< 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.
Straw Dogs (R): Almost certainly superfluous remake of Sam Peckinpah's controversial 1971 treatise about masculinity in which a supposedly enlightened modern man (here played by the dull James Marsden) is forced into a conflict with a lawless construction crew working on his house after they attack his wife (Kate Bosworth). Featuring James Woods. Directed by former film critic Rod Lurie-- and that's a bad sign right there.
< Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (NR): Bollywood film about a man who gets engaged and goes on a roadtrip to Barcelona with two friends to celebrate.