Silver Screen: The Score Card, September 29, 2011 Edition
> Opening this week (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< Leaving Carbondale this Friday.
Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
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.
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.
Moneyball (PG-13, ***1/2): Based on Michael Lewis’s fascinating account of a math-based strategy that redefined baseball scouting, this uneven but interesting true-life drama follows failed Major League prospect Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) as he teams up with a Yale-trained statistics whiz (Jonah Hill) to find a system that levels the playing field between the Oakland A’s $40-million budget and that of the $130-million Yankees. The movie falters when it fails to practice what it preaches and sacrifices an interesting ensemble effort to give more screen time to star Pitt, who is very good nonetheless, with a zinger-packed script from Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian. Bennett Miller (Capote) directs.
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.
Straw Dogs (R, *1/2): Utterly unnecessary, flat remake of a viscerally affecting but otherwise pretty awful Sam Peckinpah movie of the same name. James Marsden (filling for the original’s Dustin Hoffman) stars as a pacifist screenwriter who must turn to violence to find his inner manhood when a group of angry plebes rape his wife (Kate Bosworth) and attack his home. Featuring a queasy treatise about gender dynamics and a Cro-Magnon attitude toward rape, it’s an unpleasant experience that is one-hundred percent superfluous with the existence of the original, which is itself provocative to no significant end.
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.
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.
> Dream House (PG-13): Did Daniel Craig just buy a haunted house for his wife (Rachel Weisz) and kids, or is it him who’s haunted? Featuring Naomi Watts, and directed by Jim Sheridan (In America, My Left Foot).
> Fifty/fifty (R): Dramedy about a twenty-seven-year-old (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) diagnosed with cancer and his relationships with his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), mother (Anjelica Huston), and best friend (Seth Rogen).
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.
< 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.
> What's Your Number? (R): Romantic comedy in which a lovelorn gal (Anna Faris) contacts the last twenty men she’s dated to see if she missed her soulmate. Featuring Chris Evans, Joel McHale, Martin Freeman, and Aziz Ansari.