Silver Screen: The Score Card, October 20, 2011 Edition
> Opening this week (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< Leaving Carbondale this Friday.
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
The Big Year (PG, *1/2): David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) directs a movie about three guys (Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black) trying to win a birdwatching competition. Unfortunately, it turns out to be even duller than it sounds, an ambling travel picture with some nice nature photography that's every bit as boring as watching someone's vacation slideshow. Black is miscast, but Martin and Wilson both add value to roles that just aren't terribly engaging, and Frankel piles on the schmaltz in an effort to turn this action-free, uninspired snoozer into a journey of self-discovery. It's an admirable effort on all sides, but the result is certainly one of the dullest major studio releases of all time.
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).
< Dream House (PG-13, *1/2): Inexplicably, this dull, by-the-numbers ghost story is directed by Jim Sheridan, he of My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father and In America fame. It’s a drastic misstep, not necessarily because it’s so awful but because it feels like it could have been made by anybody. Daniel Craig stars as a family man living with his wife (Rachel Weisz) and young daughters in a house where the previous family was murdered. It all drifts slowly toward an obvious twist, then shifts from psychological horror to a not-so-mysterious murder mystery. A total snooze. Also featuring Naomi Watts.
< 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.
Fifty/fifty (R, ****): Uneven but winning dramedy about a clean-living twenty-seven-year-old (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. His illness affects all the relationships in his life, including those with his best friend (Seth Rogen), his selfish girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), and his mother (Anjelica Huston). Gordon-Levitt handles the drama brilliantly, while Rogen does great work as the comic foil, but both young actors can work either side. Some of the subplots work better than others, but director Jonathan Levine ultimately does a nice job of balancing the quippy dialogue and heavy subject matter. Anna Kendrick shines as a therapist in training. Written by Will Reiser, who based the script on his own experiences as a young cancer survivor.
The Ides of March (R, ****): George Clooney directors, cowrites, and costars in this solid political drama that cuts to the quick of our disillusioned times. Young politico Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is a true believer who thinks his candidate (Clooney) can bring about significant change in Washington, and to achieve that Stephen and his cohorts (including Philip Seymour Hoffman) are willing to make extreme sacrifices. But when the other side (led by Paul Giamatti) goes dirty and a scandal blows up involving a sexy intern (Evan Rachel Wood), Stephen is forced to confront his own willingness to compromise his ethics. Though the crux of the drama is a little tawdry and easy, the ideas are challenging and the execution is superb. A great cast helps Clooney make this a dismaying but accurate portrait of America's jaded feelings toward our own government, and perhaps a rather personal and emotional plea from prominent lefty Clooney. With its Shakespearean title and hard-to-miss iconography, it's tough not to read the film as an elaborate articulation of a single line: “Et tu, Barack?”
< 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.
Real Steel (PG-13, *): This wildly underbaked, shoddily conceived action flick is both a completely frivolous fighting-robot movie and a two-hour-plus slog filled with heartstring-tugging subplots and bumbling cliché s. It's a big mess of watered-down blockbuster soup, with all the elements thrown into the kettle but nothing coming together. Hugh Jackman stars as an ex-boxer who now manages fighting robots in America's new favorite sport, and he and his estranged son fix up an old clunker and enter it into the big leagues. The mediocre digital effects, ineffectively choreographed action sequences, and general lackluster tone to the action are the real killers here. When the robot fighting in your fighting-robot movie doesn't work, you've lost the game already, even if the whole thing weren't already overlong and tiresome.
< 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.
The Thing (R, **1/2): Thoroughly adequate but totally uninspired remake masquerading as a prequel in which viewers see the events that led up to John Carpenter's 1982 remake, The Thing, which happen to be pretty much a mediocre restaging of Carpenter's movie with the beginning of the 1951 original stitched onto the first half hour. Mary Elizabeth Winstead leads a crew of Arctic researchers who discover an alien creature frozen in a block of ice. Once revived, it reveals the ability to shift its shape to take on the appearance of its victims, leading to a paranoid, bloody showdown. Decent computer effects still don't capture the awesomeness of the old-school special effects in Carpenter's version, but they work well enough. The movie is mostly just a delivery system for startles and gore shots, with no real effort to develop interest in the characters. It's passable, but uninspired on every level.
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.
Courageous (PG-13): Faith-based film about four police officers who face fatherhood. Directed by and starring Alex Kendrick.
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.
Footloose (PG-13): Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow) remakes the silly, semi-rebellious 1980s hit about a cool new transplant (Kenny Wormald) who teaches an uptight small town how to fight the power with dance. Featuring Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell.
< 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.
> Johnny English Reborn (PG): The very funny Rowan Atkinson somewhat bafflingly follows up the not-so-funny James Bond parody he made way back in 2003. This time the bumbling secret agent must stop the assassination of the Chinese premier.
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.
> The Mighty Macs (G): Faith-based film about the true story of coach Cathy Rush and Immaculata College’s run for the women’s college-basketball title in 1972.
> Paranormal Activity III (R): Prequel to the first two installments of the series in which viewers learn the backstory of Katie and her sister, the victims of the original and its sequel, as they first encounter the demon that torments them as children. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the douchebags who made the lame fake documentary Catfish.
< Senna (PG-13): Documentary about the late Formula One racecar driver Ayrton Senna.
> The Three Musketeers (PG-13): Videogame-obsessed director Paul W.S. Anderson brings his utterly indistinctive brand of hyperstylized, slow-motion action sequences to Alexandre Dumas’s classic tale of swashbuckling and whatnot. I'd rather watch the candy bar for two hours. In 2D and 3D.
< 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.