Silver Screen: The Score Card, October 27, 2011 Edition
> Opening this week (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< Leaving Carbondale this Friday.
For more film reviews and capsules, see the Nightlife section of
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).
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?”
< Killer Elite (R, **): This action flick about a mercenary (Jason Statham) blackmailed into hunting down a group of British special-forces agents formerly involved in black ops in the Middle East is a decent enough Statham-starring shoot 'em up, but it fails to live up to the promise heralded by its ostensible costars, Clive Owen as a British agent trying to stop Statham and Robert De Niro as the bait in the blackmail scheme. Billed as a showcase for three badass actors, the movie never puts the three men together for any substantial scenes, and Owen and especially De Niro wind up playing second fiddle, which is the opposite of the ideal scenario. Statham is fine, but he's no match for the other two men, no matter how much the film, with its hasty jumble of convoluted exposition and rushed fight scenes, wants to convince us otherwise.
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.
Paranormal Activity III (R, ***1/2): The second sequel to highly lucrative Paranormal Activity is indeed something of a retread of the first, delving back into the childhood days of sisters Katie and Kristi (Katie Featherston and Sprague Grayden, played here as children by Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown) and exploring the original connection between the girls and the invisible demon that torments them. But novelty be damned, it's a pretty fun retread, with a cool new camera mounted on an oscillating fan that uses limited perspective for maximum suspense. As horror franchises go, this one remains fairly subtle, still relying far more on tense silence, shifting shadows, and atmosphere than big effects, to say nothing of the relative lack of gore. The tricks might not be new, but they're still a treat.
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.
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
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 only.
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.
> In Time (PG-13): Cerebral Philip K. Dick-style sci-fi thriller from Andrew Niccol (Gattaca and The Truman Show, but also S1m0ne) in which time becomes a currency and citizens of the future must purchase the right to live past age twenty-five. Starring Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, and Olivia Wilde.
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.
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.
> Puss in Boots (PG): Spinoff prequel to the Shrek movies in which we learn the origins of the swashbuckling cat of the title. Featuring the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Billy Bob Thornton, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Sedaris. In 2D and 3D.
> Ra. One (NR): Bollywood sci-fi film about a videogame that takes over the lives of a young man and the father trying to relate to him. In 2D and 3D.
> The Rum Diary (R): Johnny Depp stars in this adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's only novel, in which mainland American journalist (Depp) bearing a striking resemblance to the author takes a job at a faltering newspaper in late-1950s Puerto Rico, which is a chaotic swirl of local tradition and capitalist incursion. Featuring Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, and Giovanni Ribisi.
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.
> The Way (PG-13): Emilio Estevez directs his father, Martin Sheen, in a religious film about an American doctor, Tom, who goes to France to bring home the body of his son, who dies while hiking the Way of Saint James. Tom decides to take to the trail himself. Will a religious experience ensue?