Silver Screen: The Score Card, November 17, 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.
< 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?”
In Time (PG-13, **1/2): Writer/director Andrew Niccol has a great metaphor at the center of his latest cerebral sci-fi thriller: In the future time is literally money, and the genetically engineered populace can literally purchase immortality if they're on the favored end of the economic scale, while the poor work themselves to death so that the rich may live. But the realization of this concept is shoddy at best, too silly to pass off as suspension of disbelief, and so the movie never really gains traction when its story gains momentum. Justin Timberlake stars as a ghetto boy who kidnaps a private-sector princess (Amanda Seyfried) to ransom her off for a thousand years, to be distributed to the poor, but the couple wind up bringing about the full wrath of the system. It's a movie for the Occupy Wall Street movement, but it fails to first occupy the realm of logic. Featuring Cillian Murphy and Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser.
J. Edgar (R, **): Clint Eastwood has directed some truly great American films, but he continues a late-period career decline into tedium with his third consecutive boring-as-hell movie, a rote biopic that makes all the classic mistakes: favoring scope for intimacy, hitting highlights rather than digging into substance, and submitting good actors to some truly awful old-person makeup. Leonardo DiCaprio does a fine job as the movie's protagonist, and his costars Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer do diligent work as well, but they're caught up in a visually flat, utterly dull historical reenactment seems to waver between psychoanalytically conspiratorial and textbook-level dry. There's no saving grace here, and sitting through the film feels like a painful and protracted obligation with no insightful payoff.
Paranormal Activity III (R, ***1/2): The second sequel to the 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 Rum Diary (R, ***): British writer/director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) helms this adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel, which Robinson turns into a mostly fake origin story for Thompson that serves as a prequel to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Johnny Depp tones down but reprises his role as a fictionalized Thompson, here called Paul Kemp, who moves to San Juan to work at a newspaper and discovers deep disillusionment with capitalism and politics even as he’s entangled in a love triangle with a beautiful American girl (Amber Heard). Those who aren’t Thompson fans will be baffled, while those who are should know this is mostly bunk. But it is good fun, with beautiful scenery and some great quips and gags along the way, worth a watch but unworthy of the source material. Featuring Aaron Eckhart, Richard Jenkins, and Giovanni Ribisi.
Tower Heist (PG-13, ***): Despite being almost too on-the-nose with its topical service-class-versus-crooked-one-percenter plot, the latest from director Brett Ratner has its roots distinctly in the 1980s action comedy. That works out perfectly for underused costar Eddie Murphy, who was one of the kings of the genre. He plays a street hustler recruited by the manager (Ben Stiller) of a luxury highrise to help the staff rob a wealthy penthouse resident who defrauded their pension fund. Fun turns from supporting players Michael Peñ a and Matthew Broderick, plus solid work from star Ben Stiller and villain Alan Alda, help keep the movie moving when it isn’t a showcase for Murphy, but the heist plot is weak and the script isn’t joke-dense enough to skate by on comedy alone. It’s passable big-studio entertainment, mostly forgettable except for Murphy’s welcome return to form.
A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (R, ***): In a very un-stoner move, the second pot-comedy sequel arrives early for the holidays, although that’s the only expectation it defies. The latest installment, in which now-estranged pals Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are reunited to hunt down a replacement for a prized Christmas tree, hits all the familiar points, but it hits them well, with a slew of fun gags and guest appearances on the way to some semi-earned X-mas sentiment. A drugged-up baby, some Christmas-tree scammers, mobsters, Santa Claus, and the awesomely weird alternative-universe evil version of Neil Patrick Harris help make this unambitious seasonal comedy go down as smooth as a vaporizer hit. In 2D and 3D.
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.
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.
> Happy Feet II (PG): Computer-animated singin’ and dancin’ sequel to the popular if uninspired original in which our hero’s new baby chick is entranced by a mysterious penguin who claims to be able to fly. Choked with celebrity voices including Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, P!nk, and others. In 2D and 3D.
Immortals (R): If ever a movie could be described as “three-hundredy,” it’s this computer-generated-imagery-heavy tale of supernatural-tinged slow-motion swordfighting as future Superman Henry Cavill stars as Theseus, a man tasked by Zeus with defeating the evil King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke-- because, why not?), who plans to destroy the gods. In 2D and 3D.
Jack and Jill (PG): Adam Sandler’s latest looks like a Saturday Night Live parody of an Adam Sandler movie. The ubiquitous comic actor stars as his own sister in this tale of sibling rivalry set over Thanksgiving weekend. Featuring Katie Holmes, Sandler regulars Nick Swardson, Allen Covert, Tim Meadows, and David Spade, and appearances from a host of celebrities including Al Pacino and Drew Carey.
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.
> The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I (PG-13): The insipid teen vampire series/conservative-Christian abstinence/housewife metaphor threatens to get interestingly weird as Bella (Kristen Stewart) gets married out of high school and immediately knocked up by her soulless soulmate (Robert Pattinson) and threatened from within by her vampire baby. But it’s still going to be awful.