Silver Screen: The Score Card, February 9, 2012 Edition
> Opening this week (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< Leaving Carbondale this Friday.
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
Chronicle (PG-13, ****): Director Sam Trank and screenwriter Sam Landis, each just twenty-six years old, make their feature-film debut with this impressive genre mashup that is undeniably Cloverfield with superheroes, but is also a really sharply executed, character-driven Cloverfield with superheroes. Dane DeHaan stars as a camera-crazy loner struggling with a sick mother and abusive father. When he and two other students (Alex Russell and The Wire’s Michael B. Jordan) stumble onto a mysterious object that grants them great powers, they film their progress as emergent superhumans. Fun and games give way to mounting terror as DeHaan’s tormented teen begins to give himself over to his darkest impulses. The found-footage gimmick works brilliantly here, giving the first hour a level of real intimacy that makes the bangup climax play even bigger and crazier. These might not be new ideas, but it’s a hell of a remix.
< Contraband (R, *): Dismal, lazy heist thriller that assumes you’ve never seen another heist thriller in your life. Would-be September 11 hero Mark Wahlberg stars as a reformed ex-con dragged back into the criminal underworld when his brother-in-law gets in deep with a small-time hood (Giovanni Ribisi). Of course, that one last job never goes quite so well, families (including wife Kate Beckinsale) are threatened, double-crosses are pulled. It’s flat, unimaginative stuff with utterly unlikable characters and terrible dialogue. Only supporting player Ben Foster draws any attention, but he gets far too little screen time. There will be worse movies in 2012 to be sure, but for a brief time this gets to shine as the biggest waste of time at the movies so far this year.
The Descendants (R, ****1/2): George Clooney leads a phenomenal ensemble cast in this deeply affecting dramedy about a land baron (Clooney) struggling to maintain his family's historic legacy at the same time his wife, lingering in a coma, nears death. Clooney's ace businessman must reconnect with his estranged children (Amara Miller and the exceptional Shailene Woodley) and find a way to cope with a loss that stubbornly continues to unfold even as it seems to end. Yet despite the morose plot, director Alexander Payne's latest film is a deft blend of humor and sadness that finds sympathy with all of its characters, no matter how dubious they seem. A script dense with stirring and revelatory character interactions unfolds at a meditative pace, highlighted with great performances all around. This is a rare treat, a beautiful-looking studio film featuring standout performances from big stars that truly resonates. One of 2011’s best.
< The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (R, *): Overlong, indulgent, and ultimately dull adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s popular mystery novel that intertwines two primary stories, one about a disgraced journalist (Daniel Craig) trying to solve a decades-old disappearance, the other in which his inscrutable, punked-out research assistant (Rooney Mara) attempts to detach herself from her dangerous past. Screenwriter Steven Zaillian is unwilling to cut any significant subplots, so the result is a cursory pass over every element of a tangent-heavy plot that never comes into focus. Only Mara's exceptional performance as the intriguing Lisbeth Salander, along with some unsurprisingly nifty visual touches from director David Fincher, keeps the movie from being a total snooze.
> Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace 3D (PG, *): Recall the excitement you felt just before the release of the first Star Wars prequel, after George Lucas turned nerddom upside down with his announcement that one of the most beloved franchises of all time would get three more installments? Now recall the crushing disappointment you felt after sitting through that first, dismal, two-and-a-half-hour experience full of wooden acting, dull plot machinations, and uninspiring computer effects, where we learned the not-so-exciting backstory of the future Darth Vader. You can relieve that feeling again, now enhanced through the magic of 3D. It’s like the failure is coming right out of the screen. Featuring Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, and Jake Lloyd. Remember Jake Lloyd?
< Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (R, ***1/2): Swedish director Tomas Alfredson revels in the autumn-colored 1970s chintz and low-fi technology of Cold War London, where ousted MI6 agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is brought out of forced retirement to investigate a possible Russian mole in the organization. As he investigates his old friends-- played by a roster of top British actors, including Colin Firth, Ciará n Hinds, Mark Strong, and Toby Jones-- Smiley is forced to reckon with secrets from his own past. Alfredson has made a handsome and intriguing adaptation of John le Carré 's classic novel, but it's bloodless even for a movie partly about emotional distance and manipulation. Following the byzantine plot is difficult enough without pausing to wonder why you're even bothering. Solid performances from the reliably excellent Oldman as well as costars John Hurt and Tom Hardy keep it just interesting enough.
< War Horse (PG-13, **): Steven Spielberg is without a doubt a master technician able to create astonishing images and incredible textures with film, but as a storyteller he's given over to the maudlin and the teleological. That's the case with this occasionally great but mostly misguided World War I tale that uses the perspective of its title character, a horse sold into battle, to link together an anthology about the far-reaching effects of the conflict. The grimmer stories ring far truer than the hopeful fantasies, and while the narrative asides are illuminating, the frame story rings utterly hollow. Jeremy Irvine stars as the young farmboy who raises the horse and loses his own innocence in the war, but the real standouts are Tom Hiddleston as a pensive soldier in the cavalry and Niels Arestrup as an aging civilian trying to help his orphaned granddaughter survive the war.
The Woman in Black (PG-13, **): Achingly dull ghost story in which a bereaved lawyer (Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-Potter role) is sent to a distant country estate to sort through legal papers, only to encounter the black-clad spirit the townspeople believe has claimed the lives of their children. Director James Watkins’s film is heavy on atmospherics, so much so that it’s really just a bunch of atmosphere filling out a spindly plot far too familiar from just about every ghost story you’ve ever seen. Radcliffe is fine and occasionally the movie conjures up a bit of menace, but its short-lived, and the boredom comes rushing back in.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
The Artist (PG-13): A silent black-and-white film by director Michel Hazanavicius about the dawn of the film industry. Nominated for ten Academy Awards and starring Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller, and Malcolm McDowell.
Beauty and the Beast 3D (G): Rerelease of Disney's popular animated spin on the musical tale of a man cursed to live as a monster and the woman who sees beyond his affliction. Retrofitted for 3D, so the beastliness comes right out at you.
Big Miracle (PG): Inspirational drama based on a true story about a journalist (John Krasinski) and a Greenpeace worker (Drew Barrymore) who unite an unlikely group of volunteers to help save a pod of whales trapped under Arctic ice. Featuring Ted Danson, Kristen Bell, and Tim Blake Nelson.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (PG-13): Director Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours, Billy Elliot) leads a terrific cast (Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Max von Sydow) in a film about a young boy trying to come to terms with the loss of his father after the September 11 atrocities.
The Grey (R): Survivalist thriller from director Joe Carnahan in which badass senior citizen Liam Neeson leads a group of plane-crash victims toward safety through the treacherous wilds of Alaska. And he fights wolves.
Hugo (PG): Martin Scorsese’s kid-friendly 3D film follows orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who keeps the clocks running in a train station while trying to reconnect with his deceased father by building an automaton. Featuring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law, and Chloë Moretz. In 2D only.
The Iron Lady (PG-13): Biopic about the late Margaret Thatcher, starring Meryl Streep as the female British equivalent of Ronald Reagan.
> Journey II: The Mysterious Island (PG): Family-friendly sci-fi adventure sequel to the film rather loosely based on Jules Verne’s classic story. The Rock returns as a badass stepdad helping his young charges track down their grandfather (Michael Caine), who knows the location of an island full of deadly wonders. Featuring Vanessa Hudgens, Josh Hutcherson, Luis Guzmá n, and Kristin Davis.
< Joyful Noise (R): Two members of a church choir (Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah) battle it out to help their group win a national contest. Featuring Kris Kristofferson and Courtney B. Vance.
Man on a Ledge (PG-13): Heist thriller in which an ex-con (Sam Worthington) fakes a suicide attempt to distract police while his brother (Jamie Bell) attempts to rob a crooked financier (Ed Harris). Featuring Elizabeth Banks, Kyra Sedgwick, and Ed Burns.
One for the Money (PG-13): The first installment of Janet Evanovich’s chick-lit mystery novels gets the big-screen treatment with the toxic Katherine Heigl starring as plucky bail bondswoman Stephanie Plum, who’s tracking down an accused cop on the lam.
Red Tails (R): George Lucas produced this action-heavy war tale about the exploits of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a segregated unit of African American pilots who distinguished themselves during World War II. Starring Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Method Man, and Bryan Cranston.
> Safe House (R): CIA agent Ryan Reynolds’s simple job of minding a possibly crooked former agent Denzel Washington in a safe house turns deadly when they’re attacked and he must decide who he can trust. Featuring Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, and Sam Shepard.
< Underworld: Awakening (R): Further proving that America just cannot get enough of vampires fighting werewolves, producer Len Wiseman cranks out yet another installment in this action-centric series starring his real-life wife, Kate Beckinsale, as the savior of the vampire race, who here are threatened with extermination not from the Lycans but the humans from whom they hide. In 2D and 3D.
> The Vow (PG-13): Romantic weepie improbably not based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. When a car accident gives Rachel McAdams amnesia, her fiancé Channing Tatum goes to great lengths to help her remember their relationship.