Silver Screen: The Score Card, April 5, 2012 Edition
> Opening this week (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< Leaving Carbondale this Friday.
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
< 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 Hunger Games (PG-13, ***): Director Gary Ross’s adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s wildly popular young adult novel is exceedingly competent but never better than pretty good, mostly thanks to its slavish devotion to the source material. The story’s protagonist, a flinty Appalachian hunter named Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), living in a dystopian future, is forced to participate in a brutal battle to the death with twenty-three other students to be televised for the amusement of the wealthy citizens of the Capitol. Yet in the film’s (that is, the studio’s) eagerness to adhere as closely as possible to the book to avoid pissing off the fanbase/core market, it fails to fully actualize a visual spectacle and is rather a blunt, direct translation. Lawrence does nice work, supported by a strong cast that includes Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, and Donald Sutherland. It’s tough to make a movie about class warfare and child murder bland and inoffensive, yet here it is.
Jeff Who Lives at Home (R, ***1/2): The latest character-driven comedy from the Duplass brothers is as shaggy and likeable as its protagonist, a stoner who does indeed live in his mother’s basement. Jeff (Jason Segel) is obsessed with destiny and, convinced by a wrong-number that he is calling, sets out on a micro-epic quest that entwines him with his older brother Pat (Ed Helms), who just learned his wife (Judy Greer) is cheating on him. A nice supporting turn from Susan Sarandon as Jeff’s lovelorn mom rounds out a great ensemble that perhaps overreaches for profoundity but nevertheless finds lots of true moments along the way. Cowriters Jay and Mark Duplass (the later best known as Pete on The League) keep their impressive streak alive with another winner.
Safe House (R, ***): Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds square off against one another in this thriller in which a low-level CIA agent (Reynolds) becomes entangled with a notorious traitor (Washington) who allows himself to be captured in order to evade mercenaries. Reynolds’s uncertain rookie must keep Washington’s calculating killer alive but still in custody, requiring an uneasy alliance. The battle of wits is the real fun here, with both actors bringing plenty to their respective roles. But once the action breaks out of the claustrophobic title location the tension lets up and Safe House becomes just another action flick, albeit a decent one. Featuring Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Shepard.
21 Jump Street (R, ***): Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star in this bizarre remake of the not-all-that-popular late-1980s drama about cops going undercover as high-school students to stop youth crimes. It's less a straight retread, however, than a parody of the kind of movie that an actual 21 Jump Street remake would be-- that is to say, it's a pop-culture mashup thoroughly drenched in irony. It's moderately funny, too, thanks largely to the two leads, especially Tatum, who gets most of the big laughs as a clueless ex-jock forced to ingratiate himself with the nerds and losers he spurned during his school days. A bloody and outlandish finale only amps up the weirdness in a movie that's both consistently odd and relentlessly conventional.
< Wanderlust (R, ***1/2): Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star as displaced Manhattanites who cast off in search for a new way of living and wind up on a hippie commune founded by aging acid freak Alan Alda and led by goofball guru Justin Theroux. They try to make a new life for themselves but discover that dropping out comes with its own perils. The film, directed and cowritten by David Wain with his regular collaborator Ken Marino, never really answers the significant questions it poses, but it's consistently hilarious, packed with great lines and powered by fantastic performances from Theroux, Alda, Rudd, Marino, and supporting players Joe Lo Truglio and Kathryn Hahn. It's an ace ensemble working off a great script on a production helmed by a guy who seems incapable of being unfunny-- Wain's previous films include the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, the vastly underrated anthology film The Ten, and the more conventional but hilarious Role Models.
Wrath of the Titans 3D (PG-13, 1/2*): This grueling followup to the utterly needless 2010 remake is a failure in every way save for one: While the original promised lots of 3D action but delivered only slightly in the opening and closing sequences, there’s an almost self-conscious amount of 3D this time around. Ardent fans of things seeming far away and then moving kind of close if you wear special glasses should be satisfied. Everyone else will be bored by a meaningless story stretched too long in interminable stretches of stiff, expository dialogue delivered by lots of great older actors wearing robes and silly ZZ Top beards (Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Danny Huston, and Billy Nighy). Sam Worthington is flat as ever as the hero Perseus, who must restore balance among the gods before they release the volcano monster Kronos-- the movie’s lone truly cool feature.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> American Reunion (R): The cast of the original American Pie-- but none of the goofballs from the endless straight-to-DVD sequels-- returns for more sex jokes, this time filtered through the lens of slightly disappointed middle age. Will Jason Biggs need Viagra to nail a pie? A $10 ticket buys you the answer.
Doctor Seuss's The Lorax (PG): Computer-animated adaptation of Doctor Seuss's environmentalist fable in which the titular creature (voiced by Danny Elfman) must save the beauty of the natural world from the greedy Once-ler (Ed Helms). Featuring the voices of Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, and Betty White, among others. In 2D and 3D.
< John Carter (PG-13): Sci-fi actioneer based on Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs’s lesser-known character, a Civil War veteran who is mysteriously transported to Mars where he must do battle. Starring Taylor Kitsch alongside Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Bryan Cranston, Dominic West, and Mark Strong. In 2D and 3D
Mirror Mirror (PG): The first of the year’s two live-action Snow White movies is a more kid-friendly take starring Julia Roberts as the queen who fears Lily Collins might turn out to be the fairest of them all. Featuring Armie Hammer and Nathan Lane.
< The Secret World of Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti) (G): Animated adaptation of Mary Norton’s kids’ book about a family of four-inch-tall people who live in the crevices of a normal-sized human’s home. Featuring the voices of Amy Poehler, Saoirse Ronan, Will Arnett, and Carol Burnett.
> A Separation (PG-13): This year’s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film hails from Iran. A family is torn apart when a wife wishes to move to another country to give her daughter a better life, but a husband feels he must stay behind to care for his elderly father.
< This Means War (R): Type-A cutie Reese Witherspoon is romanced by a pair of embattled CIA agents (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) who will use all the tools at their disposal to win her affection. Featuring Chelsea Handler, directed by McG.
A Thousand Words (PG-13): Eddie Murphy stars as a fast-talking agent who discovers he is cursed and can only speak one-thousand more words before he dies. Costarring Kerry Washington.
> Titanic (PG-13, ***): James “Blame Me for 3D” Cameron retrofits his modern-kinda-classic melodrama with shiny, pokey 3D. The nineties nostalgia comes right out of the screen as Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio live out their brief, doomed romance about the steamer ship headed for infamy. There’s a lot packed into three hours-- some good, a little great, plenty cliché d. Cameron is undeniably one of the great action choreographers all time, and the ship-sinking sequence is awe-inspiring. The story is pure soap opera, but usually more soapy than operatic. (We’re looking at you, Billy Zane).
Tyler Perry's Good Deeds (PG-13): In Tyler Perry's latest Tyler Perryfest, writer/producer/director/actor/caterer/key grip Perry stars as a high-powered businessman who learns redemptive lessons about family and stuff when he falls for a struggling single mom (Thandie Newton). Featuring Gabrielle Union and Phylicia Rashad.