Silver Screen: The Score Card, May 17, 2012 Edition
> Opening this week (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< Leaving Carbondale this Friday.
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
American Reunion (R, **1/2): All the key players are back for the seventh installment in the American Pie franchise, this one a nostalgia-heavy throwback to the original that also happens to be the second most watchable of the bunch. It’s an overstuffed mashup of subplots involving sex lives crimped by kids, familiar feelings for old flames, and sad-sack tales of employment woes, all tied together with a string of grossout gags. A too-brief storyline about Jim’s relationship with his now-widowed father (Eugene Levy, the only castmember to appear in every movie) could have made for a nice movie in and of itself, but alas. New writer/director team Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, the addled minds behind the Harold and Kumar series, aren’t slinging the gags as fast and furiously here but do by far the best job since the original American Pie, making this throwaway pop-culture callback as irresistibly and guiltily nostalgic as the Semisonic and Third Eye Blind tunes on the soundtrack. Featuring Jason Biggs, Seann William Scott, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Tara Reid, Mena Suvari, and Eddie Kaye Thomas.
< The Artist (PG-13, ****): It’s the movie everyone feels obligated to see! Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius’s silent film about silent film is gimmicky but also smartly executed. Jean Dujardin is spectacular as George Valentin, a silent-film actor whose career collapses after the popularization of talkies. It’s also a romance and a crowd pleaser, complete with a plucky gal on the make (Bérénice Bejo) and a cute canine sidekick. The whole movie is brilliantly summed up in a single, surrealistic scene in which George is first able to hear sound but unable to speak himself; it’s such a good scene the rest of the film barely needs to exist, which makes it a bit of a chore at times. Still, it’s a unique concept, well-articulated and nicely acted if perhaps a little self-congratulatory for the movie industry types. Costarring John Goodman and James Cromwell.
The Avengers (PG-13, ****): Five prequel films’ worth of setup climax in what is undeniably the biggest superhero movie ever made, with an ensemble played by Hollywood’s top stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Scarlett Johansson reprise their roles from earlier blockbusters, while Jeremy Renner is introduced as marksman Hawkeye and Mark Ruffalo steps into the role of the Hulk. Impressively, director and cowriter Joss Whedon manages to orchestrate all this chaos and make the story semi-intelligible to boot-- something about a magic gizmo that will allow aliens to come kill us all. Whedon nicely balances the interpersonal drama among the egotistical titans with big effects sequences so that the characters don’t get too lost in the massive scope of the movie. Whedon’s quippy dialogue and some fun performances, especially from Downey Jr. and Ruffalo, keep the film as light and zany as the comic books on which it’s based. In 2D and 3D.
Bully (PG-13, **): This well-intentioned but ineffective documentary examines the personal tragedies that can result from childhood bullying by following several students around their rural high schools for a year. The end result is an occasionally compelling, tear-sodden mess of footage presented with little context that makes a series of maladroit emotional appeals without ever engaging the subject on a more substantial level. Director Lee Hirsch presents his footage with little commentary in an approach that gives the illusion of objectivity when in fact it’s merely avoiding intellectual rigor. The movie is just good enough to make a convincing argument that a better movie about the topic ought to be made.
The Cabin in the Woods (R, ****): Drew Goddard (writer for Cloverfield, Lost, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) directs and cowrites this thrillingly inventive, giddily over-the-top genre mashup that manages to deconstruct without disappearing into its own self-consciousness. A group of college kids (including Thor himself, Liam Hemsworth) head to a cabin for a weekend getaway only to be terrorized by dark forces in the forest. But all is not what it seems, as indicated by the opening scene featuring a pair of chatty bureaucrats (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) who are somehow related to the kids' grizzly fate. If Scream is a horror movie about people who watch horror movies, this is a self-aware film about where horror movies come from-- and the motives of the people who watch them.
Dark Shadows (PG-13, *1/2): In the earlygoing, Tim Burton’s smirking adaptation of the cult-classic supernatural soap opera is a nifty marriage of camp humor and gothic melodrama, in which a secretive woman (Bella Heathcote) insinuates herself into a spooky, dysfunctional family for mysterious purposes. But Burton steers the movie toward broad slapstick when the family is rejoined by descendent Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), a vampire imprisoned underground for two-hundred years. Depp, doing what has become his regular schick, mugs his way through a lot of easy man-out-of-time comedy in the swingin’ seventies, effectively rendering this spoiled trifle Austin Vampowers. Costarring the Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, and Chloë Moretz.
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.
The Lucky One (PG-13, *1/2): The premise behind this weepie romance actually pretty solid. War vet Logan (Zac Efron) finds a photograph of an anonymous woman on the ground just before a firefight and believes the mystery girl (Taylor Schilling) to be his lucky charm. Back stateside, he tracks her down and finds her living a life marred by the tragic deaths of her parents and brother, and menaced by an abusive ex-husband (Jay R. Ferguson). But author Nicholas Sparks, on whose novel the movie is based, piles on the melodrama until it curdles into unintentional comedy. The charismatic Efron does his best to anchor the film, but he doesn’t get much help from co-romantic lead Schilling, who does little more than frown and wear gauzy white fabrics. Yet another pretty much indistinguishable Sparks story full of untimely deaths, miscommunication, old boats, and animal rescues.
The Raven (R, *): This ludicrous thriller is so bad it very nearly works as a comedy-- think a bizarre mashup of the Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe and The Comedy of Terrors. But nobody's trying to be funny here, certainly not star John Cusack, who nearly outdoes colleague Nicolas Cage in terms of high-octane miscalculations. Cusack's Poe is like Edgar Allan by way of Hunter S. Thompson by way of Jack Sparrow. In his final days he must save the woman he loves (Alice Eve) by solving a string of murders that draw inspiration from his morbid stories. It's an amusing premise rendered entirely silly in execution-- Poe stalks the foggy streets carrying a booze bottle and fountain pen, has a friendly pet raccoon as a sidekick, and gets into shouting matches with his deadline-weary editors. Vincent Price would not approve; I shall see it nevermore.
Safe (PG-13, ***): Jason Statham stars in what might just as well be titled Another Jason Statham movie. The prolific star makes the kind of old-school action movies nobody bothers with anymore, and he consistently delivers. This time around he plays a Jason Statham-esque character washed up after ratting out his former crooked cop partners and now pounds it out on the MMA circuit as a fall guy. When his former police pals, along with the Russian and Chinese mafia, seek to kidnap a genius young girl for a coded number that exists only in her head, he must defend her via a series of bone-snapping brawls and bloody shootouts. Director Boaz Yakin does a solid job of making a Jason Statham Movie, keeping his star’s rage coiled tight for the first half hour or so before erupting into a flurry of brutality that satisfies the baser urges. Good dumb fun.
The Three Stooges (PG, ***): Peter and Bobby Farrelly are just the right guys to helm this utterly unnecessary but surprisingly pretty funny revamp of the Three Stooges, which plays like a loving tribute to the timeless comedy of Larry Fine and Moe and Curly Howard. Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos, and Will Sasso do a nice job playing the slow-witted slapsticky scoundrels out on a mission to raise money to save an orphanage. All the modern references fall flat-- the prolonged riff on Jersey Shore nearly sinks the movie during the final third-- but the short comic setpieces are classic Stooges. Larry David playing angry nun Sister Mary Mengele is the icing on a cake you know someone is going to fall into. It ain’t high art, but it’s fun.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> Battleship (PG-13): The antiquated board game provides a title and a tenuous link to an established property in director Peter Berg’s movie about Navy men (Liam Neeson, Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgård) defending the earth from alien invaders. Miss!
> The Dictator (R): Borat and Bruno writer/star Sacha Baron Cohen reteams with director Larry Charles for their first straightforward narrative feature, about an egomaniacal dictator (Cohen) who defends his ramshackle despotic country from democracy and freedom.
< 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 only.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits (PG): Claymation kiddie comedy about a band of scurvy dogs competing for the Pirate of the Year Award, featuring the voices of Hugh Grant and Salma Hayek, from the director of Chicken Run. In 2D only.
Think Like a Man (PG-13): Ensemble romantic comedy about four women who take love advice from a book by comedian Steve Harvey-- an actual book that inspired the movie and lends a name-- only to have their men turn the tables on them. Featuring Michael Ealy, Taraji Henson, Kevin Hart, Meagan Good, Gabrielle Union, Chris Brown, and Jenifer Lewis.
> What to Expect When You're Expecting (PG-13): Another in the newly emergent subgenre of celebrity-choked ensemble chick flicks, this one a series of stories about women trying to have and/or having babies. Featuring Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Banks, Chris Rock, Anna Kendrick, Dennis Quaid, and the very funny Southern Illinois native Ben Falcone.