Silver Screen: The Score Card, May 24, 2012 Edition
> Opening this week (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< Leaving Carbondalethis 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 subplotsinvolving 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 Avengers (PG-13, ****): Six 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.
Battleship (PG-13, *): The abysmal would-be blockbuster from director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Very Bad Things) purloins the Simpson/Bruckheimer/Michael Bay formula and retrofits it around tropes from the simplistic board game on which it is based. Aliens invade Earth, inexplicably only with water-bound craft, and launch a preemptory assault that only a small group of Navy warships doing a training exercise can stop. It’s a very expensive but generic summer movie that contorts itself to have bizarre fidelity to the source material: The aliens fire exploding red pegs that stick into the hulls of ships to sink them, and at one point star Taylor Kitsch, in a scene too ludicrous to explain, turns the ocean into a grid system and plays an actual game of Battleship with the aliens, literally yelling “Fire on E-11” and “It’s a miss!” Worse, the movie adopts a hyper-patriotic posture that feels a lot more like crass exploitation of veterans to sell tickets and tie-in sandwich deals at Subway. Gross. Nobody makes it out of this one looking good-- not Kitsch, costar Alexander Skarsgård, or the mostly absent Liam Neeson.
< 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 (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 slapstickwhen the family is rejoined by descendant Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), a vampire imprisoned underground for two-hundred years. Depp, doing what has become his regular schtick, mugs his way through a lot of easy man-out-of-time comedy in the swingin’seventies, effectively rendering this spoiled trifle Austin Vampowers. CostarringEva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, and Chloë Moretz.
The Dictator (R, ***1/2): Sacha Baron Cohen reteams with his Borat and BrünocollaboratorLarry Charles for this relatively more conventional narrative comedy. No mockumentary hijinks here in the story of tyrant Aladeen (Cohen), the bumbling oppressor of the fictional country of Waadeya who is deposed by his right-hand man (Ben Kingsley) and stuck working at a hippie co-op while he plots to return to power to save his country from the evils of democracy. Cohen’s signature mashup of high and low humor is on great display here. The shock gags and gleeful filth are layered in with wonderfully subtle verbal comedy and some sneaky social commentary, although the film’s target is a pretty easy one. It lacks the knockout punches of Borat or even the social relevance of Brüno, but it’s without a doubt one of the funniest movies you’ll see all year.
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 is 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 Shorenearly 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
> The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (PG-13): A bunch of Brits head to India for a luxury vacation, only to find they were misled to a subpar hotel by a case of false advertsing. Starring a pretty good cast led by Judi Dench and Bill Nighy, and directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love).
> Chernobyl Diaries (PG-13): An “extreme tour group” takes a secret trek to an abandoned city near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster only to find the city not quite as abandoned as they expected in this horror movie from the producer of Paranormal Activity.
Doctor Seuss's The Lorax (PG): Computer-animated adaptation of Doctor Seuss'senvironmentalist 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.
> Men in Black III (PG-13): Nearly a decade since the first sequel, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones return as secret agents battling supernatural forces. This time around, Smith’s Agent J must go back in time to the 1960s to save a younger agent K played by Josh Brolin. In 2D and 3D.
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, TarajiHenson, 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.