Silver Screen: The Score Card, September 13, 2012 Edition
> Opening this week (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< Leaving Carbondale this Friday.
For more film reviews and capsules, see the Nightlife section of
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
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 only.
The Bourne Legacy (PG-13, ***): The oddball experiment of making a Bourne movie without Bourne proves even more troublesome when series writer Tony Gilroy, now in the director's chair, turns new hero Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) into a genetically enhanced agent, a literal superspy, and shifts away from espionage and toward superheroics, as though the summer box office needs more superhero movies. When Cross is targeted for elimination following the public debacle of the Bourne situation, he absconds with the scientist who made him super (Rachel Weisz) to try and sever ties for good between himself and the generically evil bureaucrats who run the program (Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Scott Glenn). The action sequences lack the verve that made the originals so thrilling, and the plot, while passable, seems unlikely to have been made if not for the Bourne affiliation-- a connection that turns out to be negligible at best.
< Brave (PG, ***): Pixar’s latest is perfectly adequate but not up to their own high standards. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a flame-haired princess eager to buck tradition and shirk her responsibility to be partnered in an arranged marriage. She meets a witch, makes a wish, and it backfires. What follows is both silly and predictable, with an anthropomorphic bear standing in during all the mother-daughter scenes that are supposed to form the emotional core. Neither the action nor the jokes work especially well, although the animation and visual aesthetic are astounding, especially with 3D to lend depth to the intricate backgrounds. It’s handsomely adorned but uninspired; great for kids and passable for adults, which is a big step down from Pixar’s usual demographic transcendence. Bolstered by nice vociework from Emma Thompson and, of course, Billy Connolly and Craig Ferguson, who should be (and probably are) required casting for any Scottish-themed cartoon. In 2D only.
The Campaign (R, ***): This election comedy costarring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis is benignly funny enough, but it seriously lapses when it attempts to stretch into satire. Ferrell’s vacuous, pandering congressman has always run unopposed, until a pair of billionaire industrialists (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) prop up a local numbskull (Galifianakis) to run against him, beginning a brutal, spite-filled election process that turns both men into the worst versions of themselves. The two leads keep it interesting, but its blunt attempts at insightful commentary are no more effective than those of similarly forgettable campaign comedies like Head of State, Man of the Year, and Welcome to Mooseport.
The Dark Knight Rises (PG-13, ***): Christopher Nolan concludes his Batman trilogy with this overlong, morose installment that stingily deals out spectacular action sequences amid a slog of exposition and needless subplots. Eight years after the events of the last film, a retired Batman (Christian Bale) must put the suit back on to stop masked terrorist leader Bane (Tom Hardy), who uses class-war rhetoric to exploit Gotham's restless underclass to help him hatch a deadly plot. Batman fights back with help from a sexy jewel thief (Anne Hathaway), the ever-faithful Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), and a dedicated cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) inspired by the caped crusader. There are some cool concepts and beautiful scenes here, but they're lost in a mush of stilted dialogue, superfluous characters, and ponderous speeches, artfully rendered but no damn fun at all.
The Expendables II (R, *1/2): The first Expendables was more appealing in theory than practice-- two decades’ worth of action icons crammed into one old-school shoot ‘em up!-- but its gleeful audacity gave it a bit of nostalgic charm. Not so for this rehash, which grimly demonstrates why the 1980s standard of having a hero mindlessly pump endless rounds into nameless foreign people is not only morally dubious, it’s dull in comparison with stunt-driven, kinetic modern-day action. Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham lead a team of badasses into a fake eastern European country to avenge the death of their youngest team member, because apparently the team name is not meant to be taken literally. Jean-Claude Van Damme awkwardly says bad-guy lines while Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Jet Li, and Randy Couture return; Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger step up their roles; and the never-cool Chuck Norris joins the fray. It’s a showcase of the worst actors of a generation.
Hit and Run (R, ***): Writer, producer, and codirector Dax Shepard not only stars in this car-chase caper comedy, he cast real-life girlfriend Kristen Bell as the romantic lead and loaned his personal collection of race cars and souped-up roadsters to the production. The result could be considered a vanity project, but if so, it’s an entertaining one. Think Cannonball Run by way of Elmore Leonard. Shepard’s reformed wheelman is just trying to get his girlfriend to L.A. for a job interview when the former partners he testified against (including a wildly miscast Bradley Cooper) come calling for revenge. It’s an absolutely frivolous movie, but it’s fun, with a script that surprisingly works best in the slower, character-driven moments. Shepard and Bell’s chemistry translates well to the screen, and their banter makes for the strongest moments in the movie.
Lawless (R , ****): Director John Hillcoat reteams with his Proposition screenwriter Nick Cave for this neo-Western about backwoods bootleggers in the days of Prohibition. The three Bondurant brothers (Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, and Shia LeBeouf) refuse to allow their illegal liquor business to be overseen by a corrupt cop (an over-the-top Guy Pearce), launching a bloody conflict that threatens everyone in the county. It's a more conventional, plot-driven movie than The Proposition, but it's similarly potent and gritty. Hillcoat seems to be stretching to imitate the visual poetry of Terrence Malick, and he's not altogether unsuccessful, crafting some beautiful images that nicely complement Cave’s punchy, pulpy script. Alas, it's a man's movie in the style of Sam Peckinpah for better and for worse, which means Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are relegating to playing damsels.
ParaNorman (PG , ***1/2): The charming, slightly creepy stop-motion-animated comedy from the producers of Coraline lacks the goth street cred of a Neil Gaiman or a Tim Burton, but codirectors Chris Butler and Sam Fell have still made an awfully entertaining family film. The eponymous Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an outcast for his alleged ability to speak to the dead, but that becomes a major asset when his small town is overrun with zombies and placed under a witch's curse. It's more a macabre adventure tale à la Monster House than gothic, Gorey-inspired fare like Corpse Bride, but the jokes, though reliant on slapstick, are funny, and the visual gags are abundant. Kids will dig it, but it's entertaining enough you needn't bring them along to justify going. In 2D and 3D.
The Possession (PG-13, *): This bland, unmemorable Exorcist riff contains a single element of novelty: This time the origin of the evil spirit possessing the innocent young girl (Natasha Calis) is a dybbuk, of Jewish mystic lore, and to cast out the demon our frazzled parent protagonist (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) must seek out a Hasidic Jewish scholar rather than your standard-issue priest. Otherwise, this is a by-the-numbers haunting with few scares and little novelty, competently but coldly crafted with computer effects that suggest the idea of a frightening image without actually being one. The young possessed girl is supposed to be terrifyingly out of control, but everything here seems predictably in place, which is a problem throughout the film. Director Ole Bornedal never even bothers to probe much into the potentially intriguing culture of Jewish mysticism, although in fairness that symbology does lack the overtly horrific qualities that have made Catholic iconography a staple of scary movies for decades.
Premium Rush (PG-13, ***): This fast-paced action flick based on the wild world of New York City bike messengers is as of-the-moment as adulatory looks at 1980s subcultures like Rad, Thrashin’, and Gleaming the Cube, which is to say it’s almost certain to look like a relic a decade hence. But cowriter and director David Koepp keeps it interesting, at least for now, with some kinetic action sequences and a wonderfully villainous performance by Michael Shannon, as cartoonish and bug-eyed crazy as usual. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee, the best bike messenger in the biz, who’s tasked with getting an envelope across Manhattan in an hour and a half. The package also holds the key to redemption for Shannon’s crooked cop, so the chase is on through the streets and alleys. It’s bike porn, but it’s pretty good bike porn, with a typically solid and earnest performance from Gordon-Levitt, a zippy script, and enough cycling jargon to fill an urban dictionary.
The Words (PG-13 , 1/2*): This astonishingly boring, empty-headed literary drama takes forever to get where you know it's headed, and intellectually postures along the way without providing a single insight. Bradley Cooper stars as a would-be writer who finds literary fame after he plagiarizes a manuscript he finds in an old suitcase, which was written by an aging war veteran (Jeremy Irons) who comes looking to set the story straight. But all that's just a story within a frame story in which Dennis Quaid plays a renowned author giving what is apparently the world's longest public reading. His personal connection to his story about plagiarism is maddeningly obvious, but he coyly doles it out to aspiring writer Olivia Wilde in a coy, plodding conversation that ultimately reveals nothing more than how little cowriters and directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal know about literature.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> Finding Nemo (G): Pixar's much-loved fish tale gets an almost certainly unnecessary 3D retrofit. See little Nemo's angst jump right off the screen when his mother is killed and he is swept away from his father (voiced by Albert Brooks), who goes on a journey to rescue his son. Featuring the voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, Eric Bana, and Geoffrey Rush. In 3D only.
Hope Springs (PG-13): An eager wife and unwilling husband (played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) enter counseling (with a therapist played by Steve Carell) to reinvigorate their marriage.
> The Last Ounce of Courage (PG): Right-wing propaganda film about the family of a fictional dead soldier. (Wissmann)
Obama’s America 2016 (PG): Right-wing hack Dinesh D'Souza (author of The Roots of Obama's Rage) goes after the president in an election year. (Wissmann)
The Odd Life of Timothy Green (PG): A childless couple (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) is shocked to find a child (C.J. Adams) magically emerge from their garden in this light, family friendly fantasy.
> Resident Evil: Retribution (R): Yet another installment in Paul W.S. Anderson's videogame-inspired action-horror series in which Milla Jovovich's superpowered Alice battles an evil corporation that has released a virus that creates the walking dead. In 2D and 3D.