Silver Screen: The Score Card, December 13, 2012 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
For more film reviews and capsules, see the Nightlife section of <http://www.CarbondaleRocks.com>.
by Bryan Miller unless otherwise credited.
< Argo (R, **1/2): Ben Affleck directs this well-crafted, intriguing thriller based on a fascinating true story that just happens to make for a pretty boring movie. Affleck stars as state department agent Tony Mendez, who concocts an elaborate scheme to rescue six Americans secretly living in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. His solution is to use Hollywood moviemakers (Alan Arkin and John Goodman) to pose as a Canadian film crew and extract the Americans before they’re taken hostage. The story is fascinating and Affleck constructs the film more than competently, but the story is front-loaded and better suited to a documentary. The final hour is a slog, with the climax being a twenty-minute trek through airport security that makes you feel exactly like you just went through airport security.
Flight (R, ****): Robert Zemeckis isn't known for subtlety, but his latest is a thorny morality play steeped in ambiguity. Denzel Washington stars as William Whip Whitaker, an ace pilot with a substance-abuse problem who saves almost one-hundred lives when he executes an astonishing emergency-landing maneuver. The trouble is, he was drunk at the time, a fact that threatens to come back in a subsequent investigation. With the help of his lawyer and union rep (Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood), Whip struggles to manipulate the investigation while he kicks the booze habit, but even help from a fellow addict (Kelly Reilly) he meets in the hospital might not be enough to help him overcome his demons. Washington gives a fantastic performance as a man equally inspiring and despicable, splitting the difference without ever casting judgment in either direction. The film follows suit and works as a kind of moral Rorschach test, even if it does sag a bit in the middle and cheat a little in its final moments.
Killing Them Softly (R, **1/2): Writer/director Andrew Dominik adapts George Higgins’s 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, but he heavily imprints it with contemporary concerns. Dominik keeps elements of the basic plot from Higgins’s story about mob enforcer Cogan (Brad Pitt), who is called in by his middleman boss (Richard Jenkins) to find and punish whoever is responsible for knocking over a mob-run card game and gumming up the underworld economy in the process. But his real concern is contemporary American politics, so, using a montage of speeches from late in the 2008 presidential race as a kind of sampled voiceover narrative, Dominik turns the story into an allegory about the American political and financial system. It’s flashy-- everything about the movie is flashy-- but it doesn’t work. The simplistic point is made bluntly, early, and often, and for all of Dominik’s impressive stylistic flair, the rest of the story, stripped of its secondary meaning, is just boilerplate noir.
Life of Pi (PG, **1/2): Ang Lee provides lush visual accompaniment to Yann Martel’s off-key ode to blind faith. Pi (played for the majority of the movie as a teenager by Suraj Sharma) is a religious seeker by nature who is forced to move to Canada when his father’s zoo fails back in India. Catastrophe strikes on the boat ride west, ultimately leaving only young Pi adrift in a lifeboat he shares with a menacing Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Pi must learn to communicate with his untamable shipmate to survive. Lee renders all this in vivid, striking imagery that inspires the very kind of awe the story strains (and fails) to evoke. Largely computer-generated and, surprisingly, even better in 3D, the movie looks great, but thematically it’s a watery mess that’s ultimately revealed as a lengthy allegory to deliver a simplistic, sophomoric message. In 2D and 3D.
Lincoln (PG-13, ****): Steven Spielberg's portrait of the sixteenth president, from a script by Tony Kushner adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin's acclaimed book, avoids most of the traditional biopic failings by focusing on a single month of Abe's life, just after his reelection, as he enacts a series of political machinations to abolish slavery. Daniel Day-Lewis gives a stellar, impressively understated performance as the most mythologized American, but his turn and Spielberg's whole picture aim to rescue Lincoln from his status as a legend and show him as a conflicted man making great personal sacrifices for the betterment of society. Day-Lewis is aided by a terrific cast of supporting players, including Sally Field as Mary Todd, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his eldest son, Tommy Lee Jones as feisty abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, and a scene-stealing James Spader playing a political operative working alongside Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes to score votes by coercion and bribery. It's a surprisingly wonky film that in its best moments plays like a nineteenth-century episode of The West Wing, but it's also an incredibly moving take on Lincoln that not even Spielberg's bumbling, melodramatic, and sentimental coda can sully.
Playing for Keeps (PG-13, 1/2*): This film has the title of a family drama, the concept of a screwball sex farce, and the tone of a gentle romantic comedy. It's none of them, and yet all of them at the same time. Gerard Butler stars as a former soccer player trying to reconnect with his family by coaching his estranged son's soccer team, but complications arise when the various soccer moms (including Judy Greer, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Uma Thurman) attempt to sleep with him. You can tell just from the look of costar Jessica Biel's generic boyfriend that she's bound to go back to our modestly charismatic hero once he proves his dedication to their son; the important thing is to have as few entertaining jokes along the way as possible. Boring to men, condescending to women, and probably offensive to animals somehow, this is one of the year's real nonstarters, a movie so bland it can barely be described as bad.
Red Dawn (PG-13, *): The fun bit of 1980s nostalgia contained in the original version makes absolutely no sense removed from its Cold War context, and the update is further confused by having the villains changed from Russians in the original to the Chinese in the remake, then changed again to North Koreans via reshoots and digital touchups when the disastrous modern version was purchased by a Chinese distributor. Chris Hemsworth is the new leader of the Wolverines, a student-run insurgent group that fights back when Spokane, Washington, along with the rest of the West Cost, is invaded by Commies. The remake is mostly humorless and totally clueless, with no idea what to do about the thorny problem of presenting invasion-happy America as a country being invaded this time around. Irony and introspection are out the window. Instead we get a series of poorly edited action sequences that make war look easy, if not particularly fun. Not even the dunderheaded action manages to conjure any thrills.
Skyfall (PG-13, ****): The latest installment of the 007 series is one of its strongest, thanks to the steely badassery of star Daniel Craig, a great villainous turn by Javier Bardem, and lush visuals and thrilling action setpieces courtesy of perhaps the franchise's most acclaimed director, Sam Mendes. A bombing and a series of cyber attacks on British intelligence agency MI6 lead superspy James Bond to discover a plot against his flinty boss M (Judi Dench) being hatched by an old enemy from her past. But to save his boss and the lives of dozens of other spies around the globe, Bond must also deal with skeletons from his own closet. Like Casino Royale, this entry in the 007 series downplays the humor and gadgetry in favor of intensity, suspense, and more realistic settings-- by Bond standards, anyway. It's an effective blend of shoot-‘em-up action, continent-spanning adventure, and lifestyle porn that also brings in new faces and ushers in some changes for the franchise. Also featuring Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, and Albert Finney.
Taken II (PG-13, **): The sequel to the surprise action hit is even more xenophobic and manipulative than the original. The evil foreigner parents of the evil foreigners who kidnapped the daughter (Maggie Grace) of CIA agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) attempt to kidnap the whole family for revenge, including Mills’s ex-wife (Famke Janssen). He must break free and end the cycle of violence against a group of people who are presented as inherently violent and incapable of reason, and whose primary goal seems to be to sexually menace white women. The subtext is plainly icky, while the quick pacing and slightly better-than-average action aesthetic make it a competent but unmemorable thriller that’s not nearly compelling enough to justify its dodgy agenda.
Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part II (PG-13, *): The Twilight franchise comes to an even duller-than-expected conclusion in this anticlimactic final installment, which is essentially just a protracted coda that explains how newly vampiric Bella (Kristen Stewart) and her hunky undead boyfriend Edward (Robert Pattinson) come to live out their happily ever-after ending with their daughter and the werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who married said daughter when she was an infant. The appealing weirdness of director Bill Condon's last installment is gone, replaced by more indulgent lifestyle fantasy for Bella, who gets a new house and wardrobe for free plus a baby whose computer-generated smile means motherhood will be totally easy. There's barely a conflict, and [spoiler alert] it's resolved with a non-solution that reduces the long-promised showdown between Edward's family and the evil Volturi (led by Michael Sheen) into a gimmicky dream sequence, all while polishing up the series' final message: If you want to be happy, girls, forsake your career and individuality so you can immediately marry your high-school boyfriend and spend all your time with his family. Not exactly inspiring.
Wreck-it Ralph (PG, ***1/2): Videogame character Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is tired of playing the heel to hero Fix-it Felix (Jack McBrayer), so he crosses games to search for a hero's medal, leading to disastrous consequences when various videogame worlds collide. There's a fun Who Framed Roger Rabbit? mashup element, with classic Nintendo and Sega characters populating the background and plenty of pop-culture references for older viewers, along with poop-and-fart joke pandering to the young ones. This Disney flick fails to live up to studio branch Pixar's gold standard, pitching the comedy simultaneously at two different levels rather than crafting jokes that work the same way across all ages. But what it lacks in emotional core it makes up for in well-executed, rapid-fire gags and striking visuals nicely enhanced by 3D, as these computer-animated movies tend to be. In 2D only.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
< The Collection (R): Sequel to the profitable but absolutely forgettable horror movie about a generic serial killer known by the generic handle the Collector, who here forces one of his victims to save a girl from a warehouse rigged with deadly traps. If it sounds like a Saw knockoff, that's because director Marcus Dunstan and cowriter Patrick Melton worked together on several installments of that insipid franchise.
< Here Comes the Boom (PG): Kevin James stars as a high-school biology teacher who enters a mixed martial arts tournament to raise money for his school in this mainstreamiest of comedies featuring Salma Hayek and Henry Winkler.
> The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (PG): Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson goes back to the book that started off the Middle Earth adventures, dividing J.R.R. Tolkien's three-hundred-page book into three separate films, this first of which is nearly three hours long. Settle in. Starring Martin Freeman as young Bilbo Baggins and featuring the return of Ian McKellen as Gandalf. In 2D and 3D.
Rise of the Guardians (PG): Computer-animated family comedy in which all the icons of the holidays, including Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), and the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) team up to fight a common enemy. In 2D and 3D.