Silver Screen: The Score Card, January 17, 2013 Edition
> opening this week in Carbondale (Friday unless otherwise noted).
< leaving Carbondale this Friday.
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.
Django Unchained (R, ****1/2): Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a wonderfully overstuffed revenge fantasy that mashes up spaghetti westerns and various 1970s exploitation movies to great effect. Jaime Foxx stars as Django, a slave recruited by bounty hunter King Schlutz (Christoph Waltz) to track down a trio of targets. In exchange, Schultz vows to help Django find his lost wife, who’s being held at the estate of the nefarious Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). The film is ahistorical pop fantasy, which, depending on your perspective, does or does not justify some of its factual discrepancies or what might even be called stylized racism. But Tarantino also does a fine job of articulating the horrors of slavery often overlooked by more polite depictions, and Waltz’s wonderful character Schultz undergoes an interesting moral transformation that’s not about a realization that slavery is evil so much as coming to understand the immensity of its evil. And as pop fantasists go, there aren’t many better than Quentin Tarantino.
Gangster Squad (R, *1/2): Too many good actors are wasting their time in this dunderheaded period piece based ever-so-loosely on the L.A. police force's postwar struggle to keep East Coast mobster Mickey Cohen from seizing control of the town. Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling lead a team of cops turned sanctioned vigilantes that includes a dubiously modern multiethnic cast (Michael Pena and Anthony Mackie, as well as Giovanni Ribisi and a silly Robert Patrick). Director Reuben Fleischer fails to stylize the movie enough to make it distinctive or ground it in reality enough for it to be a plausible crime drama. Instead we get what appears to be the world's most expensive high-school production, which borrows heavily from L.A. Confidential and The Untouchables without ever taking anything worth stealing.
< Guilt Trip (PG-13, ***): Seth Rogen and Barbara Streisand costar in this mild, affable comedy about a mother-and-son road trip. Feelings are shared, zany adventures are had, and lessons are learned. The movie is most notable for what it doesn’t do, which is indulge in grossout gags and easy cross-generational sex jokes, or go too broad in general. It’s a polite but funny movie where a lot of the jokes hit. They just don’t hit very hard.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (PG, ***): The Hobbit, originally written explicitly as a children’s story, better suits director Peter Jackson’s (often annoyingly) campy sensibilities than J.R.R.Tolkien's far darker Lord of the Rings. Thus with The Hobbit Jackson begins to atone for his desecration of Tolkien’s masterpiece by turning part one of this film adaptation into a mostly enjoyable adventure. Unfortunately, Jackson pads the film by creating a couple of irritating scenes from whole cloth; the tone and quality of Jackson’s writing suffer noticeably compared to Tolkien’s glorious source material. The Hobbit’s 3D effects and higher framerate form an almost entirely astonishing show in their own right (though in a few places they make green screens look obviously fake and cheap). For the best experience, show up a few minutes late, skip Jackson’s unnecessary prologue, and hit the bathroom whenever the camera comes across Radagast the Brown (who Jackson curdles into his own Jar Jar Binks)-- or wait for the DVD and program those scenes out of the presentation. In 2D and 3D. (Wissmann)
< Jack Reacher (PG-13, ***): This is a Tom Cruise vehicle produced and developed by Tom Cruise for the purpose of showing you all the things that Tom Cruise can do. The movie’s biggest surprise is that you are not offered an opportunity to buy a Tom Cruise when it’s over. That said, it’s a slickly produced if indistinctive star vehicle from director Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun), adapting Lee Child’s trashy-fun novel about a sniper who picks off five seemingly random people in broad daylight. The man accused of the crime asks for ex-military policeman Reacher (Cruise), who once tried to convict him of another murder in Iraq, but once in town the flinty Reacher discovers a bizarre conspiracy with the help of a lawyer (Rosamund Pike). Also featuring Robert Duvall and Richard Jenkins.
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 only.
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.
The Man with the Iron Fists (R, **1/2): Wu-Tang Clan emperor RZA directs, cowrites, and unwisely stars in this hip-hop chopsocky homage that teeters between loving pastiche and vanity project. RZA gives a flat performance as a nameless Blacksmith who gets caught up in a political struggle between warring clans, the government, and outside influences in vaguely 1800s-ish China. Among the unlikely crew are a deadly brothel owner (Lucy Liu) and the brutal Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) who temporarily join forces amid the frantic melee. The soundtrack is fantastic and the fighting is fun. Everything else, not so much. But then, when the fighting and soundtrack are good in a hip-hop martial arts movie, that's about all there is to it.
Silver Linings Playbook (R, ***1/2): The eccentric David O. Russell moves yet another step closer to convention with this adaptation of Matthew Quick's novel about a bipolar divorcé (Bradley Cooper) trying to reconnect with his ex-wife after a stint in a mental hospital. In addition to dealing with his compulsive gambler of a father (a very good Robert De Niro), he becomes entangled with a socially maladjusted widow (Jennifer Lawrence) who coerces him into partnering with her in a dance contest. It's a well-acted, frequently funny take on a pretty conventional romantic drama. The characters are uniquely depicted, and Russell does a particularly strong job of presenting the daily tribulations of dealing with mental illness, but the story follows an arc that should be familiar to anyone who's ever gotten a peek at Hollywood's playbook.
< 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.
This Is Forty (R, ****): Judd Apatow's personal, partly autobiographical comedy may be both a little shaggy and overstuffed, but those potential flaws actually help the writer/director simulate the frustrating rhythms of adult life, which often seems to consist of running around to put out a hundred tiny fires. Paul Rudd and Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann reprise their roles as the bickering married couple from Knocked Up, with Apatow and Mann's daughters also returning. Both parents are turning forty during the same week, which intensifies several strains in their marriage, from financial problems to sexual miscommunications to daddy issues (with both her distant father, played by John Lithgow, and his emotionally manipulative dad, played by Albert Brooks). It's a dramedy in the model of Apatow's hero, James L. Brooks, and a damn good one with a distinctive touch. A few distracting subplots never really hamper what is otherwise a mosaic of fantastic, funny scenes and some cringe-inducing moments of indisputable truth.
< 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.
Zero Dark Thirty (R, ****1/2): The Hurt Locker’s director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal reteam for this fascinating, intense procedural depiction of the years-long hunt and eventual capture of Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain stars as a young CIA op who joins the hunt for bin Laden straight out of college in 2003 and works tirelessly to piece together clues and track him down during the next eight years. The film leads up to a staging of the famous raid on the compound in Pakistan where the al-Quaeda leader was shot and killed. It's a lengthy but totally captivating scene, stunning in its suspense considering we know exactly how it will end. Debates abound from both political wings about the movie's veracity and potential agenda. It would be ridiculous for some goofball movie critic to claim he actually knows the steps that led up to the killing of bin Laden, so fidelity to historical detail remains at least a partially open question, regardless of your opinion. That said, the movie is far more ambiguous about torture and the CIA's methodology than its political detractors would have you believe. In the final moments, when Chastain sheds a tear, it's hard not to think she's crying for what she's done but what she's had to do to get there.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> Broken City (R): A shady operative (Mark Wahlberg) for a big-city mayor (Russell Crowe) seeks revenge after he's framed by his wily boss. Featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, and Kyle Chandler.
A Haunted House (R): Scary Movie’s Marlon Wayans writes and stars in this sendup of Paranormal Activity, featuring Essence Atkins, Nick Swardson, Cedric the Entertainer, and J.B. Smoove.
> The Last Stand (R): The former governor of California returns to the screen for his first starring vehicle in a decade, cast here as an aging lawman whose tenure in a sleepy border town takes an intense turn when he and his bumbling deputies (including Johnny Knoxville) become the only thing standing between an escaped drug lord and his freedom.
Les Miserables (PG-13): The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper helms this big-screen adaptation of the stage musical, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, and Sacha Baron Cohen.
> Mama (PG-13): Jessica Chastain stars in this horror flick about a couple who take in two abandoned, feral children only to discover that their spectral caretaker, who they call Mama, is still around.
Monsters, Inc. 3D (G): One of Pixar’s earlier efforts gets converted to 3D just in time to promote the upcoming sequel. Since the movie is so fun and visually imaginative, crass marketing accidentally begets a little more of a good thing. In 3D only.
Parental Guidance (PG): Billy Crystal and Bette Midler costar as grandparents struggling, in the most broadly comic ways possible, with their roles in raising their grandchildren.
Promised Land (R): Gus Van Sant directs this well-intentioned antifraking drama that pits true believer John Krasinksi against Matt Damon, the mining representative who comes to convince the town to sacrifice its land and water.
Texas Chainsaw 3D (R): This installment of the series about a family of murderous rednecks is set shortly after the events of the 1974 original-- but, you know, in 3D! A woman seeking an inheritance stumbles onto the dark legacy of the Saywer family-- a legacy that is rendered in three dimensions. In 3D only.