Silver Screen: The Score Card, January 31, 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. Jamie 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.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (PG-13): The children's fairytale get the action-movie treatment as the titular brother and sister (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) have grown up into heavily armed witch slayers. In 2D and 3D.
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)
< The Last Stand (R, ***): The king of action movies returns for his first solo vehicle since becoming governor of California. The film, from South Korean director Jee-woon Kim (The Good, the Bad, and the Weird), is built around star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s age and long absence from Hollywood. Rather than attempt a full-on blockbuster, Kim tones it down to a smaller, almost intimate scale for a goofball action flick, casting Arnold as a former hotshot narcotics cop who ditched Los Angeles to be the sheriff of a sleepy Arizona border town. He’s forced to get his guns once again to stop a runaway drug cartel leader who is attempting to flee to safety in Mexico. Only Arnold and his Bad News Bears squad of ragtag locals (including Johnny Knoxville, Luis Guzmán, and Zach Gilford) can stop them in what often plays like one of National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre’s wet dreams. It’s fun throwaway fluff with a dull script polished to suitability by an ace supporting cast. Kim’s hyperkinetic, highly stylized camerawork is muted, but it still comes through in snippets during the fairly exciting climactic showdown.
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.
Movie Forty-three (R, zero stars): When drama is bad, it warps into unintentional comedy, but when comedy is bad, it does not curdle into drama, but instead becomes a uniquely hideous, unlovable thing. Movie Forty-three is perhaps the most blatant example of that since the string of notoriously awful Seltzer-Friedberg post-Scary Movie pop parodies. It's not just not funny, it's anti-funny, the kind of steamy flop that causes you to twitch and cringe involuntarily in your seat as it unfolds a seemingly endless series of balls-and-poop gags. A Scientology center's worth of stars show up for the movie's unrelated sketches, which are linked by a thin premise in which an unhinged screenwriter (Dennis Quaid) forcibly pitches a studio exec (Greg Kinnear) his deranged movie ideas. John Hodgman has a nice one-minute stint as the Penguin in an awful sketch about superhero speed-dating, and Terrance Howard is funny in a one-note but moderately amusing sendup of inspirational sports movies. Otherwise, real comic talents like Chris Pratt, Anna Faris, and Stephen Merchant flounder alongside A-list actors like Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, and Richard Gere, straining to have fun by slumming it and failing on every level. The worst.
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.
< 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.
Zero Dark Thirty (R, ****1/2): The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal reteam for this fascinating, intense procedural depiction of the years-long hunt and eventual killing 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. 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 had to do to get there.
Also in or Coming to Local Theaters
> Anna Karenina (R): Joe Wright (Atonement) directs this adaptation of Tolstoy's classic novel about the famously unhappy member of an aristocratic family (Keira Knightley) who embarks on a disastrous affair. Featuring Jude Law and Kelly Macdonald and written by playwright Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love).
< 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.
> Bullet to the Head (R): Sylvester Stallone stars in this action flick from director Walter Hill (The Warriors, Forty-eight Hours) about a cop and a hitman who must team up when their respective partners are slain.
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.
> Hyde Park on Hudson (R): Bill Murray stars as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in this good-humored historical drama about a weekend vacation with significant political implications as the American president hosts the British royalty at the dawn of World War II. Laura Linney costars as FDR’s secret love, his distant cousin Daisy.
> The Impossible (PG-13): A family on vacation in Thailand is washed away by a tsunami and must struggle to reunite. Starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor.
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.
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.
Parker (R): Richard Stark's classic noir antihero, previous played by Lee Marvin in Point Blank and Mel Gibson in Payback, is here recast as Jason Statham. Despite a wealth of source material, the plot is awfully similar to the other two films, as our killer with a code of honor seeks retribution from the gang that double-crossed him. The spiffy supporting cast includes Jennifer Lopez, Wendell Pierce, Michael Chiklis, and Bobby Cannavale.
> Warm Bodies (PG-13): Romantic comedy in which girl (Teresa Palmer) meets boy (Nicholas Hoult), but dad (John Malkovich) doesn’t approve. Except here the boy is a sensitive zombie and the girl and her dad are fighting for survival against hordes of the undead.