Silver Screen: The Score Card, February 28, 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.
Beautiful Creatures (PG-13, *1/2): This Twilight knockoff manages to one-up its shoddy progenitor in at least two departments: It’s not a somber, self-serious slog, and it at least espouses a better message to its teen fans than “get knocked up by your high-school boyfriend as quickly as possible.” Otherwise, the whole production feels calculated and marketeered more than written and filmed. A mortal boy (Alden Ehrenreich) falls for the youngest daughter (Alice Englert) of a family of sorcerers, or Casters, and must fight to keep her from being claimed by dark magic. Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson are great fun to watch as they vamp in wonderfully overblown roles as the girl’s spooky elders, but otherwise there isn’t much to recommend about this clunky, would-be gothic melodrama, which drags as it heads toward a final act filled with requisite computer-generated silliness.
Dark Skies (PG-13, **1/2): The passable but unmemorable horror movie from writer/director Scott Stewart (Legion, Priest) mashes up alien abduction and haunted-house movies with mostly familiar results. Struggling parents (Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton) find their house plagued by a series of strange incidents and their youngest son (Kadan Rockett) plagued by sleepwalking fits. A quick Google search of the strange goings on reveals that space invaders have tagged the family for study, and they won't stop until they take someone with them. The first half of the movie is semi-effective with its spooky goings on, but the movie climaxes early with a brief appearance by J.K. Simmons as an eccentric expert on spacemen. By the time the borrowed iconography from Close Encounters of the Third Kind shows up, you'll know where it's headed:
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 Schultz (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.
A Good Day to Die Hard (R, *): The original 1986 Die Hard remains one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, action movie of all time. What remains onscreen for this fourth sequel bears almost no resemblance to it whatsoever, as former everyman cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) is transformed into an aging superhero who jaunts off to Russia to help his estranged CIA-agent son (Jai Courtney) stop terrorists from acquiring weapons-grade plutonium from Chernobyl. It’s a mess of car crashes and shootouts that’s big and expensive-looking without packing any real thrills. The plot is hard to follow right up to the point that it becomes not worth following at all, thanks largely to a generic villain unworthy of Alan Rickman’s great Hans Gruber or even Jeremy Irons’s turns as Gruber’s aggrieved brother. Only the stale Yippie-ki-yay catchphrase serves to remind audiences this isn’t just another assemblyline shoot ‘em up coughed out in the waning winter months. It's a sad, shoddy perversion of a franchise that should have bowed out gracefully in the 1990s.
Identity Thief (R , ***): This mismatched-buddy road comedy about a disastrous journey that takes several unexpected turns travels all the main roads on the way to a place we already know we're going, leaving no too-broad calamity unturned. But despite its surfeit of distractions and clichés in the form of a painfully generic crime syndicate plus a scruffy bounty hunter (Robert Patrick), stars Jason Bateman and SIU alum Melissa McCarthy keep it fun through sheer dint of comic ability. The two leads make a hilarious pairing as Sandy (Bateman), a hardworking businessman trying to provide security for his family, and Diana (McCarthy), the crazed monster of selfishness who steals his identity and runs up massive credit-card bills during an orgy of consumer spending. He cajoles her into traveling from Florida back to his home in Colorado to help clear his name, paving the way for some needlessly absurd plot twists but also a lot of fantastic interactions between two terrific comic actors. When the movie slows down enough to let the leads indulge in some character-based comedy, it's very funny. More Melissa McCarthy, please.
< 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.
< Mama (PG-13, **1/2): First-time director Andres Muschietti takes on a lot of familiar tropes here: spooky kids, bug infestations, monsters in the closet, and plenty of grist for the ghost-story mill. He builds suspense nicely, though, and pays it off with some truly startling visuals and a wraithlike creature you’ll not easily get out of your mind, making for a minor but memorable horror flick dripping with the influence of producer Guillermo del Toro. Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau star as the aunt and uncle of a pair of children left to a feral existence in the woods after their parents’ murder-suicide. When they try to help the girls reacclimate to modern society, they incur the wrath of Mama, the girl’s spectral caretaker in the woods. The psychiatrists say Mama is a psychological construction, but Chastain’s character begins to suspect she might be all too real-- and angry.
Safe Haven (PG-13, *1/2): The latest romance based on the novels of Nicholas Sparks hits all the familiar beats-- beaches, cancer, precocious children, fire-- but takes an absurd, unintentionally hilarious twist at the end that at least distinguishes it from a well-polished Lifetime original movie. The expressionless Julianne Hough stars as an abused wife on the lam from her alcoholic cop husband (David Lyons). She lands in a sleepy beach town, where she meets sad-eyed widower Alex (Josh Duhamel) and his precocious kids. Love blossoms, albeit slowly, thanks to dull director Lasse Hallström, before the melodrama ramps up in the finale. If Cobie Smulders’s turn as Hough’s pushy best friend seems entirely irrelevant, just wait for the final few minutes when her true purpose is revealed; it might not be good, but it will certainly catch you off guard. Otherwise the latest Sparks film is programmatic and familiar, which is usually the point in this kind of soft genre fare.
Side Effects (R, ****1/2): Steven Soderbergh directs this nifty thriller that examines America’s fondness for better living through prescription pills, but social critique never gets tangled up in the twisty plot machinations, which are heavy with Hitchcockian overtones. Rooney Mara stars as the emotionally fragile wife of a recently released white-collar criminal (Channing Tatum). Smarmy psychiatrist Banks (Jude Law) puts her on an experimental drug he just happens to be getting a $30,000 kickback to test. When she commits a sudden, shocking act of violence during a druggy stupor, not only are his ethics called into question, but his culpability is examined. Soderbergh has of late harmonized his abilities to make slick genre pictures and more unconventional and experimental films, and the results have been consistently fantastic, never better than here. His latest is part lurid potboiler, part chilly, cerebral examination-- the combination of which produces a dizzying high. Also featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones.
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. The story follows an arc that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever gotten a peek at Hollywood’s playbook.
Snitch (PG-13, ***): What at first looks like a straightforward action vehicle for star Dwayne Johnson is actually a surprisingly earnest drama-- maybe not a great one, but more complex than the bombastic ad campaign suggests. Johnson stars as a small-business owner whose son (Rafi Gavron) is framed in a drug bust. He can't take a plea deal because he doesn't know any other criminals to set up, so, with the help of an ambitious prosecutor (Susan Sarandon), our man sets out to find one and do the snitching himself. He cajoles one of his employees, an ex-con (The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal), to help find a way into the criminal underworld, which threatens to break one family apart even as he tries to keep his own together. What starts off as a blatantly conservative fantasy about a self-made upper-middle-class man using guns, muscles, and American willpower to save his son from scary black prisoners reveals itself in the final moments to be an awkward sermon about the evils of mandatory-minimum sentences for drug-related offences, but not before it lapses into standard action-flick silliness. It's a mixed bag, but it's more ambitious and a little better than a small-scale action movie released in the dregs of winter has any right to be.
< 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
Dark Skies (PG-13): Suburban parents (Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton) discover a dark, mysterious force wants to claim their young son in this horror flick from Scott Stewart, director of the truly awful films Legion and Priest.
> Dead Man Down (R): Crime drama about a woman (Noomi Rapace) whose plan to get revenge on a crime boss involves seducing his most trusted associate (Colin Farrell). Also featuring Terrence Howard.
Escape from Planet Earth (PG): Computer-animated, family friendly comedy about a group of goofy space aliens who crash land and must subsequently get off of Earth. Featuring the usual spacecraft full of celebrity voice talent, including Brendan Fraser, Ricky Gervais, Jessica Alba, and Sofia Vergara, among others. In 2D and 3D.
< Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (PG-13): The children’s fairytale gets 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 only.
< 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.
> Jack the Giant Slayer (PG-13): Bryan Singer directs this blockbuster approach to a fairytale in which Jack (Nicholas Hoult) ascends his famed beanstalk only to find a land of giants eager to wage war on humans. Featuring Ewan McGregor, Ian McShane, and Stanley Tucci. In 2D and 3D.
> The Last Exorcism Part II (PG-13): It’s impossible to imagine how this sequel to the fun but flawed found-footage horror film starring director Daniel Stamm, who returns neither in front of nor behind the camera, could possibly be necessary. It exists anyway, following the exploits of a girl (Ashley Bell) formerly possessed by an evil spirit.
< 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.
> Oz the Great and Powerful (PG): Sam Raimi directs this prequel to one of the most beloved films of all time, which can’t go wrong, right? James Franco stars as an overly ambitious magician, who's little more than an ambitious stage magician when he's transported to the magical land of Oz, where he must battle evil witches. Featuring Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, and Rachel Weisz. In 2D and 3D.
> Phantom (R): A Soviet submarine captain (Ed Harris) is sent on a secret mission, but begins to suspect the man he's taking orders from (David Duchovny) has gone rogue with a plan to start World War III.
> Quartet (PG-13): Dustin Hoffman directs this light drama about aging musicians (Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, and Tom Courtenay) who settle old scores as they reunite for a concert celebrating Verdi's birthday.
> Twenty-one and Over (R): Comedy about an uptight pre-med student who celebrates his twenty-first birthday with disastrous consequences.
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.