Friday, January 16, 10:05 a.m.-ish: My first and final quadruple feature of 2015 (yeah, right) begins with the Michael Mann thriller Blackhat, which opens with the camera racing within a computer module and deeper and deeper into the internal workings of binary code, like a burrowing reverse of Robert Zemeckis' introductory shot in Contact. At its climax, we discover that we've been watching the process by which a faraway cyber-terrorist sets off an explosion at a Chinese nuclear facility, and it's a juicy, unsettling prelude - so good, and so promising, that it probably takes longer than it should to realize the movie is goofy as hell.
You're given hints about Blackhat's ludicrous bent with Chris Hemsworth's arrival as Nick Hathaway, a bad-ass, only-in-the-movies tech whiz whose blond locks tumble below his chin and half-buttoned shirts constantly expose his rippling abs. (Only one character, Wei Tang's vacantly gorgeous ally Chen, appears to recognize Nick's resemblance to Thor, and their subsequent relationship is almost an insult to the phrase "tacked-on romance.") For long stretches, through, Mann's sterling technique outweighs your complaints. The sound design is exceptionally strong, particularly during a tense subterranean shoot-out, and Mann still has his gift for images of poetic horror, such as the closeup on Viola Davis (excellent here) staring upward at a skyscraper, and the shaky hand-held shot that makes a computer's "Enter" key look utterly sinister. But Mann's considerable skill isn't enough to disguise the asinine contrivances that force Hemsworth's computer wonk to morph, with no hesitancy or strain, into a gun-toting action stud, and the final half-hour is nearly hysterical in its ridiculousness. If you can get through the climax without giggling - with hundreds of oblivious Jakartans failing to notice the gun- and knife-fights directly in their midst - you're made of stronger stuff than I. But not stronger than Chris Hemsworth. Those abs, I'm tellin' ya ... .
12:15 p.m.-ish: Time for Paddington, writer/director Paul King's family entertainment based on the adventures of Michael Bond's beloved children's-book cub who travels to London from darkest Peru. A week ago, I noticed that this enormous U.K. hit received British Academy of Film & Television Award nominations for Best British Film and Best Adapted Screenplay, which seemed surprising given its manic, underwhelming previews. As the end credits roll, however, I find myself hoping it wins both, because this thing is absolutely sensational - hilarious and clever and touching, and easily the finest outing of its type since 2006's Charlotte's Web. There's not much to the story, which finds Paddington (beautifully voiced by Ben Whishaw) attempting to find a home, and mean ol' Nicole Kidman attempting to capture him for stuffing and mounting. Yet beginning with the black-and-white newsreel footage of an explorer teaching Brit-spreak to Peruvian bears ("Now say 'Stratford on Avon' ... "), I laughed so heartily and consistently at King's superbly animated visual and verbal slapstick that I would've been embarrassed had other adults not been cackling just as hard. The kids certainly were, too; Paddington's travails with vexing home plumbing, Scotch tape, and a flock of hungry pigeons appeared to hit everyone's funny bones equally. And with its lovely flights of imagination and occasional, Wes Anderson-y stylization augmenting the boffo humor, no grown-up should feel the least bit silly about attending. There are dozens of smart throwaway gags (Londoners, we discover, have 107 ways to say "It's raining"), exciting chases, Sally Hawkins and Julie Walters, an unexpected and priceless Winter's Tale reference ... . All this plus Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville in disguise as an elderly cleaning lady. I wind up loving Paddington so much that I'm tempted to get in my car and call it a day, so as not to spoil my mood. But alas, duty calls, so it's off to ...
2:05-ish: ... The Wedding Ringer, director/co-writer Jeremy Garelick's sentimental gross-out that forces us to wait 100 minutes for best-man-for-hire Kevin Hart and groom-to-be Josh Gad to realize they're each the best friend the other never had. What can I say? If you saw the trailers and thought it looked hilarious, with Gad getting scalding-hot chili poured on his crotch and Cloris Leachman catching fire and so forth, it probably will be. If you saw them and quietly wept thinking this is as good as it now gets for Hart and the Book of Mormon star ... it's actually not that terrible. I mean, it's bad, all right, and the script is so low on inspiration that the most tortuously unfunny bits - the bachelor party gone awry, the muddy touch-football game with seniors getting the crap pounded out of them - last many minutes longer than necessary. But there are perks. Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting (as Gad's fiancée) and Olivia Thirlby (as her suspicious sister) are gracefully assured comediennes, and Ignacio Serricchio is wonderful as a swishy wedding planner with a big secret, and then a bigger secret. Jorge Garcia, who's now completely circular in frame, is given a great, movie-capping Lost joke. And for all the attempted big yuks that crash and burn and the general unpleasantness, The Wedding Ringer's leads are actually quite charming together, and even manage to pull off the film's scenes of sticky bro bonding. It's all mostly a bummer, but I leave feeling surprisingly cheery. I blame Paddington.
3:45-ish: About seven minutes into our showing of Clint Eastwood's Iraq War drama American Sniper - newly nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture - there's a series of digital-projection snafus that result in the loss of sound and eventual freezing of the screen image. (When a patron shouts, "It's North Korea's fault!", the tension-breaker is especially amusing because the image we're frozen on is a Sony TV.) The problem is quickly corrected with apologies and efficiency, but it does mean starting the movie over again ... at which point I sigh, because the opening seven minutes are awful. Okay, the part with Bradley Cooper's heroic sharpshooter Chris Kyle targeting the Iraqi woman and kid - in effect, the movie's trailer - is good, if not nearly as intense as the preview suggested. But then we get an extended flashback to Chris as a kid, hunting and goofing around in church and listening to Dad's pithy bromides, and it's all so earnest, compositionally obvious, and verbally painful that I slouch down and prepare for the inevitable: Unbroken 2: Still Not Broken. Eventually, thankfully, this mostly hagiographic bio-pic got better - if never great, primarily because nearly everything involving poor Sienna Miller as Chris' eternally teary-eyed spouse is unconvincing. (Weeping through the hoariest clichés screenwriter Jason Hall can conceive, she's even forced to utter that famously hackneyed "I won't be here when you get back" lie.) There's also overly convenient melodrama in the Iraqi sniper who's like a real-life projection of Chris' internal struggle - a familiar Eastwood trope - and so much foreshadowing that I was amazed characters could still see the sun. Yet Eastwood's staging of the combat scenes, if unremarkable, is at least blunt and effective, the sound effects and squib work are consistently superb, and Hall's dialogue hums whenever troops are just razzing one another; like the uncharacteristically bulky Cooper's portrayal, the movie itself proves solid, unfussy, and sincere. I may not have joined in the crowd's rapturous applause at the end, but as meat-and-potatoes experiences go, American Sniper is nourishing enough - if, for some of us, also pretty undercooked.
6:35-ish: I realize I can catch Foxcatcher at 6:40, but then remember the overall mood of that film, and decide to go tomorrow instead. Still blaming Paddington.
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