If you want the gravy…

…You've got to get the biscuits!

Perfect 10: WHIPLASH, THE BABADOOK, TOP FIVE, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, ST. VINCENT, KIRK CAMERON’S SAVING CHRISTMAS, BEYOND THE LIGHTS, THE HOMESMAN, and HORRIBLE BOSSES 2 Reviews

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One hell of a motley crew.

One hell of a motley crew.

Dear God. I have never been this far behind. This is just like college.

Basically, I had an assload of reviews that I was way overdue on. I saw five movies this past weekend (it would’ve been six, but I decided Laggies could wait), and that when I had five other reviews waiting in the wings. It’s absurd. I don’t know how it’s gotten to this point. I’d assume being swamped with awards-season shit is a big part of it, but…

Way back in July, I posted my first article about starting to get burned out and needing to take some time off. I’ve never totally bounced back from that point. For every high point like my Interstellar review, there’ve been many times when I find myself not wanting to write or not really having enough to say. And the truth is, I could scrap the whole thing and the only fallout would be disappointment. But I don’t want to do that.

I’m going to have to work on a few things going forward. A greater sense of self-discipline (which has never been my strong suit), and, I think, a judicious application of the “work smarter, not harder” principle. Saving the long essays for the films that merit them. And when a film doesn’t inspire lengthy commentary, keep it concise. But keep it truthful. I feel I owe you that much for your time.

(UPDATE 12/25: All reviews marked with an asterisk are complete. Other reviews will be added one by one.)

Spoilers for most of the films to follow.

I’ll start with Whiplash, since it’s one of the major awards contenders of the year, a lock for Supporting Actor and a strong possibility for Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Editing. Sound Mixing and Editing, I should think, go without saying.

A quick overview of the story: Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a first-year student of jazz drum at NYC’s Shaffer Conservatory. He wants badly to join the studio band of notorious faculty member Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and when he gets a shot at it, he discovers that Fletcher is demanding and frequently abusive, often reducing students to shamed silence or even tears with his words. He cites an anecdote where Charlie Parker make a mistake during a performance and drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him, nearly striking him–but in the process motivating him to become legendarily good.

Determined to win Fletcher’s approval, Andrew drives himself harder and harder, ultimately throwing over his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), and practicing until his hands bleed…and then practicing some more. After a series of escalating misfortunes result in Fletcher throwing him out of a concert, he attacks Fletcher and gets himself expelled. Learning that a former student of Fletcher’s committed suicide, possibly as the result of emotional scars left by Fletcher’s abuse, Andrew secretly testifies against him and he is fired from Shaffer.

Some time later, Andrew runs into Fletcher (who’s performing in a club), and learns that Fletcher is putting together an ensemble for a concert and needs a drummer. Andrew seizes the opportunity, but when he arrives at the concert, he discovers that they are to play a piece he doesn’t know–and that this is Fletcher’s revenge for his testimony. Initially accepting defeat, he suddenly commandeers the show, and Fletcher, initially aghast at his defiance, realizes that he actually has the drive to become one of the greats–and all ends triumphantly.

Well, it does if you take what happens in the film at the barest face value. Some have criticized the film for condoning the kind of abuse Fletcher dishes out, but to me this is missing the point. I don’t think the film is necessarily saying one must sell one’s soul for greatness, but that a school of thought exists where artistic (or at least musical) greatness requires a level of sacrifice which few can balance with what is generally branded a “normal life”.

At film’s end, Andrew is willingly throwing himself into the arms of a man whose manner of motivation goes well into the realm of actionable abuse (and therein lies one of my issues with the film–but more on that shortly). A man who complains that drummer after drummer cannot match his tempo, a man who kicks out a student who was on-key for not knowing whether he was on or off-key, a man who uses homophobic, sexist, and emotionally abusive language to try and winnow out those who aren’t destined for greatness.

Really, the film shows that men like Fletcher hold to some mystical idea of greatness which will persevere in the face of the greatest oppression, and regard those who question such tactics as willing to open the floodgates of mediocrity. When Andrew questions (post-expulsion) Fletcher’s MO, Fletcher says “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job'”–and annoyingly, no one suggests that a medium could be reached between back-patting laxity and soul-crushing tyranny.

But even without such a middle ground being suggested, the ending of the film, if reflected on, is rather distressing. What will become of Andrew, even if he achieves the acclaim he seeks? Will he treat all future lovers as he did Nicole–as impediments to his greatness? Will he become another Fletcher, terrorizing his students to the point of breakdown, just to find out who has the right stuff? Will he end up like Fletcher’s former student, and take his life–or at the very least, suffer a complete breakdown?

It’s really a very bleak and unhappy film. I wonder what musicians think of it, since it suggests their profession is largely populated by assholes. Not just Andrew (who really is kind of a jerk, even before he dumps Nicole) and Fletcher, we also have the wormy Carl (Nate Lang), who treats Andrew like dogshit, and nearly every other musician who speaks seemingly does so to register their impatience with Andrew. There’s little sense of camaraderie or loyalty, just the urge to play and the urge to be “great”.

It would really be a crushingly depressing film if it weren’t so damned exciting. Kudos to writer-director Damien Chazelle for putting his protagonist on the drums, as percussion perfectly suits the film’s pounding, punishing momentum. At times, anything like music seems to take a backseat to percussive rage–take for example the scene where Andrew, while rehearsing madly, finally starts punching his drums to pieces, which feels like the logical conclusion to his artistic evolution.

Add to that Fletcher’s searing tirades, made all the more unnerving by his moments of calm. The character owes a clear debt (perhaps more than I would like) to R. Lee Ermey’s fearsome drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, except Fletcher’s clearer humanity and seeming lack of scruples make him, if anything, even more frightening. It’s not for nothing that J.K. Simmons is the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor this year; anyone who sees it and sees him will not soon forget the words “Not quite my tempo”.

Simmons might not be my own choice; I think Edward Norton reached higher heights in Birdman, and Simmons again really is doing an R. Lee Ermey number a lot of the time, but his balance of Fletcher’s fury with his enigmatic humanity is certainly impressive, and if he won, my complaint would be less with his winning and more with how uncompetitive the race has been–but that’s neither here nor there.

Teller gives the only other really noteworthy performance in the film, and he does quite a good job as well, showing Andrew’s journey from his initial optimism (though even from the start, he seems to be rather isolated and at odds with his family), to his assault on Fletcher (which comes on the heels of a car accident which has left him bloody and unable to properly grip his sticks), to his final act of…shall we call it possession? Shall we say the demon that is Fletcher has seized upon his soul and now drives him to beat the drums ever harder, ever faster? We shall. Teller makes the journey believable.

That the script does not always do so is what keeps me from automatically giving this ****. I’m no musician–I am a thespian, but I’ve been in precisely one musical in my life, and that some years ago. I’m also not an athlete. So I have little experience with this particular brand of “motivation”. I can’t say just how accurate the film’s depiction of it is, or just how much a school like Shaffer would let a man like Fletcher get away with saying and doing what he says and does. And Fletcher’s actions occasionally had me calling bullshit. Maybe this is my naiveté. But when Fletcher is fired (maybe three-quarters of the way through), I had to wonder why it hadn’t happened sooner.

And then there’s the final scene, which is so explosively dazzling you might not ask the question: would a musician of Fletcher’s stature jeopardize the success of a performance just to get revenge? Or was he doing it because he believed Andrew would somehow power through this attempted humiliation and prove himself? That would suggest Fletcher is really an evil genius (and possibly a sorcerer), and that the final scene is not Andrew’s triumph, but Fletcher’s. In any case, it strains credulity, and while there are worse things a film can do than that, it leads me to keep Whiplash just below the **** range.

(Source)

If you can’t catch it in the theater, watch this GIF for 105 minutes and you’ll be all right. (Source)

But ***½ is nothing to be ashamed of, and neither is the film. Chazelle’s explosively energetic direction is enhanced by Tom Cross’ brilliant editing and the magnificent soundscape; Thomas Curley’s mixing, Lauren Hadaway’s editing, and the re-recording work of Craig Mann and Ben Wilkins is essentially beyond reproach. If the sound work or film editing fail to receive Academy attention, it will be a grievous oversight. Sharone Meir’s cinematography is fine, though at the moment I don’t much recall it.

A second viewing might sort out my feelings regarding Whiplash, but the prospect of sitting through this grueling film again does not cheer me. It’s an incredibly effective film, one well worth seeing despite its minor lapses, but as it is a portrait of a human soul being warped into some conception of artistic accomplishment, it is a hard film to love.

Score: 86/100

The Babadook is a similarly wrenching film, but as it is a horror film, one can accept its agonies more readily. And these come less from its scare factor (though I confess I am rarely truly scared by horror films) than from the performances of Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, who are so achingly sympathetic that your heart can’t help but break for them. Indeed, The Babadook is really an allegory for the stresses of single motherhood and of being the parent of a troubled child, and when it transcends genre to become a rather universal tale of human grief, it becomes one of the year’s great films.

Amelia (Davis) was widowed in a car accident while on the way to the hospital to deliver her son Samuel (Wiseman). Now she works at a nursing home, while Samuel goes to elementary school–at least until he’s suspended for bringing a homemade weapon to school. He’s a high-strung child, constantly afraid of monsters, and does not get along well with other children, ultimately injuring his cousin Ruby when she mocks him for not having a father, which deepens the gulf between Amelia and her sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney), who openly admits to disliking Samuel.

One of the best horror performances I've ever seen. (Source)

One of the best horror performances I’ve ever seen. (Source)

One night, Amelia reads a book called The Babadook to Samuel; it deals with the titular monster, which knocks on one’s door and, if admitted, subjects one to a horrible fate. Samuel is traumatized by the book, and Amelia puts it out of his reach and tells him not to read it again. He does so, and she tears it apart, only to find it mysteriously pieced back together and placed on their doorstep by unseen hands–which knock. As Samuel’s fears grow more and more profound, Amelia begins to see glimpses of the Babadook around her, and her own mental state begins to crumble. But is their suffering the work of a monster, or the end result of their own psychological distresses?

While the film leaves that question up in the air, it’s a grueling portrait of two turbulent souls grappling with unresolved traumas. The film begins with Amelia’s nightmare of her husband’s death, and throughout, the mention of him upsets her. Even before Samuel’s outbursts reach a critical point, she feels somewhat alienated from those around her; listening to one of Claire’s friends discussing a rather mundane problem, she abruptly mocks her complaint and receives a set of baffled glares in response. Aside from a few faltering attempts at friendship from co-worker Robbie (Daniel Henshall), and the sympathy of her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Roach (Barbara West), Amelia lives a lonely, isolated life, and as the film progresses, her patience with Samuel wears increasingly thin.

If Essie Davis didn’t communicate Amelia’s suffering so perfectly, or show her descent into madness so convincingly, she would be a rather hideous character; she says and does some fairly awful things as the film progresses. But Davis portrays the weariness, the frustration, the loneliness, the profound pain at Amelia’s core so well, and layers upon it her attempts at putting up a civil front so poignantly, that the film becomes just about as good as its adherents (which is to say, 98% of the critics who reviewed it) claim. And Samuel could have easily been impossibly annoying, but Wiseman invests his fear with the boundless imagination of childhood, and throws himself so completely into Samuel’s outbursts of fear and anger, that you feel sorry for him as well. He manages to be as sympathetic as he is, frankly, unnerving, and the fact that a boy of…what, 6? 7? could give so effective a performance speaks volumes regarding Jennifer Kent’s direction.

Who'd have guessed this performance would be so good? (Source)

Who’d have guessed this performance would be so good? (Source)

This is Kent’s first feature, but she knocks it out of the park, crafting an atmosphere of fear and confusion which never lets up–and when the real horror begins, she never lets the tension drop. Her script, especially when it focuses on Amelia’s tortured psychology, is extremely effective as well, and again, while the truth of the situation remains ambiguous, it’s a truly haunting portrait of grief and isolation. As you might have guessed, when the nature of the Babadook becomes more obvious, and it seems to be a manifestation, or an appropriation, of her late husband’s spirit, the film becomes, however slightly, more conventional. When it becomes clear that there is a real monster involved, it becomes just a little less mysterious and haunting. It’s still extremely well-done, and turns this final development on its head in the touching, sweetly subversive ending, but had it left things just a little more up in the air, it might have made ****.

Still, it’s easily one of the best horror films I’ve seen in recent years, and plaudits are due not only to Kent, but to Radek Ladczuk’s melancholy cinematography, Alex Holmes’ bleak, gray production design, Simon Njoo’s editing, Jed Kurzel’s score, and the book itself, which was designed and created by Alex Juhasz (And you can buy it for yourself!). It’s a superbly done film in virtually every department, and it falls just a hair short of greatness, the performances alone make it a must.

Score: 86/100

I wasn’t sure just how to review Top Five. Then it occurred to me to use the poster above (which I saw as a standie in theaters in the weeks before its release) as a jumping-off point, and respond to the claims it makes one by one.

First let me say that I probably do need to see it again, that I wasn’t totally sure what to expect, that the film itself is very much its own beast and plays it less safe tonally than you might think. I think I expected it to be more purely comic, but it’s an odd mixture of the comic and dramatic, and one viewing was not enough for me to fully process it. But shining through throughout was the genius that is Chris Rock.

1. “IT’S A VERY FUNNY MOVIE, BUT IT’S NOT JUST A FUNNY MOVIE. Rock’s distinctive voice as a filmmaker emerges, and he has a lot to say (no surprise) about what drives people to drink, the pains of sobriety, the craft of comedy, the absurdity of celebrity culture, Obama, George W. Bush, Tyler Perry, rigorous honesty, vulnerability, forgiveness, and the legacy of hip-hop.”

It many ways, that’s very true. The film is not a pure comedy, and it vacillates between farcical and darker humor, and between humor and a sort of wry reflectiveness. I would say, though (and I’ll expound on this further), that as many topics as Rock touches on, he doesn’t touch on enough of them at enough length.

He does touch upon the absurdity of celebrity a decent amount, though. His surrogate in the film, one Andre Allen (played by himself), has built upon his fame as a stand-up by starring in a ridiculous series, Hammy the Bear (there are three of them, all major hits), where he, in a bear suit, repeats the phrase “It’s Hammy time!” ad nauseaum; Luiz Guzmán is his partner, for Hammy is a police-bear. Allen has tried to break away from the series by doing a serious film on the Haitian slave rebellion, called Uprize, but it is reputedly awful.

The subplot involving Uprize doesn’t totally work, though. We see too little of the film itself, hearing mostly negative comments about it (and others which suggest it is incredibly gory), while Allen’s attitude towards it is unclear. He seems rather indifferent to it much of the time–isn’t this a passion project for him? The rest of the time he seems faintly embarrassed by it, as he promotes it on various TV and radio shows. So what exactly Rock is trying to say about these kinds of projects isn’t totally clear.

But maybe he’s trying to communicate Allen’s feelings through that very indifference/embarrassment? Maybe even this failed “serious” work brings him no sense of pride because it’s still a part of the game of celebrity, a game which he is rapidly tiring of playing. He’s set to marry a reality-show star (Gabrielle Union) who helped him quit drinking, but who is more concerned about the glamour of their wedding than the spiritual or romantic aspects of it. And this union, too, offers Andre no real happiness. That’s where New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) comes in.

Chelsea asks Allen probing questions, delving into his rejection of comedy and his substance abuse issues, and as the film (which takes place over the course of a day) progresses, we learn as much about her as we do about him. And in many ways, Dawson ends up stealing the film (it’s so good to see her get a good role again), as we see these two troubled souls come together (even when misunderstandings and revelations drive them apart) and rejuvenate each other.

And nowhere in the film is the craft of comedy better touched on than the climactic scene where Allen does a brief stand-up set at a small Manhattan club–for the first time in his career, it seems, while sober–and after a nervous, tentative start, unsure as to whether he can perform under such circumstances, he pulls it off, earning a hearty round of applause, but more importantly, feeling real confidence in himself for the first time in God knows how long. It’s a truly joyous moment, one of the film’s most memorable.

2. “Even if I warn you now, you won’t be prepared for the emotion of seeing Tracy Morgan happy onscreen and doing what he does best as one of Andre’s wisecracking relatives. As soon as Tracy’s face appeared onscreen the night I saw the movie, THE ENTIRE THEATER BURST INTO APPLAUSE.”

My theater did not.

Morgan is fine in his relatively brief appearance, but he’s singled out here because of his recent near-fatal accident. His role in the film demonstrates one of its more frustrating qualities; Rock has assembled a great cast–in addition to himself, Dawson, and Union, there’s Morgan, J.B. Smoove, Kevin Hart, Cedric the Entertainer, Ben Vereen, Sherri Shepherd, Whoopi Goldberg, Guzmán, Gabourey Sidibe, Taraji P. Henson, Bruce Bruce, Jerry Seinfeld, DMX, Doug Stanhope, and Adam Sandler.

For a film that runs 102 minutes with credits, that’s a lot of people to pack into one film, and it shows–many of them (especially those who play themselves) are cameos at best; watch the trailer and you’ll see virtually all of Hart’s role. Smoove and Cedric get their due–I’ll discuss them more later–but so many of the others barely get a look in, and it’s frustrating to see so many talented performers making the briefest of guest appearances. DMX has a memorable bit–he sings a jailhouse rendition of “Smile” with profanely altered lyrics–but the rest feel wasted.

If ever a film called for Apatovian (it’s a word, fuck you) laxity and overlength, it’s this one; I can’t imagine there won’t be a director’s cut or a shitload of deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray. But as it is, it feels as if Rock tried to cram too much into a relatively brief film.

Rock in the best film he’s done in years. And Dawson in the best role she’s had in years. (Source)

3. “Credit goes to Rock for writing the greatest slam from a fake film critic ever: ‘I WOULDN’T SEE IT IF IT WAS PLAYING IN MY GLASSES.'”

Sure? Given what Rock’s capable of–Bigger & Blacker and Never Scared are two of my all-time favorite stand-up specials–this is pretty tame stuff. This is also kind of a spoiler of the film’s weakest plot point; the Times critic who has eviscerated Allen’s films for years is actually a pen name of Chelsea’s, and her pans were motivated by her appreciation of Allen’s comic talent and her dismay at his waste of it.

Of course, he has the obligatory “It’s like I don’t even KNOW you” moment and for a time their nascent romance falls apart (and he has a relapse which leads to a brief stint in jail), but of course, they are reconciled. It’s a corny touch, and it feels pretty extraneous (and it’s not like this film had time to waste).

4. “If there is a wave of feather-related sex injuries after this movie comes out, BLAME CHRIS ROCK.”

Here we have a reference to the funniest part of the film–the trip to Houston.

Years before the main action of the film, Andre goes to Houston for a show and is met by Jazzy Dee (Cedric), a promoter who appears to wield a great deal of influence in the city. He offers to meet any and all of Andre’s needs (much of this appears in the trailer, and it’s hysterical), and later takes Andre to a club where they party and promote his show. Later, a couple of prostitutes go up to Andre’s room and they have a sexy-pillow fight (hence the feathers) before commencing a threesome–but then Jazzy Dee shows up and the women turn their attention to him, the result being a profound stain on the mattress which Andre curls up fetally to avoid touching.

I laughed. A lot.

5. “YOU WILL NEVER THINK OF TAMPONS THE SAME WAY AGAIN.”

Oh, yeah, this scene. A bit problematic, if you think about it. I’ll explain.

Chelsea and Andre encounter her boyfriend, Brad (Anders Holm), whom she has been unable to reach all day; he’s with another man, who has a hotel-room key and a shirt Chelsea bought Brad. (Thanks to Wikipedia for reminding me of his name.) It’s pretty obvious that Brad is gay and has inadvertently outed himself, but Andre pries and asks if there have been any other red flags about his sexuality.

Chelsea reveals that he had recently developed a taste for (NSFW) having his anus fingered. Initially considering it a quirk, he soon insists upon her doing it all the time, and in frustration, she takes a hot sauce-soaked tampon and sticks it in him, with the expected results. It tiptoes a bit closer to homophobia than some will like, but it is indisputably memorable.

“Everybody’s funnier drunk. You ever seen Oprah drunk? She’s HYSTERICAL!” (Source)

6. “BECAUSE EVERYONE ALWAYS GIVES SIX! You will hear a very plausible theory on where Tupac is, but only you can decide if you’re willing to watch every Tyler Perry movie when you leave the theater in order to follow up on it.”

Apparently Tupac’s hiding out in Tyler Perry’s films.

I guess here is where I mention anything I haven’t already. J.B. Smoove, whom I first came to appreciate while watching the underrated Cedric the Entertainer Presents, is quite good as Andre’s lifelong friend and manager. To him goes the final beat of the film, and he pulls it off beautifully. Ben Vereen plays Allen’s estranged father. I didn’t realize that initially. I’m not so familiar with Vereen that I would’ve recognized him on sight, but kudos for disappearing into the role, I suppose.

I might as well mention that the blending of big names in small roles as fictional characters and big names in small roles as themselves is kind of confusing. Not fatally so, but it bears mentioning.

And Dawson really is good. Rock is good, too, but he’s playing himself. Dawson, though, must play both Chelsea’s journalistic confidence and her own undermined sense of self as the day takes its unexpected turns. And at the end, when it seems that she and Allen must part forever, he asks her her own top five (rappers), and she, fighting back her tears, delivers her own, shouting her 6th man on a note of triumph shining through sadness. It’s evidence of just how good–and how wasted by Hollywood–she is.

Ultimately, for all my issues with it, I still really liked Top Five. I respect how personal it is, how much Rock put into it, how, for all its faults, it clearly is his vision. I laughed at a lot of it, admired many of the performances, reveled (as I mentioned) in Andre’s moment of creative rejuvenation…it’s really quite a good film when all is said and done, and I do intend to see it again…especially if a longer version exists which allows us to spend more time with this fine cast and in the milieu Rock crafted.

Score: 83/100

How much do I really need to say about Exodus: Gods and Kings? How much of a shit do I have to give about a film where no one involved really seemed to give a shit?

You know the story. It doesn’t tell the story of Moses and Rameses in a way that challenges your view of them. It doesn’t add any twists or flourishes of consequence. It doesn’t even show the Hebrews reaching Canaan. It is an astonishingly useless film.

You probably know about the controversy of casting Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton. And let’s thrown Aaron Paul’s Joshua. Or Sigourney Weaver’s evil queen (more on her shortly). You may be upset about this whitewashing, you may not care. For my money, it’s a moot point for one simple reason: the movie isn’t good. If the film had been good, if the performances in question had been memorable, I might have felt a moral dilemma; my enjoyment of the film would be tempered by my knowledge that it was perpetuating the marginalization of actors of color.

But I didn’t enjoy the film all that much. I can’t say it’s a truly bad film, but it’s a not-good one. The lack of passion is a key issue; did Scott want to make the film? I saw little in the film which reflected an enthusiasm for the material. Scott’s films frequently have a cool, rather detached quality to them, and his pacing is often deliberate (this is evident even in his first feature, The Duellists, which is still a fine film). This is not his dullest film (The Kingdom of Heaven, in the excruciating Director’s Cut, takes that prize), but it may be his least interesting.

"From an economic standpoint, what you're asking is problematic, to say the least..." (Source)

“From an economic standpoint, what you’re asking is problematic, to say the least…” (Source)

He does have some fun with the later stages of the film, especially the plagues, which are appreciably gruesome (and there’s even some dark humor involving an unlucky high priestess (Indira Varma) and an inept ‘Expert’ (Ewen Bremner)). And the decision to portray God as a petulant little boy (Isaac Andrews) at least shows some invention. But on the whole, it not only fails to justify its $140 million price tag (and Guillermo Del Toro can’t get $150 million for At the Mountains of Madness?), it also fails to justify its cast, its crew, or its 150-minute length.

Last year, Christian Bale received critical praise and an Oscar nomination for a playing a New York Jew who was driven by a do-anything-to-survive mentality, but had a sense of thieves’ honor which made him sympathetic. Here, playing an ancient Egyptian Jew (who does not initially know that he is one) driven by a divine mandate, he never finds the soul of the character. He doesn’t do as bad a job as I initially feared, but his performance is ultimately as forgettable as the film itself.

Joel Edgerton’s Rameses is more memorable, though not in a good way, if only for having one of the worst lines of the year: when prevailed upon to free the Hebrews, he says “From an economic standpoint, what you’re asking is problematic, to say the least…”, a sentence so laughably pedantic I must assume it was written as a joke. He never lets loose enough to give a great bad-ham performance–Scott’s generally po-face style would not allow it–but he definitely has his camp moments. (My father suggested he looked more like Telly Savalas than Yul Brynner; I posited that Savalas would have almost certainly given a superior performance.)

She's a long way from Ellen Ripley. But then again, he's a long way from Alien. (Source)

She’s a long way from Ellen Ripley. But then again, he’s a long way from Alien. (Source)

John Turturro has a little fatherly gravity as Seti, but he dies early on (and off-screen at that). Sigourney Weaver, as Seti’s queen and Rameses’ mother (I think?). is monumentally wasted; she has maybe half a dozen lines and spends the rest of her screentime looking suspicious from underneath heavy makeup. It’s one of the more bafflingly egregious wastes of a performer I’ve ever seen. Andrews gives easily the best performance, with his smugly arrogant manner, but in this context, it doesn’t count for much. Ben Kingsley briefly appears an old Hebrew who tells Moses the truth about himself; the role could have been played by literally anyone. Ben Mendelsohn’s performance as a sinister associate of Rameses has been criticized for being homophobic in conception and execution; at the time I didn’t really see it, and in any case I have forgotten his work almost entirely.

The technical side of things is more impressive. Arthur Max’s production design is reliably grandiose (and it looks like they built some actual sets rather than doing everything with green-screen) and Janty Yates’ costumes are appropriately lavish for the royals and drab for the commoners. DP Dariusz Wolski puts up some impressive images (Rameses’ army charging across the floor of the Red Sea is especially striking), though hardly enough to compensate for the lack of drama. Alberto Iglesias’ score is adequate but unmemorable.

“Unmemorable” is the word for Exodus, and while I wish it weren’t, it continues Ridley Scott’s troubling recent trend of tedious, passionless, or outright misguided films; Prometheus was quite strong, but Robin Hood was dull, The Counselor embarrassingly pretentious, and this just a waste of time. Perhaps The Martian will restore him to glory.

Score: 54/100

That The Theory of Everything continues to be a major contender not just for acting awards, but also for Best Picture and screenplay awards, is evidence that awards-baiting continues to work, and if it is not a perfectly reliable practice (remember Saving Mr. Banks?), respectable films on respectable topics still continue to be produced and honored, even when they’re not especially good. And The Theory of Everything, I have to say, is not that good.

The story is well-recorded by history. At Cambridge in the early 60s, doctoral student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) begins to develop the “big bang” theory at the same time as he falls in love with poetry student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), despite their differing stances on religion (she is devout, he is anything but). Worsening problems with his motor skills lead to a diagnosis of motor neuron disease (Lou Gehrig’s disease, to be specific), and he is given two years to live.

He initially sinks into depression, but at Jane’s urging, resumes work; they marry, and he earns his Ph.D. while she cares for him and their children. Although he becomes increasingly paralyzed, he continues his work unabated. The stresses of her situation take their toll on Jane, and she ultimately recruits her church choir director, Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), to assist with Stephen’s care.

A performance that captures the physical and emotional aspects of the role superbly. (Source)

A performance that captures the physical and emotional aspects of the role superbly. (Source)

Jane and Jonathan develop feelings for one another, which leads him to part ways with the family for a time, but when Stephen (now confined to a wheelchair) leaves on a trip, he urges her to take the children and spend some time with Anthony. They do so, and it is implied that Jane and Jonathan consummate their feelings. Meanwhile, Stephen has an attack of pneumonia which nearly kills him; a tracheotomy is performed which saves him but renders him mute. A computerized speech machine is procured, and he resumes his lecturing career–but when he grows close to his new nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), it becomes clear that the Hawkings’ marriage will not endure.

The divorce is not shown, though, and the film is bookended by his receipt of a royal honor; the coda informs us of Jane’s remarriage and Hawking’s continued work.

The first half of Theory is actually not too bad. The budding love of Stephen and Jane is reliably sweet, the (doubtless simplified) physics are fascinating, and the frustrating progression of his disease is quite painful–the first sign that something is seriously wrong comes when he trips and strikes his head on the ground; it’s a wince-worthy moment. And Redmayne’s performance, especially his display of Stephen’s physical decay, is undeniably impressive. An Oscar nomination is not only likely, but justified. The first half blends the romance and the science pretty well.

A performance which makes the best of drab writing. (Source)

A performance which makes the best of drab writing. (Source)

But once Jonathan appears onscreen, even those unfamiliar with this side of the story will realize exactly what’s about to happen; tentative, reserved flickers of attraction, which lead slowly but surely to outright infidelity. Likewise, the second Elaine arrives on the scene, it’s quite obvious what will happen between her and Stephen. But predictability is less the issue here than the sheer tediousness of it all.

The healthy balance of science and marital melodrama that kept the first part of the film relatively engaging is mostly set aside in the second half in favor of the melodrama, and the pace slows greatly; with all due respect to Jane and Jonathan, their love story is not a very unique or compelling one. There are still scenes which work: for example, a scene where Jane rather bitterly discusses the differences between quantum physics and traditional physics, one of which allows for the existence of God, and the other puts physics “back in business”, as Stephen quips.

But for the most part, the second half of the film is just a yawny trudge through the years, livened primarily by a strikingly ridiculous scene where Stephen, now using his computerized voice, attends a Q&A with a bunch of students, and, noticing a girl dropping her pen (mirroring a scene where he, displaying the first signs of his condition, dropped one), he rises from his chair, walks over to the girl, and hands her the pen. This is, of course, fantasy. But then he launches into a speech, quoted in the trailers, ending with the words: “Where there is life, there is hope.” Cue a standing ovation.

Gag.

I get what they were going for here, but really…could anyone not see how Strangelovian this moment is? It was clearly meant to be a grand emotional climax to the film, but instead it plays as the most ridiculous kind of “inspirational” filmmaking.

Anthony McCarten’s script, as you might have guessed, did not greatly impress me. For the most part, it’s simply adequate, with the aforementioned detours into sap. It’s far from a bad script, but the fact that this will likely be an Oscar-nominated screenplay is ridiculous to me. I am totally in earnest, and speak not as a fanboy, but as a lover of film and a writer when I say: the script for Snowpiercer is a better one in every way. It tells a more interesting story, and it tells it better.

James Marsh’s direction is likewise adequate, and has some fine touches; he manages to insert a good deal of character humor into the film while keeping it organic. But he can’t keep the dull parts from being dull. So it is. Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography is fine, though the use of grainy faux-home movies is a cliché (dating back to Raging Bull) which out to be retired. Jóhann Jóhansson’s score is okay, but it has little of the resonance of his melancholy work in Prisoners.

Again, Redmayne gives a superb physical performance (far more impressive than John Hawkes’ work in The Sessions), and he brings a great amount of charm to the table as well, while still showing glimmers of pomposity as his reputation increases. Jones, on the other hand, has also been heavily nominated for her work as Jane, and I don’t feel the same enthusiasm for her work. To be fair, a lot of this is due to the script; even when the film focuses on Jane, there’s little exploration of her interest in poetry, and her feelings regarding her role in the family (taking care of Stephen and the children while putting her own goals on the backburner) are mostly relegated to looks of consternation. Jones does these as well as anyone could, but the relatively weak material she has to work with keeps her performance from really becoming a great one.

The supporting cast is solid, but unmemorable; David Thewlis is a reliably likable presence as Stephen’s mentor Dennis Sciama, and Simon McBurney is pretty good as Stephen’s father; Emily Watson, however, is utterly wasted as his mother. Cox, stuck with a bland role, is not bad, but it’s the sort of performance which is inevitably doomed to be forgotten. Peake is livelier as Elaine, but the film seems unsure how to regard her.

I had worried just how a purportedly “inspirational” film about a marriage which in reality ended in divorce would handle that divorce, and Theory handles it about as diplomatically as you’d expect. There are no hurt feelings, on or off the screen, and the viewer is sent out, in theory, on an inspired high. My feelings were more akin to what I felt after seeing Mongol (the 2007 treatment of Genghis Khan’s early career): the domestic life of a major historical figure is just not as compelling as the reason for their place in history.

Score: 74/100

St. Vincent is practically the definition of a “nice little film”. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, I apologize, because going into the film (even in the wake of its Golden Globe nominations for Musical/Comedy Picture and Actor), I didn’t expect a great deal from it. Go to the top and look at the poster–doesn’t it just ooze cutesiness? Murray’s really just a softy with a rough exterior–obviously we’re going to have our cake and eat it too, as this lovable old bastard teaches us a heartwarming lesson or two.

And so he does, but the film manages to make its sentimentality work, for the most part. Vincent MacKenna (Murray) is a decorated Vietnam veteran, but to the casual observer does little besides smoke, drink, gamble, and hang out with pregnant hooker Daka Paramova (Naomi Watts). Struggling soon-to-be-single mother Maggie Bronstein (Melissa McCarthy) moves in next door with her son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher); they get off to a bad start with Vincent when their moving van damages his property.

Oliver attends a local Catholic school, but owing to his slight build and shy manner, is a target for bullies and one day, his belongings are stolen, forcing him to impose on Vincent’s hospitality for an afternoon. Vincent does not welcome Oliver’s company, but when Maggie offers to pay him to babysit Oliver while she works, he accepts, and draws Oliver into his world of wisecracks and dissipation, teaching the boy how to defend himself, how to gamble, and in general how to have fun. When they win big at the track, they go on a spree and Vincent opens a bank account for him, despite his sizable debt to loan-shark Zucko (Terrence Howard).

The likeliest of unlikely friendships. (Source)

Vincent’s antics result in Maggie being forced to share custody of Oliver with his father (who had cheated on her and precipitated their break-up), and when the medical bills for Vincent’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife (whom he dotes on despite his dalliance with Daka) outpace his meager resources, he empties out the account he opened for Oliver. Zucko confronts him about his debts and threatens him with a beating, but Vincent suffers a stroke, and Oliver discovers him just in time to save his life.

Forced to undergo tedious physical therapy (which he openly resents), Vincent eventually is able to leave the hospital, only to learn that his wife has passed away. Daka moves in with him and imposes a healthier lifestyle on him, which he does his best to circumvent. Meanwhile, Oliver has discovered Vincent’s impressive past, and given an assignment to profile a modern-day saint, chooses Vincent. Daka has Vincent go with her, ostensibly to go to the hospital to deliver her (their? I’m not 100% sure if the film makes it clear) baby, but they make a detour to Oliver’s school, just in time to see his presentation on Vincent, which ends with him bestowing a medal on the deadpanly humbled old man.

How is that St. Vincent manages to stay afloat and be genuinely charming in the face of its own gooey story? The acting has a lot to do with it. While I don’t think Murray merits Oscar consideration for this role, he brings his well-honed timing and capacity for drama to the table, and is a fairly constant delight to watch. His accent comes and goes, but his crusty, snarky dissipation is as funny as his sadness at his wife’s decline is moving. And he plays the effects of Vincent’s stroke quite effectively. The role could have easily sank into a morass of mugging, but Murray keeps his performance just subtle enough to keep you on board.

It’s the performances–and the way they all work together–which make it work. (Source)

Lieberher’s performance is just as strong (this has been an unusually good year for juvenile performances). His acting is assured and natural, and he conveys Oliver’s milquetoastiness (and his gradual growing out of that) without hamming it up. His rapport with Murray and with McCarthy is natural and thoroughly entertaining, and ultimately forms a very solid backbone for the film. And speaking of McCarthy, she reigns in the crassness to deliver a fairly touching portrait of a woman trying to keep her composure under hellish circumstances–the apologetic negotiations, the moments of fear and frustration, the solace found in humor…McCarthy pulls it off very well indeed.

When Watts received a SAG nomination for her work, many were baffled, and I confess I don’t see why her work was singled out. She’s certainly good in the role, and makes Daka less of a stereotype than she could’ve been (she’s a hooker with a heart of gold, after all). Her accent is a touch broad–I’m really not sure why the character needed to be Russian–but she ultimately does do a solid job, just not an award-worthy one. Chris O’Dowd offers a sympathetically humorous presence as Oliver’s teacher, while Howard does fine as the loan-shark, particularly when he pleads with Vincent to pay him off so as to avoid a beating.

Theodore Melfi’s script succeeds in large part because it commits itself to its sentimental elements. Oliver’s climactic speech in praise of Vincent is an unabashedly sentimental moment, but the film embraces it, and it works. There are elements which work less well–the bullying Oliver receives is not always convincing, and Oliver’s father is never developed enough as a character to explain why his having custody is so undesirable; the few times we see him he seems like a decent-enough human being (albeit a philanderer).

Still, Melfi wrote a solid script, and directed it in a standard but wholly adequate fashion. The technical aspects of the film are thoroughly standard, but its reach does not exceed its grasp, and it remains the sweet little film it set out to be. I wouldn’t give it an uncategorical recommendation–it really helps to have a taste for this kind of material–but if you’re at all in the mood, it should prove quite delightful.

Score: 78/100

Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (as in, he is actually saving Christmas) is the kind of film which defies critical appraisal. To call it a bad film is to miss how entertainingly dumbfounding it is, and to call it a good film is to overlook the total absurdity of its arguments and its ultimate shameless deification of consumerism. On a technical level, it’s about as professionally made as your average History Channel special; there’s no glaringly bad CGI, no boom mike shadows, never a sense that the people making it didn’t know the nuts and bolts of filmmaking.

But this is the kind of film where a conspiracy-nut character rambles about HAARP and you’re not sure which side you’re supposed to take, since you’ve also just been told that Christmas trees are analogous to the Crucifixion.

I’m not sure any review could do justice to the madness on display here, to the non-logic hurled at us by the ever-pleasant, unnervingly polite Cameron, to the beautifully absurd performance by director Darren Doane as Cameron’s doubting brother-in-law, who must be patiently told how Christmas trees, presents, and the like are not a cheapening of Christmas, but in fact symbolic celebrations of its best qualities. It’s padded beyond belief, filled with stereotypes, and seems almost like the biggest put-on in film history. If there wasn’t some semblance of irony in the creation of this film, that’s both horrifying and comforting, as it does not dilute the insanity one iota. When the brother-in-law plows headfirst into a pile of presents, and Cameron suggests they are like the skyline of some symbolic city, we’re so far beyond reality it’s hard to apply any normal critical standards. You just have to sit back and embrace the craziness.

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. (Source)

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. (Source)

Cameron’s presence alone makes the film: his creepy grin, insidiously polite pushiness, and seemingly absolute sincerity are rather terrifying, and he won a well-deserved Razzie. The film also won Worst Picture–a perfect choice, Worst Screen Combo for Cameron and his ego (him and Doane would’ve made more sense, but this award is kind of a joke anymore), and Worst Screenplay (it’s less inept than Atlas Shrugged III‘s hatchet-job, but more insane). It’s mind-boggling in the best sense of the word.

The task of assigning a score to this film daunted me for some time. On one hand, it’s a truly ridiculous film which makes insane cases for insane claims. On the other hand, it entertained me more than most films this year. To give it a damningly low score seemed rather disingenuous, but to give it a high score would be rather misleading.

Then it hit me: 10.

Once, I went bowling with some friends of mine, and one of them finished the game with a score of 10. He played it off as “a perfect 10”. And that’s what this film was. A 10.

10/10? 10/100?

Wouldn’t you like to know.

Score: 10

Beyond the Lights is the kind of film I wish were better than it was. That’s not to say it’s not good–it’s a solid, well-done film which gets a high *** from me. But those who praised it praised it for its full-bore melodrama and the strength of its performances, and while the performances–especially Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s–can’t be denied, as a melodrama the film is merely adequate, and I wish it were more.

The film begins in the late 90s, in London, as desperate single mother Macy Jean (Minnie Driver) finagles a trip to the hair salon for her daughter Noni (India Jean-Jacques), that she may look her best for a talent show the next day. At the show, Noni sings Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” and comes in second; Macy forces Noni to discard her trophy, telling her she won’t come in second again.

Cut to the present day, when Noni (Mbatha-Raw) has become a rising star through her partnership with Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly, aka Richard Colson Baker), a rapper she is also romantically involved with. Under Macy’s watchful eye, Noni performs in provocative videos and photo-shoots, and in general lives to maximize her brand. One night, after winning a Billboard award, Noni abruptly attempts suicide by trying to leap off her hotel room’s balcony, but security guard Kaz (Nate Parker) saves her.

The costume is sadly apropos. (Source)

The costume is sadly apropos. (Source)

Kaz is being groomed by his father, LAPD Capt. Nicol (Danny Glover), for a political career, and when Kaz becomes the center of media attention for his actions, his father tries to use it to his advantage, but warns him not to get involved with Noni. This is easier said than done, since Kaz remains acutely concerned about her, despite her attempts to dismiss her actions as impulsive. She reaches out to him, and they begin to spend time together–which becomes easy fodder for the tabloids.

Macy, like Capt. Nicol, is discouraging of the relationship, feeling that it will only detract from Noni’s focus on her career. But Noni and Kaz grow closer, and when she realizes she is in love with him, she breaks off things with Kid Culprit, who initially seems indifferent, but later, during a live televised performance, attempts to sexually abuse her, which leads Kaz to intervene (by punching KC in the face, of course).

Seeking an escape from the limelight, Noni and Kaz travel incognito to a small town in Mexico, and spend an idyllic few days together. For the first time in the film (since she was a child, at least), Noni removes the wig she has worn throughout and embraces her own natural hair. One day at a karaoke bar, Kaz persuades her to perform, and she sings “Blackbird”, to the approval of the crowd (who do not immediately recognize her). But a video of the performance leaks, and the media–and Macy–quickly track the pair down, and convince Noni to return to L.A.

If it’s a spoiler to say that love wins out in the end, then maybe it is slightly less of one to say that Noni is able to establish her career on her own terms, break away from Macy’s control, and have her music and her man.

The mother has a hell of a drive. And the kid has a hell of a voice. (Source)

The mother has a hell of a drive. And the kid has a hell of a voice. (Source)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is, of course, the main attraction here, and as fully as she inhabited the role of an 18th-century noblewoman in Belle, so she fully inhabits the role of pop star Noni. She has the energy, the sensational physicality, and as far as I can judge, the voice. She’s wholly convincing. There are a few points where she pushes for effect a bit too obviously (some would say theatrically), but it’s not enough to diminish what she achieves here. I anxiously await her future work.

And Driver is quite good, too, in what could–and should–have been a stock role. Late in the film, she explains her reasons for pushing Noni to the top (even when it meant exploiting her); how, as a poverty-stricken single mother with a biracial child, she faced a difficult future…until she discovered Noni’s singing ability. Driver skillfully shows Macy’s hard, bitter side, but allows her her humanity.

Parker is a likable, sympathetic leading man; Kaz easily could’ve been blandly noble, but Parker gives him the right amount of charisma. Machine Gun Kelly is properly obnoxious as KC; Danny Glover brings his usual gravitas to Capt. Nicol.

Gina Prince-Blythewood’s script may be clichéd in its overall design, but the glimpses of the workings of the music industry, and the attention paid to the characters, keep it engaging. Her direction doesn’t embrace the melodramatic potential of the material, however–at least not to the degree one might hope for–and in visual terms, it’s surprisingly straight-forward. It’s this, more than the storyline itself, which keeps from being a great film. But it’s a sweet and entertaining one, so I will not complain too much.

In technical terms, it’s perfectly solid; the song “Grateful” by Diane Warren was nominated for an Oscar, and while the song itself is just okay (in one of the worst years I can remember for this category), I’m glad this film can always be called an Oscar nominee. It’s not a great film, but it’s definitely a good one.

Score: 76/100

The Homesman is one of the stranger films I’ve seen recently, and while I cannot claim to truly like it, I have a certain respect for it, and for Tommy Lee Jones for making it (he directed and co-wrote the script, based on Glendon Swarthout’s novel). It was interesting to see this in the same evening as CITIZENFOUR; that was the story of a man who committed what may have been a treasonous act in trying to save America, while this is a return, in an era largely lacking in Westerns, to what was once the most purely American of genres.

The Homesman is not a political film, nor is it a truly revisionist Western; what it does is present, in rather brutal fashion, the hardships of frontier life, especially on women, and the means in which two figures of the prairie attempt to deal with them. It is a long way from a great film, making tonal and narrative choices which often seem questionable–and it does not reach the heights of audacity that would make these choices consistently entertaining–but it is a sincere achievement, well-made in all departments, and as bewildering as it may be, it kept me watching to the end.

The Nebraska Territory, the 1850s: Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a homesteader, lives singly; though she has tried to interest men in her, her alleged plainness and headstrong manner have resulted in rejection. Three women in the area have gone mad:

  • Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), at 19 the youngest of the three, has lost all her children to diptheria in short order, and has withdrawn completely, clinging to a doll and focusing her attention on it;
  • Theoline Belknapp (Miranda Otto) has been driven mad by the failure of her family’s farm, especially the deaths of their animals, and her husband Vester (William Fichtner), with his harsh manner, is no help;
  • And Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter), has not only lost her mother (Caroline Lagerfelt), whose ghost is ever-present in her consciousness, but her husband (David Dencik) forces himself on her, that she will bear him sons. (One of the women also kills her child; I thought it was Arabella but her doing so is never mentioned.)

The local preacher, Rev. Dowd (John Lithgow), proposes that the women be sent back East for treatment, and when the men of the community are reluctant to take them, Mary Bee volunteers. Having procured a wagon (meant for carrying livestock) which has been customized to transport the women, Mary Bee encounters a man, George Briggs (Jones), whom other men have attempted to hang for his attempted to settle another man’s claim. She extracts a promise from him to do as she asks if she saves his life, and doing so, asks him to serve as her companion on the trip.

He is reluctant, but given the promise of $300 (which he will forfeit if he deserts), he accepts. The women are collected, and they set off for Iowa. On the way, they face many hardships: the brutal weather (exactly what time of year the film takes place in is unclear, but much of the time it appears to be winter), unsavory trail characters, and the womens’ instabilities, among others. But for Mary Bee and George, just as many problems lie within themselves.

Where do I begin with The Homesman? Its strangeness is at once inescapable and elusive; it is less surreal than consistently off-kilter. From the start, there are strange touches; when Mary Bee and Bob Giffen (Evan Jones), a fellow farmer she is trying to woo, dine together, his gift of cheese is presented in a manner which seems just this side of absurdity (“cheese” is a funny word, to be fair), and Mary Bee regales him with a song, “accompanying” herself on a cloth keyboard which seems to be some kind of training device (we later learn she’s saving up for a proper instrument).

Jones will often cut to another scene with a musical sting, evocative of films far more, shall we say, rip-snorting than The Homesman, which is not the thrilling kind of Western, for the most part. At times he seems to be evoking the Coens’ version of True Grit (Hailee Steinfeld has a small role as well), especially in his portrayal of Briggs, who seems to be what Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn would’ve become had he not become a marshal. Running about in his pajamas, desperately brokering with Mary Bee for his life, it almost seems as if we’re meant to find George cute. Some may, but I thought his humor was limited, though this was somewhat beside the point, since George does develop as a character–but more on that later.

The rather fractured time-frame of the film adds to the offbeat feel; sometimes we seem to be in the dead of winter, yet a scene or two later we appear to be in spring, if not summer. And elements like the strange, seemingly vacant hotel run by the mysterious Aloysius Duffy (James Spader), and the intensity of George’s revenge when Duffy refuses to let him and the women stay there, further reinforce the strangeness of the film’s world.

But nothing, for me, tops the sequence where Mary Bee, who has begun to grow fond of George, proposes that they marry and “throw in” together. He refuses, like Bob claiming she is too bossy and too plain (which…yeah), and goes to sleep. Mary Bee awakens him, nude, and asks him to sleep with her. He reluctantly agrees, and the following morning, she is nowhere to be seen. Searching for her, he discovers that she has hung herself.

I was frankly rather stunned by this moment, and initially it seemed wholly unjustified, not least because I didn’t believe that Mary Bee would do so without at least delivering the women to safety. On further meditation, there are explanations for it–Wikipedia suggests that depression and a feeling of religious guilt contributed to it–but to me it still rings a little false. George initially decides to leave the women and go on his own way (presuming they will be found and delivered soon enough), but when they follow him and he must save them from drowning, he decides to see them to safety.

After leaving them with Altha Carter (Meryl Streep), who will convey them to mental institutions, George takes his money, buys new clothes and has a wooden tombstone made for Mary Bee. Before returning west, he, maybe jokingly, proposes to Tabitha (Steinfeld), who works at the boarding-house he stays at and for whom he buys what I think is her first pair of shoes. He boards a river ferry, and as he drinks and dances with the fellow passengers, the ferryman kicks the tombstone into the river.

It’s a strange ending to a strange film, and the import of it eludes me a little. Is it just another example of the rough, unsentimental nature of the Old West? An example of how shitty people can be? Is it symbolic in some way that I did not catch on first viewing? Who knows.

I will say that, while I initially hoped the film’s strangeness would work to its advantage, it makes the film distinctive without exactly making it better or worse. I might say it makes it hard, indeed, to form a firm opinion on the film, though I would say without hesitation that it is not quite a great one. It’s hard, especially so long after having seen it, to say exactly why it isn’t a great film, but maybe the obscure nature of its themes and the unevenness of its tone are contributing factors. I appreciate a well-used tonal shift as much as anyone, but here the film sometimes seems to shift gears without rhyme or reason.

Jones’ direction, while proficient, doesn’t quite elevate the film; as I recall, the pace does lag at times (particularly in the last 20 minutes, which drag a bit), and it lacks the visual flair I expected. There are striking images here and there, and it’s not badly shot by any means, but DP Rodrigo Prieto does not cement the film among the Western cinematographic canon. And the script, co-written by Jones (with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout) is a major factor in the film’s tonal issues, though the dialogue, as far as I recall, is quite acceptable.

Swank was mooted as a potential Oscar candidate, and while I don’t think her performance quite reaches those heights, she does a very solid job as the principled, self-reliant Mary Bee, whose strength sits side by side with a profound sadness (hence her tragic end). Given some of the stranger elements of the film, she does a pretty good job grounding the material, although, again, I find the repeated references to her “plainness” a little hard to swallow.

Jones, initially, is hampered a little by the film’s attempts to portray George as a rogue; his first scene with Mary Bee is funny, but it adds to the tonal dissonance of the film. Later on, though, as George gradually becomes committed to the journey, Jones’ capacity for weary integrity is successfully tapped, and by the end he has shown us a fairly full portrait of this free-spirited man who commits himself when he must.

Though the cast is populated with big names, most get little to do; Streep appears for less than 5 minutes, while Lithgow and Steinfeld may have more screentime but don’t contribute a great deal (less because they do not put in the effort than because the roles give them little to work with). Spader probably comes off best as the shady Duffy; he’s his usually enjoyably oily self. Gummer, Otto, and Richter are believable as the troubled women; the film doesn’t focus on them much past the first act, but they are convincing enough, and given the difficulties of portraying mental illness, that is worth mentioning.

The Homesman is a strange little film, not quite good enough to secure it a lasting reputation, but unusual enough, and with credentials impressive enough, to merit a viewing for serious film buffs,

Score: 70/100

I’m going to tackle Horrible Bosses 2 now just to get it out of the way. That’s what you do with films like this. You get them out of the way. I wouldn’t have even seen it if a friend of mine hadn’t suggested we see it while I was home for Thanksgiving. I liked the first one quite a bit (I actually bought Snow Falling on Cedars because of that film), but the trailers suggested this was going to be heavy on the repeat jokes. I gave The Hangover Part II a pass in that regard, but here, it looked lazy.

And, shock of shocks, it was. Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), and Dale (Charlie Day) decide to go into business for themselves, creating a device called the ShowerBuddy (Dale argued for ShowerDaddy), and make a morning-show appearance to attract investors. Rex Hanson (Chris Pine) contacts them and offers to buy the rights to the ShowerBuddy, but when he reveals that it would be manufactured in China, the boys demur, as they had intended to make it on American soil. Rex’s father Burt (Christoph Waltz) arrives and offers to help, placing an order for 100,000 units. With some difficulty, Nick, Kurt, and Dale open a factory, hire a staff, and turn out the 100,000 ShowerBuddies.

If you're wondering how stupid characters have to be before they stop being funny...you might find your answer here. (Source)

If you’re wondering how stupid characters have to be before they stop being funny…you might find your answer here. (Source)

When they inform Burt, however, he tells them he is cancelling the order, which will push them into bankruptcy and allow him to buy the units for pennies on the dollar, which he will then re-sell as the “ShowerPal”. Disgusted, the boys look for a way to get revenge on Burt, and decide to kidnap Rex. After a mishap involving nitrous oxide, they appear to have bungled their plan, but later discover that Rex has actually faked his own kidnapping–as he tells them, he wants to stick it to his cold, distant father. A ransom demand is made, and a plan to acquire it and get away scot-free is crafted with the help of “Motherfucker” Jones (Jamie Foxx). But of course, things do not go as planned, not least because of Dr. Julia (Jennifer Aniston), who has not lost her lust for Dale, the one man to resist her attentions.

Idiocy can be fertile material for comedy, but it must be used carefully. And Horrible Bosses 2 does not use idiocy carefully. Kurt and Dale are, to put it bluntly, fucking morons. So much so that you wonder how they could possibly have made it through kindergarten, let alone figured out how to set up a business. Nick is about as close to the voice of reason as we get, but given his voluntary association with these jackasses, it’s hard to really think much of him. And even he lets himself be duped on a grand scale by Burt. So we’re basically rooting for these guys not to fall into the graves they are actively digging.

And on top of that, the film doesn’t really use the “horrible boss” premise! Waltz actually has fairly little to do, and Rex does virtually nothing in a boss’ capacity. The film brings back Aniston and Kevin Spacey’s Harken (who admittedly provides some of the film’s better moments), but the careful dynamics of the first film are thrown out in favor of a by-the-numbers caper. There are the expected twists and turns, including one at the last minute which saves our “heroes”, but none of it is very memorable.

I hope they paid you well. (Source)

I hope they paid you well. (Source)

At times, it’s even offensive. Rex mocks his Asian housemaid, Kim (Suzy Nakamura); even though the film seems to play this off as a manifestation of Rex’s arrogance, it feels like the makers wanted to have their cake and eat it too by indulging in racial humor via an antagonistic character. And one could fairly make the case that the scene where Julia uses a sex addiction recovery group as a means of finding sex partners is a pretty crass treatment of sex addiction (though the other members of the group are clearly appalled by her). The film never remotely reaches the repulsive depths of something like Grown Ups 2, but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

That said, the film does have funny moments. Pine’s total amorality is about as amusing as he can make it, and there are moments when Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day bounce off each other quite enjoyably. (There are few comic actors better at losing their shit than Day.) Foxx, as in the first film, tends to steal the show, and there’s a great scene where a car chase is interrupted by a freight train; it would be funny in any film, but here stands out especially well as a well-timed routine free of crassness.

Otherwise, it’s just kind of there. It’s a real shame that Pine seems to be saddled with rich douchebag roles; hopefully the upcoming Z for Zachariah will give him a chance to really act a gain. And Waltz is badly wasted; after his shockingly drab Richelieu in Paul W.S. Anderson’s dreary The Three Musketeers, it’s the weakest performance I’ve seen from him. Not that he’s bad–he seems to have too much integrity as an actor to give a truly bad performance–but he’s clearly slumming it. Aniston doesn’t really shine like she did in the first film; with a potential Oscar nomination for Cake in her future, she may well be tiring of such nonsense.

Our star trio do what they do. Bateman is the exasperated straight man, Sudeikis the faux-suave bro, and Day the awkward fidget. Need I say more? Need I say anything about the script, or Sean Anders’ direction, or the technical side of things? No. It’s an entirely professional film, but not outstanding in any real way. I saw it, had a few chuckles, and have moved on. So it is.

Score: 61/100

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