Continuing my reviews of the films I gave *** to.
And where better to begin than…
- The Greasy Strangler – 72
I wanted to love this movie unequivocally. I like it an awful lot, but it’s hamstrung by at least two major failings. One, it’s incredibly repetitive. Sometimes this works, but it usually just gets wearisome; take a drink each time they say “bullshit artist” and see how far you get. Two, the final sequence is such a jarring shift from the preceding scenes that you have to wonder if a reel was missing. But I take joy in Michael St. Michaels’ wonderfully gross performance, the marvelously greasy makeup effects, the kitschy score, and the overall sense of mad abandon.
- Free State of Jones – 72
Gary Ross’ Civil War drama came and went with little fanfare, but it deserved a little better. The story of how one Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) led a rebellion which resulted in a short-lived breakaway state in southeastern Mississippi, a little-known and somewhat disputed chapter in American history, it has effective scenes (one battle scene in and around a church is particularly harrowing) and some good performances, especially from McConaughey and Mahershala Ali. It does feel compromised, and whether this occurred during the writing or the editing, the result is a meandering, unevenly paced film. But not an unworthy one.
- Equals – 72
High-concept science-fiction about a world where people are conditioned to feel no emotion, and those who do are regarded as pitiable invalids. Naturally, our two leads (Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart) fall in love. It’s the kind of concept which sounds intriguing on paper but rarely leads to a successful film, and certainly this is not an unqualified success; it’s sluggishly paced and fairly predictable. But, given the low budget, it looks quite good and realizes its world well (the costumes are especially spot-on). Hoult and especially Stewart are solid, and it has a good score. All in all, watchable.
- The Accountant – 72
The trailer gave me some hope that this would be a quirky little gem. Between the cast and the premise, I got my hopes up. In the end, although it proved to be something of a sleeper hit, it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for. Ben Affleck does manage to pull off the character of the autistic accountant/assassin protagonist, and there are compensations, particularly in the calmly audacious showdown with the seeming big bad (Jon Bernthal). But at over two hours, it feels logy, and the ending isn’t altogether satisfactory, though it does leave the door open for a sequel.
- War Dogs – 73
Basically a junior Wolf of Wall Street with guns (the presence of Jonah Hill reinforces this). And like The Big Short, here a director of broad comedies (in this case Todd Phillips) turns towards more serious subject matter. But those films had much sharper scripts to build on, and neither had a dullish corrupted-innocent protagonist; this has Miles Teller in that capacity. Hill does a good job (and got a Globe nomination), and it’s never less than watchable, but when all is said and done, you’re not left with much but a sense of “fucked up things sure do happen.”
- Queen of Katwe – 73
An inspirational biopic from the Disney inspirational true-life-drama template, this tells of young Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga in a solid debut) who takes up chess and proves a brilliant player…which may be what it takes to rescue her family from the slums of Kampala, Uganda. A brisker pace (it runs an excessive 124 minutes) and a bolder script would’ve helped, but it remains a good drama for families, with strong support from Lupita Nyong’o as Phiona’s mother and David Oyelowo as her teacher. Points, also, for the gorgeous costumes, sure to be overlooked in favor of higher-profile films.
- Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising – 73
One thing I’ll give this film credit for: it’s a mainstream comedy which depicts a gay couple without making them the butt of jokes or highlighting them to show what good allies the filmmakers are. That was nice to see. Otherwise, this is basically just a retread of the first film, only a couple of notches less funny (which is still fairly funny). I suppose it does also have a decent message for teenage girls, but that doesn’t excuse sticking Chloë Moretz with such a nothing character. Also, all these characters should probably go to jail on general principle.
- Equity – 74
A look at the financial world (often thought of as a boy’s club) with female protagonists, written and directed by women, it’s extremely welcome as a piece of representation, and has moments of real insight and perecption. But on the whole, it’s uneven, marred by its making the protagonist (Anna Gunn) an agent of the biggest investment firm in the world…a level of status the budget can’t remotely depict. And the acting is often stiff and stilted (there also seems to be some dodgy ADR on display), with Alysia Reiner as a sly lesbian FBI agent coming off best.
- Deepwater Horizon – 74
I’m not all that fond of Mark Wahlberg. He can do good work, but I don’t care for his brand. And I’m not all that fond of Peter Berg. He’s not unskilled, but…the guy made Battleship. So this isn’t the worst film it could’ve been by any means. The sequences of the rig’s destruction are quite impressive; the sound, production design, and visual effects are superb. But the preliminaries are rushed, the writing is shallow, and the whole thing becomes too much of a star vehicle…exactly what J.C. Chandor’s proposed approach sought to avoid. What might have been.
- The Neon Demon – 74
It’s better than Only God Forgives, to be sure, but it’s still not in the same league as Drive. Nicholas Winding Refn has an eye, to be sure, and this boasts some of the year’s most striking shots. And Cliff Martinez’ score is likewise one of the year’s best. But the story and characters are just excuses for Refn’s style, and that style isn’t quite enough to sustain it, especially not the absurdly extraneous and tedious coda. But as mentioned, it has its rewards, and Jena Malone’s performance gives it something of a heart, albeit a fittingly twisted one.
- Love & Friendship – 75
Whit Stillman has made some films I really liked, especially 2012’s underrated Damsels in Distress, but his arch style works best when in contrast with the modern world. Here, in an already arch context, it loses a certain spark. There’s not much of a story, just a lot of witty exchanges in lush costumes and fancy settings. I confess Jane Austen isn’t my cup of tea, and the wit only sporadically tickled me. Kate Beckinsale is fine, but Tom Bennett absolutely steals the show as the daffy Sir James (“How jolly. Little green balls. What do you call them?” “Peas.”)
- The Nice Guys – 75
A lot of people loved this. I merely liked it. It has too much story for its own good, and the story isn’t all that interesting. (It also tries too hard to be cult fodder.) Inherent Vice took time to luxuriate in its milieu; here, we get tastes but are too often yanked away to deal with some bullshit about a porno which chastises the auto industry. And what the fuck was up with Kim Basinger’s speech at the end? But Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling make an amusing team, and Angourie Rice steals her scenes as Gosling’s daughter.
- Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – 76
The songs are hysterical; “I’m So Humble” and “Finest Girl” are even better. (“I’m So Humble” is the only one which made the Oscar-eligible list; let’s hope it makes it.) The rest of the film is a mixed bag. The biggest problem is that it apes Spinal Tap but doesn’t really try to suspend our disbelief. So it’s really just The Lonely Island farting around, and by that I mean mostly Andy Samberg. There are a lot of laughs to be had, especially from Chris Redd as Hunter the Hungry, but as a whole I wish it was less disposable.
- American Honey – 76
It took a couple of viewings to sort out how I felt about this. Really, it’s a treatise on fakery and genuineness, as Star (Sasha Lane, in a very impressive debut) struggles to sell her magazines unless she’s being honest about it – which Jake (Shia LaBoeuf) is almost incapable of being. She’s even capable of doing some pretty sketchy things for money, as long as she’s honest. Definitely overlong (though not boring), and the script doesn’t say all that much I haven’t heard, but Robbie Ryan’s gorgeous cinematography and seeing Kansas City on the big screen carry me through fine.
- Hacksaw Ridge – 76
Get past the first act, with its horribly clunky romantic scenes (and Andrew Garfield embarrassing himself, hopefully out of an Oscar nomination; Hugo Weaving is much better in any case), and your patience should be rewarded by the battle scenes, which turn the battlefield into a horror-film charnel house. If Gibson gets a Best Director nomination for this (overcoming the decade or so he’s had), it’ll be because of these sequences, which are genuinely impressive. Outside of them, it’s an uneven and sometimes ham-fisted film (that final shot…), but it succeeds enough when it does to be worth your while.
- Sully – 76
At 86, Clint Eastwood is still going strong, which is impressive in of itself. That Sully amply displays his strengths is almost, if not quite enough, to overcome his weaknesses, which are also in effect. The scenes of the “forced water landing” and subsequent rescue operation are superbly staged and give a real feeling of NYC in winter. And the editing gracefully moves between past and present while fitting the whole story into 96 minutes. But the script fabricates a David vs. Goliath narrative between Sully and the NTSB which merely gives the film more chances to pat him on the back.
Tomorrow we move into the ***½ films. And likewise, those will be split into two separate articles.