“The Interview” Was Made by Hacks

Interview

The Interview (Evan Goldberg/Seth Rogen, 2014)

There is no question that the best thing to happen to the second film from the writing /directing team of Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen (This Is the End, which I mostly liked) was the Sony hacking scandal. Without it, I think the film would have come and gone quickly. True, dumb as it is, it might have still had a decent opening weekend, overcoming its critical drubbing, but then word of mouth would have quickly condemned it to a quick disappearance. Because its biggest crime is not that it goes after a sitting head of state (Kim Jong-un, as far as I’m concerned, is fair game), but that it is seriously unfunny. Most of the jokes are of the kind we’ve grown accustomed to in the era of the Judd Apatow school of filmmaking, and while they felt fresh when first seen in the pioneering short-lived TV show “Freaks and Geeks” or in movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up, they’ve begun to feel very stale by now. And can we please retire the “bromance?” Crafting a story about two guys who love each other more than they love the women in their lives really just seems to be an excuse for lazy writing: it’s supposed to be funny because they’re really gay, get it? Ha ha!

Who knows how it would have performed if Guardians of the Peace hadn’t decided to target Sony. We’ll never know. As it is, the film earned a healthy gross from online rentals and sales this past weekend (to recap, Sony decided to pull the movie from theaters, then relented and allowed it be screened in select venues and online), including $5.99 from yours truly. I’ve seen worse movies on which I’ve spent more money, so I’m hardly complaining. I just wish that all of the hullabaloo had been about something that was actually worth getting worked up about.

James Franco (127 Hours) plays Dave Skylark, host of a frivolous “Entertainment Tonight“-style celebrity-interview show. He’s vacuous and vain, à la Ryan Seacrest, and very popular. Seth Rogen (Neighbors) plays his producer, Aaron, who longs to do some real journalism. When Dave discovers that Kim Jong-un is a fan of the show, he suggests that they contact the North Korean dictator and set up an interview. As soon as CIA operatives learn of their plans, they draft them to act as assassins. As Dave says in response, “Whaaaaaaaaaa … ?” Like that would ever happen.

But hey, this is supposed to be a dumb comedy where we suspend our disbelief, so why not? The problem is that we don’t suspend our desire for laughs, and since so few are forthcoming, all we get is a premise that makes no sense and a pair of idiots prancing their way through a surprisingly unprotected presidential palace near Pyongyang. Both Franco and Rogen can be very appealing performers (Franco gave one of my favorite performances of 2013, in Spring Breakers), but here they just annoy, Franco especially (his Skylark is so unbelievably stupid that it’s hard to imagine him successful at anything). There is one shining light in this mess, however, that saves it from being a total disaster, and that is Randall Park (Danny Chung in “Veep“) as Kim Jong-un. Though I had seen him in many other films in supporting roles, I had never fully appreciated his range. Here, he takes Kim from shy charmer to crazed killer in seconds, and you believe him. Here’s hoping that the attention the film has garnered earns him accolades and further opportunities. He is amazing. Other than Park, however, there’s not much of interest to see.

“Big Eyes” Offers Nothing of Interest to See

Big Eyes

Big Eyes (Tim Burton, 2014)

In the 1960s, a man named Walter Keane painted a series of paintings of waif-like little girls, all with tragically huge dark eyes, seemingly brimming with tears, which became a cultural sensation. A pioneer in the field of marketing reproductions, Keane became rich by selling cheap posters and postcards of his work. Excoriated by art critics but celebrated by the public, Keane built himself a tidy little dynasty. The only problem was that he was lying. His wife Margaret was the painter, and once she tired of living in her dominant husband’s shadow, and asked for a divorce, it was only a matter of time before Keane’s stolen glory would desert him. Tim Burton (Frankenweenie) has decided, for some reason, to give this sordid story is its own cinematic treatment, and so Walter (now deceased) and Margaret (still with us) are back in the news. Unfortunately, judging solely by this movie, the question to ask is . . . why do they deserve to be?

I have long admired Burton’s voice, even when I did not like certain movies of his. BeetlejuiceBatmanEdward Scissorhands (especially), Ed Wood, and Sweeney Todd, as well as animated fare like Frankenweenie, are among my favorites of his work. All have a recognizable aesthetic. Big Eyes could have been directed by anyone: it is that bland. Granted, the paintings at the center of the story are, themselves, without personality, but that the film about them should similarly lack a raison d’être is inexplicable. If Burton was able to wring drama and humor from the life of the talentless Ed Wood, why can he not do so here?

Beyond the script, the problem lies at least partly in the casting. Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), as Walter Keane, is a fine actor, but he is not a charming salesman type as Walter must be. And then there is the matter of that accent. Waltz is a polyglot, but he speaks English with a recognizably German intonation, which remains unexplained throughout the film. Amy Adams (American Hustle) fares no better. I am a big fan of hers, but here she fails to convince me that she is ever afraid enough of Walter to do his bidding. She exudes too much strength.

There’s nothing to recommend here. Unless you find the original paintings of interest, I would give it a pass.

“Unbroken” Starts Strong, Then Breaks Down in Its Second Half

Unbroken

Unbroken (Angelina Jolie, 2014)

A few years ago, I read author Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, from which the 2003 film of the same title was adapted. I loved the book, and was impressed with Hillenbrand’s writing and attention to detail. I had also enjoyed the movie, which I had seen prior to reading the book, but the book was the superior work of art. Though the movie told an enjoyable and gripping tale, the richness of character and atmosphere that was so present in the writing was somewhat lost in the translation to the screen.

I suspect that something along those lines has happened with Unbroken, the second feature film from actress-turned-director Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey). Since I haven’t read the book, however, I cannot say for sure whether the problems with the movie lie with the source material, Jolie’s direction, or the work of any of the (four!) screenwriters, two of whom just happen to be Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis). Well, that’s dumb, actually, because a screenplay is the blueprint for any film, and what we have here is a film that starts off impressively, but which then goes steadily downhill (mirroring the fate of its protagonist) in its second half, so I blame the script, first and foremost. Overlong and overly fixated on the depredations of psychopaths, Unbroken takes an inspirational true-life story and turns it into an exercise in torture porn. Before it slides morosely into narrative despair, though, the film is as powerful as any war and/or survival film made previously.

Louis Zamperini (played as an adult by a very good Jack O’Connell, soon to be seen again in the upcoming ’71), the son of Italian immigrants in California, spends his youth getting into serious trouble until his older brother Pete encourages him to try out for the track team. Soon, young Louis becomes a running sensation – the “Torrance Tornado” – and when 1936 rolls around he finds himself in Berlin for the Olympics, where he is the fastest American in the 5000-meter race. He has his eye on the next round – the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, but history gets in the way. We learn all this in flashbacks intercut with the “present” of Zamperini at war in the Pacific, as a bombardier. And what a present it is! The film opens with a brilliantly staged aerial battle between the American bombers and the Japanese fighters sent to stop them. With this sequence, alone, Jolie proves her mettle as a major director. She may lose her way later on, but for a while she flirts with greatness.

After escaping the Japanese air assault, Zamperini and his team, led by their Captain, Phil (a for-once very impressive Domhnall Gleeson (Frank), are sent out on a rescue mission to recover other Americans lost at sea. Unfortunately, their plane crashes in the ocean, leaving only three survivors (including Zamperini), and for the next 45 days these poor men suffer horrible deprivations of water and food, as well as shark attacks (though they prove to be the more dangerous predator when they pull a shark aboard their lifeboat and eat it) and Japanese strafing. Finally, Zamperini and Phil are rescued (the third having died around day 30 or so), but by a Japanese vessel, after which they enter a whole new kind of hell. And that’s when the film goes south.

It’s not that Zamperini’s story is not a powerful narrative of resilience and survival; it’s just that much of what happens in the camps into which he is placed, one after the other, has already been shown – with greater artistry – in other films about World War II, including David Lean’s epic 1957 masterpiece The Bridge on the River Kwai. In that film, the great Oscar-nominated Sessue Hayakawa did a wonderful job evoking the psychosis and tragedy of the camp commander, Saito, without resorting to over-the-top performance tricks. In Unbroken, the designated torturer, Watanabe, is played by Japanese pop star Miyavi without subtlety or nuance. He’s a nut, and we spend far too much time with him. Jolie would have been better served to compress the camp scenes – we get it, it’s a terrible experience – and focus, instead, on the inner workings of Zamperini’s mind, so that we might understand how he willed himself to survive, much as Alan Parker did for his protagonist in the 1978 Midnight Express. Instead, we get something more like Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ: all agony and no redemption.

Still, when it works (i.e., in Act I), the film is effective, indeed. And Zamperini, who died just this year, in 2014, as a closing title card inform us, seems like a man well worth remembering. It’s wonderful to see photos and video of the real man during the end credits (though the music Jolie has chosen to play underneath the photos is sappy beyond belief). A half-good tribute is better than no tribute at all.

“Into the Woods” We Go, Skipping Lightly Before Falling into the Mud

Into the Woods

Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, 2014)

I was one of the few people I knew who did not like (Academy Award-winner!) Chicago. Something about that film’s ceaseless wink-wink-nudge-nudge smirk of knowingness throughout its 113-minute length really rubbed me the wrong way. So when I saw that its director, Rob Marshall, was back with a new musical, I assumed I would hate it. The fact that I actually liked one half of the movie is either a tribute to the source material – Stephen Sondheim’s stage musical of the same title, with which I was previously unfamiliar – or to the director’s maturation. Either that or I’ve mellowed with age (maybe I’ll adore Marshall’s next screen musical). I suspect, however, that it’s all about Sondheim.

If, as was I, you are unfamiliar with the plot, such as it is, here is a brief summary: Sondheim has taken various characters from different mostly Brothers Grimm fairytales – including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel – and has woven them together into one tale using an original story of a childless baker and his wife as a framing device. It turns out that an evil witch who lives next door to the baker has placed a curse on his house that, until lifted, will forever prevent the baker and his wife from conceiving a child. But . . . if the baker will but procure a red cape, a golden slipper, a white cow and some corn-yellow hair, the curse can be lifted. You can guess which fairytale character will provide which item (hint: Jack has the cow).

For the first half of the movie (that which constitutes the first act of the musical), it’s all terrific fun. With a delightful cast that includes Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) hamming it up as the witch, a charming Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) as Cinderella, Johnny Depp (veteran of another Sondheim adaptation, Sweeney Todd) as the big bad wolf (also hamming it up), an absolutely amazing Chris Pine (Star Trek into Darkness) as a narcissistic prince, the always-lovely Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow) as the baker’s wife, and the heretofore-unknown-to-me-but-very-good James Corden (“The Wrong Mans“) as the baker, the film zips along, tweaking the tales we know so well, and that estrangement from the familiar works a powerful magic. But then, in the second half, the story begins to unravel, and the whole enterprise sinks into the same mud hole into which our heroes try to trap an errant giant.

We’re meant to learn that having dreams come true doesn’t necessarily bring about happiness, and that true peace and joy comes from the hard work of living. I get that. But that point is so obvious, and so out of the blue and in such sharp contrast to the crazy fun of Act I, that it’s just a major bummer, instead. And once you lose that magic, you begin to realize that the threads uniting the characters are actually pretty thin, which means the big emotional beats don’t resonate. I don’t know – maybe it played differently on the stage. Or maybe I’m just a curmudgeon. But hey, I loved Sweeney Todd, and that mixed humor and the macabre quite well. Here, when people die or suffer misfortune, it just feels random and very sad.

Riddle Me Cumberbatch: Assembling the Puzzle of Turing in “The Imitation Game”

Imitation Game

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014)

Alan Turing (1912-1954) was a brilliant English mathematician considered to be one of the fathers of modern computing. During World War II, he helped British intelligence break the infamous Enigma code used by the Nazis, a feat without which the war might have gone in quite a different (not good) direction for the Allies. He was also a deeply closeted homosexual, and since engaging in homosexual acts was then illegal in Great Britain, when he was caught soliciting sex from a man in 1952, he was sentenced to chemical castration, whereby he was required to take drugs to reduce his physical impulses. He committed suicide two years later.

The Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters), working off a script by novice feature-film writer Graham Moore, has fashioned a compelling drama from the tragic circumstances of this misunderstood genius’s life. It is a profoundly sad – and effective – portrait of a very lonely individual who gave so much to the world yet received so little in return. For – at least according to the movie – Turing was the ultimate misfit and outsider. He didn’t not fit in solely because he was a gay man in a straight world; rather, he was, from a young age, a social outcast, owing to behavioral patterns that we would now recognize as falling somewhere on the autism spectrum. Since we see Turing as both child and adult in this temporally fluid story, we are given perspective on how the seeds of his oddness (and eventual destruction) were sown early on.

Tyldum is helped in his task of biographical sketch by a monumental performance from one of the great actors of our day, Benedict Cumberbatch (“Sherlock“). With total commitment and great emotional intelligence, Cumberbatch brings Turing alive in all his ornery glory. We alternately love him and hate him; even more importantly, we understand him and, eventually, pity him. We also believe in his brilliance, since Cumberbatch, like Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, is able to reveal the workings of Turing’s mind through the play of his eyes, alone (and unlike Redmayne, confined to a wheelchair for much of his film, Cumberbatch has the rest of his body to play with, too, though he exercises that freedom with great restraint). Also essential to the film are Keira Knightley (Begin Again) as Joan Clark – the one female math genius of the movie, and the one woman Turing, sort of, romances – and Matthew Goode (Stoker) as Hugh Alexander, a playboy mathematician whose charisma and good looks make him a natural rival to Turing, yet who comes around – as we do – to throw his full support to a man so obviously his intellectual superior. Both Knightley and Goode – extremely appealing performers, both – bring much needed warmth to the story, and thereby help to highlight Turing’s full humanity.

I knew very little about Turing before seeing the film, beyond the fact that the laptop on which I am typing these words might not have come about without his contributions to the then-burgeoning field of computer science. One of my favorite moments in the story comes when Turing is speaking to the police inspector in charge of looking into his indecency case. The detective thinks Turing may be a Soviet Spy (this is the 1950s, don’t forget), and has done his research into Turing’s work. They discuss his 1951 paper, entitled, appropriately enough, “The Imitation Game,” in which Turing examined how to differentiate between artificial and human intelligence. That’s when I realized that we all owed Turing an additional debt of gratitude for unknowingly contributing to one of the great works of cinematic science fiction of the past 40 years: Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. That film opens with a cyborg hunter (a “blade runner”) administering a “Voight-Kampff test” to a seeming human. That test? Basically a re-working of Turing’s “imitation game.” What a man! What a genius! And what a tragedy . . . and what a fine movie about all three.

Tatum and Ruffalo Wrestle “Foxcatcher” Away from Carell and His Big Fat Nose

Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014)

It’s an uncomfortable and sad movie about uncomfortable and sad people. The most stable character is the one who gets killed. 😦 Parallels between du Pont and Mark Schultz and how they are so not at ease in their own skins. I didn’t love the whole movie, but is a great portrait of how we allow the rich to be crazy because they’re rich. Then again, du Pont did go to jail . . . Ending with Schultz in that horrible ultimate fighting ring, is good.

Tatum and Ruffalo are so much better in this film than mannered Carell, who acts with his nose. We need less of him and more of Ruffalo.

Grainy home movies. Fox hounds. Foxes. Cellos on soundtrack

Then . . . Channing Tatum, the hermetically sealed man, wrestling with dummy, as Mark Schultz. At school, “I wanna talk about America, and why I wrestle.” Mark Schultz moves like an ape (which John du Pont actually calls him) who hasn’t learned to walk properly. He has permanent scowl on face. He walks like a cowboy. His lower jaw juts out like a bulldog (as opposed to fox hounds): a prognathic jaw. Are there any prosthetics involved, or is Tatum doing that, himself? Tragedy of inarticulate brute.

Film starts in 1987 and appears to end in 1988, though Dave Schultz was killed in 1996.

Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz – stretching and “play” fighting with his brother. A wordless brother battle.

Mark touching face while looking in mirror, then hitting himself.

Steve Carell’s prosthetic nose looks real, but after a while I began to feel as if he was acting with it. He plays du Pont with autistic speech pattern.

There are long pauses in the film, and not always for reasons that feel organic to the story. Heads and tails of shots not always left on for right reasons (as in Tatum’s first entrance into Carell’s bathroom).

Du Pont is an ornithologist – keeps stuffed birds around, and probably thinks of Mark Schultz as just such a bird. Taxidermy.

Du Pont firing gun in wrestling room. He does cocaine in helicopter with Mark – makes him do some. Schultz then loses his way for a while, until Dave shows up to sort things out.

Mother like Psycho or Manchurian Candidate.

“Annie” Is a (Great Big Fun) Mess

Annie

Annie (Will Gluck, 2014)

I know I should somehow feel deeply ashamed of myself – especially since I am at odds with the general critical consensus – but I did not dislike Annie. In fact, I had a pretty good time watching it. It features very likeable performers, catchy tunes and some wittily trenchant social and political commentary. It’s also deeply flawed, story-wise, and occasionally technically deficient, so it’s by no means a masterpiece. But it deserves to find an audience. Heck, if Exodus: Gods and Kings can take the #1 spot on its opening weekend (and that film had absolutely nothing going for it), then why not Annie? Compared to the former, Annie is a living, breathing (and singing!) work of art.

It probably helps that I have never cared one iota about Annie the Broadway musical – and have never seen John Huston’s 1982 movie version (just let that sink in – John Huston!), and so had no expectations whatsoever going into the screening. I’ve also never read the Little Orphan Annie comic strip – other than catching the freaky blanked-out eyes of the titular characters in the funny pages as a kid – on which the entire series of adaptations are based. My mind, when it comes to Annie, was as blissfully empty as was her original incarnation’s gaze

So what do we have? A zippy little frivolity celebrating a racially diverse New York City starring a lovely Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), a solid Jamie Foxx (Ray – he has the best singing voice of this cast, for sure), a delightful (as always) Rose Byrne (Neighbors), a great (also as always) Bobby Canavale (Blue Jasmine) and a mostly overacting-but-occasionally-funny Cameron Diaz (Sex Tape, where she was much better). After seeing the film, I can’t get “It’s a Hard Knock Life” out of my head (a good and bad thing). I am not a specific fan of musicals, so what’s up with my generosity towards this thing?

Maybe it’s because it doesn’t take itself at all seriously, and opens with a wonderful way of moving beyond the traditional redheaded white-girl Annie to our new (African-American) protagonist (I won’t spoil it by describing it). There are problems, to be sure. In a few of the early numbers, the post-dubbed syncing is not great (that “technical deficiency I mentioned earlier), and some of the dance sequences would benefit from actual choreography. The weaknesses of the source story are not erased (rich guy rescues poor orphan girl without anyone addressing the core issues of what causes poverty and how one can help the poor in meaningful ways), and there are major holes in the plot throughout (just one – why does the NYPD have jurisdiction in New Jersey, at the end?). But the movie has energy and panache, and arrives just in time for the holidays. It’s a great family picture. Go, and take your kids, if you have them.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” Fights Bloat and Loses

Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson, 2014)

The tagline for the new (and final!) film in director Peter Jackson’s overlong and bloated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s brief and sleek first Middle-Earth book The Hobbit (following last year’s second film in this trilogy in search of a raison d’être beyond the mercenary) is “the defining chapter” (see poster, above). I’ll believe that when, 20 or 30 years from now, Jackson has proven himself worthy of that promise. Since there is still plenty of story and esoterica to be mined from the Tolkienverse (or to be invented by fans of J.R.R.’s writing who aren’t getting their fill from Game of Thrones), I am highly skeptical that this is the last we will see of elves, orcs, dwarves, wizards and, of course, hobbits (if I was supposed to capitalize any of those, well, I just don’t care). Where there’s money to be made and fans to be satisfied, why stop?

I’ll tell you why – because this stuff is getting dull. Really dull. The whole post-Lord of the Rings enterprise has always felt contrived – an exact replica of the successful formula that Jackson and his team had applied to Tolkien’s actual trilogy (and I like those movies, so don’t peg me as a Sauron who’s always hating – I’m more like a Saruman who was once on the side of the heroes but has now turned against them) – only without any sort of script. Yet here we are, and a new movie has come out, so I must review it.

To be fair, after all that, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (despite my love of this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, can we please stop adding colons to titles …) is brisker and shorter than its predecessors. It also starts in media res, so before we know what’s happening, the action is on. What action? Well that is the problem with this kind of opening, since we are required to remember exactly where we left off last time. This is no stand-alone film, to be sure. Perhaps we are meant to have recently purchased the DVD or Blu-ray and just re-watched film #2. I’d buy that as a motivation …

Anyway, as Smaug rises above the lake to blast that wooden town floating in the river, some memory of past events may come back to you. Let me help you: Smaug is a dragon (whose name is pronounced, in this series, as “Smow-og,” though reading the book as a child, I just called him Smog, as in, dirty air), whose lair under the mountain has just been invaded by a team of dwarves (I think I’m supposed to write “dwarfs,” but again, so what?) whom he had originally kicked out of said lair. Bilbo – the ostensible protagonist of these movies (the hobbit of the title … before the colon and all) – spent much of the second half of film #2 taunting Smaug, and though I cannot quite recall what he specifically did to Smaug to piss him off so much, the dragon is on a rampage and blasts the town and its inhabitants all to hell.

It’s actually a well-executed scene, quite frightening, but it soon ends in the expected way (hint: this is not Smaug’s movie), after which we spend two hours among mopey dwarves and a largely missing hobbit. Yes, there are battles and people die, but keep in mind that Jackson has taken the final 72 pages of a 300-page book and tried to make a feature-length film by lengthening scenes that were best left short. The most moving sequences – and they are very affecting, to be sure – are ironically ones that center around a character not even in the original source text: Tauriel the “she-elf” (Evangeline Lilly from “Lost“), who is in love with Kili the dwarf (Aidan Turner from “Being Human“). Almost everything else left me looking at my watch.

Perhaps the worst sin of the film is how much Jackson ignores Bilbo or, even worse, makes him such a passive character. Martin Freeman (Watson from “Sherlock“) is always excellent, but his relegation to supporting status here forces us to watch orcs and dwarves square off, and after one battle too many, it all blends together. I think the folks at Weta Digital do great work, but really, it’s story that we (OK, that I) come to see.

And lest I make this review as bloated as Jackson’s movies (it’s contagious!), I will stop now. See the film if you must, enjoy it if you will, but remember that good box office returns will only encourage the man to keep on going.

Savor This Weekend’s “Top Five” “Wild” “Pelican Dreams” (and Flee – Flee! – from “Exodus”)

Hard week at work (it’s exam time) = shorter reviews than normal combined into one loosely concocted post. Enjoy!

Top Five

Top Five (Chris Rock, 2014)

Let’s be clear: this is not a great movie, by any means. Though comedian Chris Rock (Grown Ups) has directed two previous features over the past 11 years (Head of State, I Think I Love My Wife), he is still a relatively inexperienced filmmaker, and it shows. Scenes drag on for too long, reaction shots are not always timed well, and transitions are often clumsy. And yet . . . the movie is supremely enjoyable, and frequently very funny. Rock is a smart man who is much more than just a funny guy (see his recent Hollywood Reporter essay on race in the movie business as an example of his insightful thinking), and his jokes – when they hit their mark – are like little Trojan comedy missiles that hide their barbed social commentary inside a soft Nerf™ cover. It helps, also, that Rock has cast the perfect straight foil for the main character that he, himself, plays, in Rosario Dawson (Cesar Chavez), with whom he has terrific on-screen chemistry. Their banter is a delight to behold. So while the movie is flawed, it has enough going for it to be more than worth seeing.

Andre Allen (Rock) is a major Hollywood star known for playing “Hammy the Bear” in a series of crude Beverly Hills Cop send-ups who, in a career 180 reminiscent of that of Sullivan’s Travels, has decided to abandon comedy and make a film about an 18th-century Haitian slave uprising (like Sankofa, only without the artistry). One of the funnier running gags in the movie is how atrociously bad this movie-within-the-movie is and how no one, regardless of race, wants to see it. Allen is also about to get married to a narcissistic reality star played by Gabrielle Union (Think Like a Man Too), and the stress of the upcoming nuptials and his failing movie may just drive him to drink again (he’s a recovering alcoholic). In walks a New York Times reporter (Dawson), hungry for the real scoop on the star, and after Allen agrees to spend the day walking around with her, most of the rest of the movie is about their conversations – often deep, frequently hilarious – about life and Allen’s career. Thanks to the two stars and some very witty dialogue, the movie almost always works in these blissful scenes. If it doesn’t quite work at other times, it’s still more hit than miss. It may be not make it into my own personal top five of the year (or top 10, or top 20), but it’s still a lot of fun.

Wild

Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014)

The worst that can be said about Wild, the new film by French Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), is that it feels overdetermined. While it’s true that good drama often flows from the connections and causalities between various life events and the narrative threads that bind them, it is also true that one must be wary of coincidence and cliché. Wild has a strong story and structure (courtesy of novelist Nick Hornby), but also a lot of easily foreseeable outcomes. If that’s the worst of it, though, then not to worry, for the positives mostly outweigh those negatives. What Wild does beautifully is tell the moving tale of one woman’s journey of self-discovery after a moment of supreme crisis in her life. And while we can easily guess that this journey will end well (the movie is, after all, based on the best-selling memoir of the same title by Cheryl Strayed, the movie’s protagonist), that doesn’t mean that the journey is not, in and of itself, interesting. It helps that the cinematography is gorgeous and the performances sublime. It’s potent stuff, mostly well realized.

When the movie begins, Strayed – a very good Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) – a woman in her mid-20s, has just pulled herself out of a self-destructive downward spiral that saw her both engage in indiscriminate sex with strangers (despite being married to a man she loved) and abuse heroin, all the result of grief at her mother’s untimely death from cancer. She reinvents herself with a new last name after her divorce and decides to hike 1000 miles up the Pacific Crest Trail as both penance and healing walkabout. We travel with her as she struggles up peaks for which she is woefully unprepared, flashing back to earlier moments in her life, including many scenes with her mother, the self-described “love of her life.” Played by a magnificent Laura Dern (the mother in The Fault in Our Stars, as well), Cheryl’s mom is a warm and nurturing presence to which Cheryl returns time and again during the cold nights of her hike, and thanks to Dern we can easily understand why her loss was so devastating to Cheryl. Eventually, as these stories go, Cheryl manages to pull herself up by her hiking bootstraps – after meeting many colorful characters along the way, and some mild danger, as well – and return to the world of the living, leaving us with a sense of genuine catharsis and redemption. And though we may have seen this kind of movie before, it’s rare that we see a movie where a woman solves her own problems, largely by herself, without requiring undue help from the men in her life. Redemption and, hopefully, inspiration to us all.

Pelican Dreams

Pelican Dreams (Judy Irving, 2014)

At a brisk 80 minutes, Pelican Dreams, the lovely new documentary film by Judy Irving ( The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill) hardly overstays it welcome. With beautiful shots (especially the high-resolution slow-motion footage, both above and underwater) of wild pelicans at work and play, the film treats us to stunning scenes from the lives of these once-endangered birds (courtesy of DDT dumping in the 1950s and 1960s) who now face new environmental threats because of climate change. At times heartbreaking (especially when we meet injured birds in captivity), and at other times heartwarming (when those same birds fly away), the movie is a moving tribute not only to the birds but to the people who care for them. The film should appeal to all who care about about animal life on our planet.

That said, the movie is not perfect. I did not enjoy Judy Irving’s voiceover; in fact, I often found it irritating and completely unnecessary. Better to let the beauty of the birds and the voices of the experts tell the story, rather than interrupt our revery with musings on whether or not birds dream. I loved Irving’s Wild Parrots – in which she refrained from such excessive commentary – but as she announces at the start of her new film, she has always felt a personal connection with pelicans (unlike with parrots), and so we get what we get. I was also not a big of the film’s soundtrack, by Bruce Kaphan, which I found as similarly intrusive as the voiceover. So be it. Together they are a small price to pay for the joy of watching pelicans frolic.

Exodus - Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott, 2014)

What can I say . . . do not see this film. Flee from Exodus: Gods and Kings. It may well be the worst film I have seen all year. I overheard some people at the end of the screening I attended saying that while the story was bad, at least the effects were spectacular. They are wrong. The effects are terrible, too, and the 3D just makes them worse. Everything in this mess, from the performances to the production design to the visual effects and cinematography, is just misconceived and misbegotten. You want to watch a story about Moses and the return of Jews to their homeland? Rent Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments – a bloated mess in its own right, but a masterpiece of storytelling by comparison – instead. And that’s all I have to say in the subject. Or maybe not. Let’s let Mel Brooks have the last word, in this clip from History of the World: Part 1.

“The Homesman” Drifts Along the Frontier Trail

Homesman

The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, 2014)

The greatest asset in The Homesman – the second theatrical feature directed by actor Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) – is also its greatest weakness. Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby), plays Mary Bee Cuddy – an independent frontier woman in the Nebraska Territory in the 1850s – with such energy and commitment that she shines from within, making her luminous to behold. In other words, it is a typically magnificent Swank performance. The problem is that everyone else in the movie keeps lamenting how plain and bossy she is, and the disconnect between what the camera sees and what the characters see is jarring. Even when she essentially throws herself upon the men in the movie, desperate for love (or, at the very least, connection), they reject her. I had always thought that the settlers who populated the American West liked their women strong (with nice, child-bearing hips!). According to this movie, that is not the case, and it literally drives the women crazy.

Cuddy – alone on a farm that she owns, with no man and no family – volunteers to transport the wives of three men in her town back East. These poor women have gone insane, for different reasons: one has lost her children; another, her mother; the third, to be honest, I cannot remember the reason. It’s not important. What is important is that the men in their lives have either abused them or been unable to provide them what they need – emotionally, spiritually, physically – to survive in the barren landscape they inhabit. Adrift and friendless, they need someone to step up and escort them back to a more civilized place, and that someone is Cuddy. But she can’t do it alone, and on her way home one day she finds a drifter, George Briggs (Jones), seated on his horse with a rope around his neck. She rescues him and tells him he must help her make the trip to Missouri. He’s not keen on the idea, but since he gave his word, he does, indeed, go along for the ride.

This is a movie defined by its oddness – in ways both good and bad. Though mostly chronological in its storytelling, it occasionally digresses from the narrative to show us a subjective memory or dream, without explanation. At times elliptical – days pass without us realizing it at first – the film at other times succumbs to excessive expositional dialogue. I haven’t read the source novel of the same name, by Glendon Swarthout, so I don’t know how much of the aesthetic strangeness of the movie comes from Jones or the original author. Still, though messy and not always coherent – Cuddy’s climactic action is untrue to her character, and for some reason James Spader (“The Blacklist) shows up in the final third as an Irish gangster – The Homesman is usually interesting to watch, largely thanks to Swank and Jones, who fill the screen with their electrifying performances. As a feminist revisionist take on Westerns – deconstructing male behavior and revealing it for the selfish and misogynist thing that it can be – the film is fairly effective. As a gripping and consistent narrative, it is less so. I did love the ending, though, which is perfect for a crazy movie like this: Briggs, his one selfless act completed, dances, drunk, on a river barge, reverting back to the behavior that got him in trouble in the first place.

Still, if you want to see a better recent Western about the triumph of the female spirit, I recommend watching Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 Meek’s Cutoff. Until then, The Homesman may or may not do, depending on your taste. Jones’s first film was far more successful, but this one, flaws and all, is not without merit.