Saturday, January 03, 2015

This That Week In Tickets: 1 December 2014 - 7 December 2014

I don't know how much this applies as a general statement, but I find that the weeks when a lot of people are making their "once every few months" trips to the theaters, I'm going less frequently.

This Week in Tickets

See, while studios are mostly giving each others' big releases (Hunger Games 3, Penguins of Madagascar, and a fair amount of Interstellar & Big Hero 6 in this case) a whole ton of screens, the likes of me have seen those, so we're either staying home or catching the stuff on its last legs that we meant to see earlier or the semi-doomed things getting half-hearted releases out of contractual obligation. I saw two in each category.

The first of stragglers was Tommy Lee Jones's The Homesman on Monday night, which might have been splitting a theater in last week. It's not hard to see why it didn't hang around for that long; it's a bleak vision - sometimes gratuitously so - that makes few concessions to what we to think we think today. There may have been walk-outs on that count.

Things didn't really like up again until Friday, when I caught The Pyramid, a limited-release horror movie that's on shaky ground from the moment it reveals that it's tomb is a tetrahedron, but I found myself enjoying it maybe a little more than it deserves because there aren't enough movies about foolhardy archaeologists evading ancient deathtraps and it does get good and nuts toward the end.

Saturday's small-release special was Miss Julie, an adaptation of the Ibsen play directed by Liv Ullmann and starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, and Emily Mortimer. As you might expect with that group, it's impressively mounted although it doors begin to wear on a viewer by the end.

Finally, on Sunday, I found some time to take William Goss's advice and catch Beyond the Lights. I'd say something similar about romantic comedies a few weeks later, but it's the sort of modest story executed well that seems like it should be Hollywood's backbone, but these days reaches multiplexes infrequently enough to deserve more notice than I'm giving it.

The Homesman

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 December 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, DCP)

I can't recall Tommy Lee Jones ever working with Werner Herzog at any point, and that's probably for the best. The Homesman suggest they may be too much on the same page about how the untamed wilderness not only wants to kill any person who ventures into its domain, but it will first drive him or her mad. We are probably better off not having witnessed that combined bleak outlook.

And while Jones's adaptation of Gledon Swarthout's novel sometimes pushes said bleakness not just past the point of comfort but into territory that might make a viewer give up early (more dead babies than you need to see). It's worth sticking around, though, because Jones evokes the idea of a West that just pulverizes minds in a way that is pure horror: Men become cruel, to the point where the women they are with just shut down, and even strong, capable women like Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) have their sense of worth chipped away to an extent that is tragic. Jones's title character may be the most rational in his amorality, but he's hollow for it.

It's a fine, fragile performance on Jones's part, a notable contrast to his many more bombastic parts - or the sleepwalking turn in The Family which I suspect was done as barter for this movie (Luc Besson's Europacorp produced it). Hilary Swank is exceptional as Cuddy, giving a performance that evokes solid decency but also highlights the cracks that have been forming in part as a result of that. It's essential in making the film's last act completely believable even while it feels like a betrayal. The turns from Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter as the women who lost their minds are terribly effective, and there's a string of memorable appearances in smaller parts: John Lithgow, William Ficthner, James Spader, Meryl Streep, Hailee Steinfeld.

I probably won't watch this one again - it is just too cruel at points to subject oneself to multiple times - but it's certainly worth one watch.

Beyond the Lights

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2014 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, DCP)

Does anybody else see Gugu Mbatha-Raw playing fairly young and inexperienced characters in movies like this and Belle and find it kind of weird because she played a semi-retired, veteran spy on Undercovers, or am I the only one who watched/liked that show?

I jest, a bit, although it does make me wonder if the movie plays better to those for whom Mbatha-Raw is a fresh face rather than someone who has already paid some dues. That's an issue I brought in, and though it's not quite the biggest one - the film seems to require her character Noni to simultaneously be a big star and about to have her debut album drop, although I suppose that sort of thing is possible in today's pop music industry and celebrity culture. - but that it's what stuck out to me, then the movie is in pretty good shape otherwise.

And, truth be told, it is in pretty good shape. There are a lot of places where it could go wrong - everything could seem to move too fast, it could get snotty or cavalier in how it approaches the sexualization of girls like Noni in the hip-hop/R&B world, it could make the parents of both Noni and Kaz (Nate Parker), the cop who pulls her off a ledge and gets attached, into too-simplistic caricatures. Instead, though, writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood manages to keep things moving smoothly; if she's not quite finding a fresh angle to her story of a young entertainer finding love and stability with a man from outside that world, she's smoothing the edges off the harsh turns, giving the actors good lines to speak, and lining up a bunch of interesting details.

She's also got a fine cast who can get what's going on with these character across well enough that she doesn't have to spell it out. Mbatha-Raw is front and center, and I love how she's able to play Noni's rock-star confidence in the opening parts of the film as not just a front - that for all the doubt and turmoil which Mbatha-Raw gets to bring to the forefront in due time, the brass is part of her as well. Nate Parker does a lot of little things right in what could be a bland, ideal-man role, especially when it comes down to looking like he's trying to be cool in a situation that could bring out (pleasant) agitation. They play off each other well, along with parents who manage to make good parallels without being terribly similar: Minnie Driver is a familiar nightmare of a stage mother, and she bites right into the part, but she's also always ready when we need a glimpse of better qualities; Danny Glover, on the other hand, has his characer project ambition onto his son in a way that seems to reflect pride as much as opportunism.

It's straightforward material, and doesn't always excel within its genre - the movie gets stretched until it reaches the end Prince-Bythewood wants - but it's an entertaining romance that goes down well. Like I said up top, we should be seeing movies like this all the time - it's funny, romantic, and dramatic in the proper turns, and should appeal to a wide audience - but we don't, and it's a shame that there doesn't seem to be much room for good love stories well told in the cinema today.

The HomesmanThe PyramidMiss JulieBeyond the Lights

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