movie reviews December 2014

the homesmanexodus: gods & Kingstop fivethe babadookthe hobbit: the battle of the five armies wild unbroken • into the woodsbig eyesthe imitation gamethe gambler

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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The Gambler
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

For reasons that make sense only in Hollywood, there is now a remake of the 1974 movie The Gambler, directed by Karel Reisz from the autobiographical script by James Toback. Although the original is very much a product of its time, it remains a classic — a time capsule of muted earth tones, seedy mobsters, plaid sports coats and heavy ideas. Most important, James Caan’s Axel Freed is absolutely believable as an English professor who divines justification for his compulsive gambling from the books he teaches.

The changes in the updated version, written by William Monahan (The Departed), don’t enhance the original story. The most drastic — a transcontinental move from New York to Los Angeles, a hostile yet slightly Oedipal relationship with a dilettante mother (Jessica Lange), and an excess slickness, manifested in the casting of Mark Wahlberg as the lead now transformed into gentile Jim Bennett — detract from the narrative.

No matter how many he days he sleeps in them, the suits Bennett wears are tailored and expensive, offering no evidence that he’s actually trying to hide his morally questionable double life. A strained relationship with his mother completely diminishes the problem with gambling away her money, which she’d only spend on top-shelf gin anyway. This new family dynamic takes the place of a formerly shady grandfather to emulate and tell him he doesn’t belong with a leggy blonde. This gambler would only date leggy blondes, and he does: a student (Brie Larson), of course.

With nothing at stake, director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) resorts to quick edits for a pace that only simulates action. The outcome of Bennett’s bets could go either way with no real difference. This could be the one necessary amendment to bring allow the remake to reflect current conditions. Bennett uses loan sharks Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Frank (John Goodman) to move his $240,000 debt around like some people use credit card balance transfers. But the consequence is that the danger never seems real.

In the classroom, Bennett mixes Shakespeare with Camus for a highly inauthentic and overdone lecture on mediocrity. He’s too condescending and artificially pedantic for a professor who uses “loan” as a verb. Supposedly, his compulsion to gamble and possibly to write (he’s a mid-list novelist) is driven by the desire to be great but the realization that he’s not; from what we can tell from the movie and his opinions on literature, he’s right. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 01/02/15)

The Imitation Game
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

One of the great lessons from film and television is that rudeness in genius must be forgiven. Benedict Cumberbatch learned this well with his portrayal of the abrupt and impatient iconic fictional British detective in the Sherlock television series, and now, as Alan Turing, the Cambridge mathematician with an obsession for crossword puzzles and an arrogance that leads him to build a prototype computer that helped defeat the Nazis.

Adapted by first-time feature writer Graham Moore from Andrew Hodges’ 1983 biography Alan Turing: The Enigma, the screenplay derives the bulk of its drama from Turing’s covert stint at Bletchley Park, the WWII code-breakers’ compound in Buckinghamshire. In reality, Turing’s electromechanical machine, the Bombe, was decoding Nazi U-boat fleet messages encoded by the German cipher machine Enigma within weeks of his arrival. But the film stretches out this time, adding episodes of initial resistance to Turing’s ideas and personality, and then turning it into a race against the clock to save British lives.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) takes particular care to set Turing up as an outsider even within the innermost circle of his peers. Turing antagonizes anyone he perceives as unequal in intelligence, including his commander (Charles Dance) and other skilled cryptanalysts, such as chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode). Soviet spy John Cairncross (Allen Leech), who Turing probably never actually met in real life, acts as much as a foil for Turing and his lack of sociability as Keira Knightley, playing Joan Clarke, has been given the delicate task of drawing him out.

Clarke’s willingness to marry Turing, brusquely single-minded as well as gay, merits its own movie. Knightley plays her with equal amounts prim decorum, practical forthrightness and resigned loneliness. Parallels could be made from her position as Turing’s social guide to the flashbacks of Turing at boarding school, imprinting on his first love and protector Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon). But the way Tyldum presents Turing’s behavior as justified and even entertaining doesn’t connect it as reactive defensiveness.

As the young Turing, Alex Lawther gives the character a pathos missing from Cumberbatch’s performance in all but the frame story. Almost a decade after his time at Bletchley Park, Turing reports a burglary at his home, but instead of investigating the break-in the lead detective (Rory Kinnear) suspects Turing of spying and brings him in for questioning. This gives Turing the opportunity to narrate his own story, and leads to his arrest not for espionage but for indecency, and being sentenced to chemical castration. Turing’s death of cyanide poisoning two years later is merely a footnote to the movie. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 12/30/14)

Big Eyes
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

With its saturated primary colors, San Francisco setting and blond lead, director Tim Burton’s latest live-action film unapologetically invites comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. But imagine if Hitchcock had shot his 1958 psychological thriller not from James Stewart’s acrophobic detective’s perspective, but instead from that of Kim Novak’s imposter. Certainly, Novak’s submission, first in the murder cover-up and then in her continued forced resemblance of the dead woman, could provide adequate fodder for an intriguing film, but it wouldn’t retain the key element: Stewart’s neurotic, obsessive intensity.

The screenplay for Big Eyes, by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon), proceeds on the assumption that viewers are more interested in latter-day restitution than in Hitchcock’s type of maladjusted compulsion. To that end, the filmmakers focus on the artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), creator of the 1960s paintings featuring sad, big-eyed children, over her striving husband, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who for years compelled Margaret to produce in secret the lucrative paintings he claimed were his.

There was once a real Walter Keane. He died in 2000, but before that he convinced the world to buy either originals or reproductions of kitschy art he claimed was inspired by the children of a war-torn Europe. This narrative was declared pure fantasy by a judge in 1986, but it propelled Walter to a place in popular culture’s lexicon, even if did not gain him credence in the art world.

Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained) has taken turns as both humorless heavy and benevolent guardian, but never a mixture of the two. As Walter, Waltz’s performance lacks the charm and patience necessary to carry out a long-term scam that involves first seducing and then entrapping Margaret, as well as cajoling and manipulating the press, primarily San Francisco gossip columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston). These public relations machinations aren’t fully revealed in the film, at any rate, leaving the mystery of the paintings’ popularity completely intact.

With that square jaw of his, Waltz doesn’t really have any other choice but to lead with his chin. But from his first scene, he interprets Walter as a barely disguised, predatory psychopath, as if he’s one irritant away from exposing his true mania. Burton revels in these overblown emotions, making the decision to reveal Walter as dangerous and abusive at times, and at others as a laughable buffoon.

Adams is more consistent as Margaret. She plays her with a sincerity that is both sweet and believable. Her indignation at the established art world’s dislike of the work it thinks was done by her husband but is really hers is the source of Burton’s best joke, multi-layered and heartfelt. But Margaret without Walter is only half of this story. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 12/30/14)

Into the Woods
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

While the term “fairy tale” often means a happy, simple story that kids can enjoy without having to deal with difficult or disturbing questions. A closer reading of the stories the folklorists Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm collected, reveals tales that include magic but are often scarier and morally complicated that the Disney versions most of us know.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1986 musical play Into the Woods puts a lot of the darkness back into the those tales, and the studio that bears Walt Disney’s name is ironically a good custodian of their vision.

In addition to retaining Sondheim’s quirky take on traditional subject matter, the Mouse House has also assembled a cast who can handle the tunesmith’s acrobatic melodies and virtuosic lyrics and has selected a director (Chicago’s Rob Marshall) who knows how to shoot and edit musical numbers.

This film adaptation even retains a frequent criticism about the play: Its second act comes up rather abruptly and wraps up its interlocking tales in a seemingly arbitrary manner. That said, James Lapine’s screenplay retains the sense of whimsy and dark wit typical of Sondheim’s stage work.

Into the Woods
wonders what would happen if Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Red Riding Hood took place at the same time and within throwing distance from each other. As a result, the characters end up influencing each other’s paths, sometimes leading to conclusions that the Brothers Grimm might not have documented or even imagined.

For example, Cinderella (nicely played by Anna Kendrick) is ambivalent about the Prince (Chris Pine) who pursues her after the ball. He’s drawn to the wife (Emily Blunt) of the local baker (James Corden).

In turn, the couple, who are dismayed about their childlessness, pay for young Jack’s (Daniel Huttlestone) now dry cow with beans that may or may not have special properties. It’s no wonder the lad’s mother (Tracey Ullman) is upset with the transaction. Perhaps, the couple could have paid a fairer price for the cow if they hadn’t been so generous to Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford).

Overseeing all of this is a witch (Meryl Streep). While her intents are less than pure, it’s not fair to call her wicked because she has genuine maternal affection for the captive Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy). That said, the witch is determined to make life miserable for the prince (Billy Magnussen) pursuing her.

Despite having lots of money to play with and an A-list cast, Marshall thankfully emphasizes restraint. Yes, there are onscreen giants, but Marshall figures that viewers want to hear the songs and Sondheim and Lapine’s wordplay. That’s a little hard to do when a director goes overboard with the eye candy.

The large cast consistently delivers and occasionally surprises. Chris Pine has made a name for himself playing roguish heroes like James T. Kirk. Here he demonstrates that he’s even better at satirizing them. It’s also refreshing to see Johnny Depp’s fondness for quirky characters paying off for him instead of backfiring. His turn as the Big Bad Wolf is brief, but he seems to have more fun reciting Sondheim’s macabre lyrics than in doing anything else he’s done onscreen lately.

Some of Sondheim’s songs have been cut, but the ones that remain are typically intriguing, even if they aren’t terribly hummable. It’s easier to admire Sondheim’s melodies than it is to sing them. Fortunately, Into the Woods offers viewers an appropriate showcase for Sondheim’s tunes and his unique approach to the blandly sunny world of musicals and fairy tales. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/30/14)

Into the Woods

Sondheim’s songs are not
to be hummed but carry a
magic all their own.

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Even among the members of the Greatest Generation, the real-life Louis Zamperini, who died last summer at the age of 97, was an exception. The rebellious son of Italian immigrants became a record-holding runner, competing at 19 — the youngest American qualifier ever in the 5,000-meter run — in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. As a U.S. Air Force bombardier during WWII, he survived 47 days in a raft lost at sea in the Pacific and endured more than two years as a prisoner of war in Japanese prison camps.

On their own each of these episodes could provide ample dramatic material for a feature-length film. Together, they’re daunting, and the adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 bestseller Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption required several attempts to be wrangled into filmable shape, first by William Nicholson (Gladiator) and Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, Behind the Candelabra), and then finally by Academy Award-winning writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen.

The outcome of this piecemeal collaboration is that the film, while not exactly disjointed, is pointedly episodic. The first third offers traditional biopic, intercutting between scenes of Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) in the belly of a B-24 making an emergency landing in Oahu and Zamperini’s younger self (C.J. Valleroy) in Torrance, CA, where his older brother (John D’Leo and Alex Russell) coaches him on in cross country and track. These scenes require very little in way of performance — each line delivered is a platitude or the malapropism of a platitude (Is there enough difference between “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory,” and its reverse to make a fuss?)

Anyway, this portion might as well exist just to get viewers acclimated to the black shoe polish that’s been used to disguise O’Connell’s Irish roots, so to speak. It’s not until Zamperini’s plane goes down in the Pacific while on a search operation that the flashbacks, irritating in their matter-of-factness, cease and the story actually begins.

is directed by Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey) with cinematography by veteran director of photography Roger Deakins (A Beautiful Mind, No Country for Old Men), who frequently collaborates with the Coen brothers. Individual set pieces are picture perfect, when not overwrought, such as the Christ-like holding of the beam overhead. But there’s the lack of a binding thread among the episodes. What’s missing in Jolie’s direction is not continuity in the narrative, but meaning.

It’s true that in his portrayal of Zamperini, O’Connell undergoes drastic transformations of his physical self, but his inner psychology seems unchanged and untouched, even by the sadistic torture singly inflicted on him by Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishikara), the prison camp commander known as ”The Bird," who, possibly from unwanted physical attraction, made Zamperini his nemesis. In her eagerness to display what it may have looked like when Zamperini endured unbroken through all this, Jolie neglected to show us how it might have felt. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 12/30/14)

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In 1995, 26-year-old Minnesota native Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) felt compelled to solo hike the 1,100 miles from the Mojave Desert to the northern border of Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail. For the previous four years, Strayed had grieved her mother, Bobbi’s (Laura Dern), premature death from cancer through anonymous sex and heroin use, eventually divorcing her husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski). After an abortion to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, she hopes that the journey on foot will — as her friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffman) urges her — get her life together.

Adapted by novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) from Strayed’s 2012 memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the film doesn’t unfold in such a straightforward chronological timeline. Like real life, milestones on the trail — an occasional victory over an obstacle but mostly setbacks, and some of them life-threatening — trigger Strayed’s memories, which range from a traumatic childhood to successful college years to the time of her mother’s illness, shown in flashback.

Eventually, the hike, which is already in progress in the opening scene, loops back on itself and becomes a gauge for present time in the film, but already the recent past is a muddle to the viewer, not helped by Witherspoon’s representations of ambiguous age ranges. Dern is a dynamo as Strayed’s mother, but Witherspoon as the adult Strayed isn’t believable as her daughter. Although director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) delivers the hike scenes in a clear, forthright way, he holds back too much of the back story, portioning it out for dramatic effect that would be better served if it were dished out up-front.

Still, Witherspoon’s Strayed is most sympathetic in these flashbacks; not in the scenes of hazy drug languor but rather the numbing compulsion that drives her to have sex with two diner customers in an alley while still wearing her waitress uniform. Contrast this destructive, bold conduct with Strayed later cowering behind foliage to hide from menacing hunters or exploiting unwanted attention to wangle a care package and coffee from a creepy park ranger, and her being a woman alone on the trail doesn’t seem as courageous or remarkable.

The ironic thing about stories of personal endurance is that they often strive to inspire others. Already, the iconic Danner hiking boots with their flat red laces, which look as heavy as Frankenstein’s monster’s orthopedic lifts on Witherspoon’s spindly legs, are showing up in fashion blogs and social media. The boot manufacturer has a Wild-branded model that arrives in a reissued box of the same design Strayed would have received in 1995.

But Strayed is no role model. Through her inexperience, she makes mistakes that add to the difficulty of her trip and also put her life at risk. And in the end repeats some of the same behavior she acted on before she embarked on the hike. But this time, she’s the one doing the choosing. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 12/24/14)

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The third and final installment of director Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy starts at the exact moment the second episode left off last year, presumptuously tasking those short on either memory or obsessive enthusiasm with hastily reorienting themselves. Considering the extraneous subplots and the legion of characters, it’s hardly worth the time it takes.

Adapted from the few remaining paragraphs near the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 children’s fantasy novel by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, who resigned as director on the first chapter but is still credited, the screenplay for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies equals its predecessors in bloat, if not bilge. No longer a road movie — the majority of the dwarves, mostly still undifferentiated, and hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) have made it to their intended destination — the bulk of the action takes place on the doorstep of the dwarves’ reclaimed kingdom.

The rousted flame-throwing dragon Smaug, gutturally voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, has woken up cranky from his nap in his ill-gotten resting place. As he firebombs Laketown, forcing the survivors, led by former minor characters Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), to march on the dwarves’ territory where reinstated dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), in the throes of a greedy gold fever, has walled out any potential intruders.

And desirous trespassers there are many, including elves, orcs, human refugees, an entire additional dwarf army led by Oakenshield’s cousin Dáin Ironfoot (Billy Connolly) and flocks and herds of oversized wildlife commanded by Radagast the Brown as portrayed by Sylvester McCoy in a part writ large to pad the story. It’s dwarves against everyone else until Oakenshield experiences a change of heart with the help of a largely absent Bilbo. After that, it’s Oakenshield and the least dwarf-looking of his gang on a secret orc ambush, which culminates in an actual tense, practically tactile scene in which the vengeful leader of the orcs makes an icy exit reminiscent of Christopher Lee in 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness.

Except Jackson can’t let anything end elegantly or expeditiously. He also insists on creating bonds to his The Lord of the Rings franchise where there are none. While the battles rage on (and on and on) the magical power trio of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and not-yet-turned-evil Saruman (Christopher Lee) save Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) from Sauron, essentially making this trilogy a prequel to his previous trilogy. Consumers can probably expect the complete box set by next year. If any director understands greedy gold fever, it’s Jackson. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 12/22/14)

The Babadook
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature The Babadook is based on the novel but disturbing idea that the worst way to deal with the demons that surround us is to ignore them. The forces of evil may not be easy to see, but there’s no denying that they are terrifyingly real.

Kent also understands that it’s easier to believe supernatural stories if the people who occupy them are credible. The Babadook centers on a stressed out single nurse named Amelia (Essie Davis, The Matrix Reloaded), whose six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is proving to be a handful. The lad has such a vivid imagination that it’s easy to wonder if he has any hold on reality. He’s also got an alarming fascination with weapons. He even makes gizmos that could really cause serious injury.

Amelia has been so preoccupied with work and with Samuel that she doesn’t seem to have dealt with the death of her husband. He died driving her to the hospital so that she could deliver her son. Further complicating her life is a strange popup book titled “Mister Babadook.” The worn volume starts off looking like a typical bedtime story, but gradually turns into a piece of Grand Guignol that would traumatize any child who read it or, come to think of it, any adult.

Samuel starts building an improvised arsenal to defend himself and his mother from the book’s menacing title character. At times his behavior becomes so alarmist that Essie can’t take his outbursts. Essie’s friends and family start shunning her and the lad because he gets violent when others question his warnings about Mr. Babadook.

It’s amazing how much more effective a horror movie can be when the filmmakers take a break from the gore and concentrate on character arcs. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Samuel is on to something rather than on something, and that the traumatized Amelia is going to need more than a hug to get through the very real dangers under her roof.

Wiseman consistently makes Samuel’s outbursts seem disturbingly spontaneous and natural. He’s also just likable enough to make viewers hope he can get through to his tormented mother. If Marlon Brando had started acting as a toddler, this might have been the result.

Without a lot of makeup or prosthetics, Davis transforms from composed to struggling to completely mad, all in the same film. Horror and sci-fi films rarely receive Oscar nominations, but it’s hard to imagine The Babadook working with a lesser performance. In addition, few conventional dramas this year have given an actress this much room to demonstrate her range.

Ironically, The Babadook works because Kent makes the people vivid and the monsters ambiguous. Viewers rarely get a clear look at the menacing being living in the basement, but the damage he creates is indisputable. Kent eschews CGI and other contrivances for creepy images that are achieved in camera. The actors are responding to creations that are on the set, so their performances seem more grounded and convincing.

Without slipping into spoilers, Kent’s ending is nearly ideal because she doesn’t seem preoccupied with vanquishing the demon or setting up a string of sequels. Frightening situations rarely end neatly outside the theater, so acknowledging that fact leads to more credible chills inside of it. (N/R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 12/22/14)

The Babadook

Creatures that can’t be
seen are more scary than ones
that have needless gore.

Top Five
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Do not watch Top Five to see Chris Rock bare his soul or exhibit any facial expressions resembling authentic emotion. In the comedian’s third turn as director (Head of State, I Think I Love My Wife), Rock remains steadfastly juvenile, playing it safe with the crude jokes affiliated more with Adam Sandler — who makes a cameo appearance along with several of Rock’s other friends — than Woody Allen.

That’s not to say Top Five doesn’t deliver laugh-out-loud moments or that Rock’s flirtation with Rosario Dawson, playing a reporter at the New York Times, isn’t charming. But Rock unfailingly interrupts any scene that gets too serious or too personal for his on-screen persona with flashbacks that contain the crassest gags as if he shares the same fear of intimacy as his character.

Another movie released this year, director, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, carries the weight of self-reference between lead actor and main character. In that film, actor Michael Keaton (Batman, Batman Returns) plays an actor attempting to earn serious Broadway credentials after he’s gained fame in the Birdman superhero franchise. As his mental state increasingly falters, vestiges of Birdman’s super powers both embolden him and cause him grief and doubt.

In Top Five, Rock plays Andre Allen, a stand-up comedian desperate to prove himself in newfound sobriety by changing out his recurring role as Hammy, the beloved crime-fighting bear whose catch phrase — It’s Hammy time! — haunts Andre through an expectant public who expect him to repeat it on demand. To scrape the stink of Hammy off his shoe once and for all, Andre has forsaken comedy. He’s currently starring in a movie based on the life of Haitian revolutionary Dutty Boukman. And in the spirit of “rigorous honesty,” decides to let Rosario Dawson’s journalist, Chelsea Brown, follow him around for a profile.

These early moments between the two must be the root of the Woody Allen comparisons. They make the film feel as if it’s headed in the direction of a personal, independent film. Rock’s Allen brings Brown to his old neighborhood, where a well-timed punch line actually adds to the poignancy of the scene instead of attempting to distract the audience.

Still, this isn’t Rock’s legitimate attempt at giving his alter ego a real shot at validity. His new movie’s farcical title, “Uprize,” and the brief clips shown on-screen prove he can’t resist a joke. Combined with Allen’s upcoming marriage to professional reality television star (Gabrielle Union), this detracts from Rock’s main points about celebrity and recovery. And not even Dawson’s bright performance can overcome a last act twist that has Rock performing lackluster stand-up and proving he doesn’t understand film reviews. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/17/14)

Exodus: Gods & Kings
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

It takes a while before Exodus: Gods & Kings exhales some human authenticity into the biblical story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery in the Egypt toward the “Promised Land” of Canaan. It happens after Moses is banished from Egypt because he is Hebrew, left to wander the desert countryside until finding an oasis.

But the tenderness portrayed in a story of a confused man falling for a desert beauty within the larger story — Moses, played by Christian Bale, his wife Zipporah played by Spanish actress Maria Valverde — does not last and instead shifts into the near comic mystical as God appears in the form of a smartass, pre-teen boy with a British accent (Isaac Andrews) after Moses is knocked out and trapped in a mountaintop landslide. Burning bush or not, the encounter eventually convinces Moses he must return to Egypt to lead his people out of bondage, leaving wife and child behind.

But before we get there in the nearly three-hour film, we meet Moses interacting with his stepbrother and future pharaoh Ramses, played by Joel Edgerton. Caught in an all-too-familiar jealously driven melodrama of a father (Seti, played by John Turturro) favoring not his blood but the more daring and intelligent stepson, Ramses pouts, schemes and whines with Edgerton portraying the coming Egyptian god-figure like a skinny sophomore trying to make the varsity team. Edgerton fails to project any imperial bearing with Ramses. Only late in the film does it seem to dawn on Edgerton that his role is one of an all-powerful leader in crisis mode protecting his image and throne.

While the battle scenes and drone-like overhead CGI shots of Memphis, the pharaoh’s seat of power, keeps one interested in the film; it’s tough to take the storyline seriously at times.

Much of the early dialogue between Moses and Ramses sounds outlandishly contemporary without any semblance that these privilege symbols of Egypt’s greatness somehow learned how to speak in the equivalent tone of their exalted positions — or at least something more than “We have a problem,” Moses tells Ramses at one point or Ramses complaining that having all the slaves leave would hurt Egypt’s “economy.”

Another suspension of the real (ancient) world is Moses training the Hebrew guerrilla army — prior to God delivering frogs, flies, boils, locusts, bloodthirsty crocodiles and death to young children to the Egyptians. Apparently the Hebrew “slaves” were lively enough to train under Moses guidance after a grueling day building temples, statues and all manner of pharaoh tribute and even do it undetected by the ordinary Egyptians much less than Ramses’ spies and soldiers.

Then there’s the Red Sea parting. Don’t expect Bale’s Moses to slam a staff into the ground and bellow God’s name like Charleton Heston in The Ten Commandments. In director Ridley Scott’s film, Moses lies on the beach, tired and spent, then notices the waters slowly retreating in a lazy fashion. He then makes a speech to coax his tribe onward as Ramses’ army approaches.

On the muddy sea floor, as a wall of water stories high moves closer to unite the Red Sea as one again, Moses and Ramses face one another — the Hebrews safely on dry land and the Egyptian army rushing back to their shore. The two charge one another then the water hits. Thousands of Egyptian soldiers and their horses perish but somehow Moses drags his body back out of the water to his people and miles away on the opposite shore stands the other miracle. Ramses, alive, stares back across the water.

Moses eventually reunites with his wife, a place in the story where the film should have ended. Instead, we’re given snippets of Moses’ story beyond returning to his home: the Jews worshipping a golden calf and a near laughable scene of Moses with rock and rod chipping the Ten Commandments into the stone tables while God serves some sort of hot drink.

As the film ends, an old Moses rides in a covered horse-drawn cart with the Ark of Covenant behind him and God walking beside the cart before disappearing into the multitude of Hebrews trudging toward Canaan.

Four writers worked the script of Exodus: Gods & Kings. Saying that is the film’s main defect doesn’t quite cover it. Edgerton was miscast, Bale sometimes let the brooding temperament of Moses feel too modern-like and Ridley Scott should have known better and left the proposal poolside. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 12/15/14)

The Homesman
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Hilary Swank’s frontierswoman Mary Bee Cuddy wants it all. Although she efficiently and prosperously runs her own farmstead in the Nebraska Territory in the 1850s, she still longs for a husband and children. “I live uncommonly alone,” she explains to two possible prospects in the course of the film — neither a match for her former schoolteacher manners and talents — who unanimously reject her as plain and bossy.

But the austere attributes that make Mary Bee undesirable as a wife to these men contribute to her suitability as the homesman of the film’s title. It’s been a harsh winter in the territory, and three less plain, less bossy women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) in the area have lost their minds. The local minister (John Lithgow) has arranged for them to be reunited miles away and across the Missouri River in Iowa with their relatives from back East, and Mary Bee, “as good a man as any man,” has been tasked with the arduous, five-month trip.

The Homesman marks the second time actor Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) has gone behind the camera as director. For this film he also co-wrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver from Glendon Swarthout’s (Bless the Beasts and the Children, The Shootist) 1988 novel, making significant “adjustments,” according to Jones.

Those changes include cutting the mad passenger list from four down to three to make the likelihood of that many women in a sparsely populated area going insane at the same time more believable, as well as reworking the narrative structure. Still, the movie remains as a basic episodic journey. Mary Bee extorts the assistance of a captured claim jumper (Jones) at the end of a noose by saving his life, promising him $300 for the safe delivery of the women and a jug of whiskey for the road.

Together, the odd pair manages to traverse the dusty, barren landscape, stopping only to sleep through the chilly spring nights and to have the women bath like sirens in river springs. They also inevitably encounter scoundrels wishing to do one of the women harm, in the case of Tim Blake Nelson’s uncouth freighter, and a capitalist developer dandy (James Spader) who refuses them all food and lodging at his mirage-like hotel.

As strong an entrance as all the women in the film are given, through these adventures they disappear until eventually they all seem as yielding and insubstantial as rag dolls. The circumstances of the three women are given scant screen time, run through in a fast montage by veteran film editor Roberto Silvi that gives the impression the events are happening simultaneously, with the ultimate result that the human passengers present only as much of a burden as the average load of inanimate cargo.

Even the formerly formidable Mary Bee becomes diminished on the road, leaving only the scoundrel played by Jones to dance his drunken, forgetful jig. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 12/11/14)


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