Friday, February 20, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE HOMESMAN (2014); V/H/S: VIRAL (2014); and BAD TURN WORSE (2014)

(France/US - 2014)

In the small frontier town of Loup in the Nebraska Territory in the 1850s, three women have gone insane: Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) suffers a breakdown after being unable to conceive a child and watching her husband (David Dencik) throw her just-deceased mother's corpse out in a heavy snowstorm before it starts stinking; Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto), a mother of three, tosses her newborn baby into an outhouse pit; and 19-year-old Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) loses her three children over three days to diphtheria. Rev. Dowd (John Lithgow) has decided to send them away to receive special care and treatment at a hospital in Iowa run by Altha Carter (Meryl Streep), the wife of a prominent Methodist minister. The trip is at least five weeks away and the women's husbands (there's also William Fichtner as Theoline's, and Jesse Plemons as Arabella's) are either unable or unwilling to make the journey, so Loup spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers. Cuddy moved to the area from New York, owns a large piece of land, and contributes to the welfare of Loup but is still gossiped about as she's been unable to land a husband. Now resorting to proposing marriage to men strictly as a business deal, the lonely Cuddy is repeatedly turned down for being "too bossy and too plain-looking." Looking for purpose in a life that's left her "uncommonly alone," Cuddy agrees to transport the three women across the Missouri River into Iowa, and finds an unwilling partner in a man calling himself George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones). A scheming claim jumper, Briggs made some enemies and Cuddy finds him strung up in a noose and left for dead, kept alive only by sheer luck as he's managed to keep the horse holding him there from bolting. Cuddy cuts him down and offers him $300 and a jug of whiskey to help with the journey and provide protection from various threats and obstacles that may arise.

Based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, THE HOMESMAN was directed and co-written by Jones, and it turns into an interesting companion piece with his 2005 feature directing debut THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA (also, like THE HOMESMAN, co-produced by unlikely Jones pal Luc Besson). Both films--and tangentially, Jones' 2011 HBO film THE SUNSET LIMITED--share the common themes of death, honor, and redemption, but THE HOMESMAN is another beast altogether. Stunningly shot by Rodrigo Prieto, it finds Jones in auteur mode, with nearly every shot intricately staged and precisely framed as exquisite works of art. There's a Clint Eastwood aesthetic in his depiction of the west that recalls UNFORGIVEN (1992), and Jones not only takes time to build the characters but also, like Kelly Reichardt's minimalist MEEK'S CUTOFF (2011), is a stickler for harsh realism. THE HOMESMAN dives into the arduous obstacles and unpleasant realities of frontier life, the very realities--disease, isolation, environment--that turns three women into "cuckoo clocks" and the five-week journey into a months-long ordeal. This is an offbeat and thoroughly unique western, anchored by two terrific performances from Jones and Swank, and it's a film that would seem to have been a natural hit with audiences until you actually see it. Between this and THREE BURIALS, Jones has proven himself to be a gifted storyteller and a challenging filmmaker unconcerned with commercial appeal, and a lot of THE HOMESMAN is just too weird to play on 3000 screens and be the next OPEN RANGE or APPALOOSA sleeper hit (it's probably the best western since John Hillcoat's brutal 2006 western THE PROPOSITION). Lionsgate didn't seem to have any idea what to do with this, releasing it under its arthouse Roadside Attractions banner and only rolling it out on 220 screens. From the situations that arise--namely a whopper of an unexpected plot turn that completely shifts gears about 2/3 of the way in, and Briggs' ultimately surreal and nightmarish run-in with an erudite and dismissive hotelier (James Spader)--and the sly way Marco Beltrami's score vacillates between the grand, sweeping accompaniment you'd expect to hear in a John Ford western to the eerie and unsettlingly discordant piano and percussion sounds during the darker moments, THE HOMESMAN is a western that consistently defies genre expectations while utilizing standard tropes like Briggs' eventual redemption still not altering his status as an outsider--think of the way John Wayne's Ethan Edwards stands outside that door at the end of THE SEARCHERS, an unsympathetic and violent man who finds salvation in bringing his family back together but still remains distanced from that family, always and forever an outcast no matter how heroic he may be. Jones' George Briggs remains an enigma--it's clearly not his real name and we never learn about his obvious outlaw past, but he does what he's been paid to do and the journey, with all its ugly brutality and outright horror, is his redemption. Therein lies Jones' niche in the western genre: he's a John Ford purist at heart in a nihilistic Sam Peckinpah world. Also with Barry Corbin, Tim Blake Nelson, and Hailee Steinfeld (TRUE GRIT), THE HOMESMAN is bold and uncompromising, quirky and unpredictable, and one of the great undiscovered films of 2014. (R, 123 mins)

(US - 2014)

The third entry in the horror anthology franchise is not only the worst, but it also might be the worst portmanteau since that pair of slapped-together GEORGE A. ROMERO PRESENTS DEADTIME STORIES releases from a few years ago. Making its predecessors look like DEAD OF NIGHT and CREEPSHOW by comparison, V/H/S: VIRAL is a sloppy, incoherent, unwatchable disaster, with a wraparound story that has nothing to do with the events we see in the stories that unfold. DEADGIRL director Marcel Sarmiento handled the wraparound, "Vicious Circles," which deals with a would-be viral video dickbag who's fighting with his girlfriend but splits to follow a car chase on TV that speeds by his house. "Dante the Great," directed by Gregg Bishop (DANCE OF THE DEAD), is about an egomaniacal, murderous magician (Justin Welborn), whose magic is powered by his haunted cloak, and is notable for the land-speed record it sets in ditching its faux-doc concept to go for straight narrative. TIMECRIMES director Nacho Vigalondo helms "Parallel Monsters," where a guy (Gustavo Salmerin) encounters his doppelganger, at which time they agree to swap universes for 15 minutes but it's hardly a harmless visit. Justin Benson and Aaron Morehead direct "Bonestorm," where a bunch of skaters head to Tijuana and run afoul of a south-of-the-border death cult, with the entire segment shot almost exclusively with helmet-cams with occasional switches to first-person shooter POV shots. A fifth segment, "Gorgeous Vortex," was cut from the film just before release, with the explanation being that it slowed down the pace and changed the tone of the project, but it's included on the DVD and Blu-ray as a bonus segment at the conclusion of the actual film. Directed by Todd Lincoln (the completely forgettable THE APPARITION), it's an impenetrable, bizarre, dialogue-free fever dream that's completely pretentious bullshit that doesn't get a pass simply because it seems to be a little more high-minded than the idiocy that made the final cut. A photo-finish with RAZE as 2014's worst film and the absolute nadir of the hipster horror movement, which is pretty much that last thing I have to say about V/H/S: VIRAL. You win, fanboys. I'm out. (R, 81 mins)

(US - 2014)

An intermittently interesting Texas noir, BAD TURN WORSE has moments where it looks like it'll be another twisty BLUE RUIN, but it doesn't know when to shut up and can't avoid belaboring its points. For example, when you've got a main character handing a copy of Jim Thompson's South of Heaven to another character and telling them "You've gotta read this!" at the five-minute mark, you might be trying a little too hard. A thriller with teenage protagonists that too often feels like it was written by teenagers--which is a shame because who doesn't want to love a bleak, cynical noir written by someone named Dutch Southern?--BAD TURN WORSE works in a love triangle, a haphazardly-planned heist, money-laundering, and $20,000 belonging to a Corpus Christi gangster but still ends up with the inevitable showdown at an abandoned cotton gin where the chief villain spends an inordinate amount of time dropping snide bon mots on the hapless protagonists as he spells out his master plan instead of just dealing with the issue at hand. In a small and mostly dead Texas town, Bobby (Jeremy Allen White) and his bookworm friend Sue (Mackenzie Davis)--she's the Jim Thompson superfan--can't wait to go to college, much to the disappointment of Sue's boyfriend BJ (Logan Huffman), who's bummed about losing his friends and acting out in the worst way possible. Like, stealing $20K from the safe of small-time criminal Giff (Mark Pellegrino), who runs a cotton gin owned by ruthless, big-city crime lord Big Red (William Devane). BJ blows the whole $20K on going to the city for the weekend and making it rain, showing Bobby and Sue a good time before they leave. But when they return on Monday, Giff wants to know who took the money, and to protect BJ, Bobby takes the blame. Giff wants his money back and forces the trio to steal another $20,000 from a money-laundering drop used by Big Red's guys. Needless to say, there's one double-cross after another, especially once BJ discovers that Bobby and Sue have been carrying on a clandestine fling behind his back.

Writer Southern and sibling directors Zeke & Simon Hawkins do a commendable job of establishing the downbeat atmosphere of this hellhole of a town (the film played the festival circuit a year before its eventual release, under its original title, WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS PLACE). It's the kind of place where all the businesses are boarded up, everyone works at Giff's cotton gin, and there's little business opportunities except very small-time crime (one suspects the copper wire business is booming). Even the sheriff (Jon Gries) is on Giff's payroll. Sue and Bobby are often chided by the townies for "goin' off to college," and even Bobby's mom dismisses his newfound educational aspirations with "You're not a college kid...you're a cotton kid," almost like she knows he's only going so he can be close to Sue (that's also why BJ thinks he's going). Sue is obviously too smart for BJ (and Bobby, for that matter), but unlike BJ, she never intended them to be forever. It's a depressing, dead-end town where dreams died at least a generation back, and it's the perfect setting for such a story. It's good for about 2/3 of the way, but in the final act, everything collapses as the filmmakers resort to piling on the double-crosses and have Pellegrino's Giff stop just short of donning a monocle and twirling a mustache to show how nefarious he is. Pellegrino has some great moments where he gets to spit out some memorable dialogue ("You sure like to gamble for someone with such a shit pokerface," he tells Bobby, and when he gives Bobby an ultimatum after threatening to have his goons rape Sue, he promises "I'm gonna do more to your sweet pea than hollow out her heinie-hole") but Southern has the character behave too inconsistently, careening wildly from criminal mastermind to none-too-bright doofus depending on what the story needs him to be in any given scene. Devane makes an impression with his too-brief screen time, showing up to deal with Giff and lay down the law in a bathrobe and slippers. BAD TURN WORSE is OK, but it could've easily been something a little more if the filmmakers didn't feel the need to oversell, overplot, and overexplain, like they didn't trust their audience to process the ambiguities or connect the dots. Certainly, any fan of Thompson's brand of hard-boiled pulp fiction could've made the homage-to-Thompson connection without having it stated by the characters time and again throughout. Well-intentioned and occasionally quite good, BAD TURN WORSE is more like Target Just Missed. (Unrated, 92 mins)

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