Sunday, December 28, 2014

(INTER)VIEW TO A KILL(ING)

The day after Christmas I was turned away, twice, from sold-out shows at the Harkins Valley Art Theatre in Tempe. The film that was packing them in was, of course, The Interview, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s lowbrow farce involving a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.


As you’ve possibly heard, a massive hack of Sony and hints of terrorist reprisals, both thought to have originated from North Korea, resulted in the decision, both by the studio and many theater chains, to cancel the movie’s Christmas Day release. For a couple of days it looked like The Interview might become a “lost” movie, but then Sony reconsidered, releasing the picture both to theaters and to video-on-demand. Perhaps with a thought to the safety of other audiences in the multiplexes, Harkins opened the film only at the chain’s one remaining free-standing single-screen house.

I had skipped the screening, so I decided to go to the Valley Art, but got to the box office too late, for two different shows, to get a ticket. No front row, no standing room. The prescient people who were lining up with pre-ordered tickets were mostly the younger sort one would expect at a movie like this—couples on dates, groups of frat-boy-looking buddies—but people of all ages were represented.

Anyway, I went back Saturday morning and saw the film, with a house that wasn’t full but was still surprisingly crowded for an early matinee. On the way in I was given a pin with a picture of stars Rogen and James Franco. It said “I [picture of a popped kernel of popcorn] FREEDOM! HARKINS THEATRES.”


I was puzzled at first by what this meant: I Pop Freedom? I Snack On Freedom? Slow on the take that I am, it took me a minute to realize that the popcorn kernel was vaguely heart-shaped. I Love Freedom. Indeed I do.

Grateful though I was for the souvenir, however, I declined to pin it on my shirt. Having failed, over the last few years, to take to the streets to demonstrate for or against any of a dozen issues I truly care about, it seemed a little much to congratulate myself for going to a silly comedy.

As for The Interview itself, it’s enjoyable enough of its kind, that kind being the self-consciously raunchy Hangover vein. It goes badly off the rails toward the end, but up until then it has some solid laughs and good performances. Franco plays it pretty broad as the nitwit TV interviewer who scores a sit-down with the tyrant and is pressed into service by the CIA to “take him out.” But Rogen, as Franco’s producer, carries the film with his boyishly commonsensical charm, and Randall Park is excellent as (and much handsomer than) Kim.

After it was over, as we were filing out, I heard an usher thank a middle-aged woman for coming, and she replied, very sincerely, “Thank you for having it. I really appreciate it.” If I had to guess, I’d guess that this lady, and quite a number of others in the audience, wouldn’t have thought of going to this particular movie if North Korea hadn’t told them they wouldn’t if they knew what was good for them.

Certainly I think that in the years since 9/11 fear of terrorism, and exploitation of that fear, and even an odd and carefully cultivated sense that one is being unpatriotic if one doesn’t show enough fear, has led our country into atrocious decisions, including ridiculous and probably futile encumbrances to our travel and recreation. I thought the initial decision to pull The Interview was wrong, for instance.

Having said that, I had sympathy for Sony’s cautious position, and even more so for that of the exhibitors. It’s easy for commentators like me with no real responsibility to decry the cancellation as craven, but if, God forbid, one bomb were to go off in a theatre, you can imagine the invective that would be poured on “Hollywood” for endangering people’s lives for a dumb movie. And if the release, and the packed houses, are a healthy step away from "letting the terrorists win," it’s no more than a baby step.

But I had to wonder if, at bottom, the long lines for The Interview not only weren’t about the movie itself, they weren’t even about politics or patriotism or standing up to terrorism. Maybe they were simply a gesture of early nostalgia for the increasingly gratuitous act of actually going to the movies. At any time this weekend, after all, I and just about anyone else at the Valley Art could have seen The Interview in the comfort of our homes, for a couple bucks less than the price of a ticket, and without the hassle of parking in downtown Tempe. Somehow, though, seeing the film in a gathering of strangers turned the experience from sitting through an average comedy into the kind of shared social experience that makes up many of our best movie memories.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

MERRY CHRISTMAS...

...from Less Hat, Moorhead!



Into the WoodsA friend of mine likes to say that “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and “Pittsburgh” are two of the more aptly named entities in creation. I can’t agree with him about the second; I’ve always been fond of Pittsburgh. But there’s no arguing the grimness of those tales.

So Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1986 fairy-tale musical Into the Woods can’t really be called “dark” by comparison to its source material. This retelling of several Grimm yarns is dark only by comparison to the toned-down and glitzed-up style of fairy tales popularized by Disney and its ilk over the past century. Perhaps ironically, it’s Disney that has produced the lavish, star-studded and entertaining movie version of Into the Woods opening today.

Set, like a Ren Faire, in a period-vague Once Upon a Time with elements of the Renaissance, the 19th Century and the 20th Century—the Big Bad Wolf dresses like a swing dancer—Into the Woods weaves the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk around the plight of a Baker and his Wife who are unable to conceive. These two learn from a neighborhood Witch that this is because of a curse upon their house. She gives them the recipe to lift the curse, which brings them into contact with the other characters.

Rob Marshall, who more or less revived the big-screen musical as a viable genre with his 2002 Chicago, directs nimbly, but with an agreeably more straightforward, less hyper-cut style. His work is accomplished, but as usual with musicals, the real key to its success lies in the cast, and the score.

The standouts in the cast, for me, were Meryl Streep, a hoot as the Witch, Emily Blunt as the Baker’s potentially naughty Wife, James Corden as the kindly young Baker, and a startling, apparently genetically-engineered little belter called Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood. Johnny Depp is droll in the brief role of the Wolf, Tracey Ullman is funny as Jack’s fed-up Mum, Anna Kendrick makes a sweet Cinderella, and as her self-impressed Prince Charming, Chris Pine, along with Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince, scored spontaneous applause from the preview audience with whom I saw the film for their self-parodying duet “Agony.”

As for the score, it’s very, well, Sondheim-y, which for many is about the highest compliment a score can be paid. It’s pretty, if not, overall, as melodically soaring as some of Sondheim’s; it has a more frenetic, haywire sound, in support of the complex, almost patter-song lyrics. It’s compelling, though—when each number is done, you know you’ve really heard something, and you want to hear it again.

About halfway through the movie—at the end of Act One in the stage version—the plot strands are all ingeniously brought to a traditionally happily-ever-after resolution. But Sondheim and Lapine want to remind us that happily-ever-after is fantasy, and that a wish fulfilled always comes at a price—worth it, maybe, but never painless.

The long second act in which the characters wander the forest, struggling with the consequences of their wishes, is the unconcealed point of Into the Woods. But while there is much good music and comedy in this section, you can feel the impatience of the audience—plenty of them were quite satisfied with the corny fake ending, and palpably regard this elaboration as a tiresome imposition (I understand the school-play version of the show simply drops Act Two). It isn’t enough to ruin Into the Woods, but many viewers would have been perfectly happy with happily-ever-after.

So anyway...

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s make this triceratops skeleton come to life in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb our Christmas Day MOTW…


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

DECK THE HALLS WITH BOUGHS OF CRAWLY

If you’re in an anti-festive mood—I’m not, and I’m sorry if you are, but in case you are—check out my list, on Topless Robot, of The 12 Messed-Up Days of Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2014

ZOMBIE MERRY AND BRIGHT

Need a last-minute cyber-gift for the twisted, morbid degenerate on your list? Why not send them my holiday zombie novel, The Night Before Christmas of the Living Dead? It’s available on Amazon for a penny less than a buck…


A living-dead-tree edition is available, too, for a couple bucks more.

Friday, December 19, 2014

RAGGEDY ANNIE

Opening today:


AnnieThere are plenty of missteps and false notes in this new version of the Broadway musical favorite, reset in modern-day New York. To begin with, the orphanage setting no longer works. The show’s comic villainess Miss Hannigan, here played by Cameron Diaz, is now a bitter, drunken foster mom, which somehow doesn’t have the same menace.

Many of the Martin Charnin lyrics had to be tweaked, while all of the ‘30s-specific numbers had to be dropped entirely, and to make up for this new numbers were added, all forgettable. The movie is badly overlong, needlessly padded with stuff like un-suspenseful chase scenes that add nothing.

On the upside, this Annie, directed by Will Gluck from a script he wrote with Aline Brosh McKenna, starts off well, with a lively opening and several of the show’s best numbers, including the peerless “Hard Knock Life.” Annie’s fellow orphans are spirited, and there are grown-ups who look like they’re going to be bit players but give full-fledged, funny supporting turns, notably Stephanie Kurtzuba as a dazzled social services inspector. The new Sandy, a rescue dog in real life, makes a fine debut as well.

Above all, Quvenzhan√© Wallis is adorable in the title role. She doesn’t have the brassy Broadway-baby belt usually associated with the part, but she has a sweet voice and she’s as indomitable and assured as she was in the role of Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild. She also has a fine, candid onscreen rapport with Jamie Foxx as Oliver Stacks, this film’s standoffish, germaphobic version of Daddy Warbucks, and this carries the picture past its cheesier aspects.

There are a couple of cute in-jokes, too. A band playing in a club, for instance, is called the Leapin’ Lizards. Best of all, Stacks’ opponent in the New York mayoral race is a progressive incumbent named Harold Gray, after the creator of the original Little Orphan Annie newspaper strip. There’s a special piquancy to this gag if you know the truth about Gray: that he was a Union-hating, New Deal-loathing reactionary, and that he—of all freakin’ people—was a staunch opponent of Child Labor Laws! Apparently he believed there were benefits to a hard knock life.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

STAY YONGARY

Check out my list, on Topless Robot, of 10 Insults to North Korea You Could Watch Instead of The Interview. The list includes the North Korean giant monster flick Pulgasari, but Pulgie’s been a Monster-of-the-Week twice already, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …in the interest of international equal time this week let’s acknowledge a South Korean beast, the title character of 1967’s Yongary, Monster From the Deep




This late-show favorite may be viewed in its entirety, here:

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

THREE, TIMES FIVE

Opening today:


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesThe third installment of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation—and embellishment upon—the Tolkien novel starts off big. The dragon Smaug, voiced by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, wreaks havoc on a nearby fishing village and does battle with a valiant local boy (Luke Evans). While I sat there watching this sequence, I thought it was so strong that Jackson would have a hard time topping it, and as it ended I settled in for a long evening of droning exposition and wearying, incomprehensible-to-non-geeks prophesying.

I was wrong. Hobbit Part Two was better than Hobbit Part One, and for my money, Hobbit Part Three is the most exciting of the lot. Title character Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his pals the dwarves have taken occupancy in the dragon’s treasure-filled lair, and dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is going all Treasure of Sierra Madre with gold-fueled paranoia.

Meanwhile four other legions—the elegant, aloof elves, the ogre-ish Orcs, the humans from the fishing village and more dwarves led by Thorin’s cantankerous brother Dain (the great Billy Connolly) converge outside the lair, each with its own agenda involving Smaug’s hoarded booty. At the heart of this bombast, and comically contrasted with it, is the modest sheepishness and goodwill of Bilbo, scurrying around trying to be honest and do the right thing.

When you get past the brilliance and intricacy of Jackson’s staging, I suppose all these tempestuous fight scenes don’t have anything deeper behind them than pro wrestling. But I liked how almost every positive thing that happens in this finale happens because members of different races reach out to each other.

Now that his Hobbit saga is (presumably!) complete, I really hope that Jackson puts the Tolkien on the shelf, at least for a decade or so, and tries something different. Almost anything different will do—a car chase movie, a bachelor party comedy—as long as it doesn’t involve broadswords and shaggy beards. Middle Earth has been very good to Jackson, but I hope that now this incredibly talented filmmaker will turn his attention, and his camera, back towards regular old Earth.


The Phoenix Film Critics Society, of which I am always proud to note that I'm a founding member, has announced our 2014 Award Winners. As always, some of them reflect my voting—despite my gripes about Birdman, for instance, Michael Keaton had my vote—and others don't, but there are plenty of movies worth seeing on the list. I was particularly pleased to see the powerful and artful Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me take Best Documentary.

BEST PICTURE

Birdman

TOP TEN FILMS OF 2014 (in alphabetical order)

A Most Violent Year
Birdman
Boyhood
Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Imitation Game
The Lego Movie
The Theory of Everything
Whiplash

BEST DIRECTOR

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

Michael Keaton, Birdman

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

J. K. Simmons, Whiplash

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game

BEST ENSEMBLE ACTING

Birdman

BEST SCREENPLAY WRITTEN DIRECTLY FOR THE SCREEN

The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST SCREENPLAY ADAPTED FROM MATERIAL IN ANOTHER MEDIUM

Gone Girl

BEST LIVE ACTION FAMILY FILM (Rated G or PG)

Into the Woods

THE OVERLOOKED FILM OF THE YEAR

Edge of Tomorrow

BEST ANIMATED FILM

The Lego Movie

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Ida

BEST DOCUMENTARY

Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

"Everything is Awesome," The Lego Movie

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Birdman

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Birdman

BEST FILM EDITING

Birdman

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Intersellar

BEST STUNTS

Edge of Tomorrow

BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE ON CAMERA

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE BEHIND THE CAMERA

Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A YOUTH IN A LEAD OR SUPPORTING ROLE: MALE

Jaeden Lieberer, St. Vincent

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A YOUTH IN A LEAD OR SUPPORTING ROLE: FEMALE

Lilla Crawford, Into the Woods

Friday, December 12, 2014

FLIPPING THE BIRD

Birdman has racked up the SAG and Golden Globe nominations this past week. But somehow, big fan of Michael Keaton though I am, that film, remarkable though it is, rubs me the wrong way. Check out my list, on Topless Robot, of some reasons why.

Opening this week:


Top FiveChris Rock is the best American stand-up comedian currently active, and one of the greatest of all time. He is, beyond doubt, a comedy star. But somehow he’s never been able to make a convincing case that he’s a movie star. Something about the guy’s presence has always seemed to shrink a little, grow weaker, when he’s not on stage by himself, but is surrounded by a bunch of actors in a fiction film.

This has nothing to do with his talent. He’s natural and believable enough onscreen, and in an early supporting role in New Jack City (1991) he showed himself capable of powerful acting. But when he’s at the center of a movie, he suddenly no longer has that electric command of the audience’s attention that he has doing stand-up. His star vehicles, like Bad Company, Down to Earth and I Think I Love My Wife, make a sadly forgettable list.

The bad news about his new film Top Five, which he also wrote and directed, is that it doesn’t entirely end this streak. It isn’t a knockout. The good news is that it’s nonetheless the best he’s done so far, by a good margin, and its best scenes are vibrant, complex and extremely funny.

The film, Rock’s version of Sullivan’s Travels or Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, traces a long day in the life of Andre Allen (Rock), a comedian and the star of a string of idiotic but lucrative “Hammy the Bear” comedies. Andre’s in New York trying to promote his new movie Uprize, a tortured drama about Haitian revolutionary Dutty Boukman, and to attend a bachelor party for his upcoming wedding to a reality-TV diva (Gabrielle Union). He agrees, reluctantly, to be interviewed by a New York Times contributor (Rosario Dawson), a big fan of his stand-up who disapproves of the cheesy commercial turn his career has taken.

Can you guess where this is headed? Well, you’re right, but the plot, such as it is, isn’t the point here. Rock has cunningly structured the film so that Dawson provides an onscreen audience for his riffs on various subjects. There are also terrific freestanding sequences, like a punishingly funny (and dirty) flashback of Andre’s lowest point, or a raucous ensemble scene when he visits his family.

The movie hits some false notes and dawdles on a bit too long, and in any case it comes nowhere near Rock’s strongest stand-up. Even so, at least for fans of this genius, it’s well worth seeing.



Exodus: Gods and KingsFor all his diligence as an actor, Christian Bale—like Rock, I suppose, only more so—sometimes shows a recessive puniness of spirit as movie star. At least for me, he lacks the grandeur to play a superhero.

Theoretically, this might make him right for the role of Moses in a movie about the Old Testament prophet, who was, after all, an unimpressive speaker in his own opinion. In practice, however, giving the lead in a nearly three-hour epic to a guy with a brick in his mouth turns out to be inadvisable. Say what you will about Charlton Heston’s monolithic turn in The Ten Commandments, but you caught every furious word. When the old Pharaoh (John Turturro) asks if the Egyptians can beat the Hittites or if the slaves are about to revolt or whatever, Bale’s Moses replies “Fribshm mblim snablub griflb.”

That said, the plagues and miracles are entertainingly staged by director Ridley Scott, and Ramses, played by Joel Edgerton—no champ in the diction department either—has our sympathy when he loses his child on Passover. There’s some ingenious dialogue, too, particularly between Moses and God, here personified as a rather cheeky little boy. The kid has the diction of an RSC actor, by the way. I kept waiting for The Almighty to reply to one of Bale’s mumbles with “I’m sorry, I may be All-Knowing, but I didn’t catch that.”

Thursday, December 11, 2014

POP CULTURE 2

Here’s another of the soda can monsters I acquired recently…

Monster-of-the-Week: …a generic horned red-eyed beast filled with A&W Root Beer…


…which claims to be “MADE WITH AGED VANILLA.” I didn’t know that vanilla was better old. Or, for that matter, that it was an ingredient in root beer, at any age. But it’s darn tasty version of the beverage, no question.

Hey, here’s a pretty good joke: If you put root beer in a square glass, do you get beer?

Monday, December 8, 2014

SHORT SUBJECT

Playing tomorrow night only at Filmbar Phoenix:



The Search for Weng WengAustralian movie geek Andrew Leavold, long fascinated by the diminutive Filipino action star known as Weng Weng, made this chronicle of his investigation into the man’s life and career. “Diminutive” is really an inadequate adjective for Weng Weng—at 2 foot nine, Weng Weng is listed by the Guinness Book as the shortest male movie star ever (Harry Earles, the star of Freaks, was three or four inches taller). One of Weng Weng’s fetching costars describes him as “Very petite, like a potato.”

Born into extreme poverty as Ernesto Dela Cruz (the moniker “Weng Weng” is said to have been a reference to a famous cocktail), he showed an early aptitude for martial arts which brought him to the attention of the husband and wife producing team of Peter and Cora Caballes. After some bit and supporting parts in the ‘70s, they gave him the lead in a couple of low-budget actioners, the most high-profile of which, 1981’s For Y’ur Height Only, became an international moneymaker. Weng Weng plays Interpol Agent 00, who flies with a jetpack, mows down “goons” by the dozen with a machine gun and romances sultry sirens, all with the same unperturbed, faintly melancholy look on his face.

Leavold quickly learned that Weng Weng’s career was exploitation in every sense of the word. Not only did Pete and Cora Caballes—they were known as “Ninong” and “Ninang,” or Godfather and Godmother—exploit Weng Weng’s stature, they also paid him virtually nothing. By the late ‘80s, when Cora had entered politics, they stopped making movies, and Weng Weng ended up back in poverty until his death of a heart attack in 1992 at the age of 34, a few years older than the usual life expectancy for people with his type of dwarfism.

It’s a sad story, but it seems likely that it’s less sad than Weng Weng’s life would have been if he had never ended up in the movies—by all accounts he greatly enjoyed the work. Leavold’s lively, unpretentious documentary has marvelous interview material, from Weng Weng’s sweet family to his garrulous, funny colleagues in Filipino showbiz to that country’s sheepish film historians to, get ready, Imelda Marcos herself, who allowed Leavold to interview her on her 83rd birthday.

Marcos and family were hardcore movie lovers—a disturbingly common trait among brutal dictators—and supporters of their homegrown film industry (the nostalgia for their regime among the moviemakers is palpable) and Weng Weng was a welcomed visitor to their home. There were even stories that he was an actual government agent.

Crazily, it’s the former First Lady who puts the most positive spin on Weng Weng’s story: “The appearance of Weng Weng showed the great spirit of the Filipino people. They can make a hero of a disabled, distorted guy. So, everybody had a chance. They had such a democratic attitude. Filipinos have no prejudices.

Leavold is scheduled to appear at the Filmbar screening, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Friday, December 5, 2014

WALK SHOW

Opening today:


WildBack in the early ‘90s, Cheryl Strayed decided to take up hiking. Maybe a nice stroll around the block to start with, or a lap or two around the mall? No, Strayed figured she’d start by trudging well over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border to the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River.

Strayed wasn’t the sort to do things in moderation. She grieved her mother’s death from cancer by plunging into heroin addiction and reckless sex to the point where she drove off her long-suffering husband. Then she decided to exorcise these demons by, as her mother would say, “putting herself in the way of beauty,” hiking the PCT with an enormous backpack. She found plenty of beauty, along with physical exhaustion, bleeding feet and encounters with lots of creepy guys.

Now Reese Witherspoon is playing Strayed in this movie version of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, her 2012 bestseller and Oprah’s Book Club pick about her schlep. Directed by Jean-Marc Vall√©e from an adaptation by Nick Hornby, the movie is shameless Oscar bait: Big doses of Witherspoon grunting and sweating as she struggles up the trail, intercut with flashbacks of her grunting and sweating as she has sex with guys or shoots up.

Laura Dern is touching as the departed Mom, W. Earl Brown is funny as an oddball farmer, and Evan O’Toole has a great scene as a little boy who sings to Strayed. Other than that, the supporting cast of Wild doesn’t get to make much of an impression. It’s pretty much all Reese, all the time.

Still, it’s a credible, convincing performance in a skillfully made film. Glad though I am if it was helpful to Strayed, I admit I’m skeptical of this sort of grand, self-imposed, self-cleansing gesture. Not only would I wonder about its long-term therapeutic efficacy, it’s hard to banish the sense that it’s a middle-class indulgence—Strayed came from the working-class, but her aspirations and, as the movie amusingly acknowledges, her snobberies were of a middle-class literary sort.

Having said all that, I can also understand the psychological appeal of the idea, plausible or not, of setting your spiritual house in order in one hard pilgrimage. And Wild is an absorbing dramatization of it.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

POP CULTURE

Left over from Halloween, I suppose, are these six-packs of little soft drink cans adorned with monster faces. On the 7-Up can…

Monster-of-the-Week: ...is this week’s honoree…


…a Creature of the Black Lagoon-ish aquatic creature. Best touch: the fishhook in his lower lip.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

HOME ON DERANGED

Here’s an interesting one I finally caught up with this week, still in theaters here in the Valley:



The HomesmanIt’s not the sort of movie you’d recommend for lighthearted holiday viewing—essentially, it’s one serious downer after another. Spoiler alert: this movie offers a woman losing three babies to diphtheria, a man sexually violating his wife while her mother looks on, and—get ready—a woman tossing her newborn into the pit of an outhouse.

The task of transporting these three near-catatonic women from their wretched Nebraska Territory town back east to a church haven in relatively civilized Iowa falls to Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a capable unmarried farmer. She rescues a scruffy claim jumper (Tommy Lee Jones) from lynching in return for a vow that he’ll accompany her on the trek. He does, and further dangers, miseries and humiliations ensue.

If you can steel yourself to these horrors and heartaches, this bitter western, directed by Jones and boasting a cast that includes the likes of James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Lithgow, Barry Corbin and Meryl Streep, is worthwhile. It’s tragic, certainly, but it’s vigorous and expansive; it feels alive.

Jones seems to be a real moviemaker. In this film as in his previous feature, 2005’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he shows both an eye and an unembarrassed readiness to engage the issues at the core of the conflicted American soul.

He also gives his usual effortlessly commanding performance. For most of the film, however, the real star is Swank. She’s heartbreaking as this strong but emotionally impoverished woman, starved for music, quietly desperate to find a man who doesn’t think she’s too "bossy" to marry, pathetically trying to make a whimsical game of naming her mules. She’s supposed to be “plain,” but even bereft of makeup she is, of course, a fine-boned beauty. If you can look past this Hollywood convention, though, it’s a superb and devastating performance.

The Homesman is based, by the way, on a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout. Odd to think he’s the same guy who wrote Where the Boys Are.