Promised Land (Gus Van Sant, 2012). This is exactly the sort of appalling earnest, dramatically inert fare that makes many rightly cringe when they think about the sort of medicine-tinged movies Oscar season might bring. With a story credit for Dave Eggers and a shared screenplay credit for Matt Damon and John Krasinski, who also start in the film, Promised Land takes the issue of fracking and tries to spin a sort of Capraesque fable with a dose of twenty-first century cynicism and a gotcha plot twist for good measure. Damon plays an ambitious employee of a global energy concern who goes to a small Pennsylvania town with his partner in corporate hucksterism (Frances McDormand, who seems sort of amused with her own slumming) to sell the populace on selling drilling rights on the cheap. Every bit of the film comes across as phony, the detached outrage of privileged celebrities rendered into hollow storytelling. Van Sant directs with the sleepy disinterest of a hired hand.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015). Sometimes all a documentary really needs to be successful is the right subject. Garbus doesn’t assemble this consideration of the life and career of the great Nina Simone with especially notable verve or invention, but that perversely winds up as one of the film’s great strengths. The less intrusive the filmmaking, the better the film. When the archival footage is presented with the least amount of fuss or contextualizing, meaning it’s pure and direct Simone, the documentary is gripping and colossal. It’s only when actively trying to make sense of the performer and her influence that it starts to wobble, as if the task of explaining a troubled force of nature like Simone is beyond the ken of any single work of cinematic scholarship.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015). The eager embrace and the corresponding implicit mockery of the staggering ridiculousness of his own screen persona is the best thing to ever happen to Tom Cruise, whether he’s fully aware of what he’s doing or not. Following last year’s thoroughly delightful sci fi, action monstrosity Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise bounds back into the Mission: Impossible franchise, bringing McQuarrie (credited co-writer of Edge of Tomorrow and writer-director of Jack Reacher, which also starred Cruise) along for the super-charged ride. I’m not entirely sure the plot makes a lick of sense, but what does it matter when the only real need of the movie is to move breathlessly from one nutty set piece to another. It also gives Cruise another chance to play his new favorite role: guy who everyone thinks is crazy, but has actually been right all along. L. Ron would be proud. Most of the rest of the cast is incidental, though it’s worth noting that female lead Rebecca Ferguson really does seem like a big star waiting to happen, and, on the evidence of what’s onscreen, Alec Baldwin spent his breaks standing around the craft services table coaching his fellow actors on the fine art of delivering lines with raspy, relaxed intensity.
Barbara (Christian Petzold, 2012). This drama about a physician in 1980 East Berlin is measured and thoughtful, steeped in the most world-weary type of wisdom. Nina Hoss plays the title role, a woman committed to escaping her repressive county who takes a position in pediatric surgery at a hospital. She captures the attention of the doctor in charge of her department (Ronald Zehrfeld), in part because of her willingness to push part immediate preconceptions in making diagnoses and in part because of the distance she wants to keep. As he does with the recent Phoenix (also starring Hoss and Zehrfeld), Petzold is careful in his storytelling, parceling out details with the patience of a novelist. That’s admirable, but it also can make Barbara drag at times. It’s a strong film, but a touch more liveliness wouldn’t hurt.
Dames (Ray Enright and Busby Berkeley, 1934). This bubbly lark of a musical is filled with details that now seem familiar: the pompous older relative whose attached conditions to a promised inheritance, the clash between heavy moralists and freedom-loving youth, and the charming rapscallion who dreams of putting on a great big show. Enright’s direction is staid and stalwart, all the better to emphasize the pivot when Berkeley’s musical numbers sweep in with their dreamlike overstatement. Besides Berkeley’s glittery visions, the film is at its best when tweaking the hypocrisy of the judgmental, notably the proud disparagers of alcohol (the film was release mere months after Prohibition was stripped out of the Constitution) getting boozy on a so-called health elixir and therefore becoming ebullient over the very Broadway show they’ve come to condemn for its supposed tawdry flouting of conventions.