Since Christmas and New Years are just around the corner, it’s another very, very short week on this week in home video. This week’s releases include two indie dramas, a biographical drama about a chess prodigy, a terrible origin story, and one of the very best westerns of the year.
Let’s start with the two indie dramas. First, there’s Sebastian Silva’s “Nasty Baby,” starring himself and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe as a gay couple trying to have a baby with the help of their friend played by Kristen Wiig. Though the film ambles along pleasantly enough for the majority of its running time, a shocking third act veers the film in a radically different direction, and depending on your reaction, either ruins it or adds some life to it. Though critics have been mixed on the film in general, they’re quick to praise Wiig’s performance as another in a long line of stellar, low-key turns in movies this year. Second, there’s Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth,” an intense psychodrama about two close female friends who discover they’ve drifted apart when they retreat to a lake house. Starring Elizabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, “Queen of Earth” follows in the tradition of early Polanski movies where every frame bleeds with unbearable, inexplicable dread, and relies on strong, alienating performances to put the audience at ill ease. Critics adored “Queen of Earth” and especially praised Moss’ unhinged performance as a highlight.
Other films this week include “Pawn Sacrifice,” about the 1972 World Chess Championship in Iceland between Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) during the Cold War. Next, there’s the widely-reviled “Pan,” which tells the origin story of Peter Pan and Captain Hook, because that’s the origin story we all needed to hear. Next week, there are a couple films Criticwire wanted to highlight early: S. Craig Zahler’s debut feature, and one of the very best films of the year, “Bone Tomahawk,” which is about four men in the old west who have to rescue captives from cave-dwelling cannibals; and Ken Kwapis’ “A Walk in the Woods” starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte as two old men who hike the Appalachian trail in search of “what’s next.”
Alan Zilberman, The Washington Post
On the plus side, Silva’s meandering screenplay has an authentic, improvised quality to it. Yet he invests too little in each concurrent plotline, instead having them clash with sudden, bloody violence. “Nasty Baby” starts as a wry comedy and eventually takes an abrupt turn toward horror. Perhaps Silva views life and death as part of the larger, cosmic balance. Unfortunately, he squanders any chance to create depth by stripping his characters of sympathetic qualities, until raw terror is all they have. Ultimately, Silva’s uneven command of tone undoes whatever goodwill his actors have managed to generate. They — and we — deserve much better than this. Read more.
“Queen of Earth”
Criticwire Average: B+
Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
There are times in “Queen of Earth” when Mr. Perry, who’s content to skim the surface rather than break it, comes across like an exceptionally gifted student trying his hand at art-cinema pastiche. To that end, it can be entertaining to watch him flip through its playbook, trying out oblique angles and off-center staging while the composer Keegan DeWitt’s dissonant, mood-altering score samples the Euro-style hits. Mr. Perry and his cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, oscillate between fixed and moving cameras, and there’s a terrific scene in which the camera shifts from Catherine to Virginia and back again as each shares a defining story. Ms. Waterston, a Modigliani in motion and often in black, easily holds your attention, but it is Ms. Moss, with her intimate expressivity, who annihilates you from first tear to last crushing laugh. Read more.
Criticwire Average: B-
Godfrey Cheshire, RogerEbert.com
Although Edward Zwick’s “Pawn Sacrifice” has the great virtue of centering on expert performances by a cast including Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber and Peter Sarsgaard, it ends up as a sad example of the inherent difficulties of dramatizing a cerebral face-off like the 1972 battle royale between chess masters Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. No doubt the subject here could make for a strong film. It certainly did in “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” Liz Garbus’ justly acclaimed 2011 nonfiction account of the same material. The latest proof that some real-life incidents come across more dramatically when treated as documentaries rather than fact-based fiction, Zwick’s film effectively poses the question of why viewers should care about a chess match that riveted the world more than 40 years ago. Read more.
Criticwire Average: C-
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club
Wright’s last movie, the Tom Stoppard-scripted “Anna Karenina,” was a heap of façades, theatrical devices, and expressionist effects scrambled with tony melodrama — an unusual adaptation, though not necessarily a personal one, with a surplus of motifs that never quite flourished into themes. (See also: Wright’s earlier “Hanna,” a movie in which fairy-tale imagery symbolized…fairy tales.) Turning Peter (newcomer Levi Miller) into a generic questing boy hero leaves a whole lot of blank space, which “Pan” covers in elaborate, eye-catching doodles — an escape via steampunk cable car here, a Ramones musical number there, and an extended animated sequence to top it all off. Sometimes, the aspect ratio switches so that swords can pop out over the edge of the frame; at other points, the color palette gets graded down into the cyan-and-warm-tones look of primitive two-strip Technicolor, à la “The Aviator.” It’s hard to make the case that any of this means anything, or is even supposed to, and how much a given viewer gets out of “Pan” is probably proportional to how much they enjoy pure bric-a-brac and the occasional silly sight gag — or, conversely, how much they can stomach nudge-nudge references to Barrie’s source material. At once thinly conceived and maddeningly over-designed, irreverent and over-serious, and chock-full of strained references (to World War II, environmentalism, and drugs, among other things) and creepy violence, “Pan” is an elaborate flight of fancy with no vision — which makes it strangely compelling in spots. Read more.
Criticwire Average: B
Bilge Ebiri, Vulture (New York Magazine)
There’s an elegance to “Bone Tomahawk” that doesn’t let up even when it veers into cult-movie territory. Zahler is a patient director, willing to let scenes unfold, with tension developing organically. He uses music sparingly; the early scenes in town are almost unnaturally quiet, with the moody, minimalist score (credited to Jeff Herriot and Zahler himself) only kicking in once the search party strikes out for the territory. As the men become more and more desperate, the camera comes in closer and closer. But even the final act is devoid of the kind of unhinged stylistic hysteria that can take over films that upend genre. You could even say that’s what makes it so disturbing — the director’s unflinching eye reveals both character and violence. “Bone Tomahawk” is terrifying and strange, to be sure, but it’s the old-fashioned veneer that makes it beautiful. Read more.
“A Walk in the Woods”
Criticwire Average: C
Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times
Kwapis, who has a background in TV and has directed numerous features such as “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” seems ill at ease with letting scenes just play out. There is no meditative or relaxing aspect to the movie, as events are always being pushed to happen rather than allowed to naturally unfold. The film has an uncomfortable look-at-these-yokels attitude toward everyone Bryson and Katz encounter along their way. Things reach a low point in an extended bit about Katz’s trying to hook up with a hefty woman he meets in a small town laundromat and running afoul of her pickup-driving husband. There is also a dismaying, dismissive attitude toward women — in particular a motormouth hiker (Kristen Schaal) the pair encounters on the trail — that goes unexplored. Read more.