Movie Reviews: Get On Up, The Homesman, No Good Deed

Get On Up (12A), Tate Taylor’s biopic of ‘the Godfather of Soul’, James Brown, is no ordinary rags-to-riches tale. 

The film is told in flashback, by Brown (Chadwick Boseman) himself, as he reflects on his incarceration in prison late in life, after surviving a horrific childhood to pioneer a soul-funk sound that has become, courtesy of innumerable samples, ubiquitous in contemporary music.

Taylor’s film, from Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script, is edgy, spiky and constantly intriguing, not least because it never allows Brown the unalloyed joy of success; even at his most popular moments, some personal fault or flaw, some dark secret from out of the past, will puncture the mood and remind our hero of his impoverished, brutal upbringing (Brown was, as a recurring motif reminds us, ‘born dead’).

The story gives Brown full credit for creating a unique sound, and for reinventing the way popular music artists toured, and for his high-profile role during the Civil Rights movement; at the same time it pulls no punches in describing the domestic violence, the megalomania and the paranoia.

Boseman is excellent in the lead role, exuding charm and menace as required, offering nods and winks to the audience by speaking directly to the camera, and entirely inhabiting the character on stage in superbly choreographed routines to a soundtrack that is, of course, toe-tappingly brilliant.

Nelsan Ellis is equally strong in the main supporting role, playing Brown’s life-long friend and occasional foe Bobby Byrd, and an impressive supporting cast flesh out the minor roles, including Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Dan Aykroyd and Lennie James.

Deranged by the harsh realities of frontier life in the Old West, three women are transported to asylum by wagon in The Homesman (15A).

The woman entrusted to secure the women’s safe passage is Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), who commissions drifter and frontier veteran George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) to ride shotgun. Adapted from novel by Glendon Swarthout, who also wrote the novel on which The Shootist was based, and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman is a neo-Western which glories in the filth, squalor and backbreaking realities of life in the Old West.

The classic myth of the noble pioneer triumphing against insuperable odds is undermined here by the depiction of a prosaic and brutal world that grinds down even the strongest of characters, driving them insane as they struggle to cope.

Rodrigo Prieto’s superb cinematography offers a haunting, widescreen sense of how vast and desolate the prairies truly were, particularly when the rare sighting of another human being usually resulted in conflict and very frequently violence.

There’s an honesty too in Swank and Jones’ performances, in their eschewing of sentimentality or tender feeling: Jones is gruff, rough and dangerous to know, while Mary Bee’s yearning for a life more ordinary is by necessity subsumed into her pragmatic, functional persona as she drives her catatonic charges ever onward.

The excellent supporting cast includes Meryl Streep, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Lithgow and William Fichtner, but it’s the complex, shifting dynamics of the relationship engineered by Jones and Swank that dominates this bleak, downbeat but magnificent film.

London-born Idris Elba (The Wire) shows he has more than a few American accents in his locker in the home invasion thriller No Good Deed. He plays the gravel-voiced southerner Colin, an escaped convict with a history of violence towards women.

A fugitive, Colin kills his girlfriend in a fit of jealous rage and crashes his getaway car near former lawyer Terry’s (Taraji P Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) secluded house; she’s miffed that hubby is away for the week and welcomes the attention of the charming stranger turning up at her door seeking assistance. However, once in the house, and once the sexual tension bleeds into rising horror as Colin’s eyes turn from kind to dead, Terry is forced to snatch sharp cutlery to defend her sleeping children upstairs.

Running at a brief 84 minutes, this thriller is on fast forward, bursting its way to the climax with scant regard for believability or plausibility.

Elba and Henson do what they can with their underwritten roles but it’s hard work when the best line is: “Where can I smoke without getting wet?”

If this was intended to be funny, and if director Sam Miller opted for this tone throughout, No Good Deed might have had something.

 


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