Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Homesman

Homesman is a stark and unforgiving piece of work, it's a film that proposes that insanity is a likely result of the loneliness and privation of frontier life. In this sense The Homesman almost feels like The Last Western, a film that comes at the end of a century of myth making. It's a work bold in its darkness and in the way it considers what a life in the West can do to those who choose to light out for the territory.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank in a seriously underappreciated performance) is on her own in 1850's Nebraska. Cuddy is financially secure and seems quite capable of managing her property and animals. Then, in an early scene, Cuddy all but begs a neighbor (Evan Jones) to marry her. Her proposal is rejected and we realize the degree to which Cuddy hasn't transcended her surroundings. Indeed, she is barely hanging on. The Homesman (directed and co-written by Tommy Lee Jones from a novel by Glendon Swarthout) isn't interested in mythologizing Cuddy, but rather in dramatizing the mere act of her survival.

 The bulk of The Homesman follows a journey Cuddy makes in order to bring three women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter) from the Plains back to their families in the East. The women have all become mentally ill and their husbands can no longer cope with them. We don't really get to know the women as characters, instead their illnesses are dramatized in a series of short, nightmarish scenes. Cuddy enlists George Briggs (Jones), a man she saves from hanging, as a partner for the journey with the promise of three hundred dollars once the group reaches their destination. Briggs is an intelligent man but a wayward spirit, coping with the frontier by never settling in one place too long.

The real enemy in The Homesman is the country itself. Cuddy and Briggs have brief contact with Indians but meet almost no other people along the way. Jones never lets things get sentimental, and the abrupt cuts that recur throughout (Briggs singing at a campfire into Indians looking down from a rise) are as jarring as the way the open country can change one's fortune.

I don't agree with every choice The Homesman makes. The film shies away from being a genuinely feminist work and indeed the fate of the three women (involving a walk-on by Meryl Streep as a minister's wife) doesn't matter enough. Still the last act follows through on the film's vision, and the last shot suggests that once one has returned from the West the only real choice one has is to go back. The Homesman is an important late Western, and a fine testament to the talents of Jones and Swank. Also with Hailee Steinfeld as a woman who could (sort of) be Cuddy's daughter.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service evokes the idea of the “Gentleman Spy”, a concept that we are told reached its zenith in the 1960’s James Bond films. The idea of Bond as the guiding spirit of Kingsman isn’t just suggested through plotting or visual style, it is openly discussed by an agent known as “Galahad” (Colin Firth) and a man named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). Kingsman, like every other film I’ve seen directed by Matthew Vaughn, has no time for subtlety. Galahad, whose real name is Harry Hart, and his colleagues are a free-floating intelligence agency that has taken upon itself the task of keeping the world peaceful. (The idea that the Kingsmen are stateless - though very English - is actually an important departure from the Bond films since nowadays countries are just staging areas for different kinds of threats.) Harry reports to a boss we know as Arthur (Michael Caine, exactly as you’d expect) while at the same time mentoring Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a working-class kid to whom Harry thinks he can pass on the Kingsman tradition.

The preceding paragraph describes garbage of a very high order. Vaughn uses what could have been the setup for a genre pastiche or a political satire to stage a series of set pieces in which the only thing that matters is the degree to which death is treated as a contrivance. There’s a tense scene in which Eggsy and his fellow would be Kingsman Roxy (Sophie Cookson) must survive a parachute jump, and on the low end of the scale a bloody fight sequence in which Harry hacks his way through an American church to the tune of “Free Bird”. Along the way Kingsman (adapted from a Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons comic) stops to fetishize bespoke suits, spy gadgetry, and the already tired idea that people are slaves to their cell phones. The bit about the cell phones is a particular issue for Jackson’s Valentine, whose plans to reorganize society are what set the plot in motion. Jackson, whose character speaks with a lisp and dresses like a Russell Simmons impersonator, appears to be having more fun here than I’ve seen him have in a while but even he can’t save what is essentially a live action video game. There’s a repeated line of dialogue in Kingsman to the effect that what’s happening “isn’t that kind of movie”, in other words that there will be no overly complex schemes or villains giving long speeches at the wrong times. “It isn’t that kind of movie” should be the tagline in the Kingsman advertising, because in two hours time those are the most honest words you’ll hear.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Portman on Malick

Natalie Portman on working with Terrence Malick in Knight of Cups:
I felt really lucky to have worked with Terry right before directing for the first time [the feature “A Tale of Love and Darkness”] because he reminded me that the rules of filmmaking are not necessary, the way we do things, the rituals we have are not necessary and you can find your own way. [You have] to allow the mistakes, to welcome the problems. What you might normally consider a problem, Terry would look as an opportunity: when it’s raining, you shoot in the rain. You don’t change the schedule which is what you would normally do. I think that kind of embracing the unknown and chance and anything can happen was really… and also a certain searching for the discoveries every day. There’s no sense of that you have a script that you’re executing and making the movie. It’s like every day is a search for something beautiful, which is a great way to go even into a more conventional shoot.
More here.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

There is a sequence in the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending that points to a film that might have been. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an unhappy cleaning woman taken from Earth when it is discovered she is the reincarnation of a powerful intergalactic figure. The scene in which Jupiter claims the title and privileges due her doesn’t involve a fight or even a confrontation, although there are plenty of both of those elsewhere. Instead Jupiter and her protector/love interest Caine (Channing Tatum) must go through a sort of bureaucratic hell, a trip to a series of increasingly warren-like offices each with its own officious clerk. Finally Jupiter receives her signet from a man who looks like a mad professor. The whole sequence feels like something out of a Terry Gilliam film, and in fact Gilliam plays the man who gives Jupiter her signet. The director of Brazil could have made quite a comedy out of this story which the Wachowskis have turned into a dull mess.

Jupiter Ascending is about Jupiter’s discovery that the Earth and her people are a commodity, part of an intergalactic capitalist system in which people are “harvested” for their ability to produce a substance that will give other people longer lives. To put it another way, this film could bring back the phrase “It’s made out of people!“ Three siblings seem to control most of the market, most annoying among them Balem (Eddie Redmayne, who speaks in a strangled whisper and appears to be sedated until the last half-hour or so). Balem has plans for Jupiter’s family and the rest of the Earth’s population, but Jupiter can save the Earth by doing … well, it isn’t quite clear exactly. The Wachowskis’ script is so full of exposition and legalistic detail that it wasn’t until after I’d left the theater that I realized that all Jupiter really had to do was show up and not get killed for her royal blood to negate Balem’s power. That’s where Caine comes in, a character who’s always swooping in to save Jupiter at the key moment just like a sort of unfunny Han Solo. The doggedness that worked for Tatum in Foxcatcher doesn’t save him in a film in which his character is required to explain how his gravity boots work. There is also Sean Bean, playing a man who lives in a house full of bees who turns out to be a sort of mentor and sidekick to Caine. At one point Bean’s character sits down to explain nothing less than the history of the universe to Jupiter only to have the lecture interrupted when his tablet breaks. Perhaps the Wachowskis were pushing the limits of their budget at that point.

Jupiter Ascending ends with Jupiter and Caine flying into the camera as if they were headed for a story meeting on a sequel that will never be made. The Wachowskis have made the worst kind of bad movie, one that takes itself far too seriously to be enjoyable even as camp. May I suggest the Wachowskis set their next film entirely on Earth? Or, failing that, just hire a screenwriter.

Friday, February 06, 2015

A Most Violent Year

J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is a major achievement, a film that evokes the best of 1970’s New York cinema while also aspiring to be genuine tragedy. The omission of Chandor’s third feature from major year-end awards consideration is a harder story to tell than the overlooking of Selma, but not recognizing A Most Violent Year for its acting, directing, writing, and design is almost as serious a mistake. The film takes place over a month in the winter of 1981. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the owner of a New York City heating oil business who has ambitious plans to expand. Abel’s purchase of a piece of land with oil tanks and river access will make him a major player in the market, but to complete the deal he must come up with $1.5 million in 30 days. The plans of Abel and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) are complicated by a prosecutor (David Oyelowo) investigating Abel’s company and by a series of attacks on Abel’s trucks that he believes are the work of one of his competitors. Abel is a man committed (to a fault) to honor, and as pressure builds he refuses help from both a Teamster boss (Peter Gerety, whose character wants to arm Abel’s drivers) and his wife (whose family has organized crime ties).

Many scenes in A Most Violent Year are scored to the sound of a radio news reader detailing violent crime. The New York of this film is one we haven’t seen in quite while, it’s a run down city far removed from the post-Giuliani, Disney on Broadway attraction of today. I happened to stay through most of the credits and noted the production employed its own graffiti artists, no doubt to provide texture to scenes like the chase that moves from car to foot to subway as Abel tracks a man who has stolen his truck. That chase concludes with the most violent act Abel performs in the film, and it’s a measure of the restraint Chandor achieves throughout that the question of how far Abel will go becomes so gripping. Oscar Isaac achieves a wonderful coiled anger under Abel’s smooth surface, if you only know Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis you might not recognize him here. This film is also a family drama, and at home Abel is in turn fueled by Anna’s belief in his success and frightened of what she will do in his name. Chastain plays Anna as capable of anything, and her family connections - alluded to but left off stage - represent a way out that Abel doesn’t want to take. Chandor has cast with an eye to filling out even the briefest scenes. Albert Brooks is rumpled and worn in a very specific way as Abel’s lawyer, and Abel’s business rivals include Alessandro Nivola and David Margulies. Catalina Sandino Moreno, with an Oscar nomination on her resume, shows up for a one scene role as a woman who gets in the way when Abel must find a vanished driver who has brought his business unwelcome attention.

J.C. Chandor’s true subject here is power, and more importantly the different ways power can be achieved. Abel realizes that real power comes through leverage, and in the end even Oyelowo’s prosecutor seems to have learned this lesson. After Abel’s business dealings are settled thanks to the film’s one misstep, a contrivance involving a large sum of hidden money, Chandor ends on an unusually ambiguous note as if to acknowledge how tenuous Abel’s situation really is. There isn’t anything ambiguous about how good A Most Violent Year is, or about the promise of what J.C. Chandor might do next.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Ned Rifle trailer

Ned Rifle - Trailer from Hal Hartley on Vimeo.

Here's the trailer for Hal Hartley's Ned Rifle, the conclusion of a trilogy that also includes Henry Fool and Fay Grim.

Monday, February 02, 2015

American Sniper

I think I made the  mistake of reading too much about American Sniper before seeing it, from thoughtful blog posts by the likes of Glenn Kenny to ideologically charged Facebook statuses from friends. So, in trying to review the film I'm really reviewing my own reaction to a degree I'm not used to. What to do?

Clint Eastwood's adaptation of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle's memoir isn't concerned with the political justifications for American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but rather with the lived experiences of men and women on the ground. The criticism that Iraqis are caricatured here (there’s no sense of the war’s effect on Iraqi non-combatants) is a legitimate one, but I do think Eastwood has the right to make a film about the war’s very specific effect on these American lives. Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper as a vessel waiting to be filled) demonstrates an uncanny talent as a sniper - he is the officially the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history - but over the course of four tours he also begins to lead a assault team in pursuit of Al Qaeda officer Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Kyle returns to combat again at the end of each tour from a sense of patriotism and duty to his fellow soldiers even as the effects of combat strain his marriage to Taya (strong Sienna Miller) back home. Casting Miller was a wise choice, the film gains a great deal of depth from the presence of an actress who can match Cooper's presence.

The most surprising element of American Sniper is the degree to which Eastwood and Cooper are willing to portray the effects of combat on Kyle even while the character himself doesn't admit anything is wrong. We meet Kyle as a good-time country boy who smoothly picks up Taya in a bar and then watch him become more sullen and withdrawn from his family until an incident at a family barbecue forces him to seek counseling. The greatest service this film can do is to serve as a reminder of the wars our soldiers must fight when returning home. Eastwood compartmentalizes Kyle's story into scenes at war and at home - the combat scenes are superbly shot - but Kyle can't do the same, especially in a scene where a former soldier (Jonathan Groff) who credits Kyle with saving his life approaches him on American soil. Scenes of Kyle interacting with other veterans are believably inarticulate. The film suggests that the experiences helped Kyle but in 2013 a veteran whom Kyle was trying to counsel shot and killed him on a Texas gun range.

American Sniper works well on its own terms, as a story of heroism and of the consequences of war on soldiers and their families. The decision to omit certain incidents in Kyle's post-military career and the subsequent controversy has obscured the message. Those who find meaning in American Sniper can't be faulted, but Kyle may be too difficult a figure for the film to finally take its place as a classic of American military cinema.