Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Fish With a Bicycle

Hilary Swank gits r done in The Homesman.

««1/2 The Homesman. Written by Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley A. Oliver, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones. At selected theaters.

In a political landscape dominated by arguments subtle enough to fit on bumper stickers, one of the oldest is "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." First coined by Australian writer-activist Irina Dunn, it's a classic and maybe the most silly, because five million years of evolution attest to the fact that, yes, most women do need men.
          The question haunts Tommy Lee Jones' new anti-Western, The Homesman. I say "anti-Western" because the movie focuses not on the conquest of the frontier, but a retreat from it. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a "fish without a bicycle" type—an intelligent, resourceful woman perfectly up to busting the sod on her Nebraska farm and setting a fine dinner table when she aims to. Unmarried but seeking, she approaches men not as a romantic suppliant, but as an equal with a business proposition. So formidable is Miss Mary Bee that she volunteers for a task none of the men in her town will touch: to escort three deranged frontier wives (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) through hundreds of miles of lawless territory to Iowa, where they will find rest and refuge from their clueless husbands. On the way, she rescues claim jumper George Briggs (Jones) from the end of a lynch-rope, but at a price of helping her accomplish her errand of mercy.
          Novelist and "Cowboy Hall of Fame" member Glendon Swarthout (The Shootist, Where the Boys Are) crafted an interesting premise when he wrote the book in the 1980's.  The movie rights were owned for years by Paul Newman, who never was able to get the project made. The Homesman then became a passion project for Jones, who directed this version himself.
          There's no question that the film has all of the elements it needed to succeed. Foremost is Hilary Swank, who has made a career of playing women struggling against the petty limitations of gender. No less impressive here as she was in Boys Don't Cry or Million Dollar Baby, she gives Mary Bee a dignity that reads as almost Lincolnesque, but with a core of vulnerability that makes her strength all the more appealing. She makes an interesting match with Jones' gristled anti-hero, who makes a career of traversing his own kinds of boundaries. They're different enough—and share enough—to be good dance partners.
          Jones has shot his film sparely, as if trying to distill some kind of classically tragic essence. In this context, the three damaged women they escort become a kind of mute chorus, responding to what they see in the only rational fashion insanity deserves.
          So why isn't The Homesman better? Perhaps more than any other recent film I can think of, it goes off the rails in one fell swoop, with a turn in the plot that shouldn't be spoiled here. Suffice it to say that Swank's character needs men after all. She departs the story in a sudden fashion that is neither sufficiently prepared for, nor adequately explained. Swarthout might have done so in the book (which I haven't read), which Jones may have lived with long enough to believe was clear enough. But on the screen, it isn't—at least without a goodly amount of post hoc rationalization.
          It's a shame. Though the Western is often thought of as a spent genre, it is a quintessentially American one, big enough to contain themes that are still relevant. Those gunslingers and cowboys were the original superheroes, the Indians the original "others" who turn out not to be so alien. (Star Trek, incidentally, was originally sold as a "space Western"). The story of women in the West is a vast, largely unexplored universe. Jones may have finished this journey, but he missed an opportunity by leaving its soul behind.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

They Came for My Neighbor

Bodnia and Bernal duel in Rosewater.

««« Rosewater. Written and directed by Jon Stewart, based on the book Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari & Aimee Molloy. At area theaters.
Most of America knows what The Daily Show host Jon Stewart did two summers ago: he went to the Middle East to direct a movie. His subject is the ordeal of journalist Maziar Bahari, who was imprisoned by the Iranian regime after covering street protests against the 2009 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Bahari's plight was directly connected to The Daily Show, as footage of a kidding interview with correspondent Jason Jones was used as "evidence" that Bahari was a spy for the CIA. Considering that Bahari's appearance was used against him, Stewart apparently felt that making a movie about his case was the least he could do.         
          The result is Rosewater, and it can at least be said that Stewart did not spend his summer vacation in vain. Based on Bahari's memoir Then They Came for Me, this is a well-wrought, definitely non-satirical account of one man's ordeal inside a modern police state (no, not the one Fox News accuses Obama of running—a real police state). In a characteristically chilling scene, Bahari's interrogator (Kim Bodnia) collects Bahari (Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal) from his childhood bedroom in his mother's house—literally from a sound sleep. "We are here now," he announces, as if they both knew it was inevitable. From there he is packed off to Tehran's infamous Evin prison.
          Bahari's "crime" was to videotape troops shooting protestors during the post-election demonstrations. After presenting his arrest, Stewart flashes back for the background—Bahari's life in London with his British wife (Claire Foy), his arrival in Tehran to cover the elections, his encounter with a highly schizoid Iranian society, half its people gazing in hope to the West, the other burning with resentment for half-imagined national humiliations. By the time Stewart circles back to Evin, he abruptly narrows his focus on the two rooms Bahari knew for 118 days—his bare cell, and the office where he was interrogated. Most of the latter he endured wearing a blindfold, knowing his tormentor only by his voice and his rosewater cologne.
        Stewart is a competent director largely because he seems to have watched a lot of other movies. While his portrayal of Bahari's confinement is vivid, it doesn't exactly break new cinematic ground. Bernal, likewise, is earnest and relatable, but not characterized very strongly. The impression overall is that Stewart is a frustrated progressive—he believes in both government and journalism, but yearns for both to more often achieve their ideals. It's a point many critics of The Daily Show miss, that its snarkiness and cynicism is only an act, barely hiding an almost dewy-eyed humanism.
        That Rosewater is non-satirical doesn't mean it lacks humor. Stewart gets a few yuks out of the Iranians' ignorance of American culture ("The Sopranos, that is porno, yes?"). When Bodnia invites Bahari to call his wife, he advises him to "dial 9" to get an outside line.
        That little snap of absurdity, that you need to dial 9 to call out of Evin Prison, is pure Jon Stewart. No argument that Rosewater has its heart in the right place. A little more bite, though, would have made a memorable film out a merely admirable one.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Fault in Ourselves

McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and David Gyasi in Interstellar.

«««1/2 Interstellar. Written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan. At area theaters.

Why don't more people find spiritual fulfillment in space science? One particular virgin birth has sparked millennia of devotion, but the births of whole solar systems elicits little more than a shrug. A one-day supply of oil lasted eight in the Hebrew temple, but nobody worships a Mars rover designed for 90 days that has lasted ten years.
          The obvious answer is that the miracles of human religion are really all about us, in the most personal sense. The universe is awesome, but it surely doesn't revolve around our little corner of the galaxy, or the race of hairless apes in temporary residence. The Crab Nebula doesn't give a shit about you, your life choices, or whether you're a good parent to your kids. Better an imaginary friend who lives in the sky than the apparently indifferent reality.
          Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is a lot of things—an engrossing space adventure, an homage to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, another notch in Matthew McConaughey's current streak of terrific performances. Maybe most significant of all, though, is that it's an attempt to present a vision of a universe that is both scientifically plausible and congenial to human hopes. It's a tough goal—maybe even impossible without a goodly amount of sentimental cheese. But it's fun to watch him try.
          The script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan opens on Earth in the near future. The planet is suffering from a vague ecological crisis, an epidemic of "blight" that is destroying the food supply and sucking up the world's oxygen. Mostly it just looks like global warming—but of course that's a politically toxic subject, so the movie presents it as another dust bowl. (Incidentally, crop failures are a predicted effect of climate change, as agricultural pests get to move into areas formerly too cold for them.) Troublingly, Americans chose to blame science and technology for the problem, instead of looking to them for solutions. Perhaps the film's most entertaining scene is early on, when former astronaut Cooper (McConaughey) learns that his daughter's school teaches that the Apollo Moon landings were a hoax. "Better we concentrate on this planet," says the teacher, "instead of wasting our time on useless machines." Cooper's response is less than diplomatic.
          NASA—now an underground organization—has a rescue plan: utilizing a wormhole that has miraculously appeared in our solar system, they send survey missions to habitable worlds in another galaxy. Cooper agrees to help, but must pay a steep cost. The mission will take him away from his family for years, perhaps decades. His daughter (Mackenzie Foy, played later by Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn) is angry at his abandonment, but you can't stop a guy with the Right Stuff.
          "Miraculous" is the key word here, because Interstellar follows 2001 in imagining there's Someone out there tinkering with our fates, ineffable and omnipotent and certainly not riding a cloud or sporting a white beard. The film's combination of enormous scale, intimate emotions, and mystical hand-waving doesn't "jell" by any means. It is occasionally quite touching, though, as McConaughey is convincing as the dedicated, guilt-wracked father.
          Along with the shadowy "aliens", Nolan pays tribute to Kubrick in other ways, such as the monolith-like robot that comes along for the mission, and the torus shape of Cooper's spacecraft. In spirit, though, Interstellar more closely follows the conceit of Carl Sagan's Contact—that beings clever enough to cross gulfs of space necessarily must be benign. (Others, such as Stephen Hawking, aren't so sure of this.)
          If you're not disposed to believe in a universe invested in our survival, the movie won't convince you otherwise. It is possible, though, that some similar kind of illusion will be necessary to make humanity finally a multi-planet species. The Church of the Crab Nebula awaits its apostle Paul.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro