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Friday, 26 May 2017

The Homesman (2014)

The viewer is readily suckered into the impression that this is a Hilary Swank movie showcase. She plays strong frontierswoman Mary Bee Cuddy, a tough cookie who can match any man, but who knows she is aging and secretly yearns for a husband and family. Her desperate proposal to a would-be candidate is roundly rejected, despite her relative wealth, since she is plain as the proverbial pikestaff. She believably rounds out the role.

When three local women lose their marbles for various reasons, leaving their families unable to cope, Mary Bee 'wins' the draw to drive them back east to Iowa, across the Missouri, where they can receive the necessary care. She seems every bit as competent -- if not more so -- than the weak-willed men who should have undertaken this five-week traipse across the prairie. However she realises that a man's help could be useful, and she enlists the services of wastrel and general chancer Tommy Lee Jones, who has been left to hang by vengeful locals -- not that they actually hanged him, but left him sitting on his restless horse with one end of the rope attached to the tree above. Mary Bee agrees to cut him loose and to pay him 300 dollars at the end of the trek if he in turn swears to help her look after her three crazy charges.

The madwomen are played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter and prove more than a handful for their mismatched minders. Swank and Jones gradually develop a modus operandi and a grudging respect for each other, despite his history of running away from any challenge when the going got tough (the army, a marriage) and her revealing her buried softer side. (Incidentally, he too dismisses a tentative marriage proposal). Then two-thirds through the film Swank's Mary Bee is unexpectedly and shockingly written out of the script and it becomes, what it was probably intended to be all along, a starring showcase for Tommy Lee, who directed the movie (his second directorial outing) and who co-wrote and co-produced. His usual curmudgeonly character is given top billing in a movie that Clint Eastwood would have been proud of, less a classic Western, more a character-driven road movie through the early pioneering days.

With Mary Bee out of the frame and having found the promised $300, Tommy Lee's first thought is to abandon his mad charges, but they chase after him and he perseveres through many hardships to get them back 'east'. Chuffed by his unexpected success and gradually accepting what a fine woman Mary Bee was, the viewer fully expects him to emerge as a reformed character. However, contrary to all expectations, he regresses -- sadly in this case -- to the feckless ne'er do well he has always been. What has been an occasionally humorous journey reveals itself to be an actual tragedy in the end moments.

One shouldn't have too many high expectations at seeing Meryl Streep's name in the 'and' role in the front credits. Hers is a brief cameo as the holier-than-thou Reverend's wife with whom the three mad ladies are deposited (a role than any middle-aged actress could have played, but no doubt agree to because of the casting of her daughter Gummer). In fact the movie is full of second-rank well-known actors: Barry Corbin, David Dencik, William Fichtner, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Hailee Steinfeld., who each have a few minutes to strut the stage. The truth is that this is the Swank-Jones Show with the final emphasis very much on Jones. 

Friday, 19 May 2017

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

I nearly didn't watch this extraordinary documentary -- seven and a half hours shown over five nights -- thinking can I really be bothered watching a story that has been newsworthy for decades. However since the film has been widely hailed as a masterpiece, "the ultimate documentary", I thought I should give it a go. It was well worth the effort, as compulsive viewing as the best thrillers, even if it was nearly impossible to emerge from the experience with any doubts regarding that fateful night when O.J.'s abused, white wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman were murdered.

Film-maker Ezra Edelman has taken the time to examine the background of his subject in detail and has called upon both archive footage and current interviews with dozens of the dramatis personae. Little in the end is left to the imagination and the viewer knows all he needs know to make up his own mind. What we have is akin to a modern Greek tragedy, a potentially great hero undone by his hubris and falling in the end to unimagined depths. There is little doubt that Simpson was an icon to many as a sporting superman, turning his fame into riches through sponsorship, personal appearances, and movie roles. He seemed charming, kind and infallible, with a life that could only continue to move happily forward -- but personality flaws became his downfall.

At the height of his fame his endless ego and self-confidence created a sense of invulnerability and untouchability. When invited to add his weight to the civil rights movement, he declined, announcing that his fame and status were nothing whatsoever to do with his racial identity. He was O.J. -- the Juice -- deserving of his celebrity status. However when he was arrested for murder, after a day-long, knuckle-chewing flight, staged for his ever-growing flock of supporters, his identity as a black man became paramount to his defence team of high-powered lawyers. Having been warned by the (it would seem) easily-led presiding judge, who no doubt was considering his own future, not to play the 'race card', this is precisely what they did; they even invited the largely black jury into Simpson's home, replacing the many photos of him with white celebrities with more appropriate black ones. Eventually the long, long trial became an indictment of the city of Los Angeles, its historically racist police department, and one purportedly racist cop who could have planted evidence. They were on trial, not the defendant whom the incontrovertible evidence alone should have convicted. His lawyers turned the courtroom into a media circus, making the prosecutors look inept, as they defended the wealthy man who could afford the legal costs of some $50,000 a day.

In the end the jury, after only a few hours deliberation, acquitted Simpson of murder to the jubilation of the black community. To them this was payback for the Rodney King affair and a thousand other indignities. They didn't give a damn if he was guilty or not; all that mattered is that a black man won a long overdue victory. To the white community, O.J. was a man who got away with murder. The division was wider than ever! A civil suit by the Goldmans resulted in a 'guilty' verdict with an order for him to pay 33 million in damages, and his life became a spiral into deceit and decadence thereafter. He could still put on the smiling charm when it suited him to do so, but the days when he was an infallible hero, to be put on a pedestal and worshipped, were long gone.

Currently he is serving a 33-year jail sentence on charges of robbery, kidnap, and threat of violence which frankly seems like overkill on the part of the sentencing Las Vegas judge. Whatever his flaws this 'poetic justice' is probably uncalled for and ridiculously punitive.. I suspect that many people now feel sorry for him, a sorrow that a golden life could end in such ignominy. There is probably little further drama to emerge from this very sad tale that has absorbed the public for the best part of fifty years and which Edelman has so brilliantly chronicled.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Nightcrawler (2014)

I am more than a little mystified as to why this movie has as high a rating on IMDb as it does: 7.9/, when so few films break the 8/- barrier on users' votes. Myself, I would be hard-pressed to grant it even a 7/- despite it being well-made, photographed, and acted. The problem is that although the movie holds the viewer's attention, it is unrelentingly and irredeemably nasty, leaving a bitter taste by the film's end.

I can not agree as some argue that it is a scathing satire, since I suspect it is remarkably true to reality. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, an immoral petty thief anxious to make his mark in the world. His 'lightbulb' moment arrives when he sees news cameramen at a crash site, videoing all the gory details amongst the gawkers. It seems that there is a profitable television audience for such footage. So Louis hocks his racing bike ("I rode it to win the Tour of Mexico" he claims) in exchange for a video camera and a police-frequency short wave radio. Now armed he can join the horde of gore-seekers who trawl the night streets in search of the latest bit of sensational slaughter with which to titillate the public.

Bloom finds an eager ally in Rene Russo, the news editor for a second-tier local television channel who is willing to pay good money for the latest scoop. Now in her sixties, she's still well preserved, but there is something very creepy about Bloom's making sexual overtures in her direction. "I'm twice your age", she protests; and while this is not quite accurate, it could be, with Gyllenhaal playing younger than his actual age. For this role he has lost weight, leaving him looking sallow, wasted and totally untrustworthy.

As he becomes more successful in getting to crime scenes first, he becomes more and more megalomaniacal, starring as the hero in his own make-believe world. He's driven, money-hungry, and not adverse to breaking the law in pursuit of unpalatable footage. He's a latter-day Weegee, with no redeeming qualities. He even withholds information which would lead the police to a pair of murderers in the hope of being there to record their capture in a dramatically satisfying scenario. He is without morals, seeing himself as invincible, and happy to sacrifice his underpaid assistant, Riz Ahmed, among the slaughtered.

Ahmed, an ethnic British hip-hop artist and actor in minor crime flicks, has made a surprising break-out in the U.S. market, with recent roles in "Jason Bourne" and "Rogue One", as well as the well-received mini-series "The Night of". Here he plays Bloom's na├»ve, but willing sidekick, paid a pittance, but promised great things by his manipulative boss. His puppy-like character really throws a spotlight on just how despicable a human being Bloom's 'nightcrawler' is. There is no comeuppance!

It's the perfect title for this movie. Bloom, in his relentless manipulation of truth and decency, comes across as some sort of creepy-crawly worm or snake that one would be advised to crush under one's heel.   

Friday, 5 May 2017

Carol (2015)

This movie may have been nominated for six Academy Awards -- none of which it won, but I must confess I didn't much like it. Thinking about this I remembered that I didn't reckon Cate Blanchett's Oscar-winning turn in "Blue Jasmine", one of the seven Oscar nominations she's received, including one for the above film. and I think my main problem is with the actress herself.

She won best supporting actress for "The Aviator" which was an ever-so brief impersonation of Katherine Hepburn (big deal) and was also nominated for her two "Elizabeth" films, "Notes on Scandal", and "I'm not There".  I wasn't taken with any of these performances. I would not dream of questioning her acting chops which verge on the formidable, but I find her characterizations cold and bloodless. Like her Hepburn turn she comes across as impersonating the characters she plays, rather than inhabiting them. There's a kind of 'look-at-me' show-off feel to all of them. Even her Galadriel in the "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" trilogies remains lifeless. I wish I knew what all the fuss is about.

In this movie she plays a bored, rich wife on the edge of divorce who takes up with shop-girl Rooney Mara (also Oscar-nominated, but for best supporting actress, although her role is on a par with Blanchett's). A full-blooded lesbian affair develops, and one suspects that part of the reason the pair both received nominations was for one 'brave' and fairly graphic lesbian scene; however this was in no way as erotic as some of the action in "The Handmaiden" which I reviewed last week. The chemistry between the two main characters never felt quite convincing, with Blanchett's Carol just looking for an escape from the nasty details of her pending divorce and Rooney's Therese letting herself drift into a new experience -- something of an exit from her humdrum existence. That deeper feelings developed from this in both of them remains a little unconvincing.

The only other female character, Carol's best friend Sarah Paulsen with whom she indeed had a lesbian relationship previously, is somewhat underplayed and all of the male characters are largely ciphers. Kyle Chandler plays Carol's husband as a vindictive drunk eager to get full custody of their child on a morals clause. The daughter in question is something of a red herring and Carol's professed love for the child never rings completely true; she wants joint custody but not at the expense of her own whims.

Of rather greater interest than the movie is the backstory of the novel on which it is based. Respected novelist Patricia Highsmith was advised by her publishes that a lesbian love-story, purportedly semi-autobiographical, would be career suicide, so "The Price of Salt" was published in 1952 under a pseudonym. It then fell out of print until the 80s when a Sapphic publishing house offered Highsmith one sum to re-publish under the real author's name or a lesser sum to re-publish it under the previous pen-name. It did not then appear as a Highsmith novel, now renamed "Carol" until 1990, towards the end of the author's life.

The 50's atmosphere is nicely invoked through the film's nominated set design and costuming, but the story could have played out just as well in another period. It's interesting that there was no Oscar nomination for director Todd Haynes, who rather more movingly directed Julianne Moore in another period forbidden love affair, 2002's "Far From Heaven". He may be a virtuoso woman's director, but "Carol" is the less involving of the two films.

Although the viewer is left hanging at the end of this film, it is pretty clear that the two main characters will find some kind of future together. Interestingly enough "The Price of Salt" is the only Highsmith work with a relatively happy ending -- one that the author might have wished for herself at the time in her disguise as the Therese character.