“The Homesman”

Tommy Lee Jones directs & stars in “The Homesman”. Besides disliking the title borrowed
directly from a novel of the same name, I would say that this film should be kept to the small screen. The action haltingly moves forward. The only cinematic offerings are a cool shot where three mad women cling to Mr. Briggs ( TLJ) in a rolling stream & a touching tribute to a perceptive main character Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) where she gives a literal thimbleful of water to a disturbed woman’s baby substitute, a rag doll.

What bothers me most about the film are the characterizations that seem like caricatures.
This film had me longing to re -teach Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” where the Nebraskan Territory kindled real people. The prairie fare of “The Homesman” is much more primitive : the screenplay poorly written. If you like reading the Dictionary of Mental Disturbances, you may like seeing live infants thrown in latrines,women mutilating & burning their skin,catatonic stares and asylum -like cat-moaning.

Cameo parts from Meryl Streep, James Spader and John Lithgow are almost distracting. Streep may have taken the part of a Methodist minister’s wife so that she could work beside her daughter, Grace Gummer. Gummer plays the youngest of three mad women claimed by the harshness of early prairie life. James Spader has another cameo that shows Capitalism at its worse and the ensuing revenge just as disheartening. John Lithgow’s talent is wasted on this poorly written script. And Hilary Swank’s surprise is more disappointing than enlightening.

This is a very depressing film that seems to underscore that flawed people never fully change, yet religious nods to compassionate care, baptism and communion are here. Sex is seen as “given” by loutish males who wish to sow their seed or to initiate the the virginal.Women being appreciated only for their beauty and their subservience is sad,too. “Too bossy & too plumb plain” are critiques that say more about the sayer than anyone else. Difficult water pumps, soundless piano crocheted mats, snoring lullabies, homemade cheese kept in pant pockets, and neglected proposals are all glum.

Some humor is seen. The calling of insane women “cuckoo clocks” is not as humorous as having the three crazies watch “love-making” under an animal skin that has been dislodged from a Native American’s burial wrap. Is this the fever that took Mary Bee?

Hilary Swank is good as Mary Bee Cuddy as “plain as an old tin pail”.Cuddy herself is maybe too good as she sees herself “living uncommonly alone”, and does ultimately ” hush herself up” along with the crazy women who miss their handsome parlors. Grave tending has been a Christian focus of Mary Bee’s, but though Mr. Briggs tries to emulate her beliefs, he lets her marker sail down stream.

Much of this two hour Western sailed downstream,too.

“Force Majeure”

“Force Majeure” is a sophisticated & serious comedy of manners & gender culture. “Force Majeure” is not to be missed if you would like to advance a discussion of marital expectations, gender heroism, psychological truth and male bonding. I loved this film’s quirky humor as much as I did the beautiful frames of the French Alps,quiet & nestled under a million of stars.

Knowing the story-line does not ruin the film since it is the feelings that result from an event that take central import. A family is caught in a programmed Avalanche that seems to be out of control. The father picks up his cell and turns his back on his family and runs without saying “follow me”. He falls short of the manly hero his wife and children expect. He spends some time with his fingernails scratching off a small “chicken sticker” from their hotel room door. He tries to make a deal not to discuss it, he lies, he tries to relieve himself from obligation. His friend gives an excuse for bad performance using the title of the film as part of the Napoleonic Code, which relieves a party from legal obligation if said party is at risk. The survival code does not fly for a family seen as one in the spouse’s eyes. Now, can we overcome the effects of being abandoned?  Can we set up a test …another unforeseen event? Loved it!

“The Foxcatcher” and “The Imitation Game”

The last two films I have seen have both been rather sad for this joyful season. Yet, one inspires while the other disgusts. One is about hard decision- making and self -sacrifice that succeed for mankind, while the other is about self- serving image -making that fails for all. Both are based on true stories. “The Foxcatcher” works as acting platforms for Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo,Channing Tatum and Vanessa Redgrave. All are extremely good. Carell ,as the silver-spooned John E. du Pont with mommy problems, builds tension as he hopes to “stun the world” & “see this country soar”! Carell looks like du Pont here for he never smiles. He is pompous,delusional and well—murderous. Seeking maternal approval is his obsession. In one scene,he frees her beloved horses ,a spiteful attempt to get back at her for the love that was withheld him. He is drug addled and vindictive. “Foxcatcher” is a “downer” emotionally.

Mark Ruffalo does his own wrestling as the Olympic Gold Medal winner,Dave Shultz. He
portrays a depth of character that while showing blood & spit on the mat,oozes familial warmth
and devotion in his priorities. “I’m your bother. I love you.” He tries to “game” the du Pont dynasty, while letting his unhappy brother leave.Channing Tatum as the younger Mark Shultz, has a simian walk that plays well. He butts mirrors, smashes lamps,cries & slobbers and hits himself. A sexual tension Is hinted, but the reasons for the gorging, self-abuse is not well understood.

Du Pont tells him “I want your brother Dave,you ungrateful ape!” But sibling rivalry hardly seems reason enough for Mark’s drug use & breakdown. “I don’t need your help. I’m doing this on my own.” has been heard by many an older sibling. Du Pont ‘s voice is the one we hear, “little brother living in your brother’s shadow.” It is the “Golden Eagle” who taunts Mark to distance himself. (Yet any homosexual encounters were denied off film by Mark.) Vanessa Redgrave rolls in in a wheelchair and John pontificates. She tells him his sport is “low”! Wrestling beneathe him. She is the great spoiler.Redgrave can steal a scene like no other.

If you like oiled muscles,crazed philanthropists and cocaine snorters who write their own press releases this may be fun to see. The fact that this is a true tale of almost Greek proportions hits the hardest.

“The Imitation Game” is a perfect movie, choreographed like a harrowing ballet. It is emotionally satisfying and cinematically beautiful, easing into close-ups & fading backdrops. This film,too, is a bi-op, but Alan Mathison Turing’s story brings tears to one’s eyes for another reason. Sure the ego is all present,but this code breaker shortened World War Two and saved millions of lives instead of snuffing out one. Unlike “The Foxcatcher”, ruthless private power is not portrayed. Stellar Cambridge intelligence work powers the overthrow of Hitler,instead.

The film begins with Sir Stewart Menzies, Britain’s spy chief, heading up MI6 & hiring the clever, rude and humorless Turing. Benedict Cumberbatch is impeccable ,and I predict will win an Oscar for this performance. As a marathon runner, as a “pouff”, as a genius crypto-analyst..he hits above the mark with each eye glance and facial twinge.

Seeing this film may help right an injustice,heal the suffering thrown on homosexuals, and support the underdog with the inspirational refrain:”Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of ,who do the things that no one imagines.”

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum takes us through the 1930’s & 1940’s with just the right details to evoke the times, the schools, and Manchester, England. Alexandre Desplat’s score is redolent & memorable. I may have to buy the sound track. Kiera Knightley amidst The Bletchley Park environs is feminism for the ages. I loved her in this supporting role.

The naming of the “the Turning Machine” ,Christopher, was one of the saddest commentaries on the persecution of alternate life styles. When the young Alan is called to the headmaster’s office and is told of his only friend’s death, his “I don’t understand” means the opposite. I don’t wish to believe that Alan Turing himself committed suicide or that hormone therapy was once seen as a cure,or that one enigma solved kept him imprisoned in another. Yet, this masterful movie makes one deal with all that is personal and communal. Saboteurs and Russian espionage are dealt with in the history of the times. Cairncross and Churchill, secrets and treason,and the long view are here to be understood and celebrated. Self- sacrifice & intelligence is rewarded finally by the awe the audience showed as the credits rolled by. Exquisite.

“Wild”

“Wild” is full of bromides like “Find your best self and hold on to it” and “Put yourself in Beauty’s way-sunrise & sunset every day”. Yet, Jean-Marc Vallee,the Canadian director of “The Dallas Buyers Club, makes us care about Sheryl Strayed, whose memoir makes the big screen.

Reese Witherspoon is grand and brings a depth of character that is a pleasant surprise. Her sins, her fortitude, her bruises, her losses and her neglects are mostly in flashbacks as she treks 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. She registers her name on the trail’s log, often quoting Adrienne Rich, Flannery O’Conner, Emily Dickinson and many of my favs here and in her journal. Sheryl is a seeker,a feminist,who changes Joni Mitchell’s lyrics from, “Will you take me as I am?” To “will I take me as I am?” Ultimately, she needs to forgive herself and as she states: “walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was”.

And her mother, the incredible Laura Dern is worthy of an Oscar,too. In a few short scenes, we see her forty-five years from dancing with her daughter, taking knuckle punches,breathing in scents & sense to cancer and cornea donation. Bobbi Gray is lauded as noble yet her quest is to make her daughter more sophisticated than she is seems silly in its self-effacement.  Yet,I was deeply touched when Sheryl swallowed a mouthful of her mother’s ashes.

There are lots of grunts & groans from beginning to end. We learn a little about Monster bag packing and tricks like burning book pages read to lighten the load. Pruning an insane backpack plays second to pruning a history of promiscuity & heroin abuse ,and this unloading plays  as an interesting metaphor. Licking the condensation from a tent wall and meeting unseemly hikers are balanced with the kindness of strangers and the humor of the “Hobo Times” reporter.

I was disappointed in the cinematography of Yves Belanger. I was expecting more magnificent scenery of a postcard variety. The brooks were nice,but not jaw dropping. The forest take with the “Red River Valley” song missed vistas where they were needed for maximum emotional effect.I cared about Sheryl, but grieved for Bobbi and wanted her to channel that mother love ,unconditional and true, to the next generation without proxy.

“Whiplash”

“Whiplash” is a great film. Its title takes a Hank Levy piece and gives it nuances that build and build. The cacophony that results is mesmerizing. The audience is whiplashed emotionally,our protagonist drummer is whiplashed physically, and ambition and pride whiplash each other and take grandstanding to new heights. A morality tale this could be . With the good father, Paul Reiner, as guide. But the acting belongs to the master manipulator, J.K. Simmons, who is resplendent with the devil’s whiplashing tongue. Ms. Jean Brodie move over:Terrence Fletcher is here! Teacher power is given a new tempo,and it is perfectly frightening in its spite-fullness.

The “teacher-director-manager” is a pusher of a narcotic called fame for ” the best mf…ing solo the world has ever heard.”He is shown three times as being capable of tenderness: once to the small daughter of a former student,once playing at a piano bar where the music moves him,and once tearing up at a suicide he no doubt helped to bring on. These three renouncements of evil may be the Devil’s Judas’ story!

Big questions like ” What is greatness?” “Why are collegiality & cooperation so important?”, and ” Why is the balance of work & leisure so key to mental health?” are the queries in the wings,while “Clean the blood off my drum set” is the line that will be remembered.”What are the bigger things to pursue in life ?”may be the most exacting question,yet. This film is much more than the abused’ s relationship to the abuser.

The dad deserves applause. He states that age gives perspective,but youth wants none of that. He is concerned and pro-active. He uses understatements like, “You care a lot about his opinion”. He does not wish his son to be an out- of -tune nineteen year old. He hurts when Andrew falls. His favorite question is ,”You okay?”. Dad does not concur that Charlie Parker became ” bird” because a cymbal was thrown at his head.

This film explodes! The brazen pride and raw ambition to be the best just takes over. The music is glorious. Heart-throbbing drums . The images pop. The lights in the windows,the self- scourging, the cleaning of instruments,the dripping sweat,the bloody drum skin,the intentional verbal emotional distress like “no wonder your mommy ran out on you “, linger.

Miles Teller & J.K. Simmons should be nominated for dueling Oscars. This film is close to perfect.
Do not miss it !