The Homesman

Tommy Lee Jones has never been the kind of actor that fully immerses himself into a character. His voice and his looks are too recognizable for us to completely forget that we are watching Tommy Lee Jones. Let me make two points about this. First Tommy Lee Jones is interesting and entertaining and as I’ve said before, I would gladly pay ten bucks to watch him play himself for two hours. Second, despite his inability to escape his essential Tommy Lee Jonesness, he is still a terrific actor.
It must be very frustrating for him to be limited like that. The studios only see him in one kind of role anymore, which is basically the same role he played in The Fugitive, a no nonsense figure of competent authority. Which is odd considering that one of his first major roles was as notorious Gary Gilmore in The Executioner’s Song. His physical presence and attributes mean he has a range, but it is wider than Hollywood generally recognizes. I have no idea if this is the reason he chose to write, with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver, and direct The Homesman but in doing so he has given himself a rare opportunity to stretch.
In the 1850’s three Nebraska wives have been driven insane by the hardships of frontier life. It is decided that they should be taken back east to Iowa so that their families can take care of them. By a series of odd events the task falls to Mary Bee Cuddy, played by Hilary Swank, a spinster who nonetheless runs a profitable and clean farm. Mary is a strong-willed woman, who is determined to do the right thing, but also has a great deal of compassion for her charges. As the immensity of her task dawns on her, however, she begins to have doubts about her ability to accomplish it. The weeks long trek through the Nebraska wilderness filled with bandits and Indians is extremely dangerous. Mary happens upon George Briggs, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who is in the process of being hanged for claim jumping. She saves him after extracting a promise to accompany her to Iowa with the women.
The Homesman is a pretty film with panoramic shots of the treeless and desolate Nebraska landscape. Often the empty sky dwarfs the image of Mary’s wagon and horse team, symbolizing the pitiful struggle of people against an unforgiving nature. In the world of the film, the only mercy that one can expect is from other human beings and even that is not to be relied upon.
The script has some problems. There is a certain point in the plot—I will not reveal what happens—after which the movie kind of falls apart.
The two leads, Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones, deliver terrific performances. This is a story about how life in unrelenting conditions can warp people and affect their thinking. Swank and Jones are both adept at portraying people who are not immune to this but who function anyway. The most impressive thing is that at no point do they lose their sharp edges. And if the events of the film change them, that information is buried beneath their prickly exteriors. The Homesman is a drama about redemption that leaves the question of whether or not the redemption took unanswered.
It also gives Tommy Lee Jones a chance to show us what he can do if allowed to stretch.

The Theory of Everything

It’s biopic season, which not coincidentally, coincides with Oscar season. While it’s easy to be cynical about these things, I really shouldn’t be. A lot of good stuff gets released this time of year. And biopics allow actors a great platform to show off their talents so there are some thrilling performances.
Twenty years ago the role of Stephen Hawking would have gone to Daniel Day Lewis. He would have nailed it; won the Best Actor Oscar and we still would be talking about it today. But Hawking was in the middle of his story twenty years ago, and Lewis already has played a role requiring similar skills in My Left Foot. He wouldn’t have been interested.
So the role goes to Eddie Redmayne, a classically trained veteran of the West End, England’s theatre district. He’s been in a few films, most notably Les Miserables and he is well able to handle the physical challenges of playing a man who gradually loses the use of his body. And, as he proves in this film, he is a first rate actor.
The odd thing is that The Theory of Everything is guilty of almost every sin I complain about in biopics. It is a series of events, connected only by the characters. And these events don’t really build in intensity either. This is a narrative structure that, in my view, is destined for failure.
And yet somehow it works.
There are two reasons. The first is the performances of the two leads. Eddie Redmayne is absolutely brilliant as Stephen. Films have been made about people struggling nobly against debilitating and fatal diseases before. But this is different. Stephen Hawking faced the indignities of his condition, which is ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, not only with determination, but with humor. This comes through, even in the later scenes after he has lost his ability to talk. When it comes to acting solely with his eyebrows no one can touch Redmayne. In the early scenes he straddles the line between being painfully awkward socially and supremely confident and ambitious in his intelligence. When the doctor gives him the diagnosis of ALS, the first question he asks is if it will affect his brain. Later when the disease is putting up more and more seemingly insurmountable barriers to communication, he perseveres and overcomes them.
Felicity Jones also shines as Jane, a pretty young PhD candidate, who falls in love with this odd genius. Stephen’s diagnosis comes in the early stages of their courtship and he tries to drive her away. But Jane is just as stubborn as Stephen and she stays, taking care of him and eventually their children. You see what this is costing her, delaying her own pursuit of a doctorate and eating away at her sense of self.
Which leads us to the second reason The Theory of Everything works: it is not so much a biopic of Stephen Hawking as it is the story of his and Jane’s marriage. The movie is adapted from Jane’s memoir of their years together and it starts with their meeting and ends when the relationship ends. I wish more biopics would limit themselves to only a certain aspect of the subject’s life rather than trying to take them from the cradle to the grave. Too large a scope is the diagnosis for too many bad biopics. The amazing thing is that although Stephen’s condition is a factor in the marriage’s failure, it isn’t the only one. These are two people who simply grew apart. The script and the performances capture this.
There are a few more biopics coming out this year and some of them have pretty good buzz, but it is hard to imagine The Theory of Everything not being one of the best when it’s all over.

Interstellar

If anybody is the heir to Stanley Kubrick, it’s Christopher Nolan. Like Kubrick, Nolan’s films are about big ideas and sometimes the characters take a back seat. Nolan has been criticized for this as Kubrick was. Seemingly in response to this criticism Nolan has tried to tell a story with an unbearable emotional dilemma at its heart. He presents his main character, Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey with the choice of saving mankind by going into space through a wormhole in orbit around Saturn and searching for a new planet that Earth’s population can move to, or he can stay on a dying and depleted Earth and take care of his family, including his young daughter Murphy, played by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn in various stages of her life. Needless to say, he goes, promising Murphy that he’ll come back despite the improbability of that happening.
This film has a tremendous cast. John Lithgow plays Cooper’s father-in-law. Casey Affleck plays his son Tom. Anne Hathaway plays a fellow crewmember and Michael Caine plays her father, the genius professor who runs the space program. And there’s more. Matt Damon has a small role for crying out loud. There’s a lot of starpower and a lot of talent at depicting emotion on the screen in this movie.
And yet the script doesn’t really depict that emotion in a sophisticated way. All the motivations are simple and right below the surface. Sure Cooper’s rage at Murphy’s teachers when they try to tell him that the Moon landings were faked, an accepted fiction in this future because the government wants people to concentrate on growing food and not dreaming about space, is understated, almost whispered in McConaughey’s Texas drawl. But it’s obvious why he’s upset. He’s an engineer as well as a pilot and he believes in science. There are lots of examples like that. Nolan seems to deal with the emotions in the film much as he does with the scientific ideas, at a distance. He tries to explain it instead of letting us feel it.
Interstellar has some very pretty pictures. Indeed the effects and every technical aspect is as well thought out and executed as any Nolan film. It also has some solid science, thanks to co-producer and science advisor Kip Thorne, the astrophysicist. But I sense the same discomfort with humanity in Nolan that I do in Kubrick.
I suspect Kubrick knew his limitations and accepted them. He didn’t try to make films that make us feel; his films make us think. And some of them are important movies in the history of cinema.
If Nolan wants to make more emotional films, he probably can. Enough great actors want to work with him that he can assemble a talented cast for any project he wants. But he’ll need to work with another screenwriter. He usually writes his screenplays with his brother Johnathan. And he’ll need to take more chances and try to convey the emotions of his characters and not just tell us about those feelings.

Big Hero 6

Hiro Hamada, voiced by Ryan Potter is a smart kid but not very ambitious. He graduated from high school in his early teens. But since then, he’s been drifting, getting into robot fighting with his advanced designs and encouraging people to underestimate him because of his youth. He has no desire to go to “geek school” like his is older brother, Tadashi, voiced by Daniel Henney.
A visit to his brother’s lab changes that, however. Tadashi has invented a robot named Baymax, voiced by Scott Adsit. Baymax is built to be a home health care robot. After seeing the robot and meeting Tadashi’s friends Hiro decides he wants to enroll, but to get in Hiro must invent something. He works on nano robots that can do almost anything just by thinking about it. Tadashi is killed in an accident at the school and Hiro’s nanobots are seemingly destroyed. Hiro goes into mourning. But when his tech shows up again and is used to attack the city by a powerful super villain, Hiro and his brother’s school friends have to fight back. The good news is they have a robot; the bad news is that the robot is programed to be friendly and nurturing and is inflatable. He doesn’t really scare anybody.
Big Hero 6 is Disney’s traditional animation division jumping on the superhero bandwagon. Unsurprisingly, given corporate connections, this movie is based on a Marvel Comics title, although loosely. The tone is not as dire as in most superhero movies. This is comedy that owes more to past Disney projects like Lilo and Stitch and Frozen than to The Avengers. But that’s alright. Superhero films are now so established that we fans don’t need to worry about another Batman and Robin. We can take a few jokes. Especially if they’re funny.
The technical aspects of Big Hero 6 are all excellent, which is hardly a surprise given the fact that it comes from Disney. The art and the animation are beautiful. Their depiction of the city, especially the seedier sides of it, is engrossing and detailed.
Unfortunately, the script, by Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and Jordan Roberts based on a story idea by Roberts and one of the film’s two director Don Hall, suffers first from origin syndrome. The pace of this thing is slowed to a halt by the necessity of having to set everything up. Also there is a lack of imagination. You’ve seen all these characters before; you’re well acquainted with their motivations and you know at all times what’s coming next. This story is so hackneyed that it is really hard to immerse yourself into it, despite the pretty pictures.
Big Hero 6 is risk adverse filmmaking. Absolutely no chances were taken here. I’m not even sure kids will like it.

Birdman

Lord help us. Alejandro González Iñárritu has made a comedy. The king of the mopers, director of 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful is in a light-hearted mood these days. Well, sort of. It is a very dark comedy. But I can sense that he’s rallying and eventually he’ll direct a Disney animated feature with princesses and bluebirds and…
Just kidding.
Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, is an actor who years ago turned down an offer to play the superhero, Birdman for the fourth time. It was an iconic role for him and one that made him a lot of money. Unfortunately, he was typecast in the role and has not worked since. To revive his career he decides to write, produce, direct and star in a Broadway play version of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” As opening night looms the problems begin to mount, as does the pressure on Riggan. He has hallucinations of his old character appearing and mocking him for turning away from stardom. His daughter, Sam, played by Emma Stone, is working as his personal assistant. She is a recovering addict and her acerbic and rebellious presence serves as a reminder to him of what a terrible father he was. He also has a co-star, Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton, who is talented, but demanding and difficult to work with. Riggan has put his entire fortune into the production and will be ruined if it fails as it seems destined to do.
Plotwise, the script by Inarritu is a loose affair with a lot of sub-plots that don’t really amount to much. But there is some barbed dialog aimed at Hollywood, Broadway, actors and the artistic process in general. All the characters are narcissistic and neurotic and yet somehow likable. In Riggan’s case it is because he is very much aware of his faults and is trying to atone for them. Birdman is a story about trying to gain redemption.
It is an eccentric role and it’s hard to imagine anyone but Michael Keaton pulling it off. There are some who say he must be drawing on his own experiences from playing Batman in the Tim Burton films. But while that was the height of his popularity, he seems to have worked pretty steadily since then. I don’t immediately think of Batman when I think of Michael Keaton. In any case, he does a wonderful understated job of showing a man who under a lot of stress, with a tenuous relationship with reality anyway, and heading for a nervous breakdown.
All the performances are magnificent, especially since the film had to be so difficult to act in. It’s done in a series of long moving shots that often follow the actors down hallways and through doors. There are almost no cuts or fades or anything like that. Technically this is very difficult for actors, who sometimes had to do as much as fifteen pages of script in a single shot, all while hitting numerous marks with no close-ups or cutaways so the editor could use the best parts of various takes. In addition they are portraying stage actors so they have to go from that over-the-top, play to the back of the house stage style of acting to a more intimate realistic film style in a matter of seconds. That may have been the most difficult thing of all. The result is a masterfully executed tone that is both theatrical and cinematic.
I have always thought that Inarritu was a great filmmaker, innovative, great with actors and with the more technical aspects of the process. If I have a quibble with Birdman, it is that the script is a little unfocussed with the subplots.
But unlike Inarritu’s other films, your family won’t have to hide all the sharp objects in your house after you’ve seen it.

The Judge

Drama can be very simple. Just take some interesting characters, drop them into a situation, and have them resolve it (or not). You don’t need innovative plot structures, fancy special effects, or obscure arty acting styles. Humans will never get tired of watching humans interact, especially if they identify with them.
In The Judge, high powered Chicago lawyer, Hank Palmer, played by Robert Downey Jr., returns to the small Indiana town where he grew up to help out in a family crises. His father Joseph, played by Robert Duvall, has been the town’s judge for forty-two years and has been arrested for murder. The victim was a man who came before Joseph and was given a light sentence, even though his guilt was obvious, he then drowned his girlfriend and Joseph sent him away for a long time. He served his sentence and was out again. Joseph has always considered it to be his greatest mistake. So when he hits the man with his car, everybody assumes it was on purpose.
Now, Hank has to defend his father, with whom he is estranged, and deal with the family he left behind.
The acting, of course, is terrific even if the two Roberts aren’t really stretching that much. Vincent D’Onofrio gives a good performance as Glen, Hank’s ex-jock older brother who missed out on a baseball career because he hurt his hand in a car accident where Hank was at the wheel. Vera Farmiga is tough and sexy as Hank’s old girlfriend, Samantha Powell.
The story, by director David Dobkin and Nick Schenk who wrote the screenplay with Bill Dubuque, has a few subplots which detract from the main story, add to the length of the film and in the end don’t really make sense. But for the most part the pace remains brisk and you’re never bored.
I suppose in this day and age something like The Judge is always going to be thought of as a high prestige drama. Anytime Robert Duvall does a film, he gets mentioned in connection with the Oscars, and rightfully so. But in this case I don’t think that film around him is all that great. It’s enjoyable in many ways but in the end, too few risks were taken and the twists they introduced were too predictable and too easy.
If you really want to see it, you should wait for the DVD.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl is the type of movie that relies so heavily on plot twists, that I really can’t say much about it without spoiling it. Of course the book was also one of the biggest bestsellers of last year so a lot of people are presumably going to know the plot going in anyway. But I will respect the conventions of not spoiling movies here.
When Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, reports to the police that his wife, Amy, played by Rosamund Pike, has gone missing on their fifth wedding anniversary, the police, in the person of Detective Rhonda Boney, played by Kim Dickens, advise him to make a plea on television for help finding Amy. The story catches on nationally and it soon becomes a media circus.
Nick’s troubles, however, multiply when it comes out that he hasn’t been completely honest with the police about the nature of his marriage. He’s not the nice, somewhat unsophisticated Midwestern boy that he appears to be. There is the matter of an affair he’s been carrying on with one of his former creative writing students. He can also get a little physical when arguing with his wife. Amy is not what she appears to be either. She has left a string of angry ex-boyfriends behind her.
Also, evidence is piling up that he may have killed her.
And that’s really all I can tell you.
The script is by Gillian Flynn, the author of the book, and she’s really good at making you sympathize with her flawed characters. And that is the theme of the story: manipulating public sympathy, so that they overlook the holes in the story you’re trying to sell them. It’s fascinating in a cynical way. This is her first screenplay and she knocks it out of the park.
David Fincher, the director, is a good fit for this dark material. He keeps the pace moving. There isn’t much in the way of fancy artifice in the cinematography. The performances are kept pretty realistic. There are no eccentric tics or scenery eating speeches here. It’s realism all the way around.
Ben Affleck is well within his range here and turns in a pretty good performance. He convincingly shows us the good and the ugly sides of this man. Rosamund Pike is terrific. I can’t tell you why but she’s great.
I wish I could write more about Gone Girl but I would certainly spoil it if I did. It’s a terrific movie, though.


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