The Homesman (2014)

H_20130419_8652.tifIn Nebraska, some time in the 1850s, New Yorker Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers to transport a trio of troubled women across country to Iowa. Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknapp (Miranda Otto) and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) are taken from their families, loaded into a horse-drawn wagon and lead out of town on a perilous journey through the American Midwest — where they face myriad dangers including but not limited to bandits and natives. Mary Bee is understandably reluctant to undertake the venture alone, and when she spies a con-man trussed up to a tree she negotiates guidance in exchange for mercy. Together with George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), she sets off into the wilderness.

It’s easy to see why The Homesman is being identified as a Western, albeit one with feminist and/or other subversive qualities; the film is about ten percent dirt, thirty percent sky and sixty percent misery. It’s bleak and hard and unforgiving, and you’d likely have an easier time mining for water than entertainment value. This is another story featuring a mysterious wanderer (there is a twinkle in Jones’ eye that suggests he is not giving his real name), at first in it for the money, who ultimately discovers that there may be more to life than opportunistic crime and senseless violence — that there might in fact be good people out there; people worth helping, if not necessarily saving.

Where The Homesman differs to most, however, is in its focus. Tommy Lee Jones may write, direct and indeed star, but he is not the protagonist of his own story. That would be Hilary Swank, making her long-overdue return to the big screen following a three-year hiatus that left something of an awkward silence after Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve. She gives an outstanding performance as Mary Bee Cuddy — her best in ages — and though haggard and harrowing there is an honesty to it that hooks you and won’t let go. She’s lonely, homesick and desperate to be close to someone — even if only contractually. She mundanely propositions men with marriage, treating the act more as a business transaction than an emotional union, then wonders why they label her plain and bossy.

This depth of character is only possible due to the thematic complexity which similarly sets it apart from others entries in the Western genre. The Homesman is a treatise on mental illness, and uses its female protagonist as a prism through which to explore a subject that is rarely considered the domain of the period drama. Mary Bee is struggling herself, and though far from catatonic it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to diagnose some sort of mood disorder — she’s compulsive, despondent, and, in playing a felt keyboard while mimicking the keys, quite possibly delusional. But the same could be said for George Briggs, who shuns society, ignores its norms and drinks too much. Jones may largely ignore the three women locked inside the wagon but his script’s treatment of those outside it illustrates the differing pressures on men and women.

Of course, that’s all well and good in hindsight, but if a film fails to hold its viewers’ attention in the moment then it doesn’t count for much in the end — however handsome it might look or how well it might be acted. There may be slightly more to The Homesman than the average Western, but the odd point of interest aside its two-hour running time is still largely a featureless landscape — one that even Meryl Streep can’t hope to disrupt. This is a story of deprivation, in more ways than one.

2.5-Stars

Interstellar (2014)

InterstellarIn the future, after the entitled excesses of the 21st Century, the Earth is struggling to support the human race. With little demand for engineers and explorers most people now work as farmers — including ex-pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his makeshift family: father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, named after Murphy’s Law). When a downed military drone leads him to NASA, now underground and incognito, he is recruited for a last-ditch attempt to save the species, if not the planet. Crops are failing, and in order to prevent his children from either starving or suffocating he must find them a new home — a new world. Together with Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and robot TARS (Bill Irwin), Cooper charts a course for Saturn, and a recently-formed wormhole to another galaxy.

Having ended his trilogy of Batman-inflected treatises on fear, chaos and pain with The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s latest think-piece looks to the stars. Interstellar, which began life as a Steven Spielberg project before being rewritten by Nolan and longtime brother/collaborator Jonathan, asks whether love might be a force akin to gravity — capable not only of transcending life and death but dimensions too. At first it seems like something of a change of tact for Nolan, a director better known for debunking spells than casting them, but when the film introduces a ghost, a wormhole and a race of inter-dimensional beings known as ‘Them’ or ‘They’ you can’t help but take the bait and join Cooper in “wondering at our place in the stars”. Sadly, any mystery is short-lived.

However, for the first act at least, there is real promise. Nolan’s vision of a planet blighted by pestilence and choking in dust is an effective one, and small scenes showing life in such an environment — plates and glasses being placed upside down on the table to keep them clean; a school curriculum deriding NASA’s space programme as a hoax in order to discourage students from pointless distractions — are intriguing and well-observed. Perhaps inevitably, it’s this section of the movie that feels most Spielbergian in tone: the family dynamic is interesting, their adventures exciting and their interactions entertaining. When the family’s Land Rover leaps into a cornfield in pursuit of low-flying drone it’s more likely to evoke ET or Jurassic Park: The Lost World than anything from Nolan’s own filmography.

That all changes when Cooper arrives at NASA. He is quickly stripped of his children and his humanity; lectured on Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity by Michael Caine; and launched into the vacuum of space with the physicist’s daughter, two personality-free scientist and a Stanley Kubrick homage. The film’s humour setting is dialed down while its honesty setting is ratcheted up; with Nolan once again valuing realism at all costs, even when he’s being decidedly unrealistic. The ship — Endurance — may be about to fly into a wormhole but it must do so in absolute silence, darkness and inactivity, as its passengers enter stasis for months, if not years at a time. The film loses all momentum immediately, and for the next hour Nolan stops and starts his narrative as the characters travel to a series of gimmicky planets earmarked as potential homes (or, at least, “rocks for humanity to cling to”) by previous missions for additional exposition.

It’s not just a sense of limbo that Interstellar shares with Inception, either, with Nolan returning once more to the subject of time. As in different levels of dreaming, and as per Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, time operates differently across space. Their first destination is Miller, a planet upon which time slows to a crawl, and it’s hard not to feel a sense of deja-vu as the characters discuss temporal differences between locations at length. The stakes, in this case, are reversed: Cooper doesn’t risk losing years of his life but missing decades of his childrens’, but they are familiar nonetheless. As it stands, Miller is a bit of a waste of time, and as impressive as its mountainous waves may be they add exactly nothing to either character, theme or plot — save to necessitate the recasting of Cooper’s children as adults, so that Tom is now played by Casey Affleck and Murphy by Jessica Chastain.

According to Nolan, interstellar travel is as mundane as Gotham in The Dark Knight trilogy or Ariadne’s dreamscapes in Inception — same men, different suits. The problem is, however, that when the film finally plays its hand and Nolan is forced to ask for a suspension of disbelief from his audience it is much too late. After two films spent establishing Batman as a pragmatic character it is no wonder audiences balked when in The Dark Knight Rises he was finally called upon to do something genuinely superheroic, and so it is with the third act of Interstellar. We may not in fact be dealing with ghosts, wormholes or inter-dimensional beings but the reality is no less ridiculous — perhaps even more so. In Spielberg’s hands it might just have worked — after all, it wouldn’t be the first of his films to hang on the precept “life will find a way” — but in Nolan’s it doesn’t; it seems sentimental and simplistic. It’s a gear-change that jolts you awake, and when the core concept crumbles you realise that it’s all he ever really had in the first place. Nolan loves ideas so much he’s now naming his characters after them.

That said, Intersteller is still a thought-provoking and ambitious movie. It has often been said that the director is as gifted at writing women as he is at telling jokes — yet Anne Hathaway’s Dr. Brand is a surprisingly engaging character. There is a lot about Nolan’s latest that feels contrived and convoluted — not least a lesson on love given by Amelia herself — but Hathaway’s performance resonates regardless, and her motivations and sacrifices have all the more impact for her emotional honesty. The best scenes are felt rather than explained — the indignity of a parent-teacher meeting; awe as a space ship clips a frozen cloud; desperation during a rescue mission — but you lose hours in stasis in between. It hardly matters that it’s scientifically accurate, until it isn’t.

3-Stars

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Having watched his father succumb to the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease, Will Rodman (James Franco) has spent the last five years of his life working on a cure. Observing the increased cognitive functions of a chimpanzee subjected to ALZ112, the next stage in testing – the all important human trials – are undermined by a display of violence. Ordered to put down the animal test subjects, Rodman’s assistant stops short when an infant is discovered. Taking it home, Rodman grows attached to the chimp, who quickly displays heightened intelligence suggesting the serum’s effects have been passed down by the mother. Convinced of the drugs effectiveness, Rodman ignores protocol and tests it on his ailing father.

Charles Rodman’s (John Lithgow) speedy recovery is maintained over the next five years as Caeser (Andy Serkis), the adopted chimpanzee, grows up, quickly outperforming many of his human peers at a series of cognitive tasks. When Charles’ immune system begins to fight back against AL112, however, Will returns to the lab in pursuit of a more aggressive strain of the drug. When Caeser displays aggression in protecting a confused Charles, he is deemed dangerous and forced into captivity. Brutalised by his captors, Caeser plans an escape that will not only liberate his fellow apes, but subject them to the same drug that gave his mother such increased intelligence in the first place.

Arrogant scientist, check; cure for Alzheimer’s disease, check; super-intelligent animals, check; so far so Deep Blue Sea. What separates Rise of the Planet of the Apes from its shark-toothed predecessor is its superior balance between set-up and set-piece. For the majority of the movie evolution takes precedence over revolution, Caeser’s growth and development providing an in for audiences that somehow manages to nurture genuine affection for a CGI chimpanzee. Before Caeser is even born, however, we see how the whole programme came into fruition, thanks to the desperate and overraught motivations of one man; a scientist tirelessly trying to help his sick father.

Franco gives an incredibly nuanced performance as Will, one that swings organically from autocratic to sympathetic with very few beats in between. Will’s relief when his father shows signs of recovery is understated but incredibly moving; the relationship he fosters with Freida Pinto’s concerned veterinary surgeon is unnecessary but touching; his parenting of a infant chimpanzee is far-fetched but resoundingly real. Whatever is to be said of the effects and peripheral filmmaking, and there is much to be said, it is Will’s relationship with his father (John Lithgow is quite simply sublime) as much as anything else that makes this film such an unexpected success.

Unexpected? Yes, I believe it is. Prequels don’t have the most assuring track record, and following Tim Burton’s revision of the original movie, neither does the franchise itself. This only serves to make director Rupert Wyatt’s success all the more triumphant. Having previously directed Brian Cox in 2008’s The Escapist, Wyatt reunites with the one time Hannibal for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, adding to an already impressive ensemble which helps to flesh out even the most stock of characters. Tom Felton’s Dodge is pure pantomime villain, but the actor brings the most fleeting trace of humanity to the character, rendering him all the more real.

Let there be no mistake, however, this is Serkis’ movie. Like Lord of the Rings and King Kong before it – heck even without the aid of special effects he managed to steal The Cottage right from under a beautifully profane Jennifer Ellison – Serkis breathes such life into his character that it is utterly impossible to look away. Not least does this allow audiences to emote to what is ultimately a ludicrous combination of a man covered in plastic balls and a few million dollars worth of pixels, but it enables viewers to suspend disbelief even further than they might have been able otherwise. The scene in which Caeser vocalises for the first time, for example, is exceedingly well done. It is nevertheless the scene which, in less able hands, might have easily derailed the entire movie. Deep Blue Sea wouldn’t even have dared.

A combination of outstanding performances, superlative effects work and unparalleled direction ensure that Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t disappoint. Better than it should have been, better than it’s paragraph of a name suggests, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a moving, heartfelt tribute to a cult classic. Telling a small story which is given the freedom to escalate, Wyatt has followed up J. J. Abrams’ Super 8 with a movie of equal power and affection. It looks like summer was a little late this year. Thank goodness it was worth the wait.