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The Homesman

The Homesman film posterSynopsis

Co-writer Tommy Lee Jones plays George Briggs in Glendon Swarthout’s novel The Homesman.  Three women are driven mad by prairie life.  Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is taking them from Nebraska to Iowa in the 1850s to be looked after by the church in the east.  On the way she rescues Briggs who has been left to be lynched after being worsted over a land claim.  Briggs and Cuddy must nurse the women, ward off Pawnee warriors, deal with a thief, get lost, and suffer the cold weather.   **SPOILER ALERT**  They come across a hotel where the proprietor refuses to feed the hungry travellers.  Briggs meets up with Meryl Streep as the preacher’s wife.

Review

Hilary Swank is brilliant in this film.  The men compare unfavourably with her resolution and intelligence.  She wants marriage not for a meeting of minds, but to combat prairie isolation and privation.  She is strong willed and resourceful.  She is told she is plain by a muppet of a farmer, and by Briggs who has a face like boiled leather. Jones has promoted this as a western with a feminist agenda but this is not convincing, given that he does all the usual male things: he fights, he confronts the Pawnee, he bosses people, and plays the suppressed emotions card to his own convenience.  **SPOILER  ALERT**  Cuddy gets him to sleep with her and then hangs herself leaving him to transport the women.  Later they come to a bizarre hotel in the middle of nowhere.  The Irish owner refuses food so Briggs torches the hotel.  For me, this is a parable about the xenophobic greed the rich world shows to immigrants.

The film’s gaze on the landscape is unflinching as it monumentalizes the protagonists into appropriately mythic poses: either resigned. stoicism, or stony determination.  The landscape is stunning, its golds and ochres dusting and fossilizing anything insolent enough to interrupt the prairie’s emptiness.  The wood of the transport wagon, the textiles, and the horse leathers seem to be sculpted out of the barrenness all around.  The interiors behind walls of crude mud brick are lit up like paintings held against it.  The wagon itself creaks along like a boat over a sea of dust and yellow candlelight grass. The exposure to the vastness of the plains, with its threat of storms and tornadoes and predatory people, must have unsettled even the toughest of pioneers.  John Lithgow plays a preacher, and when he makes a speech in church before Cuddy’s journey it has the same pioneering exhortation as Orson Welles’ sermon blessing the Pequod’s impending voyage in Moby Dick.  Excellent.

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Posted by on January 14, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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This is 40

This is 40 film posterSynopsis

Starring Paul Rudd as the husband, Pete, and Leslie Mann as his wife, Debbie.  It’s a story of a married couple facing up to being 40.  He runs a record company and likes Graham Parsons’ music, she is a business woman and frets about age.  They both get on each other’s nerves, their adolescent daughter is also very difficult.  Debbie’s father Oliver is played by John Lithgow, he is a surgeon and rather distant.  Pete’s father Larry is played by Albert Brooks and he is clumsily friendly.  They have parties and arguments and might learn to love each other.

Review

Sometimes the humour in this film gets a bit lavatorial, but mercifully never descends to Adam Sandler’s depths.  There is a lot of nastiness, as when Debbie picks on a nerdy boy whose mother threatens comical violence against the couple for being bad parents.  There are self righteous shouting matches.  People on the verge of middle age are supposed to find all this relevant to their lives and quite hilarious but I was put off by the smug self regard of these people.  The record company is failing and they are going to have to surrender their suffocating affluence (diddums).  Debbie objects to Pete giving money to his father, she is avaricious and hysterical.  They have a touching  regard for status and money, their anxiety about loving it is supposed to ratchet the tension through all this forced humour.

Demonstrations of everyday educated middle class observational acuteness are dutifully paraded: references to bodily functions, existential anxieties, sexual insecurities.  We also get the well tested formulae of comedy situations relying on obsessional glitches and personal weaknesses as if acknowledgement of these is supposed to reinforce the rather routine wit.  We know in the end that love will triumph over the tantrums and quirky self regard.  It’s as if films like this are trying to outdo the oddities in Little Miss Sunshine.  Debbie owns a boutique and thinks the flirty young employee is stealing from the company but it turns out to be the awkward geeky girl who, when confronted with the accusation, takes refuge in a weirdly senseless vocal performance.  This is a disposable light weight film.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes posterSynopsis

The prequel to the 1968 film Planet of the Apes.  James Franco plays a scientist working in a lab using apes to test drugs.  One chimp displays unusual intelligence and it goes berserk trying to protect its child.  The chimps in the lab are put down.  Franco rescues the baby chimp which grows up to show high intelligence, he calls it Caesar. Franco’s dad, John Lithgow, suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and Franco uses the lab drug on his dad, with amazing results.  Then Lithgow returns to his Alzheimer’s disease and he causes chaos in the neighbourhood and a young neighbour is attacked by the young chimp, Caesar.  Franco must send Caesar to a primate centre where he is mistreated by a bullying keeper.  Caesar turns on his tormentor and leads the other apes out of the centre into a pitched battle with the police on the Golden Gate Bridge.  The drugs Franco used are fatal to humans but apes are immune.  Caesar can speak.

Criticism

We’ve had lots of films about apes and monkeys. This presumably stems from our supposed close relationship with them (denied by some scientists).  In the 30s with Tarzan and King Kong we showed a sort of benevolent paternalism to them.  In the era of Greenpeace values, apes have done well, becoming heroes of the uncorrupted wilderness from Greystoke and Gorillas in the Mist to Instinct.  Naturally, people come off worse, apes are hairy noble savages protecting their Eden of primitive innocence.   Jane Goodall and other naturalists have tried to habituate us to our natural closeness to the apes which I’m not convinced by.  I’m sceptical about macro-evolution and incline towards some sort of Intelligent Design, but I’m not religious.  These films are sentimental Darwinist fantasies, yet chimpanzees are dangerous and savage and they will attack us.  They can also use bones as tools, not needing to touch the black momolith which in 2001 set hominids on their tool-using way to become human.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is disappointing compared with the 1968 film, though it’s better than the TV series and the awful Tim Burton remake. Rise Of is too much like a summer blockbuster with the appropriate simple sentiments that manipulate us into hating ourselves and cheering on the apes (Instinct and Gorillas in the Mist also did this).  James Franco naturally has a cute girlfriend who of course is on the right side, which is the cause of the ape.  There are the exceptions, we are meant to think that the planet would be better off without human hegemony.  The corporate businessman who runs the lab is of course on the wrong side, as are the vile zookeepers and aggressive neighbours. When Caesar is in the primate centre we get the stereotypes of prison movies: mistreatment of inmates and the gang that fights back.  In this film Andy Serkis models for the computerized effects, and this is just as anthropocentric as the 1968 film’s use of plastic masks.  At least the ’68 film could make its satirical point better in its pantomime outfits by exposing the self serving brutality of humans against other animals.  The snarling revenge of the apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes undermines the ’68 film’s effectiveness as a parable since it is merely payback.  Chimps are not sympathetic candidates for good relations with nature.  In Rise of the Planet of the Apes human traits are superimposed on ape faces, usually a hateful glare, whereas in other films it’s an embarrassing sentimentality.

Surely there should be another prequel showing how the human race declines and how the apes take over, otherwise this looks like a hectic and not very convincing prequel.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes uses the Golden Gate Of San Francisco as a symbol of the new ape order just as the Statue of Liberty was used as an ironic symbol of our betrayal of nature in Planet of the Apes.  The film Rise of the Planet of the Apes plays with meaningful images, like the window frame of Franco’s house used as a symbol of hope  which Caesar chalks on the prison wall.   This is a nod towards the film Instinct which played with pretentious ideas about humans and apes.  Great to look at and entertaining, but it could have been a better film…

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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