Wednesday, December 31, 2014

December Potpourri

Hilary Swank in The Homesman

I'm behind on my reviews again. Here's a round-up of what I've seen recently:

The Homesman (2014) is Tommy Lee Jones's second Western as a director and if there's any justice in the world, Jones will retire from acting and direct Westerns for the rest of his life. On the evidence, its what he was born to do. This film follows Mary Bee Cuddy, a spinster homesteader on the plains of Nebraska in the 1830s charged with transporting three women who have gone mad back to Iowa, where they'll be taken to an asylum. All three women have lost children, either to disease or by their own hands. Mary Bee is a portrait of hard-boiled pioneer spirit, who has wrought a life from a hostile countryside without men, even though she desperately longs for a man to share her life with. But she's "plain" and "bossy," so men refuse her. The movie hedges this. Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee, and like her best roles, it's a performance that challenges gender roles and expectations. There's a shot early in the film of Mary Bee at her vanity, brushing her hair, that's a complete repudiation of the idea that she's plain. There's another shot later in the film when she asserts her sexuality. The world of the Western punishes her for her sexuality and for her strength. This is no country for women.

This is a film about the weakness of men, too. Jones plays the title role, a no-account drifter named George Briggs recruited by Mary Bee at the end of a rope. He's essentially weak. The various husbands of the film's madwomen are monstrous abusers. Madness and murder seem like a reasonable response to a life with these men. The men our protagonists meet on their journey are weak and abusive, too, and there's a certain amount of catharsis in watching Briggs attempt to rise above his own weakness by asserting a patriarchal rage against these men. These men, in their way, are as mad as the women. Manifest Destiny, it seems, is the work of the brutal and the insane.

Visually, The Homesman is stark and disciplined and classical in a way that Jones's other Western, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, was not. Jones has studied the anti-Westerns of the 1970s and pitted that aesthetic against John Ford. The result is a film that's a reflection of its heroine: It's plain on the surface, but deep and beautiful beneath that surface.

Force Majeure

Force Majeure (2014, directed by Ruben Östlund) is another film about the weakness of men. Indeed, its central conflict is derived from masculinity under threat. This is a family drama set at a ski-resort in the French Alps, where Tomas and Ebba and their children are on holiday. They seem the perfect family, until a controlled avalanche comes a bit too near the outdoor restaurant where they're taking lunch. Ebba's first instinct is to grab and protect her children. Tomas grabs his phone and flees. It's a false alarm, of course. The wall of snow is mostly the smoke of the avalanche's spent force. The damage has been done, though. Ebba sees her husband in a new, unflattering light while Tomas defends himself by trying to gaslight Ebba with a different version of events. Unfortunately, Tomas filmed the whole thing with his camera, which Ebba uses to accuse him when their friends, Mats and Fanny arrive for a dinner party. Tomas is crushed, as well he should be. In order for their marriage to endure--if it's to endure at all--his masculinity, indeed his very sense of self, is going to have to be rebuilt.

This is a chilly, formalist movie that views its family through a clinical lens. Its snowbound landscapes are impassive and majestic. The film is divided into chapters corresponding to the days of Tomas and Ebba's holiday, each counterpointed by the explosions that create avalanches and its only use of an underscore. This is a film that has fun with music without using it to influence its central actions. It's all very disciplined. I mostly don't like how it ends, though. Its ending is two-fold: First Ebba contrives to reify Tomas's masculinity with a staged crisis. Then, as they come down from the mountain, the film places the family on the road after deciding that their bus driver is too reckless, and the film frames Tomas as the loving patriarch again, carrying his son on his shoulders and shot at the center of the throng of fellow bus riders. I can't decide if this is meant to reestablish some kind of status quo or if it's meant as bitterly ironic. I hope it's the latter, but the film itself doesn't show its hand.

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything (2014, directed by James Marsh) is an indifferent biography of Stephen Hawking as seen through the eyes of his long suffering wife, Jane. The film follows the Hawkings for about twenty-five years--the length of their marriage, more or less, starting with their meeting and moving through Stephen's scientific triumphs, his diagnosis with neuromuscular disease, and Jane's dissatisfaction with both the way Hawking's work challenges her Christianity and her own need for self-fulfillment outside of his shadow. For a film about one of the greatest scientists of the last century, there's surprisingly little science in this film (and I say that knowing full well that Errol Morris's adaptation of A Brief History of Time already exists). There is, however, a good deal of back and forth about the existence of God. Given that this film is based on Jane's book about their marriage, this isn't surprising, but it does slant the dialectic in a way that seems a repudiation of atheism, something the real Stephen Hawking never did. There's a scene near the end, when the phrasing of a passage of Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time, seems a bit like the end of Frances, with it's capitulation to the broader religious culture. While I know there's more to this in real life, the movie doesn't elaborate on this and plays this as a kind of victory for Jane.

Given that it's based on Jane's book, she doesn't come off very well. This is partially due to the performance of Felicity Jones in the part. She often seems like she's just swallowed a lemon throughout the film. Part of this is due to the relationship she develops with the choir director at her church. It sabotages her relationship with the audience. Both of the Hawkings are adulterous, and the film romanticizes this a bit, but also plays it in some unpleasant, judgmental ways. It doesn't handle any of this well. Eddie Redmayne is the main reason to watch this film. He's good as Hawking, but there's a second-hand quality to his performance sometimes that reminds me of certain other actors playing profoundly disabled characters. This is probably going to win awards--it's a classic prestige-style picture--but in truth, I don't think it's very good.

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in CitizenFour

CitizenFour (2014, directed by Laura Poitras) is the documentary as political thriller. It's a portrait of Edward Snowden on the eve of the leaks he provided to journalist Glenn Greenwald. Snowden involved director Poitras in the process early, after establishing protocols of online secrecy to circumvent the spying of the NSA. What Snowden provided to Poitras and Greenwald is terrifying: the end of dissent and the ability to organize resistance to the government under the guise of "safety" and "security." It's all patently illegal, and Snowden's repeated assertion in the early going that "I can prove this" almost doesn't matter in the face of the apparatus he's raging against.

This is an intimate film. It's first two acts consist of interviews with and observation of Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong on the eve of the leak. He seems preternaturally calm for a man about to do something so momentous. There's a focus on the quotidian in this part of the film, including both Snowden's personal habits and the nuts and bolts of his methods of communication. Snowden comes off well here. He comes off even better once the shit hits the fan. The film's third act focuses on the global impact of Snowden's revelations, including the reactions in Europe (where the NSA was tapping Angela Merkel's communications, for one example) and in Brazil, where Greenwald makes his base. The filmmakers themselves find themselves increasingly under threat, and have to take measures to preserve their footage in the face of an intelligence community that would love nothing more than to silence them. Poitras was already on the NSA's shit list for her previous films, and this one is surely poking the lion in its den. If anything, this film makes me look askance at the very instrument I'm using to write this post.

This is a terrific and utterly terrifying documentary, by the way. It strikes an almost perfect balance between interview and observation and information dump. It doesn't hurt that, in purely political terms, this is possibly the most important film anyone has made this decade. Maybe this century. Make no mistake, this is a political bomb thrown at a United States that still hasn't recovered its international standing in the wake of the criminal actions of the Bush administration (I imagine I'm showing my political colors here, but fuck it). The Obama administration's handling of whistleblowers has been a continuation of Bush's malfeasance. The difference between neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism is scant when you come down to it, something of which this film is acutely aware. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, I guess.

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