Imagine an Armageddon where, instead of oil-rigger roughnecks, the fate of the world rests on four geriatric, long since retired Air Force test pilots. That’s the plot in a nutshell: a failing Russian satellite running on an archaic American guidance system must get back to full capacity, and the only man capable of correcting it is flinty former Air Force officer Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood).
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View
presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors
for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for
About halfway through Small
Soldiersit struck me: just
who is this film’s audience? On the surface it’s an adolescent boy’s fantasy
turned nightmare, a “War Toy Story” with a pair of spunky teenage
heroes in the line of fire. But there’s another film here too, a consumer
satire crammed with pop culture references and movie quotes aimed at much
bigger kids – well, adults actually.
Criminal is the kind of movie where characters have names like Jerico Stewart and Quaker Wells—big comic-book names meant to impress us with their cleverness. The story that surrounds them is as implausible as their monikers: A dying secret agent’s memory is transplanted into the brain of a hardened criminal, who is then expected to summon the lost memories and lead the authorities to a big bag of money and some dangerous nuclear codes.
Farfetched as it is, I don’t have a problem with the plot. Brain-switching and nukes? Bring it on. That’s not what makes Criminal a bad movie. What makes it bad is the flabbiness of the execution, the absence of storytelling logic, and the spectacle of gifted actors struggling to get something—anything—going.
The Homesman (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD), one of my favorite films of the year, was overlooked by critics in the rush to praise more conventional and less resonant films. It deserves a second look. Tommy Lee Jones directs, co-writes, and stars in the film as George Briggs, a drifter saved from a lynching by Mary Bee (Hilary Swank), a tough, capable settler who has tamed her harsh Nebraska homestead and now sets out on an odyssey. She trades his life for help in transporting three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) driven mad by life on the frontier to a town hundreds of miles away, where they have been offered care and sanctuary. It’s a western, sure, but certainly not in any traditional way. Adapted from the novel by Glendon Swarthout (who also wrote, among others, “The Shootist”), this story presents the West as a hard place that creates hard people and destroys the rest.
Jones is marvelous as the no-account whose word is secured through his greed but also rises to the occasion when necessary, but Hilary Swank dominates the film as Mary. She has carved out a successful spread but remains single and terribly lonely; she’s “too bossy,” says one of the few bachelors available on this vast sea of grass, scrub, and rolling hills. Her performance as a tough, driven, commanding woman cuts through the film like a knife. She was robbed of an Oscar nomination.
The film offers a landscape to match the emotional isolation; this land is as empty and lonely and unforgiving as it is lovely. There have been a lot of films about the costs and hardships faced by the first American settlers of the West, but they’ve all focused on the physical—violence, weather, shelter, food, the hardships of carving a home out of the wilderness. The Homesman looks at the toll on the heart and the soul and the psyche in a homestead miles from the nearest neighbor. It is a powerful film of elemental emotions and instincts, filled with eccentric and unusual episodes that straddle the fine line between humor and tragedy.
Blu-ray and DVD with three behind-the-scenes featurettes. The Blu-ray also features a bonus UltraViolet digital copy of the film. Also available on cable and digital VOD (through iTunes, Amazon, Xbox and others).
Tommy Lee Jones, as actor and director, clearly cares a lot about the Western. Is there an audience that cares with him? The once-dominant genre has declined so steeply since the 1970s that each new one is an event, and Jones has become one of the few people still riding herd on the form. (Though ailing at the movies, the myth of the West is alive and well in American politics, currently full of gun-totin’, hog-castratin’ candidates.) The Homesman is so good it makes you wish Jones could somehow make a Western a year, just to keep exploring the pockets of American frontier experience that still need filling in. This one offers a series of new wrinkles, beginning with its route: The story goes from west to east, the opposite of most Westerns.
Frontier spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) has known the man for about 24 hours, and only now asks his name. Sociability’s got nothing to do with it; she needs his moniker for a financial transaction. He thinks for a moment, and squints at her: “Let’s say George.” “George what?” Another moment for thought. “Briggs.” After saying the word, he seems to consider it for another moment, and likes it fine. He says “George Briggs” a couple more times, laughing and pronouncing it with a singsong lilt, as though charmed by the jig-like cheerfulness of the words.
It’s a signature beat for Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Briggs and who also directed, produced, and co-scripted The Homesman. Briggs has reason to be amused; just before Miss Cuddy found him, he’d been blasted with dynamite (for claim-jumping another man’s homestead) and left to die on the back of a horse, the rope around his neck tied to a tree branch above him.
One can only imagine how witty, wise and moving HopeSprings might have been in the hands of Mike Nichols, originally tapped to direct (Carnal Knowledge 30 years later?). Advertised as a romantic dramedy about middle-aged marriage gone stale, Hope dutifully delivers gentle laughs and occasional sexual farce. And probably that’s all director David Frankel—who mined such easy comedy out of cosmeticized surfaces in The Devil Wears Prada—was aiming for.
He didn’t count on Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. Did the gutsy co-stars of Hope Springs simply hijack Frankel’s safe little comedy of marital errors? Or did they force the fellow to rise to their level? Either way, this team’s tough, unglamorized performances power Hope way beyond the ho-hum territory of a slightly edgier It’s Complicated. Shout-out to Oscar: As an aging couple looking for love among the ruins, Streep and Jones are so good they could be auditioning for a softer, American version of Scenes from a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman’s classic dissection of marital life and strife.
But the stars can’t act away the movie’s tonal lurches and character U-turns. Segueing from soap opera to shockingly raw moments of emotional realism, from sexual slapstick to In Treatment–style therapeutic drama, Hope edges into deep waters, painful issues like growing old and lonely, the passing of physical beauty and youthful faith. But ultimately Frankel and the script chicken out, ditching challenging cargo in favor of a dash for the picture-pretty port of Feel Good.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
Give Jon Peters full credit, he’s honest with his audience. At the beginning of A Star Is Born a voice called out advising “all you assholes out there” that the show wasn’t about to get under way until everyone quieted down, and Jon’n’Barbra proceeded to treat their public accordingly for the rest of the film (not that a goodly portion of the public seemed to mind: “Gee, Barbra called me an asshole!â€”I have arrived!”). Peters’ credit on Eyes of Laura Mars is preceded by a spacey model’s muttering “Guh-ross!” Yes, my dear, Eyesof LauraMarsis pretty gross and, in deference to memories of the good films director Irvin Kershner once made, I’d prefer to lay most of the blame at Peters’ door.
[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
Coal Miner’s Daughteris an American success story in the best biopic tradition, whose virtues lie in John Corso’s superb production design and in several strong performances that gently mix humor and romance with the darker side of human relations. The title of the film pays lip service to the importance of her father, Ted Webb, in the life of country singer Loretta Lynn, but the promise of that kind of psychological insight is never borne out in the film itself. Levon Helm’s strong, sensitive portrayal of the astonishingly young yet prematurely old coal miner Webb keeps him in our memories (particularly his walk, straight and proud, yet stiffened by his trade and growing a little frail) for longer than screentime actually allows him; but the latter part of the film is devoid of any clear link to Ted. The real center of the film is Mooney Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones), who gets us right into the film by betting, in the opening sequence, that he can drive his jeep to the very top of a high, steep slag heap, and, of course, winning: the same way he wins the affections and the hand of young Loretta (Sissy Spacek), and the same way he drives her to the top of quite a different heapâ€”only to find himself confronting the syndrome of the male housewife.
[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
The very title of this film, and of the Loretta Lynn autobiography on which it is basedâ€”in turn, from a song of hersâ€”underlines some of the tensions within the movie: Coal Miner’s Daughterrather than, say, The Loretta Lynn Story implies a reliance on another for purposes of self-identification. It also suggests a nostalgia for one’s roots: a longing for a home is very important in Coal Miner’s Daughter.