Limbo. Movies Reviewed: The Homesman, West

Posted in 1970s, Communism, Germany, Mental Illness, Road Movie, Uncategorized, Western by CulturalMining.com on November 21, 2014

The Wonders of Modern Underwater SalvageHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Ever been stuck in an elevator between two floors? Or stranded in an airport lounge in a far-off country as you wait to change planes? Well, between departure and arrival, there’s always that strange space, that state of limbo that you’re never quite sure you’ll get out of. This week I’m looking at two movies about that interim area. One’s an American western about a woman in Nebraska Territory trying to bring three women  from West to East. The other’s a German drama set in 1970s Berlin about a woman trying to bring her son from East to West.

H_20130429_0351.tifThe Homesman
Dir: Tommy Lee Jones

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hillary Swank) lives on a big farm in the old west. She spends her time ploughing the fields with her two faithful mules. She’s a hardworking, educated farmer. She’s got money in the bank, and if things work out, she might even start up a pumpkin patch next year. So what’s her problem? She’s a single woman, almost 30, unheard of in these parts. All the men have turned her down. She’s too plain and bossy, they all say.

But who do they turn to when things get rough? Mary Bee. Their young wives H_20130409_4096-2.dnghave all gone mad so they need a homesman to take three women them across the prairies to a big city – somewhere with an insane asylum. And they give her a horse-drawn paddy wagon with barred windows to carry them there. But before she leaves, she runs across an ornery old cuss with a rope around his neck. The posse had caught him squatting in an abandoned shack, and that was grounds for a hanging. His name is George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), and he’s a drunken scofflaw who thinks only of himself. She makes him a deal. If she cuts him loose, he has to navigate her – and the three women – across Indian territory in Nebraska. And she sweetens the pot with a jug of whiskey and the promise of 300 dollars if he guides them safely to the town.

So off they go on their journey, crossing rivers, camping on the plains, and avoiding the natives and various outlaws riding around. Will they make it alive? Can irresponsible Briggs and forthright Cuddy ever see eye to eye? Will opposites attract? And how 05f3b79a-bca6-4bf8-8aa1-0e06380cb996will they handle their unusual human cargo?

This is a beautifully shot, traditional Western, a genre thought dead and gone not too long ago. It’s full of visual quotes, not just from movies, but from old American paintings, like George Caleb Bingham’s Jolly Flatboatmen. And it delves into questions of class, race and gender.

I do have some qualms with this movie. Biggest of all is how it portrays mental illness. The three women are infantilized, The-Jolly-Flatboatmen George Caleb Bingham orgconveniently rendered mute by their illnesses. They never speak to one another and act like three-year-olds. They function more as background scenery or pets than as people. And I’m always suspicious when actors try their hands at writing or directing. They tend to let their own characters steal scenes and hog attention. But Tommy Lee Jones, while  occasionally mugging for the camera, he allowed Swank the screen time to let herself shine. All in all, I enjoyed The Homesman. Although slow paced, it kept me interested until the very end.

poster_imageWest (Westen)
Dir: Christian Schwochow

It’s the 1970s and Germany is divided. Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) is a beautiful and successful scientific researcher in East Berlin. She has a long-distance relationship with her Russian lover Vassily, who regularly visits her and their son Alexey (Tristan Göbel) in Berlin. But when he dies in a car crash, her life, and that of Alexey, is changed. She finds the endless interrogations and strip-searches in the DDR humiliating and unbearable. And when she applies for an exit visa, her good job disappears. So when they finally successfully cross over to the West, she expects to find, freedom, privacy and a well-paying job. Instead, they end up stuck in a strange, no-mans-land called the Emergency Refugee Centre.

East Berlin is still held by the Soviets, while West Berlin is occupied by the US, French and British military – a relic of WWII, kept alive by the cold war. She is strip-searched in the west side, too, given cards to punch, and turned down from working. And she is soon called into regular interrogations with John, a black American intelligence officer with a pencil thin moustache (Jacky Ido). She becomes paranoid after he hints that her Russian lover might still be alive, and that Stasi might be spying on her.

Meanwhile, back at the dormitory, her son attaches himself to a new father figure, Hans (Alexander Scheer). Hans was a former Germany West : Westen Toronto EU Film Festivaljailed dissident in the East, but, in spite of this, some people suspect him of being a Stasi informer. Nelly is suspicious too, but she fails to see he’s the only one helping poor Alexey handle the constant bullying. They don’t like the (Easterners) there. Her paranoia grows as her happiness seems unreachable. Nelly is left wondering is the West any different from the East?

This is a fascinating, semi-autobiographical movie that has an historical connection. It was written by a mother and directed by a son who had crossed over from the DDR themselves. I remember meeting refugees from the East living in West Berlin, but never knew what they had gone through. Very illuminating, realistic look at Berlin in the 1970s.

The Homesman opens today in Toronto, check your local listings, and West plays tonight at a free screening at the Royal. It’s part of the EU film festival which runs for another week. Go to eutorontofilmfest.ca for details.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: