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MOVIE REVIEW: BEYOND THE LIGHTS • THE HOMESMAN

 

November 10, 2014

BEYOND THE LIGHTS

There's nothing quite like the blend of good storytelling, great performances and a powerful emotional journey all skillfully woven together with a solid singular vision of a strong director to make for a powerful moviegoing experience. This week, we have two such films opening - BEYOND THE LIGHTS from writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood and THE HOMESMAN from writer/director Tommy Lee Jones. Both are examples of superb filmmaking and storytelling. Both more than worth a visit to the local theatre.

BEYOND THE LIGHTS

Leave it to Gina Prince-Bythewood, the driving force behind the award-winning "Love & Basketball" and "The Secret Life of Bees", to jump into the callous coldness of the music industry as her newest playground with BEYOND THE LIGHTS. An emotionally powerful film that digs deep "beyond the lights", BEYOND THE LIGHTS is in many respects a cautionary tale not only about "the business" but about the relationship between parents and children; fathers and sons/mothers and daughters and the desires and pressures on both sides of every relationship, all told through the eyes of Noni, a true talent coming into her own as a woman, trying to find her own voice and make it be heard in the world and not her mother's.

We first meet Macy Jean and her 10-year old daughter Noni in 1998 London where Macy Jean is doing more than a "Mama Rose" head game on Noni. Noni, a bespectacled shy girl with uncooperative unruly natty hair, clearly loves to sing, although she may not love to perform. Pushing and driving Noni to win a local talent contest, one is immediately swept into the frustrated stage mother syndrome as Noni, coifed, dressed and posed to Macy's specifications, comes in second despite a through-the-roof acapella performance of Nina Simone's "Blackbird". While Noni is thrilled to have won a trophy, same can't be said for Macy Jean who manhandles the child dragging her from the contest, hauls her out into the parking lot, chastising and lecturing in the same breath, "You wanna be a runner-up? Or do you wanna be a winner?' Due either to fear of her mother or an inner desire to truly be a winner, Noni smashes her trophy onto the ground.

Fast forward to present day and Macy Jean is in high-powered manager mode, having led Noni to stardom thanks to triple recordings and a beyond sexually suggestive music video with the hottest superstar of the day, a white rapper named Kid Culprit. No longer the adorable little girl singing "Blackbird", Noni is now tricked out with weaves and chains and barely there clothes with an offensively arrogant attitude to match, as she writhes on stage with Kid Culprit at the Billboard Awards. But something doesn't feel right. Back in her hotel, instead of resting, Noni attempts a swan dive off the upper level balcony of her hotel, only to be rescued at the last second by off-duty LAPD officer, Kaz Nicol, doing extra duty as a bodyguard. While Macy goes into spin mode for the press, dismissing the incident as a "trip and almost fall" due to too much celebrating, and while Kaz is being hailed as hero, something else is playing out "beyond the lights." Kaz "sees" Noni for who she really is, something that intrigues Noni.

As a relationship begins to blossom between the two, we begin to understand how much alike they are. We see how Macy operates and thinks, with Noni nothing more than a commodity. But we also start to learn about Kaz' life as the son of a single father, a respected police captain who is also strategizing his son's career for political office, just as Macy has been doing all these years with Noni.

The closer Noni and Kaz get, the more each starts to think for themselves and try to make a move from under their parents' respective thumbs. And while neither parent thinks their child is good enough for the other, the one thing they agree upon is that they must keep the kids apart. With the record label threatening to drop Noni and political backers threatening to withdraw support of Kaz, can Noni and Kaz find their voices or will their parents drown them out.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is luminous. And talk about chameleonic! Kudos to hair and make-up for the slutty star persona look they achieve in transforming her as Noni, but there's not enough applause possible for Mbatha-Raw herself for delivering an emotional performance that is not only powerful, but emotionally and physically freeing. Particularly inspiring and illuminating is an outdoor concert scene that allows Noni's true personality, warmth and pure ebullient peace and joy radiate on screen. A magical moment. Mbatha-Raw is so emotionally pure and visceral, you can almost feel the weight of the burdens of life lifted not only from the character but from yourself sitting and watching.

As co-star Tyler Christopher, who plays record executive Liam King, describes Minnie Driver, "She scared the hell out of me!!" in not only one of their scenes together, but in a climactic kitchen scene between Driver and Mbatha-Raw. He's right on the money with that assessment. Minnie Driver is riveting as Macy Jean. She is pure perfection as the driving, calculating, demanding "stage mother/manager from hell". Perhaps the most pivotal and powerful scene in the film - and one of Minnie Driver's ultimate best single scenes in her career - is the Noni-Macy "come to Jesus moment" kitchen scene or, as I like to call it, "the slap heard round the world" moment. Did Driver even take a breath? And a slap to her child with such a fluid forceful arm movement. It shocks you to the core just watching. Beautifully done on both parts with the calm confidence that Mbatha-Raw gives Noni in that scene and the ice cold rage that Driver brings in retaliation and reaction to Noni's defiance to Macy's iron fist. And it's this dynamic that gloriously fuels the mother-daughter relationship.

But the emotion and distinctive persona is not exclusive to the ladies. As Captain David Nicol, Danny Glover then easily handles the role of quietly pushy father. The two parenting styles are wonderful to watch with each driving their child emotionally further from them. Terrific character construct with the parallel worlds.

And then there's Nate Parker. Quietly commanding as Kaz, you feel a sincerity that just emanates from him with very few words. Interesting is to watch Parker and Glover as Parker has the nuancing ability to screw his lower jaw slightly and add just the slightest eyebrow raising in questioning silence of what his dad is pushing him to do. Similarly, Parker is beyond effective when embodying the shock and awe at the haranguing of the paparazzi and the uncomfortableness that comes with being a significant part of someone who is their focus. Just a snippet of reality that really nails today's world. But it's the dynamics of Noni's journey and that of Kaz which drives the emotion as does the freshness and joy that erupts between Mbatha-Raw and Parker.

Strong supporting performances not only come from Tyler Christopher, who delivers a solid presence as Liam King, but R&B superstar Machine Gun Kelly aka Richard Colson Baker who plays Kid Culprit. A standout and someone to put on your radar is India Jean-Jacques as the young Noni.

Writer/Director Gina Prince-Bythewood knows her story, fleshes it out relatively well with great focus on the parent-child relationship from which all else stems and gives a voice to those desperately trying to find one. What could have been a worn-out "been there, done that" story in the hands of a lesser director, thanks to Prince-Bythewood, there is an integrity and intelligence that elevates the characters and the film as a whole. A consummate storyteller, she delivers a story that shows that that relationships between parent & child knows no socio-economic bounds. Wealthy, jet-setting entertainment folks have the same things going on as middle class blue collar as lower middle class. Parents all want a better life for their kids and unfortunately, no matter where in the world, will push and push to have them achieve it. The characters are constructed so that we see variations of the parenting techniques and beliefs and what is deemed of importance to each character and how that impacts each child. For Glover's Captain Nicol, it's not money; it's power to help others through politics. For Driver's Macy, it's money to help her run from poverty and from being "a nobody" making her an ultimate pushy stage mother from hell, using her daughter to compensate for her own failures. It's refreshing and welcome to see Prince-Bythewood develop the parents so that each has it built in them to justify whatever they do. But it's the emotion journey and transformation of Noni and even Kaz, that is simply magical to watch unfold as each grows and steps up and steps out from under the thumbs and ideals of their parents.

Keeping the camera fluid, Prince-Bythewood calls on cinematographer Tami Reiker and together the two develop a visually metaphoric storytelling, using extensive close-ups and mid-shots early in the production for the claustrophobic world in which Noni, as well as Kaz, lives, but then widening out as Noni and Kaz "find themselves" ultimately delivering stunning wide-angle panoramic shots for the last act of the film. Lighting is significant, particularly in a Rosarita Beach sequence, capturing a celebratory warmth with a setting sun as backlight, golden shadows, sun flares. Similarly, a climactic outdoor concert is lensed with the bright white of day, blue skies as a sense of freedom takes hold.

Soundtrack and scoring is dynamic, pulsating and telling, with songs specifically written for the character by Richard C. Baker and Terius "The Dream" Nash, among other notable R&B tones. And yes, it is Gugu Mbatha-Raw doing all of her own singing and stage performance in the film.

Wonderful and warm, BEYOND THE LIGHTS is emotionally freeing and inspiring! An emotional journey of finding one's voice that will resonates with all, BEYOND THE LIGHTS lifts the heart and the soul.

THE HOMESMAN

In a word, THE HOMESMAN is captivating. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones and co-written by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, THE HOMESMAN captures a moment in history; a brief moment in the intersecting lives of 5 people, a slice of history with the beauty of simplicity, the grandeur of visual expanse with an intimate feel.

Hilary Swank dominates as a self-sufficient and independent unmarried woman in 1850 Nebraska. Pious, prim, hard-working, Mary Bee Cuddy has her own ranch and money in the bank, yet is desperate for a husband. Always wanting to do the right thing, the humane and Godly thing, Mary Bee offers to take three of the local women east to Iowa. Each has been driven insane, either from marriage, motherhood or loss of a child and their husbands can't deal with them. A kindly Reverend and his wife have offered to get them care and help them get back east to their families, if someone can just bring the women to them. As none of the men in town will help, Mary Bee will. But she can't do it alone.

As luck wold have it, Mary Bee meets George Briggs - a man literally hanging at the end of his rope - as she finds him still alive in a botched lynching. Somewhat of a scallywag, Briggs is enough of a man to be beholden to the woman who saved his life and agrees to accompany her in transporting her charges to Iowa. Of course, he will also collect $300 on journey's end.

Mismatched from the start with each trying to be more defiant and stubborn than the other, much of the journey is silent with little to no conversation. But with nothing but the creaking wagon wheels and whistle of the wind, sooner or later someone has to talk. And as they face the elements, the difficulties of caring for these helpless ill women, the threat of Indians, it seems that Mary Bee and Briggs are not that different and each on their own redemptive journey.

Tommy Lee Jones is a gifted director with a strength for visual storytelling. There is a lovely lyricism to the lensing and the storytelling, serving to compliment each other for a perfect tonal bandwidth. Thanks to some outstanding widescreen lensing in New Mexico (standing in for Nebraska and the plains) and elsewhere with the desert and prairie scenes, we feel how small and insignificant one person is in the face of the world and Mother Nature while through the performances of Swank and Jones, we see how tall one stands with conviction and determination. Jones knows how to tell a story visually - through cinematographic excellence and calculated pacing - as well as with character and story.

Well familiar with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's work, Jones made a wise choice with him as cinematographer. Shooting daylight scenes with film and nighttime digitally with the Sony F-55 and then given filmic texture in post-production so the imagery would match, Prieto creates an elegantly expansive, yet commandingly quiet, visual palette yet gives us an intimate connection with not only the land, but the people. It's a dichotomous emotional bandwidth that is so difficult and rare yet Jones and Prieto together do just that. Some of the "Mary Bee lost in the dark on a horse" scenes are breathtaking with inky blues, stark white and real saturation of darkening twilight colors. And then the lightness of visual texture as the group reaches the river banks near Iowa (a beautiful Lumpkin, Georgia and Hannahatchee Creek substituting for Iowa) where sunlight softens, greenery abounds and the entire mood lifts and shifts, now being treated with a light touch, a light lens, some soft sunlight, but also more intimate framing.

Jones brilliantly uses widescreen as a metaphor. Just watch how wide the shots are as they embark on their journey but as the characters connect, as Mary Bee and Briggs become closer, as the three women settle down, the camera incrementally gets tighter with the shots. None of the five are as insignificant as they thought or as many treated them at the outset of the journey. They are not "specks" on the prairie. Emotionally compelling.

Truly impressive, however, are the characters and the performances. Jones isn't afraid to add a bit of self-deprecation to himself which lends to some lighter moments with his take on Briggs. A nighttime seduction of Briggs by Mary Bee is as tender and soft as I have ever seen Jones play while the burning of a new hotel business venture serves almost as a hammering catharsis for Briggs' unspoken anger at life. As Mary Bee, Hilary Swank is restrained strength and grit. Swank gives Mary Bee this great practicality and bravura facade but you can tell she is socially awkward with "less refined folk" and doesn't quite know how to open up. In moments where Mary Bee starts to clinically open up and talk about her life, Swank adds some great facial nuance that speaks volumes.

THE HOMESMAN

Supporting cast is outstanding. James Spader is a delicious pompous ass as Aloysius Duffy. John Lithgow has a little mystery going as Reverend Dowd while Meryl Streep is charming. Barry Corbin adds an authentic bit Hollywood western to the mix! And then the three women - Sonja Richter scared the hell out of me with her portrayal of Gro Svendsen while Miranda Otto and Grace Gummer create visual interest with no dialogue. But beyond that, the construct of the story and Jones giving us some flashbacks of each woman's story and what they remembered, what tortured and tormented them, we see glimpses of the descent into insanity.....and the insensitivity of the men in their lives and their contribution to each women's condition. Great commentary on the societal mindset of the day as well.

Production design and authenticity as a period piece of the day, not to mention costuming, excels. And applause to supervising sound editor David Bach and his team for the sound design. Every whistle of the wind, creek of the wagon wheel, foot on the dirt, babble of the creek, bird call, the horse and mule hooves, the crackle of fire or the thwack sound blankets make when you shake them out in folding.... and the various textures within each, are magnificently captured.

THE HOMESMAN - a fully sensory experience filled with visual majesty, immersing us in the life and lives of the time.

 

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