F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 5, 2017)

5 01 2017

old-joy“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” was one of the first movies to teach me that it’s entirely possible for characters to go on a journey and end up exactly where they started from, learning nothing. It’s an ending that has really stuck with me over the years, and I always admire filmmakers with the guts to acknowledge a fundamental truth about humans. We don’t always learn, adapt or change. We often times remain stubbornly ourselves.

Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 film “Old Joy” is one such film that offers little in the way of optimism about human relationships. Two friends, careerist Mark (Daniel London) and nomadic Kurt (Will Oldham), head into the mountains to escape their lives and reconnect. They go through the motions in seeming expectation that something they see, do or experience will move them – or, at the very least, jolt them out of numbness. No such luck. Things happen, just as they do in everyday life. They are not transformed.

Meanwhile, on talk radio that’s simmering on car radios, we hear Bush-era talk about liberalism in exile and bemoaning the hopelessness of the moment. The action on screen is, of course, connected to the droning, disembodied voices. Everyone in Reichardt’s universe seems paralyzed by the seeming inability of our actions and desires to noticeably alter the reality we must face. So, in other words, no reason to dust this movie off now. Clearly just a relic of its mid-aughts moment. (*chuckle*)

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 24, 2016)

24 11 2016

meeks-cutoffWith “Certain Women,” Kelly Reichardt took a move back toward the kind of stories that made her career – the quiet routines that define and confine the lives of Pacific Northwesterners. But earlier this decade, Reichardt made some notable forays into the world of genre filmmaking with 2014’s “Night Moves,” an eco-thriller, and 2011’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” a revisionist and feminist take on the Western.

I caught the former at the 2013 London Film Festival, which forced me to abandon all ties to the outside world and dive headfirst into her carefully constructed universe. I was not so lucky to see “Meek’s Cutoff” in a theater, however, which meant years of putting off watching the film since I knew it would command so much of my attention. I stopped and started the film several times, knowing that anything that took my brain out of the experience would make the viewing a wash. When I had the chance to interview Reichardt earlier this year, I knew I could wait no longer.

Once I finally plunged myself into “Meek’s Cutoff,” my latest selection for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” I was rewarded handsomely for my patience and attentiveness. Reichardt does not subvert genre tropes, as many revisionist filmmakers do in a self-congratulatory exhibition of their own cinematic knowledge. Rather, she inverts them, ascribing the same respect and earnestness normally accorded to heroic white men to their muted female companions and Native American guides.

Reichardt tells “Meek’s Cutoff” from a woman’s point of view, which includes making certain information obscured or downright off-limits. When the men in charge are talking, she makes things intentionally hard to hear or keeps the camera at such a distance that we cannot help but feel entirely removed from the decision making process. When Michelle Williams’ Emily Tetherow is privy to some information from her husband, Will Patton’s Solomon, she receives it in a whisper during the utter blackness of the prairie nights.

Tensions of all kinds flare on this 1840s journey along the Oregon Trail as the wagon caravan’s guide, Bruce Greenwood’s Meek, inspires doubts among the group. Amongst themselves, the settlers begin to wonder if he has intentionally led them astray to their demise. Supply begins to run as low as spirit, leading to rash decisions and some surprising assertions of authority. As survival instincts kick in, the clamor of wisdom from the women grows louder and harder to ignore. While an adjective like “thrilling” or “exciting” may not apply given the pace of Reichardt’s film, “compelling” sure does. Anyone willing to stop everything and simply live in the frame will find a textured, intelligent and unique take on the Old West.





REVIEW: Certain Women

5 11 2016

certain-womenKelly Reichardt’s richly detailed cinematic canvases have changed little in composition in her two decades of filmmaking. The world in which that art gets displayed has grown increasingly fast-paced and task-oriented. Each successive Pacific Northwestern-set film with its unhurried pace and character (as opposed to action) driven story feels slightly more rebellious than the last.

An well-known dictum from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” often gets deployed when describing the kinds of people on screen in Reichardt’s latest film, “Certain Women.” As the great American wordsmith put it, “The mass of [wo]men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Each of the four primary characters in the film’s three segments appears calm and relatively nonplussed by their circumstances. But beneath the stillness, a river of malcontent flows.

We do not spend but a brief episode with each of them, though their silent struggles are wholly realized. “Certain Women” lingers in the dead space between two questions Stanislavsky says all actors must answer for their characters – “What do I want?” and “What do I do to get what I want?” Reichardt never plays a story with as vague an objective as happiness or contentment, either. Laura Dern’s Laura Wells, a lawyer working with an obstinate and entitled male client, wants relief and understanding her trying scenario. Michelle Williams’ Gina Lewis, the yoga pants-clad mother and wife, wants the kind of satisfaction that can only come from swindling an elderly man into selling them sandstone at a cheap price.

In the most devastating portion of the triptych, the shy farmhand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) desperate for connection makes feeble attempts to befriend a community college adjunct professor, Kristen Stewart’s Beth Travis. For whatever reason, Beth has decided to take on an eight-hour roundtrip commute to teach a class which brings her no obvious intrinsic value or monetary gain. They share many a dinner but precious little of themselves.

While moving at a speed that many would compare to molasses, Jamie and Beth seem like they could use the kind of diuretic that “Certain Women” provides. By focusing on the small gestures, the simple systems governing our livelihoods, and the moments between moments, Reichardt creates a space to simply stop and live. Once you locate the rhythm of the film and arrive on its wavelength, the atmosphere of striving slowly amidst disappointment becomes gloriously overwhelming.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Night Moves

2 09 2014

Night MovesLondon Film Festival, 2013

Kelly Reichardt’s ecoterrorist drama “Night Moves” starts off with all the right moves.  As she details the steps that a group of activists take to blow up a hydroelectric dam, the film holds us with the firm grip of a well-crafted procedural.  Reichardt never has to resort to the usual arsenal of cinematic tricks to create suspense because it arises organically from her laser-like focus on presenting the reality of the scene.

The film’s style works at first because we get a sense of who the characters are based on the way they act and react.  There’s no clunky exposition to give us an abundance of background information on them, yet these three resolute and very different figures just seem to make sense as they plot towards their bold action.

That’s largely due to the actors filling the nuances left by Reichardt’s script.  Jesse Eisenberg (yet again) plays the silent and bitterly angry type well, but “Night Moves” is more exciting for its surprising performances.  Dakota Fanning as a zealous untested college dropout and Peter Sarsgaard as a confident but somewhat shady ex-Marine make far more compelling characters because we aren’t sure the depths they can reach.

Once their planning is done and the deed is carried out (notice I didn’t say how successfully), the three split ways.  This occurs between a third and half of the way through the film, a rather odd structure given that we expect blowing up the dam to be the climax.  The unexpected plot development portends an exciting departure when it begins, but “Night Moves” sadly becomes an entirely different movie afterwards.

Reichardt, so ably steering clear of genre cliches at the start of the film, sets a course straight into them at the back half.  As the three characters struggle with guilt, responsibility, and many other feelings, “Night Moves” assumes the tenor of formulaic melodrama. Though this conventional chapter of the story ultimately caps off with a surprising plot development, the familiar waters taint the powerful experience of riding through such uncharted ones.  B2halfstars