Friday, March 27, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Ironweed (1987)

Ironweed (1987) 
Directed by: Hector Babenco.
Written by: William Kennedy based on his novel.
Starring: Jack Nicholson (Francis Phelan), Meryl Streep (Helen), Carroll Baker (Annie Phelan), Michael O'Keefe (Billy), Diane Venora (Peg), Fred Gwynne (Oscar Reo), Margaret Whitton (Katrina), Tom Waits (Rudy), Jake Dengel (Pee Wee), Nathan Lane (Harold Allen), James Gammon (Reverend Chester), Will Zahrn (Rowdy Dick), Laura Esterman (Nora), Joe Grifasi (Jack), Hy Anzell (Rosskam), Bethel Leslie (Librarian), Richard Hamilton (Donovan), Black-Eyed Susan (Clara), Priscilla Smith (Sandra), James Dukas (Finny), Ted Levine (Pocono Pete), Martin Patterson (Foxy Phil Tooker), Terry O'Reilly (Aldo Campione), Frank Whaley (Young Francis). 
It’s a little odd that a film that features Oscar nominated performances by Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep – the most nominated male and female actors in history – has all but been forgotten in the years since it was released. Perhaps it’s a little odder still, since the movie was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by William Kennedy, who also wrote the screenplay, and was director Hector Babenco’s follow-up to his Oscar winning Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). And yet, Ironweed is not a film that is particularly easy to see – I remember seeing an old VHS copy in a video store years ago, but for a long time it didn’t make the transition to DVD or Blu-Ray or streaming – so it remained the one Nicholson Oscar nominated performance I had not seen (shamefully, I have few Streep nomination blind spots left). Watching the film now, it’s a little easier to see why it’s been mostly forgotten – it’s not because it’s bad, it’s actually quite good, but it isn’t great – and you get the sense that it’s the difficulty of transferring a great, but interior, novel to the screen that doesn’t quite translate. It’s also, it must be said, a tremendous downer of a movie – it has none of Nicholson’s characteristic charm, as he plays a character who has punished himself for two decades, by falling down a hole of alcoholism and homelessness. It is a great performance. Streep’s performance is great as well – although it’s really more of a supporting performance than a lead, especially as the film moves along, and she almost vanishes from the narrative. It’s one of the drawbacks of auteurism that often times, fine films like Ironweed are overlooked as years go by – and a director like Babenco, who was a very good director but never entered the pantheon of the greats, has their films fall by the wayside. Ironweed is far from a perfect film – but it’s a very good one, and deserves more attention than it’s gotten.
The film takes place in the during the Great Depression, and focuses on Francis Phelan (Nicholson), a man who has tormented himself for the last 22 years since he dropped his two-week old baby, resulting in his death. Francis left the family soon after, and has become an alcoholic drifter. In the film’s first shot, we see Francis before we realize we do – he looks just like a pile of old rags in a heap by a wall – and then the heap moves, and we realize it’s a man. The first half of the movie is about Francis’ day-to-day life – taking on whatever odd jobs he can find to pay for a bottle, and maybe a place to flop for the night. His girlfriend, to use the term loosely, is Helen (Meryl Streep) – in the same boat, for very different reasons. Streep doesn’t get the deep backstory Nicholson does – but does amazing things with what she does have. The master of accents does something interesting here – you know Helen comes from the upper class by the way she speaks, but not what she says. Throughout the course of the movie, you get glimpses of her past – she was a concert pianist, but that has been derailed. She talks of her family with disdain – there is perhaps some mental illness at play. She still has visions of her old life – but in sad echoes – like her best scene, when she sings “He’s My Pal” to the dive bar they are in, and imagines everyone cheering, when the sad reality is that drunks barely seem to notice.
For Francis, he is back in Albany, New York – perhaps for the first time in a while. This is where his family is, and an early scene has him speaking to his dead son’s grave for the first time, moved to tears. He will eventually return to his home – to his wife Annie (Carroll Baker) and the two kids he abandoned. This is a long sequence in the film’s back half, full of regret and things not said, or half said. His wife never blamed him for what happened – his son wants him home again. His daughter is bitter and angry – but she hasn’t lost the love for him either.
But Francis cannot go home. He is a haunted man – not just by his son, but some others he has killed over the years in ways that he may not be entirely to blame for – but are the type of situations most people don’t find themselves in. I imagine scenes of the ghosts of these people following him around – and him talking with them – worked better in the book then they do here – where Babenco never quite figures out how to do it without making it look kind of silly.
Ironweed then is a story of a man who is so paralyzed by his past, that he cannot function in the present, and has no future – and to a lesser extent, Helen’s story is the same as Francis’ – just with a different set of memories to be haunted by. It is a film about the type of people you don’t think about – the homeless people you pass on the street, and don’t consider what led them to where they are. Yes, it is a story of alcoholism – but not in kind of the big, show-offy way of many movie drunks, told with exuberance. It’s about drinking to make yourself get through one more day and not give up. Francis believes you die when you’ve had enough – so clearly he isn’t there yet. He isn’t done punishing himself.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Classic Movie Review: The Thing (1982)

The Thing (1982)
Directed by: John Carpenter.
Written by: Bill Lancaster based on the story by John W. Campbell Jr.
Starring: Kurt Russell (MacReady), Wilford Brimley (Dr. Blair), T.K. Carter (Nauls), David Clennon (Palmer), Keith David (Childs), Richard Dysart (Dr. Copper), Charles Hallahan (Vance Norris), Peter Maloney (George Bennings), Richard Masur (Clark), Donald Moffat (Garry), Joel Polis (Fuchs).
The first film I thought to rewatch when a global pandemic trapped us all in our homes with our loved ones for days, weeks, perhaps months on end was not Steven Soderberg’s Contagion – I still haven’t ventured back into that one yet, but likely will this week, but John Carpenter’s The Thing instead. This is perhaps Carpenter’s best film (Halloween can also credibly make that claim) – a paranoid creature feature with great special effects, but is all the scarier simply when it traps its characters in a room together, no one quite sure if the others are still who they say they are, with no way to escape. Like much of Carpenter’s work, The Thing wasn’t quite a critical or commercial hit when it came out in 1982 – maybe it was the odd decision to release this cold, snowbound movie in June, maybe it was because the film came out just three weeks after Poltergeist and two weeks after E.T. (when was the last time we had a summer with a trio of mainstream movies that stellar?) – but it has rightly gone onto be recognized as the horror classic it so clearly is.
The story is simple enough – a group of men are stuck at an Antarctic science station – prepared, already, to spend many long claustrophobic months together, when something strange happens – a dog comes running into camp, followed by a helicopter, who has one very determined Norwegian leaning out the side trying to gun down the dog. Needless to say, it is the dog who survives – not the Norwegians – but the dog isn’t really a dog anymore – but instead is something the Norwegians found frozen in the ice, that has no dethawed. And it can take the shape of anyone it so desires. It takes the men a while to realize this of course – but once they do, they don’t handle it well.
What’s remarkable about The Thing is how much Carpenter is able to convey, while telling us so little. He dives into the story headlong, right with that dog running across the snowy terrain, being chased by the helicopter, and unlike say Alien or Jaws, he doesn’t take his time revealing the monster itself. It’s that same night, when the dog keeper places their new arrival with the other that it is revealed to be not like other dogs – in a virtuoso special effects sequence that surely could be done with CGI now, but wouldn’t have the same impact. Often when filmmakers attempt this – diving into the story, getting to the “good stuff” quickly – they sacrificed elements like story and character. Not for Carpenter – it helps that the narrative is relatively simple and straight forward, but as the movie progresses you certainly understand all you need to know about the main characters – Kurt Russell’s MacReady, the closest thing the film has to a hero, although that may be because we spend the most time with him, since he also does things that if he wasn’t out hero, would make him the villain. Or Wilford Brimley’s Dr. Blair – who seems, well, like a warm Wilford Brimley character until he isn’t. Or the hotheaded Childs played by Keith David – who remains mysterious to the end. And on and on – I’m not suggesting that these are particularly deep characterizations, just that they are as deep as they need to be to make them not just interchangeable characters, simply there to increase the blood flow – sacrificial lambs to the slaughter, even if in effect they kind of are.
The special effects, strangely, seem to be what drew the ire of contemporary film critics at the time – Roger Ebert called it a “geek show,  gross out movie … it seems clear that Carpenter made his choice early on to concentrate on the special effects and technology and to allow the story and people to become secondary” in his 2.5 star (thumbs down) review, Vincent Canby completely dismissed it “The Thing is too phony looking to be disgusting. It qualifies only as instant junk”. Even reviewers who got what Carpenter were going for, didn’t seem to like it – Dave Kehr said “he seems to be aiming for an enveloping, novelistic kind of effect, but all he gets is heaviness”. I bring this up not to shit on the reviewers who either didn’t get or didn’t like The Thing in 1982 (nothing is more tiresome to me than pieces like that) – because on one level, I get them. I do wonder what movies in the CGI age will end up being regarded like The Thing is today – and whether when that movie emerges, it will be one that I dismissed as more CGI soup. When you watch lot of movie with special effects, they can blend together to a certain degree – you can roll your eyes and think “here we go again” when the same visuals come onto the screen. Special effects can do that now – and it seems like it did it make in 1982 as well. It wasn’t even like the horror community embraced it that much – only two Saturn nominations (Best Horror Film, and Best Special Effects) – hell, the idiots at the Razzies nominated the brilliant Ennio Morricone score for Worst Score of the year.
But it isn’t the special effects – as wonderful as they are – that I think when I think of The Thing. It’s the long sequences of paranoid men together in a room, sizing each other up, trying to figure out who is real, and who is the Thing. The blood test sequence is the best, most sustained example of this – a sequence that goes on minute after agonizing minute, you’re starting to doubt the whole thing, they whole process, before the big reveal. It is perfectly played by the cast – but then it all is. Even the effects heavy climax is nailed by Russell, Brimley, David and T.K. Carter – the fact Carter’s Nauls simply vanishes, and we never see what happened (a budgetary restriction, which works to make the film’s ending even more ambiguous than intended. Carpenter’s The Thing is a triumph of 1980s special effects – I know some will snicker at them now, but they still work on me (and compare them to other special effects at the time – no, it isn’t Cronenberg’s The Fly level, but it’s close) – but the reason the film has lasted is because it is the exact opposite of a “geek show, a gross out movie”. Sorry Roger, you were wrong on this one.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Movies Under Lockdown with Kids: Episode 1

Like many of us right now, I am trapped inside my home all day, every day with my wife and two daughters – 8 and 6 – and will be for the foreseeable future. The first decision we made was to finally bite the bullet and subscribe to Disney+ - and ever since the girls have been having a great time watching TV shows like Phineas & Ferb, and a bunch of movies. I’m watching some with them (although, to be honest, sometimes when they start to watch, it’s a good excuse to slip away and do something else. So what follows are some quick thoughts on what we have watched – in lieu of major reviews, because I’ll never be able to keep up (all told, I’m up to 24 movies at this point since March 13).
The first one the girls picked, for reasons no one seemed clear on was, Wreck-It Ralph (2012) – which remains as charming and funny as it ever was. John C. Reilly’s vocal performance as the nice guy villain, tired of being ignored is still the perfect combination of funny and melancholy – and yet Sarah Silverman still steals the film as the Glitch-y Princess/racecar driver, in what really is one of the best vocal performances of last decade. It reminded me of why I really liked this back in the day, even if the sequel didn’t quite live up to it (though it did have a much more complex lesson).
My youngest really wanted to see the live action Lady and the Tramp – she more than occasionally pretends to be a dog, but fortunately I was able to talk her into watching the original Lady and the Tramp (1955) first. Yes, it is certainly more than a little unfortunate that the film engages in what could generously be called cultural stereotypes, but is more aptly called racism with not just the Siamese cats (that song is catchy though) – but also the chihuahua in the pound, among others. Yet, it’s still a winning movie – a charmer, funny and sweet. The film, like many of the Disney movies of this time, knew it didn’t really need a villain – at least not one that was personified in a single person – and gets in and out in just 76 minutes. There is a reason this is still watched 65 years later. I cannot imagine anyone watching the live action remake Lady and the Tramp (2019) at any point in the future. This was one of their big selling points when it debuted – another live action remake of an animated classic, this one exclusive to Disney+. And yet, from the start it’s clear that they didn’t put as much time or money into it as they did with The Lion King, Dumbo, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast or Jungle Book. That’s not entirely a bad thing – the film basically ends up a bland nothing rather than an active annoyance like most of those films – although why it felt the need to, once again, make the film 45 minutes longer than the original (no excuse of wanting to give theatrical audiences their money’s worth) I have no idea. The best news about the film is that it was written by Andrew Bujalski (Support the Girls, Computer Chess, etc.) – and no, you cannot tell, but it’s good news because it hopefully means he got a good paycheque to keep making his films.
Because I was tired of CGI animal movies, I showed the girls a movie from my childhood with real animal actors - Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993), featuring the vocal talents of Michael J. Fox, Sally Field and Don Ameche, as a trio of animals – two dogs and a cat – who make their way across the wilderness to be reunited with their human family. I probably wouldn’t have admitted it as a kid -I was 11 when it came out – but I really liked it then, and I enjoyed it now. Yes, it’s manipulative in the extreme, trying to get tears from you – but it gets them just the same – and I didn’t feel bad about that. Not only that, but the girls liked it as well. Nostalgia can be toxic – but here, at least, it helped.
And finally, we’ve started to show the older one the Star Wars movies – we’re going in the order they were released, so we made it through the original trilogy and then The Phantom Menace this week. Of Star Wars (1977) what else needs to be said – that film just works amazingly well every time you see it, even if I still wish I could see the original cut, not the special editions (the Jabba scene is easily the worst in the film) – but as derivative and cliched as the film was even at the time it came out, every architype, every cliché just worksand it’s so much fun. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is still probably my favorite film of the entire series – but I will admit that every time I watch it, I do remember that it’s at least a little bloated – you simply forget all the exposition and bloat, because you remember the highlights – from Yoda, to the “reveal”, etc. – and you don’t remember the rest. This is still the perfect way to make a middle chapter of a planned trilogy – go dark, don’t try and resolve anything. Return of the Jedi (1983) was my favorite as a kid, and then became my least favorite as an adult – probably for the same reasons (Ewoks). Seeing it again though, I have to say that they really did stick the landing here – it wrapped up the loose threads in an action-packed film that was a lot of fun. Yes, having Hayden Christenson show up at the end is lame, but whatever – the film works. As a trilogy, it is even better than its individual parts. It is sometimes worth remembering just why this series became so beloved in the first place. And finally, there is Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999). Oof, this one was tough. I’ve always been if not a defender of the prequels, at least not a hater – of the opinion that the fans of the original trilogy, who were kids when they saw it, hated the prequels too much – mainly because they’re adults when they first encounter this one, so it lacks the nostalgia factor of the original, but remains, in essence, a kids a movie like they always were. In part, I still think that. But this one isn’t very good at all. There are moments that are fine, scenes that work, some good special effects, etc. But in short, while it’s not as bad as the most adamant haters say it is, it isn’t very good either. I’ve watched the prequel trilogy just one time each – in theaters (maybe twice for this one) – so it had been 20 years since I saw it. It doesn’t hold up. I was very surprised that I ended up like Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) more than Phantom Menace. It’s still among the weakest of the film – the Anakin/Padme scenes are rough – perhaps the worst in any movie in the entire, full of dialogue that no actor could make work, and Christenson and Portman really don’t make it work. But while the film drags a little down the stretch, it really does move well for most of the runtime – everything with Ewan McGregor works really well, and there is some terrific action. No, it’s not a great film – but I had always thought this was the weakest of all the major films – Phantom Menace now takes that spot for me.
I’ll check back in a sometime in the future week – with more thoughts on the family movies I am watching with the kids – including more Star Wars.

Movie Review: Lost Girls

Lost Girls *** / *****
Directed by: Liz Garbus.
Written by: Michael Werwie based on the book by Robert Kolker.
Starring: Amy Ryan (Mari Gilbert), Thomasin McKenzie (Sherre Gilbert), Gabriel Byrne (Commissioner Doman), Oona Laurence (Sarra Gilbert), Lola Kirke (Kim), Dean Winters (Dean Bostick), Molly Brown (Missy), Miriam Shor (Lorraine), Ana Reeder (Lynn), Grace Capeless (Amanda), Reed Birney (Dr. Peter Hackett), Kevin Corrigan (Joe Scalise).
The unsolved Long Island serial killer case is so large, and so bizarre, that any attempt to dramatize it probably really wouldn’t work too well. There are just too many characters, too many suspects, and victims, and police officers, etc. – that a certain concentration would be needed even if you were to make a miniseries out of the vast amount of material – let alone what Liz Garbus has done in Lost Girls – which is to make a 90 minute feature. It is an odd choice in many ways – why did they pay for the rights of Robert Kolker’s excellent, expansive book, only to concentrate so narrowly on just one story? Yet, the story that is told remains fascinating and interesting, even if you do definitely get the sense that there is more to the story here – more going on than what we are told. And there is.
The story that Lost Girls tells focuses on Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) – whose daughter Shannen goes missing one day, and she has to work hard to get anyone to take her seriously. Shannen was a sex worker – not a street walker, but someone who advertised on Craigslist. She went to see a client on Long Island, called 911, ran through the streets and then just vanished. Mari has trouble getting the cops – sad eyed Commissioner Doman (Gabriel Bryne) and obviously uncaring Detective Bostick (Dean Winters) to take the disappearance seriously. She keeps pushing – and because she does, eventually bodies are found buried on the beach, wrapped in burlap – multiple women. None of them are Shannen though.
The key to the movie working is Ryan – who delivers one of her very best performances in what is certainly one of the meatiest roles she has received since her Oscar nominated turn in Gone Baby Gone. Mari is obviously a flawed character – a single mother struggling to raise two teenage girls – Sherre (Thomasin Mackenize) and Sarra (Oona Laurence) – racked with guilt over the various ways she failed, or feels she failed, Shannen over her short life. She is determined that she will not fail her again in death. And yet, in concentrating so heavily on this case, she almost seems to be repeating the same pattern again with her younger daughters. Thomasin Mackenize – so great in Leave No Trace, and one of the best parts of Jojo Rabbit – probably isn’t really needed here – she’s too good for this role, but she makes that case at one point. And Oona Laurence, who has been very good in various films, isn’t given a chance to really do anything – which is really odd considering what happens after the events of the movie (which makes for one of the biggest WTF moments ever relegated to onscreen text that I can remember). At times, you think Lost Girls may go in that direction – something than David Fincher’s Zodiac did as well – as people become so obsessed with trying to solve a mystery, that they lose everything else.
But Lost Girls doesn’t really do that. In fact, one of the flaws in the film is that it kind of tries to do everything, which is why it seems more scattershot than it should. So it is a portrait of Mari, and her obsession with this case – and the effect it has on her daughters. It’s also a movie about uncaring police – who took an hour to show up when Shannen called 911 the day she went missing, but showed up in minutes when some of the upper-class resident call to complain about Mari. It is about how people – police – and others – don’t really value the lives of prostitutes – which is why they are so often targeted by serial killers, because no one ends up looking for them. It also becomes a kind of conspiracy movie in the late stages – with a strange character played by Kevin Corrigan pointing the finger at another strange character, played by Reed Birney. Then there’s a subplot with Mari trying to stop the sister of one of the victims – played by Lola Kirke – from continuing doing what she is doing in an effort to protect her. The film runs just over 90 minutes, and tries to do way too much in that time.
The one consistent element though is Ryan – who is excellent through as Mari – who keeps the movie grounded, even when it seemingly goes off in too many different directions at once. The true-life story of Lost Girls is too big for any movie to tell – this movie both seems to realize that, and yet still tries to do too much for its own good. What works about it is great – but an even more concentrated, more narrowly focused films would have been even better.

Movie Review: Caniba (2017)

Caniba (2017)
Directed by: Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel.
Featuring: Renée Hartevelt, Issei Sagawa, Jun Sagawa.
Even as far as documentaries about cannibals go, Caniba is strange. The film created a stir on the festival circuit when it came out there in 2017 – but pretty much disappeared after that – distributors guessing (rightly) that most audiences wouldn’t want to endure the films 90-minute runtime. The fil doesn’t give anyone what they would expect in a documentary like this – it gives them something entirely different, more immersive, more disturbing, but also perhaps more exploitative. Watching it all, I got the impression that it was precisely the film that filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel wanted to make – but was at a loss to figure out why they felt the need to make it at all.
The subject of the documentary is Issei Sagawa – who became famous when, as a student studying at the Sorbonne, he murdered fellow student Renée Hartevelt, raped her corpse, and then at parts of her body. But Sagawa was declared insane and unfit for trial – and sent back to Japan, where he has eked out a living based on his infamy – writing a manga about what he did, starring in specialized pornography, even being a food critic for a period of time. He also has never been shy about sitting for interviews with documentary filmmakers – and this is hardly the first film about him to be made.
That perhaps explain why directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor  & Verena Paravel from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab don’t feel the need to dwell on the details of his crime all that much – we get them in onscreen text at the beginning of the film, before the film dives into a current day portrait of Sagawa – now in his 60s, and suffering from diabetes and the after effects of a stroke – he is now dependent on his older brother, Jun, to care for him. What ends up emerging in the film is a warped study of their brothers themselves – Issei admitting he still wants to eat people – and be eaten himself – and Jun still confessing that he doesn’t understand his brothers desires – before showing us his own rather extreme sadomasochistic desires as well.
I feel safe in saying that almost everyone reading this will not want to see Caniba, even those with a perverse fascination with the subject matter itself. The directors aren’t as interested in the details of his crime as clearly other filmmakers have been – and don’t really push Issei to explain what he did, or why. For his part, he seems tired of talking about it as well. While he admits that he is a monster, he also doesn’t really show anything resembling remorse either – and the filmmakers don’t push him to. The filmmaking is odd as well – with its relentless closeups of Issei and Jun, sometimes jostling for the frame. It’s off-putting in the extreme – and that’s even before we get to an extended clip of one of the porn films Issei starred in, or a reading, complete with pictures, of his disturbing manga – or the long sequence of Jun self-abusing. Caniba ends up being exhausting.
I have to admit watching the film, I often wondered what the point of it was. Why was Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel – clearly talented filmmakers that anyone who has seen their previous film, Leviathan can attest, making this film? In its own weird, fucked up way, the film I suppose humanizes both Issei and Jun – and invites you to think about your own desires – which are likely more mainstream then their own. Yet the film is also an endurance test – even at just 90 minutes – to see how much you can take, and is perhaps so off-putting that few will get what the filmmakers are going for – or want to. For them – and I think that’s most people – Caniba will be little more than a geek show.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Films of Kelly Reichardt: A Conclusion

I was glad to go back and revisit the films of Kelly Reichardt. It’s a pleasure and privilege to be able to see these films again, as they are so subtle, so full of quiet notes that come out more and more on repeated viewings. Since Old Joy, she has built quite a reputation as a filmmaker who is able to do so much, while seemingly doing too little. Her films are subtle – but build to a kind of heartbreaking moments in the end. Watching them all in the span of a few weeks shows just how she is able to do – she shows everything, explains nothing – and yet you understand everything.
And now onto to an updating ranking. I was honestly surprised that it changed so much, even if my overall opinion on the films didn’t really change that much. Maybe it’s just the way they hit me at the time.
7. River of Grass (1994) – Reichardt’s debut film shows an immense amount of talent – you can tell this director is going to become someone great, even if you never would have seen what was coming. The time between this and her sophomore film probably helped to better refine her style. It’s a fascinating debut – a time capsule of 1990s indie films in many ways. It isn’t great, but its very good, and fascinating to see the differences in what she would become.
6. Night Moves (2013) – This is clearly Reichardt’s most mainstream film – a thriller with more of a plot than she has ever done before or since. But Reichardt nails it – particularly in the first half of the film, which subtly, slowly builds the tension to an almost breathless level. The second half is more standard – but still effective. And the film uses Jessie Eiseneberg wonderfully well in a role that is opposite to what he normally does.
5. First Cow (2020) – I was amazed when I had to find where Reichardt’s great First Cow would rank among her films – and it ended up this low. This shouldn’t be taken as an insult to her newest film – basically films 2-5 – are almost interchangeable in terms of their quality. This one is a deft blending of genres and themes, brilliantly being a portrait of male friendship, a Western, and a look at capitalism, etc. Just a great film.
4. Meek’s Cutoff (2010) – Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff is a fascinating, strange Western – a one-of-a-kind Western really, focusing on women’s role. The film is brilliantly shot in Academy ratio, trapping the characters in this vast wilderness. The film doesn’t nothing showy, but does it all brilliantly. It really belongs on a list with the best modern Westerns.
3. Certain Women (2016) - The third segment, involving Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone – is perhaps the best thing Reichardt has ever directed, a perfect, heartbreaking mini-masterpiece. The other two segments – starring Laura Dern and Michelle Williams – are both very good, but if it was only them, this would probably be a spot or two lower. Still, it’s amazing that that a trio of stories works amazingly well.
2. Old Joy (2006) – I loved Old Joy in 2006, but I think I loved it even more this time around. This tale of strained male friendship – of two men who have gone their own ways, but get together for a camping trip for their own reasons, is it the type of film where people will complain nothing happen in. But really, everything happens in the film. My opinion on this film increased drastically.
1. Wendy & Lucy (2008) – My favorite before the rewatch remained my favorite after – a heartbreaking, simple film about a woman running away from something (herself most likely) on her way to Alaska whose car breaks down in the Pacific Northwest, and endures a couple of days of hell. Michelle Williams is brilliant, and Reichardt’s direction has never been better. An understated masterwork.
And that’s it. It was a pleasure to revisit these films – all of which are worth your time, either for the first time, or as a rewatch.

Movie Review: First Cow

First Cow **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt.
Written by: Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt based on the novel by Jonathan Raymond.
Starring: John Magaro (Cookie Figowitz), Orion Lee (King Lu), Toby Jones (Chief Factor), Ewen Bremner (Lloyd), Scott Shepherd (Captain), Gary Farmer (Totillicum), Lily Gladstone (Chief Factor's Wife), Rene Auberjonois (Man with Raven), Alia Shawkat (Young Woman).
Note: I, rather foolishly I will admit, saw First Cow in theaters last Friday (the 13th)– it was the first show of the day, and I sat nowhere near anyone – but given the current situation, I still shouldn’t have done it. But I did. It is great – and you should see it. A24 has announced they will relaunch the film at some point when all this over – yet another, albeit smaller, reason to look forward to this ending.
The films of Kelly Reichardt are quiet – attuned to small details and moments, that slowly, subtly build. They are the types of films that some people will love, and others will complain that “nothing happened” as they watch them. But in all of her films – including her latest, First Cow, a lot is happening – but it is happening quietly. First Cow is, like her breakthrough Old Joy, a tale of male friendship. But it’s also more than that. It is a Western, of a sort, and will undeniably remind viewers of Robert Altman’s masterpiece McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). Like that film, this one is also very concerned with capitalism and the effect it has on people – who push themselves too far, to try and get a little bit a head, even if it endangers them now. It is a film of subtle power – the exact type of film you expect from Reichardt at this point in her career.
The main action centers on Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) – the cook from a group of trappers in Oregon, in the 1820s. They aren’t the biggest of outfits – and the long weeks and months in the wilderness has made tensions rise, tempers to grow short – and Cookie ends up on the receiving end of the abuse. He first meets King Lu (Orion Lee) – when he comes across him late one night, where King is completely naked. He tells his story – strange as it is – and Cookie protects him. Later, they will meet again in “town” – where the two will become a more permanent pair, without ever quite laying out the terms of their agreement. It is easier for them to survive if they work together.
The title of the movie refers the area’s first cow – shipped in by the Chief Factor (Toby Jones) – an Englishman, who wanted some milk for his tea. The female cow survives the long journey – her mate, and offspring don’t. Cookie observes, innocently enough, that he is tired of the bread they are forced to eat – made of flour and water – he sure could use some milk. And so, First Cow, becomes a quiet, strange heist film in its way – every night, the pair sneak out and milk the cow, and make biscuits that they sell in town for big money. No one can figure out how they do it. They make money – a lot for that area – but instead of getting out while the getting is good, they just keep pushing things further and further – desperate to get enough to set them up in a dream scenario that at some level, they both know will never happen – but they cannot give up on anyway.
The way Reichardt slowly, subtly layers in everything she is doing here is terrific. It’s a film that builds everything piece by piece, but never spells everything out for you either. You have to do some of that building yourself. She has always had a way with casting – finding the right faces for her films, and the same is true here.  Magaro is perfectly cast as the quiet Cookie, someone who tries to keep a low profile, keep his head down, and just get through it. He is matched by Lee as the more entrepreneurial King Lu – pushing everything further and further. They are outsiders – as are many in this film – King Lu is from China, when we meet him, he is running away from Russians – the Chief Factor is British, even Cookie, with that last name, may well be Jewish – even if it’s never quite breached. Reichardt fills the film with interesting faces and actors – some of them just for a scene or two, like the Lily Gladstone (so great in Reichardt’s Certain Women) – who plays the Chief Factor’s Wife (there must be a story there – one that, sadly, we don’t hear).
It all leads, as I suppose it must, to tragedy – but the power of the movie is how it moves there slowly, surely subtly. This is one of Reichardt’s best films – but then again, they all kind of are. She doesn’t make bad films, just assured ones like this.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Classic Movie Review: The Border (1982)

The Border (1982) 
Directed by: Tony Richardson.
Written by: Deric Washburn & Walon Green & David Freeman.
Starring: Jack Nicholson (Charlie Smith), Harvey Keitel (Cat), Valerie Perrine (Marcy), Warren Oates (Red), Elpidia Carrillo (Maria), Shannon Wilcox (Savannah), Manuel Viescas (Juan), Jeff Morris (J.J.), Mike Gomez (Manuel), Dirk Blocker (Beef), Lonny Chapman (Andy).
I imagine a film like The Border coming out in 2020 would likely please no one. It’s a film about a border guard played by Jack Nicholson who is used to working in California, but moves down to El Paso at the insistence of his materialistic wife, and finds the rules are different down there. Coyotes are moving over dozens people at a time, and are always on the move.  The border guards can hardly keep up – and so most of them don’t try. They’ll arrest who they can – but there is money to be made down there simply by looking the other way, or helping out some of those coyotes. After all, the logic goes, Texas has been running on the labor of “wets” for decades – and without them, they whole system would shut down. Nicholson’s Charlie is a straight arrow – at least at first, but he bends ever so slightly as the film moves along, until he can bend no more. He is basically won over by an innocent young Mexican woman who is nice to him at the border – and who has had baby kidnapped by one of those coyotes.
Nicholson is very good as Charlie – he is the best thing about the movie. By this point, Nicholson was into middle-age, and had left the youthful rebellion of much of his 1970s projects behind. Here, he plays a man who wants a simple life – he doesn’t much like being a border agent, and talks to his wife about maybe going back to the parks service – he liked feeding those ducks. But Marcy (Valerie Perrine) wants the good life – she talks him into moving from their trailer in California, into a Duplex in El Paso – and opens up a charge account at the mall to buy furniture – not to mention that new pool. Their neighbors are Marcy’s old friend Savannah (Shannon Wilcox) and her husband Cat (Harvey Keitel) – a fellow border agent, who tries to recruit Charlie – showing him the ways things are done around here (Keitel seems to be trying a Texas accent in the early scenes – and then at some point just gave up). Charlie knows fairly quickly that he won’t have much support when his boss, Red (Warren Oates) basically suggests that he agrees with Cat on those ways.
Nicholson is at his best here when he is able to communicate just how tired Charlie is – how run down, and beat up. He has played by the rules all his life, and it hasn’t gotten him anywhere, but he seems comfortable with that – or would be if Marcy didn’t keep picking at him for more, more, more. Perrine is very good as well – it’s a little bit of a one note performance as someone stuck in 1980s materialism, which director Tony Richardson can lay on a little thick at times (commercials play in the background pretty much every time Charlie and Marcy are at home – even when they have sex) – but she plays it very well regardless.
To describe the film’s portrait of Mexico as of its time would be to give the film a little much credit. It’s clear the filmmakers were trying to complicate the narrative of it being a lawless place, by showing some good aspects of it as well, but it’s comes across as condescending. There’s really only three Mexican characters of note here – the innocent Maria played by Elpidia Carrillo, who was 21 at the time, but looks to be about 15, who you meant to feel sympathy for (and do), her brother Juan (Manuel Viescas), the doomed innocent, and Manuel (Mike Gomez), the sleazy coyote, with the slicked back hair, and no morals to speak of. They are all one note – although Carrillo (who would essentially play a very similar role in Oliver Stone’s Salvador a few years later) does have one great moment – a heartbreaking one when she starts to strip when Nicholson offers her help, assuming that is what she’ll have to do to get it. The film bends over backwards to make you feel sympathy for these characters – but what it fails to do is make them complicated characters – like Charlie is. This is still very much a white man’s film about Mexico.
The end of the movie devolves into chases sequences and a shoot-out – a simplistic and formulaic way to end the film, that really does feel like it was studio mandated. As a portrait of Mexico, or the problems at the border, the film is too one note. A film like this today would be criticized on one side as being too simplistic a portrayal of Mexico and migrants, and on the other for painting the border patrol as basically lawless and unfeeling – and both sides would have a point. Still, while the film may not quite work on that level, at its best, it is a good character study, with a great central performance by Nicholson playing a weary man who just wants to be comfortable, who tries to do the wrong thing, and finds he cannot live with himself if he does.

The Films of Kelly Reichardt Certain Women (2016)

Certain Women (2016) 

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt.

Written by: Kelly Reichardt based on the stories by Maile Meloy.

Starring: Laura Dern (Laura), James Le Gros (Ryan), Jared Harris (Fuller), Ashlie Atkinson (Secretary), Guy Boyd (Personal Injury Lawyer), Edelen McWilliams (Fuller's Wife), John Getz (Sheriff Rowles), James Jordan (Hostage Specialist), Matt McTighe (Officer Tommy Carroll), Joshua T. Fonokalafi (Amituana), Michelle Williams (Gina), Sara Rodier (Guthrie), Rene Auberjonois (Albert), Lily Gladstone (The Rancher), Kristen Stewart (Elizabeth Travis).


The third story of Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women tells is perhaps the best thing she has ever directed – and brings out the absolute best in her as a filmmaker. It is subtle, and heartbreaking, and ends on an absolute perfect note and is brought to life by two great performances – one by Kristen Stewart, and the other by Lily Gladstone, in what is really one of the decades finest turns. The other two stories in Certain Women work as well – and Reichardt was smart enough to know which story to end on – but they just aren’t quite as perfect as that final one.


The first story stars Laura Dern as a lawyer, who is having an affair with Ryan (James LeGros) and is getting fed up with her most annoying client – Fuller (Jared Harris). Fuller was injured on the job, clearly because of his company’s negligence, but he already settled with them, for next to nothing – so as she has explained to him for six months, he cannot sue them. She finally relents, and takes to another lawyer – a man – who tells him the same thing, and he finally listens. What follows is a lowkey hostage situation.


The second story is about Gina (Michelle Williams), who wants to get a lot of old sandstone from an old local man, Albert (Rene Auberjonois) – who has been holding onto those stones for decades, always planning to do something, and never getting around to it. She is building a new house with her husband – Ryan, the man having the affair with Laura Dern, which never comes up in this segment, but our knowledge of it casts a shadow over this segment – this marriage is not solid right now. The heart of this segment is a long conversation the three of them have – one where Gina does all the talking to the couple, but Albert directs every reply to Ryan.


Then comes the third, perfect segment. Lily Gladstone plays a rancher, who drifts into town one evening and ends up in a classroom, where Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart) is teaching a class on school law to a bunch of teachers who clearly want more specifics on how they can get more money, or better parking, than what Elizabeth has to teach. Elizabeth has a long drive – four hours each way - that she to take the two nights a week she teaches the class. She and Gladstone start heading to the local diner after each class – where Elizabeth talks about her life, and Gladstone gladly listens. There may be romantic interest there – on Gladstone’s part – but she’s too shy to say anything, although a romantic horse ride one day is a high point. And then, one day, Elizabeth is not there in class – she has been replaced.


The first two segments in the film are clearly about lowkey, understated sexism, and how the women in it just have to deal with it and move on. This is Wyoming after all and complaining isn’t going to get anything done. Dern is excellent in her role – an overworked woman who doesn’t see, or doesn’t care, how desperate Fuller is. Harris is also excellent in his role – he’s the typical “nice guy” with seething resentment underneath. The second segment is probably the weakest – Williams is typically excellent, but this segment is more about the regret of Albert than anything else – and more than anything, just kind of stops, rather than ends.


But that third segment is a doozy. It is Reichardt at her very best. A short story where nothing is said aloud, outright – and yet everything is crystal clear. The last scene between Stewart and Gladstone is heartbreaking in its awkwardness – and then comes the best scene Reichardt has ever directed – the long scene of Gladstone in her truck, all by herself. It’s masterful


And to be honest, the movie probably should have ended there. The film flashes back and shows us a coda for all three segments after that scene – codas that in regards to the first two should have just been included in the stories in the first place, and for the third isn’t necessary at all. They’re good scenes – but had you left the theater right after Gladstone the ending would hit harder.


In all though, Certain Women is another subtle triumph for Reichardt. It shows her at her very best in that third segment – and near her best with the other two. It’s a film that doesn’t explain, doesn’t underline – just subtly shows you just what these women are going through. More often than not, these kind of movies, a series of shorts, don’t work this well – and even if one of the stories is clearly the best, all three still work.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Films of Kelly Reichardt: Night Moves (2013)

Night Moves (2013) 
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt.
Written by: Jonathan Raymond & Kelly Reichardt.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (Josh), Dakota Fanning (Dena), Peter Sarsgaard (Harmon), Alia Shawkat (Surprise), Logan Miller (Dylan), Kai Lennox (Sean), Katherine Waterston (Anne), James Le Gros (Feed Factory Clerk), Traber Charles Burns (Felix), Autumn Nidalmia (Mable), Barry Del Sherman (Corser), Joel Polinsky (Goose).
I remember watching Night Movies at TIFF in 2013, and thinking that it was a surprisingly conventional thriller for a director like Kelly Reichardt – whose previous film, Meek’s Cutoff, was anything but a conventional Western. It was a little slower than most thrillers – but the basically structure and payoff, where very classically thriller. Watching it again for the first time since then, what struck me about Night Moves is that even if the plot is classic thriller, that Reichardt takes her time in slowly building everything, in slowly establishing everything. The film is basically cut in half by an act of violence in the middle – and the first half is better than the second – but even if the characters in the film are basically pawns to the narrative, the film never feels like that.
The first strange decision by Reichardt is casting Jesse Eisenberg in the lead role of Josh. Josh is not a typically Eisenberg character – he doesn’t talk a mile a minute – often, he barely talks at all. He works on an organic farm in the Pacific Northwest, and believes that people need a wake-up call. Even before the film begins (continuing a Reichardt tradition of sorts, of starting movies after their plot has already begun) – he has started planning a bombing of a damn – alongside his friend Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard, who was once a Marine) and another friend from the farm – Dena (Dakota Fanning) – perhaps a rich girl slumming it for a while, but certainly committed. The explosion will be more symbolic than anything – but for them, it will serve as a wakeup call – and a call to arms. Enough with making documentaries about the problem of Climate Change. You have to do something.
The first half of the movie is everything leading up to that explosion. It is a slow motion procedural of everything the trio does to prepare – buying a boat, in cash, while Josh and Dena act as a couple. Sending Dena into the farm supply store to try and buy a lot of fertilizer – the change that you can make into explosives – and getting a lot of lowkey tension in the suspicions of the manager (a wonderful James Le Gros – who come to think of it, is always wonderful in these roles). And then, the setting of the explosion itself – and the getaway. The film builds an unreal amount of tension, considering that it doesn’t have anything resembling shootouts or car chases, etc. It just slowly, and methodically, builds that tension.
The second half of the film is the fallout of the explosion. It both goes according to plan, and has some unintended consequences that they all have to live with. Harmon can do so without much effort – Josh has some interior struggle, but certainly doesn’t want to get caught. Dena though – perhaps realizing she isn’t really cut out for this, and maybe becomes a loose cannon.
Again, the tension in the second half is built slowly – through conversations, in which people subtly intuit what has happened, but don’t really want to get involved. It leads to where it must. While it is true that more than any of Reichardt’s other film, Night Moves is a more traditional, narrative driven film – with characters at the service of the plot more than being the central driving force of the film, the film also never loses focus on them. It requires the performances – particularly that of Eisenberg – to do a lot of heavy lifting, with not a lot of dialogue to explain everything. While I won’t say it’s the best performance Eisenberg has ever given – I do think it’s second to his brilliant performance in The Social Network, and the exact opposite of that performance in many ways.
I do prefer Reichardt when she basically jettisons narrative. I don’t think Night Moves is quite the film that Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy or Meek’s Cutoff were – I also think I underrated Night Moves when it came out as well. It is in many ways a traditional thriller – but it’s one that has been slowed down to Reichardt speed, and somehow, that makes it even more intense.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Films of Kelly Reichardt: Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Meek's Cutoff (2010) 
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt.
Written by: Jonathan Raymond.
Starring: Michelle Williams (Emily Tetherow), Bruce Greenwood (Stephen Meek), Will Patton (Soloman Tetherow), Zoe Kazan (Millie Gately), Paul Dano (Thomas Gately), Shirley Henderson (Glory White), Neal Huff (William White), Tommy Nelson (Jimmy White), Rod Rondeaux (The Indian).
Even if you’re like me – and seen a lot of Westerns – you haven’t seen one quite like Meek’s Cutoff before. This a Wagon Train movie – about three families making their way across the vast Western landscape of America, in search of a better life in a new location, led by a man named Meek, who assures them that they are taking a shortcut. Even before the movie opens though, it’s clear that they are lost, and that Meek has no idea where he’s going. They are simply wandering around this vast empty space, not sure where they are going, or if they will ever get there. There is no romanticization of the Old West in Meek’s Cutoff, and none of the violence we are used to seeing. There isn’t much a plot either. What it evokes, more than anything, is what it must have been like travelling through this emptiness, not knowing where you’ll end up.
For director Kelly Reichardt, she is interested more in the female characters, than the male ones in the film. Yet, this isn’t a revisionist history about powerful women – they are treated much like “womenfolk” in Westerns often are. The men go off and talk amongst themselves – about how they doubt that Meek (Bruce Greenwood) knows what he’s doing. Reichardt stays with the women in these scenes though – often as they strain to hear what their husbands are saying. Yet the women are the backbone of the story – and they are the backbone of the families as well. As the film moves along, and they get more hopelessly lost, it is Emily (Michelle Williams) who has the best ideas, although they are filtered to the larger group through her husband Soloman (Will Patton) – at least at first.
The group starts to grow worried – they are in the desert, and starvation and dehydration are real concerns. Eventually, the group with capture and Indian (Rod Rondeaux) – but it is Emily who is smart enough to know they have to use him to save themselves. He, and his people, have survived in this area for generations – surely, he can lead them to water, and perhaps out. The depiction of The Indian (never named) is another area in which Meek’s Cutoff is different than other Westerns. He isn’t a savage, but he isn’t the “noble” type either. He doesn’t befriend any of them, and remains largely silent and unreadable. He needs to survive, and so do the settlers – so a mostly silent truce between them is struck.
Reichardt made the odd decision to shoot the film in Academy Aspect ratio – basically almost a square (1.33: 1) – which is a format many old movies used, but few newer ones do. It’s a particularly daring choice for a movie that takes place in such wide open spaces – spaces in which you would expect to see large scale vistas that dwarf the characters. No so here – the Aspect ratio basically traps the character in the frame – in the spot they find themselves in. One vista is the same as every other – they are still tapped, still have nowhere to go.
The cast is uniformly excellent – even if it’s mainly Williams, making her second straight film with Reichardt – who stands out the most. Again, this is a quiet performance, like hers in Wendy & Lucy was. But it’s a forceful one when it needs to be. She doesn’t want to die out here –and does what she can to survive. Greenwood is quite good as Meek as well – a portrait of male folly. He is sure he knows where he is going, and it takes him right up until the end to finally admit he doesn’t.
Meek’s Cutoff is a slow movie in many ways. It doesn’t have the narrative you expect in Westerns, none of the conflicts, gunfights and blowups. It is about these people, prisoners in the vast wilderness, with no idea where to go – stuck on a shortcut to nowhere. It’s an intelligent film – and a haunting one, and like the best of Reichardt’s work, doesn’t try to wrap anything up, doesn’t try to reassure you of anything when it ends.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Films of Kelly Reichardt: Wendy & Lucy (2008)

Wendy and Lucy (2008) 
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt.
Written by: Jonathan Raymond & Kelly Reichardt.
Starring: Michelle Williams (Wendy), Lucy (Lucy the Dog), Walter Dalton (Security Guard), Will Oldham (Icky), John Robinson (Andy), John Breen (Mr. Hunt), Deirdre O'Connell (Deb - voice), M. Blash (Dan - voice), Will Patton (Mechanic), Larry Fessenden (Man in Park).
In Wendy & Lucy, Kelly Reichardt has a made a subtly emotional film – one that in 80 short minutes, will likely leave you in tears. Like Old Joy, the film doesn’t spell everything out for the audience – but gives them more than enough that they can intuit everything they need to know about Wendy – played brilliantly by Michelle Williams – why she’s on the road, and her lot in life. If you’re like me, you will find yourself thinking about Wendy for the rest of your life – especially, if she ever comes back.
Michelle Williams is, of course, one of the great actresses currently working – and her performance here is one of her very best. She plays a woman from Indiana, driving to Alaska because she thinks she’s going to do some work up there. Her only companion in her beat-up old car is Lucy – her beloved dog. The movie takes place entirely in a small Oregon town over the span of a couple of days. Wendy’s car breaks down, and so she needs to get it repaired – but of course, the mechanic isn’t open at that time. She goes to grocery store – and gets caught shoplifting and is brought into the police station to pay a small fine – while Lucy is tied up out front. When she finally gets out, Lucy is gone. For the next few days, she does everything she can to try and get her car fixed, and try and find Lucy.
That is the entirety of the movie – it’s another of those Reichardt movies in which some will complain that nothing happens in. But the importance of the story is in the way Reichardt tells it – and the way Williams performs it. We never find out why Wendy is running away to Alaska – it’s not something people do unless they are trying to get away from something, and a phone call home halfway through gives us some idea as to why she may be running (it’s telling, I think, that she spends more time talking to her brother-in-law than she does to her sister). Wendy is one of the fringes of society – someone who has to keep track of every expense in a little notebook, and if an emergency costing a few hundred dollars comes along, she is in trouble. Reichardt made the film in 2008, as the Financial Crisis was just hitting – but the in the years after there would certainly be more Wendy’s in America.
Over the course of the movie, one bad thing after another happens to Wendy – nothing truly awful, nothing she cannot deal with (a scary encounter in the park comes close, but not quite). Really, other than a kindly security guard – who wakes her up one morning to tell her she cannot park there – and then helps her push her car into the street – the people she meets in town aren’t all that nice. They aren’t mean per se – many of them are just doing their jobs – but that doesn’t help Wendy very much, and contributes to her situation (the worst is probably the kid who catches her stealing at the store, who has the kind of black and white moral outlook only a naïve kid can have).
Reichardt observes Wendy through all of this – and Williams does a brilliant job at playing her. This is not a show off movie star performance in any way – it’s a vanity free performance from Williams, who fits right in alongside everyone else in the film. Her performance is key though – and shows how even in roles like this, it’s better to have a pro in them, someone who can convey so much without seemingly trying at all.
The final scene in the film is a heartbreaker. You know it’s probably coming, but still, it’s as moving as anything I have seen in a film regarding an animal. And what’s more, it feels earned, rather than just being manipulative. It’s a final scene that has haunted me ever since I saw Wendy and Lucy more than a decade ago – and watching it again, it haunted me all over again. It is the perfect ending to a subtle, perfect film.