Thursday, October 20, 2016

Certain Women (***)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Kelly Reichardt


I've worried that I don't possess the kind of patience a viewer may need to sit through a Kelly Reichardt film. It's not that her films are bad or even boring. They always contain a level of humanity uncommon in most films. She seems to really care about the people she creates. Take for instance the women of Certain Women, a film based on stories from the author Maile Meloy. Laura (Laura Dern) is a jaded lawyer with a very disgruntled client (Jared Harris). Gina (Michelle Williams) is a headstrong wife and mother, who's quest to build the perfect authentic home puts her at odds with her supportive husband (James Le Gros) and her angsty teenage daughter (Sara Rodier). Lastly, Jamie (Lily Gladstone) is an isolated ranch hand herding horses who finds some enchantment in her life when she meets a young law student (Kristen Stewart) who commutes weekly from out of town to teach middle aged teachers the legal dynamics of the classroom. These three women make up the definitive thirds of Reichardt's film, their stories all taking place around the barren, snowy towns and countries of Montana. Reichardt loves the kind of mood that comes with silence, and there are few places more silent than Montana. This is her third collaboration with Williams, and I think the best. Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff felt too much like an experiment, it was too dependent on the abstract. In a way, that's all there was. Certain Women takes more advantage of its cast, realizes the strength of building characters through performance. This is pretty easily my favorite of the Reichardt films I've seen (I'll admit that I actually fell asleep during Meek's Cutoff), and its collection of performances - specifically from its three leading actresses - are such a wondrous combination of beautiful, funny and heartbreaking. They're real portrayals of real women seeking virtue, validation and love.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Aquarius (***)

Written and Directed by Kleber Mendonca Filho


A film like Aquarius - a patient, thoughtful film that takes on a wide variety of themes including gentrification, mortality and gender - is something to be cherished. Is it perhaps too long? Definitely. Kleber Mendonca Filho's second feature meanders on long passages all in the attempt at mood. He wants you to truly feel the effects of age, of time passing, of life escaping. Veteran Brazilian actress Sonia Braga plays Clara, Aquarius' protagonist. Clara is a woman who has consumed a lot: education, culture, life experience. She had the benefit of being well-to-do in a part of Brazil where poverty is rampant, but she used her privilege to live a cosmopolitan life of passion, and the trials she's experienced has done work only toward strengthening her resolve. She's too old, too experienced to be contradicted or patronized. She won't allow it. The wide scope of life that has formed this woman is the center of Mendonca Filho's film. Her late-life crusade against a rising culture that wishes to squelch the tradition that has been such a large part of her life - and her survival - is a journey rich with symbolism and expression. She's not the only person who is correct, but she is the most correct, and that conviction drives her into a tense showdown against those who thought she'd be easy to push aside.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Girl on the Train (*)

Directed by Tate Taylor


Paula Hawkins' novel The Girl on the Train is the kind of not-very-good pulp fiction that is capable of making a very good movie. The book was packaged as a sort of further reading suggestion for fans of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, but it's not nearly as sarcastic or cruel. Any irony for the absurdity that is Hawkins' book would have to be inferred; I rolled my eyes quite a bit working through it. Director Tate Taylor treats Girl on the Train like its the work of John le CarrĂ©, and he directs the film adaptation as if he's homaging Hitchcock. The Girl on the Train didn't need the David Fincher treatment, it needed the Douglas Sirk treatment. It needed a filmmaker that noticed that a sincere portrayal of this narrative could be nothing less than totally bonkers. It certainly didn't need the Tate Taylor treatment. The Hollywood director can't seem to decide if he's making a bone-chilling thriller or a psychosexual melodrama. It manages to achieve both a removed chilliness and a ridiculous over-the-top-ness, and neither effect is executed properly. Taylor can handle the moral certitude of a film like The Help, but he's coming to pieces here trying to arrange the complicated mess of sex, ethics and gender trouble being thrown around in this film. Girl on the Train is striving desperately for that tricky balance of sensuality and terror, but it doesn't have the guts to be as crazy as, say, Fatal Attraction, and it doesn't even have the decency to be legitimately shocking.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Birth of a Nation (**1/2)

The Birth of a Nation
Written, Produced and Directed by Nate Parker


Nat Turner is a historical figure that too little has been made of. Actor Nate Parker has decided to give him the biopic treatment. In The Birth of a Nation, Parker is taking a man who's claim to fame is leading a bloody slave revolt and attempting to make his story palatable to the masses. He ties the violence of Turner's movement in with Turner's wide-ranging spirituality. Turner sees white slave masters using the Bible and the word of God as a weapon against dehumanized slaves, and he's able to snatch that weapon and turn it on them, if only for a short while. The revolt he led was only 48 hours long, but Parker's film is much more ambitious in the scope of story. It values context and build-up, and longs to show you that Turner was more than just a bloodthirsty man seeking vengeance, but also a strong, God-fearing, obedient man worn down by the inhumanities of slavery. Parker's film is unafraid to show these atrocities in their most explicit form. He's seeking visceral reactions, and getting them. For his first feature, Parker definitely has guts, and he's smart enough as a storyteller to link the horrid details of the past with troubling details from the present. But for all its striking imagery, The Birth of a Nation still buckles under the weight of being a complete film, like a cause without a strict message.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Denial (**)

Directed by Mick Jackson


Director Mick Jackson has produced a lot of work for television, and that makes a lot of sense when you watch a film like Denial. I don't mean to denigrate television - lord knows we are not in need of further shots fired in the never-ending TV v. cinema debate - but Jackson's direction of a complex story like Denial feels too tidy, too averse to nuance and internalization. The film is based on the book by Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory College professor who specializes in fighting against Holocaust deniers. Following a public confrontation with incendiary historian and known Holocaust denier David Irving, Lipstadt was then sued by Irving and faced with the frighteningly scary prospect of losing a public trial to a man who uses the facts of history as pawns in his own ludicrous retellings. The film's screenplay is written by the famed English playwright David Hare, and he is obviously capable of crafting strong sequences, supplied with ample opportunities for the right actors to succeed. Denial has the right actors, I believe, and the film has good performances from end to end. I'm just not sure this is the right director.