Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Filmmaking

 

ukr_9mar150186_rgb-0-2000-0-1125-cropNot often is there a movie that can so firmly hold a viewer’s attention through subtlety and empathy, rather than action and intrigue. Certain Women is such a movie, offering a series of simple and quick vignettes that give a lingering, bare portrait of the lives of three women. One might say that these women, by comparison to other movie subjects, are unremarkable, but that in no way means their stories cannot touch both the mind and the heart. Better yet, the movie does not unjustly attempt to give a false sense of resolution. It succeeds in simply creating a somber mood, hinting towards everyday instances of inevitable persistence, despite sadness.

Certain Women is directed by Kelly Reichardt and based on a series of short stories by Malie Meloy. More or less centered around the town of Livingston, Montana, the film follows three protagonists whose stories rather abruptly shift from one to another:

Laura Dern is Laura Wells, a lawyer who must deal with an insistent client (Jared Harris) who tries to move forward with a failed work-injury suit. Laura tries to console her client, but is constantly doubted and undermined by him simply for being a woman. Eventually, when her client decides to take action into his own hands and takes part in a hostage situation, Laura is called in to defuse the tension. This section of the movie reassures the viewer of what will come. Though this part of the story leads up to potential violence, it does not devolve into gore and explosion. It simply passes on, not relenting in its slow, but steady pacing.

On to the next story. Michelle Williams plays Gina Lewis, a middle-aged wife with a marriage that has soured and a teenage girl who treats her mother as most teenagers do. Gina is overseeing the construction of a country house for her family and wants to acquire a pile of sandstone from a solitary elderly man whom the family knows. Though she is the lead on the project, Gina is not taken seriously. She must constantly defend herself against slights from all around. No climax here, life just goes on.
certainwomen1Lily Gladstone appears as Jamie, a lonely ranch hand who falls for a young lawyer named Beth (played by Kristen Stewart) who comes into town to teach a night class on school law. Jamie is equal parts unsure and eager to make a connection with the intelligent, but beleaguered Beth. Their relationship is tentative and you are never quite convinced what will come of it. In the end, Jamie must go on a journey to try to realize the feeling even she is not certain of.

For me, the movie always succeeded in efficiently and economically staging a scene. I was never lost as to where the director was pointing me, even in intricate layouts of off-centered subjects and mirrors. Several instances struck a particular chord. Gina (Williams) has a somber monologue in the passenger seat of a car as the camera films from outside the window. Reflecting against her face is the silhouette of the passing landscape. Her frustrations enter and then get lost in the surrounding hills. In another scene, Jamie and Beth (Gladstone and Stewart) ride a horse to a nearby diner. The light from a lamp post emanates from behind the faces of Jamie and Beth. Joy and splendor come through for a just brief moment, as ephemeral as the halo of light that surround them. Each scene is worth your silent and undivided attention.

Certain Women is achingly emotional, undoubtedly feminist, and a movie you must see.

—Ryan Fajardo

 

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The View from the Road

American Honey is a film that occupies the open road. But this is a term that is much less glamorous than it sounds. In parking lots, gas stations, superstores, and trailer parks, the movie brings meaning to the empty and pointless spaces of America. It does so by focusing in on those simple details that construct lived-in moments. Whether it is a simple touch on the leg or a smirk that you want to trust, the film makes you think that you are there.

When we first meet Star (played by Sasha Lane), she is a young and lost girl who wants to leave behind the brutal reality of her day-to-day life in a dead-end town in Oklahoma—struggling with an abusive situation at home while attempting to care for her two younger siblings. When she meets Jake (played by Shia LaBeouf), he offers an opportunity to hit the road and join a traveling magazine sales crew. There’s a promise of wealth, but as the layers of that promise are removed, we return to a reminder of the previous reality, in a dead-end town in North Dakota. In between, Sasha struggles with her romantic feelings for Jake, her failure as a traveling salesperson, and dealing with the debauchery of the crew of salespeople with whom she traverses the country. It’s a classic setup: the novice joins the motley crew and is initiated into a new way of life, drastically different from what came before.

The Midwest—a forgotten, yet often invoked part of America—is the backdrop for the group’s wanderings. As a road trip movie, it’s all about movement. The gang of kids fly through the landscapes all looking for something. Around them, everyone seems to be moving. This usually means upwards, in the get-rich-quick oil fields of North Dakota, or the upper-middle class of Kansas City, or forward, as the trains and airplanes scream by their white van. The film allows you to witness an exhilarating piece of Americana. As always, it isn’t pretty, but it’s just a bit hopeful.

The soundtrack of the film is chock-full of contemporary rap and R&B hits which convincingly (at least for this young writer) evoke the popular music of the present moment, while also somewhat justifying their own appeal even to the most “square” moviegoer. Despite their heavy-hitting beats and profanity-laced lyrics, the message of the songs is the optimistic, successful, sexy dream every one of these salespeople is desperately trying to realize throughout the movie.

American Honey asks Lane’s Star to be its emotional centerpiece, and she proves herself more than up to the task: her performance is confident, naturalistic, and brimming with the explosive energy of youth the film seeks to celebrate and contemplate. LeBeouf brings his now-typical brand of immersive, bizarre acting to the table, to great effect. Everyone in this movie is a little crazy, and LeBeouf knows how to be crazy while also being compelling, which is a delight.

Since premiering in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where it eventually won the Jury de Prix, American Honey has garnered an outpouring of critical acclaim for director Andrea Arnold and has been praised as a testament to the youth of today. Granted, it’s a long testament—clocking in at two hours and forty minutes—but the film’s length ultimately proves to be a strength: despite a few lulls, the pacing is sharp, and the vignettes are always interesting. At times, the movie goes for surprising switches of tone – a lighthearted barbecue that Star stumbles upon starts as the movie’s happiest scene but then becomes one of its darkest – but mostly, the emotional landscape changes gently, like the view through the window on the open road, allowing you to process the contour of a mood before gradually showing you another. And like anyone who has taken a long road trip knows, sometimes you return to where you started without returning to the same place, because the way you see is different, and so the place is different, and that is how you know you have changed.

—Paul Lindseth and Ryan Fajardo

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All Our Loving

hulu_c04_beatles_072716More famous than Kim Kardashian’s reality show life, than Michael Jordan’s athletic and advertising domination, than Michael Jackson’s pop/R&B dance anthems and even (allegedly) more famous than Jesus—Ladies and gentlemen… The Beatles. Their popularity was unlike anything that we can see today. Looking back from the perspective of a time dominated by “the celebrity,” it all seems to pale in comparison to the clamor devoted to one group, one band, one message in such a concentrated and physical way. Likes, site visits and streaming numbers just don’t make an impression in the mind the same way that endless streets of thousands of manic and emotional crowds of devotees do.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years puts on display that very energy and enthusiasm of the masses that all other stars can only aspire to. The documentary, directed by Ron Howard, focuses in on the period of 1962-1966, when the band went on the road and cemented their dominance. The camera follows four cheeky working-class teens from Liverpool as they trot around the world, leaving mobs of kids in their wake. The movie finishes with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s, so it does not include the later studio-centered and experimental stage of the band. This is not a movie about the bearded, sitar playing, Yoko Ono Beatles. This is about the visceral and simple embrace of rock music and youth culture.

The film has a recognizable and somewhat predictable music documentary style. It progresses more or less chronologically and bounces from performances to profiles of key figures to observations on the inner workings of the group. Interviews are provided by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and recordings of John Lennon and George Harrison are intermixed throughout. The movie also gathers a rather disparate set of celebrities who intertwine their own stories of the Beatles. This includes Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver, who humorously can be seen amongst the screaming fans at the Hollywood Bowl. The movie was released by Apple Corps, who manages the Beatles’ rights, so don’t expect any juicy gossip or a deconstructive angle. But the documentary still holds enough interesting anecdotes to engage Beatles fans, including a pointed story on the band’s refusal to play segregated stadiums in the US.

The biggest draw by far (and more than ample justification to see the movie) is the remastered and restored concert recordings of the group that still manage to sound loud and clear over the shrieking of thousands of teenage girls. You know the hits and you probably know what to expect from a Beatles concert, even if you didn’t go to one. Sure, the band’s alleged fame and their effect on their crowds may all sound like clichés now, but that doesn’t do the footage justice.

The most compelling shots throughout the movie are those of the crowds of The Ed Sullivan Show, Shea Stadium and the many other gigs shown in the documentary. While you nod your head along and mouth the lyrics, don’t forget to look closely at those gushing and energetic fans. They are a reminder that it takes so much more than four mop-headed English boys and their manager to make the Beatles. This story is about millions of devoted followers—perhaps you were one of them—who adored them and, more importantly for this movie, went to their concerts. It’s not just the Beatles who held the power over of the world; it’s also about what the youth collectively bestowed upon them.

— Ryan Fajardo

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Visions of History

“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.” The Birth of Nation opens with this quote by Thomas Jefferson. It reflects the fundamental moral indefensibility of slavery and the “justice” waiting to be visited upon those who perpetuate it. The movie is about one man’s attempt to bring about that justice.

The Birth of a Nation tells the life story of Nat Turner (played by Nate Parker, who also directed and co-wrote the film), a slave living in Southampton County, Virginia, on the plantation of Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). As a child, his precocious intelligence is noticed by the mistress of the house, Sam’s mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) and so he is taught to read the Bible — other books are forbidden — before the death of Sam’s father results in the end of his schooling and the beginning of a life in the field, picking cotton.

On tour in the county as a slave preacher, Nat, who saw life as a slave as a terrible, but bearable burden, sees the cruelty and evil of slavery in their rawest forms on plantations where the slaves are literally starving. We meet psychopathic hillbilly slaveowners who force-feed slaves on hunger strike by breaking their teeth with a hammer. Moments later, Nat is forced to “preach” to the emaciated assembly before him, which means he is supposed to read certain approved sections of the Bible, such as 1 Peter 2:18 (“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters”) that offer Scriptural justification for bondage.

These experiences and the brutal rape of Nat’s wife, Cherry (Gabrielle Union), emboldens Nat to think more critically about his situation and most importantly, the religious text that his white owners have asked him to use to justify his enslavement. He performs a radical act: the baptism of a white man who has been turned away from every white minister in the region. This subverts the racial power structure too obviously for the local slaveowners to ignore, who demand that Nat be punished. Sam Turner obliges by having Nat whipped for hours, who emerges from the ordeal a revolutionary. He is sure of his purpose now, and tells his fellow slaves so: “We’ll cut the head from the serpent… we’ll destroy them all.”

The film’s narrative is straightforward and well plotted, and Parker succeeds in the lead role. His physical presence on screen, along with the power of his voice and the strength of his demeanor, convince us we are witnessing the plausible origin story of an American legend. But I think The Birth of a Nation succeeds most in the surreal vignettes interspersed throughout the film that do not directly further the plot, but instead enrich the themes: after the rape of Cherry, a vision of molasses (or is it blood?) overflowing from a corn stalk; after Nat’s childhood anointment as a prophet in a secret nighttime ceremony, dreams of running through the misty forest covered in blue paint, either fleeing from or pursuing a wrinkled, wretched white crone in a black robe.

Even outside of these “visions,” the film stops to breathe at times with strange little moments: while visiting another plantation as a preacher, Nat looks on in shock as a white girl skips around the front porch with a slave girl in tow, her neck on a leash. As the viewer, we are shown this moment in slow-motion, left to contemplate the bizarre darkness of the human heart. And the endless expanse of white cotton, shown as a visual transition from Nat’s boyhood days to his adulthood, is a striking visual reminder of the perverse beauty of the landscape — the fields are epic in their immenseness, until you are reminded with a pan to Nat’s arched back that a human being was forced against his will to harvest their entire width, several times a day.

There is one more sequence that cannot be omitted from any comment on the film. The emotional climax comes after the failure of Nat’s slave revolution, when a montage of horror fills the screen—scenes of slaveowners all over the county murdering both revolutionaries and slave bystanders alike as Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” plays, closing with a zoom out from the Spanish moss of the Southern forest to show five men and women swinging in the Southern breeze.

The Birth of a Nation does what every movie which seeks to depict American slavery must: it finds a human narrative of dignity and resistance within a pervasive system of violence and oppression, while never disguising or hiding the horror of the situation. And it adds an interpretive framework: a meditation on whether God is a God of love or a God of wrath, on whether or when violence is ever morally obligatory, and on how morality fails in a society which clings to religion but seems God-forsaken. And it even provides an oblique reference, if you want to follow it there, to the issues of today: when Nat at first escapes the wave of vengeance, he appears to Cherry in secret, full of expectant joy, only to hear her say: “They killing people everywhere for no reason but being black.” The Birth of a Nation reminds us to critically think about our American society, to seek justice wherever it is lacking, and to honor those who fought for that most American of virtues, liberty: insofar as it achieve these things, it will be remembered as an important and moving film.

— Paul Lindseth

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The Music of Ordinary Phrases

“Everyone’s very, very nervous, and… um, unsure of things,” sings a concerned single mother (played by Oliva Colman) as she gazes hesitantly out of the window of her modest row house. She repeats the words in the same melody as she briskly paces down the street that bears the movie’s title, London Road. As Colman enters a shopping plaza, a multitude of voices join in her phrase and her community adopts the same suspicion. Uncertainty and fear are gripping the town of Ipswich, England. Someone has murdered 5 prostitutes, and the killer is on the loose. But violence is not where this movie finds it thrills. None of the murders are shown on screen and shortly after the start, the murderer is found to be living on Colman’s street. London Road instead spends its time focusing on how this unassuming street grapples with tragedy and stigma.

London Road, directed by Rufus Norris and adapted from a 2011 stage performance written by Adam Corky and Alecky Blythe, is a musical based on actual events. Though “based on actual events” here does not imply a cheap marketing ploy. Rather, it is the foundation for the entire movie. Every line from the film is a verbatim quote from a resident of Ipswich and throughout the movie, those lines are transformed into songs. There are strong roles throughout including protective and proactive mother Colman and Tom Hardy, who plays a brief but appreciated appearance as a taxi-driver with a peculiar interest in serial killers, but the main draw is its premise. London Road wants you to hear the music (and the meaning) of ordinary phrases, whether they hint towards fear, take gleeful delight in a little intrigue, or attempt at reconstruction. And the movie does well to make this statement on the spoken word, though it is accompanied by a few flat notes most noticeably at the end.

London Road, the street where most of the action takes place, never was the wealthiest of communities. It is populated by tidy, respectable, and domestic Brits. When, in the years leading up to the murders, prostitution becomes more noticeable on their street after the construction of a soccer (“football”) field nearby, the neighbors speak out, but there is little they can do. Their community seems to be disintegrating as they become wary of their neighborhood. The murders just seem to signify the last nail in the coffin.

As with almost any tragedy, the news media immediately swoops in and their portrayal of the neighborhood as overridden by prostitution and home to a killer adds even more woes to the beleaguered community. The media, as it is embodied in a gaggle of type-A, black suited men and women who scamper around at any hint of a potential story, is often as void and unproductive as in real life. In most scenes with media, as the reporters slowly join in their song, they are not in harmony, like in the shopping plaza with Colman, but in competition. Their phrases are drowned out into relentless noise and the original intent and character of the words are lost. Especially humorous and pointed is a scene where a news reporter has to engineer his lines to carefully navigate around sexual terminology unsuitable for a TV audience. He tries again and again to complete his phrase (and subsequently start his song) and only after a few infuriating minutes does he manage to get it right.

More meaning and information is held in the brief candid remarks of the residents of London Road than in a calculated, canned messages of the reporters. But this doesn’t mean it will be an easy fight for the community to take back the dialogue and to take back their street.

But exactly who is the street for? The prostitutes, who are a constant presence in the background of the film, present my biggest issue with the movie. They only find a voice in the latter half, and, although they offer acute observations on their condition, this should have been confronted earlier. The movie’s resolution is also unsettling in this regard, because even though it focuses on bringing new life to this damaged community, it offers a promise only through a domestic sensibility unavailable to the marginalized prostitutes. The exclusion of the prostitutions is made clear, but the hypocrisy and potential condemnation of a few of the residents could have been made even more striking. The ultimate lesson here is that the sentiments contained within our everyday words may mean something in a world of soundbytes, but they are not always the most inclusive and productive ones.

— Ryan Fajardo

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All That Jazz

cafe-society_0

Cafe Society, written and directed by Woody Allen, is more of an experience than a film.

Bobby, a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who has just moved to Hollywood to work for his uncle (Steve Carell), falls in love with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a beautiful young woman who is in love with someone else. Although they do end up together briefly, Vonnie doesn’t stay with Bobby and decides to marry her first love. Bobby, brokenhearted and disillusioned with Hollywood’s glamor, moves back to his hometown, New York City, where he meets the stunningly beautiful Veronica (Blake Lively). There, he runs a nightclub with his gangster brother and mingles with the rich and famous, living out a more sophisticated version of what his life in Hollywood could have been. That’s the plot, but that isn’t really what makes this movie worth seeing. Sure, there’s enough drama to pack some flavor into the film, but the real joy of Cafe Society is how it envelops the viewer in a rich and beautiful daydream of the 1930s.

The soundtrack was one of my favorite parts of the film, near constant jazz that overlaid both the mundane and the romantic. At times, the soundtrack was so well paired with a scene it seemed to encapsulate that moment’s feeling. For example, at one point, Bobby and Vonnie are standing on a bridge in Central Park as the sun comes up, sharing a touching moment after staying out all night—the score perfectly complemented the beauty and the bittersweetness of that moment. Outside of those well-placed moments, the soundtrack also cleverly worked as both a score that the audience hears and diegetic music that is being played in the film. Bobby puts on a record before a dinner in, and we’re taken along for the ride. A nightclub singer melts into the soundtrack. For a film that was not about music or musicians, the mingling of sounds played well and worked to pull the viewer into the world of the film.

Another element that sets the film apart was the costuming. From the delicate, tailored dresses that Vonnie wears, to the cable-knit, mustard yellow vest that Bobby sports on his first day at the office, to the flowing gowns that Veronica catches Bobby’s eye in, the clothes were stunning. The wardrobe of Vonnie, especially, was well done. At the beginning, her clothes are plain and a little rebellious, moving towards more elegant pieces as she grows older. The way that the costuming followed development was crucial, given that this film covered many years in the lives of these characters. They remained pitch perfect throughout, for not only Vonnie but all characters. Another thing I particularly appreciated about the costuming was that the pieces genuinely looked like vintage clothing, and not like a replica sewn specifically for the film. That attention to detail allowed the viewer to be transported back in time and immersed in Bobby’s world.

The last element that took the film over the top from just another love story to a true experience was the coloring. I’ve talked about coloring before, and this film constantly shaded scenes to enhance the emotions of the film. Hollywood is lush and saturated, recalling a vintage postcard of Monaco or the Italian coast. But at some times, the golden tones became overwhelming, almost too rich—like the people in Hollywood that Bobby dislikes. Bobby’s family back in New York are a little duller, grayed out as they live their unremarkable lives. The nightclub’s colors are deep and velvety, drawing attention to the opulence of the scenes and the splendor within. This instance on setting the scene visually and shifting the essence of each place in the film was a smart move that helped bring the viewer through the film’s emotional journey.

I would be remiss in writing about this film if I didn’t note that the film is overwhelmingly white, a frequent problem with Allen’s work. While this whiteness may accurately reflect the exclusive Hollywood C-suite brunches of the 1930s, once the film shifts focus to the era’s jazz and nightclub scene, which offered plenty of diversity, a more varied cast would’ve greatly added to the dynamic settings already in play, especially when Bobby moves back to New York.

Cafe Society isn’t a film that challenges or dazzles in its thematic content. But what it lacks in scripted oomph, it more than makes up for in intricate and textured world-building. It’s a lovely film and is sure to let you sit back, relax and be enveloped by a romanticized version of life in the 1930s, and all the jazz that comes with it.

—Lauren Christiansen

 

 

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Into the Wild

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople seems like a simple, predictable story. Troubled foster kid Ricky (Julian Dennison) finally gets placed with a good family. Things seem to be going well with his new foster mom Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and grumpy “Don’t call me Uncle” Hec (Sam Neill)—at least, until the state decides to take him back. Frustrated with his situation and seeing no other options, Ricky runs away into the stunning New Zealand bush, and Hec goes after him to return him to child services.

Things get even more complicated when Hec and Ricky are branded fugitives by the state, after which the two decide to stick it out even longer in the wilderness, together, despite their somewhat rocky start. They quickly become the focus of a five month long manhunt spearheaded by the maniacal social services worker responsible for Ricky. Hec’s survival skills keep Ricky and his dog, Tupac, alive and well as they move across the beautiful terrain. There is a small recurring cast of characters, including some bush adventurers that have a knack for showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time, to great comedic effect. At one memorable point, Ricky and Hec take refuge with a thoroughly paranoid hermit who gives them colanders to put on their heads so the government won’t get into their brains.

These comedic moments are underscored by the characters. Hec is, somewhat predictably, good natured under all the gruff exterior, but also wiley and willing to break the law left and right to accompany his new foster son into the bush. Ricky is a hilarious kid with none of the typical brooding-troubled-teen vibe that typically shows up in foster tales. Julian Dennison nails a type of candor and humor that makes Ricky feel believable and gives him so much charisma that you’re rooting for him from the start. There is no huge warm-hearted moment in the middle of the film where Ricky and Hec become BFFs, but there is mutual trust, respect, and understanding. Each character has their moments of hovering just on the edge of being a parody of themselves, but they never tip over into farce, which gives us the right mix of buoyancy and genuine emotion. This is a truly smart comedy.

Beyond the comedic characters, the cinematography aids the fresh, comedic feel of this film. Sweeping shots allow you to enjoy the New Zealand countryside, where the colors are crisp and vivid and the dialogue has plenty of room to breathe. The clean visual appeal of the film and the heartwarming but hilarious storyline make for an overall enjoyable experience. The electronic soundtrack did fall completely by the wayside for me, but there is also something to be said about a film that doesn’t need a dramatic swell to kick the audience into feeling joy, heartbreak, or humor.

This film was never quite what I expected it to be, but every surprise turn was punctuated by dynamic action, and usually also by a hilarious slip up by Ricky. At my showing of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, there were more than a couple of moments that had everyone in the theatre, including me, laughing out loud. Actually, I entered Images in a rotten mood and left with a smile on my face—that’s a sure sign of powerful cinema and the best endorsement I could give.

— Lauren Christiansen

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