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Certain Women

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Stars: 

Released: March 3rd, 2017

Certain Women is my introduction to the much celebrated writer/director Kelly Reichardt who has crafted such films as Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves. Reichardt is said to craft these methodically paced character studies that exist more for their introspective takes on the lives of their characters than anything resembling plot. Minimalist, if you will. Reichardt seemingly adapts many of her films from short stories or collections of short stories. And while I’ve yet to see any previous films from the filmmaker including her much heralded 2010 feature Meek’s Cutoff I don’t know that her latest necessarily urges me to go back and see what all the fuss is about. That said, Certain Women is certainly intriguing though the reasons for such interest fall more on the befuddling side of things rather than the promising. It is easy to sell the minimal approach as being more insightful and more telling simply out of the convenience of letting the audience do more of the heavy lifting, but some of the time keeping in line with the minimal approach is simply a substitute for there not being much to say in the first place. It’s not hard to appreciate that Reichardt has approached these tales of three individual women in three different stages of their lives that only overlap in the most subtle of ways in an even more subtler fashion, but it is only by virtue of the focus shifting from one story to the next that the film doesn’t become a complete and utter bore. And it would were it left in the hands of certain characters and beside the fact this is the point of those certain characters’ profiles-documenting the monotony and lack of anything spectacular or interesting occurring in their lives-the film isn’t ever able to come up with anything new or profound enough to say about the mundanity of daily life or the foibles that eventually bring us all around to the same level playing field as human beings to be noteworthy in its own right. I can understand and again even appreciate that this is very much a film that speaks to the complex and misunderstood experiences of the female in our male-driven society, but as a product that is intended to convince me of the discrepancies and double standards females deal with on a daily basis that males might not even consider I took away very little by way of enlightenment. There is a fine line between being understated and simply being uninteresting and unfortunately Certain Women skirts that line too often to fall on that minimal, but effective side of things.

Set up in a triptych fashion where each of the three pieces follow one another without so much as a fade out to fade in, Certain Women first introduces us to Laura Wells (Laura Dern) who is a small town lawyer in small town Montana that, when we first see her, is in bed with a man who is clearly not her husband. They are shacked up together in a less than elegant hotel room, listening to talk radio, and the incessant sound of trains in the background. The setting is ripe to display where all manner of seeming hope or surprise goes to die. This is the epitome of dragging your existence from one day to the next as even Laura’s partner in this scene (James Le Gros) seems disinterested in their relationship as he hurries to get dressed and is off without even saying goodbye. All of this is to inform us of the tapestry of Wells’ life and what her actual existence means to her given it is filled with late-night TV and bags of potato chips with most of her days spent dealing with the likes of frustrating clients like Mr. Fuller (Jared Harris) who don’t believe Wells has done everything in her power to help their case simply because it didn’t turn out the way they’d hoped. Fuller is a man who has been beaten down by life-injured in a work-related accident, but who took the first settlement amount from his employer (which wasn’t enough to cover a month’s worth of mortgage) rendering any further lawsuits void. Wells and Fuller have little to no relationship, but Fuller can’t seem to stay away out of nothing more than desperation while Wells is left to deal with a situation that might be more easily accepted were she a man. It is in the crux of such circumstances that Dern as Wells voices the apparent theme of Reichardt’s film saying, “It’d be so lovely to think that if I were a man I could explain the law and people would listen and say, “okay.” It would be so restful.” And so, less than ten minutes into the film Reichardt has established the ideas she intends to explore by simply presenting these three individual scenarios. As the filmmaker is accustomed to, things are kept to a minimum as the film develops and deepens the relationship between Fuller and Wells. It is through something of a ridiculous situation that we see these characters form something of a symbiotic relationship. Both are portrayed as rather pathetic and the plight that brings an unusual mark of excitement to their lives bonds them in a way that they will continue to turn to one another for such feelings. It’s weird, but given the resolution offered and the slight performances from both Dern and Harris-it works.

Moving on, we next meet Gina Lewis (Reichardt staple Michelle Williams) as she walks through a wooded area that has been set upon by the winds of winter. She is bundled up and only accompanied by the sounds of flowing water. She seems at peace, but it’s that kind of peace the person experiencing it knows will only last for so long. This end to Gina’s peacefulness comes as she slowly marches towards a tent that houses her daughter (Sara Rodier) and her husband, Ryan (Le Gros). Lewis immediately strikes us by being concerned rather than equally joyful when her daughter emerges from the tent laughing. When Lewis asks, “What’s so funny?” Her daughter, Guthrie, dismisses it and continues to carry her bags to the family vehicle. Upon entering the tent she asks Ryan the same question as if nervous whatever the pair might have been joking about had something to do with her. Gina is clearly a prickly woman who likes things to be done a certain way-likely on her terms the majority of the time-and yet it is clear this attitude conflicts with Ryan’s more free-wheeling approach and their teenage daughter’s natural tendencies to rebel. Gina is having a tough time acclimating to the current climate of her family, but this is not without effort as she seems to want to fit into this ever-changing puzzle that is human relationships with her authoritarian position not allowing her to give into such carelessness. It’s clear that if Gina were to give a little in the way of matching Ryan or Guthrie in the middle with their differing perspectives things could go a long way, but that isn’t going to happen and given we’re already privy to how Ryan is dealing with the strain of his and Gina’s marriage it’s hard to feel hopeful things will resolve themselves for the better. This middle segment of the film is easily the weakest link of the three as it offers little more than Williams’ performance to hold our intrigue. Unlike the previous and forthcoming scenarios in which we’re unsure how the two principle characters might feed into and off of each other’s lives this middle section only serves to paint a picture of a fractured marriage and the thankless role a wife can serve that is looking to be bandaged by the building of a new home. This brings forth the centerpiece of the segment in that Gina and Ryan are hoping to convince an elderly man, Albert (Rene Auberjonois), to let them use sandstone that was used in the original school house in the construction of their new house. This interaction offers a glimpse at what Gina is capable of in terms of humanity, but though the undercurrent of her conflicted emotions is strong throughout mostly thanks to Williams’ performance, the chapter as a whole plods along with too limited an intent to truly be effective.

And so, without so much as a wave we are moved along to the third and final act of the film that presents the monotonous life of one, Jamie (Lily Gladstone). Jamie is a farmer working on a ranch during Montana’s cold winter-going through the motions of keeping the horses fed and well taken care of during the day while doing little more than laying in her bed and watching old sci-fi shows at night. Either that or staring up at her unfinished bedroom ceiling and contemplating what could be any number of topics. It is this monotonous and solitary existence that prompts Jamie to drive into town one night and randomly select an activity to bring her out of this well-established routine she has realized is producing little satisfaction. Seeing a handful of cars parking and people walking into the town school building Jamie stops to see what function might be taking place only to discover it is a night school class for teachers centered on school law. This isn’t what entices Jamie to stick around though, what does this is the presence of the young teacher, Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart), who it turns out is fresh out of law school and, despite having recently secured a position at a firm, took the teaching job out of fear of never getting a real job despite the commute to Jamie’s small town being four hours. A friendship between Jamie and Beth quickly forms as the two begin a routine of eating at the local diner after Beth’s class every Tuesday and Thursday, but while Jamie is clearly infatuated with the meek yet self-involved Beth, Beth sees nothing in Jamie other than someone who she can spout off her fears and concerns to rather than another living entity she might garner some perspective from. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with Beth in terms of her attitude and she is certainly kind and thankful at all the appropriate times, but she simply can’t see past her own life and her own problems. Stewart handles this expertly. It is in this segment that Reichardt’s minimalist approach is most successful and thus the most powerful. As Jamie, Gladstone is something of a wonder-handling each awkward situation she finds herself in with a humble and delicate touch to the point we understand why it is so easy for Beth to open up to her despite her sheltered facade. As the relationship develops between these two very opposite ends of the spectrum we are delivered mountains upon mountains of hopes and ideas of what this connection might develop into, but that it lacks any kind of clarification on what it is or will become leaves our hearts breaking for Jamie and aching for Beth. With Certain Women, Reichardt seems to have stuck with what she knows best and though there is clear prowess in the visual and emotional beats tapped into here while admittedly being moved by other portions it simply never resonated on the level it seemed to want to or left the type of impact it seemed destined to.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Movie Reviews

LFF Review 2018 – Madeline’s Madeline ★★★★

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Director: Josephine Decker

Stars: Miranda July, Molly Parker, Helena Howard

Released: London Film Festival

Indie favourite actress/director, Josephine Decker premiered her third feature, Madeline’s Madeline at Sundance earlier this year where she received praise for her unconventional take on mental illness.

16 years old Madeline suffers from unspecified mental health problems which have created a wedge between her and her slightly over bearing mother (Miranda July). Spending most of her time alone, she finds comfort when joining an experimental theatre troupe and even develops a strong bond with its ambitious director, Evangeline (the psychotic Molly Parker). When Evangeline starts to use Madeline’s delicate mental state and personal issues with her mother as part of her play, the line between reality and illusion quickly starts to blur.

‘The emotions you are having are not your own. They are someone else’s. You are not the cat – you are inside the cat’. So begins 15 minutes of blurred and beautifully shot sequence that immediately puts the audience in a state of daze. When we are officially introduced to Madeline, we find an energetic young woman who would much rather disappear behind wild animals in theatre rehearsals than have any serious discussion with her mother. Sharing the screen is the interesting Evangeline, who is as passionate as inspiring but whose play doesn’t seem to make much sense to anyone, including herself.

The film’s stand out is the acting and nothing ever feels rehearsed. Helena Howard as Madeline is terrific and easily switches between the disturbed teenager, the cat, the seductress, the turtle and the actress, always bursting with energy and vulnerability.

The film has its witty moments, particularly when during an acting exercise Madeline decides to punish Evangeline for using her personal confessions by simulating a painful childbirth, in the hopes of terrifying the freshly pregnant teacher.

Decker also explores the interesting duality of the role of the artist. Often torn between the idea that creating is disappearing behind someone’s else story or on the contrary it is all about using real experiences to bring depth and authenticity, Decker seems to suggest it is a little of both and that both extremes could end up with either an artificial or violating result. No one understands what Evangeline’s play is about at first and when she finally finds substance that speaks to others (Madeline’s personal issues), she chooses to entirely focus on it instead of adding her own substance and ends up being kicked out by the troupe.

Madeline’s Madeline is visually stunning thanks to Ashley Connor ‘s imaginative cinematography and both Howard and Decker bring to life a condition that is still misunderstood and dismissed. The storyline does takes its time to emerge and the daze occasionally mixes with confusion. Howard keeps the audience in her mental maze throughout the film. It is messy, unusual and dense and maybe that was the whole point.

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LFF 2018 Review – A Private War ★★★

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Director: Matthew Heineman

Stars: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hollander

Released: London Film Festival 2018

‘ I see it so you don’t have to!’ Rosamund Pike, as war correspondent Marie Colvin, spits out at her Sunday Times editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) towards the end of A Private War  as they argue on the banks of the Thames which rolls serenely past. She means the atrocities of war which she is compelled to return to time and again to report on despite hating her own compulsion. She does it, she believes, to give a voice to the ordinary men, women and children who are fodder for the military and political ambitions of dictators and leaders themselves safe in their palaces, well, until the mob gets to them and takes selfies with their mutilated corpse as we see later in the film.

Marie Colvin was a much celebrated war reporter who was killed in Syria in 2012 along with her interpreter/guide. She achieved fame in her lifetime for her fearless, uncompromising journalism but also for the black eye patch she wore after losing an eye in Sri Lanka when reporting on the Tamil Tigers in 2001. Her death will still be fresh in the minds of those who follow current affairs as will her extraordinary persona.

It’s a testament then to the tremendous power of Rosamund Pike’s performance that minutes into A Private War she becomes Colvin. The deep gravelly voice, the Long Island accent, the no nonsense, blunt manner of speaking are not only completely captured but taken possession of by the very English rose Pike.

She embodies Colvin with a natural ease which exposes the private vulnerabilities of a woman who could have been simplistically portrayed as a one of those annoying ‘strong, uncompromising women’ that Hollywood seems to think raises the female profile but real women find unbearable. Pike is not afraid to make the chain smoking, heavy drinking, conflicted Colvin unlikable at times. But it’s in the quiet, reflective moments of Colvin’s life when she is alone with her ravaged eye and light desire for the normal suburban life she rejected that Pike is at her most effective. This is a film about the psychological damage of seeing what the rest of us don’t have to as much as it is about the grotesque mess of war on the battlefield.

Colvin wants a child and considers it with the man (Greg Wise) she’s already divorced a couple of times despite having suffered two miscarriages. She may or may not be prone to seeking connection through other convenient liaisons. Her friend tells her she’s an alcoholic and she thinks about convincing a psychiatrist she’s sane so she can leave a rehab clinic she’s an inpatient in before she’s really up to it. She’s plagued by flashbacks and nightmares.
We learn all this about her but, like her, don’t have time to fully process any of it before she and we are whisked off to Iraq. There she meets a freelance photographer, Paul Conroy, (Jamie Dornan – Fifty Shades Freed) and the two quickly form a professional partnership with Colvin very much in the driving seat as to where they go and what risks they take. In one case this involves her confidently flashing a gym membership card to get through a heavily armed checkpoint. The friendship which builds between the two is not explored enough and Dornan is not given enough to do but when the inevitable danger which is foreshadowed throughout the film befalls them it’s intense and a swallow-hard moment.

Even though we know her death is coming , when it actually does, there’s a real sense of loss, largely due to Pike having brought Colvin to life so brilliantly beforehand. I predict we’ll be seeing a lot of Rosamund Pike during awards season for this timely film produced by Charlize Theron about a very modern heroine.

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LFF 2018 Review – Assassination Nation ★★★★

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Director: Sam Levinson

Stars: Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse

Released: London Film Festival 2018

When Director, Sam Levinson started writing Assassination Nation over two years ago, he probably had no idea how shockingly relevant this dark comedy would be today. Written as his wife was about to give birth, he credits his fear of raising his child in an increasingly brutal country as the main inspiration behind this vivid satire, depicting the disastrous consequences of living online.

The city of Salem, Massachusetts is about to delve into chaos when a data hacker starts exposing highly porn-ified secrets of its population. Internet search history, digital photos and texts conversations are published. Political careers and marriages end. The hack reaches Salem’s high school whose principal is also targeted and forced to resign, despite claiming his innocence. In need of a scapegoat, the town’s authority (macho detective and police man) finds it in high school head girl, Lily (Odessa Young), whose affair with a married man,  just leaked. Lily and her friends must face the town’s growing hysteria that quickly turns into a blood bath of sexism and brutality.

The film’s core storyline revolves around Lily, who with her friends make up the popular clique of Salem’s High School. The 1990’s had their mysterious virgin nymphs (“Virgin Suicide”) and the 2000s, their bullying princesses (“Mean Girl”) but in 2018, the popular girls are fun, clever and most of all, nasty. Born in a comfortable middle class family, Lily has good grades and a cheeky talent for drawing. What Lily and her friend lack is a reliable grown up figure to look up to. Surrounded by threatening boyfriends and denigrating parents, the only grown-up who pays her some attention is her principal but even he cannot completely give in when she makes a clever accusation of the sexism of internet and social media while defending her pornographic art work.

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There is thin line between victim and executioner in Assassination Nation and Levinson strategically jumps from teasing to threats as if one didn’t exist without the other. Levinson seems less interested in exposing the already well established outcomes of the digital age than exploring the hypocrisy and shaming young people, and particularly young woman, face on a daily basis.

Half way between  Little Red Riding Hood and Nikita, and far from victims, these girls fight back with whatever they are threaten with, usually guns but at times razors and even a shovel. Full of extreme close-ups, the camera is intrusive, and if this closeness can be difficult at first, it quickly helps creates a real connection with those girls.  Surrounded by obvious and familiar characters (naïve head cheerleader, immature boyfriend, cheating husband…), and lifted by invigorating performances by Hari Nef (Bex) and Odessa Young (Lily), these girls can only shine in authenticity and it is hard not to root for them.

Salem’s utter obliviousness takes final form in the slushy sipping little brother, revealed as the hacker. Youngest and quiet, he seemed like a harmless addition to the dinner table and yet could bring a nation to its knee. The warning signs were there, adults chose to ignore them. The film ends with a public letter to a certain president of a certain powerful nation and a feminist call to action against any form of violence and misogyny.

The film will most likely not affect every generation in the same way and will probably swing between anti-sexist fantasy revenge to painfully relevant. Yet there is nothing in this film that can’t be traced back to a recent newspaper headline or twitter feed, regrouped to create a bloody picture of the modern America, kids are made to grow up in.

“Don’t take your anger out on me, I just got here.”

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