Films Watched: June 2012

Here is what I watched this month, including a very necessary Nora Ephron-a-thon. Continue reading “Films Watched: June 2012”

Review: Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff

“What would John Wayne’s character look like from the woman that served his soup?” – Meek’s Cutoff director Kelly Reichardt

For more than a week, I have been trying to grasp exactly what I want to say about Meek’s Cutoff. My head has been swirling with many thoughts about the story, characters, performances, direction, and cinematography. What is it all working towards?

Fundamentally Meek’s Cutoff is a revisionist Western that centers on the lives of women as they cross the Oregon High Desert with their families. The group is led by guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who may be leading them no where. Tensions mount as water becomes scarce and the two-week journey becomes more arduous. When the group encounters and captures a Native American (Ron Rondeaux), the film shifts from a story about survival to a story about gender differences and fears of an ethnic other.

The women, played by Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan, represent three very different types, visually marked by the contrasting colors of their dresses and bonnets. They differ in age, are in different stages of their marriages and have different levels of individual agency. They are given little authority to make decisions although their work – cooking, cleaning, minding the children – is no less important.

That fact that director Kelly Reichardt focuses the film on these women emphasizes that their presence is more important than their male counterparts. We never hear the conversations these men have about what to do with their wayward guide or the Indian. It is instead the women, their conversations, their solidarity with one another, and above all their morality, that drives the narrative.

A scene like this is one of many that evoked Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust.

Meek’s Cutoff is less about its characters and performances (Williams’ character is the only one with any depth). It is more about how this story is stylistically told through realist tendencies and a slow, methodical progression.

I can’t help but turn my attention to the other post-9/11 independent films that fascinate me and how Meek’s Cutoff relates. Like Reichardt’s 2008 film Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff explores notions of identity. Yet the historical context of Meek’s Cutoff causes this exploration of self  to encompass many complex layers. Gender, class, and Americanism all play a part in how the settlers exist and define themselves. Most telling is how these white settlers pit themselves against the non-white other emphasizes the early foundations of a long-standing American fear of the other. Kazan’s character Millie is a hysterical woman convinced that the Indian will kill the group; her hysterics are matched by the actions of the men. In a way this is on par with Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, which places the fear of an ethnic other in a contemporary setting, a setting that revolves around post-9/11 anxieties. Meek’s Cutoff seems to ever so slightly offer a commentary on current relations with immigrants and how we define ourselves against someone else.

This post is a part of my ongoing Thesis Redux project. More here on the films I will be watching and writing about.

Review: Blue Valentine (2010)

It has been days and I cannot stop thinking about Blue Valentine. The performances by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are so raw, powerful, and gut-wrenchingly emotional that they make any other depictions of marriage look like a total sham.

Williams and Gosling are Cindy and Dean, a couple living in rural Pennsylvania with their young daughter. Their marriage has reached its breaking point and it is Frankie who holds them together. Cindy feels stuck in her life, having given up on her med school aspirations. Dean paints houses for a living and drinks all day, wasting away any potential. In an attempt to save their marriage, he takes his wife to a motel that only exacerbates the inevitable dissolution of their marriage. The film jumps between these moments of profound sadness, frustration, and arguments and flashes of the couple’s happier days when they were blissfully in love and beginning a heartfelt romance.

Blue Valentine captures the fleeting moments that make life so precious. Those happier days are met with sweet moments. Dean serenading Cindy with a ukulele – the song that accompanies the film’s simple yet lovely trailer – especially stands out. These scenes are filled with light and brightness, much like the character’s hopes for the future. The present-day scenes are darker, more claustrophobic as the realities they have become trapped by – parenthood, dead end jobs – have strained the relationship. You begin to feel just as trapped and at a loss as Cindy and Dean.

The flashbacks fit effortlessly with the present-day narrative, a testament to the sharp directing, writing, cinematography, and editing led by director Derek Cianfrance who co-wrote the script with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis. These elements become emotionally real because of Gosling’s and William’s vulnerable and poignant performances.

Poignantly, no true conclusions are reached. Cindy and Dean’s divorce seems imminent but Blue Valentine does not preach anything about marriage or divorce. The characters are just as they are. First they are young and perhaps naïve and then they become older, more self-aware.

At the end of it all you have wonder, did they know each other at all or were they just clinging  to idealized dreams of romance and marriage?

Gosling and Williams are nominated for Golden Globes for their performances. In an ideal world, they will win. In a more perfect world, they will receive Oscars nominations.

Trailer Fix: Blue Valentine (2010)

So what if Blue Valentine, a marriage drama starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, received an NC-17 rating? Good movies are good movies regardless of their rating. The trailer for this film (embedded below) has completely captivated me and I already know that I will go to great lengths to see it.

Blue Valentine will be released December 31.

Review: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain

To say that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is just a gay cowboy movie would be giving it the short end of the stick. It is captivating, touching and an amazingly excellent picture and those reasons alone should silence the childish snickering.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist respectively. The men meet in the summer of 1963 when they are hired to be sheepherders on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. They spend two weeks on the trail and instantly develop a connection then a sexual relationship. They then separate for fours years and move on with their lives. They both marry and have children; Del Mar to Alma (Michelle Williams) and Twist to Lureen (Anne Hathaway). But even after their initial separation neither man can forget the time they spent on Brokeback Mountain. The remainder of the film follows the men as their lives and relationship continue to evolve.

This is a film that will remain with you long after it is over. The performances in this film are completely mesmerizing. Heath Ledger delivers beyond the most powerful screen performance of recent memory. But what got me the most was story. Whether you agree with it or not, Brokeback Mountain is a love story. It is a bittersweet story of an impossible and unacceptable yearning that ends much too soon. No matter your opinion, see it. Brokeback Mountain will affect you.

Updated October 9, 2010