To accompany the UK release of Kelly Reichardt’s acclaimed new movie Certain Women the BFI have launched a short retrospective of her work, and invited the curious chronicler of the American dispossessed, of those living their quiet lives in the margins of society over to introduce some of the screenings and discuss her work. I first stumbled upon her films in the most serendipitous way possible, renting a DVD of Wendy & Lucy knowing nothing of its story or maker, being faintly aware of its reputation and critical praise. I was utterly blown away by the films direct empathy for its central character, for its near unique emphasis on middle America and the faint political underpinnings of a social structure in crisis, welded together with the then arising ‘austere’ stream of cinema which adopts a narrow but effective array of techniques in order to replicate reality – diagetic sound only, 100% location shooting with single camera takes, a loosely explored, improvisational performance structure. In the intervening decade Reichardt has become one of the finest practitioners of the form, and slowly built a formidable auteur reputation and a string of awards from the festival circuit, while darting through an eclectic array of subjects and situations – the eco-warrior movement, 19th century US pioneers, a triumvirate of women seeking solace and security in an anxious world. She is unquestionably one of the most accomplished US filmmakers working today, whose career I follow closely, so naturally I jumped at the chance to see her speak of her craft and revisit her work on the screen as intended.
So, just to be slightly unconventional like her films we’ll begin with the Q&A before getting into the movie, as that was the sequence of events on the day. She took a while to get warmed up and was a little inarticulate, but that was more to do with the difficulty of explaining her process which she explained is more felt instinctively than through serious cognitive concentration. I hadn’t clicked that she always works as her own editor, cutting the picture ‘in-camera’ during the shot, which may prevent the gift of having an independent, fresh pair of eyes to assess the material, but cleaves closer to her original conception of the picture. She noted how difficult it was to make ‘quiet’ films, pictures without instructive soundtracks, devoting attention to the sound mix by writing out an aural schemata similar to a storyboarding for the visuals. All her films are shot in natural locations which maintains a verite intensity, and creates a certain frisson while shooting as the crew grapples with unpredictable elements such as the weather, animals, and inquisitive natives. Her rehearsals with actors consist of making them conduct the chores of their characters, of living their everyday repetitive lives, such as the pioneer camp for Meeks Cutoff, or servicing a farm for Certain Women, rather than running lines or script table reads, so the actors can build a muscle memory that serves the part. Finally, the inevitable influences and favourites question was posed, and as a film scholar she cited a few expected maestros – Sirk, Fassbinder, Bresson – and mourned how terrible 2016 was with the loss of both Kiarostami and Chantal Ackerman.
As the daughter of a crime scene technician and narcotics agent it is no surprise that Reichardt’s films are studious investigations, methodical in tone, perhaps a little distanced and sociological in their cool observation than some would prefer. Shot on location in Portland, Oregon Wendy & Lucy is a few days in the life of financial economic refuge Wendy (Michelle Williams) who is traversing the country to Alaska, in search of seasonal work at a fishery factory. Sleeping in her dilapidated car and keeping a keen eye on her meagre budget her only companion is her mongrel Labrador Lucy, a unique source of affection in her difficult environment. After a bad choice leads to her being separated from her companion the film follows a modest path of her attempted reunification with her mutt, orienteered through William’s heartbreakingly discreet performance which fully inhabits the role of the proud disposed and forgotten. The drama arises from the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential of incidents – a stuttering car engine signalling economic panic, a simple yet critical offer to use a mobile phone – which are bracketed by Ozu pillow-shot interludes to build a sense of time and space, weaving a tapestry of realistic rigour.
Wendy & Lucy is simply a beautiful, discreet haunting modern classic, drip feeding character texture through action rather than reaction, while offering a historical portrait of an entire segment of society. released in the year of the worst global crash of 90 years it is a moving vision of any strata of society, their precarious existence balanced where one poorly judged decision can threaten the entire fabric of safety after the social contract safety net was withdrawn by successive neo-liberal administrations. Reichardt cleaves to the bone in terms of plot and narrative, it follows a directly linear sequential path, coolly observing the situation and character actions without judgement, yielding a space for the audience to form their own conclusions and connections. It’s from those hesitations, the muted, reductive dialogue, the slow imperceptible construct of screen realism that the oblique politics creep into the work, enforced further through the absence of any diagetic sonic crutch to signal how we should feel in certain sequences, and a sparse 78 minute run time. It’s a cinema of quiet anxiety and gentle loneliness, as in the final reel Wendy marches off into the distance, to face an uncertain future alongside swathes of her forgotten generation;
Just a little something to keep you reprobates entertained and educated while I assemble my Get Out review. It was good.
The fact that this destructive bacteria, whom actually shares the namesake of PKD’s imaginarium of a false, withdrawn, corrupt & corporate overlord disrupting and frantically attempting to massage civilisation is beyond satire – and when was the last time you checked the legitimacy of your pets?;
About a third of the way through Kong: Skull Island, Warner Brothers latest bid to recapture the franchise crown from the house of mouse, marooned Second World War airman Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) yells how happy he is that a military expedition has finally arrived to save him – ‘I heard you were coming, they told me you were here’ he feverishly exclaims. The problem with this exchange is that he is alone on the remote pacific atoll of Skull Island, exiled since he crash landed almost thirty years ago, apart from the standard issue deployment of a primitive tribe whom have also just discovered the expedition, mere moments before. His potential saviours are a reassigned Vietnam Marine unit – this film is set in the early 1970’s for no qualitatively discernible reason – captained by a standard issue Samuel L. Jackson blustering lazily through his usual blockbuster bricolage. That such a elemental disregard for narrative script logic has surpassed the studio QC test speaks volumes of this productions disregard for the audiences intelligence (who are they, exactly?), the incremental tip of an insulting iceberg, in what I am afraid to report is this year’s worst movie so far – and I’ve seen Hacksaw Ridge.
So let’s rewind a little and outline the plot, as much as there is a semblance of such things. Bill Randa (John Goodman) is the senior executive of the secretive government organisation codenamed Monarch, a unit charged with investigating the mysterious and clandestine caverns of the globe. Despite being enveloped in a mysterious, permanent storm which obscures any satellite penetration (not to mention defying the laws of physics) he has spent years lobbying for an expedition to Skull Island, a remote archipelago situated in the deeps of the Pacific Ocean, which due to its unique qualities has never been crawled over by scientists like a phalanx of curious climate attuned toddlers. So finally, despite being ignored by centuries of inquisitive homo-sapien exploration Randa finally convinces the powers that be to assemble a B-Movie battalion of character tropes to see what’s going on, and whom, or indeed what might be roaming around this Eukaryoteic eden.
Quite how you waste an ensemble cast of Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchel, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Terry Notary is a gargantuan achievement, as no attention has been aimed at assembling any sliver of adventurous creation, Hiddleston in particular being spectacularly miscast as some roguish adventurer in a desperate grasp for Han Solo symbiosis. Second lead Larson as Mason Weaver, a self-proclaimed ‘anti-war’ photographer recruited to the mission also yields no internal instruction or arc, no political purchase or indeed personality, but she does get the ‘best’ line in the film when she reports for duty and a surprised military attaché exclaims ‘Mason Weaver? But (dramatic pause, scrolling through the ship deployment manifest)…but…you’re a woman?’…’Last time I checked!’ she retorts. Alas, I am not joking.
After half an hour of this tedious stumble through the labyrinth of lazy Hollywood engineering I recalibrated my expectations accordingly, as even if we can’t have anything resembling fun characters or dialogue, any graze of excitement or energy we can at least reel in some scintillating CGI and mirthful monster mayhem, right? Wrong. Blockbuster brawlers such as Guillermo and Jackson have consistently and correctly reasserted that an essential element of any monster movie is to invest your creations with some semblance of personality, a trait that is fully absent here, there’s just no there there beneath the CGI carapace. The main draw of the movie, the almighty Kong who squats atop the pinnacle of American monster movies since 1934 in this incarnation is simply boring to behold in all his supposed simian stupendousness – it’s all inertia, with no metaphoric gravity nor heft. That critical, fatal flaw is reinforced in the design of the perfunctory flora and fauna of Skull Island that assail our heroes, the supporting characters are picked off red-shirt style with no human dimension nor consequence, as we progress through a plot untroubled by interest or consequence. Sure, I am fully aware that you should perhaps check in any concerns of reason or logic at the ticket collection booth – this is a big, loud, brash blockbuster intended to deactivate the cerebellum – yet the flippant lack of quality or design in any other dimension of filmmaking, the set pieces, the SFX, any sense of exotic adventure or mysterious investigation, they all render this movie as mediocre par maximus.
Predictably the wider movie references are speared throughout the film like a postmodern skewer (including a nod to this), but the obvious antecedent is Apocalypse Now which I detected from the initial trailer and the colour palette, period soundtrack and those images of mosquito framed choppers shrouded against a blazing oriental sun. A cold opening of Marlow’s initial arrival on the atoll in 1944 is pinched from Boorman’s Hell In The Pacific when a Japanese airman is also marooned along with Marlow, a plot point which is suitably set up and then thoroughly abandoned. Gentle reader, given the deliberate historical locality I’m not necessarily expecting some squirming subtext of an arrogant battalion of Westerners invading an exotic oriental locale, raining napalm and ordinance on the denizens and arousing the wrath of some ancient, gargantuan, elemental wrath, but a movie on this scale has to be fun on its own genre terms, and on that front Skull Island fails abysmally. Once again the studios have drafted in a talented Indie director, Jordan Charles Vogt-Roberts (helmsman of 2013’s charming Kings Of Summer), and ruthlessly crushed any potential flourish or notable technique, as all must be in thrall to lowest common denominator blockbuster banality personified in the near ubiquitous and groan inducing post credits sting – see also Jurassic World. Doug McClure must be spinning in his volcanic grave, as taken as a franchise inceptor or mere creature feature Skull Island is a colossal disappointment;
Well. wow. Reverberations are thundering around the cinephile world with this extraordinary news, especially given the connections between old and new media and all that such umbilical links could signal for the future. Here is some exhaustive context, and here is a glimpse of what’s in store;
Ever wondered what one of those strange sounding Foley artists are in a movie’s credits? What, how does an award winning short sound?
New Edgar Wright, looks like he’s been gorging on a Walter Hill season. Some impressive looking stunts eh?
Apologies for the quality but I think you fellow cinephiles will understand, that we are definitely in the midst of an end times scerario. I expect to see Pynchon on Fox news next week;
This has been slowly garnering some brutal buzz, as a modern Lovecraft interstellar eldritch horror in the vein of early Carpenter or Cronenberg. Pun intended;
It’s a time weary, sobering thought that Huge Jackman has been playing the popular Marvel comic book character of Wolverine for 17 years. Through something like eight films, since the initial inception of this titanic cycle of millennium activated Superhero franchise movies that have dominated modern Hollywood cinema his cameo appearances (I can’t be bothered to research the specifics at this point, we have bigger prey to pursue) and starring roles have forged an indelible association between an actor and a vivid popular culture character, although I think he has managed to evade the typecasting that usually shadows such symbiosis. Being some sort of twisted wreck I quite liked the last Wolverine picture, it worked as a molecular mustering of comic book yore, rather than an automatic feed of the franchise beast which director James Mangold has returned to for this serrated swan song that definitively closes this curious cinematic cycle. That said I wasn’t particularly enamoured of this film from it’s previews, I like Jackman in the role that he has inhabited with a necessary ferocious intelligence for almost two decades, but since I have enjoyed previous issues and with time to kill before another exhausting stint at the BFI I thought I’d see what all the fuss is about. Bub.
Good Galactus groaned grief true believers, what a sombre and glum film, where the marginalised and oppressed are yearning to flee America rather than seek their freedom under liberty’s enveloping wing, make of that what you will under the current Asmodeus attuned administration. Professor X (Patrick Stuart) is writhing in the middle stages of dementia, nursed by glum albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant, surprisingly effective) in a scorched Mexican industrial estate, complete with oppressive Border barricade, while Logan works as a Chauffeur to fund the acquisition of the black market pharmaceuticals that can dilute his mentors murderous mania. Logan has his own demons to grapple with, he’s drinking like a docker on a December pay-day, while his own healing power appears to be waning in what is subtly suggested as a 2029 future world where the mutant threat has been slowly extinguished via some slow, yet irrevocable epidemic. The antagonists are engineered by a secretive government cabal known as The Reavers whom are intent on capturing their incendiary intellectual property in the form of Laura, an advanced future generation X-Weapon (Dafne Keen, deviously destructive) whose paths cross with Logan during a particularly clumsy screenwriting symbiosis. Prof X sees her as a potential saviour, Logan ain’t convinced and resists the initial mission, with the inevitable thawing of treatment….
Once this future world is uncertainly established Logan cantors through a quest narrative, of reaching that elusive El Dorado sanctuary with the villains nipping at our heroes heels, so as such it is evidently a Western graced with a superhero simile, rather bluntly blasted through images of texts such as Shane and other traditionals of the Western genre grammar – a saving of the innocents, navigating new moral and mortal pathways, an inevitable, saviour sacrifice along the pioneer path. This blunt force narrative trauma aside I did admire how the attention was focused on character and development rather than somersaulting a script through to the next set-piece carnage, and tellingly the villains are non-descript (this is a Marvel picture after all) as the emphasis is firmly placed on the dying of the light, with a new generation of mutants, of ‘others’ being shepherded to solace, and the sacrifice required by the current generation in achieving a new nirvana. Still, Logan was however rather jagged and erratic in its storytelling in the early acts, a little uncertain and uncomfortable so I was much more exasperated than excited in seeing where this story – which instantly reminded me of one of those one shot What If Marvel series rather than canon cemented certainties – could do justice to these characters and their complex histories. Seeing a damaged, fractured Prof X and Wolverine engaged in a smaller, focused, daily domestic struggle is quite another experience than the usual world threatening melee of this genre, and curiously works far more emotionally due to its smaller intimacy.
Being an R rated film – again kudos to Jackson, Mangold and the team who insisted on the more adult attuned algorithms which one assumes wouldn’t have melded with the studio until the international success of Deadpool – the movie is fairly ruthless on the impact of admantium claws on mere mortals, with all the beheadings, eviscerations and chaos soaking the carefully coloured set pieces like a crimson chaffed grenade chain detonated in a charnel house. When little Wolverine gets to strut her stuff, a genetically manufactured cyclone of aggression I was amused, with no lip service paid to the catastrophic carnage that her quest leaves in its wake – the young are understandably aggravated. Finally, there is one little touch, a little moment which was very nicely done, just a little adjustment which made me grin as it respectively mourns the symbolism of the past 17 years of character lore. Some UK Marvel fanatics have had their noses punched out of joint due to the lack of the post credit Marvel stinger which has been excised from the European cut – I didn’t see it either at this screening – but please, get a fucking life, as expressed through this picture, is too fucking short. Heck, I’m quite surprised I’ve wrangled an entire review out of this, I wasn’t particularly engaged through 65% of this movie, but as I’ve put this together I’m more appreciative of Logan’s ambition and final resolution of this phase of Marvel’s cultural continuum. Recommended, but not Xssential;