Bored in the U.S.A.


Just sittin’ and talkin’ ’bout things.

(2018) Drama (Old Academy) Kelly Lloyd, Chris Milner, Bryan Preston. Directed by Mike Finazzo

 

Sometimes what we need is to just talk. Not just talk, but also listen – an actual adult conversation about things that are important. You know, life things. Relationships, dreams, disappointments – the things that keep us going and the things that keep us crying.

Kelly (Lloyd) is married. She stays at home and takes care of the house; she and her husband Bryan (Preston) don’t have kids and there doesn’t seem to be a horizon where that is likely. Their sex is desultory and passionless. Kelly is filling her days as best she can but her friends are busy with their own lives, lives that make hers seem empty and small.

Chris (Milner) is a Londoner living in Baltimore but he’s preparing to return to the UK. He’s engaged to be married and is joining his fiancée back at home. He is in the process of selling his things in preparation for his departure. Despite this, he feels some uncertainty that he is making the right decision.

Kelly and Chris had met years earlier at a party. When they bump into each other, they remember their initial meeting. They get to talking and a cup of coffee turns into spending the day together. Their reflections on how their lives turned out force them to evaluate their past and the decisions they’ve made – as well as their futures.

This is a quiet film that mostly relies on the chemistry and conversational skills of the two leads. For the most part, it works. These are discussions that most of us have had at one time or another, or at least on the subject matter. Of course, your wording may vary. As someone who is interested in words, I enjoyed the ones that Kelly and Chris were uttering in general, and well-written dialogue is always a plus especially in indie films that rely on it. The exception is that Kelly is constantly making reference to the fact that this is set in Baltimore. I get the love Finazzo has for the place – Baltimore ain’t called Charm City for nothin’ – but it’s unnecessary and distracting.

There is a little bit of pretentiousness here; the decision to film the movie in black and white really doesn’t add anything to the film but it doesn’t take anything away. At one point, one of the characters says that “life is simpler in black and white” and that may be, but simpler isn’t necessarily better. Also the soundtrack is littered with French pop songs, bringing to mind film students arguing the merits of Jacques Tati while smoking clove cigarettes and drinking overpriced coffee.

That pretension will likely turn some people off but if you can get past that, this is actually a delightful little film. I wouldn’t say it’s terribly insightful; what you’re getting here are more experiential observations and they may not match your interpretation of them but that’s fine. It’s a healthy thing once in awhile to hear some differing opinions of the things you are going through, have been through or might someday go through.

REASONS TO SEE: The conversational aspect works.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is on the pretentious side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sex, drug use and crude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to being a filmmaker, Finazzo is also a standup comedian.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunrise
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Reinventing Rosalee

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Birds of Passage (Pajaros de verano)


Birds in plume.

(2018) Crime Drama (The Orchard) Carmiña Martinez, Josė Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Jhon Narváez, Greider Meza, Josė Vincente Cote, Juan Bautista Martinez, Miguel Viera, Sergio Coen, Aslenis Márquez, Josė Naider, Yanker Diaz, Victor Montero, Joaquin Ramón, Jorge Lascarro, Germán Epieyu, Luisa Alfaro, Merija Uriana. Directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra

 

Some movies are great because of technical achievements. Others are great because their story has universal appeal. Others achieve greatness through a combination of those elements. Rarely, a film makes greatness because of an ineffable quality all its own.

In Northern Colombia, the Wayuu people have lived speaking their own language, with their own traditions and customs for thousands of years. They do not trust Spanish speaking Colombians whose culture is as alien to them as Japan’s might be; in fact, many Colombians are unfamiliar with the Wayuu.

At the beginning of the movie (which is divided into five cantos, or songs), Zaida (Reyes), the daughter of the clan matriarch Úrsula (C. Martinez), is celebrating her coming of age. Her position makes her quite a catch for the men of the clan. One, Rapayet (Acosta) is particularly eager to claim Zaida as his bride but Úrsula is less sanguine about the idea. She gives him a ridiculously high dowry of 30 goats, 20 cows and five precious necklaces. Rapayet, who is regarded with suspicion by the clan because he has had business dealings with non-Wayuu, is nonetheless determined to make Zaida his wife. He and his partner Moisės (Narváez) have been picking coffee beans and selling them but a chance encounter with American Peace Corps volunteers leads them to a more valuable cash crop – marijuana.

With gringo pilots set to deliver the goods to market and leaving them ridiculous amounts of cash, Rapayet prevails on fellow clan member Anibal (J.B. Martinez) to use part of his ranch to grow weed for him which they sell to the Americans at a massive profit. At first the arrangement works swimmingly and both Anibal and Rapayet become wealthy with the latter able to afford the dowry and wed Zaida much to the matriarch’s dismay. However, she eventually gets with the program when she sees the money and prestige her new son-in-law is bringing to the clan.

But things aren’t ducky for long. First, Moisės proves to be something of a loose cannon. Then, the son of Úrsula proves to be even worse, a disrespectful, entitled lout whose indiscretions threaten to bring the clan to a civil war. Rapayet is only able to watch helplessly as everything he loves – his family, his clan, his culture – slowly begin to circle the drain.

This is quite simply put a masterpiece of Latin American cinema. Gallego and Guerra – who directed the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent – have outdone even that movie with a film that is lyrical in content but with elements of a tragedy as well as a crime drama all rolled into one. While not at the level of The Godfather it is still a movie that is going to make a whole lot of impact on the genre.

The cinematography is breathtaking, from the lavish luxury of Rapayet’s hacienda, the desolation of the empty plain it sits on, the simple beauty of the village, the lavish costumes of the villagers and the beauty that is Colombia. It is a gorgeous movie to watch. There are moments and images that will stay with you for a very long time.

While the movie takes place between 1968 through 1980, the timelessness of the lives of the Wayuu really doesn’t give those of us who are urbanized a sense of period. That the story is so compelling also contributes to the timelessness of the movie – greed and pride often do lead to a fall and therein lies the tragedy. One ends up wondering if the drug importing hadn’t been introduced to the clan would they have ended up being happier? Certainly, more of them would have been left alive.

Clearly the filmmakers have a great abiding respect for the Wayuu culture and just as clearly much research was done into it. The co-directors are adept at telling their story and it never seems to go in the direction you think it’s going to with few exceptions. There is a bit of an element of morality play here but at the end of the day this is masterful film making that should be at the top of every film buff’s must-see list this year.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers clearly have a reverence and respect for native cultures. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The story is a compelling one. This film never goes in the direction that you think it’s going to.
REASONS TO AVOID: The violence can be brutal and graphic which may offend the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and profanity, brief nudity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The co-directors were married but divorced during the production of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: New Jack City
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Roll Red Roll

Hidden Figures


When all else fails - dance!

When all else fails – dance!

(2016) Biographical Drama (20th Century Fox) Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa, Kurt Krause, Ken Strunk, Lidya Jewett, Donna Biscoe, Ariana Neal, Sanlyya Sidney, Zani Jones Mbayise. Directed by Theodore Melfi

 

Here in the United States we are justifiably proud of our space program. NASA has done some mind-blowing things when you consider our humble beginnings in the Space Race. Back in 1962, it wasn’t certain that we would succeed at all.

Katherine Johnson (Henson) is a math prodigy employed by NASA’s Virginia facility. So are her friends Mary Jackson (Monáe), an engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) who is the de facto supervisor of the computer division – the group of mostly African American women who crunch numbers at the facility. The Space Race is in full bloom and even though NASA has gotten Alan Shepherd into space, they haven’t yet achieved orbit with an astronaut which is also something that the Soviet Union hasn’t been able to do either. John Glenn (Powell) is the candidate for the orbital mission, but the mathematics don’t exist yet to safely get Glenn into orbit and back to Earth again. Time is ticking as NASA has some intense political pressure on them to deliver.

In this office, most of that pressure falls on Jim Harrison (Costner) and his engineers, led by Paul Stafford (Parsons) and things aren’t going well. After some spectacular failures, Harrison needs someone to double check the math of the engineers and the prim and proper supervisor (Dunst) of the computer pool taps Vaughan to suggest someone and she in turn suggests Johnson.

She couldn’t have chosen better. Johnson is a legitimate genius, perhaps more so than the white male engineers and as she begins to clean up their efforts, she shows Harrison that she might be the one to invent a new form of mathematics that will get Glenn into orbit and home again without burning him to a cinder, or sending his spacecraft into a trajectory that takes it beyond where he can get home again.

At the time IBM was building its first supercomputers and installing one in Virginia had turned out to be a much more daunting task than they had at first envisioned. Vaughan, realizing that this computer will put her and the women of the computing division out of a job, learns programming on her own and helps get the system up and running. In the meantime, Jackson – ably assisting chief engineer Karl Zielinski (Krupa) needs to take classes to get her degree so she can progress further. Unfortunately, the only night courses she can take are being taught at a segregated high school which she can’t legally attend.

There are all sorts of petty humiliations associated with the segregation culture of its time; Johnson is forced to take long breaks to scurry the mile and a half to the nearest colored bathroom since she can’t use the whites only bathroom in her own building. She also is not allowed to drink from the same coffeepot as the others. The pressure of the job is keeping her away from her children and her new husband, a dashing Army officer (Ali) much longer than she would like. Will she crack under all this pressure?

One of the things that has irritated some critics about the film is that much of the segregation sequences are essentially manufactured. The bathroom incidents, for example happened to Jackson, not Johnson and while Vaughan became an essential computer programmer for NASA, her role in getting the computer installed was overstated here. However, keep in mind that this is a movie based on the experiences of actual people – it’s not a history lesson per se and is meant to be entertainment.

And as entertainment the film succeeds, largely on the back of the performances of its leads. Spencer has become in short order one of America’s finest actresses bar none; I can’t remember a recent film in which she’s given a subpar performance or failed to elevate. Here she is absolutely mesmerizing whenever she’s on screen; the power of her personality almost overwhelms the others.

Henson has a much more mousy character to portray but she makes her human and vulnerable rather than so smart we cannot relate to her. She is that, but she’s also got a ton of humanity as well – she gets frustrated with her situation but she has a lot of confidence that the future will be a better one. Henson has also climbed to the top echelon of actresses working and while Spencer has gotten more award acclaim, I don’t doubt that Henson is headed in that direction as well as she gets more leading roles on the big screen and the small.

Costner is a reliable performer who is transitioning into a bit of a character actor as well as a leading man still. He knows how to play grouchy with a heart of gold about as well as anybody and Harrison is all of that. Of course, this being a Hollywood production, there are elements of “decent white guy helping the cause of African-American freedom.” It’s a bit condescending but I suppose, forgivable; after all, there were plenty of decent white guys (and gals) who not only supported the civil rights movement but also fought on the front lines of it. Still, Melfi at least has the good sense to make sure the focus is on the trio of ladies where it should be.

The good thing about Hidden Figures is that it educates us about people who have been lost to history but shouldn’t have been and that is invaluable. Nearly as invaluable is that the movie leaves us with a good feeling as we exit the theater (or turn off our home video device when the time comes) and in times like these, it’s certainly about as important.

REASONS TO GO: Fine performances from all three of the ladies include an Oscar-nominated one by Spencer. It’s a really uplifting film – literally.
REASONS TO STAY: Strays quite a bit from the actual history of these extraordinary women.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of mild profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that was used as Dorothy Vaughan’s house has historical significance; the residence, in Atlanta, is where civil rights leaders Ralph Abernathy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first met.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Right Stuff
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Split

That Awkward Moment


Zac Efron is confident he's the prettiest one of the trio.

Zac Efron is confident he’s the prettiest one of the trio.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (Focus) Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Lucas, Addison Timlin, Josh Pais, Evelina Turen, Karen Ludwig, Tina Benko, Joseph Adams, Lola Glaudini, John Rothman, Barbara Garrick, Reif Larsen, Kate Simses, Emily Meade, Alysia Reiner, Julia Morrison. Directed by Tom Gormican

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-3

According to Jason (Efron), a book cover designer and long time player, any sentence uttered by a woman that you are seeing that begins with the word “So…” is an intimation of impending catastrophe. It is the linchpin of any relationship; the moment that a relationship moves from “dating” to “boyfriend/girlfriend.” It is the type of commitment that guys like Jason find to be about as repellent as walking barefoot over a floor covered in broken glass and scorpions.

He works with his buddy Daniel (Teller) who is basically a 16-year-old in a twenty-something’s body. Daniel uses Jason’s friend Chelsea (Davis) as a means of meeting women for one-night stands (Jason needs no help for that). The two have a third musketeer, Mikey (Jordan), a married doctor but Mikey’s just been hit by a bombshell; his wife Vera (Lucas) has been cheating on him with Harold, a lawyer who looks suspiciously like Morris Chestnut.

Mikey is depressed as all get-out and Daniel knows exactly what he needs – a night in a bar drinking and picking up some chick for a night’s entertainment. Mikey makes a connection with a young lady in glasses (Simses) who gives him her number to use “when (you’re) ready” while Jason ends up with a cute blonde named Ellie (Poots) who has an unusually high number of condoms in her apartment and wears hooker boots. Seeing as the New Yorker just printed an article on hookers in the East End dressing like hipsters, the perpetually broke Jason makes a pre-dawn run for it, fearing Ellie will be asking him for payment in the morning.

The three friends decide to make a pact, all of them having had a wonderful time the evening before – all three will remain single for as long as possible to keep the party going. Mikey is still a little hung up on his ex but agrees that he hadn’t had that much fun in quite some time.

It turns out Ellie isn’t a prostitute – she works for a publishing company that Jason’s socially awkward boss Fred (Pais) is courting. D’oh!  As it turns out, Ellie and Jason end up falling hard for each other. Daniel winds up falling hard for Chelsea – and she for him, hard as it is to believe. And as for Mikey, his attempts to reconcile with Vera turn out far better than he expected. Of course, all three of them, not wishing to look bad in the eyes of their friends, hide their relationships from each other. And of course all three of these geniuses end up imperiling their relationships because of their lack of communication. When will they ever learn?

I understand that this was on the Hollywood Black List of best unproduced scripts of 2012 and I have to wonder how on earth it got there, unless substantial revisions were made during filming. The movie is chock full of the same old tired rom-com clichés that have made nearly all of the romantic comedies produced by Hollywood over the past decade nearly identical in nature. It’s a form of chauvinism, thinking women will settle for the same old thing year after year…although considering some of the relationship choices I’ve seen some of my women friend make during that time, perhaps the studio bigwigs are on to something.

I haven’t been a great Zac Efron fan I have to admit but he does make a pretty decent romantic lead. He’s certainly got the looks and the abs for it and while his acting chops are pretty weak, the same thing could be said for both Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum at the same point in their careers and in both of the above I’ve seen a ton of improvement in that department. I could see Efron becoming a really good actor down the line.

Jordan is an amazing actor but he is hardly utilized here, essentially playing the role of the African-American friend. He has a few decent moments in the film and his banter with Teller and Efron is natural and unforced, something you can’t always say for the other two.

It is the women who fare best here. Poots has done some sterling work in films like A Late Quartet gets the meatiest role and makes the most of it; her expression as she stares at Efron as he goes through his antics is definitely worth a thousand words at least. This British actress has the kind of ability that is possessed by Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams; hopefully she’ll start to get some A-list roles sent her way soon.

While there are some new romantic movies opening up just in time for Valentine’s Day (especially the anticipated Winter’s Tale) as I have not seen them yet I can’t really recommend them much and for my money this is the best romantic movie in theaters at the moment; ladies will swoon over the handsome Efron and guys will appreciate the banter and relationship between the men which is pretty genuine. So fellas, this is a rom-com that you can actually enjoy without feeling you are enduring it for the sake of your woman’s tender attentions after the credits roll.

REASONS TO GO: Efron becoming a solid romantic lead. Occasionally very funny. Authentic relationship between the guys.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many rom-com clichés.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of foul language, even more sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally to be released by FilmDistrict but after Focus absorbed that distribution company (their production side remains independent) this became the first FilmDistrict property to be distributed by Focus.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: About Last Night

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart continues!

Free Samples


I think Jess Wexler looks like Winona Ryder but she just doesn't agree.

I think Jess Wexler looks like Winona Ryder but she just doesn’t agree.

(2012) Drama (Anchor Bay) Jess Wexler, Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Ritter, Tippi Hedren, Halley Feiffer, Keir O’Donnell, Jocelin Donahue, Whitney Able, Eben Kostbar, Jordan Davis, James Duval, Matt Walsh, Craig Gellis, Suzy Nakamura, Cory Knauf, Joseph McKelheer, Montre Burton, Madison Leisle, Joe Nunez, Angel Parker. Directed by Jay Gammill

 Florida Film Festival 2013

We all go through periods where we just seem to be treading water. Inertia deserts us and life is happening to everyone around us but not to us. We flounder in the current, not really moving anywhere and praying to God we don’t drown before we figure out which direction we need to move in.

Jillian is in just such a phase. She’s dropped out from Stanford Law School and is taking a break from her fiancée. She is adrift in Los Angeles, trying somewhat diffidently to become an artist (which is a lot harder when you aren’t particularly talented at anything) and engaging in a series of all-night binges and one night stands, the latest ending up with a cowboy hat-wearing dude that Jillian knows only as Tex (Eisenberg) in her bed. Well, it’s not really her bed – it’s her best friend Nancy’s (Feiffer) bed and she’s just sleeping in it, apparently with Tex’s hat. Tex isn’t in it at the time.

Jillian is experiencing the mother of all hangovers but since she slept in Nancy’s bed and mutual friend Wally (Ritter) – who’s in a band along with the half of L.A. that isn’t in the movies – has urinated on her couch in his alcohol-induced blissful slumber, Jillian owes her a favor; she needs to cover for Nancy at work. Jillian is oh-so-reluctant to do this, but is eventually coerced into it.

Work happens to be standing all day in an ice cream truck handing out free samples of the most godawful excuse for artificial ice cream that you’ve ever had the sorrow to try – you might well get a cup full of chilled sour cream instead – to the freeloaders and nutjobs of a neighborhood not far from hers. It’s excruciatingly boring, like having bamboo shoved up your fingernails while your genitals are sprinkled liberally with napalm, except I would assume those pursuits would probably not be strictly classified as boring. Not by me, anyway.

As she stands in the cramped confines of the truck, handing out samples to all who request one – vanilla, or chocolate (one to a customer, no exceptions) the things that are driving her life – the motivations that persuaded her to drop out of college and her relationship – are brought into focus and not in a vague, diffuse allegorical way but by the serendipity of bad luck and crushing coincidence.

Not all of it is bad. She meets Betty (Hedren), an actor of some fame who is retired, living alone in a small apartment with TCM blaring old movies (“It’s like a reunion,” Betty asserts when a heartbroken Jillian comes to visit her) whose daily highlight is a walk to the truck for a bit of free ice cream. It’s not the ice cream she craves (“it’s really awful” she confides to Jillian) but the company.

As the day ends and Nancy shows up at long last, Jillian has had an epiphany and maybe her life is about to change for the better. You know, you can gather a lot of good karma by handing out free samples.

This is mainly Wexler’s movie and for a young actress with limited experience, it can be a daunting task to carry a movie on one’s slender shoulders but Wexler – who cut her cinematic teeth in Teeth, to date the best movie about vagina dentata ever made – is up for the task and she really has two strikes against her from the onset. Jillian is something of a bitch who whines constantly, complains repeatedly and always seems to be flipping life a mental bird. She has been compared facially to Uma Thurman and I suppose I can see what they’re saying, but I think she looks and sounds more like Wynona Ryder and carries some of that actress’ spunky attitude in her demeanor.

One of the things I love most about this movie is the synergy between Jillian and Betty. Movies rarely show mentor relationships between older women and younger women that aren’t related which I’ve always found to be quite odd – older women can be friends with younger women just like older men can be friends with younger men although Hollywood doesn’t seem to have a problem with those sorts of relationships among men. Women seem to only be allowed those relationships when it’s the younger woman’s grandmother or great-aunt or some such.

The soundtrack, provided by Indie Rock wunderkinder Say Hi is one of the best I’ve heard thus far this year, one which might give the slackers who dug Juno a run for its money. At least from my admittedly non-slackeroonie perspective.

There are some flaws here, some inherent. For example, nearly all of the film takes place with the lead in the claustrophobic ice cream truck. There really are only so many ways you can shoot that, so we get a lot of standard two shots and it does get a trifle repetitious. And Wexler does such a good job as Jillian that there are times you want to give the girl a major foot in the behind with an admonition to stop complaining and start living. Of course by the end of the film she pretty much does that without the need for a boot to the ass.

It was lovely to see Hedren, the star of Hitchcock’s The Birds in the film and I was astonished at how good she looks for a 83-year-old dame. She hasn’t gotten any work that I could detect; she’s just blessed with good genes. How often do you see an 83-year-old woman that you’d seriously think of doing? Not that I actually would sweetie (ducking from the inevitable bonk on the head from Da Queen’s scepter). But if I were single…(sigh). And it was thrilling to see Ms. Hedren at the Florida Film Festival screening we attended. Such beautiful diction. (sigh)

Anyway, that aside this is a terrific indie film that takes some of the indie clichés that we’re so bloody used to and turns them on their head. At the end of the day this is about relationships and redemption, with the object lesson that rehabilitation truly comes from within. Surviving being lost in the current is one thing but swimming for shore and rescuing ourselves is quite another. Me, I’d pay for this free sample – not for the ice cream though.

REASONS TO GO: Wexler gives a terrific performance. Shows a relationship between an older woman and a younger woman who aren’t related – a rarity in Hollywood.  Terrific soundtrack.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit claustrophobic. Occasionally you want to give Jillian a shake.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of bad language and anti-social behavior.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music composer is credited as Eric Elbogen, which is the real name of the person who is the one-man indie rock band Say Hi. Some of that band’s music is also on the soundtrack.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; this is making the rounds on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Future

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Evil Dead (2013)

Meek’s Cutoff


How Wong Kar Wai would shoot a Western.

How Wong Kar Wai would shoot a Western.

(2010) Western (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux. Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Travelling from East to West in the mid-19th Century wasn’t something undertaken lightly. Prior to the establishment of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the only ways to get from the east to the west was by ship around Cape Horn in South America all the way back up to San Francisco; it was a perilous journey in which ships frequently were wrecked on the treacherous passageway.

There was also the overland route on the Oregon Trail which was just as arduous and nearly as lethal. Settlers would pack up what provisions and goods as they could carry in their wagons (not all of which were Conestogas), hitched up their oxen and set off hoping their guide knew where he was going, which wasn’t always the case.

Guide Stephen Meek (Greenwood) sure talked a good game – to hear him tell it, no man alive knew the Oregon Trail as well – but this two week journey has stretched into five with still no end in sight. Supplies are getting dangerously low and there has been no water in the drought-stricken west. There are only three families on this wagon train; Emily (Williams) and Soloman Tetherow (Patton), Millie (Kazan) and Thomas Gately (Dano) and Glory (Henderson), Jimmy (Nelson) and William White (Huff). The women are skeptical of their guide’s ability to lead them to safety. The men are dithering and unwilling to stand up to the overbearing lout.

When the men capture a Cayuse Indian (Rondeaux) who has been shadowing them, they are eager to kill the native. However the women urge that he be spared and convinced to lead them to water. For once they get their way. Still, there is a good deal of mistrust; is the man leading them to water or into a trap? And will they find their way to their destination or will they all die out there in the wilderness?

Reichardt, best known for her edgy modern drama Wendy and Lucy (which also starred Williams) tackles one of the American cinema’s most iconic genres and adds to it a uniquely feminine viewpoint (even though the script was written by her frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, a man). Clearly the strongest and staunchest of the settlers is Emily, although mores and custom of the day required her to take a back seat to her husband.

Williams, whose next role would net her an Oscar nomination, is wonderful here. She gives Emily a marvelous inner strength which the pioneer women certainly must have – and did – have. Williams is careful not to turn Emily into a 21st century woman in a 19th century milieu which is what some actresses might have been tempted to do; Emily is very much a product of her time. However that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a strong personality or a will to match.

The entire cast is actually quite strong and all of them seem to be authentic to their roles. There are no jarring out-of-place anachronisms, and even better, this doesn’t feel like a bunch of modern people playing at cowboys and Indians – this feels like real settlers, unsure of what to do, completely out of their element and terrified that they’re going to die.

The vast vistas that are both barren and beautiful add to that feeling of a bunch of small people in a very large wilderness – kudos to cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt for capturing it onscreen. The result is a very intimate film on an epic scale, which is a hard feat to pull off.

However be warned that the pace is slow, maybe too slow. A lot of time is spent showing the settlers doing their day-to-day activities – grinding coffee, gathering wood, repairing wheels and so on, to the extent that you might feel like you’re sitting in a classroom. In fact, high school history teachers looking to give their students an idea of life on the Oregon Trail (and others like it) might want to arrange a screening of the movie for their classroom – it’s that informative.

The story progresses organically but slowly and much is left to interpretation. Audiences used to being led from point A to point Z with all the answers pointed out to them as they go along might find this frustrating. Still, it is one of the better Westerns to come along in the 21st century and those who love the genre will find much here to love – but traditionalists might find little here to love as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A very different Western. Strong performances throughout the cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a very contemplative pace. Framework is very bare-bones which may ask too much from audiences used to being spoonfed.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a little bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Meek Cutoff follows Bear Creek to the Deschutes River near Bend, Oregon.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $977,772 on a $2M production budget; it certainly didn’t make money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: September Dawn

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Perfect Storm

Liberal Arts


Liberal Arts

Happy to be hipsters!

(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Burton, Robert Desiderio, Kristen Bush, Ali Ahn, Ned Daunis, Gregg Edelman, Travis Alan McAfee, Angelic Zambrana. Directed by Josh Radnor

 

For those who attend a small liberal arts college (as I did), it becomes a benchmark that takes on a kind of bleary glow through which when looking back suffuses the time in a kind of mellow haze. Certainly I did a lot of growing back then and I learned a lot both in the classrooms but more importantly, outside it. What leadership skills I possess today began their evolution there, at Loyola Marymount (and a shout out to all my fellow Lion alums).

Nostalgia is one thing but at some point everyone has to un-tether the umbilical cord no matter how painful. We can’t just graduate and then stop growing – growth is a lifetime occupation.

This isn’t something Jesse (Radnor) learned in his small liberal arts college. With a degree in English (and a minor in History just to make sure he’s fully unemployable), he has taken a position as an admissions counselor in a New York university. It’s not a job he’s in love with and he kind of goes through life drifting through a sea of disaffection. He surrounds himself with books and thinks himself educated; his girlfriend breaks up with him and isn’t very nice about it.

When he gets a call from his college mentor, Professor Peter Hoberg (Jenkins) asking him to come back to campus and speak at his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the chance. Once there, all the memories come flooding back – the days of intellectual stimulation, the feeling of unlimited promise and of course the distinct lack of any sort of responsibility.

He meets 19-year-old sophomore Zibby (Olsen), the free-spirited daughter of a pair of friends of Professor Hoberg. They quickly hit it off, aided and abetted by Nat (Efron), a guy who walks his own path quite deliberately. After irritating Zibby’s roommate (Ahn) by their obvious May-July romance, Jesse returns home.

The two continue exchanging letters and Jesse listens compulsively to a disc of classical music that Zibby burned for him. She invites him back to visit her and he returns but things don’t go as planned. A further encounter with Professor Judith Fairfield (Janney), a romantic poets professor cements Jesse’s confusion. It seems he has a lot of growing up to do after all.

Radnor, who currently enjoys a spot in the popular sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” previously directed, wrote and starred in Happythankyoumoreplease which had some of the same themes of growing up and aging, but this is a far better movie than that. He has likable enough onscreen but not super-memorable; he might be able to carry a movie on his own someday but not at this point in his career.

I liked Olsen a lot in this movie. She really captures the kind of 19-year-old attitude in which the world is her oyster but she’s not quite sure how to crack it open. She sounds wiser than her years but makes some mistakes – one of which might be hooking up with Jesse. Olsen captures the vitality of youth and its accompanying heartbreak. It’s not a “real” performance – Zibby is a bit too self-consciously indie for that – but it’s a real good performance and she’s the one I’ll remember most from the movie.

That’s not to say that Jenkins and Janney don’t have their moments. Their screen time is pretty minimal but both make the most of theirs, Jenkins with a heartrending performance of a man fighting his age, Janney with that arch and imperious but deliciously funny delivery that she specializes in. Efron is surprisingly good as the Yoda-meets-indie hip Nat even though the part is a bit overwritten, and Magaro who plays a tortured genius sort makes good use of his limited onscreen moments.

There is plenty of heart here but maybe a bit too much. The Jesse character is pretty much excoriated by other critics who have disdainfully characterized him as effete and unmanly (using a word synonymous with kitty cats). I disagree; while Jesse is a bit wishy washy and overly romantic in the poetic sense, he’s more of a talker than a doer which some men find to be similar to nails on a chalkboard. I’m not necessarily that way; while he can be incredibly clueless at times, he simply overthinks things and is a bit of an intellectual snob, spending a long portion of the movie debating the merits of reading for fun (which Zibby does with books that are meant to be Stefanie Meyers’ Twilight trilogy) which Jesse is apparently against. Jesse isn’t metrosexual but if he hung out in the Village more, he might be.

This is a flawed movie but ultimately one with its heart in the right place. I found myself thinking of my college days and I imagine if I went back there now and hung out I might be tempted to let myself fall back into that sensibility, although to be honest I don’t much want to which is probably why I don’t think about it much. Those days were pleasant, but they are gone. The people that I met there who touched me are still either in my life or in my heart. The important things I learned in college will be found with them, in those places.

REASONS TO GO: Olsen is invigorating. Janney and Jenkins turn in some solid performances, as does Efron and Magaro.

REASONS TO STAY: Radnor a bit too “mushy.” Lots of heart but maybe too much. Doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some thematic concerns as well as implied sexuality, some smoking, some teen drinking and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book that Dean carries around with him is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Wallace delivered the commencement speech at Kenyon in May 2005.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty much mediocre.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Could Never Be Your Woman

SMALL COLLEGE LOVERS: The college scenes were filmed at Kenyon College in Ohio which is not only Radnor’s alma mater but Janney’s as well.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Three Backyards