“Meek’s Cutoff”: Lost on the Trail

Kelly Reichert’s Meek’s Cutoff (Oscilloscope) opens without preamble. We are given a place and a year —”Oregon, 1845,” stitched into a piece of homespun embroidery—and then dropped in the high desert to observe three frontier families ford a river. They wordlessly, almost morosely, march across, then take the opportunity to fill canteens, wash and check the wagons before setting off again. These pilgrims in the desert are a long way from the Promised Land and their buckskin guide of a Moses, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, looking like a road show Buffalo Bill), talks a good story of frontier adventure but it’s clear to the three families of the tiny wagon train that his shortcut to the Willamette Valley has them lost in the desert.

Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and Michelle Williams: Frontier women left out of the conversation

Michelle Williams stars as Emily, the young wife of Soloman (Will Patton), an older man looking to start again in the new land, and while she is duly deferential in public, in private they share a healthy honesty in communication you suspect is absent in the other tents. One wife (Shirley Henderson) is pregnant and exhausted — they walk beside the wagons, not in them — and another (Zoe Kazan) on the verge of hysteria. But quietly. Always quietly.

This is the quietest American film I’ve heard in years. Apart from the tall tales spun by Meek, the dialogue is hushed and the audience strains to hear the discussions of the men debating their options. Much like the wives, who are left out of the discussions and stand apart, patiently picking up what they can. The soundtrack is creaking wagons, the wind through plains, the sounds of setting and breaking camp. Until The Indian, a lone figure shadowing them on their journey, is first spotted. He brings the music with him but it’s a lonely, alienated soundscape, mood rather than melody. Meek assumes he’s a threat, but not due to any native intelligence on his part. Forget the mountain man as frontier seer and survivalist savant. Meek can’t place the man’s tribe or language any more than he can find their trail. Emily’s defiant stand to protect The Indian (that’s his name, as far as any of the settlers are concerned; there’s certainly no communication between them) is as much practical as humanistic. If Meek can’t find water, then maybe this desert dweller can. If only out of self-preservation, as he’s tied—quite literally—to their fortunes.

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“Blue Valentine” – Anatomy of an Unraveling Marriage

Love is blue

Blue Valentine (Anchor Bay)

Michelle Williams, passed over at Oscar nomination for Wendy and Lucy last year, finally got her deserving nomination for Best Actress for her emotionally naked performance in Blue Valentine, opposite an equally intense and committed Ryan Gosling as young marrieds in an unraveling relationship.

Director Derek Cianfrance, who extensively used improvisations to create a spontaneity, intercuts his anatomy of the end of a marriage with flashbacks to the excitement and anticipation and hope of the beginning of the relationship, and shoots it all with a handheld camera that, which is more distracting that immediate and “real.” But it does create a crucible for very powerful performances and a convincing relationship in all its contradictions.

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New reviews: ‘Wendy and Lucy,’ ‘Inkheart’ and ‘Outlander’

Wendy and Lucy (dir: Kelly Reichardt)

New York-based filmmaker Kelly Reichardt returns to the Pacific Northwest and reunites with writer Jon Raymond for her follow-up to Old Joy, which was one of my favorite films of 2007. Wendy and Lucy is just as good, maybe even bettter, and if anything even more pared to bone of imagery and narrative. Nothing in this film feels gratuitous or false. This isn’t the romantic road movie of Alexander Supertramp in Into the Wild. This is survival, revealed in all the mundane details of a documentary portrait and the simple power of Michelle Williams’ unadorned performance as Lucy, a single young woman heading off to find work on Alaska in a used car with only her dog for company and support and a dwindling cash reserve.

Michelle Williams
Michelle Williams

This is survival, revealed in all the blunt details of a documentary portrait and the simple power of Williams’ unadorned, Oscar-worthy performance. When Lucy runs off and Wendy tracks her to a group of young drifters gathered around a bonfire, Reichardt keeps her camera back to watch Williams’ careful and wary body language tell the story of her vulnerability.

That vulnerability isn’t simply physical. With no fixed address, no cell phone and dwindling savings (all in cash), she’s practically off the grid. Every penny is accounted for and she sweeps the seats for change.

The disarming directness and seeming simplicity of Reichardt’s direction can lull you into thinking that there isn’t anything going on, when in fact the film is built on a multiplicity of details and insights, never commented upon but essential to understanding the character and her situation. And there’s a reason they don’t jump out at you: they are the everyday details of living in the modern world as experienced by a person living on the edge. A setback that carries a costly but merely inconvenient price-tag to most of us can be the disaster that pulls the rug from under Wendy.

Read my review at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

Inheart (dir: Iain Softley)

This much-delayed adaptation of the best-selling young adult fantasy novel by Cornelia Funke has been getting poor reviews. I seem to be in the minority: I liked the film. It’s a pretty irresistible premise – the hero (played by Brendan Fraser) has the ability to make real the characters and events of books just by reading aloud, and the last time he did it came a tragic cost that haunts him still – and a natural for a film adaptation. You might say the filmmakers read the story out of the book and onto the screen.

"Inkheart" - the case against reading aloud
"Inkheart" - the case against reading aloud

Director Iain Softely isn’t much for action and he lacks a certain sense of wonder at the magic of the premise (have I mentioned how darn cool the whole concept is?), but neither is there a lot of empty action and contrived cliffhangers, and if it lacks thrills it certainly makes up for it with a very convincing sense of threat. The characters may have been read out of a third-rate fantasy but they have turned themselves into pretty dangerous folks since they’ve discovered the ability to write their own destinies in this world.

“Inkheart” feels a little confused in its tone and direction, but only a little, and I appreciate the way it both celebrates the power of literature and reminds us that stories have a life beyond the page, even if they are only in our hearts and minds.

Read the complete review at the Seattle P-I here.

Outlander (dir: Howard McCain)

It’s Vikings vs. Aliens when an extraterrestrial soldier crash lands in medieval Norway and joins forces with the local warring tribes to take on a ferocious space lizard with a fiery temperament. Here there be dragons, indeed. If only it was as fun as it sounds.

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