CERTAIN WOMEN (2016, Kelly Reichardt)
An almost inevitable step in Reichardt’s career — improving on her careful observation of intimate human interaction as well as her use of the right amount of story (perhaps OLD JOY had too little and NIGHT MOVES too much). And like that career, this film gets better as it goes along: the Laura Dern segment is well-modulated but lacks emotion where you’d suspect it desires it; the Michelle Williams part starts to get at the meat of the theme (and boasts such a good and understated performance that you understand Reichardt’s continued employment of Williams), and finally the Lily Gladstone story kicks into a sensational gear of sadness and delicacy.
Relying on paralyzing wide shots that allow Montana’s big sky and imposing landscape to dwarf the humans, CERTAIN WOMEN renders those personal moments nearly meaningless in the face of such indifferent natural power. But even within that existential setting, the daily struggles of these specific and well-realized characters reach grand and universal heights. There’s a lot said in the break of Dern’s voice when she cries “He’s unarmed!”; in the freedom Williams feels when she sneaks her solitary cigarette during the run; and in the importance of Gladstone brushing her hair before heading out to that third law class. Just like the human condition is impotent and fleeting when confronted by the vastness of the outdoors, the female condition in society is forced to roll a metaphorical boulder up an imposing hill every single day. Finally, Reichardt ends each segment with a beautifully symmetrical image of the protagonist viewing her adversary through a window — that glass pane separating the loser from the winner in a situation where everyone just wants what’s best.
So why, then, does Reichardt overplay her hand and return to each story in a pointless epilogue? The window-pane endings become fake-outs, and we learn nothing new about anyone. I wish the film had the confidence to leave them where they landed. Also, for once Kristen Stewart fails to allow her underplayed charisma to reveal a real character — the look on her face when she faces off against Gladstone in a fateful parking lot doesn’t say half as much as Gladstone’s does (which itself is a testament to just how great Gladstone is here). James Le Gros also comes across as a bit of a cipher — why is this dude cheating on his wife, and why does he seem so concerned with her being treated as she deserves? His scene with Dern and his scene in the car with the daughter are not just at odds narratively, but Le Gros performs them as if he’s in two different movies.
THE HANDMAIDEN (2016, Park Chan-wook)
Perfectly calibrated to strike a wonderful tone — elevated, melodramatic, pulpy, and eye-popping. It’s everything OLDBOY was and everything STOKER was not, so rest assured the Park you know and love is back with a (lady) vengeance. The 145-minute running time flies by thanks to a Tarantino-esque structure (the two directors have often had similar styles in both writing and directing) that shifts gears, upends chronology, and recontextualizes information. And the performances of all three leads are outstanding. It may not amount to too much in terms of depth, but as a lurid piece of entertainment, this is great stuff.
You may think you’ve seen this story before, but don’t confuse it with the 1960 Korean thriller THE HOUSEMAID and its batshit 2010 remake. It’s a tight contest for Korea’s most batshit director, though, and Park has made a pretty good case over the last decade or two. Also, in Part One of this movie Kim Min-hee tells the titular handmaiden (Kim Tae-ri) that “in different shoes, even a well-trodden path feels new.” That’s a pretty good argument for Park telling a twisty period love triangle with his characteristic love of visceral imagery, sex, and violence.
Some of the humor doesn’t translate too well, as many will find the slapstick gags (pulling corset strings tight, accidental noose-hanging, etc.) obvious and corny — but that’s all part of Park’s exaggerated tone, so take the bad with the good. The two female leads are relative unknowns and draw fascinating three-dimensional characters, while male lead Ha Jung-woo (you may know him from Kim Ki-duk’s TIME) plays the villain deliciously. The same can’t be said for Jo Jin-woong’s torturous Uncle character — Jo can’t be over 40, but is dressed up in cheap grey hair and bad makeup to appear an old man, and it doesn’t work. Still, Park’s regular DP Chung Chung-hoon frames his steady shots with painterly elegance, evocative lighting, and pops of pastel color, lending the film a candy flavor that fits with the script’s sugary highs and sex-positive eroticism. THE HANDMAIDEN could easily be a fourth entry in Park’s vengeance “trilogy,” but that only becomes apparent halfway through. The real enjoyment here comes in the story’s surprises (it’s based on a novel by English author Sarah Waters) and the cathartic pitch Park’s masterful direction unleashes. This guy knows what he’s doing.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016, Tate Taylor)
One way in which films get around cheating their way to a twist is by using the unreliable narrator gimmick. But does it count when the director is the unreliable narrator? If not, then the film is just lame. Taylor (who, ahem, “tailors” his style to the material he’s shooting; this lacks both the warm milquetoast of THE HELP and the hyperactive lunacy of GET ON UP) goes full Fincher here but without any of the intelligence. Instead, he just lies his way through a boring whodunit just so the killer isn’t as obvious as it would be if he played it honestly. Somehow he must know that without the flashback structure (probably taken from the book, though I haven’t read it) this story is about as low-stakes and dull as narratives get, so he dresses it up with the tone of a requiem. (Danny Elfman did the score but it might as well have been Reznor & Ross).
Emily Blunt manages to do fine work despite the goofiness of the plot, but Taylor strands other actors, notably Justin Theroux and Rebecca Ferguson (completely unrecognizable from last year’s incredible ROGUE NATION), who are forced to play scenes in whatever way we’re supposed to be feeling about the characters at that moment, rather than as real people. It’s hard to say if Haley Bennett is the real deal — at times she comes across like the B-movie J-Law, but there are flashes of originality trying to get out from under this surprisingly heavy paperback.
If the film wanted to say anything about alcoholism, infidelity, parenthood, class, or subjective memory, it easily could have. But as if willed by the lords of airport bookstores, Taylor and writer Erin Cressida Wilson make sure to keep this as superficial and forgettable as possible. (Wilson may not be to blame — although she wrote the mercilessly-reviewed MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, she previously handled such top-notch pulp as CHLOE and SECRETARY; maybe she’s just as good as the material she adapts). The whole thing plays like a Showtime series: like THE AFFAIR sped up to under-two-hours with a hint of COLOR OF NIGHT thrown in. It’s so humorless that Lisa Kudrow and Laura Prepon are both in this movie and there still isn’t a single joke. Except maybe on the audience.
DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016, Peter Berg)
Perhaps you missed LONE SURVIVOR, Berg’s tribute to the unsung heroes of these United States of America — the men from humble homes who sacrifice their lives for our freedom. So maybe you think you should see DEEPWATER HORIZON, which shares the same star (Mark Wahlberg) and which further explores Berg’s fascination with everyday heroes from red states. But don’t worry; if you miss it, you’ll have another chance in December when PATRIOTS DAY comes out. At this rate, every single true story of working class American men in peril will eventually become a movie starring Wahlberg and directed by Berg.
The biggest problem with this rapid sequence of churned-out honor is how the movies suffer from being undercooked. DEEPWATER HORIZON in particular feels like a product of over-ambition crippled by a lack of talent in key areas. Berg is at his best when the material is part of his DNA. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is a masterpiece of time and place (the book’s author is his cousin) that spawned an equally great TV series. But to do this story right means taking the time to figure out how to tell it — and either that time wasn’t taken or Berg just isn’t capable. Exposition is handled either clumsily or not at all. We know both too much and too little about what’s happening on screen, and despite over an hour spent detailing this oil rig, we still have trouble following where exactly everything and everyone is during the chaos. James Cameron’s attention to detail with TITANIC translated not just to impressive historic documentation but to audience enthrallment. That movie earns our suspension of disbelief because of how well laid-out the boat is. Here, we get pages of dialogue about negative pressure tests and cement logs and kill lines, but the blocking, framing, and cutting of footage still resembles just a haphazard mess of ill-fitting parts.
Buried in the sludge of exploded mud and oil and seawater are some wonderful elements. Kurt Russell and John Malkovich in particular give terrific performances — Russell is the moral backbone, a steely captain with the respect of an entire platoon; Malkovich is given the role of the corporate weasel, a cost-cutting scumbag bearing the weight of all blame and responsibility the film heaps upon his shoulders (when an end-credit slug told us his character was cleared of manslaughter charges, several audience members in my theater shouted gasps of anger) but he manages to make every line sing. (Only Malkovich can give the word “blue” three syllables). It’s hard to make a one-dimensional part any more exhilarating. Wahlberg coasts along, while Russell’s step-daughter Kate Hudson gets to play the worried wife on the phone. Her role, and the innocent face of their ten-year-old daughter, serve as the film’s most shameless string-pulling — signposts of a storybook family for Wahlberg to return to. The tears aren’t very well earned, just begged for — and Wahlberg’s final scene doesn’t carry nearly the gravitas of Tom Hanks’s stunning moment in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. But the action sequences here, when they’re intelligible, are viscerally exciting. It’s just that they can’t live up to a theoretical vision that could have been on screen through more careful writing, storyboarding, and production. Slow down, Pete. I get that “every single soldier is a hero,” but take some time and turn fast food into a gourmet meal.
AMERICAN HONEY (2016, Andrea Arnold)
The daunting 163-minute length of Andrea Arnold’s slice-of-lower-class-life is off-putting in that it implies an epic narrative where none exists. Instead, the structure is a wheel-spinning series of musical episodes. Go in expecting a major dramatic epiphany at the end or a climactic explosion of tensions and you’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, the passive experience of enduring this endless road trip means its seductive sound and imagery starts to fit you like an old pair of jeans. The more it gets washed and worn and faded, the more comfortable it is. This is less of a filmmaker preaching at you than one letting moments happen and leaving the stains in.
It’s a film taking place at the end of summer, before things have started to die, and when the sun feels like it’s cooking the frame even when night falls. Tank tops lose shape. Shoes get scuffed. Youths are too young to feel hangovers or sore legs from walking. Pop songs become shared experiences and communal expressions of joy rather than corporate grabs for consumer dollars. Strangers become friends with one quick nod that says “I’ve been there too, and it will be okay.”
At times the film feels like Rivette; or it feels like early David Gordon Green, or Lynne Ramsey. All music is diegetic even when it becomes the score. Scenes begin and end not with a plot question and answer, but when the eyelids open and close between daydreams. Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf anchor the film with solid performances, but Riley Keough and HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT’s Arielle Holmes make the sidelines pulse with realism. This story didn’t go where I wanted or expected it to, but that’s my problem. Things shouldn’t behave the way I want them. They should just be honest. And for whatever flaws AMERICAN HONEY has, honesty is its biggest virtue.