Certain Women (2016)

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It’d be so lovely to think that if I were a man I could explain the law and people would listen and say, Okay. Three strong-willed women in the Northwest try to make their way. Lawyer Laura (Laura Dern) finds herself contending with office misogyny and a hostage scenario involving a betrayed client (Jared Harris) injured in a workplace accident.  Wife and mom Gina (Michelle Williams) finds herself at odds with men including her own husband (James Le Gros) over a house addition using sandstone from the olden days owned by a future neighbour (Rene Auberjonois). Young lawyer Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart) forms a bond with a woman rancher (Lily Gladstone) in the night class she drives four hours to teach... My mom works in a school cafeteria, my sister in a hospital laundry. So, selling shoes is the nicest job a girl from my family’s supposed to get. Auteur Kelly Reichardt has carved out a very particular niche in American filmmaking with small stories, beautifully minimalist yet expressive, and mostly made in collaboration with Michelle Williams. The siege scene is misleading;  everything that follows is on female terms, and subdued. The misunderstandings, betrayals and disappointments are of the purely quotidian variety. Adapted from Maile Meloy’s collection of short stories Both Ways is the Way that I Want It, the characters here aren’t quite cyphers but they’re not fully rounded either: perhaps they’re aspects of femininity, subsisting in small lives that nonetheless have their effects – Dern is the lawyer whose private agreement may have implications for another client, and the man with whom she’s having an affair carries his guilt into his own marriage. Stewart’s student clearly has a thing for her but Stewart simply hasn’t the time and is non-plussed at the woman’s appearance in her workplace.  Williams is in a sense the missing link between the three separate stories bringing matters sexual and domestic to their logical place – home:  Gina’s husband has been carrying on with Laura. The opposite of showy entertainment, this somehow has a spiritual link with Meek’s Cutoff in its depiction of women trying to forge their own paths in that tough territory also known as life. The only Indians here are dancing for their supper at the local mall. Each of the women’s stories can be encapsulated in something elemental:  for Laura it is the law and guns;  for Gina it’s land and motherhood;  for the nameless rancher it’s horses and unrequited love. Elizabeth remains unknowable (a good parsing of Stewart’s place in American as opposed to European cinema). The film opens on a train breaking frame:  this is perhaps a western.

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Badlands (1973)

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At this moment, I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.  1959 South Dakota. Teenage girl Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) angers her father (Warren Oates) when she begins dating an older rebellious greaser, garbage man Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) who fancies he’s like James Dean. After a conflict between Holly and her father erupts, he kills her dog. Then Kit murders him, so the young lovers must flee. In the ensuing crime spree, they travel through the Midwest to the Badlands of Montana, eluding authorities along the way, killing as they go … Holly’s dreamlike and hilariously affectless magazine-like narration anchors this exquisite blend of drama and horror as the true-life 1950s killers Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate inspired script doctor Terrence Malick to strike out and make a film of his own. The distance between the form and content is bridged by the effects of technique – was there every such wonderful magic hour photography (by Tak Fujimoto, Steven Larner and Brian Probyn) to offset the horror of a serial killer in his element?  As Holly begins to realise Kit is psychotic the shots place him further and further away from her. This is an astounding work with beguiling performances by two adult actors who inhabit this fairytale of deluded teenage desire with strange conviction. The score based on work by Carl Orff, Erik Satie, James Taylor and George Tipton is classic. A remarkable, lyrical, transcendent film. Unforgettable.

Legend of the Falls (1994)

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He is the rock they broke themselves against. Early 20th-century Montana, Colonel William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins) lives in the wilderness with his sons, Tristan (Brad Pitt), Alfred (Aidan Quinn) and Samuel (Henry Thomas). Alfred’s the good rule-abiding one, Tristan is the wild man who hunts and shoots and whose best friend is One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis), while Samuel returns from Harvard with a fiancee, Susannah (Julia Ormond), an Eastern woman who initially appears to be a replacement for Ludlow’s wife who never got the hang of western living and abandoned her husband and sons. Ludlow resigned from civilisation following the Civil War due to his distress at how Native Americans were being treated. Eventually, the unconventional but close-knit family encounters tragedy when Samuel is killed in World War I. Tristan and Alfred survive their tours of duty, but, soon after they return home, both men fall for Susannah (Julia Ormond), and their intense rivalry begins to destroy the family. Alfred becomes a Congressman and Tristan disappears for years, travelling the world. He returns to find his father has had a stroke and his former lover Susannah didn’t wait for him and married Alfred, unhappily.  He finds love with the Indian girl who grew up around the family, Isabel Two (Karina Lombard) but then his smalltime rum-running business gets in the way of the O’Bannion gang’s business at the height of Prohibition …   Here at Mondo Towers I have Aussie flu and it’s snowing and I’m miserable so it was time to wheel out the big guns – an unapologetically old-fashioned western romance with enough unrequited love and gunfire and hunting and bear fights and tragedy and murder to fill an entire shelf of stories. The novella by Jim Harrison was adapted by Susan Shilliday and William D. Wittliff and they’re unafraid of throwing big swoony feelings at the screen.  Never mind the snide reviews, this is a really satisfying emotional widescreen experience. Beautifully shot by John Toll with an extraordinarily touching score by James Horner. Directed by Edward Zwick. Exit, pursued by a bear! Gulp.