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"Meek's Cutoff," "Hanna," "Blue Collar," More

"A movie out of time and yet distinctly of ours as well, Meek's Cutoff appears in theaters as if in rebuke to our current cinema," begins Elbert Ventura at Slate. "Coming after an awards season in which what passed for indie greatness was a calculating grandstander like Black Swan or a live-action caricature like The Fighter, Kelly Reichardt's strange Western seems from another planet: introspective, politically charged, suspicious of glibness. It is an American independent in the true sense of the word, and it may well be the best homegrown movie we'll see this year."

Paul Felten in the Brooklyn Rail: "The burnt loveseat in Old Joy's wilderness, the tattooed campfire punks in Wendy and Lucy, the desert in Meek's that doesn't feel parched so much as scorched: when I think of Kelly Reichardt's three most recent films (which she and her co-writer Jon Raymond have called their 'Oregon Trilogy'), words like 'fallout,' and 'aftermath' come to mind. Meek's Cutoff is the bleakest of the three, which is not at all to say the 'best' or the 'worst,' but that the pleasures it affords are intimately tied up with the ways in which it's designed to test our patience and to subvert out expectations of 'the Western.'"

"The members of a small wagon train crossing the Oregon Trail in 1845 follow their bombastic, wrongheaded guide into the desert, where, as one of the party scratches on a rock in the movie's first scene, they are 'lost.'" For the Voice's J Hoberman, "this suggestively allegorical, discreetly trippy Western recalls Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and even Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God in its evocation of frontier surrealism and manifest-destiny madness; the Reichardt approach is, however, more stringent and pointed in its weirdness. Her emphasis is on process, monotony, and mind-bending isolation. Chris Blauvelt's camera lingers on the three settler women (Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, and Zoe Kazan), alt-Bedouin in their protective gingham dresses and heavy bonnets, searching for firewood and then dutifully trudging on (and on) behind their husbands' covered wagons. Water runs low, the horses tire, and the pioneers dump their possessions to lighten the load. A young boy stumbles on a precious nugget — but, as someone says, you can't drink gold."

"The central dramatic question: is trail guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) reliable or leading everyone to an early, water-free death in Indian country?" Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily: "Tension erupts between trail guide Meek and a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) whom the wagon train 'captures' and wonders what to do with. Anyone familiar with Reichardt's oft-unsubtle liberal talking points will be unsurprised to realize the Cayuse isn't about to slaughter them all… The allegorical connotations of an American posse moving through unfriendly terrain for which they have neither the language nor resources to navigate successfully are too evident to further flesh out."

More from Richard Brody (New Yorker: "Meek's Cutoff programs its responses under the apparent guise of an objective depiction of things as they were"), L Caldoran (Cinespect), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 4/5), Benjamin Mercer (L), Michael Nordine (Not Coming to a Theater Near You), Mary Pols (Time), AO Scott (New York Times: "a bracingly original foray into territory that remains, in every sense, unsettled"), Dana Stevens (Slate), Ella Taylor (NPR), Scott Tobias (AV Club, A: "Meticulous and immersive, Meek's Cutoff feels like history in three dimensions"), Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail), Armond White (New York Press) and Stephanie Zackarek (Movieline, 9/10). Earlier: Reviews from Venice, Toronto — where Daniel Kasman caught it — and New York. Interviews with and profiles of Reichardt: David Fear (TONY), Ryan Gilbey (Guardian), Patti Greco (Vulture), Karina Longworth (Voice) and Nicolas Rapold (NYT). Viewing (16'12"). Sean Glass talks with Zoe Kazan for Ioncinema.





"In the past, I've thought that out gay Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues was making the kind of films Pedro Almodóvar might be doing if he didn't have an eye on the international box office," writes Steve Erickson in Gay City News. "Now that he's made three films, it's clear his work combines melodrama and metaphysics, as well as the influences of Douglas Sirk and Apichatpong Weerasethakul… Although she lives as a woman on a day-to-day basis, Tonia (Fernando Santos) considers herself somewhere in between a drag queen and a fully transitioned trans woman. She performs at a Lisbon nightclub, where we hear the audience scream her name. Urged on by her junkie boyfriend, Rosario (Alexander David), she decides to complete sex change surgery; in the first scene after the title appears, she meets with a doctor to discuss her options. Tonia's son, Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch), has killed a man and gone AWOL from the army, turning up at her house as Rosario is going through withdrawal. Meanwhile, Tonia is slowly being poisoned by botched breast implants."

For the AV Club's Noel Murray, "To Die Like a Man doesn't all hang together; the acting is flat, the pacing slack, and the characters' actions are driven less by how people actually behave than by what Rodrigues means to say about the sacrifices we make to wrest control of our self-image. But between those lulls, To Die Like a Man is powerfully controlled, and builds to a moving finale in which the characters are stripped down to their essences: no flowers, just stem."

"Rodrigues is one of the most empathetic portrayers of sexual subcultures (O Fantasma; Two Drifters), and there's tenderness underlying even the most emotionally violent scenes," writes Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York. "And when the narrative takes a hard-left turn into color-coded fantasy — complete with an enchanted forest and a transgender fairy godmother — the film suddenly gains in power, until it fulfills the promise of its title with hard-hitting compassion and a crystal-clear sense of grace."

More from Miriam Bale (L), J Hoberman (Voice), Stephen Holden (NYT), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Nathan Rogers-Hancock (Cinespect), Andrew Schenker (Artforum), Martin Tsai (Critic's Notebook), James van Maanen and Armond White (NYP). Earlier: Reviews from the 2009 edition of the New York Film Festival. Currently at New York's IFC Center.





"First came Pride & Prejudice, an adaptation so frenetic it seemed determined to distract viewers from Austen's language," writes Time Out Chicago's Ben Kenigsberg. "Then came Atonement, which puffed up the hollowness of Ian McEwan's literary conceit with even more sweeping camerawork. Now comes Hanna, director [Joe] Wright's attempt at an action film, and the according upgrade in bombast is deafening. It's less a movie than a wacky, genre-hybridizing dance-club installation."

But for Eric Hynes, writing in the Voice, "Wright emerges as a surprisingly nimble action director. Rather than sloppily machine-gunning shots in the current Hollywood style, Wright prefers spacial continuity and a crisp, Kubrickian frame."

"Our titular adolescent home-schooled superathlete (Saoirse Ronan) grows up near the North Pole receiving instruction in hunting and fighting by her survivalist dad with a past (Eric Bana)," explains Josef Braun. "When she's finally ready to leave their frozen nest she does so knowing that a certain nefarious CIA operative (Cate Blanchett) will instantly be out to kill dad and maybe do something worse to her: there are intimations that she's got some sort of top-secret experimental juice in her genes. A genuine wild child whose knowledge of culture has been culled entirely from a slim encyclopedia but whose strength and agility is ninjalike, Hanna's story slides between her discovering the world and her killing a whole lot of people in it."

Kimberly Chun in the San Francisco Bay Guardian on the "Powerpuff Girls of 2011": "They're damaged kid sisters of Lisbeth Salander more than they are the mutant second-banana femme students of the X-Men, and they're itching for freedom like Ellen Page's reality-hampered Boltie in Super, or the fantasy girl-gang hos in Sucker Punch. Or they've been souped up as angels of vengeance at the service of embittered father figures, much like Kick-Ass scene-stealer Chloe Moretz's pint-sized Hit-Girl with her Saturday-morning-cartoon purple wig and stone-cold killer instincts. The title character of Hanna falls perfectly into the Hit-Girl mold."

"And whereas Moretz was doing a hilarious Clint Eastwood impersonation that was ginned up for the sake of parody," adds Paul Constant in the Stranger, "Ronan's Hanna is a logical evolution from Matt Damon's Jason Bourne; she's as serious, and deadly, as a heart attack."

More from Mark Asch (L), Sean Burns (Philadelphia Weekly, C+), Ty Burr (Boston Globe, 2/5/4), Mike D'Angelo (Las Vegas Weekly), Manohla Dargis (NYT), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3.5/4), Ed Gonzalez (Slant, 2/4), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 3/5), Jonathan Kiefer (Faster Times), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Elvis Mitchell (Movieline, 8/10), Mary Pols (Time), Jim Ridley (Nashville Scene), Scott Tobias (AV Club, C+), Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times), Keith Uhlich (TONY, 3/5) and Mike Wilmington (Movie City News). Interviews with Wright: Patti Greco (Vulture), Dennis Lim (NYT), John Lopez (Vanity Fair), Nigel M Smith (indieWIRE) and Jen Yamato (Movieline). Steven Zeitchik interviews Ronan for the Los Angeles Times. James Rocchi talks with her and Bana, too.





"How low does Your Highness go?" asks New York's David Edelstein. "As low as the deepest pits of Adam Sandlershire, the darkest pools of Kevin Smithport, the coprophagic caverns of John Waterstown. As its title implies, it also soars as high as Mount Cheech-and-Chong. It features geysers of gore; bare boobs; Natalie Portman's bum; and a long, stiff Minotaur knob, which is something you don't see every day. The trick is that Your Highness is played like a straight sword-and-sorcery epic, with nary a whisper of camp — a cunning weave of low and high, regal and smutty, splendiferous and splattery. It conforms to popular (bad) taste in ways you might find alarming. But on the far side of alarm is nirvana."

Not for everyone, evidently. Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, for example: "It's easy to say that [Danny] McBride and James Franco and Natalie Portman and director David Gordon Green — whose WTF career devolution, from George Washington and All the Real Girls to Pineapple Express to this atrocity seems destined to lead, sooner or later, to Budweiser commercials featuring women in white baby-doll lingerie — had more fun making Your Highness than we have watching it. But let's face it, that describes 65 percent of all films made in Hollywood. Gingival surgery would be more fun than watching this brain-draining, spirit-sucking attempt at a stoner spoof, which combines the cutting edge of frat-boy wit, the excitement of a mid-80s made-for-TV action flick and the authenticity of a Renaissance Faire held in an abandoned field behind a Courtyard by Marriott. A bus trip from Duluth to Sioux City would be more fun, and don't think I didn't do my research: That takes 13 hours and costs 96 bucks."

"Green's crossover comedies aren't necessarily a 180-degree turn from his earlier work," argues Nick Pinkerton in the Voice. "The innocence found in his first feature, George Washington (2000), is parodied in the interplay between McBride and Franco, who seem like eager, frightened, petulant children, swashbuckling with cardboard tubes ('I don't want to do swords with you, I was doing it by myself'). The splashy bloodshed is so much red crayon. The picaresque quest model in Green's Undertow (2004) continues with the wayfaring stoners of Pineapple Express and, in his latest, with McBride's peasant-prince, as the unfurling discovery of the director's road-movie storytelling keeps Your Highness buzzing."

More from Simon Abrams (Slant, 2.5/4), Ty Burr (Boston Globe, 0.5/4), Richard Corliss (Time), Manohla Dargis (NYT), John Gholson (Cinematical), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 2.5/5), Michelle Orange (Movieline, 5.5/10), Nathan Rabin (AV Club, C), Matt Singer (IFC), Martin Tsai (Critic's Notebook), Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail), Keith Uhlich (TONY, 3/5) and Lindy West (Stranger). Interviews with Green: Amos Barshad (Vulture), the Playlist and Jen Yamato (Movieline). Interviews with McBride: Devin Faraci (Badass Digest), Todd Gilchrist (Cinematical), the Playlist and James Rocchi (who talks with Franco, too).





"Given Hollywood's current propensity to re-masticate any and all valuable entertainment properties as methodically as a cow chewing its cud," writes Slate's Dana Stevens, "Arthur's number was bound to come up eventually. (Be warned that these 1981 hits are due for recycling: Cannonball Run, Body Heat, My Dinner with Andre.) So I'll let go my sense of personal affront and grant the Arthur remake the right to exist. The question then becomes not whether this Arthur is worthy of the original, but whether it's worth two hours of your weekend. And the answer, I fear, is no."

At the very least, Russell Brand "makes his best case for himself as a suitable alternative to the dude-ification of American comedy," offers the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris. "Brand lands his blows by pretending to have no idea how to box… Arthur is a filthy rich, alcoholic Englishman New Yorker who passes his time spending money and carousing, often despite the ministrations of his nanny, a stern Brit named Hobson, whom Helen Mirren plays with a blend of cashmere and steel, something else the movie has in its favor. She and Brand share a rapport that feels true enough to skirt the glacial pacing and silly plot. He has no idea how much he exasperates her. They're not nearly as good together or as surprising apart as Dudley Moore and John Gielgud, as Arthur's butler, were in the original movie. They were Wooster and Jeeves. Brand and Mirren are Harry Potter and Dumbledore."

Also, as Ray Pride puts it in Newcity Film, "Dame Helen Mirren and Greta Gerwig in the same frame! Even with the busy, floating cinematography by Uta Briesewitz, who uses the camera in close-ups the way you'd use a broom on cobwebs up near the ceiling, Gerwig works the college try as a 21st-century Diane Keaton."

More from Jesse Cataldo (Slant, 2/4), Ed Champion, Robert Horton (Herald), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 2.5/5), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Keith Phipps (AV Club, C), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY, 2/5), AO Scott (NYT), Matt Singer (IFC), Scott Tobias (NPR) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 4/10). Logan Hill profiles Brand for New York.





"Presumably designed as an introduction to and/or fan's celebration of a man often lauded as the greatest standup comedian of the last quarter-century, American: The Bill Hicks Story often makes the mistake of telling, not showing," argues Bill Weber in Slant. "The distinguishing fillip of Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas's narrative of Hicks's personal and public life, ended at 32 by pancreatic cancer in 1994, is that it's mostly photo-animated, with collages-in-motion of its hero's stomping grounds and showbiz haunts populated by contemporaneous images of Bill and his fellow travelers, while 10 people who knew him well, from mother Mary to best friend Dwight Slade, recount his struggles and breakthroughs. It's a fairly painless if occasionally twee strategy to avoid talking-heads-and-clips monotony…, but, in its doting over places and landscapes instead of Hicks's onstage jeremiads, keeps the filmmakers from presenting more than piddling amounts of performance clips, which should be the meat of the argument for their subject's significance."

"Onstage, Hicks didn't aspire to entertain so much as he sought to confront, threaten, bully, and sometimes terrify audiences out of complacency," writes Nathan Rabin at the AV Club. "To him, comedy was rigorous intellectual combat, so it's ironic that he's the subject of a film this devoid of intellectual rigor. The righteous rage that fueled Hicks's genius could easily morph into self-righteous fury at the cavalcade of cartoon hillbillies that fill his routines, but American isn't about to let anything tarnish the shiny halo over Hicks's head. Like Man in the Moon, American applies a thick gloss of reverence and sentimentality to the story of a comic pioneer who made his living challenging the kinds of neat, convenient, slickly packaged narratives presented here."

More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT), David Goldman (L), D Indalecio Guzman (Cinespect), Matthew Love (TONY, 3/5), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Andrew Schenker (Voice) and Matt Singer (IFC). Damon Smith talks with Harlock and Thomas for Filmmaker.

 

BRIEFLY

"As rumpled and scruffy as you'd expect a documentary about its subjects to be, The Family Jams captures a moment, the summer of 2004, when the 'freak folk' singers Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, as well as the band Vetiver, crossed the country in a modest tour that preceded their individual breakout successes," writes Andy Webster in the NYT. "The headliners have a penchant for intimate, largely acoustic songs, and in these settings — galleries, record stores and small, sweaty clubs — their gifts are on vivid, arresting display." For Steve Dollar, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Kevin Barker's "modest film [is] a more valuable pop-culture artifact than he might have imagined, but its charms guarantee enjoyable viewing even if these folks had vanished into obscurity." More from Andrew Schenker (Voice) and Chuck Bowen (Slant, 1/4). At Brooklyn's reRun Gastropub Theater.

"Henry's Crime, a muted comedy with Keanu Reeves, is a painless, at times likable, drifty comedy," writes Manohla Dargis in the NYT. "But its mood is so muffled and point so submerged, it's difficult to see why Mr Reeves and the rest of the cast pooled their talents to make a movie about a nowhere man going no place in particular in Buffalo… Happily, [James] Caan, who does the cute codger thing surprisingly well, provides a little oomph. And so does [Vera] Farmiga, who often plays the support when she should be the star, and here tries hard to pretend that her attractive character might be facing a loveless future in Buffalo and is happy to settle. Another plus: Bill Duke, who in a minor role as a guard reminds you that he has one of the great mugs in movies." More from David Fear (TONY, 2/5), Elvis Mitchell (Movieline, 6/10), Michelle Orange (Voice), Tasha Robinson (AV Club, D+) and Bill Weber (Slant, 1/4). Mike Ryan talks with Farmiga for Movieline.

 



Pamela Cohn at Hammer to Nail on Kati with an I: "Kati is filmmaker Robert Greene's much younger half-sister and he has been shooting footage of her since she was a little girl. In this über-intimate portrait, a very 'small story' indeed, Greene captures Kati, a teenager about to graduate high school and already engaged to her childhood sweetheart whom she plans to marry 'in five years,' over the course of three emotional days… Kati With an I has the same poetic pangs of angst and bewilderment as Matthew Porterfield's beautiful Putty Hill." More from David Fear (TONY), Christopher Gray (Slant, 3/4), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE) and Nick Pinkerton (Voice).

Out of a possible four stars from Slant, Nick Schager gives one to Max Winkler's debut feature, Ceremony: "A barefaced rehash of Rushmore with bits and pieces of Bottle Rocket thrown in for good measure, this exasperatingly precious film revolves around Sam (Michael Angarano), a 23-year-old with a middle-aged man's mustache, a habit of saying faux-WASPy things like 'silly goose' and 'drinkies,' and an amateur career as an author and illustrator of kids-lit stories that reflect his real-world infatuation with older beauty Zoe [Uma Thurman]." More from Stephen Holden (NYT), Nick Pinkerton (Voice) and Keith Uhlich (TONY, 2/5). Interviews with Winkler: Christopher Bell (Playlist), Stephen Saito (IFC), Mike Vilensky (New York) and Daniel Walber (Spout).

"Meet Monica Velour is a cruel movie," declares Andrew Schenker in Slant. "It's also cruelly unfunny. Part comic coming-of-age tale, part trailer-park melodrama, Keith Bearden's feature debut is the kind of film that spends its first half humiliating its actresses only to show in the end that, like its youthful hero after he learns his requisite lesson about female agency, the thing's all heart." More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Michelle Orange (Voice) and Nick Schager (TONY, 1/5).

"At 13, surfing champ Bethany Hamilton lost an arm in a brutal shark attack off Maui," writes Kat Murphy at MSN Movies. "Determined to stay on top of her beloved waves, this courageous athlete drew on her strong Christian faith to get back on her board, to once more become a competitive surfer. Grabby story, yes? Too bad that no-talent director Sean McNamara and a committee of screenwriters have dumbed down Soul Surfer to a simplistic mishmash of youth fellowship homily and Hawaii tourism ad." More from David Bow (Stranger: "Enjoy your movie, Real America. It's really boring"), Glenn Heath Jr (Slant, 0/4), Aaron Hillis (Voice), Matt Prigge (Philadelphia Weekly, C-), Tasha Robinson (AV Club, C+), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY, 3/5) and Stephanie Zackarek (Movieline, 7/10).

Nick Schager in the Voice: "Gigantic form, diminutive content: Born to Be Wild 3D, presented in expansive IMAX, offers a visually arresting, kid-friendly, but cursory portrait of the altruistic efforts of two women not only to rescue orphaned baby animals but to then raise and ultimately release them back into their natural habitats." More from Ed Champion, David Fear (TONY), Glenn Heath Jr (Slant, 3/4) and Janice Page (Boston Globe, 2.5/4).

 

CHICAGO


The Windy City got left out of yesterday's roundup of festivals and events and it shouldn't have — there's lots going on.





Ben Sachs in the Reader: "Blue Collar (1978) — which screens in a new print at Music Box this Friday and Saturday at midnight — was [Paul] Schrader's first film as director. It's no less schematic than his later work: the three main characters, union men at a Checker Cab plant, are best friends at the beginning and by the end have turned violently against each other. The feel of the movie, however, is significantly looser than any Schrader would achieve later: people joke, talk jive, and generally seem to enjoy each other's company. The early scenes, set in a neighborhood dive bar, have an off-the-cuff vibrancy that's comparable to those in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (or the diner sequences in Taxi Driver, which Schrader scripted). One is so convinced by the friendship between Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel), and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) that their eventual falling out registers emotionally, not as a theological proof… Also unlike Schrader's other movies, Blue Collar displays a remarkable specificity. The scenes in the auto plant feature compelling shots of machines and men hard at work that recall both the verité documentaries of Frederick Wiseman and the gritty realism of 70s blaxploitation filmmaking. The moral crises of Blue Collar are no less dire than in Schrader's more religiously themed work, but here they spring from a fully observed environment. As a result, the movie is affecting as a social portrait as well as a psychological drama."

Those who read German might want to get a hold of the newish 9th issue of Cargo which features a cover package on Schrader.

Ben Sachs and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky pick out and write up the highlights of the second week of the Chicago Latino Film Festival; more from AA Dowd in Time Out Chicago. Meantime, the Reader's JR Jones has notes on the last few days of the 16th Annual Asian American Showcase.

A couple more stateside notes: the Boston Globe's Ty Burr rounds up local goings on and New York's 92Y Tribeca kicks off a three-week-long extravaganza, Electronic Dreams: Giorgio Moroder Film + Music Series.

 

IN THE UK


Steve Rose in the Guardian on Armadillo: "It used to be that you had to wait for a big-name movie director to digest the war at hand before you got a definitive screen account, but now documentary makers are getting there first. Embedded with a Danish regiment for a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan, this striking film gives you the character development, food for thought and edge-of-seat action of a scripted film." More from Nigel Andrews (Financial Times, 4/5), Dave Calhoun (Time Out London, 3/5), Hoss Ghonouie (Little White Lies), Ryan Gilbey (New Statesman), Sukhdev Sandhu (Telegraph, 4/5) and Adam Sweeting (Arts Desk). Viewing (12'25"). The Guardian's Andrew Pulver interviews director Janus Metz.

 



Nigel Floyd in Time Out London on The Silent House: "Shot on digital video for $6,000, this Uruguayan horror movie has two noteable details of production: it was filmed using a Canon EOS 5D Mark II SLR camera and it's said to consist of one continuous 72-minute take, promising ‘real fear in real time'. In fact, this camera has a shot limit of no more than an hour, so somewhere in the shadows is at least one disguised edit. This sleight-of-hand aside, director Gustavo Hernández's microbudget chiller cranks up the tension with fluid, choreographed camera moves and unnerving off-screen sounds." For the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, "this is a smart, scary film and a technical tour de force with its own skin-crawling atmosphere of fear," whereas Sion Sono's Cold Fish is "a bizarre, ultraviolent black-comedy horror which overstays its welcome massively."

"Rio may not be remembered, like the crazier Rango, as the most daring or out-there cartoon of the year, but it does what it does delightfully," argues Tim Robey in the Telegraph. And basically, Derek Adams (Time Out London, 3/5), Nigel Andrews (Financial Times, 4/5), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 3/5) and Anthony Quinn (Independent, 4/5) agree.

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