Tag Archives: Jared Harris

Certain Women

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Intentionally quiet and slight arguably to a fault, Certain Women nonetheless is not without its charms.

I want to love Certain Women.  I really and truly do.  Even within the more independent filmmaking world, Certain Women represents a sort of breath of fresh air by its mere existence.  In a sphere of film mostly dedicated to Sad White Men dealing with their Sad White Men problems in a low-key fashion, here is a film all about depicting the mundane lives of three women.  And when I say “mundane,” I really do mean “mundane;” these are lives that are profoundly uneventful even when they are, by comparative metric, eventful.  Writer-Director Kelly Reichardt, who has made her name with measured and uneventful interpretations of stories that are usually fodder for more traditionally thrilling fare, here adapts a few short stories by Maile Meloy and consequently works with set-ups that are devoid of basically any kind of dramatic conflict whatsoever.  One story never acknowledges an earlier potential conflict generator in its own story, another simmers on words unsaid but never truly boils over, and the third intentionally deflates itself at the first opportunity in the driest possible way.

In effect, what you end up watching is less of a series of short narratives with clear beginnings, climaxes, conflicts, etc. and more a collection of snapshots of ordinary if lonely women living their lives.  These kinds of lives just don’t get told in Film that often, not in this kind of frank and empathetic way, and especially not for women.  Women in the rural-American Mid-West, no less!  Dealing with loneliness and isolation in a world that often attempts to forget they even exist.  So, I do want to love Certain Women.

I just can’t quite get there, though.  That same intentional quietness and deliberate pacing that provides the film’s selling point is also its major weakness for me.  All three stories touch on the same themes, have the same pacing, and are so intentionally slight that my mind couldn’t help but wander from time to time.  There may be a tangible empathy here, particularly in the stunning final segment, but there’s also just a bit too much of a sedate distance to proceedings, where the film is purposefully avoiding anything eventful and instead filling up that time with very long takes where not very much happens at all.  When the film is clicking on all cylinders, where its stories ache with a noticeable pain and quiet suffering, it’s not an issue.  But when it’s anything less than that, either by not sketching that story’s protagonist deeply enough or holding an interminably long conversation that’s going nowhere in no particular hurry, then it starts to poke holes in the enterprise.

That, I guess, is my way of saying that not all of the stories are created equal.  The first involves a lawyer, Laura (Laura Dern), dealing with a long-disgruntled client (Jared Harris).  The second has a married couple, Gina (Michelle Williams) and Ryan (James le Gros), trying to convince a somewhat-crotchety old man (René Auberjonois) to sell them some sandstone that they can use to build their house in the wilds.  The third, and best by a country mile, follows a lonely Ranch Hand (newcomer Lily Gladstone) as she finds herself drawn to a night school class and forges a connection with the teacher, amateur lawyer and out-of-towner Beth (Kristen Stewart).  The second is the millstone, somewhat fittingly, that drags down the rest of the enterprise, being so slow and so uneventful that I found myself checking my watch frequently and wondering if there was a point being made at all with it.  There is, it’s just that said point is made almost immediately and the segment fails to find any further spins on it for the rest of its run time.

It’s also the most dialogue-heavy of the three segments, or at least feels like it, and the most static.  Strangely, dialogue often turns out to be a crutch for Certain Women as a whole.  It’s not that any of it is bad, sometimes it even manages to provide some dryly humorous levity to proceedings, it’s more that the film’s most powerful moments come from a lack of.  From words unsaid, from connections unrealised, from an honesty that can’t quite be reached.  Gina goes off on runs that are more excuses to sneak a cigarette without Ryan knowing, whilst Ryan is revealed in the first story to be having an affair with Laura but her story never allows him the chance to finish his attempt at ending the thing, whilst the moment that the third story gets as close to an honest admission of feelings as its protagonists can, the resultant pause communicates more hurt than a thousand words ever could.

These are women who feel isolated from society around them, lacking in any real meaningful connections or any connections at all.  Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography, which is low-key gorgeous for the record, goes to great lengths to frame each of these women as separate from the rest of the world around them, for that kind of isolation and enforced distance to become quietly wearying on the viewer like it is for the women themselves.  How society renders them all-but-invisible in subtle ways that are only picked up on by those on the receiving end – Laura’s client only accepts the exact same judgement that Laura’s been telling him for the past 8 months once it comes out of a man’s mouth, the old man that Gina is trying to buy the sandstone from often straight up ignores her and talks solely to Ryan instead, whilst the Ranch Hand deliberately secludes herself at the back of the class lesson after lesson and is ignored wholesale by the rest of the class members, despite one student’s claim that “we all know each other.”

Rather than dance around the point any further, I’ll just come right out and say it: the reason that you need to watch Certain Women, even if the whole doesn’t quite rise like it should and its second story is just kind of dull, is for that third story.  That’s where everything comes together – the writing, the measured pacing, the commitment to depicting the crushing mundanity of a lonely life, the empathy for all those involved, and the quiet pain of longing constantly flowing under the surface – to deliver a phenomenal half hour that builds to a closing oner which devastates ever more the longer that it runs.  It also stands head and shoulders above the rest of the stories due to the performances and unique chemistry of Stewart and Gladstone, both awkwardly dancing around the central question of their connection with a tangible caution clearly born out of a desire to not hurt or get hurt that only serves to make those unsaid words cut that much deeper.  Gladstone, especially, is a full-on revelation, particularly when that final shot comes around.

I kinda wish, in all honesty, that Certain Women were just that story, since then I’d be able to properly love it.  Don’t get me wrong, this is in no way a bad film, not in any respect, even that second segment isn’t bad so much as I just found it wholly unengaging.  For me, though, just under 110 minutes of this much deliberate slowness and intentionally minor storytelling was ultimately a little too tiring for me to be able to properly love.  I’m honestly fine with that, however, and not just because I know that there are certain people who will absolutely adore Certain Women.  When the film clicks like it does many times during the final story, the resultant cinema is enrapturing.  And even when it’s not, there really is something to be said for its commitment to realising and empathising with the sort of uneventful (often) middle-aged female life that it squarely focusses on.  We can’t all have dramatic lives.  Sometimes, all we can ask for is to be acknowledged by anybody at all.

Certain Women is playing in UK cinemas from March 3rd.

Callum Petch sees what we’re gonna forget.  He can usually be found at his own website, callumpetch.com.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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London Film Festival 2016: Day 4

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by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

You would think that I would have gotten up bright and early on Saturday morning in order to catch the press screening for DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls, given that I am still (to my knowledge) the film critic who is the world’s leading expert on the works of DreamWorks Animation thanks to The DreamWorks Animation Retrospective.  I chose to skip Trolls, however.  I wanted to have a minor lay-in, for one, but primarily it was due to the film dropping in UK cinemas in just over 2 weeks, so seeing it with such a small gap between festival and theatrical screenings felt like wasting precious festival time – hence why I also skipped Thursday’s screening of American Honey.  I am at a film festival, as a credited member of the press, able to see a whole gaggle of films that either won’t be out for several months or won’t make it to Hull at all, so I should take full advantage of that fact!  Indeed, I was going to instead see the other animated feature being screened that morning, Psychonauts: The Forgotten Children (Grade: D+)!

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This was a choice that I would come to regret.  Based on the graphic novel of the same name by co-director Alberto Vásquez, Psychonauts – and, no, it has no relation to the beloved videogame, in order to get the obvious jokes and ignorance out of the way immediately – is set on an island of animal-people hybrids ravaged by some kind of industrial disaster that has split the island into two halves.  The titular Forgotten Children live in the trash-filled Industrial Zone, spending their days searching for copper they can sell for money to buy food which they in turn sell for more copper, caught hopelessly in this cycle of poverty.  The slightly more civilised parts of the island, meanwhile, are all desperate to escape and make their way to The Big City across the sea, in the meantime succumbing to drug addictions that appear to manifest themselves as literal malicious demons, and persecuting the mute Birdboy, an addict whose father sold drugs to children and whom the island’s police force wrongly believe is following in his father’s footsteps.

Hopefully you already see the main problems here.  Psychonauts is far too messy and barely coherent, featuring too many characters – including Birdboy, the Forgotten Children, a group of teenagers trying to get off the island, a fisherman caring for his heroin-addicted mother, and far too many others – each with their own plots, many crossing paths several times, and all utilising different metaphors that complicate any potential message.  Addicts and those suffering from mental illnesses have literal demons that appear to overtake the host’s entire being and can cause harm separate from the host themselves, for example.  The Forgotten Children get barely any screen time and the film never asks the viewer to properly sympathise with them, either, lest its big violent 3rd act setpiece become too offputtingly disturbing for the viewer.  Hell, the film doesn’t even manage to establish a coherent geography of the island itself; I spent much of the film thinking the Industrial wastelands were a framework for a story being told in-medias-res rather than a going concern.

The film is too quirky for its own good, throwing every possible trippy image at the wall and hoping that something sticks – in this world, even otherwise inanimate objects have conscience thought and coherent speech, for some utterly bizarre reason.   Admittedly, the animation is visually striking, which is what saves the film from being a total waste, but it’s also, design-wise, nothing you haven’t seen in the notebook of an emo high-school kid from back in the mid-2000s.  Plus, like with Ari Folman’s visually-trippy but thematically-muddled and narratively-empty The Congress, all the visual trippiness in the world can’t make up for a lack of story and a hopelessly muddled thematic core.

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On the subject of film choices I came to regret before the credits rolled, Una (Grade: D), or “What if a paedophile were actually a really honourable and upstanding man aside from the whole ‘grooming and molesting an underage child’ thing?”  Una wants to tackle our preconceptions of consent and rape, kind of similarly to Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (which I saw and discussed in yesterday’s piece), by demonstrating that the case isn’t always as clear-cut for either party as it may appear on paper, that there are long-term ramifications for both parties, especially if one of them sincerely believes that they are in love with the other.  There is a way to tell a story like this, where we come to understand both characters and their headspaces, see them as complex people with wants and desires that aren’t as simple as society would have us believe, and how that can be more disturbing than pat simplicity, or at the very least can be told in a way that isn’t a horrifying mess…

…this ain’t it.  Instead, Una proceeds to spend much of its 94 minutes providing sympathy and understanding and explanations for the rapist, and basically nothing for the title character (Rooney Mara).  Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) gets to plead his side of things repeatedly, cycling through all of the stock bulls**t excuses, complaining about how the 3 month “mistake” ruined his life, and how he had to fight with all of his might to turn things around and claw together the pretty nice life he has now, with a new name, a decent job, and a wife oblivious to his past.  Una, initially, gets to give as good as Ray’s got, tearing down his “woe-is-me” arguments and angrily retorting with how she never got the chance to get her life back thanks to him.  But eventually, she starts to give up, as does he, and the two start to work towards the admission that maybe there was something sincere there between them once, and that may still be there now, 15 years on.  That is interesting, if handled well, and Una proceeds to squander it massively by shifting in its final third to making Ray ultimately a “nice guy” and Una the crazy woman who can’t let the past go.

This massive lapse in judgement ends up occurring as a result of the multitude of smaller, easily avoidable mistakes that litter the film up to that point – first-time film director Benedict Andrews filming almost all of the flashbacks in romantic soft-focus like this were any normal love story, the script not giving Una the depth or comebacks that Ray ends up getting, and awkwardly shoe-horned in subplots only serve the purpose of trying to make Ray likeable all being particular offenders.  Then on just a film level, away from those problematic undertones, it’s just far too blandly shot, uninvolving, and stagey (the film is an adaptation of writer David Harrower’s own play Blackbird and it really shows by the halfway point) to be worth anyone’s time.  Ben Mendelsohn is putting in excellent work playing the character as written, but it’s ultimately wasted on, well, the character as written.  Una is utterly abhorrent, and the worst part is that I don’t even think it knows just how far off-base it ends up going.  Christ, Election did this far better and it wasn’t even a main part of that film!

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Continuing a day of disappointments all round, although this one is much milder and subjective than the others, I must confess to not quite “getting” Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (Grade: B-).  Taking place across 3 mostly unconnected segments, the film essentially dramatises a day or two in the life of a group of women whose lives are uneventful even when they are, by some metric, eventful.  The first follows a lawyer (Laura Dern) as she deals with a difficult client (Jared Harris), the second follows a working mother (Michelle Williams) with her husband (James le Gros) as she tries to buy sandstone from a crotchety old man (René Auberjonois) in order to build her house, and the third follows a lonely Native American rancher (Lily Gladstone) who tries to strike up a relationship with an overworked lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who is teaching a night class on School Law.  Each of these segments run about 30 minutes a piece, start unassumingly, end suddenly, move very glacially, and nothing much happens in any of them.

This is very much by design, mind you.  Reichardt takes great pleasure in subjecting the viewer to the same boring suffocating loneliness that most of the film’s characters experience, and the overall point, if there even is one since I found very little to connect the three segments beyond them all taking place in and representing a forgotten rural American town, appears to be depicting life.  Monotonous, day-to-day, glacial life.  I can respect that intent, though I do still side with anybody who ends up watching the film and, by the 7th minute of Gina and Ryan’s interminable conversation with Albert or the 14th scene of the rancher riding around the snow on her ATV chased by her adorable dog, yelling, “OK, YES, WE GET THE POINT, ALREADY!  DO SOMETHING, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY!”  It can be too slow and dry for its own good, at times, particularly because it’s not aiming to make any grand statements or even perform much of a character study of any of its protagonists.

Certain Women could have been paced better, basically, particularly since it follows up its worst segment (which just goes on for ages and fails to accomplish anything) with by far and away its best.  That final segment is quietly devastating, particularly thanks to the chemistry of Kristen Stewart (inarguably one of the finest actresses working today) and Lily Gladstone (who is one hell of a find and needs a fast-tracked career right the hell now), building up to a phenomenal oner that just broke my heart even deeper the longer it ran on for.  Outside of that segment, though, I was more just appreciative of what the film’s trying to do rather than enthralled or touched by it in any significant way.  It is, in reductive terms, Slow Cinema – cinema that’s paced deliberately for the sake of being paced deliberately – and whilst I can respect it doing exactly what it set out to do and doing it well, I have to admit that it’s not really for me.

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I closed out the day by finally getting an approved press ticket ahead of time for a public screening, that for Jewel’s Catch One (Grade: C), a documentary about the titular nightclub, one of the first openly Black and LGBT discos to open in the USA, and its owner, Jewel Thais-Williams.  It’s an interesting story, examining the club’s societal and cultural significance, its turbulent history, and the life and activism of Jewel herself, a Black working-class lesbian who poured her heart and soul into the club and eventually returning to college to learn various skills that she could apply to her non-profit Village Health Population.  The film is also clearly a labour-of-love, having been worked on for about 6 years, and aims to crowdplease, which it definitely succeeds at judging by the frequent and raucous rounds of applause that occurred during my screening.

Sadly, though, the film is also much too messy and unfocussed to recommend outside of its inevitable home as a Netflix curio.  Part of this is by design, since the subject in question is very locally specific, so archival footage is limited.  Mostly, the film tries to split its chips between the club and Jewel herself.  Either would make a great documentary on its own, but trying to do both at once leads to lots of rushed history, glossed-over sections that should be important (like the founding of the club), and a lack of trying to explain its cultural relevance for those not already up to speed.  There’s a whole extended segment on The AIDS Crisis and I somehow sat there not being particularly moved, which should not be something that happens in a documentary about an LGBT nightclub.  Near the end, the film, on the final night of the club, opts to show a montage of former patrons relating their experiences with and connection to the club, and I could briefly see a glimpse of a far better film than the one we have.  As it stands, Jewel’s Catch One is an interesting story that’s not done enough justice by the documentary telling it.

Day 5: Terence Davies tells the story of Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion, Adam Driver plays an introspective poet in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, and two women get an uninvited dinner guest in Chameleon.

Callum Petch will ease up on our mind.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Failed Critics Podcast: The Raid 2, The Quiet Ones, and farewell to the Loud One

The Raid 2 RamaThis week’s podcast welcomes back the loud, opinionated, and slightly drunk Svengali-figure of James Diamond, for one week only before he disappears on leave for a while. Don’t worry though, as Steve and Owen continue to show a suitable lack of respect.

We also get into this week’s new releases, mainly the brutal gangster epic The Raid 2, and the latest offering from the resurrected Hammer Studio, The Quiet Ones. We also have time to discuss Under the Skin, Tropic Thunder, and Snowpiercer once more, as well as trying to figure out why hard-rated action films appear to by a dying breed.

We’re back next week with one of those fresh-voiced substitutes that we keep teasing you with, and our thoughts on The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

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