Derek Cianfrance’s emotionally apocalyptic depiction of a crumbling marriage seems built to capture the arthouse zeitgeist. Combining two incredibly reliable actors (Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling) and borrowing from a number of different touchstones (500 Days’ of Summer‘s timeline zipping, Eternal Sunshine‘s romantic melancholy, Funny Ha Ha‘s disconcerting intimacy). But what makes Blue Valentine so effective is the way it shapes these elements into an emotional atom bomb, without resorting to cheap manipulation. Unlike those other movies, there’s no zany humor or sci-fi underpinnings to hide behind, just a sharply drawn, completely realized examination of a poisoned relationship.
Jonah’s Score: 77
TUiW Grade: B+
The Company Men
Review: Another Sundance hit, The Company Men looks, on paper, like the most likely movie to break out and reach a wide audience, given its star studded cast and timely premise. The movie focuses on a series of businessmen (led by Ben Affleck) who find their cushy lifestyles threatened by aggressive downsizing at their megacompany (all while the CEO makes millions of dollars!) which is more the product of stocks and hostile takeovers than a total necessity. The film is well-shot (thanks to the always great cinematographer Roger Deakins) and the performances are pretty strong (Tommy Lee Jones is especially nice in an understated turn), but the whole adds up to significantly less than the sum of its pieces. The problems start with the screenplay by writer-director John Wells (best known for helping other people make ER and The West Wing) (sorry, that was a little harsh; Team Sorkin!), who seems to have never met a cliché he doesn’t like (Affleck learns the quiet nobility in manual labor in one especially strained moment). As a lot of us have learned over the last few years, there’s a lot of drama and pain in losing one’s job in an frighteningly uncertain job market, but The Company Men struggles to find new honesty in such a scenario.
Jonah’s Score: 51
TUiW Grade: C
There is a rather notable TV component to the festival, which this year included two screenings and panels committed to TV shows that, when they were scheduled, must have seemed like the best and brightest of the new TV season. Unfortunately, those shows were Lone Star and My Generation. At the presentation for the former, the promised “unaired episode” was actually just the show’s pilot, which sets up its conman-has-two-wives scenario with flair. One gets the feeling that creator Kyle Killen (who, to top off his depressing 2010, also wrote The Beaver – which is basically a one-man show for Mel Gibson) is a little sick of talking about what went wrong, especially because from his perspective nothing really did. Killen delivered a great show that blended the cable-ready moral murkiness of Don Draper or Bill Henrickson with the more mainstream conventions of soaps like Dallas (on paper, the show seems like another show that merged a bunch of cable-ready antiheroes with familiar network conventions: Lost), and FOX was looking for such a show. Unfortunately, these shows need a lot of time to grow (to give one example, during season three of “Mad Men” I knew maybe three or four people who watched the show; this year my friend’s can’t stop talking about it) and the realities of network TV make that pretty much impossible. Asking people to watch a new show is asking them to make a new habit (not easy) while also possibly breaking an old one (even harder) and shows like Lone Star need time for that to happen. As a viewer, the trade off is that a show with Lost’s ambition may be difficult to ever mount again, but it is a fair trade off for the rise of networks like AMC or HBO that are willing to stock up on nothing but quality dramas. Like Shawn Ryan (the creator of this fall’s most tragically underwatched show, Terriers) said, quality is now a niche in and of itself, and one available to an audience willing to look for it.
Review: Pitched as Spellbound by way of King of Kong (Seth Gordon, director of the latter, was a producer on this) the result is a film that is not nearly as riveting as the latter or engaging as the former. Make Believe is about six teenagers who are going to Las Vegas for a teen magician competition; for the winner it is an important step on the road to becoming a professional magician. The stakes are high enough and the kids are cute (ranging from a preppy overachiever who seems like a fusion of Hannah Montana and Tracy Flick to an idealistic Japanese kid who grew up in an extremely rural area), but the movie seems content to sit on the surface and coast on those two factors. It makes for a film that is appealing but in an unsatisfying and ultimately hollow way.
Jonah’s Score: 50
TUiW Grade: C
Review: Even films that purport to demythologize the mythological West (think McCabe and Ms. Miller or Unforgiven) buy into a lot of that mythology, even if they cloak it in moral grayness and an air of anti-violence. Enter Meek’s Cutoff, from director Kelly Reichardt, which is steadfast in its unflinching portrayal the extraordinary desperation and dire circumstances that actually characterized the settling of the west. Set in 1845, the movie is about a group of three families travelling down the Oregon Trail, who have been led off-course by the navigator they hired, the grizzled Stephen Meek. Reichardt’s shots are long in terms of both duration and composition, giving a sense of the vast, suffocating emptiness that the travelers face every day (where most westerns utilize the lushest cinematography possible to play up the gorgeousness of the landscape, Reichardt doesn’t even bother with widescreen, composing the film in 4:3 instead). The movie’s pace is deliberate, but necessarily so to communicate how desperate the situation is (and how tedious the journey could be). The wagon train moves slowly, water is scarce, salvation or terror could lie just out of sight, and something as simple as crossing a river or travelling down a hill means putting everything at risk. The scenario is dire enough but inches closer to combusting when the train comes across a Native American who could help them find their way or could simply be leading them into a trap. Reichardt wrings every last bit of suspense without sacrificing an ounce of realism and presents a story that works on several levels (as a look at the way women are marginalized in society or a multifaceted examination of our societal fear of otherness) without giving itself over to an easy allegory (a fact that is helped along by the movie’s unbelievable ending). The performances are low-key and fascinating (it may take you a while to recognize most of the recognizable people, since they are buried under layers of grime and malnutrition), especially Michelle Williams as a woman who takes an interest in the Native American hostage. I could go on and on about this movie but, since the movie isn’t coming out until 2011, I will shut up for now. But let me put it this way, I haven’t seen a movie released in 2009 or 2010 that I have had a stronger reaction to this one.
Jonah’s Score: 91
TUiW Grade: A
Tomorrow: Local filmmakers tackle family secrets and frisbee golf.