I Got it at the Library: “Certain Women”

Certain - Kelly
Film-maker/Professor Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt refuses to be rushed.

But you already know that if you have seen Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cut-Off. If you are a newcomer to her highly personal and (some might say) idiosyncratic art Certain Women may not be the best introduction. See the two films above first and then see Certain Women and you should feel right at home.

You may have read about the slow food movement. Well, Reichardt’s films are what has been called “slow cinema”. And she determines the pace. (She has edited, written and directed all of the films listed above.)

Certain - Maile

Based on a series of short stories by Montana author Maile Meloy (sister of Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, by the way) Certain Women offers low key character studies of  four women (Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern and Lily Gladstone), their humdrum existences,  frustrations and small victories. 

Reichardt’s films, like the slow food movement perhaps, are an acquired taste. The film recived a 92% per cent critical approval on the rottentomatoes.com site but fared less successfully among the audience reviewers (RT Audience Critic Phillip Price wrote in part “…  There is a fine line between being understated and simply being uninteresting …. “

But as Ms. Reichardt told Nigel Smith of “theguardian.com”‘:  “It all just seems everything is getting faster. Faster, faster, faster – we all want things faster. I guess there is a part of me that likes the pull against that … 

Certain - poster



I RENTED IT ON VIDEO: “Clouds of Sils Maria” (cloudy) and I GOT IT AT THE LIBRARY: “The Guest”

If the words “ambiguous” or “arthouse hit” leave you scanning for an exit than you’ll probably want to skip this in favor of something a bit more accessible. The average DVD viewer may well agree with Ty Landis (on the website “Sound on Sight”) who describes Clouds of Sils Maria as a half-realized and muddled head-scratcher.”

clouds- DVD coverHowever, if one attended film school and/or is a “Rolling Stone English major” (to borrow a phrase) you may agree with Hannah Landers in “The Daily Free Press” who hails this film as “a character-driven masterpiece.

clouds - coverBriefly, the plot deals with internationally famous actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), who rose to fame in a play in which she portrayed a young seductress named Sigrid involved in a relationship with her employer, Helena, an older woman who becomes obsessed with Sigrid and eventually commits suicide.

Ms. Enders is in the Swiss Alps when she hears that her mentor, who wrote the play, has died.

She is also informed by her faithful assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart) of a remake of the now 20 year old play to be directed for the London stage by a young wunderkind, Klaus Diesterweig (played by German actor Lars Eidinger). Klaus wants Maria to star in the new version … only this time she is to be cast as Helena. The director wants Jo-Anne Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a Young Hollywood wild child (comparisons to Lindsay Lohan  are inevitable) to play the role of Sigrid.

Maria views a sci-fi film starring Ms. Ellis and is unimpressed. Val, however sees something more profound in Ms. Ellis’ portrayal. (“She goes deep into the darker side of her character.”) 

CGM as Jo-Anne Ellis in costume for a sci-fi film in Clouds of Sils Maria
CGM as Jo-Anne Ellis in costume for a sci-fi film in Clouds of Sils Maria

I am informed that writer/director Olivier Assayas based his play loosely on Ms. Binoche’s real career. (He directed Ms. Binoche, still in her early 20s, in her first starring role, the 1985 French film Rendez-Vous.) Just as Maria is struggling with the idea that she is now too old to play Sigrid, Ms. Binoche may be coming to terms with her age and the range of roles available to her.  And some reviewers have interpreted Ms. Stewart’s dialogue as Val as the actress’ defence of films in which she has starred like The Twilight Saga and its sequels and Snow White and the Huntsman.

“The Assayas faithful will no doubt find pleasure in unearthing the supposed layers on display here …”, writes Mr. Landis.  Indeed, the reviewers and commenters on various websites have come up with a head-spinning number of theories. Some commenters have even suggested that the character of Val is imaginary and exists only in Maria’s head.

Ms. Landers says in her review that “writer and director Olivier Assayas used to be a film critic, and this is undoubtedly a film critic’s movie.”  (That may explain why Clouds of Sils Maria earned an 89% Critical Rating but only a 67% Audience Score on rottentomatoes.com.)

For my part, I rented the DVD because I kept reading all the positive buzz  the film received at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), Cannes (where M. Assayas was nominated for the Palme d’Or) and the Cesar Awards (where Ms. Stewart won the French equivalent of a Best Supporting Actress  Oscar).

Yes, it was talky (but what thought-provoking dialogue!) and I didn’t always understand what was going on (“Assayas summons an air of unmistakable mystery, leaving much unexplained … writes Anthony Lane in The New Yorker) but I liked the verbal duels between Mme. Binoche and  Ms. Stewart. Many critics professed surprise at the sophistication of Kristen Stewart’s acting in this film. 

Kristen Stewart
Kristen Stewart

To this blogger Ms. Stewart has always seemed to be a performer who took her craft seriously, signed on for a role in a movie and found herself at the center of a pop cultural phenomenon. (Perhaps that explains her dour expression in those infamous photo ops for The Twilight Saga.) Anyone who doubts Ms. Stewart’s acting chops should see 2008’s What Just Happened. Her performance as Robert de Niro’s enigmatic daughter still haunts me.

As for Chloe Grace Moretz I have been a fan in all of her various incarnations and in this film she finally gets \n opportunity to play the kind of mature role I sense she has always wanted.

Inspired by each other, all three actresses are at the top of the game (even if I didn’t pick up on all the nuances of their performances.
Guest -posterDan Stevens very wisely chose the role of a remorseless killer in the indie production THE GUEST for his first starring role in an American film following his move from UK to USA.  The way I interpret this is that he wanted to distance himself from the role of Matthew Crawley in PBS-TV’s Downton Abbey (his breakthrough role). I gotta say he is very convincing as a murderous man of action although, strictly speaking, it is not the fault of the character he plays. To figure that one out you’ll have to see the DVD.  (Not surprisingly, the film did better at the box office outside the U.S.) The film also features Sheila Kelley (remember her from TV’s L.A. Law?) and young Maika Monroe, who achieved instant fame in the horror thriller It Follows.

Maika Monroe in The Guest
Maika Monroe in The Guest

Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll: THE RUNAWAYS on Netflix

Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie - `Bombs Away
Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie

Dakota Fanning’s version of “Cherry Bomb” is the bomb.

Even Cherie Currie thinks so. And she recorded the original (as lead singer of The Runaways in 1976.)

Back in the mid 70s Ms. Currie  was just another mixed-up, shook-up teen, trying to make inroads into  the L.A. club scene.

Then she was “discovered” by Kim Fowley, a seasoned snake oil salesman slithering through the L.A. rock and roll scene looking for his main chance.

He found it when he met Joan Jett who had an idea for an all female rock and roll band (an audacious concept for its time.)

I was in London when The Runaways landed in the U.K. and I remember seeing their pictures plastered all over the rabid English music press (along with some fairly salacious headlines.)

The group went on to tour Japan where they were greeted with an almost Beatles-like hysteria. The original line-up splintered after two albums but they are still fondly remembered.  (Google the name of the band and you’ll get a ton of results.)  Female rockers like Courtney Love and the girls in The Donnas  – to name just a few – credit the group as seminal influences and/or motivators.)

The Original Group (l. to r.) - Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Jackie Fox, Sandy West
The Original Fab Five (l. to r.) –
Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Jackie Fox, Sandy West

The brief history of the  “Fab Five” had already been chronicled in a 2004 documentary Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways, written and directed by Victory Teschler-Blue  (who replaced original bassist Jackie Fox in the group under the name Vicki Blue)when renowned music video director Floria Sigismondi picked the group as the subject of her first (and, so far, only) feature film in 2010.

The Runaways - Coming Soon to a Computer Near U
The Runaways – Coming Soon to a Computer Near U

Adapting the pic from Ms. Currie’s 1989 memoir Neon Angel (and with Joan Jett as executive producer)  Ms. Sigismondi pulls few punches in depicting the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle that exacted a heavy toll on various members of the group and eventually led to the breakup of the original quintet.

I evidently liked the film more than the critics (David Edelstein in New York Magazine writes: In patches it’s agreeably lurid, but it’s otherwise ho-hum.) And, despite a cast that includes the aforementioned Ms. Fanning as Cherie Currie and  Kristin Stewart as Joan Jett, the film (according to boxofficemojo.com) failed to make back its budget.

Frankly, I thought Ms. Sigismondi did a great job of capturing the look and feel of the period.

For younger viewers the film offers a chance to see Twilight phenom Stewart in a role with real hustle and muscle.

Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett
Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett

Ms. Fanning is a revelation as well. The film`s opening images makes it clear the onetime child star has left her childhood behind forever.

Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley is both charismatic and creepy  (This isn`t about women`s lib, kiddies. This is about women`s libidos. Now growl … moan!

The film, despite its flaws, can serve as a role model for young women to,  as Ms. Sigismondi says on a Blu-Ray DVD bonus feature: do what they want … If it’s music that’s great, but if it’s not … just follow their heart.”

Director Floria Sigismondi, the real Joan Jett, Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, the real Cherie Currie at a  premiere of The Runaways 2010
Director Floria Sigismondi, the real Joan Jett, Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, the real Cherie Currie at a film premiere of The Runaways (2010)

Concerned parents should note that although the film is rated PG-13 the dialogue can be quite coarse in places. There are also scenes of substance abuse. Just so you know.

RIX RATING:  4 guitars out of 5