X-Men: First Class
Rating: 3 / 5
This is the de riguer origins prequel to the phenomenally successful but ageing X-Men franchise, and we are all excited to know where they came from. Here’s our chance to find out and the filmmakers’ chance to make it interesting. This is how the X-Men team was envisioned and built and why, it’s about finding a place as mutants among humans and it’s about the Cold War and the CIA. There’s a lot to ponder and lots to see, thanks to a massive cast, spiffy art direction and memorable special effects.
The journey begins in Auschwitz. The young Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender –bears no resemblance to his future X-Men self) starts the future rolling as a response to extreme cruelty. Kevin Bacon is Nazi official Sebastien Shaw a wicked and uni-dimensional villain who carries out experiments on hapless inmates. He murders Erik’s mother in front of him to raise a display of strength out of the horrified young boy. Heightened emotion causes Erik to bend and manipulate metal, and he becomes magnetic. Shaw goads him into rage and he becomes his superpower, unleashing it, becoming Sa-Shaw’s number one science project. His innate sadism and greed drive him to try to harness that power for himself and Erik’s anger builds and it shapes his future character.
Jennifer Lawrence brings her mighty gifts to Raven / the young Charles Xavier’s besty and makes the most of a thin role. Xavier is played by James McAvoy who doesn’t seem quite right in the part. It’s hard to imagine he’ll grow up to be the Patrick Stewart. McAvoy brings a fogey-ish charm but he just doesn’t seem iconic. Raven and Charles meet as children in Charles’ family’s massive seaside mansion, the one we see so often in future X-Men. They are outsiders saddled with superhuman powers they don’t understand and that’s the tragedy of their lives. Their bond as adults is based on this other-ness and becomes strongly fraternal, not romantic but intensely supportive.
Erik and Charles meet in a cool way, and after a bumpy start, they become best friends – but not for long, eh, kids? It’s fun while it lasts; they get to test their powers together and find companionship as mutants/outsiders. Theirs seemed like a true friendship that would stand the test of time and trouble.
The huge cast is sheer eye candy and freaky enough to grab our attention, but there is little in terms of of character development. We have to take each as the two dimensional beings we see – without personality, background, emotional spectrum or weight and that’s the film’s weakness. It happens so often in sci fi franchises, in which the action, CGI and whoosh factor crushes the possibility of character development. Who mentioned sound and fury signifying nothing? I forget.
X-Men First Class is an okay outing that’s stylish, flashy, cartoonish but flat, where men are men and women are sexualized.. We know the characters to the extent that we need to, for plotting. But not enough for caring. A very brief, foul mouthed appearance by a future X-Men is much appreciated in a story that has no sense of humour.
Like any story drenched in created mythology, especially a filmed one with the chance of cross marketing and endless sequels, there is a little too much energy wasted in explication. Good versus evil, who is on what team and why and whathaveyou. The fans will love it, others, not so much. It is after all, it’s a comic book brought to life.
Jesse Wente on Terence Malick
Filmmaker Terrence Malick has directed just five films in 38 years – Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), New World (2005) and opening soon, Tree of Life (2011). So few films, yet Malick has made an indelible imprint, and established himself as one of the greatest American directors of all time. Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, opens June 10th in Toronto and platforms across the country. Fans have been waiting and talking about the film for years; anticipation is peaking and TIFF programmer Jesse Wente says fans will not be disappointed. I spoke with Wente about TIFF Cinematheque’s retrospective New Worlds: The Films of Terrence Malick featuring all five films, at Bell Lightbox June 4th to 15th.
Jesse Wente - People have been waiting for one of the pre-eminent American artists in history to make his next one. It’s a major moment and interestingly, for us at TIFF Lightbox, as soon as we knew Tree of Life was coming, we wanted to show all his films. We never grouped them together in a retrospective. We showed New World for Cinemateque but never showed them all together. What better way to count down to Tree of Life but to show them all? It was interesting putting the series together, it made me realise what a culmination of his career's work Tree of Life is. He still expands on ideas and themes he's been working on his entire career. It’s a grand statement that he’s been thinking about since he began filmmaking. It feels like that. Certainly, it is the exact type of movie Lightbox was built to show, cutting edge, technology and technique on display in the most pristine circumstances in the world here. It’s such a delight, not just for the retrospective but leading up to the release of Tree of Life.
Why is Terrence Malick such an important filmmaker?
Malick went away for such a long period of time and when he came back he only reinforced what an absence it was. We don’t have that voice in US filmmaking. Malick is a poet more than anything else. Tree of Life, this most recent film since he came back, is poetry written on a scale no one ever thought he’d have access to. It’s fascinating because of that and also it has a huge budget and it’s coming out in summer, with poetry the likes of which we haven’t seen in film before. This would have been typically released in the fall for pre-Oscar runs yet here it is in summer with the R-rated comedies and the superhero movies and here’s this incredibly thoughtful piece of art, allowing us to ruminate over it for the duration.
Malick’s first film, Badlands is the story of serial killer Charles Starkweather. It feels so evil you could almost call it a horror film and yet it is strikingly beautiful and evocative.
Badlands and Days of Heaven, his earliest films, are unsettling. In some ways he transcends genre. His sorts of films have such an air of dread around them and so does Tree of Life. There are moments when you are concerned for the character’s safety. It’s all part of Malick’s philosophical background [he taught philosophy at M.I.T ] so he has a very interesting way of portraying humans and human behaviour, as part of larger natural order humans relate back to. He often has human figures set against a panoramic landscape, our behaviour against the natural order and how we break it. It’s what they are all about, even The Thin Red Line, his war film, was about that and also New World. He places his characters in the grey zone because of how he behaves, the moral centre is difficult to ascertain. For someone like Malick, it may seem horrific, but it’s the natural world.
He never shied away from those blunt human emotions and behaviours and to come to Tree of Life trying to reconcile so much of that in the new film. He has always asked grand questions with his movies, types we most cinema or movies actually ask. But you have to be prepared for art to ask these questions. Sitting in the movie theatre used to the idea of being entertained, cinema is the most important art form of the past century. We might sit in theatres and eat popcorn and drink soda but we are trying to get to the larger things. His films ask the audience to ask fundamental questions about our existence, and Tree of Life is all about that. The beautiful scenery, the acting, cinematography, direction the parts that make cinema, while also providing insight into our world. It’s not asked enough.
Tree of Life posits that we are akin to “nature” or “grace”, nature being rough, animalistic, not pantheistic, and grace being spiritual and thoughtful.
His natural world is instinctual. Humans behave on that level. But we’ve been imbued with the ability to act and think beyond instinctual. That’s the conflict, what is natural and what has been nurtured and goes against the natural order. The nature in his films and Tree of Life is that he takes us back to the dawn of time. I was blown away – it is transfixing, transcendent, transporting, in a way I’m not sure I’ve even seen in modern cinema. It’s about the natural world and placing humans within it, about our place in the world and how we disrupt it.
There’s a lot of scripture and liturgy in Tree of Life. How did you read that?
There is an evangelical reading to the film and it’s very interesting on those topics. What I find interesting is the same time he’s addressing those things, the centre portion read more Darwinist more than anything else. His comments on that internal part, the dawn of the earth stuff, he’s playing a bit, trying to balance how does spirituality exist is we allow for evolutionary thinking? He’s struggling a bit with that and for me the way I read it is the religious spiritual is a human creation that came out of a natural world, so they are connected. Spirituality is part of evolution.
Malick’s scores are completely unique.
He has always used music as something of a contrast to what’s going on onscreen. He is so spare in terms of landscapes and positioning that, and Tree of Life is different in that there are so many flourishes than in his previous films. Its interesting with Malick, he is so purposeful, not a moment is wasted in his films. Every second is thought out and extended to the music and there are repeated themes. He uses the score intentionally in terms of the emotions it’s meant to convey and it’s not just music; its silence and it has equal power, all that is so measured and that’s why Malick’s films and retrospective is key to us. They require multiple viewings to appreciate the photography, mise en scène, acting, and art that you can’t capture in one viewing. Each viewing brings new understanding.
Even if those viewing are years apart!
There’s that timelessness around the films. They almost don’t exist. Tree of Life is firmly set in 1950’s and that’s central to the story. At the same time the scenes and what happens is timeless and that qualifies with The Thin Red Line. They have big, universal themes that can age with you in a way that cinema has a tough time doing. Styles, techniques fall away, an artist who has not bridged analogue to digital and different artists than contemporaries, Lucas or Spielberg who helped the digital wave in cinema. He’s a different guy and his films age much better because they are so classical in their approach, the themes are grand and can’t be constrained by one time period. His films really do survive and endure in weather that cinema has difficulty doing. Malick’s films are great and will still be great 20 years from now and age better than other filmmakers’ work.
In your view, how important is Tree of Life in cinema history?
It’s tough to compare Tree of Life to anything else, there has never a movie been a movie like this, 2001: A Space Odyssey but it’s straight ahead science fiction, and there is a story, plot specific to it. Tree of Life is a period piece but it is also cosmic and theological, and there is so much going on, even giant movie stars. All that makes it hard to define other than to say we might have to wait another 38 years for a film like that. I’m just thrilled that it is happening here at Lightbox. When we started Lightbox, we all dreamed this would be our kind of film we’d play and here it is. I’m thrilled we got these pristine prints of all the movies; they look absolutely gorgeous onscreen so I’m really excited and it’s fun to watch them all as a build up to Tree of Life.
Chad McQueen on Steve McQueen in Le Mans on Blu Ray
Steve McQueen is still the “King of Cool”, the “Bandito”. Twenty seven years after his death, the charismatic, rebellious, blue eyed phenom still matters. He ties with Jimi Hendrix for eleventh place on the 2010 Forbes Top-Earning Dead Celebrities List because people still want a piece of him and his independent spirit. McQueen left a legacy of impressive performances in 30 films and nine television series, reaching iconic status rivaling James Dean and Marlon Brando.
Two generations of actors, including Colin Farrell, Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis and Pierce Brosnan, have cited him for inspiring them. Interest in McQueen continues unabated, and another generation is about to have a look at the man who defined the word “cool.”
McQueen’s love of fast cars is well known; he was a champion racer and collected cars, motorcycles and planes to satisfy that speed jones. He loved to race. His 1971 film Le Mans, shot on location on France’ legendary speedway is considered one of the best sports films ever made. It has documentary heft, bringing the viewer to road level to watch and feel the cars roar by. The race is grueling and a test of stamina and focus - twenty four hours long, over 14 kilometers of cordoned road in rural France and the sky’s the speed limit.
McQueen plays an American racing a Gulf Team Porsche 917, against his opponent in a German Stahler in Ferrari 512LM. And McQueen did most of his own racing, sometimes at speeds in excess of 200 MPH. Paramount is releasing fortieth anniversary special edition of Le Mans on Blu Ray on May 24.
Chad McQueen, McQueen’s son with Neile Adams, is a champion racer and car collector, who creates limited edition high performance motorcycles and automobiles through his company McQueen Racing LLC. Chad was on the set of Le Mans as a boy and shared some of his memories of his father and that incredible experience with AskMen’s Anne Brodie.
Are you excited that Le Mans is coming out? Is it somewhat bittersweet seeing your father in this film that was so important to you?
It is personal, but there’s nothing bittersweet, nothing but positive feelings. It’s the best motor sports movie ever made and I'm happy it’s finding its place for the fourth time. My dad was a stickler. Everything was done at speed; they didn’t use effects when they raced down the Bugatti circuit at 120 miles an hour.
How did the studios ever allow him to do that? How did he get insured?
My dad has his ways for that. They should embrace it and learn from it. Never ever could they do that film today, the cost for one thing. It’s never going to happen again.
Canadian pro John Bassett says the racing footage in Le Mans is the best ever put to film.
It is. And it’s the best and most authentic motor sport film ever made.
Racing was more than your father’s cool hobby or a publicity stunt – it was his passion. Hadn’t he been racing before he started acting?
No, he started racing and buying cars after he made money from acting. It was a big part of his life and his obvious passion comes across.
There’s a famous story of you as a very young child, sitting in your father’s lap in the Porsche 917 while he raced. Do you have any recollection of that?
It is burned in my heart and soul forever. We got to France in June of '70 on the all those cars and the racing, it was such overload and intensity for a ten year old. It was mind-blowing. I asked my dad for two months to please, please give me a ride. He was shooting down the Mulsanne [The Mulsanne straight now has 2 chicanes built into it to slow cars down, but at the time it of the film shoot, it was a 3.7 mile long straightaway with a kink corner] and he flagged me over and put me on his lap and I went through the three gears! The noise was so loud and the torque just pushed me against him so hard. Unfortunately it stuck me on cars for life!
You finally got to drive it, didn’t you?
It was 30 years later I had the chance to drive the 917 for a full day and compared to modern race cars, it’s a killer. Your knees are forward and hang out over the front wheel. Not too cosy. They’re pretty violent is what they are, those old racers.
I understand that at one time your father owned more than 100 race cars and motorcycles. What became of them?
The race cars! When my dad passed, he had 138 motorcycles and 35 cars and not one of them was from the movie. Race cars were disposable, no one cared. The 917 is owned by Jerry Seinfeld but I have some of my dad’s pieces, a few significant pieces. Most of the stuff was auctioned in 1984. We wanted to build a museum but in our area, the taxes were prohibitive. There was no way we could do it.
Your father was perhaps the coolest star of all time. Do you remember him as being “cool”?
He was my dad but the way people reacted to him on the street was different. It didn’t bother me, but …
Your father liked to live on the edge in a lot of ways, like racing and performing. He must have been an adrenaline junkie. Do you have that gene?
I guess so. I am a little more cautious than him but I’ve been racing my whole life and some of that rubbed off on me. I had my first motorcycle at nine and raced cars for a couple of years but I got hurt and had to stop.
Do you miss it?
How do you replace it?
Martinis by the pool! I have a collection of cars and motorcycles, the older Porsches are on tour, stuff like that. I do miss racing but unfortunately, those days are over.
Your son Steve is doing well for himself following his grandfather’s footsteps starring in The Vampire Diaries. Does he race too?
No, but my younger son races carts. He got six wins, four seconds, a third and one crash last year. He’s fine though, as long as he’s focused.
You have a long list of acting credits, but you haven’t made a film since 2001. Why not?
Besides having no talent? I haven’t done a film because, you know, talent skips a generation. I’m more interested in producing and cars. It sounds spoiled, doesn’t it?
Robert Downey is producing and starring in Yucatan from your father’s screenplay about a treasure hunt. How is it going?
He was just here this weekend! We’ll see what happens. They’re working on the screenplay. He’s a genius, he’s got a clear vision and he’s intelligent and he knows what’s what. He’s great, so smart. He can star and no one else wants to step into those shoes, I know he’ll pull it off.
And there are two biopics on your dad in the works! All this interest!
My mother has one going and the other is at Paramount. Its cowboy bullshit, they’ll never get made and I hope they don’t get made. They want to sensationalize it; it will be so off the mark. I don’t think either of these sources would get it right. Tabloid crap.
Was your father misunderstood?
He was a good dad and a hard worker. Whenever he worked on a movie, he made sure me and my sister were always there. We benefitted from having him always there. He was a great dad, and a little nutty. It’s amazing, thirty years later how much you remember every bit of it.
Thank you so much Chad. How nice to speak to you!
God Bless. Thank you.
Bobby Fischer Against the World
Bobby Fischer was an intriguing and reclusive figure during the Cold War, a chess prodigy whose life was stranger than fiction. Bobby Fischer Against the World, The Nature of Genius and Reward tells the weird story of the New York born chess player who held the world in his grip during one of the greatest chess games of all time. Fischer was a child chess prodigy who did little but play, and was a master at fifteen. But he was a lonely figure who disdained human contact and thrived in the byzantine, soulless game of chess. He was able to play 80 opponents in the same match and is considered to be the greatest or at least the second best player that ever lived.
Fischer was referred to as a Cold War solider, whose skills literally brought the world together in that famous match with Soviet backed Russian chess master Boris Spassky in 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland. The game symbolised the simmering tensions between east and west. He won. At the time, he was considered the most famous man in the world. But he paid the price in mental illness, political struggles and infamy, eventually exiling himself to Iceland where he died in 2008.
Liz Garbus’ documentary Bobby Fischer against the World is piquing interest in the man once again, fifty years later. Garbus’ films focus on dangerous territories and people (The Farm: Angola, 1999, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, 2007, and Street Fight, 2006) and Fischer's life seems just as dramatic. She says that covering Fischer seemed insane at times, trying to flesh out a man who prided himself on being unknowable.
Anne Brodie - Bobby Fischer is presented as a desperately confused individual who knew one thing in this life - chess. Why did you decide to cover this difficult project?
Liz Garbus - It’s so funny I feel like the story exists in that sweet spot of remembering and forgetting. People know the name but not the whole story or who he is. It’s a great journey. They think they know and they don’t … and it’s so much more than they expected.
AB - Why this story?
LG - I’ve always been interested in chess, and his name has been in my mind. I thought I knew about him, but I was on a plane in 2008 and the front page of the New York Times ran his obituary. I read it from beginning to end and it was an extraordinary story. I got off the plane and immediately Googled him. I wasn’t going to let this one go. There hadn’t been anything significant done on him, a couple of short TV documentaries but no comprehensive project that stood the test of time.
AB - He was obviously clever, but he was troubled and became more so as time went on. Why?
LG - I think it’s hard to say what a complicated cocktail that went into making him what he was - obsessively playing chess at 6 or 7 and not having balance, no school, no friends and no family unit that gave him the nurturing that a child needs. And then in the course of his career where in a certain way, he represents the US in chess, but he doesn’t get any support at all, unlike Boris Spassky who had the Soviet government‘s support. All these things went into it. He really was a Cold war solider but he did his thing on his own. It had to be very, very difficult especially for someone as fragile as he seemed to be.
AB - You used footage of the pivotal match with Boris Spassky that had been missing for years. How did you get it?
LG - Finding the material was a detective story in of itself because so much was not properly archived even the footage of the match would be on YouTube, or that ABC would know where it was, but they didn’t. It took me six months and then 15 - 20 phone calls to the archivists at a southern California warehouse. The feeling I got watching it that it was a gift from the gods. I'd wanted it for so long. They didn’t know where it was.
AB - Malcolm Gladwell offers his theory of the 10,000 hours of work it takes to become a genius in any given field. Do you agree it was work that made Fischer great?
LG - Gladwell talks about that if you look across various fields, chess, surgeons, and composers, there is this common denominator in that expertise is a certain amount of practice it takes to make it perfect. It's a good theory because it shows that it's true that genius can be made, that it isn’t a gift you’re given. But you can work extra hard and you can gain expertise. Malcolm’s work relies on studies involving chess, so it dovetails nicely with the subject matter. They studied chess players and found a definite difference, between those who had achieved a certain amount and those who did nothing else but play chess. It’s safe to say Fischer put in 10,000 hours and then some. It brings you to a certain level, but what separates genius is the element of creativity. What Bobby did was he brought extraordinary creativity and the relentless desire to kill. He was merciless. People said sitting in front of him was like having a wall advance against you.
AB - Why was he such an obsessive child to the exclusion of everything else but chess?
LG - There was nothing going on in his home, His single mother as brilliant but out much of the time perusing her career and doing her political work. She was a Communist. Her sister took care of him and introduced him to the chessboard. If you look at Mozart who started composing when he was three, you see he was obsessed and conditions existed so he could become this child genius. That was key.
AB - So chess players aren’t like you and me?
LG - Certainly there are plenty of well-adjusted chess players like Gary Kasparov (?) who is well rounded but I do think when you look at people who obsessively prioritize one thing to the exclusion of family and relationships and that chosen world is a complex world, like chess, you can become paranoid. Elements of chess can create paranoia; you’re constantly thinking of what can happen to you and the anxiety. You have to be paranoid to be a great player. All those things when they translate back into the real world don’t play well.
We see it with today’s Hollywood stars. Children who become stars and are paraded in front of everyone and they’re drug addicts by the time they’re 18. The pressure of playing without that protective factor s of family and contacts are missing.
AB - You’ve specialised in documentaries in dangerous places with dangerous people. How did Bobby Fischer stack up against your usual suspects?
LG - I’ve made films in prisons and Abu Ghraib but one thing I didn’t expect was that Bobby Fischer's circle would be deeply, deeply impenetrable. It was so hard to get their trust and I’m not joking. He was famously secretive and difficult and they continue that legacy of secrecy. They were thinking I was going to turn him into an anti-American or anti-Semite and not look at everything. I had no idea what I was stepping into. After making some films and scheduling interviews, I didn’t think it would be so difficult psychologically but they were. My philosophy was if the film wasn't a struggle, then it wasn't worth making.
Will Ferrell in Everything Must GO
Will Ferrell is an extraordinary comic actor whose infectious, original and ripped-from-the-headlines comic spirit put him at the top of the game. Ferrell’s name on a marquee pretty much guarantees bums in seats; he is a safe bet in the changing tides in Hollywood. Ferrell’s comic stylings as Ricky Bobbi in Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory’s Chazz, The Wedding Crashers’ Chazz, Buddy the Elf and the unforgettable Ron Burgundy are iconic creations in the crowded comedy scene. He’s broadened his reach as the creator of the satiric sketch site Funny or Die which offers original material from his team and fans, and from a growing list of famous contributors like Justin Bieber, James Franco, Lindsay Lohan and Jerry Seinfeld. Life’s a laugh for the 43 year old Ferrell and it’s lucrative, too. And so he laughs all the way to the bank, earning a reported $20M per film.
But it seems even a committed comedian like Ferrell needs a bit of dramatic relief from time to time and a drop in pay. He worked for minimum pay in a dark new project called Everything Must Go, a down hearted but sometimes whimsically funny look at loneliness by writer director Dan Rush. Ferrell plays Nick, an obnoxious, alcoholic businessman who loses his wife and job in the same day and moves onto his front lawn pondering the worthlessness of it all. He suffers abuse from nosey neighbors, the police, the bank and mean kids, but he settles in for the long haul, bottle in hand. But things can and do get worse. AskMen’s Anne Brodie spoke with Ferrell in Toronto about the wisdom of taking on this unusual role.
Why did you choose this rather downbeat part?
I thought it was one of the most original scripts I had ever come across as well as the challenge of doing something this serious. So I said to the director Dan Rush that I’d love to do this but he’d have to wait for me for a year and a half. I really have that many things lined up. And he did! So that’s actually how it happened. We were very frank with him. We said “Understand that we think that this is so great, and we understand if you don’t want to wait for us, because there must be many other actors that are clamoring to do this”, but he did. He wanted to wait for me; you’ll have to ask him why.
You ride a really fine line between funny and sad in this film, two sides of the same coin. Can you talk about that?
Yeah, I guess they are. I’ve always thought that they are two steps away from each other at any moment. I’ve been so surprised by how many laughs we get so that’s really interesting to see. Audiences get the subtlety. But that wasn’t really on our minds in any way. We never talked about having a certain part of the film as the funny part. Just because we just did something sad and depressing, we didn’t feel we had to put in a funny part. It just happened. And if it did, it’s just little moments that are organic to the story. That was another thing I loved about doing this film. There was never any pressure to force anything.
Can you talk about how the characters you play in this movie sees himself at the beginning and the end?
He’s just going through his life, and I assume that as time goes on that he’s just going along making decisions because that’s how he feels he should live his life, keeping up with the Joneses or whatever. Whether it’s work, or his personal possessions, and in this cataclysmic series of events that happens at the beginning of the movie he’s forced to sit there and be with himself and really decide what he wants and what really is valuable to him. So I think by the end, and we actually talk about this in the movie, he is going to go on, and there’s hope for him.
Were you looking for something different at this point in your career? Is there less pressure to have this kind of a role then being full-on comedic?
I don’t know if it was less pressure, but it was definitely freeing to do something like this probably because there are parts in the film that are just real life. You don’t have to think what the joke’s going to be and it’s OK if… There is a lot of stillness in the movie and I think a lot of people are afraid to do those types of movies. It was really refreshing to be still in that way, as opposed to running around and acting crazy, as much as you love it, or hopefully love it. But yes, it was very freeing. And in terms of whether this was a conscious choice to do something less comic, this was more just an individual project that kind of coming my way. Since Stranger Than Fiction this was the only film offered to me that has been off the track of what I normally do. There is a 3 – 4 year gap so I just jumped at the chance to do it and would like to do more. But it will be another 4 year gap probably. It’s just the way people are conditioned to think. I think no matter how high you go up in the food chain I think you’re still typecast in a way.
And you worked for a fraction of your usual fee.
The thing that was really gratifying was on a $5M movie, everyone on the cast or the crew; you knew no one was there for the money. Everyone was there because they really loved the script. You would think that on a smaller budget, this experience unified everyone. It was a real team effort. And I’ve never experienced anything like that it was great.
Wandering, Wondering: The Films of Kelly Reichardt at TIFF
Meek's Cutoff kicks off a retrospective of Reichardt's work from May 12th to May 17th as part of The New Auteur's series at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto
Kelly Reichardt teaches filmmaking at Bard College in New York to fund her other vocation, making spare independent films that have a significant emotional depth charge. She follows a unique artistic formula, creating projects that verge on filmed poetry and art, that are daring in their barebones beauty. Reichardt’s films are shockingly quiet. They often feature animals, long scenes of reflection, and as the title of the series indicates, wondering and wondering. Reichardt’s early films were set in the Florida Everglades where she grew up, but she seems to have journeyed to a new spiritual home in the state of Oregon. Three of the films in the TIFF retrospective are set there and follow Reichardt’s own rules to a T.
Meek’s Cutoff is the starting point of the series. It’s a version of the Donner Pass story starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood and a vast dry dusty desert expanse that holds the power of life and death over them. It’s 1840 and they’re on a seemingly endless wagon train, working their way west to California, via the Oregon Trail. We meet them just after they’ve left the main group to take a shortcut a stranger named Meek told them about. We all know how that sad story turned out, but Reichardt brings the epic historic misadventure home to a new generation of filmgoers with her breathtaking signature style.
Sounds of Silence
The film is mostly silent, except for the sounds of wind, wagon axles and lowing oxen. Conversation is brief and practical and as the party goes deeper and deeper into unknown landscape, they nearly stop speaking altogether. A captured Indian becomes their guide, but they don’t understand each other. He becomes the whipping boy for the party’s errors in judgment and their fear. As they move forward, without food or water in 110 degree heat, wandering and wondering, they realise death may be near. Reichardt chooses to end the film at a particular moment that is an astute artistic choice, but leaves us gasping.
Wendy and Lucy
Reichardt’s film Wendy and Lucy, which won the Toronto Films Critics Association Best Picture award in 2008, is also set in Oregon and the situation of the lead, also played by Michelle Williams, is just as dire. She is a victim of poverty. In this day and age to wander the roads with her dog without money, means or the necessities of life is unthinkable, and yet, here it is. Again Reichardt uses silence and stillness to convey the workings of her character’s mind, as she mourns her missing dog and makes life altering decisions.
Old Joy is an earlier film of Reichardt’s which is beginning to get that pristine, sharply cut emotional vibrancy we see later. Lucy, the dog from Wendy and Lucy, is Reichardt’s own dog, also called Lucy, and appears here as Lucy. She accompanies two longtime friends from opposite ends of the happiness wheel on a seeking journey to an old haunt, a remote hot springs where they hope to “wonder” and grow. They get lost wandering to the place, but aside from that, nothing happens outwardly. What happens internally is that they lead their own interior lives. They don’t have much to say to each other, and we begin to feel our own reasons why, so the sounds here are rustling leaves, burbling brooks, the sound of rubber on the road and a talk radio jock at the beginning and end of the film. Old Joy is also set in Oregon.
Twice a year Reichardt drives across the US with Lucy. Hardly surprising. Reichardt is working on the next Oregon tale now.