REVIEW: Take This Waltz

Take This Waltz
Directed by: Sarah Polley
Written by: Sarah Polley (screenplay)
Starring: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby and Sarah Silverman

One of the first things we see Margot (Michelle Williams) do in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz is gently flog an adulterer while visiting an old fashioned theme park.  Waves of anxiety and embarrassment wash over her face as the other people in the crowd laugh at both her and the obnoxiously over-the-top characters performing the ritual.

This scene sets up a convenient Meet Cute for Margot and Daniel (Luke Kirby), but it also brings to light the stigma attached to adulterers, though in modern times the flogging is more verbal.  The dual purposes of this scene are important because Margot is married, and even loves Lou (Seth Rogen), her husband of five years.

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REVIEW: My Week With Marilyn

My Week With Marilyn
Directed by: Simon Curtis
Written by: Adrian Hodges (screenplay), Colin Clark (books)
Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench

The most poignant moment in My Week With Marilyn comes and goes so quickly that the viewer will soon be sedated back into the confines of its unchallenging, riskless story.  Ms. Monroe (Michelle Williams), gliding down a staircase clutching her flavor of the week (Eddie Redmayne), turns to him as she sees a crowd forming and says, “Shall I be her?”

“Her” of course is the Marilyn Monroe that burned into the screen and the collective imagination of the world in the mid-20th century; the suit of armor that a deeply insecure, troubled woman named Norma Jean donned to deal with that fame.  My Week With Marilyn is sadly less concerned with moments like these than it is in ultimately keeping that shroud of secrecy over Monroe.

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REVIEW: Meek’s Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Jon Raymond (screenplay)
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, and Shirley Henderson

The post-modern western Meek’s Cutoff, the latest from minimalist director Kelly Reichardt, operates with two things in mind: people are indecisive, and the Oregon Trail is beautiful.  In this quiet, contemplative film we find an American allegory set against the Western Expansion in the 1800s.

A group of settlers is led by a guide named Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a bearded troubadour who prefers to burn through the plains rather than accept their dominance.  The whole film rotates around the settlers’ mounting uncertainty, especially that of Emily (Michelle Williams).  

Meek’s Cutoff acknowledges the intolerance of the time period, and uses it as a mirror to today.  Screenwriter Jon Raymond has written some beautifully expressive dialogue  in this film, especially considering how little overall talking there is.  The back-and-forth Meek and Emily share when he asks her if she hates him is one of the most well-written exchanges of the year.

The role of Emily does not mark the first time Williams has operated in the low-key films of Ms. Reichardt.  The two brilliantly collaborated in 2008′s Wendy and Lucy, another earnest American folktale set in Oregon.  That film was better, and Williams was better in it, but this one is still quite good.  It has more in common with Reichardt’s 2006 film Old Joy with its picturesque nature setting and many unspoken implications.  This is not the bombastic Western setting of John Ford or Sergio Leone.  There are no grandiose shootouts or even any cowboys (It’s rated PG).

Instead of typical Western conventions that directors like the Coen Brothers have subverted to their own post-modern ends, Reichardt favors a mood of near-tranquility.  There are outbursts, as when Meek and another settler played by Paul Dano bring back a Native American captive.  Fear of the unknown seeps to the surface, but Emily’s whispering into the ear of her husband (Will Patton) turns the “savage” into their guide instead of a corpse.

Muttering is largely how Emily and the other women silently get their way in this movie.  There are several instances where the men mutter to themselves about what it is the camp should do.  Reichardt almost always pans to the women, silently gathered to the side and watching their lives being decided for them. They recall the nuns of Doubt, albeit with more colorful garments, in more ways than one.

This is important to note because it clearly establishes Reichardt’s vision of the film and her identity as one of the few female directors working today.  Had a male director been behind the camera, those scenes may have been shot quite differently. The most revolutionary thing about Meek’s Cutoff may be that it confronts gender without sacrificing any of the realism in the time period.  When Emily takes up arms against Meek in the film’s climax it’s, as the New York Times also noted, more than a gun she’s wielding.

Just because Meek’s Cutoff is not as masterful as Wendy and Lucy does not dismiss it from discussion.  In fact, it is still a very fine film, one that has a clearly defined worldview and cinematography that is absolutely striking given the budget.  The early images of a vast empty field and the howling wind striking a lone Emily behind the other wagons is a perfect visual metaphor for its themes. On this journey they are all together but separate, moving forward with no direction at all.

Grade: B

REVIEW: Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Written by: Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, and Joey Curtis
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, and Mike Vogel

Forty pounds lighter, with their dreams still in tact,  Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) go for broke on the streets on an unnamed urban setting.  She’s aspiring to be a doctor in a loveless home, and he can’t seem to decide what he wants to do.  But they’re in love, and they think that’s enough.  Flash-forward a few years (and pounds), and these same people would tell a much different story.

Cindy and Dean’s beginning and end are at the bipolar core of Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. In one instance, we see two hipsters full of youth and verve and in the next, he’s balding with a beer gut and she has kept her pregnancy weight and permanently embedded a scowl.

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