The first thing you notice when watching Certain Women is how cramped it feels. A lot of films shot out in the American west, with sprawling plains and mountains in the distance, use very wide images. Quentin Tarantino made a huge deal of using the widest Ultra Panavision lenses, with a 2.76:1 aspect ratio, when filming The Hateful Eight, even though most of the scenes were indoors. But Kelly Reichardt and her regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt capture shot after shot of Montana’s big sky country in “flat” 1.85:1 images. Even out in the open, we feel hemmed in.
The myth of the American west has always been about freedom and expanse. It’s a place a man can go to get away from everything and do as he chooses. But even in the west, a woman’s options are more narrowly circumscribed. Certain Women adapts a triptych of short stories from Helena-born Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. Each of them finds a woman pushing towards the life she wants in a way that would be much more easily granted to a man, if he weren’t assumed to have it in the first place.
This is clearest in the first story, where Laura (Laura Dern) runs her law practice out of Livingston. She spends eight months trying to convince a client (Jared Harris) that he gave up his right to sue over a workplace accident when he accepted a settlement right away. But five minutes with a lawyer in Billings — two hours’ drive each way — and he believes it. And then when he breaks into an office and takes a security guard hostage trying to find the records of his case, she’s the one who has to get up in the middle of the night to go talk with him. All this emotional labor, spinning wheels and getting nowhere, is just expected of her in a way that it isn’t of her male colleagues.
Emotional labor is the order of the day for Gina (Michelle Williams), as well. Her daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) is almost grown, and her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) is helping her build a house on some land they bought outside of town. But there’s still a sense of walking through molasses, struggling for each step. Guthrie is checked out, as all teenagers are to some extent, and Ryan doesn’t seem nearly as invested in the house as Gina does. They make a stop in to see an aging musician friend, Albert (Rene Auberjonois), and ask him if they can buy the sandstone remains of an old schoolhouse that have lain in the tall grass on his property. Gina wants the house to use local materials, so it will be “authentic”, but she doesn’t seem to know what she wants the stone for. She has an idea of happiness in her head, but has lost sight of how her day-to-day actions relate to it.
Jamie (Lily Gladstone) tends horses on a ranch in Belfry. Out of boredom and loneliness as much as anything, she stumbles into a night course on school law, taught by a Beth (Kristen Stewart), a young lawyer who took the freelance job out of worry she wouldn’t be able to find a real position. But then she did, and now she has to drive for hours each way to get to the class twice a week. She doesn’t even know much about the subject to begin with, and most of the people in the class are teachers who are more interested in how they can use the the law as a weapon to make their lives easier. Beth feels like a fraud who’s already conned her way up above the shoe-sales job that’s all she thinks a woman from her family has any right to expect. But to Jamie she’s worldly and sophisticated and romantic.
As is usual for Reichart, Certain Women is extraordinarily calm, but there is turbulence below the surface. She holds on the women for a long time, capturing detailed and layered reactions. They’re hardly effusive or expressive, the way that most dramatic performances tend to be, but these women hardly have the luxury of that space. They turn inwards, and it’s only Reichart’s patience that gives us enough time to notice it.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.
Swedish films seem to have split into two popular genres. Famously there are crime stories like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Easy Money, but then a couple years ago The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared made a splash as a “grumpy old man” story. And now comes En man som heter Ove, subtitled in English as A Man Called Ove.
But where The Hundred-Year-Old Man turned outwards — using Allan Karlsson as a lens to look back over the past century, Forrest Gump style — Ove turns inwards, looking at the man himself as a representative of his generation. Ove (Rolf Lassgård) feels abandoned and ignored. His friends are aging and dying; his wife has already passed; he gets pushed into retirement at the job which gave his life meaning. All he has left is his certainty about the importance of rules and order, and even that earns little more than an eyeroll from the younger residents of his community.
But where does that insistence on the Right Way to do things come from? It’s easy enough to dismiss the curmudgeon, but even he was a child once. Through a series of flashbacks (in which he is played by Filip Berg), Ove remembers how he came to this place, and we learn to see him as more than just a crabby old man. Meanwhile, Ove himself starts to see the people around him as more than just irreverent and irresponsible young whippersnappers.
A lot has been made of the fact that one of his newer neighbors, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), is part of Sweden’s growing immigrant population, as is a young gay man who crops up in one subplot. The ways that the older, more ethnically homogenous Sweden comes to grips with the new pluralism are important, but I think there’s more going on here than that.
Ove doesn’t just put stock in rules and regulations to impose order on a chaotic and sometimes frightening world. Rules are one way of realizing a social contract; they define and bind a community. Ove can snarl at “the communists who make us separate our trash”, but since that rule has been adopted he has just as much scorn for those who don’t follow it. Whether or not he personally agrees with it, following the rule is important to him, and to disregard it is to disregard the importance of the community — a violation tantamount to treason.
What Ove is really locked into is not so much a sense of national identity, but a sense of what makes a community, and what place he has in it. As mores and norms change — and yes, the ethnic composition too — the social contract must be renegotiated. And sometimes its very nature will be altered. The rules may stay or go, but they can’t be assumed to hold just because they always have before. They may have arisen from a community, and may have helped bind it, but the community defines its rules, not the other way around.
The great irony is that Ove’s hated white-shirt bureaucrats are themselves a symptom of this same mistake. Bureaucracy arises when rules are abstracted and reified beyond their connection to any community of real human interactions. Someone, somewhere decides that a rickety old house has to be replaced by a newer development, and when the man living in it tries to slap on a fresh coat of paint they snarl “idiot” and roll their eyes at his disregard for the Way Things Are. It’s only connection and communication that can restore the community and make it a place worth living in again.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
There seems to be something of an art-house revival of interest in Philip Roth lately. Two years ago there was The Humbling, and just this year we got Indignation. Both of which were perfectly serviceable if somewhat self-indulgent adaptations of likewise serviceable but self-indulgent novels, directed by baby boomer men of the right age to have been influenced in their young adulthood by Portnoy’s Complaint.
The script for American Pastoral may have been written by boomer John Romano, but the film is directed by decidedly Gen-X Ewan McGregor in his feature debut. There’s at least something else going on here besides the usual passively chauvinist narcissism common to Roth and his ilk. We can see its shadow dancing about the edges, hinting at why this novel has become even more relevant today than when it won the Pulitzer in 1997, but the adaptation never quite rises to its potential.
The story was written in a period of relative calm for America, at least on the surface, but it looked back to the tumult of the 60s and 70s. More than a few comparisons with that era have been drawn in the last few years, and we could probably use some thought about the lessons we can learn from our past. Our mediator is regular Roth stand-in Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), who runs into an old friend at a high school reunion, who’s really back in Newark to bury his brother, Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor), and relates his tragic history to Zuckerman.
Swede got his nickname by being tall and fair in a community of swarthy Ashkenazi immigrants. He was the captain of the football team, and went off to join the Marines just in time to miss most of the fighting, coming home as proud and idealistic as he’d left. He married his college sweetheart, the Catholic former Miss New Jersey, Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), and they moved thirty miles west to semi-rural Old Rimrock. They raise their daughter, Meredith (Dakota Fanning), but can’t keep her safe from the rising unrest of the civil rights struggle and anti-Vietnam protesting. Appropriately nicknamed “Merry” — like the Pranksters; get it? — she sets off a bomb in the local post office and disappears into the countercultural underground.
It’s impressive how well the symbology translates to today’s politics. Swede is, like Sweden, inclined to the left and social democracy. He may have “married” his wealth into conservative circles, but he maintains his liberal sympathies. He rides out the 1967 Newark riots with his assistant (Uzo Aduba) in his family’s glove factory, and in the aftermath makes a point of staying in the city and employing local workers rather than further hollowing out the urban center. He is a true believer in America’s outward ideals, and if he can advance the good more by using his advantages and playing the game that exists, so much the better. Merry, on the other hand, veers hard to the left, and sees her liberal father as a sellout. The whole game is corrupt, she believes, and needs to be brought down by any means necessary.
The central tension is between these two ideas: the liberal that sees the left as an overzealous extension of itself, and the left that sees the liberal as a corrupted failure. But, as we might expect from an adaptation by a mini-major studio like Lionsgate, the liberal comes off decidedly better here. There are shadows of nuance, like when Merry’s friend Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) shows up tantalizing Swede with information about his daughter. She lays into him with indictments of his liberal corruption, but they all come off toothless. Yes, they might apply to some people, but the man we see has none of these failings.
I don’t know whether Roth’s novel gave its protagonist a subtler, more ambiguous morality that might inspire some reflection on the part of a liberal readership. If it did, all those rough edges to the character have been sanded off, leaving a typically affable — if somewhat less happy — Ewan McGregor character.
Without more nuance, we’re left with a big load of Roth’s typical “why won’t all these hot young women stop coming on to middle-aged me?” prurience. And this time it’s layered over with an Electra complex, which comes of as even creepier than usual in the lack of any deeper context.
If the adaptation had to cut something from Roth’s prose, why couldn’t it be the onanistic sexuality, rather than whatever insights earned the Novel’s high critical acclaim? The answer seems clear: even as Roth fandom passes from one generation to the next, the aspects that readers are actually drawn to remain the same as ever.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
Behind the coming-of-age story featuring the misunderstood arty young man, the mid-life crisis movie has to be one of the most popular indie subgenres going. Even the particular punk-turned-dad spin was covered in documentary form by The Other F Word. But while there might not be much new in Lee Kirk’s Ordinary World, it’s a sweet little story in its own unassuming way.
More interesting to viewers my age, this marks the first leading role for Billie Joe Armstrong, and he does a pretty good job of it. In part, this is a role that’s all but made for him, in a sort of alternate timeline way. What if Green Day hadn’t caught on the way they did? That’s more or less what happened to Perry (Armstrong). And while waiting for that big break he met Karen (Selma Blair), and she got pregnant with Salome (Madisyn Shipman), and he started working in the family hardware store in Queens with his younger brother (Chris Messina) while the band went on “indefinite hiatus” for the last ten years.
In a way, Kirk’s script resembles a long-delayed coming-of-age story more than it does the usual mid-life crisis. Perry wakes up one morning, harried by all his usual chores, and finds that his family has forgotten his birthday. He throws an irresponsible party that his friend and former bandmate (Fred Armisen) blows out of proportion and brings down the ire of The Man. But instead of a house-ruining teen rager, it’s the presidential suite of a nearby hotel, and instead of angry parents it’s the hotel’s concierge (a surprisingly officious Brian Baumgartner).
I admit, the story doesn’t totally hang together. Why does Perry take a sudden windfall and throw even more of his own money after it to rent the suite? It’s one thing to show him making ill-advised decisions so that we can see his judgement improve, but this one sticks out as so ill-advised and unmotivated that it only makes sense because Kirk wants to play with the “rock band trashes a hotel room” trope.
Perry also doesn’t seem to incur any realistic penalties for his actions. In part this goes back to feeling a bit like an ’80s teen comedy, where the upper middle class parents can absorb the cost of whatever damage the kid has done. A multiple-thousand-dollar hit seems like it should be a bigger deal to a public defender and a semi-employed hardware store clerk with two kids.
But Armstrong has a sweet, slightly dopey affect that makes it hard not to like him. Which makes it hard not to like Ordinary World, despite its shortcomings. The whole movie takes on the same aura of ungainly charm that Perry gets from his thick-rimmed glasses and mussed, dyed-black hair. He may be a little late coming to some of these realizations, but you’re at least happy he got there eventually.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
Unless you’re really into documentaries, you probably aren’t aware of Kirsten Johnson. Even if you do enjoy the form, you might not have heard of her. There are very few well-known cinematographers even in mainstream films. Albert Maysles, Errol Morris, and Alex Gibney might have become household names — at least in a certain kind of house — but the people who actually put their images on film generally have not.
Which is to say the audience clamoring for Johnson’s cinematic memoir, Cameraperson is somewhat limited. Assembled from the impressive library of footage she has assembled over her twenty-five year career, the shots are often as gorgeous as we might expect from a professional of her caliber. But more than just presenting a portfolio of her work, Johnson wants to explore some questions about the nature of documentary cinematography.
Chief among these, at least to me, is the whole idea of the camera as a thing. Moving images are illusions, and the state-of-the-art in recording and replaying moving images has always been just good enough to maintain the illusion of its own absence. Every cut is a lie, as Wolf Koenig put it, even if the cinematographer, the editor, and the director are using it to tell a truth. And the lies don’t begin with editing, either; the camera itself imposes four cuts at the edges of its frame, twenty four times a second.
So as we watch storm-clouds gathering in the distance across a northern Missouri sky, we hear Johnson’s sneeze. We watch a Bosnian herdsman drive his sheep along a gravel road, but we see Johnson reach in front of the camera to yank out a few stalks of grass and clean up the shot. These moments would get cut from the films she was working on, but we see them here, reminding us that there is a real person behind the camera.
The choices made in the editing room might have more direct effects on the finished product, but it’s Johnson — or someone like her — who provides them the raw material. If she didn’t capture an image, it won’t be in the film. How she lights and frames her subjects can have an enormous impact on how we understand them when watching the documentary that results.
To have this much power is an awesome responsibility. Once we become aware of the person behind the camera, we want to know who she is that is making all these decisions. Much of Cameraperson goes to answering this question. We see clips of footage that are not just talking heads, but interactions between Johnson and her subjects. And, separate from any work-for-hire, we see Johnson interacting with her family, mediating her experience with the camera in a way that seems to have become a reflex for her.
The effect of this montage can be impressionistic at times, but never quite reaches the power of Ron Fricke’s abstract documentaries. This is a calmer piece, less concerned with rendering Johnson’s thoughts into audiovisual poetry than it is in laying them out and asking the audience to make of them what we will. That’s a lot to ask for most people, to put that much effort into meeting Johnson on her turf. But those inclined to watch her memoir are probably halfway there already.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, pass.
Ben Affleck plays a ridiculously rich guy, haunted by childhood trauma, and equipped with a truckload of military-grade hardware. No, it’s not time for another appearance as Batman. He’s The Accountant, financial analyst to all the biggest and baddest organizations on the planet, from drug cartels to terrorist groups. Oh, and he’s autistic too, though a rather high-functioning one.
I believe director Gavin O’Connor and writer Bill Dubuque had nothing but the best of intentions in mind going in. People on the autism spectrum don’t get many positive representations in the movies. Rain Man is the biggest one most people will remember, particularly since most critics and audiences prefer to slam Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in The Imitation Game as a bad gay character rather than praise it as the good high-functioning autistic character I’m convinced he was going for.
But what we get here fits the classic “exploitation film” mold, here applied to the autism spectrum. Which is not, as might be misunderstood, to say that it exploits its autistic characters. Rather, the filmmakers have identified an underserved section of the market, and seek to turn a profit by pandering to it. And like the classic blaxploitation films, the draw is more about “one of us” as the hero kicking ass on the screen for once, rather than the hero actually resembling “one of us” in a very deep way.
There are a few patches where the script switches to exposition about autism, and there it’s pretty accurate. Given the prominent puzzle image in an early flashback it wouldn’t surprise me if Dubuque cribbed the descriptions from Autism Speaks literature, and while I have my issues with that organization they at least get this level of basics right.
Affleck’s actual performance, on the other hand, is more about a lack of affect than anything else, with a few scenes that are a lot closer to the ways movies usually render psychopathy. Those are presented as the result of an abusive upbringing by a militaristic father (Robert C. Treveiler), but still they bear little resemblance to autism. To see neurodivergence represented at all is a rare thing that many people on the spectrum will jump at, but for all the “normal” behaviors and desires The Accountant depicts, it still regards people on the autism spectrum as essentially different from neurotypicals.
Once you set aside the gimmick, the rest of the story is kind of a mess. Under a series of aliases drawn from famous mathematical figures — currently “Christian Wolff” — the accountant works all manner of specialist cases. In the episode presented here, it’s more above-board than usual. An in-house accountant (Anna Kendrick) at a robotics and prosthetics company has noticed an irregularity, and the president (John Lithgow) brings Wolff in to ferret it out, most of which takes place over a montage of window-writing drawn straight from A Beautiful Mind. Meanwhile, a pair of treasury agents (J. K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson) are trying to track Wolff down. And there’s some sort of hitman (Jon Bernthal) doing his thing as well, which starts to seem somehow connected to the shady dealings at the robotics company somehow.
At a surface level it’s all very confused and poorly motivated, but it quickly becomes apparent — at least to me — that this is one of those movies where everything is secretly connected. So late-movie “revelations” like Bernthal’s actual identity feel anticlimactic since it was already clear an hour of screen time earlier. Even the “mysterious” voice on the phone Wolff uses to make all his arrangements is obvious long before Dubuque explains it with all the patronizing oohs and aahs of a birthday party magician.
But in between the lackluster story there’s lots of action. If all you’re looking for is to see those guns get put to use you’ll find plenty of that here. There’s nothing much here beyond a simple potboiler shoot-em-up flick. Which is fine for what it is, but the autism community shouldn’t feel obligated to turn out just because they so rarely get even this meaty a scrap.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
Kids’ movies can be surprisingly deep, as Pixar and Disney have shown us, in part because they often want to convince parents that they’ll be able to stand the incessant home-video replays. Those aimed at teenagers make up the bulk of mainstream tentpoles, and they also try for some appeal to older audiences. But movies targeting pre-teen audiences can be a bit of a wasteland.
To be fair, it’s a tough balancing act. The last thing pre-teens want is “kids’ stuff”, but how do you avoid that without tripping over into PG-13 territory? The usual answer, when a movie even bothers to target this demographic, is either to pander to their puerility, or to sermonize (as we just saw in Milton’s Secret).
But Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life manages to narrowly avoid both of these pitfalls. It’s still a pre-teen movie, but it’s one that tries to speak to them on their own level, rather than just sprinkling slightly naughtier humor into a script otherwise suitable for kids who have just begun to pay attention long enough to even watch a movie.
And a lot of that means understanding, and even encouraging their natural impulse to start testing boundaries in the effort to determine their own identities. This isn’t a story where the “naughty” character eventually comes back to the fold and joins in with Productive Society after Learning a Valuable Lesson. This audience will smell that sanctimony a mile away, even if they don’t yet know quite what they’d rather have in its place.
Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck) has already gotten kicked out of two schools, which seems a little excessive, but I’ll come back to that. His new school — his last chance before the likes of a military academy or juvenile hall — is run by the cartoonishly authoritarian Principal Dwight (Andy Daly) and his extensive code of conduct. It’s the sort of school that has eliminated all funding for the arts and creative expression, with a curriculum oriented around Dwight’s favorite standardized test: the BLAAR. This is hell for a kid like Rafe, so when Dwight destroys his prized sketchbook, he and his best friend Leo (Thomas Barbusca) start up an art-project rebellion: Operation R.A.F.E., for “Rules Aren’t For Everyone”.
Like Rafe’s situation, Dwight and his rules can be ridiculous and unrealistic. But in fairness, that’s kind of how life can feel in middle school. Similarly, Rafe’s mom (Lauren Graham) has a new boyfriend (Rob Riggle) who is just as gross and awful as he could feel to a kid Rafe’s age. That Rafe and his sister, Georgia (Alexa Nisenson) can see it and their mom can’t speaks to a pre-teen’s growing awareness of what’s going on beneath the surface of things, and frustration that other people aren’t talking about what now seems so obvious. Rafe’s ability to sneak out of his house and into the school, staying up all night to execute his pranks is also pretty unbelievable, but it too goes along with the general strategy of taking pre-teen musings and turning them up to a nearly fantastic level.
The script sticks devotedly with Rafe’s point of view. He has the first flutterings of interest in Jeanne (Isabela Moner) the overachieving sole member of the A/V club, but she stays at the periphery for most of the movie. There’s a bully in his homeroom class (Jacob Hopkins), but he’s more an annoyance than a secondary antagonist. Even the good teacher (Adam Pally) and the toady vice principal (Retta) are more like ideas that do useful things for the plot than fleshed-out characters. It might grow thin to more sophisticated audiences, but it’s aimed dead-on at pre-teen solipsism.
Aside from an awkward, tear-jerking turn in the story, Middle School‘s tone manages to walk the line between kiddie movies and teen fare. Even when it dips into innuendo it does so with an impressive dry wit that really will fly over the heads of younger viewers while winking at the older ones and congratulating them for getting the joke. It never rises to the level of something adults might want to seek out on their own, but parents should consider this one a diamond in the rough.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: very close, but I think it fails.