Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff is the opposite of a summer blockbuster: stylistically spare, elliptical, emotionally nuanced and told from a distinctly female perspective. It's the antithesis of the garish big-budget behemoths currently crowding the multiplex, a film that has zero interest in delivering a typical audience-pandering moviegoing experience.—-
As Reichardt says in this interview, “I'm interested in films that are not about answering questions but about asking questions and demanding a little bit more interaction from the audience, where you can bring your own experience and point of view and fill in the blanks for yourself.”
Reichardt specializes in small-scale stories about everyday people. Her films — which also include River of Grass (1994), Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2009) — focus on those who seek an alternate American Dream, a ’70s-inspired aesthetic (both thematically and stylistically) that is all but extinct in a cinematic landscape that ceaselessly pimps upward mobility, extensive special effects and crass commercialism. (Yes, I'm thinking of you, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, not to mention the other 26 sequels — an all-time record — that will be released this year.)
Yet Meek's Cutoff is also Reichardt's most ambitious film to date. It's a natural next step that features established actors (the ever-stellar Michelle Williams, along with Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kazan and Will Patton); tells a true-life story that tweaks western genre conventions; offers detailed, period-accurate production design (it's set in 1845 on the Oregon Trail); and was shot on location amid rigorous physical conditions that no doubt aided in the story's authenticity and the actors' performances.
As someone who offers a singular, woefully underrepresented vision, one can only hope Reichardt continues to get funding and distribution (criminally, Wendy and Lucy, one of the best films of last half-decade, didn't even open in Cincinnati) for the types of films she makes — and that there is still an audience out there that cares.
Elsewhere, we have a pair of high-profile Hollywood sequels and a French thriller that isn't likely to last more than a week at the local art house, so get there by Thursday.
THE DOUBLE HOUR — Although not as witty in plot design as debut director Giuseppe Capotondi imagines, The Double Hour is an atmospheric suspense thriller that succeeds on the strength of its two leading actors, Filippo Timi (Vincere) and Ksenia Rappoport. (Read full review here.) (Opens today at Esquire Theatre.) — Cole Smithey (Not Rated.) Grade: B-
THE HANGOVER PART II — The comedic premise of the 2009 original was pure genius, executed with minimal imagination; it was like teenagers blessed with the power of invisibility who could only think to sneak into the girls’ locker room. This version copies the formula, to the same effect. (Read full review here.) (Opened wide Thursday.) — Scott Renshaw (Rated R.) Grade: C-plus
KUNG FU PANDA 2 — Grand-scale animated spectacle in an atmosphere of China's exotic natural beauty is part and parcel to DreamWorks Animation's winning sequel to the 2008 original. Although the filmmakers only take full advantage of the film's 3-D aspect once to allow Jack Black's panda character Po to discharge dumplings across the fourth wall, the animation is gorgeous. (Read full review here.) (Opened wide Thursday.) — CS (Rated PG.) Grade: B
MEEK'S CUTOFF — You might have seen various re-creations of pioneer journeys, but chances are you’ve never seen the stark realities of that kind of journey given the existential weight of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff. Screenwriter Jon Raymond draws from a real-life historical tale: an Oregon-bound wagon train led by guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) in 1845 that took an alternate route to the well-traveled Oregon Trail. (Read full review here.) (Opens today at Esquire Theatre.) — SR (Rated PG.) Grade: A-