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Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: “Meek’s Cutoff”

Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: “Meek’s Cutoff” (photo)

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Countdown to Top Ten 2K11 is a column with one simple goal: to help you decide what films you need to see before making your end of the year top ten list. Each installment features my thoughts on a critically acclaimed 2011 movie, a sampling of other critics’ reactions, the odds of the film making my own list, and the reasons why it might make yours.

This time we’re covering “Meek’s Cutoff,” one of the most divisive arthouse indies of the year. Is it a brilliantly original take on a classic genre or a steaming plate of “cultural vegetables?” Let’s find out.

Movie: “Meek’s Cutoff”
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
Plot Synopsis: Three families and their hapless guide lost on the Oregon Trail in 1845 struggle to survive as their water supplies dwindle lower and lower.
What the Critics Said: “Bracingly original,” A.O. Scott, The New York Times
“Cinematic as it is, ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ has an uncanny theatricality,” J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
“A grippingly original work, with gorgeous cinematography,” Dana Stevens, Slate

Were They Right? I’m with Scott and Stevens: this is an undeniably original take on a very old genre (Stevens is dead-on about the cinematography as well; stunningly beautiful even in the old-fashioned 1.33:1 pan-and-scan aspect ratio). This is not the Old West of other movies. There’s no awe-inspiring cattle drive, no hard-charging cavalry riding to the rescue. Forget all the posturing from Ford and Hawks movies about taming the savage landscape, clearing the way for civilization, and proving your manhood. Those are all frivolities; Reichardt’s West is too unforgiving for that. Meek’s brigade faces much more basic problems, like figuring out where the hell they are and finding water before they all die of thirst.

The earliest scenes are both the wettest and the driest. Three wagons slowly cross a river. Then they clean their dishes in the gurgling water. After resting, they press on, in a journey to who knows where. There’s no exposition and less action. The characters’ faces are hard to see and their words are hard to hear; I actually had to plug in my headphones to hear the dialogue because the audio on the DVD was so faint through my computer’s speakers without them. This is surely the portion of the film that inspired Dan Kois’ controversial “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables” piece in The New York Times, and led him to describe the movie as “closed off and stubborn as the devout settlers who populate it.” This sequence certainly is.

If you stick with the film, though, the prologue’s importance becomes clearer. The river crossing looked uneventful, but it was also the last time any of the characters saw water. The wagons, led by a big-talking, big-bearded huckster named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), have gotten themselves lost. If they don’t find their way back to a river soon, they’ll be in serious trouble. Meek, who’s supposed to be in charge, doesn’t seem all that reliable.

As one character notes, Meek could be “ignorant” or “just plain evil.” It’s hard to say, which suggests he may intended as an allegorical stand-in for George W. Bush, another overconfident cowboy who led some naive and foolishly trusting people into uncharted territory with similarly disastrous results. And Greenwood is terrific in the role, though he may not receive the Oscar nomination he deserves for no other reason than he’s so completely unrecognizable behind a wall of facial hair and a frontier accent that voters may not recognize him. They’ll surely recognize Michelle Williams, also good as the strongest and most independent of the three wives on the wagon train. Reichardt’s focus on the women’s perspective of this doomed expedition and her curiosity about their daily lives of chores and toil is another way in which the film diverges from traditional Western narratives.

That’s supposing that “Meek’s Cutoff” has a narrative, Western or otherwise, at all. At times, it feels like it doesn’t. The only break in the monotony of the trudge through the Oregon scrub is the addition of a captured Native American (Rod Rondeaux) to the brigade. As the water supply dwindles and civility amongst the emigrants breaks down, identifying the native’s mysterious motives becomes yet another source of tension. In a quiet way, this is a devastating ticking clock movie. Every time the settlers stop for a drink or bicker amongst themselves about whether to follow the native or Meek they’re one step closer to death. By the end of the film, the desperation in their faces and their voices is absolutely haunting.

That said, even though I disagree strongly that watching this movie is an unpleasant experience akin to eating your vegetables, “Meek’s Cutoff” isn’t quite as successful as Reichardt’s last two efforts, “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy.” I was particularly unsatisfied by her choice of endings — although, according to this Village Voice interview with the director, it wasn’t a choice at all, but rather an economic necessity of a budget that ran out before shooting was completed. I don’t know what Reichardt’s original ending was, but I’m sure it would have been better than the one that was forced upon her, in which one person in the group says and does something completely out of character, and another performs an action that is open to a variety of equally unrewarding interpretations. The conclusion’s ambiguity leaves you with the feeling that going on this journey with these characters was a huge mistake. Admittedly, that may have been Reichardt’s point.

Could Get Oscar Nominated For: Best Supporting Actor (Bruce Greenwood)
Chances of Making My Top Ten: Slightly better than the emigrants’ chances of finding water with Meek.
It Might Make Your Top Ten List If: you dig revisionist Westerns; you’re a big fan of Reichardt’s previous films; you miss playing “Oregon Trail” on your Apple II.

“Meek’s Cutoff” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and iTunes; you can also rent it on Netflix. If you see it, tell us what you think; leave us a comment below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Previously in Countdown to Top Ten 2K11
“Margin Call,” directed by J.C. Chandor
“Bill Cunningham New York,” directed by Richard Press
“Hanna,” directed by Joe Wright

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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