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Wilmington on DVD: Meek's Cutoff, Thor, The Colossus of New York, Monkey Business

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Meek's Cutoff (A-)
U.S.: Kelly Reichardt, 2011, Oscilloscope Laboratories

Meek's Cutoff, like the Coen Brothers' True Grit, is an art-film Western for a contemporary audience, and an unusually good one -- made by a director and writer (Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond) who show a real feeling for what it must have been like to cross the Western plains along or near the Oregon Trail, westward toward California, in frontier times, mostly without maps or guideposts, and apparently without the U.S. Cavalry to come riding to the rescue.

The movie takes place in 1845, when the West was not yet won, and when in real life, in the historical episode that inspired this movie, a much larger wagon train wended its way along the Oregon Trail, and split into two groups -- one of which continued unhappily on, guided by Meek.

In the movie, the splinter group gets lost (which happened in real life) and -- or so Raymond and Reichardt imagine here -- they capture a Native American who speaks no English (Rod Rondeaux). As supplies grow short and water begins to run out, and as the ox-drawn wagons seem more and more fragile, some of the travelers want to kill their captive, whom they suspect of guiding them toward an ambush. Emily, who no longer trusts Meek (she's not alone) wants to save the Indian, and trusts that he will guide them to a water hole.

That's the story: Will the Native American save these pioneer-interlopers, or not? There's genuine drama and mystery in the question, because there is an element of truth here, because the film's unusual style keeps undermining our expectations -- and because the Meek's Cutoff episode, though at least partly historical, is not really familiar history. That keeps us edgy.

Reichardt's movie is executed without theatrics or pumped-up drama. The men of the train are often shaggy and trail-worn; the women wear no makeup and bonnets that hide their faces. The trailmaster/guide (Bruce Greenwood as Stephen Meek) is a bearded blowhard.

But the drama and the terror are there, in every eerie and unhurried long shot of the three wagons (this is a minimalist wagon train) edging their way through the unpopulated wilderness, surrounded by an empty landscape and covered by a burning sky. This is a Western that attempts to imagine the West as it was, or in some ways to craft a counter-myth, a balance to the movie myths we know.

And so it does. Reichardt and Raymond (who also collaborated on those two modern Oregon-set movies Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy) largely succeed in convincing us that their world is real -- even though this is the first Reichardt movie that boasts a cast well-known to moviegoers: not just Michelle Williams (who stars both here and in Wendy and Lucy) as Emily Tetherow, and Greenwood as Meek, but Will Patton as Emily's husband Soloman, and Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson among their wagon train companions, the Gatelys and the Whites.

Many of these faces are familiar, but they're not glamorized. Often, thanks to the bonnets and beards and the paucity of close-ups (which are few but powerful), we can barely recognize them. They're all good though, and Williams, Patton, Rondeaux and Greenwood are better than good.

Meek's Cutoff has been compared repeatedly to Terrence Malick's films, high praise since a rare, new and brilliant Malick picture, The Tree of Life, was released this year in the same season. In mood and approach and politics, Meek is a bit reminiscent of Malick -- though this work, more modestly scaled (and budgeted), falls short of Malick's sometimes overwhelming spectacle and lyricism, and though Malick's own "Westerns" have been more modern (Badlands and Days of Heaven) or even more Eastern.

Ever since River of Grass in 1994, Kelly Reichardt has been one of the mainstays and prime artists of American independent moviemaking. She's at her best here. From the moment in the beginning when we see the wagons ford a river, clumsily and soggily (and without the glorious imagery of the river crossing in Wagon Master or the excitement of Red River), she and her team fashion and record this old/new world with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of pure, hard vision and honesty.

Thor (B)
U.S.: Kenneth Branagh, 2011, Paramount

High on the endless spires and bridges of Asgard, plunged in a vast gloom of monumental, sinister "Viking Noir" decor, besieged by Frost Giants, and always in danger of tumbling into New Mexico, dwells the Odin family.

Ah, the Odins! There is mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth) the hunky Norse hothead , wielder of the magical hammer Mjolnir. And his duplicitous little creep of a brother, wily Loki (Tom Hiddleston), up to his old double-Loki tricks. And Big Daddy Odin himself, played like a one-eyed King in search of his Lear by Anthony Hopkins. And the suggestively named and mostly quiet Queen Frigga (Rene Russo).

Like most mythological families, this one has problems. Odin seems to be dying, and taking forever to do it. Loki can't be trusted and probably has designs on everything West of the Nibelungen. Frigga is perturbed. The Frost Giants prowl around, clearly up to no good. And Thor -- whom Stan Lee and Jack Kirby once planted between the pages of Marvel Comics in a long-ago Golden Age many of us remember -- well, that Scandinavian bombshell (played by an Australian) blows his stack right at the start and winds up in, you guessed it, New Mexico.

A lutefisk out of water. A mythic hero adjusting to a land and age of nuclear power and truckstop food. With his hammer. And with a budget vaster than Asgard's bridges and spires. And Natalie Portman as astrophysicist Jane Foster, swooning, though not over anything astrophysical. And Stellan Skarsgard as scientist Erik, brooding. And Kat Dennings as helper Darcy, cracking wise. Thor and Valhalla never had it so good.

Thor is a movie that all but dares you not to be entertained by it. Nothing too clever about the lines, nothing too witty about the script, nothing much up its dramatic sleeve -- but it looks fabulous, and the actors seem to be having a good, plummy time, pretending to be gods and scientists and government agents. Director Kenneth Branagh didn't make a Thor that surpassed or transcended itself or that elevated the genre, and he's often upstaged by Bo Welch's spectacular production design and Hemsworth's virility and Hopkins' endless death throes. But Branagh didn't gum it up either.

Thor is not especially well-written but it's mostly well and classily done. It's pseudo art of a sometimes exhilarating hokiness, and it even has a sense of humor. It also has action, spectacle, romance (and plummy speeches), and to some audiences that's what movies were made to give us. I don't agree, but I liked the movie's brazen sense of itself, the way it flaunts its budget and its stars and its effects and keeps flirting with the big-superhero-movie predictability that never quite sinks it.

The Colossus of New York (C)
U.S.: Eugene Lourie, 1958, Olive

Fans of Otto Kruger (and aren't we all?) will want to see The Colossus of New York -- a stiffly crazy little cheapo black-and-white horror movie directed by Jean Renoir's great art director, Eugene Lourie -- because it really has one of Kruger's more interesting bad roles. As an affable maniac who transplants his dead genius scientist son's (Ross Martin) brain into a gigantic, clunky-looking, massively discontented robot, Kruger gets to show off that first-rate evil glint in his eyes, and that classy, suavely sadistic delivery, both of which he also exploited to good bad ends in Hitchcock's Saboteur.

Fans of anyone else in the picture though, including followers of Martin, Mala Powers (as his perplexed wife), and John Baragrey (as his jealous brother) or fans of robots in general -- shouldn't stay up late (or early) for it. It's your standard My-God-my-husband's-brain-is-in-the-body-of-a-huge-robot movies, and probably not even the best of them.

That definitely includes (out) the admirers of Eugene Lourie, one of the cinema's greatest art directors: Renoir's superbly imaginative designer on The Lower Depths, Grand Illusion, La Bete Humaine and The Rules of the Game, and also Sam Fuller's high-class low-budget set-man on Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. Lourie, who followed Renoir to Hollywood, and like "the boss," stayed there, was also an occasional director whose best known work is probably The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms -- if it isn't Gorgo.

Monkey Business (A-)
U.S.: Norman Z. McLeod, 1931, Universal

All four Marx Brothers -- garrulous gadabout Groucho, chick-chasing chiseler Chico, harp-strumming hedonist Harpo and zippy no-zingers Zeppo -- play stowaways on a cruise liner, inhabited by gangsters and Thelma Todd and, for all we know, all of Paramount on Parade, jammed into Thelma's closet. This is the one where the guys do their group impersonation of Maurice Chevalier. (Harpo has a phonograph with a Chevalier record under his coat.)

Since they're stowaways, I guess that makes them illegal aliens and candidates for deportation by the Republican Party presidential candidates, who probably have them confused with Karl Marx anyway. One of the screenwriters here was S.J. Perelman, and the producer was Herman J. Mankiewicz. It's funny -- but you knew that already, didn't you? "If the nightingale could sing lahk you, He'd sing much sweetah than they do, Cause you brought a new kind of love to me...."

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