Where I Write

The tool: 13″ Mac Air 128gb

The playlist: Run DMC’s first album and Raising Hell (Denny story in progress)

The beer: The Vixen, Samuel Adams chocolate chili bock

The cat: Charlie T. Cat Esq., aka Charliandoc, aka the Gray Siamesey with the One Bent Paw (he is a rescue, his paw is like a hockey stick, he was tossed out of a car as a kitten and rescued by my sister who found him bleeding from the nose and mouth, and nursed him to beer-label-licking health) P.S. support People For Animals

The book: Paul Cain’s FAST ONE the collected Black Mask stories of Gerry Kells, bad-ass ne’er-do-well

and Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, which Makes Everything Taste Better. Even ice cream. Try it.

© 2011 Thomas Pluck

NetFlix Queue Picks: Wendy and Lucy

I watched the acclaimed indie Wendy and Lucy last month with Firecracker but forgot to write about it, and that’s a shame, because it’s one of last year’s best movies. I’d go as far as to call it, along with Frozen River (full review), as the closest we’ve come to The Bicycle Thief in recent years. Big talk, yes. But we’ve since swallowed neorealism and it takes a quiet, introspective film like this to bring it back to us. If Sean Penn watched this before Into the Wild it might have gone from good to great.
Wendy and Lucy is a deceptively simple film, and that will lead to accusations of pretentiousness. They are unwarranted. We meet Wendy, inseparable from her dog Lucy, a perky and lovable sandy mix. We’re slowly introduced to their situation through visuals, as Wendy tries to sell some aluminum cans at a recycling center; she’s homeless, living out of her car, tightly budgeting things so she can make it to Alaska and work in a cannery. She drives a beat-up Toyota and lives out of it with Lucy, and she’s made it as far as the Northwest. We don’t dwell on or pity her, for she meets some who are less well-off, as she walks Lucy by the railroad tracks. They live in the woods, and ride the trains to get around, modern day hobos.
People living like Wendy are just one crisis away from tragedy, and we get to see it happen. Her car breaks down; she makes a risky decision, and suffers the consequences. The drama mostly plays out on Wendy’s face; Michelle Williams isn’t Maria Falconetti in The Passions of Joan of Arc but she does an excellent job of expressing the history and emotional depth Wendy has with Lucy, and with her family. She’s been in Brokeback Mountain, The Station Agent and Synecdoche, NY as well. Director Kelly Reichardt does a fine job of telling us a story through conversation and images. For example, Wendy’s backstory is explained only through a phone call to her sister, and we know volumes from how she answers: “What do you want now?”
It’s a sad and touching story that gives a face to the marginal. to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald- you can start with a person, and end up with a type; if you start with a type, you end up with nothing. Wendy and Lucy gives us a person who we can empathize with by the end of the film, as she agonizes through decisions and doesn’t always make the right one. Our Puritan heritage may make us want her to suffer for her decisions, but hopefully we also have some Christian charity that can forgive her, and see the long road that led to them, where bootstraps could find no purchase.

Rating: Tasty

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White Dog

Sam Fuller was a genius of trash. Not in the same way John Waters is, but no one made trashy movies into art like Sam. Pickup on South Street– a mouthy woman in a junk shop defiantly talking trash to the mob even as she knows they’re gonna rub her out. The Naked Kiss– a hooker beating a john to death with her shoe. The Big Red One– Lee Marvin lamenting a testicle lost to a land mine with a grunt of “that’s why God gave you two.”

Hey hey mamma gonna make you move… oh wait, that’s Black Dog

His last hurrah was 1982’s White Dog, a movie considered so racially offensive that it didn’t get a theatrical release in the States. Like the similarly shocking Over the Edge (full review), HBO gladly showed it, and it played overseas. But until Criterion released it, it was difficult to find. I decided to revisit this movie because it’s the first Black History month under a black President, and we’re still working out race relations in this country. If you think we’re past that, take a peek at this cartoon from the New York Post. But enough politics- is this a trashy movie or not?

Starring Kristy McNipples

Of course it is. Sam Fuller can’t help himself- he imbues every movie with a gritty noir sensibility that makes him the Weegee of celluloid. He looks at people and places no one else wants to. And White Dog is no exception. Based on a true story of Jean Seberg and her husband’s adoption of an abandoned German shepherd, it stars Kirsty McNichol (The Pirate Movie, The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia) as a young actress named Julie, who hits a white dog with her Mustang one night in the Hollywood hills. She takes the dog home and nurses him back to health; he’s very protective of her, and one night saves her from an intruder. Okay, from a rapist. That does make it seem like an exploitation film now, but in the early ’80s we were still reeling from the crime waves of the ’70s. So she keeps the dog, who’s playful enough.
One day Julie takes him to the set, and he attacks a black actress she’s performing with. Everyone wonders what could have “set him off,” as he’s so friendly otherwise. Her boyfriend is afraid of him, and one night he comes home, after breaking through the fence, smeared in blood. Julie knows something is wrong, and after stopping by the pound- where she accidentally sees a dog getting gassed- she approaches an animal trainer named Carruthers (Burl Ives) to see if he can help. It’s there that she realizes the nature of the dog’s violence, for his partner Keys (Paul Winfield- Conrack, Mars Attacks!) is black and gets attacked immediately. He says the dog is a “white dog”- an attack dog trained to kill black people- but he wants to see if he can cure it.
The trainers tell a sad tale of an attack dog gone bad who turned on his owner after rehabilitation, and Keys takes the case because he wants to see if he can undo the damage. His performance is the centerpiece of the film, and its moral center. He tells Julie how a white dog gets made- maybe the owner paid a black guy who needed money to abuse it as a puppy. He’s no Dog Whisperer, but he takes the dog in and tries several experiments. He’s the only one allowed to feed him. And he wears a shark suit of sorts, so the dog will think attacking black skin is useless. Let’s just say that the movie is an allegory about deeply ingrained, generational racism, and not a dog training tract.
The dog escapes over the fence one night, and when Keys tracks it down, he finds a mauled black man in a local church. Fuller and Winfield’s talents are evident in the discovery scene, where everything is told through reaction shots, and Keys’ guilt, horror and sadness all play across his face. Another powerful scene comes late in the film when Julie is approached by the dog’s previous owner. A sweet old man and his two granddaughters appear at her gate. She confronts him, and tells him they cured his dog. And beseeches his grandchildren to not listen to a word he says. The film is quite blunt and does have the feel of an exploitation film, but the question it asks at its core is important: Can a racist be cured, or is racism just an outlet of a deeper need to hate?

The face of evil

Keys’ experiment does not go well. In the end, he cures the dog from attacking black people, but he turns on Burl Ives’s character- who looks a lot like the dog’s previous owner. The pendulum has swung too far. The hate is what has to be cured, and the target is often one of convenience. The film does have a low budget TV feel, but I wouldn’t call it an After School Special. It’s much too dark and cynical for that. Fuller’s last stand is a bit of a relic, but its one I’m glad resurfaced. White Dog is a movie with a bad reputation that came out during a bad time- the Atlanta child murders. According to Wikipedia, the NAACP protested it before filming even began. It turned out that many of the murders were not a product of racism, but a serial killer. So once again hate was misdirected, and the killer escaped justice for a long time, because he was assumed to be white.

I’d give that dog some holly jolly euthanasia!

Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today? no fucking way
Quotability Rating: nil
Cheese Factor: You gotta love Kristy’s outfit in the first scene
High Points: Paul Winfield and Burl Ives
Low Point: The dog takes out a garbage truck. Damn that’s a mean dog.
Gratuitous Boobies: Kristy McNipples through her tank top

Cable Quickies: Black Sheep

The New Zealand one, not the Chris Farley one. Black Sheep is silly good fun horror- killer mutant sheep on a farm doing genetic experiments. It knows how silly it is, and I think the dry New Zealander sense of humor helps. It’s no Flight of the Conchords, but it’s more subtle than American goof horror usually is. The effects are excellent, the gore is plenty, and the movie is plain good fun for horror fans. Don’t expect scares. They’re sheep, stupid. I liked it.
The basic premise is genetic experimentation on a sheep factory farm gone awry- the sheep go carnivorous, and their bites turn you into a werelamb of New Zealand (baa-whooo!). There are the obvious jokes of the farmer who’s a it too friendly with his herd, hippies vs. scientists, and for its short 90 minutes this is more fun than it ought to be. Good horror with lots of snickers.

Rating: Worthy

Cable Quickies: Anaconda

Sometimes movies are so knowingly stupid that they are great fun. Snakes on a Plane is the most recent example, it knows it’s stupid- or at least Samuel L. Jackson does- and it manages to be predictably entertaining. Before that there was another killer snake movie, and I will daresay a better one: Anaconda. Sure we only get one snake, on a boat, but at one point this snake will be on fire and still trying to kill people, out of pure malice. That’s one bad motherfuckin’ snake.
Plus we get the first realization that Jon Voight will act in anything, long before he became Michael Bay’s go-to guy for “we need some old dude to make this shit believable.” Here he plays a Brazilian snake hunter, who a boat full of scientists- including J.Lo and Ice Cube, cough- run into on their travels on the Amazon. He wants to capture one of the river’s anacondas, and for the movie, they are a hundred feet long and capable of swallowing a man whole, spitting him out half-digested, and eating him again for good measure. This movie is supremely stupid, but it knows it, and manages to be decent fun throughout. It’s up there with Deep Rising– good gross-out action fare, but nothing you’d want to pay for.

Rating: “Enh”

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Kung Fu Panda

Wow, this was a lot better than I expected. It’s like a Sammo Hung kung fu movie with animals. If you don’t know who Sammo Hung is, he’s a chubby kung fu goofball who palled up with Jackie Chan several times and has many great Hong Kong fooey movies to his own credit. With subtle titles like Enter the Fat Dragon, you know what you’re getting into. Kung Fu Panda has some of the same spirit and manages to be more of a kung fu movie than just a kid movie, and that- along with an excellent voice cast- is what makes it worthwhile.
Jack Black plays Po, a panda who works at his father’s noodle shop. His father, Mr. Ping, is a rather goofy-looking duck voiced by the irreplaceable James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China, Blade Runner) who even managed to make Balls of Fury tolerable. Ping’s “secret ingredient noodle soup” is thw town favorite, so Po is too busy slinging noodles to learn kung fu. When he hears that the Shaolin Temple will be choosing the Dragon Warrior- the only disciple worthy of viewing the secrets of the legendary Dragon Scroll- he must attend, but of course Pops wants him to go and sell noodles outside.
The Shaolin Temple is where Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a wizened red panda teaches his disciples, the Furious Five (not Grandmaster Flash’s band, either). They are Mantis, Tigress, Crane, Monkey, and Viper, after the 5 fighting styles of Shaolin. They are played by Seth Rogen, Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu respectively- and all relatively on the down-low, letting their characters speak for themselves, you could say (if anyone steals the show, it’s David Cross’s Crane). Shifu is concerned that his old enemy, Tai Lung- a warrior so fearsome that an entire prison manned with rhino guards was constructed to contain him- may be plotting to escape. He wishes to give one of his students the knowledge of the Dragon Scroll, to be ready for the inevitable battle.
Po lugs his noodle cart up the mountain’s endless stairs, and through his clumsy attempts at viewing the choosing of the Dragon Warrior, his fat black ‘n white butt ends up in the middle of the ceremony. And of course, the wise elder Oogway- an ancient turtle, who like all kung fu masters, looks frail and slow but has powers that Yoda would envy- chooses the lowly fat panda to be the Dragon Warrior. Can such a lazy, gluttonous kung fu fanboy be trained to fight at all? Can he convince Master Shifu to take him seriously?

From here on it reminded me a lot of Jackie Chan’s earlier kung fu comedies like Half a Loaf of Kung Fu and the original Drunken Master. There is plenty of character-based humor and wordplay to keep the adults laughing while the slapstick keeps the kiddies rolling. Po is hapless and helpless. Sure, he’s a kung fu fanboy but he is beaten by a training dummy. But he’s got what fighters call “heart,” because he never gives up. Even when he probably should. When Tai Lung escapes (of course), Shifu has no choice but to train him.
The story is nothing new- it’s like a hundred kung fu films where the unlikely, destined warrior must be trained to defeat the undefeatable, but in Kung Fu Panda the humor, stunningly gorgeous backgrounds and catchy character designs, and the characters themselves make it shine. Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu is the one who must redeem himself, in a change of pace- Po will always be Po, and just needs to believe in himself, as disciples must. Po’s Daddy Duck Mr. Ping- who we at first expect to be a joke, or be the Angry Dad who wants to ruin his dreams- also gets a touching layer of depth that will make you stop wondering how he fathered a panda in the first place.
The animation is quite good, and while the battles are a little less exciting when you’ve seen Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, which brings them to such a level of ridiculousness that even animation can’t top them, but the training sequences are both funny and exhilarating. There’s a fight over a dumpling that is so perfect that you’ll know they watched many, many classic old kung fu flicks and loved them before embarking on this project. And that’s what made the movie for me- sure, it’s not at the level of Pixar, but like Horton Hears a Who!, it strives for that level of excellence. Unlike Horton, it doesn’t quite reach it story-wise, but it’s still a blast and much better than I expected. Few, if any pop culture references, and the stars play characters, not themselves.

For example Ian McShane (Deadwood, Hot Rod) plays Tai Lung- a power-hungry warrior who’s not evil, or even misunderstood- but when we find out why he wants that Dragon Scroll so badly, he’s a character, not just a Bad Guy. But of course, whether you will like or hate this movie really depends on what you think of Jack Black- he’s more self-effacing here than in his usual persona, as in Tenacious D, but if you find him grating this movie is not for you. I found Po refreshing after Black’s habit of playing (with) himself, and his timing is perfect. Ebert complained that he isn’t charismatic enough, but that’s sort of the joke- I wouldn’t want to be around Jeff Lebowski all the time either.

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Bolt

Bolt is the story of the star of a TV show I can summarize as “24 meets Inspector Gadget– he’s a superpowered cyborg canine protecting Penny, a kidnapped scientist’s daughter from the maniacal clutches of Doctor Calico and his Cackling Kitty Accomplice. The show depends on him thinking everything is real, so one day after a cliffhanger episode, he thinks he really needs to rescue Penny- and gets shipped in a packing crate to New York. Having lost his powers, he takes a street cat hostage, thinking she’s the cat from the show, hooks up with a fanboy hamster in a hamsterball and has harrowing adventures, and learns the power of love, friendship and perseverance.
I enjoyed Bolt, but don’t think it deserves nomination over Horton Hears a Who!– it’s good fun, and has an emotional ending, but you can still see the Disney formula from stinkers like Home on the Range affecting it. For example, superstar Miley Cyrus voices Penny, but her character is given no real depth. She’s there to get Hannah Montana fans into seats. In fact, according to IMDb, Chloe Moretz (Dirty Sexy Money) had already voiced the role of Penny before Cyrus was brought in to overdub it. They should have stuck with a real actress. John Travolta voices Bolt and does a fine job disappearing into the part. Susie Essman- the foul-mouthed wife of Jeff Garlin from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” steals the show as Mittens the New Yawk street cat who shakes down pigeons and teaches Bolt how easily humans throw away their pets like so much garbage. She’s nearly upstaged by the crazy TV fanboy hamster Rhino (Mark Walton), who was just a little too crazy for me.

The humans are all Hollywood caricatures, meant to make us feel like little Hollywood insiders. Part of me wanted the whole “He’s a TV star who thinks it’s real!” gimmick to go away, and actually watch Penny and Bolt escape from endless attack helicopters, but kids have to get their dose of vitamins and irony these days. I can see Disney not wanting to tread on Pixar’s toes when Lasseter & co. have had a lock on the classic sentimental cartoon for decades, but this story feels a little too much like a Hollywood pitch. There’s still plenty to like- a hilarious and exciting sequence where Bolt & co. escape from a shelter, for example. I found the ending genuinely touching, but there was just a little too much cliche here and there for me to consider this great instead of good, even in the small pond of Best Animated Features of 2008. Horton got robbed. TraBolta!!!!

Disney has gotten a lot better. Despite dropping their classic animation department for 3-D after the spectacular micro-managerial bungling of the otherwise good Treasure Planet, they’ve finally managed to claw a toe-hold and stand with the big boys in CG. Bolt may not be great, but it’s a big move in the right direction. Maybe one day they will continue where Lilo & Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove left off.

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