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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The Oscars 2009


The big surprise was I forgot that Hugh Jackman can sing- he was “The Boy from Oz” after all. The opening number with its Be Kind Rewind style sets and snappy lyrics was more fun than most of what followed. The choices were pretty expected, but they surprised me with some of their choices this year, but not always in a good way. I did like the “former-winner” round table method of introducing the best performance categories. That was an inspired choice. The tip-tap-typing for the screenwriting categories? Not so much.

Best Supporting Actress, Penelope Cruz. I like her too, but I didn’t think that movie really showcased her talents or made her very memorable. I was quite surprised they didn’t pick Viola Davis, who was amazing in a short amount of time.

No surprise on Animated Feature or Heath Ledger; those picks were in a long time ago. Same with Man on Wire for documentary- why not a feelgood movie, instead of reminding us about Katrina or Abu Ghraib? To be fair, Man on Wire is very compelling. Plus, Philip Petit balanced the Oscar on his chin, that was sort of cool. He’s still infectiously cheerful 35 years after wowing the world by performing his amazing stunt.

As for Best Visual Effects, I had a feeling Benjamin Button would sweep them up. I was hoping Iron Man might get it, as the visuals were pretty impressive there. Sound Editing for Dark Knight was nice, I thought Slumdog might grab it- it got Sound Mixing instead, and I must say for a drama it had an impressive and creative mix. Then again, those are the Oscars no one cares about.

I was very glad Danny Boyle got Best Director. I think Fincher will earn one eventually, but Benjamin Button was not the movie for it. If he has to wait to make his Departed 30 years from now, so be it. As for Kate Winslet, she was the best part of a clumsily constructed movie, and did a great job with a complex character. She deserved recognition, and while Anne Hathaway may have done a fantastic job, hopefully she’ll have more chances to earn an award.

I was also surprised that Sean Penn got it for Milk- it was a great performance, but I guess I was hoping Mickey Rourke would get the nod. I guess he’s got to be satisfied with a nomination, maybe they thought he was just playing himself? At least it gave Penn a chance to mention the shame of Prop 8, and give Mickey some kudos for clawing his way back up from self-destruction.

And no surprise, Slumdog Millionaire grabbed the gold. It was an old basic story, told fresh, in a refreshing way. It reminded me of The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp, a Pressburger & Powell epic that told its story through flashbacks, but Danny Boyle and company made it a thrilling and emotional ride. I’m glad it won, but I wish The Wrestler and The Dark Knight got more recognition.

Frozen River

Desperation is not a place, but a long journey. So often we look at those in worse situations than us and say “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” when unlike us they weren’t born into a pair of nice boots and no one ever taught them how to tie their shoes, much less balance a checkbook. In Frozen River, we meet Ray Eddie (Melissa Leo, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) on a very bad day. Her husband is gone, probably off to a casino; her kids are hungry, and their new house (a double-wide, naturally) can’t be delivered because hubby ran off with the cash. The bootstraps have long since been worn to shreds.
But she tries anyway. We see her waking up to begin her day with her sons- the young Ricky and the older T.J.- and the opening shot is on her weathered face, and her tattooed, lean body as he pulls on a sweater. The lines on her face show the hard road she’s been on, and it’s impossible to tell her age, but I’d lean to the younger side. She’s had it rough, living in upstate New York near the Canadian border, next to the Mohawk Reservation. She works retail, and they live in a beat-up single-wide trailer, with nothing but “popcorn and Tang” to eat. But they have a big TV, so you get an idea of her missing husband’s priorities.

She goes looking for him at the casino on the Res, where she finds his abandoned car- while she’s there, a Mohawk woman hops in his car and takes off. She follows her to her even more meager home- a tiny trailer in the woods, and bangs on her door. When she won’t come out, Ray takes out a purse gun and shoots a hole in her trailer. She’s got issues of her own. She gets her keys back, but can’t take two cars back… long story short, she needs the woman inside’s help. Lila (Misty Upham) is in the midst of her own personal tragedy, and wanted the car to make money smuggling illegals across the frozen river from Canada to the States, all on Mohawk territory where it’s tough for the cops to intervene. And when Ray sees how easily she can solve her monetary woes, they strike a wary partnership.
Lila teaches Ray about the business- they shuttle Chinese illegals, who pay snakeheads to smuggle them in. The debt is upwards of forty thousand, and they work years to pay it off. “They pay forty thousand dollars? To come here?” What’s unspoken is that while Ray and Lila are struggling, others have it so bad they’d enslave themselves to have a chance at their shitty situation. Ray just wants enough cash to get the doublewide, which Ricky asked Santa Claus for. At home, T.J. does his best to raise his brother, but has a disturbing habit of playing with the blowtorch his Dad gave him, and we keep waiting for Ray to come home to cinders and corpses.

Courtney Hunt’s film doesn’t give us predictable outcomes. Lila has bad eyes and can’t afford glasses; her money gets dropped off anonymously to her sister-in-law, who takes care of Lila’s year-old son. Her husband died in a smuggling run when he broke through the ice; we keep waiting to see it happen again. Like Hitchcock, she knows that the ticking bomb under the table is much more effective than the explosion. We see the shady edges of society that fuel the smuggling operation- a strip club run by the ever-slimy Mark Boone Junior (Batman Begins, 30 Days of Night).
Ray and Lila shuttle a Pakistani couple over the ice, and they have a duffel bag that Ray is suspicious of. She tosses it on the ice, not wanting to be responsible if they’re terrorists, but that sets a whole sequence of events in motion, and it doesn’t end like you expect. The one predictable occurrence is that Ray wants to do one last run to pay off the trailer, and pushes her luck. But once again, the story doesn’t end where you expect. There is a strong emotional payoff, tempered by the bond between the two struggling women.

As excellent as Melissa Leo’s Oscar-nominated performance is, the script is even better. It is also nominated, and up against Milk, WALL-E, In Bruges, and Happy-Go-Lucky it has some stiff competition. It’s a worthy opponent in its own right, and while I’d love to see Bruges or Lucky get a nod, I can’t see the Academy ignoring two excellent movies that touch on illegal immigration- this and The Visitor– this year. Frozen River and Visitor, with more money and big names, would be sitting where Frost/Nixon and The Reader are in the Best Picture category. In my mind they’re more deserving.

5 dead snakeheads out of 5

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Changeling

This is a solid police procedural and period drama based on the true story of the disappearance of Walter Collins, a 9 year old boy in Los Angeles in the late ’20s. Angelina Jolie is excellent as the distraught mother, who butts heads with the corrupt L.A.P.D. and pays the price, but never, ever gives up. Like Zodiac, the movie recreates a city at a certain time- this is Los Angeles on the cusp of the depression, and Christine Collins (Jolie) is a rare single mother, working as a switchboard operator. One day she is called in on a weekend, and she tells Walter she’ll have the neighbors check in on him. He’s a quiet, well-behaved boy. But when she comes home, he is gone.
Her calls to the police go largely ignored; they assume he’s a runaway, and there is little they can do except see if he shows up as a lost child. In the meanwhile we hear Reverend Briegleb (John Malkovich) on the radio, railing against the corruption of the L.A.P.D. And we get to see it first hand, when Christine refuses to be ignored and beats her head against the wall that is Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, Sleepers). Months go by, and finally Walter is found- traveling with a hobo in the midwest. After the corruption charges, the higher-ups in the force want a big photo op for their success. But when the train arrives, Christine doesn’t recognize her son. Surrounded by police and reporters pressuring her, she admits that perhaps he has changed, and takes him home.
A mother knows her own son, but eventually she proves to herself that he is indeed a changeling- another boy masquerading as her son. He is 3 inches shorter, but refuses to do anything but call her “Mom,” even when confronted with friends and teachers who he doesn’t recognize. The movie has an almost supernatural creepiness, as we generally trust children. The story goes places you don’t want to imagine, as Christine hunts down her real son. The movie is based on occurrences we imagine only happening in the present day, and not in the wholesome past, but monsters have always been with us.
They take some liberties with the truth and the third act is a bit weak; not knowing when to end the story, making us think some justice was done when it wasn’t, and giving us a silly “saved by the bell” rescue when Christine is thrown in a mental institution. But the acting is solid, the story heart-wrenching and chilling, because the basics are very true. Angelina Jolie gives a strong performance, and Eastwood’s direction is some of his best yet, with the cinematography standing out. This would make a fine pairing with another great crime drama, L.A. Confidential. It is based on the true story of the Wineville Chicken Murders, and how corruption in the police force let the unthinkable occur while they lined their pockets- something we should not soon forget.

Rating: 4 shots of Angelina being firehosed out of 5

Shotgun Stories

Channeling David Gordon Green and using his cinematographer, Shotgun Stories is an excellent breakout film by Jeff Nichols about two sets of sons of a now-reformed alcoholic bastard of a father, who finally meet. At first it sounds like a redneck joke, but give it a chance. Michael Shannon plays Son- wearing scars from a shotgun blast on his back and simmering with unrequited rage. His brothers are Boy- a likeable basketball coach who lives, as they say, in a van down by the river- and Kid, the youngest and most lost of the three. He lives in a tent on Son’s lawn. But he’s got a girl he wants to marry someday. Their names make evident how little they were cared about by their runaway father and their “hateful woman” of a mother. We meet them through quiet, muted vignettes of their poor, common lives- working at fish farms, trying to run an air conditioner off a car battery, holding court on the front porch. It could be a joke on Arkansas if it wasn’t handled by someone who grew up there.
One day mom shows up to tell them their Dad has died. In a brief scene we learn all there is to know about their past. “When’s the funeral?” “You can find out in the paper.” “You going?” “No.” Well, Son and his bothers do go, and find their father’s new family grieving over his coffin. Son says that whatever good he did after he left them will never erase all the wrongs he committed, and spits on the corpse, sparking a blood feud. The “new family” only knew a loving father, and is outraged; the first set of boys only knows an abusive monster.
It does not spiral into a revenge or rednexploitation film from here, even though it easily could. If anything, it resembles the excellent Dead Man’s Shoes, but is much more reserved. Amazingly, first time actors- especially “Boy,” and “Shampoo,” a local instigator who seems to treat the two sets of sons like ants to make fight- hold up to Michael Shannon’s organic ability and piercing eyes. If you thought he stole the show in Revolutionary Road you owe it to yourself to rent this.
Like Green’s All the Real Girls and George Washington, Nichols’ Shotgun Stories deftly captures the feeling of small town rural life, and makes us pay fierce attention to its subtle maneuverings. This is one of the best overlooked films of last year and encapsulates the pain of being wronged, and the difficulty of coming to peace with it. The film does not end as you might expect, and even when no one’s inner rage is bursting forth, it’s a good time sitting with these boys. And if you pay close attention, you’ll learn the shotgun story.

Dark Knight IMAX

Finally saw The Dark Knight in IMAX with the Firecracker this week, and boy was it worth it. It’s been re-released, so if you missed it, now’s your chance. It definitely holds up. I forgot how good Aaron Eckhart was in this, even beside Heath Ledger, who managed to create a new Joker from what we new, and make him fresh and frightening. Ledger is a cinch for the Oscar even without the sympathy vote, he’s that iconic.
Yes, the “Batman voice” gets grating, but he would have to disguise it. They manage to weave many plotlines deftly, and it reminded me of Michael Mann’s Heat in how it put two driven, obsessed men against each other on two opposite sides of order and chaos. The IMAX scenes are stunning, and hopefully more and more action films will be using the format thanks to this film. It truly sets the bar extremely high for the “comic book movie” and I wouldn’t even call it a superhero film. Batman’s “wonderful toys” were so much a part of the background that this was more of a technothriller, if only because of the sonar.
Truly one of the best films of the year, despite what the Academy says. Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky aren’t getting respect this year, so I plan to record the Oscars and fast forward through the commercials, in a half-assed sort of boycott. NYAH!

Apparently the IMAX scenes look awesome on Blu-Ray:
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Doubt

As a fallen Catholic, I usually avoid movies about the church. Either they are by confused outsiders who demonize or glorify it, or by those who left in bitterness and have axes to grind. Doubt, instead gives us a story of characters, of beliefs, and lets them clash in a working class parish in 1964. You could say it is about Father Flynn, an eloquent young priest, is accused of molesting an altar boy on the flimsiest of evidence.

But the story is not just about whether he did it or not, but the different ways he, Sister James, and Sister Aloysius view their job as religious figures and how they view the world. The movie begins with Father Flynn, Philip Seymour Hoffman at his most charismatic, giving a sermon on how doubt can make us stronger. Sister Aloysius- Meryl Streep in yet another stunning role that makes her Devil Wears Prada character look cute and cuddly- takes umbrage at his unorthodox sermon and asks a new nun to keep an eye on him, and “see what is giving him doubts.” Sister James is played by Amy Adams (Junebug, Enchanted), a meek and compassionate teacher whose students walk all over her.
She feels uncomfortable watching Father Flynn with suspicion; she tells Sister Aloysius so, and she says that when we seek out wrongdoing, “we must step away from God.” Are we allowed to sin to root out sin? Aloysius seems to think so. She believes strongly in first impressions, and we see her find misbehaving children with an almost psychic ability. She uses fear as her tool of correction, and suggests that James put a photograph of a pope- any pope- on the blackboard so she can see what the kids are doing behind her, so they think she has eyes in the back of her head. Father Flynn is more welcoming and compassionate, wanting his students to be comfortable with him, the church, and themselves.

Everything changes when Sister James reports back to Aloysius with suspicious behavior. The one black student, Donald Miller, is upset after a visit to Father Flynn’s office. And he has alcohol on his breath. What could this mean? Aloysius has an idea, and it is not the first time she has taken down a priest for violating his trust with children. She sets her sights on Father Flynn, but Sister James is unsure that the evidence is strong enough. Is her compassionate nature making her weak, or is Aloysius’s nature making her too eager to see sin in others?
In a movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep battling it out with strong newcomer Amy Adams on the sidelines, it is surprising that the strongest scene is not their inevitable clash, but when Sister Aloysius confronts the boy’s mother (Viola Davis, in an Oscar nominated performance). Mrs. Miller has a surprising and heartwrenching outlook on the situation, and while Aloysius questions her love for her son, it is as fierce as her cynicism. I can’t remember how long this scene is, it feels almost like a movie in itself, though it only spans a few minutes.

The opening sermon is the overture for the film, and doubt is seeded in our own minds. The film’s ambiguity is its greatest strength. As a play, it was said it was one act, and the second act was when the audience discussed it after the curtain was down. And it still works. I sided with Father Flynn, but I’m not so sure. It’s clear he’s done something, but what?
As a former Catholic I enjoyed seeing the rituals of the church, and how different the nuns and priests lived. The nuns were almost ascetic, while the priests seemed decadent in comparison. I remember youth activities at my parish, and while we a classic fat Irish priest, all the nuns were slim. The period also gave us a peek at how differently sex and race were treated a mere 40 years ago, and I thought it was handled very well. The direction was a bit heavy handed on the Dutch angles and the reaction of lightbulbs and wind around Sister Aloysius, but this is a strong story with four excellent performances, and it is definitely one of the best movies of 2008. I’d give it Best Picture before Frost/Nixon or The Reader.

5 Dukes of Doubt out of 5