Sunday, January 25, 2009

Talk Cinema, 1-25-2009, Wendy and Lucy

After 6 weeks, Talk Cinema has resumed at the AFI for the start of the Spring session. Today’s film was “Wendy and Lucy,” an unabashed indie film in every way (and the third movie I have seen this month featuring a yellow Labrador Retriever, same breed as my incorrigible puppy.

The 4th feature from director Kelly Reichardt, Wendy and Lucy follows a brief slice of life for young Wendy, a barely out of her teens waif and her beloved dog Lucy, enroute from Indiana to Alaska to find work. We find them as they sojourn briefly in Oregon. Down on her luck and her money, Wendy foolhardily shoplifts some dog food for Lucy, leaving Lucy tied up outside of the store. Wendy is apprehended and arrested and spends several hours in jail before being allowed to pay a fine and get set free. By the time she returns to the store to retrieve Lucy, Lucy is gone. Much of the movie involves her efforts to find Lucy despite increasingly daunting odds.

This turns out to be a much bleaker movie than I was prepared for, though, like all good films, it has managed to linger in my mind for days after viewing it. The only star is Michelle Williams as Wendy, Lucy played by the director’s own dog, Lucy (why bother to contrive fictional names?). Most people remember Williams as Heath Ledger’s wife in “Brokeback Mountain” (and his 'baby mama' in real life) but she remains that indie film staple: the relatively unknown actor. Her portrayal is low-key, almost invisible, yet she displays enormous depth without the usual actorly histrionics. Her Wendy, like the movie itself, lingers. Talk Cinema moderator Bob Mondello referred to Wendy and Lucy as the first recession era movie, likely the first of many.

The movie is scoreless, save for the tune Wendy hums throughout the film (to the annoyance of many in the audience). The photography is competent but unremarkable. The acting throughout is good in that indie way, with none of the disquiet we feel watching non-actors in low-budget films. All of the actors have acted before in something or somewhere.

The movie is bleak, but not slit-your-wrists bleak, more of an Edward Hopper/Andrew Wyeth/Hughie Lee-Smith bleak. Sure won’t do much for Oregon tourism, though. Never been and based solely on this film, feel no desire to go. Ultimately a difficult film to recommend to all but the most die-hard film nerds (like myself).

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Gran Torino," the other yellow lab movie

I caught the other yellow lab movie last night, AKA "Gran Torino." Clint Eastwood plays a crusty but ultimately lovable curmudgeon, Korean War veteran, retired Ford auto worker, spewer of politically incorrect ethnic rhetoric, and last European American White guy left on the block (he's Polish American). Oh, and he owns an aging yellow lab named Daisy.

Much of the film plays like an after-school special version of racial healing, but I give it kudos for introducing us to the Hmong culture ("a people, not a country" as spunky Hmong teenager/next door neighbor Sue Lor corrects Clint, a people who sided with the Americans in Viet Nam and who had to flee with the Americans with the fall of Saigon, these particular Hmongs winding up in Detroit courtesy of Lutheran charity).

With the exception of Sue Lor ( Ahney Her) the acting is spotty (Clint's direction or inexperienced actors?). The subplot with the earnest and naive local Catholic parish priest goes nowhere and compared with a powerhouse film like "Doubt" suffers immensely in comparison.

Some critics have complained that Eastwood's character is profligate with the ethnic slurs yet he assiduously avoids using the 'N' word. I am not among them. Eastwood's real-life son Scott plays a hip-hop loving dilettante loser whom Clint's character takes apparent delight in excoriating in their scene together.

Don't get me wrong: its a good movie and worth watching on a number of levels. Still its a flawed film which is being hyped as though it were Eastwood's swan song. As an Eastwood fan since his Rowdy Yates days on TVs "Rawhide," I prefer to hope that he has many more films in him.

The film's theme song BTW was co-written by Eastwood's son Kyle. The song was nominated for a Golden Globe and Clint manages to croak out the first verse over the closing credits (shades of his "Paint Your Wagon" warbling). Not a bad song when song by the pros.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Marley and Me"

Though Daughter Curmudgeon and I recently brought home our new Puppy Curmudgeon (the Incorrigible puppy), and though he happens to be a yellow lab, we only recently got around to seeing the movie about the yellow lab, "Marley & Me." Apparently yellow labs are the new 'in' dog. Even crusty Clint Eastwood's character in "Gran Torino" has a yellow lab.

As to the movie, it is being publicized as a none-stop laugh fest as stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston bring home their wreck-happy 'clearance puppy' Marley (as in Bob Marley).

Instead what we get is a wistful mediation on the impermanence of life and the fragility of marriage and love. A funny movie, to be sure, but mercifully largely free of the proverbial madcap mayhem and contrived hilarity we've come to expect from Gollywood.

By the end of the movie when Marley's brief life has run its course there is a protracted death scene which approaches maudlin but stops short (like a dog in response to an invisible fence) and in the final analysis the filmmakers earns every one of those sniffles and sobs and moist eyes throughout the audience.

Producers seem to have caught on because as I sit here typing this a re-packaged "Marley and Me" TV commercial just aired which actually said "You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll fall in love." (Gak! Please tell me they were being ironic, or even meta-ironic.)

Go see it anyway.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

"Cadillac Records" is not a hoopty

I caught "Cadillac Records" tonight, which curiously is only showing at a couple of suburban MD theaters, one of which was the Magic Johnson theater (which I avoid like the plague because people still don't know how to turn off their cell phones there. Plus they've managed to turn the place from a jewel into a dump in record time, but that's another blog post).

Anyway, I caught the movie at Muvico Arundel Mills, on a Saturday evening and the place was packed. I LOVED this movie, flawed though it was.

They keep trying to push "Cadillac Records" as a starring vehicle for Beyoncé Knowles who plays Etta James. Truth is, Etta doesn't show up till one hour into the film. Beyonce acquits herself well enough, particularly with her acting. As the great blues singer though she manages merely to suggest Etta James' singing more than embody it. James' trademark growl is reduced to more of a purr, too polished and refined to 'feel' the pain in James' vocals. Or put another way, Etta James sings like a beat-up '54 Ford rusting in the yard and Beyonce Knowles sounds about as rough as a new Lexus in need of a tune-up. This not a knock on Beyonce, who has worked her entire career to sound as smooth and polished as she could. She certainly doesn't embarrass herself in this role (for embarrassingly bad think Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in "Lady Sings the Blues").

I spend entirely too much time defending Beyonce to my co-workers (the DC Curmudgeon and the Jamaican Curmudgeon) who insist that she is just a talentless beauty with a body. I don't get the hate and the resentment. Anyone who has heard Beyonce's duets with Luther Vandross (try "The Closer I Get To You") can tell she can sing, and most of her songs are not badly sung, merely mindless pap, today's version of bubble gum music. Like the old commercial used to say "don't hate her because she's beautiful." She's also been blessed with talent and good fortune, none of which should take away from her trying to stretch and embody women who weren't.

The revelation in "Cadillac Records" is DC's own Jeffrey Wright (who's been great in all his roles, but most notably in "Basquiat," John Singleton's "Shaft," "Angels in America," and "Syriana") as Muddy Waters. His is a portrayal worthy of strong consideration come acting award season. And not far behind is Columbus Short as harmonica player Little Walter. This brother seems to have come out of nowhere to almost steal the movie. Close behind (but not by much) are Mos Def ("Something the Lord Made") as Chuck Berry and British actor Eamonn Walker ("Oz") who is downright scary as Howlin' Wolf.

Adrien Brody ("The Pianist ," "The Darjeeling Limited ," "Summer of Sam") was reliably good as Chess records owner Leonard Chess (although I overheard a White lady grousing as she exited that they should have chosen someone not so pretty to play Chess).

The film's African American director is Darnell Martin, a woman whose only other movie was 1994's "I Like It Like That ", a Hispanic love story set in NYC, and a very good movie in its own right. I like the way Martin embodied the time periods in "Cadillac Records" both in cotton-picking Mississippi and Northern migration Chicago, much more believable an evocation of the time period than one normally sees in most biopics, including "Ray." As with all biopics the film is necessarily episodic. Still I'm glad she included such seminal figures as Alan Lomax who travelled the deep south in the 30s and 40s recording blues singers and other rural folk artists for the Library of Congress.

"Cadillac Records" is a wonderful addition to the pantheon of historical cinema and an invaluable history lesson to those to whom this period and the blues are foreign.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

Last night, my daughter (AKA the kid curmudgeon) and I brought in the new year by christening the fireplace in our new house and roasting marshmallows and making 'smores just like she used to do in the Girl Scouts. Doesn't get any better than that.

2008 turned out to be a good year for the IC. I became a home-owner at long last (one man's downturn is another man's opportunity) and we became dog-owners finally (a yellow lab, AKA the puppy curmudgeon). And of course Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential sweepstakes to see who would get the opportunity to clean up George W. Bush's 8 years of pooping on the US and the world's carpet and peeing on our constitution and our rights.

Here's to Barack Obama getting us back on track in 2009 and for a happy and healthy and safe New Year for us all!