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3 Stars Movies

Billy Bob Thornton’s doomed All the Pretty Horses

The doomed All the Pretty Horses should have, by all rights, been a golden ticket for all involved. Let’s run through its pedigree and prestige factors:

  • based on an acclaimed novel with popular name recognition
  • directed by an indie darling
  • screenplay by a proven specialist in adapting novels to film
  • starring beautiful young up-and-comers
  • score by a notable musician/producer
  • distributed by a household-name movie company known for boffo box office and landing major awards

Instead, a heavily compromised version underperformed and was widely panned, demoralizing director Billy Bob Thornton, alienating musician Daniel Lanois, and generally disappointing everyone. Thornton’s presence in the tabloids at the time may have contributed to audiences not taking him seriously. But the key to understanding what what went wrong is, unsurprisingly, Miramax and — trigger warning! — Harvey Weinstein. Yuck.

Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures is an essential history of the indie boomlet within the 1990s movie industry. Particular attention is paid to the illustrative saga of Miramax, for whom Thornton had made a tremendous splash as writer, director, and star of Sling Blade in 1996. Studio cofounder Harvey Weinstein was riding high at the time for his marketing acumen, but was simultaneously loathed for interfering in the artistic process — to the point where he was known within the industry as “Harvey Scissorhands”.

Matt Damon and Henry Thomas in All the Pretty Horses
Matt Damon and Henry Thomas wonder what went wrong.

Biskind relates how Weinstein forced Thornton to excise more than an hour from his initial 3-4 hour assembly cut, partly out of understandable practicality (a shorter running time would allow theaters to run more screenings per day) but also petty retaliation for Thornton’s refusal years before to similarly abbreviate Sling Blade. Thornton has since asserted that the assembly cut was just that, and distinct from his intended 2 hour and 42 minute cut. However unjust the butchery may have been, it’s hard to imagine how Thorton thought he could possibly get a nearly three-hour-long film into theaters without having a contractual right to final cut, even under a hypothetical producer less ruthless than Weinstein.

After Orson Welles met similar obstacles during the making of The Magnificent Ambersons, he struggled for the rest of his life to continue making movies his way. Biskind heartbreakingly describes Thornton as beaten down and defeated, to the point where he suffered health issues. In the coming years, Weinstein’s far worse abuses of power would become more widely known. In light of how he abused and exploited women, the stifling of a few movies may seem rather unimportant. But it is a pity that this particular one is so compromised.

Penélope Cruz in All the Pretty Horses
Penélope Cruz has more chemistry with this hat than she does with Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses. Seriously though, she looks fantastic in this hat.

It’s difficult to judge how I might have experienced the film if I had not known ahead of time that it was so heavily edited, but it does feel off somehow. It has notably uneven pacing; weirdly accelerating through some plot developments with choppy montages, especially in the opening sequence when Cole (Matt Damon) is forced to leave his family ranch, but slows down to a pensive crawl for others. The romance between Cole and Alejandra (Penélope Cruz) feels inert, and the looming threat from her powerful, overprotective father (Rubén Blades) never materializes. It’s hard to guess whether the full film fleshed any of this out.

Miramax was not averse to letting finished films sit on the shelf if deemed not of box office or award value — or, perversely, if insurance incentivized them to strategically not release them. Miramax also doesn’t have much of a history of releasing special editions for the home entertainment market, even for their biggest pictures. So for a movie that was not a success in its ostensibly more commercial Scissorhands incarnation, it’s interesting to note that Miramax did entertain the release of the director’s cut of All the Pretty Horses on DVD, but Thornton and Lanois refused.

Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses
From the movie’s brief foray into a ruthlessly bleak world more characteristic of Cormac McCarthy’s oeuvre.

Weinstein had disliked Lanois’ unconventional guitar-based score, despite his fame and proven success with Sling Blade, and commissioned an entirely new, more conventional one from Marty Stuart. Lanois now proudly refuses to license his original score in any form, and Thornton will not release his director’s cut without it. Thornton and Lanois are still close friends, as evidenced by his appearance in the documentary Here Is What Is, so it’s safe to say the conflict is not between them. Hopefully now that Weinstein split from Miramax in 2005, the company folded in 2010, and Weinstein is finally incarcerated, cooler heads might allow the proper release of the definitive film and score.

Another ray of hope is that Cormac McCarthy has since become an even bigger literary superstar — having been selected for Oprah’s Book Club and enjoyed successful film adaptations of his novels No Country for Old Men and The Road — and perhaps his hard-earned Hollywood clout might help a definitive version of All the Pretty Horses see the light of day. The counterargument is that his collaboration with Ridley Scott, The Counselor, was itself a bizarre fiasco.

All the Pretty Horses is probably one of McCarthy’s most palatable works, which I don’t intend as a backhanded compliment; it is more accessible in comparison to his more characteristic poetically bleak tone. Its back half (the protagonist’s imprisonment and an extended chase sequence) is closer in spirit and tone to the likes of Blood Meridian, but its core elements of friendship and romance provide some relief from the brutality of his resolutely cruel literary universe. As the first volume in a loose trilogy called The Border Trilogy, Thornton’s film could very well have kicked off a motion picture franchise. Revisiting or continuing this saga is unlikely to say the least, but it would be welcome.

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4 Stars Movies

The sexual revolution freezes over in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm

The Ice Storm takes place at the precise moment when the burned-out remnants of the ’60s sexual revolution belatedly limped into the disaffected ’70s suburbia. The centerpiece of the film is a supposedly liberating “key party” that proves otherwise, thanks to long-simmering resentments and inhibitions. Two generations of two families clash during a single disastrous night, beset by heavily portentous bad weather and bad ideas.

Director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus adapt Rick Moody’s novel, in what was either a nightmare or dream come true for art directors and costume designers. The very specific milieu of New Canaan, Connecticut in 1973 is rendered in oranges and browns, with the cast clad in plaids and shaggy hair, and the sets dressed with period flotsam like water beds and packing peanuts.

Indeed, its overpowering upper-middle-class ’70s tackiness was the primary talking point at the time, and I recall titters from the audience when I first saw it in the theater. The fashions may be unflattering for most of the cast, but it must be noted that Sigourney Weaver looks stunning regardless.

The Ice Storm
A key party may have seemed like an exciting idea in the abstract.

In the 2008 Criterion Collection edition, production designer Mark Friedberg describes recreating his childhood playroom, designed by his architect father. He also incorporated his grandmother’s paintings and his father’s furniture. Realizing the titular ice storm took a couple strategies, depending on the surface, including hair gel, cast resin, and biodegradable goop.

The striking visuals are made even more convincing by the crinkling, crackling sound design. Also of note is the minimalist score by Michael Danna, featuring a Native American flute. The end credits feature another creature of the 1970s: David Bowie’s melancholic re-recorded version of “I Can’t Read.”

The film and novel both cite the Marvel Comics series Fantastic Four, which features a uniquely dysfunctional family unit. The conceit is effective, if a little obvious. Lee and Schamus would later more directly explore this territory in the under-appreciated Hulk (2003). I am also reminded of Todd Field’s Little Children (2006), which also posits that the behavior of adults and their children is not all that different — albeit in a bone-dry satirical tone that makes it a hard movie to like.

Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, and Christina Ricci in The Ice Storm
“Sometimes the shepherd needs the comfort of the sheep”

The casting for The Ice Storm is excellent all around, particularly for the young actors, who all went places. Tobey Maguire and Elijah Wood would each go on to headline major franchises. The former plays a complex character, perhaps the only one who comes through the evening with his innocence intact. Yes, he had dark designs that wreak havoc, but he pulls back from causing real harm. Christina Ricci is especially perfect here; she appears worldly and cynical beyond her age, and yet simultaneously so young and vulnerable.

Of the four deleted scenes included in the Criterion Collection edition, two foreshadow the fateful key party. With these scenes cut, the party is less signposted as a significant event, and its true nature as a pivotal moment comes more of a surprise:

  1. Ben (Kevin Kline) at the office, concerned with stagflation. Schamus cut the scene because it was “too funny” – this despite the fact they were under the impression the movie as a whole was going to be funnier than it turned out: uncomfortable and squirmy.
  2. Elena (Joan Allen) and the reverend at a diner, before the party. Timely gas crisis lines are visible out the window.
  3. Ben & Elena in bed, mentioning the party again.
  4. Paul (Maguire) calls Wendy (Ricci) with a “moral dilemma.” He hasn’t been privy to what she’s been up to in his absence, so he doesn’t know she’s probably the wrong person to come to with these kinds of problems.

On the same disc, Rick Moody describes seeing an adaptation of his work as someone else’s interpretation of your dream. Like a translation of a poem into another language, it is patently impossible, and says more about the translator than the original poet.

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3 Stars Movies

Harvey Keitel Calls First, in Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door?

Martin Scorsese‘s first feature film Who’s That Knocking at My Door? was shot over the course of several years, and was originally released in 1967 as I Call First. Its piecemeal origins are betrayed by two discrete sequences: one recounting the misadventures of a group of slacker friends in downtown New York, and a very different, more character and dialogue-driven love story between J.R. (Harvey Keitel) and the unnamed “Girl on the Staten Island Ferry” (Zina Bethune).

Non-linear cross-cutting between the two adds up to more than the sum of their parts. J.R. is increasingly hesitant to horse around with his gangster friends, a lifestyle involving shaking down debtors, terrorizing each other with loaded pistols, and going uptown to get with — and then rob — gullible girls. His reticence is explained by a parallel sequence in which he meets cute with The Girl. Similarly, their young courtship is given weight by the audience’s knowledge of what he’s done with his life so far, and how drastic a change he faces by considering marrying her.

Harvey Keitel in Who's That Knocking at My Door
The passion of Harvey Keitel.

J.R. is much more sensitive than his brutish chums to the splendor of nature and to the catharsis of cinema. His idea of seducing a girl is to lecture her on Hollywood Westerns, in particular John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). His models of masculinity come from the movies, especially John Wayne and Lee Marvin, and he divides women into two categories: broads and girls (which is another way of saying whores and madonnas). The Girl is savvy enough to know what she’s getting into; she clearly catches his meaning when he slips and openly refers to her as a broad.

Another piece to the puzzle was a sex montage added in order to ensure distribution. Scorsese scores J.R.’s fantasy of sex with a series of women to The Doors’ “The End”, later of course also to become a key ingredient to his peer Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now! in 1979.

Harvey Keitel and Zina Bethune in Who's That Knocking at My Door
J.R. (Harvey Keitel) knows how to romance Zina Bethune: “Let me tell you something, that girl in that picture was a broad”.

Holding everything together is a framing device in the form of a flashback to young J.R. being served food by his mother (Catherine Scorsese, Scrosese’s own mother). It’s an obviously happy memory, but we learn that the core theme of the film is that J.R. is emotionally crippled by the Catholic guilt instilled by his family and upbringing.

He is unable to consummate the relationship with the girl he loves, and who loves him back. When he finds out she’s a victim of rape, he alternates between not believing the facts and blaming her. Even in the end, he sees her rape as something he must forgive her for. The penultimate sequence is a montage of Catholic iconography set to the title track by The Genies.

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3 Stars Movies

Jane Campion Visualizes the Invisible, in Bright Star

As an English Major in another life, I’m not uninterested in poetry, or Keats in particular. But movies about poetry are another matter. It’s difficult to imagine a less natural source material for the eminently visual medium of cinema than poetry. You can mute the sound, drain the color, or take off the 3D spectacles, but the one thing you can’t subtract from movies is the moving picture.

“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art”

John Keats

Other filmmakers have tried to visualize essentially invisible things before: scents (Perfume), academic research (The Da Vinci Code), and math (A Beautiful Mind, Pi). The handful of movies about writing (Capote, Factotum, Henry & June, Wonder Boys) are nearly outnumbered by movies about not writing (Shakespeare in Love, Barton Fink, Adaptation, The Shining).

Bright Star

When it comes to poetry, the most internal and abstract form of writing, it’s slightly disappointing that the most writer/director Jane Campion makes of it is to have her characters read verse aloud. However luscious the cinematography, it doesn’t help that the historical Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and John Keats (Ben Whishaw) weren’t all that interesting as dramatic characters. The former is a lovestruck obsessive and the latter a sickly artiste not meant for this mundane world. It’s the standard biopic cliche: the insufferable wunderkind and the suffering woman that loves him anyway. At least, in this case, Keats wasn’t an addict (q.v.: Factotum, Bird, Ray, Walk the Line, Walk Hard, etc.).

Fanny reads Keats’ sonnet about her “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art” at the close of the film. She lived to witness his posthumous recognition, and never stopped mourning him.

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4 Stars Movies

Christopher Nolan’s Fugue State: Inception

In his 1999 essay Celluloid Vs. Digital, Roger Ebert cites studies equating the experience of watching a movie to entering a fugue state: “film creates reverie, video creates hypnosis.” In other words, experiencing a film in the traditional manner, projected at 24 frames per second in a darkened theater, affects the brain in a way akin to dreaming. Inception is far from the first movie set in dreams, but it may be alone in attempting to encode the experience into the architecture of a film itself. Whether you compare it to onion skins or a puzzlebox, the form follows the content.

The bar has been set very low by the likes of Avatar, but Inception is finally proof that movies with budgets in the hundreds of millions need not be moronic and disposable. Yes, Inception is a sci-fi action movie full of well-tailored outlaws, guns, fight sequences, and exploding mountain fortresses, but it’s also an intelligent, complex experience for adults. If it took a weak remake and two movies about a vigilante in a rubber bat costume for Nolan to get here, then so be it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception
“It’s not, strictly speaking, legal.”

Inception is the natural progression from Following, Memento, and The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s quartet of wholly original visions. Insomnia, a safe remake of the far more incendiary Norwegian original, now seems like a detour, a paying of dues to enter the mainstream. His pair of Batman franchise entries injected a modicum of psychological realism into the pulp source material, but the grimly ponderous weight of it all was perhaps more than it could bear. For my money, nobody other than Tim Burton has managed to find the right mixture of camp and solemnity that makes up Batman.

While Inception may have some surface resemblance to numerous heist, caper, long con, action, and science fiction films, it is nevertheless a very welcome New Thing. Its deepest thematic links are probably to cerebral sci-fi meditations Solaris and Until the End of the World. The nightmare planet in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris haunted visitors with imperfect reincarnations of their most emotionally significant others. When a grieving astronaut is reunited with his ersatz wife, long dead of suicide, is it a blessing or a curse?

Leonardo DiCaprio and Elliot Page in Inception
“A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.”

Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World posits a future in which dream-reading technology would be enormously addictive, psychologically damaging, and permanently alter society. If a technology is ever invented for a group of people to not only enter an individual’s dreams but also to construct the dreamworld itself, how plausible it is that society would not be radically transformed? In Inception, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master at corporate espionage. His expertise is with a process normally utilized for the “extraction” of trade secrets, but inverted to inception: to implant an idea, a task which proves to hold massive significance to Cobb. Like a drug, we’re told, these machines gradually seep away users’ ability to dream on his or her own. We glimpse a sort of opium den in which burned-out dream junkies go to re-experience the normality of not only dreaming, but more importantly, waking up from dreams. Wenders’ The End of Violence would similarly look at another dystopian future in which global surveillance is taken to its logical extreme.

Inception‘s action sequences beg comparison to everything from James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission: Impossible. Its creative fight sequences, taking place in virtual arenas in which the laws of time and gravity are fluid, recall The Matrix. But the true narrative and structural template is much more along the lines of long-con tale much loved by David Mamet (particularly Homicide and Redbelt) and heist films Rififi, Thief, and Heat, in which a crack team of criminal experts work with a psychologically damaged leader on a high-stakes One Last Job.

The bloodless massacre of hordes of armed thugs seems designed to resemble video games. The obliquely portrayed violence is partly explained by a PG-13 rating that hypocritically permits dozens of onscreen shootings, but disallows blood, and thus any sense of the repercussions and ramifications of violence. But in the world of the film, the thugs are explained to be manifestations of the subconscious. A slight-of-hand morality magic trick that makes it OK for our heroes to mow them down with machine guns and grenades (again, this flashes back to The Matrix, in which the good guys rationalize away their mass killing of virtual avatars).

Marion Cotillard in Inception
“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

Inception had already developed a reputation as a mind-bender even before release, but I found it to be surprisingly straightforward if you pay a little bit of attention. If you choose to take the film at face value, pretty much everything you need to know is spelled out for you, often in frankly literal exposition (usually in exchanges with Page’s inquisitive character). The key ambiguity is a simple but profound question raised in its final moments. Interpreted one way, the film neatly wraps itself up in an airtight box (which is extraordinary in and of itself, when most big-budget movies often fail to make logical sense). Interpreted another way, it calls into question everything you’ve seen.

This moment hinges on Cobb’s totem, a personal item that each dream-traveller must rely upon to detect whether or not they are awake. Both Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) warn Ariadne (Page) to never allow anyone else to touch hers. But Cobb also freely admits that his totem first belonged to his wife Mol (Marion Cotillard). Complicating matters, unless I missed something, we never see her with it outside of the dream world. The top had symbolic meaning to Mol, for she locked it up in a metaphorical safe in her dreams. Cobb then uses it to plant the notion in her head that the dream world is not real, in order to encourage her to break her addiction and wake up with him. If the top was real, would she not be able to test herself with it when she woke up?

One further clue that suggests much of what we saw may be Cobb’s dream: if he and Mol lived the equivalent of 50 years in Limbo, several levels deep into their subconscious, why do they seem to only wake up through one level of dreaming? Is Cobb still trapped a few levels down?

Elliot Page in Inception
“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”

And one wonders about the implausible dream technology itself. It’s offhandedly said to have been developed by the military for training purposes, but very little time is spent on the mechanics of the technology. Some sort of IV is involved in the process of linking people together, but how exactly does an Architect create and realize the world? We see Ariadne fiddle with papier-mache models, and verbally describe the world to the participants, but we’re also told that the architect need not necessarily enter the dream personally, so it’s not her mental map that makes things possible. If the agents are able to conjure things on the fly (Eames produces a grenade launcher out of thin air, and Ariadne folds a city in half), why do they not take more advantage of their effectively unlimited abilities during the heist? Cobb makes a big deal out of a prospective architect being able to devise labyrinths, something like a video game level designer. But Ariadne’s work is literally short-circuited and we never see a dramatic payoff to the theme of mazes.

Ray Bradbury once said that he was not concerned with the mechanics of interstellar travel; if a story he wished to tell required a rocket ship to ferry characters to another world, that was good enough for him. So is it pedestrian of me to wonder about these practicalities, or do these questions actually matter a great deal? Is the lack of specificity about how this miraculous technology actually works a clue? I believe it is linked to the troubling ambiguity of Cobb’s desire to “go home.” Does he simply want to clear his name so he can re-enter his home country, or does he want to plunge deeper into his fantasy? Is he actually guilty of a crime like Roman Polanski, or merely obsessed with indirect culpability like Kelvin in Solaris or Teddy in Shutter Island? Either way, he may have the opportunity to construct a false reality in which he can absolve himself.

I believe Inception is one for the ages, and not just because it has been endorsed by Al Gore. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, it’s the rare science fiction film likely to remain well-regarded for years.

Random Observations:

  • How many heist movies have you seen in which the master thief attempts the mythical One Last Job before retiring?
  • Despite Leonardo DiCaprio sporting Nolan’s own haircut, Inception might suffer in comparison to his somewhat similar character in his most recent film, Shutter Island. Two thrillers in a row about a man wracked with guilt over his dead spouse.
  • Wikipedia puts the budget at $160 million, plus a $100 million publicity campaign. As usual, these numbers make my head spin. But at least this time the result is a strong movie.
  • Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Nolan has developed his own personal actors’ troupe. Inception features return appearances by Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy.
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3 Stars Movies

A Problem With the Whole World: Dennis Hopper’s Colors

Dennis Hopper’s Colors may be a buddy cop flick on the surface, but it’s hardly typical high-concept Hollywood material. It does have a token overarching plot (involving a mismatched pair of cops tracing the perpetrators of a drive-by shooting), but it’s merely a loose thread to hold the movie together. If neither a character study nor a plot-driven thriller, Colors is a portrait of an issue, a setting, a problem.

A prototype for the HBO series The Wire, Colors is actually a portrait of the deteriorated, hopeless situation in a failed American city lost to the drug trade. But unlike The Wire, which deeply explores the economics of how and why gangs function as organizations, Colors doesn’t offer much detail on how they operate and what they do. However sensitive and balanced Colors may be, it still takes the point of view of predominantly white law enforcement. As such, it’s easy to see why we needed films like Menace II Society and Boyz N the Hood, which would look at some of the same issues from the other side of the milieu.

Sean Penn in Colors
Sean Penn in Colors: “You don’t wanna get laid, man. It leads to kissing and pretty soon you gotta talk to ’em.”

The interesting title most obviously refers to the term for a nation’s flag (tying in with the themes of war and the institution that wage it) or the signature colors of three major warring L.A. gangs: the Bloods (red), Crips (blue), and a Latino gang (white). The real colors that divide these groups are, of course, race. The one sign of equality in late 80s L.A. is that nearly everyone calls each other Holmes.

The narrative is loosely hung on several cliches, most notably the trope of veteran cop saddled with rookie partner. Officer Hodges (Duvall) is bitter at being drafted into the L.A.P.D. C.R.A.S.H. anti-gang program, after a lifetime of service that ought to have qualified him for sensible hours, a safe desk job, and more time with his family. Officer McGavin (Penn) is an aggressive, preening dandy, eager to attack the gang problem with the blunt tool of incarceration.

Robert Duvall in Colors
Robert Duvall in Colors: “you got a problem with the whole fuckin’ world, and I’m in it.”

But it’s not long after the movie sets up these cliches that it begins to knock them down. The ostensibly wizened Hodges makes a critical mistake, setting free a young gang member on the assumption that a brush with the law would scare him straight, while simultaneously intending it to be a lesson to the headstrong book ’em-type McGavin — but he turns out to have been a major player in the shooting. Another cliche short-circuited: McGavin romances a local girl from the barrio (Maria Conchita Alonso), but she turns out to be far from the madonna he imagined. Not only that, she rejects him anyway.

Colors ends on a very down beat, not just the death of a significant character, but what comes after. McGavin is forced into the position of imparting wisdom before he’s earned much himself. The film ends with a long shot held on his face (echoed much later in the final shot of Michael Clayton) as he most likely ponders his ineffectiveness.

Of note are early appearances by Don Cheadle and Damon Wayans, the latter featuring in a stand-out surreal sequence in which his character T-Bone is out of his mind on drugs. Herbie Hancock’s score has not dated well, nor has the vintage rap soundtrack, including the angry theme song by Ice-T. The opening credits are set to “One Time One Night” by the local L.A. band Los Lobos.

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4 Stars Movies

Kristin Scott Thomas is unshowy but brilliant in Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long

Writer / director Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long is a textbook exercise in the dramatic withholding of narrative information. Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) is released from prison after serving 15 years for an unspecified crime, and is unwillingly housed with her sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein). Léa is initially her only ally, and her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is distrustful for what turns out to be very good reason.

Léa and Luc have adopted two children (a big clue to the central mystery of the movie), including their precocious older daughter P’tit Lys (Lise Ségur, a rare movie tyke that is actually endearing). As part of her probation, Juliette is required to sign in weekly with a lonely cop (Frédéric Pierrot) with even more psychological issues than she. The slow drip of information ramps up the drama, but we’re told just enough to see that the movie is actually about Juliette’s gradual, sometimes painful reentry into life, not her mysterious crime.

Elsa Zylberstein and Kristen Scott Thomas in I've Loved You So Long
Elsa Zylberstein and Kristen Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long

Thomas’s unshowy performance is acting of the highest degree. The British actress already proved her fluency in French in Tell No One, although a line of dialogue here explains away her accent. She doesn’t distract by inviting the audience to be constantly impressed at how talented she is.

But that said, there were a few moments where I marveled at the complex emotions she conveyed. Two scenes in particular stand out: Juliette almost physically recoils when introduced to Léa’s colleague Michel (Laurent Grévill) and when reunited with her estranged mother. Also watch for the almost indescribably complex expression that plays across her face when she meets a sleazy bloke in a pub shortly after her release.

Elsa Zylberstein and Kristen Scott Thomas in I've Loved You So Long
Elsa Zylberstein and Kristen Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long

Only two factors kept me from considering the movie more highly. There’s a seemingly extraneous and unresolved subplot about Léa ignoring a student who appears to have a crush on her, and claims he’s a subject of prejudice. Was the point merely that Léa is an attractive, sympathetic person? Secondly, the movie arguably descends into talky melodrama at the very end; without revealing too much, we learn the truth about what motivated Juliette’s crime, and why she stubbornly kept her silence for so long.

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4 Stars Movies

The Tenuous Border Between Merely Scraping By and True Poverty: Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River

The title of Courtney Hunt’s suspenseful Frozen River refers to both a literal body of water separating countries, and to the tenuous border between merely scraping by and true poverty.

Melissa Leo was rightly praised last year for her performance as Ray, a woman struggling to support two boys in upstate New York. Her family appears to have been living beyond their means, even before her gambling-addict husband lit out with their savings. If she doesn’t make the next payments on their huge flatscreen television (a ridiculous sight in their shabby living space) or a coveted replacement double-wide home, they’ll lose the TV and the new home’s down payment. The TV is exactly the sort of extravagance that can put a checkbook in the red, and the double-wide upgrade becomes a necessity when their existing place looks unfit to survive the bitter winter.

Circumstances push her into an antagonistic partnership with Native American Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), whose situation is, if anything, worse. Lila’s business is smuggling illegal immigrants over the titular frozen river on Mohawk land. The fact that there is a question as to whether the practice is legal on a reservation is almost a point of pride. No one seems to know the actual law, but the perceived grey area in a way validates the Mohawks’ autonomy. Making a living this way is seen as prideful, never mind the exploited immigrants that pay about $40,000-50,000 each to make the trip, either in cash or the obligation to work it off as indentured slaves.

Melisso Leo in Frozen River

As I recently wrote about the extraordinary Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, a single event such as a car breaking down or a spouse leaving may be the tipping point leading to homelessness. Both films feature a woman on her own, struggling to meet pressing debts while feeding loving but needy dependents. But Frozen River suffers in comparison when watched back-to-back with Wendy and Lucy (as I happened to), feeling overwritten and with a neatly schematic ending. Without spoiling too much, a surprising burst of exposition near the end explains the rules of almost too-convenient new situation for Lila and Ray right as it’s happening.

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5 Stars Movies

Just Passing Through: Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is, on its own terms, perfect. As such, it exposes the silly practice of rating films in numbers of stars, even if this particular blog is merely one movie lover’s journal of personal reactions, and not pretending to be objective criticism. So please interpret these five stars as meaning that I was utterly moved by Wendy and Lucy.

Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young drifter from Indiana heading nowhere in particular. Her home is a battered car, shared only with her beloved dog Lucy. She’s worryingly skinny, with an unexplained bandaged ankle. She keeps a running ledger in her journal, tracking the rapid decline of the life savings strapped to her waist. We don’t know why Wendy is on her own — whether she’s running from something or someone, or if she’s simply searching for a job. She calls her sister and brother-in-law in Indiana, but they evidently have problems of their own and quickly dismiss her. The poor, miserable girl never smiles, but often quietly hums a tune to herself.

Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy

One night, Wendy meets a group of young drifters by a bonfire. Icky (musician Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) mentions an Alaskan fishery that pays well and provides housing. This is good enough for Wendy, and provides her with a destination. But she experiences a disastrous day while passing through Portland (or in terms of her ledger, as least, the most cripplingly expensive). In short order, her car breaks down, she’s caught shoplifting, loses Lucy, and is very nearly assaulted.

Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy

The security guard of the neighborhood Walgreens (Walter Dalton) becomes a genuine friend, whose greatest aid may simply be just talking with her. They briefly bond over the shared miseries of those that fall between the tracks: you can’t get a job without an address or a phone number, and you can’t get an address or a phone number without a job. People like her are always “just passing through.” He gives her $7, a gift he hides from his family, clearly a sacrifice for him.

Wendy and Lucy is spare and economical at only 75 minutes long, but it is heartbreaking and devastating. In some ways, Wendy is better off than the group of drifters she meets at the beginning of the film; she has a car, meager savings, and some discipline. But the number of steps it would take for her to become like them is few, and may happen in only a single day. One can only hope that Icky is right, and that Wendy will find some livelihood in Alaska.

Categories
4 Stars Movies

Sally Hawkins Finds a New Opportunity in Every Setback in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a creature rarely encountered in movies and even less often in real life: someone genuinely happy. She’s not bothered by others’ life goals; at 30, she doesn’t have a baby or a boyfriend, own a house, or know how to drive, and none of these concerns are cause for existential angst. Relentlessly chipper, upbeat, and outgoing, she’s best friends with her roommate (a true rarity!) and has already found the career possibly most suited for her: a gifted, compassionate primary school teacher. Her one vanity seems to be that she’s proud of her legs.

In conversation, Poppy always finds a way to agree with almost anything anyone says. We first meet her chattering away at a sullen bookstore clerk. Having seen Hawkins interviewed around the time of her Oscar nomination, it’s all the more apparent she’s affecting a Catherine Tate impression for the movie. Like Tate, Poppy just barely skirts the edge of being annoying to the audience as well, which considering the reactions Poppy provokes from certain other characters later in the film, probably says more about me than it does her.

Eddie Marsan and Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky
You’re driving me mad! See what I did there? No? Too easy?

Poppy’s other major strategy in life is to find a new opportunity in every setback. A back injury sends her giggling all the way onto an exciting adventure to a chiropractor. Having her bicycle stolen provides another opening for a new experience: driving lessons.

Unfortunately for them both, her new tutor is the unstable, ferociously angry Scott (Eddie Marsan). Just a few of Scott’s many neuroses include racism, homophobia, religious fervor, and conspiracy theories. His most paranoid rant (regarding the Washington Monument supposedly being 666 feet tall – apparently a rumor stemming from the misreported height of its foundation) echoes those of the similarly damaged Johnny (David Thewlis) from Mike Leigh’s excellent Naked (1993). Is Marsan the most versatile actor ever? He’s played everything from a sweet-natured man almost paralyzed by shyness in Leigh’s Vera Drake, to a tough preacher in 21 Grams, to a ruthless criminal who keeps losing extremities in Hancock. Yes, Hancock.

Most narratives are usually structured around conflict and a protagonist’s problem. How do you tell a story about someone that has no problems? Happy-Go-Lucky defied my expectations that the story would go one of three ways:

  1. Poppy’s happy-go-lucky attitude is a defense mechanism masking an inner sadness. Events conspire that force her to confront and defeat her inner demons. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture a young Julia Roberts.
  2. Poppy confronts a huge tragedy that nearly breaks her spirit. She overcomes the obstacle. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.
  3. Poppy meets someone deeply sad and unhappy, her polar opposite. She fixes this broken person with the power of her indomitable spirit. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture Robin Williams helping Jeff Bridges heal in Fisher King (although it may seem like I’m mocking it here, Terry Gilliam and Richard LaGravenese’s Fisher King is actually one of my favorite movies).
Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky
latitude, longitude, positive attitude

While Poppy’s happiness is totally genuine, she is not deranged. She does not deny that problems and sadness exist in the world and in other people’s lives. Nor does she believe that anyone else can simply shrug off their setbacks, depression, or inner demons. The above scenario to which Happy-Go-Lucky comes closest is the third. Scott and one of Poppy’s sisters are as sad and messed up as she is happy. She tries to help, but recognizes she is unable to fix them. The truly sad realization for the audience at the end is that we see that Poppy knows she must keep her distance from her sister and stop trying to befriend Scott. Her mere presence in their lives drives them crazy.

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