Saturday, February 14, 2009

I Wish I Had a River I Could Skate Away On

There's still time to catch Melissa Leo's Oscar-nominated (and Critics Choice Award-winning) performance in Frozen River before the Oscars next Sunday. It's out on DVD, even BlueRay. Directed and written by Courtney Hunt, the film is also nominated for best original screenplay.

This is a quiet, small, powerful film about motherhood. The plot involves a woman, Ray Eddy (Leo), living in a northern border town near Canada, who's husband has recently left her to go on another gambling binge. She's left with two sons, a sweet five year old, and an angry, hurt, sensitive 15 year-old. The timeframe is a few weeks before Christmas until the day after. I won't repeat to say how it transpires that she ends up getting into the people smuggling business--transporting illegal aliens from Canada to the US--but suffice to say she is doing it out of desperation. She needs money. She has a dead-end job and a deposit on a double-wide trailer she's going to lose if she doesn't come up with the balance / balloon payment. Also, there's no food in the house (but always food for lunch money even if she has to dig under the cusions) and no presents under the tree.

To get the aliens from Canada to the US she and her partner in crime Lila (Misty Upham) have to drive across a frozen river and transport the poor souls back in the trunk. It's a dangerous business with shady characters on both sides, and neither Ray nor Lila are saints. They are purely mercenary and lose a bit of their own humanity every time they make the trip.

The dramatic movement is between the two women as they go from enemies to business partners to friends--in all cases their bond evolves over something related to the unbearable burden of being a mother in poverty. Lila's son has been "stolen" by a sister-in-law, because Lila couldn't take care of it, and Ray's oldest son blames her for driving the father away. In one sub-plot, Leo accidentally seemingly kills a baby of a Pakistani woman and then Lila and, according to Lila, divine providence, bring it back to life. The scenes between Ray and her son are terribly affecting, and I have to say hit me very deeply and personally: I won't go into detail here, but my mother was quite a bit like Ray, our family situation was similar, and sadly I recognized me and my two brothers in the portraits of the sons.

A mother's love will always melt a frozen heart, but like the blowtorch the boy uses to melt the frozen pipes under the trailer one frigid night, sometimes the heat is so intense it can burn the whole house down.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Wrestling with Oscar

I haven't done any sort of pre-Oscar slog entry and I've seen a bunch of the contenders. I wrote about Benjamin Button, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Happy Go Lucky, and Revolutionary Road here, but I'm a little behind with the rest. Okay a lot behind, but remember, it's a slog not a blog.

I'm always surprised to find out that everyone hasn't seen the major flicks, hasn't read the reviews and is, in fact, waiting for verymarkmccormick to weigh in. Kidding of course: I sense that people are really apathetic about movies this year. So much real-world drama: Michelle forcing Ty to rename the Mahilia and Sasha dolls (I would NOT want to be on Michelle's Obama's bad side), more sex scandals from Ted Haggard, Michael Phelps getting his wrist slapped for a little bongage (don't get me started), Wells Fargo executives swinging from chandeliers in Las Vegas (not), plus who can see movies when they're obsessed with Facebook (I'm just sayin') and keeping their jobs.

Well here are a few mini-reviews, so you'll know how to vote at your Oscar party.

The Reader

Liked it more than I thought I would though I am generally over Kate Winslett. And tired of hyper art-directed movies about the Holocaust. Still, it's a fairly gripping and complex story with a very open ended question at its core: why doesn't the young man say what he knows about his former lover who is on trial for war crimes, knowing that the truth would both shame her deeply, but free her from a lifetime of imprisonment.

I can't even write about The Reader, more than that, because I am humbled by the New York Times critic Manohla Dargis who said it best (stand and up applaud for this fine paragraph--it's so FUCKING true (Sorry, I feel really strongly about this. Emphasis below is mine):

"Although the commercial imperatives that drive a movie like this one are understandable — the novel was a best seller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection, for starters — you have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard. You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it’s about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation."

Rachel Getting Married

Loved it. Loved Anne Hathaway in this, and even was sympathetic to her character. You probably won't be. But if you grew up in a wildly dysfunctional family, then were at the center of terrible family tragedy, and then you became a drug addict because of the combination of those two situations, you might be a narcisssist too. Wouldn't this make a lovely double feature with Margot at the Wedding? Date night!

Man on Wire

Up for best documentary. At least I've seen one in that category. Every year I say I'll see more. I think this will win. Vote for it. It got tons of press and rave reviews. It's about the guy who strung a line between the World Trade Center towers and walked across, in the 70's.

The Wrestler

Wow. Really didn't expect to like this. Don't like wrestling, don't like Rourke, don't like the director Darren Aronofsky all that much (though he's super cute in a retro way--very 1940's moustache). But this movie moved me and impressed me. The father / daughter dynamic is intense, and I cried. I love to cry at movies. And the filmmaking is just fantastic. I don't like the handheld camera all that much, but Aronofsky just makes you face this guy's face and life and sorrow and predicament head on. You CAN turn away but try not to. I'm sorry, but I had to when he was slicing the meat at the deli--I just knew he was going to cut himself. I have no idea why this was completly unbearable to watch; the wrestling was much more gruesome, but somehow that blood was pure theater, even though it was real--are you with me? Maybe not--I'm still catching up myself. I just saw the movie a few hours ago. I loved the way the movie plays with reality vs. drama, fiction vs. fact in a sort of dizzying meta way. Rourke and Tomei, play a washed up wrestler and dancer, and they are perfectly cast of course, because of their status in Hollywood, and the wrestling is theater, but Hollywood is a real battle, and the erotic dancing is a total fake as is the transitory beauty of actresses. In that way it is no less conceptual than Aronofsky's Pi, but far more entertaining.

So I would see all these movies, but my money and my heart is still on Slumdog Millionaire for best picture.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Tara Tara Tara

I'm watching The United States of Tara, third episode.

This is THE new show of the season. This is the new Weeds, the new Mad Men, the new Six Feet Under, the show you'll all be renting next season to watch the first season, because you read it here first, and then soon you read it everywhere, and then everyone at work was talking about it, and then it won a bunch of awards, and then you were behind. So just set your DVR to record it now. It's not one of those shows where you have to watch every episode to "get it."

There are about a thousand things I like about this show. Here are a few:
1. The premise. When I was a kid I couldn't get enough of split personality books and movies (Sybil, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden). This show is about a woman with associative identity disorder, which is, apparently, a controversial diagnosis. Who cares? It's intriguing in a magical sort of way. Who wouldn't want to have more than one personality? (Or "alters"--the clinical term). With more than one personality you have someone else to blame for all stupid shit you do, someone with courage to chew out people you hate, someone with unrepressed sexual desires and lots of self-confidence, which--if you just could just get it through your head--is really all it takes to get laid as often as you want.

2. Toni Collette. She played, of course the quirplucky (invented word: quirky plus plucky) heroine from Muriel's Wedding. But she's becoming the go-to actress for the sympathetic, harried housewife. Her character in its unaltered state is sort of like the character she played in Little Miss Sunshine. But she really chews up the alters: a prissy, but supremely bitchy housewife, a truck driver dude, and a teen-age nymphomaniac.

4. ALL of the minor characters. The husband played by John Corbett, dreamboat from Sex and the City and (remember? god, you're old) Northern Exposure. The kids are fascinating, especially the young precocious, gay son (lots of signals, but the kid's not out yet--he's 13) who gets all the best lines. The family is sweet, because they all tolerate their mother's illness. They are totally embarrassed by her, but at the end of the day they stand by their mom.

4. The writing:
Marshall (13 years old, precocious, trying out for the school musical, Grease) : I can't believe they're mounting such a trite production. I wanted to do No Exit.
Petula (His friend, another prococious teen age girl who has a crush on him): Even something mainstream like Miller or god forbid Wilder. But sex crazed teenagers-it's not even good on an ironic level.
Marshall: (dreamily looking at another student): Is that Jason Moraz auditioning?
Petulia: No I think he's just on crew.
Marshall: I always assumed he was dumb, based on the whole Santana fetish, but his take on Roshomon in film class last week was pretty good. . .

5. The Showtime gloss: They do a great job with production values like art direction and music. It's slick but it looks real, and there's the de riguer indie soundtrack.

So: watch it. Don't wait. Be ahead of the curve. And embrace your inner Tara.