Apr 30, 2009

Wendy and Lucy (2008): A+

A true enjoyment/appreciation of Wendy and Lucy hinges on a few simple and effective factors, one such being the recognition that sometimes there’s nothing more exciting or memorable than a walk in the woods, or a night spent round a campfire with fellows. If you can’t dig this kind of lived-in simplicity, which bears with it the fact that no exciting sound bytes could possibly be devised with serious and honest intent for the film in question, then don’t even bother. Not so much pitched minimally as it is a kind of ne plus ultra of the quotidian, Reichardt’s follow-up to Old Joy replaces a wandering sense of sublime existentialism with a rigid, stripped-down character study that, in theory, borders on formulaic (but nothing more). Putting to the test Ebert’s much stressed “how/about” designation, it is a film more concerned with the manners and purposes of things than the whats and hows. Suggesting the essential mirror to a made-for-June-release ‘splode fest, Wendy and Lucy is practically introverted. You have to want to know more about it.

It is in this unspoken manner that the film’s oft-referenced political nods are imbued into its fabric, unlike the NPR vocal choir that overshadowed everything in Old Joy. The world sings here, though, such as the chorus of freight trains that decorate the opening credits (the title, green on plain black, appears only at the beginning of the third scene during a low point in the action, as it were), or the manner in which sound is used for emotional emphasis or to indicate the passage of time. Time is all that Wendy has in abundance, and as the details of her situation (unemployed and with few resources, on the road, and, save for her dog Lucy, not a friend in the world) reveal themselves in gradual happenstance, her situation becomes exponentially more heartbreaking in impact, strung out in meticulous perfection like the wire of a spider’s web. Surely this is not cinematic escape, but no one can deny that some of life’s most nerve wracking moments are also some of its most banal and tedious. Reichardt’s focus brings the small and the specific into the light of the universal.

Much of Wendy and Lucy can be physically/visually described as static or slow-moving, a fact that makes its razor-sharp shot length control even more impressive to behold. Captured with a series of deliberately, effortlessly constructed compositions (literally about small things but assembled with epic emotions in mind), Reichardt’s masterpiece details her experiences with a stately sensitivity, first suggested via the early, instant classic field sequence, which functions both as a literal series of paintings, each framed by foliage and wild shrubbery, and - as film critic Christopher Long aptly notes - an emotional decompression chamber, tenderizing the viewer for what is to come.

That I wanted, but neglected, to further address the film’s politics in my previous paragraphs is indicative of their relative importance therein: Wendy and Lucy lives in the shadow or governmental inadequacy (or failure), but stays firmly on ground level with those suffering from the cracks in the system. We know this, rather simply, because Wendy isn’t dumb, as is made clear time and again throughout, though often indirectly or, to restate a point, silently. Case in point: Wendy stares in disbelief beneath the hood of her car (the engine won’t start), but it isn’t until she speaks to a mechanic much later that we learn she’s largely correct about what’s afflicting it). Many an IMDb commenter (those people ready to latch onto any loophole or flaw present within a single plain of thought) have brought up a single point: why didn’t Wendy simply buy a plane ticket to Alaska, rather than spend her savings on a cross-country trip? Unlike economic theory, Wendy and Lucy accommodates those with less than perfect judgment, and in the same manner, it won’t necessarily tell you straight up if someone’s afraid of flying (or how well or not they’re versed in the art of car repair).

In casting Michelle Williams as a comedown from razzle-dazzle glamour, Reichardt effectively turns Wendy and Lucy into a modern day Snow White, with the audience posing as magic mirror. Unconcerned with people beyond their behavior (jobs, labels and status come off here as part of a superficial charade), the film flattens the social paradigm to see homeless, police, employees, and dogs as equals, an open-to-all attitude carefully regulated by the selection of performers and institution of particular character traits. I’ve long hated hyperbole but these revelations of her performance demand close to it: Michelle Williams may give the finest female performance since Emily Watson’s overseen work in Breaking the Waves. She’s a falling angel, enshrined before impact by barely glimpsed fluorescent lights above her halo-like bowl cut; Williams’ barely-glimpsed reserve gives us a character about whom we can know so much, even if we know very little (to say nothing of the cast at large, particularly Will Patton and a memorable cameo by Will Oldham). Wendy and Lucy gets under your nails, which is to say, it’s the stuff of life.


That Wendy and Lucy was shot to look about as texturally laid back as Transformers was unbelievably polished (I’m still unsure if that’s really a bad thing or not) doesn’t exactly make this a title begging for Blu-ray treatment. As such, this transfer gets the job done beautifully, particularly in the shadowy depth of the film's nighttime scenes. Equally modest is the sound mix, which works wonders as an example of almost unnoticeably subtle use of background noise (but packs almost as much of a wallop as No Country for Old Men). No movie-related features save for the trailer, although this is a fact I’m personally grateful for given the contemplative nature of the film. Far more interesting than Reichardt explaining the magic of her work are four short films selected by the director, made by her colleagues at Bard college. Previews for eleven more Oscilloscope releases highlight the far-reaching, independently-spirited integrity of this laudable new studio’s offerings.

Throw Down Your Heart (2008): B

Throw Down Your Heart knows it isn’t approaching any be-all end-alls within the documentary realm, and so it is a film infinitely better than it otherwise might be when it knowingly and unbegrudgingly hands itself over to the music of its chosen subjects. As it follows American banjo maestro Bela Fleck in his travels of Africa in a stated attempt to bring the instrument back to its homeland, this able and culturally immersive documentary focuses less on the political and social plights of the people and lands visited than it does the escape provided by musical culture and the history recorded in it, giving way to countless instrumental tangents shared between Fleck and the African masters he’s sought-out in hopes of recording an album. The musical sets indulged therein sometimes rival Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold for sheer infectiousness, montaged with an emphasis on musical rhythms over visual logistics. More so than many acts of soapbox grandstanding, it tells us about the worries, woes, and joys of (an)other people, collapsing borders with the ease of a hurricane’s gust.

Apr 20, 2009

Enlighten Up! (2008): B-

Less an observe-and-report documentary than a social experiment rendered via film, Enlighten Up! tracks the progress of a selected individual as they are introduced to a lifestyle of yoga over the course of several months, so as to see if someone unfamiliar with the practice can achieve a more peaceful or heightened state of mind as a result. For her guinea pig, long-time documentarian Kate Churchill chose Nick Rosen, a New York-based journalist and a general agnostic more comfortable with hard facts and observable details than the professions of others or vague ideas of faith. Though an opening montage of talking head interviews seems to suggest a tweet work of opinionated editorializing, Enlighten Up! quickly proves to be an edifying work of exploratory filmmaking, limited only by the lengths to which its maker and subject are willing to stretch themselves. Immediately, Nick is thrust into some half dozen different forms of yoga, each with their own emphases and philosophies; whereas some focus purely on the physical workout endured via the asanas (yoga poses), other, more purportedly pure forms of yoga all but totally dispense of the physical experience altogether. Ultimately, the film comes to be less about its physical subject than its greater social and spiritual connotations, as Nick travels throughout the United States and abroad seeking out the wisdom of those who have dedicated there life to greater enlightenment via the self-betterment of their respective yoga traditions. Behind the camera, Churchill develops a dramatically healthy tension with her subject - who at times resents her control over his life (at one point the two stop speaking altogether until Nick is granted a long-awaited night off for socializing) - and one that eventually bounces back onto Kate in unexpected ways before revealing quieter, deeper truths behind the surface. Gracefully shot and edited without the clumsy manipulation often prevalent in such independent fare, Enlighten Up! proves a modest look at the search for truth, and the self-evident meaning therein.

Apr 1, 2009

Who Does She Think She Is? (2008): D

At twenty minutes, Who Does She Think She Is? might have stood as a documentary short of passing interest, but at feature length it becomes a trifle whose redundancies take on heights equal to more than the sum of its parts. Following a handful of independent female artists as they struggle to fulfill their duties to both themselves (as creators) and others (as mothers, wives, etc.), the film rightfully acknowledges the marginalization of the feminine voice in modern society as an injustice to the world at large, one reinforced in social paradigms and accepted, often without question, as the way things are. In its best sequences, the film compares the well-being of women to overall quality of life (here, the correlation proves stronger than that between happiness and economically dependent factors) and addresses the more powerful role occupied by women in the world prior to the rise of Western society. Such moments are fleeting, however, amidst a bulk that focuses on the personal struggles of a few individuals in a scant, superficial manner that amounts to lip-service of the monotonous and unenlightening kind, playing out more like show-and-tell reality TV voyeurism than investigative journalism. Here, the film confuses breadth with depth; as it examines none of these women deeply or substantially enough to differentiate them from one another (their varying backgrounds stand as mere labels rather than elements affecting personalities and life choices), their inclusion feels more like obligatory time-filler than it does a necessary step in probing scrutiny. One gets the sense that these filmmakers have more to say on the matter than is contained in the travel brochure-like simplicity that made its way onto the screen, and so Who Does She Think She Is? ultimately feels like little more than one overly drawn-out act of throat-clearing.