Saturday, December 27, 2008

Wendy and Lucy

It’s the rare movie Q&A where the director has to contend with a dog. But such a canine intrusion can be tolerated when the mutt (Lucy) belongs to the director (Kelly Reichardt) and shares top billing in her latest film, Wendy and Lucy. Reichardt recently spoke with Star critic Marshall Fine at the Emelin Theater in Mamaroneck. And despite a rambunctious Lucy (“She’s clearly not trained”, Reichardt explained, making the dog’s finely calibrated “performance” all the more impressive), the director shed light on her critically-appraised (and suddenly topical) feature.

Wendy and Lucy is a minimalist movie. The barebones plot—girl (Wendy, played by a subtle Michelle Williams) loses dog (Lucy, starring as herself) on her trip north to Alaska—is unaccompanied by music and goes for long stretches without dialogue. Reichardt shot it in two weeks and hunkered down in her Queens apartment for six months of editing. But there is a warmth to the film that belies its precise production. Cinematographer Sam Levy bathes the woods outside of Portland in an amber glow. A nighttime scene with a group of runaway teenagers and their pierced, prematurely weathered faces illuminated only by a bonfire is particularly effective.  The friendship Lucy strikes with a security guard (Wally Dalton) is her lone (human) beacon; just about every other character she meets represents a roadblock. 

                Reichardt wanted to make a movie about people “without a net.” Wendy doesn’t have a family, education or savings account to fall back on. “You can’t get a job without a job; can’t get a house without a house,” says the guard.  While these limitations can be tragic (the film was inspired by Hurricane Katrina and the brutal class divide it exposed), they also allow Wendy to fall off the grid in an America where it is increasingly difficult to do so.  Reichardt explained that the Portland of the film is meant to look anonymous; its superstores stand as oases in massive parking lots just as they do in every other town.  The big box strip mall ennui of the modern road trip (what would Kerouac think?) compels Lucy to keep running toward an unknown future until she’s practically out of land. Wendy might be rootless, but is there anything out there worth being rooted down to?

                It’s hard to ignore the relevance of a film with a broke, homeless heroine who just scrapes by on the quest for a better life. But Reichardt (who shot the film a year before the credit crisis left all of us couch-diving for nickels) shudders to think of her movies as soapboxes. The director omitted character exposition (an injury that left Wendy’s ankle in a brace is unexplained) and Psych 101 lecturing (“I’m going to say I didn’t hear that,” she responded to a question about the lack of maternal figures).  

                While unsentimental, Wendy and Lucy is affecting. Reichardt has empathy to spare—she spoke of the movie’s “gutter punk” transients like a worried mother—but does not romanticize Wendy’s struggle.  She has made a lean movie for lean times, refusing to prey on audience emotion. Even despite that adorable dog.  

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hey Mickey, what's my line?

Mickey Rourke disappeared from the public eye years ago. And for a half hour, the packed house at the Times Center on December 8th thought he’d pulled a similar act on his talk with New York Times reporter Lynn Hirschberg and director Darren Aronofsky. But he eventually made an entrance in a pinstriped suit and purple John Lennon shades that he wore despite the dimmed auditorium setting. There’s serious Oscar buzz for Rourke’s turn as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Despite his bad boy image, Rourke wouldn’t blow this shot at career redemption with a missed appearance.

Rourke all but shoved the moderator off the stage as he entertained the crowed with expletive-laden self-deprecation. But mostly Rourke offered effusive praise for the director who inspired what he called the best work of his roller coaster career. He’d never seen Aronofsky before they had a meeting in the Meatpacking District (“Uh-huh. I’ll always call it the Village.”). Despite Aronofsky pulling up on a green bicycle and wearing a yellow helmet, Rourke “could just tell he had a huge set of balls.” Initially reluctant to do a wrestling movie with a director “whose only exercise comes from buttoning his suit,” Rourke came to see him as “one of the greats who only come around every thirty years. To me, he’s the new Coppola.”

He needed the help. The years Rourke spent boxing hindered rather than prepared him for the role. Boxers look down their disfigured noses at wrestlers. The broad, theatrical fighting moves of WWE matches are anathema to the hunched stances and quick, intricate jabs required of successful boxers.

Six grueling months of training humbled him. His trainer, a former member of the Israeli army (who would “put that cap thing on” whenever they hit the gym during Shabbat) had to push him up and guide him down the stairs of his TriBeCa walkup. He bonded with the wrestlers he met and learned the business, for better (a backstage camaraderie that brightens the often bleak film) and worse (life-altering injuries, a dependence on “vitamins” that Rourke mentioned with a wink).

Rourke has not seen The Wrestler. He won’t for “a few years” He never looks back on his movies until they’re long gone from the theaters since he only looks for their flaws. As Aronofsky said, “he is a man who is absolutely impossible to compliment.” The actor even tried to leave the stage when Hirschberg announced she would be showing a clip from the film. After the moderator shot him down (perhaps out of fear he would never return) he compromised by sticking his fingers in his ears and closing his eyes.

Whatever confidence Rourke lacks in his performances has not changed the work ethic behind them. A graduate of New York’s Actor’s Studio, the Times called him “one of the few true method actors of today.” Aronofsky noted the rewarding challenge of such an understated actor playing a character whose trade demands hamming it up. “Anger is easy,” Rourke said of the Ram’s wrestling scenes and tempter tantrums. It was the longing and regret called for in scenes between Randy and his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) that took an emotional toll. The actors met on camera. Aronofsky explained that “the daughter is a woman who only knows her celebrity father through imagery and that’s just how Evan knew of Mickey.” It’s the kind of authenticity that permeates the film and has made its star an awards season frontrunner.

Whatever praise that Rourke continues to receiving on his comeback tour is unlikely to go to his head. A member of the audience recalled that Rourke had once said in an interview that he could teach anyone to act in fifteen minutes. “Sorry, I was all messed up when I said that,” he admitted. “I think had a court date the next morning.”

Thursday, December 4, 2008

City by the Fay

There’s a tension between the political and the personal in Milk that is shared by director Gus Van Sant and the man his compelling film brings to life. Milk begins in a New York subway station in 1970, with Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a gay, closeted 40 year-old, picking up the cherubic Scott (and endearing James Franco). The pair head to the Castro, San Francisco’s burgeoning gay enclave. Milk has no plan, but quickly finds himself at the forefront of a revolution.

San Francisco’s, and the Castro’s, place in the contemporary imagination make it hard to believe that just forty years ago, working-class old-timers made the city inhospitable towards gays. But Milk is surrounded by resistance and brutality that inspire him to start a movement in his modest camera storefront. He becomes the first openly gay man elected to major office. From there, he battles conservative foes on the national stage (Anita Bryant, orange juice spokeswoman-cum-Patron Saint of Bible Belt Bigotry) and municipal halls (family values champion Dan White, played with an effective mix of creepiness and vulnerability by Josh Brolin).

Van Sant’s recent films have been restrained exercises in style (Elephant, Gerry, Last Days, Paranoid Park) that abandoned traditional narrative for sometimes gorgeous and sometimes ponderous lyricism. With Milk the director is tempered by three timeworn genres—the biopic, the docudrama and the Issue movie—that often mute their subjects, reducing them to textbook blurbs. Milk avoids this fate and provides an engaging portrait despite a first half that is too reliant on archival footage and Penn's gratuitous voiceover narration.

The director’s occasional trademark flourishes (slow motion, freeze-frames, loooong tracking shots) distract in on an otherwise staid film, but solid, straightforward storytelling triumphs. Penn also dials down his usual histrionics in a subdued, poignant and at times funny performance—is Milk his first character since Jeff Spiccoli to have a sense of humor?

Milk’s political insights comprise some of its most absorbing moments. But Van Sant does not spell out why Harvey Milk tirelessly threw himself into the machine. He was a successful politician, but not a natural. (He lost his first three bids for office.) He was well-liked (with a few glaring exceptions) but not above getting down and dirty and trading favors. But the big question is whether Milk’s political career owed a greater debt to a moral calling or sheer ambition.

This dilemma makes Scott one of the film’s most intriguing characters. Milk could be swayed by a suicidal gay teenager calling from across the country. He mentions that three of his four boyfriends killed themselves rather than step out of the closet. There are emotional reasons for him to seek change. But Scott delivers an ultimatum: me or the campaign. And despite years of longing after the split, Milk lets him leave without an argument. It’s a testament to Franco that his performance elevates Scott above romantic lynchpin. What could have been a peripheral character winds up exposing Milk’s emotional handicap, putting a welcome/humanizing dent in the halo.

Harvey Milk brought progress. But Milk’s closing credits remind the audience of the AIDS epidemic that shortly followed his death. And Proposition 6, the legislation proposed in the film that would prohibit gays from teaching in public schools, brings Proposition 8 to mind. Milk used to open speeches with the line “I want to recruit you.” Hopefully the film will do the same and usher in a new generation of change.