Sunday, August 29, 2010

Winter’s Bone (2010) *****

Well, y’all just need to see this one. You may have heard that “Winter’s Bone” is bleak or hopeless, but it really isn’t. It’s dark, but that’s different. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but the fact is, this movie has a hero and a more or less happy ending.

“Winter’s Bone” is a noir mystery set in the backwoods Ozarks. The story follows a 17-year-old girl named Ree Dolly, played with astonishing power by Jennifer Lawrence. (If Lawrence doesn’t get an Oscar nomination out of this role, then something is seriously wrong.) Ree’s dad is a methamphetamine cooker, and her mom is completely disabled by some sort of psychotic depression. The raising of herself and her two younger siblings has fallen squarely on Ree’s young shoulders, forcing her to drop out of school in order to chop enough wood, shoot enough squirrels, and basically scrape the bottom of the barrel enough to keep her family going. It seems like she might be strong enough to actually pull it off until the sheriff comes around to explain that her no-account daddy put the family home up for bond, then skipped town. If he doesn’t show up for his court date, the house and land will go to the county, and the family will be homeless. In Ree’s meth-head neck of the woods, you simply don’t talk to the cops, so Ree uses what little she knows about her dad’s potential whereabouts to go looking for him herself. Since this is the backwoods, the quest involves visiting a series of relatives and distant relatives, each of whom is scarier than the last, and none of whom is happy to see the little girl with the wayward daddy. One woman asks Ree, “Don’t you have men to do this?” Of course, Ree doesn’t. All she has is herself, which is a lot more than you might think.

I came into this movie expecting a really depressing, naturalistic story that would be hard to watch. I was thrilled to find myself watching a suspenseful mystery that contains at least a glimmer of hope. Ree Dolly is one of the best movie characters I have seen in years. She can be stoic and reticent, as you would expect from someone who grew up where and how she did. She can also be very kind and gentle when caring for her mom and siblings. Some of the film’s best scenes are when she is taking the kids to school while drilling them on their lessons, or teaching them how to cook, clean a squirrel, or shoot a gun.

Ree does live in a very rough world, though. The setting is extremely rural, where everyone has pigs, cows, and old cars in the yard, and everyone is related in some way. You would think these kinships would bind the community together so that people would help Ree and her family, and some people do help some, but unfortunately the community is fractured by the methamphetamine trade. It seems everyone Ree knows is using it, dealing it, or both. Most rural communities have a strong religious vein in them, but due to the meth trade, it seems the only religion in Ree’s neighborhood is silence. Ree’s stoicism and resignation in this world is heartbreaking. When she teaches her brother to clean a squirrel, he pulls out a handful of guts and asks, “Do we eat this part?” Ree replies, “Not yet.” Later, her uncle snorts some meth in front of her and asks, “You gotten the taste?” Once again, Ree’s answer is, “Not yet.” How poignant is it that at seventeen Ree has already had so many disappointments that she can no longer rule out even the vilest of possibilities? The best she can come up with is, “Not yet.”

I grew up in a rural area, and I live in the Ozarks now, and I feel comfortable saying that “Winter’s Bone” gets its characters pretty much exactly right. That’s not to say, however, that these characters should be considered representative of rural people in general, any more than “The Godfather” is representative of Italians. One thing that isn’t apparent in the film, and this may be my only criticism of the movie, is that even though the meth trade is pervasive where Ree lives, there are probably plenty of decent, hard-working country people there who have nothing to do with meth. Ree, however, wouldn’t know those people. Because her family is known to be mixed up in drugs, law-abiding people wouldn’t associate with her family or let their kids be friends with Ree and her siblings. Ree and her family are in dire straights because they have no one but criminals and drug addicts to turn to.

People are going to bring their politics to this movie, but this is not a political movie. This is a story of real people who are too complex to yield to ideological judgments. Ree’s uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) initially seems like a badass, abusive meth-head, and he is those things. He also turns out to have some genuine nobility, as does Merab (Dale Dickey), the rough-hewn wife of the local meth-dealing patriarch. A lot of people will want to know where the government is in this story. Why hasn’t Child Protective Services come in to save these children? Part of the answer is that, as screwed up as these people are, they have too much pride to turn to the government for help. With a long tradition of moonshine and illegal drugs behind them, these are a people who have grown accustomed to shunning agents of the government. The other issue is that a government solution would almost certainly involve splitting Ree’s family up, sending the kids to foster care, and she makes it clear in one scene that that is not acceptable.

In the end, winter throws Ree a bone, which she dearly deserves. Her mom is still mentally ill, her life is still hard, but for a little while longer, at least, Ree can continue to say, “Not yet.”

5 stars out of 5

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Adventureland (2009) **1/2

The best thing about seeing “Adventureland” is that I don’t have to watch any of the “Twilight” movies to find out if Kristen Stewart lives up to her hype. The answer is - not even close. She is a vaguely good-looking, minimally competent actress, and I cannot explain why she is on the cover of so many magazines. I guess Ayn Rand was right. A movie studio would rather take someone mediocre and build them up than have to control someone with real star power like an Angelina Jolie.

Aside from Kristen Stewart‘s somnambulistic performance, “Adventureland” is a moderately entertaining little movie. Jesse Eisenberg (from “Roger Dodger”) is pretty charming as James, a new college graduate whose summer and grad-school plans get derailed by his dad’s unexpected demotion at work. He takes the only job he can find in a recession, running games at a local amusement park. Martin Starr (from “Freaks and Geeks) puts in a nice performance as James’s co-worker and friend. Kristen Stewart breathes through her mouth and underwhelms as James’s love interest, while Ryan Reynolds turns in an uninspired performance as a hot, older guy.

Watching this movie, I was struck by how all these people in their early twenties seemed like they were in high school. James is still completely financially dependent on his parents, and he takes a job that is barely suitable for an 18-year-old. The depressing thing is, this is still pretty realistic. A college degree and $2.50 will pretty much get you a cup of coffee these days.

“Adventureland” misses out on the opportunity to be this generation’s “The Graduate,” which is a shame, because the setup initially seems pretty promising. Jesse Eisenberg is not a bad actor, and he does some good work here. I don’t know if he’s quite a Dustin Hoffman, however, and even if he is, I don’t know that this film ever aspired to that level. In any event, Kristen Stewart is no Katherine Ross, and Ryan Reynolds is definitely no Anne Bancroft. “Adventureland” is kind of like winning a prize at an amusement park. I wish I could pay a couple more bucks, throw a couple more balls, and trade Kristen Stewart in for a giant, stuffed panda.

2.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938)

We watched these two Hitchcock films because, “Hey, it’s Hitchcock,” and I had never seen them before. One was just okay, and the other was really good.

In “The 39 Steps,” Robert Donat plays Richard Hannay, a dashing guy who lets himself get picked up by a girl. It turns out she is a spy, and when she is murdered by enemy agents, Hannay becomes a fugitive to escape the murder rap and carry out the girl’s mission to prevent the theft of British military secrets. The film starts out with an appealing level of mystery, but it begins to suffer from an abundance of narrow escapes and strained plot elements. For example, would a beautiful, cunning female spy really need to or choose to tell a random guy all about her espionage work in order to spend the night in his flat? Towards the end, the film completely loses its tone as Hannay engages in cute banter with a girl who gets caught up in his adventure (Madeleine Carroll.) “The 39 Steps” is just not one of Hitchcock’s best. For some reason, he never creates a Hitchcockian level of suspense, and the characters do too many things that make no sense. The movie still has some good parts, and the film might have been saved with a better lead. Unfortunately, Robert Donat just isn’t that great in this role, and the film didn’t spend enough time building his character up so that I would care about him. I suppose I’m in the minority here. Many people seem to think this is one of the great films, but I don’t happen to be one of them. It’s definitely no “North By Northwest.”

Fortunately, we watched “The Lady Vanishes” next, and it restored my artistic faith in Alfred Hitchcock. This film does everything right that “The 39 Steps” did wrong. Time is taken to develop the lead characters, and the romance between them builds naturally. The suspense in this one is also more what I expect from Hitchcock. The plot device of having the heroine and the audience know that something is wrong, while all the other characters deny it, works brilliantly. We identify with the heroine’s frustration while at the same time starting to doubt her.

Margaret Lockwood plays Iris Henderson, a spoiled, American playgirl enjoying a last European trip with her friends before her upcoming arranged marriage. During a railway outage, Iris befriends Miss Froy, a retiring governess on her way back to her native England. The next day, Iris, Miss Froy, and a colorful cast of international characters resume their rail journey. Suffering a mild head injury, Iris naps. When she awakens, Miss Froy is gone, and all the other passengers deny that the lady was ever on the train. What follows is pure fun as Iris struggles to find the truth with some help from a charming, English musician played with playful brilliance by Michael Redgrave.

“The Lady Vanishes” manages to create real mystery while being playful, something that “The 39 Steps” did not quite achieve. Both films are worth watching if you are a Hitchcock fan, but the priority definitely goes to “The Lady Vanishes.”

The 39 Steps 2.5 stars
The Lady Vanishes 4 stars