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Washtenaw Flaneurade
7 March 2011
Lord Help The Mister
Now Playing: Sleater-Kinney--"Living In Exile"

One of the familial relationships that, to me, feels most alien is that between two sisters. I have a brother, and we get along fine, but I always wondered what having a sister would be like (although I now have a sister-in-law who rather wonderfully feels more like an actual sister). To be a sister's sister might be a more remote imagining for me than to wonder what it would be like to be female, if that makes any sense. So it's always interesting to see these relationships portrayed on screen, especially when it offers a blitheringly obvious way to link a few films--one all right, two terrific--that I've seen recently.

Sunshine Cleaning (2008): I used to get Entertainment Weekly, and, though I just a couple of weeks ago liberated myself from its poisonous, superficial, middlebrow dreck (and those were just the film reviews), I   remember seeing Sunshine Cleaning in the reviews fairly recently. When I realized that "fairly recently" meant nearly three years ago, I figured it was safe to say that I'm getting old, and that time which seemed an eternity to me twenty, ten, or even five years ago looks like much less now. This accidental reminder of my mortality may have prejudiced me against Sunshine Cleaning. That's not to say I don't necessarily like it. Rose and Nora (Amy Adams and Emily Blunt) are two sisters living in New Mexico, Rose a single mother and Nora a directionless twentysomething. They have a quirky, endearing father (Alan Arkin, and there were many who thought he was basically repeating his performance that I haven't seen in Little Miss Sunshine) and Rose is carrying on an affair with a married cop (Steve Zahn, long may he work). Rose's son has a learning disability, but her need to get him transferred to a special school runs into financial problems. A chance remark by the cop regarding the high pay of crime scene cleaning staff gives Rose the idea to start her own business in that field, and she enlists Nora to help her do it. The plot isn't exactly Dumas. Rose and Nora confront their friends, family, and their own misgivings before finding themselves by the end of the movie. Dad gets mixed up in all sorts of ridiculous business ideas, and it's all very quirky. By far the strongest feature, and what saves Sunshine Cleaning from being one of "those" movies, is the combined power of the leading performances by Adams and Blunt and the believability of their relationship with each other. A lesser movie would have Rose ensconced in a comfortable, "middle-class" job and in a safe but boring relationship, married or otherwise, willing and able to look down her nose at Nora for not being able to hold on to a "working-class" job or relationship, especially as both, according to dominant media narratives, are in eternally plentiful supply and supremely dependable (all other evidence to the contrary, if my suppressed rant isn't obvious enough). Maybe Nora could show up and embarrass her at some pivotal moment at a company reception or christening or some such. In Sunshine Cleaning, though, Rose is a "waitress" (as they still call them in movies), a couple of sick days or a rude customer away from sharing Nora's socioeconomic status, and the change works well for the movie. Rose and Nora are a lot more alike than either want to admit, and Adams and Blunt beautifully render the ambiguity of their sisterhood (it hardly hurts that I'm more than a little in love with Adams, and my respect for Blunt has consistently grown ever since I saw her play Boudicca's daughter in that British TV movie with Alex Kingston). Though the movie itself isn't such great shakes, its portrayal of Rose and Nora's sibling relationship, and the relative realism of its context, lift it well above many of its peers.

Beeswax (2009): Andrew Bujalski is, to some, the leading light of the so-called "mumblecore" movement, and to my mind, he's one of the best directors working in this country today--if not the best. Part of my high regard stems from the instant familiarity of his dialogue and situations. There's probably nobody else living (though I hope to find others, and have noticed a fairly large contingent of IFC-looking films at the library, so we'll see) who so accurately portrays the lives of relatively "aimless," predominantly white, vaguely left-of-center American twenty- and thirtysomethings*. One could take his work, drop it smack in the middle of Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, and that's pretty much it, to a considerable extent.** I first encountered his work in 2005's Mutual Appreciation, and seeing 2003's Funny Ha Ha further bolstered my admiration. His first two films were set in Boston and New York, and operated in an obviously quasi-bohemian setting. Beeswax, though, relocates to "flyover country," which would be more exciting to me if it wasn't set in Austin, Texas, which along with Portland, Oregon, has been sucking up the bohemian-minded since I was in high school, if not before (including several friends over two decades). Real life twins Tilly and Maggie Hatcher play, respectively, Jeannie and Lauren, two young women living in Austin with, like the sisters in Sunshine Cleaning, more similar lifestyles than one would think from their respective status. Jeannie is part-owner and manager of a small hipster clothing shop (think Orchid Lane in Ann Arbor), and Lauren is frequently employed, shall we say, eventually starting to think about teaching in Africa. The plot hinges around a threatened move by Jeannie's partner Amanda to sue Jeannie and take sole ownership of the business, while Lauren helps her sister handle her troubled relationship with legal adviser Merrill (Alex Karpovsky) and tries to fend off well-meaning family advice for both sisters. There isn't a great amount of dramatic plot here, but plenty of quiet tension and honest charm, as it feels like a chapter in the lives of two people has been boiled down into a straight, unaffected docudrama. Given the actresses' real life relationship, it's unsurprising how good they are in their roles--the Hatchers are affecting yet low-key, with (full disclosure) an earthy gorgeousness that put me in mind of several women in my own past. Though Maggie Hatcher has wonderful moments, such as her postpartum glee in breaking up with an uninspiring boyfriend or helping her sister out with an impromptu photo shoot in a rural pasture, Tilly Hatcher owns what there is to be taken from the movie's commons, finding her own kindness and good humor put to the test by Amanda's complaints and potentially troublesome workers, gently fending off Merrill's desire for their relationship to be something more, teasing Lauren over her legal advice on what to do with Amanda, and wordlessly implying the effect her own situation as a paraplegic has had on her life (a situation the movie--mostly--effortlessly downplays). Though Bujalski's films have immortalized situations like the sisters' before, Beeswax marks a new care that's taken with the visuals; every location looks authentic and lived-in, in a way that was sometimes hard to tell with the rudimentary color of Funny Ha Ha and the grainy monochrome of Mutual Appreciation. It's a wonderful movie, especially if you come across it in the library with--best of all--liner notes from Kevin Corrigan (long-time stalwart of American indie film and well-known in these quarters for playing Uncle Eddie in Grounded For Life), who waxes just a little rhapsodic about some of the performances and situations, but then who am I to gainsay him? Jeannie and Lauren's experiences (sorry, Randall in Clerks) are just as epic and timeless in their own way as some of the greatest stories and novels.

Away We Go (2009): Away We Go will always rank as one of my great surprises of the cinema. I first read about it somewhere (Entertainment Weekly, probably), and it tripped all sorts of alarms in my head: quirky hipster/slacker couple (John Krasinski seemingly having been created in some foul social lab as the perfect male type--especially the glasses), script partly written by Dave Eggers (who I knew about from his involvement with McSweeney's, the producers of one excellent national secondary school literacy program and two godawful literary anthologies--nice mix, that), Peter Travers had probably given it a thoroughly ass-kissing and characteristically inaccurate blurb in Rolling Stone... I can't remember the exact circumstances, but I think I'd sworn at some point to avoid it like the plague. I can't remember the moment or reason I'd decided to check it out--my guess is (a) mild, slightly bored curiosity or (b) "There's no way this thing can be any worse than (500) Days of Summer." Whichever it was, thank you (or, in the words of Krasinski's Office character Jim Halpert, "Congratulations, universe; you win"). Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are a couple in their early thirties living near Burt's parents in upstate New York, and Verona is pregnant. A rash decision on the part of Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) makes them realize that they need to shop around for parental examples and a good place to raise the kid, as they both (a little conveniently?) have jobs they can always do from home. A cross-country odyssey follows, from New York to Arizona to Wisconsin to Quebec to Florida, visiting friends and relatives who may provide guidance... It started dangerously, with quirky quips between husband and wife that made me worry, but Away We Go almost instantly righted itself, and dreaded imagined trowel-loads of pointless irony were replaced by a gentle, touching rumination on impending parenthood (yet another fundamentally alien situation for this reviewer). Much of the credit must go to Krasinski and Rudolph, who make Burt and Verona one of the most all-around sympathetic and believable couples in recent cinema. They help to keep things steady through some iffy patches that seem a little unbelievable (Maggie Gyllenhaal's New Agey academic) or overly literary (a speech delivered over pancakes in a Montreal restaurant, which is redeemed by some excellent acting from the supporting cast). One of the best moments comes when Verona visits her sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo) in Arizona, and the two have a lovely moment of reconnection (and, it seems, reconciliation) over the tragedy of their parents' death. It's sisterhood, even if it's only there for a bit, and it does influence much of what follows from Verona's perspective. By the end, they seem to have settled on the answer to their question, but then they can always ask more. This was Sam Mendes' first film from an original screenplay since the hugely overrated American Beauty, and it was too bad this didn't garner the kind of Oscars that the earlier work did. From the DVD extras, it appears that he went after the kind of actors he'd always admired, and it helps that he might as well have cherry-picked my own brain: Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, the exquisite Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton, O'Hara and Daniels, and best of all Melanie Lynskey, whose ongoing role in the grotesque Two and a Half Men (relevance! today's headlines!) has hopefully left unobscured her work in such films as Ever After, Shattered Glass, Flags of Our Fathers, The Informant! and Up In The Air. I was blown away by her work in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994) and puzzled for some time afterward why she hadn't had the kind of career that co-star Kate Winslet (deservedly) amassed. It's good to see her doing so well, and she (playing the pair's college friend Munch in Montreal) probably has the most memorably haunting moment in the film. There's so much wonderful stuff here, even unintentional (?) meta-moments like Paul Schneider playing Burt's brother Courtney in much the same way as Schneider plays the kind of generically witty "Jim Halpert" character Krasinski established on The Office in Parks and Recreation (my new favorite show, incidentally). It's a great film, with an agreeably contemplative score by Alexi Murdoch, and all the more for my surprising love for it. On top of everything else, it means that I'll actually have to read Dave Eggers (and Vendela Vida) now. As I'm in the middle of a contemporary American fiction kick right now (Lorrie Moore and Denis Johnson), I suppose it won't be too much hassle.

Downton Abbey (2010): And just for laughs... my Anglophilia's taken on bit of water since I started reading the comments at the Guardian, but it's had a huge impact on my own consciousness (largely for reasons described towards the end of the last blog post), and there was probably a time when I would have swallowed Downton Abbey hook, line and sinker. The Edwardian saga of a country estate and noble family threatened with dissolution, and the ongoing travails of their servants, it was a huge success in the UK, and unsurprisingly became one of PBS Masterpiece's biggest hits in years, possibly decades. Part of this may be that it hearkens back to the days of its distinguished forbear, Upstairs, Downstairs (which was remade last year to mixed critical reaction, and will be appearing on PBS soon), and part that it portrays a settled, luxurious (for some) lifestyle (soon to fall victim to war and upheaval) in a time of economic and political uncertainty. There are, of course, a number of differences. Upstairs, Downstairs was rather more subtle, at a time when stories could proceed at a more relaxed pace, and was created by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, two English actresses of working-class origins. Downton Abbey uses the cinema shorthand of the modern age, almost every plot point blatantly telegraphed (with a few clever fakeouts) and was created and written by the excruciatingly aristocratic Julian Fellowes (writer of Altman's Gosford Park and Kilwillie on Monarch of the Glen, if you're into that sort of thing), apparently a lord as well. There was a time when I thought that the fascination in some American quarters with the British aristocracy was due to a secret discontent with democracy and a lust to be ruled, rather than governed. I still believe this to some extent, but I also think that there's a simple fascination with difference--people speaking the same language and maintaining anachronistic, seemingly ludicrous institutions like monarchy and aristocracy, are inevitably going to be of interest in one way or another. It was with this charitable view in mind that I watched Downton Abbey (amusingly mistyped Downtown Abbey by my DA-loving friend on Facebook--that would have been something to watch), and on the whole I enjoyed it. It was hard to forget that its creator and writer is associated (as a Tory peer) with the present political drive to return the UK (or at least England) to the social conditions prevailing at the time of Downton Abbey, but that perversely added to the enjoyment. There are also three sisters: languid, haughty Mary (Michelle Dockery), deceptively mousy Edith (Laura Carmichael), and inquisitive, idealistic Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), all daughters of Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) by his American mercantile heiress wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). Mary, the eldest, needs to be married off first, and Mary alternately schemes to make this happen and resents the need for it. Edith resents the attention paid her elder sister by parents and admirers and tries to make more room for herself with both, sometimes emulating her sister by using underhand means. Sybil couldn't seem to care less, being a little more worried about getting the vote than marrying into a family like her own. Into the toxic mix comes Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a distant cousin of the Granthams who has now become the heir apparent overnight with the death of the other candidates aboard the Titanic (seriously, although they did that on Upstairs, Downstairs, too). It's all great fun until somebody loses an eye or says something like "dreadful news about that Austrian Archduke" (which practically happens, I swear, even if they probably would have been more worried at the time about the potential rebellion of Protestant Ulster in reaction to a possible Home Rule Act). It's trash, but wonderfully entertaining, and one must say that Bonneville and McGovern have fantastic chemistry. The locations are all sumptuous and sybaritically rustic, and Maggie Smith makes her largely inevitable appearance as Grantham's mother, the Dowager Countess (which reminded me of the Leonard Maltin Guide's take on Joan Collins' performance in The Bitch or The Stud--can't remember which: "a role she could play in her sleep--and does").*** The acting's generally terrific, with good turns by longtime favorites such as Penelope Wilton and Jim Carter, and it's great to see Coronation Street's Rob James-Collier (Liam Connor "himshelf") as a devious footman. All in all, it'll be great fun to follow the story into the Great War and beyond, see who survives, and what other kinds of devious plots and junior high exposition will result. If nothing else, it's been a boon for Masterpiece, and by extension, PBS, and let's hope that every little bit helps.

 *I would have said "middle-class," but I'm actually starting to buy the culturally tenuous nature of class in America, and just as I wouldn't describe myself as middle-class in my present situation, I don't think one can describe Lauren in Beeswax as such, although Alan in Mutual Appreciation and Marnie in Funny Ha Ha qualify to an extent.

**On a more upscale and blockbuster level, the first section of Cloverfield was surprisingly squirm-inducing in this manner.

***It's not that bad, but it gives me an excuse to call to mind another favorite, the review of Iron Eagle: "Not boring, just stupid."

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 7 March 2011 4:53 PM EST
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