Movie Roundup: Gran Torino, Frozen River, Coraline, Happy-Go-Lucky

We went to see Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino and rented Frozen River (the indie movie for which Melissa Leo got a surprise nomination for Best Actress) soon after. Both are Obama-moment films, I thought, with a narrative drive towards an ethnically-diverse/ multi-racial family, and a repudiation of old-style (racist) whiteness or white Americanness.  In both, that white American identity is shown to be limited or obsolete and is redeemed only by a reaching-out to others.  Gran Torino is entertaining; as everyone has said it’s a sort of ironic rewriting of the old Eastwood Dirty Harry script revolving around Eastwood’s character Walt’s discovery that he has less in common with his own spoiled suburban grandchildren that with the striving Hmong immigrant kids who’ve moved into his neighborhood.  What we found disconcerting were the belly laughs in the theater that greeted all of Walt’s racist tirades in the first half of the movie; people seemed just a little too delighted by these… Frozen River is more of a gripping thriller than I’d expected and Melissa Leo is really great… you’re there with her the whole time in her desperate quest to come up with the $1500 to make the final payment on the Double-Wide trailer she wants for her two sons.

Two movies that kind of blew me away: Coraline and Happy-Go-Lucky.  I’m pissed b/c the theater had to use the 3D technology for the Jonas Brothers movie (!) and now they seem to have put Coraline back on 3D, but I missed it.  I thought it was one of the greatest animated movies ever.  Obviously influenced by avant-garde handmade animation by the Svankmajers and others; in fact it made me think of the Svankmajers’ version of Alice in Wonderland which I once showed to a freshman class who found it scary and creepy.  “Mothers don’t eat their children, do they?”: it’s a very frightening fairy tale (also very funny) that draws on Alice, surrealist art, and psychoanalytic nightmare imagery (buttons sewn into eyes, a mother who become a wire spider) among other sources.  I found it visually gorgeous and transporting — am very glad I saw it in a theater.

And Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky.  I am a devoted Mike Leigh fan.  Have probably seen at least a dozen of his movies and love or like a lot just about all of them, with the possible exception of Bleak Moments which I remember as just being too purely and bleaky minimalist and depressing.  Watching the dvd commentary interviews reminded me of how unique Leigh’s methods are.  The actors explained how Leigh talked them through the entire life stories of their characters, from birth on, before they knew anything about the plot of the movie.  So by the time they got to the actual story and the beginning of the filming, they knew their character to the bones and could simply improvise in character.  All of this occurs behind the scenes and sets up a method in which you feel the characters as deep, three-dimensional and as possessing histories and personalities that go way beyond what you seen or hear on screen.

The movie feels a bit like some kind of experiment in representing “goodness” and happiness in narrative, which is tricky to do.  Poppy has her problems but she’s basically just fundamentally happy and a very loving/generous/warm-hearted person.  Such a character could easily be cloying or boring as a protagonist in a movie without all that much of a plot, but I found it riveting and entertaining.  In the scenes where’s she’s getting to know the potential boyfriend, you almost expected him to turn out to have something terribly wrong with him; everything seemed to be going too well; there was almost something experimental in not introducing any twists to that first impression.

It has two main metaphorical/symbolic lines of imagery.  First and most simply, transportation: the movie begins with Poppy’s bike getting stolen, it revolves around her weekly auto driving lessons, and ends with she and her friend Zoe rowing aimlessly in a lake.  The other more interesting imagery source has to do with education and teaching.  Poppy is a school teacher, she’s taking her driving lessons (from an embittered, slightly psychotic instructor), she goes to a Flamenco dancing class, and in all these situations the movie thinks/talks about what it means to teach effectively, to give up on a student or to refuse to do so, to learn, and so on.

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