Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning

What to say about Sunshine Cleaning...well, it’s not Little Miss Sunshine 2, which I’m afraid a lot of people who are coming to see it this weekend are thinking it’s going to be. It’s not being billed as a follow-up to the 2006 Best Pitcure nominee, but it has enough in common with the earlier picture to trade on both its quality and its success. It is, however, being billed as a comedy, which is somewhat disingenuous because comedies are funny and this movie isn’t; it’s not entirely devoid of humor, but what humor there is takes up all of about two minutes and thirty seconds (and it’s no coincidence that that’s about how long your average movie trailer is).

The rest of the not quite two hours is sort of a study in various forms of self-pity, and to say that the material is dark is to understate things a bit. It certainly tries to be funny, and there is a solid cast of characters (in the metaphorical sense); but quirky ensemble putting on a black comedy is Coen Brothers territory, and they have set the bar so high that most other attempts at the form - including Sunshine Cleaning - wind up looking like cheap imitations.

See...there’s Rose (Amy Adams), a single mother who doesn’t make enough money working as a maid - she cleans the houses of her classmates from the high school cheerleading days, all of whom apparently majored in gold-digging - to put her son through private school. Why does the son need private school? Seems that the administrators at the public school have wearied of the little boy’s increasingly bizarre pattern of behavior, including a spate of licking that culminated with him licking the teacher’s leg. So Rose gets a tip, from ex-boyfriend turned cop Mac (Steve Zahn, who appears to be on the Roger Clemens “workout” program), who is married to someone else but is still bagging Rose on the side, that she should go into crime scene cleanup, a potentially lucrative field experiencing a growth phase.

She ropes her sister Norah (Emily Blunt, wearing a lot of the things that Axl Rose apparently chose not to wear in the video for “Welcome To The Jungle”) into the fray, which is convenient because Norah can’t keep a job for very long and needs money in order to...well, buy eyeliner, I suppose. Also, because with only one girl, the scene where they take the mattress out to the dumpster would not have been as funny. Now, as these two dynamic bringers of light to the dark times in people’s lives find out, you can’t just dispose of biohazards in the dumpster. Actual quote from the movie: “Who knew?” But, with hard work and a bit of luck, they get better at what they do...and they grow as people...and they get in touch with their inner demons.

The girls have had a hard time over the years coping with the death of their mother, by suicide, when they were very young - old enough to understand what had happened, but too young to understand why. Some of the best scenes in the movie have Norah and Rose’s son Oscar trying in their own ways to make sense of death: Norah goes “trestling" (climbing the support posts of a train trestle all the way to the top and hanging there while the train passes) and thinks about death as the train hurtles by, and Rose’s son Oscar uses a CB radio to try talk to whatever god he made up to make himself feel less insecure about being alive. There’s a lot of existential potential in those scenes, but they are brief and the potential is wasted.

The filmmakers might have taken the road less traveled, down philosophical and expository paths, giving these two talented actresses a real chance to flex their chops; but instead, they referred to their film school Screenwriting 101 notebooks and invented a major crisis to force all the little crises to a head (sometimes this is called a “climax”) and then tied up all of the loose ends (except for the interesting cleaning supplies salesman who also builds model airplanes and only has one arm) into a neat little ball that is supposed to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside (sometimes this is called “falling action”). And would you honestly believe that they work a cute little kitten into the ending, so as to all but ensure that warm, fuzzy feeling?

It’s such a crappy third act that if David Fincher had directed it and cast Brad PItt as the guy with one arm, you can bet it would be up for about half a dozen Oscars next year, including Best Visual Effects, just for making Brad’s arm disappear. If this film had actually been a comedy, the third act might have worked, even with the kitten included; but it just never got its funny legs under the morbid center of its dark, dramatic heart. Ultimately, it plays like a movie that isn’t sure if it wants to be serious or funny, and winds up spending so much time trying to be a bit of both that it never manages to do either one very well for very long.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Moscow, Belgium (#2)

Well, Chuck, he’s a boorish lout who drives a truck and wants to avoid involving the police when he has a fender bender, and she’s a mother of three who’s letting her husband sleep with someone half his age because she’s sure he’ll come back eventually. Let’s give a warm welcome to Johnny and Matty!

Moscow, Belgium is the story of two people who have been beaten almost all the way down, either by the world or by their own choices - you make the call! Of course, there’s an irony here, too, of sorts: if not for those choices that have beaten them down, their initial interaction after a parkig lot fender bender could not have happened the way that it did, and they never would have had the chance to know each other the way they wound up knowing each other.

Is it love, ultimately? make the call! It looks like it at first, then there’s a blowout, and sort of a reconciliation by the end. But hey now, wait, damnit, you’re spoiling it! Maybe, but you’re not going to watch it anyway. There are exactly two people I know of who read this blog that might wind up seeing this picture - and I’d say that the chances are about 75% that one or both of them will have seen it by the time they read this post. Most of the rest will not have heard of it - and probably wouldn’t see it anyway, ‘cause it ain’t in American.

Doesn’t need to be, either, and not because love is universal, or any fluffy romantic nonsense like that. For the first couple of acts, you can pretty much get what they’re saying just by watching the way they say it. No one’s trying to forge peace in the Middle East or make sense of a government bailout program here - it’s just two people who meet by chance, in a way that is not conducive to a budding friendship, never mind the possibility of eventually bumping uglies.

And yet that friendship manages to emerge, and it does so because the two characters are lonely, trapped in their own lives, so far removed from the dreams of youth that they’ve not only put their dreams on the back burner, they’ve turned off the stove and don’t even bother getting up to go into the kitchen very much anymore. You can see that loneliness in their eyes, in the crushing air of fatigue that they wear like an IV drip, in the tedium of daily tasks repeated over and over and over again.

There’s nothing special about watching two unlikely friends take the first steps in that unlikely friendship. What’s unique about Moscow, Belgium is its authenticity. Matty screams at Johnny in the parking lot after the fender bender because she’s got a lot of pent-up frustration, and when she tells him that he’s blind to the world up there in the cab of his truck, she means it one way and he takes it in a completely different way. Later, he shows up at her apartment to fix the trunk of her car, and her kids shout down from the balcony, aganist mom’s wishes, to tell him which car is hers. Matty wants nothing to do with him, but he manages to fix her car - so she invites him to stay for dinner. As the film progresses, the excellent screenplay fills in the details as the characters get to know each other.

Only the climactic scene in (and then out in front of) the pub near the end of the film feels forced and a little convoluted; everything else is organic and true (and by the end, you can almost imagine that the convoluted pub scene might just have been necessary after all), bolstered by excellent pacing in the direction and tremendous acting by Barbara Sarafian and Jurgen Delnaet, as Matty and Johnny, respectively.

Moscow, Belgium is not an especially challenging film, but it is an immensely satisfying one, a real art film in what is, anymore, a sea of mid-major adaptations of obscure novels. It’s beautiful and charming in such amazingly unexpected ways. Don’t let the goofy-looking one-sheet fool you (that is not, in fact, Chris Elliott with red hair) - this one’s a winner.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Four Seasons Restaurant

We had the chance to have brunch this afternoon because I didn’t have to go in to work until two, so we rolled by Four Seasons Restaurant on Shadeland Avenue, just south of 21st Street. Had there been an emphasis on pancakes, this might well have been a carbon copy of the Blueberry Hill Pancake House, which occupies a former Perkins space on East Washington Street, near I-465. The décor - pastels and formica - is the same, and the staff appeared interchangeable, right down to the ethnic-looking fellow who leaned on a counter and just seemed to be watching everything.

Amy started with lemon chicken rice soup, which came out looking thick and opaque, though she said it was pretty good. Ever the geek for Greek, she went for the gyro sandwich, which came out exactly like you expect a gyro to come out - quite a lot of roasted lamb and beef rolled in pita bread with tomatoes, onions, and tzaziki on the side. This one was so full that she had to eat it with a fork, and the meat had the rich, aromatic flavor that good gyro meat should have - though I’ll be a coal miner’s daughter if it’s actually prepared in house.

I had a ham and Swiss omelette with onions (hash browns and whole wheat toast on the side), which was perfectly adequate without being at all remarkable. The Swiss cheese, unfortunately, was the processed cheese with “Swiss flavor” - a bush league move that was pretty disappointing. Pasteurized process cheese food has no place in any resepctable restaurant; but then again, this is not the kind of place that aspires to greatness.

Places like Four Seasons and Blueberry Hill Pancake House are perfectly fine if you want something simple and if you don’t mind eating where your food is just assembled, rather than prepared. It’s one of those places that you try once to see what it’s like, and you realize about halfway through your meal that there’s just no good reason ever to come back. It’s not that it’s actively bad - it’s just that there’s nothing you can get here that you can’t better at one of a half dozen or so other places in town.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Moscow, Belgium (#1)

Stop what you're doing, right this second, and go see Moscow, Belgium. Seriously. You probably only have a week, and who knows if you'll ever get around to adding it to your Netflix queue? Go, get a couple of beers (May I suggest the Beer of the Month, Leinenkugel's Classic Amber?), and have a go at this remarkable little film.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Jonathan Demme And Jenny Lumet On Rachel Getting Married

I was listening to NPR's Fresh Air on the way to work today and caught part of an interview with director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet, who worked together on last year's remarkable Rachel Getting Married. The interview originally aired back in October, but this was the first time I heard it. I didn't catch the whole thing, but you can listen to it on Fresh Air's website here. Two of the things they touched on were the use of handheld cameras (which caused a lot of problems when we played the film) and the dishwasher loading competition, which apparently had its roots in Lumet's childhood, when her dad and director Bob Fosse got into an argument after dinner at Lumet's house one night and then spent an hour and a half loading and unloading the dishwasher.

I'm posting this at work and don't want to spend too much time on it, so I'll come back to it later and add links - because I just know that you're dying for more things to click in my posts.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Chin National Day 2009 - Pictures And Links

So it took practically a month, but here are some pictures from Chin National Day 2009, along with a link to the website of the Chin People Of Indianapolis, which contains lots of other links to various information and resources concerning the Burmese refugees who are here in Indianapolis and the people of Chin State generally. Though not top five, one of the better non-fiction books I read last year was called The Iron Road: A Stand For Truth And Democracy In Burma, by James Mawdsley, an English fellow who did time - literally - in Burma for advocating freedom and attempting to petition the "government," on behalf of the Burmese people, for a redress of grievances. Last but not least is a link to a documentary I just read about today at work, called Burma VJ, a Danish film which doesn't release theatrically until 2010 but is currently doing the festival circuit, both in the United States and abroad.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

New Photos #3

Okay, at long last here are some recent photos of Jackson. The first set just has a few photos of Jackson mugging for the camera, chewing on a hat, and playing in a big cardboard box. Buy all the toys you want for your little critters, and they'll still wind up having the most fun with empty cardboard cartons and big stacks of Pizza Express cups. The second set is from one part of an excellent walk along the downtown canal last month. (The largest part of why there have been so few new photos of Jackson is that we did not get out and about much on Sunday afternoons this winter because Jackson tended to get very cranky very quickly, a situation that does not make for good times out on the town. On this particular day, however, he was in excellent spirits, and we walked a considerable amont of the Canal Walk.) The final set is also part of the walk on the canal. When we walked by the State Museum, Jackson became very interested in the giant mastodont statues just off the sidewalk outside the museum, and he walked over the pebbly gravel and around among them long enough for me to get quite a few pictures. Hopefully, as the weather gets nicer and there are more chances to get out and about, there will be more opportunities to get pictures of Jackson exploring the world.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

One...One New Photo! (And A New Computer)

No, really, there are lots and lots of photos from Chin National Day - I just haven't sorted through all of them yet. Also, I was about a week and a half basically disconnected from the Interwebs because of a dying modem. I got a new computer, though, and I'm pretty close to caught up. When I was going through the photos, this one of Jackson made me laugh out loud.

And here's what that new computer looks like:

Among other things, it has not escaped my attention that: an overrated piece of crap won Best Picture; Bobby Jindal made the Republicans look even more ridiculous (the second "rising star" to do so for the GOP in as many tries); the Colts failed to use any of the cap money saved by cutting Marvin Harrison on signing Albert Haynesworth; and that the men's Hoosiers may well post their worst season since World War I. That I have not commented on any of those things has less to do with whether or not they are interesting than with the fact that it's difficult to do much of anything else on the Internets when you're trying to download a 367 megabyte system update with a dial-up modem.