Friday, July 3, 2009

DVD Reviews: "Waltz With Bashir," "Wendy and Lucy"

Waltz With Bashir

Three words that stop casual filmgoers cold: Animated. Foreign. Documentary.

Factor in the fact that "Waltz with Bashir" is a film about the first Lebanon war and you have a film that most filmgoers would easily pass by. But in doing so, they're missing one of the most surreal and breathtaking expriences of the past year.

Director Ari Folman served as an Israeli soldier during the Lebanon war but could not remember any of his duties there. When a friend recounted his nightmares about the war, Folman began to regain some of his memories, which led him to talk to others who served in the war in order to understand where he was, what he did and what role he may have played in a brutal massacre.

Told with beautiful 2D animation, the film is able to recreate the surreality that many war stories inevitably have. As the film deals not only with the factual accounts of war but also with the strange tendencies of the human mind in shielding people from harmful memories, the bizarre scenes are very fitting. When a soldier describes his dream of floating away on a naked body as his boat is blown up, we see it happen. Folman is also able to recreate Lebanon, the hell of war and the unbelievable sights of war without spending millions of dollars.

The result is a fascinating documentary, one that probes the mysteries of the human mind and also helps us understand how a human being can go on living after enduring the hell of war. But it's also a reminder that we should never forget the events of the past, and the film culminates in one of the most sledge-hammer to the heart sequences I've ever seen as the safety of animation is pulled away and we're left face-to-face with the harsh, brutal and ugly reality of war. A great film experience.

Wendy and Lucy

Director Kelly Reichardt's minor masterpiece is a heartbreaking portrait of life on the fringe, of what happens to an outsider in a culture that is tilted toward helping the rich and the powerful.

Michelle Williams will no longer be just the "other Dawson's Creek girl" or Heath Ledger's ex-wife. She gives a nuanced, strong and pitch-perfect performance as Wendy, a bone-broke young lady heading to Alaska with her dog Lucy. When her car breaks down in Oregon, Wendy must figure out how to get by, with only a few hundred dollars to her name.

The film is quiet and will likely try the patience of some viewers. It's the type of movie that leaves people complaining that "nothing happens," but that's not really fair. No, there are no murders or life-threatening events. But to say nothing happens is a slight to the character of Wendy, who finds herself dealing with the frustration of having nothing while people still demand everything. Who can't relate to not being able to get a job because they don't have the experience or even an address or phone number? Who can't feel for her when she has to get to Alaska to get a job but can't find the money to fix her car that is stuck there? If it's true that the same rules apply to everyone, as a character in the film states, then why does it seem like those rules most benefit those who already have a head start?

The film is a real look at the issue of poverty and the epidemic we're seeing in America of the working poor. Critics of welfare say that they don't want to help those who can't help themselves. But what happens when someone is trying to help themselves and still can't get ahead because the culture is still taking from them? What happens when we live in a culture so fixated on what's fair that they don't stop and ask what's right?

The film forces the audience to ask critical questions about current policies and politics, but the movie itself never is political or preachy. It instead asks us to observe the plight of Wendy and ask ourselves, "is this right?"

Reichardt is condemning a culture in which everyone is isolated and no one wants to help others if it's going to cost them. There's a wonderful counterpoint in the relationship she forms with an older security guard, the one character willing to give her a hand even though it's obvious he doesn't have much; maybe it's just that he can relate "the whole thing's fixed," he says of the world at one point. Maybe that's true.

The central "plot" of the film involves Wendy losing her dog and her search to get her back. Some may argue, as one character does, that Wendy shouldn't have a dog if she can't afford it. But what of the companionship? What of the fact that she's trying to get somewhere where she'll have the means to take care of the dog? If we ask a person to better themselves and support themselves, what means are we taking to help them do that?

Reichardt's film is though-provoking, gentle and touching. It may lose itself, at times, as the story meanders and the director can't quite figure out where she wants to go with the tale. And the ending seems rushed and arbitrary, although it also occurs at a point when Wendy really does have no other decision.

Still, despite its flaws, "Wendy and Lucy" is anchored by Williams' wonderfully realized performance, even if it was a tad too understated for others to take notice of last year.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.