Thursday, May 21, 2015

Weird Brattle double feature: I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story and Lost River

Hey, they booked it that way, so this isn't just me being weird.

I was kind of let down that I didn't get to go to Friday night's Big Bird shows with Caroll Spinney on-hand - they were sold out well ahead of time and I generally can't bet on arriving for movies on time working out in Burlington. Sure, the odds would be good, but not guaranteed. It's a bummer, because Spinney brought an Oscar the Grouch puppet and I could have probably snapped a selfie that would make my nieces green with envy (plus, yeah, interacting with Oscar would be a lot of fun).

There was a bit of time between the two films which I used to hit the ATM to get some money for snacks and see, hey, the big check I'd written for first/last/security for the new place had been cashed, and if I did the match for the fees still owed and another month's rent on the current place... Well, it was looking close. I say this not to gain anybody's sympathy, but to note that I went into Lost River with a bit of housing/money-related anxiety, the first I've felt in some time, and it couldn't help but color my perception of the film. I'm not sure whether that's the best or worst state of mind in which to see that particular movie, and I think I'd have really liked it anyway.

Just a couple of things that could really shift the experience of seeing a movie that the filmmakers can't hope to control.

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Sorry

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 May 2015 in The Brattle Theatre #5 (first-run/special engagement, DCP)

There was another documentary about the man behind one of Sesame Street's most beloved Muppets a couple years back, and even before it certain allegations (most later rescinded) were made, it didn't really feel like Becoming Elmo gave the viewer a complete picture of Kevin Clash. I think that I Am Big Bird does a better job of giving us a full picture of Caroll Spinney, perhaps because less is being held back, perhaps because he's had a longer life to draw from. Of course, it probably also doesn't hurt that this viewer is of an age that Spinney's greatest hits as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch hit the nostalgia button a lot harder than Elmo's.

There are still some things that seem to be a little bit under-played in part because they don't help the film's general aim of showing just how much of Big Bird's sunny, inquisitive outlook on life comes from his puppeteer. Interviewees will half-joke that Spinney is also Oscar, for instance, and it might be interesting to draw a line between that and the darker periods of his life. That one of the show's long-time directors apparently didn't get along with him is brought up just long enough to seem like more than an oddity but then dropped quickly. Granted, the few minutes these things get in a ninety-minute movie are probably proportional to their actual importance, but it does feel a little bit like something is being held back.

When filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker stay on target, on the other hand, they do a fine job of getting this idea across. Spinney is an engaging subject, coming across as friendly without ever seeming calculatingly ingratiating, and though he seldom if ever gives a name or label to it, he's impressively open about how he has struggled with various types of anxiety over the course of his life. Both Caroll and Debra Spinney seem like warm people who have grown comfortable with their own lives, and though this is clearly Caroll's story, even when the two are being interviewed separately, Walker cuts their relating the same things together to emphasize their closeness.

Full review on EFC.

Lost River

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 May 2015 in The Brattle Theatre #5 (special engagement, DCP)

Filmmaker Ryan Gosling thanks a number of filmmakers toward the end of the credits to Lost River, some of whom he has worked with as an actor, and of that group, it's Nicolas Winding Refn who leaps to mind when watching Gosling's first film as writer/director. The influence of Drive and Only God Forgives is unmistakable, and Gosling uses what he learned working on those films to create a stylish, haunting tale of his own.

Lost River is a town in Michigan, likely not far from Detroit, and like that town it's collapsing, with houses becoming overgrown as the residents cut bait and move south. Single mother of two Billy (Christina Hendricks) aims to stick it out, but she's three months behind on the mortgage and the job that the new bank manager (Been Mendelsohn) refers her to would not be her first choice. Older son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) aims to leave as soon as he's got his car fixed, but his only source of income is scavenging copper from abandoned buildings, and a cruel thug calling himself Bully (Matt Smith) aims to corner that market. It's while fleeing Bully that Bones finds a road that leads underwater; girl next door Rat (Saoirse Ronan) explains the local lore.

The characters in this film have names out of a fairy tale, but Gosling sets his sights higher, stretching toward the mythic in his conception of societal death and rebirth, building toward parallel climaxes where Billy and Bones journey to separate underworlds. For Billy, it's a grotesque man-made version of hell designed to damage her soul in exchange for the money she needs to stay. Simple prostitution would almost am to let her off too easily, so Gosling instead creates a situation where she has trapped herself in a place where death and decay are seen as entertainment.

Full review on EFC.

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