While watching Wendy & Lucy, anyone who heard Mickey Rourke’s acceptance speech for Best Actor at the Golden Globes in January will be reminded of its most touching line: “Sometimes, when a man’s alone…all you got is your dog.” And just like The Wrestler, the film for which Rourke was honored, Kelly Reichardt’s third feature wrings a whole lot of emotion out of a sparse story, trading epic arcs for an achingly intimate shadowing of one character and the tiny, everyday cares that can add up to an overwhelming burden.
We encounter Wendy (Michelle Williams) on her way to Alaska; a carefully kept ledger tells us that she started out in Indiana and that her stash is only a few hundred dollars. Wendy sleeps in her car, awakened on the day we meet her in a small Oregon town by a Walgreens security guard (Wally Dalton) who orders her off the property and helps push her old Accord to the street when it won’t start.
Wendy’s day really gets bad when she takes budgeting to an extreme: She shoplifts a bit of food for herself and her dog, Lucy, and gets caught by an overzealous teenage security guard, who pushes his boss to follow store policy regardless of the trifling infraction. And so Wendy is arrested, leaving Lucy tied to a bike rack outside the store. Her anguished glances at the clock throughout the next scene’s slow-moving jail process make it unsurprising that when she finally gets back to the supermarket, Lucy is gone.
This first part of Wendy’s very bad day seems at first like a mere bump in her roadtrip, but you eventually realize that Reichardt (who co-wrote the story with her Old Joy collaborator, Jon Raymond) doesn’t intend to let you follow her hoodie-and-shorts-wearin’ heroine to Alaska. You don’t really get to know where Wendy came from; one brief, awkward phone call to her sister gives you the adequate impression that Wendy is not close to her family and doesn’t really have anyone to rely on. And you don’t get to know what happens to Wendy once she leaves Oregon: Tidy ever-afters, whether happy or sad, are the stuff of Hollywood storytelling—a field in which Reichardt has repeatedly demonstrated her lack of interest.
Instead, the director asks you to hang with one person as she deals with slowly soul-crushing setbacks, and the effect is devastating in its ordinariness. You may never have found yourself bathing in gas-station bathrooms without any emergency financial or emotional support system. But you’ve probably heard really shitty news about your car when your bills were already sky-high. You’ve probably loved a pet, or gotten yourself in trouble when you should have known better. Or maybe, like the security guard or the supermarket manager, you’ve just come across someone like Wendy and had the opportunity to help. And you either chose to help or kept up your self-defensive wall, averting your eyes and muttering “sorry.”
Wendy and Lucy espouses a cinema vérité style, with no music except for Wendy’s occasional humming (credited as “Wendy Theme Music” by musician and Old Joy star Will Oldham, who also has a bit part here) and many distanced tracking shots, as if we’re one of the small-town residents eyeing the stranger. Williams’ performance is somewhat distractingly culled from the Uglification School of Acting—really, even a dirt-poor Supercuts regular would have better hair than Wendy’s, and Williams’ still-beautiful face seems discrepant with her character’s off-to-work-the-canneries hardscrabble look. But once you reconcile these quibbles, Williams is heartbreaking and human, thoroughly believable as a seasoned stoic, yet not so steely that she doesn’t lose it when things start to snowball. You can consider Wendy and Lucy a parable for our current tough times, though the film was shot before the economy really went to hell. Or you can just admire it message-free, as one of those rare but keen pieces of art that engage and reflect the human condition with no apparent effort at all.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos
Don’t be fooled by Kate Beckinsale’s credit in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. Her spandex-suited Selene, lead Death Dealer of the improbable franchise’s first two installments, doesn’t make a cameo but rather a splice: Tacked onto the very end of this prequel is a few seconds of old footage—Beckinsale crouching atop a building—an image more memorable than either of the other movie’s plots and obviously a desperate move to boost the profile of a project that by all logic should have gone straight to video. Classy!
The weird thing is…well, Rise of the Lycans actually isn’t that bad. Compared to that of its sister films, the storytelling is stellar, remarkable not because there’s a whole lot going on—in fact, you’ll likely leave the theater thinking, “That’s it?”—but because what little does happen makes sense. (Lest other filmmakers get the idea that serving up origin stories in the last installment will free them from too-heavy exposition, I’ve got two words: Phantom Menace.)
Written by Underworld constant Danny McBride—no, not the funny Danny McBride—along with Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain, a duo whose first effort, Outlander, has recently had its release date changed to TBD, Rise of the Lycans focuses on formerly peripheral characters Lucian (Michael Sheen, who likely signed a contract before Frost/Nixon earned him Oscar talk) and Viktor (Bill Nighy, apparently bored). Viktor’s a vampire, leader of the Death Dealers and enemy of Lycans (werewolves, really) such as Lucian. Viktor has kept Lucian as his slave, however, forcing his human form to wear a collar that keeps him from getting his wolf on.
Apparently, though, Lucian’s forbidden bloodline was a major turn-on for Viktor’s daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra, a Beckinsale lookalike though the character was blond in the first Underworlds). So they cavort blissfully—and hilariously—behind Viktor’s back, with Sonja taking special delight in riding Lucian while his upper body hangs off a cliff. But Lucian wants to be free and breaks his collar to release his inner alpha-Lycan, at which point Viktor gives the medieval equivalent of It Is ON. And when his little girl makes the dreaded announcement—Lucian’s her baby daddy!—Viktor really gets pissed. (At least he seems to— it’s difficult to tell with Nighy, who was outfitted with ice-blue contacts that make him look perpetually startled.)
Rise of the Lycans, then, is little more than a chase-and-destroy story, what with Lucian upheaving his posse and Viktor declaring war. Director Patrick Tatopoulos does an adequate job with his feature debut, taking the reins from Beckinsale’s husband Len Wiseman after paying dues as part of the special-effects crew in the first two installments. Tatopoulos adheres closely to the other films’ palette, though that’s not exactly difficult considering the atmospherics range from dark gray to dark blue. And, more important, everyone’s hair still looks stringy and wet, no matter what the weather. Considering the general superiority of this installment, retaining some pieces of its predecessors’ stupidity is only good manners.