Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Three Summer Films

Mud is a movie about two teenage boys growing up in small-town Arkansas. One is an orphan being raised by his uncle, a small-time oyster diver. The other lives on a houseboat with his parents, who don’t seem to be getting along very well. The boys are monosyllabic, adventuresome, resourceful, and very curious about girls. They spend a lot of time on the vast river that flows near their town, puttering in a metal skiff.

Early on they come upon a good-sized fishing boat hanging twenty feet up in a tree—left there by a recent flood. Inside it they find girly magazines (good) and a half-eaten loaf of white bread (bad). Back on the beach they’re surprised by Mud (Mathew McConaughey), the guy who’s living in the boat. He has crosses cut into the heels of his boots and a pistol in his belt.

The rest of the film charts the friendship that develops between the kids and the mysterious fugitive. They find out who his girl-friend is and why he carries the pistol. They learn other things from neighbors in town; it seems Mud is a local boy who went bad. Or maybe he just got hooked on the wrong girl? The boys don’t really know who to believe, and neither do we.

The tale unfolds slowly and subplots abound, most of them rubbing up against relations between the sexes as witnessed (or tentatively explored) by a fourteen-year-old. There are also touches of suspense as Mud enlists the boys to help him with a grand scheme, the details of which remain obscure for most of the film.

In the end, Mud touches on quite a few of the big themes—love, loyalty, sacrifice, romance, and illusion—without losing its Southern, small-town, aimless summer, wild river ambiance, and the presence of Sam Shepard and Reese Witherspoon don’t hurt  much, either.

Two comments by director Jeff Nichol hint at why the film works so well. On one occasion he remarked,  "I wanted to capture a point in my life in high school when I had crushes on girls and it totally broke my heart and it was devastating. I wanted to try and bottle that excitement and that pain and that intensity of being in love and being a teenager." At another point, reflecting on why he set the film in southeast Arkansas, he said, "These places and people have such a particular accent and culture, and they're quickly getting homogenized. I wanted to capture a snapshot of a place that probably won't be there forever."

Neither of these elements—the teen heartbreak or the local color—are overwhelming in themselves, but put to the service of a better-than-average narrative unfolding at a suitably mellow pace, they make a satisfying ensemble.

So, the Southern trilogy, to be served with jambalaya and beer: Mud, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Winter’s Bone.

More Than Honey is a film about honey bees—what they do, why they’re so important to agriculture, and what perils they face. It’s also a film about bee-keepers. And that’s good, because you can watch a bunch of hairy bees crawling on each other for only so long.

One of the beekeepers is a German with a scraggly beard who’s following in his grandfather’s footsteps; he’s worried about the “racial purity” of the bees in his Alpine meadow. The queen mates in mid-air high above the valley, and yellow-striped bees have been flying over the peaks  from the next valley.

Another is a North Dakota beekeeper who drives a 3,400 mile circuit to California and back each year with his bees, stopping at almond groves and orchards. A third is an Arizona maverick who sees the future of pollination in the killer bees that escaped from a Brazilian lab decades ago.

I learned a lot about bees during the film, though the approach is scattered and some themes are randomly introduced and underdeveloped. Some of the science might simply have been over my head. As Hilary and I were walking back to the car after the movie our conversation went something like this:

Me: Now, what's the difference between pollen and nectar?

Hil: They didn't say anything about the wax?

Me: The Alps were sure pretty.

Hil: That's a little more than I needed to know amount parasitic mites.

Me: Well, at least no one got stung on-screen.

Another good thing about the film—no amount of popcorn chomping or ice-rattling could ruin the atmosphere. The buzzing was almost non-stop.

Twenty Feet from Stardom is a fascinating exploration of the world of back-up singers, underscoring how much they’ve given to pop music and how little recognition they’ve received in return. It focuses on the careers of five women: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Judith Hill, and Claudia Lennear. I’d never heard of any of them, and to tell you the truth, after seeing the film I still wouldn’t be able to put names to some of the faces. But they each have an interesting story to tell about life behind the scenes in the music industry.

Unlike so many biopics (Ray, I Walk the Line, Dreamgirls, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Crazy, etc, etc.) in which talent leads to success, which often leads on to drug abuse, family break-up, plane crash, or some other less-than-felicitous conclusion, these women never got to the top rung of the ladder, though they clearly had more than average talent. Director Morgan Neville explores the reasons why, with the help of interviewees Mic Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and of course, the singers themselves.

Some of them found they preferred singing in an ensemble to being front and center, others were mishandled and even cheated by the producers who shaped their solo careers. Lisa Fischer won a Grammy for her first single, “How Can I Ease the Pain,” but never found the groove again, grew tired of the solo lifestyle, and returned to her star-studded back-up career. Darlene Love, who sang the lead in the Crystal’s “He’s a Rebel” (uncredited) cleaned houses for a living before returning to the studio later in life. (She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.)

Watching clips of these women at the peak of their solo effort, it might also occur to some viewers that they really weren’t good enough. For example, Merry Clayton is no Aretha Franklin, and Tata Vega (currently touring with Elton John) sounds a little harsh.There are more than a few bittersweet moments as we watch the singers ponder what might have been, while trying their best to underscore all the beautiful music they did create.  

The clips are choice, bringing us from the Phil Spector era to the present day, though the film makes no effort to provide a comprehensive history. Many of the women featured have known each other for decades, and the film bubbles with the wonderful camaraderie they generate when rehearsing or performing together. In fact, I  would have liked them to reminisce a little less, and sing together a little more.

But we’ve got plenty of time, now that we're better informed, to peruse the iTunes catalog.  

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