Saturday, November 2, 2013

Trying to get time onto our side

No (2012) and Stories We Tell (2013) both play interesting games with time and memory, and use similar means to do so, specifically by employing outdated technology

No, the based-on-fact story of the advertising campaign employed to unseat Pinochet as dictator of Chile in 1988 confused me when I first popped it into the DVD player, because the picture is in the 1:33, Academy ratio, often called "Fool Screen."  I couldn't believe that a distributor of serious foreign film was still issuing full screen additions, and had to check Imdb to confirm that the film was indeed shot in the old television ratio, and for a very specific reason.  No was shot on 3/4" Beta so that its original footage could be seamlessly integrated with historic advertising and news footage.  Some scenes actually show the same real-life figure shot in 2011 side-by-side with 1988 footage running on a nearby monitor.

So No hopes to make the intervening years melt away for the viewer, not by bringing the past up to the present, shining it up and making it contemporary, but sending the present back to a fuzzier, grainier time with bad clothes, bad music and even worse haircuts.  And somehow it works, making the present-day performances and the old videotape blend into one slightly blurry but still quite legible artifact.  Which contains its own irony, in that the whole story is about a manipulation of the truth which was engineered so as to make the truth possible to be spoken aloud.

For somehow, somewhere, someone realized that we are not rational beings.  We do not vote, or purchase things, or live places, or fall in love based on any kind of rational measuring of the risks and rewards, costs and benefits.  We live emotionally, and most especially we vote emotionally.  So the tiny band that wanted to unseat Pinochet, given an absurdly small volume of resources, limited money, personnel and a mere fifteen minutes a night, had to turn the enormous slow-moving ship which is a nation's politics 180 degrees from the direction it was moving.  (Pinochet was seeking a vote of confidence and to give the illusion of fairness the television stations -- all state-controlled of course -- granted fifteen minutes per night for the "Vote Yes" and the "Vote No" contingents.)  The old anti-Pinochet crowd wanted to trot out all the old sufferings and martyrdoms, the torture, the suppression, the shunning by the rest of the world.  But the marketing consultant they bring in (a composite character played by Gael Garcia Bernal) points out that you can't vote against a negative.  There is no such vote.  You have to vote for something.  And Bernal proceeds to market the new Chile like a new soft drink, car, or even charity appeal (one part of the campaign includes a "We Are The World" type anthem, a recording session recreated by the original participants).

To these eyes, we were plunged back into 1988 (especially the corny advertising of the day), the intervening time elided and the filmmakers doing their best to render the film itself transparent so as to let the rather astonishing events show through clear.

Stories We Tell, on the other hand, is reflective to the point of being reflexive, a film about itself, a film seemingly determined to eat its own tail -- or perhaps to be eaten by it.

It's the most familiar old kind of family secret -- I feel as though I've seen two or three films this very year that have turned on this device (although here it is not a device, because it is what really happened in and to this family.)  But the focus is not on the story, but the telling of it, or more precisely, of them, of stories in the plural, which is the whole point.  Everybody has a story, or at least a point of view about the central story and everyone is permitted to chime in, much to the discomfort of some of the participants.

Like the central character of No, Pinochet, the central character of Stories We Tell is dead and cannot speak for herself.  So she must be created out of the collective recollections of her family, friends and extended family and friends, like the elephant described by the blind men, or a whole gang of people describing their own shadows in Plato's cave.  Also like No, the illusion is aided by blending authentic antique Super 8mm footage with newly staged and newly shot Super 8mm with lookalike actors and artificially created settings supplementing the real footage.

However, to be honest, the stories don't really contradict each other, but only inform them.  The only real conflict (this is tricky to do without writing a spoiler) is between Polley and the man who would like to be accepted as part of the family, but is not and cannot be, who asserts that only he knows The Truth, whereas he knows his own truth, which he refuses to share because it will not be accepted as the sole or at least the primary truth.

And finally there is one piece missing.  Polley herself never addresses the ambiguity of her own situation caused by the events she relates in her film.  We see her interacting with her father and with other family members who refuse to be passive participants in the film and can't resist the urge to drag her into the storytelling, whether she wants to be included or not.  And we see her working with her director of photography on the staged sequences, yet never clearly labels or identifies which sequences are real and which are re-created -- in fact she does not even acknowledge the artifice but for editing in these "making of" shots into her film.  Her father points out on camera that she will take all the interviews which in all fairness should run unedited at length and chop them out and put them in counterpoint with each other to create a new narrative, "her" narrative, a constructed thing.

But honestly what is her choice?  To make a film is always to force a liason between reality and artifice and the question is what balance will be struck.  No film will ever live entirely in one camp or another, so why all the embarrassment and reticence about the very medium Polley has chosen to explore these questions?  She needs to take a look at Exit Through The Gift Shop or even Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story to see just how this bargain can be made without equivocation, in fact with the kind of cheeky grin that Stories We Tell could really use.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Haven't we suffered enough?

Julianne Moore tries to convince Nathan Lane they make the script work.
The English Teacher (2013) is about a woman who mistakes a bad script for a good one.  But enough about Julianne Moore, let's talk about the character she plays in the film.

This woman reads nothing but great classical literature but somehow becomes convinced that the faux avant-garde playscript written by a former student is immortal art, the implication being that she is biased because the writer IS a former student.

It is possible that the writers of this film not only don't know any English teachers, but never had any English teachers.  Maybe they always cut class.  Most English teachers I know care for their students very much but start out with the assumption that whatever they write is going to be absolutely terrible and that the teacher must decide how and what is fixable before this writing is unleashed on an innocent public.  They do NOT begin with the premise that their former student's play is going to be a piece of genius, such that they walk around in a fog for WEEKS until they SUDDENLY realize that the play was crap all along.  I mean these people READ FOR A LIVING.  It's questionable whether the writers and producers of such drivel are literate at all.

This is also the kind of movie in which nobody notices that Julianne Moore is hot because she is wearing classes, and nobody notices that Nathan Lane is a pompous fraud because, well, actually, I have no idea why they don't notice that.  He virtually has it tattooed on his forehead.  (And why haven't Lane and his boss, played by Norbert Leo Butz realized that instead of running this crummy school, they should be co-starring in a HILARIOUS Broadway musical?)  Moreover we have to endure the movie-high-school-play-production cliche that the acting is terrible but the set, which is either beautiful or hideous, is in any event, completely professionally assembled, clearly painted by members of Local 829 of the United Scenic Artists who happen to still be attending high school.

Most insultingly, we are also subjected to the common Movie World idea that all of high school is permeated with a sweaty cloud of sex.  Now while a lot of our students may be walking around in that sort of funk, no faculty I have been a part of (and I have taught in rural, suburban AND urban settings) is anything but a bit ascetic.  Frankly, you can't survive in a school setting without a parental mindset.  Teachers call their students "my kids" partly because it's useful shorthand, but partly because there is some truth.  To a limited degree they are your kids.  You share responsibility for part of their lives.  Any teacher who does otherwise is dangerous and may even be psychologically unstable.

[UPDATE:  I've since heard an interview with the writers which implied that they had no intention of portraying real teachers, but reflecting a students-eye view of teachers.  That would have been nice if your screenplay had articulated that idea.  From what is on the screen, I can only presume that the script reflects the writers' own immature ill-formed ideas of who teachers are.  Look, kids, I never said teachers don't have illusions.  They do.  But somebody already made a GOOD film about a teacher having his illusions stripped away.  It's called ELECTION, it's adapted by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor from a very good novel by Tom Perotta and you should be required to watch it twenty times from beginning to end before you're allowed to try and write another script of any kind ever again.]

I've already spent more time, and wasted more of YOUR time on this thing than is worth it.  Much, much better films have come and gone without comment by me.  (But I'm working on catching up.  Really.  I am.)  But this is a milieu that I knew well.  That, in fact, MILLIONS of people know well and the sheer effrontery of preserving and rehearsing these destructive old cliches about schools and teachers is especially galling.

Still -- somewhere there's a movie co-starring Nathan Lane and Norbert Leo Butz waiting to be made.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Prisoner of love

One is a princess, one is a genius, both confined for being women.
They're going to have to make a mini-series about Leopold Mozart, father of Wolfgang Amadeus, in order to explore all the stories and complexities of this ambiguous figure in music history.  In Amadeus, he was the enabler, in Mozart's Sister (2010), the disabler of musical genius.

I presume you can guess at the story premise from the title.  René Féret, the film's writer-director, has imagined that Nannerl was not only a fine performing musician, but an incipient composer, an idea which can be neither proved nor disproved, since although we have no surviving compositions by her, Féret proposes that she burned all her manuscripts when her path to composing became impassable.  But it feels plausible, especially given the very nice music composed for her by Marie-Jeanne Serero.  (In time Nannerl is persuaded by her father Leopold to give up the man she loves and marry a nobleman of his choice, then to turn over her only son, named Leopold for her father to raise in case he was also a musical genius, which he was not.  She died blind and impoverished, having turned almost everything she had, material and spiritual to her voracious father.)

Féret's screenplay makes Nannerl the confidant of princesses, most notably the youngest daughter of Louis XV, who had no contact with her parents after early childhood and eventually became an abbess, turning to the only people who had shown her love, the nuns of the abbey in which she was raised and lived.  Louise and Nannerl (shown above) are played by daughters of Féret, which raises questions as to how much of a Leopold Mozart is the director of the very film we are watching, and is the whole thing just a hall of mirrors?

Two more observations and I'll go.  First, this is a very difficult type of film to make without the audience getting lost in the elegant surfaces of late 17th century court life.  It helps that the Mozarts are often living in shabby circumstances which diminish the glam factor.  And starting the film with Nannerl peeing in the snow might help some people.  But I suppose we can never resolve the tension as to whether people of previous epochs are just like us with fancy clothes, or utterly unlike us other than a superficial flesh resemblance, albeit the flesh factor is magnified by the film medium.

Second, it's odd to see Wolfgang Mozart relegated to a small supporting part as a bright-eyed, somewhat mischievous but still rather sweet child.  Maybe Amadeus would have been easier to take if we had seen that he once had not been an insufferable pig.

Third (I know I said I'd confine myself to two, but I thought of another and if you really want to hold me to my word, you're going to have to stop reading because Lord knows, I can't control what you do with your free time), I don't know whether it's Féret or just being French or even being European, but the film is a little bit like that person you're trying to finish a conversation with and he makes his point and you acknowledge that you understand and accept that and now it is time for you to get in your car or the elevator or what-have-you but you can't because he is making that same point again, and you are politely nodding and trying to indicate with body language that you are ready to move on and that he should be, too, and yes, he nods his head suggesting that he has read your non-verbal message and you are about to turn away but still he takes on that pre-emptory inhale that warns that long-winded important things are to be said, and alas, they are the very things that have been said.

The point is, we know that it sucks to be a woman and that it really, really sucked 275 years ago and we never really believed that she was going to make a career as a composer because...guess what...we've never heard of her music.  So, M. Féret, we're way ahead of you and we stay ahead of you for most of the two attenuated hours.

But there is no question, as far as performances by the daughter of the director go,  has got Sofia Coppola beat six ways from Sunday.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliquescently...

The Kings of Summer perform the primal drainage pipe dance.
So in comparing The Kings of Summer (2013) with Not Fade Away (inevitable because, not only are both first features by refugees from television and both are male coming-of-age stories, but Not Fade Away is the film I saw immediately prior to this one), I must address the age-old critical dilemma -- is it better to aim high and fall short or to have more modest goals and achieve them?  Because Kings of Summer lands with an assurance in its off-kilter humor and a skepticism toward its central character that Not Fade Away can not manage, still nursing 50-year-old resentments and injuries.

But Kings of Summer knows that we grow and change and has the preciense to reconstruct our larval selves with an ironic and skeptical eye that renders the vision more accurate than Chase's precise recollection of every fight, every betrayal, every abandonment.  But Chris Galetta, the writer of Kings and its director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, knows that those clashes that formed the crucible of our character are long forgotten, plastered over in our memory by the sheer pleasure of having survived it all and having become who we are.

This is a great example of how you can be less realistic and be more true.  Early in the story, best friends Joe and Patrick acquire a completely unexplained mascot, Biaggio, who provides much of the energy and variety of the piece.

As played by Moises Arias, likely to become a significant comic personality, Biaggio proves to be the glue of unasked-for, unearned loyalty and affection that holds the boys and the film together.  Biaggio is ridiculous, he resembles no actual human being who lived and yet there is an essential truth to both his weirdness and his steadfastness that no character in Not Fade Away can lay claim to.

But finally the difference between the two films is that Chase has still not left television.  His film is made up of pictures of people talking (to use Hitchcock's phrase) and dialogue is the key to understanding the characters and their relationships.  Chase does not even demonstrate much skill in staging and the use of space to delineate his ideas.  He wisely puts his rebellious teen across the yard in a grey-looking barbecue scene, but proceeds to break up the scene in a set of reverses that obviates any relationship between Alienated Youth and the family trying to act out a scenario of happiness.

The Kings of Summer is all about control of space.  The boys want to escape their parents' spaces and create a new one of their own, the house they build in the woods out of scrap that provided the original name for the film -- "Toy's House."  Instead of imitating their parents lives, like the frustrated and frustrating teens of Chases's film, Joe, Patrick and Biaggio try to reinvent life from first principles.  Sadly, both films revert to the Yoko trope, the Girl Who Wrecks Everything.  In fact, in both cases, the girl in question has been with multiple boys in the band, real and metaphoric in the respective films.  But Kings of Summer doesn't even need that idea -- it seems merely a device to create a separation between Joe and Patrick.  Joe takes command of the space by himself and defends it against the ultimate Edenic intruder, a poisonous snake, defending girl, father and almost Biaggio, who inserts himself in the snake's path to his regret.

At the end of both Not Fade Away and Kings of Summer there is a supporting character in the hospital.  In Not Fade Away he provides a small plot development, pushing the hero to the West Coast by himself (reinforcing the narcissism of what is supposed to be the identification figure).  In Kings of Summer, Biaggio finds himself under medical care due to a heroic if misguided gesture that resonates with the central themes of the film.  But Mr. Galetta's and Mr. Vogt-Roberts's craftsmanship and emotional logic are far more impressive than that of the famous, grouchy and evidently self-absorbed David Chase.

BTW -- are Nick Offerman and Megan Mullaly now the center of the Six Degrees of Separation game?   They are becoming ubiquitous lately.  I think Nick Offerman has appeared in more movies this year than Bryan Cranston, which is saying something.  (Incidentally, he's just fine, although Mullaly is a bit cartoon-y, as is her wont.)

Finally, I can recommend Kings of Summer to any women who want to understand men of any age in the way it lays out that the specifics of that narrow passage from adolescence to the beginning of adult life.  That is truly news you can use, if you have males in your life.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

You Can't Always Get What You Want, Can You David Chase?

Regrettably, David Chase did such a thorough job plumbing the psyche of his own youthful self in writing and directing Not Fade Away (2012), that the result is not merely a misfire, but a peculiarly adolescent one.

It is sort-of embarrasing to see a man in his 60s, a few years older than me, with such a stunningly successful body of work behind him such as creating and guiding The Sopranos through seven seasons, to succumb to his own undigested influences in this flailing, unfocused, imitative film.

Chase blows the gaffe halfway through when hereo Doug's college-educated girlfriend Grace takes him to Blow-Up, which he professes to be confused by, given the lack of narrative or underscore music  ("I think the trees are the music," says Grace, acting as ventroliquist dummy for writer-director Chase), despite the fact that Doug is supposed to be interested in filmmaking. But it is all a cover for the fact that Chase is himself attempting to make an Antonioni movie set in 1960s New Jersey, made most apparent in the brief final sequence in Hollywood, when Doug makes a desultory attempt to hitchhike at Hollywood and Vine and then his teenage sister pops up onscreen to narrate a thematic conclusion and then do some unmotivated and unsolicited go-go dancing (I wish I could find a video online to show you).  Chase's art-house ambitions couldn't be plainer by these theatrical affectations.

Some of the narrative failures couldn't be more basic.  One can almost hear young Chase whining to his screenplay professor, "But I want to make an ENSEMBLE story...that's why there are all these random, incomplete storylines."  Despite good intentions, the film clearly takes sides, telling Doug's story from beginning to end.  So the rambling and unrewarding thread about his girlfriend's hippy sister rebellions against father Chris MacDonald (and is there anything more cliched than being opposed to Chris MacDonald?  They even do it on network television) and the emotional thrashings of confused erstwhile lead singer Wells lead nowhere.  Even Gandolfini's gruff grumblings, as Doug's working class father seems a pointless warming over of familiar tropes, both of working-class dads with college sons, not to mention Gandolfini's own grouchy turns on The Sopranos.  Not even his contracting cancer can lead significance or originality to his story.

A sympathetic producer or story-editor could have helped Chase realize what his real story was, and stop trying to represent the entirety of the 1960s as seen from the suburbs of Essex County.  But them he or someone would have realized that what they had was a standard-issue bildungsroman adorned by some good old tunes and at least one good new one, heard in this clip in which they audition for a Bigtime Record Producer.

To its credit, the bands always sound like real bands playing at a realistic level of skill in real rooms for real people.  But other filmmakers have crashed on the same rocks, trying to avoid the cliche of show biz story crowned with success by having the hero crash through to the middle, or to nowhere, as this hero does.  We know the sequel -- our hero quits music and goes into TV, writing fine shows like The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure and still covering himself in the self-loathing that hovers every frame of this movie like the odorous haze over the Jersey Meadowlands, and prevents the audience from taking pleasure in even the most triumphant of scenes.

I understand that Mr. Chase is a fairly prickly and difficult fellow.  God knows, if he had any friends, they might have looked at this film and helped him to make something genuinely original and rewarding from it, instead of the desultory, self-indulgent thing it is.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

What, and give up show business?

The noxious barrennes of the San Fernando Valley
Just caught up with two small films set on the margins of show business that have a surprising amount of common ground, given their different milieus.  In both cases, the corrosiveness of dreams of fame give way to the pull of new and deepening friendships, friendships formed to almost deliberately spite the bitch goddess of showbiz.

Starlet (2012) by Sean Baker approaches its story from one direction, that of a seemingly aimless young woman befriending a very old woman who appears to be harboring secrets.  The irony is that the young woman has a much greater secret, namely, that between bouts of getting high and shopping she is a porn "model," an occupation which seems to mean nothing at all to her.  Certainly not as much as her friendship with Sadie and her dog Starlet, the first Chuahuahua I've ever seen that actually seemed more like a companion than vermin.

Sadie has a different secret than her young friend thinks, but it's worth your time to watch this mostly quiet, contemplative (and not sleazy, despite ts frankness) film.  One of its most striking aspects is Radium Cheung's anamorphic cinematography, which captures the burned-up, burned-out grey-green-greasy littered sterility of the San Fernando Valley, its oppressive openness and lack of landmarks or even directionality.  It is the most densely inhabited physical and spiritual desert in the world, and Cheung seems to have captured life near the bottom of this languid and rancid bowl.   

Clarence explains the music biz as if he knew something.
It makes a startling contrast with the virtually artless photography of Craig Zobel's Great World of Sound (2007), a semi-improvised dramedy about song-sharking, the art and science of taking money from people based on their hope of having a music career.  Where Starlet is set in the airless open sky of the Valley, Great World is shoved into cramped motel rooms, chain restaurants and airport lobbies, all lit by seemingly radioactive flourescent light radiating cancer into the souls of those who would feed on the hopes of others.

Martin and Clarence, having failed in other fields, wash up in a conclave of hopefuls summoned by a set of hucksters straight from Glengarry Glen Ross, substituting recording contracts for real estate deals.  Their job is to blow into town, advertise that they are looking for recording talent, let the folks sing a song or two, then get them to put some earnest money down towards a recording session, which will lead to a record release.  Whether the session or the release happen is no concern of theirs.

Martin is a well-meaning milquetoast who would like to be an artist, or at least involved with artists.  Clarence is a man who would to like to eat regularly and will say, well not ANYTHING, but a lot of things in order to make that happen.  After the expected friction, they arrive at a good cop-bad cop routine that gets the hopefuls hopeful enough to plunk down a few hundred or even a few thousand of the ready.

But for all its virtues, it is a film aesthetically at war with itself.  The engine that drives the movie is this Odd Couple relationship.  But the raison d'etre of the film is the prank at its heart.  The filmmakers really did advertise for hopeful musical artists, really did film their auditions and the sales talk.  (The last part was actually sort of brilliant, since it forced the actors to do their best to close the deal.)  After the "scenes" were finished, the situation was explained to the auditioners and the filmmakers got the releases, so there were no surprises when the film was released -- but two problems remain.  The scenes we are seeing are not really not part of the story -- they are honest-to-goodness pranks.  And secondly, the auditioners were rarely at a laughable level of awfulness.  Most of them are very good amateurs, not ready for a professional arena but not suitable for ridicule.  I suppose the message here is how very nice and decent people with some talent, if not blinding talent will let their ambition and naivete and belief in themselves will let them be tricked by cruel and ruthless hucksters.  Including the hucksters who made the movie.

Here's a roughly typical example of the level of talent that appears in the finished film:

What do you do with this? You're not overwhelmed, yet you can't dismiss it, either.  And that painful ambiguous knife-edge, resting on the line between competence and genuine art is a self-inflicted wound at the heart of Great World of Sound.

See it anyway, because the experiment was worth trying and nearly everyone in the film provides good company on the journey.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The First...for now...

Pee Wee Reese shows his Kentucky family who he is.
First of all, baseball movies virtually always work, at least on a minute-to-minute level for the same reason that courtroom dramas always work at the same level.  The events are constructed perfectly for drama, and especially drama to be picked up and assembled from multiple perspectives.

In courtroom drama, you get to ask a person a whole lot of questions and they're not allowed to storm out of the room in a huff.  They can refuse to answer, but that refusal is drama (and tactics) in itself.

Baseball has all the stakes of any athletic contest, with two important differences.  One is the starts and stops that many deplore about baseball, but which we aficionados appreciate as time to contemplate, meditate, consider the multiple directions the moments immediately before us can take.  For the screenplay writer, those pauses give plenty of time to build tension, conflict, multiple points of view and even to crank up the inspirational music on the soundtrack.  Second is the fact that anything can happen in a split second.  Sure, that's true in any sport.  Even soccer football must surely have its astonishing reversals (I've never stayed awake through an entire game to tell you).  But generally in those long continuous games-- football, hockey, basketball, things continue the way they started.  Unless the teams are closely matched, the outcome is readily forseeable from the outset.

But in baseball, the best team can lose and often does.  Baseball is for people who love underdogs, long shots and outcasts.  Nobody makes movies about the Yankees.  Why bother?  A bunch of overpaid arrogant jerks whose pinstripes ought to be on corporate-type suits with diamond stickpins and wing-tipped shoes.  That's not drama.  But Dem Bums is always a story waiting to be told, a story that often ends "Wait till next year."

42 (2013) is at least the fourth major go-round with the Jackie Robinson story, including the film starring Robinson, a musical called The First and a television movie, not to mention a major portion of Episode 6 of the Ken Burns series Baseball.  I must admit that I took pleasure in remembering and recognizing the story points in a tale I had heard so many times. And 42 offers up many, many movie-movie pleasures.  Ford's quirky Branch Rickey, Boseman's burning intensity, the prodigious warmth and intelligence of Nichole Beharie as Rachel Robinson, the give and take of the play on the field and the cheers and taunts of the crowd, John C. McGinley doing an excellent Red Barber, Hamish Linklater as the good-natured Ralph Branca, some old-time high-key cinematography by Don Burgess, the extremely satisfying scene illustrated above between Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese and Boseman's Robinson--underwritten and underplayed to perfection, the brilliant use of a young Black fan as point-of-view--a character who has his own story, as we learn at the end.  If nothing else, 42 is an immensely satisfying popcorn movie.

But this begs the question. Why tell the story again?  Why now?  Why in 2013 do we need this reminder of a partnership in courage between a member of the ruling elite of capitalism and of the underclass?

Well, I can't be the first person to have thought of it, but to me 42 read like an allegory of the Obama era.  Obama, like Robinson is The First; and, presumably, like Robinson, only the first of many.  (Can you imagine the first Female Latin President.  She would tell you What's What!)   The most important point 42 makes is that putting Robinson on the team was ONLY THE BEGINNING.  It was not enough to send him up to the majors.  The long, difficult journey had only begun.  Robinson had to demonstrate his skills, win the respect and ultimately, the loyalty, of his teammates, resist the natural desire to defend himself and to use his fists (or his mouth).  It also emphasizes that even a great hero like Robinson needs a team behind him.  In this case, not the Dodgers, but manager Rickey, writer Wendell Smith (presumably standing in for a network of African American opinion makers and fixers) and most importantly, his wife Rachel Robinson, who read and approved the script of this film.

The President and another hero, Rachel Robinson
I hope I don't offend anyone, but I was and am a supporter of President Obama.  But although I volunteered and contributed to the 2008 campaign, like a lot of his supporters, we figured getting him into office would create the usual wave of goodwill that envelops a new president and things would Start To Pop.  We were naive fools.  Getting him elected was only the beginning.  And like Robinson, Obama had to be three times as good and keep his mouth shut when being provoked by redneck morons, even (or especially) when one of the redneck morons is the minority leader of the Senate.

What's the difference between this and Ben Chapman
shouting "Nigger nigger nigger" at Jackie Robinson?
Listen, I get it that it is necessary and desirable to have a wide range of political opinion in our country. Our Constitution is designed to force people to acknowledge each others' points of view and to hammer out solutions that provide positive outcomes for as many people as possible.  Anyone who says compromise is un-American is an illiterate jackass who does not understand the Constitution or the temper of the Founders.  And vigorous abuse has a long history in our country.  Abraham Lincoln was called an ape, and a US Representative beat a Senator with a stick on the floor of the Senate.

But what we have today is different. I am up for debate based on the facts (not the facts you make up yourself, but actual verifiable-by-multiple-independent-sources-facts), history and logic.  But that is not what much of the opposition to Obama is about.  It's about ignorant, atavistic fear, the tribal fear that "our group" will not have enough resources to withstand assault from the "other group."

Well, they're still playing baseball.  Black, white, Latin, Asian and every possible combination and permutation thereof.  And the sport is making more money than ever.  American will similarly survive President Obama and both his principled and his racist opponents.  But 42 reminds us that the fight is long and hard, and we never get to declare the battle over.  Not if we're still battling idiot racism 66 years after Robinson came up to The Big Show.

Michele Obama asked it herself at the White House screening of 42"You're left just asking yourselves, how on Earth did they live through that?  How did they do it?"  Just what we tell our students (I teach high school in the inner city, if you didn't know).  Perseverance.  Character.  Courage. Grit.  42 is much more than a biopic and much much more than a baseball picture.  It is our Beowulf our Iliad, the warrior who slays the monster, who slays the thousands of enemy troops, who represents our best, the person for whom we create the word "hero."

Saturday, March 30, 2013


Clothes make the woman.  A servant dressed as a duchess.
There is one fascinating sequence in the unexpectedly mild Farewell My Queen (2012), the only film I've seen about the French Revolution which could be described as "understated."  The Revolution has begun, everyone is fleeing Versailles and Sidonie, reader to Marie Antoinette and profoundly devoted to the queen, has been asked to assume the disguise of the queen's intimate friend, the Duchess of Polignac.  (Everyone is all in a tizzy about the suggestion of homosexuality in this film, but it seems a rather tame escalation of the intimacy among women customary of the time.  It was a way to experience tenderness unavailable in conventional marriage, and for the Queen it was a relationship which avoided the accusations of treason which would have followed any relationship with any male.)  The Duchess will pose as her maid.  It is simply a matter of exchanging clothes.

Tellingly, this exchange of identity begins with a ritual humiliation.  One of the Queen's attendants insists on stripping Sidonie down to her skin.  No man is present, but clearly Sidonie feels vulnerable and attempts at first to cover herself, but admonished to stop.  The implication is that such modesty is presumptuous in the presence of her superiors, especially the Queen.  And it works.  The ordinarily feisty Sidonie is docile, accepting -- perhaps a little resentful -- but she patiently waits for the Duchesses's gown to arrive to be put on her.

What follows is equally instructive.  As you can see by the illustration above with Lea Seydoux (whose performance has been woefully underappreciated), Sidonie's head is no longer bowed and subservient.  Her head is up, her shoulders are back, she walks with command.  Anyone who has worn formal clothing of a previous era may recognize how the structure of those clothes affect the way one holds one's body and, consequently,the physical attitude one presents to the world.  Sidonie walks as a duchess, and even though the other staff knows who she is, they are confused as to how to acknowledge her, now neither wholly another domestic, but not wholly a duchess.  (This is complicated by the fact that Polignac's elevation to the title was rather questionable to begin with.)

As the film ends, the charade is successful.  Polignac is rather snippy and bitter for a maid, at least within the privacy of the coach, but upon presentation of the papers to the guard, Sidonie is appropriately both demure and haughty, and she and the Duchess and the Duchess's beard-husband are given safe passage.  From then on, Sidonie literally disappears, vaporizes.  We hear her, but we do not see her, as she mourns the fact that she shall now become no one.  Because, after all, what dress is she to put on now?

Stripped of uniform, stripped of personhood.
Compliance (2012)  seizes on the difference between being clothed and being naked and builds it into almost its entire narrative.  Again, the agenda is humiliation, and again, that humiliation can lead to a loss of identity, of self-possession, of self itself.  It is not necessary to recap the plot -- the internet is full of discussions of its veracity.  I also recommend you check out the various videos on line on the Milgrim experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment about the way people will both comply with authority and assume dictated roles of power. [These ideas are also explored in the two films - German and English- of Funny Games directed by Michael Heneke and in Das Experiment and The Experiment, also German and English films, which restage the Stanford experiment.] At least Marie Antoinette had a benign intention -- to save two beloved companions.  Here the sole item on this fastfood menu is cruelty.

And as if having to wear a fast food uniform wasn't humiliating enough by itself, now poor Becky is forced to take it -- and all her clothing off.  A lot of other things happen, and the real central manipulation takes place between the prankster and the distressingly foolish store manager, a woman so unable to handle authority that it is a wonder she was not part of the last presidential administration.  But it is Becky who is functionally naked for over and hour of this film's brief running time, and as it progresses we see how she loses the ability to object, to protest, to resist; the share fact of nakedness compels submission.  A naked person is a weak person and that simple step virtually destroys the young woman's sense of herself as something worth attention, respect, simple decency.

Even the epilogue of the film virtually ignores her in favor of her confused manager.  I suppose it makes sense -- the manager is our surrogate in the film, the one who is manipulated in a way we are seduced into saying could never happen to us.  She makes the mistakes we would make.  It's harder to identify with a victim as purely victim as Becky.  Moreover, she becomes voiceless and almost numb somewhere after the half-hour mark of the film.  And if Compliance is meant to be a cautionary tale, than the behavior to be cautioned against is that of the manager who truly had the power to put a stop to the whole thing, not the poor naked employee.  Happily, director Craig Zobel manages to keep that going without having to humiliate the actress herself.

And most terrible for both characters in these two different films is that they are made to feel shame when it is those who put them in that position who should feel the shame.  And a nod to both directors, (Benoit Jacquot and Craig Zobel, respectively) who made us witnesses to their degredation without creating a prurient or voyeuristic filip to the action, other than what is already embedded in these sorry events.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


This time around, the people of Oz will decide whether fear wins over freedom

Three films encountered over the past week grapple with the question of belief, not in the context of conventional religion, but along the porous border of Faith and Science which has become the new
demilitarized zone, except it's not so demlitarized -- bombs seem to bursting overhead every day.

As this is written Oz The Great and Powerful (2013) is the number one film in the US and worldwide.  Films can be successful merely by being fun, but this level of success suggests that Oz has some resonance for the audience, something beyond pleasant diversion.  The audience we saw the film with applauded at the end, and that is by no means a common experience anymore.  I believe that much of that resonance comes from the filmmakers' genuine respect for a central tenet of the L. Frank Baum legacy:  this is, above all, an American fairy tale.  Yes, there are princesses and witches, but the stakes are not so much personal ascension to prominence and wealth, but securing peace and freedom across a very diverse, and often strange and dangerous land.  Moreover, Baum was, more than anything, all about the dawn and the promise of the 20th century, a would-be tinkerer in the Age of the Tinkerer-King, Thomas Edison (who is rightly cited as an inspiration by Oz in the film).
The power of credentials:  cynical or self-affirming?

So, whereas the heroes of the 1939 MGM film (to which Oz pays much deep homage) were in search of personal redemption and rescue, and had to be exhorted to only believe in the powers that they already possessed, Oscar the hero of Oz must save the entire land and its varied peoples from tyranny and the rule of force.  And, taking a page from the classic film, he takes inspiration from the Wizard of Menlo Park to create an illusion of superior force and power, with the collaboration of entire race of Tinkers.  The day is won, then, not be actual superiority, but by its perception.  What can be more American than that?  We are the capitol of self-aggrandizemnt and humbug.  But as many have pointed out before, Oz wins by being the biggest and best humbug around.  And, in an improvement over the original, Oz enlists his people in creating many of the triumphal illusions.  Perhaps the people of the Land of Oz will lose their fear of magic in favor of mastery of technology.  (Will the Tinkers become the new priests of Oz?)  Arthur Clarke would weep in happy recognition.  (Clarke wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.")

I suspect that those critics --and there are many-- who are describing the film as lacking heart and emotional engagement, saw the film in a screening room without "hot bodies" (as the stage director George Abbott described paying customers).  Those bodies warm up the film with their own enthusiasm and with the joy of making connections with the MGM film, most notably, the sepia Academy ratio prologue (in a drab Kansas) expanding to a full-color 2.39 widescreen image, the nod to the Yellow Brick Road, Dark Forest and Emerald City and most particularly the transformation of Theodora into the Wicked Witch, which is a worthy analog to the earlier film's transformation of the image of a troubled Auntie Em (the Good Mother) in the crystal ball into the cackling cruelty of the Wicked Witch (the Bad Mother).

Personally, I regret that the producers' number one and number two choices for the title role, Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp, respectively, turned them down.  (I thought of them myself as I watched the film, and learned later they had a history with the property.)  Downey and Depp would have had the convincing theatricality to carry off the charlatan magician.  Mr. Franco is famous for pursuing his education, but he has a thick tongue, the California nasality that disfigures the speech of actors such as Kevin Costner and Chris O'Donnell, who sound inept in period roles, suggesting a surfer taking a pause between the waves.  Nor does Mr. Franco have the control of his hands and body that would be de rigeur for a working magician.  My hope is that he does not consider tackling the classics until he goes back to school again.

A society of mutual belief
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, for example, seems as though he could be a fine prestidigitator, especially with the façade of calm confidence he exudes in The Master (2012).  The faith of Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie in Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is perfectuly understandable.  Dodd's faith in Freddie is the puzzling core of this puzzling film.

What writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson does with great facility is to create a complete and detailed imaginary universe right next door to the world we know, close enough so that we recognize a few landmarks, but very far distant in terms of human motivations and desires.  Given that his story is merely about the unfortunate and unproductive attraction between two men who cannot and will not do each other any good, it is unclear why Freddie needs an elaborate backstory in his World War II service, drifting and alcoholism, or why, for the purposes of the narrative, Dodd needs to have created a complex system of belief which brings both followers and the unwelcome attentions of the authorities, which chase Dodd and his believers all the way to England.  At least, we're told it's England, although what we see is a few hallways and an office with a big window--an architectural flourish you will never ever see in sunshine-deprived England.

The thing that gives the Dodd system the slightest bit of plausibility (leaving aside all the borrowings from the life of L. Ron Hubbard) is that it places itself at the intersection of medicine and magic.  The original medicine men were magicians and, when it comes to mental health, they haven't moved that far from those origins.  Thus, most patients require neither consistency or cohesion.  Relief from suffering is enough to trigger acceptance of all explanations.  But the story would have been just have effective if Dodd had been a singular fraud, a traveling charlatan who does Freddie some good despite the shady origins of Dodd's skills.  The whole invented belief system is an iceberg, the bulk of which is hidden from us, which is simply unnecessary.  Anderson has put a loaded gun in the drawer, occasionally taken it out to look at or polish, but he has never fired the gun, and my friend Anton Chekhov would be pretty darn steamed.

The larger question The Master raises is, can acting performances be great when they story which embraces them is an intellectual cul de sac?  Can we applaud the actor's specificity and care of observation when the result leads nowhere and yields nothing?  I am perfectly prepared to find out I am wrong in a few years -- many people think other PT Anderson films are as empty as I think The Master is, so my mind may well change.  But for the time being, The Master is a film about belief which fails to induce it.

Kenneth asks Darius to trust him and she does.
I guess sincerity matters, because the characters in Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) may be just as insane as those in The Master, but they are clearly more earnest, well-meaning, lacking the narcissism and solipsism of Anderson's world.  Kenneth's claims are far madder than Dodd's, yet Kenneth has far less to gain personally.  He is not building an empire, but trying to fix the past.  Kenneth avers he has built a time machine, and rather than travelling in time, the whole movie is going to be spent trying to figure out if he's a genius or a madman. And to their credit, writer Derek Conolly and director Colin Trevorrow balance it pretty well.  Duplass seems both sincere and unstable; the government men following him seem both genuinely concerned and paranoid screwy at the same time.

Not surprisingly, Aubrey Plaza's role was written for her, because if her laser-like skepticism about everything in the world did not exist, it would need to be invented in order to tell this loopy story.  And given how rarely Plaza smiles un-ironically, the payoff is that much greater when she finally drops her guard, gives her heart and commits herself to belief in Kenneth.  Happily, unlike Looper, Primer and Timecrimes but like the careless shaggy dog indie, Sound Of My Voice, Safety need not ever address the paradoxes and inconsistencies of time machine movies.  We take it -- on faith -- that time travel is a matter of faith.

Then, sadly, the film blows itself up.  If you want to know how a film's conclusion can be both exhilarating and disappointing, watch Safety Not Guaranteed right to the end.  I guess I prefer ambiguity to certainty, which is why I prefer art to religion.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Keeping up with the Oscars

It can be tough to see all the important nominees before the night of the Academy Award ceremonies.  (My wife and I have been working hard at it, and we are still short a couple of titles, including Amour which is evidently illegal to see outside of Manhattan.)  This is even tougher these days with 9 Best Picture nominees, plus the other films represented by other key nominations.

But you can be completely up-to-date with the Best Animated Short Subject category by clicking the link to this page, which has embedded trailers for all of the nominees, as well as the complete film, Paperman (which is the favorite at the moment).  Won't you feel clever when your choice wins the big one a few Sundays from now?

Update:  I have since located the complete Longest Daycare.  Here it is (with apologies for the Spanish language commercial you will probably have to wait through):

Here is Fresh Guacamole:

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Perhaps it all comes down to Walton Goggins

Boyd Crowder changes hiI'
I'm not the first person to notice that Walton Goggins is the most palpable link between the most fêted films of the current Oscar season, Lincoln (2012) and Django Unchained.  But maybe Mr. Goggins's progress from unrepentant scoundrel Billy Crash, through the ambiguously wicked Boyd Crowder in Justified through the conflicted Clay Hutchins is itself a microcosm of good and evil in the morally compromised landscape of American history.  (And, incidentally, am I unjustified in suspecting that an actor named Walton Goggins who has a certain unpredictable quality will never play a character named Bob Johnson or Tom Smith?)

As portrayed in Tony Kushner's screenplay, Hutchins is swayed to vote in favor of the 13th Amendment by a promise of employment as a postmaster, given that his re-election prospects were virtually nil.  (A Democrat in post-Civil War Ohio was virtually a non-person.)  There has been a lot of harrumphing written about the horse-trading involved in getting slavery outlawed, as if Doris Goodwin or Tony Kushner had invented corruption in the 19th century, when everyone was obviously more pure and good than they are now.  (Which is why they had slavery and child labor and oppression of women and minorities and no labor or product safety regulation.  'Cause folks used to be good and we didn't need all them pesky laws.)  Much of the pleasure of the film is observing the amount and manner of deals that must be made in order to get mediocre people to do great things, a fact confined neither to history nor to the present moment. It is all very well for great people to lead us, but they are going to have to appeal to the desires of the mediocre.

And Clay Hutchins, at least as portrayed here, is no better than mediocre.  So Mr. Goggins, over the past year of his work, moved from the straightforward sadism (probably rooted in self-hatred) of slavemaster Billy Crash, through the amoral Boyd Crowder, who cares nothing for others, but is uninterested in cruelty for its own sake, to the wavering Clay Hutchins, who is willing to do the right thing if there's something in it for himself as well.  Perhaps this is the most accurate representation of the ways in which a democracy moves toward the moral light, through the historical odyssey of Walton Goggins.

Before I go, a couple of random observations about both theatrical features. 

One of the most admirable aspects of Spielberg's Lincoln is how little it looks like a Spielberg film.  I see him as the master of camera movement and manipulation, and it is amazing how quiet and calm the camera is in Lincoln -- even more than it was in Schindler's List.   Evidently, Spielberg discerned that a text this dense was going to require some stillness so that the audience would absorb the words and not be distracted by shifting images.  It's not static by any means, and the shenanigans of Mr. Bilbo are especially entertaining.  (Despite the uniqueness of that patronimic, I can find no connection between William Bilbo and Theodore Bilbo, the odious white supremacist Senator of the 20th century.)

Does anybody else think this is the darkest Spielberg movie yet?  Not in mood or philosophical outlook, but literally low in footcandles?  Good thing we don't have drive-ins any more.  The film does make it clear what a shabby and ramshackle place the Executive Mansion was and how dark most places were after sunset.  Spielberg has called on cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to be quite a chameleon over the course of their work together, and in this film he impersonates Gordon Willis, the Prince of Darkness.

And one bit of trivia about Django.  This is a measure of exactly how big a movie geek Quentin Tarantino is.  The lettering of the opening titles, is not just old-timey-Western sort of lettering.  It references a specific period of late 50s-early 60s B Westerns released by Columbia.  The specific shade of red, the splintered-log style letters, all shout "late Randolph Scott (mostly, but not always directed by Budd Boetticher)!"  This is the definition of Too Hip (or Too Lame, depending on how you want to see it) For The Room.  It's mostly of interest because the critics have only referenced spaghetti Westerns, but of course Django is no dish of spaghetti.  For one thing, it's way, way too talky for a non-English-language Western (not to mention that the lips are synchronized with the sound, which is not true in Italian and German Westerns).  And the talk is interesting and tasty and probably dominates the visuals, which is odd for a Western.  Which takes us right back to Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher and The Tall T, a Western which, for about two-thirds of its running time takes place in a small circle around a campfire.

So what will it take to get Mr. Tarantino to write for the stage?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

As it happens

Jane Austen for bi-polar characters, letters included.
The most marvelous thing happened at the showing of Silver Linings Playbook (2012) I attended.  As Jennifer Lawrence's character reveals a very painful portion of her backstory, an audience member gasped and let go of a sympathetic "Ohhhh" as if this confidence was a true story being recounted in our own presence.  Even better, we all resisted the temptation to chuckle at this naive expression of sympathy, because we were not far from where that tender woman was.  At this point, still in the first act, all of us in the audience were already so invested in these characters that we had become genuinely worried about them and concerned for their emotional recovery and survival.

That's particularly impressive because at this point in the movie, they're both a pain in the neck.  That's a hallmark of the characters in writer-director David O. Russell's films, a corpus which includes Spanking The Monkey, Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster, I ♥ Huckabees and The Fighter.  The films and the characters tend to be smart, acerbic, obsessed and a bit superior.  But there is a wonderful echt-Austen moment in the meeting of Lawrence's and Bradley Cooper's characters, the instant recognition of kindred damaged spirits and the consequent opening of hostilities as a mode of flirting.  Obviously, if you hate yourself, you're going to hate anyone you're attracted to, right?  After all, if your mind is broken, at least it shows you have one.

But where body and mind meet, that's where cinema lives.  So the film really takes off when Cooper and Lawrence dance together (charmingly, like the amateurs they are) to Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing."  Arlene Croce said it in her book about Astaire and Rogers:  When two characters sing together, they're falling in love; when they dance together, they want to have (or they are actually having) sex.  There is an intimate energy to the rehearsal montage (that word!) that is irresistible.

One last note -- the family dynamic is astonishingly similar to that of The Fighter, something I was thinking about in the theater before I remembered that the two films had the same writer-director.  There is the oppressive influence of the parents, the slightly soiled (and disapproved) girlfriend, the weight of brotherly expectation.   When you consider that the one piece is based on a true story and the other on an utterly unrelated novel, the critic feels invited to see autobiographical qualities in those shared elements.  And in both cases, Russell smoothly blends stars and journeyman actors into a seamless ensemble.

It seems Russell was always telling us about broken people -- it's just that he has now shifted his emphasis to the ways in which they fix themselves, and the result is exhilarating.

Enough to make you gasp and say, "Ohhhh..."

Surprises from the pre-classical era

I've only just gotten around to The Phantom Carriage (1921) which has been rediscovered and hailed as an early landmark of Swedish and of silent cinema.  As for the content of Victor Sjöström's remarkable and haunting film, I don't have anything to say beyond the reams that have been written, either about the contemplation of death-in-life, nor about the impeccable in-camera double-exposure effects that seem incomprehensibly impossible before the advent of the optical printer.

But it is always a pleasure to see films made before styles and studio procedures were set into the hard expectations of the market and of genre itself, which is one of the principal rewards of early silent cinema itself.  The filmmakers were still working out the rules, syntactical, stylistic and commercial.  And one of the issues that most concerns the producers and exhibitors is making sure that the actors are clearly visible at all times, so that the audience knows that they're seeing the people they paid to see.  This is no concern of the filmmaker, who is driven primarily by narrative (which is not the same thing as plot or story).

So look at this still, which (unlike many production stills) is an accurate reflection of this scene in the film.  The low and partially obscured light source perfectly sets the hushed, anxious yet warm tone of the scene.  Is there any question that this is a deathbed, albeit not a frightening one?  This is the deathbed of a person who is lived well and wishes to die well.  The light is neither evenly balanced, as Classical Hollywood would demand, nor is it dramatically expressionistic, as in Citizen Kane and its film noir offspring. The effect is oblique, but not in overstated way. The light throughout Phantom Carriage is rarely realistic, yet it often seems that it is, because--although it is NOT expressionistic--it is highly expressive of the inner states of the characters.  A photographer like Julius Jaenzon becomes a true co-author in a work like this, especially in silent film, in which dialogue is not a significant factor.

Students and even devoted film lovers are always resisting silent film, perhaps sensing that it requires closer attention and is therefore, harder work.  But without a stream of chatter, sound effects and music closely synchronized to the image, the viewer is forced to shut up and look.  And when it comes to film, the pictures, there's where the goodies are.

How to do coming of age--female edition

Just one of the many awkward moments in MARGARET.
Two films released in the last couple of years represent object lessons-- positive and negative, respectively -- in the dramatization of the coming of age of a young woman.

Margaret (2011), written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) is not so much a narrative as a core sample, both of the life of its protagonist, Lisa Cohen and of a strata of urban life, and the upper middle class of the Upper West Side of Manhattan in particular.  (Margaret is merely an allusion to a Gerard Manley Hopkin poem.)  Although there is a strong dramatic core that invokes questions of death and the meaning of life without strain, the film loses interest in such things from time to time, letting the camera wander about the landscape in a seemingly aimless fashion, although what it is doing is placing Lisa in her context.

The coming-of-age aspects Margaret touches on include political passion, pretentious language, conflict with parents, awkward sex with contemporaries, inability to express real affection, inappropriate sexual attraction to adults, resistance of threatened step-parents, the desire to engage in a cause bigger than herself, and a need for self-expression greater than her need to understand others.  But the saving grace of Margaret is the way it sets its story against the tapestry of New York and its battered and brittle inhabitants.  No one listens to anyone else and Jeannie Berlin plays what might be the most impossibly irritating character in the history of film, constantly asking people to explain themselves, and continuing to shout over them as they try to answer her.  Nearly everything she hears is an insult or an affront.  By herself she virtually stands for an entire substrata of New York -- the Umbrage People.

(This is a movie so rich that Matthew Broderick can show up just to read the poem that provides the title of the film, Mark Ruffalo can be dealt with in two short scenes and Alison Janney is on hand solely for the purpose of being hit by a bus.  Seems like hard work to be Ken Lonergan's friend!)

 Cierra Ramirez (left). Remember her. Eva Mendes is in it, too.
Margaret seems more like a time capsule than a coming-of-age, whereas Girl in Progress (2012) seems to have been built from a literature class diagram of the bildungsroman.  The youngster in question even organizes her maturation around a checklist of to-dos.  Dye hair, go emo, lose virginity, learn to drive, yada, yada, yada.  Are you paying attention?  The film is actually announcing exactly how formulaic and robotic it intends to be. Girl in Progress and Margaret have virtually identical de-virginization scenes (they both deliberately pick heartless idiots as partners), but where Girl intends to be smart and funny and incorporates a twist meant to be satiric (she rejects the boy because he expresses tenderness), it falls into the trap of teenagers being a heartless pack of jackals.  Lisa's degradation is small and personal; Anciedad's becomes public in a way unfamiliar to people who live among human beings rather than endlessly recycled movie archetypes.  So sad to see a film toss away an opportunity for insight and character growth in favor of a very unpleasant and tired cliche.

There is life in Girl in Progress, which comes from the powerful dynamic between mother Eva Mendes and the whip-smart Cierra Ramirez.  One of the reasons I want to stay alive for another 20 years is to see this generation of brilliant young actresses -- Ellen Page, Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, and add Ms. Ramirez to this list.   (I don't include Anna Paquin, star of Margaret to this list, because I suspect that she is so intelligent she may well have retired from acting in 20 years.)  Ramirez is consistently better than her material, real and precise; I am concerned that she has come from and has now returned to television, which relies on a lot of freeze-dried refried acting...I hope she will get away from that as soon as she can.  As soon as she comes of age.