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Good Girl

by Howard Schumann

"As a girl," says Justine (Jennifer Aniston) in The Good Girl, "you see the world as a giant candy store filled with sweet candy and such. As you get older it becomes a prison." A 30-year old cashier and cosmetics clerk at a "Retail Rodeo" department store in rural Texas, Justine, like many other working people, goes through her daily routine in a job lacking meaning.

The Good Girl, the second collaboration between director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White (the first was Chuck & Buck), chronicles Justine's increasing depression as she comes to recognize the dead end that her life has become. Arteta captures the dull texture of a small town in his depiction of Retail Rodeo - with its cold white floors, slow sliding exit doors, and zombie-like customers, the store provides a vivid metaphor for Justine's sterile inner life.

The store is populated with workers who are fed up, and who deal with their situations in variously comic ways. Corny (an amusing turn by White) is a born-again Christian security guard who installs cameras in hidden areas, allowing him a way to pass the time, and an omniscience that goes beyond what his job requires. Gwen (Deborah Rush), a peppy busybody and probably Justine's closest friend at work, encourages her to stay active and essentially ignore her feelings of unhappiness. Sullen cashier Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel), earns some of the biggest laughs in the movie, loading her loudspeaker customer-service announcements with sexual innuendo and veiled insults at the customers.

Increasingly frustrated with her job, Justine's malaise is deepened by her inability to relate to her slow-witted housepainter husband Phil (John C. Reilly). Throughout the film, Phil does little more than sit on the sofa, watch TV, and smoke pot with his work buddy, Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). When, while stoned, they wonder at the possibility of a paint that could change the molecular structure of the house, Justine can only sit silently in dismay. Slowly she develops a friendship with a quiet, sad-eyed cashier at work, played wonderfully by Jake Gyllenhaal. He calls himself Holden, after his hero, Holden Caulfield, from J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Holden dreams of emulating Salinger by making his fame as a writer and then escaping to the life of a recluse.

The two begin having lunch together, and soon their friendship blossoms into a passionate affair. It seems that they are bonded by unhappiness, a mutual distaste for the world that makes them both outsiders. "I was looking at you in the store and I liked how you kept to yourself," Justine tells him. "I saw in your eyes that you hate the world. I hate it too." Though Holden feels that he has finally found someone who "gets him," but it becomes clear that he doesn't quite have his head on straight.

The Good Girl is not afraid to show the American workplace as less than idyllic. Though it resembles other suburban angst movies like American Beauty, the film is rescued from cliché and plot contrivance by an offbeat sense of humor and compelling characters. It deals honestly with the 'stuckness' that many people experience in their lives. To its credit, the movie is not content to simply reveal the desire for escape, but ultimately questions whether that desire might be as much an illusion as the presumed bliss of a nuclear family. In this sense, The Good Girl is clearly not a hopeful film. However, it is an honest. immensely enjoyable, and even, I think, an important one.

The tagline on the movie poster for Silvio Soldino's Bread and Tulips says "Imagine your life. Now go live it." The film is designed to appeal to those dissatisfied folk who want to chuck everything and run off to Venice or some other romantic getaway. What more could you want? Accordion music, flowers, the lovely back streets and alleys of Venice, and a romantic lover who talks in blank verse.

The woman who gets her shot at romance in this Italian film is Rosalba (Licia Maglietta). In this often charming, but mostly implausible and contrived comedy, Maglietta portrays a harried housewife who lives to take care of a family that does not appreciate her. While on vacation, she goes to the bathroom, and leaves only to find that her family left, forgetting to take her with them. She sets out on her own, discovers the charm of Venice, and meets some unlikely characters along the way. These include a suicidal restaurateur (Bruno Ganz) who knows the meaning of true love (having cheated on his family in the past), a ditzy masseuse who falls for an overweight private detective, a Marxist florist, and a husband who is an expert in detective stories and philandering.

Bread and Tulips invites us to escape from the humdrum, and damn the consequences. Yeah! Go for it! Forget pesky things like wedding vows, kids who need their mother at a precarious adolescent stage, household obligations, and so forth. Of course I understand that there are still many women who stay at home not because they choose to, but because it is what is culturally expected. Yet to take this seriously as a timely political statement would require plausible characters and believable situations. Maglietta's performance suffuses the film with charm, and Ganz is an appealing lover; but I frankly expected more from a film that has won festival awards. Bread and Tulips is a zany feel-good comedy that might have worked better as a TV sitcom.

Adapted to the screen by Rafael Azcona from three stories in Manuel Rivas novel Que Me Quieres, Amor, José Luis Cuerda's Butterfly is a rare and insightful coming-of-age story that takes place in a rural part of northern Spain during the Second Republic, when Spain had a brief flirtation with socialism and democracy. Against a background of the growing clouds of the Spanish Civil War, the film depicts the relationship between asthmatic 7-year old Moncho (Manuel Lozano) and his liberal schoolteacher, Don Gregorio, played by the great Spanish actor Fernando Fernán Gómez.

Butterfly tells its story through snapshots of young Moncho. In the beginning, he is a quiet, shy boy who is afraid go to school because he thinks the teacher will hit him. Gregorio, however, is a kind spirit who teaches his students to appreciate poetry, the beauty of nature, and the spirit of loving one another. Moncho grows from a frightened child to an enthusiastic young boy who is eager to learn all that he can about life. He divides his time between following his older brother's exploits playing the saxophone in a local band and chasing butterflies with his teacher friend. The butterfly here seems to be a symbol both of freedom and transformation.

I felt very involved with this young boy's world, and found Lozano to be one of the most beguiling child actors that I have seen in a long time. His performance alone saves the film from Miramax-type sentimentality, towards which it occasionally drifts. Gómez is also wonderful as the compassionate teacher, symbolizing the humanitarian government that Spain enjoyed before the onset of fascism. Eventually, Moncho must choose between his love for the teacher who opened his eyes to the beauty and wonder of the natural world, and the ugly pressures from his family and neighbors to take sides in the political conflict. With an ending as memorable as Truffaut's The 400 Blows, Butterfly powerfully illuminates the human cost of war.

To Sleep With Anger, directed in 1990 by Charles Burnett, is a moody, langorous, wonderfully rich character study of a middle class black family in Los Angeles. The warmth and closeness of the family are interrupted by the arrival of an old friend named Harry, played brilliantly by Danny Glover. Things start falling apart almost immediately after Harry decides to stay a while. The father, a retired farmer, sickens and lapses into a coma, two brothers begin bickering, and the younger brother battles with his wife. Based on an old folk tale, the story is not about the the so-called "Devil," or about the evil in our midst, as some reviewers seem to think. Rather, it is about a paradoxically benign force that can spur conflict and resolution, thereby helping people to grow and move to a new level. With brilliant performances, vivid character portraits, and great music, To Sleep With Anger is a deeply moving, humanistic work of art, and a beautiful portrait of the richness and complexity of black family life.

"There is no difficulty such that you cannot overcome it and no height such that you cannot reach it; you must keep trying."
-- Raj Kapoor

Boot Polish (1953), directed by Prakash Arora and Raj Kapoor, has just been released on DVD by Yash Raj Films. I saw this film once when I was a student many years ago, and I never forgot it. Now that I've seen it again on DVD, I'm happy to say that my former impression has been confirmed: I loved it just as much on a second viewing, if not more.

Boot Polish is a pure example of Hindi cinema, now commonly known as "Bollywood". It is filled with songs and dances, stylized artifice, idealized characters, myriad sub-plots, and an inspiring message. Though technically not a musical, the joyous and hypnotic songs on the soundtrack are interwoven into the plot in a way that both enhances the drama and reminds you that it is "also" a movie. The direction is attributed to Prakash Arora, assistant to the "great showman" Raj Kapoor. The story, however, is that Kapoor took one look at the rush print and realized he had made a mistake in assigning it to Arora, then re-shot the entire film himself. It won the 1953/54 Filmfare awards (India's version of the Oscars) for best picture, best supporting actor, and best cinematography.

The story is about the relationship between a ten-year old boy, Bhola (Rhatan Kumar) and his seven-year old sister Belu (Baby Naaz). The children are without parents. They live in a slum area in Bombay with Kamla, a cold and unloving relative, and must beg to stay alive. Bhola and Belu undergo verbal and physical abuse from Kamla when they don't bring home enough money each day. Their only friend is a neighbor, John Chacha (David Ebrahim), who operates a bootlegging business outside the law. John Chacha provides the kids with the emotional warmth they need, and tells them not to beg but to find some work. "Starve, die, but don't beg. Do something with your two hands", he says, and instructs them in the art of polishing shoes.

Bhola and Belu gradually become proficient in their trade and eke out a living, refusing to take alms. Then the monsoon rains come, and their business suffers. In addition, John's arrest takes from them the little love and comfort they had. Beg or die - that is the question that the children must now face.

Some may dismiss the picture as melodrama, but I find it a life-affirming and rich cinematic experience. The love of the children for each other is very real, and their struggle for survival and social respectability is profoundly touching. Filled with positive energy and the "heroic face of innocence," Boot Polish is now more than ever one of my all time favorite films.

©2002 Howard Schumann