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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
"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
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.
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.
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.
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