wrong with this picture? Mulligan in An Education.
by Lone Scherfig
A precisely made coming-of-age story, adapted by Nick Hornby
from a memoir by Lynn Barber and directed by the Danish filmmaker
Lone Scherfig, An Education is smart, sweet and heartbreaking.
Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old schoolgirl on her
way home from cello practice when 30-something David (Peter
Sarsgaard) offers her a ride in his fancy-shmancy sports car.
We know this is trouble. Jenny knows this is trouble. But
David is a charmer, and he endears himself to her strict parents
(Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) with pretty lies, and opens
up a world of concerts and nightclubs to Jenny, the smartest,
hippest girl in her class—and thus the one most susceptible
to his tricks.
David is a predator, but he’s a passive-aggressive one who
operates strictly on charm and money. We learn early on that,
left to his own devices, he’s risk-averse; David defers to
his “business” partner Danny (Dominic Cooper, sharp as a tack)
when they’re working one of their “deals,” even allowing Danny
to be the tough guy with Jenny. It’s disconcerting, disorienting—and
no small part of why Jenny is comfortable with David. She
must think, at some level, that she can control him.
And this is crucial, because Jenny knows what she’s after,
too. Sexually, she’d already professed that she planned to
lose her virginity at 17. (Careful David, cognizant of the
legal age of consent, doesn’t press the matter.) While she
has a lot of what Gene Pitney described in song as the “wide-eyed
innocent” in her, she quickly gets wise to David’s other games—the
ones he plays to make money.
And these games are sordid, and often criminal. She learns
this, but only flinches for a moment. We’re left to puzzle
out the balance of her motives, which are divided between
her genuine feelings for him and her desperate desire to escape
the drudgery of school, the restrictions of home life and
the gray uniformity of postwar England.
The place and the time—the early 1960s—are crucial to Jenny’s
dilemma. She doesn’t want to end up a middle-class housewife
like her mother, but the career paths open to her if she graduates
from Oxford aren’t immediately appealing, either. Jenny sees
her teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) as a kind of social
wallflower to be pitied and scorned; this is teenage cruelty
at its meanest. Less defensible is the school’s headmistress
(Emma Thompson), whose starched values and casual anti-Semitism
are a kind of mild-mannered horror. When David starts dangling
jewelry in front of her and buying her clothes, it’s exhilarating
enough to blind her to everything she doesn’t want to know.
Director Scherfig, who came out of the Dogme 95 movement,
retains that genre’s attachment to close-ups; she’s always
looking for answers in the human face. For this kind of cinema
to work, one needs first-rate actors, and everyone in An
Education passes this test. Scherfig also makes wonderful
use of color, with the pale suburban home and school settings
contrasted with the Technicolor glamour of London nightclubs
and swanky hotels in exotic places. This underlines a wonderful
cliché that applies to the story: All that glitters is not
Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
by Lee Daniels
As annoyingly simplistic as it often is harrowing, Precious—and,
no, I simply refuse to type the ridiculously long subtitle
that suggests more self-importance than the film is worth—is
an exercise in passive aggression. Teen Clarice Precious Jones
(Gabourey Sidibe) gets kicked out of school when she turns
up pregnant for the second time. Her baby’s daddy is her own
daddy, and if that’s not bad enough, we are treated to some
crude flashbacks involving Dad’s sweaty and bulging belly,
a jar of petroleum jelly, jostling bed springs and then (let’s
hope you haven’t just eaten), bacon and eggs sizzling stovetop
in grease. Making matters worse is the fact that Precious’
mother Mary (Mo’Nique) would just as soon smash her daughter’s
head with a frying pan as give her the time of day, enslaving
the girl, verbally harassing her and—this time, thankfully,
no accompanying photographic subtext—sexually abusing her
Thank God for the love and support of a too-good-to-be-true
teacher (Paula Patton), named Blu Rain, whose preferred method
of instruction to her ragtag class of dropout girls is “Write!
Write!” The part of me that is my own mother, and which I
like to keep hidden, couldn’t help but intone “But Precious
can’t even read.” And, worse, “How about some marketable
skills?” Precious, which is now having its day thanks
to Oprah’s imprimatur, pushes the ideal that, with hope and
personal support, every child can succeed, no matter how disadvantaged.
And Precious most certainly is that.
As if to underscore the emotional trauma she’s had to withstand,
Precious is mountainously fat. The effort to speak, at least
initially, seems gargantuan, no doubt because nobody has heretofore
bothered to listen, but at times, one can’t help but wonder
if she’s got anything worth saying after all. This is not
due to Sidibe’s performance, which is affecting and at times
surprisingly sharp, but more to the filmmakers’ shifting understanding
of what and who she is. Victim? Check. Idiot savant? Hardly.
Messenger for understanding and humanity? Get back to me next
week, after I’ve had some time to mull this over, but I think
not. Just when one thinks that Precious might get her life
back on track, another horror befalls her.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles had it easy in comparison.
The movie has that unmistakable feel of watching a car wreck,
where you know you shouldn’t look but you can’t help yourself.
Mary’s terrorizing of her daughter is probably the cruelest
depiction of motherhood in recent movies, but it’s steeped
in something that we know to be realism, perhaps because we
ourselves have said some pretty nasty things to our own flesh
and blood. Mo’Nique, generally known for her comedic roles,
lets it rip, unafraid of our repulsion. While Daniels fills
the screen with images of billboards proclaiming the value
of spaying or neutering the animal population (how’s that
for subtlety?), Mo’Nique chips away at little pieces of our
psyche, so that we can almost empathize with her hatred and
jealousy of her own daughter. Certainly, we come away with
an understanding that ignorance begets not just more ignorance,
but unspeakable tragedy. We’re meant to get the idea that
Precious, because she’s motivated and is beginning to realize
her self-worth and intelligence, will make a better world
not just for herself, but for her two babies; the more cynical
among us might wonder instead at what ongoing cost to society,
and to what end?
Twilight Saga: New Moon
by Chris Weitz
Bella Swan (Kristin Stewart) is almost 18, and Edward Cullen
(Robert Pattinson) is 109. Yet Bella is worried about their
age difference—make that aging difference—because Edward is
an immortal vampire. Not that there’s much vampiric about
him. In New Moon, the sequel to last year’s tween hit
Twilight, Bella and Edward are even more inane, despite
having spent the summer apart. Bella is so angst-ridden about
looking like her grandmother that she can barely enjoy celebrating
her birthday with the Cullen coven. Robert is even more tormented
about his desire to suck her blood, especially after Bella
gets a paper cut at her birthday party, sending a non-Cullen
attendee into a feeding frenzy. Bella pleads, repeatedly,
there is only one solution: that Robert “turn” her into an
undead. This he will not do, and so he departs to Italy, either
to find or destroy his soul (due to the brainless script,
it’s hard to tell which). Inconsolable, Bella finds consolation
with her friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). But wouldn’t
you know it—Jacob can’t be her boyfriend, either, because
he’s become a werewolf.
What’s a high school senior to do? Mope, mostly, which Stewart
does much less convincingly than she did in Twilight.
Directed by Chris Weitz, who drained the vitality out of The
Golden Compass, New Moon is vapid even in comparison
to the silly but lushly picturesque original. What little
acting is in evidence seems strained—this is the talented
Stewart’s worst performance—and the action occurs as a series
of boringly composed vignettes. The plot doesn’t exactly thicken
when the wanly family oriented vampires get into territorial
disputes with a pack of testosterone-fueled werewolves. For
a while, Bella runs with the wolves, because her heartache
can be relieved only by the adrenaline rush of reckless behavior.
And that includes taunting realistically CGI beasts and a
ridiculous Edwardian apparition.
For reportedly commercial reasons, director Catherine Hardwicke,
who gave Twilight a preternaturally lush and naturalistic
ambience, was replaced with Weitz. The series’ scriptwriter,
Melissa Rosenberg, was not replaced, despite the fact that
her dribbling dialogue was the worst element in the original—and
her dialogue is even more numbingly mundane for the sequel.
Even the amazingly versatile Michael Sheen (the main acting
attraction in the Underworld saga) as a powerful Italian
vampire can’t get the blood pumping in this moribund tale
of unholy love on the rebound.