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Mar 29/13

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Admission (Movie); Checking Out and The Judge's Will (Short Fiction); No (Movie)

Admission (Movie) written by Karen Croner (screenplay), Jean Hanff Korelitz (novel); directed by Paul Weitz; starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Wallace Shawn, Nat Wolff, Gloria Reuben, Elaine Kussack, Christopher Evan Welch, Michael Genadry, Michael Sheen

You might not believe that anybody who hasn’t been living in a cave in Afghanistan for the past ten years hasn’t seen Tiny Fey perform on tv. I wouldn’t believe it either. The fact is, I once saw Ms. Fey perform, for about five minutes when I happened to be passing through the tv room one night when 30 Rock was on. But I think we can agree that that quick look doesn’t make me an expert on her art.

Which could be why I’m not sure that I quite "get" Ms. Fey as a performer. Afficionados of her tv show might be more sensitized to her style. From my enthusiastic review of her memoir Bossypants (on DD page dated June 25/11), you can see that I find her a very talented writer. It seems to me, though, that performance doesn’t show her talents as fully. There’s something brittle and polished about her, as if she lacks a certain rumpled humanity. For some strange reason, Eve Arden in Our Miss Brooks comes to mind: the tall, stylish woman striding through a slight, piece, spouting clever lines.

None of which is to say that I don’t appreciate some notably fine comic turns from Ms. Fey. In this movie, there’s the marvellous speech when she tries to convince somebody that she’s happy. She keeps saying the word ‘happy’ until she winds down, finishing off with the observation that if you repeat the word too much, it becomes meaningless, like the word ‘fork.’ Huh? And she does a lovely thing at a party she’s hostessing, when her boyfriend, who’s the head of the English department and the co-host, has just left her. She reels off a wonderfully batty speech about how he had to rush off to help a student who was having a crisis about Robert Frost, something about "the road not taken." And then there’s the scene where, trying to comfort a cow in labour, she murmus things like: "Where’s the bull that did this to you?"

What takes her to that scenario – by a rather big plot stretch – is the fact that she’s playing Portia Nathan, a recruiter in the admissions office at Princeton. The university has suddenly fallen to second place in the national ratings and there’s fierce competition among the recruiters to get the best students. One possible candidate is Jeremiah, an adoped brainiac, who’s being pushed at Portia by John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the principal and founder of the alternative school that Jeremiah attends. It’s an institution where kids learn to be independent thinkers and spend most of their classroom time mucking out barns and birthing calves. Having met Jeremiah on the school’s back-to-the-earth campus, Portia finds that she has special reason to support this kid: the principal reveals (this comes early on and you can’t undertand anything about the movie without knowing this) that he’s discovered that Jeremiah is the son that Portia secretly gave up for adoption on the day he was born.

That has some promising dramatic implications, but the movie has started– very unpromisingly – in the comic vein. There’s a lot of laborious exposition required to establish the tension in the admissions office at Princeton. Portia’s live-in boyfriend (Michael Sheen) is so egregiously creepy – his endearments to her always seem to involve references to dogs – that it’s a relief when he, not surprisingly, abandons her. The kids in Jeremiah’s school, who needs must attack Portia’s Princeton elitism, as they see it, come off like automatons spouting lines that have been written to make teens sound precocious.

And yet, I found myself enjoying the movie as a whole, almost against my better judgement. Nat Wolff, who plays Benjamin, the adopted whiz kid, has a natural, unforced on-screen presence. Something about his bland, non-descript manner makes him seem like the teen down the street but there’s a quiet, inner quality about him that makes you believe he really could be the genius he’s reputed to be. Portia’s interaction with him (he doesn’t know what she’s learned about their connection) brings up some deep questions about parent-kid relationships. Given the pressure about his getting into Princeton – all the competition and the hype – your mind also starts to mull over the issues of education and learning: what is the point of the university experience?

At first, I had to wonder about Wallace Shawn as Princeton’s dean of admissions. Granted, this man has had a distinguished career in the arts in America but what is the point of casting him as a functionary, a role that anybody could play? After a while, though, I had to admit that the man is a very good actor. His rubbery face must be one of the most expressive mugs in the business. It’s very amusing to watch his reactions as he’s caught in the cross-fire in the admissions office.

It was also a pleasure to see Lily Tomlin, as Portia’s mother, after what seems (to me) like a long absence from movies. Mind you, her role doesn’t make any sense. Why would such a bitter and extreme feminist go all dewey-eyed when an old Russian scholar starts acting gallant towards her? I don’t know whether it could be blamed on Ms. Tomlin’s acting but it was completely impossible to believe her in our first encounter with her, a scene where she’s supposed to be fixing her bicycle. The situation seems very contrived and unlikely. Maybe some sort of visual pun is intended: is this woman giving us the gears? Or, maybe the situation is supposed to remind us of that old saying in the early days of the women’s movement: a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle....? But maybe I’m being a bit too much like the brainy Jeremiah here.

To cite just one of the movie’s many more obvious pleasures – there’s the moment when Portia comes storming out of her office, onto one of those terraces that you find around those collegiate-gothic buildings. For no reason whatever, there happens to be a group of male students doing some gorgeous a capella singing on the terrace and we get to enjoy their serenade as Ms. Fey stomps back and forth angrily. One of the less attractive aspects of the movie is the desperate measure Portia takes, at one point, to try to get Jeremiah into Princeton. With Paul Rudd’s twinkly charm on hand, you might expect that certain kinds of feelings will be stirring between him and Ms. Fey’s character but things don’t work out quite the way we’re expecting. Even the title turns out to have interesting implications. It’s not just about being admitted or not admitted to some august institution; it’s also about what we admit or don’t admit to ourselves.

Capsule comment: An enjoyable mish-mash

 

Checking Out (Short Fiction) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; The New Yorker, March 18, 2013

Obinze, an African man and an illegal immigrant to Britain, meets the young woman who has agreed to marry him so that he can get legal status. It’s just a sham marriage but it begins to appear that maybe it won’t be. Meanwhile, Obinze does whatever’s necessary, legal or otherwise, to get a driver’s licence, a social insurance number and a job. The plight of a man in his situation comes through very poignantly. I think what makes it so effective is that the tone of the narrative is very matter of fact; there’s no pathos or self-pity. On the whole, Obinze has a positive attitude. The only hint of negativity is when he winces at the illegality of some of the steps he’s forced to take. It’s a compelling statement about the unfair disadvantages piled up against some people, compared to the relatively easy lives of us lucky ones.

 

The Judge’s Will (Short Fiction) by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; The New Yorker, March 25, 2013

I’ll never forget the opening line of a New Yorker story by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala that was published years ago. It went something like this: "Mr. So-and-so was very surprised to learn that his ex-wife had become a saint." It went on to tell how the woman in question had left behind her western life, had migrated to the mountains of India (I think) and become an ascetic and a well-known guru. The denouement of the story is lost to my memory but the piece firmly fixed, in my mind, an impression of the author as someone who concocts fascinating stories about people in amazingly complicated situations – rather the way Mavis Gallant does, but in an Indian rather than a Parisian setting.

Here, Ms. Prawer Jhabvala is at it again. An elderly judge feels that, because of heart problems, he may be dying. The time has come, then, to tell his wife that he has made provisions in his will for a mistress that he’s been keeping for a long time without his wife’s knowledge. And how does the wife react: with horror or animosity? No. She receives the news like a delicious bit of gossip and runs off delightedly to tell hers and the judge’s thirtyish son about this exciting discovery. The son is a spectacularly lazy and pampered non-achiever. The way things work out between him and his parents and the mistress, who inevitably comes on the scene, shows the author’s keen feel for the complexities of human interactions.

 

No (Movie) written by Pedro Peirano (screenplay) and Antonio Skrmeta (play); directed by Pablo Larrain; starring Gael Garca Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco, Nstor Cantillana, Antonia Zegers, Pascal Montero, Elsa Poblete.

It’s 1988 and the international community has forced General Augusto Pinochet to hold a plebescite to validate his rule in Chile. The people of the nation are to declare, democratically, "Yes" or "No" to the dictator. Each side is given fifteen minutes of tv time each day to make its case (although it doesn’t take a lot of political smarts to know that the General’s side of the argument will be made constantly through the rest of the broadcast day). Gael Garca Bernal plays Ren Saavedra a young advertising hot-shot who’s recruited to direct the "No" campaign. (I haven’t been able to find out whether the character is based on a real person.)

As you might expect, the government doesn’t always play fair. When the "No" side appears to be gaining ground, threats and intimidation start. My impression is that, provided you’re not someone who thinks military dictatorship is a good idea, you’re supposed to love this movie. And the movie’s impact is all the more striking when inevitable thoughts come to mind about what’s going on in dictatorships today

In this case, though, there’s not a lot of plot or suspense, given that we know how things turned out. In some ways, the greater interest in the movie is the study of media methods and advertising styles, as the two sides try to answer each other’s latest salvos. At various times, the ads include humour, violence, politicking and schmaltz. It surprised me to see how corny some of them were (assuming these are the historical ads?). With all the emphasis on freedom and happiness in the ads, with the singing and dancing actors, you’d think you were watching promos for cell phone contracts.

But the movie itself, as distinct from the ads, is hard to enjoy, even though it’s very interesting politically and historically. Much of the time, it’s not clear what’s going on. The scenes are fragmentary. Nothing is explained very thoroughly. There are a lot of subtitles to take in. Given that the hand-held camera swings back and forth constantly, it can be quite challenging for anyone who doesn’t speak Spanish to follow the proceedings.

And then there’s the off-putting style of the movie. It has a documentary look and feel to it, like found film. Or old home movies: saturated colours, with a rather flat surface. Often, shots are out of focus or backlit in such a way that you can’t see people’s faces. Presumably, this is to make us feel that we’re back in the day; perhaps the intent is to match the new footage with the archival stuff. But, let’s face it, movie-making techniques have improved a lot in the meantime. It’s not easy to get used to looking at a movie where there’s often a prismatic glow around the edges of the actors, as if they were being filmed through a greasy lens. And yet, the cheap, blurry effect doesn’t appear to be the result of economy; at the end of the movie, during the credits, we get scenes of the cast and crew chatting casually and the shots are in perfect focus, with clear twenty-first century visual qualities.

Another problem with the movie is that it doesn’t draw you into the lives and feelings of the characters. At the centre of it all, there’s Signor Bernal’s character, like the proverbial still point in the middle of the storm. He never gets very worked up about it all. For the most part, he seems to have a bemused attitude to the battle. We know almost nothing about his private life except that he has a son, about seven years old, who appears to live with him. Gradually, we learn that an older woman on the scene is a nanny. A woman who appears to be the kid’s mother shows up now and then, when she’s not being jailed or beatup for protesting in the streets. It’s well beyond the half way mark of the movie before we find out what the deal is with this woman and Ren.

The interaction at that point gives us one insight about his inner life: that the guy’s lonely for adult female companionship. But the fact that we know so little about this guy is no criticism of Signor Bernal’s acting. Although the script doesn’t give him much of a chance for revealing his character’s depths, he makes the best of the few opportunities that arise. In a sequence where he clearly knows his son is in danger, he’s walking away from a house where he has left the boy for safe-keeping. The look on Signor Bernal’s face is a superb example of the high art of film acting: the actor simply lets the camera read the bleakness he is feeling.

Maybe the point of the movie’s matter-of-fact, deadpan style is that most of life isn’t about great drama, even when important things are taking place. At the big victory celebrations, we see Ren walking through the crowds, carrying his young son, betraying hardly any emotion. The final scene has him showing some clients a glitzy commercial he’s prepared for a soap opera. Maybe the intended effect is irony. Or, the message could be: business-as-usual. Maybe the movie’s trying to tell us that great things are accomplished by people simply going about their daily work, trying to do the right thing, not being heroes.

Capsule comment (instead of a "rating"): interesting without being entertaining.

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