Saturday, April 24, 2004

Mona Lisa Smile

Mona Lisa Smile surprised me. I didn't go see it in the theaters because it sounded formulaic, and in many it ways it was. It's a "teacher" movie that deals with the "real" lives of young society women - fifty years ago. At first it doesn't seem to have anything new to say  about  the middle time of the coming of age of feminism in this country. At first it does not seem to compare and contrast with the nuveau classic "Dead Poets Society", but it actually does.

Listen and watch as Katherine (Julia Roberts) gets the girls to think for themselves using art as a "place" for them to exercise their maturing moral imaginations. Robin Williams did the same in Dead Poets Society with literature. He gets kicked out of the school because his teaching is linked to a student who commits suicide. Katherine Watson voluntarily leaves the school because she will not accept censorship. Further differences between the two is that Mona Lisa Smile deals with sexuality and this makes some viewers and critics uncomfortable - it seems to negate traditional values about home, hearth, and motherhood. But does it really espouse a perspective or instead present a story about the times that did question these values?

Katherine tries to get Betty to think for herself, but she is too focused on a society marriage and privilege- those superficial values that are part of her decisions with consequences that come back to haunt her. Katherine never judges. Joan, on the other hand, seems open enough to listen to Katherine who lays all the opportunities out and even pushes, but with all the facts and opportunities in front of her, Joan adamantly chooses marriage and motherhood.

Katherine accepts this... She seems like a puppet of the filmmaker, true. That's why it's not a great movie. She needs to think more for herself in the role...

My favorite part is the speech about critical autonomy regarding art, and by extension the social mores the girls accept without question. I think this is the basic message the film proposes. Some viewers may want Katherine to take a stand about sexual issues; it might have been more interesting if she had (the only thing she does is refuse to sleep with her boyfriend because it is socially unacceptable to her proper hausfrau - played to perfection by Marcia Gay Harden.) The superficial values the young women espouse are unacceptable even by today's traditional standards, however these might be defined; Katherine's values are to get them to think; she more or less ignores the sexual issues being raised around her. Sure, she says women can have it all - but how many women really believe this?  I don't think we really can unless we work very very hard and make great sacrifices - we wind up giving up everything to have it all.

Mona Lisa Smiles is pretty inocuous. It's a history peice because it's 50 years too late and bland to influence anyone - except about critical thinking. I am glad she goes off to Europe to study and stay poor. The option the school gives her to have her every move and word scrutinized is unacceptable - it is just another form of slavery with no creative freedom. What was life like in the 50's? It wasn't Leave it to Beaver.... or Father Knows Best. It may not have been Mona Lisa Smiles, either. All movies are constructed reality. It's the ideas that may or may not be interesting.

Not a great movie, but not that bad either. The male teacher is a jerk... the school nurse is a lesbian who gets fired for giving out illegal birth control pills (this is the 1950's). So the plot is structured to push all the buttons - but this doesn't work very well and it isn't the point. Smart viewers will recognize the flat approach to the formula and appreciate the advancement of critical engagement with the culture of the era... this is valid for all time.

Dead Poets Society told the men's story; Mona Lisa Smiles tells the women's. Is there anything in between these stories of white, rich kids who were being trained to be the leaders of ... today? Are they the standard for universal human experience? Or is it their teachers?

The film probably isn't even worth this much space... but it was watchable and thinkable.


Friday, April 9, 2004

Two Brothers

Two Brothers is coming out in June. It's gorgeous and good for the whole family - about a family of tigers in Southeast Asia around 1920 and the man-hunter and lonely boy who love them. More later. From the same studio that made Babe.


To be released Memorial Day Weekend, it's the story of these kids who go to American Eagle Christian Academy and go rah! rah! rah! for Jesus with every breath. Jena Malone plays Mary and thinks she can save her boyfriend from being gay if she sleeps with him and ends up very pregnant (her conclusions about what she is taught about Jesus are always very black and white and usually funny.)  Mandy Moore plays Hilary Faye (remeber Tammy Faye?) who is Jesus' biggest supporter and resident saint - who irritates everyone with her perfection. She dismisses anyone who cannot live up to her standards - of course she thinks her standards are the same as those of Jesus standard.

This is a pretty funny film that does poke fun at the enthusiasm (and narrow mindedness) of Christians who don't think about the consequences of excluding people who don't live up to the way they think Jesus wants people to live. "If God wanted us all to think the same way, why did he make us so different?" asks Mary (she plays the adulteress figure from the Gospels really.) This may seem to some to veer off into moral relativity, but that's not what the film is about. It's about what happens when people excude others who are different and reminds us that Jesus hung out with those who were sinners and those who were different. It's an in-your-face wake up call to think about who Jesus is for us and what righteousness means.

It made me a little uncomfortable at times because it pushes issues to the cultural and evangelical limits established by adults - just like kids would do. But it lands solidly on its feet by asking "What would Jesus do?" He would be with us as we struggle to figure out what is right - in charity - and by including those who are different in looks and beliefs. It embraces diversity and leaves many issues to be talked about.

Life is not a comic book (like Hellboy) and Saved! reminds viewers that there is a lot of grey out there.

Saved! is going to irritate some evangelical Christians like Dogma irritated traditional and older Catholics a few years ago because it questions accepted beliefs and cultural mores. But I recommend it to youth ministers and young adult ministers.


Hellboy is a fun movie... following right along with X-Men II and Daredevil. Much religious (Catholic) imagery. Ron Pearlman is so at home as H.B. or "Red" as they call him. It's pure comic book from start (when the Nazi's open a portal to the dark side) and President Roosevelt's head advisor (a professor) about the paranormal and US soldiers stop them. Kind of. A Resputin character goes over to the dark side and a little red creature with horns and a tail escapes into the real world - to be raised by the Professor.

Years later (H.B.'s age is computed in cat years and he loves kittens) the Professor recruits a young FBI agent to help them go bump in the night back to the unseen spirits who bump in the first place. Good vs. evil. Typical easy categories that make classic style superhero comic books so popular.

Just sit back and enjoy. The story is almost impossible to follow - but see if you see the glimmer of a sign for a sequel... I think I did...

I am becoming a fan of comic-books made-into-movies.

Walking Tall

What a disaster of a movie. I had wanted to like it (based on a true story; The Rock was looking good), but it’s no more than a vigilante film.


I have not wanted to bolt from a movie theater in a long time, but the violence was so over the top and senseless, I could hardly stay to the end (so I could inform you that you don’t need to even wait for the video on this.)


Chris (The Rock) returns home after eight years in Special Forces. The mill is closed and a casino is open – which is involved in all kinds of vice activities. The cops are crooked and the mill hides a meth lab. Chris notices the dice are loaded and when he calls the dealer on it, a fight breaks out. The security guards brutalize Chris… and he ends up going to trial for messing the place up and wins. He runs for sheriff and wins. You get the picture. And his weapon of choice is a 2X4.


He has a monster truck… trucks and sleek cars, the extensions of man. Chris emasculates his opponents by destroying their truck; and they try to do the same to him when they blow up his truck.


What a disappointment. Could have developed all kinds of themes in an intelligent way… inter-racial marriage, the economic-political dynamic of rural towns. But no. Violence is so much more dramatic. Too bad its not smart.