Saturday, November 28, 2009

An Education (2009) ****

It’s autumn again, the season for good movies. No more lame, big-budget video game movies or rom-com re-treads. From now to the New Year, we are guaranteed some worthwhile movies, big and small. “An Education” is one of the small ones, and very charming. The movie is taken from the memoirs of journalist Lynn Barber, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”.) In the movie, Barber’s name is changed to Jenny, a brilliant 16-year-old who is secretly bored to tears with being a straight-A student at her all-girls school. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) seems like she isn’t even fully aware how bored she is until a flirtatious older man named David (Peter Saarsgard) introduces her to the possibilities of life in the big city. Inexplicably, Jenny’s parents allow David to court her quite inappropriately, until she figures out that there is more to David than meets the eye, most of it unsavory. What did she expect, you might wonder, of a grown man who picks up a high-school girl?

The first big question raised by this story is framed pretty well by Jenny in her tearful challenge to her parents, “Young girls are always getting seduced by older men, but what were you two thinking?” Indeed, Jenny’s parents are so ridiculously impressed by David’s good looks, fine clothes, fancy car, and fictitious Oxford education that he manipulates them even more easily than he does Jenny. I think this is partly because Jenny’s family is so nouveau bourgeois. Having managed some middle-class success, they aspire to more for their daughter, but they aren’t completely clear on what they are hoping for, or exactly why. They put her in a good school and push her to excel and aspire to Oxford, but when they are presented with a seemingly simpler prize in the form of David, who presents himself as a successful, young(ish) man who could take good care of their daughter, these parents turn out to have pretty provincial priorities.

This brings up the major theme of the film, which is, “What is the purpose of an education?” Jenny’s parents were seemingly going through the motions in encouraging her to go to college. At the end of the day, their main goal seems to have been to put her in a position to meet the right sort of fellow. While her parents are busy offering her up like a lamb to a wolf, Jenny herself seriously questions the value of a college degree in a world where the only career option for a woman seems to be teaching. There’s nothing wrong with teaching, of course, but if that is literally the only post that an educated woman can aspire to, then the whole process does seem a little bleak.

I am making it sound like the movie is a downer, but “An Education” is actually much more comedy than tragedy, with wit in even the most serious scenes. Carey Mulligan, who has the most charming face, is quite convincing as a schoolgirl; and Peter Saarsgard’s David is genuinely charming enough to pull off the seduction. Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour are cheerfully clueless as the parents, and I’ll be damned if Cara Seymour doesn’t look like she could actually be Carey Mulligan’s mother, matching dimples and all.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Away We Go (2009)

This was a movie my wife read about. I went in with basically no expectations, which probably wound up making it more enjoyable. “Away We Go” is directed by Sam Mendes, director of “American Beauty,” which I consider to be a crappy film with really good direction and some good acting, so I didn’t know what to expect.

John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph play a couple with a bun 6 months in the oven. She is an orphan, and his parents decide to move to Belgium right before the baby is due. Since they both work from home, they find themselves suddenly without any reason to continue living in their crappy trailer in a place they hate. They hit the road to visit friends and family in a few locations across the continent, in hopes of finding a better place to start over and raise their child. They start out thinking that their life is really kind of screwed up, but along the way they come to realize how lucky they really are, and blah, blah, blah. The premise is really a bit trite, but somehow “Away We Go” transcends the sentimentality to be a genuinely funny, entertaining little film. Krasinki and Rudolph turn in very likable, genuine performances, and Catherine O’Hara, Allison Janney, and Maggie Gyllenhaal bring the funny with some hilariously over-the-top craziness in small roles.

“Away We Go” plays like a Sundance movie, and it mostly works because it doesn’t overreach, which is a surprise coming from the guy who directed the intense “Road to Perdition“ and the too-big-for-its-britches “American Beauty.” I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to see “Away We Go,” but it’s a funny, entertaining little film that will make you smile.

2.5 stars out of 5

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Religulous (2008)

You know the traditional prohibition against discussing politics and religion in polite company? The wisdom of that rule is demonstrated by the movie “Religulous,” a movie so polarizing it makes “Fahrenheit 9/11” look like a nature documentary. I’m not sure what the original purpose of this documentary by Bill Maher was, but the finished product is pretty much a one-man screed against all religion, everywhere.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some fun to be had here, even if some of it is mean-spirited. Basically, Maher interviews a series of religious people of different faiths, asking them the pointed, full-frontal questions that the rest of us have long wanted to ask them. “How can you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?” “How can you believe that the earth is only 5,000 years old?” “How can you claim to espouse love while preaching hatred of gays?” He doesn’t just go after Christians. Muslims get their fair share, including an interview with a radical Islamic English rapper who is terrorism‘s answer to gangsta rap. Maher asks him, “How can you expect people to tolerate your lyrics when you and other Muslims can’t be tolerant of someone like Salman Rushdie?” Scientologists and Mormons get some attention as well. Even though most religious people will find something to hate in this film, they will find a lot to love as well, since Maher makes fun of all the other religions, too. There is genuine vicarious pleasure in seeing these questions posed so bluntly, but many of Maher’s interviewees simply aren’t up to the intellectual task of defending their beliefs. Most (not all) of them are in positions of religious leadership, so I really shouldn’t feel sorry for them, but still, the effect is sometimes like watching bunnies get stomped. Maher concludes with a no-holds-barred manifesto in which he openly declares that religion is the source of great evil and that mankind will not progress or survive unless we put aside this relic of our superstitious past.

Even as I often cringed at the blunt, heavy-handed interviews, I had to admire, just a little, the sheer balls of this popular entertainer coming out and saying, without mincing words, that he thinks religion is crap, and that mankind would be better off without it. The thing is, Maher’s message lacks maturity. He has chutzpah and is often funny, but at the end of the day, he has something of the feel of a newly agnostic college sophomore. It is childish to lay so much blame at the feet of faith. From what I can tell, humans managed to slaughter and enslave each other before the advent of modern religions. Granted, it is easy to lose sight of that when what we see of religion is mostly protesters screaming obscenities at gay people, intellectual midgets trying to dumb down science texts, and suicide bombers murdering children. At the end of the day, though, I think that these are failings of human nature, and that religion is sometimes just a convenient outlet for our darker side. Just as much evil has been done in the name of a charismatic leader (Hitler) or a political ideal (Communism) as has been done in the name of God.

I am torn as to whether or not to recommend “Religulous” for mass viewing. It’s a no-brainer that the skeptics out there will enjoy this. I truly think that the film could be thought-provoking for religious folks as well, but you need to go into it knowing that if you are a member of any fundamentalist creed, this film will say things that disrespect what you believe in. If you cannot tolerate that, then stay away. While the movie may not be for everyone, I think the final message of “Religulous” is something everyone needs to hear: “The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong.”

4 stars out of 5