Opens Fri., March 22 at Pacific Place and Other Theaters. Rated PG-13. 110 Minutes.
Thanks to her success on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, Tina Fey has been stereotyped, but in a good way. Onscreen she’s the paradigmatic professional woman, trying vainly to have it all, juggling career and boyfriends, forever tripping on her own intelligence—Lucille Ball’s clever granddaughter, with screwball in her DNA. Fey’s film and TV persona is very much the post-feminist, self-aware striver who knows the statistics on divorce, sees the glass ceiling, weighs single motherhood, but still holds out hope for meeting Mr. Sort of Right (probably destined to be a stay-at-home dad). But what man is truly good enough and smart enough for her? And this is the problem with Admission. What movie, that she didn’t write herself, is good enough for Fey?
Based on a 2009 campus novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Admission contains a clutch of topical issues that Fey might’ve expanded much further and funnier. She plays Portia, an admissions officer at Princeton locked into a childless long-term relationship with a feckless academic (smug weakling Michael Sheen, too short on screen time). Portia is a slave to her career, the only job she’s ever had, and the prospect of advancement suddenly comes when the Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn!) announces his coming retirement. With one rival for the gig, Portia needs to skim the cream of the Ivy League application pool for the class of 2016, which means saying no to 99 percent of those who apply. (This is done in amusing fantasy interviews.) Here is a film that, refreshingly, values achievement.
Seemingly bound for a thin envelope is shy, brainy senior Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a scholarship student at an artsy-fartsy prep school. His teacher John (Paul Rudd) is pushing him toward Princeton, but with an ulterior motive. (I won’t give it away, though the TV ads probably have.) In swift succession, Portia becomes a very biased booster for Jeremiah, a flustered crush object for John, and a maternal figure to the latter’s son, a precocious 11-year-old orphan adopted by his single father.
Many balls compete here in limited airspace. Fey could probably pen an entire sitcom season from these elements, but Portia feels like more of a paycheck role for her. (Likewise, Rudd coasts lazily on his charm.) The comedy is either too gentle or too obvious—like the Bella Abzug tattoo on Portia’s hectoring, old-school feminist mother (Lily Tomlin, game but underused). Directed by Paul Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie), Admission plays like cut-rate Nora Ephron—and it’s her shoes as a writer and director that Fey seems most capable of filling. BRIAN MILLER
Ginger & Rosa
Opens Fri., March 22 at Guild 45th and SIFF Cinema Uptown. Rated PG-13. 90 Minutes.
Ginger and Rosa were practically born best friends. Their mothers were in adjacent English hospital beds and held hands as they gave birth at the same time. Seventeen years later, the girls are inseparable: They wear the exact same outfits; they try to practice kissing on each other before succumbing to giggle fits and playing patty-cake instead. But for the first time, their differences are showing. Rosa (Alice Englert, just seen in Beautiful Creatures) is the darker, racier one—the first to start smoking cigarettes and wearing black eyeliner. Ginger, played by the seraphic 14-year-old Elle Fanning (Somewhere, Super 8), who dreams of becoming a poet, is softer, more hesitant. “Boys don’t like girls who are too serious,” Rosa explains after Ginger brings up Simone de Beauvoir. “Oh,” says Ginger, crestfallen.
It’s 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the girls are worrying about nuclear armageddon. Neither can take much comfort in their home lives. Rosa’s father left years ago. Ginger’s still got hers, although he’s not a very good one. Roland (Alessandro Nivola) won’t let her call him “Dad” (the word makes him think of “slippers by the fire and other bourgeois death traps”), and he’s a known philanderer. And neither girl respects her mother, whom they regard as pathetic and dreamless women. “It’s no wonder they can’t keep their men,” says Rosa.
A strong cast gives weight to the two families’ tensions and troubles. Fanning has a winningly easy smile and plays Ginger with exactly the correct mixture of wonderstruck child and nascent adult. Her loss of innocence is painful to watch. Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, as Ginger’s mother Natalie, has a wince-worthy British accent but is convincing as a beleaguered wife, particularly in the scene in which Ginger catches her sitting in the dark in the middle of the night, playing the accordion, singing, and crying. And when Natalie finally loses her lid over the girls’ bratty teenage attitudes, she gets to deliver one of the film’s most satisfying lines: “You and Rosa are turning into little sluts.”
But the scenes are cut much too short, giving the movie an unneeded sense of rushing, and director Sally Potter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson) gives too much away too soon: In an early scene, Ginger’s flirty father makes eyes at Rosa through the rearview mirror, so it doesn’t come as a surprise when Rosa reveals to Ginger that she feels a “soul connection” with her dad. (In response, Ginger storms to a jukebox and puts on Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”) There’s nothing left for the girls’ friendship to do from there but unravel. The characters are well-wrought in Potter’s coming-of-age drama (which basically covers the period of her own ’60s youth), but what happens to them is too predictable.
Still, Potter creates some indelible moments—like when Ginger flops onto the white, snowy ground as if to make a snow angel, but it’s dirty snow that’s been walked over and patched with mud. Nothing stays pure forever. ERIN K. THOMPSON
The Men of Dodge City
Runs Fri., March 22–Thurs., March 28 at Northwest Film Forum. Not Rated. 94 Minutes.
Dodge City is in Kansas, not Michigan, where Nandan Rao’s vague little indie takes place. Specifically, it takes place in blighted, postindustrial Detroit (aka the Motor City), where legions of empty old buildings have allowed hipsters, artists, and other venturesome souls to homestead. For the price of a studio in Williamsburg, you can rent a huge loft or an entire building. (Warning: There may be no heat.) This is a real phenomenon, the subject of newspaper stories and the documentary Detropia, seen at NWFF last fall.
But The Men of Dodge City is a mumblecore mini-drama focusing on three young post-collegiate dudes trying to create an arts center in a crumbling old church, its parishioners long gone. Their leader is J (Jesse Rudoy), the most organized and responsible of the trio. He’s a recognizable type: the clean-cut do-gooder with solid LSAT scores who can’t quite bear to enter law school; an idealist seeking self-validation through helping others; a bourgeois kid who doesn’t want to fall back on family money and connections, but probably will. He’ll likely end up in politics.
His minions Ben (Ben Rickles) and Zach (Zach Weintraub) are less clearly drawn. The trio has artistic ambitions, but there’s little evidence of any talent. They do some kind of tap-dancing routine before their laptops. One tries to create a sculpture out of old chairs abandoned with the church, which, to his evident frustration, never looks like anything more than a pile of old chairs. Then there’s a girl, Sophia (Sophia Takal), who’s sort-of-maybe seeing Zach, though little romantic tension ever emerges. (In fact, very little emerges from the film at all.) Sophia’s the only one with a notion of an adult future, motherhood, and settling down. (She also has an actual job and appears to be a local.) These guys have built—or act as if they’ve built—a really cool clubhouse, which she correctly sees as a fort, a respite and a refuge from future responsibility.
“It makes me cringe,” says J of personal ambition, even while entertaining advice from his father (camped out in a nearby hotel), a German-accented fellow who appears to be a successful businessman. You get the feeling that J won’t be in Detroit for long.
Seen at the Local Sightings Film Festival last September, The Men of Dodge City does feature some nice wide-screen compositions of the city, but too much of the film is spent inside the church with its indecisive characters. Detroit’s merely a short-term hiatus for them, an alternative to grad school, and you’d rather watch a film about natives trying to survive in a city they can’t afford to leave. (Note: Portland director Rao will attend and introduce Friday’s screenings.) BRIAN MILLER
Runs Fri., March 22–Sun., March 24 at SIFF Film Center. Not Rated. 76 Minutes.
In 2006, Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) toured Europe with a production he and video artist Charles Atlas had debuted two years prior at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Turning is their collaborative tour documentary, directed by Atlas, featuring an ensemble of female performing artists—straight, queer, and transgender.
Onstage and off, these 13 performers are deeply interesting, and like the themes of androgyny and mortality that run through Hegarty’s songs, their backgrounds are shrouded in mystery. Some are deeply reflective when interviewed by an offscreen Hegarty, while others bubble over with chatter. Still, their personal histories are never fully explained. Yet onstage, as each woman “models” on a rotating platform while Hegarty’s orchestra gently works through his melancholy compositions, the women are never out of view as they turn. Atlas’ camera captures their expression from every angle, overlapping frames with visual effects and streams of refracted light.
Through concert footage, intimate backstage scenes, and the slog of touring, an all-encompassing portrait of femininity emerges. Performance and identity blur in this context, and the women settle into their stage personae like a second skin (or a first, as with Eliza Douglas, who performs bare-chested). The film’s gentle scrutiny becomes a deeply moving study of female identity. Throughout, Hegarty offers tender leadership and mindful observations. (When Le Monde calls the show a “transgender manifesto,” he says, “I like the word ‘manifesto’ attached to anything. It means something definitive.”)
There’s music here, too, but it’s more of a gossamer vessel than a concrete structure, holding the women, their stories, and their art in a kind of weightless space. Gwendolyn Elliott
The Waiting Room
Opens Fri., March 22 at Varsity. Not Rated. 83 Minutes.
Remind me again where we are in the Obamacare wars . . . Health-care reform was passed into law in 2010. The Supreme Court upheld it last year. Its marketplace provisions go into effect next year. And yet Sarah Palin and some Republicans are still—still!—talking about repealing it. It feels as if we’ve been arguing about universal health care for decades. And we have: There was Hillarycare in the ’90s, and similar initiatives came from both Nixon and Truman. That’s the context in which Peter Nicks’ low-key advocacy doc arrives, and its persuasive, humanist message would be applicable in any of those past decades.
Granted intimate access to Oakland’s Highland Hospital, Nicks basically employs the reality-TV approach of TLC’s old Trauma: Life in the ER series, following patients and doctors through the medical grinder. Then he overlays secondary interviews to add socioeconomic background. Gunshot victims—and we see a few here—or traffic casualties have no choice but come to Highland. But the majority of those in the waiting room, sometimes for days, are there for one simple reason. Says one likable young bearded fellow, his testicular cancer requiring surgery: “I don’t have any insurance. I never had anything happen to me. It was like my invincible 20s.”
The Waiting Room clearly has an agenda, but it’s one that certainly will resonate in blue-voting Seattle. We meet a carpet layer with bone spurs on his spine, a little girl with a serious infection and unemployed parents, a guy whose bullet wound is aching, a homeless alcoholic whom the doctors greet by first name. They are, mostly, a sympathetic lot. They are also mostly low-income and minority (this is Oakland, after all, where the recession still seems to be raging). Nicks treats the doctors as a heroic, overworked lot; surely one reason the hospital—where Nicks’ wife is on staff—gave access was to make an implicit appeal for more state funding. (Here’s where Nicks, a former producer for PBS and ABS, might’ve supplied some graphics or narration, instead of going the Frederick Wiseman route.)
Bound for PBS later this year, The Waiting Room tells us what we already know, but its lessons are worth repeating—particularly with midterms around the corner and another presidential election looming. By then, of course, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio will be talking about repealing Obamacare and defunding PBS. BRIAN MILLER
The We and the I
Opens Fri., March 22 at Seven Gables. Not Rated. 103 Minutes.
Michel Gondry has always struck me as a high-concept artist who’s still a big kid at heart. As a storyteller, he’s just as interested in asides as in the stories themselves. He has an affection for characters that, for better or worse, have never quite grown up. Collaborating with a group of creatively inclined teens on a movie would seem like a natural fit. For The We and the I, Gondry worked with students at a South Bronx community arts center called The Point to develop characters and stories, then cast the drama with local nonprofessionals.
It’s an admirable project, but not nearly as fresh as you might expect. Within the sprawling film, framed by and largely confined to a bus ride through the Bronx on the last day of school, is a pageant of cliques and clichés. There are bullies, popular kids, geeks, artists, musicians, alphas, outcasts, couples, and others, and they’ve been playing out the same rituals—the insults, the posturing, the intimidation—for who knows how long. As characters step off at their respective stops, the raucousness subsides, the posturing eases, and things become more serious and more personal.
There are some convincing performances here, though just as many kids seem to be auditioning for a Disney Channel sitcom; the characters and stories are only fitfully authentic. But it is a lively ensemble, and Gondry keeps mixing things up with tangents and diversions—flashbacks, tall tales acted out like skits, a toy bus rattling through the streets during the credits—and occasionally an inventive weave of storytelling imagination. Just not enough.
The We and the I is less a film than a social-studies experiment, an after-school project by a bunch of high-school kids exploring that eternal teen tension between the individual and the group. Gondry hasn’t hit on anything particularly revelatory, and the kids offer no insights into teenage life that weren’t expressed (better) in Rebel Without a Cause. As his young collaborators put their lives onscreen, they can’t seem to help reiterating every observation and lesson in literalistic dialogue. But, happily, at least this is one urban tale that doesn’t descend into guns, drugs, and violence. SEAN AXMAKER