VERY GOOD GIRLS

VGG_JM_7_2_12_382.CR2Very Good Girls is a wonderful film with a terrible title. I actually saw it several weeks ago, but I waited to post my review until today—Very Good Girls’ official opening day in New York—so I would be able to include up-to-date information from Rotten Tomatoes.

Sure enough, Very Good Girls, which RT describes as “Best friends Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen), home for one last New York summer, make a pact to lose their virginity before leaving for college…” is currently rated at 10% Fresh which is equal to 90% Rotten. (This calculation is based on 21 posted reviews, 2 of which are “Fresh” and 19 of which are “Rotten.” But even the 2 “Fresh” reviews contain factual errors and half-hearted endorsements.)

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion,” right? But some things are not matters of opinion. Some things are matters of fact. And in the case of Very Good Girls, it is simply not the case that the film’s subject is “Best friends [who] make a pact to lose their virginity before leaving for college.”

Despite its title, Very Good Girls is about one girl, a girl named “Lilly.” Lilly is played by Dakota Fanning and she is in every single scene in Very Good Girls except one. In other words, while Lilly appears in scenes with Gerry, she also appears in scenes with her mother “Norma” (Ellen Barkin), her father “Edward” (Clark Gregg), her boss “Joe” (Peter Sarsgaard), and her two younger sisters “Eleanor” (Kiernan Shipka) and “Phoebe” (Clare Foley). So in addition to her scenes with Gerry, Lilly has scenes at home and at work, and Lilly even appears in several highly significant scenes all by her lonesome.

And what about Gerry? Gerry appears in one scene with a guy named “David” (Boyd Holbrook), who RT would have you believe is the bone of contention in an otherwise perfect Gerry/Lilly relationship (or as RT puts it, they “find their friendship tested when they both fall for the same guy.”) This scene lasts for about a minute. In all the other scenes in which Gerry appears, even scenes set in Gerry’s house with Gerry’s parents in the room, Lilly is always there on screen too.

In a film with a runtime of 1 hour and 31 minutes, that’s approximately 90 minutes of screen time with Lilly, and approximately one minute of screen time without Lilly. If that doesn’t count as an objective measure of “Point of View,” then I don’t know what does. These are facts, folks, and these facts have nothing whatsoever to do with my own opinion—one way or the other—of Very Good Girls.

But, of course, I’ve already told you right up front that I think Very Good Girls “is a wonderful film,” so what do I think happens to Lilly in these 90 minutes? To make a long story short: Lilly learns how to use her wings to fly from the nest.

When Very Good Girls opens, Lilly has just graduated from high school and she is getting ready to leave for college. It is midsummer. Most days, she works in Manhattan. (Lilly is one of the scrubbed clean kids who tell folks what they are looking at as they circle the city in a tour boat.) Some days–and most evenings–Lilly palls around with a girl—her BFF Gerry—who lives in her neighborhood.

Lilly is, indeed, a very good girl. From various conversations, we know that Lilly went to a school named St. Ann’s, which is a real place with a great reputation. But even if you don’t recognize the name St. Ann’s, you can guess that Lilly went to good school because her destination is Yale… and we all know Yale is a top notch Ivy.

Lilly’s family lives in a very large and very nice house in a Brooklyn enclave called “Victorian Flatbush,” but basically her family lives “above the store.” Both of her parents see patients at home. Her father (who is a physician) sees his patients in one set of offices, and her mother (who is a therapist) sees her patients in another set of offices. But we know this is an urban neighborhood rather than a suburb because we see Lilly getting on and off buses and subways where she is surrounded by a great mix of people.

(Full Disclosure: I actually live in this part of Brooklyn myself now, so I know that just to the west of Rugby Road is a Pakistani neighborhood, and just to the east of Rugby Road is an Afro-Caribbean neighborhood. Clothing styles and restaurant options run the full gamut.)

BFF Gerry also lives in Victorian Flatbush, but her house is not quite so plush. And it’s not at all clear that Gerry is a “very good girl.” While Lilly has spent her high school years doing all the things that get one to a place like Yale, Gerry has been hanging out with musicians. Did Gerry also go to St. Ann’s? Not clear. At one point she drops the name “Erasmus” which is a public school that has seen better days. Is Gerry also going to college? Not clear. No destination is ever defined for Gerry, so if she is, then it is likely to be local. After all, if Gerry’s goal is to be a musician and she’s already making connections, then why would she even consider leaving New York? But most important, Gerry has a wild streak. She does impulsive things, which is one reason why Lilly probably likes to pal around with her.

One day on an outing to Brighton Beach, Lilly and Gerry meet a guy name David who has a mobile food cart. Gerry immediately begins flirting with him (which is her nature), while Lilly watches with icy reserve (which is her nature). Unbeknownst to them, David, who wants to be a professional photographer, takes pictures of them as they are leaving for home. A few days later, David sees Lilly walking on the street. He posts pictures of her around what he rightly assumes to be her neighborhood, and after she sees them, Lilly returns to Brighton Beach alone for a second meeting. That’s when Lilly gives David her address. (But don’t look for Lilly’s house at 832 Rugby Road. I checked. It’s not a real address.) VGG_JM_7_3_12_1272.CR2

Meanwhile things at home have gone from bad to worse. Lilly’s father Edward has moved out; Lilly’s mother Norma has locked herself in her room; and Lilly’s younger sisters Eleanor and Phoebe are in a panic. It is up to Lilly—always reliable, always in control—to keep the household going. When her boss Joe starts hitting on her at work, Lilly can’t tell Norma, so she tells Gerry and Gerry’s Mom “Kate” (Demi Moore). Kate wants Lilly to report Joe to the ACLU, but that’s not Lilly’s style. Gerry may be bit of a Drama Queen, but Lilly is still “a very good girl.”

And that is the set up and that is all I am going to say about what happens next. How Lilly copes with the various impediments between here (Victorian Flatbush) and there (Yale University), are for you to discover for yourself. But suffice it to say, Lilly is considerably older and wiser by the time she leaves for Orientation.

For a girl like Lilly, this moment—the moment when she leaves home and heads for college—is one of the most important moments of her life. Filmmaker Naomi Foner received an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe award in 1989 when she wrote a screenplay about a young man at exactly the same age. Running On Empty remains one of my all-time favorite films, which is probably one reason why I went into this new film—which Foner both wrote and directed—wanting to love it. But wanting doesn’t make it so. If I did love it—and I did—it’s because Dakota Fanning does such a brilliant job of bringing Lilly to life on screen.

In 1989, River Phoenix got an Oscar nomination for his performance as “Danny” in Running On Empty. In a fair world, Dakota Fanning would get an Oscar nomination for her performance as Lilly too. But the world isn’t a fair place. There will be no Oscar nominations for a film that gets a 10% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes…

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Top Photo: Dakota Fanning as “Lilly.”

Middle Photo:  Lilly with “David” (Boyd Holbrook).

Bottom Photo: Lilly and Gerry (Elizabeth Olson) meet David for the first time in Brighton Beach.

Photo Credits: Jessica Miglio & Linda Kallerus

Q: Does Very Good Girls pass the Bechdel Test? DigitalStampA

If you’ve read the above, then you already know the answer is YES!

 

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A FIVE STAR LIFE

Opens 7/18/14 in NYC. Review coming soon…

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I, ORIGINS

Opens 7/18/14 in NYC. Review coming soon…

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SEX TAPE

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Review of Sex Tape by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

Sex Tape, the summer’s latest raunchy R-rated comedy from Kate Angelo, Jason Segel, and Nicholas Stoller, provides big laughs, occasional awkwardness, and feeble attempts to be sweet. The plot follows “Jay” (Jason Segel) and “Annie” (Cameron Diaz), a husband and wife who decide to make a sex tape on their iPad to escape their marital rut. When Jay fails to erase the three-hour-long video, it syncs to several iPads that he had previously given away as gifts.

A wild goose chase ensues, in which Jay and Annie’s panic causes them to search out every last iPad to erase the dirty video before their friends and family have a chance to see it. Called by Diaz “a grown-up Adventures in Babysitting,” the film was promoted as an all-night hunt for the sex tape. The manic chase for the iPads is somewhat anticlimactic, however, considering that a majority of the second act is spent in the home of “Hank” (Rob Lowe), a CEO who is considering making an important business deal with Annie. Between Annie’s cocaine-fuelled rants and Jay’s bloody encounter with Hank’s attack dog, the entire sequence sometimes feels as if it belongs to some other movie. Jay and Annie actually end up visiting only a few houses, where they spend far too much time telling the same joke.

Even though the plot in itself is bizarre, watching Jason Segel crack himself up while doing his typical, uncanny “shtick,” makes the film worthwhile. After nine years as Marshall Erikson on How I Met Your Mother, Segel relies on three methods of acting: the bumbling way he delivers a punch line, his uproarious singing, and his serious and lovable sincerity – all of which show up in Sex Tape.

The supporting cast, however, like “Robby” (Rob Corddry) and “Tess” (The Office’s Ellie Kemper), provides a handful of laughs but underutilizes their talents in the outlandish plot.  Rob Lowe as the aforementioned business mogul is a character eerily – and annoyingly – similar to his portrayal of Chris Traeger on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. You get the feeling that Lowe thinks he’s being a lot funnier than he actually is – which, in a way, characterizes Sex Tape as a whole.

While offering big laughs at certain points, mostly thanks to Segel’s impeccable comic timing, the film’s plot holes (the impenetrability of “the cloud,” for example) are distracting. Some might argue this is to be expected in an R-rated comedy with Sex Tape as the title, so despite its overall silliness and occasional cringe-worthiness, the film actually has more substance than most 90-minute raunch-filled comedies. With lines like “maybe everybody has a double-sided dildo in their nightstand,” Angelo and company attempt to drive home the theme that everyone has a proverbial sex tape that they would prefer to keep hidden. Plot points aside, Sex Tape provides mindless laughter for a late night trip to the movies.

Review © Brigid K. Presecky (7/18/14)

Photo: Jason Segel as “Jay” and Cameron Diaz as “Annie.”

Q: Does Sex Tape pass the Bechdel Test? 

No.

 

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CRISTO REY

2014 “LATIN BEAT” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Review coming soon…

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MATEO

SoToughIn this tense, terrific drama from Colombia, teenage Mateo and his mother, Made (pronounced Mah-Day), find themselves in the grip of poverty. Made, working tirelessly to keep her son safe from urban warfare, knows there are no short cuts, so she collaborates with other women at a local laundry to open a lime orchard. (JLH: 4.5/5)

Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH.

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Maria Gamboa’s debut feature finds teenage “Mateo” (Carlos  Hernández) and his mother “Made” (Miriam Gutiérrez) fighting for their dignity in the midst of Colombia’s internal gang wars.

The film begins with Mateo and two buddies strutting through a marketplace in Barrancabermeja (due north of Bogota), picking up protection money for local mob bosses. When he gets home, Mateo gives some of his earnings to his mother Made (pronounced Mah-Day), who responds with an icy glare. The next morning, Made reminds Mateo that he will be expelled from school if he doesn’t join a local drama program run by a priest named “David” (Felipe Botero). Mateo doesn’t want to go, but Made insists, so he grudging agrees to give it a try.

From here, Mateo tells three overlapping stories. The first story is set in a mostly-male gang world. This story is very familiar from many similar films set in different countries all around the world. The second story is set in the world of the teenage drama group, in which young men and women interact as equals. This story is familiar too, and follows a relatively predictable trajectory. The third story, on the other hand, is set in a female-centric world in which women working for very low wages band together to improve their lot through microfinance projects. Although there have been a couple of great documentaries on this topic (such as Rafea: Solar Mama), this story has rarely been shown on screen in narrative feature form before, and it propels Mateo from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

It goes without saying that even though he is instantly mesmerized by a beautiful dancer named “Anna” (Leidy Niño), Mateo has trouble fitting into the drama program. David’s touchy-feely “trust” exercises enrage Mateo, and he storms out. What keeps him in the group, however, is the intervention of a gang leader named “Walter” (Samuel Lazcano), who we soon learn is also Made’s brother. Walter sees a chance to take advantage of the situation by getting Mateo to gather information about David and his theater group members. In exchange, Walter – now acting the part of a proud uncle — promises Mateo a higher status in the gang, and he gives Mateo his own gun as a sweetener.

Meanwhile, Made, who is a single mother, goes to work every day in a laundry. She and her co-workers – all of whom are women – have heard that other women nearby started a profitable lime orchard, so they decide to pool their pennies and do likewise. For some of the women, this investment represents a real sacrifice, but when Made offers to pay more than her fair share, she is rebuffed. Then a friend takes Made aside and tells her on the QT that the other women don’t want her money because they all know it comes from Mateo and therefore “her money” is tainted by his gang activities.

If you look at Mateo as a coming of age story with a teenager guy at the center, you will see a very good albeit somewhat routine film from Colombia. But if you look at Mateo as a story about a single mother fighting with all her might to make a better life for her son, then you will see an extraordinary film about one woman who stands in for women all around the world who daily earn our empathy and respect.

Director Maria Gamboa, her co-screenwriter Adriana Arjona, and her whole cast and crew have created a vibrant world filled with vivid characters. By the inevitably violent climax, I cared about them all so deeply that my heart was in my throat. I was transported from a dark Manhattan theater right into a slum in Colombia, and for me this is the essence of the most powerful movie-going experiences. Days later, I still find myself thinking about these people and their world, and hoping against hope that somehow life will be good to them.

Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (7/17/14)

Photos: Carlos Hernández as “Mateo.”

Q#1: Does Mateo pass the Bechdel test? DigitalStampA

Definitely!

Without the relationships Made has with the women who surround her (first at the laundry and then at the orchard), Mateo would never be so much greater than the sum of its parts…

Q#2: Where does Mateo take place?

BarrancabermejaCO

 

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THE SUMMER OF THE FLYING FISH

2014 “LATIN BEAT” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Review coming soon…

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DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continues the saga of nature versus nurture in Matt Reeves’ emotionally charged metaphor of a film.  (JLH <3 /5)

 Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku.

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Review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (directed by Matt Reeves and written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver), opens in a world in which human civilization as we know it has been wiped out by the Simian Flu virus. The lights have literally gone out all around the globe. One group of survivors dwells in the shell of what was once the city of San Francisco, but they have no idea if they are alone.

The surviving humans, genetically immune to the flu virus, are led by “Malcolm,” (Jason Clarke) who tries to convince fellow-leader “Dreyfus” (Gary Oldman) to give him three days to reconcile with the apes for a chance to provide power to the city – only through access to the forest’s hydroelectric dam.

With “Caesar” (Andy Serkis) governing the apes in the forested colony city, he allows Malcolm to work on the generator in exchange for his firearms. The apes bond with Malcolm, his partner “Ellie” (Keri Russell), and Malcolm’s son “Alexander” (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they fix the generator and treat Caesar’s ailing wife with antibiotics.

Meanwhile, “Koba” (Toby Kebbell), a one-time ally and close friend of Caesar, is becoming increasingly hostile towards humans and questions Caesar’s loyalty. Chaos ensues as he tries to take command of the apes and put an end to human existence.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes illustrates that, for every honorable peacemaker, like Caesar (on the ape side) and Malcolm (on the human side), there is a hateful villain who believes war is inevitable. Bomback, Jaffa, and Silver rely heavily on universal themes: trust and loyalty, family and future, and war and peace, all of which lay under the surface of the human vs. ape conflict in the film.

Every important message they try to send, however, is immediately buried underneath CGI explosions and exhaustive gun violence. The 130-minute film offers a plethora of emotion, usually coming from Caesar or Ellie, but for every thoughtful scene there are twice as many with gunshots, ape beatings, and building explosions. While it takes some of the enjoyment away, the violence reinforces the overall message.

Like in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Andy Serkis gives a standout performance. He portrays Caesar as a conflicted, good-hearted ape who is torn between loyalty to his own species versus love for the kind-hearted humans who raised him. Serkis proves how powerful motion-capture performances can be. Serkis, who made a name for himself as “Gollum” in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, portrays Caesar’s emotions through a glance, a facial expression, or a simple hand gesture.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of this summer’s blockbusters, but has more heart than the usual summer tent-pole film. For those uninterested in apes shooting and beating each other in 3D, it might not be worth a $15 ticket, but fans of the franchise will no doubt see Reeves’ version as enjoyable and most importantly, thought-provoking.

Review © Brigid K. Presecky (7/14/14)

Photo: Keri Russell as “Ellie” and Kodi Smit-McPhee as “Alexander.”

Q: Does Dawn of the Planet of the Apes pass the Bechdel Test?

No.

“Ellie” (the woman played by Keri Russell) never interacts with any female humans and even her interactions with female apes are totally peripheral.

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LAND HO!

Land Ho!, a road-trip film for Seniors by Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens, finds one-time brothers-in-law “Mitch” (Earl Lynn Nelson) and “Colin” (Paul Eenhoorn) journeying to Iceland on a fantasy vacation in search of booze, broads and beautiful scenery. (JLH: 2.5/5)

Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH.

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Colin and Mitch’s relationship dates back many years. They were once married to sisters. When the film begins, Colin, who was once married to the sister named Patricia, has just gone through a painful divorce from the women he married after Patricia died. Mitch, on the other hand, divorced the other sister long ago and now has an almost non-existent relationship with their four children.

Mitch tells Colin (who presumably hasn’t seen any of these kids for many years) that one is now gay and another married is to a Jewish woman, but the other two are seemingly normal (or something like that). Listening to Mitch being so dismissive about his kids is weird and slightly offensive. Did the filmmakers intend to make Mitch offensive (with the implication that being gay and/or marrying a Jew is something other than “normal”), or did they want to make him a stereotypical Southern “Good Old Boy”? Hard to be sure, but my teeth were on edge from that point forward.

Guilty for not attending Patricia’s funeral years back, Mitch tries to make up for lost time by inviting ex-brother-in-law Colin to his modern, beautiful house in Kentucky, then surprising him with plane tickets for an impromptu vacation to “get their groove back.” Although Colin cannot afford to go, Mitch explains that everything has been paid for; he already has two first class tickets, and all the arrangements have been made. So not having anything particular to do otherwise, Colin sets off with Mitch to Iceland.

During their trip, Mitch and Colin drink, eat, and have unsettling, inappropriate discussions about “broads.” But soon enough, their soft spots appear as Mitch opens up to Colin about his job status and what this trip really means to him. And Colin softens up too, as he remembers his life with Patricia: meeting her at the symphony, leaving music behind to become a bank manager, and leading a happy married life with her until her untimely death.

Despite the scenery (which is as beautiful as promised), Mitch and Colin’s escapades around Iceland — from cities to glaciers and from meadows to hot springs — become tedious, because these two men lack inherently interesting qualities. I waited and waited for a “big reveal” that never came and I left the theatre thinking Land Ho! was merely dull, without either the energy or will to be genuinely offensive. <insert BIG SIGH here >

Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (7/23/14)

Top and Bottom Photos:

Q#1: Does Land Ho! pass the Bechdel test?

No.

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Joanna Hogg: Brava!

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