The Magic Bus

The Magic Bus

Reviews of Little Miss Sunshine, Quinceañera, My Country, My Country, The Pusher Trilogy and The Bridesmaid.


The bus explains everything, even though no one pauses to explain the bus. It’s a yellow Volkswagen of 1960s vintage, which can’t be the original property of paterfamilias Rich (Greg Kinnear) or suburban mom Sheryl (Toni Collette), since neither is old enough–although they do seem to be plunging more desperately into their 40s, right before your eyes. Entrepreneurial platitudes filter through his forced grin; her glance has the wariness of a secret smoker. No, these people wouldn’t have bought the hippiemobile used, either. This gear-grinding relic must belong to Grandpa (Alan Arkin), whose raunchy candor, leather vest and fanny-pack stash of heroin make him the Hoover family’s resident Walt Whitman.

Not that Whitman ever pops up among the literary references. Nietzsche is a strong presence–the Hoovers’ eerie son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), reads him continually and has decorated his bedroom with a colossal drawing of the Great Mustache–and Proust also figures prominently. (Sheryl’s brother Frank–Steve Carell–has taught Proust at a university, though more recently he’s been engaged in blowing his job and slashing his wrists, so that he’s wound up bunking with Dwayne.) But just as ownership of the bus may be tacitly understood–as things often are when a movie is good–so too may Whitman, though uncited, chant his “Song of the Open Road” all through Little Miss Sunshine, the best American comedy since Bad Santa.

Little Miss Sunshine is the story of the Hoovers’ trip in the Volkswagen bus from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California, where their 8-year-old daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), is determined to compete in a children’s beauty pageant. Being one of those rare movie families who touch on reality–they’re pinched enough to set a $4 per head limit when breakfasting at a diner–the Hoovers cannot afford to fly to the pageant, nor can they in good conscience leave behind any of their number, however much they’d like to separate. So, for all of them, it’s into the cheap and capacious Volkswagen, symbol of freedoms as presumably outmoded as Grandpa’s wardrobe, to ride down a road marked Carefree Highway in pursuit not of happiness but confirmation that Olive is a winner. In Rich’s horrifying, MBA version of Nietzsche, this is necessary proof that his daughter is not a loser.

Little Miss Sunshine cannily introduces you to this situation through Frank’s numbed but intelligent eyes. Heavily bearded and gaunt, he sits as the quiet, still point amid the Hoovers’ dinner-table hubbub, patiently observing the hell to which he’s consigned himself. Not quite hell: In the previous scene you saw him picked up at the hospital, where his sister’s love came through to him (and you) thanks to the warmth and conviction of Collette’s performance. The first family bond is already established. As the road trip proceeds, more alliances will form: between Frank and silent, wax-faced Dwayne; between Dwayne and his mother (without her even knowing); and, most surprising of all, between Grandpa and his son Rich. Though they seem at first to be fighting for the soul of little Olive, Mr. Natural and Mr. Man ultimately collaborate in freeing this chubby, bespectacled, guileless kid who wants so much to be a winner.

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (making their feature debut after many music videos), with a screenplay by another splendid first-timer, Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine bursts with raucous ensemble scenes, edited so that the actors are set loose, with their dialogue and sight gags flowing in swift crosscurrents. There’s even a good running joke–literally running, since it involves the need for strenuous group effort to start the bus without recourse to first gear. All that’s missing, I think, is a willingness to let reprobate characters remain unredeemed. That’s why Little Miss Sunshine maybe falls short of Bad Santa. There ought to be stench in the movie–again literally, because the plot demands it–yet nothing that stinks of the incurable is allowed to intrude.

But since this film giddily oversteps all other bounds of decorum, up to the edge of child pornography, I won’t complain about the happy ending. As Little Miss Sunshine teaches, the world is full of competition, in which the vast majority of us fall short. But we losers still get to sing on Whitman’s open road, and even dance together if we feel like it. The track? It’s got to be “Super Freak.”

* * *

A few smiles, a few tears and a whole barrel of local color: The essential ingredients for Sundance-style filmmaking are fully in evidence in the lovely and lovable Quinceañera. Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, with the inspiration and evident support of their Mexican-American neighbors, this modestly budgeted drama of sexual mores and real-estate values takes its title and structure from the elaborate coming-of-age ceremony celebrated today in Los Angeles, and elsewhere, by 15-year-old girls.

A quasi-documentary enactment of such a ceremony begins the film, bringing to an Iglesia de Diós much infectious youthful cheer, a Hummer stretch limo and the triumphal march from Aïda. To establish what’s being celebrated, the filmmakers take care to include a close-up of the honoree’s bursting pink bouquet, clutched innocently before her crotch. This is the quinceañera of Eileen, who fulfills her role in Echo Park society with a happy effortlessness. Her cousin Magdalena (Emily Rios) doesn’t have it that easy. Less moneyed than Eileen, more thoughtful and pious, she will celebrate a markedly different quinceañera at the end of the film, having come of age in earnest.

In a semiconfessional gesture to go with their quasi-documentary, the filmmakers have incorporated a fictionalized, satirical portrait of themselves in the guise of a middle-class Anglo couple (David Ross and Jason Wood) who have just bought a house in Echo Park. There goes the neighborhood! And there, into the cruel company of gentrifiers, goes Magdalena’s ne’er-do-well cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), whose status as a neighborhood outcast parallels her own.

When I tell you that the two sinners find redemption and a new elective home with their old uncle Tomás (played by Peckinpah veteran Chalo Gonzalez), you will not be surprised–but neither will you be disappointed at how the story of Quinceañera plays out. That’s the great thing about familiar tales. Paint on the local color, and they become a fresh pleasure.

Intimate, nuanced, complex and devastating, Laura Poitras’s documentary My Country, My Country brings you into the life of one Dr. Riyadh, a plump and gray-mustached physician in Baghdad. You see him at home, which is lit as often as not by kerosene lamps and shaken by nearby explosions. You watch him as he gently cares for the ill, the indigent and the anxiety-ridden in his clinic in the Adhamiya district. You observe him at Abu Ghraib prison, collecting medical information on the prisoners crowded behind a chain-link fence. Most telling of all, you follow him from July 2004 through January 2005, as he stands for election in Iraq’s Transitional National Assembly.

Should his fellow Sunnis go to the polls? At a meeting of his faction, the Iraqi Islamic Party, Riyadh argues that they must. To boycott the election, he says, is to condemn themselves to powerlessness. But given the pressures of American occupation, it isn’t clear at the outset of the film whether Riyadh himself will vote. You wait until the closing scenes to discover what he will do, in a situation that bitterly divides him not only from his Shiite and Kurdish countrymen but from his Sunni community and (worst of all) his wife.

My Country, My Country screened earlier this year in New Directors/New Films, a series that by nature puts the stamp of art on its selections. The merit is deserved: Witness the film’s continual sense of discovery, its endless unfolding of emotional complications and Poitras’s near-miraculous conjuring of a whole story out of six months’ chaos. What you see is a remarkable filmmaking achievement–and an indispensable record of one man’s war.

* * *

Reminiscent sometimes of early Scorsese and sometimes of Tarantino, but never of the Dogme movement’s holy idiocy, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy is Denmark’s finest exploration of the cinema of shaved skulls and tattoos. Having started in 1996 by making an unembarrassed genre picture, Refn went on to expand it into a mini-genre of its own in Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands (2004) and Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death (2005). Each of these subsequent films takes a character from the original Pusher and develops his story. The movies are therefore all the same: They involve drug deals gone bad in Copenhagen’s underworld, where cameras are stylishly hand-held, the dialogue loquacious, the sex filthy and the violence extreme. The movies are all different: They introduce you to men from whom you’d flee in real life, then draw you deeply into their varying moral dilemmas.

Frank (Kim Bodnia), the protagonist of Pusher, spends a week trying to find love with a “champagne girl” (Laura Drasbaek) and so neglects a potentially fatal debt. Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) of Pusher II is a brain-damaged ex-con, futilely struggling to please his gang-lord father and care for a baby that just might be his own. Milo (Zlatko Buric), the polyglot old-timer of Pusher III, only wants to put on a great 25th-birthday party for his daughter–he’s doing all the cooking himself!–and stay with his Narcotics Anonymous program, but unfortunately he has to take time out to kill an Albanian business partner and dispose of the remains. Very few women of my acquaintance would sit through these proceedings; a good many of my male friends would prefer to watch The Band Wagon. But for any of my movie buddies who care to join me at the Pusher trilogy, I’ll be happy to stand a drink afterward. We’ll need it.

* * *

Short Take: The Bridesmaid (La Demoiselle d’Honneur) is arguably a slight and anecdotal film by Claude Chabrol, but it comes all the same from the old master’s hand. Set in a provincial French city, within the circle of a cash-strapped but relentlessly proper family, The Bridesmaid concerns the sudden, obsessive love between Philippe (Benoît Magimel), a humorless young plumbing contractor, and sexy but inexplicable Senta (Laura Smet). Had Philippe watched any movies, he would know at once that Senta needs him like the ax needs the turkey. In his ignorance, though, he lets her draw him down a spiral stair to her lair, in the crumbling cellar of a semi-abandoned mansion, to be wrapped in her hot embrace and alarming confessions. Rather than believe what he’s hearing, he chooses to think she’s a mythomaniac–as if that would make her OK. But then, the outwardly normal Philippe has been sleeping recently with a piece of garden statuary, so it seems Senta has chosen the right mark. Desire has seldom seemed so abject, or want of imagination so fatal.

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