Film

Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Katherine has her hands full, even aside from looking for romance (though this happens too, as this is, after all, a Julia Roberts movie).


Mona Lisa Smile

Director: Mike Newell
Cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Marcia Gay Harden, Topher Grace
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-12-19

Julia Roberts' famous smile is the foundation for an obvious minor irony in Mike Newell's Mona Lisa Smile. For, as Berkeley-educated art history teacher Katherine Watson, she doesn't do much smiling, at least at first. Arriving at Wellesley in 1953, the first time instructor runs smack into the stodgy stiffs who dampen spirits and toe lines in movies of this sort. That would be, movies wherein the plucky protagonist resists the rules and endeavors to rescue her students from their sure-to-be turgid fates. Oh, if only they might learn to smile as poignantly as their brilliant mentor.

One of these students ostensibly narrates Katherine's story, from her first day to her last ("She made up in brains what she lacked in pedigree"): initially dismissive of her new "bohemian" professor, Betty (Kirsten Dunst) believes her mother's decree that she must marry and keep a well-appointed house to be happy. Other students in need of reeducation include familiar types: like Betty, Joanie (Julia Stiles) has a fiancé (Topher Grace, who speaks maybe two lines), but she also wants to go to law school (her options expand when, on first try and at Katherine's urging, she's granted early admission to Yale). "Plain girl" (and sensual cellist) Connie (Ginnifer Goodwyn) is desperate just to have a boyfriend. And freethinking, cigarette-smoking Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is sleeping with her charismatic Italian teacher, Bill (Dominic West), who in turn sets his sights on Katherine. This even though Giselle warns him that Katherine is too good for him; indeed, that she is herself too good for him, which she most definitely is.

Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal's predictable script situates Katherine between prissy, pathetic roommate-home ec teacher-and I Love Lucy fan Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden), and lesbian roommate-school nurse Amanda (Juliet Stevenson), forthwith fired for distributing condoms to students. Both women have lost much-missed partners -- Nancy a man to WWII and Amanda her 30-year "companion" -- and so each becomes, in her way, an object lesson in what Katherine doesn't want to be.

Katherine has her hands full, even aside from looking for romance (though this happens too, as this is, after all, a Julia Roberts movie -- as you are resoundingly reminded when she awakes from her first tryst, her hair fully tousled in trademark Julia style). When school newspaper editorialist Betty labels Katherine "subversive," well, the battle between backward and forward thinking is on. Petty Betty will bring down her nemesis and Katherine will impress upon her students the value and rewards of independent thinking. In this context, it's understandable why co-producer Julia Roberts says, "I don't think we made a chick flick. We just made a movie" (Reuters 17 December 2003). That is, the movie is about autonomy, community, and rebellious acting out, solid American Way stuff. It seems clear why Roberts doesn't want Mona Lisa Smile only to be a chick flick, as the genre is perennially a ghetto (even if it is occasionally lucrative). Opening opposite the King Kong of boys' pix, Lord of the Rings' third installment, it might do well to hang on to a "counter-programming" designation.

The film follows a chick flick formula (especially if you consider Dead Poets Society a chick flick in boys' drag). That is, Katherine makes determined tracks from ostensibly certain failure to admirable winning over of the native population's hearts and minds. Following a first day classroom disaster (students have already memorized the text book), Katherine resolves to challenge their conventional assumptions and adherence to book learning as the only measure of intelligence. She exposes them to Chaim Soutine's Carcass of Beef and Jackson Pollack, and in a cutesy choker moment, she brings a paint-by-numbers Van Gogh kit to class, as an example of what "society" is doing to art (just how she negotiates among the blurry lines between commercial product, high art, and the very stuffiness she means to startle out of her girls is unspecified).

One evening, seemingly out of the blue, Katherine is invited to attend a drinking party hosted by the girls' "secret society" (named, tellingly, the Adam's Ribs), where she confesses her own romantic backstory, and so wins over even more converts for her daring: she's rejected marriage on purpose, rather than being a lesbian or being cast off by a man. Surrounded by girls whose boys tend to deceive, tyrannize, or die, Katherine offers what seems a viable alternative route -- teaching in a school where she gets a hard time for being smart, proud, and astute.

In other words, Betty and her sniffy ilk hold more cards (among them, Tori Amos cast as a singer at her wedding, a seeming nod to the film's presumed college girl audience). Just so, they threaten Katherine's job, should she persist in pushing her newfangled philosophies. As she is equally judged by her classmates, the dazzling, generous Giselle is most visibly beguiled by Miss Julia; she's the most convincing audience stand-in (though the group of students seems something like a boy band, meaning that you might choose any of them as a way in, save for odious girl Betty). This might be the film's most interesting notion, positing the Jewish girl among the WASPs as its most explicitly appealing and consistently endearing character.

Still, Katherine takes up the vast majority of the spotlight, conveniently literalized in the classroom when she stands before the projected beam of the slide projector. In her last, bravura performance in this capacity, she shows a series of circa-'50s advertisements, featuring women making meat loaf, cleaning house, and wearing girdles that set them "free." "What does that mean?" she asks, her forehead vein bulging with frustration. For one thing, it means, cookie cutter roles are maddening, then and now. Can we please move on?

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If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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