"On the Starting Line" "Up in the Air"

“On the Starting Line,” a film written and directed by Wendy J. Menara, produced by Linda A. Vito, starring Samia Mooney , Tony Mathews, and Kevin Dougan.

You go to a parade; you see them. They march behind the band, twirling rifles (fake), then spinning them skyward, and catching them like batons; they twirl or wave large, colorful flags, but don’t ever let them catch you equating them with a “marching band,” or “baton twirlers.” They are a drum corps.

The introduction to the organization Drum Corps International states: “From modest beginnings more than three decades ago, Drum Corps International (DCI) has developed into a powerful, nonprofit, global youth activity with far-reaching artistic, educational and organizational influence. Through the annual DCI Tour and more than 35 World Championships in 17 North American cities, Drum Corps International provides entertainment to millions through live performances and nationally-televised events. Drum Corps International is Marching Music’s Major League™.” The organization stands behind its message of “excellence in performance and in life” to more than 7.2 million people, ages 13-22 involved in performing arts in the United States.

In her film,“On the Starting Line,” writer and director Wendy J. Menara tells the story of blond, pony-tailed, Wynn, a high school girl with a self-esteem problem brought lower by a friend’s comments and fear of one day becoming an alcoholic. Her mother had died of alcoholism. She is convincingly played by Samia Mooney. Wynn trains to be a drum corps member with a group of high-school friends. She is the daughter of single parent, Louie (Tony Mathews), with whom she has a good relationship. The film brings out that, as with others in the performing arts disciplines, body image take precedent over anything else for women training for the drum corps. Wynn confesses to a friend that she feels uncomfortable in her body. She sees herself as clumsy and fat. She is not anorexic-skeletal, but certainly not fat.

Menara believably brings out the high school meanness, put-downs, and sniping among girls who are supposed to be friends. Boys, as in ballet and other performing arts practices, also train for the drum corps. Louis Moreno plays Vik, Wynn’s lovable, high-energy pal. Their goal is to one day audition for the top drum corps group, Royal Phoenix, in Washington D.C. and be chosen to join. Training like dancers, they wear leotards and tights as Shirley, their coach, takes them through the drill. While the school’s senior drum corps goes through their routine to rousing marching band music on a grassy field, Wynn and the others practice on asphalt between two buildings on school grounds. When Royal Phoenix passes through town, Wynn’s group watches them enviously.

Being passionate about drum corps is considered dorky by other kids. Yet, Menara doesn’t bring this out in her film. She focuses more on the inner rivalry among the members, especially between Wynn, Darla (Danielle Aruta), and Maggie (Jennifer Spohr). Maggie is constantly refreshing her make up and seems not to be too serious about the training and Darla is more into getting a boyfriend. Wynn subtly flirts with Leland (an easy-going, likeable Kevin Dougan), the local gas station attendant/car mechanic,who doesn’t mind being called a grease monkey; his goal is to become a professional race car driver. Wynn's self-described, openly gay younger brother, Gavin, is supportive of her, without relinquishing his rôle as a typical snide, sarcastic young teen, a part that fit Stephen Sherwood like a second skin. These scenes at home are warm and natural without being smarmy. Carole Robinson plays Francis, Dad's caring girlfriend, with bone-deep honesty. She is an old friend of the family whose love for them is obvious.

One thing is certain: Once you see this film, you’ll know everything you ever wanted to know about those people marching behind the band. (A note on the DVD cover warns: “The performances in this film are by trained professionals. Do not attempt without proper training and supervision!”) Darla, who ends every sentence with a complaining, “whatever,” convinces Wynn’s dad to let her go on tour. He is naturally protective of her, and suspicious of Darla. Darla dumps Wynn for Elliot, her boyfriend; Rosie (a spritely, endearing Giovannie Espiritu) steps in. There are many scenes of Wynn practicing solo to the tune “Wynn’s Song” specially composed for the film by Key Poulan, and pep talks with coach Shirley during group training: “If you think you’ll drop it, you will.”

On tour, they practice in parking lots and sleep in school gyms. There are hints of financial problems, incidents of bulimic episodes; Francis admonishes Wynn after catching her vomiting in the bathroom. Wynn visits a psychic (Linda Vito), who tells her about her mom and positive futuristic events. A conflict develops between Wynn and her school counselor over college and the corps. Wynn auditions for Royal Phoenix with the rest of her group, but they’d partied the night before and auditioned hung over with dire results. A family crises ensues upon Wynn’s return, which is resolved. Wynn and her team get a call-back. She gets help with her dance routine finale from a friend, who builds up her confidence and esteem.

The Internet Home Page for DCI contends that “while an exclusive number of students participate on the field with a DCI drum corps, millions follow the corps of DCI by attending competitions, participating in DCI-sponsored educational programs and events, purchasing merchandise.” And goes on to state that fans follow the exploits of their favorite corps in ways reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s Deadheads, or the Boston’s Red Sox Nation. Perhaps through Menara’s film, DCI will become as famous.

For information go to www.dci.org
“Up in the Air,” directed by Jason Reitman, screen play written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, starring George Clooney, Jason Bateman, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick.

Co-writer and Director Jason Reitman must have been prescient when he and Sheldon Turner wrote the screenplay for “Up in the Air,” a sad, poignant film that shows a complete disregard for the feelings of the majority of Americans who are currently jobless. The filmmakers used people’s uncertain status in the working world of today’s economy to tell a story about a seemingly emotionless, smooth-talking, handsome, Human Resources contract hit-man man, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney). They interviewed on camera real people, with a couple of exceptions, who had been fired, using the footage in segments throughout the film. In today’s economy, job loss and the unemployment figures are the worst since the Great Depression of the ‘30s and the economic downturn in the early ‘80s.

Bingham is the top guy at a large corporation specializing in the business of helping companies “downsize.“ His job is to convince you that losing your job is a good thing. He flies to all the major US cities, rents a car, and drives to identical “office parks” to companies that have hired him. Here is Clooney at his slickest in dress and manner. One is almost happy to be fired by such a one (On a personal note, I was fired by a hugely obese, heavily made-up woman. Whenever she lumbered past our cubicles, we would quake in our boots knowing heads would roll). Bingham’s lifestyle, when not spending almost the entire year up in the air or in high-end hotels, is spare. He has a small apartment with a kitchen nook, a bedroom accessed by pushing aside a tacky folding door, a closet with just so many look-alike suits and shirts, a dresser filled with carefully folded underwear, and socks. He lives out of his wheeled carry-on with its collapsible handle. And loves it.

We hear Clooney in the occasional narrative voice-over talking about the crazy things people do when they’re fired: The dreaded disgruntled employee syndrome that ends in a massacre at a former work-place or household. At the start of the film, Reitman shows people reacting as they listen to Bingham. They are middle-age employees for the most part seen full-screen sitting in front of a desk; Bingham is off camera. Their faces crumple as they speak about losing their homes, maybe having to sell their cars, and what will happen to their kids’ college fund? With a sympathetic yet encouraging smile, Bingham tells them that now, they can do whatever it is that they’ve always dreamed of before signing on to a job they were never passionate about. “You can be your own boss, start your own company, be an entrepreneur.” Before him are a stack of severance packets, detailing the terms of their being “let go.” “Never say ‘fired’ or ‘terminated’,“ he advises Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a new hire for his company. She is the epitome of the young professional woman who wants it all: career, marriage, kids. She’s crisp, pony-tailed, with an expressionless face that looks like a computer drawing.

He meets his match and more in no-nonsense Alex Goran (an excellent Vera Farmiga) in a swanky hotel bar. They start off by one-upping each other in displaying their plastic: credit cards, hotel keys, executive suite cards, and swapping travel stories. After a one-nighter, they gladly go their separate ways and later refer to their packed schedules for when they can meet again. They’re in it for the fun, companionship - - someone with whom to drink, dine, and bed. No strings, yet Bingham seems anxious at times. Things are great until his boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), tells him they’re going to save money by firing people via video-conferencing, a program proposed by Natalie. In effect, Bingham will be grounded.

Natalie is appalled by Ryan’s lifestyle, his detachment. She tells him that everyone needs the company of other people. Bingham takes her on the road. She gets her shot at a teleconference firing. A woman responds to her question, “What are your plans?” “I think I’ll jump off a bridge,” she says. A tragic result of one such impersonal firing sends Ryan back on the road.

The film is not all the cold, calculating business of firing people. Ryan takes Alex to his niece’s wedding back home. Despite the economy, she and her fiancé are getting married and will start a family. Ryan and Alex dance, laugh, carry on then go their separate ways. Ryan ponders Natalie’s observation. He seeks out Alex only to find she’s been playing him all along - - the film’s only twist. She’s basically fired him; now he knows how it feels. Still, being Ryan, he carries on. Reitman’s films, as in many mainstream films passing as “indie” or “art” films, carry the message that unless you’re married and/or have a huge, loving, yet quirky family that nevertheless ascribes to convention, you can’t possibly be happy. Once Ryan gets back on track, following a familiar routine, with all its perks, he certainly will be content if only to one day find love, and reconnect with his family. A last shot shows him entering yet another airport terminal. Home.