"It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen."

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Truth is Like Poetry

... and people fucking hate poetry.

It's a line from the excellent film The Big Short, which is brought to us by Adam McKay, the director known for goofball comedies like Anchorman and Step-Brothers. But it's nothing like that. At all.

It's listed on IMDB as "Biography, Drama," but it has its funny moments. It's really a rare form of docudrama. It could be used for a flipped class in economics. Star-studded, the actors break the fourth wall from time to time to explain what really happened. And, even better, to help us grasp the essentials of complex subjects like derivative trading and synthetic funds, they use celebrities to act out analogies in mini-seminars throughout the story.

You can get essentially the same story from Inside Job, but nobody wants to see a bunch of talking heads explaining how the market collapsed. Instead of watching real people talk about real events that they experienced first hand, we want to see actors bring some colour and staging to it all. Curious, but there it is. And it really works!  People will see this and understand. Well... they'll understand more than they did two hours earlier.

It's similar to what happened with Trumbo, a 2007 documentary, and Trumbo, a 2015 drama. People will watch the latter because of the stars in it. Except the former documentary is significantly better entertainment.

Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett (Greg Lippmann)
Steve Carell as Mark Baum (Steve Eisman)

Christian Bale as Michael Burry

In The Big Short, the actors are perfectly cast, but what's particularly impressive is that they carried out the mission to create an engrossing vehicle for a very upsetting message that so many knew about and chose to ignore or actively bury with pleas like:  "Could you please stop being such a buzzkill, dude?"

Now if McKay could do it again for climate change....

ETA this link "debunking" the film (h/t Larry). The article clears up some aspects of the film, but I put debunking in quotes because the article takes the film to task for making these men out to be heroes saving the day. I didn't think they were portrayed that way at all. I thought it was pretty clear they were also con men taking advantage of, what they hoped was, the stupidity of certain players in the system. At one point, Vennett clarifies that he's no hero. And although Baum waited to trade his shorts until the very end, and even though he seemed to feel badly about it, he still did it knowing, very clearly at this point, that he was also part of the problem. They were heroes the way Newman and Redford were heroes in The Sting. They were conning the cons, but they were still clearly immoral themselves. It's just fun to watch them in action.

ETA another criticism. I'd say the errors listed in this one are errors of omission rather than inaccuracies. When I saw it, I noticed they don't get into the shift in governmental policies starting in the early 70s. It might be too much to ask in a film that passes the 2 hour mark, but it would have been amazing from a teaching p.o.v.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Ending 2015 With a Flurry of Films

I just wrote a comment on a blog that suggests that The Hateful Eight, a neo-spaghetti western with a damsel in need of rescue, is all about hate. Here's my response (You can see a longer analysis here, but there be spoilers):
I saw it twice now - I'm a big Tarantino fan. From a plot p.o.v. it's clearly tied to Django, but I think the style is more reminiscent of From Dusk to Dawn (which he wrote but didn't direct - so it doesn't count in his tally). He gave a brief interview in which he explained that the movie started as a continuation of Django, but then he decided to change the character to remove any hero in the film to ensure the film is devoid of a moral centre.  
I didn't pick up on hatred as a primary theme, however, despite the title. It felt more to me about a discussion of justice. They each have a personal moral code, although some waver more than others. There isn't one who stands out as the good guy in the bunch, but the film explores their reasoning behind their actions and allows each character's motives to be understood. The murders are either a means to enact a sense of justice or a mere necessity in furthering their own survival or that of a loved one (using the term 'love' loosely). When the original gang get to Minnie's, they don't kill the lot out of hatred - they feel no ill-will towards the women whose deaths are quick and relatively painless - but as a necessary step in their plot to save one of their own. Couldn't that be called an act of love?
Despite my second viewing, I didn't actually love the film as much as some of his others, well, all of his others. It's got some superb acting, and I agree with the hate-themed blogger that Jennifer Jason Leigh steals some of the pivotal scenes. Her quiet little grin speaks volumes. Many of the characters have likeable aspects and moments when they charm the viewer. But it's a movie about patience, and it's not just the characters who need it. It's a really long, claustrophobic film, for better or worse. I'd give it a B+, but do go see it.

The New Yorker links it to The Revenant. I had read much about the extremes Di Caprio had to endure to film this. He was excellent in it. There are some amazing, gut-wrenching scenes, but I didn't care enough about him to be fully engaged in the film. I wasn't emotionally affected by any of the deaths. It's just a brutal story of one man's quest for revenge. It's a beautifully shot film, but it's also really long! I'd give this one a B-. It's well done, but if it came to Netflix, I'd give it a pass.

Completely unrelated, except for the death of the main character, is The End of the Tour about one weekend in the life of writer David Foster Wallace. It's had some mixed reviews, but I was captivated. For most of the film, it's just two guys talking, mainly in a car, and reviewers have made the obvious connection to My Dinner with Andre. Eisenberg is pretty much exactly the same as he was in The Social Network: jittery and defensive. We kinda feel badly for him except he's pretty dickish. But Jason Segel was bang on. And what a stretch from anything else he's done! After the film, I obsessively watched a ton of interviews of Wallace, and Segel nailed his mannerisms, his dismissiveness, and his raw openness with others. It was similar to watching Will Ferrel in Stranger than Fiction. I'll give it a qualified A-. I think I liked it more than most people would.

The movie I really wanted to see, though, was Trumbo. And, unfortunately, it didn't live up to my expectations. I love old movies and old TV shows, and there's a marked difference in the way people move and interact in the films that can be seen in the talk shows and game shows of the period. Everyone has been schooled, from a young age, in walking and greeting and standing in a way that is lost on us now. I remember as a child being pulled upright in my desk by my hair by the teacher if I forgot my manners for a moment and dared to slouch. Sitting erect was mandatory as we listed to math drills - and that was 25 years after this film was set. That might go unnoticed except the film is otherwise seamlessly meshed with actual footage of the time. Bryan Cranston is solid, but, and I hate to say this, Louie CK's performance was jarring. It took me out of the film at every scene. I'm not sure if I've just seen too much of his stand-up to believe him in anything else, but he didn't have the same effect for me in American Hustle. I'll actually go so far as to suggest he ruined the film. It's a qualified C+. I might have just built up my prior expectations too much.

Spotlight was fantastic. A great cast. A suspenseful story. Excellent timing and story arc. It was excellent. Go see it. It's an A-.

Finally, Mommy, a Quebecois film about a mother with a son with extreme ADHD, was excellent. The actor who played the son, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, nailed the part. The behaviours were strikingly similar to those I've seen in my classroom over the years.  It's an exercise in extremes of mood taking us through back-to-back scenes of violence and joy repeatedly. This is no coming of age film. A-.

Left on my list:  The Big Short and Anomalisa. Neither are playing anywhere convenient, so I'll have to wait until I have the will to learn a new bus route.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Lives of Others

I have this poster on the wall of my classroom:

It's important to know. It's necessary to understand how things work. And then it's vital to act rightly in the face of the truth.

That's the message in The Lives of Others, a gripping film with one of the best final three words since Ironman. A Stasi officer in East Berlin, with eyes and ears on a playwright of dubious intent, decides to help the man just this one time. That sets off a foot-in-the-door type of psychological effect: Once we help a little, we tend to help a little more.

The director, von Donnersmarck, was only 11 and living in the relative safety of West Berlin in 1984, the Orwellian year when the film begins. Timothy Garton Ash (there be bold spoilers!) laments the details of the film: The Stasi weren't so well dressed. The students would have been in uniform. The entire thing looked too Western.... But that kind of truth is less important than the reality of the fear and desperation of the times - the general anxiety of day to day life when we can trust no one. It becomes all too clear the reality of the slippery slope we could face if we continue to allow C-51-type intrusions into our freedoms.

Within a fictional totalitarian regime, Alan Moore explained, "Artists use lies to tell the truth," and that line had a presence as I watched. This idea is crucial in the film when the artists' lives and livelihood are at stake as they embed statistics in poetic prose. But that very risk is what makes spreading the truth all the more important.

Garton Ash asks if high culture humanizes us, and he shares this bit of trivia:
"Maxim Gorky records Lenin saying that he can’t listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata because it makes him want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of little people, whereas in fact those little heads must be beaten, beaten mercilessly, to make the revolution. As a first-year film student, von Donnersmarck wondered “what if one could force a Lenin to hear the Appassionata,” and that was the original germ of his movie."
If anything can turn us from cruelty, it might be art. Films like this precariously transport us to a place of heightened empathy as we live through the character's dilemma. We become a little more moral, a little more courageous in the process.

What affected me most in this film, however, was the plot driven by one man of power unable to completely have the woman he desired. People must pay the price for his loss. This is an issue no less disquieting in our pseudo-enlightened times thirty years hence where men scorned still prove menacing whether on a real life date or during on-line encounters. Women can expect sexually aggressive threats from total strangers for politely rejecting advice. Stealing away with a woman to force her hand in marriage has been illegal since the 12th century, but I fear tactics have merely gotten more subtle in their execution.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Movies about Suicide

I saw The Skeleton Twins a while back, but just finished Before I Disappear. The former had some big names behind it (Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson), and it was good, but I absolutely loved the latter.

They're both about a brother and sister finding a way to connect and saving each other in the process. They both start with a suicide interrupted by an important phone call.

Wiig and Hader are excellent as estranged twins in this drama. They coincidentally try to kill themselves on the same day, then spend the film trying to recover. But I would have been okay with them living or dying. I wanted to know what happened to them, but I wasn't routing for them. It's nice that they lived though.

Before I Disappear started life as a 19 minute short by Shawn Christensen called Curfew, about a man trying to commit suicide until his estranged sister calls begging him to watch her daughter for her. Both films have the same actors, but they're a couple years older.

It's not just grittier in location choices and set-up, it's more real and raw. We're right with Richie as he makes all the questionable decisions he makes. By the end of the movie, I was completely invested in what might happen to him.

Of course it's not the case that people need an external reason to commit suicide, but when Richie attempted his life, I completely understood why he would go down that path. In The Skeleton Twins, I understood on an intellectual level only. They didn't let me in deeply enough for me to resign myself to their suffering. They seemed more self-absorbed than depressed. It's not, of course, that we can easily judge depression from the outside, but in a film like this, we need to feel it in the characters. It helps if we like them a bit better too. I love Wiig and Hader, but their characters were pretty thoughtless. Still, their on-screen chemistry made it enjoyable to watch.

I'd give Skeleton Twins a B and Before I Disappear an A.

Sunday, May 31, 2015


I saw and wrote about this movie two years ago, but it's being released to a wider audience now.

About ten years ago, Rob Stewart was making the film Sharkwater under his questionable conviction that, "If people knew shark populations were decreasing by 90%, they'd do something."

A question from the audience at a preview changed everything for him: "What's the point of stopping shark finning if fisheries will collapse by 2048?"

Stewart immersed himself in the larger issues with the ocean, until he got to the point of recognizing that, "The only thing we can do which will control ocean acidification is to stop burning fossil fuels." So then he got on the climate change activism path until he recognized, "We know what to do... it's down to political will," and that "We don't just have a climate problem; we have a human problem."  It took most of the film before he realized that all the planes he was taking to go around the world to talk about these issues and film animals might actually be adding to the problem.

All of the current problems are interrelated, and he didn't even touch on poverty and inequity.  We do have to fix them all, but we can jump in anywhere.  As we work we soon find the threads leading to the next issue.  It can be overwhelming, but we just have to stay afloat and keep on track to slow down our own fossil fuel use while we work together to motivate politicians and corporations (by whatever means possible) to change the system before it's too late.

The film has beautiful images that remind us of what we're going to lose if we don't get our act together. It makes it all the more devastating.

You can buy or rent the movie here.  For every movie sold, $1 will go to World Wildlife Fund.

Stewart also made a series of short educational videos.  Here is more information on...

Ocean Acidification:

Ocean Acidification World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.


Deforestation World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.

Climate Change:

Climate Change World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.


Overfishing World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.

Same the Humans:

Save the Humans World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Mad Max: Reality Road: an Even Darker Ride

It was so close.

First, the less important comparison:  It wasn't as gripping and shocking as the original Road Warrior, and my son called it before we went in:  more explosions and less rapey.  People don't accept casual rape scenes in movies like they did in the 80s.  This is a good thing, but it does take away from developing a sense of horror and brutality in this lawless world.  There were many of the same bits of humour in it, and really cool cars, but no sharpened boomerangs. But what it really lacked was character development.  Furiosa's backstory was delivered in an awkward scene of overt explanation rather than a more subtle development throughout.  We don't get to know the other characters enough to care about them.  There was no scrappy little kid surviving by his wits.  And when one of the wives died, I wasn't remotely upset.  I don't remember any of their names.  Somehow it lacked the same kind of tension that was such an important part of the first film, and this Max reminded me more of Indiana Jones than the original Road Warrior, but my kids thought I was nuts on that one. But there was one excellent scene that made me glad to have caught it in 3D.  Things blowed up real good!

But that's not the important comparison.  With a quick read of a few scientific journals, it could have been an authentic depiction of what we will likely face far too soon if we don't change the path we're on, and the movie could have been just that much more brutal because of it.  That they're fighting over water and searching for arable land instead of for oil (sort of), gets us part way there.

***spoiler alert***

A question occurred to me as I watched them suffering in the heat, using slaves to run pulley systems, and using fire for heat and light all within a contained city that turned out to be the best possible place to live:  What did they need oil for?  They didn't use it to generate electricity in any way that I could see.  And they made it clear there was no place to go to, so all that gasoline and ripping up the desert was for nought.  Oil seems to be a dead commodity in a post-apocalyptic world.  Just as well.

But one bit of reality was that whomever controls the water, controls the world.  That will be very true very soon.  Canada has lots of fresh water, but could we win against an American invasion?  Or will Harper erode our rights so much (which has already started) that the U.S. will feel the need to stage a coup and install a better leader for us under the guise of helping us reform a democratic system, and then take control of all our water while they're at it?

In the film, once the good guys win and kill the bad guy who was rationing water too stringently (and keeping slaves and many wives), they seem to decide to open the water for all without any rationing as if that's the nice thing to do.  But it's not.  It's as equally bad leadership as rationing too tightly.  Rationing will have to be a reality in their world where, like in Snowpiercer and The 100, there are too many people for too few resources.  Population control must be a top priority or they'll have to start culling people in ritual sacrifices.  

Just imagine, when the good guys made it out east and talked about going back and taking over the place, imagine that they had had one brief conversation about how they would run the place differently.  And imagine if their ideas actually made sense!   They could have excitedly talked about a fair means of delivering food and water, a choice of jobs on a rotation, a means to slow population growth...  and then we'd see the realization on their faces that no matter what they did, they would have to control childbearing.  Men and women just couldn't be allowed to have every child they wanted.  Saving women from the clutches of an evil-doer who controls their reproduction would have to be replaced by a different system of control rather than done away with completely.  Figuring out how to do that without being hated by the masses is the exciting bit.

The gang tries to find some green space that used to be Furiosa's home, but it's all dead now.  The soil is full of salt so nothing can grow.  One effect of climate change will likely be "the extension of salt-affected territories."  But something else that could have been included, that was slipped into Interstellar and discussed in The Sixth Extinction (which has already started), is that many of us will likely suffocate before we starve.  Here's my summary on the 3rd major extinction from Kolbert's book:
Ending the Permian period - 252 million years ago. This was the most devastating - called "the great dying." It was caused by an increase in carbon which acidified the oceans and, with the oxygen level dropping, most organisms probably suffocated. Reefs collapsed. It lasted maybe 100,000 years from start to finish, and eliminated 90% of all species on earth (104). The best explanation for this increased carbon is a massive burst of vulcanism in Siberia. "But this spectacular event probably released, on an annual basis, less carbon than our cars and factories and power plants" (123). This one is most similar to what we're currently experiencing, but these days we like to do things much, much faster.

It's not just water that would be a scarce resource, but oxygen would be too.  The main bad guy had the right idea with an oxygen mask, but they could also have made oxygen their drug of choice.  As the ocean acidifies (which is already happening), hydrogen sulfide is released into the atmosphere.  It tends to sit low on the ground, so they might be fine in higher altitudes but need oxygen masks on in the lowlands.  Just think of all the creative ways they could each design their masks!

And check out the effects of exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide: eye damage and degenerative nerve damage.  They could have had people riding through lower areas, and unmask a bad guy who suddenly has his eyes eaten away and falls into a fit of spasms!  It would also make the air more flammable, and there's so much special effects guys could do with that!  It was such a missed opportunity.

The horrors of real life scientific predictions are rife with great ideas for apocalyptic films just waiting to be taken, and maybe a disclaimer at the end with sources would wake up a few more people to the reality we could be facing.  Except that it might ruin their happy ending.

Monday, December 22, 2014


From one interesting bit of trivia on IMDB, I take it that if King Duncan were a much-loved broadway actor, and Macbeth an action hero longing to be king of broadway, and Lady Macbeth a giant imaginary bird barking orders in Macbeth's ear, and the witches a cruel critic with the ability to foretell a prophecy, and Banquo a producer with the potential to lose everything at the hands of his best friend, well, then you'd have Birdman.  Instead of cutting a man from knave to chop to get the real action rolling, he drops a stage light on his head.  Riggan fears he's "a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more."

But that might be a bit of a stretch.

It speaks volumes that hours after getting home from the show, all I care about - still - is the review they got from that nasty critic.  This movie owned me.  Long shots through hallways that take us to later times in the action force us to stay with Keaton's Riggan at every step.  The acting was fantastic.  Edward Norton had me so worried that he'd do something stupid to ruin everything!  He was a perfect asshole.

Why do I care so much that Riggan left that napkin behind?

The style was reminiscent of another favourite movie, Synecdoche, New York.  Things are a little weird, and we have to just go with it.  The music was perfect for this feat - at times chaotic and anxious, at other times a soaring theme takes us up with Riggan.  I love that characters would randomly walk past the musician as he played the background score.

For the record, I don't think we ever find out what the review said.  There was only one significant cut in the film, and then some fantasy sequences with Spiderman dancing on stage, with huge jellyfish in the ocean, and with a perfect life where the most important thing is having a daughter who looks up to her father.

Easily an A+

Saturday, April 26, 2014

K-W Charlie Awards for Student Films

Some bragging rights here:

My son and his classmates won first place at this year's Charlie Awards!   At 43 years, it's the longest running student awards festival in Canada.  It's not as popular as it once was, so I've offered to help build it back up to its former glory by next April.

Here's the film, Deep.  He edited out a few minutes for the Charlie's max 10 minute criteria, but I can only find the original:

Deep from William Snyder on Vimeo.

And the second place winner was this really cool claymation - but with sound (which I can't find):

Game Gramps from Burke Horst on Vimeo.

Burke added sound for the Charlies, but it was originally without sound for a youth video competition that requires a totally silent film under 3 minutes.  Burke won along with my kid, who submitted this one:

Time from William Snyder on Vimeo.

And now we're waiting to hear on a mental health video competition.  So far there are 140 competitors.  Will submitted this one:

As for the round, but forgive my likely bias on these ones!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color

Or, The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 and 2 - the French title, which far better captures the film.

Lots of details about the plot below, but they're not really spoilers in that the knowledge of them won't affect the film.  Nothing you couldn't see coming.

This is a film that I'd like to edit down myself to a more manageable two hours.  It's unnecessarily three hours long, and I know just the scenes I'd shorten.

The movie takes place over about ten years or so; it's left unclear.  Adele at 15 falls for a boy, but has eyes for a girl, Emma.  Then she and Emma finally connect, develop a relationship, move in together, grow complacent, split up, and Adele tries to cope with the loss.

I found the shifting in time jarring, but other reviewers loved it.  I kept feeling like I was missing something - like I must have drifted off.  One minute she's in high-school living with her parents, and the next, with the same hair-do that she can't leave alone, she's a teacher living with Emma in a very cool apartment that looks way too expensive for a new teacher and an artist to afford.  And the next minute, Emma has a 3-year-old with another woman.  Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I would have liked the occasional helpful heading, like, Four years later....

Adele never seems to develop a self.  She needs another person to stave off loneliness to the point that, when Emma gets busy with her art, Adele has an affair.  She's defined by her relationship and is lost without a connection.  There's one scene in which Emma encourages Adele to develop her writing in order to be happy, but Adele's happy just being with Emma.  That kind of thing.  And there are many scenes when Adele is alone, and she just stares out the window smoking.  And crying.  She likes her job, but, without Emma, she comes home to an abyss.

And I didn't care.  She isn't enough of a character on her own for me to care about her loss.  She's singularly focused on one person to the exclusion of the rest of the world.  It's a very sad film, but I didn't shed a tear.  But I also wonder if it's because of the music.  I hated the film Lost in Translation, mainly because I think Scarlett Johansson is a horrible actress - her lines are consistently flat.  But I cried at the end when a swell of music cued me.  But this film ends with Adele walking alone as an upbeat latin song brings us to the credits.  Maybe I misinterpreted the end entirely, but she looked distraught to me - still unable to get over Emma.  A guy she obviously isn't interested in goes after her, but in the wrong direction.  Another reviewer suggests it ends with the possibility of new love, but I think it ends with her unable to love someone else.  Not yet.

When Emma wants Adele to write, it's also telling in that she doesn't really acknowledge what Adele does do.  Her teaching and cooking don't seem to count in the same way.  They don't endure like art or writing might.  There's a pretension to Emma that distances her.  Her friends also go there arguing about Klimt the way art students are trained to do - at once intellectual yet vacuous.  Adele struggles with this in reverse at the beginning - wanting to discuss novels with a musical boyfriend who doesn't like books with long sentences. Adele is more authentic in her longing to talk about it all.  She has a pure desire about her books without any need to impress others. This mis-connection of passions again presents a barrier when she can't join in on the art discussions with Emma.   And Adele's love of reading seems to be forgotten in the second half.  Why didn't she pick up a book instead of staring out the window for days and years?

And some scenes go on forever!  There's Adele reading almost an entire story to her students.  The whole thing!  And there's Adele dancing while she watches Emma talk to her old girlfriend, dance, look over, dance, look over....  Scenes like this could have given the same sense of plot or character in a fraction of the time.  There are some scenes worthy of the length - dancing outside with the children, or floating in the water at the beach - scenes that quietly embody her internal turmoil.  But most needed a ruthless editing.

And then there are the sex scenes.  Uncomfortably long and pornified, they tell us little about the characters or their relationship.  There's an awful lot of bouncing and groaning, but scant gestural communication or connection between the lovers.  We don't get to see the build-up, the seduction, only a variety of positions that allow for adequate friction.  That was a shame.

But the film is captivating because of Adele's face.  She says so much with the slightest change of expression.  I was able to keep watching the entire three hours because she's a delight to watch.

For that, I'll give it a B.  

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Genuine Artists: Strummer, Baker, and Rodriguez

A fantastic triple-bill of films about musicians filled my afternoon.  They're very different musicians, but  they all profoundly affected a ton of people because they get beyond the mundane - or immerse themselves in it.

Joe Strummer, front man for the Clash, is painted as a charming (but depressive) guy with a joyful spirit that brought people together.  Most of the interviews, of a really wide variety of people, take place outside with groups of people hanging out in front of a fire.  The film has a feel to it that made me want to live a different life just wandering around hanging out.  A brief, vicarious immersion in that bohemian lifestyle stayed with me.  It's a reminder of how unnecessary all the stuff is so long as we have the people.

The second film was also about a wandering soul:  Ginger Baker.  He was available for lengthy interviews with the filmmaker, which was very cool, and parts of the stories were animated stylistically so it wasn't just a montage of talking heads.  Nicely done.  But he came across as too quick-tempered to maintain any of the connections he made over his career.  He's bitter, and not for nothing.  Something I learned from the film is that only the songwriters get royalties for the music.  When he was in Cream, one of my all-time favourite bands, the songs were written mainly by Jack Bruce and Peter Brown.  They got all the cash, and Baker and Clapton got nothing beyond the money for touring and playing the initial recording.  I'd be bitter too.

The third film is a very different story: Searching for Sugar Man.  This is more of a detective story as a few interested fans search for Sixto Rodriguez, a musician barely known here, but with an enormous following in South Africa.  The music didn't get me for this one like it did the others, but the story is captivating.  Imagine having a talent that you think went entirely unappreciated and being completely unaware that people in another continent are nuts over you.  It's one thing to be the rare few with a talent like these guy have, it's another thing to have an audience that acknowledges that.  Without any appreciative feedback, how long will you believe you're as good as you think you are?  And maybe it doesn't really matter.  

Les Miserables and the Benefit of the Theatre House

I've seen Les Miserable, the play, live on stage and loved it.  The story is rich and full of thought-provoking dilemmas.  The music is lovely, and the story sweeps you away in a bucket of tears.

But I watched Les Miserables, the movie, on my laptop, and, while the singing was beautiful - particularly the children! - and the acting superb, it was long-ish, and I started reading at the same time.  I didn't get swept away.  Not a single tear was shed for their struggle nor their unbearable kindnesses.  Had I been in a darkened room with nothing to distract me, I might have loved it, but seen on a laptop with a pile of books at arm's reach, it lost its edge.

There are some films that can't be done justice on a small screen.  Producers should put a notice to that effect just before the opening credits:  If you're watching on a laptop, you'll be sorrily disappointed.  It might have been enough to give me pause.  But then I'd have to wait for it to come to a rep theatre to ever catch it.  A dilemma.  

Loved Ones

I chose an unwise film to watch while recovering from a lengthy bout of laryngitis.  My doctor's instructions, "Don't even whisper for the entire weekend," couldn't stop me from screaming at the screen while I watched The Loved Ones.

I haven't seen a slasher flick for decades.  They're not really my taste, but back in the days of pitching in to rent a VCRs to watch films, my buddies and I would always grab three movies to make the evening rental worth our while:  a comedy, an action movie, and a video nasty.  But I stumbled on this one by accident, totally unawares.  It looked like a teen-angsty type film at first, so I settled in for some fluff.  Once embroiled in the story, I couldn't stop.

And I forgot how fun it can be to be scared by a campy bit of blood and guts where so many characters choose to investigate suspicious activity all by their lonesomes.  

Brent's struggling to recover from accidentally killing his dad in one of his first experiences driving a car.  He cuts himself and toys with death, but when he stumbles climbing a rock ledge, his will to live proves strong.  Good thing, because he's going to need it.

For helping me to completely forget how much my throat hurts:  B+

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Funny or Annoying: Wanderlust, Five-Year Engagement, and 21 Jump Street

After all the doom and gloom of Revolution, I was up for something much lighter.  I found three recommended comedies I had never heard of before (which is often, but not always, a red flag).

Wanderlust has Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd, and those two have made some stinkers in their time, so I was dubious. But the movie was light and held my attention enough to make me forget my troubles for the duration.  It's about two city-kids who go broke and join a commune.  People are people, and even in an all-loving, caring, trusting beautiful commune, there are jerks.  It's unavoidable.  It was cute. I'll give it a B-.

The second feature, The Five-Year Engagement, has Jason Segel, Emily Blunt and Alison Brie.  I love them, so this had to be good, right?  There were parts that were actually so unwatchable, I kept my hand at the ready to fast-forward.  There's a few weird sex scenes, some with food that make no sense in any context, but not even in a funny way.  And it wins the worst scene in any movie ever: Blunt and Brie entertaining a kid by talking as Elmo and Cookie Monster.  I kid you not.  Painful.

Why did they agree to do that?  Didn't they see how horrible it was?  Did they get paid a fortune?  Or, I suppose, it's just not my kind of humour.  Because at that link above, many many people say it was the funniest part of the movie.

Even worse than the painful scenes of nonsense is that the entire message of the film is that if a woman outperforms her man at work, it will have painful consequences for everyone.  The solution:  women should ditch their amazing opportunities (as a tenure-track PhD) and follow their husband's dream to own his own restaurant which can only happen in a city at the other end of the country, of course.  Otherwise the guy will become a bum and grow weird facial hair and just give up at life. Geesh, women are so selfish!   It was kinda like Mr. Mom, except in that movie, the dad learns to stop being such a baby and step up - and it's actually funny.  

Okay, I admit I did laugh out loud a few times at Engagement, but it didn't make up for the awkwardly unfunny scenes.   At all.  But it's a C- in my book because, for some reason, I was compelled to watch it to its painfully corny ending.

But, then, I watched 21 Jump Street with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

It's that same sophomoric humour, but I was killing myself laughing.  It's clearly an A- for me.  And I thought about who to share the movie with, and it occurred to me how curious it is how we decide what's funny and what's annoying - because I have some friends who wouldn't consider watching any of these movies.

Sometimes sex scenes can be funny to me.  The scene in Grandma's Boy with the Barbie doll was hilarious, but Jason Segel having really fast sex in Engagement or even his different experiences in Forgetting Sarah Marshall weren't at all entertaining.  I found them uncomfortable.  And I found it tedious when Paul Rudd practiced pick-up lines in front of a mirror in Wanderlust.  What's the difference between these scenes?

I think unsexy sex is funny if the idea is new.  It has to be really original.  Maybe it's because I discovered fast forwarding VHS movies for kicks when I was ten, that it's not that hilarious to see it done in a big budget film.  But "You came on my mom!" is a new concept to me.  It's also a juxtaposition of the sacred and profane that can draw laughs.  Sometimes.  The other key is it can't be too close to home to hit a nerve.

I loved the first Harold & Kumar movie, but the Guantanamo Bay movie was too soon.  The prison is still in operation today, for crying out loud, and people really were sexually assaulted.  I know too much about the painful realities of the situation to be able to laugh at it.  Maybe ever.

People can get hurt in movies for our entertainment, but only certain types of people.  Most men can get hurt for laughs, but it's trickier for women.  It's hilarious if Kristen Wiig gets knocked down, but remember when a very young Brooke Shields tried a pratfall on the Tonight Show?  It was horrifying to watch.  She somehow provoked a sense of protection so it wasn't funny when she got hurt.  We're okay with people being hurt only if we think they can take care of themselves - or if we're made to hate them.  Even little kids getting hurt can be funny if they're annoying enough.  Or sometimes just if it's sudden and startling enough - right out of nowhere.  Or if they keep trying to do something but fail every time.  Okay, maybe it's always funny.  As much as I love cats, I laugh when they get hurt too.  It's been my experience that they're always okay afterwards.  They just shake it off and keep going, so it's rarely a tragedy.  Yet I feel a bit callous saying I get some joy from their epics fails right out loud.

Humour can't be objective because it has to do with individual experiences and sensitivities.  What's universal is needing to care about the characters and to understand the irony being posed, but I'm sure someone laughed his head off at the food sex scene in Engagement.  And somehow I think Jason Segel thought it was funny too, which is oddly disappointing.  We often make connections with people based on a shared humour which can reveal a shared background.  Funny that.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rob Stewart's Revolution

Margaret Wente, in her latest discourse, thinks the reason the environment's being ignored is because of all the pessimists making us too depressed about it all.  She splits all environmentalists into two camps:
"But the biggest divide is really between the purists and the pragmatists, the pessimists and the optimists - between the McKibbernists, who believe we're on the brink of global catastrophe, and those who think human beings are more resourceful and the Earth is more resilient than the doom-mongers say they are."
And I ask:  Can't it be both??

Because it is.  Every environmentalist I know wavers between the two fronts or else the pessimists would just kill themselves or stay drunk all the time, and the optimists would stop fighting to be heard - AND, if optimists really believe it'll all come out in the wash, they wouldn't worry about how to frame their arguments to avoid shutting people off by being too depressing.  Follow?

This is all a lead-in to the new Rob Stewart film:  Revolution.  He walks that line all the way.  He clearly believes we're on the brink of catastrophe, but also that human beings are resourceful - that we will actually get our shit together in this generation.

Bad news first.  As a film, it doesn't quite work.  It's telling that opening weekend, it was playing everywhere, and the following weekend, even with the promise of a tree planted for every audience member, it was down to one theatre at the outskirts of town.  And I sat in that theatre with six other people.  Like with Sharkwater (which I was privileged to see when he was there answering questions), he struggles to tell a compelling story.  He's got amazing visuals and an incredible series of events to discuss, but he's not a storyteller.  Compare Sharkwater to The Cove to see the difference a compelling story arc makes.  Connected events listed in a row with some swelling music at the end, does not a story make.  Revolution is a really short film, yet I checked my watch at the 45 minute mark, shocked that there was so much left to sit through.  And I'm in the choir!  

Now the good news.  All that aside, as a call to arms, it's genius.  My squirmy 8-year-old asked if we could leave early, not just because she was getting restless, but because she wanted to go home to make posters to tell other people.  She got the message in the first half and was inspired to act on it.  Right now!  She didn't want to be beaten over the head with more of the same.  For the inspirational aspect, I'll still give it a B+ and tell people it's a must see.

Here's the message:

1. Things are really, really, really bad.  - By 2048, we'll be fished out (which of course always makes me think of this video, harkening me back to grade 9).  But even if we stop the fishing industry on a dime, today, the whole lesson of the film is that carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels is destroying the pH balance of the oceans to the extent that all life on earth could be destroyed.  You heard me.  All of it.  Is that catastrophic enough for you Margaret?

The oceans have died before.  If I got my numbers right, it was 65 million years ago, but it only took 4 million years for them to rebuild.  So that's something.  The coral is dying dramatically right now and could all be gone in twenty years, and phytoplankton in the ocean has seen a 40% decline in the past 50 years.  The oceans create half the oxygen in our atmosphere, so no ocean means not enough oxygen for us mammals out here on the ground, out cutting down trees like there's no tomorrow.  Because, hahaha, there isn't!  Not at this rate.  We're hilarious!

2. Canada particularly sucks.  - Once again, preaching to the choir.  It's shocking how far we've come over the decades, how high up we once were when it came to environmental legislation, only to lose all that ground with one monstrously short-sighted business-centric Prime Minister.  Yikes.  We've won "fossil awards", for the worst country for fossil fuel use, voted on by 400 environmental organizations, for the last five years.  We've been named, officially, the colossol fossil!  The biggest problem?  The tar sands.  According to too many people to name, the mess should be shut down right now, and all that oil left in the ground, but Harper wants to make it TWENTY TIMES BIGGER!  Because, you know, bigger is always better.  Think he's maybe compensating for something?

3. "If people knew the truth, they'd do something."  - I talk about this in class all the time.  It seems like it would be true, but I know tons about horrific slavery in the Ivory Coast, yet I still sometimes get lazy and buy non-fair trade chocolate.  Even though I know the truth, and teach the truth, I sometimes forget how important it is to act on it.  And I sometimes get depressed and decide my part doesn't matter since so few people really care.  Like Marky Mark says in I (Heart) Huckabees:  "I can stop using petroleum, but there's no way I could stop its use in my lifetime."  It's a dilemma.

But what does help is constant reminders.  We need films like this to wake us up over and over.  Like racism and homophobia, we stop talking about it because we think it's getting better, then we get a backlash.  These things have to stay on the front, solar-powered burner forever.  So really, it's not just about telling the truth, it's reminding people of it in different ways all the freakin' time.  BUT the corporations own the media, and I'm not convinced they'll be on board with our little scheme, so this could be a costly affair, EXCEPT, we've got that most anarchist of media on our side (so far in our land of the free): twitter and facebook.  Go nuts!
4.  Finally, the kids will save the day.  - Once we get money and a nice home, we get complacent.  Stewart doesn't say that, but I think that's part of the problem.  Kids see the long term because they haven't settled yet.  They're still in flux sufficiently to become impassioned about their future.  We codgers think we're all safe and cosy, so what's all the fuss?  The youth of today (and many old folk thank you very much) are taking to the streets already, protesting over and over until they're in tears for the frustration of not being heard.  There are some small successes here and there, and that can keep us going.  Someone said, "We thought we had to save the polar bear, but now we know we have to save our future."  Kids want this to change so they can flourish.  They don't have a car, so they don't worry about their hummer being taken away.  They're not there yet.  They're still willing to go without so we can all live.  We have to stop using fossil fuels dramatically, and we have to protect wilderness.  Go!

George Monbiot has a new book being release soon.  One reviewer sums it up,
As a species, he argues, we’ve made enough calamitous mistakes to learn from, and gathered enough experience and evidence down the ages to draw a new and challenging conclusion: huge swathes of wild places, on land and sea, teeming with life that is largely outside our influence, are necessary not just for the diversity of life on earth, but for the spiritual nourishment, perhaps even the social stability, of mankind. And we can create such magical, life-affirming places with a radical new environmental management plan: leaving them alone.

The way I see it, we have to stop acting like a virus eating our way through everything we see.  We have to reclaim what it means to be part of humanity: to use our big brains to cooperate sustainably  instead of competing and growing exponentially.  It's suggested in the film with the story of the cycle of lynx and hares.  Every 14 years the lynx population declines because they ate too many hares, then the hares populate again, and then the lynx flourish again.  I've witnessed the same with the fox and mice populations up north.  But people don't do that in quite the same way.  We build empires that are too big, then they collapse horribly, and another one begins.  But now that our empire is global, there might not be another ever after.

I'm so thrilled that Rob Stewart made this movie and that his films are so inspirational to so many people.  I hope he continues to run this circuit.  He's an amazing cinematographer.  But maybe he should think about hiring a writer - and maybe even a better narrator.  We can't all be good at everything.  And this is too important not to be the very best it can be to get beyond the congregation and into the streets.

I mentioned to a friend recently that I've told my children not to have any children - not because children aren't a joy.  They are.  And not because of overpopulation which is a story for another day.  But because there's nothing worse than watching your children suffer.  I'm on Wente's doom-monger side when I say that I believe that if my children have kids, they will watch them suffer a fate nobody should have to endure as we cope with the heat, endless drought, and oxygen-shortage.  My friend laughed, "Of course it will all work out somehow."

 Of course it will.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

When Time Becomes a Woman

The title is intriguing.  Does it mean when a woman is better with time, as in it makes her more becoming?  Or does it mean that time, the concept, actually turns into or becomes personified as a woman?

At the beginning, it felt like the latter was the case.  And I was curious how it would play out.  A woman is meandering down a rocky beach, all dressed in white, oblivious to a man chasing her - of course he's all in black.  He catches up to her, and she's disinterested in his motives.  She's happy on her own.  But he needs her desperately because, "Time is running out."  Ah ha!  And I started to try to puzzle it all out:  If she's time, is he knowledge??  The idea of personifying concepts kept me interested for the first twenty minutes or so.  But then the story turned out to be about something else entirely, and I struggled to watch the rest.

It was like a whole movie of Jacob talking with the Man in Black from Lost at a point when you don't yet know their family history.  It's perplexing, but it's brief and within a larger plot line, and you're eventually rewarded with a story that makes sense in a weird kind of way.  Lost is more or less internally coherent even though it's entirely unrealistic:

When Time Becomes a Woman is science fiction, and, like most sci-fi, it has a philosophical bent.  Unfortunately, I found the science implausible, and the philosophy overdone.  It's about good and evil, black and white, male and female, change and stability, destruction and creation....  But I didn't come away with anything new about them.

Two people just talking for an entire film is a risky venture.  It worked with My Dinner with Andre because it was as if we were eavesdropping on a very interesting conversation at the next table.  This doesn't work because, really, the story gets dull and the actors seem like they're in an improv setting where they're expected to go with whatever crazy idea the other one dreams up.  And these two got really carried away!

It's an award-winning film, and other reviews love it.  It's just not for me.  It kept my attention for a while, though, so I'll give it a C.   

The Imposter and Craigslist Joe

I watched two really intriguing documentaries this morning - but in the wrong order.  Always watch the happier one last!  Now my day will be coloured with creepy!  I'll write about the happier one last at least.  Both get a B+.

The Imposter is about a messed up guy from France who was living in Spain, and through a series of chance events and manipulations, assumed the identity of a kid from Texas who had been missing for three years.  I remember when this happened, and I just couldn't understand how the family didn't know it wasn't him.  How could you not know your own child after just three years.  Sure, at 16, he'd be taller, and maybe scruffier, but you'd know the eyes.  Even if they were now a different colour.

But Frederic Bourdin had an explanation for everything!  He said the military had put solution in his eyes to change their colour.  Even the social worker believed this.  That's some solution!

It also helped that the family was pretty sheltered.  When told the long lost Nicholas was in Spain, his sister said, "That's clear across the country."   But she was brave enough to go get him.

I ended up with some sympathy for the family - especially the mother.  The most pertinent bit that I would have like to see more of was a brief interview with a family friend who explained how much the mom loved Nicholas, and everything was good, until she let a new drug-addicted boyfriend move in.  Then everything changed for the family.  She made a bad judgment call.  Happens to the best of us.

The movie is a study in wish-fulfillment.  If we want it badly enough, we don't make it happen, we just convince ourselves it already is happening.  It's much easier on us that way.

Craigslist Joe is the kind of movie to watch when you're about to give up on the world because it's filled with so many jerks and morons who do things like try to celebrate the tar sands as an environmental breakthrough.

One guy, Joe, decided to go for one month without anything he couldn't get for free from Craigslist.  He left home with no money, just a phone and the clothes on his back to see if he could rely on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter (and to make a movie).  Of course it made me want to try it right now - I've got a week free!  But there would be too many restrictions for me to succeed as well as Joe did.  I can't drive at night, so I can't barter with that - and it seemed he did a lot of that.  I can't be around anyone smoking, much less sleep in a house full of smokers, and that would put up a huge barrier for me.  And I'm female.  I assume I'd be more likely to face greater dangers, but maybe I'm just a little paranoid.  But this makes me wonder if Joe could have done as well as anything other than a 20-something American, clean-shaven, straight white guy.

And he wasn't totally alone.  The day before leaving, he went on Craigslist and found a guy with a video camera willing to silently (completely silently) travel with him and film the entire month.  The film owes a lot of kudos to the camera guy who made himself completely disappear yet captured some pivotal scenes.

In a film like this, I'm always left wondering if any of it was staged, but I'll go with it as if it was all real and happening just like it was shown.  And of course people might be a whole lot nicer when they're being filmed.  But I can't imagine getting around that one - could you make a whole movie with hidden cameras in your lapels?  Without a camera (or camera-operator), maybe he would have been ripped off - but he didn't have much to steal anyway.

The set-up of the film is a perfect start for a significant life-altering experience - and we're cued to expect something.  Unfortunately, Joe doesn't really go there.  He's kind and open, but he's lacking any real depth or authenticity.  The movie probably doesn't deserve a B+, but it was right there when I needed to see it, to be reminded that we can help people also by allowing them to help us.  People are interesting and kinder than we expect.  That's enough.

Friday, January 4, 2013


Catfish is a documentary, but not the talking-heads kind.  It's a romance.

I don't think I've ever felt such giddy excitement watching a movie before.  One of the filmmakers says at one point, "It's like we're just about to open our SAT scores."  Exactly.  This film could have gone horribly wrong, and the reason it didn't is because there isn't a mean-spirited person in the bunch.

Nev, a 23-year-old photographer, gets a painting of one of his published photos from 8-year-old Abby, and he e-mails her mother to thank her, and then he gradually falls in love with Abby's 19-year-old sister, Megan over eight months of online conversations.  Finally he decides to take a road trip to see the whole family.  Nev's brother, Ariel, and friend, Henry, think it all makes for a good movie, and they were right.

This movie is all about reality and duplicity and honesty and loneliness.  I don't watch reality TV shows much, but from what I've seen, they're contrived and scripted - setting people up against one another to create an interesting conflict for the viewers.  This film is a mystery, so nastiness isn't necessary to keep us watching.  In a very minor early scene, Nev is talking with his brother and casually puts his hands down the front of his pants as they chat.   That's not something people in documentaries typically do, and it nicely stages him as an open and authentic kind of guy.

The film is also about falling in love long-distance.  At one point Nev is in bed, with his retainer in, reading intimate texts between him and Megan to Ariel and Henry, and he gets embarrassed by it all and finishes reading hiding under a blanket.  Nothing is edited from a text conversation the way it would be in a retelling of an in-person dialogue.  Nev also photoshops their pictures together.  He's 23, but he's acting like a little kid because he's in love.  Love can make the most mature, reasonable, professional adult act like a total moron.  Ebert called him naive, but maybe he's been married too long to remember how overpowering that feeling can be.  We see it in the paper all the time, and we laugh or are shocked at the antics of people in the throws, yet we really shouldn't be.  That could be us!

A lesser person would be angry enough to want to cause some harm to the woman who played with his  heart so thoroughly.  Nev doesn't take so much as a footstep in that direction.  For the kindness in it, and the simple provocative nature of the story reveal, and the fact that they were brave and crazy enough to go to Megan's place in the middle of the night, I give it an A-.

***  SPOILERS *** (Go see it before you read the rest - really! - It's on Netflix)

Okay, in case you haven't guessed, Catfish is a romance between Nev and a woman who doesn't actually exist.

There's a whole other story going on here.  But it really ruins the suspense of the film to know about it in advance.  You've been warned.

Abby's mom, Angela, is in her 40s and starting to feel like she hasn't achieved any of her dreams.  She lives for other people - her husband and kids.  She paints beautifully (it's telling that she's watermarked all her photos on her site), but I imagine she felt insecure about her artwork when she decided to tell Nev it was all done by her 8-year-old daughter.  It makes it that much more impressive if it's done by a child.  Angela's got a complex fantasy life going that seems to help her cope with a demanding home life.  It appears she has an estranged older daughter somewhere named Megan whom Abby hasn't seen "in so long she doesn't know what she looks like," and she recently left her job to spend her days caring for her two disabled step-sons (one appears severely disabled) and Abby.  That's a hard road to travel.  But, unlike the fantasy lives of many frustrated and lonely moms coping with caring for kids all day, her fantasy life seeped into other people's real lives when she sent Nev her paintings and pretended to be a 19-year-old woman falling for Nev with a model's photo in "Megan's" profile box on facebook.  I think the "falling for" part was all too real.

Since a key point in the film is the problem with misappropriating information, it's ironic that the film was sued for using music without permission, and that at Sundance, they were grilled on the reality of what they actually filmed.  We never really know another person completely; we just trust that people feel and think the way they say they do and that they're not putting on an act.  Trust is generally a good thing, but technology has taken us to a place where we're even further removed from what little grasp we ever had on reality.

The film skirts the borders of being about mental illness.  Even after the big coming clean in the movie, Angela continued to try to talk to Nev as Megan.  Nev says he's empathetic, and he stays in contact with her because he used to have problems telling the truth as a kid.  I think that's a whole different ballpark!   I also think it's great that they stay in touch and that she's getting counselling.  Obsessions can be disabling.

Yet it's funny how obsessed we can be with knowing the whole truth.  I like a nice story, and I'm okay if a few things were embellished here and there.  I'm curious about some details, but this film has brought about a cult of people searching online and in public records for information about all these people.  They want to know the absolute truth, and they'll stop at nothing to find it.  Some in the comments here wonder why Nev didn't he just read Angela's blog where she wrote about giving Megan up.  Maybe because the blog started in 2010 - a little late for a film released in 2010 and obviously filmed years earlier.  Another site explains why the film likely isn't a hoax.  This obsession is curious.  The film shows us a very positive way to react to a difficult situation.  Even if it's all contrived (which I doubt), it's still a good movie.  If it is fake, then Nev, Angela, and Abby are amazing actors.

Finally, and most obviously, the movie is also a huge cautionary tale about the dangers of the internet.  There's some serious collateral damage from all this: Aimee Gozales was the woman whose face Angela used to portray Megan.  The filmmakers told the story to her on film.  She seemed to take it beautifully, but now checks online regularly to see if anyone else has stolen her identity.  Stealing credit card information is one thing.  Angela stole Aimee's face.

Be careful out there, kids!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Movies About Teenagers Coping With Life

Kindness slays me.  I can sit stone-faced while people are slaughtered and abused and love dies and all hope is lost, but one act of kindness and I'm a puddle on the floor.

I watched two movies that deal with a similar theme of coping - specifically, New York teens dealing with angst.  One was nasty, the other nice.

First I watched Margaret.  It got mixed reviews, but if people like it, they generally think it's a masterpiece - an operatic film with huge messages for the world.  I found it intriguing, but annoying.

It's got an amazing cast: Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Allison Janney, Matthew Broderick, and Mark Ruffalo in the first unlikable character I've seen him play.  Paquin plays Lisa, a 17-year-old who distracted a bus driver who ran a red light and killed a pedestrian which prompted a lawsuit.  Lisa held the dying woman's hand and talked to her as she bled out.  The rest of the movie is about her trying to cope with this ordeal, the guilt she feels for the part she played in the accident, all by herself.  She keeps insisting her mom's not there for her, even though mom keeps asking to help.  Lisa's stubborn and arrogant and wavers between loving the drama and being completely traumatized by it.  The portrayal of a teen in crisis is very realistic.  She's just on the brink of getting that the whole world isn't about her, so she's scrambling relentlessly to draw attention to herself at every turn.

But there's a larger message that some reviewers get very excited about.  In one of her classes - some kind of amazing debating class with two teachers - arguments centre around 9/11, the Israeli invasion of Palestine, the Iraq and Afghanistan invasion, and whether or not the America government is a terrorist organization.  The journey Lisa takes through all her crap is apparently mirroring the journey America is taking to get over itself.  As if.

The problem I had with the film, is that Lisa is too unlikable for me to care about her.  She's realistic, but I'd like to avoid her for now until she grows up a bit.  There's just a brief moment at the end where we get the idea that she's figuring it out, but it's too little to make up for having to watch her drama unfold for hours.
This is a C+ for me.

The nice movie about coping is It's Kind of a Funny Story.  It's a feel-good movie about mental illness.  It follows Craig, a 16-year-old who came close to jumping off a bridge, but walked into the local hospital instead.  He didn't have a major traumatic event like Lisa, just the daily grind of more pressures than he could handle.

There are a few issues with the reality of the set-up:  The psychiatric wing of the hospital has a rule that if you ask to be admitted voluntarily, you have to stay for five days no matter what, but legally they can only detain a voluntary patient for up to 24 hours - but then there'd be no movie.  The patients regularly escape the wing for fun and games elsewhere in the building - there seems to be no security personnel at all. Visitors drop in whenever they feel like it - night or day.  Patients can call anyone they want at any time.   They take away patients' belts and shoelaces, but not the drawstrings in their sweatshirts....  But this isn't a documentary (although some people will come away thinking this is what it's really like).  And it's no Girl, Interrupted.  It's much much lighter, yet no less watchable.  

The film reminded me of a book, The Bear's Embrace, about a woman with PTSD who spent some time in a psychiatric hospital.  She said that what really helped her was the other patients' total belief in her experiences and acceptance of her rather than rote sessions with the doctors.  This film shows a similar camaraderie and acceptance of one another juxtaposed with visitors calling the patients weird or yelling at them for not being able to get their shit together.  It's a wonder more of us aren't having issues with life.

Over his five days, Craig grows up and recognizes that he should be grateful for all he has.  The main reason this movie is preferable to Margaret is that we get to actually see Craig's character development instead of just hoping it gets better after the film ends.  He becomes more other-centered and starts noticing the beauty in the world.   We're rewarded for watching him slog through depression a bit (a really little bit).

I like the film because it reminds us that lots of people are walking around depressed, and that it can really help to try to find ways to help others and/or to try to find some beauty in the world - anything to get outside yourself.  Friends can be great too, but that can be hit and miss.

I'll give it a solid B.  

Monday, December 31, 2012

Movies About Teaching

I just watched Detachment - a movie about a supply teacher in an inner-city school.  It's a familiar topic for films:  To Sir With Love, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, Teachers, Mr. Holland's Opus, Dangerous Minds...  But I like this one because nothing is really improved in the school, but in a less bloody way than Battle Royale.  However, this film is no less raw.

In so many movies about high-school life, one teacher comes along with a fresh perspective, usually some tough-love strategies, and everything improves dramatically.  Detachment sees many teachers trying valiantly and failing miserably to affect the system and society.  They do have a positive effect on some kids, but there are others that fall to the wayside.  So it goes.  Some teachers in the film have issues with mental illness and others openly despise students to the core, but most are doing their best with a difficult job.  That rings very true to me.

The film brings in the larger society.  The main character, Henry, spends evenings with his grandfather who's somewhat neglected in a retirement centre.  His caretakers aren't cruel, just busy and underfunded.  Henry tries to take care of a young prostitute until he recognizes he's out of his league.  He talks to his students about how women are treated, but ignores cruel and sexist comments as they happen.  That's a matter of the greater good.  Maybe if he ignores the snide comments and continues with his lesson today, and everyone comes back tomorrow, they'll gradually learn to respect one another instead of being forced to act respectfully.  Forced behaviour rarely becomes internalized; it's just on display for the authority figure.  He needs to convince them to treat others kindly - and that's a much slower process.

The acting was beautiful and subtle.  I loved the juxtaposition of drawings and surreal images throughout.  Life is profoundly absurd.  There are many vicious characters in this world, and we can't necessarily improve it all.  But our acts of kindness can help even it all out a bit, even if we totally lose it once in a while.  It might not get much better, but what's for certain is, if we don't try to be kind, it will definitely get worse.

And now for a short rant involving some scenes that resonated with my experiences teaching high-school for over twenty years:

* Unequal treatment at the hands of admin:  One reviewer mocked the film because Henry was called out for a hug, while another teacher openly and vulgarly admonished a student for wearing nipple-revealing clothing - as if that would never happen.  Of course it happens.  In any profession some people get away with anything, and others get charged with minor infractions.  I've seen some teachers get away with leaving the building to go for a coffee during class, and others get reprimanded for going to the bathroom.  Some teachers work hard at their lessons, and others show films every day.  There are always people that can flaunt rules successfully and others who are punching bags for the boss.  It may not be fair, but it's realistic.

* The effect of parents' attitude on student behaviour:  There were few attending parent-teacher night.  I've sat through similar evenings with few attendees.  The typical night brings in a few of the parents you don't need to see, and none that you do.  And the law is on the parent's side.  Parents in the film threaten to sue the school for not providing the best education for their kids.  When kids know that their parents will attempt to punish the teacher for low marks instead of blaming the student for not doing their work, then kids own the show. I have suspected that some of my students have parents that did their work for them, and something they didn't show in the film is the amount of cheating that goes on.  It's ubiquitous.  I know that if I give a student a failing grade, I'll have to prove I've done everything possible for the student, but the student doesn't have to show any work.  If they fail, it's because we didn't teach well enough; we didn't motivate them or entertain them or enlighten them.  Many teachers figure this out and make sure they don't fail kids - even those who do nothing.  This just makes it all so much worse.  And kids really do show up for class regularly without pens or paper.  It's not because they're poor.  It's because doing class work is such a low priority for some of them it barely registers.

* Students screaming and swearing at teachers:  In my case it doesn't happen anywhere near as often as the film depicts, but shit happens.  As a new teacher, when I wrote "Miss Snyder" on the board, a student commented, "Good.  She's single.  No sloppy seconds."  I started using "Ms." after that.  Shortly after having my first baby, I had a student threaten to come to my house and kill her.  The Behaviour Consultant assured me he'd deal with it, so I didn't call the cops.  On follow-up - the consultant had forgotten.  I've taught students who have just gotten out of jail - one for raping an elderly woman in a wheelchair.  I've had to testify against a student who almost killed someone with a baseball bat.  I had students put a firecracker in a paper airplane and launch it at me when I was pregnant.  Upon their immediate return from the office, they told me they're supposed to say, "Sorry."  I've seen students ironically yell and swear at teachers because they felt disrespected.  They know their rights, but not their responsibilities.  I've also lost quieter students to suicides I didn't see coming.  This is a volatile age that needs soothing and containing, and we have to start over again with a new group every term.

* The bureaucratic power of standardized tests:  Parents believe the scores indicate the quality of teaching rather than just the demographics of a school.  We trip over ourselves to improve our test scores - sometimes at the expense of real teaching.  Months are spent teaching to the test so students are bombarded with opinion papers, then they don't have time to learn how to integrate and cite quotations into a piece of writing or learn to edit and revise their work.

I sometimes think we need mandatory character-development and anger-management classes because it seems like such a looming problem in our schools and in society in general, but - something the film suggests but doesn't clarify - it isn't all like this.  It's way more good than bad.  Lots of people are kind.  In Henry's class, two kids were jerks on the first day, but 28 kids were sitting ready to listen.  The film focused on the bad because conflict is interesting, but in real life those kids sitting quietly are the majority - overall, if not class by class.  And it's exciting when one of the rough set turns before your eyes.  It's rare, but thrilling.  But more rewarding is the day to day interactions with the average nice kids.  They just aren't as exciting on screen.

Overall, I loved this movie - A-