Posted on 4/24/12 01:28 PM
Eco-Pirate is a documentary about Canadian activist Paul Watson, who represents the radical and violent end of the green movement. Watson has sunk three whaling vessels by ramming his own ship into them, and has inconvenienced countless others with high seas gorilla warfare. Watson is known primarily within activist circles, but has gained more mainstream attention in recent years as the subject of the TV series Whale Wars (2008-present). Eco-Pirate is more or less a 360-degree profile of Watson and his involvement with the green movement.
The movie shifts between multiple tones and somewhat randomly categorized segments of footage. The first couple minutes are comprised of breathtaking footage of Antarctic icebergs, and a classical score that together is a reminiscent of Werner Herzog's masterful Encounters At the End of the World (2007). There is shift to Watson's current work at Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a non-profit organization he created. That's the company whose ships, captained by Watson, ram into whaling vessels. We also get Watson's involvement with the startup of Greenpeace, as well as bits and pieces of his personal life that include childhood, and problems committing to women and family.
The segment depicting Watson's involvement in the creation of Greenpeace is created using mostly archive footage of protests, hippies, and a young Watson and friends, relatively poor and with little resource, trying to put something meaningful together. That footage is edited together in such a way that it lends the material an energy that makes the subject more interesting than it perhaps would have been to most viewers.
Portions of the movie take a political stand on animal rights, primarily on illegal whaling, but also on the seal hunt. The imploring of the audience to see things as Watson does isn't overly forceful and is aimed at those on the fence about animal rights or those who never gave the issue much thought.
Paul Watson himself is an unusual personality. He is sort of a Cormac McCarthy type; in that he is gregarious, and easily attracts people into his orbit, but would much rather exist on the peripheral of society. The movie doesn't idealize Watson like some character driven documentaries do, but it certainly admires him and asks us to do the same. Consider a scene where Watson is standing juxtaposed against his newest and largest ship. The wind blows ever so slightly in his hair and through the Sea Shepherd flag. He looks like a mighty figure. There is another scene taking place at a protest where journalists encircle Watson. One journalist throws Watson an easy question. The interview is cut back and forth between footage of the protesters being unruly, getting water hosed, and arrested. In the midst of the chaos Watson appears cool, wise, and authoritative. In fact, if Watson's critics bother to see the movie they may be surprised to find that while Watson may seem like an extremist, he is articulate, and for the most part argues in a reasonable way.
There is one scene near the end where Watson and his crew launch a full-scale attack on a very large Japanese whaling vessel. The scene accidently suggests how the thought processes of Watson's predominately young and idealistic crew are more naïve than realistic. One crewmember suggests he hurl a stink bomb from the top of the crow's nest during a rainstorm. Another suggests they simply ram the whaling vessel, even though it would destroy their own ship in the middle of the ocean. It could very well be that luck has played a role in the continued success of the Sea Shepherd campaigns.
The primary problem with Eco Pirate is that director Trish Dolman packs the movie with too much footage and far too much information that's not terribly interesting. With a running time of about two hours, a good thirty minutes could easily have been cut. The movie parcels out information on what seems like virtually everything Paul Watson has ever said, done, or set out to do. Molson would have been better off giving us a condensed version of Watson's life and times, or focused primarily on his current endeavors. With this much information, the movie is likely only to appeal to the Paul Watson enthusiasts out there.
Posted on 11/06/11 12:07 PM
Most of us aren't very happy right now with the men and women who work on Wall Street. Tower Heist is a movie that attempts to cash in on that hostility, by having a group of average Joe's get back at the benefactor of a ponzi scheme.
Ben Stiller plays Josh Kovacks, a luxury apartment manager who unwisely asks tenant and Wall Street investor Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) to manage the pensions of the apartment staff. When Shaw is arrested on fraud and then let go, a confrontation with Shaw leads Josh and two other employees to be fired. Josh then decides he will steal a $20 million stash in Shaw's suite, and assembles a motley crew to do the job.
Alda plays Shaw well. He plays the character with colour as opposed to a black and white villain that might be expected in a lighthearted movie like this. It's the fault of the screenplay that Shaw is goes over the top in the second act. He reveals himself to be not just greedy, but a misanthropic tyrant who desires to destroy the lives of everyone around him.
The actual tower heist is for the most part a disappointment. There are explanations of the building's highly advanced security system, and how difficult it is to access Shaw's suite. We are led to believe there will be a clever caper involving a mastermind plan and execution. But the mechanics of the heist are straightforward and lack finesse. The strongest scene in the movie is when, during the heist, three characters find themselves dangling off the side of the tower. The scene is played for laughs, but manages to create some good suspense as well.
Aside from Kovacks and a maid who can crack safes, I never understood why any of the characters were necessary to the heist. Eddie Murphy plays Slide, a petty crook recruited by Kovacks for his "skill" at robbery. The fact that Kovacks has to first bail him out of jail doesn't speak well to that skill. The movie fills up some runtime by having Slide engage the soon-to-be thieves in pointless exercises designed to build robbery skills, but serves no purpose in robbing Shaw. Mathew Broderick has a role as a former Wall Street hotshot who can multiply and divide large sums in his head, but whose talent never becomes useful during the heist.
I don't think the filmmakers intended this perspective, but the thieves are cut from the same clothe as Shaw. The plan is to secure the lost pension money, but Kovacks and his partners go beyond that, ending up stealing over $45 million and distributing the money purely among themselves. Shaw swindled others out of millions and the tower staff pension was Shaw's smallest account. Also, the issue of the lack of legal regulation that created the environment for Shaw to swindle investors is left unexamined. The movie doesn't concern itself with such matters, and maybe most audiences won't either.
Most of the comedy is owed to Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller. Stiller is enough of a comic icon that he can get an audience to smile with just a look. Despite coming up with the story, and serving as producer, Murphy has only a supporting role. Nonetheless, whenever Murphy is onscreen he manages to get a few chuckles. The movie is never all that funny, but there are consistent chuckles throughout.
Posted on 7/29/11 07:15 PM
Bad Teacher disproved something to me that I had long thought to be true. Turning over thoughts of contemporary Hollywood comedy, I used to think that if a movie can keep you laughing, even if it does everything else wrong, is at least satisfying enough for 3-stars (a mild recommendation). At the end of Bad Teacher, walking out of the theatre, I had had lots of laughs but I couldn't help but feel negative about the experience. The movie is satisfying in terms of immediate reaction, but probing a little more is a movie that is unlikable, and even a little bit rotten.
Cameron Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, a party girl and unlikely teacher who is only doing the whole education thing until she can hook a rich boyfriend and marry. Elizabeth is all set to retire when her boyfriend finally comes to his senses, realizes she's a gold digger and dumps her. Forced to go back to work she becomes an even lazier teacher than I suspected her to be before. Every day, Elizabeth sits at the front of the class and shows irrelevant movies while sleeping off a hangover. Any time spent out of the classroom is talking down to teachers in the hall, or scheming to get what she wants. She is convinced that if she can save enough money for breast implants she'll be able to win over a new man. Currently she has her eye on substitute teacher man-boy Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake). While Scott is a substitute we assume him to be full-time since the movie takes place over a whole school year and he's there every day. Elizabeth is not interested in his good looks or passion for teaching, but rather that he is the heir to a wealthy company that manufactures men's watches. In order to raise the funds for her operation she steals from the school carwash and attempts to push her students to the highest grades on the end-of-year state achievement exam. This comes after learning that the teacher whose students attain the highest marks in the state gets a $1000 bonus.
Before learning of that bonus, Elizabeth is such a bad teacher that I'm conflicted as to whether or not she could keep her job, let alone have made it through her undergraduate teaching degree. Today, helicopter parents who are always on teachers' heels about how to do their job haunt American schools. Surely they would complain to the principal about Elizabeth's teaching or lack of until disciplinary measures are taken. On the other hand, as Davis Guggenheim's great documentary, Waiting for Superman (2010) points out, there are plenty of American teachers who refuse to teach and remain gainfully employed. And as far as the teaching degree is concerned, stranger things have happened; after all, George W. Bush is a Harvard graduate.
It's actually hard to believe that anyone in this movie except for Timberlake's character could be considered a good teacher. He is also the only teacher never seen teaching. In one scene three teachers (including Elizabeth) sneak off to smoke a joint in the gym while they are supposed to be supervising a school dance. One teacher shows a student how to properly throw a rubber ball at Elizabeth, intending to hurt her. A nemesis for Elizabeth develops in the form of an ebullient teacher named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). Squirrel at first seems like a good teacher, even though her annoying personality is meant to convince the audience to dislike her (a shallow tactic). But by the end of the movie she proves herself to be no better than Elizabeth.
Jason Segel plays Russell Gettis, the nice, funny gym teacher, who has a crush on Elizabeth. He lets her know he feels many times throughout the movie. In return, Elizabeth is rude and puts him down. Russell must have a self-esteem problem, or issues with women, or both since he continues to pursue her, even though he could do better. Anyone who has been to enough movies will get the feeling that Elizabeth and Russell will eventually get together in the end. When Elizabeth does concede to dating him, she has one more putdown for Russell: that she is willing to date him despite that he's a simple gym teacher, and only a modest financial success. Even though it's an insult, the scene is played in such a way that the audience is supposed to applaud Elizabeth for coming around to the morally right way of thinking. I couldn't figure out why Russell would even be interested in someone like Elizabeth in the first place. Only someone who has relationship issues, is an idiot, or equally as shallow as Elizabeth would want to date someone like her.
As mentioned throughout this review, the standout problem with Bad Teacher is that Elizabeth is so unlikable in every which way that it's hard to appreciate her problems and triumphs. She treats everyone badly, uses people to get what she needs, and never hesitates a moment to think about it. Some people feel as though they cannot enjoy a movie if the lead character is unlikable. I think it's more important as to whether the audience can understand a character. I think Elizabeth's feelings and motivations can be understood, but it's the undoing of the movie by inviting the audience to like and root for her. Also, we live in a time where the global economy is transitioning to knowledge based jobs, and where the American education system doesn't prepare students for anything beyond high school. Considering that, it rubbed me the wrong way that here is a movie where audiences are asked to applaud a teacher who doesn't teach.
So in the end my review is a compromise. I had some laughs so I can't say that I had a bad time at this movie. But I can't say the experience was worth my time either. In the end Bad Teacher is a 2.5 star movie. It is amusing, but at the same time, not likable.
Posted on 7/02/11 06:38 PM
Super 8 is a homage movie made as a testament of love to early Spielberg movies, particularly Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982). Steven Spielberg himself produced the movie so he must have some of the same feelings. J.J. Abrams, who became a big Hollywood name five years ago after directing Mission: Impossible: III (2006), has since established himself as a name associated with big budget movies. This is his third directorial outing and likely his passion project.
Let me just say right off the bat that homage movies are usually more fun for the people who make them then for the people who watch them. Making a movie where all you do is pay tribute to the movies you love probably seems like a great job for many directors. But in order for that movie to truly become a Great Movie, it must truly be its own film in addition to homage. Take for example, Quentin Tarantino has made an entire career out of making homage movies, but I doubt anyone would disagree that he is an original voice in filmmaking.
Super 8 is about a group of small town kids, circa summer 1979, making a zombie movie on an 8mm camera. I have a suspicion that the target audience of this movie will walk in and out of the theatre not knowing why the movie is called Super 8 in the first place. The zombie movie is the baby of Charles (Riley Griffiths), best friend of protagonist Joe (Joel Courtney). Charles reminded me of myself at about that age, living and breathing backyard filmmaking. Charles is passionate about making this movie, more so then his other friends. The rest of the gang who make the up entire cast and crew are mostly committed to Charles' movie because it's just what you do in that circle of friends. One night while filming at the train station just outside of town, the gang becomes witness to an amazing train wreck. In fact, in terms of amount of crashing, they probably witnessed the most catastrophic train wreck of all time. The crashing scene is incredibly overplayed. That wreck goes on and on featuring flying cars and crashes within crashes. This isn't the kind of movie that typically features big explosions but it is being marketed as a superblockbuster. So naturally, something with a bigger bang then a derailment has to be worked in to meet expectations.
Anyway, once the train crashes weird things begin happening around town. Every dog in town goes missing, and so do a couple of people, including the sheriff. The military rolls in, (we discover it was a military train that crashed) and begin acting mysterious, using authority to conceal motivation. It's obvious some kind of monster escaped from that train and the kids, becoming accidental adventurers get involved. The portrayal of the monster is purposely obscured until a big reveal, which unfortunately isn't as satisfying as it should be. The purposely obscuring of something in a movie is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. The monster attacks someone or causes some type of ruckus, and the camera is pointed somewhere else. The technique, meant to tease the audience, almost breaks the fourth wall. The movie is shot a certain way for almost all of its duration, then briefly changes tone and gives a little wink to the audience.
The major problem with Super 8 is that the nostalgia is missing. The mes en scene of the movie fails to recreate the magic of the early Spielberg movies it wants to imitate. Instead, there is a feeling of routine as the movie goes through the motions of reminding the audience of early Spielberg. The best quality of the movie is the balancing of humour with drama and suspense. Most directors can only do one or the other, but Abrams smoothly transitions between both without changing the tone. In fact, I enjoyed the jokes more then the jumps.
The performance of Elle Fanning is also worth noting. Little sister of Dakota hasn't had much of a chance to shine until now. Her role in the movie is only supporting, and like some of the other kids, her character is perhaps generically written. But she gives the character subtle qualities that make her the most real person in the movie. There is one scene in particular where she shines. The kids have her rehearse a scene for the zombie movie in which the zombie script and the Super 8 script require her to show a lot of emotion. She delivers the lines so well it stuns the kids watching, and it should stun everyone in the audience as well.
Posted on 6/06/11 12:55 PM
The Adjustment Bureau is the latest Philip K. Dick work to be processed through the Hollywood machine and end up on screen. Matt Damon is well cast as David Norris, a popular New York congressman who's taking a run at senator. In real life, I always thought that Damon had the makings of a politician. Just before Election Day a silly scandal causes David a loss. Preparing his speech in the men's washroom Elise emerges from one of the stalls. The two fall for each other instantly but their encounter is cut short. That unlikely encounter is followed by another and then another. It's almost as if the two were meant to be together. Unfortunately for the lovers, it is the opposite. The fate police, known as the Adjusters have been trying to keep the two apart, but screwed up, and the two keep meeting. At work, David accidently discovers the adjusters adjusting the thoughts of his colleague and friend. The process of how the adjustment is done is not all that important, although it involves freezing time and a special scanner. David's discovery is thanks to an adjuster named Harry (Anthony Mackie) who dozed off on the job. Harry was supposed to "accidently" spill coffee on David on his way to the bus stop, causing him to miss the bus and be late for work, thus missing the adjustment of his friend. The bus that David got on that he was supposed to miss carried Elise, causing an accidental meeting.
The adjusters capture David, and civilly tell him to forget about Elise, and forget the adjusters exist. They inform him that the Adjustment Bureau has a plan for humanity, and adjust the whole world behind the curtain to keep on schedule. But their office is in New York City. David doesn't listen and continues to see Elise. That's when the adjusters call in the big guns, an adjuster nicknamed The Hammer (Terrence Stamp), who despite his name, attempts to solve the problem with David through conversation.
There are two major problems with The Adjustment Bureau. The first is that the romance is a dud. The movie is being marketed as a thriller-romance, but is much more romance then thriller. David and Elise's relationship is not very compelling, and when the adjusters start to chase them around, it's hard to really care. A movie about unrequited love should have a sense of heartbreak; it's easy to see the characters care a lot about one another, but there's no visceral feeling in the audience whatsoever. However, the flirty dialogue exchanges are clever and well delivered, especially on the part of Emily Blunt.
The other major problem is the Adjustment Bureau itself. Nothing about the Bureau is ever explained and it's hard to take seriously. The adjusters obey arbitrary rules that resemble a child's fantasy game. In an unintentionally funny scene, when hurrying through the street, one adjuster's hat blows off, his partner yells "the hat, the hat," and the other man freaks out and runs back to get it. Later we learn that the hats have secret powers that enable the adjusters. Also, the adjuster's power doesn't work well around water. These rules are mysterious, and a little silly.
There are other elements that work to the movie's disadvantage. There is a dissenting adjuster named Harry (Anthony Mackie) who helps David for no explanation except that he's "tired of it all." Also, the ending is a cop out. I don't want to give anything away, but I will say the dialogue between Damon and one other character in that final scene suggests a rewrite was done to remove a cliché ending. However, the ending that was tacked on is the kind of ending written by market research. It was designed to give the audience a warm feeling when leaving the theatre. It's the kind of ending that insults every reasonably intelligent person watching. Despite those problems, it is the lack of concern for the romance and the silliness of the Adjustment Bureau that really brings the movie down.
I haven't read the short story "The Adjustment Team" by Philip K. Dick, from which the movie was inspired, but I am familiar with Dick's work. I don't know how much material was taken from the short story and how much was original, but it's easy to see how this movie could be a Dick story with little changes. Dick's writing inhabits a world resembling paranoid schizophrenia where it seems possible that forces too powerful for a man's understanding lurk behind free will and a deterministic universe. The Adjustment Bureau fails to create a similar world. Also, Dick is underrated as a romantic. Romance in a Dick work often resembles the thinking of the romantic era writers. If The Adjustment Bureau really is closely based on Dick's short story then it proves that the storyteller is more important then the story.
Posted on 5/27/11 11:47 AM
The Town is the second movie to be directed by Ben Affleck since his career changing decision to move into filmmaking. I've never been much of a fan of Affleck as an actor; he's made consistently bad script choices throughout his career. As a director, I appreciate his work much more. It's too bad he didn't move into directing sooner; the two movies he's directed so far are considerably better then the movie's he's chosen to appear in throughout his acting career. His turn as director was an unexpected surprise despite having penned few successful screenplays. After an acting career that's been long overdue to bottom out, taking the step to directing must have seemed like a good move. An interesting question to put to Affleck is whether he enjoys directing or if he made the transition because it was the only option left to stay in show business. I wonder how he felt for the last twenty years appearing in mediocre to bad movies directed by mediocre to bad filmmakers.
In The Town, Affleck casts himself as career criminal Doug MacRay. He and his boyhood chums, including his best friend James (Jeremy Renner) make a living as Boston bank robbers. An opening intertitle informs us that the neighbourhood of Charlestown has produced more bank robbers then anywhere else in the USA. However, according to the FBI, Massachusetts has fewer then half the bank robberies committed in Illinois and less then a quarter of the robberies in California. Whatever bank robbers Charlestown did produce were not nearly as sophisticated as the characters in The Town. In the opening scene, the robbers storm a bank dressed in frightening Skeletor costumes. They have the entire robbery perfectly choreographed, from the collecting of customer cellphones to removing potential DNA by pouring bleach on surfaces they came into contact with. It is unclear whether or not this is the first robbery committed by the team. Either way, it's hard to believe there could really be "professional" bank robbers in the way it's depicted here. The Skeletor outfits in the first robbery bring to mind characters who have an amazing amount of resources at their disposal. But this movie has momentum, and that flaw is easily pushed aside.
There is a scare when someone trips the alarm. The manager accidently incriminates himself and is brutally beaten by one of the robbers. Later on we discover that robber is James, and from then on every scene involving James feels there is a potential for violence. Doug has the potential for violence as well, particularly after a scene where he and James beat two hoodlums, but unlike James, Doug has "just cause." Doug isn't exactly a good guy. He uses James's sister (Blake Lively) for sex, and isn't opposed to using violence to solve problems. Nonetheless, audience sympathy lies only with him and one other character. Doug gains some sympathy points through the romantic relationship he develops with Claire, the other sympathetic character. During the first robbery, the gang kidnaps her, just in case they run into trouble with the cops while getting away. Claire hasn't seen the robber's faces because of the costumes, but Doug follows her around town just in case. The two happen to meet, and then fall for each other. Through his relationship with Claire, we can see Doug isn't the same kind of hardened criminal he associates with. Even so, Doug is sympathetic right from the start. It's strange how we can almost always root for the protagonist no matter what.
Most of the movie is devoted to the relationship between Doug and Claire. To the audience, the relationship doesn't seem to have much potential, since we know that in movies like this, the girl eventually finds out the secret other life of her beau. Doug must also have some notion the relationship with Claire is inevitably doomed. For him, perhaps that adds a tinge of pain, especially as the relationship becomes more serious. Watching the relationship between the two is satisfying enough, but it's not the most interesting or most exciting part of the movie.
Even though most of the movie is dedicated to Doug and Claire, it's not the heart of the movie. The heart of the movie is the game between the police and the robbers. Also a criminal and currently behind bars, Doug's father (Chris Cooper) delivers the key line to the movie, "I'll see you on this side or the other." The line is like a thesis for how the movie sees the relationship between the cops and the crooks. Affleck and his screenwriters propose that the cops and robbers are basically the same, just two opposing sides playing the same game. That idea is true only because of the sophistication of the robbers. They use all the technology and brains at their disposal, and so do the police. We see the initial robbery the crooks commit, and we see the payoff of the intricate planning it must have taken. Afterwards we see the reversal by the police, they breakdown how the robbery happened, and build a case. Sometimes there is even perfect mirroring: after Doug and James rough up a couple of guys, we see the lead detective (Michael Hamm) rough up a druggy to get information.
The Town revisits the= tough Boston neighbourhoods that have popped up recently in movies like Mystic River (2003), The Departed (2006), and Gone Baby Gone (2007). In those movies, it really felt as though the movie itself inhabited those neighbourhoods. In The Town, the town itself doesn't play much of a role, even though it is established from the opening intertitle that it is important. It is easy to see how the neighbourhood has shaped the lives of its inhabitants. Residents have accents, and share common ideas of a specific community. Despite that, the geography of the neighbourhood, and a sense of place are never established. However, that is only a minor set back. As a director, Affleck's talent lies in delivering a straightforward, well told story. He does that here to good effect. This follow up to Gone Baby Gone was important to establish that Affleck is in fact a good director and not just a one hit wonder. Gone Baby Gone was one of my favourite movies of 2007, and The Town is not quite as good as that, but it is in the same ballpark.
Posted on 5/02/11 01:07 PM
The Black Balloon is an afterschool special meets indie suburban drama. It's about Thomas (Rhys Wakefiled), a 15 year old who tries to experience a normal adolescence despite the challenges presented by his older, autistic brother, Charlie (Luke Ford). The movie primarily deals with Thomas managing his relationships with his brother and Jackie, Thomas's neighbourhood crush. Even though the movie is about Thomas, it revolves around Charlie.
As a character, Charlie functions in order to a) create drama, and b) move the plot forward. For instance, the three of them go swimming in the river, and suddenly there's a rainstorm. Charlie is too sensitive for the hard rain, so the three are forced to seek shelter in a nearby shed. As the rain blows outside, Thomas and Jackie get to experience their first make-out session inside. Another instance is when Charlie mysteriously shows up at the entrance of the schoolyard, right in front of the guys Thomas didn't want knowing about Charlie. Thomas wants to keep the fact that his brother is autistic as low profile as possible.
The movie is set during the early 1990's, when society was virtually just as tolerant of the disabled as today. Even though Thomas has unwanted responsibilities taking care of Charlie, I doubt having a mentally disabled brother would prevent a kid from having a normal adolescence. Even if the kids at school don't understand autism or the responsibilities of taking care of an autistic person, I doubt siblings of that person would be shunned by classmates.
Charlie's disability is sometimes used for comic effect, but never exploited. The humour has more to do with situational comedy due to a dysfunctional family. Such as when Charlie, in his underwear, gets loose from the house and runs amuck around the neighbourhood all while being chased by Thomas, also in underwear. The episode ends when Charlie makes it to Jackie's house, uses the toilet, and then is wrestled out of the house by her father.
Jackie seems way too good to be real. She is incredible good looking and part of the crowd of girls that pairs up with jocks. But she is totally unlike them. She is very understanding of Charlie and makes the effort (successfully) to connect with him. Even when Thomas has a violent outburst against Charlie that would disturb anyone's partner, Jackie is ready with forgiveness and understanding. Jackie's maturity surpasses any expectation anyone would have of a teenage girl, but especially since girls like Jackie don't hang around with guys like Charlie.
Dramas like The Black Balloon that revolve around a disabled person sometimes make an easy play to audience emotions. Because the appeal is easy, it often lacks depth. Movies like this are abundant in a sort of dramatic irony where the viewer understands and sympathizes with characters like Charlie and Thomas, while most other characters are ignoramuses. Such as the insensitive neighbour lady, or the jocks who throw rocks at the special bus. Thankfully, director Elissa Down doesn't resort to cheap emotional prods such as the kind of sappy score that constantly plays in movies like this. There are two instances where the movie almost offers something better. Riding in the car, Thomas confronts his father as to whether or not he regrets having Charlie. In another scene, Thomas's mom reiterates to him how Charlie will never get a job, never be able to function on his own, and will have to live with them for the rest of his life. A more appropriate statement would have been for the rest of her life. Thomas can't have a normal adolescence with Charlie around; it would be interesting to see how Thomas attempts to come to terms with the likelihood that after his mother and father pass away, or become too elderly to take care of Charlie, Thomas will become Charlie's guardian as a middle-aged man. The surface of those dilemmas is barely skimmed, but are more interesting then anything else that goes on in the movie. It's too bad no one involved in the creation of the movie realized that angle was worth playing up.
The strongest element the movie has is the interaction between the family members. The best scenes are the ones around the house where everyone is going about their daily routine. The way the family communicates with each other, the way in which belongings are placed around, and the little bit of clutter in places, all has the air of an idiosyncratic family. Those scenes are the most fun to watch, maybe because it taps into a voyeuristic quality that in part attracts us to the movies. In fact, as a whole the movie is well executed. Unfortunately, the movie is bogged down by its own afterschool premise, and a script that mostly pulls out the stops you would expect from that kind of premise.
Posted on 1/27/11 06:08 PM
"Waiting for Superman" has an axe to grind with the American education system. The documentary is about the declining American education system, why it's declining, the kids who are trapped in it, and the people who are trying to change it. Co-writer/director David Guggenheim outlines problems with schools, teachers, and governments that together are robbing young people of a good education. He supplements his analysis by following the lives of five kids through the system, for what seems like roughly a year. Four of the kids live in ghettos or come from lower class families. One is upper class and goes to a nice school.
The movie is primarily concerned with schools that are the worst of the worst. Schools that have been dubbed "failure factories" or "academic sinkholes." These schools are mostly in poorer neighbourhoods. They often contain teachers who are spectacularly incompetent. Some of them only cover 50% of the curriculum in a good year. Some just flat out refuse to teach. Dropout rates at these schools are through the floor, and only a few grads per year are qualified for university entrance. We are told there are over 2000 of these schools in America.
There is a popular myth that if someone works really hard and is dedicated that person can overcome any kind of adversity. Not these kids. They live in an environment where they are all but guaranteed to fail. There is a good scene where a student brings a camera to school concealed in his backpack. He films students shooting craps in the back of the room all day while their teacher sits up front reading the paper. We are even informed of a teacher who once gave a student a swirly in a toilet and was able to keep his job.
Teachers can get away with stuff like that because they have tenure. In order for any teacher in America to get tenure they have to maintain a body temperature of about 37 degrees for two years. Once a teacher gets tenure it is nearly impossible for them to be fired. Tenure came about through teacher unions lobbying the government. Teacher unions are the largest campaign contributor to federal candidates in the United States. Laws regarding tenure are so well established it's almost impossible to get around. Even elected officials who seek to reform education hit a brick wall when attempting to fire teachers.
Every state has their own way of attempting to deal with bad teachers protected by tenure. Every year in Milwaukee school administrators get together for a desperate practice referred to as the "lemon dance." Administrators create a roster of bad teachers - the lemons, and trade them back and forth with other schools, each time hoping to get better lemons than the ones they gave. In New York, bad teachers can be transferred to reading rooms. Essentially, a building somewhere filled with tables where teachers sit and read to themselves and hangout all day. As long as they keep coming in every day they get full salary and benefits.
All of the parents of the kids profiled in the movie want to send enroll their children to charter and prep schools as a way out. Even Emily, the rich kid wants to get away from her junior high. Her district high school was named one of the best in they country. But she is a struggling student, and that high school will "track" her to lesser courses with second-rate teachers and fewer learning opportunities. So many students are in the same boat that the desirable schools must hold lotteries to decide who gets in. There is a tense scene where all the kids and parents sit in gyms, while school officials draw names at random. Except for Emily, if the hundreds of kids who crowd these gyms are not accepted they are likely to end up in prison, or at least drop out once they reach high school.
The movie is an expository documentary through and through. From beginning to end we are presented with the idea that people naturally sit and wait for something external to pull them through their problems. Hence the title, "Waiting for Superman." But to make any real progress in changing schools, or anything else for that matter, we must realize that it's all up to us. In the end credits we are directly confronted, and asked to stand up for the better. When movies like this gravitate to that kind of thing they are generally applauded for having an urgent message, despite that they've never instigated much change. What makes the movie work so well is that it has a sincere concern about its subject, as do the education reformers interviewed. Documentaries can sometimes have an inherently interesting quality if the filmmaker is passionate about the subject. The movie cares a lot about education reform, and that makes us care a lot too.
Posted on 12/21/10 07:07 PM
Here is a movie that is as original and bizarre as its title suggests. Sometimes it's worth going to a movie because it is removed from what most of us typically go to movies to see. Such a movie would be Little Dizzle. It is the feature film debut by Seattle filmmaker David Russo, who has effectively crafted an eclectic, postmodern comedy.
The story is about Dory (Marshall Allman), a data entry worker who, after going on a blowout rant at work that had been no doubt building his entire life, is fired and forced to take a job as a night janitor at an office building. He makes friends there including the very funny O.C. (Vince Vieluf). Most of the movie's comedy is owed to him. He reminds me of everyone's favourite uncle, and is quick-witted with unabashed lewd remarks. Dory, O.C. and the rest of the night shift don't know it, but they are guinea pigs for the research company they clean for.
The researchers have dropped big bags of experimental, chemically engineered cookies into the trash, which the crew start consuming in quantities not fit for the consumption of any cookie, experimental or not.. The cookies are designed to warm in your mouth, to have that fresh out of the oven taste, "just like your mom used to make." After the crew eats the cookies the men start experiencing severe flu-like symptoms, and wild hallucinations. The suffering only ends one way, and it involves little blue fish, one of them named Little Dizzle. I'm not even going to go down the road of attempting to explain that in more detail. While the movie is eccentric, it takes itself seriously, and is convincing.
There is a lot going on in this movie. Russo is an eclectic director, balancing many different elements together. The movie is a buddy comedy, slapstick comedy, and is balanced with serious content. There are also long, frequent injections of montages, both live action and animated. It takes an uncommon talent to balance all those things in one movie, but Russo does it effectively enough. When they find out they have been exploited, the characters suffer sincerely and feel disenfranchised with the corporation they work for. There is a low key, indirect social statement about capitalism and corporate exploitation, best summed up by O.C.'s remark "we don't stand a chance against product research." There is also a recurring theme of the power of apologies, both for the apologizer, and for the forgiver. Characters keep screw up big time, usually for no good reason. Sincere apologies can be more than just a social nicety; they can be a powerful release from mental agony.
But what the movie is most about is montage. The live action montages depict everything from highly stylized janitorial duties to the journey of a message in a bottle. The animated ones are typically used to depict hallucinations. Russo did the animation for the movie as well, and enjoys creating montages more than anything else. The animated ones in particular are hypnotic and the most enjoyable to watch. All of the montages in total take up a large chunk of the runtime, and if they didn't exist I suspect there would not be enough material for a feature length movie. The best thing the movie has going for it is that it's original, visually. The substance of the movie is moderately effective, but I don't see it working well enough on its own. Had the movie been staged more conventionally I doubt it would have left as much of an impression.
Posted on 11/10/10 10:13 AM
After viewing the documentary Sweetgrass, which has no formal set-up, the end credits explain that what was just depicted was a 300km sheep herding exhibition through rural Montana. We are informed that shepherds have taken sheep to the rugged, uncivilized north western region of the state every spring since the 19th century. The movie compiles footage shot from 2001-03 of the last journey of the last group of shepherds to do this.
The movie begins on a farm with shots of sheep standing around not doing much, then shots of sheep eating, and then more shots of sheep standing around. There are no shots of humans for the first 3 minutes, and no dialogue between them for 15. Eventually the sheep are shaved in prep for spring, and some give birth. Eventually they are all rounded up, probably a couple hundred in total, and their journey can begin.
The country the shepherds heard through is sometimes rough, and never easy. They climb one mountain after another, only occasionally encountering a trail on one side or the other. Most of the actual grazing occurs on mountain side, which is mostly clear of trees and shrubbery. Throughout the journey the shepherds are rarely seen on camera, and even though the movie is about moving sheep, all takes a backseat to the gorgeous Salish Mountains. Shots of the mountains are plentiful and make up majority of the movie. Shooting was done on digital video which gives the mountains a crisp, more natural look than film. The camera is often pulled back to fill the frame with as much scenery as possible. There are few close-ups, just of the shepherds resting.
The shepherds have very little screen time or dialogue. When they do speak to each other it's always quiet and frank. There is a sense that they blend into the enormous landscape. I imagine the job is a lot tougher than it looks. They only break monotone when they hatefully curse the sheep or the mountains. They don't let their discontent show to each other, but their vexation from the sheep and mountains is the catharsis for long, taxing days, and what has probably been a life of hard labour. The longest scene of dialogue is when one of the shepherds goes off by himself to call his momma and whine. Even though we don't get to know the shepherds, I came to like them, and admire them for the work they do, which is probably underpaid. They are sort of like contemporary versions of the cowboys in Lonesome Dove. Their adventures aren't quite as exciting as that, but they are real life adventurers.
I found the first half of Sweetgrass to be boring and tiresome. Eventually I fell into the quiet rhythm of the movie. The shots of the Montana backcountry are breathtaking, and cast a spell over the movie. I grew up in Calgary and I've spent a lot of time hiking around the Rockies, so I'm a sucker for a movie that will take the viewer to that kind of environment. The movie takes the viewer much further out than most of the places I've been able to go. I'm sad to say that the Alberta backcountry is gradually becoming more corrupted by highways and rural housing developments. The experience of Sweetgrass is more than if you say, just looked at some pretty pictures. There is a feeling that we are side by side with the shepherds, experiencing the quality of a solitary existence in a place untouched by population. I imagine that the experience for some audiences will be nothing more than how I felt during the first half. Audiences for whom the previous description appeals to may find the movie to be an enjoyable window, which is worthwhile the wait to sink into.