Archive for ‘Film Criticism’

March 4, 2011

“Waiting” for Ordinaryman – It’s Up to You to Be “Super”

I’d seen David Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth in theaters and got wrapped up in that whole thing too.  I’m not prepared to say now that global warming is a farce, nor willing to deny that we all need to do our minute part in, if nothing else, simply helping the environment out; however, it is noteworthy that the pomp and circumstance surrounding Al Gore’s campaign for everyone to “go green” (not to mention Gore himself) has all but vanished.  He got us crawling in the right direction, but there are plenty in the scientific community who are adamant that the jury is still very much out on the human influence on global warming.  Gore’s research covers fifty years and he makes projections that cover fifty future years, but the Earth’s temperature and climate cycles have been known to encompass tens of thousands of years.  In winters of just a couple of centuries ago, the weather (believe it or not New Yorkers of 2011) was significantly harsher.  And remember, the human race emerged after an ice age.  We’ve been around but less than five thousand years.  So, maybe we’re just coming out of a multi-millenium cold period in the Earth’s ever-fluctuating weather history.  One more thing, Gore’s a politician who, along with his old lady Tipper, spearheaded music censorship legislation and essentially claimed that he “created” the internet.  I admire his supposed zeal for environmental sensitivity, I tend to think that he could have, unfortunately, just been grabbing some post-2000 election headlines.

But I digress.

Being an educator and having heard of Guggenheim’s latest work Waiting for Superman, I’d begun to deem it as “required viewing,” despite my affection for “Truth” having drastically waned since its initial release.  This documentary is incredibly gut wrenching at times, but most importantly, indisputably relevant to every person, young and old, in this country.  The film examines the causes and impacts of the lack of achievement in the public schools of the United States.

At times, I was waiting for the attack on teachers because “Truth” had proven to be a one-sided debate, so I was anticipating blame to be thrust somewhere.  On the defensive, I got to the segment of the movie that takes some shots at the teacher’s unions.  Guggenheim is mindful though that teachers are the big cogs in the machine that, should reform ever be possible, will implement and execute this change.  He smartly focuses his criticism on bad teachers, who are clearly doing a disservice to their students and, really, the nation as a whole.  His suggestion for weeding out the sometimes downright irresponsible or unfortunately less talented instructors is to boost requirements and standards for tenure, if not scrap it altogether, and institute a merit-pay system.  Teachers must then earn the right to keep their jobs and obtain raises, like pretty much any other career path.

I had been against a merit-pay arrangement for most of my career.  That is, until I got good.  The main counter argument towards this type of structure from the teachers union is that it would divide the workforce.  I was incredibly lucky at twenty-two years old to have found a teaching job amongst very willing, helpful peers.  I was a teacher who was learning, every day.  Would my coworkers have assisted and guided me with as much vigor if there was a merit-pay system?  Considering the type of hearts those folk possess, I would say “Yes” because they understand that people who have made the leap into the teaching profession should not be willing themselves out of bed every morning at the mere prospect of pocket-lining opportunities.  Teachers do this simply to help other people, sometimes even other teachers.  Quality performance should be rewarded and people must understand and appreciate the concept that this service needs to be done for the betterment of society, not for the financial gains of an individual.  If some “educators,” like those on display in Guggenheim’s piece, either choose to not dedicate themselves to that reality or simply are incapable, then it is better that they lose their place in the building, as opposed to granting them freedom to negatively impact 170 students a day (on the high school level) year in, year out.

Measures would most certainly have to be taken to assure a fair merit-pay system though.  Waiting for Superman does not deliberate on the risk that many teachers would face of losing their job because they have earned the right to be on the top of the salary scale. In other words, knowing how politicians like to consider the ol’ bottom line, I contend that, unless there be stipulations saying otherwise, it would be inevitable that school districts would lay off the best teachers for money-saving purposes.  What I am trying to propose here is some kind of merit-pay-tenure hybrid that would be a nice compromise, making everyone happy.

This blog post has become a lot more about the politics in the teaching world and less about the movie.  I apologize for my passion.  I don’t claim to have all of the solutions, charts, and layouts of the brighter future of education.  I loved Waiting for Superman.  And if you choose to see it or have seen it, and are considering all that I have brought up here, keep in mind that the film’s runtime is 110 minutes.  David Guggenheim doesn’t have all of the answers either, at least not produced within the movie’s span.  He only covers a few parents who are very involved and dedicated to their little ones.  (I feel that much of the troubles in the schools begin at home with parents who choose not to possess the energy to invest in their own children’s lives and education.  And, just like in the teaching profession, every person has to do their part, take on their role.) However, you should most certainly enjoy and appreciate what is presented to you in this film.

February 22, 2011

Everybody’s “Blue”?

As I walked out of the theater that had thankfully showcased Blue Valentine for me, I overheard a conversation between a couple of girls in their early twenties.  The centerpiece of their discussion was: “Don’t go and see this with a new significant otherrrr…Yah! It’ll be, like, awkwarrrrrd!”

I loved the movie.  It’s about a struggling married couple on the verge of divorce, but Derek Cianfrance and his post-production crew dexterously edit in heart-warming, delightful scenes that are highlights of Dean’s (Ryan Gosling) courtship of the very receptive Cindy (Michelle Williams), which serve as a mighty juxtaposition to where they fatefully end up as a couple.

Viewers of this film, be they verbally eloquent or not, will be naturally inclined to judge it as a real downer.  Like most couples, Dean and Cindy begin on quite a high note.  The boy, painfully devoid of self-esteem, uses his wit, charm, and smile to actually land the blond girl of his dreams.  But then, time and choices plague them to the point of destruction.  And there’s a kid involved.

Many may think this film is a testament to the death of love, the idea that it’s all a myth.  Not so.  One needs to consider the fact that this couple was quite young and immature when they sealed their respective fates.  The best segments of this work, in my opinion, are when the two first meet.  The positive energy they emit radiates off the screen and into your heart.  Dwell on this. (Somehow Ryan Gosling has not earned a Best Actor nod.  He, like many before him, may be on his way to a “Career Oscar.”)  Sure their shit gets all fucked up, but that doesn’t have to be you either.  Thematically, “Go with your gut” rings true, but, at the same time, “Learn from your mistakes” is triumphant.

True love takes time to develop.  Blue Valentine, with hints on the corruption of the American Dream as well, discusses this point.  So, don’t think about breaking up with your “significant other” after watching this flick.  Instead, take marked appreciation of the good times because they may not, or just may, last.

February 17, 2011

“500 Days” Will Last a Lifetime

Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer will emerge in the coming years as this generation’s timeless and age-defining romantic dramedy.  With homages to the Sixties’ The Graduate, I wouldn’t call 500 Days an “update” of that classic, but there will be ironic correlations as we grow old.

Looking back through history, each faction of young people via the artistic community expressed a sense of disillusion, disconnect, and dissatisfaction with social norms and expectations.  In short, they felt lost.  Post-WWI’s group were even called “The Lost Generation,” highlighted by the literary achievements of F. Scott Fitzgerald and a myriad of others, as the world put itself back together, only to have it splintered again a couple of decades later, making way for the “Beatniks” and, the ever-popular, “Hippies.”  Generation Hipster (Can I go there?) has our war/s too.  But this also is a time of incredible awareness, considering that we have throttled into an era that could arguably be labeled “post-Civil Rights Movement,” “post-feminism” and where more people anticipate earning higher levels of education than before.  Yeah, I know there is work still to be done in all of these areas; however, we have our president, we have our secretary of state, and these days a four-year degree is a “minimum requirement,” which was not the case for our parents. Progress has been made.

I bring all of this up to have you recognize that the characters of 500 Days are very modern, in terms of both their strengths and their flaws.  Tom, portrayed by the absurdly talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is in his mid-twenties and still trying to “figure it all out.”  He’d made his way through college, studying architecture, just to be passed over by a few potential employers in the fleeting months after graduation.  “Life happened” and he finds himself half-assedly designing greeting cards for a steady paycheck.  Viewers never get a sense that Tom will be a lifer in that position.  Summer, played by Zooey Deschanel (once I start to register accurate adjectives of approval for that woman, there will ultimately be a tally of an embarrassing number), is, like Tom, a Los Angeles transplant.  From Michigan, she claims to have landed on the left coast simply due to boredom.  We come to know that Summer was well-traveled and freely explored her sexuality.  Upon meeting and (merely) “liking” Tom, Summer declares that she isn’t “looking for anything serious,” which she understands might “freak some guys out.” While these aspects of their backgrounds link them to those “lost” folk of the past, the reasons for this lack of focus and absence of goals is quite different.

Some say that “women in the workplace” has been the impetus behind the rising average age of marriage for both males and females.  Women now are taking their time, putting their career first, before settling down and having kids in their thirties, as opposed to their twenties.  Others speculate that folks marry later due to an increase in college education.  We hear less and less of people simply graduating high school, getting a job, and procreating by the time they’re 21.  Whichever the reason, or be it a combination of both along with other causes, men and women are “just dating” throughout their twenties and 500 Days does an impeccable job of illustrating the clashes that can transpire in our lost generation of hipsters.

How many times, youngish people, have you been in dating situations where either the girl or guy announced what Summer said to Tom about avoiding a “serious” relationship?  How often have you said or heard “Yeah, no pressure”?  Who has uttered to another that they’re “Just friends,” knowing full-well it was more than that?  And “Let’s not label this” is another popular one.  All of these lines are featured in 500 Days.  These key points of dialogue, along with obviously making the movie most relative to Gen-Hipsters’ instances of “hanging out” with members of the opposite sex, drive the conflict forward.  Ironically, in this story, the male is the perpetrator of couple-hood, while it is the femme fatale seeking a more open set of circumstances.  However, Tom complies with Summer’s demands, I guess, in the name of being “progressive.”  He’s the one with the testicles.  Tom should just be happy with getting laid and not allow fucking feelings and emotions to get in the way, right?  But he does.  This causes much distress for our protagonist, while Summer’s emotions are remarkably collected.  She just goes with it.  At one point, Tom’s drunken friend McKenzie (played by the guy who inconceivably gets to nail Christina Hendricks whenever he wants to) even calls Summer “a dude.”

In The Graduate, Benjamin is asked several times, “What’s wrong?”  He is unsure about his future, to say the least.  Grad school?  Career?  Marriage?  Kids?  He’d rather spend his time “just drifting” on a water mattress in his parent’s pool.  Ultimately, viewers of 500 Days don’t see anything wrong with Tom and Summer; they are empathetic figures.  We’re drifting right alongside them.  In stark contrast to Benjamin and Elaine (Sure they get together, but, at best, their ultimate fate as a couple is quite uncertain; just look at their expressions while on the bus.), Tom and Summer reveal that there is hope at this film’s conclusion.  Summer gets married and Tom meets Autumn, but only when he reemerges a more confident man with a straight set of priorities and reassurance.  Our generation is simply experiencing a prolonged adolescence, both similar and contrasting to those before us.  We have this heightened awareness of possibilities and potential that paradoxically has a stunting effect on our maturing process.  Dating in the “Aughts” then features a tricky terrain because of this.  So, we must struggle and “beat on, boats against the current.”  But we’ll have our “one fine morning” when we figure it all out.

January 31, 2011

The King and I

The King’s Speech, produced and distributed by the Weinsteins, is yet another film that will have perceptive audience members whispering, “I’ve seen this before.”  It seems that the overwhelming majority of movies today, even those of the so-called “indie” scene, follow an ample of amount of rules in regards to casting, pacing, and familiar plot lines.  The King’s Speech features a protagonist facing a daunting challenge that he must overcome.  He has a strong-for-her-time wife who employs an unorthodox specialist to help out.  Despite failures, frustrations, questions about the strange methods of the hired help, declarations of giving up, and mounting pressure, the protagonist turns out just fine in the end.  Run-time: 118 minutes.

Emerging as an Academy Award front-runner, The King’s Speech features the biggest British stars-Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, and Guy Pierce-giving some of their biggest performances.  Though I favor Bridges this year, should Firth win the Best Actor Oscar, I doubt I’ll find myself shattering my coffee table with a sledgehammer before the exit cue music begins to roll.  He is masterful in this work and we all know that when actors undertake roles of characters that possess some kind of physical or mental handicap, mounted and molded gold will almost invariably find itself on said actor’s mantle.

However, Firth would earn the trophy for hatching the truly endearing aspect of this film for the viewer’s eyes.  Perhaps the reason this piece is gaining such critical and mass acclaim, even with all of the rehashed, hackneyed ploys to make it appealing, is that it is about all of us.  Be it a king, a president (I noticed an ironic correlation between the unfortunate King’s forced pauses and FDR’s rehearsed ones, both creating a dramatic effect), or any person propped up on a pedestal, the theme of this movie is that we all share the traits, experiences, and challenges of simply being human.  The best moments in the movie are when “Bertie” (Firth) and Lionel (I also wouldn’t be floored if Rush won too) are together on screen, sharing their thoughts, feelings, and pasts with each other.  These scenes along with the climactic speech bring out the humanity in the King.  In many ways, Bertie is brought down to the level of the common man, but, most ironically, it is his bravery that makes him worthy of being called “Your Majesty” by Lionel in the film’s closing moments; this after Bertie recognizes he has a “friend” in Lionel, the first of his life.

I refuse to put a “spoiler alert” at the top of this column because if you’ve seen maybe ten movies in your life, little of this film’s outcome will be remotely surprising.  With that said, this film will entertain and have you rooting for it come Oscar night in a few weeks.  It explores the surprising lack of power a British monarch actually has, but in an effort to have watchers of the film relate to a king.  It even displays a king relating to one of us.  I’m not sure that many others besides Firth and Rush, regardless of their resumes and recognizable faces (“It’s a big-budget British movie, I guess they have to put these guys in it.”) could have pulled this off so well.

January 15, 2011

Pongbook: The Foreshadowing Metaphor in “The Social Network”

Pong was the first big video game.  When it hit the arcade in 1972 and infiltrated homes in 1975, it changed entertainment forever.  All you gamers out there need to close your eyes for a minute and try to think not about Black Ops, but instead picture two white rectangles throttling up and down a black screen attempting to strike a little white box back at the other (or just watch this).  That’s it.  Pong was the garage on the virtual street to XBox 360 and PS3.  Who knows where fun will go from here?

I just saw The Social Network the other day.  Though the film was terribly overrated, I couldn’t help but appreciate the editing job done in that film.  David Fincher and co. did admirable work cutting up and piecing together the scenes that pitted Mark Zuckerberg against multiple opponents in various lawsuits.  The emphasis placed on all that Zuckerberg had to overcome (or steal) to be crowned “The Youngest Billionaire in the World” is what keeps the plot moving.

Foreshadowing the battles Zuckerberg would find himself in was his development of “Face Mash” in the early goings of the movie.  He hacks into the various campus “facebooks” in the area, downloading and uploading pictures of locals onto a new website.  Viewers of Face Mash would simply look at two pictures of girls placed side-by-side.  Then they vote on who is more attractive, “Right” or “Left.”  This scene features quick cuts of college dorm buddies monosyllabically pontificating on their approval of some chicks over others.  With much tribute to Beavis and Butt-Head, they flip-flop laughingly, “Right…Left…Left…Right…Right,” and so on.  At one point, a female student sees the monitor and with a quiet anxiety marked by some disbelief says, “That’s my roommate.”

The game is a hit.  The traffic to the website actually crashes the Harvard network, finding Zuckerberg for the first of many times having to defend his actions against others in a chair in a room peopled by those claiming to be victims of his ruthless brilliance along with their lawyers.  This would be reminiscent of Face Mash itself-two girls going head-to-head (literally) against one another, unknowingly vying for an E-thumbs up on their level of physical beauty from guys that they likely don’t know and never will.

Like Pong, the allure of Face Mash is its simplicity.  Face Mash even looks like Pong.  However, what would be most complicated for Zuckerberg would be his own real-life game of Face Mash, except with millions of dollars being up for grabs as opposed to an unseen head-nod of recognition of hotness.  He goes up against both friends and enemies in the film and Face Mash not only foreshadows his battles, but also the emergence of Facebook.  The intuition and know-how he put into his Pong-like, primitive page, was a preview of his abilities that would reach an apex in the form of the website that shows no signs of slowing down on the street of possibilities in virtual entertainment.