Saturday, November 27, 2010
Based upon the book Between A Rock And A Hard Place by Aron Ralston
Screenplay Written by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Danny Boyle
**** (four stars)
What a difference the right filmmaker, the right actor and the right material makes!!
In my previous review of Director Ryan Murphy’s “Eat Pray Love” starring Julia Roberts, I remarked that perhaps why my reaction to that film was so harshly negative was perhaps because Murphy and Roberts were quite possibly the wrong choices to adapt the memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert. At this point, I would like to apologize in advance for any continued references to “Eat Pray Love.” Be assured that I am not simply having yet another chance to take it down some pegs. It is simply because with similar thematic material and having seen both films within a 24 hour period, comparisons are inevitable.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I must also mention that any comparisons between these two films is necessary because the art and alchemy of moviemaking is so indefinable. If it were that easy to bottle, then every film created would be a masterpiece. The elements needed in place to generate and capture that lighting in a bottle is so mysterious, so elusive that even the best filmmakers are not always guaranteed success—especially as this movie year has demonstrated as so many of the greats have taken creative stumbles. For “127 Hours,” the new film from Director Danny Boyle, fresh off of his Oscar winning success with the extraordinary ”Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), the elements are firmly in place, to such a degree that he has easily created one of 2010’s very best achievements.
Based upon Aron Ralston’s life-altering experiences and memoir, James Franco delivers a tour-de-force performance as Ralston, a young mountain climbing enthusiast, who in 2003, found himself trapped in a Utah canyon by a fallen boulder, pinning his right arm in the process. Trapped for five days with rapidly depleting food and water, receiving only 15 minutes of sunshine per day and enduring temperatures that plummet to 50 degrees at night, Ralston utilizes this time to examine his life (often through a self-created video diary). And ultimately, faced with certain death, Ralston resorts to the now very famous desperate measure of severing his right arm to ensure his survival.
I am certain that for so many people who may already be aware of this movie are wondering just how or even why would a movie like this be would need to be created in the first place. I can agree with the sentiment to a degree but I am here to assure all of you, dear readers, that “127 Hours” is decidedly not entirely a film about a man who cuts off his right arm to save his life (although I will address this particular issue later). What Danny Boyle has achieved so masterfully is the creation of a film about the very spiritual transcendence that “Eat Pray Love” promised and failed to deliver. It is a film about solitude, a young man’s profound love of and tenuous relationship with an unforgiving environment, his slow, heavy realization that he is absolutely not an island unto himself even when he positions himself as such and the ultimate discovery that when forced into isolation, it is then that he discovers his unique place in life’s fabric.
“127 Hours” belongs within a class of films with similar subject matter like Robert Zemeckis’ “Cast Away” (2000), Gus Van Sant’s deeply experimental “Gerry” (2002) and Sean Penn’s brilliantly haunting “Into The Wild” (2007). Yet, Boyle nearly re-invents the genre through his endless creativity which has been a staple of his work, including the harrowing and still influential drug addict tale “Trainspotting” (1996). While every film within his oeuvre has not been completely successful (1997’s “A Life Less Ordinary” or 2000’s “The Beach” for instance), it cannot be disputed that when Boyle approaches a new film, he undeniably makes the experience as unique as possible. When Boyle is working to the fullest of his creative gifts, you can practically see his thumbprints upon each frame.
Opening with the caliber of accelerated time lapse photography that recalls the classic impressionistic documentary “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982), Boyle propels “127 Hours” to grand cinematic heights. He is more than ably aided by his creative team, which includes several key players from “Slumdog Millionaire,” including his co-writer Simon Beaufoy and the film’s composer A.R. Rathman, who provides the film with a propulsive, ethereal and by film’s conclusion, soul lifting score.
We are deftly inserted into Ralston’s day and seemingly endless struggle through a series of memories, flashbacks, hallucinations, wishes, regrets and fears via every audio/visual technique at his disposal. Boyle ingeniously has devised ways to utilize the camera from any and all conceivable vantage points within the tight and small canyon space in which Ralston is imprisoned and beyond. Can we see inside Ralston’s water bottle? Boyle gets us there. Can we see inside of Ralston’s own video camera as he rewinds images to revisit? Boyle gets us there as well. Can we even see inside of Ralston’s arm for a moment? Boyle even gets us there. This is muscular, kaleidoscopic filmmaking at it s very best, the exact type of which that is extremely difficult to achieve artfully without making the film seem to be an over-directed mess. To obtain this level of cinematic freedom, there has to be a certain rigid discipline and understanding of the craft of moviemaking in place and Danny Boyle is ferociously disciplined.
For all of the visual pyrotechnics, “127 Hours” is not masturbatory filmmaking in the least. At all times, the story of Aron Ralston completely informs the cinematography and overall presentation, not the other way around so that every single frame contains meaning and purpose. Every image signifies a moment in Ralston’s mind and the world at large and how those two seemingly separate areas actually work in tandem. Throughout the film, Ralston (and the audience) are shown exactly how life exists, continues and flows within him/us, without him/us and all moments in between. Ralston’s smallness and veritable insignificance within the world’s grand design is depicted as well as his unique placement as part of all living, evolving things—like the very canyon he is trapped inside of.
Internally, Aron Ralston is shown to be an affable, good-natured young man, speeding through his own life and his own pace and somewhat regardless of those around him. It is not mean spirited or callous. Just perhaps as shortsighted and as tunnel visioned as we all are as we speed through our lives day in and day out. Every speeding car of the city and every sound of laughter from the party occurring without him, signifies every solitary soul on the earth marching to their own distinct beat and pattern, indiscriminate of each other yet completely solitary. We all march together while we all march alone. It is that aloneness Ralston experiences to a nightmarish degree during his confinement and it is through those moments he understands that he is not nearly as alone as he may have set himself up to be. Boyle seems to be suggesting that we are ALL a part of something much larger than ourselves: a family, a friendship, a relationship, the world at large. That we are nothing without each other. The beauty of “127 Hours” is how we arrive at these moments of clarity just as Ralston does, giving this film a symbiotic relationship with the audience. We are as lifted as Ralston and quite possibly for the exact same reasons. And if that’s not enough spiritual transcendence for you in a movie, then I don’t know what is.
Aside from the brief appearances from Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn as two hikers he meets early in his first day in the mountains, James Franco essentially gives a one-man-show of a performance and he is sensational. As much as I have enjoyed him over the years, especially through his work in Judd Apatow’s stable of actors, there has been nothing in his resume thus far that has suggested that he could pull off a role such as this one. In addition to the sheer physicality displayed during the early sequences to the immobility of much of the film’s remainder, Boyle keeps the camera riveted on Franco’s highly expressive face which presents regret, self-resignation, madness, despair, gallows humor, hope and dogged determination with supreme ease and confidence. If he is not nominated for an Oscar, that would be an unforgivable cinematic crime.
But now, the scene you have all wondered about, the scene, which has reportedly caused some fainting in the aisles at some movie theaters across the country. Yes, dear readers, I am speaking of the amputation scene. It is here and how could it not be. I am here to tell you that it is excruciating. It is graphic. It is indeed a teeth gnasher of a sequence. And it is all appropriate and does not wear out its welcome. The sequence is in your face but the film as a whole doesn’t succeed or fail because of it. It is part of Ralston’s story and therefore, it is more than necessary to the entire tapestry Boyle has weaved cinematically. For those of you who are especially squeamish and would like to see this film, you will know when the scene has arrived, and you can just exit yourself for a few moments and return. “127 Hours” respects Aron Ralston’s story and additionally, the film respects the audience who has paid to see this story enough where the film never for an instant descends into torture porn.
“127 Hours” is a story about the discovery of connection when a man is at his most disconnected. Yet his connection becomes our as well as Danny Boyle has delivered a film which is nothing less than a cathartic experience, wholly celebratory of the life force. When the art of movie making is pitched at this level, I have repeatedly stated on this site that we owe it to ourselves and the creative participants involved to support it.
"127 Hours" is one of my favorite films of 2010.
Friday, November 26, 2010
Based upon the book Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Screenplay Written by Ryan Murphy and Jennifer Salt
Directed by Ryan Murphy
*1/2 (one and a half stars)
I really, really, really did not like this movie.
Now before any of my dear female readers clock me with any potential statements of me, a man, not liking or enjoying anything resembling so called “chick flicks,” please allow me to have the floor for a moment.
I am happy to go on the record for Savage Cinema when I proclaim that I have never liked the term “chick flick.” It has always struck me as a derogatory term designed to denigrate and diminish the artistry and importance of movies involving and driven by female protagonists and catering to a female audience. That said, I can almost understand how this term continues to flourish as many of the major released films from Hollywood that center around women do tend to be more of a frivolous nature. If there were a wider variety of films, topics and subject matter and if there were more women writers and directors commandeering Hollywood dollars, then the presence of one more brain dead romantic comedy would not do much to damage to how women are presented in the movies. Unfortunately, that is not what we have these days. Even in the 21st century, most major releases starring women and created by women do tend to fall somewhere within the brain dead romantic comedy genre (I’m setting my sights upon you Sandra Bullock and Katherine Heigl).
The phenomenon of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love has passed me by completely. So completely that I honestly had no idea of what it was about or whether it was fiction or non-fiction. By the time I had realized that a film version was to be released this past summer, my curiosity was piqued to discover its subject matter. The concept of a woman traveling around the world for spiritual transcendence spoke to me and by this point, I felt that perhaps here was an opportunity to have a major star and studio headline the exact type of film we usually see men fronting. Finally, we would see a big budget release that dealt with philosophical issues just as we have seen men tackle time and again. So imagine the profound level of disappointment I felt while I viewed Director Ryan Murphy’s adaptation as this was material with the inherent potential to be a transformative cinematic experience and yet all I felt that I received was a self-important journey of a whiny and unappreciative narcissist.
Julia Roberts stars as Elizabeth “Liz” Gilbert, a writer of perpetual dissatisfaction with her stage in life. When we meet her, she is working in Bali, preparing to interview Ketut, an elderly medicine man (Hadi Subiyanto). During their meeting, Ketut prophesies that Liz’s life will be long, she will have two marriages-one short, one lengthy, she will lose all of her money only to regain it in the future and finally, she will one day return to Bali to teach the medicine man English. After Liz returns to New York and her unhappy eight-year marriage to the wayward Stephen (Billy Crudup), she boldly divorces him and soon recklessly falls into the arms of David Picolo (James Franco), a 28 year old struggling actor, a decision which then leads to more emotional unfulfillment. Feeling a spiritual disconnection with the world itself and feeling troubled that since the age of 15, she has been in one relationship or another, she decides to walk away from her life for one year of travel to Italy, India and Bali, respectively, with the purpose of finding herself and emerging transformed from her experiences.
As I have previously stated, the concept is intriguing and I would like to think is somewhat universal. It doesn’t matter if one is a man or a woman to feel that societal itch and dissatisfaction to the degree that one would want to run away from it all to gain new insights into life itself. Who could not relate to that? During the Italy section of the film, Liz tries to find the pleasure in “the sweetness of doing nothing,” and in our accelerated society at this point in our collective accelerated place in history, I can honestly tell you that I would love the opportunity to discover that elusive sweetness. Wouldn’t you?
Since I have not read the source material, I am in no position to judge. But, as far as the film version is concerned, the problem with “Eat Pray Love” is a surprisingly massive lack of depth in relation to the heady subject matter. Liz is terribly self-absorbed, selfish, judgmental, impulsive to a fault and frankly, not very likable at all. Certainly I do not require all of my leading film protagonists to be likable, especially female protagonists. Just this summer, in Director Lisa Cholodenko’s excellent “The Kids Are All Right,” we were graced with Annette Bening’s outstanding performance of a character who is decidedly difficult to like as she is fueled through resentment, control issues, a superiority complex and a nasty alcohol dependency. But, what is gathered throughout that story is a certain understanding and empathy of who she is and why she is the way she is. With “Eat Pray Love,” I never felt that I received that level of complexity and attention to the character of Liz who seems to constantly be in a state of displeasure and self-pity and it made it nearly impossible to connect with her and find that empathy the filmmakers obviously wanted the audience to have. On and on throughout the movie she wails about how “No one is waiting at home for me!” or statements of that ilk and the effect is tiring.
I actually began feeling frustrated with Liz during the film’s first 30 minutes or so and I told myself to be patient as she had not begun her travels yet. That perhaps once she began to eat, pray and love, we would then see the work behind the self-discovery and feel a certain transformation with her. Yet, I could not figure out just why I was having so much trouble connecting with this woman. During those 30 minutes, I found myself thinking back to Writer/Director Cameron Crowe’s “Jerry Maguire” (1996), a film that truly elicited a sense of spiritual deliverance for me. I recalled how Crowe gave the audience enough detail at that film’s outset and in just the right amounts that you completely knew who Jerry Maguire was and what his internal dilemma and eventual epiphany was all about. When Maguire says during his spiritual panic that, “I hated myself. I hated my place in the world,” you understood it and the remainder of that film showed the hard work he put himself through to live up to the best of himself. By that film’s conclusion, we arrive at a Jerry Maguire who had reached a new spiritual level yet was indeed (and rightfully) more informed than fully transformed as evolution is a process.
With “Eat Pray Love,” the details of this character were scant at best. We know she’s unhappy but why really? Shortly after we meet Liz and her husband Stephen at a party and view them driving home, Stephen informs her of his decision to return to school and obtain a Master’s degree in Education. In the very next scene, Liz announces that she wants a divorce. But why? What was it about their marriage that disappointed her so much that she arrived at this point? While we didn’t need another hour of footage to illustrate their marriage, I felt we needed something substantial and it just wasn’t there. And soon, I felt this sense of resentment Liz had towards anyone who seemed to have a purpose in life that she did not have herself, another trait that kept her at arms length from me.
By the time Liz does embark upon her world travels, she, and the film, remains superficial and the more redemptive spirit I assumed would occur never arrives. Throughout everywhere she goes and everyone she meets, Liz never seems to learn anything or take anything inwards and her experiences are always presented as how she has effected the people and places around her and how wonderful she is for doing so.
For instance, Liz is particularly and maddeningly insufferable during an imaginary conversation she holds with Stephen while in India. It is a sequence meant to signify a sense of self-forgiveness due to her hurtful actions but it smacks completely false. What should have been “I’m sorry I hurt you and broke your heart,” was ultimately, “I am such a wonderful person that I will allow you to keep longing for me and allow you to forget me and move one and it’s OK because I’ve reached this new sense of enlightenment.” Another scene late in the movie, designed to present a new sense of altruism also reeks of self-aggrandizement. And another sequence, set in Italy, is sadly hypocritical as Liz explains to her new friend Sofi (Tuva Novotny), while eating a gorgeous plate of pizza, that she will no longer count calories, no longer obsess over weight and just enjoy this glorious food…and then, just buy a larger sized pair of jeans. But then, we are given yet another “Julia Roberts tries on clothes” sequence where she attempts to stuff herself into the very pair of jeans she claimed she would no longer purchase in the first place.
Where and how did this movie go so horribly wrong? By the film's conclusion, I had to wonder if it was possibly the wrong filmmaker for this material. Ryan Murphy, a director for the television series “Nip/Tuck”, the juggernaut “Glee” as well as the poorly received theatrical adaptation of “Running With Scissors” (2006), seems to still be learning and discovering exactly how to utilize cinematography for the process of storytelling. Even with the cinematography provided by the legendary Robert Richardson, Murphy’s camera is overactive and never allows scenes to flow naturally or allows viewers to completely take in the locations it desperately wants to flaunt. When I saw Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999) or Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007) or Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008), all three of those films gave me sumptuous sights to languish in, and they even inspired an inner desire to travel to Italy, India and Spain, respectively. While “Eat Pray Love” is stunningly photographed throughout, Murphy is all swirling, spinning cameras, feverishly trying to create glory when all he needed to do was let the camera sit still and allow us to drink in the sensory experience via osmosis. Murphy needs to let the story inform the cinematography and not the other way around and his forcefulness made me disconnect.
There is also trouble with the screenplay written by Murphy and his writing partner, actress Jennifer Salt (who is also a writer for “Nip/Tuck”) as it seems to almost be afraid to delve as deeply as necessary to make Liz’s evolution palpable to audiences. This lack of substance can immediately be seen in a short and stunning sequence, set in India, and featuring veteran character actor Richard Jenkins as “Richard from Texas.” In mere minutes, Jenkins delivers a powerful monologue that essentially gives us a complete sense of this man’s life, his losses, his inner tragedy and his search for redemption. Again, we are given enough information to fully understand and empathize with this man. The same level of information that never exists for the leading character. Viola Davis as Liz’s best friend also strikes strong notes that inform the audience of her character’s life. Javier Bardem arrives within the Bali section of the film and he is also able to present to us a fullness of a life and the pain within--most notably in a tender moment between himself and his 19 year old son. And then, here’s Julia Roberts as Liz, dressed in beautiful clothes, framed by gorgeous lighting and flashing that smile we all know so well and for what purpose and to what end? By the film's conclusion, what should have been an intensely and entertaining road to a deeper understanding of self and one's place in the world at large just seemed to be a spoiled woman's year long vacation that really leaves her exactly where she began. The screenplay has too many holes that need to be filled and maybe Elizabeth Gilbert should have written it herself.
Quite possibly, the biggest problem with "Eat Pray Love" is indeed the elephant in the room and that is the character of Liz and the presence of Julia Roberts. If Murphy may not have been the right filmmaker for this material, I am thinking that Roberts was just not the right actress for this role. While not a favorite by any means, Julia Roberts is an actress I have enjoyed for many years and she does indeed have the ability to dig deeply as her Oscar wining performance in Steven Soderbergh’s “Erin Brockovich” (2000) and Mike Nichols' “Closer” (2004) demonstrated. But with "Eat Pray Love," she seems to be acting solely by the wattage of her star power and never portrays this character from the inside out, making for a person that is more than a little wearisome. I really do not know exactly who could have played this part in a way for me to connect to it better but as it stands, I think that Roberts just may have been dreadfully miscast.
For me, “Eat Pray Love” was a painfully phony experience where I felt to be sitting in shallow waters for the entire movie. There is no spiritual transcendence to be found in a movie that desperately wants, needs and promises it. The character of Liz and how Julia Roberts has portrayed her delivered a person who is not building herself for herself. She is building herself so that everyone around her can proclaim how much she has changed and we are to marvel at her for doing so. She essentially complains at the film's outset that she is living her life through other people and she wants to reclaim herself. But at film's end, she continues to live her life through other people and their perceptions of her. Liz is never really critical of herself and the movie is not critical of her either. I think that we are meant to embrace her and her journey and since there was nothing to her, I just couldn't.
I really do not think that was the purpose of a year long journey such as this one and I really do not believe that was the purpose of the filmmakers behind this movie. But, that's what I got, a geographic, philosophical and emotional "Tourist Approach" to spiritual elevation and for me, the end result was meaningless.
And if films designed for women want to elevate themselves from the fluffy confines of the "chick flick" genre, they have got to be better than this one.
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Recently, I reviewed Director Tony Scott’s “Unstoppable,” a furiously paced action thriller that I found to be unfortunately forgettable due to the well-produced and orchestrated sound and fury on screen being used at the expense of an empty story, flat characters and hollow center. Even though the storyline of “The Expendables” is as paper thin as “Unstoppable,” the film contains more than enough character, energy and big brass balls of swagger to satisfy the hungriest fans of male driven mayhem.
Stallone stars as Barney Ross, the leader of a rag tag band of mercenaries including knife expert Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), martial arts master Yin Yang (Jet Li), the cauliflower eared demolitions kingpin Toll Road (Randy Couture), firearms Hale Caeser (Terry Crews), and the junkie live wire Gunner (Dolph Lundgren). The team is recruited by the mysterious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) to bring down the insidious dictator General Garza (David Zayas) and Ex-CIA operative James Munroe (a perfectly slimy Eric Roberts) who jointly control a lucrative drug operation on the island of Vilena, a fictional location set near South America. Yes, there is a damsel that needs saving (horribly played by Gisele Itie), grievances to be dealt with and more outrageous carnage than you could ever hope to see in a film that flies by in under two hours.
Throughout “The Expendables,” Sylvester Stallone is densely stoic and steadfast while Jason Statham is the charismatically hotheaded strong arm. Roberts and Lundgren are also quite effective in their respectively villainous turns. And I must give special mention to Mickey Rourke who makes good usage of his few scenes as an ex-Expendable, tattoo artist and …ahem…moral conscience of the group. Unfortunately, with so many muscles to squeeze into the frame, someone will undoubtedly receive short shrift. Sadly, it is Jet Li who really does not have that much to do. Throughout his fight scenes, which should show the graceful power of his martial arts skills, the cinematography and editing are so poor and so badly filmed that not only is the story of the fight unreadable, it is difficult to even know if Li was even present during the filming.
Beyond all of the cataclysm, “The Expendables” is a veritable feast of men for men about men and in honor of men and their excessive manliness. It is a nearly two hour pissing contest or better yet, a penis size measurement competition. For so many scenes, and in so many ways, through action, dialogue or mean stare downs, these characters could have just dispensed with the weaponry and had all of the men drop their pants, stand in a circle while holding rulers against themselves, allowing the audience to listen in on the conversation and wait for the results.
Through some awkward “Tarantino-esque” snatches of dialogue, we learn a little bit about the hearts of these men of action. Stallone and Rourke worry about their disintegrating souls due to the callousness of their lives. Statham is filled with heartbreak over a failed relationship but will still race to her aid when he discovers that she has been abused. Rourke also announces at one point that while he would never die for a woman, he longs to “die with a woman.” So they aren’t all that bad, I guess. They may be psychopaths but they are sensitive psychopaths.
For a movie like “The Expendables,” that’s what you want. Heroes you can easily root for set to the grinding and unforgiving beat of explosions and shootouts. When the team rides off into the night on motorcycles set to Thin Lizzy’s classic “The Boys Are Back In Town” just at the outset of the film's ending credits, I could not help myself for enjoying this crazy, manic movie as much as I did.
And if the inevitable sequel comes to pass, I just may have to make a trip to the local butcher shop to claim the correct currency to use for my ticket price.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
AN ODE TO FRIENDSHIP IN A COLD, DARK WORLD: a review of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1"
I’ve said it before and I will say it again, there was once a time when I was dramatically against the idea of transforming J.K. Rowling’s beautiful and brilliant Harry Potter series into big budget Hollywood feature films. Having had the front row seat to the then unprecedented excitement of young people venturing out to bookstores at midnight to be the first to consume a literary tome as entertaining and demanding as Rowling’s, I just didn’t want that experience diluted and dumbed down by Hollywood’s lowest common denominator tendencies. Nine years and six films later, I could not be any more enthralled as the “Harry Potter” film series has exuded nothing less than the highest of class. From the very start, these films have been handsomely elegant and faithfully rendered productions that have enhanced Rowling’s original vision while gradually becoming strong motion pictures that can stand confidently on their own.
When I first read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows years ago, I poured through the novel with an addictive and emotional feverishness. For me, the novel was Rowling’s masterstroke as she completed her seven book saga with the grandest of empathy, conviction and supreme storytelling heft. I ended the book wanting for absolutely nothing more and it was as complete a conclusion as possible. While reading I also though to myself, “There’s NO WAY they can fit this into one movie!” Due to the amount of details and plot threads that are essential to the story as a whole, I thought it to be impossible that the people behind the film series could truncate the material into two or three hours. When it was officially announced that the book would be halved into two final films, I was overjoyed as I thought it would allow the proper breathing room for the story to tell its tale most effectively.
When we previously saw our teenage heroes in the superlative “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (2009), their lives had been forever transformed. After witnessing the infiltration of their beloved Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as well as the tragic murder of a beloved figure, the trio decide to leave school to pursue the remaining Horcruxes-objects that contain pieces of Lord Voldemort’s (chillingly played by Ralph Finnes) splintered soul-with the hopes of vanquishing the Dark Lord and ending the escalating Wizard War.
Although the threesome have aligned themselves with the heroic Order of the Phoenix, Harry, Ron and Hermione are soon forced to live their live in exile and on the run from Voldemort’s minions. Their journeys take them from bleak and barren wintry landscapes to the snow swept location of Harry’s birth to the Orwellian Ministry of Magic to deep within the nefarious bowels of the sinister Malfoy Mansion among other locations. As their individual and combined resolves are tested to the point of failure, Harry, Ron and Hermione learn, so painfully, that their only means to success and survival is the love and trust they have placed within each other.
For those who felt slighted or even cheated with the deep cuts made from the original novel in Yates’s previous adaptation, I would say that “Deathly Hallows Part 1” is supremely faithful. But, as I have said before, books are books and movies are movies and it is Yates’ primary job to make the written material work cinematically and not blindly adhere to the source material. Who cares how faithful it is if the visual presentation doesn’t sing? In the case of David Yates and series Screenwriter Steve Kloves, they definitely make this material sing beautifully. Yates presides over this material like the greatest of wizards. It is a Master Class of pacing, tone and mood that wisely and unapologetically makes absolutely no concessions to the uninitiated. If you have not read the novels or have seen any of the previous six films, you will indeed be lost.
Since the school year structure of the story has been irrevocably altered, with no Hogwarts, educational antics and lessons or Quidditch matches on display whatsoever, Yates is freed to create a more free form film experience. Utilizing Rowling’s novel as his set of boundaries, Yates and Kloves have crafted an artfully episodic journey filled with vignettes more aching, thrilling and grim than the one before.
An early scene, reminiscent of Director Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” (1987), depicts a meeting of the film’s core villains, led by Lord Voldemort, and featuring the suspended body of a Hogwarts victim and an extremely hungry serpent is easily the most chilling sequences of the entire series thus far. An alternately funny and intense episode set at the Ministry of Magic brings Rowling’s persistent themes of racism, fascism and totalitarianism to disturbingly vibrant life while it also places a clever nod to Director Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985), his untouchable bureaucratic nightmare odyssey. Yates also leaves ample space for elegantly visual surprises, most notably a splendidly foreboding animated sequence depicting the origin of the Deathly Hallows.
Yates also consistently presents us with canvases of gorgeous panoramic vistas that seem to nearly engulf the three small figures as they wander alone in a cold, dark world. Those sections, including the stirring sequence of Harry, Ron and Hermione walking silently through a barren landscape listening to the names of the dead on an transistor radio, are quietly sorrowful and add to the sadness of children forced to become adults much sooner than they may be ready. In fact, it is those very sequences of the threesome in hiding that may frustrate some viewers—especially those who have not read the novel. Those scenes are lengthy and in a film that contains much more tension than release, I would not be surprised if the sequences of our heroes becoming disillusioned and growing darker while under the influence of the Voldemort cursed Horcrux in their possession (like Tolkein’s Ring) may make some audience members shift in their theater seats. But, if you do happen to be one of those people, not only will I tell you that there is a final payoff of grand proportions (to be seen mostly in Part 2), I feel those sequences serve the heart of this film tremendously.
“Deathly Hallows Part 1” is a triumph for Radcliffe, Grint and Watson as they have grown, right before our eyes, into a newfound maturity with their respective acting skills. For the entire series thus far, we have watched them grow while being supported by their young cast mates as well as the British acting elite who have surrounded them. For this film, it is very interesting to see how their path as actors have so successfully mirrored the paths of their respective characters.
Just as Harry, Ron and Hermione are forced to shoulder the weight of their journey solely between the three of them, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson also have to shoulder much of this film on their own as their cast mates receive scant screen time in comparison. We see the bonds of mutual friendship, respect, undying trust and love between them tighten right in front of our eyes, providing the strongly beating heart of this otherwise bleak exercise. A moment where Ron and Hermione sleeping in a tent, obviously succumbing to slumber while holding hands is touching as is a scene not from the novel where harry engages Hermione in a funny and healing dance meant to soothe and strengthen during a particularly painful section. All three handle the hefty responsibility with remarkable skill and tenacity, also like their characters. While Yates deserves mountains of credit to eliciting these performances, I absolutely cannot forget, and have to re-state my appreciation for the groundbreaking efforts of Director Chris Columbus who made the decision to cast these three people in the first place. The series would not be what it is without them.
David Yates’ “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1” is the rare big budget film with splendid special effects and dizzying skirmishes of action that also takes the concepts of choices, consequences, life and death seriously. It stands firmly upon its own cinematic feet while simultaneously showing deep reverence for Rowling's original novel. Yet for a film this dour and dismal, and one that opens and concludes with moments of heartbreaking self-sacrifice, it always finds time for magical whimsy as seen through Hermione’s deceptively small and bottomless handbag and the usage of the shape shifting Polyjuice Potion.
What we have presently with this film is a transitional episode. It is a set-up to a grand climax. It is a prelude to war. It is a tale of honor, sacrifice, courage, failure, heroism and redemption. For all of the loss experienced by our heroes, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1” is an ode to the bonds of friendship and love just at the point when it seems the world will soon end.
Even though I have read the novel and already know the outcome, July 2011 cannot come soon enough!!
DAY TWO-NOVEMBER 21, 2010
I arrived at the Expo shortly after they opened at 10:00 a.m. and immediately ventured over to the exact area I stood the day before. I was not about to let my level of disappointment bog me down. After speaking with one of the gentlemen supervising the event, he directed me to the waiting area, deep within the "inner sanctum" and I found myself second in line, directly behind a Mother and daughter.
The girl's name was Maggie, and she hailed from Waunakee. Her sweet, bespectacled face could barely contain her own nervousness and excitement, which was also visibly by the bounciness of the wavy ringlets of her hair. She informed me that she was 16 years old and that she had seen and loved all three of the Ringwald/Hughes collaborations and that she had no idea of what to say to Molly. Maggie was truly a charming girl as I recognized the exact same emotions within myself. So I shared them with her and told her the story of how I had first seen "Pretty In Pink" at an advance screening when I was 17. I spoke of how that night was a wave of emotion inside of that Chicago movie theater. how dialogue could barely be heard due to the laughing at Duckie's antics and swooning at every sight of Blaine. How sobbing was heard during the more aching sections and the eruption of joy during the final moments at the prom. Maggie's Mother echoed my sentiments as she had seen the film during her own teen years.
We were soon joined by another visibly excited fan who had missed out on his chance from the day before. Also bespectacled, with closely cropped hair and clutching a copy of Ringwald's book was Tom, another film enthusiast and John Hughes fan who was able to ask Molly Ringwald a question during the Q & A section of her speech from the day before. We all shared conversations about movies, Maggie enthusiastically shared her feelings about her Sophomore year of high school and finally, the time had arrived once again.
Surrounded by a tiny entourage, which included her husband, Molly Ringwald appeared again and took her place at the signing table from the day before. Just before Maggie from Waunakee entered the signing area, I told her to have fun and she generously offered to take a picture of me as I was getting my magazine signed. Before I knew it, Maggie from Waunakee and her Mother had met Molly Ringwald and had exited the area.
Oh God! It was my turn! I took a tentative step and entered the area, approached the table and met her expectant gaze. "HI!!!! WOW!!" I exclaimed once I arrived at the table. "I've got 25 years worth of things to say and I'm still trying to figure out how to start," I said, while waving my hands a little. Molly Ringwald looked at me expectantly, yet said nothing. Her eyes possessed an expression so familiar to me through her movies yet I was unable to truly define their meaning. Perhaps she was just waiting for me to begin. But, of course, I feared that perhaps she was about to call for Security. I had to rebound quickly.
I clumsily handed her the Brava magazine. Maybe even rudely, although inadvertently, as I never even officially asked her to sign it. After such an understandably awkward exchange, I met her gaze again and started to speak. "I just want to give you a big THANK YOU!!!"
Molly's face softened and she smiled graciously. "What's your name?" she asked with Sharpie in hand.
What a moment. It felt as if we were having a regular conversation. It didn't seem like the starlet was coming down from on high to converse with her adoring fans down below. It almost felt as if she let some of the air out of the balloon and asked an honest question for no other reason than to address her own curiosity and to just as honestly listen to whatever I had to answer.
Before I could begin, I felt a soft tap on my shoulder. I looked and saw that the owner of the tap was one of the gentlemen supervising the autograph session and trying to keep the line moving as quickly as possible. "Remember, it's a long line," he said to me with finality but without forcefulness or urgency.
And then, Molly Ringwald did something else unexpected and as I think about this one moment, it was an act that was indeed a very kind one. "Oh, it's my fault," she explained. "I asked him a question."
The gentleman nodded affirmatively and walked away as if to say, "Carry on." And carry on I did as I launched into an answer that I hoped would satisfy her inquiry.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Written by Mark Bomback
Directed by Tony Scott
**1/2 (two and a half stars)
I tend to get quite the kick out of movies that reveal their fullest intentions within the confines of their titles. Entirely within the moniker, you know and understand exactly and completely what the film is about while boldly announcing and promising what it will deliver. The first film that comes to mind is Director Renny Harlin’s “Cliffhanger” (1993), the Sylvester Stallone icy mountain action movie. Just last year, I believe there was even a low budget B-level feature entitled “Fighting” featuring Channing Tatum and Terrence Howard and there is even an upcoming action film with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson emphatically titled, “Faster.” Of course, there is no way that I could possibly forget two terrific entries in this sub-genre, “Speed” (1994) and “Twister” (1996), both directed by Jan de Bont. Through all of those titles alone, audiences knew right up front that they were going to experience a high octane, edge of your seat, white knuckle motion picture and more often than not, those films succeeded. Throwing his Directorial hat into the ring is filmmaker Tony Scott, who arrives with “Unstoppable,” a serviceably taut, muscular thrill ride that certainly makes good upon the promises of its title but somehow, it just doesn’t stick to the ribs, making the entire proceedings fairly lackluster. Frankly dear readers, this film is unstoppably speeding its way straight out of my memory…so, I’d better write this quickly.
The plot of “Unstoppable” is the definition of “bare-boned.” Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), is a train engineer and 28 year veteran of the Pennsylvania railroad industry. On this most fateful of days, Barnes is joined by rookie conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine). As their day progresses, the two men, along with railroad yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) via phone line, become the main participants in stopping a runaway train carrying several cars of hazardous, toxic material which is speeding towards the heart of the highly populated Stanton, Pennsylvania. Will Barnes and Colson halt the train before it vaporizes the city to kingdom come and will both men survive this terrifying adventure?
That is the plot in less than a nutshell and for a movie such as “Unstoppable,” that’s all you really need. Scott produces the goods by keeping his film lean, mean, and briskly paced while exhausting every opportunity to place this train into one potentially cataclysmic situation after another. Scott produces the goods by keeping his film lean, mean, and briskly paced while exhausting every opportunity to place this train into one potentially cataclysmic situation after another. The action sequences of “Unstoppable” has its roots firmly placed in some of history’s earliest cinematic images, like the damsel in distress tied to the tracks as the speeding train approaches, as well as some of the more comedic visual athletics presented by Buster Keaton. Scott also crafts a decent and slightly procedural thriller along the lines of Director Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” (1995). “Unstoppable” is a film that celebrates the potential of societal goodness when people band together towards a common goal, a quality that gives the film’s title an additional layer as the film’s heroes are as resilient as that relentless train.
Other than the petulantly lazy railroad employee Dewey (Ethan Suplee), who causes this entire disastrous mess by not connecting the air hose to the train, thus making the air brakes completely ineffective, the only real villains in “Unstoppable” are the white-collar elite as represented by Oscar Galvin (Kevin Dunn), the railroad VP and some generic members of the blue blooded, heartless, golf-playing constituency. Their sole function is to cruelly stand in the way of Barnes, Colton, and Hooper’s valiant efforts as they bemoan potential financial losses instead of the devastating human cost if the train is unable to be stopped. It is an element that is simultaneously heavy handed, clumsily presented and yet it is a bit clever. Through coincidence or fate, “Unstoppable” arrives now in theaters after the nation has had a front row seat to the environmental disaster of BP oil crisis and the disgustingly classic moment when BP C.E.O. Tony Hayward misguidedly expressed that he just wanted to get his life back. In its own way, “Unstoppable” is the ultimate blue collar action film, a wish fulfillment fantasy where the working class heroes are able to grab the unstoppable forces keeping them subjugated by its tail and wrestle it to the ground through dogged ingenuity and a sheer force of unshakable will.
Armed with his own filmmaking sense of dogged ingenuity and sheer force of will, Tony Scott is truly one of the few filmmakers working today that could possibly have orchestrated a film like this so convincingly. That said, I do have to say that I have not always been the biggest Tony Scott fan. For me, his films do tend to be emotionally empty hearted, and a little dumb. Also, I tend to appreciate and enjoy some of his brother Ridley Scott’s more ambitious features greater (1979’s “Alien,” 1982’s “Blade Runner,” and 1991’s “Thelma & Louise” for instance).
With the exception of particularly strong features like "True Romance” (1993), "Crimson Tide" (1995), "Enemy Of The State" (1998) and the brutal "Man On Fire" (2004), Tony Scott is primarily a craftsman, an exceptional craftsman, who gives all of his films a high polish sheen and undeniable professionalism. Think of his films from the 1980s like "Top Gun” (1986) and “Beverly Hills Cop 2” (1987). His movies practically shimmer from the screen. In recent years, he has carved out a visual style that falls somewhere within the hyperkinetic imagery of some of Oliver Stone’s most hallucinogenic and troubling works (1993’s “JFK” and 1994’s “Natural Born Killers”) and the impersonal, crass bombast of Michael Bay’s films (1995’s “Armageddon”). Scott has fallen into the type of ADD styled of filmmaking I cannot stand or stomach. Films where there can never be enough edits or swooping cameras and the soundtrack cannot be loud enough. Sometimes it works to its advantage like in “Man On Fire” yet most of the time, it is lackluster as seen in his so-so remake of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” (2009) and most horrifically, the unwatchable “Domino” (2005).
For "Unstoppable," Scott has thankfully tempered his worst cinematic habits and ultimately found a certain middle ground between Stone and Bay. Where Stone is an artist and Bay is an unabashed and unapologetic Master of Ceremonies of endless, heartless oblivion, Scott is a storyteller. For better, worse or indifferent, Scott always sticks to the story and additionally, his films are typically constructed beautifully. Unfortunately for all of the razzle dazzle on display in his oeuvre, I never much cared about anything that really occurred in Scott's films and sadly, that same emotion crept up during my viewing of "Unstoppable." it barrels along full speed ahead but I was never invested in it. In fact, it seemed to be one of those movies that feels like nothing more than an extended version of the two minute trailer...and the trailer ultimately made for a better movie.
There never seems to be any well-worn cliché Tony Scott is afraid of and “Unstoppable” certainly has more than its share. There's one howler of a moment when Hooper feverishly utters the line that describes the severity of the situation. “This isn’t a train!” she bellows. “This is a missile, in the shape of the Chrysler building!!!” “Unstoppable” is that kind of movie, it makes no apologies for being so and I guess it shouldn’t. But I would have been more enthusiastic if it delivered even more than what I received and to fully explain, I have to take you back to "Speed."
“Unstoppable” is a film that reminds you just how terrific a film "Speed" actually was. Yes, it lived up to its title profusely through it endless action set pieces that utilized every possible scenario they could place that bus into. Plus, Jan de Bont gave us the intense opening bomb scare sequence as well as the climax on a subway train to boot. But, it was the the personalities of Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Daniels and the late Dennis Hopper that anchored the entire proceedings and gave it a certain authenticity, making for a film that was ferociously paced, happily exhausting to sit through and undeniably memorable. You not only experienced the film as an amusement par ride, you cared about what happened to these people.
With “Unstoppable,” not so much. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, show much comfort and easy rapport with each other and each actor is allowed to play to their strengths. Unfortunately, neither of them are given that much to actually do and it actually didn't even seem be necessary that these two actors had to play these particular roles. Anyone could have played these parts in this way.
Washington, now marking his fifth collaboration with Scott, remains heroically steadfast while possessing one of the greatest smiles in the history of the movies. Pine, the emotional hothead, simmers, stews and broods appropriately, just itching for the moment to blaze into action. That's all fine and dandy but neither of them make that much of a lasting impression as both of their characters are paper thin at best. You don’t much care about either of them or their troubles (Frank Barnes is the latest casualty of company layoffs and while Will Colson is estranged from his wife, who has even issued a restraining order against him). Only Rosario Dawson, Ethan Suplee, Kevin Corrigan (who portrays a railroad inspector) and Lew Temple (who portrays Ned, a railroad welder) seem to be able to break out of their respective role confines and offer slightly deeper personalities than were written or even allowed to show.
Does this hurt the movie as a whole? Well…yes and no. But, then again the movie is called “Unstoppable” and it is not designed to be a character driven chamber piece. Its not a bad film in the least. Just not a terribly significant one. For all of its sound and blistering fury, it signified very little once it ended and I left the theater.
“Unstoppable” certainly had more than enough power and juice but it needed several more containers of boiling blood to make this film a real pulse pounder.
Friday, November 5, 2010
I had especially been looking forward to viewing Director Clint Eastwood’s spiritual drama, “Hereafter,” ever since I had first read that he had picked it as his next project after the superlative “Invictus” (2009). I felt that here is a filmmaker that may really have something to say about the topic of mortality. That this man, in the late stages of his life, certainly would have confronted the issue personally (perhaps that is a reason why he has been so especially prolific over the last several years) and that he had finally found a way to explore it artistically. I am happy to say that Eastwood, once again, did not disappoint and in many ways, this dark, melancholic film with subject matter that often brings on a disturbing pall, even offered a sense of honest comfort within its troubling story and perspective.
“Hereafter” weaves three parallel stories, which ultimately converge, about three individuals who have been equally touched by the hand of death and are now attempting to wrap their heads and souls around their respective experiences. Matt Damon leads an ensemble cast as George Lonegan, a man in his early 40’s who inexplicably has the power to speak with the dead through the physical act of touching the hands of a person close to the deceased. Residing in San Francisco, George is a former professional psychic, who has abruptly exited his lucrative business, much to the chagrin of his older brother Billy (nicely underplayed by Jay Mohr), has now carved out an isolated existence as a construction worker, and lives alone in a tiny apartment.
Complementing George’s internal existential crisis are characters and stories set in France and London. Cecile De France portrays Marie Lelay, a hard-nosed French investigative journalist who miraculously survives a terrifying tsunami in Thailand after drowning, succumbing to death and obtaining a view of the afterlife. Her experience and its after effects become all consuming, as the nature of her life slipping away only to be returned has dulled her journalistic senses to her standard fare of crime and political corruption. Suggested by her superiors to take a leave of absence in order to get herself together, Marie takes the opportunity to utilize her investigative spirit to potentially uncover any similar experiences to her own and moreso, if there is any possibility of a world beyond death itself.
Shifting to London, we are introduced to twin brothers Marcus and Jason (portrayed by Frankie and George McLaren), who are desperately trying to evade Social Services and remain in the care of their alcoholic Mother (Lyndsey Marshal). The boys face their own tragedy and exposure to death as the outgoing Jason is killed after being hit by a car, leaving the more reticent Marcus to navigate the world on his own.
Dear readers, if any of you have mulled over seeing this movie, let me please give you a bit of a disclaimer. “Hereafter” is not, by any means, a visceral supernatural thriller. No matter how much the advertisements may be attempting to sell this movie in order to get you into the theater hopefully for an experience akin to “Paranormal Activity 3,” Clint Eastwood has decidedly not delivered that kind of a motion picture experience and I am so thankful that he didn’t. Eastwood has so much more on his mind than providing shrieks from the great beyond. As with several other films I’ve seen since late summer, including Aaron Schneider's “Get Low,” Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger” and Mark Romanek’s haunting “Never Let Me Go,” “Hereafter” is a meandering meditation on death and what potentially occurs afterwards but also, this film is primarily a profoundly searching film about our primal need for human connection.
Like Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights" (1997) and "Magnolia" (1999), Paul Haggis' "Crash" (2004), or any number of films from the late, great Robert Altman, “Hereafter” contains a complex multi-character study as well as a narrative that depends upon and builds from its three disparate storylines. Yet, it is not nearly as propulsive as any of those films. Eastwood and screenwriter Peter Morgan (who wrote the excellent films, 2006's “The Queen" and 2008's “Frost/Nixon”) have produced intertwined stories that flow into each other as naturally as water running into a stream. Eastwood never, for an instant, forces the narrative or drama making for an elegant and eloquent experience that I felt was mostly designed to engage and provide solace to viewers. It will burrow under your skin but it is not meant to disturb.
To use a musical analogy, most specifically jazz music as Eastwood is long recognized as a major aficionado of the genre, “Hereafter” is almost the cinematic equivalent of classic jazz albums like Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” or sections of John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” and “A Love Supreme.” Visually speaking, Eastwood continues to house his film in a color palette that consists of moody shadows and smoky grays. Also, Eastwood’s brief images of the afterlife are considerably more non-descript than the darkly hallucinogenic dreamscapes of Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” (2009). Yet aside from the visual aesthetics, the comparisons between the film to jazz music, in my mind, mostly form from more internal elements of the musical genre. Musical themes arrive, float around each other, sometimes soothingly, sometimes violently, and then they dissipate, mutate and divide only to be reconnected once again. Eastwood utilizes this technique to an exquisite degree in “Hereafter” as his thematic elements rise, fall, meet, depart and rejoin in the same way.
The film’s primary theme explores the tenuous nature of obtaining and maintaining the connections we all hope to find with each other. The fragility of those connections are palpable, especially during an extended sequence set during an evening cooking class George attends and soon shares with the lovely Melanie (played by Bryce Dallas Howard). The two obviously find an attraction to each other and during a palette testing activity, where each take turns being blindfolded while tasting all manner of culinary delights, the sequence deftly transforms into a dance of seduction. Yet, at the moment, where it seems these two may move closer together, it is immediately tested through the combined issues of George’s past history as a psychic, the power of what he is able to uncover about Melanie, as well as the consequences of Melanie’s own gentle prodding and curiosity. Eastwood asks of us how much do we really want to know about another person? How much are we willing to accept? How long are we willing to live in the illusions we create about the ones we are attracted to? So much is said with so very little and the gracefully tentative performances of Damon and Howard in those scenes speak to the film as a whole.
All of those described aspects lead me to a continuous image Eastwood delivers so effortlessly and subtly that its power did not reveal itself until the film’s final frames: the power of holding hands. The chemical and emotional sensation that occurs when one hand embraces another is greatly understated and Eastwood takes something so seemingly innocuous and insignificant and transforms it into a beautifully poetic image. Yes, we do occasionally see George take the hands of another to read into their lives and communicate with departed loved ones. Beyond existing as a plot point and character trait, it felt to me to be a symbol of our collective humanity. What is that feeling we receive when we grasp the hands of someone whether child to child, adult to child, lover to lover, or friend to friend? What is that comfort we feel and why does it occur? In the world of “Hereafter,” it felt as if the holding of hands is the physical act that makes emotions concrete. It is a figurative and literal tether attaching one person to another and all of us to our individual places in the world. A tether George, Marie and Marcus are painfully seeking to find for themselves and Eastwood delivers all of this to us with the confidence to let scenes breathe, play out and onwards like the finest of Miles Davis's trumpet solos.
I must give special mention to veteran character actor Richard Kind, who appears in a short early sequence where George contacts his deceased wife and the majority of his dialogue consists only of two words: “Yes” and “No.” Kind’s ability to convey a life’s history with so little dialogue speaks to his immense talent but also to Eastwood’s gift of staying out of the way of his story and actors, thus providing the actors the opportunity to perform richly.
It is a universal journey, while completely individual and for so many, painfully solitary. With "Hereafter," I am very thankful that Eastwood decided to share his thoughts and visions with the world. Hopefully, this gift of a movie will strengthen and increase the very connections that sustain us.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Written by Billy Kimball and Davis Guggenheim
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
**** (four stars)
I wonder if children really think about the schools they are attending.
I am the product of a private school education. I was born and raised on the southwest side of Chicago. Between the years of 1977-1987, I attended the University Of Chicago Laboratory Schools, a private school located in the heart of the University Of Chicago campus in beautiful Hyde Park. The interesting element of this factor in my upbringing is that both of my parents (now retired) were employed in the Chicago public school system for over 30 years. My Mother was a high school Science teacher and my Father was, in succession, a high school Assistant Principal, an elementary school Principal, the principal of the Whitney Young Magnet School and finally, a stint as a cog in the massive wheel of the public school system.
As a child and as a teenager, it never really occurred to me that it may have been perceived as odd that I was attending a private school while my parents worked in public schools. In my mind at that time, I was just a kid going to school, trying to be a good student, and mainly becoming an average one. I was, at times, feverishly trying to live up to my parents’ unshakably demanding and very high expectations for my academic excellence and ultimately felt stressed when I didn’t do so. Also, and crucially, I was just enormously glad that I was not attending any school in which my parent’s were employed.
It wasn’t until my early 30s when I finally asked my Mother exactly what were the reasons they enrolled me in private school when they both worked in public schools. And to this question was her answer…
“First of all, since we both had to work so much, we needed you to be in a place that offered after school care. In addition, we needed you to be in a place that was safe.” OK. That sounds reasonable. Nothing ground shaking, by any means. But, here is the remainder of her explanation. “Most importantly, we wanted you to have the exposure, opportunities, and level of education that we knew you would not get if you were in the public schools. We wanted you to have the best and the public schools could not give that to you.” Wow!! So, that was the reason I attended the Lab School from third grade through high school. I never once questioned it or ever pondered why that school and that environment played such a crucial role in my formative years, especially as I did not even live in the neighborhood of the college campus.
That explanation really placed everything about my life into a newfound perspective, which I pondered frequently as I watched Director Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting For ‘Superman’,” the absolutely wrenching new documentary examining the declining state of our nation’s public schools and the ineffective educational system as a whole. Guggenheim, who previously helmed Al Gore’s impassioned environmental plea “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), brings the same heated fervor to this treatise making for a film experience that reaches beyond essential viewing. “Waiting For ‘Superman’” is required viewing for anyone who cares at all about our nation’s children.
As the film opens, Guggenheim presents the audience with a few moments from his debut documentary “The First Year” (1999), which details a year in the lives of a collective of new teachers. As he explains to the audience in a voiceover, within the ten years that have elapsed between that film and the present, he has since become a parent. Yet what seemed to be most surprising to him was the discovery that the ideals he thought he possessed have changed. When it was time for him to go looking for a school for his children, he eventually decided upon enrolling them in a private school as the public schools in his area were painfully lacking in the educational value he desired for his children. Upon the declaration of that statement, I could not help but to wonder if perhaps my parents would share a certain affinity with Guggenheim.
However, as he firmly acknowledges, Guggenheim, like my own parents, had a choice in regards to the education of their respective children. “Waiting For 'Superman'” focuses on those who do not have that particular choice at their disposal. Dear readers, I am, here to inform you that this film is by no means a dirge like affair. It is not a dry, self-important, and somnambulant talking head documentary. Like Michael Moore’s extraordinary “Capitalism: A Love Story” (2009), Guggenheim presents his film with a strong, propulsive and artistic cinematic hand which gives the film an immediately involving atmosphere that elicits tremendous passion and allows the film to unfold with inherent, blistering drama.
“Waiting For ‘Superman’” takes all of the head spinning statistics of a labyrinthine system and makes them all tangible by inter-weaving the personal stories and missions of five children and their families, mostly from economically damaged communities (one child is from a wealthy suburb), and several educational advocates who champion a better educational world into a deeply resonant tapestry. Guggenheim shows us the daily struggles of these families as they all desire nothing less than the best opportunities for their children and are constantly faced with the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their paths. From the relationships of neighborhoods to busing and school zones to the fear of having their children placed into historically ineffective schools with exceedingly high drop-out rates dubbed “failure factories,” the simple right of allowing children access to high quality education feels unachievable.
As Guggenheim extends his reach beyond these children and their families to the governing educational system at large, we are witness to a world where education and the rights of all children to obtain the best education possible is inhibited rather than encouraged. To assist with the proper digestion of information, Guggenheim presents his facts and figures methodically, meticulously yet, always easily explained so to as not alienate but rather to fully engage audiences.
We see how Teacher’s Unions can prove to be a hindrance to the system as a whole, as bad teachers are nearly impossible to fire due to tenure. We see snippets of speeches from various Presidents, extolling the virtues of creating and maintaining a high quality educational system being of service to our nation’s children. Yet, over and again, we are shown how that very system and all of its programs, like “No Child Left Behind,” have all continued to fail as it is ultimately a system built to serve the goals and desires of adults and not the needs and virtues of our young. “Childrens do learn,” states former President George W. Bush in one speech snippet. While this brief moment does garner a laugh fueled by jarring disbelief, it is presented less as a leftist-jab but decidedly more as an exclamation point over a system that continues to fall behind in comparison to other countries.
The film’s most excruciating sequences arrive late in the film as we are presented with a lottery system that will arbitrarily determine whether the film’s featured children will or will not be placed into higher quality charter schools (publicly funded schools that operate and function outside of the public schools' rules and regulations), making their collective fates a heartbreakingly cruel luck of the draw.
And yet, at the point when you want to throw up your hands in depressed resignation, Guggenheim showers us with signs of life and hope through those aforementioned advocates, who are nothing less than inspiring. The film’s shining light and highly involving featured interview subject is Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem, New York. Canada may even be familiar to some of you through a television commercial where he explains his vision of following and ensuring that the children of his neighborhood within a 97-block location will indeed graduate from college. Throughout “Waiting For ‘Superman’,” Canada is a compellingly loquacious, informative and entertaining figure who is tirelessly attempting to prove that even (or especially) within poverty-stricken neighborhoods, the greatest education can emerge. He places validity and relevance to a sector of society politicians and our nation’s leaders have long forgotten and proves himself to be exactly what an “advocate” is defined as: “supporter,” “promoter,” “activist,” and “believer.”
Some of the film’s critics may complain or assert that while Guggenheim creates a powerful film, it may be falsely manipulative by possibly placing too large of a halo over the mantle of charter schools. Also, there is his decision to select and focus upon the featured children, all of whom are attractive, articulate, affable children who outwardly present the desire to learn instead of placing the spotlight over “tougher” cases. I am thinking in particular of a lovely little girl named Daisy, a child so determined to become a veterinarian when she grows up that she has already written letters to college university detailing her dreams. Granted, not every child is like Daisy, no matter where they come from. Truth be told, I am still attempting to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. But, regardless of Daisy's persistently clear-eyed vision for herself, her story, as well as the other children’s stories, speak for every child in this country. Guggenheim is able to passionately state that these children stand for all children. They are the statistics with faces, hearts, hopes, and aspirations and how dare we, as a society, do anything to place a halt to their futures.
With "Waiting For 'Superman'," Guggenheim has designed a film which leads to a sense of moral outrage. It is as if Guggenheim is asking all of us the following question: If we do not, and decided to not fight for our nation’s children, then what does that say abut us as a society, a country and members of a symbiotic global community? “Waiting For ‘Superman’” is a disheartening, overwhelming, and often frustrating film where the odds placed against effectively serving our children seems impossible. This film is a righteous call to arms and a lament of furious outrage hopefully pitched loudly enough for all of the powers that be to hear and hopefully influence the beginnings of real change for our children.
Three years ago, I attended my 20th high school reunion. After graduating from high school in 1987, I rarely set foot in Hyde Park, decidedly moving onwards with my life, without planning to ever look backwards. But, as I returned to my proverbial stomping grounds, I felt my synapses popping and snapping with memories triggered by familiar surroundings that were once so treasured to me. By the time I returned to my school and reunited with a large amount of my classmates, the weekend proved to be a surprisingly emotional one for me as I then realized how my experience was an entirely shared experience. It was what it was because of the people who were there with me.
We toured the school, I saw my shockingly small Lower School classrooms. The Middle School hallways, home to many painful pre-teen dramas and embarrassments was mostly unchanged. Yet, once I returned to my high school hallways and saw the new crop of students in action, everything crystallized in my brain. I watched teenage musicians performing an outdoor concert for the student body. I spoke extensively with a teenaged photographer, as he proudly showed me his latest projects while also detailing his wishes for the future. I saw gargoyle styled artwork, echoing the gothic statues across the campus, lining one of the hallways. I had the opportunity to speak with former teachers and thank them for the times they happened to take special notice of me and offer a helping hand. I even saw the retirement speech of a favorite English teacher. And mostly, I just saw kids having the freedom to just be kids, in a similar way to my own teen years.
Certainly, I did not have my rose-colored glasses placed upon my face as that is not my nature. But, I do have to say, as I walked around that environment and saw what these kids were able to do, to study and to simply be. I wanted to grab and shake each and every one of them and ask of them, “Do you realize just how great you’ve got it?! Do you even know how lucky you are?!” I know exactly how lucky they are because I was that lucky, fortunate and blessed to have had an educational background that, at its best, supported me, comforted me, enhanced me and exposed me to the very things I would have never seen otherwise.
And all of my experiences should be made available to all children of this nation, regardless of their background and the communities in which they live. My good fortune should be within the grasp of all children across our country as EVERY child deserves a superlative education. It is their right and it is consistently being denied. “Waiting For ‘Superman’” brilliantly illuminates a broken system while also waving the flag in honor of children and those who fight for their futures.
I urge you to go out and see this film and think about the education you received when you were younger. Don't our children of today deserve the same or even better?
"Waiting For 'Superman'" is one of 2010's strongest achievements.