Thursday, March 24, 2011

Film Friday: Reader's Edition

I'm pretty stoked about introducing this post to you.  The first reason is that I didn't have to write it for once.  The second reason is that I knew I'd be in good hands with one of my most devoted readers, and someone who spends 80% of conversations with me discussing film, writing for us (oh yeah, she's my sister, too).  

I took a little break from this column for a few weeks but I'm glad to make the comeback with some great thoughts from Emily on these films.  Remember the format: 1. Good New Film, 2. Good Older Film, 3. Bad Film.  If any of my other readers get the hankering to write about some favorites or anti-favorites, let me know and I'd be glad to let you contribute as well...provided that you're not a better writer than I am.

Be sure to check out some more of Emily's thoughts on life at her blog.

Waiting for Superman (2010)

Whether or not you agree with Davis Guggenheim, no one can argue that he lacks passion when he makes a film.  The filmmaker who brought us An Inconvenient Truth has taken a look at the American public education system to try an find out why it has become so woefully inadequate.  

The film is like a triangle with three sides: The first being the students that you follow.  You watch these kids and their families talk about the hopes they have for their future and the film does an excellent job of making you feel like you are also personally invested with these kids.  The second is the interviews with people on all sides of the education system: certain “change agents” such as Michelle Rhee (the now former chancellor of DC public schools), Geoffrey Canada (who runs Harlem Children’s Zone), and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates.  

The third is the startling statistics that Guggenheim provides.  Among these statistics are the declining reading and math scores, the comparatively low American education standards, union contracts and the undoubtedly the flawed tenure system.  One of my personal favorite (is that even the right word I want to use here?) moments comes when the filmmakers mock lousy teachers getting moved from school to school in a piece known as the Dance of the Lemons or the Turkey Trot.  

Full disclosure here: I’m an educator and so is my husband.  I was a member of one of the unions discussed in the film and my husband still is.  But there wasn’t much in the film that I disagreed with.  I appreciated Geoffrey Canada talking openly about the rough and horrible home lives many of his students come from and how good systems can overcome that.  Knowing that there are schools out there working in these kind of environments gives hope. 

No matter what your views are, this film is worth seeing if you’ve ever been in a public school, or will ever at some point have a child in public schools.  The film is best summed up by a quote from Michelle Rhee when she says, “We sacrifice what’s best for our children in the name of harmony for adults.”  A poignant and timely observation, no doubt.


12 Angry Men (1957)

So there’s this movie that takes place almost entirely in one room.  You know none of the characters’ names.  There is no action, only dialogue.  The only actors in it are white men. There’s no leading man and, in fact, it’s a movie that relies mostly on character acting. It’s not a crime drama, because the crime has already happened.  It’s not a courtroom drama because the trial is the verdict.  

I know.  It doesn’t sound like a promising premise but that’s exactly where 12 Angry Men takes you.  The film is based on a stage play by Reginald Rose who, as the story goes, wrote it after he served on a jury.  At the beginning, the jury is set to deliberate on a case where a teenager has been accused of stabbing his father.  A case that, if found guilty, would come with a mandatory death penalty.  The 12 men are all pretty satisfied to hand down a guilty verdict quickly, so they can get home and go about their business. But Henry Fonda (Juror #8) feels like if they are handing down the death penalty to a teenager, they at least owe it to him to discuss the case.  And that’s when the titular anger begins. In addition to the pressure of deciding a young man’s life, it’s hot in New York that day; very hot.  And as you’re watching the movie, you get hot too.

They go through all the evidence, the eye witnesses and the murder weapons and as this happens, each man comes to face his own prejudices and demons.  The movie almost feels like it was shot in real time, even though it’s not.  Director Sidney Lumet doesn’t have much to work with as far scenery.  But he makes the most of it: as the camera angles make the room appear smaller and smaller, the men sweat more and more making the viewer feel almost claustrophobic.  By the end, the viewer is as angry as the jury because you feel like you are there with them.  

This film forces us to take a look at our own narrow-mindedness without being preachy.  It’s political and patriotic, but in no way polarizing.  It’s realistic and simple.  12 Angry Men proves that movies don’t have to be over the top to be amazing.  It’s a pure classic that everyone should see.

Out of Africa (1985)

I’ve had Out of Africa on my Netflix queue for awhile and I was really excited about watching it.  In theory, it’s full of things I should love in a movie: Amazing scenery? Check. Meryl Streep? Check. Robert Redford? Check. Directed by Sydney Pollack? Check. Sweeping musical score? Check.  It’s my favorite movie genre (that being: People Who Have Romantic Problems During Wars A Long Time Ago).  

So the film has a lot going for it.  And the scenery and cinematography is truly wonderful.  It tells a somewhat autobiographical story of a Danish Baroness named Karen Blixen (Streep) who marries a crude, womanizer named Bror who brings her to Nairobi and then leaves her while he goes off on various hunting and war ventures.  She meets an independent and confident hunter named Denys (Redford) and forges a friendship with him that leads to a love affair after she kicks Bror out. Denys makes no secret of the fact that, while he loves Karen deeply, he has no intention of marrying or being tied down and ultimately, their love is destined to fail.

This is a long, drawn out movie.  I don’t mind a long movie but it’s the drawn out that made me dislike this movie so much.  About 30 percent of the movie could be done without.  Combine that with Streep and Redford’s completely aloof and somewhat dull performances, Streep’s heavy and sometimes inaudible accent and Redford’s total lack of one (the character is British) and you get a movie that tries really hard but just falls short of being interesting.  I know there are a lot of people that really love this movie but I found it was lacking many redeeming qualities and, quite frankly, boring.  I really struggled to stay interested enough to even finish it.  The genre will still catch my eye every time but this is one that might be better if you don’t waste your time.  All three hours of it.

5/10 (And all five points are awarded Africa, which is the most beautiful thing in the movie.)

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