Thursday Nov 03, 2011
Thursday Nov 03, 2011
Thursday Nov 03, 2011
When Dreams Take Flight
This is a solid, rousing documentary about the first successful Ornithopter (a flapping wing aircraft) flight. This film covers the basic history of ornithopter flight as well as following the young scientist who is dedicated to solving the problem of human powered, non fixed wing flight.
It is very inspiring, but felt a bit too short. I would have liked to see the director go into more depth with the scientist and the design, the why, maybe some more background. But for a short, less than an hour, documentary, it is fantastic.
The Woman in the Fifth
This was rambling, pretentious, and dull.
Ethan Hawke stars as a writer who goes to Paris to be near his daughter. His ex doesn’t want him around, she even has a restraining order. After being sent away he falls asleep on the bus and has all of his possessions stolen. He ends up staying in a room above a café.
There are some weird, supernatural-esque touches after that but it just felt… I don’t know. Flat. Dull. I didn’t really care. There might have been an interesting thematic message, but the delivery was uninspiring.
Wednesday Nov 02, 2011
Wednesday Nov 02, 2011
Wednesday Nov 02, 2011
AFF Review- The Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters
I still remember the first time I ever played Tetris. It was at Diversions arcade in Leon Valley (the northwest edge of San Antonio). We had just moved back from Panama and I was remarkably overwhelmed by everything in the US. Since coming back though my exposure to video games had been restricted to “Super Mario Brothers” at the local Stop N’ Go or some odd, generic, kung fu fight game with two joysticks (imagine a really tame 16 bit version of Mortal Kombat) at the 7/11. To say the least I was uninitiated in arcade gaming.
Not to say I was totally out of the loop. No, we got games in Panama, it’s just that they tended to be a bit… well, out of date seems an appropriate word. Yeah, we had games like Sinistar and Super Punch Out (pre Mike Tyson), but mostly it was odd, secondary games that US arcades wanted as far away as possible. I still remember playing the Krull game at the café on Howard Air Force Base. It bared little resemblance to the film.
So, we came back to the US and I got to spend the day with my old friend Justin at Diversions. So, we are having a time and I discovered this odd, Russian looking machine and decide to have a go. I’m not going to lie, I was having a great time. Then Justin walks over to me and says, “Man, I can’t believe you’re playing Tetris,” and I stopped.
That’s right, I was shamed out of playing Tetris.
A few years later I was reintroduced to it in my sisters journalism classroom, where I would play a few games while waiting for her after school. I still loved it.
That’s the funny thing about Tetris, it is impossible to have a negative attitude towards it. Yeah, I can see it not being your favorite, but come on! It’s Tetris, you can’t really hate it.
Is there a more universally known and played game than Tetris? You can throw out all the names you want, but deep down you know there isn’t one.
Donkey Kong? Ask the next five people you talk to about it and there is a chance that at least one of them hasn’t played it.
Pac-Man? Closer, but still, there are some folk who are uninitiated, or at least haven’t played it in over a decade.
Solitaire? Maybe, but now you’re just being deliberately unreasonable.
Other than older members of your family, can you think of anyone you know who hasn’t played at least one game of Tetris? Hell, at this moment, somewhere in your office, someone is playing Tetris instead of working.
Thought about from this perspective, one could almost ask, “Why the hell has it taken so long to get a documentary about Tetris?”
The answer? Because nobody could make one as good as “Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters,” until now.
There have been a handful of video game documentaries, but they have all been standing in the shadow of one. Which is really a shame because “Chasing Ghosts” is phenomenal, and “8 Bit” is a really interesting look at the phenomena. But let’s be honest, in this genre there is “King of Kong,” and then there is everything else.
That was the attitude I took into “The Ecstasy of Order.” All I wanted was something that reached the level of “King of Kong.” Thankfully it did, and in many ways that level was surpassed.
Fans of the show know that both Campbell and myself have a few issues with “Kong.” For those unaware, the main issue is the treatment of Billy Mitchell as a default villain and the assumed acceptance of Steve Wiebe as an underdog hero. Honestly, Mitchell’s only crime is success and Wiebe’s only claim towards heroism is his status as an underdog. Granted Mitchell did engage in some prickish gamesmanship, but he was also very unfairly painted. He is shown as completely avoiding Wiebe when in fact the two did have dinner together. The filmmakers chose to show their relationship as being hostile and antagonistic when it really was not.
This is perhaps my favorite part of “Order.” There isn’t even an attempt to paint one of the competitors as somehow morally superior to the others. Thor Aackerlund, a near mythic figure in the world of Tetris, is treated with the same objective eye as all the other players.
All the competitors are shown as friendly rivals who are united in their love of the game. Thor is willing to give advice as well as demonstrate his playing style for the others, players sit together and talk about their difficulties with the game, their strategies, their tough losses, and in general come across as a group of friends hanging out rather than a group of competitors fighting for supremacy.
Even though the focus of the film is the tournament of champions there is also a good amount of time dedicated to the history and development of the game. From it’s creation by Russian computer programmer Alexey Pajitnov, who got screwed out of a royal payday for making the mistake of creating a global phenomena while living in the USSR, to it’s current state as a global obsession we see how this game is now a part of the world’s pop culture vernacular.
And to be clear, this game is still a global phenomenon. Japan still has arcade games that bestow the title of “Tetris Master” on individuals who can survive for one minute on a board where pieces become invisible once placed. This game is huge.
It is just this universality that makes this movie so affective. When the tournament comes around you know the frustration the players are dealing with. Who hasn’t gotten a board going, created a massive center well and was waiting for some straight column pieces to fall so you could rack up some points, only to screw up and place one of the Z pieces over it and kill your game? We have all been there.
So, knowing this, it shouldn’t be surprising that the audience was literally hanging on the edge of their seats over the final tournament. It shouldn’t be, but somehow it is.
How many movies have you been to where the audience audibly groans and cheers as one at the same moment? It was like the first time I watched “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” and had to pause when I found myself hanging on every move made in a chess game between children.
The thing is, this movie prove why this shouldn’t be a big deal. What difference does it make what the activity is? If the movie is made right and you feel empathy and connection to the people on screen, why shouldn’t your emotional involvement with the outcome be that intense? Emotional connection is emotional connection. Hell, Alfred Hitchcock was able to make you crawl out of your skin over a man lighting a Zippo, why shouldn’t a game of Tetris have the same impact?
I am very critical of much documentary work these days because they abandon all pretexts towards objectivity. There is a good guy and a bad guy, even if there isn’t a good guy or a bad guy, or the documentarian has to prove their thesis even if they lack the evidence, or the point of the film is so obscured that the filmmaker can clam whatever victory they want.
This new school of documentary was very much in danger of ruining the entire genre for me. I guess that’s why I am so fond of this film. Oh, to be sure it is an outstanding film, but for me it’s more than that. It is a documentary that simply documents what happened. It doesn’t preach, it doesn’t politicize, it doesn’t attempt to propagate any particular agenda or viewpoint. It simply shows you a world and lets you see what happens in that world, leaving all interpretations and opinions entirely to you.
For the first time in a while we have a documentary that isn’t full of a bunch of manipulated footage (Michael Moore’s attendance at a GM stockholders meeting in “Roger and Me,” the ignition of the tap water in “GasLand”), unsubstantiated claims (Morgan Spurlock’s refusal to release his food diary from “Super Size Me,” the interesting take on what constitutes science in “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”), or invention of drama/villains/heroes (“King of Kong”). It’s kind of a refreshing change of pace to see a documentary that is content with simply documenting something.
Monday Oct 31, 2011
Monday Oct 31, 2011
Monday Oct 31, 2011
Fred and Vinnie
Long distance relationships are the greatest terrible idea ever. For romantic relationships it creates false extension of the “honeymoon phase” because they consist of longing to see the other person, the excitement of an upcoming visit, the rush of finally seeing them, a brief moment of comfort, then the dread of the visit ending. It’s completely manufactured, but it’s nice.
With friendships it’s a similar situation. You don’t talk to or see each other that often so when you do it tends to be a little more special. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, there are some friendships that work better this way.
“Fred and Vinnie” is about one of those friendships.
This is an autobiographical film written by comedian Fred Stoller, who basically plays himself. Fred is a successful enough actor/comedian who is working on a book (a diner’s guide to restaurants you don’t feel self conscious eat alone in) who is a little bit lonely. He’s not great with women, he isn’t as successful as he would like, and he isn’t a terribly social man. But among the high points of his life are the occasional phone calls with his friend Vinnie. Vinnie is a high spirited agoraphobic who hangs on Fred’s every word, revels in the stories of his every day life, and basically lives vicariously with enthusiasm through Fred’s life.
Through these phone calls you get to see Vinnie as a happy and enthusiastic friend who is content sleeping on the couch in his “cave.”
Which would be great… if he had stayed in Philly and kept their friendship a series of phone calls. But when he decides to head out to LA to try and “make it as an actor,” Fred does what any true friend would. He invites Vinnie to stay with him until he can get on his feet. The problem is, Vinnie is completely helpless and has a charm that compels you to take care of him. He is a good guy, but just a bit of a mess.
Vinnie is a collection of maddening habits. He takes dominates the bathroom every morning until his hair “looks just right,” sits on the couch all day looking at his baseball cards, he snores like a wood chipper, and has no real motivation to do much of anything else.
Fred does his best to be a good friend, but finds himself in a tough situation. What do you do when you are saddled with the sweetest, most helpless person in the world? Not only is he sweet and helpless, but is also is content with very little. All he wants is his dollar store snacks, his cigarettes, and his baseball cards.
It’s much like living with a large baby. He doesn’t work, or really have much ambition to do so, he doesn’t like going out, he wakes you up all night, and he does it all with a pure innocence. Much as you would like to, you can’t hold it against him.
Even when he tries to move out he does so in a way that makes Fred beg him to come back. It’s like when you’re in that horrible relationship that you want out of and during an argument the other person asks if you want to break up, and you do, more than anything in the world you do, but you find yourself talking them out of doing the one thing you want more than anything else in the world. Yeah, I want to end this, but not like that.
Basically “Fred and Vinnie” is about friendship and all the madness that it can bring. Vinnie is a good friend, but a bad roommate. He hangs on Fred’s every word and is utterly amazed by his moderate successes. As a voice on the phone he is the most amazing friend you could want, but sadly, he becomes something more than that voice.
“Fred and Vinnie” is a very sweet and heartfelt testament to friendship and how important the people who can occasionally drive us insane really are.
“America the Beautiful”
So, while I was in line to see “Fred and Vinnie” one of the festival volunteers asked me if I was “Nathaniel’s friend.” While I do have friends named Nathaniel it turns out that I did not know the one she was asking about.
Why did I tell you this? Well, because as she did I saw a familiar face walk past. A guy named Nathan Harlan, who I went to middle and high school with. I pointed and said, “Do you mean that Nathan? Because, yeah, I know that one.”
He was not the one she was referring to, but he recognized me and we both shared a moment slight, humorous shock at the odd coincidence. Nathan, it turns out, was there to show his short film “America the Beautiful” before the feature.
Now, I am not one to bias my reviews based on my knowing a filmmaker. This has caused some issues in the past on this site. There is nothing worse than giving a filmmaker your card and telling them to check out the review on your site… before you see their movie. I’ve done this and ended up panning the movie. It doesn’t exactly feel great. As I see it, I haven’t seen Nathan in almost 20 years, so it’s ok for me to be honest.
Well, actually it’s easy to be honest because this was a God damned riot.
Basically, Captain America is having a bad day. Come on, he’s only human. He’s dealing with a tough break up, badly. His apartment is a mess, he’s drinking too much, and he’s wearing dirty underwear and a filthy bathrobe.
We hear about his downfall as he listens to his voicemail, falling deeper into depression as the messages play. This is a strange, but very entertaining short and highly original short. Honestly, there are so many shitty short films out there that it is really refreshing to come across one that is actually really good, so hunt this thing down and check it out.
Saturday Oct 29, 2011
Saturday Oct 29, 2011
Saturday Oct 29, 2011
"Those who can, do.
Those who can't, teach."
- Someone who never stood in front of a classroom
"If we paid teachers what they're worth then the quality of education in this country would improve greatly."
- Someone else who has never stood in front of a classroom.
"This ain't a job. This ain't an occupation. It's calling, a need."
- Tommy Gavin
Oh, great. Another teaching documentary.
I am really torn on these things. Yes, they are important and I am grateful that someone out there is trying to communicate the realities of my profession, but I just.... Well, as a teacher, I know what it's like. I am six years on the job and during that time I have dealt with EVERYTHING a teacher can deal with. I am not exaggerating.
To give you an idea, last year alone my campus had
an accidental student death
a student suicide
a recent graduate die accidentally
a recent graduate commit public suicide
the death of a custodian on campus
the death of a former administrator
the death of one former student in an armed robbery
the arrest of another former student in the same armed robbery
Add to that the number of pregnant teenagers, dropouts, drug users, gang members, kids abused by their parents, kids abused by the person they are dating, and kids who get bullied and sometime it feels like I am fighting to hold Helms Deep.
I come across all kinds, some critical, some laudatory. As a 6'8" 290 pound teacher, I find that the critical ones tend to shut up around me. I guess their desire to feel superior takes a back seat to their desire to not have the ever loving dog crap kicked out of them. The problem I do find though is that even the people who support me have it wrong. What do I mean?
There are two statements that explain this.
"If we just paid teachers what they are worth then kids might actually learn something."
"If we paid teachers more then we would attract the best and brightest to the profession."
How could I possibly have a problem with either of these, you ask?
Let me translate,
"If we paid teachers what they are worth they might actually do their jobs."
"If we paid teachers more then we would get better people and finally be able to replace all the lazy incompetents we have now."
This may not be the intent behind either, but that is definitely the subtext.
How about this...
"Why don't we pay teachers more because we value education and think it's appropriate to pay the people who educate our children as if we value the education they are providing?"
That is what people mean, but it's not what they are saying.
Let me say this. Nobody who goes into teaching, or who stays with it, has any allusions about how much we will be paid. Yes, this keeps people away from the profession, but it isn't one that is, or should, be done for money. But I will get to that later.
I have gone on at great length about WHAT I THINK IS WRONG AND HOW TO FIX IT. But there is a larger problem.
The rules surrounding education are written by people who have never stood in front of a classroom. Our pay, our curriculum, our ability to discipline, all of it is decided by people who know nothing about what we do.
Can you think of any other profession where that statement could be made? Would you want a house designed by an architect and an engineer, or by someone who knows all about houses because they've lived in them and use to build them with Legos?
Would you want a surgeon who went to med school, or someone who watched a lot of ER and played the game Operation a lot as a kid?
Would we let our Army be run by someone who was really good at the game Risk?
No, that would be stupid. And yet...
We allow our educational policy to be written entirely by lawyers and career politicians.
I could go on about this, but I think it's time to get to the review.
This movie is a celebration of teachers and the sacrifices we make. It shows the struggle of the long hours, the low pay, the inadequate support, and the over filled classrooms. You get to see the daily lives of teachers and meet successful educators who have left the field because they could make much more money for much less work (in some cases by just leaving the classroom for administration).
I like that the film eschews politics. There is no mention of unions, unlike some other PRICK FILMMAKERS I could mention, and not a ton of focus on students (unless it is in regards to their attitudes towards their teachers). It is simply about the difficulties of living on what our society says our services are worth.
What gets me is that it didn't go far enough. We didn't get to hear about the amount of time stolen from teachers for pointless testing or the uselessness of No Child Left Behind (Which was a bipartisan cluster fuck, so don't get all high and mighty if you happen to vote for people with D after their names. Yeah, Bush signed it, but Ted Kennedy wrote it, so everyone is an asshole on this one.)
For example, as an English teacher I was required to give...
Beginning of the year benchmark
Middle of the year benchmark
End of they year benchmark
District authored six weeks test (6 total)
The actually state test
That is 10 completely different testing days.
Now realize that kids have to take the same for all four core subjects.
That gives you 40 days of testing per year per student.
Think of that in terms of money. The tests have to be written, duplicated, administered, graded, scanned, indexed, and processed into both individual and campus wide results. Each step of that process costs money. And there is very little about any of this which is useful because tests don't tell you anything more than how good someone is at taking tests.
But back to the film.
It's a loving look at my profession, and were I not a teacher I would have found it incredibly moving and inspirational. But I am a teacher so I spent the entire time thinking, "Well, yeah. And..." It was stuff I already knew and assumed that everyone else knew.
What I wanted to see was the real hardships. Not just the low pay for hard work, but the heartbreaking, soul shattering side of it. Yeah, you work your ass off and get paid very little, but what about when the 14 year old girl tells you she's pregnant? How does that affect you? Or when one of your best students has to drop out so they can get more hours at the fast food place they work so they can support that child? What does that do to you? Or the kids who flat refuse to try because they are trying to impress the other members of their gang? What about the suicides, accidental deaths, abuse, and drug use we see?
How do you explain that to someone that has never been there?
This is a very good movie. It's moving and it makes the point well. But it does have a thesis that annoys me. Pay us what we are worth and we'll do our jobs, or pay us what we are worth and we might get some worthwhile people to do the job.
How about a simpler question, how seriously can you take a country's commitment to education when they pay their educators less than an assistant manager at a Chili's. Not that I am slamming Chili's management staff, but I think that what I do should be valued as much as what they do.
"American Teacher" is not just a documentary, it is a cry for attention and a call to action. It asks you as a viewer to look at your priorities and see where you stand, if you stand at all. It asks you to look at what decisions are being made in regards to YOUR children and to do something about it.
This is a fantastic movie, but as an insider it was something I knew too much about to really enjoy.
I said something earlier about it not being about the money. This is clichéd, but here it is. We do it because it is important. Because, while the pay might be low, it is a job where you get to objectively do good. There are not many of those out there.
Instead of trying to figure out the best way to end this, I'll just paraphrase the rest of the Tommy Gavin quote I started this with.
But there ain't no medals on my chest, assholes, 'cause I ain't no hero. I'm a teacher. We're not in the business of making heroes here.
Friday Oct 28, 2011
Friday Oct 28, 2011
Friday Oct 28, 2011
“O, a kiss.
Long as my exile,
Sweet as my revenge!”
- Caius Martius “Coriolanus”
“Nature teaches beasts to know their friends.”
Shakespeare adaptations are a difficult proposition. There have been more than 420 feature length film and TV versions of his plays and they are nothing if not a mixed bag. The quality and treatment vary greatly. Some keep the language, others just the plot, some go contemporary, others keep with the classical settings, while others imagine different worlds for the work.
Thing is, even though he wrote 38 plays people really only know about 12.
The Merchant of Venice (Most people don’t even realize that this is considered a comedy)
Romeo and Juliet
A Midsummer Nights Dream
Taming of the Shrew
I know there are more that get adapted, but by and large these are the ones that most people would recognize. Hell, mention “The Two Noble Kinsmen” to most people with English Degrees and you will get a blank look in response.
That’s part of what makes Ralph Finnes’ directorial debut, “Coriolanus” such an interesting experience. Think about it, when was the last time you saw a Shakespeare adaptation without knowing what was going to happen? For someone with such an amazing collection of work, William has certainly become predictable in our world, hasn’t he?
For those unfamiliar, which will be about 99.993% of you reading this, “Coriolanus” is the story of a conquering general who, through political manipulation, is banished from Rome. He immediately goes to the general he recently defeated and agrees to lead those troops in an out right attack on Rome.
I love this story. There is so much potential for amazing action and drama in this story, and the handling of it. This is one of the grittiest movies I’ve seen in ages. It felt like watching an episode of “The Shield,” which I have compared to gritting your teeth for an hour. There is a solid intensity to it that services the nature of our protagonist.
The performances are fantastic. Finnes completely embodies a man raised for war, to whom normal society is nonsensical and lacking in order. You believe his rage and his commitment, which makes his downfall tragic and unavoidable. Gerard Butler is amazing as his blood enemy/comrade. This was a personal project for Butler (this play being one of the first of his acting career) and his love for I is evident. Brian Cox is… well, he’s Brian Cox, so he kind of kicks everyone’s ass.
Oh, and it has James Nesbitt. I fucking LOVE James Nesbitt. He is almost instantly the best part of anything he appears in. This guy, if you’re not familiar, get on the stick. Check out “Jeckyll” or “Murphy’s Law” or “Five minutes of Heaven” or “Bloody Sunday” and then be prepared to apologize for being such an asshole that you didn’t know him before.
Also, Vanessa Redgrave is stunning, and Jessica Chastain continues to shine in what I am calling “The Year of Jessica Chastain.” Honestly, she’s in everything, and she is great in everything she is in.
Finnes also makes some incredibly bold choices in directing. This is a modern retelling, filmed in Serbia. The place looks both ravaged by war, and stately. The differences between the nobility and the peasantry are stark and undeniable, and as that difference is so important to the story it adds layers to the drama.
The use of technology is fantastic as well. Instead of heavy dialogue scenes to deliver exposition Finnes makes use of television news, using headlines and images to move the story along.
It also features some of the most brutal and believable battle scenes ever captured on film. You feel the conclusiveness of the explosions, the confusion of battle, and the fatigue. Everything about it feels real.
Butler and Finnes play brilliantly as enemies become allies, a very difficult dynamic to portray.
However, the problem I have is that, as it is a play adapted to a movie, so much of the advancement of the story is reliant on long dialogue scenes. That is, essentially, the problem with most Shakespearean adaptations. His plays were not visual stories they were linguistic stories. When you begin with such ferocious and intense battle scenes it feel a bit of an anticlimax to have everything boil down to a conversation. This is not to say that it is bad to use dialogue, but when you base your film on action it is difficult to shift your focus to dialogue. I kept expecting a climactic battle, and when it didn’t come I felt as if something was missing.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a fantastic adaptation, and one that I think will stand up well over time. The ending was fantastic and fitting, but it was just something different than what I was anticipating.
I won’t lie, this movie is not for everyone. If you don’t enjoy Shakespeare you will probably piss and moan about how hard it is to understand the language, or how long it is, or some other diaper baby nonsense. Yeah, it’s a two hour long movie in Shakespearian English. But it’s also a pretty damned good one.
“Coriolanus” is a story of loyalty, patriotism, betrayal, vengeance, and family. It is gritty, dirty, and intense. You feel the horror of battle, the sting of Coriolanus’ betrayal, and the joy of his revenge. That is the most remarkable thing about this film. You find yourself pulling for the man invading his home. You want to see him tear Rome apart. In essence this film is about how easily people can be lead. How much we want and need to have someone to follow and how far we are willing to follow those leaders. It is a visceral story that comes very close to being perfect. Sadly, people have convinced themselves so fully of Shakespeare’s impenetrability that it will not get the audience it should.