July 25, 2011

Is Inside a groundbreaking social media film project or an elaborate product placement enterprise?

Time will tell…



July 25, 2011

Incendies is an epic tragedy, but certainly worth engaging.  Twins receive letters upon their mother’s death that they are supposed to deliver to their father, whom they assumed was dead, and to a brother whom they never new existed.  Raised in Canada, they return to a Middle East they’ve never known to uncover painful and shocking secrets about their mother’s life there. I recommend Incendies for putting epic themes that could have been set in a Shakespearean tragedy into recent history in a way that makes the events seem remarkably relevant.



July 25, 2011

Beginners is advertised as a light-hearted film in which a man played by Ewan McGregor learns following his mother’s death that his father played by Christopher Plummer is gay.  The film has a bold visual style with interstitial segments that have a collage effect, which I kind of liked, but overall this film made me feel isolated and lonely.

Normally, a serious or even tragic film is not a problem for me.  I usually feel more appreciative about things in my own life when I see characters suffering on screen.  I am empathetic but not overwhelmed personally.

Beginners, on the other hand, made me question how well we can really know another person, and how honest we can really be with ourselves.  The performances are good, writer-director Mike Mills has a distinct point of view, but I am as detached from the actual film as I am troubled by how it makes me feel.




July 25, 2011

I’ve read all the Harry Potter books and seen all the movies, and for me the films have always been complementary to the books.  They are part of the whole Harry Potter experience rather than standalone films.

The latest film is breaking a lot of records (despite a big drop off from opening weekend attendance), and that’s really not surprising, especially seeing an uptick in business from Deathly Hallows I to Part II because Part I is basically setup for this film.  Part II is much more action-packed in addition to being the final part of the series.

Snape has always been my favorite character, and Deathly Hallows II showcases him to great advantage and reveals things about his character I suspected from the very beginning while showing a side of Dumbledore that others might not have guessed or wanted to believe.

But, there’s more to the success of the films than the fact that my favorite character gets a lot of screen time.  The adult characters in the films have always been played by great actors, and the young leads have developed as performers as the series unfolded.

Also, another key to the success of the films, and the books for that matter, is that the plotlines have become more complex and the character development more mature as the young leads have grown older.

Even though this is one of my two favorite films in the series, I have always seen the films as fun diversions and reminders of how much I enjoy reading the books.



July 18, 2011

I’m watching the Showtime non-fiction series The Franchise, which follows the Giants during this MLB season.  I hate to call it a documentary, though that’s how it is promoted, because it seems more like a sports network special.

That’s not a bad thing for people who like that sort of show.  Personally, I appreciate the small moments a lot more than the glossy, carefully orchestrated montage elements that seem a lot like the filler produced for game broadcasts


July 13, 2011

Buck is opening this weekend in the Triad, and I’ve seldom seen a movie that should appeal to such a wide variety of people, especially a documentary.

This is a great story simply told, and first time filmmaker, Cindy Meehl, knows how to assemble a crew and how to let the story unfold without forcing it.  Sort of like the subject of her film is with horses; the film is about the man who inspired the book and the movie The Horse Whisperer.

Buck Brannaman spends nine months out of every year on the road giving clinics to help people with their horses, or as he likes to put it, to help horses with their people.  He has a terrific backstory as an abused child who grows up to empathize with horses in amazing ways.

The film is about an hour and a half long, and you do not have to know a thing about horses to find it riveting and moving.  I love this movie.




July 9, 2011

A great deal of my scholarly work over the years has been related to representations of educators in popular culture, most notably the book The Hollywood Curriculum:  Teachers in the Movies and another book co-authored with Laura R. Linder, Teacher TV:  Sixty Years of Teachers on Television.










Now there are two movies on local screens featuring teacher characters, and I think both of them are middle of the road as movies go – Bad Teacher, which stars Cameron Diaz is a pretty standard comedy, and Larry Crowne, with Julia Roberts as the teacher and Tom Hanks as the student slash love interest, is a pretty basic romantic comedy.

Both are pleasant enough summer diversions, but neither one is particularly memorable unless you approach them with my academic interest.

In the process of looking at scores and scores of teacher movies and identifying the characteristics of good teachers and bad teachers as well as implications of race, gender, and social class, I can honestly say that Bad Teacher is highly unusual.

In most teacher movies, the main character is written in such a way that he or she follows a particular Hollywood model I have identified of the good teacher.  Basically, the good teacher is an outsider, he or she becomes personally involved with students, learns from the students, and has a tense or even antagonistic relationship with administrators.

Bad teachers are usually focused only on maintaining discipline or achieving certain outcomes such as high test scores.

The interesting thing about Bad Teacher is that while there are some revisionist films in which good teachers cross the line – like in Election and in Half Nelson – this film does something entirely different.  It takes a conventional good teacher, a colleague of Diaz’s, and puts her in a situation that compromises her principles so profoundly that a bad teacher, played by Diaz, now seems not quite so bad in comparison.

This has the net effect of diminishing the professionalism of all educators, including the administrators who cannot figure out what’s really happening.

Larry Crowne is more of a romantic comedy than a teacher movie, though it does play on the common storyline of a disheartened or burned out teacher character finding renewed vigor by connecting with a student.  Of course, the situation is not usually one in which the teacher finds a romantic connection at the same time with the student in question.  After all, there are rules against that sort of thing, and making this love story a major part of the narrative also raises questions about the professionalism of teachers in a more subtle way.

Generally, when impropriety on the part of a teacher is a substantive part of the storyline – like in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for example – then that’s one thing, but when it’s glossed over or explained away by a bad husband at home or presented along with other elements like the teacher’s hope that a particular class won’t make because of the time it’s offered, then it feels just a little awkward to me because it is offered merely in service of the (conventional and, thus, predictable) plot.

Depth and complexity and questioning propriety are fine when part of a thoughtful investigation of characters and institutions.  But, less carefully considered instances are potentially problematic because there is a cumulative cultural effect of casual representations in movies and television, and those patterns do affect our perceptions of life outside of the movies.