Saturday, April 30, 2011

Waiting for Superman.

Waiting for “Superman” (Davis Guggenheim, 2010)

Category: Sad prequel to the 2006 film Superman Returns. Weird that they’d make a superhero movie that doesn’t actually feature the superhero. I imagine this film will be about Lois Lane writing her Pulitzer Prize-winning article, “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman,” presumably the first editorial to ever win that award. (I have a lot of problems with that movie.)

Nobutsrsly, here’s a sad documentary about the state of public education in the United States. This is one of those tricky political issues where everyone agrees that something should be done (i.e., that our kids should be better educated) but no one can agree on how to do it, or even what the cause of the problem is. But I think that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has recently come up with an excellent solution to not only the education issue, but also the rest of our current woes: demonize teachers and take away their collective bargaining rights. I can’t believe it’s taken us this long to figure that out, since we can all agree that public school teachers are overpaid, lazy vultures with infant-like dependence on the public teat, and thus have no right to prevent themselves from being totally screwjobbed. It just makes all kinds of sense. Keep fighting the good fight, Scott “Totally Not An Asshole” Walker.

But of course this all happened after this movie was made, and is in a way separate from the issues that this movie raises. Not only has the education system been messed up since before any of us can remember, but that this continued fact directly affects our society as a whole in stark, meaningful ways. And we as a nation do not have enough fingers of blame to point at all the parties who are at least in some way culpable. It's a problem that is common to all of us, even those of us who don't have kids, or who do have kids but are super-rich and send them to private school, because going to private school does not make you immune from getting knifed on the street by a kid who went to public school. Although I think Halliburton is working on that.

Films about education usually follow a standard formula: they’re initially sad, because the kids are not learning, but ultimately inspirational and uplifting, because the kids start learning: Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, etc. There are some sadder films on the subject that deviate from this formula: for example, Half Nelson, about a crack-addicted junior high school teacher, and Mr. Holland’s Opus, about a music teacher who very nearly has an affair with one of his students and refuses to learn sign language so he can communicate with his deaf son. Gritty stuff.

My familiarity with this issue: From a personal standpoint: both PsOTB were public school teachers (we never went shopping at Loehmann’s), and I attended public elementary and secondary schools. All in all, it was a very positive experience for me. I didn’t have to wear a uniform (although I was prohibited from baring my midriff, even during the sweltering Mays and Junes), my knuckles remained un-rapped by ruler-wielding nuns, and thanks to the whole co-educational thing, I gained valuable experience with the ladies that informs my relationships to this day. (“Do you like me? Check yes, no, or maybe” notes are still surprisingly effective.) Of course, I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in an area where the public schools were good and safe. (Notwithstanding the time a future felon punched me in the face in third grade. He may have won the battle, but I won the war.) 

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim reminds us that education ‘statistics’ have names: Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily, whose stories make up the engrossing foundation of Waiting for ‘Superman. As he follows a handful of promising kids through a system that inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth, Guggenheim undertakes an exhaustive review of public education, surveying ‘drop-out factories’ and ‘academic sinkholes,’ methodically dissecting the system and its seemingly intractable problems.”

What I thought of the movie
: Ugh. I just don’t even know. This is the first time since Dear Zachary that I’ve been unsure of whether or not I can actually write about the movie, because it’s just TOO SAD. On both a macro- and micro-level, the movie presents a compelling case that some, if not all, of the current major problems with our educational system are, in practice, intractable (while at the same time celebrating the people who are out there trying to tract them). It's a bit bleak.

As with most documentaries these days, Waiting for “Superman” earned its share of controversy when it was released, because a lot of people disagreed with its “agenda.” I think a lot of the time these controversies miss the point, in a real forest for the trees kind of way, and it’s especially true of this movie. Education is an incredibly complex issue, but everyone thinks they’re an expert about it, because everyone has a connection to it. This is not to say that the film's critics are wrong or uninformed, or that Guggenheim is right or better-informed, of course. It’s just hard to suss out the actual experts from the loud parents who get themselves elected to the school board because they put up a lot of posters and bully the other housewives into voting for them. It’s to Guggenheim’s credit that he’s taking a stand, trying to stake some ground above the din, for better or worse. (Much like Donald Trump.)

And his stand is pretty depressing. In his exploration of “dropout factories” and “academic sinkholes” and deep-seated urban decay and lazy teachers and unmotivated students, we get the sense that there are millions of children just teetering on the precipice of a great abyss, and more of them fall into it than recover their balance. And, as mentioned, the problems are so complex that there’s nothing you can do other than just scream into the abyss, Garden State­-style. (I apologize for that Garden State reference, but while we’re on the subject, here is the trailer for the new Zach Braff film, The High Cost of Living. In the film, Braff plays a drug dealer who hits a pregnant woman with his car. GOOD LORD. Look for that in a future Taste My Sad post, under the category, “horribly depressing films featuring the star of the wacky sitcom Scrubs.”)

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: I don’t really want to get into the pissing match over the veracity of the film’s claims. I will say, however, that it is a little suspect, in my view, to deify charter schools, specifically Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem’s Children Zone, as the answer to the problems, when the movie spends the rest of its time telling us just how widespread and multifaceted those problems are. There are no quick-fixes or cure-alls here, and I suspect Guggenheim knows that, but also knows how to construct an entertaining, not-suicide-inducing film. And of course that’s the point here: the movie is really gripping and moving because of the micro-level story about the kids and the lottery. (I won’t spoil any of that, because you really should see it and all that.) Anecdotal evidence doesn’t work for making policy; it does work for making movies. And if you’re not so infuriated by Guggenheim’s macro-level argument that you stop watching, you can’t help but be moved by the micro-level stuff.

One other note: the driving force behind the power of this movie is the fact that you’re watching actual children, so innocent and real, who we desperately want to remain untainted by all the ugliness of the world. It really crystallized the reason why I hate most child actors so much: most child actors take that innocence and choke it to death, in a sea of cloying cuteness and fakeness and bad haircuts. Add to which the fact that child actors are rich enough to afford private tutors on the sets of their movies, and thus get to avoid all this education trouble! I don’t care that many child stars get all warped for life. It’s just not fair.

How I felt after the movie ended: Just so sad. Those poor unlucky kids! I feel faintly manipulated, but not in a way that nullifies the central message of the film. But the controversies surrounding the solutions that the film presents only makes it worse. No one was arguing that Guggenheim was misguided in making the film in the first place. No one thinks that the education system in this country is acceptable as it stands now. And that’s CRAZY. People will argue ANYTHING in this country. There are people who argue that natural disasters (like the recent tornadoes, which according to official blog statistician/FOTB Michelle Loizeaux have caused 310 340 deaths thus far) are brought on this country by God as a way of punishing us for… something, I’m not quite sure what. There are people who believe that mental patients should have the right to buy guns with no background check and no waiting period. And there are people out there who actually believe that President Obama was really born in this country, and that the “birth certificate” he’s just shown us is not a Photoshopped fake. And yet no one is out there saying that our education system is fine.

At one point in the film, one of the experts says, “there are millions of kids walking the streets with no interest in living.” It’s hard for me to be positive about America (or humanity) when I hear things like that. It’s just dreadful. So immediately after the film was over, I watched this video ten times in a row. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! All better.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Message In A Bottle.

Message In A Bottle (Luis Mandoki, 1999)

Category: Sad film based on a song by The Police. Other not-as-sad films in this category include the Steve Martin film Roxanne and the Jodie Foster sci-fi flick Contact. Also I’ve read that the song “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” was adapted into a book, called Lolita. Bit racy, that song/book.

This is the third in the irregular Taste My Sad series on sad movies based on books by Nicholas Sparks. We’re 1-for-2 so far: a thumbs-up to The Notebook; a dear-God-that-was-atrocious to The Last Song. The fact that this is the second book that Sparks wrote (after The Notebook) bodes well. The Last Song was late-period Sparks, after he got all bloated and complacent. This was early Sparks, back when he was writing with something to prove. Back then, he wasn’t just following the same old tired formula, book after book after book. He was CREATING that same old tired formula.

Specifically, this is a sad movie about futile letter-writing campaigns. (This also kind of happened in The Notebook, when the mom didn’t let her read his letters! SPARKS THEME. Add that to the list, alongside summer romances and people dying.) I see a lot of these in the circles I inhabit: Washington, DC (writing letters to your Congressman is totally worthwhile, BTW; they never get thrown out unread) and the nerdy TV fanboy crowd (Dear FOX, SAVE LONE STAR). There’s something very earnest and romantic about writing letters to someone who will never read them. And who knows, there’s always a chance someone at the White House WILL read it, and then he’ll show it to Obama, and then he’ll be so moved by it that he’ll read it aloud during the State of the Union, and then your name will get mentioned on TV and you’ll be the most popular kid in the fourth grade! Or the other kids will make fun of you for writing a letter to the President about how sad you are that your dad is unemployed. Could go either way. (Other films in this surprisingly common genre of films include P.S. I Love You and Letters to Juliet.)

My familiarity with this issue: I’m like knee-deep in Sparks now. It’s unseemly. This was the first Sparks book to be turned into a film. Moviegoers ate it up right away though, as it made $118 million at the box office. Curiously, though, the film cost $80 million to make. $80 million?? Seems a bit high, no? For a movie like this? It could be that Kevin Costner, so traumatized by all the time he spent filming Waterworld, was physically incapable of going back out on the water, and so for the scenes that required him to be out on a boat dropping bottles with notes in them off the side (of which I’d imagine there are many), the filmmakers had to build an enormous artificial tank, like in Titanic. (Note: this is all conjecture.)

In a way, I feel like these blog posts are similar to the letters that Costner presumably puts in a bottle and casts out to sea. Many of my friends (OTB) tell me that they read this, and I have no reason to think they’re lying. Sometimes they even cite specific lines that they liked (or disliked), or points I made that they agreed with (or disagreed with). But they could just be really good at guessing, or maybe they overheard two people in the park talking about the blog. One can never be sure about these things. So maybe I’m just talking to myself right now. I need to remember to buy conditioner later.

OK ACTUAL THING: I’m going to print out this post when I’m done and put it in a bottle and drop it in the Potomac River and see what happens. Maybe it will wash up on the shore and some sad kindred spirit will find it and he/she will become a new FOTB! Or maybe I will be arrested for littering and poor grammar. I’ll keep you guys updated.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “A woman finds a romantic letter in a bottle washed ashore and tracks down the author, a widowed shipbuilder whose wife died tragically early. As a deep and mutual attraction blossoms, the man struggles to make peace with his past so that he can move on and find happiness.”

What I thought of the movie: I’m going to need some time to process just how bad this was. Let’s talk it out first, shall we?

So the movie is about Robin Wright Penn (no stranger to the sad, having played sad AIDS-y Jenny in Forrest Gump, and having been married to grumpy old Sean Penn for a while there), who plays an unhappily divorced researcher for the Chicago Tribune with a really annoying son that she sees every now and again (thank God he’s not in the movie that much). One day she finds the titular MIAB on the beach, an apologetic letter to some woman named Catherine, and becomes OBSESSED with it, the way you would with a great new undiscovered band. She reads it to people at work (all of them middle-aged women, a veritable Greek chorus of the Sparks demographic), and they all become obsessed too, and somehow they convince the columnist (played by Robbie Coltrane, aka Hagrid, although without the big hair and beard and enormity in this role) to print this letter in the NEWSPAPER. Is that legal?

But apparently it’s very popular, and two other people send in similar letters that they’ve found, and everyone’s all excited and Hagrid says, “The paper wants us to milk this.” This is the CHICAGO TRIBUNE. This isn’t some local-yokel paper! Is this what people did in the 90s? Did we really have that little to care about before 9/11? (And let’s not forget about the content of the letters, a load of over-sentimental treacle, as you’d expect. Whatever.) So they do some crack research on the messages and the bottles to find out where they’ve come from (I guess the gritty in-depth feature on teenage drug use in inner-city Chicago had to wait that week) and eventually find the store in North Carolina that produced the stationery for the guy who wrote the letters. And the store GIVES THEM HIS NAME! That DEFINITELY can’t be legal. I’ve bought some weird stationery in my day, and I sincerely hope that the records of those purchases are confidential.

So of course, sad lonely RWP is like, “Yeah let me go out there and check it out, you know, do some research. To get the, uh, the story there. Figure out the sitch. What? No I can’t do it over the phone, I have to, you know, be there in person. For the research... purposes.” Get OUT. Hagrid says, “Well what if he’s a convict with a bunch of tattoos?” I’ll tell you what: that would have been an interesting movie. But of course he’s sad wounded vulnerable widower Kevin Costner. She travels to the Outer Banks and finds his house, a big old rickety house on the water. (SPARKS THEME: So far all three of the Sparkses I’ve seen feature big old rickety houses on the water, inhabited by lonely men with secrets. How many of these places actually exist? And are they only inhabited by lonely men with secrets? And if so, why aren’t the eHarmony people on this?)

They meet. She doesn’t explain how she came to just randomly find him there working on some boat. It’s weird and awkward (RWP and Costner have zero chemistry at all in this movie, BTW). Somehow he asks her to to meet him at the diner at 7 AM so they can go out on the boat together. (Two things I would never do: go on a boat with someone, and meet someone at 7 AM.) At the diner, she sees him get into a fight with another dude (to be explained later). So she says to herself, “Well it’s too bad about the dreamy MsIAB, because I really thought he was gonna be cool, but apparently he’s a crazy violent man who beats people up in public at 7 in the morning, so I best be on my way.” What’s that? She doesn’t do that? She GETS ON THE BOAT WITH HIM, ALONE, even though in the less than 24 hours that she has known this person she has seen him beat a man up in a diner? “But he wrote such beautiful letters!” Shut up. I bet John Hinckley wrote beautiful letters.

But so they go on the boat and we settle into a pattern: first Costner and RWP are all playful (Costner shows the same command of the treacle in his smooth pickup lines as he had in his bottle letters), but then something reminds Costner of his dead wife (Catherine from the letters OMG) and he gets all forlorn. This happens like three separate times, most memorably when they’re out night-boating in front of a lovely green screen. She’s clearly all up on it, though, and eventually she wears him down. God what a woman he is. She learns more about him. He lives with his dad (Paul Newman, who I really hope made BANK for being in this tripe) and fixes boats for a living. He was building one of his own but stopped, two years ago, the day his wife died. (SPARKS THEME: it’s like Miley quitting the piano in TLS. These Sparks characters don’t take well to traumatic events.) (Oh also the guy he fought earlier, in case you care, was his dead wife’s brother, who wants Costner to give up some of her old paintings, but he just can’t let go. SYMBOLISM.)

So he’s got baggage. We get it, RWP gets it. The movie beats us over the head with this for at least 45 minutes. But eventually they think, hey this could be nice, for no other reason than  that the movie requires them to fall in love. So eventually she has to go back to Chicago, but they agree to keep in touch and do the long-distance thing. And for this entire period of the movie, I thought to myself, there is no dramatic tension at all here, nothing moving this story forward at all. And then when she’s back in Chicago I remembered what it was: the fact that she never tells him that she found his MsIAB, and that that’s why she found him in the first place. Completely arbitrary and pointless. She could have told him that at any point during her time in North Carolina, but she doesn’t, because there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise.

So he eventually visits her in Chicago; they have a sex scene that can only be described as Wiseau-esque. And he finds the bottle and the messages and he freaks out and goes home, but then forgives her and shows her that he’s been working on the boat again and he also gave up the paintings and LOOK AT ALL THAT PERSONAL GROWTH. So she goes back to see him, getting to the waterfront just in time to see him christening the boat and dedicating it to his dead wife all emotional-like, and she realizes that it’s not meant to be between them because he loves his dead wife too much. UGHHHHHH. MAKE UP YOUR MIND. They have this talk on the beach, during which I literally almost fell asleep. She goes to leave and he says, “I don’t want to lose you,” and she says, “Then don’t,” and leaves. Which really doesn’t make any actual sense. All of this could have been taken out of the movie. Or at least condensed to about five minutes.

(SPOILER ALERT, although if any of you have not seen this movie and still want to, I'd rather you not talk to me ever.) And then the ending. I cannot describe how awful the ending of the movie is. Costner goes out on his boat in terrible weather, spots a family on another boat in trouble, saves two of the three people and dies. The point of his boat trip was to leave one last MIAB to his dead wife, telling her about the new girl in his life (seems a bit rude, no?) and saying that after this one last ride he’s gonna go to Chicago to be with her. OH HOW TRAGICALLY POINTLESS. Like Romeo and Juliet, except terrible.

How I, John Krizel, related to this movie: Thanks for letting me talk that out. It really helped.

The things that struck me most about this movie were (a) how boring it was and (b) how immature and dumb the characters were. Costner spends the first part of the movie stewing whenever he sees anything dead wife-related, and throws a hissy fit when he finds the evidence of RWP’s deception, which was itself really childish, of course. The movie gives us no reason why we should believe that these two people are MFEO, or even M to have an interesting conversation with EO. I really hate it when a movie treats its characters like children, but it also helps for them to not consistently act like children.

And the length! (That’s what she said.) I just couldn’t get over how unjustifiably long this movie was. It’s 2 hours and 11 minutes long. It’s longer than Raging Bull, for crying out loud! And its dialogue consists entirely of Facebook favorite quotes from lonely sixteen-year-old girls. The Wikipedia plot synopsis for this movie is four short paragraphs, and some of THAT is filler. It could have been forty minutes long. Granted, some of this extraneous time is to give Paul Newman a few good scenes, and that was appreciated, because aww Paul Newman. But GOOD LORD. Who sat through this movie and enjoyed it? 

Oh, and this is how I reacted to the last scene on the boat:

How I felt after the movie ended: If I had gone all classic Taste My Sad on this (and before you get mad at me for saying “classic Taste My Sad” let me explain that I mean, if I had completely immersed myself in Sparks and watched all of these movies/read all his books in a few weeks without watching or reading anything else), I really think I would view the world differently. I already am, in a way. I’ve noticed certain things have adopted a sepia tone. I’m worrying that every time I talk to someone will be the last time I do so before they die in a superficially meaningful but ultimately pointless way. I occasionally hear the lazy beating of waves against the shore under some wistful voice-over narration. And Maroon 5. Always Maroon 5.

Nobutsrsly, it’s really a kind of alternative universe, not unlike the way that social conservatives want America to be this imaginary 1950s-esque place with everyone living in two-parent households with white picket fences and all that. The trouble with this kind of thing is that, for all practical intents and purposes, they are fantasies, and using them as any kind of guide for how we should act or how the world should work is really wrongheaded, even dangerous. Obviously I don't mean to say that Nicholas Sparks is dangerous. But the fact that the Sparks oeuvre is divorced from reality is what makes it so appealing to a lot of people. It's also what makes it so easy for smart-asses like me to mock. This one, however, was the first of the three that committed the tragic sin of not being any fun.

Oh and to the future FOTB who finds this in a bottle somewhere in the DC area, let me know what you think: I hope you are not boring.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

My Life As A Dog.

My Life As A Dog (Lasse Hallstrom, 1985)

I’d like to give a shoutout to one of the great HR representatives of our times, and a friend of the blog, Patty Hunt, for suggesting this movie and lending me the DVD. Thanks, Patty!

Category: Sad film about human beings who are transformed into dogs. A deep, bizarre subject today on Taste My... wait what’s that? I’m sorry, I’m told this is NOT, in fact, a prequel to the 2006 Tim Allen film The Shaggy Dog. Apparently, the title of this film is not to be taken literally.

This is, however, a sad coming-of-age film (much like Simon Birch and My Girl), as well as a sad Swedish film. These goddamn liberals who control the media are always talking about how America should be more like Scandinavia. Sure, it seems great, with their nice-looking blondes, high life expectancy and low infant mortality rate. Indeed, Forbes magazine (a notorious socialist rag) ranks Sweden as the sixth-happiest country in the world. But take a look at Sweden’s cultural output, and you’ll find that maybe things aren’t so great over there after all. (I for one blame the high tax rates. It’s a good thing we extended those Bush tax cuts; otherwise, all of our rich people would be sad!) From Ingmar Bergman and his films about death, marital problems and stressful chess matches, to Stieg Larsson and his Millennium trilogy of novels about a heavily-pierced rape victim, the Swedes have produced some pretty heavy stuff. (And ABBA. But some would argue that ABBA causes its share of depression, too.)

Few of you are aware that the “Sad” in “Taste My Sad” is actually an acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder. And no, this isn’t just some random coincidence that I mention expressly for the purpose of introducing a dumb segue. But while we’re on the topic, it’s pretty cold in Sweden, isn’t it? That can’t help.

My familiarity with this issue: I’ve never been to Sweden. (I’ve been cold many times, though. Not fun.) There’s a lot of cool Swedish stuff out there: The Hives, Robyn, Swedish Fish, etc. This also never fails to bring a tear to my eye:

My Life as a Dog is about a child who is sent away by his parents to live with relatives, a fate I happily avoided when I was young. Not because I have bad relatives or anything (they’re all very nice), it just seems like a traumatic thing for a child to go through. I’m especially glad that I didn’t grow up in an era where sickly children were sent off to the sanatorium, especially if it in any way resembled the one in Shutter Island. Oof.

I don’t think I remember my childhood vividly enough to be able to tell a melancholy coming-of-age story about it, as I expect this film does. (To be fair, I lived on Long Island, where the closest people get to melancholy is when the beach is too crowded.) In a way, this speaks to my pet peeve about some (not all) coming-of-age movies (like Simon Birch or The Sandlot or any number of other things): everything’s too neat and tidy. I cannot pinpoint specific events or experiences that changed my life, or molded me into the person I am today, or anything like that. I struggle to remember attending my first baseball game, having my first piano recital, being rejected by the first girl I liked (a not-uncommon occurrence). They’re events that I know happened and were important to me at the time, but I cannot connect with them now on anything other than an abstract level. I suspect most people have the same difficulty (although of course I can’t be sure of that). But far too often, movies overstate the incidence of distinct, profound events that generate distinct, profound memories from which adult versions of kids played by annoying child actors can construct meaning. It’s a problem. But I suspect this movie, what with its Swedishness, will be more realistic.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Ingemar lives with his brother and his terminally ill mother. He may have a rough time, but not as bad as Laika - the Russian dog sent into space...  [Editor’s Note: It remains to be seen if this is a reference to something in the movie or a non sequitur. I’m really hoping it’s the latter. Also, I would have replaced the ellipsis that this writer uses with the word “Amirite?”] He gets sent away to stay with relations for the summer. While there, he meets various strange characters, giving him experiences that will affect him for the rest of his life.”

What I thought of the movie: I liked it! It had to surmount a major, recurring issue for me, that being the “annoying child actor” factor. The main character, Ingemar, is a mischievous kid, and mischievous is almost always annoying (the main exception being Home Alone). But the blank-faced actor playing Ingemar, Anton Glanzelius, was no Macaulay Culkin. (This is almost too good to be true: after I wrote that sentence, I clicked on Anton Glanzelius’s Wikipedia page. It’s quite short, but it features this sentence at the end, which I swear I did not make up: “He is also known for being a friend of Michael Jackson, who contacted him in 1987 after being impressed with his performance in My Life as a Dog.” I don’t even know what to say. Maybe he was the original choice to do the rap in "Black or White"!) The beginning of the film was particularly galling to me, as Ingemar causes so much mischief that he is sent away from his terminally ill mother because it is feared that his behavior will actually accelerate her death. Which is generally something you try to avoid, as a son. These scenes were very difficult for me to watch.

But remember how I said that I liked it? I did! It gets a lot better once the kid is sent away to live with his cool curly-haired uncle in a rural village. Then the movie is all nice and warm and nostalgic, much like Woody Allen’s Radio Days. And this happy section really does make us forget about the fact that the mother is sick and we know she’s going to die. Which makes it all the more sad when she does. The movie isn’t really about the mom dying, it’s more about the kid and how he deals with that in addition to all the other issues that growing up entails (having a dog, being different than the other kids, having crushes on girls, etc). Ingemar’s voice-over constantly reminds the audience that things could be worse, and compares his plight to those of others, including known spacedog Laika (there’s the reference). In the end the movie has a good balance between the sad and the hopeful, and if it had had a less annoying kid actor, I would have totally loved it.

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: A main reason why I enjoyed the scenes set in the rural village so much was the village’s high population of eccentrics. Webster’s defines the noun form of eccentric as “a person who behaves in odd or unusual ways.” By that broad definition, we certainly have our share of eccentrics: Charlie Sheen, Donald Trump, Glenn Beck, etc. But the kind of eccentric I’m talking about is increasingly rare in this day and age, for various reasons. These eccentrics are harmless, but just have very strange personal habits that don’t really affect other people that much. In My Life as a Dog, there’s a guy who is always fixing his roof, another guy who rides his unicycle on a tightrope, and an old bedridden guy who makes Ingemar read him the words from ladies’ underwear ads. How delightful! (Except the old guy. He’s almost certainly a pedophile.) You don’t see that in this country very much, I think, because (a) Europeans are weird, and (b) people are more easily weirded out by weird people in America. If there were some guy constantly fixing his roof on my block when I was a kid, one of the neighbors would have figured out a way to have him arrested by Day 3. Tops. Be less judgmental, AMERICA. Learn to embrace your inner harmless eccentric, and stop going to see Charlie Sheen perform live. He was fun for a week. It’s over now.

I did very much like the ending of the movie, which features all the Swedish folks listening to the radio broadcast of Ingemar Johansson (the boxer and namesake of the kid in the movie; it’s probably a very common name in Sweden, like John Smith or what have you) defeat Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship in 1959. Everyone runs outside and celebrates afterward. It made me think about the USA’s victory over Algeria in last year’s World Cup, and how I would have totally run outside and celebrated with everyone if I wasn’t in my secluded doublewide trailer in the middle of the woods, alone. Fun fact: when Landon Donovan scored his famous goal, I ran around the house screaming and injured my finger on our ceiling fan. It was worth it.

How I felt after the movie ended: Sadly warm/fuzzy. The thing is that the mom death comes like a half hour before the movie ends. A lot of other stuff happens afterward. And while the death is kind of like a sad blanket that lies on top of the whole movie, muffling it with sadness, the post-film sadness factor (PFSF) is decreased due to this fact. Still, despite an annoying child lead actor and a low PFSF, it’s a high-quality TMS selection. Maybe these Swedes are on to something after all.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Pay It Forward.

Pay It Forward (Mimi Leder, 2000)

Category: Sad movie about doing nice things. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, the saying goes. It’s a dumb saying. If there actually were a road to hell, it would probably be paved with fire and brimstone or something like that, not me offering to walk an old lady across the street. More often than not, people who actually have good intentions follow through on them and do good things. It’s not that hard. The saying is sometimes used in a cynical way to criticize people who try to do big things and fail, and that’s just lame. Or it’s used to absolve people who never really had good intentions in the first place. I’m not having it. I don’t know why this movie is sad yet, but I bet it’s not because Haley Joel Osment did nice things for people. I bet it has something to do with Kevin Spacey and his scarred face. (Note: at the moment these are the only two things I know about this movie. Hey, let’s add this to the famous blog category, sad film about freaks.)

My familiarity with this issue: We can all agree that charity is essential. No matter how selfish people can be, I think most people are mindful of that (especially celebrities), and generally support at least one charity that is important to them. The concept of paying it forward is a nice, touchy-feely small-scale method of charity that has been around for a long time. It’s also something I’m not sure I could ever feasibly do. For example, I would love to pay for someone’s groceries at the supermarket one day, but I don’t know how I would actually do it. Would I do it for the person behind me in line? The person in front of me? Some random person in another aisle? How would I choose? Would I feel obligated to choose a woman, or a minority, or just someone who seemed less fortunate than me? And how could I judge that without being totally racist? (Choosing the right person is actually really important. I live in Washington, DC, a city that is full of really really terrible people. Imagine accidentally offering to pay for Donald Rumsfeld’s groceries!)

And THEN once I'd decided the object of my forward paying, I’d have to go up to some stranger in a public place, and say something to the cashier like, “I intend to pay for this person’s groceries.” (A statement, which if said to me, would cause some degree of alarm. I’d think, who is this person, and why are they doing this? Do they want something out of me? Do they expect me to give them something in return? Are they going to follow me to my car?) Just imagine the awkwardness of that first moment, saying “Excuse me” and injecting yourself into someone else’s life, seeing the look of confusion on their face and the cashier’s face, and having people in the neighboring aisles turn their heads because they can sense that something unusual is happening. And then, under this pressure, having to explain your intentions in a concise way, without seeming like a weirdo, while contemplating the chance that this person will misunderstand and react adversely, possibly calling over a supermarket security guard and causing an uncomfortable scene. (And add to that the possibility, especially prevalent if you have indeed picked a minority, that the person does not speak English and won’t understand you, causing you to revert to hand signals and pointing at your wallet and then her groceries and trying to communicate by loudly saying "PAY" and "ME" and "KEVIN SPACEY" and so on.)

All of this put together constitutes a mental barrier that is impossible for me to overcome. And I’m a nice person! So if you’re asking me to pay it forward in any way that involves social interaction, I’m going to have to decline.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Young Trevor McKinney, troubled by his mother's alcoholism and fears of his abusive but absent father, is caught up by an intriguing assignment from his new social studies teacher, Mr. Simonet. The assignment: think of something to change the world and put it into action. Trevor conjures the notion of paying a favor not back, but forward – repaying good deeds not with payback, but with new good deeds done to three new people. Trevor's efforts to make good on his idea bring a revolution not only in the lives of himself, his mother and his physically and emotionally scarred teacher [Editor's Note: ooooo symbolism], but in those of an ever-widening circle of people completely unknown to him.”

What I thought of the movie: This was an interesting one for me going in. I’d heard all manner of bad things, including a money quote from FOTB Steve Isaac that I will share later. So I figured I wouldn’t like it. But I had hoped that my dislike would be more in the style of The Last Song (namely, hilarious anger) and not The Lovely Bones (actual anger). For most of the movie, it was the former. The ending was the latter. Oh my God was it ever. But we’ll get to that.

So the movie’s about 11-year-old Haley Joel Osment, playing against type as a non-AIDS patient. (Think about it.) His mom, Helen Hunt, is a bleached-blonde Las Vegas-type trying to stop drinking/being a terrible mother, and his dad's not around anymore. His horribly disfigured and smarmy social studies teacher, Kevin Spacey, assigns his class an “extra credit” project wherein they have to do something to try and change the world. So HJO invents paying it forward (which has already been invented). He helps a homeless drug addict played by Jesus Jim Caviezel, and when that doesn’t take, he tries to get his teacher and his mom together. Because that's what you do when you don't have a dad. You'll take anyone, even a holier-than-thou burn victim freak who obnoxiously uses big words like "exigent" to bleached-blonde stripper types. (I like Kevin Spacey, but this role probably wasn't a reach. Bit snooty, that fella.)

In another plotline, whose timeline is not entirely clear, a truly detestable reporter played by the truly detestable Jay Mohr gets it paid forward to him. (Side note: how has Jay Mohr gotten all this work? What is his appeal? He seems like a douchebag in all of his onscreen roles and I can't imagine he's any different offscreen. He was in those Pepsi commercials that I hated. He's loud and likes sports and beer and stuff. Does he appeal to men? Women? Other douchebags? I just don't see the Mohr market.) Some lawyer gives him his Jaguar (WHAT) after his car is wrecked. (It’s important to note that his car is wrecked when a suspected criminal crashes into it while fleeing a hostage situation, which he is able do because Jay Mohr DISTRACTS THE POLICEMEN who are trying to negotiate with him. This is what I mean when I say that it’s important choose the right person to pay it forward to.) Jay Mohr, obviously bewildered by this, tries to figure out how this whole thing started, and spends his scenes investigating and traveling back up the paying it forward pyramid scheme diagram until he reaches HJO.

A brief digression on the film’s casual racism and stupidity: the lawyer who gives Jay Mohr his car tells him the story of how he was paid forward to from with how (I give up). The story is as follows: late one night, his daughter is having a severe asthma attack so he takes her to the emergency room. Of course, late nights in the ER are often busy, and people have to be taken in order of importance (obviously), so they have to wait, but it’s a really bad asthma attack and he’s very worried for his daughter’s health. A nurse enters the room and calls on a black guy who has been stabbed in the arm. The lawyer protests, saying he and asthma girl have been there longer (which anyone who has ever been to an ER knows is not how it works). He and the nurse get into an argument which ends when the black guy (whose manner and faux ghetto-talk indicate that the filmmakers had never met a black person before) loudly tells the nurse to treat the asthma girl first. The nurse is confused by this and hesitates, but the guy insists, and when she continues to hesitate he PULLS OUT A GUN AND SHOOTS THE FLOOR TWICE so as to spur her into action. First of all, who brings a gun to a hospital? What is this, Grey’s Anatomy? Second of all, it’s meant to be like a light comic scene! Oh let’s all laugh at how quickly black people PULL OUT GUNS AND SHOOT THEM IN PUBLIC PLACES.

Anyway. The main plot is pretty terrible, too. Spacey and Hunt dislike each other at first. (He’s stuck-up and uses big words; she’s more down to earth and defensive and makes poor life decisions. I guess it would be a problem in real life if two opposing stereotypes met each other and tried to date.) The movie throws up a bunch of obstacles to them getting together, basically just killing time until the ending. Hunt’s all, why won’t you let me have sex with you right away like I do with all the other guys, and Spacey’s all, you wanna know how I got these scars? (His father burnt him. That scene where he tells her about it is actually pretty good/sad, because Kevin Spacey is still a good actor, despite the tripe he’s working with here.) And then they have scarry disfigured bleached blonde sex and it’s weird.

At some point, Jon Bon Jovi, of all people, shows up as HJO’s absent and drunken father. This is the most telegraphed part of the movie. (And this is a movie that may as well have been directed by Samuel Morse. ZING.) JBJ’s in two scenes. In the first scene, he comes back to the house after being away for a few years, claiming to be sober and interrupting a lovely night at home with the three principals. So she attempts to take him back. Ten minutes later, his second and final scene features him drinking again, being abusive and loud and threatening HJO, and generally giving love a bad name. So she throws him out. Subplot over. Just killing time.

(I’m going to talk about the ending now. This movie came out 11 years ago and it sucks. So SPOILER ALERT, I guess, but still. Come on.) So Jay Mohr figures out that HJO “invented” pay it forward, so he finds him and tapes an interview with him at school. The kid's (choppy, rambling, fairly nonsensical) speech inspires Spacey and Hunt to put aside their differences and make out up against some lockers at a middle school full of kids. What could possibly go wrong now? Here’s what. HJO sees some loser friend of his getting bullied by some ponytailed kid (the third time in the movie that this has happened; you’d think a guidance counselor would have heard about this at some point). The last time this happened, HJO didn’t intervene and felt guilty about it; this time, he does, and he gets STABBED IN THE STOMACH by Ponytail Jones and DIES.

In the filmmakers’ defense, you can’t say HJO/we didn’t see it coming: in one of the first scenes in the movie, we see the kid slickly slip his knife past the metal detectors at the school. And like Chekhov said, if some douchey middle-schooler slips his knife past a metal detector in the first act, he’s gonna use it to stab the protagonist in the stomach in the third act. Jesus. This really was one of the worst endings I’ve ever seen. So idiotic and manipulative and cheap. And I finally understood what FOTB Steve Isaac meant when he said, “Watching Pay It Forward is like learning that Santa is real, then watching your dad stab him.”

So what is the lesson of this movie? I think the movie wants us to think it's that one person really can change the world. HJO's interview is aired on TV, made ever more poignant by the fact that only minutes after it was taped, he was stabbed to death by a middle-schooler (it's important to repeat that to remember just how ridiculous it is). The newscaster says that the  pay it forward movement is spreading throughout the West Coast, and finally there's a big Field of Dreams ripoff with a bunch of people coming to their house with candles and such. First of all, it's really not all that many people (I'd imagine hundreds of times more Vegas residents were gambling their lives away right down the road from the house at the time). Second of all, you can't do that! It doesn't erase the fact that you just killed off the main character for no reason at all. So the real lesson of the movie is, doing all the good deeds in the world won't stop you from getting killed when you're 11 years old. Alright! Thanks guys. Good to know.

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: I think you can tell by now that I didn’t really enjoy this movie. So here’s something else instead.

An anecdote from FOTB Joe Kirkwood regarding his connection to this movie: Pay It Forward blew my mind when I saw it as a 12-year-old. It left me awestruck, thinking, "Wait, people can LIVE in Las Vegas?" That's pretty much all I remember about the movie itself, but I have a story to tell nonetheless: In 7th grade, in my Family and Consumer Science class (which I later learned was called Home Ec by normal schools), we were forced to watch Pay It Forward for a week. FCS was actually a very useful class. We learned how to use a sewing machine and bake, and we learned about the Better Business Bureau and how to shop smart and not get screwed over. Probably the most useful stuff I learned in middle school besides that everyone sucks.

So it was AIDS-like levels of against type for us to waste a week on this bad movie. And that wasn't even the worst part. There was the dreaded accompanying assignment. Look, I don't have a good track record with assignments. I don't like them, and they, well they generally haven't met me I guess, but they probably wouldn't like me. So I was already upset. Then the bomb was dropped: Over the following week, we were assigned to "pay it forward" three distinct times. We had to describe those payments of it forward on notecards, and pin those notecards to a big corkboard under our names for all to see.

After having seen the film and analyzed its morality as deeply as possible in an instant (as a 7th grader, mind you; this is not a complex movie), I was incensed. I got into an argument after class with our teacher, Mrs. Chappell. (As a reference point, and I'll try to be precise here, Mrs. Chappell was an overweight, belligerently friendly Jane Lynch.) Basically I argued that the whole point of paying it forward was that it wasn't mandatory and no one sought credit for it. The assignment, I seethed, ruined the idea instantly. Looking back, I think she was just trying to get some middle schoolers to be nice to each other for one measly week. Anyway I wrote fake "it" payments on my notecards and called it a day. I think I learned a lot from this movie.

How I felt after the movie ended: There was a lot of roadwork outside my house when I was watching this movie, so I decided to watch some of it with the subtitles on so that I could more accurately discern the terrible dialogue. And then this happened and I think it sums things up:

That’s what I’m sayin’.

Friday, April 1, 2011


Babies (Thomas Balm├Ęs, 2010)

Category: Sad movie about overpopulation. This is serious, guys. I know I write a lot of jokes in this blog, but this post is deathly serious. I think this film is as serious as any of the others I’ve written about for the blog. 

You’re probably thinking, “What is this nonsense? Babies is just a documentary about cute babies. It’s not at all sad.” But you’re wrong. The implications of Babies go far beyond just the so-called “cute” babies. (We’ll just see how cute they are when I watch the film, people.) Trust me, the actual message of this movie is far deeper: I think that Babies, at its core, is a film about overpopulation. And overpopulation is the biggest problem that we as human beings face, a problem that will eventually cause the end of all life on Earth. 

I told you this was serious.

My familiarity with this issue: According the CIA World Factbook, the world birth rate is currently 19.15 (that’s the number of childbirths per 1,000 people per year), and the world death rate is currently 8.12. This indicates a population growth rate of 1.092% per year. Every day, over 360,000 babies are born. And as we live on a planet with scarce resources, all these new babies, who outnumber all the new dead people, will keep taking more and more of the stuff. If we don’t do anything about it, all the stuff will be gone one day, and there will be nothing left for any of us. And slowly, the human race will die off, one by one. This will happen.

Now, I have a modest proposal as to how to fix all this. But I won’t share it with you now. I need this watch this movie first, and then discuss it in the context of the film's message. And then we can really talk about how to solve this urgent problem.

OK. Here goes.

What I thought of the movie:




How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: I'm really sorry about all that. I got a little carried away. Let me just pull myself together here for a minute.

OK yes, they're cute. Really, REALLY cute. But I can't let the facts about the incredibly serious problem of overpopulation be overshadowed just because



This is SERIOUS. Overpopulation is a HUGE ISSUE. The world simply cannot sustain our current level of


What was I saying?

How I felt after the movie ended: OK fine. Do I still think we should eat all of the babies to curb overpopulation? No, I don't. 

You win, Babies. You win.

(Happy April Fool's Day, FsOTB.)