Tag: luck

Celebrity


Celebrity (1998)
★★ / ★★★★

A journalist (Kenneth Branagh) divorced his wife (Judy Davis) because he wanted to be with other women–women who were some type of a celebrity, like a supermodel (Charlize Theron), an actress (Melanie Griffith), or a very successful book editor (Famke Janssen). One of his main reasons for divorcing his wife was, as he claimed, he was unhappy with the way she was in bed. The insecure wife, on the other hand, met a seemingly perfect television producer (Joe Mantegna). She could not believe the fact that she had met someone who was willing to devote everything to her. She suspected there must be something wrong with him and so she waited for the relationship to go haywire. Throughout the film, the journalist became unhappier while the ex-wife’s luck turned for the better. Directed by Woody Allen, “Celebrity” was ultimately a disappointment despite its interesting subject matter. I think it is more relevant than it was more than ten years ago because of the recent surge in technology that allows us to get “closer” to our celebrities. Unfortunately, I thought the humor was too broad. Did it soley want to be a showbiz satire, a marriage drama, or a character study? It attempted to be all of the above but it didn’t work because the protagonists lacked an ounce of likability. The journalist was desperate in getting into women’s pants while the ex-wife pitied herself so much that it was impossible to root for her. Their evolution and the lessons they learned (or failed to learn) were superficial at best. Instead, I found myself focusing on the many interesting and vibrant side characters. For instance, I loved Theron’s obsession with her health as well as her outer appearance. It was interesting to see her and the journalist interact because I constantly wondered what she saw in him. As the night when on, layers were revealed as to why while some details were best remain as implications. Leonardo DiCaprio as the very spoiled young actor was great to watch as well. His arrival on screen was perfect because it was at the point where the script was starting to feel lazy. The characters had no idea what they wanted or what they wanted to say. DiCaprio’s character was invigorating to have on screen because he wanted everything but at the same time his wants lacked some sort of meaning. Even though the spoiled actor and the journalist did not get along well, they were more similar than they would like to believe. While cameos were abound such as the surprising appearance of Donald Trump, I wish the filmmakers trimmed the extra fat in order to make a leaner film with astringent wit. It had some great moments but they were followed by mindless sophomoric jabber (uncharacteristically not charming considering it’s a Woody Allen film) that quickly wore out their welcome.

Waiting for Superman


Waiting for Superman (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Five kids from disadvantaged districts across America hoped that they would be lucky enough to be chosen, lottery-style, to attend charter schools. Such schools were considered as public schools but they were independent from the many bureaucracies, like how much money should be spent on a child and the amount of material that needs to be taught in a year, that directly impeded children’s ability to learn as much information they possibly could. Directed by Davis Gunnenheim, “Waiting for Superman” was an eye-opening look at how public schools have gone from good (1950s), to bad (1970s), to inexcusably terrible (2000s). I was moved to tears when these kids looked into the camera and said that they just wanted to go to a good school so they could have a chance at a promising future. Odds were against them because four of them lived in dangerous neighborhoods which meant that they didn’t have many role models with whom they could look up to; their families didn’t have much money so even if they were sent to private schools, their possibility of finishing was slim; and despite being motivated to go to school, some teachers simply didn’t care.

Out of all the reasons the film cited involving why public schools have turned out the way they have, teachers who gave up teaching was what bothered and angered me most. In high school, I remember having some teachers who proudly said, “I still get paid even if you don’t learn anything.” They would just sit behind their desks and we were left to do mind-numbing “busy work,” completely detached from the reason why we were there in the first place. If we had a question, they purposefully (and vindictively) ignored us or they would order us to put our hands down and “just do your work.” How could we possibly do our work correctly if a teacher, who was not teaching, wasn’t willing to offer us any guidance? We might as well have stayed home or had a free period. We could have gone to the library and read something we were interested in. I didn’t go to the best high school (obviously), but I didn’t go to the worst either. We were known for our sports, color guard, and the debate team. Academics just wasn’t the main priority. But that was high school. By that point, I already knew the importance of education and I had a laser-focus plan. Despite such “teachers,” I was going to get the best grades, get solid scores on whatever standardized exams they threw at me (which, really, doesn’t measure anything significant about a person–don’t get me started on this issue), and I would go to a four-year university. My mind didn’t have any questions or doubts. There was no “back-up plan” that teachers so enthusiastically recommended “just in case.” Not being admitted wasn’t an option. I knew I was smart and I wasn’t afraid. My parents busted their ass, pardon my French, to save a bit of money so that I could get a college degree. I did. I graduated. And I was lucky. But most people aren’t lucky. Imagine the same apathetic teachers I mentioned but in extremely disadvantaged elementary schools. The damage they could wreak is irreversible. Kids absorb all sorts of information. If teachers don’t care or have given up trying, children can turn that way, too.

With the help of a hidden camera, even though I had a first-hand experience with those kinds of teachers, the videos this film showed us was still horrifying to watch. Millions of dollars of taxes are spent on teachers not doing their job. The film had its flaws, like not defining what makes a “good teacher” and not putting enough weight on internal motivations, but it was very informative. The statistics were mind-boggling (aided by fun animations that were easy to understand) but I never knew that tenures could be a weapon used against kids. Up to this point, I was led to believe that tenures were inherently good because it protected good teachers from being fired. In reality, it protected all teachers. It didn’t matter if they just sat behind their desks all day playing solitaire or looking at pornography or trying to hook up with strangers to meet on the weekend. They were set for life and they shirked their responsibilities with impunity. Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system, made an astute statement that some teachers felt that their position was a right and not a privilege. It shouldn’t be that way. Teachers should be agents of progress instead of parasitic impediments.

I’ve had experience in teaching kids and the trends I noticed were staggering. For instance, I would have kids in the same grade, assigned the same worksheets, yet there was a huge difference in their abilities. I could have five kids who were in the fourth grade but three of them could barely spell words like “announcement” and “scholar,” let alone apply rules of grammar and punctuation. How could they progress to middle school, then high school, then college if they didn’t have the basic skills? Lastly, I wished the film had acknowledged the division between “Honors Kids” and “Regular Kids.” There were times when I would teach a child and she would say, “I just don’t get it because I’m dumb.” When I asked, “Why do you think you’re dumb?” She responded, “Because I’m not in GATE. So I don’t get it. I’m not smart.” (GATE: Gifted and Talented Education) I was one of those “Honors Kids” so I’ll speak from that perspective. Yes, it made me feel special. It gave me a lot of positive attention. It made me want to perform above and beyond what was expected. In a lot of ways, it made me a very competitive person. But I think school districts should reconsider this divide because “Regular Kids” can’t help but feel defeated. The label can possibly stick with them forever. The first time I heard that response, it broke my heart. All I could say was, “You’re not dumb. You don’t understand it now. But you will understand it later.” After hearing that, the look she gave to me was like the very first time someone told her that she wasn’t dumb. I’ll never forget that moment. To say that it’s really difficult for one to fully understand how bad it’s gotten without first-hand experience with children is an understatement. We should be ashamed that education is failing in America. “Waiting for Superman” may have been a flawed mirror but it still reflects something to us so that we can see what changes we need to implement.

Uncertainty


Uncertainty (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

A couple played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins decided to flip a coin because they couldn’t make up their mind regarding how to spend their Fourth of July holiday. Once the coin was flipped, we were immediately taken on two paths: the couple spending their time with the girlfriend’s family (the talented Olivia Thirlby among them) and the couple finding a cell phone in a taxi which criminals desperately wanted in their hands. I really liked the concept of the movie but it just didn’t move me in any way because it was very uneven. I understood that a big part of the picture was its use of contrast but I felt like it spent more time developing the thriller aspect (the cell phone) instead of balancing it with drama (the family). They could have done so much with the family such as expanding the tension between the boyfriend and the girlfriend’s mother or perhaps going deeper into the uncle’s illness. Instead, the movie focused on the characters running all over New York City; while initially it was exciting because I was curious about why certain people wanted the cell phone so badly, over time the tension caught a bad case of diminishing returns. I just grew tired of the couple making one bad decision after another. I was even surprised that they managed to survive for so long. I found it difficult to believe that the couple trying to survive was the same as the two who were having dinner with nice and welcoming people. While the events were very different from one another, it would have been nice if we saw certain characteristics of the lead characters that crossed boundaries set by the cinematic style. There was also a disconnect between the level of acting between Gordon-Levitt and Collins. When the former tried to achieve depth, the latter almost always decided to go for the obvious, not just in the way she said the lines but the body language lacked subtlety. I wished that Thirlby was the lead female instead because, from what I’ve seen from her other films, she can achieve subtlety without sacrificing charisma. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, I saw potential in “Uncertainty” but it took far too many missteps and I lost interest in it over time. While the use of contrast was nice, it didn’t quite break out from the usual patterns to go for that element of surprise. It needed more time to ponder over why one small decision could lead to big (and sometimes unfortunate) events in our lives. I guess I needed the movie to actively connect with its audiences instead of just being stuck in its own universe. With such an interesting premise, I thought it would be more versatile in terms of its tone (especially since McGehee and Siegel both directed one of my favorite films “The Deep End”–the masterful balance of thriller and drama) and it wouldn’t be afraid to take risks time and time again. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

The Cooler


The Cooler (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Cooler” was about a man (William H. Macy) so down on his luck that he made his negative energy into a career as a cooler, a person who stands or walks by someone who’s on a winning streak in a casino ran by a mob boss (Alec Baldwin). But one night, his luck changed for the better when he met a waitress (Maria Bello) who seemed to like him despite his negative self-image and the fact that he was years older than her. What I loved most about this movie was that even though it was set in Las Vegas, it didn’t get caught up in all the glamour and violence. It chose to take the more introspective route as it focused on the relationship and friendship between Macy and Bello and the rising tension between Macy and Baldwin because it seemed as though the happier Macy became, the more he lost his ability as a cooler. In a way, that route made the movie feel small but at the same time it was that much more personal. Furthermore, I loved the use of music because it really captured the changing times and the way the characters desperately hung on to the old ways. I also liked the fact that I got a chance to see Baldwin in a serious role. I read in a magazine that he eventually wanted to stop acting because he believed that none of his works were successful. I disagree with him because I felt like he held this film together; despite his actions, he wasn’t just a mobster who craved nothing but money. The way I saw it was his character didn’t want Macy to go because it meant losing a friend. The way he balanced his toughness and vulnerability was very interesting. Even though there were some distracting elements such as the appearance of a couple somewhere in the middle, the moments where the characters decided to just sit and talk and share secrets about their pasts more than made up for it. Much of the film had an unsurprising sadness and I couldn’t help but stayed glued to the screen. Written and directed by Wayne Kramer, “The Cooler” was essentially a story of fluctuating luck and the way people responded to the circumstances that faced them. The movie had a nice balance of comedy, drama and darkness while the three leads were at the top of their game. I only wished that the distracting elements were fleshed out so it could have more room to explore the only multi-dimensional characters who never failed to surprise.

Rudo y Cursi


Rudo y Cursi (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Rudo y Cursi” stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as brothers who started off as workers in a banana plantation and, with the help of a soccer scout (Guillermo Francella), eventually became Mexico’s soccer stars. One of the things I liked most about this movie was it allowed two very different characters to start off in the same level of happiness (or unhappiness). But when they finally achieved stardom, they were rarely on that same level and that caused tension, resentment, and bitterness which ate them inside out. But what’s even more impressive is that writer and director Carlos Cuarón painted the picture in a light-hearted manner with a real sadness in its core. It was easy for me to buy the fact that Bernal and Luna were very competitive brothers because of their lingering chemistry from “Y tu mamá también.” Although their characters genuinely loved one another, they forget that one time or another because they constantly got caught up in their own problems and inner demons. Such issues were commented on by the narrator who discussed things like the similarities and differences between a mother and a uniform, passion and talent, and the labyrinthine world of fame. The way their luck and fortunes fluctuated from golden fevers to pitiful desperation engaged me throughout. This is far from a typical sports film where a lead character goes through all kinds fo hardship in life and finally gets that big break. It’s really more about the dynamics between brothers who constantly had to build themselves up and could not help but compare themselves to each other in order to determine if they were good enough. (Which kind of works as a cautionary tale.) Carlos Cuarón’s debut film impresses on many levels which, admittedly, could have been a lot stronger if it had a better sense of pacing. I was just glad that it actually had a brain despite the sport.