Tag: school


Bully (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Lee Hirsch’s documentary puts the spotlight on one of the most psychologically and emotionally scarring yet most consistently ignored problems in American schools: bullying. If seventeen-year-old Tyler Long and eleven-year-old Ty Smalley committed suicide because they could no longer endure the abuse brought on by some of their peers, then there is an obvious problem in the school systems’ approach in terms of what should be done to those who choose to make their classmates’ every day existence an unbearable torment.

Perhaps the most disturbing images that this most revealing documentary offers is of Alex Libby being treated like a punching bag on the school bus. He is strangled by a boy twice his size who sits behind him, pushed off the seats when he tries to get away, receives profanities each time he speaks, and sometimes he is stabbed with a pencil on his arms and head. The bus driver neither says nor does anything. Maybe dealing with kids’ behavior is above her pay grade.

The film is criticized by some from an ethical standpoint for allowing the bullying to escalate as the camera records not once, not twice, but for several days. These criticisms are invalid because if the filmmakers had gone between the kids on that bus, it would have defeated the purpose of documenting. It is obvious that the intention is to pull back the curtains on what goes unseen by adults and that our compassion is always pointed toward the victims.

All of these transgressions are recorded and shown to school officials. Still, there remains only inaction. Even the assistant principal, Kim Lockwood, fails to do anything other than to assure parents with vague statements like something will be done. Maybe Ty Smalley’s father has a point when he says that nothing is done because a lot of the victims are nobodies. But if a politician’s son or daughter were bullied to an extreme, it is likely that a law designed to purge this epidemic would pass tomorrow.

I admired that the film allows us to get a feel for its subjects’ personalities. For example, Alex is called names like “fish face,” having been born only after twenty-six weeks of gestation, at school. Despite his classmates thinking that he is creepy because of the way he looks, we watch him at home and it is to no surprise that he is just like any other kid: capable of kindness, exuding energy and sense of humor. Furthermore, when they are allowed to speak in front of the camera, they express their thoughts beautifully and bring up a lot of interesting questions worth pondering. As adults, it is a shame that we tend to forget that children and adolescents are worth listening to because they lack “real”-life experiences. What is a school milieu but a small representation of the “real” world?

Alex is not the only one who exhibits resilience. High school student Kelby Johnson, who has come out as a lesbian, is treated by her small town as a pariah. Her friends, despite being straight, are considered homosexuals by association. But instead of hating the detractors for thinking and acting the way they do, Kelby is convinced that people are capable of change but only if they are willing. Through interviews with her father, there is an unspoken possibility that perhaps he was not accepting of gays before learning that his child is one herself. We see a man, strong but helpless, who just wants his daughter to feel safe and accepted. Kelby’s story would have been richer if the director had shown the father and daughter interacting. Showing them apart reveals only the surface.

There is an interview in the latter half involving Trey, Ty’s best friend, who admits being a bully in the third grade. Impressed by Ty’s resilience, kindness, and ability to walk away from a confronting situation, Trey was inspired to make amends for his behavior and be friends with those he pushed around in the past. His confession holds an importance because it shows that bullying is a choice.

And then there is Ja’Meya Jackson who felt compelled to fight back for being bullied. She was sent to a juvenile detention center for bringing her mother’s gun to the school bus, pulling it out, and pointing it at those who made her life hell. I cannot defend what she had done, but I empathize with how she must have felt and why she thought it would be a good idea to scare her tormentors. So kids being punched purple and stabbed with sharp objects on the bus get no special attention. But if someone pulls out a gun, everybody turns around. What does that say about us?

“Bully” is not the most in-depth documentary, but it succeeds in that it opens up a very important line of conversation. With so many factors relating to the issue, providing the stage and covering as many as possible is ultimately the correct approach. Still, I wished it had tackled the issue of parenting—or lack thereof—more directly. As someone who has experience working with children and their parents, I can say with certainty that some parents simply do not want to know what is going on with their kids. That is, until they start coming home with blood on their shirts or if there is a significant change in their behavior like not eating, not sleeping, or being less social. That’s a scary reality. It should not matter if work is too busy or if there are family problems happening. Parents should be proactive with what is going on with their children while they are alive not when they are in coffins.


Ondskan (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson) was expelled from school because of the brutal violence he inflicted upon some of his classmates. School officials didn’t know that Erik was physically abused by his step-father (Johan Rabaeus) at home and Erik’s actions were classic signs of transference. Erik’s mother (Marie Richardson), fully aware of the abuse, decided to send her son to a prestigious boarding school to get her child away from her husband and so that her son could have a chance of a promising future. Unbeknownst to her, she sent Erik to another version of hell where the older students, led by Otto Silverheim (Gustaf Skarsgård), bullied the younger ones for the sake of senseless tradition. Based on the autobiographical novel by Jan Guillou and directed by Mikael Håfström, what I loved about the film was it offered a rich insight about the criteria of evil and that, most of the time, it was hard to discern an evil action from an evil person. Evil actions were all around. Aside from Erik’s physically and emotionally abusive home, there was bullying outside of the classrooms, fellow classmates instigated unnecessary fights for the sake of vapid entertainment, the school officials actively neglected the seniors’ cruel pranks, even the kitchen staff decided to turn a blind eye to the flinch-inducing violence because they were afraid to lose their jobs. Sometimes allowing bad things happen could be considered evil, too. There was no doubt, at least in my mind, that it was the adults’ responsibility, whether an adult was a revered headmaster or a lowly cook, to take immediate action when students were being harmed. In a myriad ways, the violence in the school could be considered as a hyperbole. Nevertheless, it is all the more relevant today. With all the senseless bullying in schools all over the country (and I’m sure in other parts of the world as well) and the bullied committing suicide because they thought their lives weren’t going to get better or that no one was willing to listen and take an active role against their plight, it’s sad, even maddening. Håfström’s film was successful because it had a defined central theme and equally engaging and challenging characters. The picture was designed to make us angry, to question our own inaction when we see injustice around us, and to convince us that we have the power to make changes if we choose to. It wasn’t just about the violence. It was also about the friendship that grew between Erik and his intellectual roommate (Henrik Lundström). Through their interactions did we really get to learn who they were, what they wanted to be, and what they meant to each other. Their interactions were surprisingly moving and served as a great contrast against the darkness happening within the school and the individuals who controlled the system. “Ondskan” contained wonderful performances. Wilson had to carry much of the film and he found a balance between being ruthlessly tough and struggling to do the right thing. At the end of the day, he’s the kind of guy I would want by my side.


Afterschool (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

Robert (Ezra Miller) was a sophomore in a private high school where kids were isolated from their parents so they were free to experiment with whatever they wanted. The high school made it a requirement for their students to take up sports or after school activities so Robert, having no interest in anything physical other than being intimate with another, chose to join the Video and Audio Club. While shooting at a hallway for an assignment, Robert accidentally captured two girls overdosing on cocaine. The event triggered a series of new rules as the students struggled to adapt to the death and their new environment. This film was good in some parts but it was mostly frustrating. I hated the scenes that reminded me of Michael Haneke’s “Caché,” where absolutely nothing would happen as the camera would linger at something random person or object. I think that is one of the main problems of movies adapting a style of faux-documentary or faux-realism: the filmmakers just don’t know when to cut certain scenes when the important element had been delivered. At times, nothing important would appear on screen at all. It then becomes an utter waste of time. The two main emotions I felt while watching this picture were anger and apathy. Anger because of the increasing frustration regarding dragged out scenes for no good reason. Apathy because of the subject matter. I felt like I was back in high school. One of my biggest disappointments with the film was it didn’t feature one healthy, clear-minded student with goals that go far beyond their current institution. When the two students died, honestly, I didn’t care. For me, they were just twins who happened to be addicted to drugs. Yes, they were young but that was no excuse. I was their age once but I chose not to make highly stupid decisions. It was ultimately their choice to be involved in drugs. No amount of excuse such as the classic, “My parents don’t give me enough attention” would make me feel more sympathetic toward them–dead or alive. Then my feeling turned to anger again because the very same students who called them “cokeheads” behind their backs suddenly changed their minds, claiming that they would miss the twins and “nothing would ever be the same.” Give me a break. But then I wondered whether that was the director’s purpose: to expose the drug culture of schools today and to reveal the hypocrisy of both the students and the faculties. “Afterschool,” written and directed by Antonio Campos, is a challenging film but sometimes it was just plain wooden. I wouldn’t be surprised if one decided to stop watching the movie just thirty minutes into it. However, I liked the fact that it made me curious with what would happen and to see whether my hypothesis involving the main character’s psychological state was correct. And I was.


Spartacus (1960)
★★★ / ★★★★

After watching the film, admittedly not knowing much about it prior, I looked it up and was at total awe that Stanley Kubrick, the director, made this film in the 1950’s. I was completely aware that he made beautiful films but I had no idea that he could blow other historical epics out of the water which came before and after “Spartacus.” Kirk Douglas stars as the title character, a half-slave-turned-gladiator after being purchased by the hilarious Peter Ustinov. In the gladiator school, Douglas met Jean Simmons, another slave, and the two fall in love. When Simmons was purchased by a rich Roman senator (Laurence Olivier) after an unexpected visit, the slaves/gladiators broke out of the school and they made it their mission to free every slave in the Roman Empire. Everything about this picture felt big: the romance between Douglas and Simmons, the battle scenes between the slaves and the Roman soldiers, and the political strife between Olivier and Charles Laughton. I also enjoyed the side characters such as the poetic Antoninus (Tony Curtis) and Julius Caesar (John Gavin) who made the story that much more compelling. While each scene was or close to excellent, there were some definite standouts such as the bath scene between Olivier and Curtis (not included in the original release). It was so funny (and revealing) due to the homosexual undertones regarding their conversation about preferring to eat oysters or snails. It was taken out in its original release but I’m glad that added it back in the later editions because it made the characters that much richer. Nevertheless, I felt like there was something missing–a special shine that made most of Kubrick’s films so memorable. Perhaps it’s some of the overly simplistic (sometimes downright pointless) dialogue between characters, especially in the earlier scenes, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Still, this picture is definitely worth watching for the ravishing aesthetics, some strong acting and scope even though the script/story could have been stronger. I couldn’t help but be impressed with the number of people that were hired as extras, especially during the battle sequences, knowing the fact that computers did not much have capability to enhance the movie back then as much as it can nowadays. Ultimately, I say see it because its willingness to take risks is something to be commended.

Bedtime Stories

Bedtime Stories (2008)
★ / ★★★★

I understand that I’m not the target audience of this movie. That said, I do enjoy children’s movies from time to time because I’m a kid at heart, but I didn’t enjoy this even for one second. Although it had talented actors such as Adam Sandler (arguably), Keri Russell, Guy Pearce, Russell Brand, Richard Griffiths and Courtney Cox, the material was just too bland and uninteresting for smarter kids and adults. The premise of the picture is that Sandler tells a story to Cox’s children (Jonathan Morgan Heit and Laura Ann Kesling) and eventually they come true in some shape or form in real life. I found it to be an unfunny, one-note joke; I grew tired of it after thirty minutes, only to find out that I still have about an hour remaining. The bit about the school being demolished for a new hotel felt too forced. I wish the writers, Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy, had more jokes that pertain to adults and something more concrete for the children. There were too many slapstick jokes but not enough gravity to establish why the audiences should care for the characters and the story. The point of telling stories is to escape reality. However, the stories that Sandler’s character told were ultimately one-dimensional. In my opinion, it would have been so much better if each story had a different genre yet there’s still a valuable lesson that can be learned. Instead, some of them are heavy on the special and visual effects but they do not seem to amount to anything. If one is contemplating to show this to his or her children, make sure to show it before bedtime because the children will most likely fall asleep somewhere in the middle.


If… (1968)
★★★★ / ★★★★

This is one of those films that I will never forget because of how daring it was (still is) especially back at the time of its release. Lindsay Anderson was able to helm a counterculture film that fuses reality with surrealism and dark fantasy, all the while embracing its satirical nature. This was Malcolm McDowell’s first feature film and it was easy to tell that he was a star. He played his character with such domineering sneer and swagger, it was almost as if he was preparing to star in “A Clockwork Orange” directed by the great Stanley Kubrick. The way McDowell’s character and his friends (David Wood and Richard Warwick) were constantly pushed toward the edge by the faculty was fascinating to watch. Each scene has an implication and a certain bite to the point where I found myself referring back to the earlier scenes and realized that foreshadowing is one of its strongest elements. The final scene involving a bloody student uprising against the school system was done in such a provocative way; I didn’t know whether to laugh or take it seriously. Another element that I found to be interesting was the romance between McDowell and a waitress (Christine Noonan). That one “animalistic” scene was so out of the blue but it was exemplary because it’s as if it symbolizes every student’s frustration in that public school. Lastly, the romance between Warwick and one of the younger boys (Rupert Webster) provided a much-needed sensitivity to the picture. Even though they may not have many scenes where they conversed, when they finally did, I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face. This may have been really controversial back in the late 1960s but I think it’s more relevant today. School shootings have now become far too common because of the way students feel about their teachers, peers and the school’s atmosphere. (On the other hand, one can argue that school shootings happen for no reason at all rather than to inflict pain and violence.) This film does a tremendous job avoiding expected rationalizations for the students’ future actions whenever it could. If one is craving for something different in style and perspective, this is the one to see.