Kids in America (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
Principal Weller (Julie Bowen) oversaw Booker High School and wanted to run for superintendent of the school district. She cared more about politics than helping her students to become active learners. In her own words, she saw her job as simply about improving statistics. In order to show that she was in control, she started to adopt new rules such as banning students from distributing condoms to promote safe sex (ludicrous but a more realistic goal than abstinence especially in a high school setting) during National Safe Sex Day and going through students’ diaries without good reason. Teenagers from several cliques (Stephanie Sherrin, Caitlin Wachs, Alex Anfanger, Crystal Celeste Grant, Chris Morris, Emy Coligado) came together, with an appropriately named Holden (Gregory Smith) as their leader and one of their teachers (Malik Yoba) as their mentor, to fight for their rights via civil disobedience. Inspired by several true stories, what I enjoyed most about “Kids in America” was the way the characters embraced their stereotypes and concocted a way to make what made them different work for them, which ranged from serious issues (a daughter of a hippie fighting for the injustice of female genital mutilation) to hopelessly silly situations (an Asian pretending not to understand English in attempt to get out of jail). The type of comedy was nothing particularly groundbreaking compared to other teen movies but it had so much manic energy that its typical teen humor was easy to overlook. What I found to be more important was the fact that it wanted to discuss intelligent issues that matter. It had a good message about making an active change in the community if rights were being stripped away. My favorite scene was when Holden challenged the teenagers to find another persons of the same sex and kiss them on the lips as a response to Principal Weller’s homophobia. It was very amusing but it had to be done in order to prove a point: Medieval methods do not coincide with modern times. Admittedly, I wished it spent more time, from a serious angle, about the repercussions of taking disobedience a bit too far. It would have given the movie more edge and therefore would have been more memorable. Directed by Josh Stolberg, “Kids in America” can be inspiring given the right type of audience. Under a critical eye, it may be a bit too simplistic with its themes but I think it is focused and ironic enough to successfully get its points across to its intended audiences.
The House of the Devil (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Set in the 1980’s, “The House of the Devil” was a horror film about a second year college student named Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) who took up a babysitting job from a husband and wife (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) so she could pay the rent for her new apartment. Desperate for the money, she still took the job despite many weird signs that perhaps the people she was babysitting for had something up their sleeves. I was surprised by how good this movie was. Written and directed by Ti West, the film had a sense of authenticity; it looked and felt like it was made in the 1980s because of the music, the fashion and hairstyles and even minute details like the lighting, the lead character’s plucky and funny friend (Greta Gerwig), and the font used during the opening and closing credits. During the first fifteen minutes of the movie, I was very curious how West managed to get such various elements together to make such a convincing small horror film. I loved that this picture had such a great sense of timing and well as rising action. This is not the kind of movie for teenagers of today because it doesn’t have jump-out-of-your-seats moments like in more common slasher flicks. This is a patient movie that thrives on the details. Strangely enough, like Sam, I found myself becoming more and more paranoid the longer she stayed in the house, especially when she started hearing odd noises in the kitchen sink. Although built on the classic false alarms and increasing sense of dread without actually showing anything, I was also impressed with the fact that it could turn grizzly if it wanted to. Those moments pulled the rug from under my feet and I couldn’t help but voice out my thoughts. I really rooted for the character because she was a very nice girl who just really needed the money so she wouldn’t always rely on her parents. She wouldn’t even take a little harmless revenge earlier in the film when someone stood her up. The last twenty minutes of this film was pure terror. All the tension it built up finally burst and I found myself having no idea where it was leading up to. “The House of the Devil” is an effective exercise in giving its audiences small bits information and chilling us to the bone. I think people who have no idea what to expect will love this film the most because of its ability to surprise. With a little bit of patience, one will come to realize that this small picture is really one of the better horror flicks of 2009. I just hope that more people will seek this out on DVD. It’s not very often that horror movies assume that their audiences are smart. I’ve seen a plethora of horror movies from the 1980s and “The House of the Devil” was a really good homage.
Food of Love (2002)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novella “The Page Turner” by David Leavitt, writer and director Ventura Pons helmed this movie about an eighteen-year-old student (Kevin Bishop) in Juliard who one day works for a much older pianist (Paul Rhys) and their eventual relationship in Barcelona. What started off as a young man looking for his identity eventually became more about how his mother (Juliet Stevenson) coped when she found out that her son was into men. I’m not exactly sure which half I liked better because both had equal number of strengths and weaknesses. I liked that this film was constantly changing and constantly exploring the dynamics between the characters. But then once in a while, it slides into amateur acting and melodramatic scenes. Toward the second half of the picture, Bishop became increasingly angry with his mother, the reasons of which were vague to me. Yes, she was around him all the time but I thought she wasn’t suffocating. I could tell that she cared about him and only wanted what was best for him. So when his outbursts came, I didn’t believe it because he had no reason to take out his frustrations with her. In fact, there were times when I was more interested in the mother than the son, which was not a good thing because the film’s focus should have been Bishop’s character, the things that were important to him and the things that he was searching for. There was a certain sadness and desperation about Stevenson’s character when she finally decided to attend a meeting consisting of mothers with gay children. As for the mentor aspect of the story, I thought that Bishop and Rhys’ relationship was creepy. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to think that the whole thing was romantic. I just don’t find anything appealing when it comes to an eighteen-year-old being with a thirty- or fortysomething. The supposed musical connection they had wasn’t really explored. Instead, there were far too many scenes in the bedroom. Though none of it was graphic, such scenes could have been taken out and the director should’ve built upon the foundations of the arc that the lead character was supposed to go through. Ultimately, I thought this movie had potential but it was far too unfocused and it easily surrendered to the usual pitfalls of homosexual romance.
The Class (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I thought “Chalk” was a realistic portrayal of the classroom environment but “Entre les murs,” also known as “The Class,” was grittier and far more realistic. Based on the novel and starring François Bégaudeau, this film was a docudrama about a teacher who tries to encourage fourteen- to fifteen-year-olds to be more passionate about learning via being honest with them and using various methods to find their strengths in a span of one year. However, this year was different because the kids he had last year were on the verge of growing up so, naturally, they began to question his different approaches and tried to constantly push him over the edge, blind to the fact that he was always putting his best intentions forward to try to make them more prepared for the future. This film is very difficult not to admire because it really captured how it was like to be in a classroom consisting on hormonal and highly unstable students. I was in high school three years ago and it brought back a lot of memories. I may not have had the same experiences as the students in this picture because I experienced both “advanced placement” classes and “regular” classes, but the conversations and dynamics in the classrooms were essentially similar. Seeing François Bégaudeau’s character reminded me of my best teachers in high school (unsurprisingly, my favorite classes: French and Psychology) because even though they always try their best and put on a mask that everything is okay, tiny cracks on their armors are sometimes seen and the frustrations leak out like a dam about to burst. I looked at the students who improvised most of the dialogue and I constantly thought that in less than five years, their outlook on education, ability in terms of social interactions and the overall concept of respect would totally be redefined to the point where they would look at this film and probably would not recognize who they were. I also found the interactions between the teachers and faculty fascinating. There were some scenes that suggested that they, too, were like children in the classrooms, which was a nice surprise because most American films about inspirational teachers have this message that teachers are always proper, always wearing decent clothes and always having that need to provide a big speech that would change everybody’s minds for the better. None or very minimal of that American formula was painted here. “The Class,” directed by Laurent Cantet, was a painfully realistic look at our educational systems and it shows that teachers need to be appreciated more even if their best efforts are simply not enough. (Don’t even get me started on how little they get paid for such an important and difficult career.) There was this scene in the end when one of the students confessed to the teacher that she didn’t learn anything throughout the school year, which totally broke my heart. As sad as it was, it’s more honest and more common than we can possibly imagine. That said, it shouldn’t scare us or defeat us; it should only inspire us to find other ways to accomodate such learners.