Art of Getting By, The (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
George (Freddie Highmore), a senior in high school, was in danger of not graduating. Ever since he read a depressing quote about mortality that pushed him to stop caring about doing well in school and forging meaningful friendships, he began to lead his life like a leaf on a stream. But when a popular girl, Sally (Emma Roberts), with whom he had a crush on for years, started to notice and spend time with him, he considered that maybe fatalism was not right for him. “The Art of Getting By,” written and directed by Gavin Wiesen, adopted a passive approach in telling George’s story. While interesting when done right, it failed to work in this instance. There was no sense of urgency nor was there any drastic changes in tone. This technique didn’t make much sense because George was eventually supposed to wake up from his apathy. Even I would have preferred it more if it had taken a more heavy-handed approach. But the lack of logic was not only present behind the camera. George was a young adult who was drowning only he didn’t know it or wouldn’t accept it. Why didn’t his mother (Rita Wilson) and stepfather (Sam Robards), despite the fact that they had their own pecuniary matters to deal with, choose to be more vocal or proactive about their son’s future? They claimed they wanted to see change in him. But when they saw him laying on his bed instead of attending school, they meekly closed the door because he demanded to be left alone. While he was exemplary when it came to looking sad, what would make sense was for either of the parents to drag him out of bed. A good parent, a parent who genuinely cared, would have. Later, we were asked to sympathize for the parents. How could we when it was so obvious that they chose to neglect their child? As for George and Sally, their relationship was supposed to be romantic down to the final second of the film. But notice that when two bonded while skipping class and stalking men in the streets, the soundtrack took over. Remove the soundtrack and it wouldn’t be easy to see that their interactions were, at best, superficial. Nevertheless, there was one scene between them that I liked. On New Year’s Eve, they went clubbing and drinking with their friends from school. While on the dance floor, Sally allowed another guy to cut between them which caused George to retreat. If she was supposed to be likable or even remotely smart, why did let that happen? Girls, if they have an iota of self-awareness, know when guys are into them. She only later appeared to him after he vomited profusely and claimed that she had been looking for him for two hours inside. I didn’t believe her for a second. Later, George called Sally a “hussy.” I laughed because it was true. I wish there were more scenes between George, his teachers (Alicia Silverstone, Jarlath Conroy), and the principal (Blair Underwood). Out of anybody in the movie, they were the ones who actively took a role in letting George know that his life was about to be in the gutter. They weren’t afraid to perform some tough love either. “The Art of Getting By” was misguided even though its intentions were good. By focusing on trivial things like George attempting to win over a girl who was prone to vacillate, it felt superficial. People like the protagonist are, unfortunately, found in many high schools. If they are to be inspired, they need better material than this.
Seuseung-ui eunhye (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
A detective (Eung-soo Kim) and his partner found a basement full of bloody and mangled bodies. They were informed that there were two survivors: a young woman and an older woman confined to a wheelchair. The detective asked the young woman what had happened. It turned out that the other survivor, Miss Park (Mi-hee Oh), was a former teacher suffering from a terminal illness. Seven of her former students came to visit so they could say their goodbyes. But the reunion wasn’t sweet. The seven became bitter because their lives didn’t turn out to be as they hoped. Miss Park was to blame. Written by Se-yeol Park and directed by Dae-wung Lim, “Seuseung-ui eunhye” was an interesting hybrid of slasher film and who-dun-it mystery. The identity of the murder was in question. It could be Miss Park’s son with a deformed face, bullied by six of the seven students when he was a kid, or it could be one of the seven. I enjoyed that it wasn’t very clear until the last act. But the cinematography sometimes distracted me from the bloody happenings in the film. There were certain scenes when it asked as to focus our eyes on Miss Park so we could feel the sadness she felt toward her damaged children. Even though she was far from a perfect teacher, we were asked to understand that she was at least aware of her mistakes, that she was regretful of her actions, before her body succumbed to her illness. But the camera kept zooming in and out of her face. It should have been reshot so that the emotions her face conveyed, though complicated, had some sort of clarity. As for the way the story unfolded, I enjoyed that it asked us to put the pieces together ourselves. There was no narrator to explain to us that a piece, for instance, didn’t really exist or it only happened in the confines of one’s psyche. However, in some ways, it worked against itself. In its attempt to conceal some of its secrets, the picture relied too much on the mood between the students contrasted with the atmosphere between a student and Miss Park when it was just the two of them. The formula involving a student being alone with his or her teacher was used too often so we knew when he was about to reveal the reason why he was there. Some of the information didn’t always make sense because we were only given pieces. The movie took a considerable amount of time to lay out all of its pieces and by the time we were asked to put it all together, half the viewers would have given up trying to put the information into one coherent whole. “To Sir with Love” or “Bloody Reunion,” though inconsistent, held a certain fascination. When it didn’t work, it was frustratingly bad but when it did, I watched in wide-eyed horror.
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.
Tourist, The (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Elise (Angelina Jolie) worked for a mystery man who ordered her to pick a stranger on a train that resembled his height and build in order to throw the cops (led by the determined but ultimately incompetent detective played by Paul Bettany) off the real identity of the mystery man. Elise had chosen Frank (Johnny Depp), a math teacher from Wisconsin, who inevitably fell in love with the woman who used him. Naturally, the police believed that Frank was the man who pulled all the strings, but a group of gangsters (Steven Berkoff as the mob boss) also wanted Frank for themselves because the mystery man had stolen money from them. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, expectations were high for the film because it was Depp and Jolie’s first time being together on screen and it was the director’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed “Das Leben der Anderen” or “The Lives of Others.” The most prolific complaint was the fact that the film lacked action sequences but that was exactly what I liked about it. It was a different kind of thriller because it was more about the ambiance between the two leads. Notice the scene when Elise and Frank met for the first time. Initially, there was no chemistry between them. Elise was breathtakingly stunning and Frank was, well, as nondescript as a math teacher who taught in the middle of nowhere. But the more they spoke to each other, the more they wanted to know each other in a deeper level and somehow that was enough. Flirtation was in the air but Elise had to remain focused on her mission. Frank wanted to have Elise but was afraid to take risks. Even his cigarette was not really a cigarette. Maybe he feared getting cancer. Depp’s acting was easy to criticize because the audiences are used to seeing him play characters who were bigger than life. Over-the-top had become the norm for him. I actually enjoyed Depp’s minimalist approach to this picture which was a big risk but it worked. As he attempted to run away from the gangsters on the rooftops, it was actually refreshing to see someone move slowly and stumble. We feared for him because he was just a regular folk thrown into an incredible situation. He was no Jason Bourne. Admittedly, I was slightly thrown off by the film’s many twists, especially toward the end when we finally discovered the true identity of the mystery man. In my opinion, they should have left the identity not known to the audiences so we could have something to talk about. The movie wasn’t really about the man’s identity. It was about an ordinary man swaying an incredible woman to take notice of him. Perhaps they could even fall in love.
World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“World’s Greatest Dad,” written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, was a satirical film about a father/writer/teacher (Robin Williams) who decided to hide his son’s (Daryl Sabara) accidental death from masturbating and instead made the death look like a suicide. Williams wrote a suicide note and when the school got a hold of it, the note became an instant hit. Being a failed writer time and again, Williams decided to take advantage of his son’s death and get the acclaim he always wanted by writing a journal full of sad thoughts and claiming it was written by his son. From the sound of it, I expected to immensely dislike Williams’ character because nothing is right about taking advantage of someone’s demise, especially that of a loved one’s. However, his son was such a prick (for the lack of a better word–and that’s putting it lightly) who didn’t care about anybody but himself (including those who were really nice to him such as his father and his only friend played by Evan Martin). In fact, I didn’t feel sad or remorse when the son died. I really cared more for father because he genuinely loved his son despite his son’s lack of appreciation. I’m beginning to think that Williams really shines in smaller pictures like this one and the underrated “One Hour Photo.” There’s something about the way he hides his feelings and thoughts that I can’t help but identify with. I especially liked that one scene when he pretended to be happy for a fellow teacher who was recently published on The New Yorker. There’s something very true about that scene because we all know how it is like to smile on the outside but feel really jealous inside after hearing about someone else’s success, especially if we don’t particularly like that person for whatever reason. I thought the darkly comedic scenes worked because it was able to point to the hypocrisy of high school students and the faculty that supposedly cared. I’m talking about how everyone suddenly started caring about Sabara’s character after his death when nobody really cared about him when he was alive. It reminded me of the time in high school when my fellow students and I would hear about a death over the morning announcements. For a couple of hours everyone sounded like they cared but the next day everything was back to normal as if nothing happened. This might be a difficult film to swallow for most people because the content might seem a bit “cruel.” But that’s what I admired about it; it was able to point to us and say, “This is what’s wrong with you” but not to the point where we feel bad. In fact, the pictures gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves.
Bes vakit (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
“Bes vakit,” also known as “Times and Winds,” was a story about how three children stopped being kids because of the many responsibilities that their parents thrusted upon them. Ozkan Ozen decided to kill his father because he could no longer take the maltreatment and favoritism toward his precocious brother. Elit Iscan slowly headed for breakdown because her mother insisted that she made herself useful even if the amount of schoolwork was more than enough for her to handle. And Ali Bey Kayali developed on a crush on his teacher, only to stumble on the fact that his own father was spying on her through her bedroom window. I have to be honest and state that this film was particularly difficult for me to sit through because of the many lingering shots on certain objects and sceneries. As stunning as such images were, I personally would have preferred to see more character development, dialogue and conflict among the characters. Without that emotional pull, it’s hard for me to be invested in the movie. I’m not saying that this Turkish film is not at all worth seeing, but it really is more of an acquired taste. Personally, I can withstand slow-moving pictures but this one gradually wore down my patience. The rituals that the children engaged in became a bit too redundant and I failed to see the point of it all. I also felt that the relationships among the kids weren’t established and therefore did not come together in the end. While all of them were obviously unhappy, I needed to see more commonalities among them to further observe them in multiple dimensions. Although I was able to evaluable their motivations and take note of their varying psychologies, there was still a certain detachment that did not quite dissolve as the picture went on. Written and directed by Reha Erdem, “Times and Winds” offered beautiful landscapes and a certain poetry with its tone. However, I hardly think it was strong enough to warrant a recommendation for viewers. I’m afraid this was just one of those coming-of-age films that left a bitter taste on my palate.
Entre les murs (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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Upon reading other people’s reviews, I got the feeling that Poppy (Sally Hawkins) was this person who was happy all the time and wasn’t at all affected by other people’s negative emotions. After actually watching the film, I believe she’s not like that at all. In fact, she cares so much about other people–her family, her friends, even complete strangers–to the point where she tries to make them happy when she senses that they’re having a bad day or they have something heavy in their minds. Her default emotion is happiness, which is unlike many people whose default is neutral, and that makes her really interesting and entertaining to watch. Writer and director Mike Leigh (“Vera Drake”) did a great job introducing an extremely charming and likable character right from the opening credits. What’s even more impressive is that he was able to tell an ordinary story surrounding a 30-year-old single elementary school teacher with great focus in the emotional aspects of different circumstances. By the end of the film, I truly got to know Poppy when she’s with her friends (Alexis Zegerman was hilarious as Hawkins’ sarcastic roommate), when she’s at work with her children, when she’s with her co-workers, when she’s with complete strangers, and when she’s by herself with her thoughts. Although the whole learning-to-drive aspect with Eddie Marsan as the angry driving instructor didn’t work for me because there were a lot of intense emotional outbursts, I did laugh a lot because I could relate to those scenes regarding my experiences behind the wheel for the first time. Instead of that, I wish the story had more time to focus more on the romance between Hawkins and Samuel Roukin. Since Poppy and her group of friends have been talking about where they are in their lives, including Poppy’s thoughts about whether she’s really happy with how her life has turned out, I thought that a genuine connection with someone of the opposite sex was an issue that needed more exploration. Still, this picture is very, very good and I was surprised that Hawkins didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. While watching the film, she made me feel really happy and it’s not easy to carry a comedy movie with such consistency all the way through. If you’re in the mood for a bit of sunshine, “Happy-Go-Lucky” gets a very enthusiastic recommendation from me.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Hamlet 2 (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I’m not a big fan of slapstick comedy and it’s dispersed throughout this movie, but Steve Coogan’s enthusiastic performance as a drama teacher who wants to inspire his students prevented me from becoming completely bored by it. The presence of familiar faces such as Elisabeth Shue, Catherine Keener, Melonie Diaz, David Arquette, and Amy Poehler made it that much better because their sometimes subtle performances contrast to the all-too-obvious elements of the picture. Not to mention that “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” song is not only satirical and catchy but just plain hilarious if one is not too sensitive when it comes to making fun of religion (Christianity in this case). I think I would’ve liked this film more if the slapstick that plagued the beginning were completely removed. Not only were they not funny, they also slowed the story down. Instead, the filmmakers should’ve dealt with race relations in the classroom; they tried to move in that direction but I got the feeling that the writers were afraid that the movie would get too serious. What is a comedy without a little bit of dramatic gravity? Despite my coming from a high school with a diverse group of ethnicities, self-segregation is not uncommon; it would’ve been nice if that was explored because I could relate to it and I think it’s still an important issue. I also liked the fact that the story of “Hamlet” was not just randomly chosen to make a play. Coogan’s character can relate to it, in his own strange way, so we get that sense of purpose. I don’t necessarily recommend this movie to just about anyone because it is targeted toward people with a specific sense of humor. If one is a fan of “Napoleon Dynamite” (which I hated with a passion), he or she might enjoy “Hamlet 2.” For me, this film is offensive (in a good way), satirical, and had heart but it could’ve been more insightful and moving if they had toned down the slapstick.