17 December 2008

Warning to all Parisians: I'm coming!

The countdown is about over and in approximately eight hours our flight will depart from San Francisco International Airport for points East. Specifically to Paris via London. I love flying, which would be infinitely more convenient if I had my own wings. As it is I must settle for taking passage on airplanes.

One of the things I love most about flying is that is means I'm going somewhere. Unfortunately I've spent far too much of my life in one place or another and not enough of it jet-setting around the globe to fabulous locales. But as George Bailey learned, it's a wonderful life nonetheless.

There'll be much to see in Paris and London and I'll try to record my impressions of it right here on this very blog. I'm not sure how updating the blog will work out during our stay. It may have to wait until we return on New Year's day.

I look forward to seeing the beaches of Normandy, the trip to London for the Arsenal match and umpteen sites in Paris. Of course, to me, one of the best things about going to a foreign land is not just seeing the famous sites, but just being there period. I look forward to riding the Metro, sitting in a cafe and strolling through neighborhoods.

So packing is just about done, the house is clean and secure and its off we go. Yippee!!

14 December 2008

This That The Other

I thought I'd try something a little different and begin a post without having any idea what I was going to write about. Perhaps now that I'm started I could touch upon some of the ideas I've had but never gotten around to. Maybe that's not spontaneous enough. Anywhoo, let's see what comes up.

* I'm one of those people who loved the ending for No Country for Old Men (2007). It seems a lot of people want resolution to every story. Life doesn't always work like that. Also, Anton Chigurh was not, perhaps, a force that was stoppable. Also, it was quite faithful to the book.

* Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle published a letter today from someone who called him the worst critic in history. I think Mick should have embraced the distinction. Imagine being the ultimate in anything. It'd be a real selling point for his reviews. "See what the world's worst critic says."

* Anyone else disappointed with last night's Saturday Night Live? I always expect more from their Christmas episode. I've taken to watching the show faithfully since they added Andy Samberg to the cast -- he's a former student. He joined SNL along with friends Avilka Schaffer and Jorma Taccone who are writers on the show and also former students of mine. Not all my students go on to such success. One former charge is on death row for triple homicide. I get mixed results.

* Can't wait to see Frost/Nixon, Slumdog Millionaire, The Reader, that Button movie with Brad Pitt and some of the other year end releases. Trouble is I've got this damn trip to Europe coming up. Hoping to catch a film in Paris if for no other reason than to check out the cinema experience there.

* Isn't Santa Claus (pictured above with his missus) great? So generous, tirelessly giving without asking for anything in return. You should realize that he's a Finn and his actual name is Joulu Pukki.

* Watched The Shop Around the Corner (1940) last night, a Christmas tradition of late. One thing that struck me about was what a great ensemble cast it had. Sure Jimmy Stewart and Maureen Sullivan were excellent and, as I mentioned in recent post, so too was Frank Morgan. But how about Felix Bressart and William Tracy, just to name a pair? Then I thought about how often I rhapsodize about a movie and mention that in addition to its star the supporting cast was top drawer. It's rather obvious then that that a very good movie is very good because of the a very good overall cast. Duh!

* I wonder if Jesus Christ was bummed that his birthday fell on Christmas? Just wondering....

* I wonder if Asia Argento and Ludivine Sangier read my blog? They might seek me out in Paris. My wife might get wind of this. Ooh, cat fight!

Okay, I was doing pretty well with this "unscripted" post until then. May be time to move on. Joyeux Noel, y'all.


12 December 2008

Have a Nice Trip!

Next week the the wife, youngest daughter and I are going to Paris for two weeks. Oldest daughter, who's doing her junior year at a university in Finland, will meet us there. Inevitably with this trip, as with any other vacation, I'll mention it in conversation. Ninety per cent of all people will say something along the lines of "sounds like fun have a great time," or will ask a question or pass on a recommendation. But among the other ten per cent are the less gracious responses. Like these:

1) "You know it's real cold/hot there this time of year." Or "it's really crowded/no one is there this time of year." This is a person who's really saying that since they're stuck at home they want to spoil your trip in some small way. They hate for other people to be enjoying themselves or be excited. They're happy to be the rain on your parade. If you root for a sports team in a league or sport that has no connection to them, they'll always point out when your team loses. I root for an English soccer team and I can't tell you how many times people have who've not the slightest interest in the sport will remind me when my team loses. I can tell you exactly how many times theses people have congratulated me on the team's victories. Zero.

2) "Oh yeah, we've been there." Translated: What, you think you're special? As if you thought you were the only person ever to go somewhere fun or exciting. In elementary school this is the person who would ask, "am I supposed to be impressed?" If you were about to be crowned King of England they'd point out how many other kings England has had -- what, you thought you were the first?

3) "We were there ten years ago and blah, blah, blah, yak, yak, yak....." Anything you ever say to this person is just an opportunity for him or her to ramble on with their own story. "You just climbed Mount Everest? Yeah, well let me tell you about the hike we took last weekend."

4) Last, worst and most baffling of all is this: "it must be rough." A few years ago when I told my boss that I was going to miss a few days of work because of a trip to London, that was his initial response. What the hell does it even mean other than that the speaker is totally lacking in grace or charm? Many years ago I told a co worker I was leaving work early. She came back with the "it must be rough." Yeah it was, I was leaving early to have a root canal.

Thankfully the vast majority of people are quite nice. Dealing with all these pleasant folks in the world -- it must be rough.

11 December 2008

12 Films for Your 12 Days of Christmas

Tis' the season for Holiday themed films. Here are twelve of my favorites. You'll note that some are not strictly speaking Christmas movies. Indeed the most revered of all, It's A Wonderful Life, begins and ends on Christmas but most of it takes place at other times of the year. That's consistent with many of the movies on my list, if they aren't plain and simple Christmas movies they at least end during the holiday. That's one reason I don't include the delightful Bachelor Mother (1939) starring Ginger Rogers. It begins in the Christmas season but the rest of the movie is after the holiday. It thus doesn't have the holiday feel to it. So although in point of fact there's not a lot of Christmas in The Man Who Came to Dinner, for example, it's a season staple and makes my list as it ends on December 25. Enough preamble, here are movies to make your holiday all the brighter.

It's A Wonderful Life (1946) An obvious choice. I never tire of great films and this is one of the best of all time, Christmas related or otherwise. Jimmy Stewart is at his best as we all know but so is Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Lionel Barrymore and the rest of director Frank Capra's great cast. This is a movie that has stayed with me all my life as a reminder to be forever thankful of what I do have and not to under estimate the role each of us plays in one another's lives. Some people think its sappy and sentimental. Yeah, well its well done sap and sentiment.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) You're not going to get any more Christmasy than this classic. My fave, Barbara Stanwyck, stars as a magazine writer who's boss, an avuncular Sydney Greenstreet, has her host a war hero in the kind of rustic traditional Xmas she extols in her columns. Problem is that Stanwyck's character is a big faker and has to go through all manner of shenanigans to pull the wool over everyone's eyes including the heroic sailor, the handsome and humble Dennis Morgan. You'll not find a warmer, fuzzier, cozier Christmas film. It's funny too.

Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) One of the great film's from Preston Sturges' brief but spectacular run of classics. It's another film that begins and ends at Christmas. The usual Sturges' troupe is on hand led by William Demarest as Constable Kockenlocker (great name). Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken co-star. It's a typically frenetic and witty Sturges comedy. Slipping this one by the censors was the true miracle of Morgan's Creek.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) I've never seen anyone else in the role so I'm really not qualified to say but I can't imagine anyone better suited than Monty Wooley to play Sheridan Whiteside. What ego, what pomposity, what fun. Whiteside is of course the world famous columnist of print and radio whose fall down wet steps make him the unwelcome house guest in a small town home. Along for the fun are Bette Davis as his erstwhile assistant, the delicious Ann Sheridan and Jimmy Durante essentially playing themselves.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) Very little of the holiday season is present in this Ernst Lubitsch classic, but it ends on Christmas Eve. The director's famous "touch" is evident in this story of two store clerks who anonymously fall in love as pen pals. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan star but Frank Morgan as the store owner is a scene stealer. It's one of the better done love stories of all time.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Stay the hell away from the newer and far inferior version. This original stars Edmund Gwen as Santa Claus. Is he really Saint Nicholas? So it would seem. He'll at least have you believing he's the best cinematic Santa of all time.

Home Alone (1990) The mark of a really good comedy is that it remains funny with each viewing. This is the best of the many films writer, director, producer John Hughes cranked out in the 80's and 90's. Obviously star Macaulay Caulkin had a lot to do with the film's surprising success. He plays an eight year old left behind when the family jets off to France for Christmas (hey, that's what we're about to do!). Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, as the two burgulars he terrorizes, help with the mirth-making. There's also a touching element to the story. Not to be forgotten is John Candy's cameo -- polka, polka, polka!

Home Alone 2 (1992) A sequel that's almost as good as the original! Another holiday miracle. Caulkin, his family and Pesci and Stern are back but this time the setting is New York and the cameo is provided by our old friend Bracken. The laughs continue and so too does the holiday message.

The Santa Clause (1994) By all means pass on all the dreadful sequels to this Tim Allen vehicle. Ahh but the original is a delight with an interesting take on the whole Santa, elves and reindeer business. I haven't seen Allen in much I've liked but he comes through here in the story of an ordinary bloke who falls into the role of being the real Saint Nick. Some people think he's loony but he's got a surprise for them.

Scrooge (1951) For my money (albeit there's not a lot of it) Alastair Sim is the best Ebeneezer Scrooge in film history. Its not surprising then that this is the best cinematic version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. It is very dark when it needs to be and brightens up nicely when its supposed to. Along with It's A Wonderful Life, this is the ultimate secular holiday story, with its story of redemption and hope.

A Christmas Carol (1984) This was actually a made for TV movie but I don't see why that should exclude it. George C. Scott is Scrooge and though no Sim he's damn good. While the previously mentioned film makes a strong case for a black and white telling of the story, this film makes a compelling argument for a color version. This is a wonderful film directed by Clive Donner.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Something for the kiddies that Mom and Dad can enjoy. The Muppet's appeal to all ages, of course, and so does Michael Caine as Scrooge. From what I remember of the Muppet films from when my children were wee ones this is the best of the lot. It's a musical with tunes that will dance in your head along with visions of sugar plums.

Also for your consideration are these shorter Christmas tales: A Charlie Brown Christmas (never ever gets old and its got a great message); How the Grinch Stole Christmas (not the poxy film version, you've got to have Karloff!); Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (a staple of my childhood); the many Simpson's Christmas episodes available on DVD, the Twilight Zone's Night of the Meek (stars Art Carney); and the brand new A Colbert Christmas The Greatest Gift of All! (irreverent holiday fun).

10 December 2008

A Challenging But Ultimately Rewarding Blog Post

"Thank you for your interest in one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs in education--substitute teaching."

So begins the Welcome page introduction on the Oakland Unified School District's substitute teacher website.

I don't believe they're being ironic.

Let's take a look at two key words from that sentence. First of all you've got "rewarding." In what sense? The frickin pay? That's about the only reward and its not much of one at that. There's none of the "psychic income" that then California Governor Jerry Brown said classroom teachers earned (I'm sure his remarks excluded subs). On the worst days subs are treated like so much trash. On an average day they're largely ignored as they preform perfunctory tasks. On most days they're bored to tears.

Why do it in the first place? The only reason is to help pay a few bills while you work on something else, as I'm currently doing. Schools like me because I show up on time, am presentable and don't run screaming out of the room before the end of the day. I also avoid confrontations with students. Too many subs try to lay down the law and over step their bounds making difficult situations worse. Mellow subs are the best for students, schools and themselves.

Okay the other word in that sentence I want to look at is "challenging." How I've come to hate that word In education! It’s a euphemism, usually for difficult. You can't say a student is a jerk, you say he's "challenging." You don't even talk about problems with a class or student, you talk about "challenges." Educators of all stripes are always talking about "looking forward" to this or that "challenge". Actually we don't like challenges, we'd like things to be easy. If there's going to be a challenge we accept that fact, roll up our sleeves and do our best.

The use of "challenges" is an example of the dilution of our language. Here's another example of what I'm talking about:

"Bob had a substance abuse problem when at the time of his incarceration for possession of a controlled substance."
Translation: Bob was a junkie when he was jailed for drug possession.

Perhaps the worst case of language fear I ever heard was when the woman in charge of disabled students at our school got on the intercom during homeroom and asked for student volunteers to work with fellow students who had "special needs."

Damn! I just have ordinary needs. I wish mine were “special” too.

I'd love it if people talked and wrote less like a sales brochures and more like a Cormac McCarthy novels.

Now that's a challenge.

05 December 2008

A Film Worth Crying About

When the credits to Gus Van Sant's Milk ended I literally wanted to pitch forward and sob. This is quite something for a man imbued with an icy Finnish reserve. As it was I settled for being a bit teary eyed.

How did the movie have such a profound effect on me?

For one thing its non fiction. There is far more power to stories that depict actual events. Simply, the knowledge that Harvey Milk was a real person who was struck down tragically, is far more compelling than Jack fading into the ocean at the end of Titanic -- at least for me.

But the main character of a film dying, particularly when you are well aware of his fate in advance, isn't necessarily enough to choke one up in and of itself. This story also included a pitch perfect performance by Sean Penn in the title role. If Harvey Milk's ghost didn't inhabit Penn's body and soul during filming then Penn has taken his craft to a new level.

A great portrayal like Penn's adds immeasurably to the drama, but that too is not enough. You need a director at the top of his game to bring the whole scope of this amazing story to life. Van Sant was up to the task. His occasional blending of real footage was excellent, particularly at the end when he showed the massive candle light march through San Francisco following Milk's death. This scene alone can make a grown man cry.

But still something else is needed. Importance. This is a story that has resonance to many of us for a variety of reasons. One is that we remember Harvey Milk and his times. (His election to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977 made him the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. His murder, along with SF Mayor George Moscone in November 1978 made him martyr. Before this he was already well established as the "Mayor of Castro Street" the largely gay section of San Francisco.)

Finally this is a film that tells one chapter in the story of the ongoing struggle towards equality for all Americans. Given the step back taken by the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California, Milk is a reminder of how great progress can be realized. Gay rights is one of the last major battle fronts in the war against intolerance and bigotry.

On a more personal level Milk helped me again confront the homophobia that I grew up with back in a time when homosexuality wasn't talked about let alone condoned. To make clear that you embrace your gay brothers and sisters is one thing, not being uncomfortable when two men kiss on screen is another ( I admit it and I'm not proud of it, I was uncomfortable during every kiss).

So let's see here. We've got a transcendent acting performance in the starring role of a well-told story about a struggle for equal rights in the recent past with relevance to today some of it on a personal level. Little wonder that I was so touched.

And you now what, I haven't even gotten to how great the rest of the cast such as Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch and James Franco were.

Every once in awhile a film comes along that reminds me why I love movies. Oh sure, I've got many of them on DVD that I can watch at my convenience but to discover one at the theater is special. You always remember your first time with a great film. There, I said it, Milk is a great film. And if I was more of a man maybe I would have really pitched forward and sobbed.

01 December 2008

What a Character!

If you've given any thought at all to seeing A Christmas Tale, or Un conte de Noël as it is known in France, don't hesitate. If you don't know what movie I'm talking about click on the title which will direct you to it on IMDb. There you can read a little about it and check out some of the reviews. Roger Ebert and Mick LaSalle have, as usual, particularly good ones.

And about those reviews, and about film comment in general -- ain't it interesting? Note how many different directions you can go in discussing a film. You can do the overall synopsis, discuss a theme, the direction, performances, any number of ways. And of course within those you can go in a lot of directions. What themes resonated with you about the film? Was a given film a searing look at contemporary values or an indictment of a corrupt judicial system or a reflection of the director's twisted psyche?

I pondered the many ways one could look at A Christmas Tale -- families, the mother, terminal illness, relationships -- and it helped me realize that in a lot of really good cinema the director paints on broad canvass. Also, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What a person picks up from such a film says something about them or at least their current state of mind.

With that as preamble I bring to you my favorite topic of this film, the character of Henri (he is played by Mathieu Amalric who has been visible a lot recently -- A Secret, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and even Quantum of Solace.)

Henri is a knave, a rogue, a scoundrel, a liar, a drunkard, a complete and utter sh*t. Yes, I loved the guy.

Some of the best characters in films are the type of people we'd despise in real life. Safely up their on the screen no danger to us they are colorful and interesting. We can't smell the booze they reek of, we don't feel their slaps, their insults are directed at another screen image. We get to enjoy the show.

Henri is so endearing despite his endless character flaws because he's so damn true to himself. He is completely and unadulteratedly himself. An ambiguous jerk is a disgusting jerk, give me mine pure. Yes it helps that Henri is a handsome bloke with requisite charms to get by and even a smashing looking girlfriend. After all, no one is 100% anything and besides a heel without some charm is unpalatable -- or Dick Cheney. Of course in the end, and this is no spoiler, he does the right thing. But the grand gesture the final sacrifice is easy for the unrepentant a**hole. It is consistently fouling the waters along the way that is the true mark of the douche bag.

Like many films A Christmas Tale needs its Henri. Other characters are complex and interesting but it is through the dirty rotten bum that their true natures can be best seen. He brings out the best and worst of others. (Actually that's quite a good way to judge character, put a group of people in a room for a few hours with real scumbag and see how they act.)

Another thing about Henri's character that is so successful is that he's so damn real. I've yet to encounter a Darth Vader or Liberty Valance but I've seen my share of Henri's. Indeed, I've little in common with Darth or Liberty but confess there's a bit of Henri in me -- so to speak.

So go, enjoy the picture. You may be more entranced by Catherine Deneveue's performance or this touching and funny look at a sprawling dysfunctional family, but you'll not miss Henri. Like any good jerk he's as obvious as the headache he's likely to cause.