Saturday, December 25, 2010

Top 10 Movies: 2010

Like so many other years, film goers found themselves under a deluge of crappy films throughout the beginning of 2010. It was an eclectic year for film, but beside the mediocre sequels and brainless comedies, there were a few gems scattered throughout the year.

I haven't seen everything, so there may be films that deserve to be on the list that I've missed - but overall I felt 2010 had a lot to offer. (And a lot that should never have been offered.)

Top 10 films of 2010:

1. Social Network - Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher make a potent combination; the dialogue crackles with raw energy, and there is nothing more topical at the moment than Time's person of the year Mark Zuckerburg and the advent of Facebook.

2. A Prophet - Technically released in 2009, this modern day (and more realistic) Scarface story about a no name's rise to prison kingpin is compelling, brutal, and so freaking cool! Yeah, it may be from France, but don't hold that against this gem of a film.

3. True Grit - D. H. Lawrence once wrote that the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer, and no one seems to understand that better than the Coen Brothers. True Grit isn't just a film, it's an homage to the Western and the legends of the Silver Screen.

4. The Town - Ben Affleck's second directorial debut about a Boston gang of bank robbers is taut, cunning, and full of brutal action. But the scene where Jeremy Remner goes down in a hail of gun fire surrounded by police is praise worthy of James Cagney in White Heat.

5. Toy Story 3 - Lovingly crafted, Pixar has made a film that is by turns sweet, funny, and full of danger. It's a shame that many adults dismiss animation, because no one should feel they need to have a kid in tow to watch this delightful and brilliant film.

6. The Fighter - Down on his luck fighter finds girlfriend who helps him learn to believe in himself and gives him the heart of a champion. Yeah, we've seen this before, but the performances by both Amy Adams and Christian Bale are terrific, the fight scenes are tense, and Melissa Leo and the six sisters are unforgettable.

7. Inception - Christopher Nolan's movie about stealing ideas from people's dreams is a time piece of intricate writing, pace, and action that makes his former film Memento look like a wind up watch. Never pandering to the audience, Inception is cinematic surrealism of revolving stairs, there is no one correct way to interpret this film.

8. The Ghost Writer - Yeah, it's directed by Roman Polanski, but this old school Hitchcockian thriller is an ominous web of film noir that spirals Ewan McGregor into further and further peril. Pure suspense at its best, this film is a treat for anyone who has an attention span longer than sixty seconds.

9. The King's Speech - Think the Madness of King George III meets the Miracle Worker, this showcase for Colin Firth as a stammering prince terrified at the thought of having to give a speech is a masterpiece of acting. Geoffery Rush ain't too shabby either.

10. Easy A - A tribute to eighties comedies, Emma Stone hits one out of the park in a break out role that could easily land her on the "A" list. Witty and delightful, its always a blessing when there is a film about teenagers that doesn't view adults as perennially clueless and stupid.

Films that were pretty good, but didn't make the list: Iron Man 2, The Other Guys, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Megamind, Date Night, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, SALT, Kick-Ass, The Expendables...

Films that shouldn't have been made...
(I can't include Sex and The City 2 because I didn't see it, but I bet if I did it would be on this list.)

5. Knight and Day - Here's an idea, let's throw Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise into some mish mash spy adventure and hope it all works out. Well, it didn't.

4. Robin Hood - Hey, let's tell the story of Robin Hood but cast Russell Crowe, one of the most serious and stoic of all actors as one of the most jolly and flippant of all heroes. There aren't any merry men to be found in this monstrosity that is only colossal in it's dullness.

3. Alice in Wonderland - I like Tim Burton, I do. I like Johnny Depp, I like Helena Bonham Carter - but this bizarre, goth faerie tale is Alice in name only. Someone needs to reign Tim Burton in, first Willy Wonka, and now this. Burton's remakes are defacing classic art.

2. Jonah Hex - I knew it wouldn't be good, but I had no idea it would be so bad either. How does a film like this happen? I blame the terrorists.

1. The Last Airbender - I loved the cartoon series, which is why watching this boring, ponderous, piece of crap was all the more painful because the crap was flying into my eyes because it was 3-D . M. Night Shymalongadingdong - the jig is up. Quit!

Merry Christmas, Mr. Leiken

The last week before Christmas vacation is a strange time at a public high school. In the LA school system, we get a three week break before heading back for the long three month slog towards Easter. With nearly everyone looking forward to the holidays, the school takes on a festive atmosphere, akin to the last week of school without the disruption - the kids know they have to come back.

During the final week before the break, the worst students disappear, the school puts up its decorations, and everyone: teachers, administrators, and students are more relaxed. By unwritten agreement a truce is declared; chill man, it's Christmas - relax.

I'm just miffed I can't find my funky Dr. Suess Santa hat, the only hat I've ever owned that glorifies the spirit of Christmas while simultaneously promoting the fashion of the ghetto.

Bah, Humbug!

One of the best teachers at the school gives me a gift card to Starbucks. I'm so surprised I'm at a loss of words. She's had a rough year, but that hasn't stopped her from being a great teacher. This year she is particularly frustrated with her honors class of Seniors, "They think they know it all," she complains, "and when they don't do their work, I turn into a real bitch."

We're still talking about them when her seniors file into the room; it's Friday, the last class of the day and everyone just wants to go home and leave. One of the students has a guitar, but when I ask him to play something he freezes up, embarrassed.

The teacher calls him out on it. "Why won't you play for Mr. Leiken? You had no problem playing for me yesterday."

The students eyes go wide, "Because that's Mr. Leiken."

I don't remember him. "I had you for another class?"

"U.S. History with Mr. Duran; don't you remember?"

Concentrating, I vaguely remember him. "Well, I hope you learned something."

The bell rings as the students take their seats. "Hell yeah!" he replies, putting the guitar away. Suddenly the seniors rise out of their seats and walk out of the room.

The teacher is stunned. "What is going on!" she calls out. "Where are you going?"

"Sorry Miss," one of the seniors answers, standing guard in the doorway. "You can't come outside." He pauses for a second, "But you can come out, Mr. Leiken."

I walk outside to find the seniors in the hallway formed into a group for a photo. Two in front are holding a fruit basket while another holds flowers. "Okay, you can come out now Miss!" The students standing guard at the door allow her into the hallway, her class breaks into applause.

The teacher's eyes grow red. "They may not know it all," I whisper, "but they do know you are a great teacher."

As the day ends, I'm in my room, preparing to leave when two young men call out to me. "Mr. Leiken, we've been looking for you!" For a second, I don't recognize them, they look too old to be in high school when I realize they are too old to be in high school - they are seniors who graduated last year. Neither was in special ed, or on my case load. They were regular general ed kids who were in a history class with Ms. Martinez.

I had them for one semester for one class, and even then I was the secondary teacher, but they remember me. We shake hands, "We've been looking for you all day, Mr. Leiken. How have you been?"

I invite them into my room and we talk. One of them is attending Northridge College; the other plans to attend college in the spring but is busy making his own film. We talk about classes, work, life after high school, and of course girls. One of boys has a line he likes to use when he meets new girls.

"I ask them if their hair is real, or if it's a weave."

I raise an eyebrow. "Well that's either going to flatter them or leave them really offended."

"It's the only way, Mr. Leiken. You can't let girls get too full of themselves."

"I never did hear back from your cousin," the other breaks in. "The one who works in casting."

"I forwarded your profile, but you have to remember she sees hundreds and hundreds of actor photos. I'm sorry she didn't get back to you."

"That's okay, Mister. You told me never to give up, so I'm not."

We talk for over an hour. I ask them who else they wanted to see. "Mr. Adams, because he encouraged us to get into college, and of course you Mr. Leiken."

This surprises me. I never tutored them, I never helped them with college applications, never met their parents - from my point of view they were just two more faces in the crowd.

Yet here they are, wanting to tell me how much I helped them.

I look at the clock. It's time to go home. I shake their hands and bid them goodbye, chuckling to myself as I head towards my car.

Thanks for the gift, kids. Thank you.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Write it, and you will offend...

Can you write a blog without being offensive?

The answer to that is a qualified yes, provided you are willing to stick to the following topics: product reviews, cooking, art, feel good memoirs, travel and shopping. In order to be inoffensive, a potential blog must be devoid of colorful language, personality, opinion, and humor.

It's the difference between Cormac McCarthy and J.K Rowling; No Country for Old Men might be a great book, but it will never capture the imagination quite like Harry Potter battling Voldemort. The more thought provoking and evocative an idea, the greater the chance of stirring controversy and angering the reader. Religion, politics, crime, ethnicity, education, celebrities, medicine, war, sports; all guaranteed to piss somebody off.

Especially if you are trying to be funny.

My profession is full of controversy; I had no idea that teacher's invited so much hullaballo until after I became one. Even though most people have never taught in a public school, everyone has an opinion on what's wrong with education, and the #1 target: teachers.

When America loses a war, we don't blame the soldiers for being cowardly.

When crime goes up in a neighborhood, we don't blame the police for eating too many donuts.

But when public schools fail, the first people we go looking to blame are teachers - usually for being lazy.

So for all our detractors, haters, and critics, I'd like to hear from you on how you would fix the following situation.

Let's take the following kid: we'll call her Maria.

Age: Going on 17
Years in School: 3
Days absent: 112
High School Credits: 20
Credits needed to graduate: 240
Learning Disabled: Yes (Reading disabled)

Maria's been pulled out to make up an inter-coordinated science test. Inter-coordinated science is the class students get after they've failed biology at least twice. Heavy set and wearing thick mascara, Maria wears a black hoodie and black jeans, ghetto wear 101.

The instant I enter the room to collect some paperwork, Maria's looks up, distracted, ignoring her teacher as she puts down her test, waving.

Two years ago I spent two hours trying to get her to write two paragraphs. When she refused to cooperate, I refused to give up, when she deflected my attempts to help her, I deflected her excuses - all of her whining, complaining, and attempts to wheedle her way out of work fell on deaf ears.

Two hours later, I'd failed.

The next day we tried again, but Maria refused to give in. She refused to bring paper, she refused to bring a pen, she refused to study, to bring her books, she refused even to copy what I wrote down on the board. It was a siege, who would break first, the teacher, or the student?

In the end, Maria won. I had other concerns, other students that needed my time and help. Students who wouldn't fight me every step of the way - students who wanted to pass and graduate.

Two years later, and she is on a different teacher's case load. She waves to me like she is greeting an old friend. "Hey, Mr. Leiken!" Maria calls out cheerily. "How are you doing?"

I grunt. "What test are you taking?"

"I don't know, some intercourse test."

"That's inter-coordinated, Maria," the other teacher corrects.

"I know what intercourse is," Maria replies, waving her arms. "Yah-ah!"

I glance around my room, except for another kid quietly taking a test in the corner, its empty. I pull up a chair, sitting down across from her. It's time for the "talk".

"Maria," I ask, "what are you going to do after high school?"

"What you mean, do?" Maria answers, rolling her eyes. "Get a job, duh!"

"Doing what?"

"I don't know Mister, a job. I'll work for my family or something."

"Well, what do they do?"

"I don't know."

"So let me get this straight, you are going to get a job working for your family but you have no idea what it is you'll be doing."

Maria sneers, "I know what's up Mister. You don't need to worry about me."

"So what are you going to do about money?"

"You can just get money from EBT. (Electronic Benefits Transfer - or Welfare) That's what my Mom does. If you have kids they give you food stamps."

"So you are planning to have kids just to get food stamps?"

"No!" Maria scoffs. "I'll just lie or something." She glances at both me and the other teacher. "Don't the two of you get food stamps?"

"No, Maria," the other teacher answers, "we work for a living. We've never been on welfare."

"Well that's stupid," Maria scoffs. "You should both go down there and tell them you need food, they'll give you some."

I refuse to let her change the subject. "Maria, what are you going to do for a living?"

Maria picks up her test. "I need to take this test, Mister Leiken."

"After you answer my question. How old are you?"

Maria thrusts the test down. "I'm 17 in January. But in my head, I'm already 17."

"So what happens when you turn 18? If you've got it all figured out, why waste your time in school?"

"I have to stay in school or I get in trouble with my Mom! If I'm not in school she doesn't get food stamps."

"But what happens after you are 18? They won't be giving her food stamps anymore because you'll be an adult. Is your Mom going to let you hang out around the house? Won't she expect you to go get a job?"

"Psshhh, I'll just live in the garage." Maria snatches up her test. "I really need to take this test Mr. Leiken."

"Why? You are just going to fail it."

"You can't say that!" Maria snaps angrily. "You don't know that."

"Have you been in class? Have you studied? Have you done any of the homework?" I look at the test, its empty of answers. "The entire time you've been down here you haven't even answered one question, and now you want to take the test because I'm putting you on the spot. What are you going to do after you turn 18?"

Silence. Maria and I stare at one another, a class of wills, but this time I win the siege and she breaks away. "I'll just go to adult school. Then I'll get a job at McDonald's."

"Maria, I believe you don't do the work not because you are lazy, but because you don't believe you can do it, so you give up before you even try."

"I think you're right, Mister."

"You can retake classes, but you can't make up time. Even if you passed every class from now on you wouldn't be able to graduate until you are 20." I rise from my seat. "If you don't want to learn, fine. But if you don't want to be here, you need to think about what you are going to do, and you need to figure it out soon."

I leave the room. I have ten more just like her on my case load, it's not the learning disability that impairs her ability to succeed, it's the attitude. There are at a minimum five hundred kids at my school just like her - who treat school like a social playground, a place to "kickback" and get away from home.

At least five hundred kids who refuse to bring their books, to come on time, to bring a pen or a pencil, to turn in homework. Five hundred? It could be a thousand. A thousand kids who don't try and fail, but fail to even try. Is it any wonder the graduation rate is only 50%, that my district ranks lowest academically across all of California but is first in teenage pregnancies?

Yep, it's clearly all because we're lazy, shiftless, money grubbing, union protected teachers.

And Charter schools are the answer!