School to Parents: You Are Not Welcome in Your Child’s Classroom

When did schools start doing everything to keep parents out of elementary classrooms? In light of stretched budgets, increasing class sizes and lack of resources, wouldn’t you think schools would be eager to bring parents in to lend a hand in the classroom or at least to get a first-hand picture of what teachers have to handle?

Last year I suggested a “parent observation day” like we had every year when I was in school. The principal responded:

Last year’s [School Advisory Council] recommended that a curriculum brochure be developed for each grade to give a greater overview of the curriculum.  Teachers will be working on that project this year.  Also, teachers send home classroom newsletters each week.  Can you give me an idea of the specific information for which you’re looking, which isn’t addressed through these other means?

I responded:

It’s not specific information I am seeking but rather the experience of what a typical school day is like. This is not something that can be communicated in writing. Of course I understand that it’s not a typical day when there are 15-20 parents in the room but the expectation would be that teachers not plan any special performances or demonstrations or do anything they wouldn’t do if the parents were not there. I experienced this throughout my school career (in public schools). It gives parents a much better understanding of what happens in the classroom than anything they could read or be told. It helps make future parent-teacher discussions more productive when both parent and teacher have a common reference point. It can also be great way to show parents how they can contribute.

And here was the final word from the principal:

I’ll check with the teachers to see if there are additional ways that parents can help.

Of course I never heard another word about it from the principal and I let it drop until this year when I have concerns about whether my daughter is being adequately challenged. She is bringing home 3rd grade spelling words that she was using fluently in kindergarten and her math assignments look pretty much the same as they did in 1st grade. She hasn’t brought home a single piece of work with a correction on it and she’s developing the habit of not listening to directions since she knows she can do the work anyway.

After a couple of meetings in which the teacher, the principal and I discussed opportunities to make the curriculum more challenging that wouldn’t be overburdening to the teacher, e.g., substituting more interesting vocabulary for her weekly spelling words, I am still getting nowhere and I feel like we are talking past each other. So I suggested to the principal that I should observe my daughter’s class one day, any day, just to put us on the same page. Maybe if I saw what happens in the classroom I would find that my concerns are unfounded. The principal’s response:

I could look in on the classroom and let you know how things are going.

No, that won’t help. So I wrote to the teacher:

I’d like to come and observe the class one day. Perhaps that will put us both on the same page. Let me know a good day to come in.

Her response (in its entirety):

What would be the purpose of the observation?

And mine:

Just to see a typical class. I’m happy to do it on a day when I can lend a hand with an activity.

I’ve done it so much in a professional capacity that it seems odd that I haven’t had a chance to see my own daughter’s class – especially when we’re talking about the curriculum and I don’t have a clear picture of what actually is happening in the classroom.

It’s been nearly a week now with no response. I am fully expecting that next the school will make the case for security as this legal opinion details:

There are a number of reasons why most Districts strictly limit parental visitation. Principal among these are privacy rights of other children who are present in the classroom. Other reasons are that parents are generally not trained educators, their presence can interfere with student discipline and professional evaluation, and liability concerns. Of additional concern to Districts is the issue of direction and control. A parent who is present in a classroom is not under the direction or control of the classroom teacher, his/her supervisor, the administration, or the Board. Thus, if an untoward
incident occurs, there is no ability to discipline or otherwise hold the parent responsible. Finally, in this post-Columbine era, security is an issue. Many districts today actively discourage an environment in which it is usual to see strangers in the schools.

Well, I am a trained educator and I am not a stranger (it’s a small school and I’ve chaperoned field trips and been a guest reader and run school activities and almost every child in the class knows me by name from play dates or soccer or other activities). Plus, I’ve been CORI’d.

Why is the burden on me to prove that I need to see the classroom? My child spends six hours a day five days a week with this person and I’d like to see what she’s doing. Would I let my child take piano lessons or play a sport without observing the teacher or coach? Don’t they realize that the more they resist, the more I assume they have something to hide? Yet most parents don’t have the time or energy to fight this battle – schools prevail through attrition. How sad, they have so much to gain.

UPDATE: I was, after another meeting with the principal, permitted to observe the class on two mornings when I saw the class do independent work in their spelling books, take a spelling test and play math games. The teacher, working with the reading specialist has found a workbook with more challenging spelling/vocabulary that she will substitute for the standard workbook at her discretion, and my daughter is now being asked to write stories for homework instead of single sentences. Additionally, the teacher is providing an advanced math packet for several of the students to work on during class.

Belmont water pressure

When we were having our pre-purchase house inspection last year I was sure to ask the inspector about water pressure. We had renovated our house in Watertown and added a bathroom on the third floor in which the water pressure was decent but not as strong as we would have liked. He just laughed and told us we’d never have a problem in Belmont. And sure enough, the pressure is amazing here compared to our old house just a mile away.

I just read the article about water conservation in the latest Belmont Citizens Forum newsletter, which includes a table of average water usage for surrounding communities. It says that in Belmont used an average of 73 gallons/person/day, considerably higher than Lexington, 65, Waltham, 68, Watertown, 59 and Cambridge at 49. Summer lawn watering doesn’t explain it since all the towns have fairly similar summer/winter use ratios. My guess is that people in Belmont use more water because every time they turn on a faucet the water comes blasting out like a firehose.

Dan Casper’s Sundance 2008 Recap

I can’t say this was really a great year at Sundance. The weather was terribly cold and the snow was abundant, but I’ve got 3 great films at the top of my list to recommend to you, and a bunch of others that may interest you as well.
Here they are from favorite to least favorite – your comments, questions, and feedback are welcome. Thanks to those who joined me on the journey this year, and happy moviegoing to all!
Dan Casper
1 – Young @ Heart
An inspiring, life-affirming, and hilarious documentary that was possibly the only film at Sundance this year that approached perfection. The film profiles the Young @ Heart chorus, a group of senior citizens in Massachusetts who travel the world performing popular music – and when I say popular, I don’t mean show tunes or standards – think Coldplay or Sonic Youth, for example. The film works on so many levels and defied every expectation I had about a film which is ultimately about some salty seniors who grow old but keep their youthful spirit alive. Sure, the film goes everywhere you know it will go, but it’s so well-crafted and innovative that it earns every single one of its laughs and tears. See this one with an audience – it’s an experience you will want to share.
2 – The Visitor
This pitch-perfect drama about a lonely university professor who returns to New York after a long absence to find illegal immigrants living in his apartment is subtle and understated and beautifully acted. This is a great leap forward for director Tom McCarthy, whose Sundance favorite The Station Agent was a pleasant diversion but gave no indication of his ability to write and direct a film of such weight and resonance as this one. Award-worthy performances across the board, especially from Richard Jenkins, who is best known for his role as the father on Six Feet Under. At the end, I found myself thinking a lot about the film, and I must admit that initially I didn’t feel entirely satisfied at how the drama played out, but ultimately I decided that this is a film that wants you to think and question and challenge it, and for that I recognize it as the most intelligent and accomplished dramatic feature I saw at the festival this year.
3 – Man on Wire
A triumph of both style and substance, Man on Wire is that rare documentary that takes a seemingly straightforward subject – a profile of Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker who traversed a wire he set up between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the 1970s – and turns it into a suspenseful and ultimately moving account of a person, a time, and a place that will never again converge in this world. The film is chock full of jaw-dropping details, footage of the event and of the twin towers that has never before been seen, and first-person accounts of what Petit described as his ‘coup.’ Winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize (Documentary) and the World Cinema Audience Award (Documentary).
4 – Bigger Stronger Faster *
A terrific and entertaining documentary about steroid use in America is also full of style and substance – one might be tempted to call it a film on steroids – but filmmaker Chris Bell gives us a guided tour of our performance-oriented culture that somehow veers off in a million directions but never loses sight of its agenda. This is much more than the investigative journalism it first seems to be, and the personal dimension that Bell brings to the film (he has been struggling with his own decision to use steroids) really adds credibility. Bell was clearly inspired by filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me), but unlike Spurlock, who misfired this year in his attempt to bring a personal dimension to his Sundance entry Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? (read on for details), Bell succeeds in creating an engaging and provocative portrait of what our country has become.
5 – Baghead
The Duplass brothers, who first hit Sundance with their feature The Puffy Chair in 2005, are often attached to the ‘mumblecore’ movement of filmmaking – a group of films where inarticulate twentysomethings mumble their way through their friendships and relationships. Unlike their contemporaries, however, I think the Duplass kids are truly gifted, with a keen ear for dialogue, naturalistic performances from their ensemble of unknowns, and an intimate style that sucks you into their characters’ lives. They are masters at getting so much out of so little – and now, two films into their career, they’ve created a curious hybrid of mumblecore and slasher flick that risks being thoroughly ridiculous and emerges as a winner. I don’t want to oversell this modest film – it ultimately deserves a place on your Netflix queue more than anything – but I applaud these guys for making a film so original and unpredictable and fresh.
6 – Transsiberian
Director Brad Anderson has had a diverse indie film career, but I suspect no film will have as much commercial appeal as his terrific new thriller Transsiberian. Set on a cross-continental train ride on the Transsiberian railroad, Anderson spins a compelling yarn of drug trafficking and marital infidelity, casts Ben Kingsley as a dastardly villain you can’t help but love to hate, and films breathtaking train-bound sequences that are stunning to watch. What made this film stand out for me in its genre, though, was its unexpected protagonist – if Hitchcock had made this film, there’s no doubt in my mind that Woody Harrelson’s everyman character would have been the focal point, but in Anderson and Will Conroy’s deft screenplay, Harrelson’s wife, played by Emily Mortimer, becomes the focal point of the action.
7 – Anywhere USA
An oddball triumph that defies description, Anywhere USA, winner of the Special Jury Prize (Dramatic), The Spirit of Independence, delivers a triptych of morality tales that are never short of interesting and are frequently inspired. I guess I would call this a more gentle Pulp Fiction of sorts, but really, I can’t even begin to describe this film, so let me just throw out some of the random ideas this ensemble drama explores. Is the pistachio the official nut of the jihad? Is the tooth fairly really a man named Jay Lucas? What would happen if your child ate a plate of hash brownies by mistake? What would you do if you woke up one day and decided you had never met a black person? Let’s just call this film a wild card, and if you’re an adventurous filmgoer who is willing to let a film fail as much as it succeeds, I encourage you to check it out.
8 – Sleep Dealer
You know, except for a few of the films at the top of my list, I feel like this year I am recognizing a lot of films that are not entirely successful but that are bold enough to take chances that pay off to some extent, and Sleep Dealer is one of them. I’m not a great fan of science fiction, but this is that rare sci-fi film that engaged my mind because it creates a plausible and compelling scenario of what our world might become. The film tackles issues of globalization of our work force, cross-border relations between the US and Mexico, the future of virtual reality, and more – and does so in an engaging and intriguing way. My main regret about Sleep Dealer is that, for a film with a technical crew of over 100, it looks as if it was made by 3 guys in a garage. Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize.
9 – Quid Pro Quo
My neighbor, who has a small role in Quid Pro Quo, encouraged me to see it, calling it a “very… (pause)… interesting film,” and I have to say, I agree with her. In this intriguing little thriller, a handicapped correspondent for NPR (clearly modeled after John Hockenberry) investigates a strange subculture of able-bodied individuals who wish to be handicapped. It’s a fascinating exploration of a strange and disturbing idea, and it’s buoyed by strong and dedicated performances by Nick Stahl (as the reporter) and Vera Farmiga as a handicapped-wannabe with very… (pause)… interesting motives. Farmiga’s performance teeters on the brink of ridiculousness at times, but she reigns herself in just enough to pull it off. Definitely not a film for everyone.
10 – Sugar
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck follow up their Sundance feature debut Half-Nelson with another finely-etched character study. This one’s about a minor league baseball player from the Dominican Republic who is brought to the US to begin to launch a major league career. Despite its context in the world of baseball, this is not a sports film at all – its straightforward, though not entirely predictable, narrative about a fish out of water finding his way in the world works because it is so finely acted, especially by Algenis Perez Soto, who, as Sugar, brings a genuine warmth and natural quality to the role that keeps you on his side throughout. An admirable sophomore effort from a couple of promising filmmakers.
11 – The Great Buck Howard
John Malkovich has a field day playing the title character, an aging mentalist who has appeared on The Tonight Show (starring Johnny Carson, he is quick to point out) many times, and who plunges forward with his life oblivious to the fact that he is no longer in favor. Told from the perspective of his new assistant, played by Colin Hanks, the film is filled with abundant humor, and by the end, creates a portrait of fame and longevity that, for a brief moment, is even a bit touching. The film ends, and it all evaporates, but this is a pleasant trifle that ultimately hinges on Malkovich’s go-for-broke performance.
12 – The Last Word
A quirky little comedy about a young writer who ghostwrites suicide notes, this film is better than you think it’s going to be at the start but stays close to the Sundance mold throughout. It’s a well-cast affair, however, with a brooding and introverted Wes Bentley as the writer, Ray Romano in a rare dramatic role as one of his clients, and Winona Ryder in a very unusual performance as the sister of a former client. Ultimately a life-affirming film, but I guess I expected a bit more from such an intriguing premise.
13 – Phoebe in Wonderland
A film that alternately moved and frustrated me, Phoebe in Wonderland is a beautifully made film about a troubled girl who is cast in her school production of Alice in Wonderland and emerges from the experience much more in touch with herself and her problems. The film is attractive to watch and boasts strong performances from Elle Fanning (yes, really!) and also Patricia Clarkson as her drama teacher. I’m on the fence about Felicity Huffman’s performance as a mother coping with her child’s challenges in school while denying the real problems at hand. At the same time, I admire the film for its effective and sensitive treatment of Phoebe’s condition, though I can’t help but to sum up this film as nothing more than a Hallmark card that says, “I’m sorry your child has Tourette Syndrome.”
14 – Be Like Others
A difficult documentary that explores the disturbing practice of men undergoing sex change operations in Iran so that they can pursue relationships with other men legally. The film feels almost surreal at times and its scenes in the office and operating room of the country’s leading sex reassignment surgeon reminded me of some of the visits I made to physician’s offices in Turkey and India during my trips to these countries for work. The film is heartbreaking at times, yet leaves some questions unanswered – though it works well as a lens into how medicine, religion, and politics converge in some societies. Perhaps most telling to me was when the Paris-trained surgeon explained that he believes only those who really want their sex reassigned will move forward with the procedure when the graphic details of the process are explained to them – his Western training no doubt has contributed to this view, but in Iran, there’s much more at stake.
15 – Frozen River
This film crept up on me. It starts out as a fairly straightforward (though interesting) character study about a single mother in upstate New York trying to make ends meet by assisting a Native American woman who smuggles illegal immigrants from Canada into the US, but once things go horribly awry, the film turns into an intense drama that builds quite a bit of suspense and power in its final act. Melissa Leo and Misty Upham are both terrific, and the film is quiet and lyrical, though I felt in retrospect that the film was just a bit too gentle for its frequently operatic intentions. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic).
16 – Sunshine Cleaning
Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are two of the most charming actresses working today, and Sunshine Cleaning is a perfect vehicle for their abundant talents. The film may not add up to much, and it may pitch itself squarely to fill this year’s Little Miss Sunshine slot (heck, even Alan Arkin shows up as the father), but it’s a pleasant diversion that’s awfully hard to say anything bad about. If you like these actresses, you’ll adore this film.
17 – Trouble the Water
We’ve seen our share of Katrina documentaries in the last few years, but Trouble the Water, winner of this year’s Grand Jury Prize (Documentary), puts a very personal spin on the situation by focusing on one family’s journey before, during, and after the storm. What’s miraculous about this film is its seamlessness – working with footage taken by its subjects before the storm and by the filmmakers during and after, it seems to be more about a family’s journey through poverty that was interrupted by a storm, rather than a film about the storm itself. Once Katrina hits, the family relocates to another state, which, in an odd way, empowers them to take their lives forward in unexpected directions. The one reason I didn’t love this film, as much as I respect it, is that at times it felt somewhat self-promotional to me, intended to help the film’s primary subject launch her music career rather than simply documenting the family’s journey, but still, this is a respectable effort, though, in my mind, far from deserving of the accolades bestowed upon it by the Sundance jury.
18 – I.O.U.S.A.
This documentary tries to explain and illustrate the problem of our national debt in ways that will resonate for the common American, and I must say, I did walk away from the film with more of a clear understanding of the financial crisis our country is in. But like many documentary films these days, I.O.U.S.A. presents lots of problems and suggests solutions that we can take as a nation, but does little to lay out what each of us can do to help. I was entertained, though, and the film’s multimedia approach to its content was certainly clever.
19 – The Recruiter (An American Soldier)
A portrait of the US Army’s recruiting machine, this film is less interesting than it should be. I was not surprised at all by any of the recruiting techniques shared in the film, and the film’s subject, a recruiter named Clay Usie, is far less compelling a presence than you’d expect him to be. He cares about what he does, and he goes the extra mile for his recruits – that’s for sure – but he is far from the charismatic presence you’d expect. A bit more than halfway through, the film’s attention turns away from the recruiting process and begins to follow the new recruits in their first months of service – predictable stuff that really belongs in another film entirely.
20 – The Wackness
The life and times of a high school drug dealer, circa 1994, are presented nostalgically and stylishly in The Wackness. Unfortunately, the great Ben Kingsley hijacks the proceedings and turns in a supporting performance that trumps everything else in this stew of a film. Playing a pot-smoking therapist (not unlike the Brian Cox character in Running with Scissors), Kingsley chews the scenery with style, throwing things entirely off-balance, and leaving the rest of the film to evaporate in a puff of hallucinogenic smoke. Winner of the Audience Award (Dramatic), proving yet again that the altitude is not the only thing that’s high at Sundance.
21 – In Bruges
Playwright Martin McDonagh makes his feature film debut with In Bruges, a film that feels very much like a McDonagh play but falls flat because what works on the stage doesn’t always work so well on film. Though Colin Farrell is, for a change, terrific – and Ralph Fiennes is interesting as well – the film aims for the same mix of comedy and brutality that is McDonagh’s trademark, and unfortunately the tension that builds on stage as McDonagh’s characters teeter on the brink of violence just doesn’t work here. There’s a lot of talk of the scenery in Bruges, and without the picturesque backdrop, I could easily envision this piece as a stage work instead of a film.
22 – Good Dick
An interesting, though not entirely successful, take on sex comedy, Good Dick pits two losers who meet in a video store against each other, and unfortunately it’s awfully hard to sympathize with either of them since the guy is a stalker and the gal is a porn-addicted hermit. There’s some witty dialogue here, and there’s no doubt that writer/director Marianna Palka has some talent, but this film just didn’t speak to the stalker, hermit, or porn addict in me.
23 – American Teen
There is clearly a lot of craft that went into putting together the documentary American Teen, which follows a group of teenagers in Indiana through their final year of high school, but for me, the stylistic flourishes and clever manipulation of footage in the film put the authenticity of the material into question. According to a friend who attended a different screening of the film where director Nanette Burstein was present to speak with the audience, nothing in the film has been manipulated in an inauthentic way, but I wonder if these kids were really as stereotypical as they appeared to be, or maybe I am just out of touch with the youth of today. Four years from now, we’ll probably see all of these kids on The Real World – I hope by then, their characters have emerged and grown to become the real people I know they must be. Winner of the Directing Award (Documentary).
24 – Ballast
Lance Hammer’s debut film Ballast is an admirable effort but just isn’t a film I’d really want to see. If you’re a fan of the Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, you might appreciate this uncomfortable portrait of a family (if you can call it that) in the Mississippi Delta, but I just wasn’t up to the task of working so hard to figure out the family dynamic and layers of relationship that are slowly revealed in this film. The critics are certain to call Ballast spare and haunting, but really this film reminded me a lot of a Sundance snoozer from several years back called Forty Shades of Blue. That film was applauded by the Sundance jury but is uniformly considered one of the least audience-friendly films to come out of the festival in years. I wish you luck with Ballast – I can’t say I didn’t respect it, and I certainly wasn’t bored by it, but it’s not a film I would choose to see. Winner of the Directing Award (Dramatic).
25 – Be Kind Rewind
Michel Gondry, the virtuoso talent behind films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, and the underrated Human Nature returns to Sundance with his latest gimmicky film, Be Kind Rewind. Jack Black (terrific, as always) and Mos Def play video store clerks who, through a strange set of circumstances, end up erasing every VHS tape in their store and race to recreate the lost films on the fast and cheap. It’s a cute concept, and most of the fun of the film comes in watching their ridiculous ‘Sweded’ recreations of classic films, but when the film veers off into sentimental love-of-filmmaking save-the-video-store territory, it just doesn’t work. Gondry’s earlier films were more successful collaborations with the wildly original Charlie Kaufman, and Gondry would be wise to stick with directing and leave the writing to someone else.
26 – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
This adaptation of Michael Chabon’s early novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has taken a long time to get to the screen, and it’s easy to see why. From what I recall about it, this would seem to be a nearly impossible novel to adapt, and sure enough, writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber made many adjustments to the basic framework of the novel to accommodate. Unfortunately what results still doesn’t feel cinematic enough, and despite a strong performance from the always-good Peter Sarsgaard in a supporting role as a free-spirited hipster, the film just doesn’t really work. Curtis Hanson’s terrific adaptation of
Chabon’s Wonder Boys remains the gold standard here, but even a film half as good as that one would have been nice.
27 – Documentary Spotlight
For the first time this year, I branched out of the feature film program to check out some of the short films featured at Sundance, and this set of documentary shorts was a great place to start, though ultimately it confirmed my preference for feature-length filmmaking – documentary or otherwise. There were several films in this program that looked promising to me, and two of them proved to be strong entries.
In Lauren Greenfield’s kids + money, teenagers across the Los Angeles area talk about what money means to them, and the responses, though in some ways predictable, are jaw-dropping when you hear them straight from the horses’ mouths.
In Tadashi Nakamura’s Pilgrimage, we chart the history of a WWII Japanese internment camp in California. The film is powerful and moving and tells you more than you ever thought you could learn about one place during its short 22 minute running time.
Unfortunately, the film that actually convinced me to select this program in the first place, the now-Oscar-nominated La Corona (The Crown), is a predictable film about an unpredictable subject – a beauty pageant held in a women’s prison in South America. It’s not a bad film at all, but at 40 minutes, it’s twice as long as it needs to be.
28 – Fields of Fuel
A 90 minute infomercial, albeit one with an important message, Fields of Fuel, directed by its subject, Josh Tickell, chronicles one energy activist’s efforts to find and champion alternative fuel sources. Focusing mostly on biodiesel (a vegetable oil-based fuel), the film actually does offer solutions and paints a credible picture of an environmentally-sound future – one that some of our allies in Europe have already started to implement. Undeniably uplifting and energetic, the film is entirely a call to action, and on that dimension alone, it succeeds, but from a filmmaking standpoint, it’s pretty basic and at times even sloppy (somebody should tell Tickell how to spell ‘Minesota’). I prefer a more subtle approach to my propaganda, but maybe that’s just me.
29 – August
A film that was outdated long before it was even made, August looks back at the halcyon days of the dot-com era and spins a generic tale of ego and persistence. It works just fine as a character study of an entrepreneur, played by Josh Hartnett, who is all, well, ego and persistence – but as a period piece, or even as a morality tale told from within the Internet bubble, it’s a big hand-waving misfire. Though I appreciated how the film drew out the distinctions between two brothers in business together – one the financial whiz and relationship builder, and the other the technical guru – the film also throws technical and financial concepts around as if they were yanked randomly out of a textbook, and as a dot-com refugee myself, this was beyond frustrating. I might have been part of the pre-9/11, August 2001 New York Silicon Alley crowd, but this film didn’t ring true to me for a minute.
30 – Funny Games
Michael Haneke remakes his notorious Austrian film Funny Games with an English-speaking cast in an American setting, and I can’t help but ask myself why. Probably so we don’t have to read subtitles, I guess, but after watching this more or less frame-by-frame remake, I can’t see what this version adds to the equation. The original film was harrowing, disturbing, and shocking in its way, but it’s also an obtuse commentary on the responsibility of those who ignore all the acts of violence happening around them in the world. Now we have the same film in English, and I can’t imagine what more Haneke might want to say or have us think.
Still, if you haven’t seen the original, I suppose this version will suffice if you forgot to bring your glasses to the theatre or have reached your reading quota for the day.
31 – Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?
Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) returns to Sundance with a film that brings some insight into our friends in the Middle East and even more insight into their perceptions of us – and it does so in a stylish way – but ultimately, this is a pretty thin effort overall. Unfortunately, Spurlock explains at the start of the film that he is going on a journey to find Bin Laden to make the world safe for his new baby, which is due in several months, and I couldn’t help but feel that instead of traipsing around the desert, Morgan should have been home taking care of his wife and chronicling their pregnancy instead (God knows, we get to see the baby’s birth in graphic detail anyway). I can sort of understand that Spurlock wanted to raise the stakes for his journey to find the most wanted man on earth, but framing the film in this way was a poor choice that really turned me off.
32 – Choke
This film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Choke is all over the place, but I suspect Palahniuk’s book is too. Sam Rockwell is terrific as Victor, a sex-addicted history-theme-park worker who chokes himself in fine restaurants and whose mother (Angelica Huston) is a bit wacko too. Despite some truly inspired and hilarious scenes of Victor’s anonymous sexual encounters with a woman from his sex addicts’ support group, this film was only sporadically interesting to me. Winner of the Special Jury Prize (Dramatic), Work by an Ensemble Cast.
33 – Downloading Nancy
Brutal, unpleasant, dark, bleak, disturbing, ugly, and awfully uncomfortable to watch, Downloading Nancy has one asset worth noting – Maria Bello. In a brave performance, Bello plays a woman who goes online to find a man who will help her to play out her deepest fantasy and finds a willing partner in Jason Patric’s Louis. I can’t say much more about the film, in case you are actually interested in seeing it, but I can guarantee you will be in a really bad mood after seeing this one. I am certain this film would be lost in oblivion somewhere if it weren’t for the first-rate actors who agreed to take part in it.
34 – Pretty Bird
The history of the ‘rocket belt’ (that jet-pack thing you used to see those guys fly around the Super Bowl in) is the subject of this offbeat film, which succeeds in much the same way August did in laying out the roles of the individuals who helped to bring a business idea to fruition. The film starts off as a comedy, which is pleasant though unexceptional, but turns dramatic about halfway through and becomes much less engaging as a result. I can’t fault the actors though – Billy Crudup is terrific as the rainmaker, Paul Giamatti shines in a role with his name all over it, and David Hornsby has an interesting take on perhaps the most complex of the three. Still, by the end, Pretty Bird had long since flown the coop.
35 – The Wave
This German film, about a schoolteacher who teaches fascism to his class by running an immersive experiment in his classroom, is interesting at first, but it just doesn’t go deep enough into the characters to make their actions entirely convincing. At the same time, there is a certain power to the film, solely on the events that transpired, but the film’s violent ending not only didn’t really happen (the film is based on a true story) but is entirely unnecessary to bring home the film’s message persuasively.
36 – The Escapist
The loudest film I saw at Sundance this year but one that couldn’t keep me awake at its midnight screening. This nearly incomprehensible British-made prison break drama toggles back and forth in time but isn’t tightly plotted enough to make it worth the effort to try to follow. There’s some sort of metaphysical element to all of it, but I didn’t quite get it, or maybe I was just trying to sleep and was constantly interrupted by the shouting and screaming and clanging of metal that never seems to stop.
37 – Smart People
Eh, not so smart really. Essentially this is the stuff of standard romantic comedy, but the main characters in the film have advanced degrees, so on paper, each appears to be smarter than the average movie character – in reality, they’re not. Sure, they talk a lot about being tenure-track professors or doctors on-call, but there’s not much going on here that you haven’t heard before. Perhaps worst of all is that each of the actors is typecast based on roles they’ve played before – the spunky single career girl (Sarah Jessica Parker), the aging slacker (Thomas Haden Church), the snarky teenager (Ellen Page) – you get the idea.
38 – Blind Date
A married couple coping with the loss of their child decides to go out on a series of ‘blind’ dates with each other to help reinvigorate their marriage. Their role playing becomes more and more strange as the dates proceed, and I pretty much lost interest in this pretentious crap during the bumper car sequence (don’t ask). Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are terrific actors, and they pretty much emerge from this mess unscathed, but this second film in a series of American remakes of the films of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh went either over my head or right around me.
39 – STRANDED: I’ve come from a plane that crashed on the mountains
If you’re interested in every last detail – and I mean every… last… detail… – of the famous plane crash that left a group of college students on their way to a football match stranded in the Andes with only each other for nourishment, then this is the film for you. It’s well-made, and its dramatic reenactments are well-done, but it’s so damn repetitive and specific, I wanted to start eating my own flesh to keep my sanity. “I couldn’t move my foot because the snow had buried it. Then the wind blew, and I could move my foot one centimeter.” Dramatic reenactment. Next survivor: “I couldn’t move my foot because the snow had buried it. Then the wind blew, and I could move my foot one centimeter.” Dramatic reenactment. Repeat for remaining survivors (16). Help!
40 – Secrecy
This documentary about America’s information security practices could have been interesting, but I fear that no one wanted to reveal any secrets, so the film (made by two Harvard professors) becomes a philosophical exercise in why secrecy is important and why some think secrecy is wrong. Unfortunately, the arguments presented are so abstract and arcane, I found myself scratching my head during much of the film trying to make sense of it all. A frustrating film for sure.
41 – Birds of America
Craig Lucas’ film is an indie misfire that is full of characters I couldn’t have cared less about and a muddled plot that made no sense to me at all. At one point, all of the main characters collide into each other from different directions in a park, and this pretty much summed up the movie for me – everyone seems to be coming at this film from all different directions. Is this a screwball comedy? A quirky indie? A vehicle for Matthew Perry and his castmates (including Hilary Swank in a baffling supporting role)? And then there’s the scatological humor, which comes out of left field and sits there on the front lawn stinking up the whole affair. And then they call it Birds of America? What does that have to do with anything? Don’t mind me – I’m just confused by it all.
42 – Savage Grace
Though truly awful, Savage Grace might have been an interesting film, but as it is, it’s both awful and uninteresting. Julianne Moore, who will have a hard time digging herself out of this one, plays a society woman who embarks on some interesting sexcapades with her, ahem, son. The film tries to pass itself off as art by being attractive to look at, by globetrotting its characters among locations in the US and Europe, and by casting top-tier talent, but alas, it’s a hopeless case. After the film, director Tom Kalin explained that the source material for his film was actually a series of journalistic essays about this woman as told through the reminiscences of people who knew her, and it occurred to me that these lenses on her life might have made for an interesting Rashomon-like piece, but as it stands, Savage Grace has no grace at all.
43 – King of Ping Pong
Watching a game of Ping Pong would be more interesting than sitting through this overly quirky Swedish coming-of-age drama about a quirky kid and his quirky family in their quirky town. To add to the quirk factor, this film is not about Ping Pong at all – in fact, I’m not quite sure what it’s about, except it’s about two hours long, and rambles and meanders all over its frozen landscape without a care in the world. Films like this baffle me completely, and I can’t imagine what the Sundance jury found to love in this World Cinema Jury Prize (Dramatic) and World Cinema Cinematography Award (Dramatic)-winning film. Did they pretend that this was an uplifting tale of an underdog Ping Pong player bursting out of his adolescent shell to win the world championship and emerge a stronger, more mature, self-aware person as a result? No such luck. Put this film on the shelf with Whale Rider, an earlier overrated Sundance World Cinema award winner. The king of Ping Pong can go learn to ride whales with the Aborigines, and we can send cute little (pregnant) Keisha Castle-Hughes to freeze with the quirky Swedes.

Belmont All Elementary Schools Meeting Notes

I attended the All Elementary Schools Meeting on Monday, February 4th at the Wellington School where Superintendent Holland presented the recommended FY09 budget. Here’s what I learned:

  • The Superintendent is proposing a  budget of $39.8 million to the School Committee, which is a $2.8 million increase or 7.5% over FY08
  • Most of the increase, 4.8%, is for teacher salary raises.
  • Mandated special ed spending represents another 1.5% of the increase
  • 0.5% or $202,500 is for new teachers to maintain class sizes: 2 at the Butler and Wellington added this year, one new 5th grade for next year (the 4th grade class is very large and so each year they move up another teacher must be added to that grade), and one new high school teacher. So adding a teacher costs $50,000.
  • K-4 enrollment continues to exceed projections. K-4 enrollment is 1450 this year versus a projection of 1432 made last year and only 1337 made two years ago. The projection for next year is about equal to this year but in FY09 there is a big jump up to 1493 projected.
  • Full-day kindergarten will cost $380,000 (about 1% of the increase) for making the kindergarten teachers full-time and for adding specialists and assistants. The town has won a “transition grant” of $150,000 that will be used for planning the curriculum over the summer and for purchasing furniture and materials. The school administration also recently learned that we are eligible for a “QA” grant for implementing the first year of full-day kindergarten that, if awarded, could be about $210,000.
  • A new position of Director of Guidance is proposed at a cost of $90,000
  • Recent negotiations for higher contributions by town employees for health care has resulted in $136,000 in savings in medical insurance costs
  • The town will meet on Feb 14 with the state school construction funding authority to “collaborate” on planning the new Wellington school. If that body approves state funding for construction then the town will have 4 months to have a townwide vote to approve funding. If the town doesn’t approve it then Belmont will go back into the queue of towns waiting to get school construction funding with diminished standing before the state authority. If the town approves funding then the plan is to start construction in June 2009 for occupancy in Winter 2011. During construction the students will likely be housed in modular classrooms at the high school, the Winn Brook or both.
  • The town currently has a projected $3.6 million deficit so it is likely that the proposed school budget will be cut unless an override is passed. The town is currently considering a “pavement override” for roads and a bond exclusion for the new Wellington, so a third tax increase will be quite a lot for voters to swallow at one time.
  • The critical meeting to attend for those who want to voice an opinion on the school budget is Saturday morning, March 1.
  • Fewer than 25% of the households in Belmont have children in the public schools

The number you have (not) reached…

For those of you who have tried to call me and reached a “not in service” message, I have, in fact, paid my phone bill. Unfortunately when you change numbers with Comcast they do not provide the service of a recorded message announcing the new number. They'll do it for commercial customers but not for residential. Seems like such a common thing but they informed me that I am the first residential customer ever to expect it.

You can reach me at
Mohr Collaborative
281 Washington Street
Belmont, MA 02478