Captain Marvel – Film Review

Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is the obvious superhero role model for all girls around the world. How quickly and fickly we have forgotten Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Lucy Lawless as Xena (technically not a superhero – but you get the drift) or Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow.

But when it comes to successful merchandising, having a ‘first’ of something is most important: not the first female superhero, not the first female lead, not the first female Marvel superhero, but rather the first Marvel female lead superhero. It occurred to me as I watched the character Monica Rambeau, daughter of Carol Danvers’ (aka C. Marvel’s) friend Maria (Lashana Lynch), swanning around in awe of Captain Marvel that there will soon enough be the first Marvel female black superhero lead. But, why kill two birds with one stone when you can merchandise over both. Sure enough, we’ll have the first something or the other leading another Marvel universe escapade in the not too distant future as we destabilise the status quo of white male Marvel superheroes (Antman, Captain America, The Hulk, Doctor Strange, Spiderman, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Thor and so forth).

Progress is slow.

But cynicism aside, we are grateful for the eventual evolution. As with the release of Black Panther, which saw a campaign to raise money for disadvantaged children to see the film at a cinema, the release of Captain Marvel has seen Brie Larson campaigning for the #CaptainMarvelChallenge raising more than $60,000 to send young women to see the film.

Here are films changing the message being sent to young people, and additionally changing the experience. It is of course all in line with the humanitarian messages of Stan Lee and friends’ creation of the Marvel Universe.

The thinly veiled plot of refugees, in Captain Marvel, is one that is as relevant as ever. It is a universal issue that developed nations are dealing with. This film asks people to look past the media and/or political veil that paints refugees as ‘evil’ and poses the more confronting questions about whether those leading us and informing us are ‘evil’.

Captain Marvel is not just another beat in the over arching story of the Avengers films’ plots; Captain Marvel is a story for our time, a hero for our time and for the children of our time.

Tale of Tales – Film Review

It’s that age old story; woman (Salma Hayek) can’t get pregnant, she and her husband (John C Reilly) get a visit from a magical old man, magical old man tells them to retrieve the heart of a magical underwater dragon and eat it raw.

It’s the sort of thing that makes In vitro fertilisation look like a swim in the lake. In this case it was a swim in the lake, but it was a more difficult swim in the lake because the king had to slaughter the dragon so his wife could eat the heart.

It’s enjoyable how this film taps into the human condition and vulnerabilities, despite its fanciful fairytale setting. Most specifically the story above deals with all the complexities surrounding the desire for parenthood.

Where modern stories would see a barren character head to the fertility clinic, Tale of Tales heads to the magical dragon. Perhaps this is a story as old as time. Both Into the Woods and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, are based on fairy tales dealing with parents who can’t produce offspring.

The themes of youth and childrearing don’t end there. Hayek’s albino son leaves her abandoned in a maze at one point – a mean trick to play on anyone’s mother; another king (Toby Jones) becomes more obsessed doting on his pet flea than his teenage daughter (Bebe Cave); and an old woman (Hayley Carmichael) convinces a witch to turn her into an younger and extremely pretty version of herself (Stacey Martin).

Adults wanting kids to love, kids wanting adults to love them, and adults wanting to be kids so adults love them. It’s a complex playing out of an inherent want for acceptance and purpose.

The film transcends its fairy tale environment to spin some of the oldest fairy tales, in the world (they are from The Pentamerone), into a cinematic masterpiece of fantasy that trumps similar fare like Stardust, Ella Enchanted and dare I say it The Princess Bride.

That Sugar Film – Film Review

The teeth in the picture above belong to teenager Larry from Barbourville, Kentucky. Well they did belong to Larry until they were all pulled out. He drank too much Mountain Dew.

A problem not uncommon, according to dentist Dr Edwin Smith, who appears in Damon Gameau’s documentary That Sugar Film. In the film Dr Smith points out that he’s seen so many teeth rotted by Mountain Dew that he’s coined the term ‘Mountain Dew Mouth’.

Larry’s teeth are not replaced by the end of the documentary though, because his system would not respond properly to the anaesthetic required. In a relieving piece of news, available on Facebook, he has now had all his teeth replaced.

Images like the one above certainly add the shock value to this documentary. Other sugar-free crusaders have been slowly adding to the pile of evidence pointing towards the heinous crimes of this carbohydrate. Jamie Oliver for one recently upped the ante, on Gameau’s ‘Mountain Dew Mouth’ footage, by sitting in on a foot amputation caused by type two diabetes and screening footage of mothers bottle feeding their babies Coca-Cola.

Gameau also goes for the immersive documentarian stunt of subjecting himself to a sugar-filled diet for sixty days. This has direct echoes of the headline grabbing efforts of Morgan Spurlock bingeing on MacDonalds in Super Size Me; or the time that Werner Herzog ate his shoe in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

But it is not really the masochistic element of the film that hits home. To the average person it is common knowledge that substituting your children’s drinking water with sugar-loaded beverages will have lasting health effects. But what Gameau uncovers is deeper. He brings to the fore all those products we thought were good for us. Things like zero-per-cent fat milk, one-hundred-per-cent fruit juices, health bars, Nutri-grain, and so forth, are all in the firing line. It turns out all of these products are high in sugar-content also. Perhaps this is even worse than Coca-Cola or McDonalds, because these other items come with a health message.

These are the things filling our children’s cereal bowls, lunch boxes and dinner plates.

But what to do Mr Gameau? What to do? Our children are already addicted. So if we don’t coat our broccoli in chocolate sauce and poach our asparagus in sugar syrup, how will our children eat? They will go hungry and die of starvation (mind you, seeing the speed at which Gameau’s stomach bloats in the first few days of his sugar diet, you’d be loath to feed your child half an Uncle Toby’s muesli bar).

Perhaps Hamish and Andy have the answer. Listening to Hamish Blake talking about his son’s first experience with sugar it became clear that perhaps the perfect answer to a sugar-free future is never having it in the first place. Sarah Wilson’s book could be condensed to a pamphlet that says don’t feed babies sugar. Davina McCall’s five week plan to a sugar free diet could be condensed to a five second plan where you never feed your baby sugar. Kids would be none the wiser. For what they don’t know, they won’t miss. But then again you can never tell what sugary treat may be round the corner when a parent turns their back. My first taste of sugar was delivered in the form of a Tiny Teddy from my grandmother.

The balance of sugar for children is at the front of Gameau’s mind for most of the film, as he explores the effects of his diet in the lead up to the birth of his first child. While he looks at the health of some of his contemporaries. He is most concerned with the children of tomorrow. Another such example being the aims of the filmmaker to action change beyond the film in school canteens and the Aboriginal community of Amata, where government cuts have meant children’s sugar-intake has increased.

And what of other crusaders? What of Jamie Oliver’s proposed sugar-tax? He’s implementing it in his own restaurants. But where will that end? Is that the police state going too far? Soon enough we’ll find bags of sugar being treated like cigarette packets that have been branded with gruesome photos of the health consequences. We’ll be walking into the baking aisle of the supermarket to find images of amputated limbs on our baking goods; photographs of damaged livers on our chocolate bars; or pictures of ‘Mountain Dew Mouth’ on our Mountain Dew bottles.

While That Sugar Film states some obvious outcomes of certain diets, it really provides a wake-up call for the fringe-dwellers of obesity. The people (like myself) who get away with over consumption of processed foods due to lucky metabolisms and predisposed genetic makeup. It gets us to think about the damage we can’t see. Fat and skinny might go to war, but if skinny is sharing fat’s lunchbox, they’re both going to end up with messed up insulin levels.

Having watched this film, I’ve consciously made change. Sure I’m not going to cut it out completely. Hell, we’ve already been told gluten, fat, lactose and salt are bad for us. Now sugar as well. I’d be left eating air before too long. So I’m going to eat all those things in moderation.

I’m not going to throw out my tin of strawberry flavoured Nesquik just yet, because that would be wasteful. However, I am slowly eating down my pantry of such tooth-decaying ingredients to try and have a more basic diet. I’ll still eat cakes and the odd treat, because having had that first Tiny Teddy twenty-eight years ago, I am now sugar dependant. But I do plan to cut out more of the processed sugars and move to a diet of foods made from base ingredients.

And if everything becomes too tasteless I can always add more garlic, chillies or ginger to flavour things up. Until we find out that those foods are bad for us too.

While We’re Young – Film Review

Ben Stiller’s character in While We’re Young has been having trouble with his wife Naomi Watts and finds himself on his best mate’s (Adam Horovitz) couch. He’s feeling a bit sheepish about this, having recently shafted his friend (who has a new baby), in preference for hanging out with indie kids Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried.

In a vulnerable moment, unfolding linen for the fold-out couch, Stiller declares to his host that he could have been jealous of his friend having a kid.

His friend responds with the following:

“You know before you have a kid everyone tells you it’s the best thing you’ll ever do. And as soon as you get the baby back from the hospital those same people are like ‘don’t worry it gets better’. Well, like, what the f*** was all that before?”

Indeed.

We are fed this idea from our older relatives, society, friends, Huggies commercials, films, wives and husbands. The idea that birthing a child into our home will be a life-changing experience. One that will wipe away the doubt about our self-worth during our twenties; conceal our worries about ageing in our thirties; or validate us that we weren’t too late in our forties. We always worry that we’re behind the eight ball and all our friends are already married and having kids. We forget people ten years older, even twenty years older are having the same feeling. It happens at different times for different people. Still, there’s this expectation that any concerns we had about our esteem before the baby will be washed clean, because there will be no time left for naval-gazing.

It will be ‘baby-time’ and the only thing that will matter is that little bundle of joy. It will become the soul-focus of our attentions. Nothing else will matter. Everyone will want a piece of baby, and there will no longer be pressure on our own successes or failures, because no one will be looking. They’ll just be drooling and gawking at baby, looking into baby’s big glossy blue eyes.

I’ve not got a baby, so I’m not sure how much of this is true or untrue. My ramblings above are mere conjecture. But I’m sure of one thing, and that’s Ben Stiller’s friend was right having a go at all the people saying ‘it’s the best thing you’ll ever do’. He’s right. That’s what people do.

They pressure you into situations they drowned in. They rose-tint glass everything, as much for their own sake as yours. They’ve blocked from their mind the memories of the twenty hour labor, sleepless nights, aching bodies and projectile vomited milk products. Sure now their life may have changed for the better and have direction, but Stiller’s mate is right. One glance at a urine sodden nappy sagging from your own infant’s crutch and their quite happy to remind you ‘it gets better’, while they inch towards the door to return to their own offspring who are can now hold a conversation and an Xbox controller simultaneously.

And what of the existential level of this trickery and life-altering occasion. Should childbirth being ‘the best thing’ be reason enough for putting a bun in the oven. What about all our own unresolved life dilemmas, misspent youth and broken dreams? Shouldn’t we solve, spend and repair some of these, respectively, before shelving them in the top drawer to make emotional space for a child? How can we push the next generation, to live life to the full, when we still feel incomplete? Or is that the answer? Perhaps it is a chicken before the egg scenario, where we’re destined to have children to complete our puzzle. It certainly makes sense in terms of sustaining the human race.

The film doesn’t answer these questions, but we certainly see Watts and Stiller grappling with their childfree lifestyle to find completion in other spaces and places. The situations unfolding in the film, certainly suggest there are times in our lives when a child would probably be better left out of the picture.

As a close friend once told me, “I can barely look after myself, how could I look after a child?”

I didn’t understand at the time, his fear of placing all his own insecurities on another human being. But having taught children now, I can see that there are certainly some states of mind that are more beneficial to the healthy development of a small person. And, I would suggest, some people would be better spent being more cautious like my friend.

Yet I’m also an old romantic (when I’m not being a cynic) and still believe, perhaps ignorantly, there is an innate and instinctual part of our human condition that is maternal or paternal. And so whether or not we are glad to have children or are glad to not have children, it will be the urge towards parenthood that leads us to these decisions. If it wasn’t there, we’d not make a decision either way.

While We’re Young explores all these dilemmas deftly. It follows the complexities of parenting and being childless, from both sides of the fence. It at times treats both states as self-satisfying, while at others points both out to be selfless. It’s a trundle through the lives of baby boomers, generation x and generation y. Each generation self-reflecting their obsessions through different mediums of traditional documentary, social media and then viral video. The older generations turning their nose up at the new; a ‘documentarian’ is more credible than a ‘YouTuber’. But then again maybe not. But then again probably yes. The subplot becomes the main plot. Was this film about babies and youth? Or was it about narcissism and self-worth? I’m confused. You’re confused reading this.

The film appears a jumble of ideas at times, trying to intertwine all these things, raising as many questions as it answers. But all the while we see ourselves in it. These are the decisions we can’t make and the paths we can’t take without consequence While We’re Young.

 

 

 

The DUFF – Film Review

It feels like it could be a film from the late 90s. Surely every American (and for that matter non-American) teenager knows what a DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) is now days.

There are plenty of films they could make with more modern acronyms like BAE (before anyone else) – a teen friendship movie starring Maisie Williams, Shailene Woodley, Chloe Grace Moretz and a pair of used overalls; OTP (one true pairing) – a romantic comedy where Justin Bieber runs a zoo; TBT (throwback Thursday) – a body swap movie with Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, where no one notices the difference; or YOLO (you only live once) – a road trip where Jennifer Love Hewitt and Molly Ringwald travel the world doing extreme sports.

The DUFF feels like a massive attempt to modernise Mean Girls. It ends up being a mere template of the teen movie genre with all the usual archetypes including Ken Jeong as the mild mannered mentor, a bunch of stick thin young models as the school bullies and chiselled-jawed Robbie Amell as the school jock – despite the opening narration stating “for generations of high-schoolers you could only be a jock, a geek, a princess, a bully or a basket-case; but times have changed”. Apparently the producers didn’t get their own memo.

The only markers suggesting it is any different from older teen movies is the heavy handed use of handheld mobile devices, social media and Duckface – a phrase Allison Janney uses in this film, proving she is the most hip character in a film that already looks dated.

Mae Whitman (a wonderful comedic actress from Arrested Development, Scott Pilgrim Vs the World and television series Parenthood) stars in the title role of designated ugly fat friend. Not since America Ferrera was cast as Ugly Betty, has such an attractive young starlet been dressed in ill-fitting clothes and deemed to be not only fat and ugly, but completely devoid of social skills (oh, and of course the only asset is they are highly intelligent, because there’s a direct correlation between deformity and intellect).

Where are the real ugly fat people? The people whose self-esteem is left in tatters after twelve years of institutionalised education. The victims of school bullying who are haunted throughout their adult life by their childhood persecution. The people so fat their school uniform needs to be altered. The people whose stomach is continually spilling over their trouser bottoms. The person with a lazy eye. The people who have panic attacks talking to the opposite sex and never end up kissing anyone, let alone the school pin-up. The people who cry themselves to sleep. The person whose hair is full of split-ends. The people who come last in everything. The invisible people. Where are they? Why aren’t they the protagonists in these films?

If you want a film full of neat happy endings with a romanticised moral message about cyber-bullying then this is your film. It certainly has its moments and the highly predictable plot makes for good veg-out viewing, with a heart-felt message about being yourself. However, if you want the real fall-out of teenage years watch the documentary American Teen.

Film Review – Whiplash

Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) does a lot of shouting in his classroom, during the film Whiplash. In the firing line is drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller).

Namby Pamby naysayers will discredit the value of shouting at children to make them achieve greatness. Even the characters in the film attempt to dethrone Fletcher, from his position as a jazz instructor at the illustrious Shaffer Conservatory, because of his aggressive approach. But the proof is in the pudding. Both Fletcher and his student Neiman fulfil their potential, and it’s not undue to the extensive bouts of yelling and expletives spilling from Fletcher’s mouth box.

Sure, having a calm and pleasant approach when talking to students will usually produce positive outcomes. But rarely exceptional results. There’s nothing like a bit of screaming in someone’s face to illicit the ‘I’m going to prove you wrong’ response. This appears to be the general tone of interaction between the two protagonists for the majority of the film -sometimes with the defiant quest for approval going both ways.

It’s not to say that Fletcher and Neiman are functional human beings. Both of them sit somewhere on a sociopathic spectrum. But their relationships with other people do not need to be healthy, because they have their music. The film certainly panders to the cliché that geniuses are introverted types who obsess over their artwork at the cost of everything else. The literal blood, sweat and tears from these characters adds to the cacophonous musicality of the drums and Fletcher’s shouting that carry this film. There are points at which the expletives become lyrics and almost merge into the percussive rhythms being smacked out on the Myler drumheads.

Whiplash is the dark evil cousin of Mr Holland’s Opus. It is a no-holds-barred look at the quest for greatness. It shows that there is a place for a red-faced outburst at children (and adults for that matter) when pushing them to their limits. The shouting does not come from a place of hate, vengeance or malice. It comes from the emotional core of a person wanting to drive their subjects to their ultimate position on the highest podium.

You must shout to be heard above the white noise of the masses.

Film Review – Paper Planes

The fresh faced naivety and optimism of a student teacher is soon beaten out. There is a flashing neon target on their head asking for students to cause them no end of grief. Idealistic aspirations of ‘making a difference’ and inspiring children to ‘follow them dreams’ soon become incinerated by the inferno generated for the mere self-preservation required in the classroom.

Despite this, Paper Planes insists on providing a fancifully functional classroom environment in this coming of age piece about aeronautical origami. If we begin by looking at Pete Rowsthorn’s portrayal of an enthusiastic classroom teacher, we get a picture of how good communication with children works. He is creative and fun, while still remaining aloof and being a disciplinarian. Case in point is his collection of mobile phone devices in a sombrero. In contrast Rowsthorn’s student teacher Jethro arrives from Melbourne with too much smiling going on. This is not to say I didn’t go into my first classroom with a big enthusiastic grin on my face. The difference was the grin was smeared off within minutes as my students misinterpreted my expression for weakness.

Paper Planes 2

In this film, the students continue to respond positively to the student teacher’s elated mood. They are cooperative and show no sign of cutting this inspirational nincompoop down at the knees. Then, in a most unconvincing portrayal of pedagogy, he introduces his first lesson with the immortal lines, “Today I’m going to teach you how to make the perfect plane”. I mean what lesson was this? Where was the educational value? Why was he using fresh paper from the packet, instead of recycling scrap paper?

If a real teacher was to pull this kind of stunt on their first day of practicum, they’d be lynched by the class, and marched to the principal’s office by their mentor. Additionally, and I say this from experience, you would not want to demonstrate to students how to fold something that could become a major disruption to your class. A sheep at the abattoir would not show a butcher how to sharpen a blade; a mouse would not invite Mr Tibbles around for tea; and a priest would not invite a convicted felon to give a guest homily at mass.

Perhaps it would have been more convincing for the paper plane session to have been conducted by a touring group of plane enthusiasts, rather than the student teacher who should have been conducting a handwriting lesson.

The message of the film is positive. And if we suspend disbelief in regards to the lacking nature of behaviour management strategies, the film certainly has adult characters who encourage children to dream big. I only wish the students I have taught had been as compliant as those in the film. Maybe I’d have produced a few more high achievers who ended up competing in international competitions.

Paper Planes was certainly a good reminder that every now and then it may be worth going back to my original doe-eyed views of education and how a little bit of honest enthusiasm can affect massive change.