Sunday, October 26, 2008

Review - W.

It seems like a powder keg waiting to explode: a controversial director making a movie about the most reviled U.S. President ever while he is still in office, right before a potentially world-changing election. But despite the apocalyptic possibilities of W., Stone has crafted a film that is balanced, fair, and measured, though perhaps overly simplistic at points.
Stone chooses to frame the film within the context of the invasion into Iraq, beginning in 2002 and ending before the 2004 election. He uses flashbacks to show the viewer some of the complexity of W.'s faith, political background, and economic successes. Stone deftly uses past events to inform and enhance the narrative of the administration's decision to enter Iraq. The film's editing is almost seamless, as it constantly changes times without confusing the viewer, and Stanley Weiser's writing is certainly to credit for the success of the parallel narratives. So what does Stone do with these useful tools?
He seems to conclude three premises in the film: that W. has a severe daddy complex, and that his failure to meet his father's standards is partially what drove him; W. has always had people around him to tell him what to do, whether that was his father, Karl Rove, or Dick Cheney; and that at the heart of it all, W. is just a man like the rest of us. Stone portrays W. sympathetically, as a man who is simply trying to make something of himself. We are meant to see him as a man who is constantly in turmoil, and who is battling his own expectations along with the expectations of the people around him. To accomplish this, Stone plays on the baseball motif - there are, after all, rumours that W. would love to become Commissioner of Major League Baseball - with surprising success. But where he seems to come up short is in going too far in making W. a simple man. There seems to be a little too much going on behind the scenes, and it robs W. of some of his mystique. Perhaps it is true that Bush is that simple and that he was almost entirely extrinsically motivated; but I think Stone does oversimplify unfairly to make his point.
Stone does bring some great performances out of his actors. Josh Brolin captures the essence of Bush without succumbing to parodying him. There are only a few examples of the "Bush face", and Brolin's portrayal contains the kind of nuance required to make the points that Stone wants to make. The supporting cast varies from excellent to comical, especially in Bush's Cabinet. While Richard Dreyfuss (Cheney), and Scott Glenn (Rumsfeld) give their characters a quiet yet powerful presence, Thandie Newton (Condoleeza Rice) and Jeffrey Wright (Colin Powell) seem to be performing more of an impersonation than an interpretation. The real stand-outs are James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn as George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush. They bring a lot of emotion and passion into the film, and they both steal several scenes.
So the big question is not what Stone is trying to say with this film, but what he doesn't say. Stone is not derisively satirical of the president, though he allows some levity at the expense of Bush. Neither does Stone want us to reverse all of our thinking about Bush and to remember him more fondly than we should. Stone's primary point is not to tell us what W.'s legacy will be, but to remember to consider different points of view when evaluating that legacy. And perhaps, in a way, Stone is asking us to re-evaluate our view of his legacy, too. If he can seemingly become a measured filmmaker again, there is hope for everyone. Even W.

Award prediction: W. will be nominated for several Golden Globes, which will then be followed by several key nominations at the Academy Awards: Picture, Actor (Brolin), Supporting Actor (Dreyfuss or Cromwell) and Supporting Actress (Burstyn), Writing, Director, and Editing.

Nerd of the year

Put down your calculators and pocket protectors, and turn down your Stephen Hawking podcasts! It's time to name the winner of the prestigious "Nerd of the Year" title. For those who do not remember, here are the winners of the first four "Nerds of the Year" here at Life of Turner. (Okay, okay, I haven't named any nerds of any year yet, but let's pretend that I did and that this is the recap.)

2004: Although Michael Moore came close with his hit movie Fahrenheit 9/11, 2004's title was owned by a scrawny kid in snow boots who encouraged us to vote for Pedro - Napoleon Dynamite (played by Jon Heder). Napoleon was a nerd for the ages, and his sweet moves still inspire nerds all over to think they can dance.

2005: Steve Carell made virginity cool again in the film The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and he also made boss Michael Scott somewhat likable in spite of his extreme nerdiness in the American version of The Office.

2006: Two nerds who focused on the truth tied for this award in '06; one's was inconvenient, and the other's was very fuzzy. Al Gore continued to campaign against climate change, for his election to the Presidency (though it was six years too late), and to take a stranglehold on "nerd of the decade" with his slide-show-stravaganza An Inconvenient Truth. Stephen Colbert was responsible for coining words like "truthiness" and "wikiality", and his incessant nerdish ramblings captivated a nation - the Colbert Nation. Now if only Colbert could interview Gore...

2007: Runner-up Michael Cera came close with his decidedly nerdy turns in Superbad and Juno, and runner-up America Ferreira became a sensation in Ugly Betty, but the top nerd for 2007 was another insecure woman working in a cutthroat industry: Tina Fey. Her program 30 Rock won its first Emmy in its first season, and Fey's frantic Liz Lemon was a huge reason for that success. The first female nerd of the year really deserved her crown, as well as some more Spanish cheese puffs.

And that brings us to the Nerd of the Year for 2008. Honourable mention goes to Joel and Ethan Coen, whose film No Country for Old Men dominated the Oscars, which was followed by box-office success with Burn After Reading. But the true Nerd of the Year is Chuck Bartowski, the star of Chuck who is played by Zachary Levi. Chuck is one of the most enjoyable shows on television right now, and it is in large part to Levi's portrayal of Chuck as a frantic yet unashamed nerd working simultaneously in a dead-end job for the Nerd Herd at the local Buy More and as a secret spy for the government. Whether it's using his alias Charles Carmichael or reciting battle plans from Call of Duty 4 to defeat murderous villains, Chuck has made disaffected, unmotivated twenty-somethings everywhere proud. And that is why Chuck Bartowski is the 2008 Nerd of the Year.

Friday, October 24, 2008

"Chase"-ing his dreams

When you have a spare fifteen minutes or so, take a read through the story of Chase Hilgenbrinck, a professional soccer player who decided to enter the priesthood. It is encouraging to see this kind of commitment to God's leading.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The futility of grading

Over the past week, I have been attempting to catch up on grading assignments to give the students an "accurate picture" of where they are before report cards. As I have tried to compute their grades in PE, I have been reminded as to the futility of grading. How is it possible to give physical activity a number? I'm evaluating their behaviour, not their ability. I would far rather have a number of subjects, like PE, be Pass/Fail courses, rather than trying to assign meaningless numbers to the students. Then there is the disturbing fact that a relatively arbitrary number becomes meaningful as a measure of one's worth, and that it remains that way as long as we participate in our western education system. It bothers me that I have to give out grades which reflect as much my personality as it does theirs but that have fairly significant meaning for them and their future. (As a ridiculous example, I had to submit my high school transcript to be qualified to teach in BC, eight years, two degrees, and a teaching job later. What possible bearing could those outdated marks have on me being qualified to teach now? But I digress...) Our system of grading is inherently flawed, and it is frustrating and futile, but yet I must relent and obey the rules of the system. Where's Jack Keating when you need him?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

That's all kinds of constitutional, baby!

I'm always in favour of resurrecting classic pop culture moments, and the return of Terry Tate, Office Linebacker is long overdue. The Palin is painful, but Tate is terrific. Enjoy.

"You better vote or that’s all she wrote!" - Terry Tate

P.S. Thanks to QOWP for the link.

Student aid

Today's Globe and Mail contained this article about how, despite the increase in overall amount of money put toward student aid, that fewer students are receiving aid according to their needs. So even though the pool is bigger, there are more swimmers in it, which means that there is less room for each swimmer. The study states that students in some provinces have in excess of $7,500 in student debt for each year spent in university, and that students are graduating with far more debt. As someone who graduated with debt of around $60,000, I am an example of these statistics. Granted, I made choices that oriented me toward accruing more debt: I did not work for most of my time in university, and I chose to do low-paying summer camp work for five out of my six summers as a student, and I completed two degrees over seven years. But I also chose to live in situations that I could afford, and to forego certain conveniences and privileges in accordance with my choices. There are many possible solutions: perhaps more money can be given in performance-based scholarships; perhaps governments need to work on debt-forgiveness rather than unproven post-graduation tax breaks; perhaps governments can funnel more money into helping fund university programs. The fact is that governments (provincial and federal) cannot keep up with need in the current model of providing student aid, and the needs will only continue to increase as universities continue to have higher operating expenses that then lead them to accepting more students, which in turn means that more students are trying to receive aid. It will not be easy to revamp this flawed system, but with a comprehensive re-evaluation of how money is distributed, it can happen. And I might even have my loans paid off by then.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The post-election hangover

It is two days after Canada marginally changed the country's political make-up. Here are some of my early responses to the election.

1. I still have a dislike for the combination of voting for regional and national representation simultaneously. In this case, in choosing the best regional candidate I had to choose a less-than-satisfactory candidate for PM. Granted, I was not happy with any of the candidates, but the discrepancy that can occur between legislative and executive is enough for me to continue to mistrust the first-past-the-post system.

2. Rick Mercer was right on Tuesday night when he commented that nothing has changed and all it cost us was $300 million to find that out. This was an unnecessary election, and it accomplished nothing. The only reason the next election will wait is because of all of the hubbub surrounding the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver; but all bets are off after that.

3. Columnists like Jonathan Kay, who wrote an intriguing piece about the leftist shift in Canadian politics, are correct when they write a lament for the majority government. With the Bloc and NDP splitting significant parts of the vote, there is little hope for a majority government in the foreseeable future, despite the fact that all but the Conservative Party share very similar values. Canadians would be better served having three distinct options - right, centre, and left - rather than two options disguised as five.

4. The fact that the Bloc is still allowed to exist is an indictment of the problems inherent in our system. The Bloc can never hold office, and all they can ever hope to do is to interfere with the Canadian values of peace, order, and good government. Duceppe's claim that the Bloc is what kept the Conservatives from achieving a majority government is proof enough that his party - though purporting to represent Quebeckers - serves little more purpose than over-representing the imagined needs of a continually unsatisfied province. At least parties like the Conservatives have overcome their regional origins to have national appeal; the Bloc simply block others from making governments work. I would love to see a bill passed that required parties to run candidates in a certain percentage of ridings or to receive a higher percentage of the popular vote to exist as a party, if only just to see the Bloc eradicated. I am not anti-Francophone, but I am anti-Bloc; if you confuse the two, you're just giving into Duceppe's rhetoric.

5. The voter turnout - the lowest ever at 59.1 % - is shameful and appalling, and it indicates that something is seriously wrong. As much as we malign other voting systems, at least many of them can get more than 3 out of 5 people to vote. It's an absolute disgrace, and it needs to be fixed for the next election; I don't know how, but something needs to change, and soon.

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