The Rants, Raves, Gripes, and Prophecies of Paul R. Potts

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Fri, 14 May 2004 To Be and To Have

On a whim, I picked this film out from a brief capsule review, having heard almost nothing about it, and took my wife and son. She's a Francophile, and we're home-schooling our son, so I thought a documentary about a tiny French school might be interesting.

I was right. Isaac complained about boredom during the movie, but I think it gave him some him material to think through later, and he still remembers the students. Grace was fascinated. What is amazing here isn't any particularly gripping interpersonal drama or angst, but the way the camera lingers so effectively on the faces of its subjects. There are no actors here. Structured only by time and simple editing, we get almost painfully real glimpses of the lives of a dedicated, middle-aged male teacher and his students, most of whome seem to come from farming families somewhere in rural France.

We see a teacher of almost infinite patience, Georges Lopez, working with calm dedication to provide each student not with short-term gratification but with what the student needs. Lopez by turns teaches a whole range of ages in one classroom, covering coloring, handwriting, cooking, writing, and math. We get to see the aftermath of a playground fight, a couple of parent-teacher conferences, and an inadvertently funny scene in which a child's entire extended family winds up trying to help him slog through a difficult multiplication problem. Any adult trying to help a grade-school student with long- since-forgotten long division will surely laugh out loud in sympathy.

Beyond teaching, we see Lopez as counselor, confidante, and friend. It is fashionable to believe in the U.S. that a teacher can be effective while maintaining complete "professionalism" and emotional separation from his or her charges. What emerges here is a different kind of professionalism; he counsels a boy whose father has cancer, and a painfully introverted girl. When the students leave for the summer, they each give and receive kisses on the cheek. Some are crying; they will miss him, and he will miss them. I miss all of them already; it was was a privilege to be able to pretend that I was briefly part of their lives.

Unfortunately, it will probably be hard to catch this film on the big screen; the theater was empty. It was the opening night of Van Helsing and the only other people watching had probably picked it as a second choice after being unable to get tickets to that splatter-fest; as we left, we heard them muttering a refund. I left feeling saddened by both what has become of both American teaching and by the ruins of our national attention span.

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The Triplets of Belleville

We just rented the animated film "The Triplets of Belleville." It is absolutely fantastic - easily one of the best animated films I've ever seen! I'd rate it right up there with the best of Miyazaki including his masterpiece Spirited Away.

It is in French with no subtitles, but that hardly matters because there is almost no dialog whatsoever. It is almost a silent film except for great sound effects and music.

The settings are very dark and somber, but the caricature-style drawings of the people are done with a fantastically light and deft touch. One of the best characters is a fat, elderly dog who barks at trains; we even get to go inside the dog's surreal black-and-white dreams.

The action is extraordinarily silly, but not just in a slapstick way; there is a remarkable attention to detail, and the funniest parts are played out in absolutely deadpan silence, just as they should be.

It lost out in the Academy Awards to Finding Nemo. I enjoyed Finding Nemo, and it deserved to make money and win awards, but it is hard to believe that anti-French sentiment surrounding the Iraq war wasn't at least partly to blame for the failure of Triplets to win any awards; as artistry goes, the two films are simply not in the same universe, and can't be compared by a common set of criteria. Nemo is the result of a lot of hard work and craft, but Triplets is a rarity, a true work of art and inspiration.

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Grosser By the Dozen

We rented and watched this Steve Martin vehicle. I was nervous about it, and it turns out I was right to be. It's an extended sitcom. It plays as if an interesting script was butchered beyond recognition. Steve Martin only gets to throw off his leash and make some priceless facial expressions in one or two scenes. The rest of the time he's Mister Wonderful: the perfect, patient, placid, and perfectly unrealistic father/husband, basically every woman's ideal. Post Roxanne, Steve Martin has played sort of post-menopausal male characters, if that makes sense: his Parenthood/Father of the Bride persona is beyond the age where his libido is a threat to any nearby single women; he's a dedicated husband. That's a good personal and positive role model. He's still a handsome and athletic man, though, and it is not unconvincing when Martin's character notices that his wife is unashamedly checking out his buns. Therefore, it makes no sense that this script seems to have inadvertently cut off his dick when he received his well-earned vasectomy following child number twelve; despite his apparent middle-aged studliness, his character is actually a sad, dickless wonder who lacks the testosterone to stand up to even the most junior of his children. And doesn't make him anyone's role model; it makes it painful to watch him.

We're shown the "chaos" that ensues when that many kids run wild -- but it is sanitized, Cosby-show, sparkling-clean chaos. There are only three truly funny moments of mayhem, and they belong in a different movie entirely, perhaps one by the Farrely brothers: one involving a dog biting someone's crotch, one involving vomit, and one involving hanging from a chandelier. The rest are only a pale rehashing of the same things. The two-dimensional neighbor family is an absolute embarassment; the writers should be ashamed. Chevy Chase called: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation wants some of its characters back.

It is all so clean that when there is a little bit of dirt in the spotlessly-clean house, it is disturbing for the wrong reasons; it looks like the director wasn't paying attention, or maybe the dirt was added in post-production via computer rendering; in this perfect home, it is as out-of-place as a turd on the Cosby family's dining-room table. When the kids fight, there is no real fighting; it is kind of a zen thing, really: the fight of no-fight; when a child becomes alienated and runs away, it isn't true pre-teen angst; it is dumbed down with his sadness over a dead frog. (Most real boys that age I know would probably find playing with a dead frog more interesting than playing with the live one). You can almost imagine the dying frog as the father's moribund dream of a coaching career.

The sad part is that there is some real content here; Steve Martin's father character is forced to choose between his coaching job or another dozen years of cleaning up after slobbering brats. His wife doesn't have to make that choice; although she cuts her book tour short, she actually succeeds in getting her book out, and on the bestseller list. She's able to juggle her career dream and her family. But Daddy, moving heaven and earth to do all he can to keep things together by himself, is mercilessly berated for letting a few things get out of hand; the children, even high-school-age children, are never to blame for acting out, nor is it ever considered typical adolescent rebellion; it is all daddy's fault for daring to dream.

One of the cute-as-a-button children actually throws a sharp dart at another kid's head, leaving a bleeding gash; nearly putting his sibling's eye out only elicits a mind verbal reprimand, not the memorable thrashing the child needs to cement the lesson. The kids are never really shown cleaning up after themselves, although there is much griping about chores. There's the usual subtext that dads can't take care of kids, but given that this one seems to do such a great job, we're left somewhat puzzled.

The ultimate message to him is clear: suck it up. Sacrifice everything for the children, and don't expect them to pull together, or move a bit towards responsibility and maturity themselves, or learn to take care of one another; if you don't give up everything for them, they'll become psychopathic, narcissistic drop-outs. No one seems to acknowledge what dad actually gives up; saccharine-flavored tears are shed, but no one learns anything, especially the kids, who are never expected to grasp that there may ultimately be limits to just how fulfilling it is to clean up after children. As I watch the credits, I leave the film with the full expectation that Daddy will have hanged himself from the meaningless plot device by morning.

P.S.: I just took a look at some reviews. It seems the critics agree:

"A disgrace. A spineless eunuch of a father allows his children to yell at him and bully him. They destroy a mansion. Their mother must be on heroin." -- Victoria Alexander, COM

"An overstuffed, undernourished Brady Bunch episode, only not as funny." -- Sean Axmaker, SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

"You don't so much watch this witless, charmless, pointless fiasco as sit hostage, waiting for it to end." -- Colin Covert, MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE

"surprisingly unpleasant" -- Sean O'Connell, COM

"Knows no tone between schmaltzy / gooey and slapstick / gross-out." -- Robert Koehler, VARIETY

"OK, so I havenıt read the original book or seen the previous movie. But Iıd bet the family dog never rooted its snout furiously in a kid-hating boyfriendıs crotch." -- Nick Rogers, STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER (SPRINGFIELD, IL)

And, finally:

"'Cheaper by the Dozen' is not only one of the worst films of the year, it is also a perfect example of why so many foreign countries hate America so much." -- Peter Sobczynski, CRITIC DOCTOR

It makes me recommend instead "Life as a House" instead, which although a manipulative and sentimental film in its own right, at least has an interesting script and some memorable moments, and is shot beautifully; it doesn't look like a Brady Bunch episode, and it avoids being a complete waste by having some slight grit to it: adolescent boy tries to engage in auto-erotic self-asphyxiation, sells drugs, gets caught trying to make money giving blowjobs to neighborhood pervert in car, neighbor girl cock tease likes to live dangerously giving hand jobs to naked adolescent boy in shower, Fountainhead-like architect character doesn't really give a damn what other people think any more and actually is capable of getting angry and getting an erection. At one point he threatens to remove his son's piercings with the nail-pulling end of a claw hammer. The adolescent is realistically whiney and prissy, there's not a frog funeral to be found and, for all its flaws, the film is a thousand times more real. Or you could watch "American Beauty." However, neither of these are kids' movies. I've just been watching Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits and Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Any self-respecting child would get much more out of these flights of grim fancy than this crap.

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