Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Reflections of Mid Life

Men of a Certain Age (2009)
Created by Ray Ramano and Mike Royce
Starring Ray Ramano, Scott Bakula, and Andre Braugher

When my son was just born, Everybody Loves Raymond first aired on tv.  I enjoyed it for awhile, but it got a bit stale.  How often can you watch a show whose plot revolves around sibling rivalry between two middle-aged men and their meddling mother?  So when I saw that Ray Ramano had a new show, I didn't rush in to view it.  But after seeing promos for Men of a Certain Ageat the movie theater three or four times, I decided to give it a watch.  I'm glad I did.  I was no fan of Ray Ramano before, but I am now.

This coming-of-age comedy focuses on three men in their late forties/early fifties who have been friends since at least college.  (The pictures in the opening credits indicate they've been friends since they were small boys.)  Owen (Andre Braugher) is married with two kids.  He is an overweight diabetic used-car salesman who works for his dad (Richard Gant).  He hates his dead-end job; his dad, a former NBA Lakers player, has picked another, more ambitious, employee to take over the dealership when he retires, as he has no faith in his son.

Terry (Scott Bakula) is the Peter Pan character who describes himself as "professionally charming."  A failed actor and part-time yoga teacher, he wants no strings in his personal life, preferring to date women in their twenties over those his own age.  Joe (Ray Ramano) had aspirations to be a pro golfer, but now owns a party store.  Separated from his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) and the father of two kids, Joe has a gambling addiction that puts him in regular contact with some pretty shady characters, especially Manfro, played by Jon Manfrellotti who worked with Ramano on Everybody Hates Raymond.   The tone of the show alternates between humorous and bittersweet.  There are some especially poignant moments when Owen helps out Terry.

The soundtrack mirrors Joe's taste--and mine--in seventies rock music.  Some of the many great tunes we are treated to include "Reflections of My Life," "One Tin Soldier," "Willin,'" "When I Grow Up to Be a Man," "Draggin' the Line," "Daydream," and "Taking Care of Business."  There's a really funny moment when one of Joe's teenaged employees says to him, "I know how much you like that music from the forties."  "Seventies," Joe corrects.

Being a woman of a certain age, I can certainly relate to the struggles of these three men as they face middle age.  They struggle with family, with marital and romantic relationships, with jobs and their places in society, with lost opportunities, with hopes and goals for their futures.  Time is pressing, but they aren't done living.

Friday, March 25, 2011

To Be Or Not To Be

Stuck on Earthby David Klass, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010, 240 pages, ISBN: 0374399511

"I have no plans to ingest you.  I also do no intend to try to impregnate you," says Ketchvar III to Tom Filber.  Tom's terrified response is "Take my sister."  And so begins Ketchvar's hilarious, exciting adventure on Earth.  From the peaceful planet Sandoval IV, Ketchvar is on a mission to determine whether humans should be allowed to continue existence or whether they should be wiped out by the Sandovians' Gagnerian Death Ray.

Ketchvar has chosen Tom's body to inhabit because he thinks Tom is an average 14-year-old human in good health with above average intelligence.  Instead, Ketchvar discovers that Tom is a geek, called "Alien" by his peers, who loathe and torment him.  Henry David Thoreau said that "most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them," and Ketchvar learns that this seems to be Tom's lot in life.  His family is dysfunctional, and his school's main purpose is to condition students "to accept mediocrity as their birthright and drudgery as their lot."  If that's not depressing enough, the school psychologist suggests that Ketchvar is not an alien, but rather a bullied boy playing out an empowerment fantasy.  So strongly has he begun to identify with his human host, Ketchvar is no longer sure what he is.  And the thought occurs to him:  "a human who has to pretend he's an alien is the lowest of the low."

Is Ketchvar really an alien or is he Tom acting out an alien fantasy?  Is the human race worthy of planet Earth?  Will Tom, like his father, lead a life of quiet desperation, or will he sing his song?  David Klass has written a highly entertaining story of aliens and misfit adolescents.  I am not usually a fan of stories about bullies, as they tend to be rather melodramatic and not so much fun, but then, inevitably, I read one that I enjoy immensely, i.e.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or The Outsiders.  To that list I now add Stuck on Earth. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Baseball tryouts are over and spring practice has begun for my son, who plays center field for his middle school team.  His first game is in two weeks, and, I am ready with my peanuts and Cracker Jack to watch some baseball, as I have been doing every spring since T-ball eight years ago.  When I'm not watching him play, I like to watch baseball movies.  Following are nine of my favorites.
  1. The Natural(1984).  Robert Redford stars as Roy Hobbs, whose dream of being a major league pitcher is shattered by a chance encounter with a mysterious woman; now sixteen years later Hobbs resurfaces as a rookie.
  2. Eight Men Out(1988).  This is the story of "Shoeless Joe" Jackson and the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919.
  3. Major League(1989).  The new owner of the Cleveland Indians wants them to lose so that she can move the team to Florida, so she recruits a bunch of oddballs to seal the deal.
  4. Field of Dreams(1989).  Take some baseball; throw in farm living, the sixties, and the supernatural.  What's not to like?
  5. The Babe(1992).  John Goodman is Babe Ruth, one of baseball's most fascinating players.
  6. The Sandlot(1993). In the summer of 1962, Scotty Smalls wanders over to the sandlot to play baseball with the neighborhood children. Expecting to be humiliated, he is instead welcomed by star player Benny "The Jet" Rodriquez who teaches him the game of baseball.
  7. Angels in the Outfield(1994). A remake of the 1951 film, this is the story of the California Angels whose chance at the pennant is in the hands of a young boy and an angel.
  8. Bad News Bears(2005).  Though I enjoyed the 1976 version with Walter Matthau and Tatum O'Neal, I prefer this remake with Billy Bob Thornton.  Morris Buttermaker, a former professional ballplayer and current alcoholic exterminator, is recruited to coach the worst team of twelve-year olds in the league.
  9. Sugar(2009).  Sugar is a talented pitcher from the Dominican Republic, whose only chance of escaping poverty is to make it to the Major League.

Monday, March 14, 2011

You Really Got a Hold on Me

Flipped (2010)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Rob Reiner and Andrew Scheinman
Starring Madeline Carroll, Callan McAuliffe, Rebecca De Mornay, Anthony Edwards, John Mahoney, Penelope Ann Miller, and Aidan Quinn

Based on Wendelin Van Draanen's novel, Flippedis the story of Juli Baker and Bryce Loski, two eighth graders in 1963.  Juli has loved Bryce since he first moved across the street in second grade; however, Bryce thinks Juli, who sits up in an old sycamore tree and raises her own chickens, is a little weird and has never returned her feelings.  Until one day he does.  He begins seeing Juli through his grandfather's eyes, who says the girl is "iridescent" much like Bryce's grandmother had been.  Just as Bryce is flipping his feelings for Juli, she's doing the same for him, realizing he's not as special as she always thought he was and that the whole of Bryce is not greater than the sum of his parts.  Flipped is narrated by Bryce and Juli, their stories being flipped back and forth throughout the movie.  Amusing and delightful with a good early sixties soundtrack, Flipped is the best first-love story since My Girl.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Which Way to Windy Hill?

All the Way Homeby Patricia Reilly Giff, Yearling, 2003, 167 pages, ISBN: 0440411823

It's the late summer of 1941, and Mariel and Brick have two things in common:  love for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who haven't come close to winning a pennant in 20 years, and a strong desire to go back to their hometown, Windy Hill.  Mariel lives in Brooklyn with her adoptive mother Loretta, the nurse who cared for Mariel when she was hospitalized with polio.  Mariel has dim memories of her birth mother and longs to go back to Windy Hill to find out what happened to her.

Brick moves in with Loretta and Mariel after his family's apple orchard is destroyed by fire, compelling his family to separate.  His father takes a job in a factory 50 miles north of Windy Hill; his mother goes to Philadelphia to nurse a sick woman, and Brick is sent to live with Loretta, an old friend of his mother.  At first Brick and Mariel barely speak to one another, but at Brick's first Brooklyn Dodgers game, the two bond when Mariel catches a ball slugged into the stands by rookie Pete Reiser.

In spite of the great friendship that he develops with Mariel, Brick decides he must go back to Windy Hill to help Claude, the old farmer who owns the orchard next to Brick's family's orchard.  Because Claude's hands were badly burned by the fire that destroyed Brick's family apple trees, he cannot pick his apples and has no one to do it for him.  Without Brick's help Claude will loose his harvest.

The two friends help each other find their way home and discover that their destinations intertwine in Windy Hilly.  With themes of isolation, friendship, loyalty, and the strong pull of home, All the Way Home is a good story for middle school readers.  It's a quick read, one that the most challenged students will be able to finish, yet the story is engaging enough to satisfy the most accomplished middle-school reader.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Change Is Gonna Come

The Rock and the Riverby Kekla Magoon, Aladdin, 2010, 304 pages, ISBN: 1416978038

Chicago, 1968.  Thirteen-year-old Sam Childs is the son of civil rights activist Roland Childs.  When a group of white men armed with bats and sticks starts beating an old woman at one of Roland Childs's rallies, Sam's seventeen-year-old brother Stick steps in to defend her.  Stick is injured and winds up in the emergency room of a local hospital.  Roland is very upset, as he tells Stick, because he expects his sons to adhere to his oath of nonviolence. Stick does not agree and thinks fighting back is the right thing to do.

When Roland learns that Stick is a member of the Black Panther Party, the rift between Roland and his son grows wider, and Stick leaves home.  As for Sam, he feels caught in the middle and misses his brother.  He's also curious about the Black Panthers and wants to take their "political education" class on Wednesday nights.  Of course, his parents would never allow this, so Sam has to sneak out to attend class.  At the same time, Roland has an upcoming demonstration and recruits Sam to assist in making calls, writing letters, and securing permits.  Sam has been raised to believe that nonviolent resistance is the right thing, but then he witnesses a violent attack on a friend by the police, and Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated, and suddenly he isn't so sure if nonviolence is the right path.  Stick tells Sam that he has a decision to make:  "You can't be the rock and the river," says Stick.

The Rock and the River, the first children's book to deal with the Black Panther Party, is edgier than One Crazy Summer, though both books present the Black Panther Party as a positive institution.  The Rock and the River shows that the Black Panthers arose because of daily injustices perpetrated against black people.  The Black Panthers receive money in the mail and use it to feed school children breakfast, to pay lawyers to defend black people unjustly accused of crimes, and to build clinics.  Middle school students will learn of the conflicts between the Black Panther Party and the older civil rights activists and what it was like to be a black middle school student 40 years ago.  They will also learn that though many carried guns, the Panthers agreed with the nonviolent activists that "people are more afraid of ideas than of guns."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

In Defense of Teachers

Waiting for Superman (2010)
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Written by Davis Guggenheim and Billy Kimball
Starring Geoffrey Canada, The Black Family, The Hill Family, and The Esparza Family

I don't as a rule like to blog about things that displease me, but with all the attacks on teachers from state legislators and t.v. pundits, I feel compelled to review Waiting for "Superman"and not in a favorable light.  This documentary has been praised as "one of the year's best films" and "shocking and moving" and a film "impossible not to be inspired" by.  But what it really is is a thinly veiled attack on teachers and teachers' unions.

Sure the film acknowledges there are plenty of good teachers.  But it blames the public schools and the teachers' unions for the country's failing educational system.  Granted there are always going to be bad teachers, and they are protected by their unions and the tenure granted through them.  After only two years teachers are granted tenure, and it is nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher with tenure.  What is the alternative?  Tenure after, say, ten years.  The outcome there is not difficult to predict.  A teacher with ten years in would be laid off in favor of a teacher right out of college.  Win win for the state, and I can hear the excuse:  we need someone with fresh ideas.  It's not about the tenure; so and so has gotten stale.  In a perfect world, no bad teachers would be allowed to teach and raises would be granted based on merit, but this isn't a perfect world.  Unions are absolutely essential to protect the good teachers.

The hero in Waiting for Superman is the charter school.  I know nothing about charter schools, but what I've learned from this film.  Apparently, they were started by dynamic teachers and their innovative teaching methods.  One public school teacher, whose methods inspired a couple of younger teachers to open a charter school, is shown teaching children math with rap songs.  Contrasting the rapping teacher the film also shows us a teacher who reads magazines at his desk, while his students play craps in the back of the classroom.  Now, clearly this guy is not a gifted teacher, but, as Waiting for Superman itself points out, many kids in the intercity are entering high school unable to read above a third-grade level and that the time to reach them was while they were still in elementary school.   Rare is the teacher who can teach these illiterate kids once they enter high school.

Enter the charter school.  Waiting for Superman follows the stories of five students, the common thread being that each child and his parents are determined to get into a better school and get a good education.  Not all of them get their wish granted, as the charter schools have only a few open spaces for new students.  So 300 families show up for the lottery for say 30 open spaces.  The 300 most dedicated families, the families who really care about their kids' educations.  But the public schools have thousands of students in each district they must accommodate, and not all students and their families are dedicated to learning.  So, even if charter schools do an outstanding job teaching their students, they're already rejecting 90% of their applicants, and the 10% accepted are hell bent on getting a good education.  Charter schools clearly aren't the solution for the millions of kids across the country who need educating.

Waiting for Superman points out that the educational system in the United States in the sixties and seventies was second to none.  But since then schools--not just intercity, but suburban as well--have dropped the ball.  Though it is a documentary filmmaker's right to look at whatever issue she wants, I take exception to this film's focus.  There are many factors that may have contributed to the decline in American education:  declining economic conditions in the last 30 years, parents who just don't care, parents demanding higher grades for less work (grade inflation, anyone?), parents working longer hours and having less time to oversee their children's homework, children being overburdened with extracurricular activities, video games replacing reading for pleasure, easy access to drugs and guns, and the drying up of public funds thanks in part to the Regan and Bush tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.

The problem with our educational system is multi-layered and complex with no easy answer.  But waging war against the teachers and their unions is not part of the solution.  We trust them with our children's future, so let's not begrudge them their hard-earned salaries and benefits.  Let's show them we know their worth with a decent wage, job security, and old-age pension.