REVIEW: Waiting for Superman

         What if the success or failure of your child rested on the results of a lottery? This is the question that Waiting for Superman asks you to consider as it follows the lives of several children from poor districts who hope to gain a spot in high-achieving charter schools. Of course, a child’s fate is not definitively determined by the school which he or she attends. However, as the Sundance Audience Award winner for Best Documentary points out, some schools are “drop-out factories,” while other schools consistently churn out students who attend and graduate from college. Clearly, a school can have a very real impact on the course of a child’s life. Director Davis Guggenheim makes a poignant point when he describes driving past several nearby public schools every day to drop off his children at a private school.
          I went to see Waiting for Superman a few days ago. It was playing in the Michigan Theater, a beautiful and elaborately decorated building—think mirrors and gold filigree—along East Liberty Street. I could easily imagine myself back in the 1950s (or even earlier). An organ was piping soothing music through the air, and the seats around me were nearly empty. Documentaries don’t tend to be blockbusters. In fact, I don’t usually watch documentaries, but I had heard so many good things about this one that I thought I’d make an exception. I wasn’t disappointed.
          Waiting for Superman takes a hard look at the educational system in America, turning a critical eye at the practice of tenure and the policies of teacher’s unions. On the other hand, the documentary showcases the efforts of Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington D.C. public schools, whose unpopular actions ultimately resulted in improved test scores. (Michelle Rhee resigned just last month, but you can visit her website to keep updated on what she’s up to.) The documentary also showcases successful charter schools such as Harlem Success Academy. Charter schools, it notes, are free of the regulations that constrain public schools, which are governed not only by national and state laws, but also by multiple layers of local control.
          I was surprised that the documentary didn’t mention Teach For America (TFA) at all, especially since it features Michelle Rhee, who is a former Teach For America corps member, and the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools, which were founded by two TFA alumni. Perhaps it didn’t want to open up a whole other can of worms—TFA, which is committed to closing the achievement gap, has received both extensive praise and extensive criticism.
          Critics of Waiting for Superman complain that it doesn’t fully address all the issues related to educational inequity, glossing over problems such as poor nutrition and inadequate health care—problems that plague impoverished communities and affect the performance of their students. Critics also complain that the documentary makes a silver bullet out of charter schools, even though, as the film itself acknowledges, only one in five charter schools is highly successful.
          So how thoroughly does this film investigate the problems of the educational system? It certainly doesn’t cover all the problems contributing to the US’s failing educational system (which is perhaps an impossible task anyhow), but it certainly points to several important ones, such as the lack of mechanisms for removing bad teachers. More importantly, in my opinion, it’s a film that has sparked conversation and debate about education reform, drawing attention in a touching and emotionally powerful way to one of the major social issues in America today.
For the trailer, click here.

Preview: UM Design and Production Students Portfolio Exhibit



What: An exhibit of projects by U of M’s Theatre Design and Production students

When: Opening Reception on Friday, January 22nd, 2010 4:30-6pm

           Exhibit will show January 25 – January 30 during gallery hours (12pm-6pm)

Where: Duderstadt Gallery in the Duderstadt Center


For just a short week, the Duderstadt Gallery will be showcasing the work of UM’s BFA Theatre Design and Production students. According to the Duderstadt Center’s website, the students are learning “scenic, costume, lighting design and stage management.” The exhibit will include paper projects completed for design classes as well as realized designs from actual University Production shows. Come enjoy the refreshments at Friday’s reception while discovering all the work that goes on backstage!

Click here for the facebook event.

On display is the work of: Rachael Albert, Mary Clare Blake-Booth, Michael Bou-Maroun, Jordan Braun, Michelle Bryan, Amalea Chininis, Corey Davis, Kelsy Durkin, Michelle Elias, Elisabeth Griebel, Andrew Hill, Andrés Holder, Mitchell B. Hodges, Rachel Jahn, Craig Kidwell, Corey Lubowich, Elizabeth Lynch, Adam McCarthy, Shawn McCulloch, Sarah Petty, Carolyn Reich, Becca Rothman, Katelyn Rouse, Emily Stromberg, and Marguerite Woodward.

REVIEW: District 9

District 9: Thought-provoking entertainment

What if aliens came to earth, not fearsome and hell-bent on destroying humans, not super-powerful and prepared to enlighten the ignorant citizens of our planet, but rather sick and malnourished, in a broken spaceship? This is the premise of science fiction movie District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp. The film has the feel of a documentary, beginning with a montage of interviews and news reports. My initial reaction during those first few minutes was that I was in for a movie-used-as-mouthpiece-for-political-opinions. But I was wrong. District 9 raises challenging questions, but does not attempt to answer them in any sort of pat manner. In fact, the primary question I found myself pondering as I walked out of the theater was “Could that really happen? Would people really do that? And if so, what does that say about human nature?”

It’s easy to imagine that if aliens showed up on earth, we would treat them with both curiosity and compassion. But what about years after they have arrived, when the burgeoning alien population is becoming a drain on the state’s resources? District 9 takes place 20 years after the aliens have arrived—after the novelty of having extraterrestrial visitors has worn off. The city of Johannesburg, where the spaceship originally appeared and where the aliens are housed (in a tightly packed district of shacks), is starting to buck against the aliens’ presence. The people of Johannesburg complain that the aliens are scavengers who will pull the shoes off a person, indeed strip them bare of anything profitable, and then kill them. Here the contentious questions begin. How should the aliens be treated? What rights belong to them? How should they be punished for their behavior? The “prawns,” as the aliens are derisively called, are supposedly the “workers” (implying some type of colony/hive queen structure to their society) of the species. Does that excuse their behavior? Or is their violence simply born out of poverty, desperation, and the misery of living so far from home? Does that excuse their behavior?

When MNU (Multi-National United) decides to relocate the aliens outside of Johannesburg, MNU officials go door to door demanding signatures (or rather, “scrawls”). One alien, Christopher, reads the document carefully and complains that his eviction is not legal. This raises yet more questions: what is “legal” in this situation? Should the aliens have any say in the matter? Since the aliens are essentially powerless to resist, why even bother to maintain such a poor semblance of legality? (At one point, an MNU official claims that he has obtained a scrawl when in reality the alien was knocking the clipboard out of his hands.)

I’m not going to disclose any more of the plot, but I do have to say that the list of questions is unending. And the ramifications of these themes extend far beyond the (arguably unlikely) scenario of aliens landing on earth. How should refugees be treated? Illegal immigrants? How much say do people who are entirely dependent on the government get about their living conditions? What are acceptable forms of population control? (One MNU official crassly compares the sound of burning alien eggs to popcorn popping.) How far can we go in the name of science? (The aliens, and even one human, are the unwilling subjects of scientific experimentation.)

This movie tackles tough issues, but doesn’t let them weigh down the plot. At times, fulfilling its role of summer blockbuster, District 9 adheres to the clichés of action films: there are chase scenes, (gratuitously) bloody shoot-outs, the requisite corny moment of alien-human solidarity (“No! We stick together!” one of the aliens says to a human), and the (actually very touching) portrait of a selfish, incompetent man who redeems himself in a key moment of self-sacrifice at the end. A movie well-worth seeing, not just for the action, but also for the thought-provoking, poignant questions about human nature it weaves in.

The official site:

REVIEW: Itzhak Perlman, violin & Rohan De Silva, piano 9/13

Itzhak Perlman, violin & Rohan De Silva, piano


Sonata for Violin and Piano in D Major, Op. 9, No. 3                  Jean-Marie Leclair

Sonata for Violin and Piano No.7 in c minor, Op. 30, No. 2   Ludwig van Beethoven

Suite Italienne                                                                              Igor Stravinsky

& various short pieces Perlman announced individually from the stage

The Itzhak Perlman concert last Sunday (September 13, 2009) completely sold out. I know this because I bought the last ticket. In fact, even as I was pulling out my wallet to pay, two more people stopped by and asked to buy tickets. What’s so special about Itzhak Perlman? I’d say his technical prowess. He makes everything look easy. It’s as if the technical aspect of playing the violin, the physical neccesity of placing the fingers on the fingerboard in the right place at the right time (and coordinating the fingers with the bow, and drawing the bow against the string with the right pressure and speed, and…) don’t exist at all. It’s as if Perlman can shortcut past all the technical concerns, and the audience can enjoy the music undiluted. This is not the case, of course–Perlman’s ability comes from extensive training and practicing–but it is what makes a live performance by Itzhak Perlman so amazing. At times I couldn’t believe I was watching a human being, and not listening to a digitally altered recording.

I’m not going to lie: I came to the concert to hear Itzhak Perlman, not Rohan De Silva. But I don’t want to downplay the pianist’s part in this performance. Rohan De Silva’s playing was also excellent: expressive, sensitive, dynamic. At first I focused my attention solely on Perlman, fascinated by his technical facility (and the automated wheelchair he had zoomed about the stage upon). But I soon realized that much of the music’s complexity came from the interplay between piano and violin—the contrast of musical textures, the back and forth exchange of the melody. I like the phrase in the program’s notes on Rohan De Silva: “collaborative piano.” The performance this past Sunday was a collaboration between two highly skilled musicians.

On a lighter note, I’ve always wondered what people think about during concerts. I know that I personally cannot stay focused purely on the music. At times, my attention wandered to the enormous floral arrangement on the stage. I wondered who had put it there, and why. To entertain bored audience members? To fill up space on the empty stage? It was a rather wild looking arrangement, with very long, crooked, white branches extending outwards like skinny skeletal fingers.

I wondered whether I was not properly appreciating the music because I was noticing the decorations.  Then I wondered how many people were properly appreciating the music, and how many were simply sitting there to be able to say they had heard Perlman. Soon I found myself musing on what it means to “appreciate” music. For your mind to be analyzing the harmonies and rhythms? For your emotions to follow the contours of the melodic line?

What do you think it means to “appreciate” music? What do you think about during a concert?