Monday, August 31, 2009

Princeton in France: Working in the Musee d'Orsay

This summer I spent six weeks working at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris; an internship I got, quite unexpectedly, through the Princeton in France program. I say “unexpectedly” because the internship is usually reserved for Art History majors, with their superior knowledge of gallery air pressure, humidity levels and obscure 19th century sculptors. Being a plain old history major, and thus one word short of every other intern there, I felt pretty self-conscious on my first day on the job. Okay, I could distinguish Manet from Monet, but my knowledge of 19th century French art — or any art for that matter — didn’t stretch much further.

Luckily the internship turned out to be a delightful experience. French people are much friendlier than their reputation makes them out to be, and really like throwing parties for themselves (every other weekend was like a city-wide Lawnparties); the museum has a lot more to it than a smattering of world-famous Van Goghs (though he does dominate the postcard selection); and walking to work every day along the sun-bleached Parisian riverbank was an experience I won’t forget in a hurry, despite (or perhaps because of?) the stench of urine under every bridge — as anyone who’s been to Paris will know, French people aren’t afraid of public drunkenness.

Nevertheless, while my internship was very positive on most levels, it did lead to some interesting observations. First off, everyone working there was a woman - everyone. I always knew that art history courses were skewed toward the fairer sex, but when I arrived on my first day and found myself the only guy among 25 female interns, I was shocked. And the weirdest thing was no one seemed to have a good reason to explain it. The closest I got was some Freudian response about it all being a reaction to the lack of female artists within the Orsay itself — it being a museum devoted to 19th century French art, there are about three women represented in the whole place (though there’s no shortage of plump, naked women in the paintings themselves).

Secondly, French people (or French museum curators at any rate) don’t yet know how to use computers. All the work at the Orsay was done on paper, which meant many hours by the photocopier, followed by many hours filing. When one brave intern from Wellesley asked why the museum wasn’t subscribed to any online journals, she was greeted with a odd mixture of alarm and intrigue, as if the curators had never even considered looking on the Internet for information.

My biggest gripe, though, was with the restoration of the museum. Housed in an awe-inspiring 19th century railway station, the 1986 refurbishment manages to screw up just about everything that the Louvre Pyramides across the river got right. Where I.M. Pei’s transparent triangles are a graceful contemporary presence, adding to the original Louvre palace without obscuring it, the clunky, nigh-on Fascistic restoration of the Orsay is a violent assault on the station’s original design, dragging down the platform hall with monstrous stone blocks and scaffolding-like walkways.

Luckily the museum’s collection is strong enough to speak for itself, especially in the upper galleries which house the world-famous Impressionist collection (from waterlily-man Monet to must-have-been-a-paedo Degas). It was here that I spent my most memorable hours at the Orsay, during lunch breaks, and particularly on Mondays, when the museum was closed and the usually jam-packed galleries were deserted. All in all, a highly memorable internship experience that I would recommend to just about anyone — even the non art history-buff.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Giffoni Film Festival’s Best: Johnny Mad Dog

After the massive international film festivals of Cannes and Karlovy Vary, Southern Italy's Giffoni Film Festival stands out as a decidedly different and very surprising experience. As the world's largest children's film festival, the two week long event draws over 3000 kids, aged 3 to 18, from around the world to the tiny village of Giffoni Valle Piana. These participants not only had the opportunity to watch films, they also served as jury members - a position typically held only by imminent persons in the industry. Complementing this unprecedented responsibility was a slate of films far removed from the typical Disney family-friendly fare. These productions, particularly in the older age brackets, often pulled no punches when dealing with Giffoni's central theme, taboo. Its best film, the sublimely executed and shocking Johnny Mad Dog, sheds light on the modern day tragedy of the child soldier by unveiling how each fighter is still very much a youth at heart. The film's underlying compassion towards these fighters only magnifies the horror of their plight.

During the Liberian Civil Wars (1989–1996; 1999-2003), the rebels against the government violently abducted the countryside's children and forced them to fight under the constant threat of death. In the film the teenaged Johnny Mad Dog serves as one of the higher-ups in the rebel brigade, commanding a group that consists primarily of preadolescents. Under his direction, the band moves towards Monrovia and commits a whirlwind of violence against all they face. Their campaign brings the child soldiers into contact with civilian kids whose world is suddenly shattered when faced with the realities of war.

So often, such films depict child soldiers as merely brainwashed monsters. Johnny Mad Dog boldly goes beyond this characterization by lingering upon moments where the fighter's juvenile mindset suddenly flares up amongst the carnage. Although the leader's right-hand man, No Good Advice, typically executes all demands without question, his compliant demeanor suddenly changes when he steals a pig from an old man. With each order to slaughter the animal, No Good Advice grows ever more adamant in his resistance. It becomes clear that the often ruthless child desperately clings to the animal as though it were a precious toy. Johnny Mad Dog exposes his own naïveté during a tense and brutal interrogation of a bourgeois couple. To challenge the intellectuals, Johnny Mad Dog coldly asks questions about the area of a triangle and powers of 10. His basic inquiries indicate that the young soldiers see the world through a limited vision, even as they gain the power to commit widespread atrocities.

These moments, perversely connecting the actions of the combatants with a relative innocence, heightens the force of their deep indoctrination to a system centered around attaining power through violence. The adult generals create a sense of eerily empowering hysteria by firing blanks at their bare-chested underlings to lead them to believe that they are bullet proof. The motto of the group "Don't want to die? Don't be born!" reveals how the older commanders make death a mundane facet of life, infusing the children's existence with its constant presence. The world of the child soldier is thus transformed into one built upon the dichotomy between absolute strength and total weakness.

The fierce lead Christopher Minie

All the actors are adept at handling the tension that derives from this uncanny marriage of extremes. As the titular character, Christopher Minie exudes a vicious, overpowering charisma giving Mad Dog the seemingly unshakable strength of the eternal soldier. With his fierce presence, the actor crafts a character that subconsciously clings to his position so that he can attain a modicum of control within a life of enslavement. Walking away from his band in a derelict building, Mad Dog comes upon the civilian youths Laokole and her toddler brother. The actor's usually contorted, angered expression briefly softens as he looks at the two with a quiet interest of the child - a poignant glimmer of Mad Dog's long forgotten past as a normal boy.

Daisy Victoria Vandy plays Johnny Mad Dog's antithesis, the pure Laokole, with similar nuance thereby challenging the possibility of innocence during times of violent strife. Whereas Vandy first depicts Laokole as a quiet entity determined to protect her family, increasing loss darkens the color of the actress' performance. Vandy's initial warmth slowly disappears as Laokole becomes infected by anger and brought to the point where hatred may not only be accepted but embraced. These rich performances from characters on opposite ends of the conflict embody a young ensemble that performs without a hint of theatricality and with all the complexity of the most frightening documentary.

Further accentuating such fearless and raw acting is the film’s electric editing and direction. The editing style remains loose and rapid, thus allowing the production to capture a war-torn existence that lies in a muddle of fear and adrenaline. For all its fast cuts, the film always remains intensely legible even during the height of battle. As the band rushes through the city streets with guns blazing, the film creates a sense of controlled frenzy which reinforces the brutality’s violent purpose. This measured presentation shows that these kids exist, at some level, on the same plane as the typical adult soldier. When the rate of the montage momentarily slows down, the film takes an opportunity to meditate on the troubling societal implications stemming from warfare where the child becomes fodder for enemy guns. Trudging through the capital, the gang walks through a graveyard while listening to a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. about the disenfranchisement of the black man. The scene's languid rhythm, coupled with the unusual juxtaposition of the youths against the tombstones, reflects how Liberia has utterly failed its young and created a generation that seems to have sprung out of bloodshed. The impeccable editing never lets the visceral quality of the film subsume its always thought-provoking political stakes.

Filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire has an eye for the surreal, using the imagery of the strange to identify the very real devastation’s nightmarish qualities. Sauvaire's affinity for the bizarre becomes apparent during the picture's opening. As chaos occurs outside, a lone soldier finds a wedding dress in an empty home. With almost ritualistic care, he puts on the garb from the long gloves to the dress itself. The camera focuses on each white article shining brightly on the teenager's black skin, before pulling back to reveal the violent aggressor reconfigured as an innocent bride. The extreme instance of gender inversion, which goes un-remarked by his comrades, frames the realm of the child soldier as one of no taboos and no boundaries - simply pure pandemonium.

After the film screened, some in attendance made comparisons to the acclaimed City of God. This connection to the recent modern masterpiece is no hyperbolic exaggeration as Johnny Mad Dog has the same confidence in its searing depiction of youth gone awry. Through its presentation of an unflinching and complex look at an often ignored contemporary horror, the film powerfully testifies to the boldness of Giffoni's selection and the festival's respect for the intelligence of its young audience. This tour de force continually challenges the apathy of the western viewer with unrestrained intensity. In its finale, a girl points a gun directly to the camera. Fearlessly breaking the 4th wall, the last image speaks directly to the distant spectator. Her aggressive though ultimately harmless affront against the viewer encapsulates a film aware of the cinematic medium's power to provoke while acknowledging its fundamental impotence at effecting real change. This direct confrontation stands as a devastating and intelligent finale to what is an uncompromising and wholly unforgettable film.

The final verdict on Karlovy Vary and Giffoni

A group of jurors ready for their close-up

Now that I have delved into the best Giffoni had to offer, I will now widen my gaze to deliver a final verdict on two very different July film festivals. With over 60 films viewed, 22 days of festivals attended, and 2 countries visited, what was the essence of the Karlovy Vary and Giffoni experiences? Stay tuned for the next festival blog post for the answer!


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Young People These Days

With the first freshmen arriving on campus for Outdoor Action in less than two weeks, it's time to pause a minute and think upon the Class of 2013. Who are they?

Beloit College has prepared a document each August for the past 11 years to help answer that question. Their Mindset List, which is based on the idea that the majority of the Class of 2013 was born in 1991, provides a list of facts about how the world has always been for our new Tigers.

For example:

  • For these students, Martha Graham, Pan American Airways, Michael Landon, Dr. Seuss, Miles Davis, The Dallas Times Herald, Gene Roddenberry and Freddie Mercury have always been dead.
  • They have never used a card catalog to find a book.
  • McDonald's has always been serving Happy Meals in China.
  • Smokers have never been promoted as an economic force that deserves respect.
  • Elite American colleges have never been able to fix the price of tuition.
Want to read about your class' mindset? 2010, 2011, 2012


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Princeton's #1-- who are the next 49?

So the story broke a few hours early, and now the world knows that Harvard and Princeton share the top spot on U.S. News & World Report's ranking of America's Best Colleges.

So who else made the top tier of the magazine's 26th annual survey? Here they are:

1. Harvard
1. Princeton
3. Yale
4. Caltech
4. MIT
4. Stanford
4. Penn
8. Columbia
8. Chicago
10. Duke
11. Dartmouth
12. Northwestern
12. Washington University in St. Louis
14. Hopkins
15. Cornell
16. Brown
17. Emory
17. Rice
17. Vanderbilt
20. Notre Dame
21. Berkeley
22. Carnegie Mellon
23. Georgetown
24. UCLA
24. UVA
26. USC
27. Michigan
28. Tufts
28. UNC
28. Wake Forest
31. Brandeis
32. NYU
33. William and Mary
34. Boston College
35. Georgia Tech
35. Lehigh
35. UCSD
35. Rochester
39. U of Illnois- Urbana-Champaign
39. Wisconsin-Madison
41. Case Western
42. RPI
42. UC-Davis
42. UC-Santa Barbara
42. Washington
46. UC-Irvine
47. Penn State
47. University of Florida
47. Texas-Austin
50. Tulane
50. Miami


Karlovy Vary Film Festival Highlights: Comedy Pt. 2

The comedies presented at Karlovy Vary in July highlights the variety of the selection that spanned national cinemas. The relatively main stream Away We Go and the off-the radar Serbian feature Devil’s Town speak to the selection’s sometimes divergent quality as well as the Czech festival’s uncanny ability to unearth unexpected gems of world cinema.

"Away We Go" dir. Sam Mendes (USA)

With a few exceptions, director Sam Mendes has defined himself auteur fascinated with the often torturous dynamics of married life. Last year, he followed his Oscar-winning American Beauty, about a husband's midlife crisis gone awry, with an even bleaker adaptation of "Revolutionary Road." Starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, the latter film suggested that the true love promised at the end of Titanic was nothing but a futile dream. Mendes' latest picture Away We Go is far lighter in tone, though as intensely attracted to the harsh realities of relationships. It is a poignant, often charming comedy about the fears parenthood can spark in young couples whose overall impact is tempered by overly broad comedic performances that effectively undercut the soft and subtle work of its two leads.

The film follows Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), two self-proclaimed "fuck ups," who lay about lifestyles are suddenly disrupted after Burt discovers that his partner is pregnant. Soon after, Burt's parents decide to pack up and move to Belgium leaving the young parents without any means of support. Framing their newfound solitude as their chance to start afresh, the pair goes on a cross-country search for a new home. As they meet up with various unhappy acquaintances, the voyage strengthens their bond while forcing both to confront their deep seated insecurities.

John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph share a hilarious chemistry playing two characters suffering through mutual angst, buoyed only by the comforting presence of the other. Their easy relationship is effortlessly evoked during the single long take opening where Burt discovers Verona's pregnancy during a routine act of cunnilingus. Rudolph seems slightly detached during the first few opening moments making her self available less for her own sexual desire than as a favor to her enthusiastic spouse. Lying under the sheets, Krasinski projects a happy befuddlement when exclaiming "You taste different!" using only his intonation to underscore the pair's close bond. A sense of shared nonchalance permeates all their intimate interactions thus lending Burt and Verona an often remarkable sense of authenticity.

The stars navigate just as deftly the moments of distance between their characters, and both showcase the strain of a relationship between two emotionally stunted individuals. Verona detests the thought a marriage - a conviction that causes the much enamored Burt no end of stress and even humiliation. When asked by two friends if he has ever proposed, Burt quickly responds "I ask her all the time to marry me, watch!" He proceeds to pose the question only to be swiftly rejected. Although both actors take on jovial airs in the scene, Rudolph grows ever brusquer with every proposal reinforcing the impossibility of a ceremonial union. Krasinski slowly reveals what his character perceives as a fundamental lack of commitment to be painful and even terrifying

By toning back his typically sumptuous style, Mendes perfectly complements his leads elegant, rich performances. Such understatement amplifies the overuse of caricature as comedy in the film's supporting roles. Since many of the characters that Burt and Verona visit during their travels come off as wildly eccentric to the point of unbelievability, much of the world feels oddly empty. Played by the usually more subdued Maggie Gyllenhaal, the hippie mother LN embodies this unfortunate narrative trend. LN attempts to convert the soon-to-be parents to a parental philosophy that paints strollers as a negative and complete sexual frankness with children as the ideal. While eating with her family at dinner, she announces that she had "the most wonderful orgasm" when her first son was born. Gyllenhaal utters the frank reminiscence with ham-fisted reverie. LN stands as a dated feminist character that wears outs her welcome in the first 5 minutes, but stays in the film for another 20.

Only occasionally do supporting characters have any psychological depth including a married couple whose happy façade breaks down to reveal a seemingly inextinguishable grief. Their attempt to explain the mechanics of it an ideal family life using pancake and syrup as a model slowly morphs from offbeat parental advice to a lament over lost youth. That such intriguing characters defined by a restrained melancholy humor appear so rarely, highlight the film's poor narrative decisions. With its weary optimism, so unlike Mendes' earlier films, the flawed Away We Go does contain real insight about the despair and confusion that the passage into adulthood can bring.

Devil's Town dir. Vladimir Paskaljević (Serbia)

While Away We Go and many of the other comedies wrestled, often to their detriment, with different tones and comedic stylings, the Serbian Devil's Town melds the miserable with absurdity to superb effect. So powerfully does the rich production employ humor to form its damning critique of Serbian society that the film testifies to the dynamism of Eastern European cinema showcased so thoroughly at Karlovy Vary.

By focusing on a broad cast of characters struggling modern-day Belgrade, the film's world has an unexpected texture. The ensemble includes the poor, like an angry taxi driver who sees only bourgeois arrogance around him, and the wealthy, like a Mafia boss that obsesses about his son outperforming him at a high-end bordello. Many of the Belgrade citizens face personal crisis in a stifling society whose structure appears to leave all, except for the most corrupt, in a hopeless limbo. Devil's Town exposes the far-reaching malaise that appears in all parts of city life using bitter and very poignant comedy.

A scene where a long retired gynecologist visits a bordello reflects the film's many pained performances that contain an absurd edge. The elderly doctor hires a prostitute not for sex, but to perform a routine examination. After he announces with informed certitude that "everything looks all right," he suddenly breaks his decorum and tearfully remembers his youth and career. All this painful reflection leads to a crippling heart attack. Played with a convincing desperation, the actor brings to vivid life a bizarre moment where the quintessentially impersonal sparks a deluge of deeply personal memories.

Where such quiet scenes contain an unexpected poignancy, Devil's Town gamely presents comedy defined by a manic and deranged energy. As much as the doctor suffers because his emotional hang-ups, his vacuous son has no such difficulties. His father's brush with death is simply another opportunity to garner funds for his wildly ambitious series of films that will culminate with Serbia: The Final Truth. Consisting mostly of close-ups of the actor's wide-eyed face, the wannabe filmmaker’s sales pitch meticulously details every aspect of production for his bed ridden parent. The diatribe ends with a brief break down of the film's score consisting of one note from a harmonica and a lot of high-pitched screams. In a winningly off-kilter fashion, the scene also satirizes, on a meta-level, artistic attempts to deconstruct the Serbian experience.

First-time feature director and screenwriter Vladimir Paskaljević maximizes the awkward tension between characters using clever aural and visual cues. When a young girl goes to tell her father of her mother's plan to move to America, he attempts to give her some stern fatherly advice. Since her dad has become a monk sworn to silence, he uses computer software to explain his displeasure. The mechanical, emotionless voice emanating from his laptop gives his many pleas an added pathetic quality while simultaneously unveiling the limits of his supposed religious conviction. Paskaljević permeates the film with visual gags that highlight the callousness of modern Belgrade. While a rabbit keeper explains the finer points of bunny slaughter to a new employee, a small picture of Bugs Bunny hangs in the background. Such juxtapositions speak ever so subtly to a demented culture which the filmmaker mines for all its humorous possibilities.

That the gynecologist son's first film also happens to be entitled Devil's Town appears to be a recognition of the folly in creating an all-encompassing view of modern Serbia. Yet Paskaljević so confidently executes his vision that the hack's dreams of a Serbian opus highlight the blazing success of the film itself. Devil's Town is an effecting and complex portrait of a society that has foregone traditional values to satisfy petty material desires. Above all, it is a stunning example of comedy at its most vicious and illuminating.

Next Up: The Best Film of the Giffoni Film Festival

The youth festival's sunny Italian confines hosted many dark films

In the next edition of the blog, I will be switching gears to focus on the best film of Southern Italy's Giffoni Film Festival - the child soldier feauture Johnny Mad Dog. Although it is the largest children's film festival in the world, with juries ranging from 3 to 18 years old, the brutal and unforgettable film emphatically demonstrated that Giffoni is one film festival that respects the intelligence of its audience.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

LGBT Rankings

Controversy over school rankings is nothing new, but this year has seen one group focus on a particular set of rankings by the Princeton Review. Princeton Review provides demographic rankings including "Most Religious Students," "Least Race/Class Interaction" and "Gay Community Accepted." Campus Pride, a non-profit aimed at supporting LGBT college students, has released a statement calling the Princeton Review list of schools where there is "very little discrimination against homosexuals" "erroneous" and "misleading" because it is based off of one question and did not involve contacting a significant number of LGBT students.

Princeton Review's senior vice president Robert Franek said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed that the rankings have been praised by many gay groups and he stands by the methodology.

Campus Pride also has a ranking system based off of 32 yes or no questions about the school and campus life covering Policy Inclusion, Support and Institutional Commitment, LGBT Student Life, LGBT Academic Life, LGBT Housing & Residence Life, LGBT Campus Safety, LGBT Counseling and Health and LGBT Recruitment and Retention Efforts. While Princeton was not included on the Princeton Review list, it was one 20 schools of a total of 205 studied to receive 5 out of 5 stars.

Trying to compare the two school lists is difficult however, because Campud Pride does not include many of the schools on the Princeton Review list. We took the Princeton Review top ten list and included the Campus Pride ranking if applicable.

1. New York University (4 out of 5 stars)
2. Stanford University (not ranked)
3. New College of Florida (not ranked)
4. Swarthmore College (not ranked)
5. Emerson College (4 out of 5 stars)
6. Simon's Rock College of Bard (not ranked)
7. Prescott College (not ranked)
8. Wellesley College (not ranked)
9. Malboro College (not ranked)
10. Mount Holyoke College (not ranked)


Friday, August 14, 2009

College News Round-Up: Plans and Completions

The new Butler's construction has been completed and the University has opened up the College's doors to media members. The Chronicle of Higher Education reviews the new buildings along with some excellent pictures.

The New York Times' language blog considers the phrase "Princeton Plan," a plan aimed at equitably determining international carbon caps based off of an article by six scientists, four of whom are based at the Princeton Environmental Institute.

Outside the bubble:

Yale University Press decides not to include images of Muhammad, including the Danish cartoon that set off protests in 2006, in Jytte Klausen's new book The Cartoons That Shook the World.

Harvard licenses new trademark "Harvard Yard" to a clothing manufacturer for a line of expensive, preppy clothing. The profits will fund undergraduate financial aid.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Karlovy Vary Film Festival Highlights: Comedy

One of the signatures of this year's Karlovy Vary International Film Festival was the breadth of its selection. The diversity of film types from around the world made the festival the perfect place for even the most discerning cinephile. Here are some of the highlights from Karlovy Vary's mix of genres.


Black Dynamite dir. Scott Sanders (USA)

The comedically broad and self-aware
Black Dynamite was one of the most energetic comedies at Karlovy Vary.

Black Dynamite (Michael Jai white), a muscular and brash former CIA agent with a license to kill, is shaken out of his semi-retirement when his estranged brother dies. In response, Black Dynamite unleashes a violent war on drugs to achieve his dream of getting smack off the streets thus making the hood safe again for "an afternoon stroll." His somewhat bizarre goal, meshing extremely violent means for a surprisingly delicate end, embodies a production that crackles with an absurd humor.

Screenwriter and star Michael Jai White plays the throwback hero Black Dynamite, who beds the ladies and beats the bad guys, with effortless charisma and charm. With his constantly stern expression as he recites one-liners that border on non sequiturs, White creates a hero as hilarious as he is physically imposing.

Black Dynamite in action

During a particularly reflective moment, Black Dynamite recalls the moment when he came face to face with a dying Vietnamese child during the war. Black Dynamite's incredible racial ignorance firmly thrusts his memory of the horrors of Vietnam from the dramatic to the comedic. He constantly dwells on the boy's "little Chinese eyes" when he uttered his last words. Although Black Dynamite admits that he did not speak the language, the hero dramatically announces that the little victim of war was asking him directly, "Why, Black Dynamite why?" Through this diatribe, White's distant expression remains full of melodramatic angst - a touch of sincerity that only further amplifies the ridiculousness of his character's deep thoughts. White so enthusiastically plays the lead that the film's difficult balance of homage and parody becomes engrossing.

Unfortunately, the film loses its momentum when the jokes slow down as the production evolves into a series of fight scenes that lack the charm and invention of the dialogue. Through its entirety, however, the filmmakers' delight with the genre of Blaxploitation is apparent. Black Dynamite stands as one "B-movie" that truly deserves many, many sequels. The infectiously fun comedy understands the thin line between amateurish and the hilarious, effortlessly finding the humor inherent to films made with a low budget but with lots of verve and style.

Escape from the Call Center dir. Federico Rizzo (Italy)

Whereas "Black Dynamite has very few satiric ambitions, the Italian
Escape from the Call Center pulsates with a Monty Python-esque bitterness towards bureaucracy as it exposes the emotionally deadening world of the call center. Even though the young hero has recently graduated with honors from a top university, he must take on a menial, unfulfilling job when his fancy degree turns out to be pretty useless in the real world. His vocational dilemma seems particularly relevant to any recently graduated Princetonian!

The film makes up for a lack of a directorial ornamentation with strange array of characters that transform the mundane into the surreal. When the newly graduated hero has an interview for a position at the call center, he comes face to face with the reality afflicted by true eccentrics in positions of power. With soft-spoken ease, the interviewer quietly changes the life story of the man announcing, with utter sincerity and even sympathy, that his grandmother was a prostitute.

Following this baffling ordeal, he proceeds on to the company's even more off-kilter psychologist. The setting of this deeply personal interview takes place in an entirely white room where another potential employer quietly screws in an imaginary light bulb. In this comedically sterile yet deranged environment, the unkempt doctor asks his subject a series increasingly bizarre questions culminating with the clincher, "have you ever copulated with animals?" That it remains maddeningly unclear whether the doctor finds such a prospect intensely disgusting or alluring illustrates the admirable subtlety of the acting within the production.

Complementing these bizarre characters are faux documentary confessionals that shed light on an Italy where labor laws render the worker powerless in the face of corporate interests. The film has an astonishing ability to intermingle its over-the-top personalities with its often documentary aesthetic creating an Italian reality brims with an understated and stifling madness. While the film loses some of its bite when it depicts the daily grind as a series of non sequitur hallucinations,
Escape from the Call Center effectively employs its comedy as a satiric weapon against a 21st-century workplace that transforms people into mere cogs in a machine built around the telephone line rather than the assembly line.

White Night Wedding dir. Baltasar Kormákur (Iceland)

Creating a cohesive black comedy can be very difficult as the film type demands a careful balance between light humor and very dark narrative elements. Many of the comedies presented at the festival veered, with often inconsistent results, into this dark realm of humor. The Icelandic film
White Night Wedding is a somewhat failed example of the genre as its effecting look at the dissension of a married couple within a lighthearted romp in a village feels jarringly schizophrenic.

On the cusp of a marriage with a beautiful young girl, Jon's (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) life appears to be a joyous one. Having struggled through the death of his first wife Anna (Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir), a wedding ceremony in the quaint Icelandic village represents a new beginning. Unfortunately, the professor continues to be haunted by the presence of his first wife of recently took her life on the island. As he again goes through the ritual of marriage, Hans slowly uncovers the extent of his grief and how it has left him emotionally crippled.

Much of the film takes place in flashback powerfully meditating upon the tumultuous union between Jon and Sarah. Although actor Hilmir Snær Guðnason adequately conveys Jon's increasing emotional distance, it is Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir who electrifies. The actress imbues Anna with a bizarre and overpowering energy that subtly reveals itself to be less an intellectual spark than a kind of lunacy. This strange presence manifests itself will strongly when Sarah attempts to celebrate Midsummer's Eve in a primal fashion. The actress radiates both strength and desperation when Sarah pleads with her husband to make love to her while brusquely flinging off her clothes. Her performance speaks to the pain caused when the hope of any mental and physical connection with another slowly dies.

While the narrative is indeed a heavy one that confronts very complex issues, much of the humor derives from very simple caricatures of slack-jawed yokels. The village entrepreneur, for instance, runs everything from an impossible golf course to a guided tour for foreigners. Driving about the tiny island, he announces in heavily accented English," there is a sea all around this island!" Making these characters appear all the more derivative is the repartee that often sounds cloyingly sitcom like. After a heated discussion with her dominating mother about finances, the bride stamps out of the room. In response, the mother looks about and wonders aloud," What did I say now?" The script is sadly riddled with such contrived dialogue that desperately tries, and fails, to garner laughs.

Just as the script's comedy seems oddly stale, the filmmakers cannot keep their direction fresh littering the film with helicopter shot after helicopter shot of the tiny island. The very lack of polish at the heart of
White Night Wedding in both its dialogue and direction sully a feature that attempts to expose the looming sadness lingering over even within the happiest of unions.

Next Up: Sam Mendes’ Away We Go and Devil's Town

The Office star teams up with the mind behind Revolutionary Road

In the next edition of my Karlovy Vary coverage, I will take a look at two comedies that manage to find genuine humor from the darkest of circumstances- Sam Mendes'
Away We Go and the superb Serbian film Devil's Town.


Friday, August 7, 2009

Forbes says Princeton is #2

August, as you may have noticed, is college ranking season and a fresh set of numbers released marking Forbes magazine's second annual report on America's Best Colleges. Forbes, whose editor in chief is Steve Forbes '70, debuted their ratings last year and declared America's best college to be...Princeton University.

This year the mighty have fallen to #2, replaced by the United States Military Academy in the top spot. Princeton did not make the list of top 100 Best College Buys in terms of affordability.

The top ten:
1 United States Military Academy
2 Princeton University
3 California Institute of Technology
4 Williams College
5 Harvard University
6 Wellesley College
7 United States Air Force Academy
8 Amherst College
9 Yale University
10 Stanford University

Forbes bases their rankings on course evaluations on (25%), post-graduate success as determined by entries in Who's Who in America and the average salary of graduates reported by (25%), estimated student debt (20%), four year college graduation rates (17%) and number of students or faculty who have won nationally competitive awards (13%).

There are several potential methodological problems with Forbes' rankings. The large reliance on sites like and suggests their data is more reliable and scientific then it is in reality. (discussed here) uses self reported data, not randomized surveys, and it is limited to respondents whose highest degree is a Bachelors. As over 20% of the class of 2008 entered some form of graduate education immediately upon graduation, and more will do so in years to come, limiting the data to those only those with Bachelor's will systematically bias the results. also relies on self-reporting and may be damaged by the fact that some schools, such as Princeton, have their own internal ranking systems. Forbes has tried to correct for that by weighting results by student evaluation and not professor.


Monday, August 3, 2009

Marathon Sunday in NYC

This is an informal posting on my glorious, movie marathon experience in the NYC AMC theatre. 8 hours of film. 6 dollar entry fee. 4 movies. Different genres. Here is my round-up:

For the indie/romantic comedy we have:
500 days of summer
This film surprised me as I went in thinking to myself "Oh god, another Indie movie about boy meets girls, falls in love blablabla... SNORE" which meant that this was one of the movies that I was not keen in watching. I must say I was very pleasantly surprised. It was so well put together, witty, sweet and beautifully constructed, both visually and in terms of plot and structure that I didn't even mind when the film went all musical at one point for a whole 2 minutes. That was because everything fits so perfectly like a well made jigsaw puzzle! Joseph Gordon Levitt is absolutely charming and vulnerable in this film, but is able to switch from confident guy who gets gorgeous girl to dejected boy who loses gorgeous girl in a blink of an eye. Never ever saw that in him when he was in 3rd rock from the sun. Ever.

For the sci-fi/thriller we have:
This was a film that I really wanted to see since Kevin Spacey is the voice of the computer in a space station while Sam Rockwell goes cuckoo and talks to himself for about 70% of the film. Kind of disappointed actually, but I say that I already knew what to expect as all was already revealed by the trailer. Was glad that Spacey-computer did not veer towards 2001: Spacey-creepiness. Or actually, maybe it would have been better if said computer were more creepy? It's hard to actually decide when you expect something and it either a) never materializes and then it has a danger of disappointing because you expected it or b) it materializes and then it disappoints because it is cliched. But yeah, this film does not really have anything to shout about in my opinion.

For Action/Blockbuster we have:
Transformers 2
I. Could. Not. Breathe. After merely 3 minutes of chaotic action, destruction, mayhem and disaster (yes it is necessary for me to be redundant, because in this case more than ever, form meets function), I already found myself completely inundated in CGI debris. 2 hours of non-stop explosions just left me mentally exhausted, and not in a positive way.
Mega-Visual-Techno-Porn Megatron Awful.

For Comedy we have:
Absolute crude heap of crap that provoked involuntarily laughs within me just because it was the only way for me to relief myself from all that cringing. DISAPPOINTING.

So there we go! My marathon movie sunday!



Saturday, August 1, 2009

College News Round-Up 3: Contests

A Boston University graduate student Joel Tenenbaum, who was found guilty of illegally downloading 30 songs and distributing them, faces damages of $675,000. The damages in the case could have been as much as $4,500,000, had the jury required Tenebaum to pay the maximum of $150,000 per violation.

Harvard trademarks phrases like “Ask what you can do,” “A self-guided walking tour of Harvard Yard” and “Power of ideas at work.” Their 91 registered trademarks greatly exceed Princeton's 5.

Quote of the day- Robin Harris, the chief executive officer of the Ivy League Conference in the New York Times:
““People in athletics are naturally competitive, so the game is still important,” she said. “I think they’re friends, it’s very collegial, but in the end, Harvard wants to beat Yale, Yale wants to beat Harvard and they both want to beat Princeton.””