Thursday, August 18, 2011

Movie review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

I saw Harry Potter 7.2 back when it came out, and jotted down lots of notes. It's taken me a while to get this post together.

I saw the movie by myself, just as I did with Harry Potter 6. I did find myself in tears at times, which surprised me, because even though I love the Harry Potter series of books, I haven't felt sad about the series coming to an end. I'm not sure why I was moved to tears, but I will say that there are times when this film is truly masterful. The poignancy was inescapable, I guess!

The film is magnificent.
There were times when I was blown away by the gorgeous filmmaking:
  • The Battle for Hogwarts
  • Snape's memories
  • Harry's acceptance of his own death and conversation with his dead family members
  • The dream sequence with Dumbledore and Harry
Those last two are masterfully written, as well, and I recognized exact lines from the book. I just can't get over what Jo Rowling has created here. This is certainly hyperbole, but at one point I was thinking about what it must have been like to see Shakespeare's plays when they debuted. Did the people of his time really know how enduring those works would be?

It was interesting that they didn't even attempt to make the movie for non-fans... even I couldn't always remember what was going on and I just watched 7.1!

This film began right where 7.1 left off, with no 'beginning' of its own. As I said recently, I didn't care for the tone of 7.1 (too slow), so I was glad that the tone of 7.2 changed quickly - from the Gringotts bank scene, the pace quickened considerably, and the film remained quick and captivating to the end.

There were so many things I loved about this movie, but there were a few things that didn't work so well for me. My biggest complaint is about the scene after Harry killed Voldemort. He walked back into Hogwarts, where everyone was sitting around tending to the wounded and slain, but everyone just sort of glanced at Harry and had no reaction. That didn't make sense to me - they would have known that if Harry was walking through, something must be going on!

I also have never quite felt the Harry and Ginny relationship. I can't picture what their life together would be like, even after seeing them in the epilogue.

Speaking of the epilogue, I just felt that it needed a bit more. They were kind of just standing there - and there was not much dialogue. It made me wonder about their lives, their jobs, and their friendships. Do the two couples spend most of their time with each other?

As far as relationships go, the Harry/Hermione relationship seemed to trump all others. I could really feel the love of true friends. Perhaps it was that combination of (such fine) actors, although the written material was superb in this area as well. And as I said yesterday, relationships between characters are very important to me!

Ralph Fiennes was superb as Voldemort (although I'd like to see him in something where he looks like Quiz Show Ralph Fiennes once again).

I also loved Neville in this film. That character arc is a really interesting one in the books, and wasn't explored quite as fully in the films due to time constraints, but his growth was a bright spot in this one.

All in all, as I said, this was a masterful piece of moviemaking. Every time I think back on the acting, the cinematography, the production design, and of course the writing, I am in awe.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Movie review: The Adjustment Bureau

I just finished watching The Adjustment Bureau, a new release we rented.

It is a very complicated, convoluted story, but fascinating. The men in hats (no women in the Bureau, I noticed) -- who are they and who do they work for? The answers to those two questions are made clear during the first half of the story, although it is fun trying to figure it out first. Once we know that, the rest of the story centers around whether the hero (David) will choose to work with them or rebel against them. Working against them seems impossible - will he even try? And if he does, can he possibly succeed? How would he even begin?

I like seeing how talented writer/storytellers tackle the big questions, and this film, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, definitely riffs on some big questions. Satisfyingly. How cool.

There are some big plot holes that must be overlooked. (Huge: If the men in hats can freeze people and change their minds for them, why don't they just do that to David and Elise?) Sometimes, one is willing to overlook the holes, as I was for this film. I asked myself why I was willing to do so? In other films, I can't forgive the holes and they pull me right out of the story.

Self, the answer is:

The acting.

Specifically, the acting by Matt Damon as well as Emily Blunt.

These two talented actors created characters we love from their first moments on screen. Not only that, they created a relationship we care about. In this movie, it is particularly important that the audience care about the relationship itself. Without that investment, the whole thing falls apart. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt did an amazing job of this. Now that I think about it, Matt Damon always has great chemistry with his female counterparts. What a great actor. (I may as well admit it: he is a favorite of mine, and has been for forever.)

It made me realize: relationships between characters are really important to me. That's why I can't forgive Mockingjay (The Hunger Games), and I see that in most of my other reviews, too (including some that are forthcoming).

So if that is the case, why do I love (500) Days of Summer so? Its depiction of a relationship is arresting, but (SPOILER) the relationship doesn't work out. Yet I love love love that movie. The key here is that we end up seeing that we were experiencing the relationship from the point of view of one member. Once we are given the outside perspective, we see that it was not what it appeared. It's a really unique, layered film.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Some thoughts about summer 2011

I may not be in a good frame of mind right now, and who knows, might respond differently in a week's time, but today I have been asking myself, "so how would you rate summer 2011?" and I might as well go ahead and come up with an answer.

Summer should be a balance of scheduled activities (with experiences that you don't get at school), unstructured time, visits with friends and family, travel, and special treats (staying up late watching a movie with the kids, walking down the street for frozen yogurt after dinner, etc.). And I have to say, I don't think I got the balance right this year.

I think we haven't had enough scheduled activities and have erred on the side of too much unstructured time. I would say that that is due to not enough pre-planning on my part. It's hard to go do some fun activity when you don't start trying to think of an idea until 10:30 am.

At the start of summer, I had some interesting ideas - plan theme days (such as "microscope day" or "Archimedes day") and invite friends to join in if they just bring the lunch; assign a week to each child and have them plan the adventures - but there wasn't time for that before Oregon. (As is our tradition, we headed up to Portland just after the fourth of July to spend a month with family.) However, there was time for that in Oregon, at least during the second half when the girls were done with acting camp. And then we came home from Oregon, such that there would be almost two weeks left of my summer. I thought it would be best not to put the kids in camps, so we could have a few outings and a lot of friends-over-to-swim days. This would have been a good time to do some pre-planning. Instead, what's been happening is a) the aforementioned trying-to-figure-out-each-day-after-it-has-already-started; and b) it turns out that all of our friends are out of town this week. Add to that the conundrum that I have some work I need to get done for the start of school and some house-organization projects that I'd like to do before the chaotic school schedule starts, yet want to spend my last week of summer actually celebrating summer, and I feel like I just can't win this week.

Maybe we should have divided up our summer differently. Maybe we should have shifted Oregon to later in the summer since all of our friends are away now that we are back. But it doesn't seem like coming back with no time before I have to be at work would be a good idea... although it's not going well as it is, so maybe...

I think I'm also feeling like we don't get to do enough travel. I'd love to give my kids a childhood in which they get to go see and experience lots of different places. Since we live far away from our family, we spend all of our vacation time with them, and it's definitely still not enough time. We never have the time, then, to go anywhere else (nor the funds - another issue entirely). This year, I'm starting to feel the "kids are getting older"/"running out of time"/"gotta start traveling" really start to set in. Maybe it's time to re-think the month-in-Oregon summer plan... but spending less time with their relatives would not be good for my kids either. Obviously, the old question of "should we move to Portland" is weighing heavily on my mind. It's not an easy question. We love our town, and our school, and neither my husband nor I should leave our jobs anytime soon.

It has been a nice summer, though. We started off with soccer camp for Middle Girl and The Boy, and followed that up with Girl Scout camp for both girls and basketball camp for The Boy. Then we had our big Fourth of July party, and my brother- and sister-in-law brought their three boys down from Oregon for a week to join in the fun. We went to Legoland with them and spent a few days swimming, going to the movies, etc. and then we all caravanned up to Portland.

In Portland, the girls went to acting camp for two weeks, and we also enjoyed cousin-time, had fun with Grandma and Granddad, welcomed my new niece to the world, and visited favorite local landmarks such as Multnomah Falls, Pioneer Square, Voodoo Doughnuts, Oaks Park, and OMSI (the science museum). We went to the Oregon History Museum and the Classical Chinese Garden for the first time. We visited old friends from college and high school, drove down to Eugene to see my Grandma, and spent two days in Seattle visiting friends and the music museum. Meanwhile, we fit in books, movies, crafts, baking, jazz concerts, baseball games, and learning how to wash a car.

Once again, I didn't make it to the mountain & alpine slide or to the beach & aquarium.

Since we got home, we have had some friends over and have met some other friends at the California Science Center. So we have done the kind of thing we were hoping to do, just not as much as we hoped. Also bumming me out: we are going to have to miss the big multi-family camping trip this year due to work-related scheduling yadda yadda.

I was trying to end this on a positive note, but since it got chronological and I'm feeling grumpy today, here we are. I'm ready to finish but it's kind of going (((THUNK))) which only makes me grumpier!

Tomorrow is another day. Perhaps I should go attempt some pre-planning...

Movie review: Buck

Earlier this summer, we saw the documentary film Buck.

It follows a horse training expert (Buck) as he travels the country giving three-day workshops. In his workshops, he teaches the horse owners just as much about themselves as he does about their horses.

It is a terrific film, because it is a portrait of a person: a person with a history, relationships, hopes, a future. It got me thinking - you could make a film about anyone. We all have our stories, past experiences, personality quirks, and choices we've made in life that have contributed to the living, breathing people we have become.

Buck spends the better part of each year traveling alone, although his teenage daughter has begun to accompany him during her summer break. (These scenes are a particularly lovely depiction of a parent-child relationship.) Very introverted in his younger days, he has been somewhat alone even when among other people. All of this time spent alone gives him insights into the inner monologues of horses as well as people. There is an interesting section of the film where he sees straight into one woman in particular, and delivers her the tough-love words she so desperately needs to hear. Buck is so gentle, though, because he practices empathy. Maybe that's the way in which this film is something of a gift: as an exploration of an empathy-driven life.

There certainly are reasons why Buck is the way he is. We learn of his childhood, so full of fear and sadness. He knows how a horse feels when it is trained by whips, chains, and deprivation, and he knows how such a horse learns to think. Those are not his methods. His methods meet each horse where it is in that moment and work with its natural instincts. He was the advisor for the film "The Horse Whisperer," and we get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, but this is not a film about a glamorous life. It's more of a peaceful, yet driven, life. A respect-filled life. Buck both gives and receives respect. Is this rare in movies? It shouldn't be, but I think it is. That, in and of itself, is interesting.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Non-fiction Book Review: Mindset

One of the books I read this summer for work-related reasons was Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

I had heard a great deal about this book, and had attended a talk by Dr. Dweck, but this was the first time I read the book in its entirety.

It is about two very different ways of thinking: the growth mindset, and the fixed mindset. People with the growth mindset think that intelligent people work hard to learn: the obstacles are fun challenges and the journey has made the brain smarter. People with the fixed mindset think about intelligence as something you either have or don't have, and the journey through school is a series of tests designed to figure out who the smart ones are.

Chapters are primarily divided by topic, one exploring how the two mindsets affect education, while another explores how they affect sports, another business, and another relationships. In each chapter, Dweck gives examples of people with the two mindsets (celebrities, descriptions of patients, etc), explores how they handle successes and setbacks, and gives tips for "growing your mindset."

For that's the overarching message of the book. The growth mindset is shown to be the "right" mindset. It allows people to try new things without fear of failure or the expectation that they have to get it right immediately, appreciate effort and growth in others, and enjoy a higher degree of success in their chosen pursuits as a by-product of doing it for the enjoyment of the learning process rather than as a need to prove themselves. People with the growth mindset are better able to handle bouts of depression and have more successful personal relationships.

A person can, of course, be a mixture of mindsets. Dweck tells us early in the book that she will only discuss the two extremes of the spectrum for purposes of clarity. A person can also be growth-mindset in some areas (for example, in athletics) and fixed-mindset in others (for example, in the arts). For this reason, Dweck discusses examples in all areas to show that effective people in every area have been growth-mindset. There are wonderful sections highlighting business leaders, basketball coaches, violin teachers, and of course, classroom teachers and parents.

For me, it has been truly inspirational. As a teacher, I am growth-mindset.* I view learning as a life-long pursuit, one with no "winners" and "losers," just fellow travelers on this journey. I see my role as a facilitator, teaching my students how to learn and using assessments as tools to figure out what they can work on next. What I didn't realize was how my fixed-mindset students were seeing my assignments and assessments: as judgements of themselves as people. If they do poorly on one test, they might use that to determine "I am not good at science" and keep that self-label with them always. Being aware of this makes it much easier for me to work against it - deliberately teaching them how to interpret the tasks and test scores they receive from me.

As you can imagine, it is vital that a parent uses only growth-mindset language with their children, and it is so easy to do otherwise. We can do a lot of damage with the well-meaning but wrong kind of praise ("You're so smart! You figured that out so fast!" "You are so good at baseball! You learned to catch the ball without even trying!"). We need to praise their efforts, not their innate abilities. The wrong kind of praise teaches them that we value things that come naturally, and if they have to work hard to master something, it means they are not smart, or not good at it. Dweck recommends "You finished that so fast; you must need something more challenging to grow your brain" and "I like how you have been working so hard at learning to catch; you have been getting better all the time!"

As a parent, even one with a growth mindset, I find it easy to fall into the "you're so _____" trap! Reading this book has been a great reminder. I find I'm seeing fixed- vs. growth- mindset everywhere - while reading other books and movies, I'm thinking to myself "he is really growth-mindset." We'll see how long this effect lasts!

Mindset is a quick and easy read, presenting the psychological research findings in a conversational way. I recommend it - and have recommended it - to everyone. It really does apply in every arena, not just teaching and parenting but the workplace, dieting, attacking your to-do list, marriages, friendships, etc.

*Strangely, I tend to be fixed-mindset about myself, but no one else. I expect that everything I try should come easily and tend to give up too quickly. I vow to speak to myself with the same growth-oriented language that I use with my students and my children!