Maineland


This is a different kind of education.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Stella Xinyi Zhu, Harry Junru He, Christopher Hibbard. Directed by Miao Wang

 

I have long been fascinated by China and her ancient culture; a 2010 visit to the country merely whetted my appetite for more. Documentaries like this therefore pique my interest perhaps more than the average filmgoer.

There has been a massive influx of Chinese students attending American schools. Since 2008, the number has increased dramatically and as Chinese affluence has grown, private high schools and universities have found Chinese tuition fees to be in some cases vital to the survival of some of these schools.

Fryeburg Academy in Maine is one of the oldest high schools in the country having been founded in 1790. More than 160 students from China attend the school, living in a boarding facility on-campus. While the bulk of students are local, the school relies on the tuition and boarding fees to keep its doors open. Admissions director Christopher Hibbard goes on a recruiting drive in a variety of cities on the Chinese mainland. Chinese parents are eager to have their kids educated in the United States not only for prestige reasons but so that they can learn America culture, make contacts in America and one day hopefully do business in the United States. For their part, the students are eager for a different kind of education; Chinese schools tend to focus on rote memorization and on sometimes brutally hard examinations.

This documentary by Chinese émigré Miao Wang (Beijing Taxi) follows two students attending Fryeburg over their three-year academic career there. Stella is a vivacious, outgoing young lady from Shanghai who makes friends easily, has a brilliant movie star smile and had yearned to go to school in America ever since she’d seen High School Musical.

Harry, on the other hand, is more introverted. He comes from another large Chinese city – Guangzhou – which is like many Chinese cities full of gleaming skyscrapers and high-tech public transportation. He has a more introspective bent and doesn’t really socialize well. He prefers to retreat into the world of video games and when stressed, sits down to play the piano. If left to his own devices, he would want to be a music composer.

However, both of these kids have heavy expectations laid on them by their parents. They are not only expected to do well academically but their lives are pointed towards expanding the family financial fortunes, prestige and power. Everything else is secondary. Studying hard is second nature to them and the critical thinking that most decent American schools try to instill in their students is as foreign to them as hot dogs and county fairs.

It’s not just a cultural change the two encounter; that’s difficult enough but both are going from a cosmopolitan urban life to a slower-paced small town life. Fryeburg students are used to hiking, fishing and swimming as things to do; the many distractions of a big city just aren’t available to them.

What do the kids think about all this? It’s hard to say. Want doesn’t really do what you would call probing interviews with her subjects. She seems more content to be a fly on the wall and let them comment as they will. Like most Asian people, politeness is a way of life and it is decidedly impolite to criticize one’s hosts and so any negative feelings that the two visitors might have about their host country (and their native land for that matter) are largely held back. They do comment on some of the cultural differences between China and America but by and large, we really don’t know what the kids are thinking.

All right, but what about their fellow students and their teachers? The same problem exists there too. From what the film shows the Chinese students largely stick together and if they develop friendships with American students or students from other countries, it’s not shown here. It is understandable that the students in a foreign land would want to stick together with those from their own country – at least they have something in common – but we never get a sense as to whether the American students are urged to make the visitors feel at home, or whether they even want to. An extra five or ten minutes exploring the thoughts of those who are being visited would have been very welcome.

And in fact because of Wang’s style, we really don’t do much more than surface exploration of the situation. It’s all very superficial which doesn’t make for a great documentary. There’s some lovely cinematography of the beautiful Maine countryside as well as the futuristic Chinese cities but as much time as we spend with Stella and Harry we end up not knowing them all that well which is a bit unsettling. We do see that their attitudes towards their home country do undergo a change but we never get to see much about why that attitude changed and what their parents and siblings think about it. There’s certainly a lot of meat to be had in a documentary like this but sadly we are mostly served bone.

REASONS TO GO: It’s interesting to see American small town life through the eyes of a different culture.
REASONS TO STAY: We don’t really get to hear much about what people think about the various circumstances being presented.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the US Department of Commerce, there were nearly 370,000 Chinese students in American high schools and universities in 2015, more than six times as many as were here in 2005 and bringing in roughly $11.4 billion into the US economy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: School Life
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sollers Point

Advertisements

Keeping Up with the Joneses


One must keep one's focus sharp when shopping for lingerie.

One must keep one’s focus sharp when shopping for lingerie.

(2016) Spy Comedy (20th Century Fox) Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Gal Gadot, Jon Hamm, Patton Oswalt, Ming Zhao, Matt Walsh, Maribeth Monroe, Michael Liu, Kevin Dunn, Dayo Abanikanda, Henry Boston, Jack McQuaid, Ying He, Yi Dong Hian, Art Shaffir, Marc Grapey, Karina Bonnefil, Darin Cooper, Angela Ray, Amy Block. Directed by Greg Mottola

 

Neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, everyone knew everyone; we all were in each others’ business. Now, we barely acknowledge each other with a nod of the head. Does anyone really know who their neighbors truly are anymore?

The Gaffneys have a good life. Jeff (Galifianakis) is an HR guy at a big defense contractor. He’s basically a good guy but he hasn’t met a problem yet that he didn’t think could be solved with an aphorism and a stress ball. His wife Karen (Fisher) is an interior designer who has put her career on hold to raise her kids. The cul-de-sac in which they live in suburban Atlanta is well-to-do and close-knit. Jeff is as happy as a clam, Karen a little less so especially now that the kids are gone for the summer. Still, it feels like something is missing in their lives, something that doesn’t appear to be coming back anytime soon – a sense of excitement.

That is, until the Jones family moves in across the street. Natalie (Gadot) is super sexy and capable, absolutely excelling at everything she does; Tim (Hamm) is a travel writer, accomplished, handsome and pretty much an authority on everything. Tim and Jeff hit it off straight away, developing quite the bro-mance. Karen is a little bit more hesitant to connect with the ice-cold Natalie, although she is a little attracted to her sexuality (who isn’t?) to be honest. In fact, perfect Natalie has her a little bit suspicious.

And, it turns out, with good reason; the Joneses are spies and they have their eye on some chicanery going on at Jeff’s place of employment. It involves a mole within the company, a vicious arms dealer known only as the Scorpion and an agency that employs the Joneses who aren’t worried about collateral damage and with the Gaffneys now involved, there’s going to be a whole lot of that.

The ordinary people drawn into extraordinary espionage situations have been popular in the movies with things like True Lies and Spy among others. They act as avatars for the audience, drawn into a world of excitement, glamour and danger. Who wouldn’t want to be a superspy, suave and debonair or beautiful and deadly?

The four leads all interact well among each other, although surprisingly the best chemistry is between Hamm and Galifianakis although considering the two have been friends for awhile offscreen, it may be less surprising than at first glance. The two develop a relationship that is realistic and the kind of friendship most men want to have with other men. The ladies are sexy and made to give each other an obligatory kiss (why is it as a society we find women kissing each other far sexier than men doing it?) but given that Karen are so suspicious of Natalie to begin with whereas the more open Jeff is accepting of Tim right away that the two ladies don’t really develop a friendship as deep as the one the men forge. Perhaps that’s meant to be a commentary on the nature of interactions between women in general. Perhaps not.

The action sequences are for the most part unremarkable and mostly played for last. There is a car chase that’s reasonably cool (given that there are four people in the car that’s being chased rather than the usual two) but again, nothing new is added to the genre here. Of course, it’s not really a requirement that every action sequence has to be innovative.

This is the kind of movie that you really have to turn your brains off for and there’s no shame in that; sometimes what we’re looking for is just pure escapism. Still, you can have escapism without sacrificing story and character development and while the actors do game work here, they are ultimately betrayed by a script that doesn’t give them a whole lot of character to hang their hats on. Maybe the Agency ought to look into that.

REASONS TO GO: The chemistry between the leads is compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: A predictable tired plot sabotages all the best intentions of the filmmakers.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of espionage action, some rude humor, scenes of sexuality and occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  One of three major studio releases in 2016 with the name “Jones’ in the title, the other two being Bridget Jones’ Baby and Free State of Jones.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. and Mrs. Smith
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Cents