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

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


It's a Bollywood world and we're just living in it.

It’s a Bollywood world and we’re just living in it.

(2015) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Dev Patel, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie, Diana Hardcastle, Tina Desai, Richard Gere, Lillete Dubey, Tamsin Grieg, Fiona Mollison, David Strathairn, Shazad Latif, Avijit Dutt, Denzil Smith, Ashok Pathak, Poppy Miller, Neeraj Kadela, Vikram Singh, Rajesh Tailoring, Penelope Wilton, Claire Price, Christy Meyer. Directed by John Madden

In many ways, we’ve lost sight of the respect that is due to the elderly population. Sure, I can get aggravated with them when they chat loudly in movie theaters, or drive slowly on city streets. I don’t, however, agree with the current mindset of sticking them in sterile nursing homes where they wait to die. There should be some dignity in the process.

In Jaipur, the residents of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel have settled into a routine of life. Muriel (Smith) has become co-manager of the establishment, while Evelyn (Dench) has become a fabric buyer for a company which now wants to hire her full-time even though she’s in her late 70s. This puts a crimp in the already awkward relationship with Douglas (Nighy) who is running sightseeing tours but because he is having memory issues is relying on a young local boy to read facts and figures over a radio that broadcasts to a receiver in his ear. He’d very much like to take his relationship with Evelyn further but the two are talking at cross-purposes and Evelyn, a widow, isn’t quite ready to resume romance. And of course, Douglas is still technically married even though his wife Jean (Wilton) has left him and returned to England.

The other residents are also dealing with their own issues. Madge (Imrie) is trying to decide between two wealthy suitors and yet is spending much time with her driver Babul (Tailang) and his niece, trying to make up her mind. Norman (Pickup) who is working at the Viceroy Club, believes he’s inadvertently hired a hitman to take out his girlfriend Carol (Hardcastle).

Sonny (Patel), the owner and co-manager of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, has a lot on his plate. He is preparing for his upcoming wedding to his sweetheart Sunaina (Desai). He also realizes that his hotel is a victim of its own success; there are no rooms at the inn. The only thing he can do is expand and in order to do that, he needs money. A lot of it…and soon. He reaches out to an American hotel chain magnate (Strathairn) who tells Sonny that he’s intrigued by Sonny’s vision and will send an inspector to evaluate his existing property and whose recommendation would be crucial in making his decision.

He has his eye on a property nearby but into the picture steps Kushal (Latif), Sunaina’s ex-boyfriend and a wealthy and handsome young man who seems destined to be better at everything than Sonny.  Sonny becomes uncontrollably and unjustifiably jealous, feeling that Kushal is there to steal everything Sonny has away from him. In the meantime, a new resident named Guy (Gere) from the States is there to write a novel – although Sonny believes him to be the hotel inspector – and falls for Sonny’s mom (Dubey) as a matter of course.

The first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel took me a bit by surprise in that I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. The sequel doesn’t get the advantage of surprise that the first one got, but it still nevertheless connected with me. While in some ways being easily digestible and unsurprising like a bowl of cream of wheat, it does carry with it a flavor of India so that that bowl of cream of wheat has tandoori spices to be sure.

Of course, when you have a cast like this one, it’s really hard to go wrong. Smith and Dench are two of the greatest actresses alive today and both know how to deliver an acerbic line with the best of them. Nighy is likewise delightful, stealing the movie in many ways with his somewhat droll yet hip demeanor.

The script by Ol Parker, who also wrote the first one, doesn’t give short shrift to the backing characters either. Imrie in particular has some truly poignant moments to work with and while Pickup’s Norman is a bit of a one-dimensional bumbling lothario unused to the whole monogamy thing, even he has some depth as you can tell by that sentence alone. There is also a Bollywood-like dance sequence, something that the first film didn’t provide, which is utterly charming.

While a bit pedestrian, the lovely scenery of Jaipur and Mumbai where the film primarily takes place help keep the movie from ever getting boring visually and the performance of the aforementioned cast keep it from getting boring in any other way. While not quite as good as the first, the second visit to Sonny’s home for the elderly and beautiful is an enjoyable feast that reinforces a previously unknown desire to visit the sub-continent one day. If this movie teaches you anything, is that nothing is impossible nor unattainable no matter how old you are.

REASONS TO GO: Dench, Smith and Nighy are wonderful. Delightful Bollywood elements. Nice visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit bland and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language and suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Evelyn claims that Muriel is 19 days older than she is, but in reality Judi Dench is 19 days older than Maggie Smith.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfinished Song
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest

Million Dollar Arm


Jon Hamm misses the obvious.

Jon Hamm misses the obvious.

(2014) True Sports Drama (Disney) Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Bill Paxton, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Darlshan Jarlwala, Gregory Alan Williams, Allyn Rachel, Tzi Ma, Rey Maualuga, Bar Paly, Al Sapienza, Jaspaul Sandhu, Lata Shukla, Harish Shandra, Yashwant Joshi, Mike Pniewski, Suehyla El-Attar, Autumn Dial, Gabriela Lopez. Directed by Craig Gillespie

Baseball, that most American of all sports, has gone global. Asian teams routinely win the Little League World Series and there have been Major League players from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China. Latin America has long been a pipeline of major league baseball stars. There are even European players in the Majors. One of the places that have gone largely untapped, however, is India.

J.B. Bernstein (Hamm) is a sports agent. He’s a pretty good one, good enough to buy himself a good life; a beautiful house, a Porsche, a downtown L.A. office and a steady stream of models to date. He’s also cocky enough to think that he doesn’t need the big agency he works for, so he strikes out on his own with his partner Aash (Mandvi). There he finds out that things aren’t quite so easy.

In fact, they’re near impossible. With his agency nearly bankrupt, they are relying on signing a high-profile NFL linebacker named Popo (Maualuga) to save their bacon. However, when he is swept away by the omnipresent agents from a big corporate agency, they and their receptionist Theresa (Rachel) are left to ponder what to do next.

For J.B., the answer comes at him like a bolt of lightning. He is sitting at home, binge drinking beers and aimlessly switching back and forth on the channels of his satellite TV between Indian cricket and the talent show Britain’s Got Talent when it hits him – India has more than a billion people that don’t follow baseball. If they could find a couple of pitchers from India, guys used to bowling in cricket, it might open up a brand new market much like Fernandomania did in Mexico.

He pitches it to a Chinese-American gazillionaire named Chang (Ma) who likes the concept and decides to invest. JB wants a major league scout to go with him. Aash can’t find one but does find a retired scout named Ray (Arkin) who might just have narcolepsy but who really knows his stuff. Aided by a laid-back Indian handler named Vivek (Jarlwala) and a baseball-obsessed translator who wants to be a coach someday named Amit (Pitobash), he goes on a tour of India, setting up tryouts for the show which proves to be quite popular. Out of the tryouts he finds two prospects – Rinku (Sharma) who is gangly and graceful with an odd ritual before throwing the ball, and Dinesh (Mittal) who is a powerful thrower with control problems. The two winners accompany JB back to America.

There they will be as bewildered and confused by American culture as JB was by theirs. Working with former major league pitcher Tom House (Paxton) who now coaches at the University of Southern California, they know nothing about the game and have to be trained in the basics of fielding and batting, not to mention having their throwing motion worked on (incidentally, neither one of them played critic and both were ambivalent about the game both in the film and real life). JB kind of leaves them to the wolves.

That doesn’t sit well with Brenda (Bell), who rents the back unit of JB’s house and has gotten to know the boys. She knows they need to know he cares about them; that they feel lost and alone and without support. Of course, you know she and JB will develop a relationship but can these two raw talents from India beat the odds and get signed to a major league contract?

This is a Disney true life sports underdog movie so you can probably guess the answer to that question (and if you can’t, you can always Google it). Like a lot of these films that have come from Disney of late, this follows pretty much the same formula. Fortunately, there are some things that set it apart.

The sequences in India are colorful and amazingly shot. You get a sense of the chaotic conditions in that country, from the traffic to the lack of hygiene to the kind of crumbling colonial infrastructure that remains in a titanic bureaucracy. All that’s missing is the distinctive odor that, as Hamm puts it, comes and goes.

Lake Bell, so good in In a World… continues to develop into one of Hollywood’s most distinctive actresses. She’s smart, pretty and can be glamorous when she needs to be but seems much more comfortable in scrubs than in fancy dresses. She makes a fine foil for the likable Hamm who is looking for life after Don Draper. His role is surprisingly complex; he’s been able to get by on his charm and a grin, but that is no longer the case and he doesn’t quite know what to do about it. He also can be a bit of a jerk although he’s basically not a bad guy. In short, like most guys.

They do have Arkin amongst the fine supporting cast but he spends most of the movie literally asleep, which is a waste of the talents of a guy like Arkin. Mandvi, one of the funniest guys on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is utilized mainly as the straight man here and while he gets his share of comedic moments, again this isn’t really what he’s best at. The two young Indian actors garner empathy, but they aren’t developed well enough to go much farther than “fish out of water” status.

This is decently entertaining; you won’t go wrong by spending your ten bucks on it at the multiplex, but it isn’t anything that you’ll go home wanting to see again. While the Indian sequences certainly looked pretty marvelous on the big screen, I wouldn’t blame you for waiting to catch this on home video, but as I said, there are things that elevate it above the sports film cliches that it is desperately trying to cling to. All that’s missing is Hamm screaming “Show me the money!”

REASONS TO GO: Hamm and Bell are endearing. India sequences are quite enjoyable.

REASONS TO STAY: Formulaic. Arkin is wasted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few mild swear words and some suggestive content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real J.B. Bernstein wasn’t an agent. He was (and is) a sports marketer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Invincible

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Blended

Outsourced (2006)


Josh Hamilton is a colorful character.

Josh Hamilton is a colorful character.

(2006) Comedy (ShadowCatcher) Josh Hamilton, Ayesha Dharker, Matt Smith, Asif Basra, Sudha Shivpuri, Bhuvanesh Shetty, Jeneva Talwar, Suarab Agarwal, Larry Pine, Ketan Mehta, Dipesh Shah, Urmi Mukherjee, Bharat Sarjerao Adhangle, Arjun Mathur. Directed by John Jeffcoat

 

We Americans don’t really mix well in other cultures. Perhaps it’s because most of us are descended from people who have fled from other places – heck, even the aboriginals had to cross a land bridge to get here. We are woefully ignorant of cultures that are different than ours, particularly those from places that are far away from where our ancestors started out.

Todd (Hamilton) works for a Seattle-based novelty manufacturing company whose telemarketing division is being laid off – in fact, he’s given the task of laying them off. Then he’s shipped off to India, tasked with training his own replacement. How bad does that suck? But it has been a reality of business for some time now.

In India he finds a call center that might be modern in some ways but it is woeful compared to their American counterparts as are the operators. The young man Todd is training, Purohit (Basra) is eager enough to learn and is quite courteous and in a lot of ways like Todd himself, a good guy. The two men begin to bond, Todd lost in the Indian culture that surrounds him, Purohit lost in the American culture that he has chosen a career selling.

Purohit needs this job because the salary will allow him to finally marry the girl of his dreams. Todd also finds himself falling for a pretty operator named Asha (Dharker) who is sensible, whip-smart and a bit more inclined towards Western customs than many of her peers. However, she has been committed by her parents into an arranged marriage since she was four years old.

However, the corporate commitment to an Indian workforce is about as solid as thin ice. Already they’re thinking of outsourcing the outsourced work to China. In order to save the jobs in India, Todd will have to commit his crew to a higher bar than he’s ever set which might just net him a career move that will take him into the executive level he’s been waiting for. But what does he really want – a life or a career?

This is one of those movies that came and went, getting almost zero distribution. It hung around long enough to inspire an NBC sitcom that ran a couple of years later for a season. Some may remember the sitcom which had a small but fiercely loyal following. In my opinion, the show which did have its charms was not quite so charming as this. The movie has a surprising amount of heart.

Part of the reason the movie works is the believable chemistry between veteran character actor Hamilton and Bollywood star Dharker (best known in the states for playing Queen Jamillia in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones). They make a cute couple in every sense of the phrase.

Part of making a successful fish out of water cultural clash movie is that you need to have a really solid understanding of both cultures involved and quite frankly that’s where this movie falls down a bit. It plays too much to the American stereotypes of India, from Bollywood dance numbers to arranged marriages to the general sanitation issues. Now I haven’t been to India myself but I do know that the country is a lot more than that. I suppose when dealing with American audiences you have to paint with broad strokes, but the filmmakers missed an opportunity to give us a better understanding of India and her culture. Even watching a couple of random Bollywood films would give you more insight.

Still, I can understand the filmmakers decision to go this route. They wanted to make a movie that was sweet and funny and romantic and on those scores they get high marks. This isn’t a movie that will give you a thirst for visiting India, learning more about their culture or even heading to your local Indian restaurant. It is a pleasant diversion however and there’s nothing wrong with that.

WHY RENT THIS: Sweet-natured and requires little effort to enjoy. Hamilton and Dharker make an attractive couple.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit condescending towards Indian culture; plays to stereotypes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexual content but nothing too overbearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeffcoat was inspired to write the film based on his own experiences in India and Nepal.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a music video as well as a translation of Hindi dialogue from a few scenes in which no subtitles were provided (which was supposed to help illustrate the confusion that Todd felt).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $703,042 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking it wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Life of Pi