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Explains Why Coffee Matters
14 January 2016
I teach several university courses on the geography of coffee, and often show documentaries in those classes. I was therefore very interested when a premiere screening of this film came to Boston about a year ago, and I was able to attend.

I picked up a copy of the DVD then, and have just spent the morning re-watching it and making notes for my students to use with the film.

I have been to two of the four places featured in the film, though not to the same cooperatives, and I know something of the history of the other places mentioned.

This film manages to present the very serious histories of these places in a way that connects those histories to the current challenges they face, all while embodying the optimism that imbues the communities themselves.

Most importantly, this film -- in 70 short minutes -- explains why the trade in coffee matters, what fair trade has to offer, and what is at stake in the current debates about fair trade.

I have been teaching about coffee for over a decade, and can think of no better introduction to the vital issues involved.
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Super Simplistic
10 June 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I approached this film with an open mind, but it promises so much more than it delivers. Simply showing a man holding a graph is not the same thing as providing evidence. The stories are compelling, but the solutions are both vague and simplistic.

I checked "spoiler" only because I include a quote from the closing credits.

Waiting for Superman is a documentary that does document a serious and complex problem. It focuses on families whose best hope for a quality education is a district-wide lottery for magnet or charter schools. The film shows that these hopes are all-too-often dashed. If it stopped at that, it would be a bit more useful than it is. But it goes on to pontificate, and the solutions offered are both vague and simplistic.

It is shameful that the accident of birth undermines the potential of so many students and that the lottery systems are just as arbitrary and unfair. The film ignores a fundamental truth about charter schools: their selectivity is itself a significant explanatory variable with respect to their success.

The lottery scenes are powerful, dramatizing the difference between "in" and "out." But the film does not explore one very strong possibility: If every one of the "loosing" students were to be placed into the same school -- any school -- it would be a better school, because of the motivation of the students and families involved.

The opening scenes portray some truly bad classrooms, a la the opening scenes of Blackboard Jungle or Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The implication is that these are simply bad teachers. Could the filmmaker really picture himself walking into such a classroom and making it better?

Rather than focus on weeding out "bad" teachers -- and admittedly this process should be simplified in some districts -- he should have spent at least a few minutes trying to figure out HOW they became so ineffective. I spend a lot of time in schools, and I've seen some pretty bad teachers -- perhaps 5 percent, as the film suggests. But I am confident that none of them started out with that intention. It would be worthwhile to explore what goes wrong, why it is concentrated geographically, and what to do about it.

Geography is the other flaw in this film, which notes a spatial correlation between failing schools and depressed neighborhoods, but it arbitrarily chooses to blame the latter on the former. No evidence is presented, aside from the implication that because good education is possible in such settings, the settings have nothing to do with failing schools.

This central fallacy of the film leads inevitably to the assertion in the closing credits: "The problem is complex; the solution is simple." Such a canard shuts down the debate that other parts of the film demonstrate is so necessary.
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Necessary viewing
30 November 2008
This film is frightening, amusing, and impressive -- all at the same time.

It is frightening to learn how much power we have concentrated in the hands of the shadowy MPAA board. In order to avoid government censorship (a real threat, unfortunately), the film industry self-censors, as this film clearly documents.

It is amusing to see the absurd incongruities in our national hypocrisies. Amusing, that is, until we consider the real people whose lives are still affected by ignorance and bias.

It is impressive to see the dedication and nerviness of this director and especially of the private investigator he hired to track down the MPAA deciders.

The only shortcoming in the film is that it does not fully explore the anti-trust implications of its findings. The connections of the film cartel to the MPAA are exposed, but a case for finding a remedy in anti-monopoly law could be made and is not.
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Good critique; fair movie
8 February 2008
I did well on the SATs, but I do not consider them fair. The first part of this film does a good job describing the problems with the SATs -- and with high-stakes tests in general. I am a college professor who sees standardized testing as very problematic; this film does a great public service by challenging the prevailing wisdom on testing.

The film seems to begin as a protest movie, with the students motivated by their righteous indignation to undermine the SAT. Once they get organized, though, they seem to forget this motivation, and this devolves into a fairly mediocre -- if diverting -- teen/adventure flick.

I would like to see the first 30 minutes remade as a documentary; I would show it to my students and colleagues. is a good place to learn more about the corrosive effect of these tests, by the way.
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My new favorite movie
3 January 2007
OK, I'm sentimental about movies that touch on father/daughter relationships, so this really tugged at my heartstrings. That is only one of several really well-developed themes. As another writer mentions, inter-racial cooperation is another. The value of education -- especially language education -- for its own sake was the theme that I found to be the greatest contribution. Also, young Akeelah's endeavors develop within the context of her community in a way that I found very compelling. Keke Palmer is amazing in this movie, but I wish I had some sort of award to give Laurence Fishburn for producing this very important film.
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Be Cool (2005)
Better than I expected
24 September 2006
So many readers had panned this movie that I had really lowered expectations to "this might be fun." Perhaps for that reason, I was pleasantly surprised. I had not, btw, seen Get Shorty.

The movie was much more engaging than I expected, and even though our DVD had technical difficulties, we kept watching. It was a bit of mindless fun, with a couple of very cool surprises (I don't think these qualify as spoilers, though).

It is great to have a gangster driving an eco-friendly hybrid car. And the special appearance by Brazilian music great Sergio Mendes was a special treat, especially with Travolta and Thurman dancing as he plays.
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The other Bridgewater State
18 May 2006
Not exactly the kind of movie for which star-ranking seems appropriate.

As a professor at Bridgewater State College, I learned about this movie in a peculiar way: when considering a job at the college in 1997, a web search of the town name mainly yielded comments about this movie.

Once I started teaching here, I learned that students did not like for us to say "Bridgewater State" because their friends back home (mostly other towns in the general region south of Boston) would always tease them about being inmates/patients at Bridgewater State Hospital. So I always say "BSC" or the full name of the college.

I should say that I watched most but not all of the film. It was disturbing but not horrific. I think that the lack of dignity afforded the inmates/patients is what bothered me the most. I blame this as much on the director as on the institution itself.

I like to think that 40 years later, the movie had the desired effect, though, of bringing attention to a chronically unattended problem: the treatment of mentally ill people in general and the criminally insane in particular.

One last thing, as I write this while sitting in my home about three miles from the site -- in nine years of living here and being very active in the community, I have yet to meet an employee of the prison complex (which includes the State Hospital and regular prisons). I rarely hear about the movie, nor do I hear discussions of what the place might be like today.
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Entertaining and instructive
6 March 2006
I first saw this film around 1985, when it was still new, and before I started studying and visiting Brazil seriously. I did not remember much at all, probably because I did not understand the significance of what I was seeing. Now, after four visits to Brazil (mostly Amazon and Northeast), it makes a lot more sense, and I will be recommending it to students.

The movie was made near the end of the (1964-85) military period, when political discourse was possible but still needed to be done cautiously. So the film addresses serious concerns about the government's programs to encourage migration, but it does so with humor and finesse.

It is a brilliant film, and gives some insight to the ongoing suffering of the sertao, the cultural context of forro, the folly of development in Brasilia, and the drivers of deforestation in the Amazon.
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Pumpkin (2002)
I laughed; I cried
23 December 2002
Most Hollywood movies follow a predictable trajectory; this one took a few brilliant turns and it took some risks. It was well worth it.

The story is highly implausible in many ways, but that did not bother me. Just because this story probably could not unfold this way in real life does not mean it is a bad story.

I was once a graduate student at a sorority/fraternity-dominated campus, and this movie is right on in its send up of "Greek" attitudes. This does not mean that the film is an accurate portrayal of all "Greek" students, any more than it is an accurate portrayal of mental challenges. But it does teach us something about both.

The only scene I found entirely too implausible was the car crash. The car could not have gone that fast, the driver would not have been in such an old car, and it would not have exploded three times on its way down. I think that scene was spliced in from an older movie. Finally, had the accident occurred as shown, the driver would not have recovered -- face intact -- so quickly.
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Texas connection
20 August 1999
I enjoyed the movie. I learned about it from an interview with Egoyan, in which he mentioned that he was inspired by the Sept. 1989 crash of a bus in Alton, Texas. I learned this only after I had left South Texas for Massachusetts. Visiting in the region today, I went to the original crash site. It is eerie.

The movie is excellent.

Another excellent movie with a similar scene -- though more graphic -- is Simon Birch, which in turn is inspired (loosely) by John Irving's *Prayer for Owen Meaney.*
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