How an Indie Film About Turkish Orphans is Germane to the Presidential Election

When “Mustang” opened to a small handful of U.S. theaters last year, critics gushed. But like many independent films, it evaporated at cinemas like an ice cube on a hot stove. When it showed up on Amazon recently, I was ecstatic and planned an evening to watch it with my husband and teen aged daughter. From the opening scene to the end credits, we were totally engrossed. Charmed and repelled. Happy and incredulous. Our hearts broke. The good news is that “Mustang” has a good outcome, although it’s bittersweet. Then a funny thing happened on our way out to get ice cream: We realized this Turkish/French film is soberly relevant to the U.S. presidential election.

The film takes place in a small village in Turkey. At its center are five beautiful and spirited sisters on the last day of school before summer break. As the girls leave the school grounds, they decide to ditch the hot, crowded bus and walk home. On the way, they frolic and gallop, like a group of wild mustangs, with their long, dark hair, blowing in the warm wind. A detour to the beach with a group of boys soon has them in the sparkling, azure water, soaking their school uniforms and their hair, as they chicken fight atop the boys’ shoulders.

Their gleeful fun has extreme consequences when a meddling neighbor in a “shit-colored” dress (Lale’s description), rats the girls out to their strict grandmother before they arrive home. They walk in the door, still giddy with joy, but the mood in the house is anything but mirthful. The sisters are surprised by the reaction to their innocent behavior. Without any discussion or respect to their viewpoints, they are scolded, shamed and physically abused. Meaningful possessions, like makeup and music, and are locked away. They are stripped of phones and electronics to block them from the outside world. They are made to wear those ugly shit-colored dresses. Home becomes a “wife factory” where the sisters learn how to stuff dumplings, sew and do other chores reserved only for females. They are living in a virtual prison, complete with iron grates on the windows and locks on the doors.It is determined that the girls will all be married off, to men they don’t know, whether they want to or not. They are disrespected and have no choice. So the girls are forced to play hostess to strange men that come to over to “approve” them, while serving Turkish coffee they’ve resentfully spit into. In another scene, Lale, an enthusiastic soccer fan, begs her uncle if she can attend a match. It’s out of the question, but that doesn’t crush her spirit. Being the catalyst for much of the action in the film, Lale finds a way to escape to the stadium with her sisters. The scenes are delightful, from climbing through a tunnel to get off their property, to flagging down a ride and cheering in the stands with their long dark hair flowing like wild horses. The girls break loose on other occasions, but afterwards, the house is reinforced with even more iron and steel. As a final blow, the girls are not allowed to return to school (a waste of time anyway, since girls are only good as baby making machines and housekeepers). Their environment is closing in, but the strength of their bond and fiery spirit fortify us. Kinship is reflected in every glorious frame of the film and these sisters make confinement almost seem tolerable. One scene shows all five girls entangled on the floor as they play with each other’s toes before falling asleep. The atmosphere is comforting and warm, despite the cold, dark place in which they’ve been trapped.

Appallingly, the movie reflects how women in many countries are still treated today. (In fact, the film is based on an actual experience by the film’s director, Deniz Gamze Erguven.) There’s no equality for women — no driving, no sex before marriage, severe punishment for not abiding by men’s rules and no continuing education. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Women are second-class citizens with no say. Women are degraded, humiliated and disrespected all the time. Sadly, their suffering is as routine as the setting sun. Girls in progressive, democratic countries who see “Mustang” will be astonished to observe a culture that oppresses women in this day and age. Sadly, traces of this attitude aren’t all that outrageous to some here. Of course, a Donald Trump presidency would not turn America into a small village in Turkey. What it will do is set women way back, undermining much of the progress that has been made. “Mustang” is a must-see movie for anyone who is within spitting distance of voting Republican this year. This important film will break hearts. Most importantly, it can change minds.

 

 

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The Data (plan) Ate My Homework

Teens and smartphone

Photo: Olaf Speier

In February, The Wall Street Journal featured a story that must have freaked out parents and guardians everywhere. In “Smartphones Go to School, reporter Charlie Wells cites an increasing number of schools nationwide that are allowing gadgets in the classroom for quizzes, homework and projects.

Massachusetts-based educator, Joni Siani, is an outspoken and passionate advocate of media literacy in schools and author of Celling your Soul: No App for Life. (This book was made into a movie by her students and was named best documentary at the Boston International Kids Film Festival last year.) Siani says,

Using smartphones in class is not only counterproductive, but downright insane. Assignments done on a gadget is homework in tiny chunks of thought with little reflection.”

Not to mention the excuses. Dogs will no longer be the scapegoats for missed assignments. Instead, maxed out data plans will be blamed for incomplete projects or homework that just didn’t get done.

It is well documented that overuse of electronics by children is detrimental to their growth. The Learning Habit, published in 2014, reveals that grades, sleep, social skills and emotional balance begin to decline after just 45 minutes of media use. A 2015 study by the London School of Economics found kids banned from using phones at school did much better on test scores than those who were allowed to use them. The impact of banning the devices was equal to an extra hour a week at school or a five-day increase in the school year.

Ironically, many tech leaders are anti-tech parents. Apple founder Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use an iPad. Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired also had strict rules on electronics use at home. When asked why, Anderson said, “Because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, and I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”

At a time when adults are talking about balance, stress management and Internet overload, our children are increasingly hooked on technology. Classrooms should be a safe haven from distractions and a focused learning environment, but teachers are caving in to their students’ desires. Comedian Paula Poundstone said it best. In reference to excessive smartphone usage, she said, “Some kids like heroin. Does that mean we’re going to give it to them?”

Surprisingly, many people defend the use of smartphones in class. And not just those profiting from the technology. John Kim, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School, told the WSJ, “The teaching profession has yet to catch up with how students are using the devices.”

Apparently our overworked, underfunded, dedicated teachers don’t have enough to do. Certainly the Internet is a superb research tool. Except when the student gets sidetracked by Snapchat while looking up the per capita income of Zaire. But will writing a paper on a smartphone make the topic stick better? Why is technology driving the content of the learning? At what cost? Who really benefits?

According to Siani, encouraging more gadget use is not what students want. And she should know. During the past seven years, she has interviewed thousands of kids and parents about the effects of digital communication. The response has been eye-opening. Young people are desperate for relief from the demands of 24/7 connectivity. After a recent screening of her film at a Boston area high school, a student asked if she could “just vent” about the pressure from smartphone distractions. Last year, 25 teenagers at another school sat with Siani for two hours after watching the film, waiting to be heard. Many were in tears. (The filmmaker says this happens after nearly every screening.)

“Parents and kids look to their schools for leadership,” says Siani. Therefore, it’s important for superintendents, teachers and other educators to help kids unhook from their gadgets, instead of enabling them. Nationwide, rules on smartphone use in school varies, but consistent, digital communications policies in classrooms are needed that benefit the children. Not Samsung, not Apple or Verizon or Sprint, or the many other companies that provide the technology.

Steve Jobs must be rolling over in his grave.

The Many Shades of Whitey in “Black Mass” — Johnny Depp is phenomenal. So is everyone else.

Julianne Nichols, who plays Marianne Connolly, steals every scene she's in.

Julianne Nichols, who plays Marianne Connolly, steals every scene she’s in.

In “Black Mass,” the crime movie that’s taking the country (especially Boston) by storm, Johnny Depp carries off what makes him one of the most talented actors of our time. He delivers a realistic, multi-layered performance that is both vile and humane. Depp achieves this by peeling away the onion, frame by frame, in his chilling portrayal of Whitey Bulger. “Black Mass” is a richly textured, well- played symphony of events, based on a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, formerly of The Boston Globe. The movie weaves jailhouse interviews in with the Whitey’s world of corruption and violence to make a shimmering tapestry of a film.

Unfortunately, recent remarks by Depp about Whitey are generating some negative headlines. After a preview in Boston, Depp told a reporter, “There’s a kind heart in there. There’s a cold heart in there. There’s a man who loves. There’s a man who cries. There’s a lot to the man.”

On “Nightside,” WBZ’s talk radio program, Kevin Weeks, Whitey’s right hand man, said he had seen Whitey be nice. Of course, many people are infuriated with these description of the violent and cold-blooded sociopath. But for a film to be compelling, the lead characters must be developed and multi-dimensional. And the director and the lead actor know this. So while Whitey is pure criminal, Depp brings out a few qualities that aren’t so bad. Whitey is:
Kind to old ladies When he crosses paths with an elderly neighbor, he chats pleasantly and directs his fellow mobsters to carry her groceries. In another early scene, he plays cards with Ma Bulger in the kitchen.
Well-groomed His hair is never out of place and his shirts are always tucked in.
Caring Upon returning home for the evening, he bolts upstairs to see his son, Douglas, who’s fast asleep. When the boy gets a fever the next day, Whitey is worried sick.
Philosophical He tells a victim thoughtfully, “Everyone has a choice. You just happened to make the wrong &%$ one.”

Sensitive The death of his mother throws him for a loop and he’s never the same.
Didactic When Douglas gets reprimanded at school for punching a classmate, he gives him some fatherly advice: “It’s not what you do. It’s when and where you do it.” In other words, if nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.
Funny When an FBI supervisor uses an incriminating phrase, he tells him, “’Just sayin’ sends people to ‘Alleywood.’ ‘Just saying’ got me into Alcatraz.” Then, unexpectedly, he flashes his gnarly teeth and emits the creepiest, longest laugh I’ve ever heard. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.

’Just sayin’ sends people to ‘Alleywood.’ ‘Just saying’ got me into Alcatraz.”

Sanitary Sitting with fellow mobsters in a bar, his ice blue eyes fixate on hitman, Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown) and a bowl of nuts. Whitey is disgusted and reprimands him for putting his “fat, &*%$ fingers in his mouth” and then into a bowl “that’s meant for public consumption.”

Hands down, Depp’s great.  But there are other reasons to see “Black Mass.” Especially the female characters. Julianne Nichols, who plays Connolly’s wife, steals every scene she’s in. Juno Temple is adorable and genuine as Deborah Hussey, who is strangled by Whitey in front of her “boyfriend” (and stepfather!) Steve Flemmi (aka “The Rifleman”). Dakota Johnson is heartbreaking as the mother of Whitey’s son. (It’s a shame that Catherine Grieg’s character, played during production by Sienna Miller, was cut. Another woman would have added more color and balance.) Overall, the accents are good, considering that the Boston dialect is so difficult to master. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Whitey’s brother Billy, tries his best. (The only people who can do a Boston accent are people from Boston). Joel Edgerton, who portrays Connolly, is convincing as a conniving, lying opportunist who isn’t too bright. Jesse Plemons, who plays Whitey’s right-hand man, Kevin Weeks, literally gives a knockout performance. (The movie is gory, but the violence is not gratuitous.) Corey Stoll plays Fred Wyshak, a new FBI prosecutor in town who smells a rat. He’s a serious, no nonsense guy who restores our faith in the criminal justice system. (Mr. Stoll had me at refusing Red Sox tickets. He tells the corrupt Connolly, “Just bring me cases. It’s all the help I need.”)

Exceptional acting, superior direction, a compelling story and brilliant cinematography make “Black Mass” a “Must See.” The soundtrack is retro cool, and perfectly sets the mood for each scene. But the movie belongs to Johnny Depp. Despite sprinklings of humanity here and there, the actor’s Whitey Bulger is a never ending horror show.

Note: This article appeared originally in The Huffington Post.

Camera-ready madness or Why I hate great movies like Silver Linings Playbook

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in the diner scene from "Silver Linings Playbook."

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in the diner scene from “Silver Linings Playbook”

As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, let’s hope it doesn’t fall off the radar. Luckily, an increasing number of TV shows and movies with mentally ill characters are being immortalized on discs and streaming video. As a result, viewers will be reminded about the affliction and its toll on families and people who love them. One of the most popular productions depicting the condition, “Silver Linings Playbook,” has received critical acclaim from many groups. With its recent DVD release, the award-winning movie will extend its life, attracting an even wider following. There is one problem: although well-written and superbly acted, the film’s characterization as a comedy is misguided. It’s like calling “Modern Family” a drama. After all, seeing Bradley Cooper, the “Sexiest Man Alive,” rant and rave, waking up his stressed out parents, seems downright funny. Hilarity ensures when the beautiful and talented Jennifer Lawrence acts up in a diner. But to many of us, scenes like these are as amusing as watching a car accident.

In 1988, movie audiences giggled over the antics of the autistic Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” I went to see the movie with my friends, blissfully unaware of how close to home this movie would hit. Each time the audience laughed at Raymond, I tried to understand they were coming from another world, untouched by someone who exhibits inappropriate and weird behavior. To me, Raymond was real. Every time he embarrassed his brother, played by Tom Cruise, my heart sank. Everyday incidents flooded my mind, from having to protect my older brother from bullies, to his embarrassing outbursts in public. Or when he would play with broken pieces of plastic for hours or wax on about nonsense while my friends tried not to laugh. “He’s talking ragtime again,” my Nana would say. Throughout “Rain Man,” I wanted to scream, “What’s so &%$# funny?” I kept my cool because speaking up would classify me as a kill joy or a drama queen. Instead, I vowed to avoid films about mental illness.

As a movie buff, I am drawn to all films, particularly those with great reviews. So I tried again with “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Prozac Nation” and others. Through this exposure, I was convinced that I could become desensitized and eventually gain some objectivity. I reminded myself that most people just don’t understand the havoc that mental illness wreaks. Most importantly, I willed myself to toughen up, so others wouldn’t have to walk on eggshells around me.

These movies still affect me, but not as profoundly. Fictionalized portrayals will always be out there, but they will be misunderstood by people who don’t live with the real characters. No film, book or entreaty by an actor will ever improve these situations, but the publicity can result in better policies and eliminate stigmas so that more people will get help. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, 60 percent of people with the disease are not treated. So I’m all for raising awareness, no matter where it comes from — even if Hollywood movie stars are delivering the message. Now that’s a silver lining.

Despite increased awareness, we may still get an “I don’t understand” or “Buck up and get over it” look if we criticize popular films because they’re too painful or unrealistic for us. So now I just go with the flow. The other day, a friend said “Silver Linings Playbook” was the best movie he’s seen in a long time. When he asked my opinion, I said, “It was great.” Nothing more. My family got the straight dope.