Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Keeper of Lost Causes

Continuing with my recent fascination with Scandinavian mysteries, I chose this book by Jussi Adler-Olsen, which takes place in Denmark.  

The Keeper of Lost Causes introduces chief detective Carl Morck.  Morck is not doing very well: two of his colleagues were shot and he blames himself for not drawing his gun fast enough.  Besides not being fully engaged at work lately, he was never very good at playing the political game anyway, having many run-ins with the Deputy to the Chief.  The Chief struggles with what to do with him.

Fortuitously, the government puts aside money to create a department to follow up on old cases, particularly those involving prominent people.  What a great opportunity!  Let's create Department Q, promote Morck to run it, relegate him to the basement, give him one quarter of  the money allocated to Department Q, and divert the rest to the regular funding of the department.  The whole proposal has a high bird-to-stone ratio.

One of these cold cases catches Morck's interest and so unfolds a fascinating journey into the long-dormant case of a politician who disappeared years ago and is presumed dead.  Morck's fresh eyes bring new light to the case.

I look forward to reading more from this series.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Paris Wife and The Marriage Plot

For me to really enjoy a book, I need to engage with the characters.  While I enjoyed both the books shown above, I didn't love them.  And the reason is because I couldn't care enough about the characters - I neither loved nor hated them.

The Paris Wife is a fictionalized account of the marriage of Ernest and Hadley Hemingway.  Set during the 20s in Paris, the reader sees their marriage through the eyes of Hadley, who tells a first-person narrative of loving and marrying Hemingway, having their child, and meeting all kinds of interesting people in the Paris of the 20s.

Hemingway was not a terribly attractive character.  Not only did he cheat on his wife - he was a serial husband and philanderer - he was vicious to his most supportive friends.  He might be famous, but I couldn't love him as a character.  Long-suffering Hadley tells the story of their penurious marriage and her unfailing dedication to his career.  Yet, somehow it didn't ring true for me.  The claim of eternal poverty was belied by the fact that there always seemed to be someone there for child care for their son and enough money for their many holidays trips, many with their son being cared for back in Paris.  Hadley just wasn't very interesting or likeable either.

The Marriage Plot follows three characters through university and post-graduate activities.  Madeleine, the pivotal character,  has long been admired by the rather timid Mitchell, a religion major seeking spiritual enlightenment.  However, she falls in love with and marries Leonard, a brilliant and charismatic science major, who suffers from bipolar disease.  For me, there wasn't enough motivational explanation for Madeleine falling in love with Leonard; he is simply not fascinating enough in his manic moments to compensate for his periods of deep depression.  Mitchell is the classic nice guy, but he's just too bland and timid to get me engaged.  I really didn't care about these characters either.

So there you have it - two not-bad books, but not gripping enough for my taste.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Being Elmo

I found this post that I wrote ages ago, but I seem to have neglected to publish it.  It's a review of another movie from the Bloor Cinema's opening week as Hot Docs theatre  in Toronto.

Kevin Clash is a man who has lived his dream.   As a young boy growing up in a poorish neighbourhood in Baltimore, he fell in love with puppets.  His first romance was with Captain Kangaroo, but Sesame Street brought his passion to full flower.  Sesame Street looked like a place he could live, and oh, those puppets were absolutely wonderful.

So Kevin started making puppets himself.  An early visit with Kermit Love broke open some of the secrets of a great puppeteer, like how did you make a puppet where the seams didn't show.  Through Kermit's mentorship, he found his way to Sesame Street, his dream home.

Clash just fell into being Elmo. Another puppeteer on the show just didn't relate to the puppet and threw it to Clash with the words 'you try to do something with it'.  Clash turned the puppet into a symbol of love.  But more than that, he just became Elmo.  His warm, all-encompassing smile and voice brings Elmo to life.  He is now Executive Producer of Sesame Street, and is greeted all over the world with delighted recognition - and yes love - from Elmo's many fans.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Forgotten Affairs of Youth

In most mystery books or thrillers, the plot races along like frothy white water, and the reader is like a feverish paddler trying to keep up with the pace.  Alexander McCall Smith's books are more like a gently flowing river, with the reader comfortably seated on a raft, floating along peacefully.   The plot often meanders into a small backwater, where you pause for a moment before heading down the river again.

Smith is best known for his series about Precious Ramotswe, the warm and cuddly head of Botswana's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.  In these books, Ramotswe often digresses to deliver a homily on life in Botswana, and the characteristics that make its people so delightful.

The pace is even slower in The Forgotten Affairs of Youth, the first of Smith's Isabel Dalhousie novels I've read.  Whereas Previous Ramotswe philosophizes as an avocation, philosophy is Isabel Dalhousie's profession.  She is the editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, a lightly paid position she is able to hold because she lives off an inheritance.

Frankly, there were simply too many philosophical musings in this book for my taste.  It is a lovely gentle book but I craved a little more plot movement.  Certainly the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series is much more engaging.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Babies and Religion

Rosling with high-tech visual aids
For a variety of reasons, this blog has veered away from its origins - reflecting on the talks that have excited or inspired me at TED.  Usually it was a TED talk I've heard in person.  I'm getting back to the original purpose with this post, but this time, I'm writing about a talk I just watched online.

Hans Rosling is the most-invited and most-watched TED speaker of all time.  His most recent talk was at the TEDx Congress in Doha.  Sadly, Rosling has run out of original and thought-provoking things to talk about.  NOT!!!  Absolutely not.  Once again, Rosling sparkled with his trademark presentation of data that makes you think.

This time, he tackled a sensitive topic: the correlation between birth rate and religion.  Most people 'know' that birth rates differ between religions.  If it is true that some religions discourage the global trend toward smaller families, then that will send our population soaring past 10B.

Rosling argues differently with his data.  Worldwide, birth rates have been dropping toward the two-children-per-woman mark.  There is a correlation between birth rates and average income: low income tends to correlate with high birth rates, although it is clear the birth rate can drop even when average income has stagnated.  Countries in conflict have high birth rates, as children killed are usually replaced with another child.  But, the countries which  still have high birth rates are split between countries where the dominant religion is Christianity and those where the dominant religion is Islam.  Rosling argues that if we want to look for the factors that affect birth rate, we have to look beyond religion.

Rosling posits the four key factors necessary to bring down the birth rate:
  1. Children survive
  2. Families don't depend on children working 
  3. Women get educated and join the labour force
  4. Family planning is accessible
With his patented use of simple props to make his point vividly, Rosling shows how, even with the decline to 2 children per woman, the world population will rise to 10B before leveling off.  He calls it reaching 'peak child', a phrase that may become as popular as 'peak oil'.

I could listen to Rosling forever!  He presents data through a powerful lens, which turns it into information. Over the years of listening to his talks, he's assailed many assumptions I've had about the world.  I can't imagine how exciting it must be to take a whole course from this spectacular teacher.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Before the Poison

Bring back Alan Banks!  As a regular reader of Peter Robinson's book, I feel as if I know Alan Banks personally.   He's a typical detective, somewhat cranky, sometimes morose, a maverick who never endears himself to his superiors, but solves cases his own way.

Sadly, Alan Banks is absent from Before the Poison,  I can imagine Robinson might be tired of Banks.  After all, he has a steady diet of the character, while we readers only bump into him once in a while.  However, while Robinson might be tired of Banks, I wasn't.

I wonder if Robinson is caving in to the current fascination with spirits, by having his main protagonist, Chris Lowndes, a recent widower, experience sightings of a ghost in the isolated house he has rented in northern England.  Robinson always has lots of references to music in his books, and in this one there's lots of music, as Lowndes is a composer.

This is a pretty good book, but not nearly as good as previous Robinson works.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Vault

Chief Inspector Reg Wexford is retired.  Now he's just plain Reg Wexford, and life has lost some of its zest.   He and Dora are spending time in the coachhouse of his daughter's luxurious grounds and he's enjoying exploring London on foot.  When an old colleague, Tom Ede, calls him up to ask for his help as an unofficial, unpaid police advisor, he leaps at the chance.

The Vault refers to Wexford's name for the underground cellar which has recently been opened and led to the discovery of several dead bodies.  The bodies are not new, and it's a difficult task to unravel who they are, let alone deduce who the murderers are.  Wexford struggles to keep his impatience under control: used to be the boss, and having the authority of his badge to gain him entree wherever he wants to go, working as an unofficial advisor, and handling the case the way Ede wants him to is frustrating.  However, he soldiers on, and delivers the solution in the case.

This is a good book, but the pace is slower than previous Rendell books.  Perhaps Wexford has just lost some momentum in retirement.  Maybe only a 2-star on my rating scale of 5.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Before I Go to Sleep

Christine has just woken up.  She looks beside her in the bed and sees a man she doesn't recognize.  Was she so blasted last night that she can't remember the man she brought home, or came home with?   And then she looks in the mirror and sees a woman about 20 years older than she is, or thinks she is!

It soon emerges that Christine is suffering from a type of amnesia whereby she loses her memories each night when she goes to sleep.  So each day is a brand-new start for her.  She begins to keep a secret journal, and is prompted each morning by a helpful doctor to look for it and read it.  So she can catch up on everything that has happened and everything she's learned since she started writing.  And what she reads fills her - and the reader - with foreboding.  Somebody is lying to her.

Before I Go to Sleep is a thriller. There are no terrorists, no spies, no bombs, no gunshots, no stolen weapons - none of the accoutrements of the usual thrillers.  But like any good thriller, the suspense draws you inexorably on towards the denouement.  I couldn't put it down.

This is a great book and I highly recommend it.  It's interesting that I've read (and posted about) several books this year about memory:  Still Alice about the onset of Alzheimer's and The Housekeeper and The Professor, about a man who can only retain 80 minutes worth of memories.  Advances in understanding the brain, and how memories are laid down and retrieved, provides great fodder for content.  Meanwhile, Baby Boomers hitting the age where memory disintegration is their greatest fear guarantees a great readership for such books.  I'm expecting we'll see more of such books.  This Baby Boomer will look forward to them.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Hot Docs 2012 in Review

This year's festival was yet another resounding success for Hot Docs aficionados.  I saw over a dozen films and have friends who saw even more.  All but one of the feature length films I saw were very good.  Compared to other years, where my picks had ended up being mostly quite political, this year they leaned toward gentle and heartwarming, with Brooklyn Castle and G-Dog being my favourites.  World Before Her was another fabourite and they were all on the Top Ten list of audience favourites.  The winner of the People's Choice award was Chasing Ice.  It was a National Geographic photographers documentary on the disappearing ice in the Arctic.  Alas, I didn't even read the details because I assumed it was about hockey!  My bad.

Some stats about the festival:
  • 11 days
  • 165,000 audience
  • 395 screenings of 189 films
  • 17 theatres across Toronto, plus two films simulcast to 37 theatres across Canada
  • 143 films went rush
  • nearly 200 film makers and film subjects participated in Q&A
Great job by the Hot Docs team.

The refurbished Bloor Cinema was a delightful place to see a movie and was filled to its capacity of 727 seats for all the films I attended there.  Hot Docs has taken on a major commitment with this theatre and I wish them well in screening great docs throughout the year.  I missed many of the films that made the Audience Favourites list or earned Jury awards, but I hope that some of them might find their way onto the screen at the Bloor.  I've also always yearned for a chance to catch the winners from past years.  I hope the Bloor might be a home to show those films.

Yesterday I attended the second-to-last screening in the Cumberland Theatre, one of the mainstays of the Hot Docs festival.  It's sad to see it go, because while TIFF Lightbox is a fantastic venue, it's not in the wonderful cluster that let film goers walk easily from film to film in the Bloor/Avenue Road area.  It underlines the difficulty in keeping open smaller theatres screening excellent films that aren't necessarily top box-office.  All the more reason to support the Bloor Cinema.

Congratulations to all those at Hot Docs for a great festival.  See you next year.

The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche

My last film at this year's Hot Docs was The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche, a trademark NFB film blending archival footage with reenactment.  I've been interested in de la Roche since living in Lorne Park, where my daughters went to Whiteoaks Public School, on Mazo Crescent and our street Greenoaks was around the corner from Whiteoaks and Jalna Avenue.  Mazo de la Roche had lived in the area briefly but was not forgotten.

Mazo de la Roche
de la Roche is the best-selling Canadian author ever, selling millions of books in multiple languages around the world.  The novels Jalna series and The Whiteoaks of Jalna started the series and de la Roche fed the public's appetite for more books with ten more books. 

Mazo de la Roche was a very private person, not exactly eschewing the spotlight, but revealing little either in interviews or in her vague autobiography.  From the director's comments at the Q&A, it sounds as if this biography was what I would call 'content free'.   Her lifelong companion, Caroline Clement, was an orphaned cousin who had been adopted by her parents at an early age.  Their relationship was characterized as a 'Boston marriage', a term usually applied in the case of lesbian relationships.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


What is a war photographer?  An intrepid professional who heroically puts himself in harm's way to capture the perfect photo of a conflict situation?  Or a sleazy voyeur addicted to the adventure of war?  In McCullin, we see both sides of Don McCullin, the British war photographer considered to be the best ever.  We view a retrospective of his powerful war photographs and we hear him reflecting on whether he was just a war junkie chasing the adrenalin of being in danger.

What incredible photographs!  The chronicle of the 60-80s: Cyprus, the Congo, the Biafran-Nigerian revolution, Lebanon, Viet Nam, Northern Ireland, Cambodia.  Working for the Sunday Times and its proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, McCullin had the support and freedom to chase the big stories, to be featured in the Sunday Times magazine.  With Murdoch's purchase of the Sunday Times, those days were over as the Sunday Times magazine moved to fluffy lifestyle rather than gritty hard news.  McCullin lost his job.  Like so many people, when the merry-go-round stopped, he questioned his past career, wondering whether he should have helped more often than just recording. He told us how some of the horrific situations had affected him, but he did it in a flat dead voice, betraying no emotion.


Father Greg Boyle, aka G-Dog

"Nothing stops a bullet like a job".  Father Greg Boyle may be a priest but that message is almost like religion to him.  That and the motto on all Homeboy Tshirts "Jobs not Jails".  Boyle, known by the gang-type name G-Dog, knows what he's talking about:  he runs the most successful gang intervention and rehab progrma in the US.  This film shows why he's successful

Personally I think hugs might be as big a part of the formula as jobs.  Father Boyle never saw a person he didn't want to hug.  People join gangs because they're fleeing something, not because they're running toward something.  Homeboy Industries provides a community that they can run to.

 Homeboy operates several businesses which provide jobs for gang members leaving incarceration:
  • Homegirl Cafe
  • Homeboy Bakery
  • Homeboy Silkscreen and Embroidery
  • Homeboy Merchandise
  • Homeboy Catering
Unlike the rest of the world, having a record is the entrée into this company.  Father boyle visits camps where gang members are incarcerated, and hands out his card, inviting them to come the Homeboy when they leave.  When times are good (i.e. when the donations are flowing in), he greets them with an instant job in one of Homeboy's different businesses.

But Homeboys doesn't just put someone in a job.  They offer job training and experience, and find 'felon-friendly' employers who will employ Homeboy graduates.  They run a charter high school, parenting classes, life classes, art classes and AA meetings.  The tattoo removal service run by volunteer doctors removes 4,000 tattoos a year, because it's very hard to get a job with the extravagant gang tatoos these guys have.  But mostly, Homeboys is a family.  Members of opposing gangs end up working side by side.  They get respect, love, a sense of community and a father figure in Boyle who will never let them down. 

This was a great warm bear hug of a movie. 

The Law In These Parts

In the Palestinian Territories captured by Israel in the 1967 War, justice is still dispensed under the aegis of military law.  Or is it really justice?  That's the question examined by The Law In These Parts.  The film proceeds through a series of interviews with the military judges in charge of the justice system and questions whether this situation, the longest ever time than an occupied area was subject to military law.

Film maker Ra'anan Alexandrowicz joined for the screening.  He expressed, as have many directors I've seen at Hot Docs over the years, how exhilerating it is to walk into a theatre on a weekday afternoon and see a sell-out crowd to watch their movie.  Another film maker this year cautioned against the assumption that this was the golden age of documentaries, though.  He said it was getting harder and harder to get funding to complete a documentary, evidenced by the long list of funder acknowledged in each film.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Indie Game: The Movie

Indie Game: The Movie is, like, fantastic.  Like, I mean, it's really, like, awesome.  Like, I really really, like, enjoyed it.  Like, the characters were totally engaging.  And the narrative line was, like, quick-moving and the production quality was, like, totally sweet.

Yes, indeed this Hot Docs audience was an average of 20 years younger than the typical Hot Docs crowd, and I never heard so many 'likes' from the audience, the movie characters, and film makers. And that was before they started discussing Facebook likes.
The film follows the development of three independent game developer teams.  For Jonathan Blow, San Francisco-based creator of Braid, the most successful indie game of 2010, life is good.and he can be philosophical about the meaning of indie game development.  These are people that feel as strongly about their personal creative statement as any musician, author, or artist would feel.

 Edmund McMillen is half of the bi-coastal Team Meat which is creating Super Meat Boy.  Edmund has been drawing since he was a child, mostly dark characters and monsters. We'd have to call him an eccentric character for sure.  The other half of Team Meat is the talented but neurotic programmer Tommy Refenes, nearly suicidal with worry about whether they can meet the deadline, whether the game will be successful.  They do indeed make the deadline.  Tommy goes berserk when the game is not promoted in the XBox Live Arcade.  After several hours delay, the game is finally featured, ecstatic reviews stream in and sales skyrocket, matching first day sales of Braid, the biggest Indie game success story so far. Try multiplying a million copies times $15, and dividing that by two.  Tommy pays off the mortgage for his parents, Edmund's wife gets the hairless cats she's been craving.  Years of sacrifice, and a happy ending.

The most interesting character was Montrealer Phil Fish.  Phil is the developer of Fez.  Phil showed the game in 2007, attracting enormous attention.  However, he was hit with several personal setbacks, split with his original partner, and missed multiple release deadlines.  Phil is living in a pressure cooker to get the game finished.  He arrives in Boston to show off a pre-release version of the game at PAX, a huge gaming show.  But his ex-partner is holding up release until he signs an agreement.  As much as this situation enrages Phil, his main concern is to see if people like the game.   However, the game is crashing due to the last minute changes Phil made the night before.   Finally  Phil gets it working, people love it and Phil heads back to Montreal with renewed determination and near-suicidal insecurity to get the game finished and released.  So ends the movie.  Will he or won't he get it released?

Indie Game: The Movie won a Jury Award at Sundance.  Producer Scott Rubin (producer of The Social Network, Money Ball and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is developing a series based on the film for HBO.  Tonight the movie was live-screened at 40 Cineplex theatres across Canada.  Not bad for first-time film makers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky from Winnipeg!  They had the courage to start the movie after raising only $15,000 on Kickstarter, not nearly enough to complete the movie.  However, they believed in their movie.  After all the gaming industry is bigger than movies of music, and yet this is the first documentary about the games industry from the point of view of game developers.

Pajot and Swirsky were joined on stage by Phil Fish, and we heard the epilogue of his story.  Fez made it to market!  And its reception equalled that of the hugely successful Super Meat Boy.  Moreover, Phil has learned his lesson - he refused to divulge even a shred of detail about his next game.

This film is goingto be released in New York later this month and will be returning to Canada soon after.  Don't miss it!!!

World Before Her

Describing India as a land of contrasts is so cliché.  Yet something becomes cliché because it's true.  World Before Her explores the contrast in the lives of two groups of women.  

On one side are young women at the Miss India pageant.  They see themselves as modern women seizing the opportunities the contest to give them the financial security to take control of their lives.

On the other side are Hindu girls learning to hate Muslims and Christians at the fundamentalist Hindu military-style Durga Vahini  training camps.

Both choices are ugly.  The pageant contestants are relentlessly groomed and forcibly botoxed.  Their bodies are celebrated over their minds.  Yet, they throw themselves into the pageant with passion.  Only a woman of independent means can escape the prison of rigid choices for Indian women and these young women hope to ride their beauty to independence. 

Prasha, the nasty drill sergeant of ambiguous sexuality at the Durga Vahini camp, spouts vitriol against anyone not a Hindu and against Westernization in India - with the Miss India pageant a prime example of such Westernization.  Prasha has suffered at the hands of her father in her strictly Hindu family.  Her father proudly explains that he regularly beats her, and has even burned her with a hot poker.  Yet Prasha defends his right to abuse her, because he gave her gift of life in this nation of rampant female foeticide and infanticide.

 This table (taken from Wikipedia) illustrates Indian demographics, showing the incredible dominance of the Hindus relative to the people they feel threatened by, and also the gender ratios within each religious group.  Presumably the advent of ultrasound explains the continuing decline in the number of females (see the ratios for 0-6 years old).

Table 2: Census information for 2001
Composition Hindus[23] Muslims[24] Christians[25] Sikhs[26] Buddhist[27] Jains[28] Others1[29]
 % total of population 2001 80.5% 13.4% 2.3% 1.9% 0.8% 0.4% 0.6%
10-Yr Growth % (est '91–'01)[30] 20.3% 29.5% 22.6% 18.2% 24.5% 26.0% 103.1%
No. of females/1000 males. (avg. = 944) 935 940 1009 895 955 940 1000
Literacy rate (71.7% for Age 7 & above)[31] 75.5 60.0 90.3 70.4 73.0 95.0 50.0
Work Participation Rate 40.4 31.3 39.7 37.7 40.6 32.9 48.4
Rural sex ratio[30] 944 953 1001 895 958 937 995
Urban sex ratio[30] 922 907 1026 886 944 941 966
Child sex ratio (0–6 yrs) 925 950 964 786 942 870 976
^1 including Bahá'ís, Jews, and Parsis. Tribal Animists (and non religious) are included after 1926 (1931 census onwards)

The Indian government is working to reduce this practice as I described in this post from New Delhi.

The Canadian director Nisha Pahuja worked for two years to gain enough trust to be allowed to film in the Durga Vahini camps; this is the only filming that has been allowed in the camp.  Watching these naive girls from Indian villages being fed such venomous propaganda, and being trained to use rifles, to be ready for the moment when they might have to defend Hinduism, was chilling.   This experience, like being in the pageant, made them feel strong and confident.

Four years in the making, this is an excellent movie, winner of the Best Film award at last week's Tribeca Film Festival.   I'm sure it will do well here in the Hot Docs audience ratings.

World Before Her was paired with a short film, Durga, by another Canadian director, Paramita Nath, which explored the dichotomy between the reverence for the goddess Durga and the desperate lives of many Indian women.  It showed dramatic footage of the celebrations of the festival of Durga, juxtaposed against the hard facts that two thirds of Indian women suffer domestic violence in their marriages.  Another interesting take on the same theme.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


I've just finished a literary marathon - 944 pages of 1Q84 - that tested my reading stamina.  I was enthralled throughout.  Now I'm exhausted.  And I'm content.

What a marvelously intriguing book.  Trying to pin down 1Q84's genre is like putting your finger onto a blob of mercury - just when you think you have it pinned down, it scoots off in another direction.   Is 1Q84 a love story?  Yes.  Is it a mystery/thriller?  That too.  Is it fantasy?  Absolutely.

Set in 1984, the book follows two characters, Aomame and Tengo, who met in elementary school and haven't seen other since.  Their separate adventures follow trajectories that bring them ever closer.  They find themselves in a different world, not 1984, but 1Q84, a world with two moons.  And that's as much of the plot as I'm going to reveal.  I definitely recommend you read it.

Chip Kidd designed the cover for 1Q84 and it is as intriguing as the book. The multiple layers of the cover echo the parallel universes in the book - to get the whole picture, you have to look at both layers.  I became a fan of Kidd's while listening to his scintillating TED talk this year (see my post on that talk here).  1Q84 is a book that invites Kidd's creative treatment, which he describes here (in print) and here (in video).

The parallel universes of 1Q84 reminded of another talk from TED 2012 - Brian Greene's amazing description of multiverses that physics says just might be possible.  Exploring multiple universes through two totally different lenses.  Fascinating.

Brooklyn Castle

Oh what a lovely movie!  If you can score a ticket to the one Hot Docs viewing left of this movie - do it!

Brooklyn Castle is everything you want in a documentary.  It's a heartwarming story about a remarkable group of kids at a remarkable school IS 318 in Brooklyn.  Huge trophies and banners decorate the halls of this school.  Are they sports banners?  No.  At this school, they play chess.  And do they ever play chess!   A week ago this middle school just won the US Chess Federation National High School championships - first middle school ever to achieve such a feat.  Who'd have thought chess could be so hip?

IS 318 is a middle school in Brooklyn, serving a population which is 60% below the poverty line.  It is blessed with dedicated teachers and administration which drive the school's passion for chess, teaching the kids life lessons as they learn the moves of chess.  In the movie we meet the heroes of IS 318, the hip nerds and they are an amazing cast of characters:

11-year-old Justus Williams is the youngest black chess master ever.  (He achieved that status after the movie).  He commutes to IS 318, attracted by the exceptional chess program.  In the movie, we see this shy thoughtful kid fighting his jitters in the big tournaments.  You get the sense that these jitters are going to be his biggest obstacle to future success.  He is getting specialized tutoring from volunteer chess masters in New York.

13-year-old Rochelle Ballantyne's goal is to be the first ever female African-American chess master.  She's already reached Expert, one level below master.  By winning the girls championship at the 2011 middle school championship, she earned a full-ride scholarship to University of Texas, even though she's just begun high school at Brooklyn Tech.  She is struggling with priorities: her parents are determined that she should put her schoolwork first.  Meanwhile, the chess masters who have volunteered to tutor her demand at least one hour a day of practice.  It's hard to juggle all those demands.


Patrick suffers from ADHD.  Extremely self-aware, he recognizes chess is helping him develop his ability to focus.  We cheer for him in the movie when, after a rocky start at the tournament, he pulls off some final wins, to leave the tournament feeling satisfied.  The audience asked why the producers picked Patrick to be featured in the movie, as he wasn't slated to win a championship.  They said that from the minute they entered the school, Patrick was on their heels asking questions about the filming process.  He was just too engaging to leave out.

Pobo is the son  of a widowed mother from Nigeria.   We see him dwarfing the children in her day care as he keeps them amused with a story.  But he's at his best with the chess team.  A relentless cheerleader, he is always there for the other players, encouraging them win or lose, clutching them in big bear hugs.   When his smiling face hit the screen, you could feel the whole theatre smiling back.  We ached with him as he awaited the results of the election for school president - undoubtedly hamming up his anxiety for the camera!  Unsurprisingly, this charismatic character won.  The producers told us he still comes back to IS 318 on weekends to tutor younger kids in chess, even though he is now at high school, playing centre on the basketball team. 

Alexis is totally driven to succeed in life, to get educated, get a good job, and provide money for his immigrant family.  He is a totally intense player, unable to sit still as he faces the board.  Even more than chess, he is consumed with the desire to excel on the do-or-die exam that will determine whether he is accepted at a 'choice' school.  Getting into one of these good high schools

And who are the people that make this all happen?

Elizabeth Vicary
Vicary is an expert-level player (notice that Justus has already surpassed her) who turned IS 318 into the powerhouse of chess that it is.  We see her high-energy style as she coaches the team and teaches chess classes.  Chess is mandatory for everyone in Grade Six and optional for  Grades Seven and Eight.  Some vignettes of her one-on-ones with students show her instilling life lessons along with chess lessons.  She is a force of nature.  Catch her blog if you want to read more about these students.

John Galvin
Vice Principal Galvin, a 17-year veteran of IS 318, is the coach of the team, fighting for money to support the team's travel to tournaments and other costs associated with running the program.  Threatened with extinction by the harsh budget cuts, Galvin has fought back with political pressure, solicitation of sponsors, walkathons.  The movie's web site has a call to action to support after-school programs in America's deepening cuts to education.