October brings the Mill Valley Film Festival to town. Several towns, in fact. And theaters enough to show 170 movies or so in eleven days. Bring your eye drops.  Plan the routes between.

We’re normal sort of movie goers: two or three a month; more on television. Taking on two a day seems almost illicit to us. Really? We can do that?

Movies Beyond MeasureSunday was a nice start.  In the morning Vicki Abeles, previously known for her 2010 Race to Nowhere, about pressure packed students and families, brought Beyond Measure, a well done advocacy piece for engaged learning, or “maker schools.”

Starting with a teacher boycott of state imposed competency testing in a Seattle school, Abele takes a look at 4 different schools and how they are trying to break the mold of “drill and kill,” or “test and punish” school days.  Experts from outside the schools themselves, and participating teachers and students bring criticism of the old ways and enthusiasm for the experiments they are engaged in.  Special focus, as a seed-bed of creative teaching and learning, is given to Olin College, in itself a revelation.

We couldn’t stay for the Q&A, rushing off to the afternoon movie, so we didn’t hear audience reaction or learn more about her choices and prior research.  My gut tells me that she herself went with her gut, doing research and picking schools to show why she felt as she does.  It’s an advocacy film, not a broad look at schools, success (definition please), measurement or possibility.  Fair enough. But I’ve seen enthusiasm for many school related ideas which, as time went on, lost their magic, or proved to be fine for a few and not very good for others.

Were I a parent, especially of kids chafing through their school days, Beyond Measure would certainly get me thinking and doing research on my own, including the book that parallels the film.  I suspect, however, you will have to seek the movie out, find it on DVD or get to one of these cites with planned screenings, or host a screening with friends.

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Movies The IdealistThe afternoon’s offering, The Idealist, from Christiana Rosendahl of Denmark, was a film of a different tempo and style.  Mixing documentary footage with acted parts, Rosendahl recreates Copenhagen reporter Poul Brink’s investigative work in 1988 which revealed to the Danish public a nuclear scandal of twenty years earlier.  In 1968 a U.S. B-52 bomber loaded with 4 hydrogen bombs crashed at Thule airbase in Greenland, a U.S. lease. One of the men who helped clean up the crash site came to Brink twenty years later and offered himself and others as witnesses of their exposure to radiation, and subsequent illness.  One of the four bombs, according to them, was never recovered and was still off-shore deep in Greenland waters.  Rebuffed and threatened as he dug for facts, losing his job at one news outlet, Brink ultimately turned up a secret memo of understanding between the Danish Foreign minister and the United States to store nuclear weapons in Greenland, a country whose citizens had years before voted to be nuclear free.

Despite its documentary roots, the film does a very good job of turning itself into an investigative thriller.  Think, All the President’s Men (1976) about uncovering President Nixon’s unconstitutional actions, or The Insider, (1999) about the tobacco industry cover-up.  We got plenty of hand-holding in the scary parts.

Peter Plaugborg is excellent as Poul Brink. with permanent creases of concern etched down his forehead.  Rosendahl and her cinematographer pick great angles in close-up to show his eyes focused in journalistic combat, lifting in doubt or narrowing in determination. He rises to our image of a man gripped in the passion of discovery and exposure –of human injury and of lying as an instrument of policy. In the end, exhausted by the let-down of partial victory he sits before a large painting of a bucolic Danish landscape — the image of a discouraged idealist against the fantasy Danes have of themselves, as Rosendahl explained.

Tim Ahern gets some very nice lines as an arrogant and condescending American Ambassador. Thomas Bo Larsen plays the most seriously sick of the well represented working-men Danes who are trying to get acknowledgement and compensation for what they have suffered. 

Jonas Struck‘s score is generally true to the feeling of the film though there were a few times when the volume needed to be turned down.  Jogging in the dark with footsteps coming up from behind needs only a light musical touch, not quadruple underling to point out THIS IS REALLY SCARY!

The documentary shots are well selected, often grainy and badly lit, adding authenticity to the well acted investigation.  Combining two such disparate film types into one, watchable movie is always a problem.  Cuts from found film to filmed acting can be jarring, distracting; continuity can be a problem.  Rosendahl handles it very well, with a few exceptions.  There were a few scenes, one of a couple asleep for example, when the shot was too long, for no discernible purpose.  [Why are we watching them so long?  What is going to happen?]  With some judicious tightening The Idealist will grab all viewers and hold them to a history lesson, and a give a fresh reminder of human behavior in power that Americans and Danes will appreciate.

I suspect The Idealist will have life after the festival though you may have to set a search-engine alert to bring you news of it showing in the neighborhood.  Keep your eyes open, or find it eventually on-line for a very educational and adrenaline rushed evening.