Review: “The Lottery,” where winning really is everything.

Review: “The Lottery,” where winning really is everything.  (photo)

Posted by on

Reviewed at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

If there’s one political issue that should be simple, it’s education. Everyone is for education; everyone agrees children deserve the best education possible. But trying to determine just how to give children that education is a sore subject, and that’s where the problems begin. The troubling documentary “The Lottery” shows how just how many sides to a one-sided issue there can be.

The titular contest in question happens every year in Harlem (and, I imagine, other areas like it around the country). Charter schools, like the one in the film named Harlem Success Academy, offer children in their area the opportunity for a better education and boast a higher literacy rate and better test scores than than the public schools in the same area.

Their technique, as one person describes it, flips the conventional educational model on its head: instead of a variable amount of achievement in a constant amount of time, the school makes time a variable (by extending both the school day and the school year) in order to make achievement the constant. The results, as bragged about many times throughout the film by Harlem Success founder Eva Moskowitz, speak for themselves.

However, space is limited, so the school holds a lottery every year to randomly select its incoming kindergarten class. If your name is chosen, you’re on your way to a great primary education, which then increases your chances to get into a better middle school, and high school, and college, and so on. If your name isn’t chosen, your chances at all of that decrease dramatically, all before you ever learn to read and write.

04302010_Lottery3.jpgShockingly, Harlem Success holds their lottery in a gymnasium where candidates come and watch the results announced live. If you’re lucky enough to be called, you come onto the stage receive a certificate (a literal and figurative golden ticket) and celebrate with the Harlem Success faculty. If you don’t get picked, you have to sit in the audience and watch your dreams die as other people gloat and celebrate.

Imagine having to find out if you got into your dream college in public, then multiply the potential anguish by a thousand times because these are five-year-old children getting their hopes crushed, in a system that is totally random and not based on merit. It’s pure insanity. Why rub the unlucky kids’ noses in the success of the winners? Why not just mail acceptance letters to the students who get in?

“The Lottery” follows four families with young children entered in this year’s lottery. Three live in one-parent homes. One has a father in prison; another has a mother living in Africa. Despite their circumstances though, all four kids seem bright, sweet, and full of potential, and that may be both the greatest tragedy and most powerful element of this film: watching it, we know that some or all of these children won’t win this lottery and the rest of their lives will be profoundly affected by it.

Director Madeleine Sackler contextualizes the contest by interviewing experts on education, including NYC Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and takes us inside the roiling community meetings where Harlem residents argue passionately for and against charter schools. Most agree the system is deeply troubled.

So how to fix it? Sackler sides with the charter schools and with Moskowitz, who is portrayed as a crusading reformer, and comes down most heavily against the powerful United Federation of Teachers, the public school teachers’ union in New York City (which, full disclosure, my wife is a member of).

I don’t agree with all of Sackler’s arguments — my wife taught in Harlem for several years, and I don’t know that a charter school is any more well-equipped to handle many of the problems she faced than a public school — but she captures the passion and heartache of her four main subjects with empathy and clarity.

You may or may not agree that the public education system in this country is broken, but by the end of “The Lottery” there’s a very good chance your heart will be.

“The Lottery” will have a limited run on June 8th.

[Photos: “The Lottery,” Variance Films, 2010]


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

Posted by on

Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

Posted by on
Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

Posted by on
GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.