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

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

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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]


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.