Monday, February 18, 2008

A Few Quick Reviews

With the Oscars coming up on Sunday, I feel that some capsule reviews are in order:


This is a sweet little movie about a controversial subject, namely teenage pregnancy. Juno, a 16-year-old played with verve and confidence by Halifax's Ellen Page, finds herself pregnant after a night of somewhat random intimacy with her best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). She decides to have the baby, but give it up for adoption to a well-off couple, Vanessa and Mark (played by Jennifer Garner - who gives an emphathetic and moving performance - and Jason Bateman). I've read some criticisms of the film to the effect that it's not a realistic portrayal of teenage pregnancy - Juno's amusingly quirky parents (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) are too accepting and helpful or some such - but this is thankfully not an "issue" movie. But Juno is a very entertaining and light-hearted film, which brings a certain wry humour to a touchy subject and nonetheless manages to portray multifaceted characters and, crucially, genuine emotion. Now, while some of the hipster dialogue is a bit over-the-top (particularly in the beginning) and the indie folk soundtrack is a bit too... indie, I can find few real faults with Juno. I'm not sure it deserves the best picture Oscar, but since it's the only nominee which I've actually seen, I suppose I'll be rooting for it nonetheless.


What can be said about Beowulf... well, first, it was an entertaining ride, though I didn't actually see it in 3D as was available. Second, this represents the first computer animated film I've seen which attempts to create "realistic" human characters and largely succeeds in avoiding their looking creepy or distracting. Third, though the story departs significantly in a number of ways from the original epic poem on which it is based, I think, as an adaptation, the writers did a quite decent job in turning a somewhat scattered text into a coherent film. A brief note on the story: Beowulf (Ray Winstone) of the Geats arrives at Heorot, the great hall of King Hrothgar (an amusing Anthony Hopkins) of the Spear Danes, which is being menaced by the grotesque, vicious, and ultimately rather pitiable monster, Grendel (Crispin Glover, not that you'd ever recognize him). There's more to it than that, as Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie) becomes involved. The story is not altogether complex, but it's fun enough, and there's a climactic sequence with a dragon that's quite something. Among the supporting players are Robin Wright Penn as Hrothgar's queen Wealthow, the always dependable Brendan Gleeson as Beowulf's comrade-in-arms Wiglaf, and John Malkovich, exhibiting one of his more bizarre and distracting (for him) speaking styles, as Hrothgar's Wormtongue-esque advisor Unferth. Something of a mixed bag then. Still, it's enjoyable enough, though it's not what one would call a "thinking movie".

(There are some nice touches, though, such as the gradual introduction of a syncretic Christianity into Norse culture over the years of the story, but I'm not sure most viewers will care. It's a nice detail for those of us who had to read the poem in its rambling entirety in university.)

Tales from Earthsea

Ursula Le Guin's first Earthsea book was not exactly my favourite read back in Grade 9, but reading some of her other books has forced my to reconsider my reaction way back then. Tales from Earthsea is a loose adaptation of some of the later books in her series, and is directed by Miyazaki's son, Goro. There is reportedly some degree of tension between them, and however much that might have affected the movie, it shows all the signs of having been rushed through production, which was apparently the case. The plot is simple enough - Prince Arren, after committing a horrible crime in his home country, goes into self-imposed exile, eventually gaining a travel companion in "Sparrowhawk" aka Ged, who is the Archmage and a wizard of some repute. Over the course of the film, Arren is literally forced to confront his inner demons, while meeting a seemingly unremarkable girl named Therru and the evil sorceror Cob along the way. Unfortunately, there is one major plot hole that plagues the film's resolution, and the script feels underwritten in other respects as well. But it does look breathtakingly gorgeous, with cityscapes clearly inspired by Rome, and the production and voice acting are excellent, as we should expect from Studio Ghibli. Tales from Earthsea is definitely a very pretty film, and while it's good overall, it's also seriously flawed. Le Guin herself has rather mixed feelings, but I'd say it's still worth seeing (assuming you can find it - it has yet to be released in North America... I obtained my copy from, shall we say, unofficial sources).

Application Anxiety Disorder

Now, I will state first that I am not currently suffering from Application Anxiety Disorder (AAD), but the same cannot be said of many of the people here who, aside from being keeners in the extreme, are highly concerned with email interview invites, admission statistics, personal "stats" (read: GPA, MCAT scores, extracurriculars, etc.), and, of course, the variable and seemingly illogical admissions policies of Canadian medical schools.

As an applicant myself, I've avoided most of this anxiety by, well, staying away from such forums and similar websites. For the moment, I lurk at this "premed" forum now and then, but I figure that avoiding registering there much less posting is a very healthy way of adding to my own stress levels. Admittedly, since I have at least two more interviews (for a current total of three chances to win), I'm well past the greater part of the uncertainty, but this forum is a testament to the overwhelmingly stressful and, well, excessive admissions process.

There are essentially a few givens for getting to the interview stage, at which point your "personal characteristics" (and subjective judgements thereof) start to matter a lot more. You'll need reasonably high marks and an MCAT score that's "high enough" and also balanced among the four categories; if you ace the science portions of the MCAT, but screw up the verbal reasoning or writing sections, your chances of getting an interview fall precipitously. Naturally, though schools like Queen's and UofT post "cutoffs" for admission, the rules are not as hard or fast as they might seem, and the process is by any reckoning opaque. However, since schools have varying cutoffs for students from different regions or backgrounds, an applicant might have an excellent chance at one school within her region and no chance at one in another province. Of course, if the justification for high academic standards for admissions is that people with high marks would make better physicians, then all this regional favouritism seems more than a little odd.

In any case, the process used to be much simpler - my dad, whose information is over thirty years out of date, doesn't recall having an interview at all to get into UofT. However, admissions appear to have become considerably more competitive over the years with the result being that academics are no longer enough - you need a certain array of community involvement (e.g. volunteering in hospitals or with sick/disabled people), extracurriculars, good references, and, often, research experience. Moreover, you need to sell yourself effectively in essays and, of course, at the all-important interview, where must demonstrate an ethical sense, critical thinking skills, strong communication skills, and "knowledge of the Canadian health care system". In short, you must pour yourself into the process, sell yourself in your essays, spend several years working away at getting lots of A's and A-'s, all while being well-rounded with some degree of community involvement and evidence that your life does not entirely revolve around schoolwork. And if you don't want to severely limit your application choices, you need to write the MCAT too, an ordeal which generally deserves its reputation as the most grueling of all standardized tests.

And so, after answering all manner of vaguely invasive personal questions in the essays and spending literally hundreds of dollars in application fees and transportation and hotel costs, you must remember that you still stand a better-than-even chance of being rejected. Most schools, at least, won't leave you hanging too long, and they'll send you a polite but firm email informing you that you didn't quite make the cut for an interview. At least one school, which shall remain nameless, won't have the courtesy to tell you anything, even after the interview dates have passed.

As for me, well, I'm not letting myself worry too much. I'm old enough to feel a bit more laidback about the whole process, but then I'm also lucky that I feel fairly confident of getting in somewhere. I don't think this confidence is misplaced, but this is far from a sure thing. In any case, Dal remains my best bet - the interview went well enough, I thought - but I won't find out until at least the end of this month and maybe much later. I could easily know the answer before either my Queen's or McMaster interviews, so I'm hoping it's the "right" answer. We shall see. I'm still waiting on UofT, and while I should be able to get an interview there, it's possible that a certain technicality will cause problems.

So, I'm not suffering from AAD, thankfully, but the process makes me wonder why that's not the case. It's certainly not fun!