Detachment


Just holding up the wall.

Just holding up the wall.

(2011) Drama (Tribeca) Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen, Bryan Cranston, Sami Gayle, Betty Kaye, Louis Zorich, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chris Papavasiliou, Kwoade Cross, David Hausen, Roslyn Ruff, Jerry Walsh, John Cenatiempo, Brenda Pressley, Tiffani Holland. Directed by Tony Kaye

We are challenged in the classroom like never before. Teachers must compete with all sorts of distractions – texts, phone calls, games, the kind of thing that other generations can’t even begin to understand. With shorter attention spans, kids don’t seem inclined to put any effort in to learning which puts other nations – China and India at the forefront – of educating their young people and putting themselves in a position to be the global power in this millennium.

Henry Barthes (Brody) is a teacher, or more to the point, a substitute teacher. He’s been sent to a month long stint in an inner city school where apathy is the word of the day. His predecessor essentially had a nervous breakdown and several other teachers seem to be on the verge of one of their own. Henry strikes up friendships with the acerbic Chuck Seaboldt (Caan) and the pretty but standoffish Sarah Madison (Hendricks).

In the meantime he is trying to inspire gifted artist Meredith (B. Kaye) as well as take teenage prostitute Erica (Gayle) under his wing. These are things that are meant well but still don’t look too good and Henry ends up facing the music for acts of kindness when all he wanted to do was inspire a few kids to achieve, to make something of themselves and to live a life that could have some meaning. Not too much to ask, eh?

Considering the caliber of the cast, the script had to be something spectacular because many of these fine actors get little more than a line or two and yet they are here because they believed in the project, which speaks highly of the original material. Certainly it seems to be an indictment of the public education system, a place in which the problem children are all dumped into the same building and educators are little more than glorified babysitters. Parents who can’t be bothered to show up on parents night are perfectly happy to march into the administrators office and tell the principal (Hardin) – who has already been told to seek employment elsewhere at the end of the year – that the parent is going to have her gang raped. Nice, right?

I’m not sure principals and teachers deal with parents threatening with sexual assault very often in reality, but the apathy of parents and students towards education today is a very real issue that very real teachers deal with on a daily basis. Unlike the movies – including this movie – it takes a lot more than one inspiring teacher to reverse the tide for an entire classroom. Students are people and like most people they react to the same things in different ways. In other words, what’s inspiring for one may come off as cheesy for someone else.

Brody works very hard here and why not? This is the kind of role that’s tailor-made for his talents. It doesn’t hurt that he has Oscar nominees and Emmy winners to work with. He gets plenty of support but make no mistake, this is Brody’s show and he runs with it.

Still, he is hampered by the cliches that show up in so many schoolroom dramas and that kind of offsets his performance. While the heart is in the right place here, there are very few movies that really give us a fly on the wall view in the modern classroom and this isn’t one of them, sadly. While worth checking out particularly if you’re into Adrien Brody, this doesn’t set any new standards in educating the masses about the state of education.

WHY RENT THIS: A uniformly excellent cast. This is right in Brody’s wheelhouse.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit cliche in places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Betty Kaye, who plays Meredith in the film, is the director’s real-life daughter.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is premiere footage from the Tribeca Film Festival as well as studio interviews with Brody and Tony Kaye.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.5M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/Stream), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy), iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Minds
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Taken 3

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The Emperor’s Club


The Emperor's Club

This teacher has eyes in the back of his head as his students have found out to their sorrow.

(2002) Drama (Universal) Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch, Emberth Davidtz, Rob Morrow, Edward Herrmann, Harris Yulin, Paul Dano, Rishi Mehta, Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Millman, Chris Morales, Luca Bigini, Roger Rees, Patrick Dempsey, Caitlin O’Heaney. Directed by Michael Hoffman

 

In the end, the measure of a person is in their actions, not just their ideals. It’s a fine thing to have lofty moral values, but another to live by them. The difference between doing what’s right and doing what’s right for yourself can be a very hard line indeed.

Professor William Hundert (Kline) lives a very ordered existence. As assistant headmaster and history teacher at the exclusive St. Benedict’s School for Boys, he is passionate not only about teaching Greek and Roman civilization, but also about making the right choices for the greater good, Hundert is beloved amongst his students and respected among his peers.

Into this existence comes Sedgewick Bell (Hirsch), the brash son of a powerful U.S. Senator (Yulin). Bell has little respect for anything or anyone, least of all himself. At first irritated by the constant challenges to his authority, Hundert grows to see the potential for excellence in Bell. Hundert attempts to inspire the young man, urging him to take part in a prestigious academic competition. It is here where his most cherished ideals are put to the test, both by the student and the teacher.

Based on the excellent novella ”The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin, The Emperor’s Club is all the timelier for the recent spectacular examples of the lack of ethical behavior in business, government, Wall Street and academia which was sadly as true in 2002 as it is now. Kline’s performance as Hundert is memorable, although it borrows a bit from the Goodbye, Mr. Chips/Dead Poets Society line of teachers.

Hundert believes very deeply in his principles, but abandons them for what he thinks is the greater good of another person. However, when that greater good is betrayed, Hundert is challenged more than ever to keep his belief system intact. He does so in a marvelously human manner, one to which all of us can relate. Hundert is no saint, but he is a good man – better than most in fact – but fallible. That sets him apart from Mr. Chips and other such dedicated super-teachers who Hollywood has showing his or her students that the high road is the right road. Hundert makes a moral choice that turns out to be wrong but one with which most of us can identify with – it is made out of hope.

It should be noted that several young actors that are coming into their own in Hollywood appeared in this movie, not just including Hirsch but also recent Oscar nominee Eisenberg and Paul Dano, so good in Little Miss Sunshine. The extra added attraction of seeing them early in their careers is appealing to movie buffs such as myself.

I was blessed to have a father who also had a very highly developed moral sense. He used to tell me that the harder road was usually the right one. It has been a principal that has guided me through some sticky situations. In that sense, I can identify with Hundert because of my father’s example.

Everyone should be lucky enough to have examples such as these in our lives. Lacking them, one can use this movie as inspiration to take the moral high ground. If seeing a movie can cause us to look in the mirror, then watching that movie is a worthwhile endeavor and The Emperor’s Club is that, and more.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performance by Kline and early performances by several Hollywood stars. Presents a great teacher as fallible and human. Unexpected twists for the classroom drama genre.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit melodramatic in places. One wonders if Sedgewick Bell learned anything valuable in his time at St. Benedict’s and if not, why bother?

FAMILY VALUES: There is bit of sexuality in the content, but not enough to make the movie uncomfortable. There are also implications of teen smoking and drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The movie was filmed at the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York where the prep school scenes for Scent of a Woman were also filmed. Kline stood in as an English instructor for several classes at the school to prepare for his role, for which he got rave reviews from his students.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.3M on a $12.5M production budget; the movie didn’t recoup it’s production budget in it’s theatrical release.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Incredible Hulk

The Class (Entre les murs)


The Class (Entre les murs)

"I'm not going to tell you again, my name is NOT Mr. Chips!"

(Sony Classics) Francois Begaudeau, Franck Keita, Boubacar Toure, Henriette Kasaruhanda, Eva Paradiso, Laura Baquela, Rachel Regulier, Nassim Amrabt. Directed by Laurent Cantet

Education isn’t what it used to be. Teachers have little control over their students, administrators have little control over their teachers and everybody is pointing fingers at everybody else. How do teachers stand a chance with students, having to compete with iPods, cell phones, video games and the Internet?

Francois Marin (Begaudeau) is a new teacher at a school in the 20th arrondissment of Paris, a multi-ethnic neighborhood. He teaches grammar and literature to what would be the equivalent of high school students. The students are ambivalent at best about the prospects of learning a language they already think they know. What good, they question, is this education going to do them?

A valid point, indeed. Marin is fairly hip as teachers go, treating his students with respect although he is only human; he gets exasperated when they push the limits, as teenagers will do. At times he resorts to the tried and true axiom of “because I said so” when questioned. Still, he’s fairly easy-going and makes a real effort to communicate to his students.

Many of them are the children of immigrants, such as Souleymane (Keita), a troubled young man with a bad temper and Khoumba (Regulier), who believes M. Marin has it in for her. These aren’t always the easiest kids in the world to get to know

Still he does try, and seems to be making a connection when he gets them to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and then assigns them each an essay to write about themselves. In some of the cases, he gets a glimpse of understanding something much deeper although with most it’s just a skim across petty surface likes and dislikes.

However, when two classroom representatives at a teachers meeting blabs to the class that M. Marin said something unflattering about one of the students, tensions threaten to derail the fragile bond that ha been forged among the members of the class.

Director Laurent takes a bold innovative step in disposing of a script for the actors playing the students and instead gets them to improvise, with three cameras covering the classroom and only Begaudeau getting the outline of the action that is meant to occur. This leads to honest, natural performances with the students essentially playing themselves in a classroom setting and reacting as they would to incidents occurring in their own classrooms.

Begaudeau is himself a teacher and wrote the book on which this is ostensibly based. He co-wrote the “script” along with Cantet and Robin Campillo and is the heart and soul of the movie. He is one of those teachers who genuinely want to see his students thrive but is frustrated by their lack of motivation to care about their own futures. He wants to get through to them, but at the same time he’s only human and not only makes mistakes, but does not treat them all equally.

I did have problems with the subplot of the classroom representatives. I grant you I’m not an expert on the French educational system, but it seems to me that having students attending meetings in which confidential information about their fellow students is being discussed is an unlikely scenario at best. Here in the States, that’s the kind of thing that would lead to lawsuits. While there might be classroom representatives at teacher meetings, I can’t imagine that those teachers wouldn’t be aware that anything discussed at those meetings, particularly if it were something the teachers didn’t want getting out, would be blabbed to their fellow students the next day. I mean, these are TEENAGERS for chrissake – passing on inappropriate information is what they do.

Still, this is a marvelous movie that, while it shares a certain pedigree with classroom dramas like To Sir with Love, The Blackboard Jungle, Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, is much more authentic particularly in the way that the students are depicted. We don’t have a Mr. Chips sort here who inspires by reading from Dylan Thomas; instead we have a beleaguered teacher doing the best he can to inspire kids who aren’t looking for inspiration (at least from school). It is also a wake-up call to our global society that the education system needs to be reformed as the needs of the students are changing.

WHY RENT THIS: A realistic look at the challenges facing educators today. Organic, unforced performances mostly by first-time actors or non-actors makes for a natural setting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The whole sub-plot about having two classroom representatives at a meeting in which confidential information about students is being discussed is far-fetched to say the least.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of rough language and a little bit of sexuality, but otherwise suitable for teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first French film to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival since 1987.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is intriguing footage of some of the improvisational sessions that set the tone for filming, as well as the young actors reading essays they’d written about themselves, some of which were incorporated into the final film.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

Winter’s Bone

Note: While I saw this at the Florida Film Festival, it isn’t scheduled for release until June 18th. A full review will be posted then. In the meantime, here is a short mini-review.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) has a tough life in the Missouri Ozarks. Taking care of her two young siblings and her mentally ill mom is taxing enough for a 17-year-old girl but to find out she needs to find her absent meth cooker dad or lose their house (which he used as collateral on his bail bond) with no help from the insular mountain community is almost too much for her to bear. This outstanding performance is matched by veteran character actor John Hawkes turn as her Uncle Teardrop, the wiry man who nobody wants to mess with. This is a moving, harrowing movie that will keep you squirming in your seat. Highly recommended.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Secret of Kells