Waiting for “Superman”


Waiting for "Superman"

Anthony Black watches his future passing him by.

(2010) Documentary (Paramount Vantage) Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, Anthony Black, Daisy Esparza, Bianca Hill, Bill Strickland, Randi Weingarten, Bill Gates, George Reeves, Francisco, Davis Guggenheim (voice). Directed by Davis Guggenheim

One of the few things both the left and the right agree on in this country is that the education system is broken, and very badly at that. Comparative test scores with students in other developed countries rank the United States near the bottom in math, science and reading comprehension. However, we are ranked first in one category; student confidence. Thank God for all those positive self-image programs implemented in the 90s!

Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director for An Inconvenient Truth, returns to the subject that he first visited back in 2001 with the television documentary The First Year. In that documentary, he focused on teachers going into the trenches in inner city schools back in 1999. With the “No Child Left Behind” program having run eight years out of its ten and unlikely to reach its goals, Guggenheim decided to look at the problem from the other side – from the students’ perspective. 

He chooses five of them – Daisy, Bianca, Anthony, Francisco (all from poor ethnic neighborhoods) and Emily (from a middle class Silicon Valley neighborhood). Their stories are troubling – and all too common. All five of them have academic promise; Daisy wants to be a veterinarian while Anthony likes math. They all have parents (in some cases they are the children of single parents) that are singularly involved with their education, helping with homework, assisting them with reading, fully invested in the process. The trouble is that all of the parents know that they are fighting a losing battle.

Many schools, particularly in the inner cities but also elsewhere, have turned into what are termed dropout factories. They are unable and in some cases, unwilling to give their students the education they need to be successful in college. With each passing year, kids fall further and further behind until they simply drop out. Even if they do beat the odds and somehow manage to graduate, they are woefully unprepared for college and spend their freshman year taking remedial courses to try and catch up, and very often, they simply never do.

Guggenheim asks the valid question whether the neighborhoods make the schools bad, or the schools make the neighborhoods bad. It’s a fair question; certainly when a single school over a 40 year period drops 30,000 high school dropouts in a neighborhood, that’s going to make a dent.

But why are schools so bad? This is where I think the film drops the ball a little bit, seeming to oversimplify the issue. According to Guggenheim, it boils down to bad teachers and the inability of school districts to fire them, due to issues of tenure. The documentary asserts that the powerful teacher unions have made sinecures of their jobs, leading to a culture that the job is the teacher’s right, rather than a privilege. In New York City, teachers who are undergoing disciplinary hearings for reasons as varied as excessive lateness to work to sexual abuse are all made to spend their days in a waiting room reading newspapers and playing cards – at their full salary – while they await a disciplinary hearing. That wait lasts months, sometimes up to three years and costs Big Apple taxpayers more than $65 million a year.

There is hope, however – the knight charging to the rescue, as Guggenheim sees it, is charter schools. These are schools that have been created by communities independently of the school district, allowing the administrations to hire excellent teachers at increased salaries with merit bonuses and by allowing the teachers to actually teach rather than simply follow an antiquated lesson plan. However, there are very limited numbers of openings at these chartered schools, and a whole lot of parents wanting their kids to fill them, so according to law, lotteries must be conducted to fairly select which students fill those spots. Literally, the future of these kids hangs on a lottery pick.  

There are heroes too, like Geoffrey Canada, a crusading educator who became fed up with a system that resisted change, and went on to found a school in the worst part of Harlem and immediately set graduation rates and test scores that were better than even the charter schools. There’s also Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system who took on the unions over tenure, and closed down 21 schools in the district. When she proposed a contract that would give the teachers the option of choosing a small pay increase and keeping tenure, or a larger increase with merit bonuses that could wind up raising teacher compensation into six figures, the union wouldn’t even let their rank and file vote on it. I guess they knew how that vote would turn out.

For my part, I think the movie raises some very important points, but I’m not sure they’re really seeing the entire problem. For one thing, I have to wonder if charter school students perform better because they have motivated parents invested enough in their kids’ education to fight to get them into those schools?  Would the test scores be as high if there were children with parents who were unable or unwilling to put as much time in with their kids?

Also, I don’t think that the film addresses a very crucial subject. While there is a high emphasis placed on the need for teacher accountability, it doesn’t do a lot to look at student accountability. In an atmosphere where the attention of young people is taken by video games, smart phones, surfing the internet, cable television and online social networking, school can’t really compete with these entertainments. Getting kids to understand the need for education is crucial and having a son who has been through the public school system, I can tell you that the issues he had were partially of his own making.  

However, I also know the schools failed my son. The administration put a label on him early on as an underachiever and tracked him with remedial kids. While he always excelled in tests, he had a bit of a lazy streak when it came to homework. The school’s solution was to put him in an environment where he was guaranteed to be bored, and once that happen, the system lost him. He is in college now but it hasn’t been easy for him and that he has fought back and taken charge of his future has made me a very proud papa.

What is important about this movie is that it starts a dialogue. There’s no doubt that our education system needs serious fixing, and sometimes we look at the problem, throw up our hands and say “It’s just too big to be fixed.” The movie shows us that isn’t true; with the involvement of parents and concerned citizens all over the country, we can make a difference and with our children’s future – and indeed, the continued economic health of the United States – in the balance, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The grim truth is that statistically, we are no longer producing enough students proficient in math and science to fill the Silicon Valley-type jobs that demand those disciplines, and over the next ten years that gap is only going to widen. We are having to bring in students from India, China and other emerging nations who have invested a great deal in their education system and are churning out capable students at a rate the U.S. once did. We are on the brink of becoming a second rate nation, and fixing this crisis in education is the best way of preventing that from happening.

REASONS TO GO: One of the most urgent issues in the United States gets thoughtful treatment; while you may not necessarily agree with all of the filmmaker’s conclusions, there are at least some places to begin the dialogue on how to fix our educational system.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie isn’t terribly complementary to teachers unions and those who believe in them may find the movie insulting.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some kids may find the themes difficult to comprehend, but this is perfectly acceptable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Those who bought tickets in advance from the film’s website can get a free download of the John Legend song that is played during the closing credits.

HOME OR THEATER: While on a viewing level this isn’t the kind of cinematography that begs for the big screen, the issue is important enough to motivate me to urge viewers to see it in theaters.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Nowhere Boy

Advertisements

New Releases for the Week of October 22, 2010


Hereafter
Matt Damon peers out the window, afraid he is still being stalked by Ben Affleck.

HEREAFTER

(Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Cecilie de France, Frankie McLaren, George McLaren, Jay Mohr, Bryce Dallas Howard, Richard Kind, Steven R. Schirripa. Directed by Clint Eastwood

The lives of three people in three different places on Earth are touched by death in different ways; a blue collar American is able to communicate with the dead but finds this less a gift and more of a curse. A French journalist has a near-death experience in a tsunami, shaking her to the very core of her being. Finally a young London boy loses his twin brother and searches for answers. Their lives will eventually intersect as they embark on a path to search for the truth of what they believe awaits in the hereafter.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images, and for brief strong language)

Anton Chekhov’s The Duel

(Highline) Andrew Scott, Fiona Glascott, Tobias Menzies, Nicholas Rowe. A ne’er do well in a Russian village begins an illicit affair with a married woman, but when they plan for her to leave her husband for her paramour, his true nature begins to emerge in this well-reviewed version of a classic tale by the Russian author.

The trailer for this movie is unavailable.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

I’m Still Here

(Magnolia) Joaquin Phoenix, Sean Combs. Actor Joaquin Phoenix shocked Hollywood in the fall of 2008 by announcing that he was retiring from his acting career and instead, becoming a hip-hop artist. Oscar-nominated actor Casey Affleck was behind the camera documenting this “career reinvention” that would later turn out to be a hoax. Still, the film that came out of it has gotten a good deal of buzz as a look at life in the public eye and the odd worship of celebrity that creates an environment that allows celebrities to do whatever they please.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Mockumentary

Rating: R (for graphic nudity, sexual material, pervasive language, some drug use and crude content)

Lebanon

(Sony Classics) Yoav Donat, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Shtrauss, Dudu Tassa. During the First Lebanon War of 1982, a lone Israeli tank and a platoon of paratroopers are sent to a hostile town for a simple mission that turns into a nightmare of survival as the soldiers, motivated by fear and instinct, try not to lose the best part of themselves in a situation that demands their worst.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: War Drama

Rating: R (for disturbing bloody war violence, language including sexual references and some nudity)

Paranormal Activity 2

(Paramount) Katie Featherston, Gabriel Johnson. Further supernatural goings-on are captured in a house via security cameras, this time affecting a different family in the sequel to the smash hit horror movie that was made for only $15,000 – I’m assuming the sequel cost them a bit more to make.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Supernatural Thriller

Rating: R (for some language and brief violent material)

Stone

(Overture) Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy. A man imprisoned for covering up the murder of his grandparents with a fire is up for early parole, and that decision rests in the hands of a parole officer approaching retirement age. In order to up his odds, the prisoner sends his sexy, amoral wife to help convince the parole officer to set him free.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong sexuality and violence, and pervasive language)

The Tillman Story

(Weinstein) Pat Tillman, Dannie Tillman, Richard Tillman. When pro football star Pat Tillman gave up his lucrative career to fight for his country in Afghanistan, that was big news. When he gave his life for his country, that was even bigger news. The real story is his family’s fight to find out the truth behind his death, and the government’s equal determination to cover up that truth.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: R (for language)

Waiting for “Superman”

(Paramount Vantage) George Reeves, Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, Randi Weingarten. Oscar-winning documentarian Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) focuses his lens on the American public education system. Once the best in the world, it has become a morass of drop-out factories and bureaucratic bungling that inhibits rather than promotes academic excellence. However, there is still some hope as good teachers and innovative administrators are creating a new educational system with programs in charter schools and other enlightened academic institutions that may eventually deliver on the promise of leaving no child behind.

See the trailer, clips and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG (for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking)

Hollywoodland


Hollywoodland

Adrien Brody gets ready to punch out this photographer in preparing for his next role as Sean Penn.

(Focus) Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Molly Parker, Robin Tunney, Jeffrey DeMunn, Joe Spano, Dash Mihok, Lois Smith, Zach Mills, Larry Cedar, Seamus Dever, Daisy Fuentes. Directed by Allen Coulter

Fame is a glittering object, dazzling and seductive. Many are seduced by the incandescent glow that promises immortality, adoration and wealth. Fame is also vain, fickle and cruel and it can turn on you, eat you alive from the inside and spit you out, a desiccated husk. It has happened in Hollywood too many times to count and the names of those who fell victim to the allure of Tinseltown is long. One name on it is George Reeves.

Reeves (Affleck) is an actor who once had a small role in Gone With the Wind. He came to Hollywood looking for fame and glory and finding it a political entity in which the major studios had absolute autocratic control. Trying to break in, despite his matinee idol looks and acting chops, is near-impossible. However, he does manage to land a role in a TV series that doesn’t have much of a chance for survival – in fact, it has no sponsor whatsoever, usually the kiss of death in the television landscape of the 1950s.

Still, Reeves needs the money and although he has doubts about the quality of the show and his role in it, he takes the paycheck and dons the grey and brown tights of – Superman. The show becomes a hit to everyone’s surprise and Kellogg’s Cereal takes the sponsorship of the show, allowing them to film in color (and allowing Reeves to don the more familiar blue and red tights seen in the comic books).

Reeves becomes a hero to million of kids and his life is forever changed. He chafes under the restrictions of the role and fears that typecasting as Superman will effectively end his aspirations for a serious acting career, fears that are realized after Superman is canceled. Despondent over what is apparently a dead-end dream, he says good night to some guests (which included his fiancee, Lenore Lemmon (Tunney) whom he was due to marry in three days) at a small dinner party in his home the evening of June 16, 1959, calmly walked upstairs and shot himself in the head.

The police called it a suicide and closed the case with unseemly haste. The victim’s mother, Helen Bessolo (Smith) contracts a private investigator to look into a case that the police have already written off. Louis Cimo (Brody) is a bottom feeder, reduced to accepting money from a delusional paranoid (Cedar) who believes with absolute certainty that his wife is cheating on him, despite the lack of any evidence to support his claim. Cimo, a headstrong headline-hunting investigator who prefers to do much of his work through the press, is divorced and living a squalid existence. When a police buddy (Mihok) steers Cimo towards Bessolo, he takes on what he hopes will be a high-profile case that might get him noticed, and in turn generate more business.

As he investigates further, he begins to find out more about the man George Reeves. He discovers early on that Reeves is having an affair with Toni Mannix (Lane), the aging wife of powerhouse mogul Eddie Mogul (Hoskins), a bigwig at MGM. She buys him a house and supports him in getting the part that he will forever become identified with, much to the delight of his agent (DeMunn). Still, George chafes at his situation; he doesn’t necessarily want to be a kept man.

As Cimo delves into the case, things turn ugly. He is given a terrible beating and warned to back off. He becomes disillusioned when one of his previous cases turns to tragedy, and he descends further into alcoholism, imperiling his relationship with his son (Mills) and his estranged wife (Parker). As he gets closer to the truth, he realizes that the truth is a dangerous commodity in a town built on creating illusion.

This is a film noir thriller at heart, one which relies on shadows and grit to create a mood. There is a certain degree of fatalism in the movie; the more we get to know Reeves, the more likable he becomes and the more tragic his death is. Director Coulter, whose background is in some of HBO’s most critically acclaimed series including The Sopranos, Sex in the City and Six Feet Under, recreates Hollywood in the late ‘50s nicely. Although the studios remain all-powerful, their grip is slowly slipping as the aging moguls rail against the TV monster that is evaporating their audience before their eyes. It is a town built on the dreams and the desperations of the young, and both qualities are captured nicely.

It doesn’t hurt that Coulter has a terrific cast to draw on. Lane, Brody and Hoskins are all Oscar winners or nominees, and they all do exceptional work here. Brody, in particular, has the most expressive eyes I think in Hollywood; often the expression in his eyes is far more telling than the dialogue.

Better still is Affleck, whose career has been on the downswing ever since his disastrous hook-up with J-Lo. He is charismatic, vulnerable and flawed and he makes George Reeves a real, breathing human being which is a difficult task given that most of us that remember him at all remember the smiling man in the horrible Superman suit. This is the kind of performance that can really turn things around for him and get him some roles that better suit his talents than the ones he has been reduced to lately.

The movie presents several of the theories of what really happened to Reeves to this day. Although suicide continues to be the official verdict, there are many who believe that Reeves was murdered, a belief that persists to this day. Eddie Mannix, who had mob ties, may have been responsible as well as his fiancee, whom it was rumored that George was going to break up with. Most who knew him couldn’t believe that he was suicidal; he had just started filming a new Alfred Hitchcock movie (which turned out to be Psycho – his scenes were refilmed with Martin Balsam in the role) and he was optimistic that he had a future as a director or producer.

The movie does seem to take a position at the very end (although the filmmakers are coy even with this) and you won’t walk out of the theater with a feeling like you know what happened. At this point, it is unlikely that the questions surrounding the case will ever be answered. Still, this is an extremely entertaining movie, well-acted and nicely put together. The language is a little raw, and the movie is a little short on lightness to balance the darkness, but all in all this is something I can confidently recommend to just about anyone. Note the “R” rating, however.

WHY RENT THIS: Affleck nails his role, making Reeves feel both human and vulnerable as well as egotistical and frustrated. Director Coulter captures the period and the place nicely. Supporting cast is superb.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tone is unrelentingly grim. Anyone looking for insight into the death of George Reeve may walk away disappointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic violence, particularly in the depiction of Reeves’ death, as well as some sexuality and a great deal of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Alvis automobile that Reeves is shown washing is an extremely rare vehicle which the producers had a difficult time finding but eventually had one of the few remaining models shipped to the set for filming. Reeves actually drove an Alvis, although not the same model shown here.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Bourne Ultimatum