Case 39


Bradley Cooper bids Renee Zellweger a fond adieu.

Bradley Cooper bids Renee Zellweger a fond adieu.

(2009) Horror (Paramount Vantage) Renee Zellweger, Jodelle Ferland, Ian McShane, Bradley Cooper, Callum Keith Rennie, Adrian Lester, Kerry O’Malley, Cynthia Stevenson, Alexander Conti, Philip Cabrita, Vanessa Tomasino, Mary Black, Domenico D’Ambrosio, Benita Ha, John Carroll, Michael Bean, Lesley Ewen, David Patrick Green, Alisen Down, Jane Braithwaite. Directed by Christian Alvart

We are brought up to protect our children. They are precious and obviously important to our future as a species. There aren’t many parents who aren’t willing to give up their own lives for their children. What if, however, those children are evil?

Vancouver social worker Emily Jenkins (Zellweger) is given a heart-wrenching case of Lilith (Ferland), a little girl whose parents have been abusing her. The worst case scenario occurs when her parents attempt to murder the little girl. She is saved by Emily and Detective Mike Barron (McShane) who arrive just in the nick of time. Lilith is originally going to be placed in a group home but she begs Emily to look after her and with the blessing of the board Emily is allowed to take the traumatized child home temporarily until suitable foster parents can be found.

Heart-wrenching turns to heart-warming and then to heart-chilling as another child whose case Emily is working murders his parent. Barron tells her that the child had received a phone call from Emily’s home number the night prior to the crime. With Lilith suspected to be involved, an investigation is underway run by Emily’s friend and colleague Doug (Cooper). It doesn’t end well.

Although Barron is at first skeptical (and thinks Emily is in need of psychiatric help herself) but eventually comes on board, but by that time it’s too late. Lilith is revealed to be something terrifyingly evil in a child’s body. Emily is terrified but knows that if she doesn’t kill the entity, Emily will end up dead – and the carnage will start all over again with a different set of foster parents.

This is one of those movies that looked promising on paper, then generated some buzz with the casting of Zellweger and McShane (Cooper was cast pre-Hangover), then disappeared on the studio shelf where it languished for three years and several postponed release dates. Very generally movies that go through that kind of cycle tend to come to bad ends. Either a surfeit of studio interference turned a promising film into a miasma of differing visions and overly-thought out changes, or the movie was just plain awful to begin with.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised with this one which while not the kind of movie that makes year-end lists, was at least entertaining and even a little thought-provoking. Sure, the movie borrows liberally from other better films but let’s face it, most horror movies are guilty of that particular sin these days.

Children are often a taboo subject when it comes to American filmmakers – although we are dealing with a European filmmaker here. Sure, there are exceptions – but putting them either in anything more than minor peril or worse, portraying them as the cause of peril is generally considered off limits. For the most part, kids are portrayed as precocious little angels who get into trouble quite by accident. Rarely are they portrayed as malicious or evil other than to other children – and even then they’re mostly victims of circumstance. Case 39 takes a demonic child and makes her gleeful at the carnage she causes. This plays on something of a hidden fear for many – a perversion of innocence. That’s a powerful, powerful image.

However, the movie isn’t entirely successful. Zellweger’s performance isn’t among her best; in fact, she seems curiously lacking in energy. Some have characterized it as just going through the motions and while I can’t begin to pretend I know what her state of mind was filming this, it’s certainly a subpar performance for her. One can’t blame all of the movie’s shortcomings on her however – the movie often makes its points with a sledgehammer instead of a rapier, and sometimes the story is a bit confusing, giving me the impression that some important plot points were left on the editing room floor.

This isn’t as bad as I thought it would be nor as bad as the criticism of the film made it out to be. I suspect that some critics were reviewing the delay in release as much as the actual film itself, having made up their minds that a movie shelved the way this one was couldn’t possibly be any good. It’s not great by any stretch of the imagination but it deserved better, both from the critics and the studio.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice exploration at our deeper feelings towards children,
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Heavy-handed and confused. Zellweger seems oddly listless.
FAMILY VALUES: There are disturbing images, particularly concerning violence by and against a child as well as supernatural terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming a fire scene on a studio set, the flames got out of control and burned not only the set down but the studio stage as well. While nobody was hurt and production resumed the next day, equipment was flown in from all over the world to replace that which was lost in the fire.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the arduous process of special effects make-up for a burn victim, as well as showing the digital effects creating a swarm of hornets as well as one on the pyrotechnics team.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $28.2M on a $26M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Omen
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Nightcrawler

Carriers


The police department of Ferguson, MO makes sure that Topless Day is a big success.

The police department of Ferguson, MO makes sure that Topless Day is a big success.

(2009) Horror (Paramount Vantage) Lou Taylor Pucci, Chris Pine, Piper Perabo, Christopher Meloni, Emily VanCamp, Kiernan Shipka, Ron McClary (voice), Mark Moses, Josh Berry, Tim Janis, Dale Malley, Jan Cunningham, Mary Peterson (voice), Sequoyah Adams-Rice, LeAnne Lynch, Brighid Fleming. Directed by Alex and David Pastor

Zombies are all the rage in post-apocalyptic horror, but as scary as the living dead might be, what could be scarier than a monster you can’t see: a virus. It is not the virus itself that frightens, although the results end up the same whether infected with a virus or having your brains munched on by a walker but what the virus turns us into.

Danny (Pucci) and Brian (Pine) are brothers. Danny, once bound for Yale before higher education became more of a school of hard knocks, is the more reserved and the smarter of the two. Brian, more of a working class stiff, is the more pragmatic particularly in terms of survival. Along with Brian’s girlfriend Bobbi (Perabo) and Danny’s friend Kate (VanCamp) they are headed to the coast, to Turtle Beach, a resort where Danny and Brian have fond memories.

They have some hard and fast rules which essentially boil down to stay away from those who might be sick which is essentially everyone. They carry bleach and surgical masks which they wear whenever they venture out of the safety of their stolen car. The more they can keep to the four of themselves, the safer they’ll be.

As they drive west they run into a father (Meloni) and his daughter (Shipka) who is infected. They’re trying to make it to a complex where a cure is said to be. At first Brian says no way Jose but eventually circumstances force him to help the other two. For their troubles, Bobbi gets infected although she tries to hide it at first. However, there’s no hiding the horrors that are to follow.

 

In some ways this is a bloodless film (although there are a couple of scenes where the infected burble up blood through various orifices). There is little in the way of gore and hardly any violence. Even when the girls are confronted by survivalists who have rape on the minds comes to naught when they discover that Bobbi is sick after they force the girls to strip down to bra and panties. Followers of Joe Bob Briggs and Drive-In Cinema will be sorely disappointed – back in the 70s and 80s there would have been pustules exploding blood, bodies dripping with gore, knife fights and of course the girls would have been naked and likely raped. Ah, the good old days.

But this is a different era and audience sensibilities are different now. This is meant to be more of a psychological horror film as we watch the tight-knit group slowly disintegrate. You have the natural conflict between brothers which always makes for good cinema, but even that is watered down some and the writers gave them the golden opportunity of having one brother be intellectual, the other working class. I mean, how much more conflict do you need?

Apparently plenty because in the hands of the Pastor brothers this is a kinder, gentler apocalypse, one that is suitable for prime time network television. The moral decisions here are fairly basic – survival versus compassion and in a situation such as this, well, there’s really only one decision so even that conflict feels forced and artificial.

Pine, who went on to Star Trek fame not long after this was filmed, has plenty of presence and charisma as he acts the role of leader here. There is a nice dynamic between him and Pucci, who is more of the conscience of the group. Eventually the roles get reversed but while it is a bit jarring in the way they do it onscreen, the actors manage to make it believable nonetheless.

This is a pretty flawed movie which the studio essentially gave up on before Pine’s success brought it out of the vaults and into a brief release. This isn’t the greatest of post-apocalyptic horrors – it could have used a little more edge – but it has its merits and Pine is worth seeing in this role before he went on to become James Tiberius Kirk. Ladies be warned though – he spends a good portion of the film with a surgical mask on.

WHY RENT THIS: Pine and Pucci make an effective team.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely grim and lacks visceral thrills.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence, plenty of disturbing images and a fair amount of cussin’.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After being filmed in 2006, Carriers was shelved until Chris Pine’s success in Star Trek motivated the studio to dust it off and give it a brief limited release.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.8M on an unreported production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy/DVD), iTunes, Vudu (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin Fever
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Coherence

A Mighty Heart


Angelina Jolie reads her reviews.

Angelina Jolie reads her reviews.

(2007) True Life Drama (Paramount Vantage) Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi, Irfan Khan, Will Patton, Sajid Hasan, Denis O’Hare, Aly Khan, Adnan Siddiqui, Perrine Moran, Jeffry Kaplow, Ahmed Jamal, Demetri Goritsas, Mohammed Azfal, Ahmed Jamal, Imran Patel, Veronique Darleguy, Gary Wilmes, Jean-Jacques Scaerou, Jillian Armenante. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Our Film Library

On January 23, 2002, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal investigating ties between “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and Al Qaeda was kidnapped from the streets of Karachi, Pakistan by a group of Muslim extremists. His wife was five months pregnant with their son at the time.

The kidnapping of Daniel Pearl (Futterman) is today a fairly well-known occurrence by most Americans. His wife, Mariane (Jolie) would write a biography of her husband which described their life together and the harrowing last days of his life, before he was beheaded by his captors on February 1 despite her many pleas for clemency and denials of the terrorist assertions that Pearl was a CIA spy (to this day there have been no links shown between Pearl and any intelligence agency).

The movie made from her book mostly shows Pearl through flashback in almost idyllic tones. Most of the film’s plot revolves around Mariane’s ordeal as she tries to remain as composed as possible considering the extraordinary circumstances as well as the efforts by the United States Diplomatic Security Services, exemplified by Special Agent Randall Bennett (Patton), the Department of Justice and the Pakistani Capital City Police, exemplified by Officer Mir Zubair Mahmood (Khan) to track down the kidnappers and bring them to justice.

Throughout she is supported by close friends like Asra Nomani (Panjabi) and colleagues of her husband such as his WSJ editor John Bussey (O’Hare) and Steve LeVine (Wilmes), ultimately this is an ordeal Mariane must go through alone. That she went through it with such grace and dignity is a credit to the triumph of humanity over depravity.

Jolie delivered a performance that may be the crowning achievement of her career in this film. It was certainly Oscar-worthy, although the movie’s June release date and box office failure likely were the causes of her not receiving a nomination for Best Actress. She plays Mariane with a good deal of emotional control, although the scene in which she is informed of her husband’s death is absolutely devastating. There is also a sense of her concern early in the film as she has some friends over for dinner, but the place setting for her husband who was on his way to an interview remains empty; her glances in the direction of the empty chair are subtle yet telling.

Both Jolie and Futterman resemble their real-life counterparts somewhat eerily (particularly in Futterman’s case). In fact, I would have liked to have seen Futterman as Pearl a bit more in the storyline; after all, Mariane Pearl wrote the book about her husband and not about herself. However, the focus of the movie is entirely on Mariane and Daniel is almost an afterthought in many ways except in flashbacks which show an almost idyllic lifestyle between the two. Oddly, these flashbacks seem a little overly manipulative and overly idealized. Daniel Pearl is in many ways not present in the film that is ostensibly about his wife but is in reality more about his death. In my mind, that does a disservice to not only the good man that he was but also the work that he did.

That said, I found it troubling that the casting of Jolie was groused about by some critics who said that they found her celebrity distracting when viewing her performance. Personally, I think film critics who can’t get past the celebrity of an actor are probably not in the right profession. Every actor brings something of their own personality and experiences into the performance of their roles; if you are judging a performance by what TMZ is saying about an actor, you aren’t doing your job. But I digress.

Winterbottom adopts an almost documentary style in telling his story, although the flashbacks tend to put paid to the documentary feel of the film. After watching the film, I did feel that I wished I knew more about Pearl the man; those who feel similarly can get more of a sense of who he was should probably see the Emmy-winning HBO documentary The Journalist and the Jihadi which tells Pearl’s story with some background on his life in addition to the story of his kidnapping and execution.

At the end of the day, what happened to Daniel Pearl was barbarous and undeserved. However, it also must be said that he was more than just the last days of his life – he was a loving husband, a dutiful son, a proud Jew, a skilled writer, an insightful journalist and a thrilled father-to-be. Looking at his life as a tragedy tells only half the story. However, one cannot deny that Mariane Pearl makes for an interesting film subject as well and Jolie’s performance is truly inspiring. I can’t help feeling however that the film would have benefited from more of her husband’s presence, rather than being just a memory. He was and remains more than that to her.

WHY RENT THIS: A magnificent performance by Jolie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Manipulative and focuses less on the late journalist than it does on his wife.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some horrific violence herein as well as some sexuality and its share of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A featurette on the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists which rose out of this incident as well as a Public Service Announcement for the Pearl Foundation.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: $18.9M on a $16M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The conclusion of Our Film Library!

Nebraska


Bruce Dern tries to ignore the nagging feeling that he isn't wearing any pants despite all evidence to the contrary.

Bruce Dern tries to ignore the nagging feeling that he isn’t wearing any pants despite all evidence to the contrary.

(2013) Dramedy (Paramount Vantage) Will Forte, Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Stacey Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Devin Ratray, Tim Driscoll, Angela McEwan, Gelndora Stitt, Elizabeth Moore, Kevin Kunkel, Dennis McCoig, Ronald Vosta, Missy Doty, John Reynolds, Jeffrey Yosten, Neal Freudenburg, Eula Freudenburg, Melinda Simonsen. Directed by Alexander Payne

As men grow older their relationships with their fathers change. Whereas young men lean on their fathers, one day we wake up and they are leaning on us. We go from being the children to being the parents in a lot of ways. Whether or not they were fathers of the year or if their parenting was something we endured and survived, deep at the core of our beings they are always our fathers and occupy that role for good or ill.

Woody Grant (Dern) is a stubborn old man. He’s got it in his craw that he’s won a million dollars in a sweepstakes and that he has to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim it. The trouble is that he lives in Billings, Montana. One look at the letter he received tells everyone else that the whole thing is a scam but Woody refuses to listen. It just makes him want to hit the road more and if nobody will take him, he’ll walk there.

Woody wasn’t the greatest of fathers. He had a drinking problem – one that he refuses to acknowledge even to this day. Of course, if you were married to Kate (Squibb) you might do a lot of drinking too. She’s shrill, crude and blunt to the point of cruelty. She has opinions about everybody, isn’t afraid to voice them and generally those opinions aren’t too complimentary.

Kate and Woody have two sons – Ross (Odenkirk) whose TV news career is just starting to take off, and David (Forte) who sells high end stereos and speakers. David is one of those guys that life happens to rather than life actually happening. His girlfriend of four years who he has been living with is moving out because David can’t be sure that she’s the One. And with all of his dad’s antics, he finally gets fed up. If his Dad has to go to Lincoln, best to take him there so that everyone else in the family can have peace and quiet.

Of course Kate thinks it’s a stupid idea and of course she says so but David is adamant so he sets out on the road with his father. They get waylaid when Woody stumbles during a late night drunken walk and opens a gash on his forehead, necessitating that he be kept in a hospital overnight. That means they won’t be making it to Lincoln during office hours of the sweepstakes company so David decides to visit Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody grew up and where much of his family still lives .

There Woody begins to reconnect to figures from his past, chiefly Ed Pegram (Keach) with whom he once owned an auto repair business and whose relationship has some contentious elements. Kate decides to take the bus down there and join them for what is turning out to be a bit of a family reunion and everyone there is under the impression that Woody is a millionaire, despite David’s admonition not to tell anyone. That changes the way everyone looks at him – suddenly Woody is in the limelight, and he doesn’t mind it one bit.

Still, old girlfriends, old misdeeds and old family rivalries begin to resurface and over all of it hovers the biggest question of all – is the million dollar win legitimate or not?

Payne has become a really fine director with Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendents among others to his credit. In many ways he is the successor to the Coen Brothers; he has some similar quirks in terms of his sense of humor and a kind of Midwestern earthiness that has a lot to do with his own upbringing in Nebraska (the Coens were brought up in Minnesota). His films have a kind of prairie sensibility.

It doesn’t hurt that he has assembled a fine cast. Dern, a long-time character actor who has had flings with leading roles since the 60s delivers what may well be the finest performance of his career. Woody is a very layered character who isn’t always very nice and doesn’t always do the right thing – in fact it is a somewhat rare occurrence when he does. Still, despite the dementia, despite the drinking and despite the foolish stubbornness, he is ultimately very relatable on different levels depending on where you are in life. You can’t ask for more than that from an actor.

Squibb is also getting a good deal of Oscar buzz for her performance. It is certainly the role of a lifetime for her. Some critics have cringed at her scene in which Kate, while in a graveyard paying respects to Woody’s kin comes across the grave of an old would-be lover who never sealed the deal. With almost demonic glee she lifts up her dress to show the ghost of her paramour what he had missed. Personally I found it life-affirming and if it is a little shocking, so what? Why do seniors have to conform to a set of behavior anyway? They are quite capable of being raunchy and sexual. It’s not like they didn’t have sex when they were younger. I’m quite certain they were having plenty of it before marriage back then too.

Editorializing aside, Squibb does a marvelous job and her role is as memorable as it gets. It was extremely telling to me that in a scene late in the movie when Kate is leaving Woody’s bedside she bestows on him a surprising gentle kiss that shows that with all the caustic remarks and cruel jibes there is still deep feeling for her man. It’s one of those rare grace notes that indicate that the filmmaker gets it.

Forte has little to do besides react to his parents and their relations but he is solid here. There are plenty of supporting characters besides Keach who contribute to the occasional surreal zaniness or to the pathos of the film, like an ex-girlfriend (McEwan) of Woody’s who watches him drive by in a truck and the wistful could-have-been expression on her face is priceless.

While the movie isn’t for everyone, I think that lovers of good, independent cinema will flock to this. Payne is a legitimate talent who I think at this point has to be considered among the best filmmakers in the business. He’s a filmmaker like Scorsese, the Coen Brothers and Spielberg whose films I will go see just because of the name on the back of the directors chair.

REASONS TO GO: Dry and occasionally hysterically funny. Quirky in a good way. Amazing performances by Dern and Squibb.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much elderly as eccentric crazies syndrome.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth film Payne has directed to be set in his home state of Nebraska; it is also the first film he’s directed for whic87+*h he didn’t also write the screenplay.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Son of the Olive Merchant

Jeff, Who Lives at Home


Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Jason Segel believes he's being stalked by Muppets.

(2012) Comedy (Paramount Vantage) Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Evan Ross, Rae Dawn Chong, Steve Zissis, Benjamin Brant Bickham, Lee Nguyen, Tim J. Smith, Ernest James, Katie Aselton, Joe Chrest, Lance E. Nichols, Carol Sutton. Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass

 

Families are complicated things that we rarely can make heads or tails of, even of our own. We mostly see the people in our families as filling certain roles and rarely can adjust our thinking beyond those definitions we ourselves set. A lot of times those definitions are there from years of observation and experience but every so often those in our family can surprise us.

Jeff (Segel) is a 30-year-old unemployed man who lives in his mom’s basement and apparently has little ambition beyond getting stoned every day. His mom (Sarandon) is exasperated beyond words; she longs for him to find some sort of path that he can follow through life but he doesn’t seemed interested in finding one.

The truth is that Jeff really wants to find that path but isn’t quite sure how. He has determined that life is a series of signs and portents that one must be open to receiving and able to interpret once received. Jeff thinks he is able to do this but thus far hasn’t found the right way yet. So when he gets an angry phone call from a man demanding to speak to Kevin (there is no Kevin in the household) that starts the ball rolling.

It’s also his mom’s birthday and she wants just one thing from him; to go down to the local Home Depot (a bus ride is required) and pick up some wood glue to fix a slat on the shutter doors of the kitchen pantry. While on the bus, he sees someone with the name Kevin on a basketball jersey and follows him, leading him off the path of the wood glue and onto the path of something else.

Pat (Helms) is the married, responsible one. Or at least he is on the surface. In reality his marriage to Linda (Greer) is falling apart at the seams; there is little if any communication going on between them. Judy wants them to save their money to buy a house so that they can raise a family; Pat wants to buy a Porsche so that they can…own a Porsche. Pat impulsively buys one, prompting Judy to dump her breakfast over the car.

The paths of Pat and Jeff cross, leading the Porsche to take a path into a nearby tree. Their paths then intersect with Linda, who apparently is meeting another man in a fancy Bistro that Pat has refused to take her to. Linda’s path then takes her to a hotel room with that man while Pat and Jeff take separate paths, all leading to the same place.

Jeff’s mom, Sharon, is also on a path, looking for the kind of fulfillment and appreciation that comes from a close relationship but she’s been unable to form one since her husband had passed away. She confides in Carol (Chong), a friend from work that she’s been receiving some secret admirer messages from someone at work, but doesn’t know who it is. She is troubled by the attention but also intrigued by it.

Where will this all end up? I can tell you a few things for certain without giving too much away – one, all of the main characters will end up in wet clothes. Two, all paths lead towards New Orleans over the Pontchartrain Bridge. Third, some things take more than wood glue to fix.

The Duplass brothers, who directed this, have a fair amount of indie cred with such films as Baghead and The Puffy Chair to their credit. Their movies tend to be low-key and charming with a certain amount of complexity under the surface that make them ideal for discussion for days after you’ve seen them. They also know how to coax subtle, nuanced performances from the actors in their films and they do the same here.

Segel is rapidly becoming one of the most likable performers in Hollywood. He is big and lovable to the point where his brother calls him a sasquatch, but also has plenty of goofy stoner in him. There are those who compare Segel (somewhat unfairly) to Seth Rogen who is a different kind of performer. Not that Rogen isn’t a nice guy, Segel just seems nicer (see The Muppets). Here he is just kind of treading water through life, allowing the current to take him wherever it will. That can be kind of irritating to those who prefer to swim their own course as most of us do but Jeff is anything but a control freak – he prefers to see what is going to happen rather than making things happen.

Helms is rapidly becoming a go-to guy in the comedy landscape with roles in “The Office” as well as The Hangover series, as well as Cedar Rapids. This is a bit of a departure for him – he is not the lovable nerd here but he is more of a hustler sort, the kind of role more familiar to guys like Vince Vaughn. If this were a different sort of movie, I might have even preferred Vaughn in the part but to be honest, as much of a con-man as Pat is the movie wouldn’t be able to accept someone as over-the-top as Vaughn. Helms gives it just the right amount of undertones.

Judy Greer has graduated from mainly playing the best friend of the rom-com lead to playing terrific wives criminally ignored by their husbands (as she does in The Descendants). She is one of those actresses who doesn’t get a lot of kudos but quietly performs strongly in every role she takes on. This is the kind of part that can be easily overlooked by a performer of her caliber makes that impossible to happen.

Because Jeff is so innately a good guy, the movie has a quiet sweetness to it that never gets too sentimental or too saccharine. However, the Duplass brothers seem bound and determined to brand this as an indie feature; they have a tendency to zoom the camera in nearly every scene as kind of a Duplass trademark. It gets irritating after awhile and seems to be a minor case of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome.

This isn’t a movie that is going to overwhelm you or offer some life-shattering insight, although you may come to one eventually on our own. It isn’t going to be the kind of movie you leave with your sides aching with laughter, although you will at least chuckle at some of the situations. This is a movie about life and about the resilience of family to overcome even the greatest of gulfs. I like this movie and even if it doesn’t shout its name from the rooftops, well, a quality movie doesn’t have to.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet to its core but not so sweet your blood sugar spikes. Nice performances from the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Camera moves draw attention to themselves. Occasionally suffers from over-quirkiness.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language including some with sexual connotations, and some depictions of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly all of the movie was shot in New Orleans suburb Metairie, doubling for Baton Rouge.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100. The reviews are good though not great.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cyrus

STREET BALL LOVERS: Early on, Jeff participates in a pretty convincing game of street basketball, although Segel appears more adept at hoops than you think he might be.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Love Ranch

The Duchess


The Duchess

Burning the candle at both ends.

(2008) Historical Biography (Paramount Vantage) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle, John Shrapnel, Alistair Petrie, Patrick Godfrey, Georgia King, Richard McCabe. Directed by Saul Dibb

 

We are fascinated with the lives of the rich and famous; add royalty to the mix and we have a real hard time looking away. Look at how we reacted to the recent royal wedding, or its predecessor of Charles and Diana – we couldn’t get enough. This isn’t a new phenomenon; it has existed for a very long time, including in the 18th Century when a woman who was a direct ancestor of Princess Diana captivated England.

Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) is a vivacious young girl when she is promised in marriage by her mother (Rampling) to the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana at first is thrilled by the arrangement; she is to be a Duchess! However, things don’t turn out to be quite the fairy tale that she imagined.

For one thing, the Duke is as taciturn and colorless as she is colorful and lively. He could make a rock look like a positively sparkling conversationalist whereas she is witty and opinionated. He is more interested in producing an heir and doesn’t really have any feelings towards her whatsoever; she is naive and a bit starry-eyed. Their lives come into a collision course.

Dissatisfied that she is unable to provide him anything but daughters, he starts seeking other women out. She has flings with politics and politicians (including future Prime Minister Charles Grey) as well as with men and women both. She becomes an icon of fashion (much like her descendent) and a voice in politics but her antics would land her in a good deal of hot water…and cause her much grief and sorrow.

As costume dramas go this is pretty nifty. They have a tendency to be ponderous and slow, and so this one is in places, but Knightley and Fiennes elevate it beyond the average petticoat soap opera. Fiennes goes the understated route and that works very well here. Devonshire is a bit of a jerk, but he is also a product of his times. His priorities lay in preserving his lineage (which Georgiana was eventually able to help him do) and in living a fairly scandal-free life, which as not possible as long as Georgiana was politically active. Their marriage was tumultuous at best; he took up an affair with her best friend and moved her into the house.

Knightley has generally done pretty face roles generally in period dramas or action films but she shows off her potential as an actress here. She has the charisma and charm to pull off a character as complex as the Duchess but she also manages to portray her anguish, her frustration and her doubts. It is a well-rounded performance that puts lie to the reputation that Knightley can’t act – not only can she but she has the potential to be extraordinary.

The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design which it richly deserve and frankly had to have, in order to maintain the real Georgiana’s spectacular fashion sense. It was also nominated for Art Design. In short, this is a beautiful film to look at from the authentic locations, the elaborate costumes to the scenery and the sets.

By all accounts Georgiana Spencer was an incredible woman who has largely been forgotten except by those who study the minutiae of history and by her own family. That’s largely a shame; though her life wasn’t always a happy one, she did nonetheless pave the way for women to become more of a force in politics more than 200 years later. She deserves better than to be a mere footnote in history.

WHY RENT THIS: An interesting look at a figure in history rarely remarked upon in modern times. Knightley does some of her best work ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves ponderously slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexual content and a little bit of nudity. Some of the dialogue and situations might go over the heads of the innocent.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the costumes worn by Knightley in the film were based on dresses seen in actual portraits of Georgiana as well as political cartoons depicting her from the time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with Georgiana Spencer’s biographer who discussed letters written by the real Duchess to her mother that gave her insight into the character of the historical figure..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie more than likely broke even at least, but probably made a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Inside Job

An Inconvenient Truth


An Inconvenient Truth
“As a matter of fact, I DID invent the Internet and I’m very nearly as tall as the planet.”

(2006) Documentary (Paramount Classics) Al Gore. Directed by Davis Guggenheim

I have to admit not being the biggest Al Gore fan in the world. In all honesty, I was put off by him because of the actions of his wife Tipper in the heyday of the PRMC. Her heart might have been in the right place (as a parent, I don’t object to labeling material that might be offensive to some – parents have a right to know what their kids are listening to) but it seemed to me that she seemed more intent on effectively driving the edgier material out of the marketplace than in providing a needed service to parents. I found her methods heavy-handed, and in some ways, I probably migrated my dislike of her over to her husband. I was truly happy when George W. took the oath of office. Given my 20/20 hindsight, I might not have been had I known then what I know now.

Nowadays, he is the poster boy for climate change and in the process, he’s re-invented himself. Once ridiculed for his somewhat stiff manner, he seems a lot less stiff these days stumping for the planet. The documentary An Inconvenient Truth has won the Oscar, but is it really about global warming?

Yes and no. In some ways, it is about the former Veep and how he came to be so passionate about the subject. Quite frankly, this is a film with an agenda and if it doesn’t apologize for it, it doesn’t attempt to hide it either and it has at least the courage of its own convictions. That climate change  is a reality is incontrovertible; as to the more current debate on whether it is a natural occurrence or not I won’t take sides. I don’t pretend to be expert enough to do that. Let me just say that I have my own opinions and leave it at that.

This is a movie that essentially preaches to the choir; if you were a Gore-hound in 2000 or are an eco-warrior at all now, you won’t be introduced to anything new. If you were a Bush-head in 2000 or are an economic warrior now, you probably won’t be watching this movie. I will say it does make compelling viewing, particularly when Gore is onstage delivering his slideshow (which is enhanced here by additional footage you won’t see in a live Gore presentation).

Still in all, it has an impact that is hard to argue with. While there are those who say that this is less about saving the Earth than it is about saving Al Gore’s career, there is no doubt that the movie is still as relevant five years later as it was when it first debuted – maybe even more so, given the climatological effects we’ve been seeing of late – brutal winters, weather-related disasters and vicious summers. There is no doubt that our planet is undergoing a profound change and that we are either going to have to change our habits now or learn to live with the consequences later. It seems likely that the planet and weather patterns we know now are going to be drastically different for our grandchildren.

I sure hope that a few centuries from now, our descendents – what few remain – aren’t cursing us. I hope they aren’t in despair in some cave, knowing that we had the ability to make some changes and chose not to do so. I hope we are a much wiser race than it appears we are. I hope we have the smarts to listen and the will to make a difference. Otherwise our species will be as thriving as Al Gore’s presidential aspirations.

 WHY RENT THIS: The slide show is impressive. The information here is vital.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Al Gore is a less-than-compelling speaker. A case could be made that the goal here is less to promote ecological awareness than to reinvent Al Gore.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the thematic material here might be a bit adult for smaller kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first (and so far only) documentary film to win two Academy Awards.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The DVD also offers additional tips on how to reduce your own carbon emissions and help with the climate crisis on a local level. Whether you like Gore or don’t like him, this is a problem that isn’t going to go away. We need to act and act now, and the filmmakers provide a service in giving you ideas and motivation to do precisely that. There is also a Melissa Etheridge music video as well as an update on what’s transpired since the film was released.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $49.8M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Boogie Woogie

Black Snake Moan


Black Snake Moan

"Pappy" Jackson will make you watch this movie by any means necessary.

(2006) Drama (Paramount Vantage) Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran Jr., David Banner, Michael Raymond-James, Adriane Lenox, Kim Richards, Neimus K. Williams, Leonard L. Thomas, Ruby Wilson, Claude Phillips.  Directed by Craig Brewer

Black Snake Moan opens with blues legend Son House explaining as best he can what the blues means. It really is an impossible task; the blues can’t really be explained. The blues are felt and experienced at a deep level that is half-primitive. It is the pain that makes us feel alive, and the joy that reminds us of all our despair. Now that you’ve come to the dawning realization that I’m not going to explain the blues any better than Son House – not that I had a shot of doing that to begin with – let me just state for the record that this is a blues movie. Not in the sense of a movie with blues music on the soundtrack; there have been plenty of those. No, this is a movie that makes you feel the blues as you watch it and in watching it, you may even feel as if you’ve gained an understanding of the blues that was lacking before. Don’t kid yourself; however, it is true that the filmmakers get the blues as well as Hollywood filmmakers are going to.

Set in the South, young Rae (Ricci) is a beautiful young girl who is saying goodbye to her boyfriend Ronnie (Timberlake) who is being deployed by the National Guard. Rae is terrified that without Ronnie, she will sink back into the nasty habits that she had before she hooked up with him. You see, Rae has a very bizarre form of nymphomania that comes on her like a physical disease, forcing her to get relief any way she can.

Lazarus (Jackson) is hurting big time. His wife (Lenox) has left him for his own brother (Thomas) and the two are leaving town, leaving Lazarus – a grizzled old bluesman – humiliated and angry. After confronting the two who have wronged him, he goes home to rid it of every trace of his ex-wife, including her rose garden which he plows under with a certain amount of satisfaction.

Rae gives in to temptation and goes out with her friends. She takes to drinking heavily and popping pills. Nothing seems to help the terrible cough she’s developed; a little physical release is what she really craves. After a night of wild partying with the town pimp/drug dealer (Banner) and what looks like the local high school football team, she is too sick to party on any further, she’s been deserted by her friends and she is out of her mind with drugs, booze and God knows what else. Her boyfriend’s buddy Gill (Raymond-James) offers to drive her home, but when he tries to take advantage, she makes a cutting remark and he beats the holy crap out of her, then panics and dumps her at the side of the road and leaves her there, bleeding and half-naked.

The next morning, Lazarus finds the nearly dead girl and brings her into his home. Concerned for her life, he figures out quickly that it isn’t the beating that is the immediate concern; it’s the fever that is more likely to kill her. He goes down to the pharmacy where a helpful pharmacist (Merkerson) supplies him with what he needs. Slowly, through her fever dreams (which are nightmarish), he slowly nurses her back to her senses. He gets tired of chasing after her, however and finally comes up with the idea of chaining her to his radiator.

He is curious as to the identity of his houseguest and since the only clue she’s given him is the name of the pimp that she mumbled while insensible with her fever, Lazarus seeks him out and questions him about the girl. When he finds out about her nymphomania, an idea takes hold of him. This girl Rae has been put in his path for a reason, and he means to cure her of her wickedness, whether she wants to be or not.

There is a great deal of sexuality in the movie. Ricci has the thankless role of playing a woman driven to doing what most of us would consider disgusting things in order to get relief. There are times when her sexuality is graphic, and that may offend some. For my money, this is her best performance in years; she makes Rae trashy and vulnerable and sexy and terribly wounded, but still capable of love despite all the pain life has dealt her. Still, as much sex as goes on in this movie, it is not a movie about sex. It is a movie about love, and not the kind of love you’re thinking of either. Rae and Lazarus develop a kind of love that is not physical, but almost spiritual; they are friends yes, but more than that. They have been through Hell together and the bond they share is as unbreakable as the 40 pound chain Rae is imprisoned by.

Director Brewer does a flawless job of making the blues a living, pulsing part of the film. During a scene where Lazarus plays at a local bar, I was vividly reminded of hot summer nights in stifling little dive bars when great bands were playing to a packed house of sweaty people. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, this is frankly not a movie you’re going to need to see. Brewer, whose previous effort was the much underrated Hustle and Flow has a real feel for the South and its music, and is putting together a terribly impressive resume. He’s currently directing the remake of Footloose and one can only hope he’ll find the big success that has eluded him so far. 

This is a great role for Jackson, who gets to take his on-screen persona and stretch it as far as it will go. In some ways, while I enjoy Jackson in nearly everything he does, I’ve gotten the sense that he doesn’t do much beyond recycling his on-screen persona from time to time. This really is his best performance since A Time to Kill. His Lazarus is quirky and well-intentioned, but in the end he has demons of his own that are driving him and he realizes that it is himself that he is trying to fix really, not so much the girl who cannot be fixed by him or anyone else. You would think the movie would end with that realization but it doesn’t – and quite frankly, I’m glad. When the movie ends, nobody is fixed. No problems are really solved. There’s just the potential for things getting better somewhere down the road. That’s the way life works in reality.

I have to mention too that Justin Timberlake does a pretty decent job in a supporting role. The one time boy band poster boy has developed into a solid actor the way former pop star Mark Wahlberg also did. This was really the first time I’d taken notice of his acting skills which he has since refined and shown to be considerable.

There is a pulp fiction feel to this, and I think that’s intentional. The lurid graphics and steamy plot would make it right at home in some of the pulps of the ’40s and ’50s (although the graphic sex and drug use depicted here would be a bit much for those eras) and even Ricci’s look in the film is a bit of Daisy Duke meets femme fatale. There is also unexpected humor at various times during the flick, keeping you a bit off-balance but in a good way.

Critical reaction has been uniformly strong, but the box office wasn’t impressive.  Even so, this is a movie definitely worth checking out, but it isn’t a movie for those with delicate sensibilities and how many of those are reading this anyway?

WHY RENT THIS: Scintillating performances by Ricci and Jackson. The feeling of being in a crowded bar on a hot summer night listening to great music.  Realistic plot line that doesn’t solve everything in a neat little package.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Graphic sexuality and drug use may be offensive to some. Definitely a Deep South feel to it.

FAMILY MATTERS: Did I mention there was a lot of sex and drug use? There’s also some violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackson learned to play guitar for this film while he was completing post-production on Snakes on a Plane.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a featurette showing how the music for the film was chosen, and delves a little bit into the culture of the blues.

 BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.9M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Mirrors

Babel


 

Babel

The desolation of the Moroccan landscape is reflected in Cate Blanchett's eyes.

(2006) Ensemble Drama (Paramount Vantage) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, .Rinko Kikuchi, Adrianna Barraza, Michael Pena, Koji Yakusho, Elle Fanning, Clifton Collins Jr., Mohammed Akhzam, Boubker Ait El Caid, Said Tarchani, Mustapha Rachidi, Nathan Gamble, Satoshi Nikaido. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

In our multi-cultural society, conversation has become almost white noise as we try to make some sense out of what is being said. It is not by accident that “Babel” and “Babble” are homonyms.

Two young goatherds (Caid, Tarchani) in Morocco are testing their new rifle to see if the claims that it could shoot a bullet three kilometers is true by firing it at moving vehicles on a nearby road. Instead, they hit a tour bus and wind up shooting Susan, an American tourist (Blanchett). The wound is serious, and it forces the tour bus to divert to the village of the tour guide (Akhzam) which is where the nearest doctor is (the nearest hospital is far enough away that she might bleed to death before they get there). This causes an international incident when the United States government blames the act on terrorists. Her husband Richard (Pitt) is more concerned with getting her to a proper hospital but they are stuck in a small village in the interior of Morocco with no doctor, no medicine and a wound from which her lifeblood is slowly seeping away. The governments posture and issue press statements while the anxious passengers wonder if they aren’t vulnerable to another terrorist attack. Their desire to leave is met with Richard’s insistence that they stay until help arrives.

That’s not all. Her children (Fanning and Gamble) whom she thought were safe at home, were taken by their housekeeper/nanny Amelia (Barraza) and her unreliable nephew Santiago (Bernal) to the wedding of her son in Mexico, necessitated when she cannot find anyone to watch her charges while she’s gone. When they return home in the wee hours of the morning, an overzealous border guard (Collins) causes the inebriated Santiago to panic and run the border. Chased by the Border Patrol, he leaves the children and his aunt stranded in the desert, promising to lose the patrol and come back for them. Dawn comes and they are still alone in the heat of the desert with no water and little shade.

Meanwhile in Japan, Chieko, a young deaf-mute girl (Kikuchi) struggles to cope with the suicide of her mother and her own budding sexuality. She wanders around the crowded, pulsating streets of Tokyo, flirting with guys in J-Pop clubs, and gossiping with her teammates on the volleyball team. She shuts out her father (Yakusho) who is puzzled at his daughter’s hostility towards him. When a handsome detective (Nikaido) comes to their apartment while her father is at work, Chieko sees an opportunity. All of these stories are related in one way or another, and the effects of a single bullet will have repercussions in every one of their lives.

Like last year’s Oscar-winner Crash, the four main stories are told simultaneously with one another with characters from each story running like threads through the others. The stories aren’t told chronologically, so there is some overlap and information from one storyline is received in another, even though those events haven’t happened in the first storyline yet. That serves to lessen the dramatic tension some (for instance, a very important aspect of Susan’s medical condition is revealed very early on in the Mexican portion of the film, even though in the Moroccan portion she hasn’t been shot yet). While I admire Inarritu’s boldness in altering the paradigm of storytelling, it just isn’t executed as well as it could have been. 

There are some excellent acting performances here, particularly from Pitt who turns in the most complete performance of his career to date. As the anguished husband who is already having marital problems with his wife (they go to Morocco ostensibly to work out their problems alone, but as she acidly points out, they are with a tour group and consequently are almost never alone), Pitt displays frustration, despair and fear with much more emotional openness than we’re used to seeing from him. He looks much older in the movie than what he usually plays, which I think makes the role a bit more believable. 

Kikuchi also does a really fine job in a role in which she has no dialogue except for grunts and moans. She has to spend much of her performance naked and displaying her sexuality in ways that many actresses might find uncomfortable (although fans of Basic Instinct might find the performance intriguing). Inarritu has a tendency to use non-actors in some his movies (as he does here particularly in the Moroccan sequence) and they come through nicely.

I like the look into the various cultures that Inarritu provides, particularly the Moroccan and Japanese aspects (which are less familiar to those of us in the States, where the Mexican culture is much more prevalent). I was fascinated particularly by the desolation of Morocco and the North American desert; both are desolate and empty, which contrasts nicely with the lively crowds in Tokyo.

The problem here is that there is too much storyline going on. The Japanese sequence is not really necessary to the movie and quite frankly, the Mexican sequence probably isn’t either. The movie runs at 2 1/2 hours long and is a good half hour too long for my taste. This could have been trimmed without diluting the message or the power of the performance overly much. 

Inarritu is a real talent (he already has Amores Perros and 21 Grams under his belt) and will undoubtedly turn out movies that are going to be classics in the very near future. This, unfortunately, isn’t one of them, although it is good enough to recommend unreservedly. I can recommend it on the basis of some of the performances, and because of the glimpses into different cultures. However, if you’re going to do a movie based on how our lack of communication as a species leads to terrible problems, the least you can do is not keep talking so long that the listener tunes you out.

WHY RENT THIS: Well directed and beautifully filmed. Pitt turns in his finest performance to date. Blanchett and Kikuchi are also solid.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A good half hour too long, could have done without the Japanese and Mexican segments of the film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violent content, graphic nudity and sexuality and a little bit of drug use. Definitely not for the kids.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: Nothing listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $135.3M on an unreported production budget; undoubtedly the movie was a blockbuster!

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Lincoln Lawyer

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