Teacher (2019)


You might not want to forget your homework in this teacher’s class.

(2019) Thriller (Cinedigm) David Dastmalchian, Kevin Pollak, Curtis Edward Jackson, Esme Perez, Matthew Garry, Helen Joo Lee, Alejandro Raya, Cedric Young, Ilysa Fradin, John Hoogenakker, Karin Anglin, Sammy A. Publes, Charin Alvarez, Sam Straley, Bryce Dannenberg, Patrick Weber, Juan Lozada, Shawna Waldron, David Parkes, Sarab Kamoo. Directed by Adam Dick

 

Bullying has been a serious problem in American high schools for many years now. Despite efforts to curb the practice, there seems to be an ongoing issue of strong kids persecuting weaker kids – although who is truly strong and who is truly weak is not always easily evident.

James Lewis (Dastmalchian) is an English teacher trying to get across the intricacies of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to bored kids at Prairie Trail High School, in a tony suburb of Chicago. James is in the midst of a contentious divorce and is showing signs of alcoholism and rage – as the holes punched in the wall of his apartment attest. Still, he’s managing to keep it together and is on the verge of being granted tenure.

When a sociopathic rich kid named Tim Cooper (Jackson) starts bullying the nerdy Preston (Garry), a smart kid as well as the photographer for the school paper, Lewis isn’t happy about the development. Things begin to escalate though when Preston gets a girlfriend – shy, unselfconfident Daniela (Perez) – and Tim, also the star pitcher for the baseball team, gets two victims for the price of one. Mr. Lewis tries to intervene but a litigation-shy administration in the form of the school principal (Young) put the kibosh on any sort of disciplinary action. It doesn’t help that Tim’s dad (Pollak) is stupid rich and is one of those sorts who is used to getting his way by any means necessary.

\Mr. Lewis as it turns out was severely bullied when he was in school and to top it off, his father was an abusive alcoholic to make matters worse. Between the stress of everything, the flashbacks to his own tortured childhood and the disappointment that his life hasn’t gone the way he expected to lead to a reckoning that nobody could have expected – except for those who have watched a thriller or two in their time.

\Dick in his first feature-length film brings up some interesting and salient points about bullying, it’s effect on the psyche and society’s unwillingness to address it. The question is asked “when is violence justified” and the answer is obviously not an easy one nor is it treated as such here. Dick is a director who has some ideas and that’s always a good thing.

The problem here is that the story is just way too predictable. You can kind of figure out where this is all going in the first fifteen minutes. While Dick has some good ideas, he delivers them in a fairly hackneyed plot that telegraphs most of its twists. It does take a while for things to get moving at a really decent clip, so the attention-challenged might not take to this one as well.

Still, Dick gets the benefit of some really solid performances, many of them from largely unknown actors. Dastmalchian, who to date has mainly done supporting roles, shows he can handle lead roles with enough screen presence to light up China. Pollak, who started his career as a comic and impressionist, has proven himself a solid dramatic actor over the years and has never been better than he is here, both jovial and civilized as well as intimidating and brutish. The guy deserves some plum roles, casting directors.

Overall, this is a nifty film but not one that is going to rock your world particularly. I like some of the choices the filmmakers make here but other decisions seem to play it too safe. I do think that Dick has potential as a director; this isn’t a bad first film at all, but it’s not one that I believe will be an essential part of his filmography when all is said and done.

REASONS TO SEE: Dastmalchian shows some good presence and Pollak is always strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a short film with the same title that Dick made two years prior to the feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Class of 1984
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Leo DaVinci: Mission Mona Lisa

Advertisements

Destination Dewsbury


Would you pick these men up from the side of the road?

(2018) Comedy (Random) Matt Sheahan, David J. Keogh, Dan Shelton, Tom Gilling, Helen Rose-Hampton, Michael Kinsey, Kevin Dewsbury, Maurice Byrne, Denis Khoroshko, David McClelland, Leslie Davidoff, Michael Fawbert, Margot Richardson, Filip Mayer, Velton Lishke, Sharon Heywood, Sharon Spink, Val Punt, Lauren Woods, Graham Daw, Jane Hollington, Anna Dawson. Directed by Jack Spring

 

Some of my readers in their teens and twenties (assuming I have any) are going to have a hard time relating to this but the friends you are inseparable with in your youth tend to drift away as you get older. Very rare is the case where someone other than family is involved on a regular basis in your life from the time you’re in school to the time you’re middle aged. Still, the fact is that we bring our younger selves with us wherever we go and we tend to revert to them when in the company of friends from our youth. This is particularly true with men.

Peter (Sheahan) has watched his life collapse around him in a matter of a few days. His wife has essentially thrown him out, claiming he’s simply not man enough for her – and she has a point on that score. Peter, who is also our semi-reliable narrator, has a spine with the consistency of Jell-O. He is teaching school where he and his mates once attended and he is something of a joke.

That is, until Richard (Byrne) arrives in his classroom to tell him that his son is dying. Richard’s son Frankie (Kinsey) was something of a ringleader for the boys, by far the coolest of the lot and a good friend to them. Peter is shocked – he just spoke to Frankie a couple of months earlier until Richard gently reminds him that it was actually two years ago. In any case, Frankie won’t likely last the week and he wants to see his old friends again one final time.

Therefore, it is on Peter to get the band back together. He knows essentially where he can find them; Gaz (Shelton) has a young family with a daughter who is suspiciously dark-skinned (he and his wife are both white as a December snowbank) while Adam (Keogh) is a banker who is deep in debt to the Russian mob and has been rescued from suicide by Peter’s appearance. Adam is something of a human teakettle – always blowing up at any provocation real or imagined and who can’t complete a sentence without at least one F-bomb in it. He’s an aneurysm waiting to happen. Finally, there’s Smithy (Gilling), a portly man living with his mum who is reduced to speed dating but can’t escape his own awkward nature around women.

The crew decide to head up to Dewsbury, a town up north where Frankie has moved to. This being a comedy, you can bet that things won’t go anywhere near as planned – not even in the same country really, although British critics in their droll manor say that “mishaps ensue.” Those mishaps will include a dropped cell phone in a toilet overflowing with…well, you can fill in the blanks there. Also, a night at a swinger-oriented hotel which sends Peter screaming like a girl into the night. There are also Russian mobsters hunting down Adam with an eye for some spectacular violence, and a bus miscue that sends them careening off-course from the get-go. There is also a veritable cornucopia of bodily fluids and solids that are likely to send the four-year-old in you into helplessness. All that is missing is a sequence of fart jokes.

That kind of humor may not be your cup of tea unless you live with a bunch of toddlers, or essentially have no shame whatsoever. That isn’t the whole of the sort of humor you’ll find here but if you’re looking for wicked Oscar Wilde-type wit, you’re on the wrong bus. This is Benny Hill with an R rating and a penchant for toilet humor.

Initially I really found this unpalatable as the four friends are mainly stereotypes with little development and the humor is a little too low-brow for my taste but a funny thing happened on the way to a scathing review – the film got better. During the last half hour when the boys/men actually arrive in Dewsbury the movie abruptly shifts gears and we begin to see the people inside the stereotypes, particularly in the case of Adam who is devastated by his friend’s terminal condition. All the men seem to grow in some sort of way with the odd exception of Peter – the erstwhile protagonist and narrator – who seems the same essential sad sack he was when the opening credits unspooled. Still, the director and writers manage to explore the nature of male bonding as we age which is a worthy subject indeed.

There are a couple of fight scenes involving the mobsters that take place in dimly lit environments which makes it hard to figure out what’s going on, but other than that the movie is well-shot and makes good use of the locations in suburban England. The film ends on a sentimental albeit bizarre note but nevertheless it’s a good reminder that a good journey is all about reaching your destination – but it is made all the better in the company of friends.

REASONS TO SEE: Improves dramatically during the last third.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much toilet humor and the fight scenes are badly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, violence and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spring was only 21 when he directed this, his first feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon,  Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wild Rose

A Suitable Girl


In India, marriage is almost compulsory and the pressure to be a bride enormous.

(2017) Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Amrita Soni, Dipti Admane, Ritu Taparia, Seema Taparia, Keshav, Janardan, Kara Devi, Nishu, Neha. Directed by Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra

 

In recent years there has been more interest in the United States about Indian culture. As more natives of the subcontinent have gone to school here and established careers here, there has been a resulting influx of Indian cuisine, Indian films and music here in the States.

One thing that has remained true about Indian culture is the importance of marriage. The pressure on young people to get married once they reach a certain age (for young women it can be as early as 14 years old) grows more intense the longer it takes for them to find a life partner. A whole industry has arisen in India to help Indian men and women find suitable mates. These marriages are generally arranged, as they have been for centuries, by the parents rather than on the young people themselves.

This documentary focuses on the distaff side of things (a BBC documentary, A Suitable Boy, is forthcoming with similar attention on the male point of view) and in particular three women at various stages in the process. Amrita, from New Delhi, has a nice career in the financial business, an industry where women have actually made some inroads. However, she has found a husband – young Keshav who is taking his bride from urban Delhi to rural Nokha – where she believes her experience will help her father-in-law’s business.

Dipti is a bright young teacher who at 24 is in danger of becoming an old maid. She doesn’t have the svelte figure Indian men are fond of; she’s curvy and a touch on the heavy side but still beautiful. Her attempts to find romance through classified ads have generally gotten her nowhere and she has turned to a swayamvar which is something of an Indian speed dating service to improve her chances – more on that in a moment. Finally there is Ritu, a worldly and beautiful young woman who has a thriving career at Ernst and Young in Mumbai. Her mother Seema works as a matchmaker which one would think would improve her chances but she turns down most of the prospects she is introduced to. Seema isn’t actively looking for her daughter – she feels that it would be akin to a surgeon performing surgery on herself – which raises a few eyebrows amongst their circle of friends and family.

For Amrita, her new life isn’t what she envisioned it to be. For one thing, her father-in-law falls ill within months of her arrival and most of her time is spent doing more domestic chores. Because her father-in-law is a more conservative traditional man, western clothes are absolutely forbidden (although she has a stash of them to wear when she visits her parents) and she is under constant criticism by her new mother-in-law, who refers to her as Keshav’s wife (to which she gripes “I have a name. Call me Amrita”). Despite the fact that her new parents have plenty of money, a beautiful house and servants, she feels that her life has taken a turn for the worse.

The swayamvar is actually an eye-opener for the viewer. The men who attend are asked to share personal details about their lives, their finances and what they’re looking for in a mate. It is almost like a cattle call audition and the event is attended mainly by divorced men who are far from desirable in Indian culture; most of them are much older than what Dipti is looking for. Discouraged, she turns to online dating services but as rejection piles upon rejection, her self-confidence takes a big hit.

Ritu eventually finds someone suitable but he is working in Dubai, which distresses her parents. Ritu will move thousands of miles away from her parents. In fact, in Indian culture, the bride moves in with the groom and often into the home of the groom’s parents. This becomes her family and while she doesn’t cut off all contact with her own parents and family, it is expected that her focus will be on her new family. Accordingly, the weddings – which are elaborate affairs – are a time not only of joy but also of sorrow for the bride’s side of the ceremony.

It is a very different process of finding a life partner (a phrase used often in the film) than we’re used to here in the West. Here, generally the young people search for themselves, relying mainly on physical attraction to select their husbands and wives to be. For the Indians part, they tend to point to our high divorce rate here when defending their own system. One wonders, however, that as the roles of women change in India as they invariably will how this will affect the current system of arranged marriages?

The documentary itself is decent enough, in a cinema verité style following the women over the course of three to four years. One of the objections I had was that often that things were going on that aren’t explained by voice-over or graphic. I have a passing familiarity with Indian culture but there were times that I was completely in the dark about things and had questions; for example, at one point Seema visits a “face reader” with pictures of various suitors for Ritu, all of whom are rejected by the face reader. Are visiting these face readers a common practice? What kind of training do they undergo? How legitimate are they? You won’t find out here. However, it should be remarked that the filmmakers show a very even hand in showing the various emotions of the women they are following; there is no judgment and the audience is left to draw their own conclusions.

The subject is a fascinating one. Arranged marriages are still practiced in India and among ex-pats here in the States and elsewhere. While there are plenty of Bollywood films that cover the process, this is one of the few documentaries that walks us through the process from the bride’s point of view. For that alone it’s usefulness is invaluable.

REASONS TO GO: The stories of the various women are pretty interesting.
REASONS TO STAY: A lot of things go unexplained during the film, leaving the viewer frustrated unless they are fairly well acquainted with Indian culture.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two directors shared the “Albert Maysles Best New Documentary Director” award handed out at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet..
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love and Marriage in Little India
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The 15:17 to Paris

Victoria & Abdul


It’s good to be the Queen!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Focus) Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Rubin Soans, Ruth McCabe, Simon Callow, Sukh Ojia, Kemaal Deen-Ellis, Simon Paisley Day, Amani Zardoe, Sophie Trott, Penny Ryder. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

Queen Victoria is one of the more fascinating personages in British history. Most Americans only know caricatures of the monarch; “We are not amused.” Most Americans aren’t aware that she presided over what can be only termed as the golden age of the British empire and her iron will held that empire together until it began to crumble in the first half of the 20th century, long after she was dead.

As the Golden Jubilee of her reign is underway, the Indian subjects of Queen Victoria (Dench) mean to present her with a commemorative coin. Prison clerk Abdul Karim (Fazal) is sent to carry the coin to England, mainly because of his height. He is accompanied by Mohammed (Akhtar), an acid-tongued sort who finds England much too cold and the people much too uncivilized.

The head of the household (Pigott-Smith) gives the Indians detailed and voluminous instructions on how to behave in the Royal presence. Victoria herself is in the twilight of her life. Nearly every one of her contemporaries are gone and she lives isolated in a palace full of sharks, all jockeying for positions of favor. She feels utterly alone and has little to do but sleep and eat, plowing through her meals with gusto, so much so that her courtiers have difficulty keeping up before the course is taken away and a new one delivered.

Abdul seemingly can sense her loneliness and ignores the rules of protocol, looking the monarch in the eye and smiling, even kissing her royal feet upon their second meeting. Victoria, unused to be treated as a person rather than a symbol, is gratified and decides to keep Abdul on as a servant and eventually as an adviser and munshi, or teacher. He teaches her Urdu and waxes poetic about the land of his birth; the stories of the Taj Mahal in his native Agra and the amazing architecture of his people.

But the favor Abdul experiences with the legendary monarch disturbs and eventually angers the British court. Some of it is due to the incipient racism of the English upper classes of the time, and Abdul experiences plenty of that. However, much of it is due to the fact that they want to have the Queen’s ear the way Abdul does and soon plots to rid the court of Abdul begin to thicken, led by the Queen’s son Prince Bertie (Izzard) who would later become Edward VII. Further isolating the Queen would play into nearly everyone’s ambitions.

Dench is maybe the best British actress of the last 20 years with essentially only Helen Mirren to compete with her. Like the Victoria she portrays here, she is in the twilight of her career; at 82 and with her eyesight beginning to fail, she has talked seriously about retiring and in any case the on-screen performances left to her are dwindling; it behooves us to enjoy the ones she has left and this one is a mighty good one, already garnering a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy.

The costumes are sumptuous as is the production design as you would imagine. They are good enough that they are very strong contenders for Oscar nominations, particularly the former. Frears knows how to make a dazzling environment for his actors to work in and this is no different. Frears is one of the best British directors of his generation; he’s 78 now and like Dench, is approaching the end of his career. It makes sense that he would choose this period of Victoria’s life to film. He has set the bar high for himself and sadly, this movie doesn’t quite meet it despite the best efforts of Dench.

You’ll notice that I haven’t really mentioned a lot about the second name in the title. It’s not that Fazal doesn’t do well in his role; he certainly is more than adequate. The problem is that we see Abdul mainly as the sweet-natured teacher, who accepts whatever petty insults come his way with a bowed head and a sad smile. At times you get a sense that Abdul may have ulterior motives but there really is no follow-up. He remains an enigma through most of the movie which is strange because the book this is based on relied extensively on his diary for the information.

I don’t suppose that people who aren’t into history (Great Britain in particular) or into England in general are going to want to see this and that’s a sad commentary into how we have become a culture of avoiding any sort of knowledge or understanding. Then again, the movie fails to provide any insight into Indian culture although we get a good look at what was going on in the British nobility in the latter years of the 19th century. Considering how Abdul is treated by the movie, they may as well have just called the movie Victoria and be done with it. Dench is by far the best reason to see this movie but even her stellar efforts can’t quite overcome the movie’s shortcomings.

REASONS TO GO: Judi Dench delivers a strong performance. There is likely going to be an Oscar nomination for Best Costumes.
REASONS TO STAY: Not one of Stephen Frears’ best efforts. Those who aren’t into British history will likely find nothing of value here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time Dench has portrayed Queen Victoria, Mrs. Brown (1997) being the first.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Young Victoria
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Geostorm

Wiener-Dog


Music to tame the savage beast.

Music to tame the savage beast.

(2016) Black Comedy (IFC/Amazon) Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Tracy Letts, Charlie Tahan, Ari Graynor, Zosia Mamet, Michael Shaw, Marcella Lowery, Connor Long, Tyler Maynard, Devin Druid, Sharon Washington, Rigoberto Garcia, Haraldo Alvarez, Dain Victorianio, Andrew Pang, Trey Silver, Molly Gay, Bridget Brown. Directed by Todd Solondz

 

Indie auteur Todd Solondz is one of those directors that either you love or you hate. There is rarely anyone who takes the middle ground with his films, which tend to be somewhat misanthropic. His view of the human condition, particularly as it applies to American suburban life, is pretty bleak. Would that change given in his newest film?

No it wouldn’t. This has been touted as something of a follow-up to his seminal 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse but only in the sense that it has a couple of characters in common with that film albeit portrayed with all-new actors. This is a series of four vignettes linked together with the presence of a sad-eyed dachshund who endures four different owners of various degrees of likability.

He is brought from the pound initially by Danny (Letts) and Dina (Delpy), parents of Remi (Cooke), a young boy who survived what appears to be some form of cancer. He’s lonely and depressed and the Wiener-Dog, as he names him, seems just the tonic. However, Danny and Dina have their own things going on; Dina isn’t above manipulating her son, explaining that the reason that they have to have Wiener-Dog spayed is so that she doesn’t get pregnant from being raped by a local dog. Charming.

But Remi frankly isn’t mature enough to handle the dog so she is returned to the local shelter to be put down. However, veterinary assistant Dawn Wiener (Gerwig) rather than putting a healthy dog to death steals Wiener-Dog away and keeps her for herself. In many ways Dawn is as lonely as Remi was, and now that she has a Wiener-Dog of her own, she renames him Doody after Howdy-Doody, not necessarily getting the other connotation of that name.

A chance meeting with an ex-high school classmate named Brandon (Culkin) whom she continues to crush on despite the fact that he was unrelentingly cruel to her in high school leads to a road trip to Ohio, ostensibly to get drugs but also for Brandon to meet up with his brother Tommy (Long) and his wife April (Brown), both of whom are afflicted with Down’s syndrome. They will galvanize Dawn into doing the most selfless thing she’s ever done.

After a hilarious “intermission” starring Wiener-Dog herself, we go to the next vignette. Doody is now owned by Dave Schmerz (DeVito), a screenwriting teacher at a New York-area university (and not one of the better ones) who is juggling teaching students who don’t think they have anything to learn with trying to sell a screenplay that his condescending agent has been dangling in front of him like the proverbial carrot. He doesn’t realize that he’s a laughingstock, his refrain of “What if…now what?” having become something of an iconic mock. This leads him to do something quite drastic.

Finally, we meet Nana (Burstyn), a bitter, crotchety elderly woman who lives with an apathetic housekeeper (Lowery). Nana is visited by her granddaughter Zoe (Mamet) who never visits unless she needs money. Zoe has a new boyfriend, the artist Fantasy (Shaw) who doesn’t have a terribly high opinion of anyone not named Fantasy. Nana and Zoe end up having a bit of a heart-to-heart but as it turns out, something nasty is just around the corner for Nana.

Solondz is, as I mentioned earlier, not really everyone’s cup of tea. Those who enjoy his particularly type of brew will find this film extremely palatable, although some may grouse that his movies all carry similarities that are beginning to get a bit repetitive. He likes to employ the anthology format and has done so on more than one occasion.

When Solondz is at his best, he can be wickedly funny. He blows past boundaries without a second thought and treats sacred cows like they’re so much hamburger meat. However, his point of view about humanity is not very compatible with those raised on Disney thinking that everyone is basically a prince or princess at heart. Mostly, he sees humans as selfish, self-centered, cruel, vain and morally weak. He doesn’t paint flattering pictures of the species and quite frankly he isn’t required to.

He sure does coax out some great performances from his actors though. DeVito turns in a marvelous performance that is easily the best thing he’s done in years or even decades. His sad sack screenwriter is a figure of pity even though he is a bit of jerk at times. Still, DeVito does a lot of work with his eyes getting his emotions across here and it works. You can feel the beat down dog elements of the character and you can also feel the pressure beginning to escape as he reaches the boiling point.

Equally marvelous is Burstyn, who wears this bizarre oversize eye wear that are like a cross between aviator sunglasses and World War I flying ace goggles. She orders people around like a martinet but that doesn’t disguise the terrible vulnerability inside her. She knows her granddaughter is taking advantage of her, and she knows her granddaughter is making terrible life choices, but nonetheless she helps her out. Burstyn imbues the role with gravitas and dignity, solidifying herself as the grand dame of American cinema.

Da Queen was very vocal about her feelings for the film, stating that she dug it right up until the last five minutes and I have to concur. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge dog person; I have been known to wear a t-shirt that states “I don’t care who dies in a movie as long as the dog lives.” Animal lovers in general and dog lovers in particular will have a hard time with the ending. I get why Solondz went this particular route and to a certain extent I can admire it, but those who find violence to animals unpalatable had best check out before the movie ends.

There are moments here that are as good as anything I’ve seen from Solondz but the ending was really a deal killer for me. Maybe it’s a bit illogical for me to be fine watching humans being chopped up like celery but not able to watch even a hair on poor Fido’s head harmed but that’s how I’m wired, so take this with a grain of salt. This isn’t filmmaking for everyone, but then again it’s not meant to be. I can admire a movie like this without liking it and the shame of it was that I liked most of it but the parts I didn’t like I loathed. Maybe that’s what Solondz had in mind all along.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny moments here. DeVito and Burstyn come through with some tremendous performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is extremely disturbing and most definitely not for dog lovers. A little bit too much like all of the director’s other films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some pretty disturbing content (particularly if you’re an animal lover) as well as some animal excretions, as well as quite a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse was originally played by Heather Matarazzo who turned down the opportunity to reprise the role. Greta Gerwig was cast instead.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Welcome to the Dollhouse
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Breaking a Monster

Won’t Back Down


There's no cause so great that matching t-shirts won't solve.

There’s no cause so great that matching t-shirts won’t solve.

(2012) True Life Drama (20th Century Fox) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn, Ned Eisenberg, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Lisa Colon-Zayas, Nancy Bach, Keith Flippen, Robert Haley, Lucia Forte, Sarab Kamoo, Teri Clark Linden, Joe Coyle, Jennifer Massey. Directed by Daniel Barnz

When it comes to our kids, we are all agreed on one thing; a good education is important. Sadly, not all kids receive one. Areas which are economically under-advantaged tend to receive shoddy educations in crumbling facilities from disinterested teachers.

But some parents won’t take that situation lying down. Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) works at a car dealership and tends bar at night to make ends meet. Her daughter Malia (Lind) is dyslexic and gets bullied at her Pittsburgh school, all under the eyes of teachers who don’t care and a principal (Nunn) hamstrung by union regulations and a venal school board. Fed up, Jamie tries to get her daughter into a charter school, but her number isn’t picked in the lottery.

There’s another parent there that Jamie is surprised to see – Nona Alberts (Davis), a teacher at Jamie’s school. Why doesn’t Nona try to make things better at her own school for her own daughter? Of course she’s tried to, but has hit stone wall after stone wall from the Union and the Board and she’s tired of fighting.

&But there’s a ray of hope; there’s a law on the books that will allow parents to take over a school that is underachieving (as Malia’s school is) but parents so inclined have to jump through an awful lot of hoops in order to do it. That doesn’t dissuade Nona and Jamie as they take on the Union, who try to intimidate the teachers with potential job loss (which is a very real possibility) and the School Board, who don’t want to cede control of one of their schools to parents lest it spark a district-wide revolt.

In the midst of this, single Jamie finds a boyfriend in math teacher Michael Perry (Isaac) who gets a bit miffed whenever Jamie expresses her frustration with the Union but he ends up being a staunch ally and Jamie and Nona slowly begin to win the parents to their side, giving them all matching T-shirts for a rally (was there ever a cause that didn’t benefit from matching t-shirts?) that will take on those who stand against their kids having a fighting chance at a future.

If this sounds a bit strident and political, it’s because it is. I won’t say that the film is outright anti-Union, but it does paint the Union as villainous, more concerned about protecting bad teachers than about educating the children of their communities. The School Board doesn’t come off much better, painted as a group that plays politics when it comes to funding and personnel. I suppose your reaction to the film is going to depend on your point of view; those who are very much pro-Union are going to have issues with it, those who think that privatizing education is the way to go will love it.

That set aside let’s look at the filmmaking itself. Technically, the film is decent – nothing to write home about on the one hand but on the other competently done. It’s hard to make the less prosperous end of Pittsburgh look glamorous but Barnz at least makes it look like a nice community to live in for the most part.

The cast is terrific, with five Oscar nominees (past and future) and/or winners (Hunter, who plays the smug Union head here, won for The Piano in 1987). Gyllenhaal is marvelous and for Davis who was just beginning to cement her reputation as a talented actress when this was made also is memorable as the teacher who goes from zombie to ace during the course of the movie. Isaac, essentially an unknown when he made this, also is fine as the love interest.

While I don’t necessary agree with the filmmakers’ point of view – the Teachers Union isn’t the sole reason for problems with American education; one has to also look at the decline of parental involvement, poverty, the rise of distractions like videogames and the Internet and also the high cost of higher education for the reason why education has fallen so drastically. Adding new charter schools, vouchers and other solutions advanced from the right aren’t necessarily the only things needed but don’t address other conditions that are obstacles to every child receiving a proper education.

This is a complicated issue and while I think that the hearts of the cast and crew are in the right place, the execution takes a kind of Hollywood “happy ending in 90 minutes guaranteed” point of view. Nevertheless I don’t necessarily think that it’s a bad thing to call attention to issues that affect all of us – and the education of our children certainly does. Innovation has to come from somewhere and if our population is lagging behind the rest of the world in know-how and let’s face it, desire to innovate, we could find ourselves a third world nation sooner than we think.

WHY RENT THIS: Attempts to tackle real issues facing modern education. Fine performances by Gyllenhaal and Davis.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little smug and simplistic. Pro-union viewers will be outraged.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based (very loosely based) on actual events in Sunland-Tujunga, California in 2010.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of featurettes here, The Importance of Education and the somewhat disingenuous Tribute to Teachers considering how much teacher-bashing the film does.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.3M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Time That Remains

People Places Things


A meaningful look shared.

A meaningful look shared.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (The Film Arcade) Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Jessica Williams, Stephanie Allynne, Michael Chernus, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby, Derrick Arthur, Celia Au, Paul Castro Jr., Jason DarkChocolate Dyer, Catherine Cain, Charles Cain, Brandon O’Neill, Alexa Magioncalda, Gavin Haag, Jordan Edmondson, Kiowa Smothergill. Directed by Jim Strouse

Sometimes life deals us a bum hand out of left field. We’re just thinking we’ve got things figured out and Blammo!, we discover we haven’t had a clue all along.

Will Henry (Clement) is a successful graphic artist who is deliriously in love with his twin daughters (played by the real life twins Aundrea and Gia Gadsby) who are throwing a party in honor of their fifth birthday. He goes off into the house looking for his wife Charlie (Allynne) for some party business or another. He finds her all right; in their bedroom having sex with sad sack Gary (Chernus). Will is of course upset, but Charlie turns things around and makes herself out to be the aggrieved party. She wants a divorce and custody of the kids.

A year later Will is still suffering from depression over the whole sordid affair. He has begun teaching graphic arts at a New York-area college, having moved to Astoria in Queens which is a long train ride into the City. He sees his girls on weekends and leads a fairly lonely existence. At this point, Charlie announces she is marrying Gary – because she is pregnant with his kid. She also wants to take an improv class, so she needs someone to watch the kids and as Gary is too busy doing his monologues off-off-off-Broadway, Will is the next best choice. Will likes this idea very much; he needs to be around his kids more often than just the occasional weekend.

In the meantime, Kat (Williams), one of the students in his class, takes a romantic interest in him – not for herself but for her 45-year-old mom Diane (Hall), a lit professor at Columbia. Against all odds, they hit it off, despite Diane’s disdain for the graphic novel format in general. The two begin dating.

Then things start to go sideways for Charlie. She’s getting cold feet, and she explains to Will that she doesn’t want to make the same mistake as she did the first time – which leads Will to believe that she regards their marriage as a mistake. But she still has strong feelings for Will and he for her – so where does that leave Diane? Or Will, for that matter?

Strouse has a bit of a checkered resume, with movies that are close but no cigar on it (like Grace is Gone) but here he finally makes the checkered flag. While the story does not exactly break new ground in the busted relationships genre, it is told well and given much life thanks to some strongly written character and some fine performances.

Chief among them is Clement, who is quickly developing into one of the strongest comic actors in the world. His dry, deadpan delivery is hysterical all by itself but where Clement excels as he did in HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. One of his strongest traits is that he can take an everyday guy, put him in an everyday situation and find something funny to mine out of it. He’s not the guy who makes us laugh hysterically; he’s the guy that makes us quietly chuckle to ourselves because we can find so much common ground.

Williams is a comedy star on the rise, and although her role here is fairly brief, she makes it entirely memorable. Williams is as hip a performer as there is and she looks as good on the big screen as she does on the small; only bigger, if you catch my drift. It wouldn’t surprise me if she becomes as big a star as I believe Clement is going to be, which is one of considerable size if you ask me.

]There is kind of a mopey hipster vibe here that I found myself not liking so much at first. It took me awhile to decide that I like the movie, but it is worth the effort to stay with it. Yeah, it’s got that New York indie ‘tude that I sometimes find stupefying but there is heart at the center of the movie and most of it belongs to Clement who continues to impress after the earlier this year What We Do in the Shadows.

Again, not entertainment that is going to rock your world or change your views on life. Quietly though, it gets under your skin and stays there, maybe the perfect indie romantic comedy in that regard. And we all know how vapid indie romantic comedies can be. This one is anything but that; it is surely smart, quietly funny and undeniably well-written. Those sorts of films tend to be few and far between while the mercury is still hitting the high notes during the last dregs of summer.

REASONS TO GO: Clement’s dry delivery is intoxicating. Some nice New York images.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too indie hipster douche in places, particularly early on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language, some sexual references and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Williams is a regular correspondent on The Daily Show during the Jon Stewart era and continuing into the Trevor Noah era.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motherhood
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mateo