Interview: Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker, and Jurnee Smollett of “The Great Debaters”

Posted on December 21, 2007 at 8:00 am

The three talented young stars of “The Great Debaters” talked with me about making the film and the teachers who inspired them.

Nate Parker on what makes a great debater:

Denzel Whitaker on why you should see the movie:

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Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Posted on December 20, 2007 at 6:35 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language.
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs (presented in comic context), detox
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence and peril, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 21, 2007

Childhood tragedy and attendant guilt feelings. A big career-defining concert followed by a flashback of everything that went before. Adults amazed by early evidence of extraordinary talent and feel for music. Tragedy and loss to overcome. A first wife who complains that he does not spend enough time with the family. The big chance. The amazed audience. The amazed recording studio engineer. The amazed recording industry executives. Success montage. Falling in love with the second wife montage. Encounters with musical legends and a mass murderer. Montage about what VH1 “Behind the Music” calls “the long descent into drugs and alcoholism” and the Oscar-ploy detox scene. Then there are those other humiliating descents: the 70’s variety show, the 80’s roller disco, the pet monkey and giraffe. This faux biopic was made by people who lovingly watched every single film from “Coal Miner’s Daughter” to “Ray” and “Walk the Line” and then, just as lovingly, skewered them.
walkhard.gifAs the movie begins, adoring fans are waiting. The theater is ready. But his long-time band member Sam (Tim Meadows) says, “Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life” before he goes on stage. It will conveniently take just the running time of a feature film to tell the story.
Dewey (John C. Reilly) thinks back to his childhood, bathed in golden light. “Ain’t nothing horrible going to happen today!” he and his classical pianist brother shout merrily as they run off to play in a series of increasingly hazardous situations. When tragedy finally strikes, Dewey’s brother tells him he will have to be “double great” and Dewey’s father tells him that he will never be a quarter of what his brother was. Dewey is so traumatized he loses his sense of smell. We next see him at age 14 in the high school talent show. His music provokes the kids to get up and dance – and make out. A few quick scenes later, Cox has been thrown out of his home, stunned the audience in a club, married his first wife, and made his first hit record.
It is all done with such conviction and attention to detail that it is possible to forget for moments at a time that this is not the real thing. Slacker scribbled-on-a-cocktail-napkin mishmashes like “Scary Movie” think that referring to something is just as good as making an observation about it, but “Walk Hard” is a spoof with wit as well as heft. Sometimes it hits home just by having someone on screen just say explicitly what is going on: “This is a dark time period.” “People come here to dance erotically!” Sometimes it just repeats the time-honored tropes (“You don’t want no part of this,” Sam says when Dewey sees him using drugs, “We never get to see you!” says his first wife, “I’m so cold!” says Dewey in detox) and sometimes it exaggerates them (the “suits” from the record business are Hassids named Mazeltov and L’Chai’m, the first wife keeps turning out babies like cars on an assembly line). Dewey encounters Buddy Holly, Elvis, and Charles Manson, and there are cameos by real-life stars, including the Temptations, Ghostface Killah, Lyle Lovett, and Eddie Vedder. A high point is Dewey’s psychedelic transcendental mediation lesson with the Beatles, featuring Paul Rudd as John Lennon, Jack Black as Paul McCartney, Justin Long as George Harrison, and Jason Schwartzman as Ringo Starr. It also has the funniest dirty song (or possibly the dirtiest funny song) ever recorded on film.


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Comedy Genre , Themes, and Features Movies -- format Musical Reviews

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Posted on December 20, 2007 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for graphic bloody violence.
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking by adults, child gets drunk
Violence/ Scariness: Extreme, graphic, explicit violence, serial killer, cannibalism, child is beaten, child sentenced to hang
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: December 21, 2007

There could be no better match for the gothic saga of the barber who slit men’s throats and the baker who made their bodies into pies than director Tim Burton, the master of the macabre. Here working with Johnny Depp, his favorite leading man, and Helena Bonham-Carter, his off- and on-screen muse, Burton creates a vast world of Victorian gothic menace that ideally sets off Stephen Sondheim’s grimly intricate lyrics.


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Fantasy Genre , Themes, and Features Horror Movies -- format Musical Reviews

What Do We Tell Zoey Fans?

Posted on December 20, 2007 at 2:52 pm

What do we tell fans of the hit Nickelodeon series “Zoey 101” now that the star, 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears, is pregnant?
On television, Zoey is one of the first girls at a boarding school that has just gone co-ed. Zoey has problems like figuring out who tp’d the girls’ dorm, finding a prom date, or playing Disc Golf against the team from the correctional school. In real life, the girl who plays Zoey, is having a baby.
Spears, the sister of pop sensation turned tabloid sensation Britney, plans to have the baby and raise it at home. The media refers to the baby’s father as her “long-term boyfriend.” In my view, no one at 16 is old enough to have a long-term anything. “Long-term” may not be a good thing, anyway. There are media reports that he may be charged with statutory rape. Having sex, even consensual, with an underage girl is rape, a felony with serious criminal penalties. And given the record of Spears’ parents in raising their own children, I would not be surprised if Child Protective Services tried to intervene to prevent them from raising this child to prevent all of us from having to go through another media frenzy over what the baby is doing in another dozen years.
But the most important issue right now is how we as parents talk to our children about what is happening. “Zoey 101” is an Emmy-award-winning and very popular television show aimed at 8-14-year olds. What makes this situation especially difficult is that it is just at this age that children first look outside the family and school for role models and they can take it very hard when the celebrities they admire get into trouble.
The most important thing parents can do is be there to answer questions and to make it clear that Jamie Lynn made a big mistake that will affect the rest of her life but that her family still loves and supports her. You might also want to talk about how sometimes people we admire very much, both those we know and those we watch from afar, don’t live up to our expectations, and that that can be hard to handle. It is okay to still like Zoey (or Jamie Lynn). And it is also okay to like her less, based on her behavior. But we never feel bad about having been a fan, even when we are ready to move on.
You should also ask some gentle questions of your own to find out what your child thinks about what is happening and what she thinks Jamie Lynn and her family should do. Now may be the time to listen more than talk. We might wish we could pick the times for these teachable moments, but sometimes they are thrust upon us, and all we can do is try to provide information and support for what may be a very difficult moment for our children.
Are you getting questions about Jamie Lynn? How are you handling them?

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