Great Movie Teachers, Part 2: High School

Posted on May 28, 2008 at 8:00 am

As promised, here is my follow-up to the list of great movie professors, great movie high school teachers. Another list of grade school teachers is in the works so stay tuned.

10. Dead Poets Society Robin Williams inspires his students not just with the thrill of poetry but with the thrill of independent thinking.

9. To Sir, With Love Sidney Poitier stars in this fact-based story of a teacher in a poor neighborhood in the East End of London. He teaches them the importance of respect for themselves and each other, starting with calling him “Sir.” You can also see Poitier as part of an unruly class with a dedicated young teacher in Blackboard Jungle.

8. Coach Carter What makes this fact-based story different from the usual inspiring-coach-shows-underdog-team-how-to-work-hard-and-help-each-other is that all that is just the beginning of the story. The team is undefeated on the court, but Coach Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) benches them all because their academic performance is not up to his standards.

7. Up the Down Staircase Sandy Dennis is the young, idealistic teacher almost swallowed up in an enormous New York high school, based on the fact-based novel by Bel Kaufman.

6. The Trouble with Angels Jane Trahey’s memoir of her experience in a Catholic girls’ boarding school inspired this rollicking story of rebellious students (Hayley Mills and June Harding) and the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) who understands them better than they thought. See also: Whoopi Goldberg teaching parochial school students played by future stars Jennifer Love Hewitt and Lauren Hill in “Sister Act 2.” The wonderful Mary Wickes appears as a nun in both movies.

5. Mr. Holland’s Opus Like many of the teachers in these films, Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) does not let the bureaucracy and his own conflicts about whether he wants to teach prevent him from touching the lives of a generation of students. Watch for Terrance Howard in a small role. And I dare you not to cry in that last scene.

4. Goodbye, Mr. Chips Robert Donat beat Clark Gable’s performance as Rhett Butler for the Best Actor Oscar in his role as “Mr. Chips,” who overcomes his initial shyness and reserve to become an inspiring figure in the lives of three generations of boys.

3. October Sky Another real-life story, this time based on a book by the grateful student who was so inspired by the science teacher (played by Laura Dern) in his tiny mining town school that he became a NASA rocket scientist. Be sure to wait for the clips of the real-life teacher during the ending credit sequence.

2. OT:OUR TOWN. A Famous American Play in an Infamous American Town This is not based on a real-life story — it is a real-life story, a documentary about a teacher who has her inner-city students put on a production of those most venerable (if white-bread) of American plays, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” Watching the students really make the story their own makes this a mesmerizing film and as we watch, we, too, become part of the lucky classroom of teacher Catherine Borek. Other great documentaries about real-life teachers include “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'” and the follow-up Who’s Dancin’ Now?, “Small Wonders,” which inspired the Meryl Streep movie “Music of the Heart,” and the magnificent French film about a one-room schoolhouse, To Be and to Have.

1. Stand and Deliver Edward James Olmos is electrifying as Jaime Escalante, the teacher who insisted that the inner-city students everyone else had given up on could excel in calculus.

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Interview: At the Death House Door

Posted on May 27, 2008 at 8:00 am

At the Death House Door is an extraordinary documentary from the makers of “Hoop Dreams.” It is the story of Pastor Carroll Pickett, who served 15 years as the death house chaplain to the infamous “Walls” prison unit in Huntsville. He spent the last 24 hours with 95 different men who were about to be executed. After each was killed, Pickett recorded an audiotape account of his trip to the death chamber. Through his experiences, including the witnessing of the execution of a man later proven to be innocent, he became convinced that the death penalty was wrong. The film premieres on May 29 at 9:00 PM Eastern on the Independent Film Channel.

I spoke to Pastor Pickett about his experiences:

How did you first come to work at the prison?

I was minister of a Presbyterian church in Huntsville Texas. During the time I was at that church they had a prison siege and the director called me and said, “I want you to minister to the families of those who were hostages. For 11 days and nights they were held hostage and then they had a big shoot out across the street. The only ones killed were two of my church members. I was planning to do one’s wedding the next Saturday. Then in 1980 the same guy who called me asked me to come work at the prison for one year. I went for one year. I didn’t sign any papers but I stayed there 16 years. God had prepared me back in 1974 to go to the prison. I went there believing this was God’s will. I felt like God wanted me to be there. As it says in the Bible, “I was in prison and you came to me.”

What surprised you about the prison experience?

The biggest thing that surprised me that there were so many nice people who were willing to participate in the program, so many who were Christians who had, for lack of a better term, left the fold. There were so many victimless crimes, so many who were innocent, so many who had made financial mistakes.

What did you try to teach them?

We helped them understand that it is happier and better to live the way God wants you to — whatever religion you are. We had Catholics, 26 Jewish people — we had the first seder in the prison. In prison you can still practice your faith, and I was so happy many of them were really willing to give a lot. There were a lot of people who were good but had made mistake. I don’t believe in rehabilitation, but these people had changed. one night had changed me. So many of them got out. Close to 100 who used to be in prison are now ministers.

What did you use to reach these people?

I believe that the music is so important. So many people are musicians and express themselves musically. We started a choir. We had a different one for the Catholics because they sing different songs, one for the Hispanics, a gospel for the black prisoners. One of the requirements was that in order to be a part of the choir they had to maintain all the rules, they had to work, they had to participate in all the activities. One former back up singer for Don Ho was one of my singers, a state Supreme Court justice was one of my singers. I was permitted to give points for parole for those who participated.

Did the prisoners help each other?

Yes! The prisoners ministered to each other. We had 28 ministers in prison. Ministers go to prison too. We had a father and son who were missionaries in South America. The mother died and the father got real angry at God, so they became bank robbers. And a lot of ministers get framed.

Tell me about your work with the men on death row.

I was chaplain for the people in the death house. I only got to see them on the last day, the way it was set up. I stayed with them usually from 6 am to 12 midnight. We used to execute them at 12. After helping 95 walk the gurney and get killed by the state, I concluded that there are innocent people being put to death and there are mentally retarded. Because of the “law of parties,” there are those who are guilty by law but not by crime. The one who actually did the crime got off and the other one was executed.

Carlos De Luna was innocent, we proved he was innocent. He had no father, his father left him and his stepfather was a drunk. On that last day, I took care of him all day long and we got along real well. I told him I believed he was innocent and he said, “I wish everybody else did.” That afternoon he asked, “Can I call you Daddy? That is different than being called “Father.” I have a son the same age. That changed the whole attitude in the death house, that night, letting him call me that. Carlos said, “Thank you Daddy. Thanks for being with me, Daddy. I wish I had you when I was a boy — I would never have been a problem at all.” He asked, “Daddy, would you pray?” He was in the cell, on his knees. I put my hands through the bars. That is illegal but I did not pay attention to those rules. While they strapped him to the gurney he said, “Daddy, I appreciate you being here today.” I never will forget those big brown eyes looking at me. He kept looking up. I don’t know what he was trying to say. I was hoping he would say, “Thank you, Daddy.” That’s the way I would like to believe. He was a good kid. I would have taken him home forever.

IFC has made available teaching materials about the movie.

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Documentary Interview Spiritual films

Rambo

Posted on May 27, 2008 at 6:00 am

rambo-vmed-4p_widec.jpgSame “stick it to the man” story. Same stoic, emotionally damaged but still a fighting machine (mean, yes; lean, not so much) who can take on a hundred guys with guns because he is so well trained and so pure of heart.
Also because he wrote and directed it.
Yes, Rambo is back. We first met him in 1982’s
First Blood (The Man = abusive cops), followed by Rambo – First Blood Part II (The Man = Viet Cong and corrupt politicians) and Rambo III (The Man = Soviets in Afghanistan). Twenty years later, there are still bad guys that only the last true morally righteous person on earth — or an aging movie star looking for an audience — can take on. For tonight’s performance, the part of The Man will be played by the military junta that controls Burma.

(more…)

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Action/Adventure Genre , Themes, and Features Series/Sequel War

Remembering Sydney Pollack

Posted on May 26, 2008 at 10:02 pm

Actor/director Sydney Pollack died today, leaving behind some enormously beloved films and performances. Here are some of my favorites:
1. Tootsie Pollack directed and appears as Dustin Hoffman’s frustrated agent in this classic comedy about an actor who dresses as a woman to get a part on a soap opera and falls for co-star Jessica Lange.
2. Out of Africa Pollack won an Oscar for directing the story of writer Isak Dinesen (Meryl Streep) on a farm in Africa.
3. Will & Grace Pollack beautifully played Will’s supportive but straying father on “Will and Grace.”
4. Three Days of the Condor Pollack did some of his best work with Robert Redford, as in “Out of Africa” and in this sensational spy thriller. (Also see Redford directed by Pollack in “The Way We Were” and “The Electric Horseman.”)
michael-clayton-0.jpg5. Michael Clayton Last year’s smartest thriller for adults featured Pollack as a sleek corporate attorney — behind the screen he served as producer.
Learn more about Pollack in the fine Australian series The Directors.

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Tribute

Documentary Therapy: Families Use Cameras to Create Conversations (and Confrontations)

Posted on May 26, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Last week I saw a documentary called Bigger Stronger Faster* (The Side Effects of Being an American). The film, produced by some of the people behind Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, ties the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in sports to larger issues of American ambition to be the best and newest and American optimism about the power of innovation and technology, as indicated by the second part of the title. But for me, the film was most engaging for the scenes that put it in an emerging category of documentaries, film as family therapy. Director/co-writer Chris Bell may not think of it this way, but it seemed clear that his primary motivation behind the film was less as a cautionary tale or assessment of the American character than an opportunity — perhaps an excuse — to confront his brothers on-screen about their use of steroids.

Bell and his brothers grew up idolizing the champions of World Wrestling Entertainment and believing its superstars when they said that they achieved their bulging biceps solely through exercise and good nutrition. But revelations of steroid use by Hulk Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and others made them think that they too should use steroids for both offensive and defensive reasons. Steroids would not only make them stronger; they were the only way to compete in a world where “everyone does it.” Sadly, even stronger than their dependence on steroids is Chris Bell’s brothers’ conviction that their lives can only be meaningful if they prove themselves through competition (they do not think it is cheating to use performance-enhancing substances because it is the only way to win) and through being “famous.”

The film brings in other categories of artificial performance enhancement, from Tiger Woods’ Lasik eye surgery (which gave him better than perfect vision) to a cyclist who sleeps in a high-altitude chamber to raise his blood-oxygen level. But this is really the story of the Bell family.

Chris Bell says, “Turning the camera on my own family was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I don’t think we’ll ever be the same, but I also don’t think we’ve ever been closer. This film forced us all to discuss an issue that nobody in America wants to talk honestly about. Many families struggle with issues like alcoholism, drug abuse, depression…My family’s battle just happens to be with steroids.”

Also opening soon is Surfwise, a documentary about the Paskowitz family, whose nine children lived with their parents in a 25-foot camper, home-schooled, eating only natural, low-fat food and running a surfing camp. The father, “Doc” Dorian Paskowitz who decided to drop out of society and, according to the New York Times, “dedicated himself to uncompromised, uncompromising freedom.”

According to the Washington Post,

Dorian, now 86, is portrayed in the film as a combination Lear, Mao and Baba Ram Dass, but there’s affection as well. Time, after all, heals most, if not all, wounds.

“One of the things it’s allowed us to have,” Joshua says of the film, “is some perspective. When we were raised in the camper, Dorian had these theories of how to be the perfect man, have the perfect wife, be in an environment of loving and caring and compassion for one another.” That worked swell until the sibs hit their teen years. “As soon as the individual identity started to come into play,” says Joshua, “that was against everything we were taught.”

So there were fights. Resistance. Territorial disputes. Some of which weren’t resolved until the film, which opens in Washington on Friday, was being made….

“What it gave us a chance to do was talk to each other, even if it was coarse or caustic,” Jonathan said. “It gave us a chance to pull together. Israel said, ‘I always wanted to make up and get together.’ So we’re in different fights now. But they’re not as bad as the old fights.”

How bad were they?

Jonathan: “Two huge grizzlies fighting for the same salmon fishing ground. . . .”

Salvador: “Grizzly bears trained by the gnarliest, ultimate one-eyed Yukon Jack who ever lived, who taught every one of his students to never back down.”

Other recent films that use film as a way to explore and resolve family conflicts (all about missing or largely absent fathers) include My Architect: A Son’s Journey, Tarnation, Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me, and Tell Them Who You Are.

It is worth talking about about what kind of documentary your own family would want to make and perhaps experiment with a home video camera by doing interviews and telling family stories.

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