Won’t Back Down

Posted on September 27, 2012 at 6:00 pm

What should have been a rousing, feel-good, “inspired by a true story” film about a mother and a teacher who take on the teacher’s union and the school board to turn around a failing elementary school benefits from strong performances but suffers from a palpably skewed point of view.  Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, the devoted single mother of a daughter with dyslexia who attends the John Adams elementary school in a poor Pennsylvania community.  Viola Davis plays Nona, a frustrated teacher whose own son has developmental disabilities that add to the strain in her marriage.

When Jamie tries to see the school superintendent to complain about the principal’s unwillingness to help her, she can’t get in.  But a sympathetic receptionist explains that there is a parental trigger law that at least in theory can help.  If a school has consistently failed, parents and teachers can petition to take it over.  In reality, Jamie is told, those petitions never succeed.  The school board uses delays and technicalities to wear down the petitioners.  But, as Jamie explains, those mothers who lift trucks to save their babies have nothing on her.

The other teachers are angry and scared when Nona joins Jamie.  If the petition is successful, the teachers will no longer be part of the union.  They will lose their tenure and possibly their jobs.  The petition cannot be successful without the signatures of at least half of the teachers.  Lifting the truck begins to seem easy by comparison.

Gyllenhaal conveys passion well but her character is too good to be true, never wavering or even slowing down despite having to hold down two jobs to support her daughter and always having to exemplify all that is committed and pure of heart while also being all kinds of spontaneous and free-spirited, knowing everything about Penguins hockey, being infinitely patient with her daughter, and rocking the skinny jeans.  Davis brings great depth and warmth to Nona, but she is stuck with the “black Stepford wife” role and even Davis, one of the finest actors in film history, cannot make Nona’s big powerhouse revelation scene work.

Every parent and anyone who has ever been to school cannot help but be drawn into this underdog story about people who want to make things better for their children and are willing to take on the bad guys.  But oh, this movie really overdoes it with the bad guys.  There are some mentions of the important contributions made by unions, especially by Michael (the always-outstanding Oscar Isaac) as a Teach for America veteran who is one of the school’s best teachers.  But those references are all to the distant past and the praise sounds as insincere Antony’s praise for Brutus.  Meanwhile, the union officials are portrayed as venal and corrupt, more concerned with their own power than with the welfare of the children and willing to restort to bribes, threats, manipulation, and character assassination.  The bias is evident when of them all but twirls a villain-esque mustache as he quotes a statement the late Albert Shanker, former president of the teacher’s union, never actually made about how children do not pay union dues, so his allegiance is to the teachers who do.  They make “It’s a Wonderful Life’s” Mr. Potter seem like Santa Claus.  There are bad teachers in schools but it is way over the top when the opening scene shows Jamie’s daughter struggling to sound out the word “story” as her teacher checks her email and shops online and some of the other kids play computer games and make fun of her.

The film has been widely criticized because it is funded by those who have an economic interest in taking over schools, for-profit companies that want to get the school contracts, and those points are valid.  Those points are valid.  But so is the point that seven out of ten kids at this school cannot read by the time they leave.  It is fun to see Gyllenhaal and Davis dance together in the bar where Jamie works as a bartender but it would have been a lot more meaningful to have a forthright conversation about how to protect and retain good teachers and help students who do not have enough support at home.  All we ever hear about from the phone book-sized petition Jamie and Nona present to the board is a number with digits mistakenly reversed that may be grounds for rejection.  We never hear about the ideas for change that would be the reasons for its approval.  We can all agree that schools can do better and that abuses occur when there is too little protection for teachers and administrators and when there is too much.  The tough part is coming up with a way to do something about it.  Nona and Jamie talk about the importance of high expectations.  I had higher expectations for this film than it was willing to meet.

Parents should know that this film includes drinking, scenes in bar, mild language (“screw”), references to drunk driving and irresponsible behavior, tense confrontations, and some kissing.

Family discussion:  Read about the controversy over the “parent trigger” laws advocated in the film – what are the advantages and disadvantages of outsourcing school administration?  What are parents in your community doing to help teachers and students?

If you like this, try: the documentaries “Waiting for Superman” and “Small Wonders”

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Based on a true story Drama School

Hotel Transylvania

Posted on September 27, 2012 at 6:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude humor, action, and scary images
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Funny-scary monsters
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 28, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B0034G4OYA

What scared me most about “Hotel Transylvania” was the prospect of another film starring Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg.  Their last collaboration was “That’s My Boy,” by far the most excruciatingly painful experience I’ve had at a theater this year. Thankfully, just providing voices for this PG animated horror comedy written by five other people, Sandler and Samberg are charming.  It is a sweet, funny story about monsters who want to enjoy a peaceful life far from humans and the human who finds them anyway.

Sandler plays Count Dracula, a doting if over-protective vampire father who builds the hotel as a refuge so he and his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) can be safe from scary people with their pitchforks and torches.   Dracula croons a tender lullaby: “Hush little baby, don’t say a word, papa’s going to bite the head off a bird.”  Next to the changing table is a coffin-shaped diaper pail.

Mavis gets a little older, with cute little baby tooth fangs, and her caped father makes sure she’s wearing a helmet before he teaches her how to transform into a bat and fly.  The hotel is a castle surrounded by a haunted forest and a graveyard populated by the undead. “Human-free since 1898,” the hotel proudly proclaims.  And so things stay for over a century.

This Dracula has no need for human blood (“it’s so fatty and you don’t know where it’s been”).  He relies on synthetic.  All he wants is to take care of his guests, give his daughter a wonderful 118th birthday party, make sure she never leaves home, and never, ever see a human.   But then, just as all of the monsters have arrived for the party, an easy-going bro with an enormous back-pack walks in.  His name is Jonathan (Samberg), he thinks the monsters are cool, and he likes Mavis’ goth-girl vibe.  This is worse than torches and pitchforks.  A human who wants to get rid of monsters is one thing but a daughter who might fall in love with one is even scarier.  And yes, there a wink at “Twilight.”

Of the three animated horror 3D comedies this fall, “Hotel Transylvania” is the least aesthetically ambitious, the most accessible for younger children, and the closest to the comfortingly silly scares of “Scooby-Doo.”   Like this film, “ParaNorman” (now in theaters) and “Frankenweenie” (opening next week), the focus is on showing us that what we think is scary really is not very frightening after all.  Of the three, this one has more all-out comedy, much of it coming from the monster-fied setting and the ghoul-ification of ordinary life.  At Hotel Transylvania, the Do Not Disturb signs hanging from the doorknobs are shrunken heads — very outspoken ones.  Mavis likes to eat “scream” cheese, which amusingly rises up from the cracker to let out a squeal as she takes a bite.  Guests are greeted by zombie bellman, a Jack Pumpkinhead doorman, and a skeleton mariachi band with hats and sarapes.  When the Invisible Man (David Spade) attempts to play charades, it is a hoot.

First-time director Genndy Tartakovsky was a storyboard artist on films like “Iron Man 2,” so he has an exceptional understanding of the mechanics and timing of the action sequences, and 3D adds a vertiginous thrill to a chase on flying tables and a touch of claustrophobia to a maze of underground corridors.  It is telling that both of those highlights involve the most vivid vampire/human relationship at the heart of the story — Dracula and Jonathan. Despite a lot of talk about romantic “zing,” the bromance is much more real than the love story.  And when they leave the castle for that most overused of climax cliches, the race to the airport, the story sags.

Top voice talent includes Kevin James as a sweet-natured Frankenstein and Fran Drescher as his bride, Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon as the Wolf couple with innumerable cubs, and Ceelo Green as the outgoing Mummy.  But the real stars are character designers Carter Goodrich (“Despicable Me”), Greg Kellman (“Madagascar”), and Carlos Grangel (“King Fu Panda”), whose monsters pay affectionate homage to their origins but are so endearing that families may want to pay a visit to have room service deliver an order of scream cheese.

 

 

 

Parents should know that the monsters in this movie are intended to be more funny than scary but there are some grotesque and macabre images that may be frightening to young or sensitive children as well as some potty humor and peril.

Family discussion: Why was Dracula so afraid to let Mavis leave home?  How can parents know when their children are ready for more responsibility?  Which monster was your favorite?

If you like this, try: “ParaNorman,” “Monster House,” “Monsters vs. Aliens,” and “Scooby-Doo”

 

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3D Animation Comedy Fantasy Movies Romance

Looper

Posted on September 27, 2012 at 6:00 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity, and drug content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drug use and addiction
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence with adults and children injured and killed, suicide
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 28, 2012
Date Released to DVD: December 24, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B005LAII8A

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis play the same man in a twisty time-travel thriller about “loopers,” assassins who use short-range guns called blunderbusses to kill targets sent back in time from the future.  The first thing we see is an ornate antique pocket watch as young Joe (Gordon-Levitt) waits next to a cornfield, a cloth spread out on the ground in front of him.  The seconds tick by and then the target appears on the cloth, hands cuffed behind him with a bag over his head.  Joe shoots, turns over the victim to retrieve the silver bars under his jacket, and disposes of the body.  The criminals in the future have found a neat (in both senses of the word) method of dispatching their enemies.

It is 2044.  The dead man was sent back from 2074.

Young Joe goes out clubbing with other loopers, the hapless Seth (Paul Dano) and another looper who has been retired.  In what is called “closing the loop,” his last target is his future self.  These final assignments bring payment in gold along with the knowledge of what will happen to the young assassin when he faces himself in three decades.  Seth lets his future self escape and gets in trouble with Abe (a superb Jeff Daniels) the man in charge of the loopers.  There are some special challenges that come with the problem of two different versions of the same person running around at the same time; apparently, you can’t just shoot him/them without disturbing the time-space continuum or something like that.  Old Joe and Young Joe know themselves/each other too well to trust each other and too well to hide from or outsmart each other.  And just like Marty McFly, they have to reckon with the fact that any big changes they make in the now will result in even bigger changes in the future.  Which is Old Joe’s past.

Still with me?

As with his brilliant and ground-breaking “Brick,” also starring Gordon-Levitt, writer/director Rian Johnson has an engaging and compelling way of mixing genres.  There are some overlays of the Western, the noir crime story, and a “Terminator”-style time travel mind-bender.  The efforts to make Gordon-Levitt and Willis look even a little bit like they might be the same guy are ineffective and distracting, but other than that, this is a smart, exciting, mind-bender and a lot of fun.

 

 

 

 

 

Parents should know that this film has intense and graphic violence and peril.  Adult and child characters injured and killed.  The film includes a suicide, disturbing images, drinking, drug use and drug addiction, nudity, sexual references and situations, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Do you agree with Joe’s decision at the end?  How did his experience with Seth affect his choices later on?  What elements of today’s society inspired this idea about the future?

If you like this, try: “Brick,” from the same writer/director and star and time travel stories like “12 Monkeys” (also with Bruce Willis) and “Frequency”

 

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Action/Adventure Crime Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy Science-Fiction

Won’t Back Down — The Real Story

Posted on September 27, 2012 at 3:54 pm

This week’s feel-good movie “Won’t Back Down” is the “inspired by a true story” saga of a mother and a teacher who worked together to take over a failing school in Pennsylvania.  Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis star as the women who got the support of the other parents and teachers despite the opposition of the teachers union.  The movie has created a lot of controversy on all sides for its portrayal of the teachers union as interested only in job security, hours and pay for teachers and not what is best for their students and willing to resort to threats, bribery, and character assassination to maintain their power.   A quote often attributed to real-life teachers union president Albert Shanker (“When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”) is used in the movie even though there is no record of his having said it.  It is documented, however, that he said, “It is as much the duty of the union to preserve public education as it is to negotiate a good contract.”  (Fans of the Woody Allen movie “Sleeper” may remember that there is a joke about Shanker getting a bomb.)

The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch is very critical of the film because they say it is funded by businesses with a hidden agenda — to get parents to use “trigger laws” to get rid of the unions and administrations at under-performing schools so that private businesses can take over and make a profit.  Families who view the film should find out how “trigger laws” work in their own community and what standards are being applied in their own school systems for evaluating proposals to improve the students’ experience and results.

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The Real Story
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