Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Waiting for Superman: Or just another Clark Kent playing dress-up?


Remember that movie An Inconvenient Truth? It was pretty good, right? Al Gore’s triumphant return to relevance, or something like that… Well, Davis Guggenheim, the director of that cleverly developed treatise on climate change, shifts his attention to the state of public education in America in his latest feature documentary, Waiting for Superman. A few weeks back I went to the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco to retrieve a lost phone only to discover that Waiting for Superman, a surprise entry into this year’s SF International Film Festival, was starting in five minutes. I had a stack of student work burning a hole (turning to compost is probably more accurate) in my teacher bag, but who am I to refuse destiny?

Let me make this clear right away. I think this is a bad documentary. As a piece of journalism, it’s lazy and manipulative. As a “methodical dissection” of our public education system (which the film’s official movie site purports it to be), it falls far, far short. Its flaws are multiform, but for brevity’s sake, I’m going to focus on, oh, I don’t know, four:

1. Waiting for Superman is a Michael Moore rip-off, plain and simple, and this in a time when Moore’s own stuff is a little tired already. From the amusingly quaint 1950’s-era footage to the use of animation to add humor and watchability, Guggenheim borrows freely from Moore’s bag of tricks. He even includes footage of Bush saying dumb things. I mean, I like laughing at Dubya as much as the next guy, but at this point, it just seems too easy, you know? All of this stuff would’ve been fresh eight years ago, but in 2010, I couldn’t help thinking, “Haven’t I seen this before?” There’s no nice way to say this—Guggenheim’s a biter.

All in all, it is a moderately entertaining film, which should come as no surprise; Moore’s shtick works. But unlike Moore in, say, Roger & Me or Bowling for Columbine, Guggenheim sacrifices content for entertainment. It’s one thing to propel a viewer through dense, difficult subject matter; it’s quite another to do so and also shed light on the subject.

2. And that’s the problem with this film—it doesn’t really have anything new to say about education. And the things it does say are oversimplified and/or politically trendy. About halfway through, I began to have the sneaking suspicion that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called Guggenheim up and said, “Hey, remember what you did for Al? Well, I’ve got something for you.” (OMG—is Duncan the Man of Steel? He certainly is dreamy enough.). Personally, I have a hard time trusting a documentary that so unwaveringly cleaves to one party’s line, even if that line is occasionally my own.

One of the film’s major theses is that teacher unions are getting in the way of educational reform. To anyone even peripherally acquainted with the current educational zeitgeist, this is not a new sentiment. And with good reason—though their intent is to protect teachers, teacher unions too often simply protect the status quo. This includes keeping bad teachers in a job. Guggenheim points to oft-touted examples of bureaucratic excess such as New York City’s “Rubber Room” where suspended teachers receive full salary and benefits to do nothing (a story already covered by, most notably, The New Yorker and This American Life).

Unfortunately, Guggenheim’s view on this debate is as free from nuance as a DC comic book. Enter Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of D.C. schools, as the caped union buster. And over there, feasting on the wormy corpses of our children’s dreams, is Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, as Lex Luthor. Rather than provide useful historical context or explore the philosophical gap between these two opposing figures, Guggenheim is content to paint the issue in broad strokes. Yes, of course, the Rubber Room is straight out of Catch 22, and, yes, of course, there are bad teachers out there (we’ve all had them), but, c’mon, what about all of the average to amazing teachers who are doing their job? Instead, Guggenheim focuses on a minority—the woefully inept, cruelly indifferent, really, really, bad teacher.

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Should high school students read ‘Push’?


Every year I’ve got a handful of students (girls mostly) who fight over the two or three copies of Sapphire’s Push in my classroom library. If you don’t know about Push—and, honestly, at this point, given the huge success of Precious, the Oscar nominated film version, this means either you’ve given up on American cinema entirely, or you just don’t care ‘cause it’s not in 3D—it’s basically the antithesis of that other fought-over bestseller and fountain of teenage readership, Twilight. Only in Push, the werewolves are real ones.

A brief recap for those not in the know: Push is the story of Precious, an overweight and friendless teenage girl growing up in 1980’s Harlem. She lives in poverty with her physically and emotionally abusive mother, and is pregnant with her second child, both by her father. If that weren’t enough, she’s also illiterate. It’s this journey to literacy, and eventually, to reclaiming her life, that makes up the central arc of the narrative. After getting kicked out of her public school for being pregnant (and two grades behind already), she enrolls in a GED program called “Each One Teach One.” It’s here, mercifully, where she meets Blue Rain (whether this is her real name or hippie alter ego is never revealed), a teacher who sees through to the essential goodness of Precious, and who uses journal writing as a means to building literacy from the ground up. Predictable, sure, but by this point in the story, you’re desperate for something good to happen to this girl. It’s these scenes that are supposed to give the book, despite its punishingly bleak subject matter, an overall message of hope.

With regards to my students reading this book, my position until very recently has been, “Yeah—I know it has some explicit subject matter, but, hey, at least they’re reading, right?” Occasionally, I would open the book, read a couple of pages, and think, “Damn—this is hard core,” a description that seems even more appropriate in light of one critic’s dismissal of the movie as “poverty porn.”

But when the movie opened to rave reviews back in October, I decided after five years’ worth of students (many of them my lowest readers) lovin’ this book, it was my duty to read it myself. And so I did, with open mind. After all, any book that provokes unmitigated excitement amongst teenage readers year after year and is readily found in most high school libraries can’t be all bad, right?

It is, to say the least, a gripping read—for the first hundred pages or so. Unfortunately, it gets bogged down in the second half by some forgettable prose and uninspired storytelling. This could be dismissed as a matter of aesthetics and therefore not relevant to a conversation about whether high school students should read the book, if not for the timing of this drop-off in readability. The book loses its mojo precisely when there’s no more to learn about Precious’ shocking predicament. In other words, it’s the horror of Precious’ life that draws the reader in. Our eyes widen as her jealous mother beats her at nine months’ pregnant. “Oh my god,” we gasp as we are treated to a vivid description of her father raping her as a baby.

This, you see, is the book’s true soul. Damningly, it doesn’t lie in the redemptive second half of the book (I could barely make it through). It lies in the horror. Like some sensationalist television show about animal attacks or baby-faced child molesters, its power lies in its ability to shock. Continue reading


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Movie Review: ‘Heart of Stone’: One principal’s fight to take back his school


The most striking image from Heart of Stone, the recent documentary about Weequahic High School in Newark, NJ, a school devastated by gang violence, is of principal, Ron Stone, in his office, strapping on a bullet proof vest.heart_of_stone2

As a teacher who has worked in schools with metal detectors and strict “no gang colors” rules, I couldn’t help but think, “Really? A bullet proof vest?” But the message was clear: it’s a war zone out there.

Later in the film, a charismatic W.H.S. student and Bloods member, gives credence to Principal Stone’s startling safety precaution: “There’s a chance that you could be shot at while talking to me outside,” he relates. “Stone has stood on corners with me, he’s walked these corners with me, broken up fights, walked through my hood.” Adds another student, with unmistakable respect in his voice, “And the baddest thing about that, [Stone] stood on the corner and told us to get off our corner.”

Well, alright then—bullet proof vest it is.

There’s a lot to like about Principal Stone, and there’s a lot to like about this movie. But before I get to the approbations, I feel obligated to at least mention the relative suckiness of the first forty minutes or so (yeah—that’s a lot of minutes). Basically, what you have to sit through in order to get to the very worthwhile and skillfully executed second half is a rambling and mostly irrelevant history of W.H.S. set within the larger context of Newark’s history. There’s a compelling story in there somewhere, but this movie doesn’t do a very good job of elucidating it.

The whole first half can be summed up thusly: W.H.S. used to be a model high school largely attended by working-class Jews (including Philip Roth). Then came the 1967 race riots after which most of the Jews left. As Newark became a majority African-American city, so too did W.H.S. At this point, the story fast-forwards to the new millenium where we find the school in crisis mode. Academic performance is approaching subterranean depths, and gang violence is on the rise. In 2001, Mr. Stone—he of the bullet proof vest and balls of steel (stone?)—is hired to restore W.H.S. to its glory days.

Which, not coincidentally, is exactly when the story takes off and I stopped regretting the ten-dollar admission price. Continue reading


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Movie Review: ‘The Class’: Finally, a teacher movie that gets it


There are a lot of teacher movies out there that “ain’t the business.” Here’s one that is.entrelesmurs

The best thing I can say about The Class is that it made me feel the highs and lows of a year in the classroom. To the movie’s credit, that’s also the worst thing I can say about it. It was excruciating.

Excruciatingly real. Excruciatingly ambiguous. Excruciatingly f’d up.

The Class is the story of a racially diverse classroom in a tough Parisian neighborhood. It takes place over the course of a single school year, beginning with the teacher’s arrival and ending with an empty classroom after the last day.

The teacher, M. Marin, is a sympathetic character, but no hero. As a fourth year teacher, he is good, but not great. He is adroit in some scenes, and frustratingly limited in others. He is kind-hearted, but aloof. Clever, but too reliant on sarcasm.

The students are real students. They are brilliant and funny and mean and sensitive—in short, all of the things I’ve come to expect from my own students.

What really sets this movie apart is its no BS handling of the material. There is no heavy-handed moralizing, no Jesus Christs, no villains, no feel-good ending. We are presented with a portrait of a class, a teacher, a school, and left to draw our own conclusions.

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