Chalk

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language.
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, characters get tipsy
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2007

A kinder, gentler mockumentary, this black and white film’s greatest strength and weakness is its unwillingness to be too tough on the high school teachers and administrators it portrays. The writers, director, and stars of this movie are all former teachers and have an unabashed fondness for their colleagues. The movie’s opening quote tells us that 50 percent of teachers quit in the first three years. This puts us on their side. No matter how foolish the behavior of these characters, we never lose sight of the honor of their aspirations, the difference they can make in the lives of students, and the greater foolishness of the system’s demands and expectations.

Parents should know that though this film is set in a high school, the story is centered on the teachers and deals with some mature themes. A PE teacher says that other people think she is gay, though she is not. Another teacher complains about how long it has been since she and her husband had sex. Adult characters drink and some get tipsy.


Families who see this movie should talk about the stresses and conflicts faced by teachers, and about the teachers who inspired them the most.


Families who appreciate this film will also appreciate other movies about the absurdities of high school life like Up the Down Staircase and High School High (which parodies as well as perpetuates the genre). And they will appreciate the mockumentaries made by Christopher Guest and his repertory company, which inspired the people behind this film.
The film’s main characters are a nervous but idealistic new teacher (Troy Schremmer as Mr. Lowrey), an enthusiastic but lonely PE teacher (Schremmer’s real-life wife, Janelle Schremmer as Coach Webb), a music teacher-turned administrator (Shannon Haragan as Mrs. Reddell), and an established young teacher whose goal is to be awarded “Teacher of the Year” (co-writer and producer Chris Mass as Mr. Stroope). With a documentary structure, the film counts down the days to vacation and allows its characters to deliver soliloquies about their hopes and disappointments to cameras in their homes.


The people behind the film know teaching better than they know movie-making, and that shows in its shifts of tone from slightly heightened reality to exaggerated farce. Its episodic, improvisational structure gives it a documentary (or even faux documentary) feel, but it also means odd juxtapositions between scenes that work fairly well and some that go nowhere. But the movie succeeds in getting the audience on the side of its characters. They may be and they are certainly self-absorbed, but they are earnest and well-meaning. It is also a rare movie set in a high school that pays almost no attention to the students. There are no big breakthrough moments where a student is suddenly engaged by a subject or transformed because someone believes in him. This doesn’t say much for them as teachers, but as film-makers, it is a refreshing perspective, and the natural sincerity of the performances earns them some extra credit.

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Drama Movies

Into the Wild

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some nudity.
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, character beat up, guns used to shoot animals, graphic scenes of gutting and cooking animals, starvation
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2007

Every one of us at times hears the call of the wild, to match the wild of the outdoors to the wild that is inside us, to leave behind all of the petty complications of civilization and test ourselves down to the deepest essence, to test our nature, in both senses of the word.

In 1992 Christopher McCandless left behind everything — family, friends, jobs, money, even his name, and went on a journey to find something that felt authentic to him. Actor Sean Penn has written and directed a superb film based on the best-selling book about his journey and its tragic conclusion.


Emile Hirsch plays McCandless, who whimsically renames himself Alexander Supertramp. He walks away from the expectations that felt smothering to him after graduation with honors. He walks away from possessions, donating all of his money to charity and cutting up his credit cards and ID. He walks away from a family that felt disconnected from its outward appearance.

And he walks toward…he is not sure. Something different. Something else. He says he is an “aesthetic voyager whose home is the road” and goes off in search of “ecstatic freedom” to on a “dramatic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual resolution.” His sister says, “It was inevitable he would walk away and do it with characteristic immoderation.” He says, “I don’t need money; it makes people cautious.”


His encounters along the way are in the great tradition of odysseys from Jack London to Jack Kerouac. He meets up with warm-hearted hippies (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) and a lonely retired military man (Hal Holbrook, in a performance sure to win him an Oscar nomination). For a while, he works for a grain dealer (Vince Vaughn). Every encounter, even a brief conversation with an intake clerk at a homeless shelter, is meticulous and thoughtful. Penn’s sensitive screenplay and Hirsch’s engaging performance show us McCandless’s combination of longing for the biggest emotions and his ability to appreciate the smallest moments, his ability to connect to the subtlest signals from the widest range of people and to the grandest scope of nature.

He is a listener of extraordinary empathy and compassion. After the character played by Keener tells him her story, he says, “We could go eat. Or, I could sit here all night and listen to you.” When a beautiful young girl (Kristen Stewart) offers herself to him, he gently declines. It would not be right for her. Also, like money, love makes people cautious, too, and he is not ready to be cautious yet.


At times, the film comes close to romanticizing McCandless and his quest. But it is anything but romantic in its harrowing final weeks, when he is alone in the Alaskan wilderness. McCandless, whether from hubris, foolishness, immaturity, self-destructiveness, or some combination of the three, makes poor choices that lead to his death from starvation and eating toxic berries. The images of Hirsch, scared and skeletal, are harrowing. Penn, whose previous films as director and screenwriter also focused on lost children and the devastated families, makes us wish up to the last minute for a happier ending.


McCandless liked to quote Thoreau: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” But Thoreau also said that there was a time to go to Walden and a time to leave. It is a tragedy that McCandless was not able to return to tell his own story. But Penn, Hirsch, and cinematographer Eric Gautier (who also filmed another real-life story of a young man’s journey, The Motorcycle Diaries) have brought his story to the screen with honor and grace.

Parents should know that this is a sad movie with graphic depiction of death by starvation and ingestion of poisonous berries. There are bloody scenes of animals being shot, gutted, and cooked. A character is brutally beaten. There is male and female non-sexual nudity and there are sexual references and situations, including references to adultery. When a young girl offers to have sex with Christopher/Alex, he declines for honorable reasons. Characters use strong language and drink, smoke, and use drugs.


Families who see this movie should talk about what Chris/Alex was looking for and whether he found it.

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate the book and an article by the same author. They will also appreciate two outstanding documentaries about men who went out into the wild, Touching the Void and Grizzly Man. They should also read the poem Chris quotes to his sister, I Go Back to May 1937 by Sharon Olds. And they will enjoy my interview with star Emile Hirsch.

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Biography Drama Movies

Illegal Tender

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language and some sexuality.
Profanity: Very strong language, n-word in song lyrics
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters are drug dealers, drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence, shoot-outs, torture, beatings, suicide
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2007

There’s a chance, but a very slight chance that 20 years from now this could be one of those films whose pulpiness overcomes its dopiness. But I doubt it.


Oh, it is fun to see Wanda de Jesus get all Pam Grier and shoot off two big guns at once after making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for her son. But the big dumb story and the big dumb dialogue keep getting in the way.


It begins in 1985, when drug dealer-but-nice-guy Wilson De Leon (Manny Perez) is killed on the same night his son, Wilson Jr., is born.


Fast forward to the present day. Wilson Junior (now played by the always-appealing Rick Gonzalez) is a student at genteel Danbury College. He lives with his mother (de Jesus as the older Millie) and little brother Randy (Antonio Ortiz) in a luxurious home in the suburbs of Connecticut. But everything changes when Millie runs into a friend from the old days. She knows this means that the men who killed her husband will be coming after her and her sons. She takes Wilson down into the cellar and opens up the safe. Inside are enough guns to arm a militia. “It’s called weight,” she explains.


But that is about all she explains. When he refuses to go on the run with Millie and Randy, she leaves him a gun and tells him to protect himself. Soon he is practicing his shooting face and taking aim at some tin cans. And soon after that he is taking aim at some assassins who come to his house, where he is staying with his girlfriend Ana (Dania Ramirez).


Her role in the story is to keep asking what is going on in a loud voice as the drug lord’s goons are tramping through the house shooting everything and call at inconvenient moments to tell Wilson she is worried. I’d be worried, too — Wilson and his mother return to the house when the bad guys are after them. Then, when they are after the bad guys, they stop for some retail therapy to pick up some bling. Millie’s explanation of her income (“You bought Microsoft?”) and justification for her late husband’s career choice (“everyone has stains”) is as silly as the rumble on the soundtrack that always seems to alert her to impending danger. A couple of developments near the end are intended to be plot twists, but there is so little to qualify here as plot that they are more like plot nudges. There isn’t much dialogue, either. At least a third of it seems to be various people saying “Wilson” when they speak to him, as though we need to be reminded who he is. And the other two-thirds is soapy tripe like, “Oh, God, I want this to end!”

Yeah. Me, too.

Parents should know that this is an intense and violent film with graphic images of shoot-outs, beatings, and torture. Characters are in peril and many are injured and killed and a character commits suicide. Characters are drug dealers and gangsters and some drink wine, champagne, and alcohol. They use strong language, including the n-word in song lyrics. The movie includes sexual references and brief explicit situations, dancers in skimpy clothes, and brief nudity.


Families who see this movie should talk about what Wilson and his mother told each other and did not tell each other.

Audiences who enjoy this movie will enjoy Pam Grier classics like Coffy.

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Crime Drama Movies Thriller

11th Hour

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild disturbing images and thematic elements.
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some scary scenes of environmental damage including destructive storms, animal killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 16, 2007
Date Released to DVD: April 9, 2008
Amazon.com ASIN: B00005JPXA

Leonardo DiCaprio has produced a thoughtful, important film about a vitally important subject, the devastating impact of industrial development on the fragile environment. He has assembled an impressive collection of scholars and world leaders to emphasize the precariousness of the situation and the urgency of action to reverse the effects of human opportunism and greed, to change our idea of “progress” from growth and acquisition to sustainability and respect for the fragility of the environment that sustains us.


He is so concerned about not being overly alarmist or controversial that it is all a bit too stately. DiCaprio and his experts are specific and vivid when talking about the “infected organism” our environment has become, where “every system is in decline and the rate of decline is increasing….There isn’t one living system that is stable or improving.” But when they talk about the failures of our institutions to consider the long-term effects, they get vague. They briefly point to corporations and government. This is where he needed Al Gore to come in with some Powerpoint, or better yet, Michael Moore to name names and show exactly who got how much money from lobbyists for which companies.


The movie’s greatest strength is its breadth of compelling participants. They do more than describe our failures and the damage we have done. They question our assumptions, our smug certainty that nature exists to serve humans and will be eternally replenished. They explain that the uniquely human ability to think about and affect the future has created this problem; but that it can also help us to recognize and solve it. And they provide assurances that all the technology we need is already available; all it takes is the will.


Each of them has an important lesson to teach. Perhaps the one that is by iteself the reason for every middle- and high-schooler to see the film is this quotation from Eric Hoffer: “We can never have enough of that which we really do not want.”

Parents should know that some of the images and themes of this movie may be disturbing to audience members. Scenes of environmental degradation and damage, including brief footage of an animal being killed, and descriptions of potential consequences that could include extinction are intended to be provocative. Even though they are presented as a call to action and there is reassuring material about choices that can make a difference, it may be very upsetting.


Families who see this movie should visit the movie’s website to learn more about the scientific data on climate change and the technologies that can make a difference.

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate An Inconvenient Truth, Who Killed the Electric Car?, Koyaanisqatsi – Life Out of Balance, and The Future of Food.

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Documentary Environment/Green

‘Sleuth’ vs. ‘Sleuth’ and Twin vs. Twin

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This morning I saw the remake of “Sleuth.” Like the original, it stars Michael Caine, but this time he plays the role of the older man, a mystery writer whose visit from his wife’s young, handsome lover turns into a battle of wits and power. In 1974, the older man was played by Laurence Olivier. In 2007, the younger man is played by Jude Law, took over another of Caine’s iconic roles in “Alfie.” The original was an entertaining potboiler with one of theater and movie history’s cleverest surprises (incomprehensibly omitted from the new version). In 2007, it gets a high literary sheen with a new screenply by Harold Pinter and direction, in between Shakespeare adaptations, from Kenneth Branaugh.

The play was written by Anthony Shaffer, identical twin brother of Peter Shaffer, who wrote “Equus” and “Amadeus.” The themes of competition, identity, and duality run through the work of both brothers. I think their story would make quite a movie.


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Commentary Understanding Media and Pop Culture
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