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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

I'd Like to Thank the Academy... for Nothing!

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Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Freedom Writers
Freedom Writers
2007 (2007) - Paramount

From Goodbye, Mr. Chips to Dead Poets Society, Oscar loves inspirational teacher sagas. So I'm sure casting two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank as real-life inspirational teacher Erin Gruwell in a movie written and directed by Oscar nominee Richard LaGravenese smelled like surefire award bait to the folks at Paramount. It didn't turn out that way, though. Somewhere along the line, Paramount got cold feet and dumped the movie in the dead zone of January, all but guaranteeing that it'll be forgotten in no time.

Swank's Gruwell takes a job teaching freshman English in a tough school in Long Beach when racial tension in the LA area is at its peak. After a bumpy start, she eventually gets the kids to open up to each other and her via trips to the Holocaust Museum and a journal-writing project that gives the kids a chance to be heard.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Freedom Writers is that it's a better movie than Dangerous Minds, a similar hot-white-teacher-in-the-hood story. The classroom sequences feel somewhat more authentic, although Swank seems to only teach one class, a luxury I've never heard any real teacher being able to enjoy. The kids are pretty good, mainly unknowns with a few non-pro actors in the mix, and Swank is her reliable self. The movie loses its way whenever it ventures outside the school, especially in scenes with a wasted Patrick Dempsey as her husband.

The DVD isn't bad, looking and sounding solid and boasting a handful of OK extras. LaGravenese and Swank chat on a feature-length audio commentary which has a few tidbits of information but too frequently lapses into silence. There's 11 minutes of drab deleted scenes, a featurette called Making a Dream focusing on the musical collaboration between co-composer and Common, a photo gallery and the trailer. There are also two featurettes. The first, Freedom Writers Family, focuses on the making of the movie and is standard promo fare. The second, Freedom Writers: The Story Behind the Story, sounds like it should focus more on the real-life Erin Gruwell. But after a couple token words from her, it goes back to the movie and covers pretty much the same ground as the first one.

Freedom Writers isn't the disaster its unceremonious release may have led you to expect. But it's a far cry from being essential viewing.

Film Rating: C-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A-/C-

For Your Consideration

For Your Consideration
2006 (2007) - Warner Independent Pictures

Oscar fever is a ripe subject for satire and Christopher Guest would seem to be the ideal man for the job. After skewering film school pretensions in The Big Picture, my hopes were high for For Your Consideration. And while it isn't the home run it should have been, the movie does have enough surprises in store to make it worth a watch.

The usual Guest Repertory Company is on hand here. Guest himself plays the director of Home for Purim, a mawkish low-budget independent film starring a handful of has-been and never-were actors including Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey and Christopher Moyniham. When an internet rumor sparks Oscar buzz, the little movie gathers a momentum it's unable to control, spurred on by Shearer's agent (Eugene Levy), the movie's publicist (John Michael Higgins) and the head of the studio (Ricky Gervais).

Unlike Waiting for Guffman, For Your Consideration takes its time building itself up and seems to climax early with most of the biggest laughs coming midway through. Higgins is a stand-out as part-Choctaw publicist Corey Taft, as are Fred Willard and Jane Lynch, perfectly capturing the unctuous behavior of entertainment newsmagazine hosts. But the movie belongs to Catherine O'Hara, delivering a funny and touching career-best performance as Marilyn Hack, the actress who stands to benefit the most from an Oscar. She pulls off something amazing here, finding the soul in what could be a shallow one-note caricature of an over-the-hill actress. As hit or miss as the rest of the movie is, O'Hara single-handedly makes it worth watching.

Warner's DVD is equally hit or miss, with a disappointing transfer and an audible but otherwise unexceptional audio track. The extras seem slim at first glance but they're all worth checking out. There's a gallery of poster concepts for Home for Purim, the trailer and a low-key but welcome commentary from Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy. Best of all is the extensive collection of deleted scenes, some of which made me laugh as hard as anything in the film itself, particularly anything to do with the hilarious John Michael Higgins ("If I made this face to an Eskimo baby…").

For Your Consideration marks a gear shift for Guest, away from the mockumentary style of A Mighty Wind and Best in Show and into something closer to traditional satire. Some may be disappointed in the change but at its best, For Your Consideration offers laughs that can hold their own against anything in Guest's previous films.

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/B-/B-

Adam Jahnke
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