Tag Archives: Based On Real Life

Front of the Class (2008)

There are undeniably touching moments in “Front of the Class,” but from the ‘Ah-Gee’ musical score to the sappy voice-over, the periods in between are more frustrating then inspiring.

The effectiveness are the story is very subjective- if you like Hallmark Hall of Fame television movies and unabashed tearjerkers, you will find a lot to love in this story of a young man living with Tourette’s Syndrome while struggling to achieve his dream of becoming a teacher.

If not… well, you may be a hard-hearted cynic like yours truly. Have you ever felt like a robot? Like you weren’t capable, or even deserving of, empathy? I watched this movie in a sparse classroom of four students (besides myself,) and by the end credits all four (and the teacher) were weeping and disheveled.

And me…? As for myself, the movie hadn’t squeezed a single tear out of me. But before I could snarl and say “Bah-Humbug,” the teacher turned on the lights and began raving about what an amazing film it was. What was I supposed to say? Could I say anything?

I guess the whole thing was a bit too calculated for my taste. Or maybe I just don’t have empathy for nice, clean-cut white Americans. Or Something. Nevertheless, the experience left me feeling confused and alienated.

At the age of six, Brad Cohen (played by Dominic Scott Kay as a child and James Wolk as an adult) starts to experience mysterious tics- grunts, yelps, and sounds that puzzle his teachers and his family. His classmates, on the other hand, laugh and poke fun at his strange behavior.

However, most heart-wrenching for Brad is the frustration and embarrassment of Brad’s father, Norman (Treat Williams.) Although Brad’s dad and teachers are convinced that he’s a toublemaker, Brad’s mom Ellen (Patricia Heaton) loves him and is determined to find the source of his problems, which lies in the fateful diagnosis of Tourette’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder which causes tics and twitches against the sufferer’s will.

After experiencing the support of a childhood principal (Mike Pniewski,) Brad grows up with a dream to teach… a dream he never lets go of, through crushing rejections and devastating failures. Will he succeed? If you don’t know the answer to this, apparently you’re not familiar with this type of movie.

Anyway, the stand-out performance here is Dominic Scott Kay as the young Brad Cohen, who wins our sympathy as good kid struggling with events outside his control. Patricia Heaton is also very good as his devoted mother, while James Wolk is decent (if a bit too overly earnest) as the grown Brad.

Although the portrayal of Tourette’s is realistic and may appeal to sufferers of the condition looking for support, the so-so script weighs the movie down in a way even the decent cast can’t make up for. The movie is just too sentimental for it’s own good. Which is a shame, because there are some good things on display here.

“Front of the Class” is the kind of movie that might be worth watching if it comes on Hallmark, but isn’t worth your time or money to buy or rent IMO. If you have Tourette’s it might offer more to you than it did to me. In that case, or if you like Hallmark tearjerkers, ignore this review and have a good cry on me. Otherwise, you may want to skip this one. Just sayin’.

The Hammer (2010)

I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m no big fan of wrestling. I just can’t get pumped up at the prospect of two muscly, angry-looking, sweaty boys/men sticking their testicles in each others’ faces. So the human interest element of a wrestling story really has to involve me, or else the appeal is lost on me.

Well, “The Hammer” is no Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” but it still manages to be a pretty appealing ‘underdog’ story, sans “The Wrestler”‘s devastating ending. Now inspirational underdog pic can be great “Billy Elliot,” good “The Fighter,” or just mediocre (“Front of the Class,”) and “The Hammer” falls somewhere in the middle category.

Based on a true story, “The Hammer” follows Matt Hamill, a deaf athlete (played by Russell Harvard, who has the disability in real life,) who struggles throughout his youth for love, inclusion, and acceptance. As a child, Matt’s grandfather Stan (Raymond J. Barry) denied him the right to learn sign language or participate in a school with other deaf children.

So guess what? Matt gets moved to the ‘slow class’ of a mainstream primary school, where the normal kids  assume he’s stupid- he can’t hear, he can’t talk, he doesn’t respond to their taunts… until one day he does respond, knocking one of his victimizers to the ground after being bullied.

Matt grows into a strong, oxish youth who nevertheless remains tentative about social engagements. He also finds his calling in life… wrestling. When Matt fails at his wrestling scholarship, partially because of his inability to understand sign language (way to go, Gramps,) he must fight his fears and insecurities in order to achieve his dreams.

I’ll admit- I kind of spaced out during the wrestling scenes, which weren’t my forte. But despite the sentimentality, the tears, and the token inspirational moments, I was pleased with this film as a whole. It wasn’t really anything new or special, but it was well-done.

First of all Matt was a likable characters- you felt for his failures, even if you knew he was going to succeed at the end. The Grandpa was a three-dimensional character, even if his motivations were not always clear. He made up for his shortcomings by being an overall good father figure to his grandson.

Matt’s deaf girlfriend Kristi (also deaf actress Shoshannah Stern) was kind of blah… you couldn’t really feel the chemistry between her and Matt, and her constant nagging at him to sign rather than speak was annoying, and never really got resolved.

“The Hammer” is an overall rather predictable movie that ends up inspiring you despite yourself. The acting is decent, the script strong, and the characters likable enough. It might be worth a watch if you can find it for a cheap rental, or if you like this sort of movie.

The Miracle Worker (1962)

Blind, deaf, and mute, wild child Helen Keller was shut out from communication and terrorized her affluent Southern family, until willful teacher Annie Sullivan brought structure and discipline to Helen’s life and through teaching communication offered Helen something entirely new- a way to speak, and a voice of her own. “The Miracle Worker” tells the true story of Keller’s childhood, with a special touch of sensitivity and minimal sentimentality.

Helen, who became a respected feminist and disability rights advocate, owes her success in no small part to Annie Sullivan, her teacher and friend. But it didn’t start out that way. When Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft,) she is entangled almost immediately in a battle of wills with Helen (Patty Duke,) an unkempt girl seething with frustration and coddled by her exhausted family.

Helen’s family deals with the pressure of her upkeep in different ways- Captain Arthur Keller (Victor Killer) postures and demands respect and obedience from his beleaguered family, while Kate Keller (Inga Swenson) maintains the dutiful ‘whatever you think is best’ attitude of old-world Southern manners. Meanwhile older brother James (Andrew Prine) goofs off and mouths  off, while tensions between him and his domineering father simmer.

There are no ‘bad guys’ here- no monsters in the closet who want to exploit Helen, no boogeymen who want to make the wretched girl suffer. Helen is not a saccharine movie character- she kicks, screams, and bites, and at one point quite deliberately stabs her teacher with a needle- but she is never reprehensible or unlikable, and we never lose sight of her unbearable frustration and anger.

Patty Duke gives what is surely one of the best child performances of all time. Not once does she break character- we believe she is this wild, nearly feral deaf, blind, and mute girl. She excels beyond the portrayals most adult performers deliver of the disabled. The entire cast turn in excellent acting jobs.

It is impossible not to feel enormous  respect for Annie Sullivan, as she refuses to take the easy way out (letting the child have her way) in the long, grueling process of educating Helen. When I saw the stage version of this at our local theater, the audience tittered and laughed at the scene where Annie tries to force her pupil to eat with a fork. In the film adaptation, nothing funny about it. Just pure grit.

“The Miracle Worker” is a touching true story that is still effective years later, and can be enjoyed by the whole family. No blood guts n’ sex, no infantile humor pandering the younger set, just powerful storytelling. It is a true classic that can be enjoyed for years to come.

Foxcatcher (2014)

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A grim psychological study of co-dependency and decompensation, “Foxcatcher” features two profoundly against-type performances from Hollywood A-listers.  Steve Carrell, star of light comedies like “Get Smart” and “The Office” and occasionally slightly darker fodder like “The Way, Way Back” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” portrays the real-life millionaire aristocrat John Du Pont, an exorbitantly rich man-child pressed under the thumb of a domineering mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and struggling with his own demons.

When Du Pont offers to endorse up and coming wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, in another unusual performance,) it seems to Schultz, the strong, silent type, like a match made in heaven- at last he will make a name for himself and stop being regarded merely as an extension of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo,) who also wrestles competitively. To the viewer, it seems weirdly abrupt… Du Pont spirits Schultz off to his mansion to and introduces him to ‘Team Foxcatcher,’ a group of fighters that Du Pont plans to shape into an unbeatable team and send to the nationals.

For a greasy, apparently limited individual, Du Pont sure can be a manipulative sonofabitch, and Carrell plays him with a mix of childish mania and snakelike bile. “Foxcatcher” is arresting in it’s build-up. You watch Carrell, muscles tensed, waiting for him to snap like a brittle branch, but up until the finale you are unsure of why you feel this way. Schultz has serious issues of his own, and anyone who dismissed Channing Tatum as a vacuous pretty boy  up until now will be wowed by his powerhouse performance.

I’ve never seen such duel performances exuding desperation since Olivia Colman and Peter Mullan in Paddy Considine’s “Tyrannosaur.” I couldn’t help see somewhat homoerotic overtones in the relationship between John Du Pont and Mark Schultz. The way Du Pont treats Schultz is reminiscent of an abusive marital relationship, with Du Pont manipulating Schultz with promises of greatness and cutting him off from the only person who loves him, his brother Dave.

The movie is sometimes reminiscent of Haneke in it’s minimalism (without the utter clinical iciness of Haneke’s films,) with a touch of Hitchcock by way of “Psycho,” but the story it tells is all too real. I ended up feeling for all the characters and despairing for their extreme loneliness.

I’m frankly surprised this film played at the theater; it doesn’t have near the mainstream appeal of something like “The Dark Knight Rises” or “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It’s the kind of movie that would probably barely get a release if not for the big names who agreed to play in it. Nonetheless, it is a must-watch for independent film fans and people who like think during a movie rather than just react to the obvious implications of what’s on screen.

Don’t watch “Foxcatcher” for the wrestling; there isn’t as much as a fan of the sport might like to think. Ultimately it’s almost as much about the death of the sport as it is about isolation and desperate circumstances. Watch the cage match at the end of the movie and you’ll see what I mean. “Foxcatcher” is a surprising movie with outstanding performances, and while it’s not a film you would, say, take your kid to, it’s very worthy of praise and deserves all the awards it gets.

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Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

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Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey, who seems to being turning up a number of good movies and performances lately) is a hard-living, white-trash, uber-masculine cowboy type- who has just been told he suffers from AIDS and has only a short time to live. Ron is initially indignant and waist-deep in denial- the year is 1985 and AIDS is still widely considered a primarily ‘gay’ disease. Woodroof is not gay, He is, however promiscuous and an intravenous drug user, and his hard partying proves to be fateful and eventually, deadly.

Okay, so Ron Woodroof dies. But this isn’t the story of his death. It is about his remaining time, and how he spends it. The only drug the FDA permits for treating AIDS, AZT, is pure poison to whoever consumes it. So Ron starts trafficking non-approved drugs to treat AIDS patients. He is aided by HIV-positive Trans woman Rayon (Jared Leto,) which he is initially not pleased at all about.

Meanwhile, Ron romances doctor Eve (Jennifer Garner) (though nothing can happen because of his disease) and predictably begins to grow as a human being. Eve questions her boss Doctor Sevard’s decision to approve AZT, which leads to her getting fired from her job. Rayon continues to abuse drugs and alcohol even though she’s sick, and soon falls apart.

I understand that the real Ron Woodroof was bi and not even close to the mean sonofabitch he was portrayed as in the movie. The director obviously wanted to push the ‘homophobic-cowboy-finds-his humanity’ redemption story. And it IS a good film. A little obvious in that Hollywood way, but it works, led by two great performances by Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey (I found Garner and Eve a little dry, though.)

Both lost a ton of weight and were clearly committed to their roles. “Dallas Buyers Club” keeps it real and never tries too hard to make either lead a tragic figure, and only hints once at Ron’s less-than-ideal childhood (a lesser movie would be all over that.) “Dallas Buyers Club” finds inspiration in subjects that initially seem only dark and dismal, and comes out a winner with the help of its actors.

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Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

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If you can get past the improbability that transgendered Hilary Swank could go on months without anyone suspecting ‘he’ was a ‘she,’ this is an effective and powerful movie. Brandon Teena, the protagonist of this movie. does have a boyish charm regardless of his biological gender, and he struts into town and befriends some shady types after having a few run in with the law in different locations. The thing is, Brandon’s not a bad kid, just a little misguided, and after he begins a romantic affair with shady type #1’s love interest., there are a series of confrontations that finally, and perhaps inevitably, lead to tragedy.

Lana (Chloe Sevigny) is the love interest. John Lotter (i.e. Shady Type #1, played by Peter Skarsgaard) is her possessive admirer. John is tailed by Shady Type #2 Tom (Brendon Sexton III,) a troubled young man who is a bit of an idiot (not developmentally disabled, you see, just not all there upstairs.) John is the ringleader, and Brandon falls for the social experience that comes with hanging with them a bit too easily.

On the way to sympathizing with Brandon, I had a little trouble getting past the fact that he tricked girls into having sex with him (ditzy girls who couldn’t tell the difference between a girl with a strap-on and a man with a penis, but still.) I’m certainly not implying Brandon deserved the things that happened to him at the films conclusion, far from it, But it was still an unfair thing to do to your sex partners. You will also facepalm at Brandon’s Naivete and the things he does to gain acceptance.

Everything changes with Lana. Lana falls so madly head-over-heels in love with Brandon that she doesn’t care what gender Brandon is. It”s actually kind of romantic, actually. I didn’t like Lana at first because I thought she was an ineffectual sloppy drunk hick, but she ended up being my favorite character. She’s a romantic soul stuck in a shitty Nebraska town, and all the men around her are vile pigs. In hindsight, why wouldn’t she fall for the handsome Brandon?

I heard the director of this, Kimberly Pierce, discuss the MPAA’s attempt to slap it with an NC-17 rating in the documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated.” According to Pierce, their biggest qualm was not the violent and degrading events at the end of the film, but the ‘long orgasm’ scene where Brandon goes down on Lana. “Who was ever hurt by an orgasm that was too long?” demands Pierce. People sure have funny priorities, especially when they involve homosexuality and sex.

“Boys Don’t Cry” is sad but not needlessly so. Based upon the real-life 1993 rape/murder of Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena, a transgendered youth who identified as male but had female reproductive organs, the film benefits from a great performance from Hilary Swank. I weirdly have never noticed Swank before, but she now takes on a role too raw and subversive for many female actors.

Instead of being tawdry and sensationalistic, “Boys Don’t Cry tells a horrible story poignantly, but celebrates Brandon Teena’s life and spirit as well as grieve his loss. Kimberly Pierce movingly and  depicts the transgendered experience, and we should be grateful for her candor. A worthwhile story. profoundly told.

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