Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Her royal badness

For everyone not living in NYC or LA, the multiplex brings two kinds of new movies in the next few weeks: 2006 movies that were in limited release for Oscar consideration, and 2007 movies that don't give a crap about awards. I saw two of the latter.

Freedom Writers is one of those movies where a teacher goes to an inner-city school and makes a difference. Like Dangerous Minds and last year's Take the Lead, it's based on a true story. I suppose it's nice that movie studios are interested in buying the life stories of successful teachers, because Lord knows they need the money.

Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), despite the concerns of her husband Scott (Patrick Dempsey) and father Steve (Scott Glenn), starts her teaching career with at-risk kids in gang-ridden 1990s Long Beach. Inevitably, she manages a breakthrough by encouraging them to retell their experiences with violence in their own words.

Faced with a department head (Imelda Staunton) more willing to let classroom books collect dust than waste them on students, Gruwell's approach is independent and out-of-pocket. She becomes a sort of therapist/mother to these kids, and gives them an education more saturated in history than you'd expect.

Writer-director Richard LaGravenese (who did a terrific job writing The Fisher King and A Little Princess) squeezes in just enough discussion about the plight of the modern educator to make the film interesting. And I won't deny that it's a crowd pleaser: Swank's character makes laughable attempts to sound street, rephrasing her mea culpa as "My badness."

Happily N'Ever After disappoints immediately: it freezes at the title and slightly unspools as the meta-narration rewinds the story to explain. This attention deficit approach was used to horrid effect in The Lion King 2 1/2, and I feared I was in for more of the same.

The underwritten story has to do with a wizard (George Carlin) who maintains a proper balance of good and evil as he oversees the progress of fairy tales. While on vacation, his assistants Munk (Wallace Shawn) and Mambo (Andy Dick) upset the equilibrium, allowing a wicked stepmother (Sigourney Weaver) to take charge. Her royal badness isn't quite Maleficent, or even that enjoyable.

The assistants enlist Cinderella (Sarah Michelle Gellar) to restore peace in the kingdom, but she's hung up over a vain, by-the-book Prince Charming (Patrick Warburton), and overlooks her real match, manservant Rick (Freddie Prinze, Jr., who also narrates). Fractured fairy tale telling ensues. (Last year's Hoodwinked! covered similar ground and felt more original.) I nearly fell asleep several times, no small feat for an 87-minute movie.


Mainline Mom said...

Thanks for the review of Freedom Writers, I want to see that. Love that kind of flick.

Angry Pregnant Lawyer said...

I thought that was Andy Dick's voice I heard in the trailer!

And I love Patrick "Johnny Johnson" Warburton (both live and doing voice-overs), but not enough to see him in this snoozer. Thanks for the review.

Neel Mehta said...

Mainline Mom: It's right up your alley, then. Very surprising to see how noteworthy the teacher's efforts become.

APL: Feel free to tell Angry Boy that this one sucks, even if it makes him, well, angry.

To everyone: I didn't really mention how effective Imelda Staunton was in Freedom Writers. I saw this movie with two of my younger cousins, and they were thrilled to learn that she'd be playing Dolores Umbridge in the next Harry Potter.

PG said...

I have to admit that I wrote off Freedom Writers when I saw someone refer to it as "Dangerous Minds without Coolio."