Movie review: The English Teacher

The_English_Teacher_2013_Custom_LabelApril 29, 2013 – Celebrating its 10th anniversary this spring, the Tribeca Film Festival took the quaint New York City neighborhood by storm last week. One of its feature film’s, the Indy comedy-drama “The English Teacher” staring Julianne Moore, Greg Kinnear and Nathan Lane, premiered at the festival and will open in limited release in theaters across the country on May 17.

Moore plays the English teacher, fortysomething year old Linda Sinclair, whose humdrum life makes the likes of Dickens’ character Miss Havisham look exciting. Linda finally finds a purpose outside of the classroom when she helps former student Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano) realize his dreams of becoming a playwright.

After graduating from NYU with a degree in creative writing, Jason is about to give up on his dream of writing and go to law school. When he comes home to visit his father, he runs in to Linda who is upset he plans to give up his art, and asks to read his play. She shares it with the school’s drama teacher, Carl (Lane) and together they convince the principal to allow them to put on the production in lieu of “The Importance of Being Ernest” for the umpteenth time. Jason’s play is a dark, suicide-ridden work that both Linda and Carl deem brilliant, but it really isn’t appropriate for high school students. Still, they get the OK to proceed.

The repressed Linda finds her world come alive once casting and rehearsals begin. She’s not used to forming bonds with three-dimensional people, only the characters that live in classic literature. Needless to say, it’s the teacher who learns the real lesson here. This is the first time in Linda’s life she is having fun, and like everyone with little experience, she crosses the line and doesn’t know where to stop.

The performances were on par, but nothing out of the ordinary. Moore is always good and Kinnear, who plays Jason’s father, Dr. Sherwood, perhaps turns in the best performance as the misunderstood dad. It’s Lane who plays it over the top as usual, and this time not in a fun way because he almost seems uncomfortable in the role of the drama teacher who craves attention and lies about his accomplishments to get more of it. He is the one character who finds no redemption in the film.

The story has a few heartwarming moments, and I enjoyed watching the evolution of Moore’s character during the 93 minutes it played out. But there were too many uncomfortable moments that had me gasping “that would never happen, and if it did, it would be dealt with differently.” Not that it tried to be, but “The Prime of Miss Jean Brody” or “To Sir With Love” this film is not. And if there was a moral to this story – and there should be one – I missed it.

Television director Craig Zisk, whose credits include Scrubs, Alias, Weeds and United States of Tara, gets his first nod on a motion picture in this cliché at times tale of self-discovery. Are all English teacher’s really spinsters as the film insinuates? Hardly.

Don’t expect this one to break any box office records. It’s a small film that probably won’t make it to wide release, but it will still find a following of fans that like this style. For fans of Moore, Kinnear or Lane, you can probably wait until to makes it to the Netflix circuit by the end of the summer.

Rating: 3

Rating System:
5. Great Movie, see it now
4. Good movie and worth the price of admission
3. It’s OK, but I’d wait for the DVD
2. Proceed with caution
1. Don’t bother

The ramblings of a tired woman

coffee_gfxApril 26, 2013 — I’ve got a serious case of writer’s block and I’m too exhausted to do anything about it.

All I can think of to write is this sentence: I wish I liked the taste of coffee; it smells good, and it might keep me awake so I can write a proper blog post for today.

Ten movie screenplays I wish I wrote

darkandstormy_5013April 24, 2013 – As someone with a passion for writing and the movies, it makes sense that I would someday attempt to write a screenplay. I’m still waiting for inspiration, but there are several I wish I wrote, and that has to count for something.

Here are ten screenplays in no particular order that have made me crazy with envy over the years.

1. The Big Chill (1983)William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, JoBeth Williams
Seven thirtysomething college friends reunite for the weekend and the funeral of another college friend. It is the perfect scenario, the perfect cast, and the perfect blend of drama and comedy. Who wouldn’t want to have their name on this wonderful script?

2. Passion of Mind (2000)Demi Moore, Stellan Skarsgard, Sinead Cusack, William Fitchner
I may be the only person who saw and/or liked this little Indy film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth viewing. Moore plays a woman stuck between two worlds – her real life and her dream life. The problem is she does not know which one is real and which is the dream. Just when I thought all of the original ideas were gone, this clever movie was released.

3. Notorious (1946)Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman
This is my favorite Hitchcock film, and my favorite film overall; therefore, by law it has to make this list. The script is compelling and at times witty, combining spies, romance and Nazis – and how could you go wrong with that? In addition, the acting is superb.

4. The Breakfast Club (1985) Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Anthony Michal Hall
Five very different high school students spend the day together in detention and it changes their lives and their opinions of each other forever. I am willing to bet everyone can relate to one of these characters, who represent the best and worst of our high school years. A tender and heartbreaking story, and one of John Hughes best.

5. Being There (1979) Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine
A brilliant performance by Sellers highlights a unique and wonderful script. He plays Chance, a simple gardener who had never left the estate where worked his entire life until his employer dies. Sellers is thrown out onto the street to survive on his own, and runs into a plethora of people who mistake his views on gardening – which is all he knows – as pure genius. The script is a clever take on suddenly becoming famous.

6. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza
This Indy film from last year is based on a real classified ad the writers found in a magazine that read: “Wanted – someone to go back in time with; must have your own weapons; safety not guaranteed.” Intriguing? Yes. When you find a real life gem like that, how can you not write a fabulous screenplay around it?

7. Amelie (2001) Audrey Tautou
A wonderful and heartwarming French film that focuses on a shy and lonely Parisian waitress (the adorable Tautou) who secretly does good deeds for her neighbors. The story is simple, yet it balances humor and drama brilliantly, and it will change your outlook on life forever. I guarantee it.

8. The Sixth Sense (1999) Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment
This is perhaps the best “I didn’t see that coming” screenplay in history, and although everyone probably knows the twist, I won’t ruin it just in case. In addition, with the Philadelphia connection (M. Knight Shyamalan wrote the terrific screenplay), it’s as if my neighbor wrote it, which means I am very close to his perfection.

9. Midnight in Paris (2011) Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams
Woody Allen’s fantasy about a writer vacationing in France who accidentally finds a wormhole back to the glory days of Paris in the 1920s, and the wonderful writers and artists who gathered nightly at “salons” to discuss their art. Hey, Woody, it’s my fantasy, too.

10. Airplane! (1980) Robert Hays, Leslie Nielsen, Julie Hagerty
This hilarious spoof on the disaster movies of the 1970s, is one of the best comedies ever. Each time I try to write humor, I fail miserably. Since this is the ultimate funny script, it easily makes my top ten list. It proves simple humor can be very funny, and makes me believe that one day I will succeed.

Happy Earth Day

April 22, 2013 — Nature is a beautiful thing.

PV Gazebo
The gazebo at Peddler’s Village in beautiful Bucks County, Pa.
Spring in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park
The Chesapeake Bay at dusk
Sunset in Cape May, N.J.
Sunset in Cape May, N.J.
Lavender Fields at Peace Valley Park in Bucks County, Pa.
Lavender Fields at Peace Valley Park in Bucks County, Pa.

What’s all this fuss I hear about civil humans?

thCAP57HE3April 19, 2013 – It doesn’t seem like a problem. Aren’t humans supposed to be civil?

Confused? Let me explain. In an attempt to add humor to a serious situation, I am referring to civil unions, a la Emily Litella. Alas, there is only one Gilda Radner, part of the original cast of Saturday Night Live, who created the wonderful Emily Litella, the queen of malapropisms, or using the incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound. Emily would make an editorial reply discussing “violins on television” when the issue was “violence on television”. When informed of her blunder, she would reply, “Oh, that’s very different. Never mind.”

When discussing gay marriage with a group of people, chances are you’ll find a few who say civil unions are fine, but marriages should be reserved for what society deems as the traditional man/woman couple. I wasn’t sure what side of the fence I was on because until recently, I didn’t understand the difference. And when discussing the difference in the same group, you’re bound to get the answer that marriage is recognized by the church where a civil union is not.

The root of the issue, I discovered, runs deeper. For example, I have heterosexual friends who married at city hall. Is that considered a civil union? There was no religious ceremony involved. Of course not. Legally, my friends are married, and it is a recognized marriage by their state, all other states, and the church.

A little research informed me that civil unions are recognized unions, just like marriages, but those in civil unions do not enjoy the same rights or benefits as married couples. That’s what our gay friends are fighting for, the same rights and benefits as their married friends.

Additionally, because not all states recognize civil unions, those unions become invalid when crossing state lines where they are not recognized. Married partners can also sponsor their spouse for immigration when necessary, where someone in a civil union cannot. That is a huge difference. Other benefits for married couples, yet not for those in civil unions include joint filing joint tax returns and other tax benefits, legal rights to the assets of a deceased spouse, and family medical leave.

Same sex marriage vs. civil union is a problem that will likely correct itself in the future. Like the Jim Crow laws that permitted segregation up until 1965, most young people today do not have the issues with race or same-sex marriage that generations before them may have had. When they become the generation creating laws, this issue will probably disappear. In the future, people will look back on this situation and just like segregation, wonder why it was ever an issue. Sure, there will always be some who oppose civil unions or same-sex marriage, and that is their right. In a nutshell, that is what is fight is all about. The right to feel the way you do and act accordingly, as long as it isn’t hurting anyone.

As Ms. Litella would say, that’s very different because the topic of civil unions deserves all the fuss. Never mind…

The facts of mother nature

imagesApril 17, 2013 – My mother never sat me down and had the talk.

Instead, the conversation came from my older sister. She explained things to me one afternoon, sitting cross-legged on her bed and all because I asked her what the word “shit” meant.

On one hand, I was a worldly 11-year-old because I already knew much of what she told me about sex. I was privy to that information thanks to my dear friend who gave me the scoop in the alleyway behind her house one day. Yet, I was naïve because I did not know what a common slang word meant.

Well, Sis, I still have a few questions. It all started last week when I overheard a conversation on the elevator. Two men were talking about another man, who at 75 just had a baby with his much younger wife. That started the wheels turning in my brain and I got to thinking about why a woman can’t have a baby beyond 50 or after menopause, yet a man can father a baby until he dies.

Sure, it is a sigh of relief for most women not to have to worry about getting pregnant at 50, and it would surely take its toll on her body, but I wonder why a man’s biology doesn’t work in a similar fashion. Could it be nature’s way of ensuring that humans continue to reproduce? Even if their wife or partner, assuming they are with someone close to their age, cannot reproduce, does nature make them crave and seek out a younger woman who can? Is it simply nature’s course for men to desire more than one partner so they can continue to populate the earth? And is this drive something that women are supposed to accept?

As humans, we continue to evolve, and at a much quicker pace than our ancestors. For example, statistics show that 35% of people are now born without wisdom teeth, and that our jaws are smaller than our ancestors were. Our brains are shrinking as well, suggesting we have to rely on them less than our ancestors did to survive. All of this points to one thing; our bodies evolve because our lifestyle changes. It may not happen overnight, but it does happen.

Or, does it? From the dawn of man, when a young girl of 13 or so began to menstruate, it was a sign that she was ready to have children. Considering people lived shorter lives generations ago, it seems acceptable that 13 was once considered adulthood.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the age of marriage increased to about 18 or so, and today, it has climbed o the late 20s, early 30s, or higher. Yet most girls still begin their cycles at the same young age. Does this indicate that young girls are supposed to continue with the same timeline and have children as teens? Do both of these facts – young girls beginning their cycle and older men continuing to procreate — indicate that nature encourages these connections?

The ability to have children is wonderful, yet is it a woman’s only purpose like nature may indicate? How else can you explain that a woman’s health often declines after menopause, once she has outlived her usefulness.

So many questions, and so few answers. Can anyone make sense of this?

And why do these scenarios seem to favor men? Mother Nature is a woman, after all.

Movie review: 42

42_teaser1sht_blackborder_homepage_hires 2April 15, 2013 – The Philadelphia Phillies, the oldest, one-name, one-city franchise in all of professional sports formed in 1883. The team and the city have a rich and proud history.

The day they played the Brooklyn Dodgers back in 1947, however, the first game with Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrier the year before when he played for an all-white minor league team in Montreal, was not one of the Phillies’ finest moments.

Led by manager Ben Chapman, the Phillies may not have been the only team to oppose playing against the Dodgers because of Jackie Robinson, but they were the most vocal when compared to other teams above the Mason-Dixon line. Chapman and his players threw an abundance of verbal abuse at Robinson each time he came up to the plate, and he also instructed his pitchers to play a little “bean ball” with him, a term for striking someone with the baseball in the head intentionally.

The conflict worsened a few weeks later when the Brooklyn Dodgers visited Philadelphia. Not only did Robinson and the team suffer additional verbal abuse, but they were also denied rooms at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, despite their reservation and the fact that they stayed there every time they were in town to play the Phillies.

It’s difficult to realize that people believed this horrendous behavior was acceptable anywhere, but especially in the city of brotherly love, and only a short time ago in our nation’s history. The movie “42”, which stars Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the man who drafted Robinson, and Chadwick Boseman as the man himself, did an admirable job depicting the horrors the first African-American ball player in the majors endured to realize his dream. Robinson’s courage paved the way for others to follow in his footsteps, finally putting an end to segregation in Major League Baseball.

Director Brian Helgeland also wrote the screenplay, which takes the audience on a journey through the best and worst of baseball’s history. He makes you cheer for Robinson and rejoice when he succeeds, especially in one poignant scene I’m not likely to forget. A dad is sitting in the stand with his young son on a sunny afternoon, having a chat about the boy’s favorite baseball idol, Eddie Stanky, second baseman for the Dodgers. When Robinson takes the field, the boy’s father begins shouting humiliating racial slurs as the young boy watches his father a bit puzzled at first, and then begins to mimic him. I’m not sure whether that scene was based on fact, or the writer assumed it occurred. A little preachy perhaps if it is fiction, but it is true children learn to hate from watching their parents.

The roles are perfectly cast, as well, with Harrison and Boseman shining as the main characters. It may be a story that’s been told many times before, but it still feels fresh and significant. They movie doesn’t gloss over the fact that Rickey wanted to bring a black player into an all-white league to attract African-American fans, which would make him more money. It’s not about black and white, he said, it’s about green. Still, he comes across as a genuine man who grows to care about Robinson, and wants to help him through his fight.

The movie isn’t perfect, but it’s close. To use a baseball metaphor, it’s a double with an error that allows the runner to get to third. The error is the musical score, which is too loud, too noticeable and clichéd. It’s true that music is important to any movie, but it works best if it stays in the background where it belongs. This score took me out of the movie’s spell too frequently because there are so many dramatic scenes. Yet, it is a small price to pay for a good story and a solid performance by its cast members.

Today is Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball. All players on all teams across MLB will wear Robinson’s number 42, which has long been retired throughout the league, to honor his legacy.

Rating: 4

Rating System:
5. Great Movie, see it now
4. Good movie and worth the price of admission
3. It’s OK, but I’d wait for the DVD
2. Proceed with caution
1. Don’t bother

Movie review: Good Ol’ Freda

freda kellyApril 12, 2013 – Imagine this. At the tender age of 17 you are offered the most coveted secretarial position in the world, which involves working for quartet of musicians known as the Beatles. That’s what happened to Freda Kelly, a timid teen from Liverpool who was thrown into the whirlwind of what would become Beatlemania in 1962. A follower of the “boys” from the Cavern Club days of 1961, Kelly was a fan first, before the Beatles became famous, and before she accepted the position offered to her by Brian Epstein, whom she called Eppy.

Ryan White’s lively documentary “Good Ol’ Freda” shines the spotlight on the behind the scenes star who breaks her silence after 50 years, and offers a front row seat to the craziness that became her life for the next decade. The film debuted to standing ovations at SXSW in March.

Kelly had been approached several times through the years, offered multiple book and movie deals, and turned them away. Last year, she approached a family friend (White) about making a film, explaining that she wanted to document her memories for her three-year-old grandson before she forgot them. She says she wants him to know that she was young once, and had a lot of fun in the 1960s. Kelly answered most questions presented to her in the film, but not all, claiming some things will remain private.

I am thankful for her change of heart, and that she did answer most questions. How else would we know that she valued the friendships she made with the Fab Four much more than money, and when they broke up, she gave away all of the memorabilia she collected through the years to true Beatle fans, when selling those items could have allowed her family live in grand style for the rest of their days. Kelly hasn’t retired yet, and at 67, still works as a secretary in Liverpool in a job she says she enjoys, but isn’t as much fun. A loyal and honest person, Kelly not only had close relationships with the group, but their families, as well. She lost her mother at an early age, and explained that to Ringo’s mum, she became an adopted daughter.

So, how did the film, which opened the 2013 WXPN Film Festival last night, get its name? Kelly coordinated the group’s fan club, and was in charge of crafting the recorded messages The Beatles sent to its members each Christmas. On the first recording, George Harrison gives thanks to “Freda Kelly in Liverpool,” and John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr together exclaimed, “Good ol’ Freda!” The rest, as they say, is history.

As the head of the fan club, she made sure all of the letters the Beatles received were answered, and try to handle as many requests from fans as she could. When she received a pillow case from a fan asking her if Ringo could sleep on it, for example, she approached Ringo’s mother to make sure he did it and sent it back to the fan afterwards, as requested. She visited barber shops after the group would get haircuts to collect their hair to send to fans. She’d also get requests for pieces of clothing and towels, and even fired a group of young girls hired to help her for sending locks of their own hair and claiming it was from one of the Beatles. It wasn’t honest, she said, and after they did that, she couldn’t trust them any longer.

Kelly’s story is as endearing as it is entertaining. Presently, “Good Ol” Freda” is making the rounds on the film festival circuit in the United States and Canada, where it’s being touted as a “rousing crowd pleaser”. For those who remember the early days of the Beatles, and their evolution over their 10 years together, the film is a great walk down memory lane. Beatle fans won’t be disappointed. Watch for the film’s wider release soon.

An interesting side note, Philadelphia’s former news anchor Larry Kane, who toured with the Beatles to cover their story in 1964 and 1965, spoke a little about the film before it started. He explained that aside from the movies the Beatles made, such as “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Help”, “Yellow Submarine”, “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Let it Be”,  “Good Ol’ Freda” is the only movie with Beatle songs in the soundtrack.

The First Line

firstline133April 10, 2013 – Many writers would agree that the first line of any piece, fiction or nonfiction, is the most difficult to produce. Once you get something on the blank page, the process becomes less intimidating, making it easier to continue.

If you write short stories, articles, or essays and struggle with a beginning, may be what you are looking for. Not only does the site provide the first line for you, it challenges you to submit your work as part of a writing contest.

If you are not a fan of writing contests, you can use the first line prompts to practice your craft, a surefire way to become a better writer. Take one of the first lines, write for 10 minutes without worrying about content or style, and see where your creativity takes you. It is a great cure for writer’s block.

WXPN Film Festival kicks off this week

imagesApril 9, 2013 – The second annual WXPN Film Festival is back.

A collaboration between WXPN, the listener-sponsored radio station that broadcasts from the University of Pennsylvania campus and the Philadelphia Film Society, the festival begins Thursday and runs through Sunday.

This year’s event features 17 musical films (documentaries, musician biopics and movies with great soundtracks), live music performances and a variety of other activities, such as an audience sing-along to the musical “Grease”.

The festival kicks off at the Annenburg-Zellerbach Center (36th & Walnut Streets) with the “Good Ol’ Freda”, the documentary about Freda Kelly who worked as the Beatles’ secretary for 11 years. After the screening there will be an opening night party featuring Philly’s AfroDJiak playing songs by the Fab Four. I’ll be there to cover the event and will review the film on Friday.

To purchase tickets or review a complete lineup of movies and activities, visit