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Tagline: Their story. Their world. Their future.

Preshow Entertainment: Greg Giraldo: Midlife Vices

Pizza: Valley's Pizza Land


It must be me. I've become crotchety. For it seems as if I am the only one who hated FREEDOM WRITERS (2007). This is huge, coming from a guy who is a TIT sucker (Teachers Inspiring Teens). LEAN ON ME, MR. HOLLAND'S OPUS, DANGEROUS MINDS and TO SIR WITH LOVE...love them all. I think I may have even liked THE PRINCIPAL. But this one was an exhausting outing that just didn't feel real, which is troublesome as it's based on real events.

The prologue gives us footage and stats from the Rodney King riots (120 gang related killings in Long Beach, where this true story takes place), and a VO from student Eva (April L. Hernandez), telling us that we kill each other over "race, pride and respect". It ends with her saying: "War has been declared." And then we cut to:

The little teacher that could, Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), a non-stop perky soul. She's like Mary Richards with three times as many teeth. And to match her set of pearly whites, she wears white pearls, a necklace that the department head cautions her, in an overdone runner, not to wear to class. Why? Because Erin's class will consist of mostly F students with a 5th grade reading level, students whose dossiers tell of foster care, probation and disciplinary transfers. See, 75% of the good (read: white) students left two years ago when the district enacted voluntary integration.

It doesn't take long for a fight to erupt in Erin's classroom, maybe a whole 30 seconds. Later on, when a huge brawl breaks out in the courtyard, Erin looks on in shock, as if this has never happened in the world...or on YouTube. It didn't make me love the moment any more because she was standing in front of a giant peace sign. Uggh.

We all know the subtext of these movies: "Who is really the teacher and who is the student?" We get that. But how dare any person, real or fictional, walk into a class of troubled kids and not know what to expect. Was this woman just released from an isolation tank? How was this a surprise to her? This character (or at least how she's portrayed) is so unreal. She feels like a bad actress in a bad play in a bad theater. It's the ignorant way she approaches nearly everything, even the way she asks a Border's employee if she could get a bulk rate on books. It's played less like a smart and savvy teacher who knows what's going on in the world (how I imagine the real Gruwell is) and more like Anna Faris in THE HOUSE BUNNY. Cases in point:

On the second day, when she asks the class if they know Homer, "The Odyssey," one student cracks that he knows Homer the Simpson. In an attempt to get the class on her side, she retaliates with - "No, but he may have been bald like Homer Simpson!" and then laughs at her own silly joke. D'oh! I'm surprised they didn't pop her right there and then. Later, she brings in a boom box and starts dancing around with that stupid look on her face. Now it's me that wants to pop her. And it doesn't get better (pronouncing Tupac Shakur's name wrong, saying "my badness"). Yeah, I get that she's supposed to be lost here, but there's a fat line between clueless and dumbass. The kids aren't the only ones here who haven't done their homework.

At odds with not only the students but also the faculty, Erin decides to buy her kids some books out of her own pocket. To afford this (and to raise money for an upcoming event as well) Erin gets a second job as...a bra saleswoman, and then a third job as a hotel concierge, without telling her husband. Yeah, without letting her husband know. Wow, that's selfish and...wrong. I mean, it's truly noble what she's doing with these kids, but come on, you're pushing your husband away, which is especially egregious if your McHusband is played by Patrick Dempsey (as invisible in the movie as he is in Erin's life).

The only moments that felt real to me arrived when the kids read from the diaries that Erin suggests they write. These very diaries were the genesis of the movie, as the dialogue was all taken from the real life Freedom Writers.

Another problem I had with FREEDOM WRITERS is that it had no true grit. It was about tough kids and gangs yet it felt as shiny as WEST SIDE STORY. This made me doubt these things actually happened, not because they didn't (I'm sure they did), but because of the disingenuous, sometimes silly, and sometimes even condescending way they were executed in the film.

But by far, the biggest problem for me (at the risk of repeating myself) was Hilary Swank's quixotic choices. She's one of those actresses you really want to like as a person (I do, from what I've seen in interviews, etc.) and as an actor (she was stunning in BOYS DON'T CRY). But here I just kept thinking that her Erin is doing all this to make herself feel fulfilled, not to help the kids. And also...she's so damn annoying! When she returns home, she yelps out rapid-fire questions to her husband without even waiting for his answer. I realize they're setting this up for a payoff later in the movie, but man, who could live with someone like this?? She's losing her husband (and family-to-be) because of all this and she doesn't have to. She could have had both but she was selfish. Maybe the real Gruwell did this. Maybe she was always smiling. Maybe this and maybe that. But maybe in a movie, it maybe doesn't work. It has to come from a good place, like, for example, Jeff Bridges in TUCKER: A MAN AND HIS DREAM. He smiled all the way through also, but he was fighting for his dream. I never felt this was Gruwell's dream.

FREEDOM WRITERS does provide us with a treat with the appearance of character actress Pat Carroll. She plays the real life Miep Gies, the woman who hid Anne Frank and her family. A great scene commanded by a great actress (coincidentally, she played Mary Richard's hospital roomie in an episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW). Also of note, Imelda Staunton as the staunch department head constantly trying to bring Erin and her enthusiasm down, though I often wondered why, as you couldn't argue with Erin's results. Staunton was still the most, if not one of the few, believable characters in the movie.

This movie should have had me crying my eyes out. All these TIT movies are supposed to do that. They're good at manipulating the tears. Hitting the beats just right. LEAN ON ME, which is so full of Nutrasweet that the DVD should come with a warning sticker, is a thousand times better at manipulating because you believed Morgan Freeman. I never believed Hilary Swank. Class dismissed.

PRESHOW ENTERTAINMENT: Greg Giraldo: Midlife Vices

I love Giraldo. I first noticed him back, I don't know, maybe around 2002? Back before he went to a salon for his hair and his voice didn't yet achieve the rasp so many comedians get from non-stop patter (and alcohol). He was funny then and he's funny now. Though his subjects (gay, Puerto Rican day parade, fat kids, peanuts) aren't new, his take, delivery and timing are terrific. Known now for his frequent appearances on Comedy Central's roasts, MIDLIFE VICES is an hour-long, all-Giraldo treat. My favorite riff? "LOL!", and my favorite bit: "Snacks!" What's so funny about LOL and snacks? Maybe you should watch this and find out. Snacks!!

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