Over the past two years there have been a spate of tiny, reform-touting documentaries lamenting the dismal state of American public education, including “The Cartel”, “The Lottery”, “Teached” and “Paramount Duty”, but the 800-pound gorilla was of course Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman”. Taking its name from an anecdote about the intractable stasis and absence of any single superhuman rescuer as it relates to the education problem, the movie explores a variety of reasons for public school underachievement, and paints a fairly dire portrait of future American readiness in a global economy.
So why return to it now, seven months after its theatrical bow, and a month-plus after its first DVD release? Well, the fact that the film foundered at the box office — grossing only $6.5 million, in the wake of Guggenheim’s $50 million haul for the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth” — is a sad testament to our need to “keep” talking about the illuminating power of a movie like this. This fact was again hammered home to me recently, when adding 57 cents to a pre-paid gas purchase, in order to receive a flat two dollars in change, turned into some terrible, terrible Abbott-and-Costello routine. This wasn’t merely a case of five or 10 seconds of fumbling with change, it was full, minute-plus car crash, punctuated by the look of pure confusion on the teenage or early twentysomething clerk’s face, as if the entire concept I was pitching was alien. If I passed through irritation and exasperation, and then actually felt bad trying to explain the simple math of the proposed transaction, I can only imagine how it must feel to be the sort of person who goes through their life unable or unwilling to accrue the sort of basic knowledge and working skills that make a functional public life easier. I wanted to hand the kid a copy of “Waiting for Superman”, in other words, and say, “Hey dude… it’s not too late.”
Perhaps there’s someone like that in your extended circle of friends and family — or parents-to-be who are fretting about their kids being able to get a leg up in the world some day. Either way, “Waiting for Superman” is an engaging, powerhouse drama, because Guggenheim doesn’t demonize in some blind rage. Tackling teachers’ unions and other entrenched bureaucracies as well as individual accountability, he flips the script on conventional wisdom that failing kids are only a product of failing (largely urban) neighborhoods and uninterested parents, showing instead how schools that let children down actually help foster larger social unrest, and how smart, targeted reform — including the type peddled by Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone — can not merely close but flat-out obliterate the achievement gap between poor kids and those in better economic households. The film’s DVD presentation includes four additional inspiring teacher/student stories; a look at the film’s title track song, composed by John Legend; a conversation with Guggenheim; and, hearteningly, in most copies, a $25 gift card which allows the purchaser to donate to a local school of their choice.
Oscar nominee Ed Harris is an interesting actor, delivering solid supporting performances in bigger budget films with studio backing and/or known directors (“A History of Violence”, “Gone Baby Gone”, “National Treasure: Book of Secrets”, “The Way Back”) while also working in a mixture of smaller films. Sometimes these efforts are less than successful (“Touching Home”, the recent “That’s What I Am”), but sometimes they provide enough of a meaty framework for Harris’ skill set to truly shine. Directed by actor Ash Adams (who also costars), “Once Fallen” is a case of the latter. The story follows Chance (Brian Presley), a low-level thug who gets out of prison and looks to start over, but finds things complicated by both having to assume his best friend’s debt to a local mobster, and still deal with his father Liam (Harris), who is the head of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, and serving a life sentence for murder. Naturally, Liam reacts none too positively to his son taking up with Pearl (Taraji P. Henson), an African-American woman. Some of the plotting here is pat, but Harris — trading in colors with which he doesn’t typically get to work — locates an unnerving scumminess that informs the hatred and bigotry of his character. Bonus features on “Once Fallen”‘s DVD presentation, with comes with an English 5.1 Dolby digital surround sound audio track and optional English and Spanish subtitles, include a feature-length audio commentary track from Adams, as well as a gallery of trailers of other films from distributor First Look. Oh, and there’s a digital copy of the movie as well, which is a nice add-on.
Possessing a unique skill set that includes a technical proficiency as well as an unbridled agitator’s soul, Danish director Lars von Trier is one of the most controversial filmmakers working today. A thematically dense, disturbingly explicit drama that centers on an unnamed couple who grapple with grief in the wake of losing a child, the unrated “Antichrist” is seemingly built intently for divisiveness. Broadly speaking, it’s a psychological horror film about the mysterious distance between a man and woman. Driven by pain, they retreat to a cabin deep in the woods, where weird and terrible things happen. The performances from Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are intense, full-throttle things, almost calculatedly designed to elicit dutiful critical praise of their air-quote “braveness.” And hey, if that seems like a backhanded compliment, it’s not meant as such; the pair wholly submit to von Trier’s macabre dance, and each convey, in their own way, a gaping emotional hollowness that informs what on the written page are some outrageous words and deeds. If one endures “Antichrist” more than one enjoys, appreciates or even admires it, the gut-punching flashes of anxiety it evokes at least make it essential one-time viewing for true cinephiles.
Presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s superb Blu-ray release features a high-definition digital transfer approved by von Trier and supervised by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, plus a DTS-HD master audio soundtrack. Its characteristically robust slate of bonus features consists of an audio commentary track with von Trier and film scholar Murray Smith; video interviews with the director and cast; behind-the-scenes footage from the movie’s Cannes Film Festival premiere; a full seven video pieces diving into its production; and a booklet with an essay by film scholar Ian Christie.
If more straightforward and/or older horror films are your thing (or, with Father’s Day looming, your dad’s), “The Black Sleep” is an off-the-beaten path genre entry that is definitely worth giving a spin. The plot is boilerplate Gothic horror — a crazed surgeon (Basil Rathbone), ostenisbly looking to seize upon advances that will help him rescue his wife from a coma, works through a string of dark experiments and procedures that create a gallery of human mutants — but the participants here (the cast of locked-away monstrosities includes Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, Lon Chaney and Tor Johnson), as well as the level of technical proficiency and (for its time) gore, make “The Black Sleep” something engaging and oddly special.
Filmed for a wider projection, “The Black Sleep” is unfortunately framed and delivered in a full-screen presentation on home video, which mucks things up a bit. The transfer isn’t all the great, either (grain abounds), but the biggest strike, since the movie is part of MGM’s special “movie-on-demand” limited edition series of DVD releases, is the utter lack of supplemental bonus features, other than the inclusion of the movie’s trailer. Given the cast here, this is the type of reclamation project which should be in the wheelhouse of the DVD format, shining a contextualized and illuminating light on oddities of years gone by. Instead, it gets only a pat on the head, alas.
Written by: Brent Simon