MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs, The Rest: Bad Teacher; Page One: Inside the New York Times

Bad Teacher (One and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Jake Kasdan, 2011 (Columbia)

Seen any good movies lately?

Good movies? Not really. But I saw a bad movie last Wednesday. I mean, a really bad movie. This movie was  sooooo bad….

How bad was it?

So bad that they put “bad” in the actual title! Like they were proud of it. Bad Teacher!

Oh  yeah? What’s it about?

Well, it’s hard to say. It’s about the teaching profession, I guess. And it’s about….about deviant behavior. It’s about getting high and screwing everybody’s brains out and screwing up on your job, and lying and cheating and treating people like shit…It’s about being reaalllly bad.

A message movie, huh?

Not exactly. Unless the message of the movie was “Fuck you.” You see, these two guys from “The Office” – Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg — decided they wanted to make this show, their first feature movie, and they got….

Two guys from the office? Which office? The one down the hall? The guy that’s always playing AC/DC?

No, not the office, our office. Two guys from “The Office“: the TV show “The Office.” You know, that TV series we stole from Ricky Gervais and the Brits, with Steve Carell as the schnook boss Michael, and John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer and Rainn Wilson. That “Office”…

Don’t yell. I know. Funny show.

Stupnitsky and Eisenberg: They’re like executive producers, and they’re also a writing team, they wrote about 15 “Offices,” and, for their first feature movie as co-screenwriters they got his idea: Put Cameron Diaz in another version of Bad Santa

Cameron Diaz? Bad Santa? Cameron Diaz plays Santa Claus? Christ, what a lousy idea! Who wants to see Cameron Diaz in a Santa Claus suit, for God’s sake? An elf suit maybe. A very small elf suit. Or maybe a sprig of mistletoe.

No, not Cameron Diaz as Bad Santa. Cameron Diaz as “Elizabeth Halsey” in a Bad Santa kind of movie. Actually it’s called Bad Teacher, like I told you — if you were listening, you schmuck. And she plays this blonde English teacher with a face like a depraved angel and a body that could burn down the school, and she lies and swears and steals and gets drunk and smokes pot and screws guys’ brains out and makes her students cheat on tests. She does every awful thing you can possibly think of (not that I think smoking pot or screwing is awful) except volunteer for the Rick Perry campaign.

Why?

Why what?

Why is she so bad? Lousy childhood? Abuse? Too much booze and weed? Revenge against some principal that screwed her over? Rebelling against the whole fucked-up educational establishment?

No. No reason, nothing particular. She’s just bad. She‘s a total bitch who does awful things. And always gets away with it.

Who’ll want to watch that?

What do you mean, who wants to watch it? Because it’s Cameron Diaz, for Christ’s sake, you moron. Haven’t you ever heard of femme fatales? I bet you want to watch it already, you banana-brain. I bet that, after I leave, you run right out and try to catch an afternoon show, just so you can see the scene where Cameron wears short shorts at a car wash and rubs down the windshield.

She really does that?

It’s a comedy, so she does all these bad things and we laugh just like we laughed at Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa and Jack Black in The School of Rock. Or anyway, we’re supposed to laugh. They’ve got screwing scenes and humongous titties at the tit doctor’s office and she dry-humps this one wishy-washy candy ass teacher named Scott Delacorte played by Justin Timberlake and another doofus, Russell the gym teacher (but he’s less of a putz), played by Jason Segel, the I Love You, Man guy.

And there’s this other jealous teacher who hates Elizabeth, Amy Squirrel, played by that actress who was the hooker in that Woody Allen movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. You know….

Lucy Punch.

Yeah, Lucy Punch. And Phyllis Smith, from The Office; she‘s in it. And John Michael Higgins plays this idiot school superintendent, Wally Snur, who has this thing about dolphins….

The Dolphin Tale crowd huh? Does she screw him? The superintendent I mean.  Snur.

You know, I don’t remember! It all begins to run together in my mind after a while, like goulash. I don’t know, maybe she does, and maybe he starts crying about dolphins and can’t do it…

Who directed it?

Jake Kasdan. You know: Lawrence and Meg Kasdan’s son.

Did he do a good job?

I guess so. I mean it was bad. So maybe it was good.

Ed Wood Jr. bad or Richard Pryor bad?

Both. Either. Hell, I don’t know.

Well I gotta admit, that sounds like pretty hot movie. How did they get it past the MPAA? Somebody there love dolphins? Cameron doesn’t do any hanky-panky with her students, does she?

No, but they have this one Tea and Sympathy kind of scene where she whips off her black bra and gives it to this one loser kid so he can run around waving it front of all his friends and he won’t be a loser any more. But that’s the good side of Elizabeth Halsey, the sympathetic side that wants to help. You know, like Deborah Kerr pulls off her bra and says: “Years from now, when you’re talking about this, and you will, be kind.”

Deborah Kerr. Hot stuff. Great classy redhead.  So, Cameron has her good side. In the end, she’s really a good teacher?

No, she‘s a terrible teacher. She comes into class hung over, insults her students, throws on a DVD of Stand and Deliver, and takes a snooze…

So what are you telling me? You mean she just sleeps through the entire movie, or the entire class, and we get to watch Stand and Deliver again?

Actually, at one point, she decides to help her students raise money having car washes (you remember?) and by helping them study “To Kill a Mockingbird” — the book, not the movie — and win a state achievement test contest…

Ah! So she does turn into a good teacher at the end….

No. She’s just doing it so she can steal the money and use it for a boob operation.

Hmmmm. And this is funny? You laughed at this when you saw it?

Well, not exactly. I mean I didn’t exactly laugh. But I knew when I was supposed to laugh. I could see where the laughs might come; I could see what was supposed to be funny. ..

And what about the audience you were with? Did they laugh? I mean, did they genuinely, honestly laugh?

Well, quietly maybe. Every once in a while. And one time, there was one guy that cheered.

Which scene?

The bra scene.

I bet that was you.

(Brief silence.) Nah. You know something? I think maybe the problem with this movie was that there was this awful lead character, and she was surrounded by awful or stupid people, and they didn’t develop the kids any, so there was nobody who wasn‘t a sort of a slime or a schnook or an idiot or a kind of bad person too, except for Phyllis Smith as Elizabeth’s pal, and she doesn’t do a lot. Nobody else to suggest the world isn’t a pile of crap. So the movie becomes almost like right wing propaganda. You can’t criticize crap, or even make funny jokes about it very well if you don’t have a reference point. You just begin to drown in it.

So you’re saying watching this movie was like drowning in crap? I know some movie critics who would say that means it’s maybe a masterpiece. They’d call it “A fierce, funny, dark, scorching expose of social decay.” And educational decay. And corruption in the brassiere industry. And they’d probably get quoted.

What can you say? What’s bad is good, and what’s good is bad, I guess. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

Hmm. Deep, deep. Yeah. Well, you told me it was bad. What can you do? You know I hate to say it. But this sounds like one of those movies the Brits can do better. They’re good at this kind of bad thing. Right now, they write this good-bad stuff better. Even though we used to be great at it. Hell, we did Bad Santa. But that was Terry Zwigoff and those “Phillip Morris” guys, Ficarra and Requa. Outsiders.

You’re right. I mean: You’re bad.

Richard Pryor bad? Or Ed Wood, Jr. bad? Or The Producers bad?

Richard Pryor bad.

Yeah! I’m bad. I’m bad. Anyway, I heard about this other comedy idea that’s making the rounds. Bad CongressmanBen Stiller. turned it down. They even got cameos written for Newt and Weiner and Boehner and that Cantor guy.

Is it good? I mean, is it bad?

Is it bad? It’s a catastrophe.

Extras: Featurettes, Bad Stuff, Wallpaper, Yearbook.

 

Page One: Inside the New York Times (Two Stars)

U.S.: Andrew Rossi, 2011 (Magnolia)

Page One: Inside the New York Times.  Magnificent opportunity, mostly wasted.

This “fly-on-the-wall” documentary look at America’s celebrated “paper of record” during a time of crisis and upheaval in the entire newspaper industry — or more pointedly, this fly-on-the-wall look at the New York Times’ Media Desk, with side glances at the rest of the paper — often seemed to me as diffuse and wandering (and as uninteresting) as watching that same fly buzzing aimlessly, skittering from one spot of wall to the next, in some sterile-looking Times glass-wall office. Or to watch it hopelessly trapped in the flypaper of editor Bruce Headlam’s media section, as Headlam’s writers try to unravel media trends, uncover media news, and nail the cause of the Times’ (and every other paper’s) current financial vulnerability: the Internet.

There are probably a dozen ways that director-producer-cameraman-co writer Andrew Rossi and co writer Kate Novack could have approached this material, all more interesting than this. The approach I would have liked to see myself: a broader look at some days in the lives of the paper, showing us how different sections and writers cover their beats and get their stories (including, but not exclusively, the media section), with looks at some of the paper‘s star personalities and some behind-the-scenes stars — as well as a demonstration of why the New York Times is troubled but irreplaceable, which seems to the be this documentary’s not-so-hidden agenda.

Such a movie could have been both illuminating and engrossing. This movie isn‘t. I worked for two decades at two large papers, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, and I’d have to say that Page One — despite the “unprecedented access” of which the Rossi’s and Novack’s movie‘s press notes brag — never really gave me the feel and thrill, except sporadically, of life and work in a major newspaper, much less the major newspaper. Maybe that’s because of Rossi‘s narrative strategy, which borrows from Frederick Wiseman and Alan Pakula. Maybe it’s because of too much time, or too little. Maybe it’s because of the good manners and gentility of the Times, which for years has insisted on the irritating if endearing style-rule of putting a Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. before the repeated mentions of the last names of the people in most stories.

Fortunately, Mr. Rossi did find a star as (or before) he buzzed around for that precious year. David Carr, the Times’ hard-nosed media reporter — a 25-year veteran newsman who stumbled into drug addiction and then straightened out his life to become a star reporter at the paper of record — is every bit as terrific a camera subject as most of the reviewers of this film have said.

Mr. Carr doggedly tracks his stories, and questions or confronts his sometimes evasive interviewees — which include representatives of the upstart Vice Magazine and of my old employers, the Tribune Company. (Mr. Carr’s Tribune story: the mess that resulted after Sam Zell’s purchase of the paper, largely with the Trib employee’s pension fund.) And, as Mr. Rossi follows Mr. Carr through the mess created by Mr. Zell and others, Mr. Carr seems to be…Ah, the hell with it: Carr seems the very model of a classic print journalist: all the way from the Ben HechtCharles MacArthur masterpiece “The Front Page” to Redford and Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein in Pakula’s All the President’s Men: hard-nosed, superbly informed, unafraid, determined to nail that story, but more careful with the facts than either Hecht or Hildy Johnson were. 

Single-handedly, Carr saves the movie, which might otherwise languish in the hands of suits (though, like most newspapers these days, the Times’ workplace uniform often seems to eschew jackets). Or zap around with Internet whizzes like gabby ex-blog phenom Brian Stelter, who chooses the film‘s shooting schedule to go on a diet and drop 80 pounds.

Hmm. While Stelter sometimes seems to be using his appearances, and his diet, to wangle an eventual TV spot (or maybe just a slot on a Nutri-System commercial), Carr at first seems the very model of the kind of star journalist modern TV mostly doesn’t want to put before its cameras — because his features are weathered, his voice is scratchy, his manner curmudgeonly, because he looks his age.

Yet certainly, a personality this compelling and a master of information this key and this visual, belongs on TV more than the idiotic procession of flirty blow-dry blondes and look-straight-ahead handsome newsreaders or eccentric blowhards with which the TV News networks and stations deluge us these days.

I won’t deny the material this documentary covers is important. Times ex-executive editor Bill Keller appears on camera himself, and allows the recording of a Times Page One meeting (where the content for the day is set), however chary he may have been of letting Rossi wander around the offices. (The Media desk’s two female staffers refused to appear on camera, which gives the section a deceptive ‘boy’s club” look.)

But, except for Carr, Page One struck me as a bore, and not even the presence on editor Headlam’s wall of a poster from my favorite movie, Citizen Kane, won me over. (It was a French poster showing an alarmingly slim Orson Welles, and perhaps Welles became Stelter‘s diet model). I guarantee you, a day, or a year, at the Times has to be more exciting than most of what we see here: the polite Page One meetings, the “Dignity, always dignity” editorial gabs and confabs, the mostly stiff dialogues, almost everything except those precious moments when Carr picks up his notepad, gets on the phone, and nails his story.

As for the New York Times and its greater fragility in the Internet age, I’d have to say this. There’s very little I love as much as the printed page, definitely including newspapers, and very little that bothers me as much as the thought of their possible demise. One of the really wonderful moments of my life was the time I saw, on the library wall of Marta (Mrs. Lion) Feuchtwanger in Los Angeles, a framed original front page from the Parisian newspaper that carried Emile Zola‘s “J’accuse” piece on The Dreyfus Affair. M. Zola, bravo. Mr. Woodward-and-Bernstein, right on. Mr. Hecht, you’re my idol.

But there’s a reason that people, especially young people, go to the Internet and avoid newsprint. (They’re wrong, but there’s a reason.) Most of the schools just haven’t taught students to love books and the printed word, as they should have, an educational problem desperately in need of a solution. The web is also easier and cheaper to use — and, I have to admit, easier to write for. The mere fact that you don’t have to worry as much about length, and about cutting to fit, is a huge plus for writers, and one that the papers should have exploited more on their own websites.

Newspapers –including the Times — maybe could have forestalled their current crisis, by figuring out more creative ways to use the Internet (as the Times is trying to do), and to meld their one great advantage — their superb (but now shrinking and withering) content-gathering organizations — with Internet speed and freedom and access. Now the newsrooms, and sometimes whole papers, are being decimated, partly because people are too used to exactly that speed and access.

I was about to say “unprecedented access.” But, as the better parts of Page One, the David Carr sections, show us, the news, in whatever form or package, always thrives on a good story well told, on a human being pouring out the facts, the notes, and their meaning and feeling, at the typewriter (or computer) , on a reporter with “J’Accuse,” or Ben Hecht, or Woodward and Bernstein, on his/her mind — and one more deadline to crack. Nothing, not all the flies, or just that one fly, buzzing on all the glass walls in all the news organs fit to print, can replace that thrill, that charge.

Excuse me: not all the flies or just Mr. Fly, buzzing.

All-the-News-That-Fits-We-Print Spoiler Alert

Meanwhile, and even though I didn’t like Page One — and neither did the Times reviewer, Michael Kinsley — here’s a belated (hopefully not last) hurrah for the movie’s menaced subject, The New York Times, and for all the sometimes pretentious but palpable joy it’s given me, since (jes’ a simple country boy) I first visited, near Park Row, the family of a Manhattan girl actress from the University of Wisconsin whom I loved madly back in the ‘60s, and her mother said to me, “Michael, have you experienced the Sunday Times yet?“ and I heard the plump plop of the paper when it hit the floor, and opened it up to Arts and Leisure and saw the Nina-laden inky swirl of the latest Al Hirschfeld cartoon.

It may not seem so, at times, but most of us are rooting for you. All of you. I am too. Especially Mr. Carr.

End of Alert

One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs, The Rest: Bad Teacher; Page One: Inside the New York Times”

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