‘Too Cool for School’: Top 10 Random Films Making the Grade

June 2014. So what does the month of June usually remind one of during this time of year? Well, besides Father’s Day and possible scheduled weddings this sixth month in the calendar year marks the celebrated occasion for the ending of the school semester. Whether students are simply looking forward to their summer vacation or managed to complete a milestone in graduating from said grammar school, middle school, high school or college the month of June is closely identified with the school season coming to a close (unless one can escape the doldrums of a summer school session).

So to mark this auspicious occasion we should take a look at some random films with an educational theme. Hence, “Too Cool for School: Top 10 Random Films Making the Grade” will briefly examine a selection of higher education ditties that taught us something (or perhaps nothing) during our heyday of cramming for tests.

Frank O.’s Top 10 Random Films Making the Grade are as follows: (in alphabetical order)

1.) Bad Teacher (2011)

download (1)PLOT: Middle school teacher Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is the lazy-minded curvaceous classroom cutie with a serious hang-up…she hates her gig as an educator and basically phones in her job performance at the blackboard. Elizabeth cusses out the kids, smokes weed and drinks like a fish and is completely disconnected with her charges. Talking about being a school dropout! Oh yeah, Elizabeth cherishes her role as an opportunistic gold-digger engaged to a loaded wallet but when her wealthy meal ticket dumps her she must return to the miseries of her pesky pupils and figure out a way to land a potential rich suitor in substitute teacher Scott (Justin Timberlake) while dealing with a rival looking for Scott’s affections in fellow love-struck teacher Amy (Lucy Punch). Meanwhile, average-looking and low-wage earning gym teacher Russell (Jason Segel) would love to cozy up to the shallow and shady Elizabeth.

Frank’s report card: Bad Teacher came off as relentlessly gimmicky and woefully shoddy. The raunchy one-note  jokes/gags  and Diaz’s debauchery-driven diva had all the manufactured sauciness of flushing a geometry notebook down the boys’ locker room urinals.  This formulaic farce should not have lasted during a 15-minute recess break much less its 92-minute running time. Some may have been hot for this particular tiresome teacher but for others Elizabeth and her flaky faculty deserved some time in detention hall. Frank’s grade: D-

2.) The Blackboard Jungle (1955)

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PLOT: English teacher Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) arrives at a problematic rough-and-tumble inner-city boys school to perform his classroom instruction duties but is met with complete resistance from his troubled students, cynical teaching staff and the top-level administrators. A newcomer to the world of education, Dadier is determined to try and apply his profession to these misguided youths. With no real experience in handling these unfocused ruffians can Dadier get through to them or should he move on to another learning institution where he can get through to his class without psychological complications?

Frank’s report card: The Blackboard Jungle was very compelling and indeed ahead of its time for the mid 1950’s in depicting urban strife within the imperfect citywide school system–something not likely to be demonstrated during the prospering Wonder Bread years of the Eisenhower Administration. Ford made for a straight-laced and idealistic mentor trying to mend the broken hearts and spirits of the disenfranchised young men he was hired in which to shape their minds. The fact that Blackboard Jungle cast a young Sidney Poitier as a rebellious black student with emotional hostility and defensiveness was daring gesture for that time. Look for other future notables such as M*A*S*H’s Jamie Farr (credited as Jameel Farah) and the late Vic Morrow. Frank’s grade: A

3.) ELECTION (1999)

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PLOT: Overachiever Nebraskan high school student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) has accomplished everything humanly possible in her academic career. She is a stickler for obtaining excellent grades, joining countless clubs and planting a chipper smile on her face when socializing with schoolmates and faculty alike. Tracy wants to be considered the ultimate student and look the part for when the prestigious colleges come calling. The only thing left to do is for her to run for student body president which would indeed make her look more invincible to potential college recruiters.

Enter history teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick). Jim is not as enamored with the seemingly studious and perfect-behaving Tracy as the others are when applauding her credentials. When a behind-the-scenes seduction scandal between Jim’s friend/work colleague and Tracy is revealed the ax falls on Jim’s buddy leaving Tracy completely unscathed. Thus begins the process of Jim’s disdain for the high-strung Tracy whom he deems pretentious, irritable, phony and opportunistic. The way that Jim can damper Tracy’s hopes and dreams is to convince popular yet injured dense jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against Tracy in the class election. Naturally, Tracy knows this spells trouble.

Frank’s report card: Election is one of the most cleverly written, sharply satirical and astutely observational comedies audiences will ever come across when detailing with the petty politics and social manipulation of hectic high school existence. The smartness and infectiously quirky overtones sets apart Election from any other vehicle that can turn the cliched conventions of an academic romp into a shrewd commentary on hasty human behavior. It is no surprise that the crafty creativity behind Election’s gentle madness came from noted filmmaker Alexander Payne. Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick was a delightful hot mess in every positive sense of the term. Quite frankly, Witherspoon’s sly and polished calculating performance should have been rewarded with an Oscar nomination because she was that affecting as the grating Tracy. Broderick has never been so frothy and inspired as the weary and twitchy Jim who looks to expose Tracy’s bubbly facade only to fall into his own potholes while taking on this bookworm pixie. Election should get everyone’s vote. Frank’s grade: A+

4.) Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

download (2)PLOT: Basically, Fast Times at Ridgemont High follows the rollicking exploits of California teens ad their wacky chronicles into the daily drudgery of schooling and authority while championing the things that matter to them–partying, getting high and drunk and listening to the tunes. More important, the concentration on sex and the malaise that lie ahead beyond the protective walls at Ridgemont.

Frank’s report card: Although absolutely remembered for its loose-minded and very suggestive frivolity, Fast Times at Ridgemont High was probably one of the most realistic, insightful, and infectiously wacky depictions of the high school experience. Sure, the over-the-top hormonal escapades were more often than not juvenile and repetitive but there was such an honesty and genuine foundation to Ridgemont that one cannot dismiss it entirely as a titillating tease–not when you have Amy Heckerling’s impish direction and Cameron Crowe’s spry scripting. Contemporary teen/school sex farces such as Porky’s tried to up the ante a few notches but could never muster up the effortless irreverence that echoed in Ridgemont. The personalities stick with you–Sean Penn’s spacey Jeff Spicoli vs. Ray Walden’s stern teacher Mr. Hand, the Hamilton brother-sister tandem in Brad and Stacy (Judge Reinhold and Jennifer Jason Leigh), the drooling sessions over bikini-clad Phoebe Cates’s Linda Barrett that forced many adolescent boys to put down their joysticks and take notice, etc. Raunchy and devilish, Fast Times at Ridgemont High remains the coming-of-age flick for the geeks and stoners and everyone else in between. Frank’s grade: B+

5.) Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

goodbye-mr-chips-4cd91131PLOT: The poignant story about a sickly and aged former Latin teacher and headmaster Mr. Chips’s (Paul Donat) recollection, reflection, romance and of course the affinity for shaping the minds of thousands of  youngsters he taught in the heyday of his early career from his death bed.

Frank’s report card: The elegant and heartfelt British version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips remains impeccably spiritual in its nostalgic take on the devotion and dedication of a man married to his commitment to mold minds and take a chance on love in the process. Tragically,  Mr. Chips experiences an empty heart when the loss of wife and unborn child simultaneously forces the instructor to keep his focused perspective in order and see to his “other family members”–the students that give him purpose and a sense of accomplishment. It did not start out smoothly for the uptight Mr. Chips when first arriving at the English boarding school that gave him immediate fits of impatience. The bittersweet Goodbye, Mr. Chips went on to claim an Oscar win for Donat. Simply great storytelling for a radiant production. Frank’s grade: A

6.) Kindergarten Cop (1990)

Kindergarten_Cop_filmPLOT: Los Angeles police detective John Kimble (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his partner Phoebe O’Hara (Pamela Reed) are sent undercover to pose as teachers at a kindergarten school in the attempts to trap drug dealer Cullen Crisp (Richard Tyson) who is expected to make contact with his son Dominic…the young tyke that is coincidentally in Kimble’s kindergarten class. Kimble cozies up to fellow teacher Joyce (Penelope Ann Miller), Dominic’s mother and Crisp’s ex-wife. Soon, Kimble falls for Joyce and has bonded with Dominic  but must keep both of them safe without blowing his cover or losing the traced whereabouts of the dangerous Crisp.

Frank’s report card: Clearly, Kindergarten Cop was a safe vehicle to soften up Arnold’s appeal and have him draw in a different demographic that did not normally gravitate to his gritty action-packed thrillers. The novelty of having the muscular action star surrounded by restless rug rats was cute and clever for a while but soon became long in the tooth. The awkwardness around the kiddies as they say the darndest things (where is Art Linkletter when you need him?) as Arnold’s Kimble looks incredulous and sounds exasperated (“It is not a tooooomah” referring to the word “tumor”) feels forced and lame at times. Even the mushy budding romance between Arnold’s Kimble and Miler’s Joyce reeks of sugary indifference. The pandering of Kimble carrying a pet ferret to entice his young charges had eye-rolling moments. The final climax involving Kimble and O’Hara taken on Crisp and his equally deranged mother Eleanor (Carroll Baker) during the school’s fire alarm drill results in synthetic, rushed tension at best. Arnie and his Romper Room rejects should have taken a long nap time after their school lunch. Frank’s grade: C+

7.) Lean On Me (1989)

lean-on-me-movie-poster-1989-1020248173PLOT: “Crazy” Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) is an effective but overly demanding and infuriating head principal that is determined to scrutinize his faculty members, ban disruptive outsiders (drug pushers, gang members, pimps, etc.) and lean on the bad apple students in the deteriorating inner-city high school that he is asked to shape up academically and aesthetically courtesy of his friend and boss Dr. Frank Napier (Robert Guillaume). In barking out orders, belittling underlings and carrying a baseball bat while alienating city officials and others that got in his way Clark’s unorthodox and hardened style of running a sinking ship at Eastside High eventually proved to be worth the aggravation and insanity.

Frank’s report card: Lean On Me is soundly redeemed by a forceful and scandalous Oscar-worthy turn by Freeman as the arrogant and critical mouthpiece with the bullying tactics that serves as his handy tool to implement urgent change as it literally means life and death for the desperate and disillusioned kids whose futures look dim and damaging in an academic sea of despair. Lean On Me has its moments of comical lapses especially where Clarke and his mischievous teen chubby charge Sams have their moments of interaction (“boy, you need to pull those pants up”) or when Clarke gets the best of a loudmouth nemesis in critical Leona Barrett (played by the late Lynne Thigpen). Sure, Lean On Me is heavy-handed with sanctimonious fodder and the pathos of urban plight screams of automatic manipulation but that is the pulse of this film’s existence–the reinforcement of defeatist drudgery from the impoverished students and their struggling families to the stagnation and nonchalance of conscience-free, pencil-pushing politicians. A great rejoicing soundtrack and dashes of spirituality and hopefulness gives Lean On Me its potent heart and soul. Frank’s grade: B

8.) School Daze (1988)

School-Daze-movie-poster-1020269871PLOT: It is the homecoming weekend at the historically black Mission College where fraternities and sororities will be making their pledges. However, for some students it will be hard to join certain fraternities or sororities as issues of exclusion are in place. In other words, if one does not have what it takes to qualify as “acceptable” they are out of luck. In reading between the lines, the “division” within one race of people will determine who is considered worthy and who is deemed inferior. The question at hand: can self-loathing occur at an all-black college set against the academic climate where racial intolerance is promoted within one’s own kind?

Frank’s report card: Filmmaker Spike Lee’s examination of African-American color consciousness in the college musical-drama School Daze is indeed revealing, regrettable and raw. Although set against the backdrop of matriculation, Lee astutely examines the psychological sickness with self-image issues and the degradation of what is deemed “attractive” within the mindsets of the African-American community. Lee delves into the delusional and divisive race politics of a proud people that still have undergone generations of “identity crisis” regarding physical rivalry in skin-tone (light-skinned blacks as more “desirable” vs. dark-skinned blacks as “not as aesthetically blessed”) and even in physical features (straight black hair and narrow noses vs. thick coarse black hair and wide noses), etc. At Mission College the topic of social status also pertains to determining superiority (uppity established blacks vs. impoverished struggling blacks). The suggestion of continual brainwashing at the hands of these black young academic minds places School Daze as a mandatory lesson plan that all people from different walks of life should get a grip on their cultural dignity. Frank’s grade: A

9.) Stand and Deliver (1988)

download (3)PLOT: High school math teacher Jamie Escalante (James Edward Olmos) has a daunting task ahead of him–his challenge would be instructing his disengaged and financially-strapped students to learn the demanding concepts of calculus.

Frank’s report card: Olmos deservedly scored an Oscar nomination portraying the soft-spoken Escalante, a determined teacher that believed in his students’ inherent abilities to conquer something so disciplined, difficult and daunting as applied calculus. Escalante realized the importance of supplying structure and concentration to his pupils that needed something to conquer and believe in if only to ensure that they are important and matter in the scheme of things.

Escalante is a believer in himself and can see the potential for his kids to achieve the impossible and turn it into something that is improbable. Stand and Deliver carries its own brand of tragedy and triumph on a small scale of personal drama but with big expectations  of inspiration. Frank’s grade: B+

10.) To Sir, With Love (1967)

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PLOT: North Quay secondary school in East London inherits a new teacher in the form of Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier), an unemployed engineer. Mark quickly discovers that his students are difficult and present continual conduct problems. The rough-around-the-edges kids do not know what to make of the newcomer instructor but they try his patience anyway. Soon, Mark puts is foot down and gets tough with these alienated pupils who come to gradually trust, listen and respect him. Hence, the endearing acknowledgement of “Sir” starts to resonate as Mark and his classroom reciprocate the warm classroom sentiments.

Frank’s report card: At times demonstrating its drippy drama and setting the stage for the predictability of its staged contrivance in mutual schmaltz, To Sir, With Love manages to iron out its mawkish wrinkles with Poitier’s low-key, stabilizing performance as the fish-out-of-water teacher stepping into an unknown situation during his own transitional phase. Some of the kids in the class make an impression, particularly leader Bert Denham as the chronic prankster constantly pushing Mark’s buttons until the teacher wins him over. Pamela Dare (Judy Gleeson) seems to have an unidentified crush on Mark as she softens up to him (they famously share a kinetic dance in the film’s climatic school dance sequence). Of course the memorable selling point in To Sir, With Love is singer LuLu’s presence and her attention-getting moment when she belts out the movie’s mellow and moody signature theme song. It seems as if To Sir, With Love played things rather safe and close to the chest while never really rocking the boat or showing any genuine strife or discomfort. Nevertheless, Sir holds up if not the chance to sing along with LuLu and practice one’s version of some classic oldies-sounding karaoke. Frank’s grade: B-

Folks…school is not over quite yet…here are 10 additional “Too Cool for School” selections for consideration:

1.) The Breakfast Club (1985)

      Frank’s grade: B+

2.) Children of a Lesser God (1986)

      Frank’s grade: A-

3.) Cooley High (1975)

      Frank’s grade: B+

4.) Dangerous Minds (1995)

      Frank’s grade: C-

5.) Dead Poets Society (1989)

      Frank’s grade: B+

6.) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

      Frank’s grade: A-

7.) Madame Sousatzka (1988)

      Frank’s grade: B+

8.) Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)

      Frank’s grade: A-

9.) Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

      Frank’s grade: A

10.) School of Rock (2003)

        Frank’s grade: B+

–Frank Ochieng

 

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