Freedom Writers (2007)

Freedom Writers
Dir. Richard LaGravenese
Premiered January 5, 2007

Welcome to 2007, the best year for the American moviegoer possibly ever. While a lot of people might prefer 1939 or 1968 or even (Jesus) 1999, 2007 stands out to me personally, and to that end I’ve decided to review an indeterminate number of films from that year, in chronological order. Originally I wanted to showcase the highlights of that year, but in all honesty, curiosity got the better of me with some of these. For that reason, I’ve decided to start in the very first weekend of the year with Freedom Writers.

January is typically peak season for abortive Oscar Bait; the kinds of movies with the pedigree and trademarks of an award winner, but which the studio or distributor has decided isn’t worth it. Is that the case with Freedom Writers?

Well, yes. Inspirational teacher movies had been a joke since “you’re the man now, dog.” School of Rock had been out four years by this time; Hamlet 2 was only a year away. It would have taken a serious re-invention and update to make the genre relevant, and Freedom Writers is anything but. Set in 1990s gangland Long Beach, Hillary Swank plays a rookie teacher who tries to make a difference (say it with me) but struggles to reach these kids until she hits on something new: give them journals to write about their own experiences.

This is actually a good innovation; I haven’t actually seen that many teacher movies, but I’ve seen enough to know that the main character usually tries to get in good with the kids to relate to the pop culture of the time in a way that comes off as condescending and instantly dates the film. Instead of bending over backwards like that, she realizes that the kids need to be heard. I actually really like that. And for that alone, it’s watchable.

Unfortunately, the film struggles to make a coherent plot around it. Freedom Writers is based on a true story, but you can tell where the truth ends and the bad screenwriting begins. The movie’s full of ancillary characters whose attitudes change just to buttress Swank’s arc. Imelda Staunton plays a prissy, bigoted villain that exists mainly to turn up her nose and say something along the lines of “this is mostunorthodox!” The protagonist’s father (Scott Glenn) and husband (Patrick Dempsey) are all over the place too, despite barely being in the movie. And it’s really not necessary. Furthermore, there’s no humor in the film. It’s not soul-crushingly dour, but it comes of as rote and uninspired. C

Dan Meth – “Gimme the Nightclub”

When: 1 December 2009
Where: My dorm
Who: Madeleine Lucero-Simmons and Christopher Harriss
Weather: Cold, foggy

When December came around, there was a real feeling of excitement in the air. It didn’t matter whether I was in Northern or Southern California, everybody was coming together to celebrate: The 2000s were finally ending. And in San Francisco especially, people seemed to care about how they look, how they talk. No more muffin tops, no more manscaping, no more… well, you fill in what you think.

So this song was kind of perfect. I was in my dorm, I tried showing it to my friend Maddie, but she couldn’t get too excited about it.

We all had our own ways of coping. “In Da Club” and 50 Cent in general was a low point for our culture, but here Dan Meth had made something good with it. His production was actually part of a series of mashups celebrating the end of the decade. And unless you were really trashy, that was something we could all cheer.

Next time: A whole new decade, new friends, leaving again, the sudden scary rise of pop revival, and saying “baby we don’t speak of that” like a real aristocrat. 2010.

Metric – “Help I’m Alive”

When: 28 November 2009
Where: Font Boulevard, San Francisco
Who: My mom
Weather: Cold, windy

My mom came up to see me after Thanksgiving, and knowing I would never go there myself, I asked if she was interested in going to San Jose. Nobody wants to go to San Jose except me, and only then because I’d been once before but didn’t have time to check everything out– I was busy.

But actually getting there felt like trespassing. I walked around self-consciously, almost expecting to be caught. It was a familiar feeling that wore off with time. This song was on a lot; I hadn’t listened to the radio so regularly as I had in the car that day, and I must have heard it three times, a fact I pointed out repeatedly because my mom continued to insist she’d never heard it before.

Next: The bad times will continue, but the ugly times are almost over.

Flight of the Conchords – “Carol Brown”

When: 26 November 2009
Where: My mom’s apartment
Who: My mom and bubby
Weather: Cool

I came back home for the first time since my mom moved out of the house. I preferred to take the overnight train– less precious vacation time wasted– and crashed at her apartment reading the latest articles from the AV Club. With a whole week off, I decided to revisit another high school institution that had recently been revived, Flight of the Conchords.

After inviting my dad to thanksgiving for the only time ever, Mom and I gave the new season a look, and I was struck by how much darker it was than the first. It was the story of failure, with the added bonus of Korean songs and budget bears. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it then, but I liked it more later.

Next: I return to a city from my troubled past, but it feels more like trespassing.

Vampire Weekend – “M79”

When: November 2009
Where: My student apartment at SF State
Who: Possibly my roommate
Weather: Cool, clear

Vampire Weekend had loomed over me for at least a year. My first roommate, the more eclectic of the two so far, had their album, and at least one of the guys pirated it back in high school. Probably Marc Meehan.

But I was faced with the challenge of coming back into contemporary, 2009 society from a long hibernation, and thanks to a recommendation from the MacQuarrie sisters I started here. I also started listening to SF’s local rock station Live 105, which was somewhat better than KROQ down south but still in the same vein.

I was coming back from buying groceries at the Stonestown Trader Joe’s while listening to this song, and as I returned to my room the same song was playing. I smiled approvingly. I was already on my way.

Next: Was Flight of the Conchords darker, or was I?

Arctic Monkeys – Dance Little Liar

When I came back to SF, I already had my ticket to see Arctic Monkeys at the Fox Theater. They were one of the defining bands of my high school years, and I wanted to see them before they ran out of whatever creative energy they had left (as it turned out, quite a lot).

I got advance word from someone who saw them down south that the opening act was terrible. I didn’t agree, but I can say that The Like had the coldest reception of any opening band I’d ever encountered. It was extraordinary. After that was a 45-minute wait for the guys to take the stage.

As I talked to a girl standing next to me, she noted that Nick O’Malley was “the new guy.” Neither of us knew that he’d always been in the band, and that Andy Nicholson left before “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” ever hit American radio. Finally they took to the stage, as seen above, and Matt Helders started wailing and Alex Turner started crooning, and I was covered in beer and sweat and everything was as it should have been.

Arctic Monkeys are a band you see live.

Next: The Scene that Celebrates Itself

Arctic Monkeys – “Secret Door”

When: September 2009
Where: SF State, below the Cesar Chavez Center
Who: Nobody
Weather: Extremely foggy

Humbug was another dense, inaccessible album from 2009. In the face of the same hyperproduced late-noughties wilderness period that brought us Passion Pit, Arctic Monkeys retreated into the comfortable embrace of Josh Homme and his Palm Desert Sound. It can be argued whether or not the album is a failure, but I was going to see them in concert; I had to keep my hopes high.

Next: I am pleasantly surprised.

The Cars – “A Dream Away”

When: Late August 2009
Where: Bayshore station elevator, Brisbane, California
Who: Nobody
Weather: Warm, clear

When I got back to San Francisco, I made two decisions:

1. To take French class. I already spoke Spanish, which I figured would make French a lot easier. Apparently, a lot of my old freshman floormates had the same idea. And apparently, we were all wrong. Luckily, I got to sit next to a sultry Australian, who I went on a date with before discovering she was completely insane. Then again, she <i>was</i> from Queensland.

2. To ride the T-Car. T was a relatively new line in San Francisco, running the length of the harbor south from Downtown by way of Third Street, and serving the mostly black neighborhoods of Mission Bay, the Dogpatch, Bayview, and Visitacion Valley. Having learned long ago that the best neighborhoods in SF were the ones you never saw on TV, I decided that there must be something to th area and went off one day to give it a look.

My trusty Cars album playing on my iPod, I set out. What I found was a few antebellum houses, abandoned warehouses, boarded-up old brick storefronts, and reedy swamps. T, as it turned out, was part of a plan to revitalized the waterfront; there hadn’t been anything there in the first place. Disappointedly, I waited for the next CalTrain to take me back to the center of town, but none came, so I walked back to T in a disappointed state.

Next: Fools on Parade.

The Cars – “Bye Bye Love”

When: June 2009
Where: My mom’s car, with the seat all the way back.
Who: My mom
Weather: Drug-inducedly hazy

Ah, the summer of misanthropy. This was unequivically the worst summer of my life. I accomplished nothing. I had no one to talk to. It was generally unpleasant, and for the first time I realized how ugly low-rise jeans are.

History would later vindicate me, but the combination of a hot summer, a shitty neighborhood, my near-total retreat from contemporary culture and the looming specter of my mom leaving my dad only hastened my anxiety. I kept making Monty Park videos and I kept wanting to stop, I hated doing them now, but I couldn’t. It was a compulsion, my last link to the happy life that was. And that was the scariest thing of all.

Oh dear God no, I thought to myself. “I’m that guy. I’m stuck in high school.” Eventually I realized that back in high school I had a lot more self-discipline. I made my own fun, and I’d have to learn that skill again. More and more I was shying away from the Monty Park brand, and that summer I decided to write articles about cancelled TV shows called “The Summer Replacement.” Freaks and Geeks came first, then Undeclared, and then I had to get my wisdom teeth taken out.

I went to the specialist, lay down, and fifteen minutes later I woke up, only to have the nurse tell me I’d been asleep for well over an hour. The aching was horrific and they gave me Vicodin for it. I was starting to get into The Cars at the time, and I listened to the first album as my mom drove me home. This song in particular blew me away, probably because I’d never heard it before and it had an awesome synth solo.

I spent several days wandering in and out of sleep, all hours of the day, periodically aching, eating mashed potatoes and watching The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. It was suitably surreal. And then somebody stole my leftover Vicodin, so I stole it back and threw it away.

I got better.

Next: …but not right away.