DVD Picks: Waiting for Superman, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

March 17, 2011

Pick of the Week

Waiting for “Superman”

Documentary; rated PG for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: A powerful documentary that examines the failures of American public education by following several students through a frighteningly broken system.

The Lowdown: The year’s first must-see DVD, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is a tremendously effective and deeply compelling documentary from director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) regarding the sorry state of the U.S. public school system.

I didn’t think I’d ever see a documentary as terrifying as “An Inconvenient Truth,” but “Superman” comes pretty close. Simply put, the American public school system is in deep crisis, threatening the future of an entire generation of students – minority and inner city kids in particular.

Guggenheim, a ridiculously gifted filmmaker, uses all the tools of the documentary form to make his persuasive case. Interviews with pioneering educators are juxtaposed with startling statistics. In America right now, a kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. These drop-outs are eight times more likely to go to prison, 50% less likely to vote, ineligible for 90% of jobs, and are being paid 40 cents to the dollar of earned by a college graduate.

The film also follows several families as they try to navigate the public school system, or more accurately, to avoid it. We see parents from both the inner city and the wealthy suburbs entering their kids into lotteries to attend charter and magnet schools. The film’s final scenes are quietly devastating as these students watch their future being determined by a random drawing.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, “Superman” contends, but the film lays much of it at the feet of powerful teachers’ unions and a bureaucratic culture that stymies any effort toward progressive reform. It’s a lot more complicated that that, of course, and the film is mostly even-handed with its finger-pointing.

This might all sound rather wonkish and dry, but Guggenheim populates the film with real people and their specific stories, and also employs inventive animation sequences to bring the statistics to life.

I really can’t say enough nice things about this film. It’s been an incredible couple of years for documentary films, and I’m consistently amazed at how filmmakers are using the form to explore complex issues with such efficiency and artfulness.

The Extras: Deleted scenes, director’s commentary track and five mini-features expanding on various aspects of the film.

The Bottom Line: A fascinating, moving and provocative documentary that’s equal parts penetrating critique and passionate call-to-action.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Every copy of the retail DVD and Blu-ray package comes with a $25 online credit voucher, which viewers can donate to an educational charity of their choice.

Quick Picks: I’ve never quite understood the appeal of Woody Allen movies, but his latest – the romantic comedy “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” – is the most engaging movie he’s made in years, thanks mostly to a terrific cast including Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin.

Indie film home video distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories, founded by Beastie Boy Adam “MCA” Yauch, has been issuing some great titles for a couple of years now, including the recent Banksy doc “Exit Through the Out Door” and the terrific new biographical documentary “William S. Burroughs: A Man Within.” Profiling the legendary Beat writer, the DVD is predictably scary and surprisingly funny, and comes with a ton of cool extras.

The four-DVD box set “Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas – Writers” is a great collection of the journalist’s interviews over the years with authors like Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Tom Wolfe and – especially recommended – science fiction godfather Isaac Asimov.

Speaking of which, dedicated sci-fi geeks might want to check out the bizarre horror-comedy indie, “The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu,” from the so-bad-it’s-good file.

Also New This Week: Denzel Washington in the runaway train thriller “Unstoppable,” Bill Nighy in the World War 2 conspiracy drama “Glorious 39,” Henry Brown and Omari Hardwick in the urban drama “Everyday Black Man,” and the long-awaited final series installment of TV classic, “The Fugitive.”

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