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Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007 01:55 am

School movies with bite

Entertaining ways to get an education

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Untitled Document Mrs. Hart (Cate Blanchett), the new art teacher, inspires one of her teenage male students in Notes on a Scandal, but not in a good way. Female teachers who have sex with male students have long been fodder for the news media, but the movie industry seems more comfortable with the endless parade of movies celebrating gung-ho teachers turning underprivileged teens into champions of everything from calculus to ballroom dancing. Those stories may be true, but if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Notes presents a refreshingly negative view of school life. (Most school experiences are far from life-affirming. I’d rather forget mine.) The Oscar-nominated Blanchett is extraordinary, as is fellow nominee Judi Dench, who plays a confidante with an ulterior motive. Neither actress has been better, even when they were both nominated eight years ago for playing Queen Elizabeth I in different films.
Strangers with Candy (2005) turns the dark world of high school on its ear. In a big-screen adaptation of the Comedy Cental sitcom of the same name, Amy Sedaris plays Jerri Blank, a fortyish ex-con who tries to turn her life around by going back to school. Her completely ridiculous attempts to be one of the kids form the core of this satire. The incompetent faculty is represented by a handful of oddballs. The science teacher, who has a hair-trigger temper, is carrying on an affair with the art teacher, who could easily pass for the village idiot. The daffy principal is hilariously played by Greg Hollimon as if he were channeling Groucho Marx. Matthew Broderick, who appears in a bit part, had one of his best roles as a harried high-school teacher in the underrated classic Election (1999). Reese Witherspoon co-stars as his perfect foil, a monstrously overzealous candidate for student-body president. Witherspoon’s fans who know her from her more commercial fare may be shocked at her ability to plunge fearlessly into darker realms. Stick It (2006) should be awful, but it is actually quite engaging. Missy Peregrym is an absolute revelation in her first starring role, playing a troubled teen who is forced to return to the world of gymnastics to avoid jail time. Jeff Bridges takes his basically honorable coach character off the track enough to avoid the pitfalls of what would otherwise be a stereotypical role. Peregrym is charming and riveting, and the chemistry she builds with Bridges is wondrous. Ignore your expectations and give it a chance.
New on DVD this Tuesday (Feb. 13): The Departed, School for Scoundrels, Infamous Marie Antoinette, and The U.S. vs. John Lennon.
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