The Boy Next Door – Film Review

That moment when you walk into your classroom and find revenge porn pegged up on the display strings. Oh, to walk a day in Jennifer Lopez’s stiletto heeled shoes.

She must have forgot to look at the script the day she signed on to play a middle aged high school literature teacher. Plus she has a teenage son in this film. When did JLo become old enough to have teenage children? I want my Made in Manhattan JLo back.

What The Boy Next Door lacks in logic, it makes up for in stupidity. There is never really a strong explanation given for boy next door Noah’s (Ryan Guzman) psychopathic stalker tendencies. Although I suppose an element of psychopathy is not having an explanation for your actions.

At face value Noah seems like a moral upstanding young chap, looking after his cancer-ridden uncle; taking JLo’s loser son Kevin (Ian Nelson) under his wing; and making clever references to Homer’s The Odyssey. But this is not good enough reason to sleep with a minor when you’re rebounding from your husband cheating on you. Likewise if you’re going to have an affair with an underage neighbour, make sure you’ve checked inside your antique clocks for hidden cameras that might be recording an incriminating sex tape.

Jennifer Lopez did not heed these sensible precautions and hence when she enters her classroom one fateful morning she finds a series of printed screenshots from the video, hanging from the roof of her classroom. Hanging from the strings where children’s artwork or short stories should be.

Lucky for her she enters the classroom before the students. In this regard the film has accurately portrayed sensible classroom management techniques. A teacher should always enter the room first to establish a position of authority within the room – plus they usually have the keys. In a further stroke of luck, she does not swing the door fully open, thus providing her with the opportunity to say “Give me one second”, shut the door discreetly and dash into the classroom to begin gasping and dramatically tearing down the black and white images, of her extra-marital relations, from the ceiling.

Of course there is a lot of paper to dispose of; and as most teachers know, students get restless if you leave them waiting even long enough for you to write the date on the whiteboard. It’s not long before they’ve called the school principal who begins banging on the door yelling “Mrs Peterson! Mrs Peterson, open this door”. Add to the stress the fact the laser jet printer is still pumping out further copies of the incriminating photo, all over the 1980s brown linoleum tiles.

In the time it takes the principal to find his own set of keys and unlock the door, JLo manages to clear in excess of two hundred A4 sheets of paper, which have been strewn across the room, and place them in the recycling bin. Here lies a rather large teaching faux pas, in that the recycling bin is never the most secure place. I’ve had students rifle through the bin before looking for pieces of work I may have thrown away; confiscated chewing gum I’ve placed in the bin; or torn pages of diaries other students have carelessly left behind. So it seems unwise to leave such a major quantity of photocopies depicting sex with a minor, in a disposal bin without even the simplest padlock.

Nevertheless, rationality, intelligence and common sense are not themes of this film.

Finally the students enter the class, and JLo is given a mild reprimand about punctuality from the principal.

This is merely one example of the many high-octane thrills this film has to offer. So for those of you who enjoy sitting on the edge of your seat watching stationery related psycho-suspense dramas, get yourself a copy of The Boy Next Door. For the rest of you, take a quiet moment to ponder what literary classics JLo would read if she actually was a teacher of classic literature.

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Kid #20 – How a papercut can escalate

The twentieth kid I hated made me bleed.

It was only a paper cut, but it really hurt. Plus fast-moving sheets of A4 copier paper is about as high-stakes as my classrooms get. The worst part was my ego was crushed, because I yelped in pain as it happened, thus dissolving the stern facade I was trying to project to the class. Worse still, the child decided my agony was hysterical and proceeded to mercilessly laugh his way across the room to his stool, continuing to smirk and snigger for a further five minutes.

I’d witnessed nastiness from children before. Yet in terms of callousness this was up there. I’d been innocently standing at the entrance to the room, sent there by a job agency to work a day of supply teaching. I was handing out the worksheets as the students came in, courteously greeting them and guiding them to their chairs. The hyena, who snatched the Science revision from my hand tearing the skin inside my index finger, was just the beginning of a very bad day. It was a day worse than a Daniel Powter song.

It was an all-boys school in some western suburb of London – one that I’ve blotted from my mind, due to the trauma. The rest of the lads lumbered into the room, each snatching their own copy of the revision notes, luckily not severing any more of my fingers. I tried to resume my stern approach as I read out the register. The class was so preoccupied with their self-absorption they refused to engage with the process and I resorted to having someone, who looked half decent, to go through the register with me. This turned out to be a useless proposition, as the student happily marked all 30 names on the register as ‘present’ despite the absence of at least ten of them from the room.

Luckily each student had a notebook with their name on it. There were a bunch of unclaimed notebooks, so I assumed these belonged to the missing students and marked them absent accordingly.

On with the lesson. I’d been left a note by the teacher informing me to show a short documentary and then spend the remaining hour and a half of the lesson letting students revise for an exam. An hour and a half was going to be a very long time for these chumps. It’s a long time for the best of us to spend in one spot. I took a deep breath and began the watch.

The screening of the documentary lasted less than three minutes due to cries of “switch it off!”, “this is boring!” and “who’s David Attenborough?”. I switched it off and set the monkeys to work on their revision.

At first they mostly got about talking to each other and avoiding any form of work. They were calm though, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt. However, twenty minutes into the sit-in, the same child who’d injured my finger began to get fidgety. He was sitting at the back of the room and I could see him begin to rock from side to side.

“Please sit still.”

“I can’t sir, it’s the stool.”

“Well let me have a look,” I said and walked towards him.

“Oh no no. It’s fine. It’s fine.”

I backed off, knowing full well that naughty boys wobble stools and not the other way round.  Every couple of minutes there’d be another creak from the back of the room.

“Please stop,” I asked again politely.

After a solid ten minutes of this stool wobbling an almighty crash came from the back of the room. Giggling and more hysteria erupted from the boys. I collected the planks of wood from what remained of the stool and placed them on the teacher’s desk.

All of a sudden the students’ tone changed. They quizzed me on what I’d do with the pieces of the stool.

“I haven’t decided yet,” was my response.

Uncertainty is sometimes the best weapon for keeping kids on their toes. If they don’t know what you’re capable of, they won’t realise how little you are actually capable of. Mostly I intended to sit quietly pondering who had the hair-brained idea of installing cheap pine furniture in a school classroom instead of sturdy welded-iron framed bottom rests.

The serenity of the student’s fear was soon disrupted again.

“It’s hot in here, sir,” gasped a melodramatic pupil. “Can I please open the window?”

Before I could decide whether or not this was a sensible decision, the paper-cutting stool-breaking offender leapt from his new seat and lurched towards the back door of the classroom.

“I’ll open the door!” he shouted.

Now, why architects and builders construct Science classrooms with two doors is beyond me. It’s probably something to do with being able to escape when something explodes. Instead it tends to act as an escape for when a student’s mind implodes from their own stupidity. They may as well replace the ‘exit’ signs above the doors with the word ‘freedom’.

Thus a game of ‘cat and mouse’ began with students at one end of the room trying to distract me while their comrades escaped from whichever alternate exit was furthest from me. After less than five minutes of this nonsense, I sent for the classroom keys and locked the back door. Fortunately, the kid I hated was outside at this point, so I was given a fifteen minute break as he slowly navigated his way around the perimeter of the school yard before entering back through the main door of the classroom.

In regards to the fire safety, well it was too bad if anything ignited. Although since it was not a practical science lesson the odds of this occurring were low. The most likely thing to set fire to anything was the data projector, but I’d turned that off when the documentary proved to be a failed teaching technique.

Settling back into my chair to keep watch I hear an anti-Semitic comment thrown across the room. This is countered by an Islamophobic remark from the opposite side of the class. All of a sudden my classroom has become the Gaza strip. Here was a bunch of teenagers mimicking the violence, they’d seen on the news, both in Palestine and in their own city. Judging by the character of the pupils, some of them may well have had older siblings or relatives involved in some sort of gang culture. I did not want to know. I’m a patient person, but this sort of crazed anger and extreme hatred is what was causing the real-world wars. I’m not employed as a government diplomat. I’m employed as a teacher and at a stretch a vicarious student counsellor. I decided to bring in the big guns and sent for the deputy head teacher.

The deputy came into the room. “Stop fooling around for your teacher. We pay good money for these teachers to come in and teach when your normal teachers are away. For every teacher that comes we pay …” and then he mentioned a figure for a daily rate, which was twice what I was being paid. So either he was lying to shock the children into submission, or I was getting a raw deal from my job agent skimming a large commission off the top. Not only did I want to get home, but according to this deputy I was being ripped off as well. I never bothered following up the salary issue. I didn’t care to know.

“You can all have half an hour detention after school,” he said.

Then he turned to me. “Will you be ok to supervise that?” he asked.

Great, I thought. I’m being short changed already and now I need to spend an extra 30 minutes keeping an eye on these nuisances.

Finally the lesson came to an end, and was then followed by two more equally traumatic sessions with a year seven and then a year eight class. Plus of course the bonus detention at the end of it all. A horrible day bookended by horrible people.

As I left the school that afternoon, and was getting my timesheet signed, the deputy principal signing my form asked how my day had been. I responded honestly.

“They were a bit of a handful,” I said. “Not much work was done and they weren’t very polite”.

“I know,” he said. “It would be great if you could come back again though. They don’t really get a consistent set of teachers here. A lot of the relief/supply staff don’t come back.”

I wonder why, I thought to myself.

“Well, I’ll have a think about it,” I said.

As soon as I was outside the school I rang the teaching agency, who’d deployed me there, and said I’d rather not attend work at that school again. They sounded unsurprised and said that would be fine. It was the only time I ever refused to go back to a school.

And if I ever was to again meet the child who damaged my finger joint, I doubt I’d resist the temptation to sever the dermis of his inner hand with a nice sharp-edged piece of cardboard.

The DUFF – Film Review

It feels like it could be a film from the late 90s. Surely every American (and for that matter non-American) teenager knows what a DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) is now days.

There are plenty of films they could make with more modern acronyms like BAE (before anyone else) – a teen friendship movie starring Maisie Williams, Shailene Woodley, Chloe Grace Moretz and a pair of used overalls; OTP (one true pairing) – a romantic comedy where Justin Bieber runs a zoo; TBT (throwback Thursday) – a body swap movie with Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, where no one notices the difference; or YOLO (you only live once) – a road trip where Jennifer Love Hewitt and Molly Ringwald travel the world doing extreme sports.

The DUFF feels like a massive attempt to modernise Mean Girls. It ends up being a mere template of the teen movie genre with all the usual archetypes including Ken Jeong as the mild mannered mentor, a bunch of stick thin young models as the school bullies and chiselled-jawed Robbie Amell as the school jock – despite the opening narration stating “for generations of high-schoolers you could only be a jock, a geek, a princess, a bully or a basket-case; but times have changed”. Apparently the producers didn’t get their own memo.

The only markers suggesting it is any different from older teen movies is the heavy handed use of handheld mobile devices, social media and Duckface – a phrase Allison Janney uses in this film, proving she is the most hip character in a film that already looks dated.

Mae Whitman (a wonderful comedic actress from Arrested Development, Scott Pilgrim Vs the World and television series Parenthood) stars in the title role of designated ugly fat friend. Not since America Ferrera was cast as Ugly Betty, has such an attractive young starlet been dressed in ill-fitting clothes and deemed to be not only fat and ugly, but completely devoid of social skills (oh, and of course the only asset is they are highly intelligent, because there’s a direct correlation between deformity and intellect).

Where are the real ugly fat people? The people whose self-esteem is left in tatters after twelve years of institutionalised education. The victims of school bullying who are haunted throughout their adult life by their childhood persecution. The people so fat their school uniform needs to be altered. The people whose stomach is continually spilling over their trouser bottoms. The person with a lazy eye. The people who have panic attacks talking to the opposite sex and never end up kissing anyone, let alone the school pin-up. The people who cry themselves to sleep. The person whose hair is full of split-ends. The people who come last in everything. The invisible people. Where are they? Why aren’t they the protagonists in these films?

If you want a film full of neat happy endings with a romanticised moral message about cyber-bullying then this is your film. It certainly has its moments and the highly predictable plot makes for good veg-out viewing, with a heart-felt message about being yourself. However, if you want the real fall-out of teenage years watch the documentary American Teen.

Kid #19 – Dealing with broken dreams

The nineteenth kid I hated had aspirations of becoming the next Steven Spielberg by sulking.

I was teaching in a sixth form college in South London, covering some media classes. Some of the students were excellent in their production skills. Others were killing time. Their interest in cinema generally did not extend to the silver screen, but dwelt somewhere between Misfits and a Twisties commercial.

The kid I hated would arrive to class late, put his feet up on the furniture, answer his phone in the middle of class, talk to his friend as soon as you tried to tell the class something and for the most part had an expression so sour you’d have assumed he’d eaten a mouthful of turned raspberries. However, unlike his apathetic counter parts he did want to make films. This was part of the problem. He spent the majority of his time away from the classroom constructing ideas and hair-brained schemes for re-imagining the special effects and Shakespearean acting he had seen in Marvel superhero films (an obsession directly caused by the course’s subject material, which included the film Spiderman 2).

Sometimes when you have a sulking teenager, you begin to think it’s something you’ve done that caused the sulking. Every time I asked for the kid’s attention he appeared to become more sullen. The mere presence of me seemed to weigh down upon him like a lead trumpet.

I soon came to realise these feelings were just my own paranoia.

I spotted him in the corridor and down by the bus stop a few times. He was equally depressive then, which made me realise he was in a perpetual state of affliction. Seemingly the world had dealt him an unfair hand and if he didn’t spar against the global population of the planet singlehandedly, he’d never become the filmmaking legend he wished to be. He was a more angst-ridden version of Dawson from Dawson’s Creek, but without the girlfriends.

Then when I finally saw his finished products, I was more than underwhelmed. One featured an escaped serial killer, who looked more like a well-shaven hipster sporting a felt-tip drawn scar under his left eye. The mise en scène was less film noir and more like the cinematographer forgot to turn the light on.

Considering schools these days are normally working with equipment one hundred times better than what I used in my final year of university (less than ten years ago), it’s disappointing when you see something that looks like it’s been recorded by an ancient relative on a handy-cam in the mid-eighties. What this student produced couldn’t even be passed off as an avant-garde David Lynch recording.

These types of students are why it’s difficult for me to teach media. I don’t profess to be any sort of Stanley Kubrick myself. So it’s not particularly the incompetence that bothers me. After all it’s my job to educate and fill the gaps in learning. But the apathy and slapdash construction of the student cinematic ‘farse’terpieces is sometimes so frustrating I want to wrench them from the editing suite shouting, “Just let me do it!”. This in itself is a bad approach, which is why for the most part I’ve decided it best to avoid teaching media classes for now. And for the pupils producing perfect moving pictures, I tend to become jealous of their potential and end off wallowing in my own self-pity regarding my broken dreams of cinematic success. So my decision to steer clear of such classes remains.

So although my former media student may have snapped out of his pubescent mood, if we met again in Hollywood I doubt I’d fork out the cash to watch his productions at the cinema; I’d wait for their DVD release – and then borrow a copy for free from the public library.

Film Review – Whiplash

Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) does a lot of shouting in his classroom, during the film Whiplash. In the firing line is drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller).

Namby Pamby naysayers will discredit the value of shouting at children to make them achieve greatness. Even the characters in the film attempt to dethrone Fletcher, from his position as a jazz instructor at the illustrious Shaffer Conservatory, because of his aggressive approach. But the proof is in the pudding. Both Fletcher and his student Neiman fulfil their potential, and it’s not undue to the extensive bouts of yelling and expletives spilling from Fletcher’s mouth box.

Sure, having a calm and pleasant approach when talking to students will usually produce positive outcomes. But rarely exceptional results. There’s nothing like a bit of screaming in someone’s face to illicit the ‘I’m going to prove you wrong’ response. This appears to be the general tone of interaction between the two protagonists for the majority of the film -sometimes with the defiant quest for approval going both ways.

It’s not to say that Fletcher and Neiman are functional human beings. Both of them sit somewhere on a sociopathic spectrum. But their relationships with other people do not need to be healthy, because they have their music. The film certainly panders to the cliché that geniuses are introverted types who obsess over their artwork at the cost of everything else. The literal blood, sweat and tears from these characters adds to the cacophonous musicality of the drums and Fletcher’s shouting that carry this film. There are points at which the expletives become lyrics and almost merge into the percussive rhythms being smacked out on the Myler drumheads.

Whiplash is the dark evil cousin of Mr Holland’s Opus. It is a no-holds-barred look at the quest for greatness. It shows that there is a place for a red-faced outburst at children (and adults for that matter) when pushing them to their limits. The shouting does not come from a place of hate, vengeance or malice. It comes from the emotional core of a person wanting to drive their subjects to their ultimate position on the highest podium.

You must shout to be heard above the white noise of the masses.