She broke the rules…and changed their lives.
An atypical Simpson/Bruckheimer film, Dangerous Minds tells a familiar story about a determined, passionate teacher who makes a difference in the lives of her rough, inner city students. As a DVD, Buena Vista gives us its familiar indifference to the format.
This is one of those discs that just sat around for a while before I got around to reviewing it. I suspect that part of the reason was that I thought I had heard this story before (i.e. Stand and Deliver), and wasn't sure how well this movie would measure up. Also, while I respect Michelle Pfeiffer's talents as an actress, I have a hard time buying into her as a former Marine. That being said, in the end it's a movie that is better than you might think, though not without its problems.
The story opens at a tough inner city high school, where teacher Hal Griffith (George Dzundza) brings along his friend Louanne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) for an interview with the school's assistant principal, Carla Nichols (Robin Bartlett). To her surprise, Louanne is quickly hired as a full-time teacher and thrown headlong into the lion's den, a roomful of defiant, seemingly unreachable inner city kids. After a disastrous start, Louanne digs in her heels and fights back, determined to get her students' attention and teach them. With a mixture of discipline, bribery, and cajoling, she at least gets their attention on vaguely educational subjects, but getting them to really learn is a tough sell. Even her fledgling efforts earn the stern disapproval of the bureaucratic-minded principal, Mr. Grandey (Courtney B. Vance), but she perseveres.
Louanne gets them interested in the world of poetry by introducing them to the poetic lyrics of Bob Dylan. It is still tough going, as conflict between some of her students causes its own set of problems, which she attempt to solve with personal attention and understanding. Seemingly by magic, she wins over the class leader, Emilio Ramirez (Wade Dominguez) and gets them excited over a Bob Dylan/Dylan Thomas poetry contest. Louanne offers the winner a dinner at a very fancy restaurant in town, but only one winner is able to take her up on the offer. (The dinner scene is most notable for the unexpected appearance of John Neville, who appeared in The X-Files: Fight the Future as the Well-Manicured Man, as a waiter. I just about sprayed my Coke when I recognized him).
From the student who showed, and those who didn't, Louanne learns even more about their difficult lives and tries to help them out, with varying degrees of success. In one powerful scene, she comes face to face with one mother who takes her sons out of Louanne's class because Louanne is filling their heads with poetry and nonsense, distracting them from their reality of work and bills to be paid. Louanne takes it even harder when one of her students is killed, despite her most strenuous efforts to get him the help he was nearly too proud to accept.
With a heavy heart, Louanne announces her intention to leave the school, much to the dismay of her now enthusiastic students. They turn the tables on Louanne, and by their own strenuous efforts convince her to carry on and stay at the school., and she walks off into the sunlight, happily ever after.
As I said, the premise of the story is not terribly original, but the main problems in the story are based in this particular script. The stories of the students' lives is never that well fleshed out, even for those that Louanne deals with closely. Furthermore, I still can't quite believe how easily she whipped them into shape and got them enthralled by…Bob Dylan? Given what they had to work with, the actors do reasonably competent jobs, with Michelle Pfeiffer giving Louanne the necessary determination and sincerity. George Dzundza is excellent in the supporting role of Louanne's friend, and his whistling the Marine Corps anthem at Louanne as he strolls back to his class is just priceless.
The video is acceptable, but nothing spectacular. The palette of the whole movie is rather subdued, so you never get any of the richly saturated colors that DVD does so well. Digital noise is somewhat noticeable throughout the movie, but it never becomes too much of a distraction. Sharpness is about average, and the print is fairly but not completely free of dirt and blemishes. Though widescreen, it is the usual non-anamorphic transfer from Buena Vista.
Audio is clean and distinct, but aside from some of the songs on the soundtrack, it rarely uses any of the true abilities of a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Your subwoofer will have little to do, even when Coolio's low notes come into play. I can't say that I really noticed any directional effects, given the understandable emphasis on dialogue.
Extras are the sadly limited. You get the music video from Coolio, "Gangsta's Paradise" (where Ms. Pfeiffer looks particularly nice), and that's it. Not even the trailer for the movie, or a brief shred of production notes. You do get a totally useless selection of film recommendations, which is worse than nothing in my book. The menus are static and movie themed. On a good note, the packaging is the preferred Amaray keep case.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is one review where I think the case is already pretty fairly laid out already, so I rest my case without any rebuttal evidence.
If you are looking for a light drama with a touch of social reality, or you are a Michelle Pfeiffer fan, give it a look. Consider a purchase of this disc carefully, for even a fan might object to its pricey nature ($30), limited extras, and middling quality.
The film is acquitted, with reservations. Buena Vista is sentenced to go back to school and learn how to make a decent DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Hollywood Pictures
• Cast and Crew Commentary
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