It’s been a while since I’ve been to the movie theatre, but I’ve still been watching movies. I recently caught up with a couple of movies that were released a short while ago to great reviews. They’re both on DVD, and I highly recommend them.
Akeelah and the Bee
It’s amazing how spelling bees have become such a topic of interest for popular culture. Not only do they televise the finals of the annual US national spelling bee alongside major sports competitions, there was an Oscar-nominated documentary feature (Spellbound) and a Tony-award nominated musical (25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) all about getting a bunch of kids to spell difficult words. Now Akeelah and the Bee comes along to complete the trifecta by mashing up the spelling bee with the feel good, inspirational movie.
Title character, Akeelah, is the third child of an inner-city single mom (played by Angela Bassett) whose teachers discover that she has a gift for spelling. When she does well in the class competition, she attracts the attention of an ex-college professor and former spelling bee champion (played by Laurence Fishburne) who offers to be her coach. The story of Akeelah’s determination and success is really heart-warming in large part due to the charm of young actress Keke Palmer. She plays Akeelah with a lot of spunk, but also sensitivity and shyness. When her family and community start to support her efforts to train for the spelling bee, we can’t help but feel pulled along with them. Even as I describe the plot, you know it’s not something entirely new. Over the years there have been many movies about how gifted young kids, inspired by the appropriate adults, overcame economic and social obstacles to triumph. (In fact, Angela Bassett herself was recently in one, playing principal to Meryl Streep’s music teacher in Music of the Heart.) However, they’re always good to watch, and with the right performances, they can be refreshing and enjoyable despite being somewhat formulaic. This movie has some good performances from the adults, but it’s the kids who shine: Palmer as Akeelah is wonderful, but so are her best friend Georgia (played by Sahara Garey), and her fellow spelling bee competitor Javier (played by J.R. Villarreal). (4.5 out of 5)
This movie is definitely available on DVD, not only because it’s around a year old, but also because it was part of an experiment to release a movie simultaneously in theatres, on DVD and through HD pay-per-view. The experiment is courtesy of indie film demi-god Steven Soderbergh (director of Erin Brokovich, Out of Sight, as well as Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven and Twelve).
Set in a small midwestern US town, cast with non-professional non-actors, Bubble is the amazingly realistic story of a few people working at a doll factory. They go about their mundane lives until one of them (a pretty girl, new to the factory) is murdered. What amazed me was not so much the story (though I was never quite sure until the end who really committed the murder), but the undramatic feeling about it. It wasn’t made like a documentary, but the way the non-actors carried themselves and the way the dialogue was delivered was so natural. Not only did it feel like I was really there with them, I felt like I knew them and what they were going through could happen to any of us, ordinary us. Murder is always so sensationalized on film, but in Bubble, it was depicted as something down-to-earth. The standout performance was from Debbie Doebereiner, who played older, frumpy Martha so incredibly that I am very curious to compare her screen persona to her true personality. I admire Soderbergh for the amazing achievement of making me intrigued by and interested in such incredibly plain characters. (4 out of 5)