Back to School #80: The Unauthorized Saved By The Bell Story (dir by Jason Lapeyre)


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Well, it’s here!  This is my 80th and final Back to School review!  As I’ve mentioned before, I originally thought I’d be able to do all of these reviews in just one week.  Instead, it’s taken me five weeks but you know what?  I’ve had fun doing these reviews and I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading them.  It’s been interesting to see how teen films have progressed and changed over the decades.  We started this series with 1946’s I Accuse My Parents and now, we end it with a film from 2014 that might as well be called I Accuse Screech.

Technically, it’s called The Unauthorized Saved By The Bell Story but that’s kind of an unwieldy name, isn’t it?  I can’t really see myself typing that title over and over again.  So, for the purposes of this review, this movie is called I Accuse Screech.

First off, some background.  When I was a kid, I used to watch Saved By The Bell: The New Class.  What’s weird is that, when I look back at it, I think even then I knew that the show wasn’t very good.  I knew that the jokes were frequently not funny.  I knew that the story lines were predictable.  I think I was even aware that it was strange how frequently actors were either dropped from or added to the cast.  Don’t get me wrong.  The show was (and still is) oddly watchable but it was never any good and I am pretty sure I knew that.  Then again, maybe that’s just way I want to remember it.  Being a fan of Saved By The Bell: The New Class isn’t exactly something that you brag about.  However, one thing that I can be sure of is that, even when I was young, I knew that Screech Powers sucked.

As played by Dustin Diamond, Screech was the principal’s assistant at Bayside High.  He was also probably the most annoying character ever to be unleashed onto the psyches of impressionable children and tweens.  Screech spoke in a high, squeaky voice and could usually be relied upon to do something incredibly stupid.  Whenever he fucked things up (and he managed to do this several times in each episode), he would say something like, “Zoinks!”  Everybody hated Screech.

Now, I have to admit that I never actually saw an episode of the classic original Saved By The Bell until after the New Class was already off the air.  And that’s when I discovered the adventures of Zack Morris, A.C. Slater, Kelly Kapowski, Jessie Spano, and … Screech.  That’s right, you can’t escape Screech!

And here’s the thing — the original Saved By The Bell is one of those shows that really is kind of terrible and yet you can’t stop watching.  It’s addictively bad, the type of show that you watch with a combination of shock, horror, and amusement.   The original Saved By The Bell is the television equivalent of The Room or Troll 2.  It’s terrible but it’s fun.

So, you would think that a made-for-tv movie about what went on behind-the-scenes of Saved By The Bell would also be terrible yet fun.  That’s certainly the way that it was advertised by Lifetime.  Lifetime appeared to be hoping that their version of the story behind Saved By The Bell would give them a Sharknado of their very own.

And hey, it should have been great.  There’s an interesting story there.  How would a bunch of teens handle suddenly becoming famous?  How would they handle the pressure of being famous while also appearing on a show so bad that it would essentially run the risk of ruining their lives, not to mention their careers?  How would they handle having to grow up both on TV and in real life?

Those are the questions that we expected to have answered by this movie but instead…

Well, let’s just say that I Accuse Screech!

In 2009, Dustin Diamond published a “memoir” called Behind The Bell and oh my God, it is literally the worst fucking book ever written.  Words escape me to describe just how terrible this book is.  Essentially, the book is full of Diamond either complaining that his co-stars didn’t like him or bragging about the fact that he used to have sex with 12 year-olds at Disneyland.  Diamond accuses his castmates of smoking weed.  (Wow, teenagers smoking weed.  MY GOD, THE SCANDAL!)  Diamoned accuses his castmates of having sex.  (OH MY GOD, TEENAGERS HAVING SEX!)  In other words, the book is pretty much Dustin Diamond complaining about the fact that everyone but him was having fun on the set of Saved By The Bell.

So, of course, if you’re going to make a movie about Saved By The Bell, where would you go for your source material?  Well, you can’t go to any of the stars because, with the exception of Dustin Diamond, they all have successful careers outside of Saved By The Bell.  And you can’t go to Dennis Haskins because, seriously, who cares what Mr. Belding thought?

Lifetime decided to use Behind the Bell as their source material.  Unfortunately, Diamond himself has admitted that the book was a pack of lies.  As a result, most of the more salacious (and therefore entertaining) material could not actually be used in the movie.  The Lifetime film is full of hints of bad behavior but no direct evidence.  At one point, we see the actor playing Mario Lopez flirting with an extra in a deserted classroom.  In another scene, the girls get snarky with each other because they all like Mark-Paul Gosselaar.  But, beyond those hints, we don’t get to see any of the book’s more sordid accusations.  Instead, all we get are a lot of scenes of the actor playing Dustin Diamond looking annoyed with his castmates.

(Because, literally, the only verifiable, non-slanderous thing to be found in the book is that apparently Dustin Diamond was whiny, bitter, and jealous…)

As a result, the film seems to be suggesting that Saved By The Bell was put together and performed by the most boring people on Earth.  The end result is not only the worst film to have appeared on Lifetime but perhaps one of the worst films of all time.

Why is it so bad?

I accuse Screech!

(Incidentally, if you want to learn more about Saved By The Bell, I suggest checking out the best Saved By The Bell review site around, The Summer of Morris!)

And, on that note of failure, we conclude this series of 80 Back to School reviews!  Thank you, everyone, for your indulgence and your patience!  I hope everyone enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.

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Back to School #79: If I Stay (dir by R.J. Cutler)


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17 year-old Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz) appears to have everything that a girl could want.  She has a wonderful, if somewhat goofy, father in former musician-turned-teacher Denny (Joshua Leonard).  She has a loving mother, a travel agent named Kat (Mirelle Enos).  She has an adorable little brother (Jakob Davies), a loyal best friend (Liana Liberato), and — best of all — she has an older boyfriend named Adam (Jamie Blackley), who is on the verge of rock stardom.  Even better, Mia has a wonderful future ahead of her.  A musical prodigy, Mia is cello player who is waiting to hear whether or not she’s been accepted to Julliard.

And then, one day on a snowy road, it all changes.  There’s a car accident.  Both Denny and Kat are killed.  Mia’s brother is several injured.  And Mia in a coma.  While her friends and what remains of her family watch over her at the hospital, Mia has an out-of-body experience.  She walks through the hallways of the hospital, she listens to her loved ones as they struggle to accept what has happened, and she remembers all of the days that came before the accident.  She remembers first meeting Adam.  She remembers falling in love with him.  She remembers their fights and then she remembers her family and she realizes that she’s facing a future without any of them.  Ultimately, Mia has to decide whether to wake up and stay or to die and perhaps be at peace.

Based on an excellent novel by Gayle Forman, If I Stay is a tear jerker in the best sense of the word.  Yes, the film has been clearly designed to make you cry but what’s wrong with that?  Sometimes, crying is the best thing that one can do and, much like The Fault In Our Stars, the film’s tears are earned.  As directed by R.J. Cutler, the film strikes a deliberate and telling contrast between Mia’s lively memories and the stark coldness of the hospital through which she now finds herself wandering.  Joshua Leonard and Mirelle Enos bring a lot of life to the roles of the doomed parents and Stacy Keach is great as Mia’s grandfather.  (Try not to cry when he tells the comatose Mia that it’s okay to move on.  I dare you!)

Finally, Chloe Grace Mortez gives a wonderful and soulful performance of Mia.  Moretz is one of those young actresses who always seems to be both wise beyond her years and painfully fragile as well.  If I Stay contains yet another strong performance from her, one that elevates the entire film.  That said, I hope she gets to do a nice romantic comedy at some point in the future because, after all the trauma she’s acted out in everything from Kick-Ass to Texas Killing Fields to Carrie to If I Stay, she’s earned it!

As for If I Stay, it’s still playing at theaters even as I write this review.  If you haven’t already, go see it.

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Back to School #78: Boyhood (dir by Richard Linklater)


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I hate to admit it but it actually took me a day or two to really warm up to Boyhood.  

When I first saw it, I knew that I was watching a great film and it was a movie that I had a good deal of respect for.  By now, we’ve all heard the story of how the film was made and how director Richard Linklater first started the film in 2002 when star Ellar Coltrane was only 6 years old.  Over the next 12 years, Linklater would spend a few weeks out of each year filming.  The script was written on a year-by-year basis, allowing the story to develop organically and often taking into account whatever was happening in Coltrane’s life at the time.  The end result is that Coltrane grows up on screen in much the same way that Mason, the character he’s playing, does.  As I watched Boyhood, I knew that Linklater had somehow managed to turn what could have been a mess into an undeniably effective movie.

But yet, in the hours immediately following the showing, I had a nagging feeling.  I realized that, as much I respected the film and as much as I wanted to love the film, there was a part of me that was slightly disappointed.  In some ways, it made sense.  Richard Linklater is a director whom I absolutely revere and, as a result, I am always going to watch his movies with extremely high (and occasionally unrealistic) expectations.  As for the film itself, Boyhood is the most acclaimed film of the year so far.  For the longest time, it had a perfect 100% rating over at Rotten Tomatoes.

And, when you’re continually told that a film is the greatest movie ever made, it’s going to be a challenge to then judge the film on its actual merits.

And so, I was content to think of Boyhood as being one of those undeniably important films that I respected more than I enjoyed.

But then something happened.

Boyhood stuck with me.  Boyhood is a film that has stuck with me more than almost any other film this year.  (Interestingly enough, perhaps the only 2014 film that I’ve seen so far that has stuck with me more was Guardians of Galaxy, which in many ways is the exact opposite of Boyhood.)  There are scenes in Boyhood that are still as fresh in my mind as they were when I first saw them.  Interestingly enough, they’re not big, dramatic scenes.  (Indeed, Boyhood is memorable for just how determined it is to avoid the big, dramatic scenes that usually appear in coming-of-age films.)  Instead, what stuck with me were the little details.

I remembered how, when Mason was 6 and his family was moving down to Houston, his best friend rode by on a bicycle and waved goodbye, never to be seen again in the film but definitely destined to be remembered by both Mason and the audience.

I remembered how, from the minute that Mason’s mom (Patricia Arquette), met and married the seemingly friendly Bill (Marco Perella), I knew that the marriage wasn’t going to work.  I remembered the scenes of Mason and his sister (Lorelei Linklater) trying not upset Bill and failing every time.  Years later, when Arquette marries yet again, I knew that it wasn’t going to work out any better.  By that point, Mason knew it too but what can you do when you’re only 16?

I remembered how Mason, after having been moved to San Marcos, had an awkward conversation with a girl from his school.  The girl obviously liked Mason and Mason obviously liked the girl but neither one had a clue how to say it.

I remembered feeling stunned when, over the course of just one scene break, Mason went from being an innocent-looking 14 year-old to a skinny and angrily sullen 15 year-old.  It’s hard for me not to feel that, in that regard, Boyhood serves as a warning of what’s probably in store for me once I actually have kids.

I also remember being surprised when Mason’s Dad (Ethan Hawke) went from being the guy who ranted about George W. Bush in 2004 to a 2011 newlywed who asks his children to come to church with him.  But then again, in retrospect, was it that much of a shock or, like Mason, did I unfairly expect his Dad to remain a rebel for the rest of his life?

(One of the most interesting things about the film is that, since it was literally filmed while the story was occurring, Boyhood serves as a time capsule of life and culture throughout the beginning on this century.  While the scenes set in 2004 and 2008 are dominated by Mason’s father enthusiastically talking about politics, he never mentions anything about the presidential election in 2012.  And it actually makes sense because was anyone enthusiastic about 2012?)

That’s the thing that sets Boyhood apart from other coming-of-age films.  Many of the events that would be major scenes in other teen films — like losing one’s virginity or learning to drive — happen off-screen in Boyhood.  Instead, Boyhood is just about watching life unfold.  Many questions are not answered.  Characters come and go, playing their part in Mason’s life and then disappearing as Mason moves on.

Some of them, like Mason’s stepbrother and step sister who are both left behind when his mother leaves Bill, we wonder about, just as surely as Mason wonders about them too.  But life is rarely neat enough to provide all the answers and Boyhood, if nothing else, is about life.

And that, ultimately, it why Boyhood sticks with you.  Looking back on the film, you can see how Mason the 6 year-old who had to be forced to leave behind his best friend eventually grew up to be Mason the 18 year-old who is almost insensitive in his eagerness to leave behind his mother and drive himself to college.  But, and this is the key, you have to be willing to look back on the film to truly understand at.  Trying to figure out how the pieces of puzzle fit together while watching the film will only leave you frustrated, as life often does while you’re living it.  It’s only after the film that you can truly understand what it all means.  It’s only when you look back that you realize just how much Richard Linklater has accomplished with Boyhood.

As such, Boyhood is not an easy film.

But it is a great one.

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Back to School #77: The Fault In Our Stars (dir by Josh Boone)


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Well, we’re wrapping things up as far as Back to School is concerned.  A little over a month ago, I set out with a mission.  I said that I would review 80 of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable high school and teen films ever made.  I said it would be able to do it all in one week.  Needless to say I was wrong.  It’s actually taken me five weeks but the end is in sight and, as much as I’ve enjoyed doing this series, that’s probably for the best.  After all, the back to school sales are over.  The kids have already settled back into the school routine.  Everyone’s looking forward to the winter break.

Add to that, it’s nearly October and that means that it’s nearly time for this site to start devoting itself to horror!

So, we have four more Back to School reviews to go and, keeping with the chronological nature of this series, they are all for films that were released in 2014!

Speaking of which, 2014 has been the year of Shailene Woodley.  Much as how Jennifer Lawrence dominated 2012 by starring in The Hunger Games and winning an Oscar for Silver Linings PlaybookWoodley has proven herself to be both capable of carrying a franchise and starring in a serious film.  Also, much like Jennifer Lawrence in 2012, Shailene has been the subject of several condescending posts  over at AwardsDaily.com.  And, as we all know, you haven’t arrived in this business until Sasha Stone talks down to you.

Shailene’s serious film of 2014 was The Fault In Our Stars, which is based on the excellent and heart-breaking novel by John Green.  The book made me cry and cry.  In fact, it made me cry so much that I wasn’t sure whether I would have any tears left over for the film.  Don’t get me wrong.  I knew the film would probably be good.  Just on the basis of her excellent performances in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, I knew that Shailene Woodley was an ideal pick for the role of the Hazel, a sarcastic 16 year-old who has thyroid cancer and can’t go anywhere without her oxygen tank.  But I wondered, knowing already what was going to happen, would the film still have as strong an effect on me as it would if I was going in with no knowledge as to what was waiting for me.

I really shouldn’t have even wondered.  For that matter, I probably should not have worn mascara on the night that I saw the movie because, seriously, by the end of it, my face was a mess!  The Fault In Our Stars is one of those films that has been specifically made to make you cry.  And yes, it’s undeniably manipulative and I’ll even agree with those critics who have used the dreaded “schmaltz” label while describing the film but so what?  In the end, the tears are earned.  In the end, the film works.

And that’s largely due to Shailene Woodley’s performance as Hazel.  While Ansel Elgort gives an okay performance as Augustus, the boy who has lost a leg to cancer and who Hazel loves, the film really does belong to Shailene.  She gives a fierce performance, capturing both Hazel’s dark humor and, even more importantly, her independence and her inner strength.  It’s the type of performance that more than justifies 2014 being the year of Shailene Woodley.

Probably one of the more critically divisive scenes in the film comes when Hazel and Augustus are taking a tour of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.  (They’re in Amsterdam because they’re looking for Hazel’s favorite writer, a drunken recluse who is well-played by Willem DaFoe.)  Over the course of the tour, Hazel has to climb several staircases and ladders and it’s not easy for her.  However, Hazel never gives up and, at the end of the tour, she and Augustus share as kiss.  And, of course, everyone else who was on the tour breaks out into applause.  For many, I think this is the scene where the film says, “You can either take me as I am or you can leave the theater.”  Yes, it is incredibly manipulative and yes, I do think it would have been just as effective without everyone else breaking out into applause.  But, dammit, the scene works!  You have grown to so much care about Hazel that the scene works.  It also helps that, up until this point, the film has been so unsentimental about the horrible reality of cancer that the fact that you’re happy to finally see Hazel get that over-the-top moment of happiness.  Hazel has earned it, the film has earned it, and so has Shailene Woodley.

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