DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Akeelah and the Bee, Bee Season, Spellbound

, Wordplay

 

Title:  Akeelah and the Bee

Release Date:  2006

Nationality and Language: USA

Running time: 113 min

MPAA Rating: PG

Distributor and Production Company: Lions Gate

Director; Writer: Doug Atchison

Producer:

Cast:  Curtis Armstrong, Laurence Fishburne, Keke Palmer, Sean Michael, J. R. Villareal

Technical: Full 2:3 to 1

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site:  education

 

This was touted as a kids’ film in the DC Film Festival, and it is somewhat a variation of Bee Season, above, but more from the point of view of the kids, especially minorities. Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is an African American seventh grader in a low income middle school in south LA. She is a year ahead but is skipping classes because of boredom. When her English teacher notices her spelling skill, the principal (Curtis Armstrong) pressures her to enter spelling bees, because her success could bring more money to the school. She befriends a grieving and retired professor Larabee (Laurence Fishburne) who, after some false starts, coaches her. Her mother (Angela Basset) resents her desertion of the family, especially when Akeelah signs her own permission slip. But eventually she moves up in the state competition and goes to Washington for the national bee. She makes great friends, such as Javier (J. R. Villareal) and part-Korean super spelling champ Dylan (Sean Michael). In one scene, the kids play scrabble with Benko chess clocks. Dylan’s father puts enormous pressure on his son, which sets up a final confrontation in the last round where Akeelan ahd Dylan are both afraid to win by themselves. They both flub the word “xanthosis” deliberately. The final word is “pulchritude”. The film is in full Cinemascope and seems much larger than what I had expected. One point that makes spelling bees meaningful is that English, with its many root sources, is a very difficult language compared to most others to spell.

 

Bee Season (2005, Fox Searchlight/Regency, dir. Scott McGhee, David Siegel, novel by Myla Goldberg) like Squid, above is about a dysfunctional marriage and kids, but here the focus is much more on extra-personal ambition. The film opens with a black chopper carrying a large letter “A” across San Francisco Bay, perhaps a reference to “La Dolce Vita” which opens with a chopper carrying a Christ statute.  Richard Gere plays Saul Newman, a Torah professor living with his wife, two kids in the Bay Area. His younger daughter Eliza (Flora Cross) has been winning spelling bee’s and advancing rapidly in state competition. Saul throws himself into pushing her, partly out of his own religious and literary ego, but partly out of real bonding. In the meantime he neglects his teenage son Aarom (Max Minghella, son of the director) who may be a gifted violinist, playing Bach. (At one point he asks him not to play too loud.  I’ve heard that before.) His wife is wanting, too; it seems she may have an affair (of course), but she also has become kleptomaniac. The film focuses on the spelling exercises, with lots of imaginary visuals of letters and kaleidoscopes. You want to see a lot more details of the son and wife. Music is probably more interesting than spelling, and Aaron is on his own journey, exploring first Catholicism, a girl friend, and then Eastern religions. You just don’t see much detail of his journey, although the sight of Aaron in the orange form-fitted button ritual shirt hints the possibility of major initiations. The movie is the opposite of the TV series Everwood, where the musically gifted older son Ephram gets the limelight. Finally, Eliza may have her own problems (she has an epileptic fit alone in a hotel and maybe a near death experience), and then closes out the spelling bee. Is she wins, the family may disintegrate further. So…

 

This film should not be confused with the documentary Spellbound (2002, ThinkFilm, dir. Jeffrey Blitz, 97 min, G) or the Alfred Hitchcock thriller by the same name from 1945. The 2002 documentary is rather didactic, trying to stir as much visual interest from the competition, pausing and focusing on a kid when he hesitates before finishing a parole. At one point the screen is filled with the page of a dictionary. Eight kids are followed into the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in the Hyatt in Washington, DC. They range in age from about 10 to 15. One missed word was “distractible” – the kid spelled it as “distractable” and according to m-w.com, that spelling is acceptable. Some of the words (“alegar”) show up only in an unabridged dictionary. Many of them are biological names. But the final word was “logorrhea” – pathological talkativeness, an appropriate word for kids to know. Kids can ask the etymology of a word, the definition, or for it to be used in a sentence. All of these are common in English classes. Several of the kids discuss what they feel they have accomplished with spelling skills, and how other students react to them as “special.”

 

Wordplay (2006, IFC/The Weinstein Company/Grinder, dir. Paul Creadon, PG) is a documentary about the crossword puzzle world. In that sense, it fits into a growing trend of movies about academic games (even the NBC4 show "It's Academic" in the DC area, as well as ABC's "Jeopardy"). The challenge here is to make this subject visual and make it into a movie. There are automated tools that help, as computer programs fill in the letters in the boxes on a screen and show some pizzazz (and that is a good word in a puzzle). But the trick is to turn the documentary into a story, and build up some suspense. It does. First we're introduced to some of the people in that world, such as New York Times crossword puzzle editor (Will Shortz, if I got it right). The people who make puzzles. That will include former president Bill Clinton, who used to do a puzzle every day in the Oval Office, and comedian Jon Stewart. And then people who go to the tournaments. They become interesting. There is Al Sanders, from Oklahoma, and then Trip Payne, who lives with a male partner in Florida and apparently became one of the big amateurs. We get the idea that this is a world where nerds can distinguish themselves and live the way they want to--a major social and political point in the film. Most of all, there is engineering college student Tyler Hinman, who at 20 aspires to become the youngest crossword puzzle champion ever. The movie sets up the tournament, which has contestants solving paper and pencil puzzles in tiny yellow cubicles and getting points. Finally, the top three have to solve puzzle in public.

 

You could imagine making a movie like this about chess tournaments (from USCF to the international world -- there was "Looking for Bobby Fischer"), bridge, or even poker. If anyone is fair game for chess, contact me.   

 

Related reviews:  The Squid and the Whale      Looking for Bobby Fischer    The Great New Wonderful (geography bee)

 

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