Category Archives: School Days

Put some shorts on

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo o February 18, 2017

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At the risk of having my critic’s license revoked, I will freely admit this, right here in front of (your deity of choice) and all six of my readers: I have not seen any of the 9 films nominated for Best Picture of 2016. Then again, you can feel free to ask me if I care (the Academy and I rarely see eye-to-eye). Funny thing, though…I have managed to catch all of the (traditionally more elusive) Oscar nominees for Best Short Film-Animation and Best Short Film-Live Action. And the good news is you can, too. The five nominees in each sub-category are making the rounds as limited-engagement curated presentations; each collection runs the length of a feature film, with separate admissions (the films are held over this week in Seattle and will be on various streaming platforms February 21).

(Reads woodenly off teleprompter) And the nominees for Best Short Film-Animation are:

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Blind Vaysha (Canada; 8 mins) – Directed by Theodore Ushev, this piece (based on the eponymous short story by Georgi Gospodinov) is a parable about a girl born with uniquely dichotomous vision: one eye sees the past, the other the future. Is it a metaphor about living in the moment? Oh, maybe. Simple, direct, and affecting, with a woodcut-style “look” that reminded me of Tomm Moore’s animated films (The Secret of Kells).

Rating: ***

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Borrowed Time (USA; 7 mins) – Set in the old west, this portrait of remembrance and regret is visually impressive, and seems well-intentioned…but it’s curiously uninvolving. It’s co-directed by veteran Pixar Studios animators Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj.

Rating: **

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Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Canada/UK; 35 mins) – Director Robert Valley’s resume includes a graphic novel series; and his film definitely has that dark vibe. It’s a noir-ish memoir concerning the narrator’s longtime love/hate relationship with his best buddy, “Techno Stypes”, a charismatic but maddeningly self-destructive Neal Cassady-type figure. The story is involving at the outset, but becomes somewhat redundant and ultimately, tiring. Atmospheric, and great to look at-but even at 35 minutes, it’s overlong. Note: Parents should be advised that this one (not exactly “family-friendly”) is being exhibited last, allowing time for attendees to opt out (“hey kids-who wants ice cream?!”).

Rating: **½

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Pearl (USA; 6 mins) – A young girl and her free-spirited musician father have a care-free, nomadic existence living out of their car, but as the years pass, life’s bumpy road creates challenging detours (Jesus, did I just write that? A gig with Hallmark beckons). Quite lovely and very moving; it’s my favorite of the nominees in this category. It’s almost like a 6 minute distillation of Richard Linklater’s interminable Boyhood (wish I’d discovered this first-would have saved me some time). Well-directed by Patrick Osborne.

Rating: ***½

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Piper (USA; 6 mins) – I’ve resigned myself to the fact that a Pixar nomination in this category is as unavoidable as Taylor Swift at the Grammys. Actually (long-time readers will back me up on this) I have softened on my curmudgeonly stance on CGI animation, enough to cave on this animal-lover’s delight. Not much of a narrative, but somehow “the story of a hungry sandpiper hatchling who ventures from her nest for the first time to dig for food by the shoreline (the end)” is a perfect salve for what’s, you know…going on the world right now. In fact, I might need to watch this on a loop, just to keep from hurtling myself off the nearest cliff. Beautifully directed by Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer.

Rating: ***

And the nominees for Best Short Film-Live Action are:

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Ennemis Interieurs (France; 28 mins) – Set in 1990s France, an Algerian-born French citizen is given the third-degree at a police station regarding his association with members of his mosque who are suspected terrorists. The political subtext in Sleim Aszzazi’s film recalls The Battle of Algiers; with a touch of The Confession. While I appreciate what the director is trying to convey in his examination of Islamophobia, the film doesn’t go anywhere; it’s too dramatically flat to stand out in any significant way.

Rating: **½

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La Femme et le TGV (Switzerland; 30 mins) – Inspired by a true story, Timo von Gentun’s film stars 60s icon Jane Birken (mother of Charlotte Gainesbourg) as a lonely widow living a quiet, structured life. “Quiet” with one exception-which is when a daily express train thunders past her cottage. Smiling and waving at the train is the highlight of her day. After she stumbles on a letter that the train’s conductor chucked into her garden, a unique relationship begins (a la 84 Charing Cross Road). OK, it is borderline schmaltzy at times-but also touching and bittersweet, with an endearing performance from Birken.

Rating: ****

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Silent Nights (Denmark; 30 mins) – A young Danish woman who works as a volunteer at a homeless shelter and an illegal immigrant from Ghana cross paths at the facility and develop a mutual attraction. Director Aske Bang uses the ensuing romantic relationship as political allegory; examining difficulties of cultural assimilation and the overall plight of immigrants in Western countries (much as Fassbinder did in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul).

Rating: ***

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Sing (Hungary; 25 mins) – It’s interesting that two of the five nominated films in this category are set in the 90s, and specifically in allusion to the political turmoil in Europe that was proliferating at the time (it’s either “interesting”, or perhaps I’m merely slow in catching on that “the 90s” was a generation ago, ergo “history”…funny how one loses sense of time as one ages, isn’t it?). At any rate, Kristof Deak’s tale centers on a young girl just starting out at a new school. She joins the choir, a perennially award-winning group with a dictatorial choir director. When she finds out that the “secret” to the choir’s continuing success is not above board, she is faced with a moral conundrum. Although based on a true story, it plays like a modern parable about the courage of whistleblowers.

Rating: ***½

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Timecode (Spain; 15 mins) – As directed by Juanjo Gimenez Pena, this hipster catnip about two mopey millennial security guards (one male, one female) who barely exchange a word during their daily shift change is a glorified YouTube video that uses up its irony quotient quickly. I might have thrown it an extra star if it was but ten minutes shorter.

Rating: *

Tour de France: Microbe and Gasoline ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 30, 2016)

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I guess I’m mellowing with age. The first sign was when I saw a Wes Anderson film…and actually liked it. As I wrote in my 2014 review of The Grand Budapest Hotel:

I have been somewhat immune to the charms of Wes Anderson. I have also developed a complex of sorts over my apparent inability to comprehend why the phrase “a Wes Anderson film” has become catnip to legions of hipster-garbed fanboys and swooning film critics […] Maybe there’s something wrong with me? Am I like the uptight brother-in-law in Field of Dreams who can’t see the baseball players? […] To me, “a Wes Anderson film” is the cinematic equivalent to Wonder Bread…bland product, whimsically wrapped.

Mr. Anderson isn’t the only director I’ve had this “problem” with. Enter Michel Gondry, who I’ve always viewed as Anderson’s French cousin (i.e. a purveyor of bland product, whimsically wrapped). As I lamented in my 2014 review of Gondry’s Mood Indigo:

Not that I haven’t come to expect a discombobulating mishmash of twee narrative and wanton obfuscation from the director of similarly baffling “Romcoms From the Id” like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, but…enough, already.

I seriously doubt that Gondry literally read my silly little review and took it to heart, but I’ll be damned if he hasn’t dropped the twee narrative and wanton obfuscation for once, and made a film that I really enjoyed (hey wait…when did those ball players get here?!).

Microbe and Gasoline is a straightforward coming-of-age/road dramedy about two nerdy 14 year-old school chums who embark on a decidedly offbeat summer adventure. With its socially awkward protagonists and gentle comedic observations on the emotional (and hormonal) turbulence of young adolescence, the film is a mélange of Small Change, Gregory’s Girl, My Bodyguard, and Breaking Away, with a just a hint of Weird Science.

Daniel (Ange Dargent) is a daydreamer and budding artist who sketches portraits of his classroom crush Laura (Diane Besnier) in lieu of paying attention to the teacher. Small for his age and slightly built (hence the nickname “Microbe”), he is frequently mistaken for a girl. This makes him a natural target for bullies. Theo (Theophile Baquet) is the new kid at school, which automatically makes him an outsider. Theo (dubbed “Gasoline”, because he helps out in his dad’s auto repair shop) is more boisterous than Daniel, but generally shunned by the other kids because of his caustic wit, which he uses as a shield.

Bonded by their shared insecurities and outsider status, Daniel and Theo become fast friends. Theo mentors Daniel on strategies to get Laura’s attention (although he’s obviously not speaking from experience) and how to handle the bullying (of which he undoubtedly does speak from experience). “Remember,” he sagely tells Daniel, “today’s bullies are tomorrow’s victims.” When school’s out for summer, the two decide to split Versailles and hit the road, Jacques. The only problem with that plan is that they are too young to hold driver’s licenses. So, combining Theo’s mechanical savvy with Daniel’s vivid imagination, they design and build their own vehicle…a wooden shack on wheels.

Best described as an outhouse set atop a go-cart (or perhaps a mini-version of Howl’s Moving Castle), the theory is that if they encounter any gendarmes on their journey, they simply pull over to the side of the road and, voila! It’s just a shack on the side of the road. This element of the narrative is Gondry’s sole acquiescence to his innate twee tendencies.

This is the director’s most accessible film, with great performances all around (although Audrey Tautou seems underutilized in her relatively small part as Daniel’s mom). Parents should be advised that the film has an ‘R’ rating (one scene in particular, in which Daniel wanders into a massage parlor for a haircut, assures that this one will never pop up on The Disney Channel). It’s a simple tale; but if you hit the right notes (as Gondry does here) there’s eloquence in simplicity. It may not win a prize for originality, but in the midst of a summer movie roster rife with murder and mayhem, it’s a breath of fresh air.

Teenage rampage: Palo Alto (*1/2) & We Are the Best! (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June  14, 2014)

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School daze: Palo Alto

It’s tempting to call Gia Coppola’s directing debut, Palo Alto, a Hollywood home movie. Her mom (Jacqui Getty) is in the cast, as well as her cousin (Bailey Coppola) and her great aunt (Talia Shire). Another cousin (Robert Schwartzman, brother of Jason and son of Talia) is co-credited for the music. And her granddad (do I need to tell you who he is?) has a voice over cameo (unbilled). But I won’t do that; I will maintain professional integrity, and judge her film strictly on its own merits (are you buying this?). Okay, one more thing I should give you a heads up on. Coppola’s film revolves around the travails of bored, mopey, privileged teenagers, which puts her at risk being accused of riding aunt Sofia’s coattails. Again, I won’t go there.

While the film is an ensemble piece about a group of northern California high school students, there is a protagonist. Her name is April (Emma Roberts, daughter of Eric). Saddled with the mantle of “class virgin”, April is a sensitive and withdrawn senior who plays on the soccer team. As her hormones begin to burble and roil, exacerbated by peer pressure from her sexually active girlfriend Emily (Zoe Levin), April finds herself conflicted by a dual attraction to her coach (James Franco) and more age-appropriate classmate Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val…who plays April’s dad). Emily has already taken Teddy for a test drive, as well as his best bud Fred (Nat Wolff),  a surly James Dean type (we know this due to his tell-tale red jacket).

Coppola adapted her screenplay from cast member Franco’s book, Palo Alto: Stories. I haven’t read it, but a critic from Publisher’s Weekly certainly has. Here’s their conclusion:

The overall failure of this collection has nothing to do with its side project status and everything to do with its inability to grasp the same lesson lost on its gallery of high school reprobates: there is more to life than this.

Working from the assumption this is an accurate assessment of the source material, I can say that Coppola has made a film that is pretty faithful to the book (if you catch my drift). Roberts has a compelling presence, and Kilmer’s River Phoenix vibe will serve him well in future endeavors, but the narrative has been done to death, and with much more style and originality (try renting Foxes, Kids, Ghost World, Election, or River’s Edge instead).

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I was a teenage anarchist: We Are the Best!

It may seem counter-intuitive to ascertain that We Are the Best! (or any movie about punk rockers) is “endearing” but you’ve just got to love a rhyming couplet that matches up “morgue” with “Bjorn Borg”. That’s a line from “Hate the Sport”, written by 13 year-old friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammer) and Klara (Mira Grosin). The city is Stockholm, the time is the early 1980s, and Bobo and Klara really hate P.E. class, which has inspired the pair to sign up for time at their school’s rehearsal space on a whim, so they can compose their punk anthem. While the space comes equipped with a drum kit and bass guitar, there is one drawback…neither of the girls knows how to play an instrument. But they do have the ethos (besides, Klara already sports a Mohawk) so they’re already halfway there.

Ostracized by their classmates for their tomboyish looks and demeanor, Bobo and Klara have formed their own social club of two. While Bobo is brooding and introspective, Klara is the more brash and outspoken of the pair. Klara also attaches great importance to maintaining one’s punk cred (in one particularly amusing scene she laments about her older brother being a “sellout” because he’s started listening to Joy Division). Still, attitude and cred alone will only get you so far if you really want to actually start making music, so how should they go about learning a chord or two? Salvation arrives in the unlikely guise of classically trained guitarist Hedwig (Liv LeMoyne), whom they espy performing in their school’s talent show. She is a devout Christian…but nobody’s perfect.

Writer-director Lukas Moodysson (who adapted the screenplay from a comic book created by his writer-musician wife, Coco) has fashioned an entertaining dramedy that nicely encapsulates the  roller coaster of emotions that define the early teen years. The trio of young leads have wonderful chemistry, and are able to telegraph those vacillating jumps between vibrant exuberance and painful awkwardness in a very authentic manner. I should warn parents that while I refer to the film as “endearing”, and would definitely consider it “girl power-positive”, I wouldn’t call it “family friendly” (it’s labelled with the nebulous “NR”, but has plenty of R-rated dialog).

Winsome wisps of WASP-y whinging: Breathe In **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 5, 2014)

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While I am aware that the “suspension of disbelief” is inherent to movie-watching, writer-director Drake Doremus and co-writer Ben York Jones are demanding a healthy amount of it from their audience with Breathe In, a tale of affluent angst set in John Cheever Land, shot in a formal, austere style recalling Robert Redford’s Ordinary People or Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. First, you have to find 30 year-old Felicity Jones believable as an 18 year-old British exchange student named Sophie. There is certainly no problem for the UK-born actress to sell the “Brit” part…but chronologically, she’s too long in the tooth (like 30 year-old Dustin Hoffman was playing age “21” in The Graduate).

Then again, perhaps there was a method to this casting madness. Because you see, Sophie is one of those Old Souls. Which I’d guess is a device to make it more “believable” (and less creepy?) that she and the American host family’s Dad, Keith (Guy Pearce) experience some kind of instantaneous mutual attraction, telegraphed by an exchange of soulful stolen glances no sooner than Keith and his wife Megan (Amy Ryan) pick Sophie up at the airport to drive her to their upstate New York digs, where she will be sharing a room with the couple’s 18 year-old daughter (Mackenzie Davis). Nothing creepy about it at all.

Keith is a mopey kind of fellow, one of those embittered, frustrated musicians who has pretty much given up his dreams and settled for teaching piano to high school students. “Keith will be your piano teacher at school. He has a hobby with the symphony,” Megan tells Sophie while making small talk during their ride home from the airport. Keith bristles, quietly hissing “It’s not just a hobby”. Keith plays cello, and has been subbing, but is on pins and needles regarding an upcoming audition for an open chair. “Would you give up teaching?” asks Sophie. “Yeah.” Keith answers without hesitation. One beat behind, Megan blurts a “No”. Houston, we have a problem.

Keith seems to be the only brooding artiste in the family. His daughter is an outgoing sort; a high school swim team champ, she’s a bit of a ditz (if likable enough). Likewise Megan, who goes all Martha Stewart over cookie jars. She collects and sells them online. Sophie smiles politely while pretending to be fascinated by an upcoming “cookie jar expo” that Megan is quite jazzed about. But in her heart of hearts, Sophie is an Outsider. Just like Keith, who shuts himself up in his room practicing for his audition and gazing wistfully at old photos of himself in younger days, when he played in a rock ’n’ roll band.

Curiously, Sophie wants to opt out of taking Keith’s piano class. When Keith asks her why, she is evasive, muttering cryptic excuses. Naturally, Keith is intrigued. He insists she has no choice; until she “officially” gets herself taken off the rolls via the school’s requirements, it is mandatory that she come to his class. Reluctantly, she shows up. Keith invites her to “play something” as a way of introducing herself to the the class. After shooting Keith one of those world-weary, “Are you sure this is what you want?” looks, Sophie sits down at the piano, and proceeds to blow the room away Van Cliburn-style, with what she introduces as one of “Chopin’s warm-up pieces” (whatever you’re thinking is going to happen next…you are correct).

Ay, there’s the rub. Unless you are clinically brain-dead, whatever you think is going to happen next in this film, it pretty much does. You’re always  one act ahead . The actors are all quite good, and there are some nice touches; as in the way the director cleverly interpolates incidental musical interludes (e.g. Keith’s melancholy cello piece, Sophie’s fiery piano solo) with each character’s emotional turmoil. But there is a glaring lack of motivation for each character’s actions. They are just chess pieces, shuffling around on the thin outline of a narrative that isn’t quite all there. While there seems to have been a noble attempt to construct the story itself like a symphony (I get that) it unfortunately comes off like it’s an unfinished one, at best.

Hints and allegations: The Hunt ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2014)

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Did you ever play “telephone” when you were a kid? Assuming that some readers were raised on texting, it is a party game/psychology 101 exercise in which one person whispers a message to another, moving  down the line until it reaches the last player, who then repeats it loud enough for all to hear. More often than not, the original context gets lost in translation once it runs through the gauntlet of misinterpretations, preconceptions and assumptions that generally fall under the umbrella of “human nature”.

The Hunt is a shattering drama from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (co-written by Tobias Lindholm) that vividly demonstrates the singularly destructive power of “assumption”. When we first meet bespectacled, mild-mannered kindergarten teacher Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), he is just beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel following a difficult and emotionally draining divorce. Well-liked by his students and fellow teachers and bolstered by the support of long-time friends like Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) Lucas is picking up the pieces and embarking on a fresh start. He lives and works in a small, tightly-knit community, where few residents would be considered “strangers”

One day at school, some of Lucas’ students decide to “dog pile” their teacher. Watching from the wings is Theo’s daughter Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), a withdrawn but sweet little girl who knows Lucas not only as a teacher, but as a family friend. She joins the giggly pile of kids and kisses Lucas, full on the lips. He immediately takes Klara aside and gently admonishes her, explaining that it is inappropriate for her to kiss any adult on the lips (other than Mom and Dad). But 5 year old Klara is only puzzled and hurt by what she simply perceives as rejection. A while later, the school principal (Susse Wold) spots a tearful Klara. She asks her what is wrong. Klara’s answer is a sulking child’s innocent lie, but it ignites a real life game of “telephone” that is about to turn a man’s life upside down.

Mikkelsen’s performance as a man struggling to keep his head above water whilst being inexorably pulled into a maelstrom of Kafkaesque travails is nothing short of astonishing. The film is a fascinating glimpse into the psychology of mob mentality, at times recalling Fritz Lang’s Fury. There are also flashes of Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal, particularly in the protagonist’s dogged refusal to dignify the accusations by neither denying guilt nor going out of his way to profess his innocence. Interestingly, the film dredges up memories of the real life day-care sex abuse hysteria (perhaps best personified by the high-profile McMartin preschool trial) that seemed to dominate the media throughout the 1990s (remember all the ballyhoo over “Satanic rituals” and the “false memories” phenomenon? Good times). The Hunt is powerful, intense and unsettling, yet essential. And that’s no lie.

Welcome to hell: Wake in Fright ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 27, 2012)

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There’s a great old Temptations song that goes “you make your own heaven and hell right here on earth.” That would have made a perfect tag line for a rarely seen, one-of-a-kind 1971 drama called Wake in Fright. Restored in 2009 for a successful revival in Australia and considered a great lost film from that country’s “new wave” of the early to mid-1970s, it was directed by the eclectic Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Fun With Dick and Jane, North Dallas Forty), and is currently playing in select cities. As someone who is a huge fan of Aussie cinema from that era (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Walkabout, The Last Wave, etc.) I’m ashamed to admit that this film was under my radar until I was offered a DVD press screener a few weeks back (I don’t recall it ever showing on cable, and it’s never been available domestically on VHS or Region 1 DVD).

Here’s the film’s actual tag line: “Have a drink, mate? Have a fight, mate? Have some dust and sweat, mate? There’s nothing else out here.” That actually could work as a plot synopsis. Sort of a cross between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and (speaking of the Australian new wave) Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris, it’s a relatively simple tale about a burned-out teacher (Gary Bond) who works in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in the Outback.

Headed back to Sydney to visit his girlfriend over the school holiday, he takes the train to Bundanyabba (the nearest town with an airport) where he will need to lodge for one night. At least that’s his plan. “The Yabba” is one of those burgs where the clannish regulars at the local pub take an unhealthy interest in strangers, starting with the (too) friendly town cop (Chips Rafferty) who subtly bullies the teacher into getting  blotto. This kick starts a “lost weekend” that lasts for five days.

Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the ensuing booze-soaked debaucheries have to be seen to be believed; particularly an unnerving and surreal sequence involving a drunken nocturnal kangaroo hunt that I  guarantee no film before or since matches for sheer audacity (a strange, lengthy disclaimer in the credits may not assuage animal lovers’ worst fears, but at least acknowledges viewers’ potential sensitivities).

That aside, this is a unique and compelling film; dripping with an atmosphere of dread and tempered by sharp, blackly comic dialog (Evan Jones adapted the script from Kenneth Cook’s novel). Splendid performances abound, especially from Donald Pleasance as a boozy MD. One more thing. In all sincerity, I hope that no one is foolish enough to devise a drinking game based around the film, because somebody in the room will surely drop dead of alcohol poisoning long before credits roll.

SIFF 2012: Fat Kid Rules the World **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2012)

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Fat Kid Rules the World marks the directorial debut for Matthew Lillard (who surprised many by revealing previously untapped depth as an actor in The Descendants last year). Lillard’s film, a sort of Gen Y take on Boudou Saved From Drowning (with a touch of Times Square) centers on a socially awkward high-school student named Troy (Jacob Wysocki) who lives in a cramped Seattle apartment with his ex-jarhead dad (Billy Campbell) and snotty younger brother.

One day, our glum hero is seized by a suicidal impulse and throws himself in front of a bus. He is saved by guitarist/street kid/Oxy junkie Marcus (Matt O’Leary), who demands $20 for the “service”. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship, with Marcus playing a punk rock Henry Higgins to the arrhythmic Troy’s Eliza Doolittle, encouraging him to locate his inner Cobain and learn to play the drums so they can storm the Seattle music scene. Marcus falls in love with a cute alternachick at school. He discovers rhythm. Life lessons are learned. Director and cast have their hearts in the right place, but it all sinks into a morass of After School Special clichés.

Bad teacher: Cracks **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 25, 2011)

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Whilst perusing the press kit synopsis of Jordan (daughter of Ridley) Scott’s directorial debut, Cracks, I confess I got my feathers ruffled over the fact that it trumpeted “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie meets Lord of the Flies!” Ahem, I thought to myself, that’s my job to come up with clever “(blank) meets (blank)” references. How dare you usurp the mighty film critic, I continued raging, like the petulant man-child that I am. So I defiantly dredged up my own mashups: Picnic at Hanging Rock meets The Children’s Hour! Heavenly Creatures meets The Fallen Idol! You want esoteric? Try The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea meets Death in Venice…top that one, bee-YATCHes!!

I digress. As you may have gleaned, Scott’s film is the latest entry in a time-honored film genre: The Boarding School Drama. Set in the 1930s, with Irish locations standing in for an English coastal island, this particular institution is an elite girl’s school. As we’ve learned from watching such tales, there’s a caste system, with a ruling clique at the top of the pyramid. This one is led by a haughty young miss named Di (Juno Temple), who publicly admonishes her peeps for such high crimes as insufficiently buttering her toast for her at breakfast; after which she magnanimously assuages the humiliated underling with a tough love caveat: “We must set the standard for the others.”

However, there is a cosmology from upon high to which Di defers for “the standard” and guidance, which is handed down by the Unconventional Yet Inspirational Teacher of the piece. She is the enigmatically named Miss G (Eva Green). Di and her hand-picked inner circle share a mutual admiration society with the free-spirited Miss G, who captivates her charges with affected worldly poise and romanticized tales of wanderlust.

She has also chosen them for her exclusive “diving team”, appointing Di as the captain. In return, Miss G gets to bask in adulation and feed (in somewhat vampiric fashion) off of their youthful exuberance. “What is the most important thing in life?” she challenges them, firing them up for dive practice “Desire!” (more on that in a sec).

Everything goes swimmingly for Miss G. and her frolicking water nymphs until the arrival of a new girl throws a Spaniard in the works. Her name is Fiamma (Maria Valverde), and she hails from an aristocratic Spanish family. The headmistress puts the new girl under Miss G’s tutelage, instructing her to make Fiamma feel welcome, but with no special deference. Di wastes little time making Fiamma feel “welcome” by informing her in no uncertain terms that she is “allowed” but five personal decorative objects on her nightstand.

There is no tantrum, no tears (the kind of reaction that bullies really hate). In fact, Fiamma vibes a sophistication and maturity beyond the ken of the other girls; and when she recognizes one of Miss G’s “personal” anecdotes to be rote memorization from a published work, it is clear that the group dynamic is about to change. The divine Miss G, it would seem, has feet of clay-but don’t think that she will readily give up her stature.

The director co-adapted her screenplay with Ben Court and Caroline Ip from a novel by Shelia Kohler. I have not read the source book, but the author’s website reveals that one of her recurring themes is to dissect “…the reasons for violence within intimate relationships, in particular, the abuse of power and privilege.”

I can see that in the film; particularly through the character of Miss G.. Green is edgy and effective in the role, particularly in the way she keeps the psycho-sexual Sapphic undercurrents roiling below the surface, poised to explode at any moment (Blanche Dubois as a life coach). This is a promising debut for Scott; if her direction falters, it’s in the film’s pacing; this feels akin to a Masterpiece Theater presentation. Still, I would recommend it for the performances and absorbing story…so  you could say I’m willing to grade it on a curve.

SIFF 2011: The First Grader ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2011)

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Even though I could glean from frame one that The First Grader (this year’s SIFF opening night selection) was one of those dramas expressly engineered to tug mercilessly at the strings of my big ol’ pinko-commie, anti-imperialist, bleeding softie lib’rul heart, I nonetheless loved every minute of it. Produced by the BBC and beautifully directed by Justin Chadwick, the film dramatizes the true story of an illiterate 84 year-old Kikuyu tribesman (Oliver Litando) who, fired up by a 2002 Kenyan law that guaranteed free education for all citizens, makes a beeline for his local one-room schoolhouse, eager to hit the books.

Bemusement from the school officials (who initially balk) turns to respect for the aging gentleman’s quiet determination to realize his life-long dream, especially from the school’s compassionate principal (Naomie Harris). As you may have already guessed, there is much more to the protagonist’s story; through flashbacks we learn that he was a freedom fighter against the ruling British during the nearly decade-long Mau-Mau uprising that took place in Kenya in the 1950s. The full sacrifice he made and personal tragedy he suffered comes slowly and deliberately into focus; resulting in a denouement that packs a powerfully emotional gut punch.

Blow-up: The Exploding Girl ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 3, 2010)

Life is what happens to you

When you’re busy making other plans

-John Lennon

 (Engage geek mode) Remember that episode of the original Star Trek series where the Enterprise is taken over by “time-accelerated” aliens, who “convert” Captain Kirk into their reality? Even though he is still standing right next to his crew mates, to their perception he has vanished into thin air; his futile attempts to communicate sounds like the buzzing of insects to them. Inversely, Kirk can actually still “see” them, except they are moving and speaking in slow motion. Sometimes I feel that we have evolved into a society of time-accelerated creatures who are terrified of digesting any deep contemplation of our existence that can’t be wrapped up in a sound bite or tweeted in 140 characters or less.

That general impatience with “stillness” also seems to have become the meme in cinema. Don’t get me wrong; as a movie fan, I can appreciate all styles of film making. Flash cutting and relentless “shaky cam” panning has its place (action thrillers, for example) but on occasion, “life” simply happens before you onscreen while you’re busy waiting for the “movie” to start (to paraphrase a great English poet). And sometimes, that’s enough.

Despite its provocative title, The Exploding Girl is one such film; life simply happens for a while…and eventually, credits roll. Writer-director Bradley Rust Gray’s minimally scripted, no-budget meditation on echo boomers going through growing pains may not be visually showy or sport a hip mumblecore soundtrack, but nails the zeitgeist of young adulthood in much truer fashion than recent films like Juno or (500) Days of Summer.

The story centers on Ivy (Zoe Kazan) who comes home to New York City for summer break. Al (Mark Rendall), her best friend since childhood is also back from college for the summer. To his chagrin, Al’s parents have rented out his room, so he ends up crashing on the couch at Ivy’s family home. Ivy and Al hang out, go to the occasional party, get stoned, get up at the crack of noon-you know, the kinds of things you generally expect college kids to do when they’ve got some down time. Ivy keeps her cell phone glued to her ear, obsessively checking in with her boyfriend, who is spending his school break somewhere upstate (we never actually see him).

Following Zoe to a doctor’s appointment, we learn that she has to take medication for epilepsy. As long as she avoids stressful situations and stays away from alcohol, it appears to be manageable. Ay, there’s the rub. What are some of the mitigating circumstances that could drive a young person headlong into binge drinking? Yes, there are many; especially where affairs of the heart are concerned.

The narrative is not particularly deep or complex, but there is an almost wordless eloquence in the performances; something that happens when actors are given room to breathe (as they are here), letting their actions (and reactions) speak for themselves.

Kazan, a moon-faced pixie with expressive eyes, carries the film nicely. Rendall has a natural ease in front of the camera; although he might have been given  too much free reign in improvising his lines (because like, um, you know, it’s like, um, kinda like hard for me to imagine someone scripting out this type of dialogue, you know?).

I get an  impression from his film that Gray has studied John Cassavetes, particularly evident in some of the guerilla-style exterior shots, where the director doesn’t seem to mind passers-by occasionally hogging the foreground while his actors continue to plow forward with the scene (albeit out of view).

The film is nicely shot (on high-def video) and excellent use is made of the NYC locales. One scene in particular, framed on a rooftop where Ivy and Al are watching the sun set over the city while flocks of pigeons return to their nearby roost, is quite lovely (and possibly is intended as homage to On the Waterfront, which was directed by Kazan’s grandfather, Elia-unless I’m over-analyzing it). Or maybe it’s just simply two people, decelerating time.