Category Archives: School Days

From crayons to perfume: Top 10 school flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 31, 2019)

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It’s a funny thing. I know that this is supremely silly (I’m over 60, fergawdsake)- but as soon as September rolls around and retailers start touting their “back to school” sales, I still get that familiar twinge of dread. How do I best describe it? It’s a vague sensation of social anxiety, coupled with a melancholy resignation to the fact that from now until next June, I’ll have to go to bed early. By the way, now that I’m allowed to stay up with the grownups, why do I drift off in my chair at 8pm every night? It’s another one of life’s cruel ironies. At any rate, I hereby submit my Top 10 show-and-tell picks for homeroom:

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The Blackboard Jungle– I like to refer to this 1955 social drama as the “anti-Happy Days”. An idealistic English teacher (Glenn Ford) tackles an inner-city classroom full of leather-jacketed malcontents (or as they used to call them – “juvenile delinquents”) who would rather steal hubcaps and rumble than, say, study the construct of iambic pentameter.

The film still retains considerable power, despite dated trappings. Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier are surly and unpredictable as the alpha “toughs” in the classroom. The impressive supporting cast includes Richard Kiley, Anne Francis and Louis Calhern.

Director Richard Brooks co-scripted with Evan Hunter, from Hunter’s novel (the author is best-known by the nom de plume “Ed McBain”). Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” is featured in the soundtrack, which helped make the song a huge hit.

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Dazed and Confused– I confess that my attachment to writer-director Richard Linklater’s vivid 1993 recreation of a mid-70s high school milieu has a lot to do with the sentimental chord it touches within me (I graduated from high school in 1974). Such is the verisimilitude of the clothing, the hairstyles, the lingo, the social behaviors and the music that I experienced a total-immersion sense memory the first time I saw it (I’m guessing that the boomers born a decade before me had a similar reaction to American Graffiti).

This is not a goofy teen comedy; while there are laughs (mostly of recognition), the sharply written screenplay is more focused on keen observation. Linklater would be hard pressed to reassemble this bright, energetic young cast at the same bargain rates now: Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Rory Cochrane, Joey Lauren Adams and Nicky Katt, to name a few. Two bongs up!

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Election– Writer-director Alexander Payne and his creative partner Jim Taylor (Sideways, About Schmidt) followed their 1995 debut Citizen Ruth with this biting 1999 sociopolitical allegory (thinly cloaked as a teen comedy). Reese Witherspoon is pitch perfect as the psychotically perky, overachieving Tracy Flick, who seems to specialize in making life a special hell for her brooding civics teacher, Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick).

Much to Mr. McAllister’s chagrin, the smart, ambitious and politically savvy Tracy is running unopposed for school president. He encourages the somewhat dim but sweet-natured Paul Metzler (Payne discovery Chris Klein, who had never acted before) to cash in on his popularity as a jock and run against her (why does that sound familiar?). Payne delivers the laughs, yet never pulls his punches; his film reveals painful truths about suburbia’s dark underbelly (not unlike American Beauty, which came out the same year).

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Fast Times at Ridgemont High-Amy Heckerling’s hit 1982 coming-of-age dramedy introduced a bevy of talent to movie audiences: Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz, Nicholas Cage, Anthony Edwards. Oh…and a kid named Sean Penn, who memorably portrays the quintessential stoned California surfer dude, Jeff Spicoli (“Learning about Cuba…and having some food!”). A marvelously droll Ray Walston plays Spicoli’s exasperated history teacher, Mr. Hand.

Rolling Stone reporter (and soon-to-be film director) Cameron Crowe adapted the screenplay from his book, which was based on his experiences “embedded” at a San Diego high school (thanks to his youthful looks, Crowe passed himself off as a student). Heckerling returned to the California high school milieu for her hit Clueless.

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The First Grader– Beautifully directed by Justin Chadwick, this 2010 film is based on the true story of an illiterate 84 year-old Kikuyu tribesman (Oliver Litando) who had been a young freedom fighter during the Mau-Mau uprising in the 1950s. Fired up by a 2002 Kenyan law that guaranteed free education for all citizens, he shows up at his local one-room schoolhouse, eager to hit the books. The real story, however, lies in his past. The personal sacrifices that he made for his ideals are revealed slowly and deliberately; resulting in a denouement with a powerful, bittersweet gut punch. Unique and inspiring.

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Gregory’s Girl– Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s delightful examination of first love follows gawky teenager Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) as he goes ga-ga over Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), a fellow soccer player at school. Gregory receives advice from an unlikely mentor, his little sister (Allison Forster). While his male classmates put on airs about having deep insights about the opposite sex, they are just as clueless as he is.

Forsyth gets a lot of mileage out of a basic truth about adolescence- girls are light years ahead of the boys getting a handle on the mysteries of love. Not as precious as you might think; Forsyth is a master of low-key anarchy. Those Scottish accents can make for tough going, but it’s worth the effort (I’d recommend the subtitle option or closed captioning if available!).

Also in the cast: Clare Grogan, whom music fans may recall as lead singer of 80s band Altered Images, and Red Dwarf fans may recognize as “Kristine Kochanski”.

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if…. – In this 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson uses the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut of Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, a “lower sixth form” student at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the Travis character in Anderson’s two loose “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of mates who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters (i.e. the “System”).

Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film really has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said, one could argue that if…. could be read outside of original context as a pre-cursor to films like Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, The Chocolate War and Rushmore.

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Mandy– England’s Ealing Studios are chiefly remembered for churning out a slew of classic comedies. Indeed, director Alexander Mackendrick was responsible for several of them (including Whiskey Galore, The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit), but he also made this outstanding 1952 drama, which concerns a 7-year old girl (Mandy Miller).

Congenitally deaf since birth, Mandy has been coddled by her well-meaning parents (Phyllis Calvert and Terence Morgan) her whole life. While this has “protected” her in a fashion, it has also made her completely insular and socially dysfunctional. When Mandy’s mother hears about a school that specializes in teaching deaf children to speak using new progressive methods, she lobbies her skeptical husband to enroll their daughter. He reluctantly agrees. Mandy’s journey makes for an incredibly moving story.

Nigel Balchin and Jack Whittingham adapted the intelligent script from Hilda Lewis’ novel “The Day is Ours”. An added sense of realism stems from use of many non-actors; e.g. Mandy’s classmates, who were real-life students from a school for deaf children (Miller was not deaf, which makes her heart wrenching performance more remarkable; particularly in her unforgettable “breakthrough” scene).

The film had a profound impact in the U.K., changing social attitudes toward people with disabilities, who had been traditionally marginalized (if not shunned altogether or considered mentally deficient). Jack Hawkins gives one of his finest performances as Mandy’s teacher. A beautiful film.

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To Sir With Love-A decade after he co-starred in The Blackboard Jungle, Sidney Poitier trades his switchblade for a lesson plan; the student becomes teacher. This well-acted 1967 classroom drama offered a twist on the prevalent narrative of its day. Audiences were accustomed to watching an idealistic white teacher struggling to reach a classroom of unruly (and usually “ethnic”) inner city students; but here you had an idealistic black teacher struggling to reach a classroom of unruly, white British working-class students.

It’s a tour de force for James Clavell, who directed, wrote and produced. The “culture clash” narrative is not surprising; as it is prevalent in Clavell’s novels and films (most famously in Shogun). The film is also a great “swinging 60s” time capsule, with an onscreen performance of the theme song by Lulu, as well as an appearance by the Mindbenders (featuring future 10cc co-founder Eric Stewart). Also in the cast: Judy Geeson (in a poignant performance), Suzy Kendall, Christian Roberts, and future rock star Michael Des Barres (the lead singer for Silverhead, Detective, and Power Station!).

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Twenty-Four Eyes– This drama from Keisuke Kinoshita could be the ultimate “inspirational teacher” movie. Set in an isolated, sparsely populated village on the ruggedly beautiful coast of Japan’s Shodoshima Island, the story begins in 1928 and ends just after WW 2. It’s a simple yet deeply resonant tale about the long-term relationship that develops between a compassionate, nurturing teacher (Hideko Takamine) and her 12 students, from grade school through adulthood.

Many of the cast members are non-actors, but you would never guess it from the wonderful performances. Kinoshita enlisted sets of siblings to portray the students as they “age”, giving the story a heightened sense of realism. The film, originally released in 1954, was hugely popular in Japan; a revival years later introduced it to Western audiences, who warmed to its humanist stance and undercurrent of anti-war sentiments.

Class dismissed!

SIFF 2019: An Affair (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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There’s an old Woody Allen joke: “Those who cannot do, teach. Those who cannot teach, teach gym.” A disenchanted, 40-ish housewife takes a job teaching gym (to the chagrin of hubby). If she was seeking excitement, she gets that and more after one of her students begins stalking her.

In real life, if a high school teacher received a text from a student saying “You look so hot when you run!” followed by a dick pic-she’d put the kibosh on it right then and there-but we’d only have a 10-minute movie. You’ll yell at the protagonist for her inappropriate choices, but if you’re a sucker for steamy erotic thrillers-this film will seduce you (although you’ll still hate yourself in the morning).

Don’t stand so close to me: Submission (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 10, 2018)

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While it was likely in production before the “Me Too” movement took hold, writer-director Richard Levine’s Submission feels tailor-made for the current conversation regarding sex, power and patriarchy in the workplace; in this case, the world of academia.

Based on Francine Prose’s 2000 novel “Blue Angel” (itself a modern re-imagining of the narrative driving the eponymous 1930 Josef von Sternberg film starring Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings), Submission stars Stanley Tucci as Ted Swensen, a liberal arts college professor who teaches writing. A walking cliché, Ted is a blocked novelist whose one acclaimed work (a novel called “The Blue Angel”, surprise surprise) is long behind him.

As Woody Allen once said, “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” And so Ted has resigned himself to a life of tenured security and quiet desperation. You could say the same about his marriage. He has a loving wife (Kyra Sedgewick), who empathizes with his droll assessments of dreaded soirées with his stuffy colleagues. Their marriage is cozy, if not remarkable; it’s comfortable, like a favored pair of worn slippers.

You’re beginning to wonder when that boulder is going to crash through the window to break up all of this monotony and knock the dust off Ted’s typewriter keys, aren’t you?

Her name is Angela (Addison Timlin), a new pupil in Ted’s class. At first appearing sullen and withdrawn, Angela’s demeanor noticeably brightens once she’s one-on-one with Ted after class. When she showers praise on “The Blue Angel”, Ted is flattered, but keeps his tone cautiously neutral as he agrees to read over the “first chapter” of her novel.

Ted’s skepticism vanishes as he realizes Angela’s writing is not only much better than he expected; it demonstrates a remarkably developed voice for a person of her age. He casually asks her if she has any more pages that he can look over, and critique. Of course she does. The hook is set. However, the question soon becomes: who is reeling in whom?

While we’ve seen this movie before (it’s a little bit Educating Rita, a bit more of All About Eve, and a whole lotta Election), it is bolstered by strong performances from Tucci and Timlin, as well as by the supporting cast. As I noted at the top of the review, I don’t think that this film was consciously intended as a nod to “woke” culture, but we’ll take it.

Blu-ray reissue: Ocean Waves ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Ocean Waves – Universal Studios Home Entertainment Blu-ray

This 1993 anime is one of the last remaining “stragglers” from Japan’s Studio Ghibli vaults to make a belated (and most welcome) debut on Blu-ray (it was previously only available on PAL-DVD). Adapted by Kaori Nakamura from Saeko Himruo’s novel, and directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, it concerns a young man who returns to his home town for a high school reunion, which triggers a flood of memories about all the highs and lows of his adolescent years. It’s similar in tone to another Ghibli film, Only Yesterday, which also takes a humanistic look at the universality of growing pains.

On a sliding scale, this is one of Ghibli’s “lesser” films, but the studio has set a high bar for itself, and it will please  Ghibli completists (who, me?). Extras are scant, but the hi-definition transfer is lovely.

Original sin: The Student **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 6, 2017)

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In my 2008 review of Larry Charles and Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous, I wrote:

“Logic” is the antithesis to any manner of fundamentalist belief. Setting off on a quest to deconstruct fundamental religious belief, armed solely with logic and convincing yourself that you are going to somehow make sense of it all, ironically seems like some kind of nutty fundamentalist belief in and of itself.

Funnily enough, this is the conundrum at the heart of Russian writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov’s somber drama The Student. In this particular narrative, you could say that “fundamentalist belief” is a high schooler named Venya (Pyoter Skvorstov), and “logic” is his biology teacher (Lidiya Tkacheva). In fact, nearly every character in this stagey piece walks around with “I am a metaphor!” tattooed on their forehead; I was not surprised when credits revealed it was adapted from a play (by Marius von Mayenburg).

Venya is a brooding fellow who skulks about the halls, avoiding eye contact with any of his fellow students. He appears taciturn as well; that is, until he refuses to participate in co-ed swimming for P.E., citing it goes against his religion. His mother (Yuliya Aug) is called in for a conference, and it’s clear that she has become exasperated with her son’s obstinate behavior as of late; fueled by his inexplicably sudden fealty to biblical literalism.

The school’s deeply religious principal is happy to accommodate Venya’s request for a deferral. This emboldens the young man to become ever more vocal and disruptive, to the particular chagrin of his free-spirited biology teacher, who finds herself more and more on the defensive as Venya repeatedly hijacks her normally democratic class discussions.

Venya’s non-stop sermonizing and self-righteous scolding is off-putting to classmates, with the exception of shy and soft-spoken Grigoriy (Aleksandr Gorchilin). Grigoriy is an outsider himself; mostly due to feeling self-conscious about a pronounced limp, which makes him a frequent target for bullying. Venya makes an attempt to “heal” Grigoriy, which fails. Undeterred, Grigoriy offers to become his “first disciple”. Grigoriy’s devotion is not necessarily motivated by spirituality, leading to fateful misinterpretations.

I was reminded of John Huston’s 1979 comedy-drama Wise Blood and Peter Medak’s 1972 satire The Ruling Class; although it lacks the black humor of the former and irony of the latter. What it does have is intensity; perhaps a bit too much, as it threatens at times to collapse under the weighty mantle of its protagonist’s martyr complex. Still…its central message rings clear and true: a blind devotion to fundamentalism rarely ends well.

 

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.

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).

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.

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 day-care sex abuse scandals  (perhaps best personified by the 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.