Category Archives: School Days

An inspector calls: Guest of Honour (**)

By Dennis Hartley

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In my 2015 review of Caryn Waechter’s drama The Sisterhood of Night, I wrote:

Jeez…adolescence was traumatic enough before the internet and advent of cyber-bullying (yes, I’m that old). Unfortunately (and perversely), it’s become much easier for the perpetrators and that much tougher on the victims. Your tormentors no longer have to hang out after school, bundled up for inclement weather, waiting for you to finish with chess club so they can stomp on your glasses (or worse). Now, they can chill out in the comfort of their parent’s basement, cloaked in anonymity, as they harass, denigrate, flame, impersonate, or stalk ‘til the cows come home (with virtual impunity).

As ephemeral as one’s “reputation” is to begin with, we live in an era where “it” hangs by the slenderest thread: a mere keystroke or the press of a “send” button can annihilate it. What is a “reputation” anyway? (If you say it’s an album by Taylor Swift…to the moon).

Well, according to our friends at Merriam-Webster:

rep·​u·​ta·​tion | \ ˌre-pyə-ˈtā-shən

Definition of reputation

1a: overall quality or character as seen or judged by people in general

b: recognition by other people of some characteristic or ability // has the reputation of being clever

2: a place in public esteem or regard: good name // trying to protect his reputation

If I read that correctly, a “reputation” is at once objective and subjective; as “esteem”, “regard” and “character” is largely determined as “seen or judged by people in general”. “Reputation” is a key theme of the latest film from esteemed (ahem) Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan (The Adjuster, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia’s Journey).

Guest of Honour focuses on the mercurial relationship between a father (David Thewlis) and his daughter (Laysla De Oliveira). The story of their relationship unfolds in classic Egoyan fashion, which is to say that it unravels slowly and deliberately in a non-linear construct.

As the film opens, Jim (dad) has died. His daughter Veronica meets with the priest (Luke Wilson) who will be conducting the service. As Jim was never an active member of his congregation, the priest gently presses Veronica for a glimpse into his life and character. Of course, this venerable setup (as old as Citizen Kane) telegraphs “Flashbacks Ahead!”

Turns out dad was nothing, if not quirky. A failed restaurateur-turned-health inspector (yes-that’s too perfect), Jim, who lost his wife to cancer when Veronica was a young girl, is a brooding widower who spends his spare time lovingly caring for his…pet rabbit (you could say that “rabbit’s foot” is this film’s “Rosebud”).

Back to reputation. In reviewing her father’s life, Veronica is also telling her own story to the priest (or is it a confession?). We learn she is a high school music teacher; or rather, she used to be until something happened. Or did it happen? At any rate, her reputation suffered (I am avoiding spoilers).

Whether this “something” happened or didn’t happen, Veronica, for reasons known only to herself (and to be revealed by film’s end) takes full responsibility, citing that she abused her position of power as a teacher (again…which she may or may not have done).

In case we can’t connect the dots, Jim, acting as a concerned father, seizes an opportunity to use his position of power (i.e. the “power” vested in him as a health inspector to affect the reputation of a restaurant) to restore Veronica’s reputation.

If this is beginning to sound contrived and heavy-handed…It pains me to report it is.

I found the first half intriguing, but after hard-to-buy reveals and a silly penultimate scene (possibly inspired by Francis Veber’s 1998 social satire Le Diner de Cons) I stopped caring about the characters (fatal in a character study). To be fair, viewers less familiar with the director’s oeuvre may be more forgiving; my expectations were high.

It pains me because Egoyan is a filmmaker I have a great deal of respect for. For most of the 90s, few directors could touch him when it came to emotionally shattering, deeply affecting dramas about the secrets we keep and the lies we tell (to ourselves, as well as to those we love) – all were intelligently written, sensitively directed, and beautifully acted.

When it comes to brooding, David Thewlis is unsurpassed. Despite the shortcomings of the film, this is his most compelling turn since his 1993 breakout role in Mike Leigh’s Naked. That said (through no fault of his) Thewlis’ inscrutable, officious, and fastidious character feels anachronistic; less believable in 21st Century Canada and more at home in one of the anti-totalitarian films made behind the Iron Curtain in the 60s and 70s (Jim would be The Petty Bureaucrat).

Alas, Thewlis is the best thing about Guest of Honour. Still, I look forward to Egoyan’s next project. After all, the man has a reputation to uphold.

Blu-ray reissue: Rock and Roll High School (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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Rock and Roll High School – Shout! Factory

In this 1979 cult favorite from legendary “B” movie producer Roger Corman, director Alan Arkush evokes the spirit of those late 50s rock’ n’ roll exploitation movies (right down to having 20-something actors portraying “students”), substituting The Ramones for the usual clean-cut teen idols who inevitably pop up at the prom dance.

I’m still helplessly in love with P.J. Soles, who plays Vince Lombardi High School’s most devoted Ramones fan, Riff Randell. The great cast of B-movie troupers includes the late Paul Bartel (who directed several of his own films under Corman’s tutelage) and Mary Waronov (hilarious as the very strict principal.)

Shout Factory’s 40th anniversary edition features a new 4K scan; image is gorgeous and the colors really pop. Sound quality is a slight disappointment; it’s certainly not “bad”, but not as much of an improvement over previous Blu-ray and DVD versions as I had hoped for (especially for a film with such a great music soundtrack). Generous extras include a new 70 minute feature about the production of the film. Fans should be pleased.

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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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– This 1955 social drama is 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 my attachment to writer-director Richard Linklater’s 1993 recreation of a mid-70s high school milieu is due to the sentimental chord it touches for 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  (I’d wager  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 focuses 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.

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Election– Writer-director Alexander Payne and 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 psychotically perky overachiever Tracy Flick, who specializes in goading her brooding civics teacher, Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick).

To Mr. McAllister’s chagrin, the ambitious Tracy is running unopposed for school president. He encourages dim but charming Paul Metzler (Payne discovery Chris Klein, who had never acted before) to cash in on his popularity as a jock and run against her. Payne delivers laughs, but never pulls his punches; he flings open the drapes to offer an unflinching look at suburban America’s  dark side (similar to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, released 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: Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz, Nicholas Cage, Anthony Edwards. Oh…and a kid named Sean Penn, as 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 lies in his past. The personal sacrifices he made for his ideals are revealed slowly; 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. Director Alexander Mackendrick was responsible for several  (including Whiskey Galore, The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit), but also made this outstanding 1952 drama about 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 sentiment.

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.