Hollywood has had lots to say about the American school system as of late and whether you choose to believe the information presented to you via eye-opening documentaries like Waiting For Superman or fictional phenomenon’s like Fox’s Glee it’s clear that our educational institutions are out-of whack at best broken at worst. No one has been able to depict this disheartening downward spiral quite like director Tony Kaye with his new film Detachment. In it the reclusive auteur focuses on just a few weeks in the life of Henry Barthes a substitute teacher who gets more than he bargained for when he takes a job at a fledgling high school and in the process gives parents professors and kids a much-needed wake-up call.
In this short period of time Kaye dissects the contemporary classroom with unflinching realism. The grainy worn film stock he uses for his verite’ photography coupled with topical subject matter ranging from child prostitution and teen suicide to parental negligence makes the movie appear to be more a documentary than a narrative feature but that’s where Carl Lund’s poetic screenplay comes in. His prose is simultaneously beautiful and brutal effortlessly supplying existential excerpts for star Adrien Brody darkly comic bits for fellow teacher James Caan and up-to-the-minute slanguage for the teenage students. He also uses this star-studded stage (the ensemble includes Marcia Gay Harden Tim Blake Nelson and Christina Hendricks among many others) to touch upon the larger sociopolitical issues effecting our schools and children lashing out at numerous initiatives/establishments like “No Child Left Behind” that we’re led to believe have been implemented to increase residential property values instead of grades. Though the script begins to sound like a sermon at times it’s not intrusive enough to become distasteful. Quite simply it’s brazenly truthful.
However excessive exposition can often hurt a film’s momentum and Kaye gets unnecessarily sidetracked with the painful back-stories of his characters. Brody’s Barthes is our central protagonist so the sub-plot involving his aging ailing grandfather is essential in defining him but the filmmaker forces insight into the lives of almost every teacher (and a few of the students) down our throats. Individually each vignette is heartrending but distracting; the majority of them have little connection to the main narrative. Collectively they illustrate many of the problems that contemporary families face and more importantly create an emotional crescendo leading into the inevitably tragic conclusion.
The brilliance of this casual buildup to the film’s climax is a nod to Kaye’s storytelling aptitude. I found him utilizing the kind of in-your-face filmmaking tactics that Spike Lee made commonplace in his early movies most noticeably with close-ups on a few actors who irritably address the camera head-on (like in Do The Right Thing). In addition he intensifies the action with quick cuts and aggressive push-ins that elaborate on each character’s crisis. Perfection clearly isn't his strong point; Kaye frames his shots sloppily at times and doesn't attempt anything groundbreaking but maximizes the potential of tried-and-true lo-fi techniques. His stylistic abilities are second only to Brody’s performance which is subtle sad and sweet all at once. We take an emotional and psychological plunge with the native New Yorker as he navigates a teenage wasteland of sex drugs violence and depression but it’s all just another day at school to America’s urban youth.
Long absent since his freshman feature American History X Detachment is a welcome return for Tony Kaye whose commitment to the integrity of this story is marked by unrelenting bleakness in its tone and uncensored cynicism regarding the state of our schools. He doesn’t portray every educator as a saint or every student as a sinner; through Brody he imparts on us the uneasy truth about the direct correlation between our failure as parents and the failure our children: we're one and the same. The true genius in his film is not represented in the text of his commentary but in his ability to forge an explanatory mosaic from his characters’ varying but related points of view. Because of this there are multiple mini-narratives that run through Detachment and all of them are worthy of your attention.
Cloverfield may go out with a bang but it fades in with a whimper albeit for good reason. It’s the attack of…Exposition 101 a necessary evil never more so than during the movie’s beginning. We meet the characters with whom we will watch Manhattan get shredded like a piece of paper over the course of one night and more importantly the handheld video camera that will capture it all. Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is leaving for Japan and his buddy Hud (T.J. Miller) is charged with filming his going-away party and the goodbye speeches that accompany it. Hud keeps the camera steady on the object of his drunken affection Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) until Beth (Odette Yustman) shows up for a showdown. See she and Rob were lifelong friends before hooking up and sabotaging everything and it only ends on worse terms when she leaves the party hastily. With the exposition complete Cloverfield soon moves on to that attack on NYC shown so often and cryptically around the Internet. It is not a manmade attack--common knowledge for those who partook in the movie’s viral Web campaign--but further description might necessitate spoiler alerts and nobody wants that. This much is safe to say however: Savor the opening scenes’ relative quiet because your hearing may never recover from what is to come! Where Cloverfield shelled out some cash for special effects it compensated with a starless cast. Most moviegoers won’t recognize a single name or face of the actors who portray the six main yuppies on the run from God-knows-what but that helps this movie much more than it hurts. Besides no mere human could measure up to the real star that thingamajig terrorizing Manhattan. The whole cast comes off well however by acting spontaneously--we are after all supposed to believe this is as-it-happened footage and these twentysomethings were caught off-guard. Best of all there isn’t that clichéd hierarchy of roles we're used to seeing in similar movies; there is for example no true Hero character no Will Smith from Independence Day trying with guaranteed success to save the world. Stahl-David’s (The Black Donnellys) Rob is the closest the movie gets to that sort of banality but his quest is at least a somewhat realistic one. Miller (Carpoolers) as Hud adds some comic relief from behind the camera while everyone else--including Mike Vogel (Supercross) as Rob’s brother Jason and Jessica Lucas (Life As We Know It) as Jason’s girlfriend--is just the right amount of frantic. What producer J.J. Abrams (Lost forthcoming Star Trek) achieved off screen was just as remarkable as what director Matt Reeves achieves on it. Abrams an Everygeek god whose marketing savvy matches his film IQ embarked on an ingenious hush-hush campaign for Cloverfield that has simmered since its teaser premiered alongside Transformers--for a while the title was even a secret. The movie arrives with better-than-Snakes on a Plane Internet buzz and foam coming from the mouths of Abrams-philes everywhere. And director Reeves an Abrams crony from way back in the Felicity days does not disappoint. The incredible special effects reportedly executed under a very tight budget by today’s standards make Peter Jackson’s $200 million productions seem gratuitous--yet Reeves still evokes an indie/B-movie feel (thanks in no small part of course to the frenzied cinematography of Lost’s Michael Bonvillain). Reeves’ Cloverfield is whiplash-quick (80 minutes!) to the point and out of your head not long after the end credits; it’s popcorn cinema done almost flawlessly. And Drew Goddard’s (Lost Alias) script is smarter than it seems because he must keep the story contained within what is for all intents and purposes an impromptu videotape. That means casual moviegoers looking for escapism that is completely predictable might be disappointed.
Based on James Bradley’s bestselling book of the same name Flags of Our Fathers is Saving Private Ryan meets Stand By Me. Buried in the collective national conscious the Associated Press photo of six American soldiers raising a flag of victory over Iwo Jima is the basis of the film. Bradley’s father Doc Bradley (played by Ryan Phillippe in the film) who was one of the flag-raising soldiers never fully shared the details of the experience with his son but Flags meditates on some of those unanswered questions. The Iwo Jima conflict fortified by crags of Japanese snipers lays siege to thousands of messy casualties and the tattered flag--immediately seized by U.S. government officials to rallying and recruit soldiers--emerges as a symbol for American pride while the five Marines and one corpsman who raised it are basically forgotten. Heavy dramatics are saved for Adam Beach (Windtalkers) as Ira Hayes the Native American Marine who degenerates into madness. He represents the bittersweet languor of lost ambition and broken spirits. Director Clint Eastwood is actually the film’s best actor even though he isn’t in the movie. We can see his simmering restraint in the Flags’ acting ensemble as he guides his actors into finely tuned performances. From Beach to Phillippe to Paul Walker (2 Fast 2 Furious) Eastwood gets the most out of his young cast by playing them down. Similar to real-life soldiers allegiance to the team is the actors’ goal creating authenticity. Intense stress requires the actors to have genuine instincts. But by intentionally constructing a more lived-in feel there is consequently no flashy or Oscar-worthy stand-outs. To his credit Walker who usually goes for the brain-dead million dollar paychecks tries something different here while in his pivotal role Beach plays the juicy role as best as he can. Still Beach’s breakdown scene is quite honestly one-dimensional and doesn’t have the same dramatic impact as say Born on the Fourth of July’s Tom Cruise. Of Flags’ likely award recognitions the acting seems to have the least chance of reaching the winner’s circle. Vintage Eastwood is a lion in winter directing as though there’s no tomorrow. With Flags he interweaves numerous themes to create a war movie which despite its cliché-filled genre is constantly real in tone. The film is historically credible from the American perspective only but Eastwood has also directed a companion piece Letters from Iwo Jima about the Japanese side which hits theaters next year. Complex themes of celebrity worship also give the film a post-modern jaded Iraq War-era vision. Then there are the visuals. Eastwood incorporates breathtaking CGI shots of the fleet of warships reminiscent of Troy on top of an old-style photographic framing black and white and green all washed-out. It’s like looking at a scrapbook of old photos on a high-definition CD-ROM. Naturalistic scenes--sprawling in their panoramic framing with cactuses and hills of black sand--remind us we’re watching one of America’s cinematic icons at work. Flags could be Eastwood’s third Best Director Oscar--and will likely net him $100 million-plus at the box office.