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.
On the one hand it’s a comedy. We meet Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston) a thirtysomething knee deep in a pre-midlife crisis with a way too patient fiancé (Mark Ruffalo) and a nowhere job. Her anxiety is only exacerbated when she visits her picture perfect family in Pasadena CA a place she’s never felt like she belonged especially after her mother died. But then it gets weirder when Sarah finds out her family was the inspiration for The Graduate. It seems Sarah’s grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) was the Mrs. Robinson and that her mother ran off with the same guy briefly right before she got married to Sarah’s dad. Sarah becomes obsessed with finding this “other” guy Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner) believing he might be the key. He’s a key all right--to a night of drunken lust. But none of this is going to solve Sarah’s problems now is it? She’s got to find her own answers in her heart. Excuse me while I go throw up. Maybe Jennifer Aniston should just write this year off. Not only did she lose a husband to another woman she also hasn’t made very smart choices in her career. Derailed completely missed the track and now this comedy is no better suited to her talents. Aniston is much better playing sweet and quirky rather than messy and neurotic and honestly shines brighter when co-starring with strong comedic talents such as Ben Stiller (Along Came Polly) or Jim Carrey (Bruce Almighty). (That’s why we’re holding our breath for her next film The Break Up with [real-life boyfriend?] Vince Vaughn.) Shirley MacLaine making a habit out of being the best thing in an otherwise dull movie (In Her Shoes anyone?) is a hoot as grandma. Costner doesn’t look anything like Dustin Hoffman thank goodness but has zero chemistry with Aniston. And who knows what the hell Ruffalo is doing wasting his talents doing this romantic comedy crap. Just say no Mark. As a director Rob Reiner hasn’t had much luck lately either. This is the first movie he’s directed since 2003’s Alex & Emma--and we all remember what a success that was. To be fair Reiner apparently took over the reins from screenwriter Ted Griffin (Matchstick Men) who was making his feature film debut ten days into production and changed things quite a bit. That’s not surprising because Rumor quite simply lacks direction. It wants desperately to be a comedy with a hint of relationship drama but somehow misses the mark on both. Now the idea of a Graduate update is somewhat intriguing. Reminds me of Robert Altman’s The Player in which The Graduate’s original screenwriter Buck Henry pitches a sequel of sorts to a studio development exec. It’s meant to be a joke of course but somewhere in the spoof there might’ve been a sliver of mad brilliance. Too bad Rumor ruins it.
Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) a bleeding heart poet and staunch environmentalist is convinced a series of unexplained coincidences involving a tall African doorman somehow mean something leading him to married metaphysicians Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin)--otherwise known as the Existential Detectives. Instead of looking for other people this pair tirelessly investigates the mysteries of their clients' secret innermost lives--their "Beings " so to speak--to help them answer their questions. Immediately digging in Bernard and Vivian find out that Albert has a deep-seated hatred for Brad Stand (Jude Law) a golden-boy sales executive at the popular retail superstore chain Huckabees who at first sponsors Albert's Open Spaces Coalition to save a nearby marsh from commercial construction but who ends up taking over the coalition. The Existential Detectives believe Brad may be the key to cracking Albert's case but get sidetracked when Brad hires them for himself--leading them to explore Brad's ambitions hang-ups and his superficial relationship with Huckabees' hot blonde spokesmodel Dawn (Naomi Watts). Meanwhile Albert becomes disenfranchised with Bernard and Vivian and pairs up with another of the duo's clients--firefighter tough guy and uncompromising soul searcher Tommy (Mark Wahlberg). Together they join forces with the Jaffes' arch nemesis sexy French philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) whose life teachings revolve around "cruelty manipulation and meaninglessness." Now as Being intermixes with Nothingness Albert Tommy Brad Dawn Bernard Vivian and Caterine get all tangled up in one another as their wild romp through life's biggest questions brings them to some startling truths. Whew!
With such a clever script to back them up it isn't hard to see why the Huckabees wannabes turn in some cracking good performances. Schwartzman once again plays a nebbish sullen but lovable geek (similar to his side-splitting turn in Rushmore) bringing out the film's heart and soul especially with his environmental poetry ("You ROCK rock!"). Veterans Hoffman and Tomlin who are dead-on as the happily married Existential Detectives and Huppert as the deadpan French philosopher complement the proceedings beautifully. For the first time in a long time Hoffman doesn't overplay his part instead letting his quiet inner "Being" out taking his character's philosophies to heart ("Everything you ever desired or wanted to be you already have and are"). But who knew more serious actors--Mark Wahlberg Jude Law and Naomi Watts--could be so excruciatingly funny? Wahlberg's freethinking obstinate firefighter would rather ride a bike to a fire than get into a gas-guzzling fire truck while Watts' Dawn decides she doesn't need to be pretty and is fearless with overalls a bonnet and Oreo cookies stuck in her teeth. As the straight man Law actually has the most difficult part playing the handsome cad who thinks he doesn't believe in all that existential bullcrap but ever so slightly gets slammed with the reality of it anyway.
Writer/director David O. Russell is one fascinating guy. With a body of work including the really weird and wild Spanking the Monkey the hilarious slapsticky Flirting With Disaster and the intense Three Kings it's obvious he is capable of handling a wide variety of subjects. With Huckabees Russell gets into some serious deep thinking. He says he became "intrigued with the idea of a detective following someone around not for any criminal or personal intrigue but rather as part of a very serious investigation about existence itself " drawing concepts from several different strains of existentialism--from the non-dual interconnectedness theories of Eastern philosophy (Bernard and Vivian's take) to the Sartrean notions of a more meaningless universe that demands a profound individualism (Caterine's point of view). Huh? Don't worry your pretty little heads about it too much. Russell's bone-crushing sense of humor comes shining through--as does his unique vision as the camera is used in new and different ways (especially creative when Albert is trying to find his "Being")--to piece together a wondrous coherent albeit thought-provoking little gem. Oscar gold awaits.
January 19, 2003 12:14pm EST
Of the three new releases to open wide this four-day holiday weekend, Jerry Bruckheimer's down under comedy Kangaroo Jack leaped to the top of the box office, followed closely by the Martin Lawrence vehicle National Security. There was nothing fanciful, however, about the romantic comedy A Guy Thing, which opened to an uninspiring seventh place.
Kangaroo Jack, about two Brooklynites who are forced to deliver mob money to Australia but lose the loot to a maniacal marsupial, took in $17.6 million*, while National Security safeguarded $15.7 million.
In its second week, Just Married, which captured audience's hearts and the No. 1 spot last week, fell to third place with a still chivalrous $12.4 million.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers came in fourth with $11.3 million, while Catch Me If You Can almost caught up with $11.3 million, trailing only by $75,000. The much talked about musical Chicago, which expanded to 557 screens this weekend, came in sixth with $8 million.
A Guy Thing 's mushy $7.1 million take, meanwhile, coldheartedly placed the romance in seventh place.
Two of Miramax's limited releases, the Brazilian drama City of God and George Clooney's directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, played in five theaters each, and both enjoyed this week's highest per theater averages. City of God averaged $18,000 per theater, while Confessions averaged $16,400.
THE TOP TEN
(NOTE: Today's projections are for the three-day period from Friday-Sunday. The studios will issue four-day estimates on Monday, when America observes the birthday of Martin Luther King, with final data due out on Tuesday.)
Warner Bros.' Kangaroo Jack opened with an ESTIMATED $17.6 million at 2,818 theaters ($6,272 per theater).
Directed by David McNally, it stars Jerry O'Connell, Anthony Anderson and Estella Warren.
The PG rated film, written by Elizabeth Hurley impregnator Steve Bing, focuses on two Brooklynites who are forced to deliver $50,000 in cash to a mobster living in Australian. But a kangaroo with a plan of his own gets hold of the dough, forcing the two to track him across the outback.
Sony Pictures' PG-13 rated action comedy National Security came in second with an ESTIMATED $15.7 million take at 2,729 theaters.
Directed by Dennis Dugan, it stars Martin Lawrence and Steve Zahn.
The buddy actioner revolves around two L.A.P.D. rejects who are partnered as security guards and end up uncovering a sophisticated smuggling operation led by crooked cops.
Twentieth Century Fox's PG-13 rated romantic comedy Just Married honeymooned in third place with an ESTIMATED $12.4 million (-29%) at 2,729 theaters (+3 theaters, $4,496 per theater). Its cume is approximately $34 million.
Directed by Shawn Levy, it stars Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy.
New Line Cinema's PG-13 rated fantasy sequel The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers dropped to fourth place in its fifth week, with an ESTIMATED $11.3 million (-23%) at 3,110 theaters (-367 theaters; $3,658 per theater). Its cume is approximately $298.9 million, heading for $300 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Peter Jackson, it stars Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen.
DreamWork's PG-13 rated crime biopic Catch Me If You Can fell two rungs to fifth place in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $11.3 million (-23%) at 3,050 theaters (-175 theaters; $3,705 per theater). Its cume is approximately $135 million.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Miramax's PG-13 rated musical Chicago expanded in its fourth week to a solid ESTIMATED $8 million at 557 theaters (+195 theaters). Its $14,363 per theater was the highest of any Top 10 film this weekend. Its cume is approximately $27.7 million.
Directed by Rob Marshall, it stars Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
MGM's PG-13 rated romantic comedy A Guy Thing opened in seventh place with an ESTIMATED $7.1 million at 2,515 theaters ($2,828 per theater).
In the film, a groom-to-be wakes up with a beautiful stranger in his bed after his bachelor party and, not remembering what happened, proceeds to try to cover up the evil deed he can imagine himself having done.
Directed by Chris Koch, it stars Jason Lee, Julia Stiles, Selma Blair and James Brolin.
New Line Cinema's R rated comedy About Schmidt slipped to eighth place in its sixth week with an ESTIMATED $6.6 million (-2%) at 946 theaters (+81 theaters; $6,633 per theater). Its cume is approximately $30.1 million.
Directed by Alexander Payne, it stars Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney and Kathy Bates.
Paramount Picture's PG-13 rated The Hours climbed to the ninth spot this week with an ESTIMATED $4.7 million (+421%) at 402 theaters (+357 theaters, $11,754 per theater). Its cume is approximately $7.4 million.
Directed by Stephen Daldry, it stars Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris and Claire Danes.
Rounding out the Top 10 was Warner Bros.' PG-13 rated romantic comedy Two Weeks Notice, which dropped six slots with an ESTIMATED $4.1 million (-40%) at 2,240 theaters (-515 theaters; $1,830 per theater). Its cume is approximately $85 million.
Directed by Marc D. Lawrence, it stars Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant.
This weekend also saw the arrival of Miramax's R rated Brazilian drama City of God. The film opened with an ESTIMATED $90,000 at in five theaters, with a stunning $18,000 per theater average, the highest average of any film this week.
The film revolves around Cidade de Deus (City of God), a housing project built in the 1960s that--in the early 80s--became one of the most dangerous places in Rio de Janeiro.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, it stars Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino De Hora Phellipe, Seu Jorge and Jonathan Haagensen.
Miramax's other limited-release film, the R-rated biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind pushed back its wide release until next week, settling over the holiday weekend for an ESTIMATED $82,000 at five theaters ($16,400 per theater).
Dirceted by George Clooney, it stars Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts and Clooney.
The top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $105.9 million, down 2.64 percent from last weekend when they totaled $108.7 million.
The top 12 were up a measly 0.668 percent from last year when they totaled $105.1 million.
Last year, Sony's R rated Black Hawk Down dominated the box office in its fourth week with $28.6 million at 3,101 theaters ($10,844 per theater); Buena Vistas' opening week of Snow Dogs was second with $17.8 million at 2,302 theaters ($10,299 per theater); and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came in third in its fifth week with $15.28 million at 3,266 theaters ($4,675 per theater).
Packed with too much goodness and determined to push its platform of paranormal events A Rumor of Angels is an overwrought drama about friendship grief and the spiritual rebirth of a boy and his eccentric recluse neighbor. Twelve-year-old James Neubauer his father Nathan and his stepmother Mary are spending their summer vacation in the small seaside town where the boy's mother died years earlier in a car accident near a local bridge. Because James has been traumatized by her death he has problems connecting with his often absent father and new mother. When James wanders onto the property of eccentric elderly neighbor Maddy Bennett who lives in a decrepit shingled house overlooking the ocean she scares the boy by firing a rifle in his direction. After a showdown with the Neubauers Maddy succeeds in hiring James to rebuild and paint her fence. An unlikely friendship ensues when James becomes a kind of surrogate son to Maddy who lost her own son in the Vietnam War and the stern but caring Maddy becomes mother surrogate the boy so desperately needs. Maddy also beset by grief teaches James about the power of remembrance and imagination and the possibility of angels and communicating with those long gone. James also learns about the importance of family love friendship and spiritual awakening.
Vanessa Redgrave is terrific as usual as the eccentric recluse Maddy giving yet another powerful performance that dazzles delights and soars beyond the limitations of the character as written. Trevor Morgan is fine if not memorable as James. Catherine McCormack as the stepmother Ron Livingston as a slacker uncle and veteran actor George Coe as Maddy's oldest friend also turn in serviceable performances. Only Ray Liotta so memorable in edgier meatier roles like those in Something Wild and Goodfellas or the more recent Hannibal and Blow is out of his element as a frustrated often absent dad. In fact most of the actors are chewed up by the gorgeous evocative Nova Scotia locales that brilliantly stand in for the Maine village.
Director Peter O'Fallon's biggest obstacle in A Rumor of Angels appears to be his own screenplay which he co-wrote and adapted from the very old inspirational novel Thy Son Liveth. Most filmgoers won't get beyond the film's pile-up of hokum about communication with the dead. Also the horror and mystery elements that A Rumor of Angels plants early on dissipate into a cinematic sermon about familiar family values and faith. The messages may be poignant but the drama sending them isn't. O'Fallon relies instead on lovely cinematography scenes suggestive of paranormal reality (those lights those angels) and a soundtrack rich in classical music--all at the expense of delivering a credible story with flesh and blood characters who actually sound like they just might be real New Englanders. His direction is style over substance scenery over psychological truths.