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.
At the time of Scream’s release in 1996 the state of Hollywood horror was at a pretty low-point. For every Dracula there was a Frankenstein. For every original idea there were dozens of painful sequels. There were some truly terrifying films released during the decade but there wasn’t a lot we hadn’t seen before. Then along came Wes Craven’s now classic slasher pic a revisionist take on the genre that simultaneously dissected its tropes while embracing them. It was equally hilarious and horrific thanks to the auteur’s precise execution and Kevin Williamson’s sharp sardonic script that dynamically pooled the characters’ points of view with those of the audience. Scream’s self-awareness was a true game-changer that has carved a very nice place in film history for itself. Fifteen years and two sequels later the franchises’ principle players have all returned to Woodsboro to catch up on cinematic commentary and thwart the sadistic plans of yet another Ghostface killer in Scre4m.
In how many ways does this bloody new chapter differ from the others? Not many. The story begins when Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott now the best-selling author of a self-help book returns home on the last stop of her promotional tour. There she meets up with Dewey and Gale Weathers-Riley (David Arquette and Courtney Cox) her friends and mutual survivors of the Woodsboro Murders though there’s precious little time for a warm reunion because someone has inherited the mantle of Ghostface and begun taking out the town’s well-endowed teenagers. The trio along with a young and attractive cast of victims and suspects including Emma Roberts Hayden Panettiere Nico Tortorella and Rory Culkin attempt to stop the killer despite an escalating body count.
As with the original Williamson’s screenplay is the most valuable part of the production. He employs the same narrative formula he did in ’96 but puts it in contemporary context riffing on cinema’s current trends (namely sequelitis and the torture-porn craze the latter which the filmmakers are clearly not fans of) his own franchise (the opening self-deprecating sequence is absolutely riotous and perhaps the funniest in the entire series) and America’s social media obsession (Twitter Facebook and YouTube references take the place of pagers and other outdated cultural staples further separating the film from its predecessors) which plays a larger part in the story and its characters motivations than you really want to know. If there ever was a film for and about the been-there-done-that post-modern generation it’s Scre4m.
While Williamson is at the top of his game Craven’s direction doesn’t appear to have evolved much since helming the original (a sad fact considering his creative growth with Music From The Heart and Red Eye). A few eerie shots aside he doesn’t take any risks with the material resulting in a monotonous merry-go-round of murders that’s consciously grislier but noticeably less effective than those found in the earlier entries. Thankfully his enthusiastic cast is more than willing to go over-the-top and beyond to sell the (few) scares; Panettiere particularly stands out as the confident Kirby Reed as does Alison Brie as the slimy PR girl Rebecca Walters. They’re all archetypes fitting into the film’s modus operandi of amusingly adhering to conventions and making it relatively easy for you to predict who’s going to die without spoiling the fun.
Still with so many preconceived notions about what Scre4m should be it’s hard to imagine all moviegoers loving its throwback premise and downright silly tone. What was once clever is now contrived; what was once refreshing and exhilarating for horror buffs is now exploitative of their common knowledge and passion. As a horror-comedy hybrid it brings some funny but not a whole lot of fear; in other words it’s very much like the original. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
February 07, 2011 12:46pm EST
When a dramedy gets too sentimental it quickly becomes sappy but with the right balance – and the right actors – it can work well enough to entertain on multiple levels. Alexander Payne’s Sideways is a perfect example of tonal equality; bittersweet in every sense of the word but outright hilarious when the comedy gets going. I thought the best qualities of his direction would carry over into his latest production the recent Sundance entry Cedar Rapids. While his influence as producer is identifiable (particularly in its score) director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) made a more conventional film than I expected to see.
Our story begins in Brown Valley Wisconsin where the dignified Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) works lives and loves his former 7th Grade teacher (a dull Sigourney Weaver). When the top dog at the insurance company he works for dies it’s up to him to represent at a do-or-die insurance convention in Cedar Rapids Iowa a bustling metropolis compared to the small town he’s never left. Once there he befriends a pair of agents (Isaiah Whitlock Jr. and John C. Reilly) cavorts with another (Anne Heche) and parties with a local prostitute (Alia Shawkat). When it comes down to business however he learns quickly that the insurance racket isn’t the noble industry he once thought it was.
Though it has some heart the film doesn’t hit the funny bone like its trailer teased. The biggest laughs don’t come organically; instead Reilly’s crass Dean Ziegler (the best part of the movie) spews them from every orifice he exposes. Most of the other jokes are flat including the bulk of Helms’. Lippe’s naivety is all too reminiscent of Andy Bernard his beloved character on The Office and though you’d think that would be a good thing it just feels stale. Heche gives the best performance of all portraying a melancholy working mother who’s both vulnerable and independent but her character doesn’t have much effect on the narrative. The most fun comes via a series of supporting roles and cameo’s from the likes of Thomas Lennon Stephen Root Rob Corddry Kurtwood Smith and Mike O’Malley but none of them have enough screen time to leave a lasting impression.
Lack of humor aside the film suffers most from trying to tackle too many topics at once. Screenwriter Phil Johnston stuffs many themes into the 87-minute feature including the growth of the man-child (an indie cliché at this point) corporate corruption and separation of church and office but no single subject is developed enough to care about. Had the filmmakers stuck to their guns and delivered an all-out comedy be it conventional or quirky Cedar Rapids would be easier to endure.