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.
Though Garry Marshall hasn’t made a decent flick since 1990’s Pretty Woman he still apparently wields a not inconsiderable amount of clout in Hollywood. What else could explain the all-star ensemble of actors who gathered for Valentine’s Day? Among the major names found probing the turgid depths of the nearly 80-year-old director’s insipid rom-com are Julia Roberts Anne Hathaway Ashton Kutcher Jessica Alba Jamie Foxx Jessica Biel Taylor Lautner and various other prominent actors who either owe favors to Marshall or whose incriminating photos he holds in his possession.
A slice-of-life tale unfolding in Los Angeles over the course of a single Valentine’s Day the film chronicles the romantic adventures of a diverse cast of characters at various stages of relationships and encompassing virtually every conceivable demographic category. Their ages backgrounds and perspectives often dramatically differ but they each share one trait in common: Almost without exception they are all ceaselessly painfully disastrously unfunny.
Some temper their dishumor with a dose of the annoying like Kutcher whose dopey florist Marshall unwisely chose to anchor Valentine’s Day’s story around. Others add a dash of the preposterous like Roberts dressed in military fatigues in a laughable attempt to play a U.S. Army Captain on leave from the front. Still others add cloying sentiment to the mix like Bryce Robinson’s lovelorn 10-year-old whose grandparents played by Shirley MacLaine and Hector Elizondo ply him with nostalgic romantic tips pre-fabricated for maximum inter-generational cuteness. Whatever your preferred method of cinematic torture may be you’ll undoubtedly encounter it in this film.
In addition to challenging the pain threshold Valentine’s Day offers a test of endurance as well its story requiring over two hours to satisfy the narrative demands of its swollen cast. If you didn’t despise Hallmark’s ersatz holiday before you certainly will after enduring this Bataan Death March of rom-coms.
Like Love Actually and any number of other ensemble romantic comedies in which we watch a starry cast navigate their way through the treacherous world of romantic relationships He's Just Not That Into You -- based on the Sex and the City catch-phrase and very loosely on the resulting self-help book of the same name -- focuses on a select group of twenty- and thirtysomethings who find love is just not easy to find and hang on to in the Internet age. Here’s the scorecard: Neil (Ben Affleck) loves his seven year live-in girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Aniston) just not enough to marry her; while Beth (Jennifer Connelly) forced marriage on Ben (Bradley Cooper) before he was ready and now he’s seriously flirting with seductress. Anna (Scarlett Johansson) who’s kinda bored with her occasional sex partner Conor (Entourage’s Kevin Connolly) who would love to get her to take him seriously. Then there’s sweet likeable and lovelorn Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) who hasn’t had the best of luck with men and takes advice from restaurant manager Alex (Justin Long) who constantly gives his perspective of the harsh realities of dating. Finally there’s good-natured Mary (Drew Barrymore) a newspaper ad sales exec who uses any number of new technologies to meet a man -- usually via her computer. The well-chosen cast is strong and likeable making the experience of seeing this overlong (at 129 minutes) romantic trifle enjoyable and fun. It’s great to see Connelly trying something lighter these days and as a wife whose marriage is slipping away she manages to be alternately funny and touching. Aniston scores in the teary scene department as a perpetual bridesmaid involved with a marriage-shy guy nicely underplayed by Affleck. Cooper is wryly funny in his wandering hubby role and Long’s romantic advice is dished out with sardonic style and wit. But it’s Goodwin who carries much of the load here and she’s endearing in her own way. Ken Kwapis knows his way around chick flicks having directed Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants among others and he shows he’s up to the challenge presented by the multi-character storyline – though at times it seems like he’s playing traffic cop just keeping the various parts merging into a whole that makes dramatic sense. None of it is earth-shatteringly original but as a date movie there’s more than enough to satisfy the girls -- and the guys.
Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and re-conceived by director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas James and the Giant Peach) in 3-D stop-motion animation Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) opens a world of twisted wonder when she passes through a secret door in her new house and suddenly discovers an alternate existence mirroring her own life but making it so much more interesting and satisfying until her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) tries to turn her little visit into a permanent one. Fanning is the ideal Coraline -- curious fickle frightened and determined. She does an excellent job bringing to life this young girl suddenly caught up in an extraordinary adventure that rivals what Dorothy went through on the road to Oz. Hatcher is properly bland as her real mother and slippery as her Other -- she’s clearly having fun ditching Desperate Housewives. Standout is Keith David voicing an exquisitely drawn but quite mysterious Cat. There’s also brief but amusing work from the team of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French (Absolutely Fabulous) as Coraline’s very very British and very eccentric neighbors and an even wackier Ian McShane as the Russian Mr. Bobinsky. Selick has created a modern classic that tops even his brilliant Nightmare Before Christmas turning the world of Coraline into something we’ve seen before. It’s Alice in Wonderland times 10 but despite its soft PG rating is really dark stuff. Kids won’t be turned off by this but some not-clued-in parents might. The film will be shown in both 3-D and regular formats but go for the 3-D version if possible. It’s a mind-blowing use of the technology and perhaps the best yet put on screen.