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Tribeca 2011: “Detachment,” Reviewed

Tribeca 2011: “Detachment,” Reviewed (photo)

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Tony Kaye didn’t disappoint. In front of a packed house at the BMCC Performing Arts Center during the Tribeca Film Festival, the British director that once wanted his name replaced with “Humpty Dumpty” on “American History X” came out onstage with the greying beard of a hermit, the glasses of Sigmund Freud, a black guitar and a Whole Foods shopping bag to mumble an introduction of his film “Detachment” before breaking out into a full-blown song that ended with the audience chanting, “I don’t care.” (A sample lyric: “Brainwash my confidence away…begging for peace of mind may seem selfish and unfair…I don’t care.) Adrien Brody was there, too, saying some heartfelt words about how his father was a public school teacher, but all eyes were on Kaye, who implored the audience to look for the color red in the film by placing a piece of paper drenched in red ink in front of his face and demanding “Watch it. Watch it – the color red…look for it! Listen to it.”

I found myself unable to do that last part, but was also unable to look away from “Detachment,” which has its title derived from Albert Camus and introduces itself as “A Tony Kaye Talkie.” Soon, a chalkboard is filled with the credits of each of the actors, spliced between black-and-white clips of real-life teachers talking about their frustration until we see Brody’s substitute teacher Henry Barthes ruminating on the state of education and the psyche of educators. (Or perhaps it was Brody himself, since he sports a goatee he doesn’t in the classroom and said something very similar before the film about the complexities facing teachers today in his own introduction.)

Despite quick cuts and dutch angles to the contrary, the story is actually relatively simple: Barthes shows up to a high school for a month where the principal (Marcia Gay Harden) is clinging to power while she’s under siege from higher-ups interested in test scores, nearly all the teachers feel powerless and the kids are well beyond rescue, angry at a system they can only intuit has let them down and show it by wearing wildly inappropriate clothing and killing cats with hammers for sport during recess. An answering machine is shown frequently taking calls from pissed-off parents and resigning teachers and all the while, Barthes has concerns outside the classroom between caring for his father (Louis Zorich) and taking in a teen prostitute (Sami Gayle) he sees abused on a bus ride home.

Kaye’s worldview remains unpleasant and decidedly un-P.C., but all with the sole intention to provoke. African-Americans are portrayed as animals that need to be tamed, Christina Hendricks appears in the film mostly to be spat on (by a black student, of course, who is “going to get my n***ers to gang-rape you”) and serve as female company for Brody, and nearly every situation is taken to its extreme (and mostly predictable) end. However, Kaye’s lack of subtlety is made up for by his facility with images, which even as they include Nazi propaganda and gonorrhea-infected vaginas (in the film’s funniest scene, no less), somehow work in that indescribable harmony that’s the mark of a true artist.

There’s no doubt that’s what attracted such a strong cast to “Detachment,” which has far too many great actors than know what to do with, much like Lars von Trier’s “Dogville,” and it’s no surprise a survivor of that film, James Caan, comes away with the most winning turn here as a teacher whose wicked sense of humor gets him through the day. Likewise, Blythe Danner has enough clout to command the screen in her few scenes as a rebellious veteran. Less successful are the fully committed performances from Tim Blake Nelson and Lucy Liu, who both are marked for punishment early and receive it throughout as long-suffering educators in the midst of psychological breakdowns. Other members of the faculty include William Petersen and Doug E. Doug, who have about the same amount of dialogue, which is to say nearly zilch, while Bryan Cranston comes in as Harden’s husband to suck her toes and leave.

“Detachment” is very much hit-and-run that way, though it’s got a solid anchor in Brody, who can consider himself redeemed for that Stella Artois commercial if it meant taking on something dangerous like this. Due to Kaye’s unusual shooting methods – closeups where an actor’s face is dead center of the frame, shooting upward from the ground, etc. — Brody is occasionally left high and dry as an actor since when an unusual angle is employed, it becomes apparent that he’s acting, but with the film flipping back and forth between Barthes in the classroom and sitting by himself analyzing what he and other teachers go through, it suggests that the performance is necessary to communicate and deflect with students whose attention spans have been winnowed in this day and age.

In many ways, it’s that ADD generation that Kaye may connect with the most since it works far more at a subconscious level and practically, the director appears to be far less interested in answers than throwing grenades. Many of them are the same that have been brought out in previous battles — the downfall of public education is the fault of absent parents, teachers who can’t properly connect with their students, an emphasis on test scores and the dehumanization that takes place of both pupils and educators within the walls of the schools – only here, they have the ability to sear.

Hours after seeing “Detachment,” I’m not entirely sure if I learned anything from it or even if I felt its moments of self-indulgence (of which there are many, from scorched classrooms to Barthes’ constantly rhetorical questions such as “Haven’t you ever had enough?” to Kaye featuring his daughter Betty in the role of a suicidal artist who sees salvation in Barthes) outweighed what felt right about it as satire or hell-raising or somewhere in between. But what I do know is it shook up an all-too-polite debate on education, not to mention a film festival known for programming safe choices, and the result is something that, unlike the characters in “Detachment” who struggle with retaining their humanity, you cannot disconnect from.

“Detachment” currently does not have U.S. distribution, but will play the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27th, 29th and 30th.

Carol Cate Blanchett

Spirit Guide

Check Out the Spirit Awards Nominees for Best Male and Female Leads

Catch the 2016 Spirit Awards live Feb. 27th at 5P ET/2P PT on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Wilson Webb/©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

From Jason Segel’s somber character study of author David Foster Wallace, to Brie Larson’s devastating portrayal of a mother in captivity, the 2016 Spirit Awards nominees for Best Male and Female Leads represent the finest in the year of film acting. Take a look at the Best Male and Female Leads in action, presented by Jaguar.

Best Male Lead 

Christopher Abbott, James White
Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
Ben Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind
Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
Koudous Seihon, Mediterranea

Watch more Male Lead nominee videos here.

Best Female Lead 

Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Rooney Mara, Carol
Bel Powley, The Diary of A Teenage Girl
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine

Watch more Female Lead nominee videos here.

Tribeca 2011: “The Good Doctor,” Reviewed

Tribeca 2011: “The Good Doctor,” Reviewed (photo)

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As a general rule, it’s usually considered unwise for a heartthrob type to play a bad guy early in their career, which is a shame since being easy on the eyes always makes the pain when they plunge the knife in just a little more painful. Orlando Bloom’s Dr. Martin Blake doesn’t want to have anything to do with knives – his desire to make it into the internal medicine program is so he’ll never have to administer needles, let alone a scalpel. Yet with hair swept over his forehead, you know Bloom has finally gone over to the dark side as Blake, a first-year resident who drowns in moral quandaries after becoming unusually obsessed with one of his patients (Riley Keough).

One wouldn’t be entirely wrong to think Blake is interested in the pyelonephritis sufferer Diane because of her blue eyes and blonde hair, but where John Enbom’s script becomes really interesting is by suggesting he’s enchanted equally by the idea of the girl’s family, dysfunctional as they are, who invite him over for dinner after he successfully cures their daughter. Living alone himself in a beach house with nothing but white wine, reheatable dinners and a fancy sound system to play classical music, Blake has only the comfort of going to work each day to keep him company.

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Tribeca 2011: “Stuck Between Stations,” Reviewed

Tribeca 2011: “Stuck Between Stations,” Reviewed (photo)

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As someone that only watches films rather than make them, my favorite thing about the RED camera, the digital camera that has democratized high quality imagery amongst low budget filmmakers, is the clarity not only of the imagery, but the specificity it allows for regional writer/directors to bring out the best in their hometown. In recent years, we’ve seen Portland as it’s never been shot before by Aaron Katz and crew in “Cold Weather,” the Joe Maggio-directed Tribeca selection “The Last Rites of Joe May” captures Chicago in a different light and then there’s “Stuck Between Stations,” the feature debut of Brady Kiernan, a Minneapolis native who, with cinematographer Bo Hakala, creates a portrait of the city that wouldn’t seem out of place if it were framed in the Walker Art Center.

Ultimately, that’s what separates Kiernan’s film from the so many others that have been born in the wake of “Before Sunrise,” the platonic yet romantic drama that launched a thousand walk-and-talk independent films that make up for limited budgets with lots of profound (or so the filmmakers would think) statements about life. If reading that alone makes you instantly recoil, you may want to stop reading now, though it was to my great surprise while watching “Stuck Between Stations” that there is still a place for them when they have strong performers at their center and an interesting place to stroll.

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