Another week, another avalanche of releases. Among the others opening this week (but not included in this round-up) are Svankmajer‘s "Lunacy," "The Beales of Grey Gardens," hipster romance "Satellite" and horror film "Calvaire" (like "Deliverance," except with bestiality and Belgians).
+ "Half Nelson": Ryan Fleck‘s feature debut, an expanded version of his 2004 short "Gowanus, Brooklyn" (with a hotter, famouser lead), was one of the big Sundance buzz films. The folks at Reverse Shot are a little kinder to it than they have been to previous Sundance releases â€” Michael Koresky calls it "an admirably dark American independent of the variety we used to see with slightly more regularity about ten years ago," though he allows there are "quite a few pulled punches." His fellow reviewer Michael Joshua Rowin hates Ryan Gosling’s "self-satisfied, image-conscious playacting"; Nicolas Rapold, on the other hand, finds Gosling "charming and a pleasure to watch," while disliking the ending.
At New York, David Edelstein calls "Half Nelson" "a genuinely inspirational film":
But not once do the director, Ryan Fleck, and co-screenwriter, Anna Boden, take the easy way out. Half Nelson is rooted in a world in which people rarely save themselves or anyone else, even when they know the same Hollywood formulas we do.
He also loves Gosling (Who doesn’t? You totally watched "The Notebook"). Manohla Dargis at the New York Times is similarly impressed by the film (and its lead), calling out its rare political openness "at a time when even films about Sept. 11 are professed to have no politics," and its rather atypical (for an American film) harsh truths: "there are moments when itâ€™s almost a surprise that it doesnâ€™t come with subtitles."
Every school has a cool teacher, the teacher with the rep for exciting students with their unorthodox education style. I knew a cool teacher who, like Mr. Dunn, fought with demons his students never saw (the year after my graduation, my high school’s Mr. Dunn â€” the best teacher I ever had â€” quit his job and left town in disgrace after an embarrassing arrest). This is not to say that all good teachers are unstable types, but simply to observe to anyone who doubts the plausibility of "Half Nelson"’s scenario, that it speaks from a place of truth. It is the best American movie I’ve seen this year.
Entertainment Weekly‘s Lisa Schwarzbaum (who’s been upped, along with Owen Gleiberman, to Critic Wrangle status due to the gradual demise of the Voice) dedicates more of her glowing review to the glory of the Gosling. And Armond White at the New York Press…well, of course he hates it. A sampling:
Today, Fleck and Boden flaunt their post-9/11 liberal bona fides (not their consciences) through Noam Chomsky/William [Howard?] Zinn asides. Half Nelson contains button-pushing references to history that intersperse each sequence and are read aloud by Dunneâ€™s naive students. The point here: their gradual indoctrination to liberal ideologyâ€”and vague class struggleâ€”as a form of enlightenment. (Although it hasnâ€™t helped Dunne any.) All this makes Half Nelson the fakest, most infuriating film on race relations since Boaz Yakin made a hero out of a 14-year-old ghetto Machiavelli who vanquished adult drug-dealers in the 1994 Fresh. Sure enough, Yakin is thanked in the end credits of Half Nelson. I unthank him.
+ "Conversations With Other Women": In which Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart have a split-screen romance. Weirdly abrasive couple, no? Andrew O’Hehir, who writes that while the split-screen device may seem unbearably pretentious, "[director Hans] Canosa‘s talky, mini-Chekhovian anatomy of a pickup is witty and surprisingly effective," also notes that:
Carter and Eckhart may both be doing a little indie film like this because their Hollywood careers haven’t quite worked out, but never mind. They’re both terrific here as damaged, mostly likable people determined to rub salt in each other’s wounds one more time. God knows we can all identify with that.
At the LA Weekly, Ella Taylor also likes it: "though the movie is occasionally too clever-talky for its own good, it has the authentic ring of an elegy for love lost when one partner grows up while the other runs in place." A.O. Scott isn’t quite so won over, bemoaning that "None of it is quite believable â€” the film is too studied, too forward in its conceits to be entirely satisfying â€” but Mr. Eckhart and Ms. Bonham Carter approach their roles with intelligence and conviction." And at the New Yorker, Anthony Lane writes that while "Canosa extracts pretty much all that he can from his precious double-shots," the ultimate problem the film never overcomes i"is not that it pulls an ordinary romance into unfamiliar shapes but that it doesnâ€™t pull far enough."
+ "The House of Sand": Andrucha Waddington has apparently made a sort of artier Brazilian interpretation of "Woman in the Dunes." At the New York Times, A.O. Scott likes the tale of three generations of women stuck in the desert, writing that "The story that links these moments has the clarity of a fable and the sentimental enchantment of a magic-realist novel." Rob Nelson at the Village Voice calls it "admirably pretentious," while at Salon, Andrew O’Hehir allows that it’s "an impressive film, beautifully photographed and marvelously acted. But is it more than a set of undeniably gorgeous affectations?" At EW, Owen Gleiberman thinks it’s "all a bit too fancifully arid."