The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Some Reviews From the 50th London Film Festival

Written by James MacDowell.

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NOTE: The following reviews will not - except with adequate warning - reveal any spoilers about the films under discussion.

Half Nelson (Dir: Ryan Fleck; USA; 102 mins).

Filmmaking: 3 / Personal Enjoyment: 4

The debut feature of writer-director Ryan Fleck, Half Nelson tells the story of an inner-city schoolteacher, Dan Dunne, who is struggling to recover from a major drug habit. Depressed and isolated, his only life-lines are the history classes he teaches so passionately, and a growing friendship with one of his young female pupils, who is herself mixed up in the drug world through her dealer cousin.

This film could easily fall into a number of boring generic traps: it could be just another clichéd tale of an unconventional teacher inspiring his no-hope charges into bettering themselves; it could be another rambling, depressing non-narrative about the evils of drug addiction; it could also be a bland, easy story of a man’s redemption through the innocence of a child. Luckily - although, in truth, it does contain occasional elements of all of the above - the final result manages to lift itself above such limitations to feel largely fresh, dramatic and truthful.

For one thing, it is surprisingly funny, shot through on many occasions by moments of bleak, sharp humour - and generally the kind of humour people actually share in the real world rather than those that screenwriters create: bad jokes, stupid asides, and so on. Indeed, the tone the whole film aims for is authenticity - not in the sense of kitchen-sink drama, but on the level of recognisable emotions and believable human interaction (as well as impressively handled firm reminders of broader social and political issues). By and large it hits these notes just right, and seldom do we question what is motivating these people to do the - sometimes surprising - things they do. This is due in large part to some very fine performances, in particular Ryan Gosling, who cuts a more convincing and sadder druggie than most, and 16-year-old Shareeka Epps, who gives us - for a change - a believably complex picture of a young person on screen.

The visual style is dirty and buzzing. Rather than spelling out the spaces and relationships it is showing us, the film generally favours many intercut handheld close-ups of its imperfect characters and world, giving the film a sometimes frustrating feeling of scruffy intensity in keeping with our perpetually messed-up protagonist. Even when he is not on drugs, our view of him and his surroundings feels fragile, crushed under a weight of thick sadness. Musically, the film creates a sense of raw melancholy of a deeper and more convincing kind than we are used to soundtracks giving us. Largely all written by the exciting Canadian band Broken Social Scene, the varied score swells and whispers in turn and is used very intelligently to punctuate occasional scenes with sharp shocks of feeling that manage to feel both epic and natural. One scene in particular that is especially impressive is made so largely by its use of music…

(NOTE: For anyone who hasn’t seen the film, and might do, the end of this review will touch on some things that you probably shouldn’t know. I would therefore suggest skipping on to the next review and considering Half Nelson warmly recommended.)

The sequence in which Drey delivers the drugs package to the party attended by Dan, feels somewhat randomly inserted if taken as logical progression of the plot. It is either an unconvincing coincidence, or is a meeting that has been engineered by Dan, by Frank, or by both, to demonstrate to Drey the full, sad implications of drug addiction and dealing. None of these explanations can be finally confirmed and so, on the surface, the scene should by rights feel unsatisfactory. That it doesn’t is thanks to the wonderful power of the performances - Gosling’s sad nod that says, “this is me”; Epps’ confused, shell-shocked acceptance - and also to the use of Broken Social Scene’s song ‘Shampoo Suicide’.

Heard from outside the door, the song is clearly part of the scene’s world and is being played on the stereo at the party. Yet when Drey steps through the door the music immediately becomes louder and all background sound disappears, making the song very much the soundtrack of the film. This slight shift in registers commands a powerful break with the predominantly subtle tone of the film thus far, yet works so effortlessly well in context. The song has a dirty, urban beat as its basis that makes it seem not unreasonable as something supposedly playing at what is, after all, a party. Yet it also has a searing, ever-building emotional tenor that rises and rises from the point Drey crosses the threshold and meets Dan’s eyes - one that perfectly captures the desperate sadness of the encounter. This relationship, between believable motivation for the track and its unlikely, too-appropriate poignancy creates a beautiful moment that lies on the knife-edge of being excessively dramatic, but ultimately just feels overwhelmingly effective and truthful. The scene probably lasts less than 30 seconds, but it feels as if it stretches on for a lifetime. It manages to say so much whilst apparently doing so little, something that - broadly speaking - this pleasing, refreshing film as a whole manages very well.

The Boss of it All (Dir: Lars Von Trier; Denmark; 115 mins).

Filmmaking: 3 / Personal Enjoyment: 3

There is quite a lot of the early Jean-Luc Godard about Lars Von Trier, especially recently. Like his predecessor he emerged violently, in the late 90s, as an enfant terrible with a playful desire to shake up the fundamental formal properties of cinema,with Dogme95. There has continued ever since a comparable tension in his work between the light-hearted and the deadly serious: a revelling in, and a deconstruction of, the language of film. The Idiots (1998) tied a prankster’s desire to shock with a fresh, complex moral vision much like A Bout de Souffle (1960); Breaking The Waves (1995) poignantly but self-consciously depicted the inevitable destruction of a female innocent reminiscent of Vivre Sa Vie (1962); meanwhile Dancer in the Dark played serious games with Hollywood and its genres in the manner of Les Mepris (1963) and Pierrot le Fou (1965).

His last two films, Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2006) continued his experiments with style and his thematic provocation, but have introduced the stronger political element that Godard too began increasingly incorporating in the late 60s. There is a question mark over how much this commitment suits him, as I explore in my Alternate Take of Manderlay, but the parallel can nevertheless be made. If this so-far unfinished ‘USA trilogy’ (Dogville etc.) can be compared to, say, Weekend (1968) or Tout Va Bien (1970), then The Boss of it All is his Une Femme est une Femme (1961): a lighter, more throwaway and fun work that allows him to take a comic breather, whilst still exercising some of his preoccupations.

Its plot set-up is practically Classical Hollywood farce: the head of a major computing company, Casper, not wanting to take the responsibilities that come with being the boss, has invented a fictional ‘boss of it all’ just above himself, who is supposed to really run the company. This made-up character has been taking the heat for unpopular decisions like who to fire and when to sell the company, thus making Casper seem merely an obedient underling rather than the mastermind he is. The charade has now been put in jeopardy, however, by one of the company’s most important clients who has requested to meet this non-existent boss. Not wanting to blow his cover, Casper hires actor, Jens, to play the ‘boss of it all’, causing all manner of comic catastrophe.

Another thing it is necessary to know about the film is that was made using a deliberately perverse new filmmaking technique Von Trier is pioneering, which he calls ‘AutomaVision’. This consists of multiple static cameras being set up to shoot each scene, each of which are connected to a computer programmed so as to randomly cause each camera to zoom in, reframe and change focus. This means, of course, that there was no way for Von Trier to predict what kind of shots he would have to work with. Strangely, in the final edit, this does not in fact make for the disorientating or particularly unique viewing experience one might expect, and if we were to judge this method merely by the look it finally provides we would have to conclude it to be a somewhat pointless - if in theory intriguing - experiment.

However, there is an uncanny resemblance between style and content here that surely cannot be unintentional. What this technique amounts to is simply the most extreme example of the deferring of authority to a set of formal constraints that Von Trier has yet set himself. Rather than make directorial decisions about how to shoot the film, he has made the decision to hand this responsibility to someone - or, in this case, something - else, in exactly the same way as has Casper. The plot is thus a parody of the technique, and vice versa. It is in keeping with Von Trier’s wonderfully warped sense of humour that he should mock his intentions in this way: a running theme through much of his work is the failure of idealistic systems to function in the real world - the musical escapism of Dancer, the commune of The Idiots, the ‘pacifists with guns’ club of Dear Wendy (2004), and so on. The Boss of it All is simply the most clear indication so far that one of the main things he has been challenging all this time is his own desire for some kind of transcendent purity.

Despite this nice central conceit, however, it can’t be denied that the film as a whole is not a great success. Though there are good comic moments, there are many more that fall unfortunately flat. The plotting feels messy, giving the feeling that the script was written very quickly and left largely unrefined - a sense that is reinforced by Von Trier’s own (again, very Godardian) voice-overs that occasionally break the action. The inexorable drive towards a grimly ironic conclusion, which can be felt in most of his films, is here again but in its most unconvincing and throwaway incarnation yet. Indeed, through its self-mockery, its style and its very pointed lightness, the film openly proclaims itself as lightweight entertainment. Were it slightly more fun throughout, this lightness might have been thoroughly charming; as it is, the charm is felt only occasionally, and the overall sense one is left with is of an interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying, joke.

Bobby (Dir: Emilio Estevez; USA; 120 mins).

Filmmaking: 2 / Personal Enjoyment: 2

Bobby is a perfect example of the bland, smug mould that liberal American filmmaking can so easily find itself in, and which it must try its hardest to distance itself from. It depicts the hours leading up to Bobby Kennedy’s assassination on June 6th 1968, told from the point of view of the campaign workers, waiters, chefs, hair dressers, managers, newlyweds and so forth who found themselves in the Ambassador Hotel on that day. Everyone has their own conflict, their own mini-life-drama that they are struggling to overcome, and most of these in some way reflect the contemporary social problems that the idealistic Democrat Kennedy was promising to combat.

Estevez has managed to assemble one of the most starry casts of recent memory - perhaps even in Hollywood history: Demi Moore, Sharon Stone, Martin Sheen, Helen Hunt, Elijah Wood, Anthony Hopkins, Heather Graham, Ashton Kutchner, Lindsay Lohan, Laurence Fishburne, Christian Slater, William H. Macy and Estevez himself. The sense of all these stars vying for attention, as well as the central premise of interlocking dramas all centred around inhabitants of a high class hotel, makes one think of the wonderful 1933 classic Grand Hotel (a comparison, in fact, that the film is eager to make itself: Hopkins is heard to ask one of his workers if he has ever seen that particular movie). This is an unwise move. Grand Hotel is a subtle, moving, quietly desperate picture of human kindness and frailty; Bobby is - for the most part - a trite, self-satisfied, largely dull attempt at ensemble drama, historical re-enactment, and social commentary. For all its good intentions, it just can’t help but finally feel - as a film with ‘something to say’ - like the very safe, mildly discontented liberal sigh that it is.

Apart from anything, the concept is just such an easy, and ultimately pointless, wallow in a now near-nostalgic moment of America’s political past. In interviews Estevez has described Robert Kennedy as “one of the biggest ‘What If’s in American history”, and has all but suggested that if he had lived - and been elected - then U.S. involvement would have stopped immediately in Vietnam, racial tensions in the States would have been all but eradicated, and that unemployment would have become a thing of the past. While it’s true that - in the plentiful archive footage in Bobby at least - Kennedy could certainly talk a good, solid left-wing game, so too can many idealistic Democrat presidential candidates attempting election. Who can possibly know if any of his proposed policies would actually have made any real difference, or even have been implemented, were he to have survived? More to the point, what do we possibly gain from the asking - and asking now?

It seems a hollow, timid reaction to the current tumultuous US political landscape to retreat into the past in this way, into a presentation of a rose-coloured period in which vague affirmations of sexual and racial equality, or of pacifism, amounted to a radical or subversive act. If the film has any reverberations for our political present, they are similarly nostalgic and finally dishonest: it makes the left wing/ liberal viewer pine for a time when, to quote Hunter S. Thompson, there was a sense amongst progressive-thinking Americans that “we were winning… [an] inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil”. That this dream ends badly in Bobby does not override the preference the film shows for an idealised view of this period (where being ‘right-on’ seems as easy as rolling a joint) over our more complex present-day political quagmire, in which ideas of left and right are far more blurred. Indeed, the only other pertinent comment the film could be seen to be making on our contemporary world is also unhelpfully, if pleasantly, nostalgic: that here is a politician who was unafraid to run on unambiguous messages of social reform, civil liberties and equal opportunities, as opposed to scrambling for the innoffensive middle-ground that most seem to today. That the speeches (plus ubiquitous yearning score) here of Kennedy are stirring is undeniable, but so is - bluntly put - their irrelevence.

But it is not political timidity alone that makes this a bad film - something like Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) was similarly dewy-eyed for a period of clear-cut liberal allegiances, but managed to be good, authentic-feeling entertainment nonetheless. No: it is in terms of its drama that the film truly fails. Each member of the massive cast seems to be having a Meaningful Realisation in virtually every scene of the movie, confronting some prejudice or home truth - all the while the merciless score working away fretfully behind them. There are innumerable Wise People, who have seen enough to know the ‘real facts of life’, who get to explain to the young, or ignorant, or innocent what it really means to be alive. Some of the characters (or rather, some of these actors) are good enough to warrant more space than they receive: it would have done the film wonders to cut down the number of storylines considerably, meaning it could dedicate more time to making each dramatic arc more believable. Of course, this would not achieve the sweep the movie so clearly longs for - but then neither does an unconvincing, lacklustre attempt at Altman-esque multiple-character storytelling. A lack of connection to the plentiful talent parading in front of us finally - and fatally - means that we really cannot get too excited when the inevitable dramatic finish to the day finally arrives.

A nicely fluid camera style and continual grandstanding from the strong cast mean Bobby is seldom painful to watch. However, this is nevertheless a messy picture of the Hollywood ‘Important Movie’ at its most sterile: ineffectual in its politics, self-satisfied in its false profundities, and - most crucially - uninvolving in the fundamentals of character and drama.

Shortbus (Dir: John Cameron Mitchell; USA; 100 mins).

Filmmaking: 4 / Personal Enjoyment: 4

The previous film from director John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), is one of my favourite films of the new millennium: a flawed masterpiece of a comedy/drama/musical about a transgender punk/glam rocker from East Berlin. As far as I was concerned then, expectations were high for this, his follow-up - and I am happy to report that, despite not quite reaching the heights of its predecessor, Shortbus does not disappoint.

Like Bobby, this is an ensemble piece set around a specific place - but that is absolutely where the parallel ends. The ‘Shortbus’ of the title is essentially a sex club in New York in which people from all walks of life, and all sexual preferences, congregate to have fun, listen to bands, watch movies, and fuck. The film follows the lives of a number of regulars of this club, including a long-term gay couple going through a rough patch, a straight relationship-counsellor who has never had an orgasm, and a lonely S&M mistress looking for a friend.

Like The Boss of it All, there is also one important aspect of Shortbus’ production history that we need to be aware of when watching it: all the sexual activity going on in the film - and there is a fair amount of it - is real. It has been described, in fact, as the most sexually explicit American film of all time.

Whatever one’s moral opinion of filmed sex in ‘mainstream’ narrative film may be (I personally, with minor reservations, am in favour), Mitchell’s film seems an undeniable step forward in its evolution. Most of the growing number of high-profile sexually explicit films in the last five or so years - Catherine Breillat’s work, Intimacy (2001), Baise Moi (2003), Brown Bunny (2003), etc - whilst often interesting on their own terms, have helped set an uncomfortable precedent: a suggestion that real sex in narrative films must be depressing. Perhaps this came about so that the onscreen sex would not be accused of being audience titillation - and therefore perhaps more likely to be considered pornography. Whatever the reason, there is an irony to the fact that these controversial, tabloid-baiting films have generally sent such a universally negative - some might say conservative - message about the sex that they show. Even Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, a stab at a ‘realistic’ view of a modern relationship, made its sex scenes feel cold and distancing through their total lack of any contextualising warmth for the couple.

Shortbus is different. For virtually the first time in a narrative film containing real sex, it is acknowledged here that sex can be fun, silly, fulfilling, tender, and - above all - healthy! It is cathartic to finally be shown this view on the big screen, especially in such a kaleidoscopic, vaguely magical realist and generous form. Indeed, in general this is quite simply one of the most open, warmly humanist films imaginable: there is a genuine love here for the idea of love, community and connection - an honest embracing of those who find themselves as outsiders, on the fringes socially or sexually. This is the joyous, celebratory queer film that the generally dour New Queer Cinema of the early 90s (Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Greg Araki etc) should have had, but never got, and it feels all the more slyly subversive for its fun, bohemian approach. This is a thoroughly and excitingly contemporary portrait of new-millennium, post-911, sexual politics and alternative lifestyles: a championing of a new, ‘quirky’ form of innocence, a sense of personal communities in place of revolutionary movements, a bemusement rather than a rage at the state of the world.

“It’s like the 60s, only with less hope,” remarks Shortbus’ droll drag queen madame, and it is a sentiment that the film perversely both communicates succinctly and partially contradicts: there is a great sense of hope to be found here in the sharing of a communal hopelessness. The whole of this patchwork-like, semi-improvised, messy and fitfully transcendental work is like this: simultaneously operating on dual registers of sadness and joy, melodrama and farce, outrageousness and good old-fashioned romance. There are certainly also, it must be admitted, a number of overly dramatic moments that come too suddenly to be really believable, and sometimes threaten to undermine the great work done elsewhere. However, the momentarily unconvincing aftertastes of these instances of unearned pathos generally vanish as quickly as they came: the whole trajectory and feel of the film is so heart-on-its-sleeve honest so as to be able to absorb a good many such tremors into its ultimately convincing picture of sincere human interaction.

This is an undeniably flawed, but nonetheless wonderful film. Like Hedwig, it is unlike anything you will have ever seen before. Shortbus is a beautiful, bittersweet, colourful, funny, near Fellini-esque flurry of infectious creativity from an exciting cinematic voice with an exciting worldview, and an exciting way of communicating it.

This article was published on November 30, 2006.