Monday, June 6, 2011

The Netflix Files: May 30-June 5

Half Nelson (2006) dir. Ryan Fleck: Ryan Gosling earned his first Oscar nomination for this low-key drug drama, and it's easy to see why. As Dan Dunne, a middle school history teacher struggling with addiction, Gosling does tremendous work, even if he occasionally crosses from brilliant over to bug-eyed. He's backed up by lovely work from Shareeka Epps as Drey, a student who befriends Dan, and a script that treats its subject matter with smarts. Writers Fleck and Anna Boder avoid the typical ups and downs of addiction drama, focusing more on how the characters interact, instead of dragging drug use to the front to beat us over the head with. Other story threads, like Drey's relationship with her mother and imprisoned brother, aren't quite rounded out so well, but the film's understated portrayal of its central duo through their personal struggles is hugely successful.

Grade: B+

Stalker (1979) dir. Andrei Tarkovsky: Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky's other major (and widely revered) work, earned comparisons to Kubrick's 2001. Yet despite the fact that the films share settings in outer space, I'd venture that Stalker left me with similar feelings to Kubrick's masterpiece. Set in Russia, a three men (one of them a guide) venture into a mysterious area known as The Zone in order to find a room where people's dreams come true. After a frenzied opening chase/shoot-out, the film settles down and becomes increasingly mysterious, and increasingly mesmerizing. Things as simple as a walk down a tunnel become hypnotic to watch, because even though barely anything actually happens (other than walking) in Stalker, the level of mystery that the script develops is unlike anything I've ever seen. It presents explanations and "answers" that are often more confusing than the situation in question. This does mean that the film can be rather frustrating, but it's the sort of film that makes you want to find out answers, even if some things are simply meant to be left to interpretation.

Grade: A-

The Piano Teacher (2002) dir. Michael Haneke: Like a less obvious Lars von Trier, Michael Hanake often seems to enjoy exposing twisted situations, often with equally twisted results. The Piano Teacher is no exception. Isabelle Huppert stars as Erika, a strict piano teacher who starts an affair with a young student to explore her sexual fantasies, fantasies built up from years of sexual repression. Haneke's film doesn't shy away from showing us a few icky details. Still he refrains from making these moments take up the entire film. Roughly the first half (maybe more) goes by, and the affair hasn't even started. Haneke's dedication to building up this character before heavily deconstructing her only makes the film that much more unsettling. Of course, it would be inappropriate to continue on without discussing Huppert's phenomenal work as Erika. By turns icy, distant, and vulnerable, this is not a character we're supposed to like, and yet Huppert makes her every move fascinating to watch. So even though the film ends on a bit of a vague note, one that seems to lack the analytical focus of everything that came before, The Piano Teacher is still a provocative and disturbing look at one woman's path towards self-destruction.

Grade: B

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