Tag Archives: school

The Children of Dora Maar School take control in Eric Baudelaire’s UN FILM DRAMATIQUE

It’s not that I don’t go see documentaries; I do, but usually I tend not to review them being I find that the medium, while visual, is more presentational and discursive rather than a strict narrative. Of course, for the past decade or so the medium has been morphing and delving into meta-narration, docu-fiction, and docs-dramas or a hybridization of visuals and exposition to create something completely new and challenging to the viewer. Eric Baudelaire’s Un Film Dramatique — Americanized as A Dramatic Film for its 2020 release — is one example. A movie I missed at the New York Film Festival, I managed to see it at The Contenders at the MoMA with barely a notion that it was a filming of the lives of a group of children at the new Dora Maar School in the outer limits of Paris, and that it played at Locarno to great acclaim. As a matter of fact, Festival Scope had it for a solid month in September in its Locarno section and I, occasional documentary watcher that I am, kept pushing it farther and farther back until it became unavailable until it made its second appearance at The Contenders. So, lucky me to have seen it and share it with you.

[For those of you who don’t know what The Contenders at the MoMA is, it is a screening of films that either premiered in the current year or were screened at film festivals around the world that bring a heavy quota of artistic value to cinema. It runs annually from November to January at the MoMA and I strongly urge movie lovers who aren’t aware of it go at least once and experience a new film or revisit one that somehow stuck in the memory for its bold visuals.]

Baudelaire began filming at the Dora Maar school what would have been a more traditional documentary (it seems), but eventually morphed into the movie that took on a life of its own. Twenty-one children for a period of about four years documented aspects of their own lives, sometimes in playful manners, other times in rather precocious discussions of class, race, politics (it becomes clear none of them care much for Marine Le Pen or our current sitting president), and the plight of immigrants in Paris where, much like here, if you do not have a reason to be in France you will be unceremoniously asked to leave. For such a large cast — we get introduced to them sometimes in groups, but sometimes in solo vignettes — Baudelaire assembles a rather colorful collage of living in the Seine-Saint Denis area of Paris, a jurisdiction often referred to by its administrative number 93, a number associated with ghetto, poverty, and low-income families. Some of the children — including friends Guy and David — are extremely outspoken, while one of the girls, Fatima, has no idea what to say to the camera and instead quietly films herself going about the day at home. Another group of girls wonder the fate of their friend who moved to a “place with palm trees” and debate to whether she may be still in France or perhaps the Caribbean. [It turns out, she moved to Reunion.]

This is a wonderful experimental film in which children express themselves in simple interactions with the camera and amongst themselves, and in a way, due to its time-lapse, could even have elements of a coming of age film. Often incisive as well as laugh out loud funny solely based on these incredibly bright, observant children, A Dramatic Film emerges as a commentary on what the future will be like once these kids grow into their adult selves. hoper Baudelaire will do something in the likes of Michael Apted’s ongoing, similar experimental Up series (now in its ninth iteration, 63 Up, which I will be reviewing once it makes its debut In theaters).

LUCE tackles the ghost of prejudice and privilege and comes up with no easy answers.

Kelvin Harrison, Jr. stars in Julius Onah’s Luce.

LUCE. Country, USA. Director, Julius Onah. Language, English. Cast: Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, and Tim Roth. Screenwriters, JC Lee and Julius Onah. Release Date, August 2, 2019. Runtime, 110 minutes. Venue: Angelika Film Center. Mostly Indies rating, A +.

Sandwiched in between The Nightingale and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is what I consider to be one of the best movies this year: Julius Onah’s Luce. Based on JC Lee’s off-Broadway play and also co-written by Onah, Luce is quite the conversation piece because of how difficult a story it is: in fact, the story offers so much complexity in narration, and characterization, that one cannot but only follow its puzzle, interpret the information it (selectively) gives, only to have it reveal something else entirely, and arrive at a conclusion that one would never expect. This is the kind of movie that we need more of, not empty-plotted monster movies or lousy exercises in action. Luce, even as a character study and rooted in theater, has loads of action happening right in front of you (and some developments, off-screen). It is, in essence, a master-class in compelling story telling with a quartet of actors at their best, the standouts here being Octavia Spencer as Luce’s discriminating teacher and Kelvin J Harrison Jr as the title character and by far, the glue that holds this entire thread in the palms of his hand.

From the moment we meet Luce we get a picture of a successful, polite, charming young man who is being groomed for greatness. Once Luce was a child soldier in Eritrea and was rescued, only to be adopted by Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). Through their love, their compassion, and — let’s face it — their affluence, Luce was able to conquer trauma, negative memories, and re-emerge into a star pupil at the verge of greatness in both his studies and athleticism. However, immediately that intro passes, we see some troubling signs that all is not quite right. For once, his teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), known for being particularly hard on African American students, doesn’t exactly cheer Luce after he delivers a rousing speech at the start of the movie. It could be she’s just stern, or perhaps there is something else.

That something else reveals itself as an essay Luce has written from an assignment she herself gave, His topic of choice, Frantz Fanon, a controversial figure who wrote about the implementation of violence as a mode to confront colonialism, disturbs her so much she calls Amy to her office to discuss her parenting as well as to give her a bag with fireworks she found in his locker. Keep in mind, from this essay that she herself assigned, she has somehow felt it her duty to invade his privacy, the locker he shares with his buds, and fears he might have troubling thoughts lingering underneath. Today’s climate at school, with students potentially acting out scenes of violence, Wilson feels it is her duty to confront it head on and see if there isk in fact, any truth to that. Amy and Peter don’t confront Luce immediately, but Luce soon has a series of confrontations with Wilson — one, a rehearsal for a debate, the other, an apparently cut and dry meeting in her office where Luce possibly throws a veiled threat. Needless to say, this threat does not sit well with Wilson.

We question the reason the Edgars don’t immediately confront Luce with the evidence (that they even leave carelessly tucked into a cabinet in the kitchen). Its never clear if this is because of genuine love (and keep in mind, parents will go to the ends of the earth for their child, adopted or not) or perhaps a need to be White saviors for a child that in other circumstances would never have had a chance. Where the situation becomes a bit thorny is when Amy does bring her doubts to the surface. Luce immediately starts calling her by her first name and withdraws. She starts asking her own questions, and in a scene involving Luce’s ex-girlfriend Stephanie (Andrea Bang), who may have had something awful happen to her at a party, she finds out more than she might have wanted to. This piece of information gets delivered extremely piecemeal, and when Wilson gets it in her possession, she sees it as a chance to vindicate herself, because as of yet, her claims have not been heard, and adding to that, the appearance of her mentally unstable sister at school, a scene that goes viral almost immediately, lands Wilson’s credibility and even her competence in shaky ground.

This is the type of story I live for. A narrative that seems to be at surface value cut and dry morphs constantly into something deeper and reveals shades of shadows even in its most well-defined characters. Luce forces you to first see one thing, then hear of another event linked, and then become privy to yet more information that might either negate what you thought was the truth and leave you with no one to truly root for. Is Luce a remarkable psychopath? Is Wilson, a strict teacher, in the right to have cut the dreams of another African American student short because she found pot in his locker, a locker that again, was shared? Could Luce have possibly engineered some of the later events in the movie and walked out a victor as Wilson despairs and his own parents sit silently by?

No answers, and that is just how I like it. Luce is a shapeshifting masterpiece with stellar performances from its quartet, one that crackles with tense energy and treats its scenario of life in school as if it were a puzzle with one or more of the crucial pieces missing and a growing sense of mysteries that we probably will not fully understand. Onah understands closeups and uses them to their maximum to elevate a rather wordy play into something else quite revealing… shadows hidden within light, characters who have traumas that they’d rather keep hidden.

LOUDER THAN BOMBS

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

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Nothing brings a family dysfunction to the surface like the departure of the glue that holds them together, and in Joachim Trier’s and Eskil Vogt’s new film Louder than Bombs it all rings too true. However, this is not a melodramatic film — it would have been easy to give actors scene after scene of loud arguing, emoting, and a finale of almost grandiose proportions. Trier instead has created a rather tender and quiet portrait of a father and his two sons coming to terms with the premature death of their mother who was a noted photo journalist and had a couple of secrets of her own.

The mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), hovers over the picture like a ghost who won’t rest in peace. When we first see her she’s getting some award for her body of work. Soon later we realize how it was she really died — in a car crash, possibly caused by her, which would make it suicide. However, no one ever truly speaks out that word and it starts a chain of avoidance between the surviving characters who now have to contend with this shattered new reality. Gene (Gabriel Byrne), Isabelle’s widow, has no idea how to reach his teenage son Conrad (David Druid) who has become withdrawn and aggressive, so he takes to either following him after school or playing World of Warcraft in order to connect. Gene has also been carrying on with Hannah (Amy Ryan), David’s teacher, in a movie that seems more out of loneliness than anything.

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In the meantime, in for a retrospective of his mother’s work, older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) shows up. He’s recently become a father and on the night that his wife borne him a son he ran into and reconnected with a former flame who’s mother was also dying in the hospital.

As I said before, this isn’t a movie with big revelations complete with an abundance of self-important dialog or all too camera-ready scene chewing. If at all the only moment that any performance feels completely naked even when it doesn’t reveal anything other than inner torment is a flashback sequence showing Huppert in a hotel, her face pinched and sad. It’s no wonder she’s this force that will not give away: Huppert has imbued her character with a world of inner pain that perhaps had no other solution than the way out. Everyone else is left to gravitate around her and try to fill in the void she has left.

Because of this, Louder than Bombs may disappoint viewers looking for that “a-ha!” moment when everyone comes into the foreground and sounds off. I actually preferred this somewhat elliptical turn, since let’s face it, this is closer how we tend to react to traumas such as these. It’s probably despite of this, where the film films incomplete, that one will appreciate its content more.