Friday, April 24, 2009

Touch of Evil (1958)

This gritty noir grinder should dispel any notion that Orson Welles was overrated as a filmmaker, as here Welles takes a pulp novel and converts it into a film for the ages. Much has been written about the 3 minute crane shot that starts the movie and deservedly so, as it is a brilliant piece of choreography. But equally impressive are the two scenes in the suspect's (Victor Milan) apartment. Both are long, continuous takes where the camera moves slowly through the cramped flat as a legion of cops scurry in and out of frame ransacking the joint searching for evidence. It must have taken countless hours to coordinate that mayhem, yet every element is so well timed you don't even realize at first that there are no edits. Watch for the great Joanna Moore (Tatum O'Neal's mom) in a bit part as Milan's love interest. The film has few moments of excessive weirdness, but in all "Touch of Evil" is a proud triumph of technique over substance. I wouldn't be surprised if future generations of cineastes come to prefer it over Welles' other masterpiece "Citizen Kane" which, by comparison, seems a bit mannered and stage bound.

FUN WITH YOUR REMOTE: There is a scene where Heston and Assistant D.A. Schwartz are riding in a car and discussing the case. Heston reaches down and pushes a button on the radio. If you immediately press fast-forward, the car appears to make a Star Wars-style jump to light speed. It was a riot in film class, anyway.

The Class (2008)

Get comfy, because once this film starts, you won’t be going anywhere. In a world obsessed with witches, vampires and superheroes, Laurent Cantet has quietly spent the last decade making modest, straightforward dramas about Real People with Real Problems. And the odd thing is, his small, naturalistic films are much more interesting than any of the effects-laden Hollywood blockbusters. In this Palme d’Or winner, Cantet pushes the boundary between documentary and drama so hard it frays and very nearly breaks. “The Class” captures the gritty essence of one year at a rough-and-tumble Paris high school and features a group of students, teachers and parents all basically portraying themselves. Francois Beguadeau, a former teacher who also wrote the memoir on which the film is based, plays the central character, a teacher named Mr. Marin, and is in many ways a co-director, as his energy and enthusiasm leads his wide awake kids through the largely improvised scenes and into extraordinary moments of true discovery. Through the course of the film we get to know many of the students and their families and their interactions seem so real you have to keep pinching yourself to remember this is a fictional work. Especially noteworthy is Franke Keita as Souleymane, a child of recent immigrants whose face conveys a heartbreaking mix of hurt, shame and anger. As a teacher, Mr. Marin is not perfect, neither is this film. But “The Class” is a riveting experience and the shortest two hours this reviewer has experienced in some time. Yes, there are those that hate the idea of public education and will therefore hate this film. They are to be pitied.