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Moriarty @ AFI Fest, Day One: THE CLASS, TOKYO SONATA, and WITCH HUNT!

Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here. Today wasn’t my first screening of the AFI Fest, but I’ve agreed not to review DOUBT until I see a finished film print of it because producer Scott Rudin wants critics to judge the film in the best possible format, and it was shown digitally on Thursday at the opening night gala. Friday was Halloween, so I was at home trick or treating with Toshi, and Saturday was all about a friend’s wedding reception, so I didn’t make it to the giant CHE screening at the Chinese. Nope... for me, the festival really began when I dropped by the press room at the Roosevelt Hotel this morning at about 11:00 to grab my ID and then drive over to the Arclight, where I planned to spend most of the day watching films. First up? THE CLASS. Recently, as my wife and I have been talking about education and what is or isn’t appropriate stimulus for first-year pre-schooler Toshi (TRANSFORMERS cartoons and THE FORCE UNLEASHED on PS3, not so much; SCHOOLHOUSE ROCKS, absolutely; LITTLEBIGPLANET, the jury’s still out), we’ve been working to define what we think the priorities are in education for our kids. I maintain that it’s far more important to teach someone how to think than it is to teach them what they’re supposed to think. Memorization of dates and tables and charts and formulae is vital to successfully completing school, but it’s not the most important part of education. What’s reeeeeally important is teaching someone to reason, to filter, to process... to comprehend. I don’t remember a lot of what I “learned” in school, no matter how well I did on tests at the time. But everything I’ve ever taught myself out of genuine curiosity, I remember with absolute clarity because I was engaged in actually thinking about it. I think it must be brutally difficult to teach teenagers these days. I get a fair amount of mail from younger readers, and I think there are a lot of bright, engaged, film literate young people out there. But I’ve met some sullen, pointlessly angry, gleefully ignorant kids who look like they’d be an absolute nightmare to confront in a classroom. On top of that, I can’t imagine working in a public school, where you’ve got this hotbed of personal tension you have to negotiate and mediate every day just so you can do your job. For the kids, it’s a whole different kind of stress and worry and pressure and fear, twelve or fourteen or even eighteen years of study, all part of a process that seems unforgiving of mistakes, and more so with each passing year. There are few genres of film as phony and as dramatically stagnant as the “heroic teacher” movies. There are decent examples, well-shot or well-acted, and most of them certainly well-intentioned, but they’re all still fairly phony. In many ways, Laurent Cantet’s THE CLASS seems to stand as a direct refutation of those films. In emphasizing just how mundane the frustrations are for both the teachers and the students are at an inner-city Parisian junior high, Cantet’s film takes a documentary aesthetic, marries it to a very wry, understated sense of the dramatic, and it ends up being more affecting on a real human level than a thousand MR. HOLLAND’S or DEAD POETS could ever hope to be. Cantet’s best move is the way he establishes the same degree of empathy and disapproval, balanced precariously at every moment, for the parents, the teachers, and the students. The film doesn’t romanticize or exaggerate anyone’s qualities; watching the closing credits, most of the kids seem to be playing themselves, using their own names. By only showing us the schools and what happens there, Cantet resists the urge to milk their home lives for cheap sentimental effect or to explain the motivations of Francois Begaudeau, the French teacher who is the lead in the movie. This is even more amazing when you consider that Francois is a real-life teacher and a novelist whose book was the basis for Cantet’s screenplay. He’s written and played as anything but a hero. Deeply imperfect, a little full of himself at times, but genuinely interested in doing good by his students. In one pivotal scene, he makes a seriously poor choice in vocabulary that undermines almost all of the good work we see him do. The fragility of the trust and respect between teacher and student seems to be Cantet’s main concern, and the picture this paints is a heartbreaking one. There’s hope, sure. Good kids get through all the time, intact and inspired and empowered by their educations. But far more kids either skate by, treating knowledge like they’re skipping stones on the surface of a lake, or the system fails them, fails to figure out where they fit or how. Watch for two scenes in particular involving a kid named Soulamayne, one in which Francois builds him up just right, and another in which Soulamayne silently reacts to being let down by him. The whole movie plays out in those two moments, or in the scene with a girl who claims to have learned nothing all year, or in any of a dozen other scenes that serve as perfect microcosms of this world, this constant struggle between those who would teach and those who will and won’t be taught. Kids like Soulamayne are failed by our stubborn insistence that academics are nothing more than an exercise in data ergurgitation, and THE CLASS excels at casting its points about the way this system is collapsing in realistic terms, making them resonate far more than the cheap histrionics on display in Hollywood’s typical take on teachers. It’s just plain weird that my next film was TOKYO SONATA. Back in 2001, Laurent Cantet made a very effective, angry, haunting little film called TIME OUT about a man who loses his job and then conceals that from everyone in his life. He went somewhere very dark and sad with it, while Kiyoshi Kurosawa has taken the same kernel of an idea and made the most moving film of his career so far. I had Cantet’s film sort of echoing in my head as TOKYO SONATA got started, but that comparison faded fast, and I have to say... I’m very pleased I added this film to my schedule at the last minute. Powerfully moving, electric with the energy of a filmmaker at the top of his game, TOKYO SONATA is a piercing low-key piece on the responsibilities of family, the fears of the corporate middle-man in a free-falling economy, and the way parents invest their own fears and failures into the choices they push on their children. It’s a real high watermark for Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who has always defied any facile attempts at classification as a filmmaker. For most of his career, he’s been called a horror director. This film’s about a million miles from anything you’d call horror, but the central drive for Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a very palpable nightmare for me. He is a family man who one day loses his job, and he’s unable to get another one. I have two kids and a mortgage these days. That realization slams into me sometimes with the force of a bus as I lie in bed trying to sleep. I have two kids and a mortgage. FOr years now, I’ve been on my own, worrying about earning just enough to keep pursuing my professional goals. “Just enough” defined me, and even at my busiest, I’ve made enough money from screenwriting to call myself professional... but only just. Same thing with AICN. Put them together and I almost-but-not-quite break even every month. Seriously, there are often months where I worry about money every... single... day. Actively. And right now, I’m certainly not alone in feeling this way. In living this way. A lot of us struggle and worry and constantly try t figure out how to take care of our families. I thought my drive to make movies was strong while I was growing up, but that’s nowhere near as primal as the drive to make a better life for them. So when I see the way Ryuhei suffers as he tries to conceal what has happened from his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), it guts me. This is a guy facing a redefinition of who he is as a man, and he does everything he can to stall that confrontation with a base truth he can’t accept. He meets another guy in the same boat, Kurosu (Kanjii Tsuda), and idolizes him because of how well he’s adapted to playing this lie all the time. He tries to maintain some authority over his older teenage son Takashi (Ju Koyanagi) and his younger quiet boy Kenji (Kai Inowaki), but they can all sense that something’s wrong with Ryuhei. And it affects their family dynamic, a little at first but with increasing impact. Kurosawa’s gift has always been the way he builds dread through composition, the way he establishes a mood where ennui and the paralysis of fear feel like the same thing. Here, his particular talents result in a very canny mix of tone, as the film swings from a sort of deadpan absurdity at times to a lyrical sense of potential wasted, particularly in the way Megumi’s storyline plays out. Kyoko Koizumi is a very striking woman in her forties, and she looks like she’s never had anything done to her. She’s very obviously in her forties. That’s not a slam... it’s not a judgment. But she’s letting herself age in a way that Hollywood actresses fight with every weapon science has to offer. And so there’s something far more real in the wistfulness she plays than there would be if you were looking at someone immobilized by Botox. She feels like life may have passed her by, and that scares the hell out of her all at once as she deals with the sudden realization that her husband may not be able to live up to his end of the marriage. And she loves her sons, but she’s also having to accept the lack of any real control that she may have thought she had in their lives, a bitter pill to swallow for any parent. When she finally has a short freak-out in one of the film’s strangest digressions, it’s understandable, and that allows us to accept what might otherwise be too wild a left turn. The ending of the film snuck up on me, but as soon as the last shot arrived, I knew it was the last shot. It’s a perfect note on which to conclude the film, and it ties things together emotionally in a way that excuses most of the little things I thought were shaggy or undercooked about the movie. Overall, it’s a tremendous effort from a filmmaker whose voice seems to still be developing, an encouraging sign, indeed. And finally, after a quick walk to 7-11 for my particular favorite flavor of caffeine, it was time for what I decided would be my last film of the day, a new documentary called WITCH HUNT. MSNBC Films will be releasing this one, and Dana Nachman and Don Hardy have done a very strong, clear, unaffected job of telling an outrageous true story. The purpose of telling such a story, of course, is to outrage. That’s a very powerful story form to get right if you can, in fact, get it right. I haven’t seen Clint Eastwood’s CHANGELING yet, but I’m sure I will by the end of the year. I liked the script, which I felt was a well-told bit of outrage by J. Michael Stryczinski. The reason it didn’t have much bite, though, is because of the sense of remove. It’s certainly awful that anyone would be treated the way Angelina Jolie is in that film, but that was the 20s. It was a different world for women. It’s really not that way for women now, so it’s hard to get truly riled up while watching. With WITCH HUNT, when I saw the title card at the end of the film that said that Ed Jagels is still a currently-serving district attorney in Kern County, it made my blood boil. I’m shocked and offended that a person of such coarse and obvious political inhumanity would be allowed to hold office for over 20 years. I’m amazed that Kern County voters are still electing a man who sent innocent people to jail for no reason other than his own political currency. It’s filthy. It’s immoral. And if you can sit through WITCH HUNT and come to a different conclusion concerning Jagels’s character, I’d be shocked. In fact, if you can seriously present a case for why every single person involved in the prosecution for these people in this film should not be held accountable and charged with some sort of crime, I’d love to hear it. I think anyone who abuses something as important as our justice system for their own personal gain should pay an extra-steep price, and these people absolutely did. This is yet another story of a community destroyed when charges of child molestation spin out of control thanks to improper manipulation of the kids who are the “witnesses.” The material in this film featuring these kids all grown up today and still dealing with their own feelings about having been involved in first convicting these men through testimony and then helping to set them free the same way. For some reason, in the ‘80s there was a wave of incidents where communities were destroyed the same way. The McMartin trial in Los Angeles was obviously a famous example, as were the West Memphis Three, but they’re not the only ones by an unfortunate long shot. And in each of the cases where there were multiple people convicted, the stories being “told” by the children were so outrageous, involving torture and murder and human sacrifice, that it seems impossible that there wouldn’t be a shred of physical evidence. But in case after case, there wasn’t a shred of physical evidence, and yet people were being convicted. Families were being torn apart. And in Bakersfield, innocent people were going to prison, where they stayed for ten, fifteen, even twenty years. Innocent, but incarcerated. This is fertile ground for a documentary. I think it was at a previous AFI Festival that I reviewed AFTER INNOCENCE, which was about the work of The Innocence Project. That was a piece about the lawyers and how they were working to do good in the world. This film focuses much more on the real victims here, the parents who had their children taken away from them and who were sent to jail. Real jail. San Quentin, which is one of the hardest prisons in the country. I can’t even imagine the personal strength it took to be John Stoll, Jeffrey Modahl, Brenda and Scott Kniffen, Marcella and Rick Pitts... I’m sure I would not have had the character to do what they did, and tonight, I made sure to shake their hands after the screening. I know I talk about my kids a lot when I’m talking about movies, but that’s because that’s my filter now. That’s what my first thoughts are in regards to almost everything... how it relates to my kids... what it means for my kids... whether or not my kids will enjoy it. Like I said at the start of this, we’re still wrestling with the notion of what is a what’s appropriate for him, and that feels like a big deal when we have that conversation. And, of course, it’s nothing. A less-than-nothing. These people faced something impossible, and they not only stayed strong, they stayed sure of themselves and the system. They stayed confident that it would somehow right itself. These people lost it all in terms of family, and that’s what makes the film so very difficult to watch. More than making me sad or weepy, the film made me mad. It’s infuriating. It’s incendiary. It may lean on a few too many shots of tattered American flags in the wind or other on-the-nose visual underlinings of what they’re saying, but the material and the interviews... fantastic and absorbing. I never thought I’d be able to feel sorry for the kids who falsely testified against their own parents, but this film managed even that trick of empathy. I’m not sure what MSNBC’s goal is with the film, or what their release plan’s going to be, but I hope you’re able to see it soon. By the time the AFI Fest wraps next Sunday night with DEFIANCE, I hope to have seen twenty-one films including the three I saw and reviewed today. That’s how many I have scheduled right now, including THE WRESTLER, THE CHASER, TIME CRIMES, WENDY AND LUCY, WALTZ WITH BASHIR, GOMORRAH, and more. Sounds good to me...


Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

Readers Talkback
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  • Nov. 3, 2008, 7:08 a.m. CST

    "Doubt"

    by Drunken Rage

    "Doubt" is still being tweaked, still isn't in its final version, but its being shown at AFI? I'm not sure I understand the logic of that-- is it just to make certain that it gets some publicity because it has fallen off everyone's radar?

  • Nov. 3, 2008, 7:10 a.m. CST

    "The Class" and "Witch Hunt"

    by Drunken Rage

    Both sound like terrific little movies that will have extremely limited, if any, distribution. I'd like to see both but there's no way they'll be shown within two hours' drive. That's very frustrating.

  • Nov. 3, 2008, 7:33 a.m. CST

    The Reader trailer is up

    by filmcoyote

    http://executionersgong.blogspot.com/

  • Nov. 3, 2008, 8:01 a.m. CST

    Cantet's 'Human Resources'

    by Lone_Wolf_McQuaalude

    Love that film. Remember being struck by how much I identified with the characters in the film, despite the language barrier. Universal stories.

  • Nov. 3, 2008, 8:25 a.m. CST

    Seperation

    by DRACULA_WANTS_THE_AMULET

    Most classrooms are about popping open a book, reading it to oneself, or out loud to the class, or listening to a 2 dimensional lecture by the teacher and turning in a comprehension document based on this experience. Teachers need to grab these kids and make them interact with each other. Save the reading stuff for homework. Re-enact the events in class and make the lessons tangent. Never let one moment of the learning experience be dull no matter what subject it based in. Pair them up so that they all get to know one another before the year is over. This could lessen the destructive Caste system most kids in schools suffer with. Learning should never feel like work. Everything I'm a pseudo expert in- is shit I wanted to learn, and none of it was enhanced by the Educational System we have in this country. We are de- socializing more and more each day.. It's becoming more and more of a Hidebehind and say whatever you feel. The only thing I loved to learn in school was in Art Class. Because it actually felt like learning and fun- working together.

  • Nov. 3, 2008, 9:13 a.m. CST

    Re: DOUBT

    by YND

    Saw DOUBT at the AFI on Thursday and am kind of baffled as to why they've asked reviewers to withhold comments. I'd heard it was due to the studio not being happy with the digital projection, but the presentation looked great. I'd never have known it was a digital projection if I hadn't been told beforehand. (I know they screened it simultaneously on 2 or 3 screens, so maybe the other venues had problems? But the theater I was in was golden.) Also, it certainly looked like a finished print to me. I don't think there's any more tweaking to be done. The president of Miramax intro'd the film and said it was "still kind of a work in progress... but not really... but kind of". Whatever that means. But then John Patrick Shanley got up and said he was excited because this would be his first time seeing "the finished version of the film". So... I dunno. Looked like a finished film to me.<p>It played great... fantastic performances by the entire cast (with Streep, Hoffman and Viola Davis getting the juiciest roles and knocking them out of the park)... Shanley's direction a LITTLE heavy-handed once in a while, but generally very good. I got to see the show on stage and I definitely felt that this was one of the stronger stage-to-screen adaptations I've seen. Maybe not a classic piece of cinema -- I think the piece is probably still best-suited for the stage -- but a strong, faithful representation of the material with terrific performances.

  • Nov. 3, 2008, 10:52 a.m. CST

    cantet as the renoir for post-capitalism...

    by duanejones

    ...i.e., creating compelling, compassionate narratives that explain "the rules of the game" for a new century whose new rules we're making up as we go along. i've heard dicey, "feelgood" criticisms thrown at _the class_ since it took top prize at cannes, but i'll wait to see it, knowing how good m. laurent has been to date.<P> man, i wish EVERY post on this site dealt with films this good on the regular. arthouse aicn, anyone?

  • Nov. 3, 2008, 2:01 p.m. CST

    TOKYO SONATA...

    by DHJeffries

    was my favourite film from TIFF this year. I haven't seen any of Kurosawa's earlier work, but I'm looking forward to diving into his back catalog, especially since it seems so eclectic. Any recommendations?

  • Nov. 5, 2008, 3:45 p.m. CST

    Stop Saying "Toshi"

    by heywood jablomie

    Just because you gave your kid a dumb name doesn't mean I want to read about it.