Review- Monsieur Lazhar

As I’ve discussed on a couple of occasions is that we have a pre-life with Monsieur Lazhar there were a few things I knew about it. I first heard of it on its road to the Oscars as Canada’s entry into the foreign language film race and its eventual nomination. Based on its premise I knew it was something that would interest me. Later on came pieces about director Phillipe Faladreau and working with a young cast and in one of them came the revelation that the screenplay was extrapolated from a one-character play, I knew it was a must-see for me.

What makes this film the most interesting is the way that it cuts and structures itself. We follow these characters coming into a difficult situation throughout the course of much of a school year. The film accomplishes this by not letting scenes run too long and giving us small but sufficient glimpses into the day-to-day interactions he has with his students.

This approach benefits the film in so many ways: it allows the children’s characters to slowly build such that we get a sense not only who the two main kids, who are the fulcrums of the drama in this tale, who grieve most for the lost of their former teacher at her own hand, for very different reasons; but also several other children in the class. The fact that there aren’t long, revelatory dialogue scenes means the physicality these children display has to be exceptional. We have to read their emotions on their face rather than getting overly overt indicators from their words and we do see that.

Yet in the development of Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) this structure is also beneficial. One of the most fascinating things about the film is that you see a character operating in a two different arenas: his personal and private lives. Never the tween shall meet but they are of equal importance. It’s truly a tremendously ingenious approach.

Perhaps what is most brilliant about the film is the way in which fables, and the writing thereof, become integral in the film toward the end but also the film plays as one. The school the film is set in is deeply wounded by this inexplicable and shocking suicide and in comes this mysterious stranger, like a benevolent pied piper to heal them all.

The genesis of this film was a one-character play so clearly finding that character for your film will be incredibly important, that is the directorial and performance challenge of the film, whereas the screenwriting challenge is expanding that world outward. Fellag is absolutely perfect in this film. He truly plays the film with incredible adroitness. Having an actor’s face be new to you can be refreshing for the viewer, however, the performance in is regard is truly all there. He carries himself as a set in his ways, firm but fair, affable teacher- the kind that if we had one we were lucky- throughout the classroom scenes in spite of inherent early nervousness.

Yet what is in many ways a schoolroom drama cannot be complete without the children being equal to the task, for as characters they are certainly not secondary or afterthoughts, and their performances rise to the challenge. First, there’s Sophie Nélisse who carries herself with the grace and poise of veteran who has charms and inherent talent in abundance. I haven’t seen the likes of her since Anna Chlumsky burst on to the scene in My Girl. For those of you scoring at home, that was 21 years ago. Émilien Néron has no easy task himself. He is a simmering cauldron waiting to boil over through a majority of the film. He has a huge revelatory scene, and as I mentioned before physicality matters and his revelations color all those scenes differently in hindsight. However, it’s also a scene that’s emotionally draining one that absolutely has to be nailed and it is. Going down the line you also have mostly humorous turns from Seddik Benslimane, who speaking Arabic himself has his own inside jokes with Monsieur Lazhar (And I love how they weren’t translated) and Vincent Millard. There’s also Marie-Ève Beauregard playing the role of a stickler to a tee. It’s practically the epitome of a youth ensemble as quite a few of the other students have their own moments.

Monsieur Lazhar not only gets you to invest in the lives of this teacher and his student but it incrementally builds and pushes your buttons at the right time. Its ending is absolutely perfect, which is a big deal to me but the journey was very enjoyable as well. It is a moving and affecting film that will surely win admirers for years to come.

9/10

Review- Bad Teacher

Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher (Columbia Pictures)

Bad Teacher is a weird little film. The further removed I’ve gotten from seeing it the less I’ve liked it though there are definitely issues I had with it right from the start. If anything that just goes to show you how disposable it is. While it takes a few pot shots at education that anyone who reads on occasion can take it doesn’t go there enough to be considered a satire and what it does decide to do is not well-executed enough to be memorable.

The level of funniness in a comedy is the ultimate barometer. This film did have me laughing consistently throughout but as opposed to something like Bridesmaids where my two friends and I each had favorite scenes nothing stands out tremendously. Aside from that a truly successful comedy is a rather mindless affair on its first viewing if you’re thinking about the plot or consequences of things the film is usually in trouble and that’s what happened here.

When the filmmakers decided to call this film Bad Teacher they weren’t kidding. The problem is she’s not just comedically inept at her profession she’s criminally inept at it that and she’s so inept that even if at the worst school it’s hard to believe she’d get away with these kinds of transgressions for that long.

The phrase minimal attempt can be applied to this film on more than one occasion. Firstly, there is a minimal attempt made by the Bad Teacher to fly right and get these kids to actually learn in pursuit of her goal: breast implants. Then there’s also a minimal attempt to establish her character aside from her suckishness at her job. Her marriage ends because she is a suspected gold-digger and nothing is done to dissuade us.

While she talks about getting into teaching for the wrong reasons perhaps that backstory should’ve been shown not said as well.

Now for the Tits McGuffin. It’s one of the longest McGuffin’s I could remember and while it makes perfect sense why she makes the decision she does I’d liked to have seen that decision not just the evidence. Furthermore her change in vocation is something I like but while it’s conveyed visually perhaps it could be set up with a short conversation with the principal.

The pace of the film overall is quick, however, some parts seem glossed over that shouldn’t and others that need expanding remain thin.

Fair warning that there is a good deal of impunity in this film and that’s something moralistically that you have to sort out on your own. However, one thing I will say is that this is the kind of film that maybe would benefit from a more modernistic approach to comedy with a bit more character-building. However, it is funny enough for me to pass it with a marginal grade of…

6/10

Mini-Review- The Academy Award Nominated Short Films, Live Action

This past weekend there was a screening of the live action short films that are nominated for an Academy Award. I have decided that since overall the category is so strong that I would include a still image from each. These are films that deserve to get their recognition beyond just the five minutes of the Oscar broadcast that they occupy. So these screenings arranged by Shorts International and the theatres that screen them are to be commended. They are a bit long but there has to be some way to include the documentary shorts in a broader way next year, here’s hoping.

As for the films like I said I was resoundingly impressed with the strength of the field but I most definitely have a favorite.

The Confession

Lewis Howlett in The Confession (National Film and Television School)

And here it is. It is so shockingly rare to see a short film that is so layered and plays on so many levels as this one does. There are moments of genuine comedy, horror and drama in this film. It is a beautifully shot and composed film that shows the tragic consequences of the combination of real guilt and “Catholic guilt.” It’s a film I’m not ashamed to say brought me to tears at the end which is a feat that’s unprecedented in my limited experience with shorts.

Wish 143

Oliver Arundale and Dolya Gavanski in Wish 143

What Wish 143 does well is to create a serio-comic tale. It is not a greatly nuanced tale but it works. How well it works is where most of the interpretation comes into play. As I watched it the thought occurred to to me that this is what Holden Caulfield would be like if he was a cancer patient. Specifically, I recall the scene where he hires a prostitute and all he really wants is company. That’s a bit of an oversimplification but gives you the gist of this tale as it is centered around a young man seeking to lose his virginity in the time he has left.

Na Wewe

Floris Kubwimana in Na Wewe (A PRIVATE VIEW)

This a simple tale that subtly demonstrates the stupidity of genocidal tendencies. It concerns a bus traveling through Burundi in 1994 at a time where the Hutus and Tutsis were at war. The passengers are all taken off and then questioned regarding their background. There are a few great twists and good jokes in the tale as well as moments of drama. Furthermore a pretty good original (to me anyway) song to end it and underscore the message of the film.

The Crush

Olga Wehrly and Oran Creagh in The Crush (2010)

This is a pretty funny, dramatically well-executed and honest portrayal of a boy’s crush on his teacher. It’s deceptively simple as it does have a few surprises in store. It can be easily be described as the most charming and charmingly told of the short film nominees and it also deals with a universally relatable concept, most of us have has a teacher who fits this mold and it’s not only a wish-fulfillment tale but also concludes rather logically.

God of Love

Tim Matheny and Christopher Hirsh in God of Love (2010)

The funniest of the nominees, this is the fantastical tale of a modern-day cupid. It’s told in such a way, however, that it reminds you both a little of Magical Realism but also of the Early-Career whimsy of Woody Allen such that it is also a very entertaining entry.

In conclusion, I would not be disappointed in any of these films being given the Oscar but I do think that The Confession is the most special film of the group.