Saturday, May 19, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar and Dark Shadows

          Ruminations on Life After Life: Serious and Seriously Silly
                 Review by Ken Burke        Monsieur Lazhar
A heartbreaking story about a teacher immigrant into Canada who provides the comfort and hope his kids need but finds little for himself on a personal or professional basis.
                                                                                                   Dark Shadows
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are together again with their revival of an old TV vampire soap opera which probably tells you all you need to know regarding your interest level.
            Given what I’ve seen of the 2011 Best Foreign Language Film nominees—first Footnote (Joseph Cedar, Israel), now Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau, Canada)—and the deserving winner, A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran), if the other two—Bullhead (Michael R. Roskam, Belgium) and In Darkness (Agnieszka Holland, Poland)—are equally magnificent then there’s even more argument for the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences to retreat from their new “up to 10” nominees for overall Best Picture, returning to their many-decades standard of just the top 5 rather than diluting the pool for the main trophy when the contest should just be for true contenders from the Hollywood (and Hollywood-influenced) system.  (With the understanding that the Best Picture category was expanded a couple of years ago only to provide more options for audience-friendly moneymakers, such as the notoriously-overlooked The Dark Knight [Christopher Nolan, 2008], rather than just critic-friendly “tasteful accomplishments” in an effort to improve TV ratings for the awards broadcast; however, when that allows last year’s finalists to include The Help [Tate Taylor]—acting and adapted screenplay yes, overall film no—Midnight in Paris [Woody Allen]—original screenplay yes, overall film no [in my Top 10, admittedly, but at #9, not #’s1-5]—Moneyball [Bennett Miller] adapted screenplay [anyone who could turn that statistics-laden book in a reasonably-effective dramatic movie deserves a nomination] and “Let’s go A’s” yes [for local fans like me at least], overall film no—and War Horse [Steven Spielberg]—cinematography, art direction, sound yes, overall film no—then I think we should give more credence to what a true cluster of top-notch contestants looks like, as evidenced by this year’s fine collection of films from overseas and across the USA’s northern border.)  I found Monsieur Lazhar to be simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, demonstrating what can come of a simple premise treated respectfully and acted superbly.  That premise involves death and its impact on everyone in the film: the students, teachers, administrators, and parents connected to a Montréal elementary school where a teacher has horrified everyone by hanging herself in her classroom on a winter day when the children were at recess and new teacher Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) appears from nowhere as a needed refuge for the kids (sort of like Mary Poppins in a less whimsical setting) but battling his own death demons regarding the murder of his wife and children back in his home country of Algeria (although his grief only comes slowly to light for both the audience and the other characters in the story).

            This film slowly builds up to an emotional avalanche of feelings that overwhelm its viewers regarding all concerned in the narrative, but especially Lazhar and the two children most focused on, Simon (Émilien Néron) and Alice (Sophie Nélisse), who are the only students to have actually seen their former teacher, Martine Lachance, dangling from the ceiling as the other kids were whisked back out into their snowy schoolyard.  There’s plenty of remorse from all concerned at the school over the unexpected loss of a popular member of their community—as well as the remorse that Lazhar constantly grapples with in regard to the loss of his own children and wife as the result of political repression due to his wife’s defiant act of writing a book critical of the Algerian regime—but there’s also a lot of denial, guilt, and outright lying that isn’t helping anyone resolve their issues either.  The denial comes from the school staff and the parents who try to quickly move past the awful act of Ms. Lachance through surface solutions such as repainting the classroom a different color (the children have to stay in the haunted room because there’s no other option in their crowded school) and insisting that Lazhar not try to psychoanalyze their offspring (although his attempts to get the kids to express their buried emotions is a more positive response than the school’s assignment of 1 counselor to assist any of the many students in the class who even try to open up about their grief).  The guilt comes from both the principal and the other teachers who seemed to have no sense that Lachance was (literally) on her last legs, as well as from emotionally-fragile Simon who caused a ruckus for Lachance by resisting her attempt at a comforting hug, in violation of the school’s rigid “no physical contact with students” policy, leading to a reprimand for her, further trauma for Simon (who understands that he’s perceived as “crazy” by the other kids), and constant tensions with his on-again, off-again friend Alice who tries to goad him into admitting his contribution to Lachance’s suicide.  The lying, it turns out, comes from Lazhar himself, not to the Immigration Service where he’s desperately trying to gain asylum as a political refugee so that he won’t be sent back to certain death in Algeria but instead to the school that has offered him a chance at a new life as a teacher when that was actually his wife’s career while he ran a restaurant back home.  His subterfuge doesn’t help his case any when things go bad again at the school, but that’s not the direct reason for his dismissal.

            Instead, he is let go after his few months of bringing balance back into the lives of his students because he refused to follow the parents’ demands that he not encourage their children to voice their inner turmoil over Lachance’s tragic death (I should say “Martine” because that’s how her students refer to her—just as they eventually call him by the more familiar “Bachir,” another indication of how removed he is not only from his former desert environment but also from a more formal educational system where desks are put in rows instead of a semi-circle, dictation assignments from a writer such as Balzac and his “ancient” French are acceptable but not for his New World Québécois students, and a swat on the head to a smart-mouth kid is a standard form of classroom discipline unlike the “hands off” policy he must now adapt to).  In addition to allowing Alice to read an essay in which she turns her grief into anger toward Martine, calling her suicide a “violent” act which runs counter to school policy (Lazhar is also chastised by another teacher one day for allowing a group of boys to play a roughhouse round of “king of the hill” in the schoolyard), Bachir finally encourages Simon to voice his own deeply-held inner disturbance over his connection to the suicide and his desperate need for absolution, leading to parental complaints that result in both Lazhar’s immediate departure and the firing of the principal, Mme. Vaillancourt (Danielle Prouix), at term’s end.  Bachir pleads for one more day to bring closure to his departure unlike the sudden exit of Lachance; this allows him to read his own version of a class assignment, a fable with a moral.

            His simple but moving story (about a tree with a hanging chrysalis that is destroyed when fire occurs in just a part of the tree, leaving the charred host to tell future nesting birds about the sad loss of a life that would never blossom into its intended manifestation) is told in prose but has a poetic impact that seems to sum up all that’s come before in this tender, traumatic, terrific film.  Lazhar gets a chance for a private hug from Alice before final fade-out; the other students have come to embrace him as well (although not as literally; that “no touching” school policy works to keep everyone’s emotions disturbingly in check, despite its benign intentions), overcoming their initial resistance to his more stringent ways—in a manner less restrained than the school assembly celebration of Will Schuester as Teacher of the Year in this week’s episode of FOX TV’s “Glee” after his New Directions show choir (i.e. the glee club) finally triumphed at Nationals—but the acceptance of these younger children for the man who guided them through their hour of darkness was just as heartfelt, if not more so, because most of Schuester’s stars are headed into their newly-earned independence of young adulthood while Lazhar’s kids must continue to cope for the next few years with their ever-changing childhoods in the same haunted surroundings where their greatest emotional challenge occurred.  When we first meet this Algerian refugee he explains to the principal that his names in Arabic means “bearer of good news” and “lucky”; by the time we last see him we understand that these attributes may apply more appropriately to the students he’s “intruded” on, leaving them with a gift of reconciliation that their more formal school was not equipped to offer.  Whether he will ever be able to embrace his own healing is not a part of this story:  we (and he) were offered hope that some relief might be available from friendly fellow teacher Claire (Brigitte Poupart), but he resists to the point that even the lovely African violet that she gives him dies when winter turns to spring, indicating that at present his soul is just too barren to encourage life in anything except for the temporary connection to his students.  At least the facts of his family’s deaths lead to Bachir being granted political asylum so hopefully a stable life in Canada will eventually open up for him before he finds himself as lost as his predecessor at the school.  Fittingly, though, this film doesn’t attempt to provide answers to such questions, nor should it.  What happens next is for us to speculate on, not know with certainty.

            Monsieur Lazhar is subtle, sublime, and softly searing in its journey into the human experience.  If I have to choose between powerful expositions of the never-ending hurdle we know as “life” I’ll still say that A Separation probes even a little deeper, but spending time with either this Iranian gem or with Monsieur Lazhar will immeasurably enrich your life.  I sincerely hope you can see both, at least on DVD if not on a theatre's visually-embracing screen.

            Shifting to another take on death and its aftermath brings us to Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, his latest successful collaboration with Johnny Depp whose embrace of offbeat roles that would elude the talents of most other actors is showcased once again as the disturbed, displaced vampire, Barnabas Collins.  Beginning in 1750 (I think.  Anyway that’s what the official Warner Bros. website says below despite many information sites, including what Warners provided to IMDb, stating 1752 and my screening of the movie where I wrote down 1760, further proof that the Internet-driven world is moving too fast for me or anyone else to keep up with), we find the Collins family with young Barnabas moving from old England to New England to establish a fishing empire, along with a coastal town, Collinsport, to house their enterprise and a huge 200-room mansion, Collinwood Manor, to house the family on acres of hilltop property along with an ominously steep cliff that plays a key role at the movie’s beginning and end.  Alas for young adult Barnabas, even as he is enamored of the fair and pure Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote) he faces the jealousy of servant girl Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) who has charmed him with her lusty ways at times.  When Angelique is not Barnabas’ choice for a permanent mate, though, she uses charms of the witchy variety to not only kill Barnabas’ parents and compel Josette to hurl herself from the aforementioned cliff but also to turn Barnabas into a vampire when he desperately jumps to what was intended as his death as well.  Despite his fury at Angelique, for some reason Barnabas doesn’t take immediate revenge allowing her time to turn the typical pitchfork-and-torch brigade of townsfolk against the newly minted monster, resulting in Barnabas being chained in a coffin, then long buried and forgotten until he’s accidently stumbled upon in 1972, freeing the blood-hungry time-traveler only to find that his descendants have descended into near poverty, the mansion is largely closed off for lack of servants (resembling an abandoned Xanadu from Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941—see I told you in a previous review that I’d bring up this film every chance I get]), the family business is nearly defunct because of the corporate power of the newly-evolved Angel Bay Fishery, and—worst of all—Angel Bay is run by the never-aging Angelique who simply portrays her own imaginary ancestors, changing her name and having new portraits produced for each generation.  Is this any way for a lonely vampire to celebrate his homecoming?

Barnabas (Depp), Angelique (Green), and director Burton
            The one thing that Barnabas has to brighten the less-than-inspiring reunion with his relatives is that Josette seems to be reincarnated as the new governess for young David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), Victoria Winters (Heathcote again), so Barnabas has another chance with Josette (or at least some version of her, as close to the real thing as Victoria could be, beginning the film compelled to escape NYC and find her way to Collinwood) or so he thinks until Angelique comes roaring up in her sporty red Chevy, ready to see if Barnabas has softened his rejection of her passion for him after his 200 years of hibernation.  He does … and then he doesn’t, determined to overlook their one howling-horndog trashing of her office (Alice Cooper should be so good at destroying a room, but he does so later in his own way, performing as himself at the gala event Barnabas throws for Collinsport in an attempt to build better community relations for his forlorn, almost-forgotten family), re-establish the pre-eminence of the Collins fishery, and reignite his romance with Josette/Victoria, all of which is helped considerably by the stash of gold and jewels hidden in a vault beneath the main Collinwood fireplace.  From there the plot is mostly the ongoing clash between lovelorn vampire and jealous witch, which results in a lot of explosive action that demolishes all of the Collins properties (although the inhabitants get out alive), sees the ultimate demise of Angelique (thanks to the ghost of David’s mother, another victim of the witch’s vengeful crusade), and concludes with Victoria taking the high-cliff plunge followed by Barnabas who bites her on the way down so that they both survive as besotted bloodsuckers who will probably wing their way to a town with a video store so they can catch up on the Twilight series wearing Team Edward T-shirts (although the one vampire thing that Barnabas never does is turn into a bat so they may just have to hitch a ride with whoever made off with Angelique’s Chevy).

Depp (current film) and Frid (original TV series)
            When the original Dark Shadows ABC TV series was on (1966-71, with Jonathan Frid as Barnabas) I wasn’t watching weekday afternoon horror-soap operas, being rather occupied at the time attending the fabled University of Texas and spending my afternoons in art classes trying to figure out what the hell I was trying to paint (abstraction can be so confounding; if you get a chance to see a production of John Logan’s play Red, about the great Abstraction Expressionist Mark Rothko, I encourage you to do so because this work provides great insights into the demands and demons of the creative process), so nothing in this movie has any baggage for me in terms of expectations (although Depp says he was a big fan of the original so it’s a sweet victory for him to bring Barnabas back to life).  In looking over some commentary on what I missed in those long-ago years I see that the current plot is well vested in the original, although, obviously, trying to squeeze anything from the original 1,225 episodes into a standard 2-hour movie requires a lot of cherry-picking.  However, picking up in time roughly where the TV series concluded, 1972, provides a nice acknowledgement for the fervent fans of the previous incarnation and gives Burton and company some great opportunities for ersatz nostalgia regarding the clothes, accessories, and music of the day (with tunes like the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” and Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” being especially appropriate, and Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” just great to hear again)—along with Barnabas’ constant anachronistic problems with not understanding how much the world has changed during the two centuries he laid buried in his coffin, even mistaking the McDonald’s arches for the gateway to Hell, one of the least desirable product placements I’ve ever seen.

            Other delights of this movie include seeing familiar faces in some of the family and related roles—Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the current matriarch (just seeing her as anything is a treat for me; my wife, Nina, doesn’t mind this time around because she gets Depp, so no dirty looks across the armrest from either of us); Helena Bonham Carter (of course, it’s a Tim Burton film and he doesn’t want to leave his significant other home alone, but she’s worth casting even without nepotism) as Dr. Julia Hoffman, the Collins’ live-in psychiatrist (Huh?  Don’t ask; I didn’t bother to research that far); Chloë Grace Moretz (from Kick-Ass [Matthew Vaughn, 2010] and Hugo [Martin Scorsese, 2011]) as Elizabeth’s rebellious teen daughter, Caroline (with reason to be anti-social, as we eventually find out that she’s a werewolf; family reunions must be hilariously unpredictable at Collinwood); Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach in Watchmen [Zack Snyder, 2009], Freddy Krueger in the remade A Nightmare on Elm Street [Samuel Bayer, 2010]) as Willie Loomis, the caretaker; and Dracula icon Christopher Lee in the minor role of Silas Clarney, self-proclaimed “king of the fishermen”—and not quite as familiar but still marvelously effective Eva Green as Angelique, although she’s possibly memorable to some of you for Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005) and the James Bond reboot Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006).  Dark Shadows certainly isn’t the most effective Burton-Depp collaboration (for me that honor would have to go to either Ed Wood [1994] or Edward Scissorhands [1990] although there are plenty of other choices for those with different tastes), but it’s one that brings a lot of appreciative laughs from those of us not well versed in the original TV show and probably a lot of pleasantly resurrected memories for those who were fans of the source material.  

          Dark Shadows has none of the gravitas of Monsieur Lazhar, but that’s not its intention.  Anyone who’s eager to see Depp or any of the others noted above won’t find your time wasted, even if you’re not a vampire with all the time in the world to kill (so to speak).

            If you’d like to know more about Monsieur Lazhar here are some suggested links: (this is a short clip from the film)

            If you’d like to know more about Dark Shadows here are some suggested links: (a casual introduction to the characters with inset photos of the original TV cast)

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