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Screenwriter and director Ryan Fleck expanded his award-winning short film--Gowanus, Brooklyn-- into the 2007 feature-length drama, Half-Nelson. The central character of the film is Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) an eighth-grade history teacher struggling to make the subject relevant to his students at a troubled school in the heart of poverty-stricken, crime-ridden Brooklyn. His creativity in the classroom and his commitment to the students, predominately African-American and Latino teens, is real, without pretense or condescension. Rather than relying on canned curricula and traditional methodologies such as recounting battles and memorizing dates, he tries to inspire his students with the ideology of Karl Marx, the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the film footage of Mario Savio, student leader of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s.
However, Dan's idealism and energy begin to wane, and he easily justifies anesthetizing himself in order to escape his growing recognition that he will likely make little or no difference in the world. As his drug use intensifies, Dan's connections with friends, family, colleagues, and eventually, students completely unravel. But his downward spiral into addiction is intertwined with and counterpointed by a complex and subtle relationship that develops between him and thirteen-year old, Drey (Shareeka Epps) when she discovers her teacher, Mr. Dunne, slumped nearly unconscious in the bathroom stall of the school gym, a crack pipe still in his hand.
After reading Tad Friend's article, "Jumpers: The Fatal Grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge" in an October 2003 issue of The New Yorker, filmmaker Eric Steel became so fascinated by the mystery of the final, dark moments of a human being who makes the long journey across the bridge to his or her death that he finagled $100,000 worth of equipment and moved from New York to San Francisco. At 5:00 AM on a rainy New Year's Day in 2004, Steel and his ragtag crew set up their cameras, beginning a strange year-long vigil. Training telephoto lenses on the mid-span of the bridge, they peered intently from dawn to dusk, watching for "suspicious behavior" or a "sense of despair" among the crowds passing back and forth. During that year of filming, twenty-two people ended their lives, some caught on tape and some not; however, six attempts were thwarted by the film crew who became quite adept at indentifying potential victims and alerting the Bridge Patrol.
Photographed from multiple perspectives, at all times of day, and in all kinds of weather, the Golden Gate Bridge is the main character of this documentary film. It is formidable; it is magnificent; it is ominous; it is alluring. According to the film: "More people have chosen to end their lives [here] than anywhere else in the world." The sublime images not only capture the many facets and features of the structure, but they also illustrate the emotions and represent the psychology of the other narratives intertwined in the film: the stories of seven individuals who jumped from the bridge during the course of that year.
There is thirty-four year-old Gene, a haunting figure dressed all in black whose story begins and ends the documentary. Like the film crew, we watch him prowl the bridge day after day, his long dark hair whipping in the wind until he makes that final leap, a dramatic backward dive. There is forty-four year-old Lisa, who has suffered throughout her adult life with schizophrenia and who disappears off the bridge on Easter Sunday afternoon. And there is twenty-two year-old Philip whose parents relate the history of their son's struggle with mental illness.
In addition to using footage of the bridge being obscured by fog as an evocative image of the progressive suffocation of self, the filmmaker employs long shots of the island of Alcatraz to symbolize the prison of mental illness. Indeed, Philip's father describes his son's leap from the bridge as a release, "the only way he could get free."
This is the story of an adult brother and sister whose lives are indelibly marked by the deaths of their parents, killed in a car accident when the children were young. Set in the small town in upstate NewYork where they grew up, the film centers on a visit by Terry (Mark Ruffalo) to his older sister Sammy (Laura Linney). Portraying the vicissitudes of their relationship, the film traces the effects of loss on these two compelling individuals.
The film opens uncoyly with the scene of the parents' fatal car accident. Beneath the credits we watch the church-funeral, the two small children clutching hands while a Minister addresses the assembled.
When the story picks up, we are introduced to the lives of the now adult siblings. Sammy is still living in their parents' home, working in a local bank branch office and raising her son Rudy, a somber eight-year old who is becoming curious about his estranged father. Rudy, at eight, is the age Terry was when their parents died. Sammy is a reliable, loving mom, but otherwise her life appears constricted.
We find Terry, the younger brother who is now twenty-five years old, saying goodbye to a much younger girlfriend; he is leaving to borrow some money from his sister, whom he hasn't seen in two years. Terry, endearing but irresponsible, is leading a marginal existence, broke and unemployed, no fixed address.
A long restaurant reunion scene between the siblings reveals the texture of their relationship. We see that Sammy adores and worries about Terry; he is the light of her life. Terry conveys restless discomfort with his sister's expectations, experiencing her concern for him as a burden. He reveals that he has been out of touch because he was in prison for a while, and that he needs to borrow money to pay for a girl's abortion.
After learning that his girlfriend has attempted suicide, Terry sends her the money and decides to stay with Sammy for a while. In small increments, Terry and his nephew Rudy warm up to one another. Meanwhile Sammy's life takes an unexpected turn as she begins an affair with her controlling, married boss (Matthew Broderick); this begins just after an old flame of hers resurfaces with a marriage proposal. Neither relationship provides her much nourishment. Without easy answers, the film helps us connect the dots between Sammy's unsatisfying relationships with men and her adaptation to loss and to becoming the caretaking elder sibling.
Terry's visit goes wrong when, after a series of small irresponsible dealings with Rudy, Terry takes it upon himself to introduce the child to his estranged father, resulting in an ugly scene. Sammy, distraught, asks her brother to leave, as he "doesn't know how to be around an eight year old." The film ends with their farewell as they wait for Terry's bus out of town. Terry doesn't know where he is heading or when he'll be back. The scene presents a remarkable exchange of feelings as Terry comforts Sammy, telling her it's always good to know that she "is back here rooting" for him, and assuring her that "everything will be all right -comparatively." Sammy cannot draw him into her world or her life, and every parting with him feels permanent. They find their childhood connection in this scene--and the camera follows each of them for several beats after they separate, Terry on the bus and then Sammy driving to work. We feel them slowly absorbing the violence of severing--going back into themselves. Have they affirmed that in fact they can count on one another or reminded themselves (and us) that nothing can be counted on?
A surprise element in the movie is the character of Father Ron, a Minister played by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan. Sammy turns to the minister for guidance, seeking advice about her brother. In two surprising scenes, Father Ron injects into the narrative a sweetly earnest note regarding faith and finding meaning in our lives.
As the film opens, Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is exuberantly preparing to leave his run-down Texas hometown to head for New York City. He has outfitted himself as a spiffy cowboy, intending to "hustle" wealthy New York women who will beg for his sexual favors, and pay him in the bargain. As he interacts with the bus passengers during the long journey to the Big City, we see that underneath the bravado, Joe is anxious for friendship and haunted by memories of a lonely childhood. Abandoned by his mother (a father is never in the picture), Joe was raised by his grandmother, who spoiled him, yet neglected him, and whose assorted boyfriends competed with him for her attention.
In New York, Joe is naive and out of place. His attempts to hustle women are rebuffed or backfire ludicrously--he ends up paying them. In a Times Square bar, he runs into a crippled con-man, "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), who offers to be his "manager" but steals his money in a scam. As his funds run out, Joe resorts to selling himself in a homosexual encounter; even this backfires--he picks up a student who has no money.
As Joe is becoming quite desperate--homeless, with only his portable radio for company--he runs into Ratso again. Partly to make amends, and partly out of his own loneliness, Ratso invites Joe to his "home," a room in an abandoned building, without electricity or heat. Warily at first, and then with increasing mutual respect, the two set up housekeeping. Theirs is a daily struggle for survival--petty thievery, selling blood, and fantasies of a gigolo's life in warm Miami sustain them.
In the heatless apartment Ratso's health deteriorates--he has a chronic cough, smokes constantly, and the weather is frigid. Underground movie-makers choose them as street curiosities for the camera, inviting them to an avant-garde party replete with food, drugs, and a rich woman (Brenda Vacarro), who takes Joe into her bed and pays him for it, arranging another "transaction" later in the week for a woman friend.
Joe thinks he has finally made it. Ratso, however, has a high fever, can no longer walk, and refuses medical attention. Joe makes the choice: he assaults and steals for the busfare to take Ratso to Miami. During the trip Joe tells Ratso, "I'm going to get some sort of job--outdoor work--I'm no hustler." But Ratso, seated next to him, has died. Joe puts his arm around the dead man, protecting him from the curious stares of the other passengers.
Summary:The film opens with the discovery of Dr. Victor Frankenstein's will in his Transylvanian village. A skeleton, presumably Dr. Frankenstein's, and a man wrestle for the box holding the will. The man wins, takes it to a town meeting where the will is read and calls for the transfer of the property to the dead scientist's grandson, Frederick. Following this scene we meet the grandson, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), a surgeon who is busy instructing medical students in clinical neuroanatomy (comparing the brain to a cauliflower). When asked about his grandfather by a medical student, Freddy, who pronounces the family name "Fron kon steen", declares that Victor was "a cuckoo". The student is relentless in pursuing the family ties, exasperating Freddy, who finally plunges a scalpel into his thigh, a sight gag paying homage to Peter Sellers' stabbing himself with a letter opener in A Shot in the Dark (1964). When the courier from Transylvania arrives, he persuades Freddy to return to his ancestral castle for the execution of the will. A hilarious railroad platform scene in which Freddy bids goodbye to his "beautiful, flat-chested" (as described in the online original etext of the script by Gene Wilder) fiancée, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), only highlights the incredibly neurotic natures of the two lovers -- Wilder as a possessed but wacky scientist and Kahn as a narcissistic and apparently remote and shallow woman.
Summary:Based on the memoir by British writer Blake Morrison, who is played in the film by Colin Firth, the story unfolds through Blake's eyes. Blake's father Arthur (Jim Broadbent) is rapidly dying of cancer, cared for at home by Blake's mother, Kim (Juliet Stevenson). Blake's parents are both physicians. Blake is extremely ambivalent toward his father and reluctantly goes back to his childhood home to visit the dying man. As his father lies dying Blake hashes out within himself his conflicted feelings toward his father -- long-standing anger, contempt, guilt, occasional grudging admiration. The film flashes back and forth between the present and Blake's memories of the past.
Summary:Julian Schnabel’s film version of Jean-Dominque Bauby’s memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (see annotation), is a re-imagining of the book that offers new approaches to teaching, even while it misses some of the aspects of the book that are so critical to educating medical and nursing students about the experiences of patients. Like Bauby’s book, Schnabel’s movie tells the story of a high-level editor at French Elle who has a stroke and is paralyzed except for the ability to blink one eye and to move his head slightly. Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) awakens from a coma to find himself in a hospital and unable to move or, at least at first, to communicate.
Summary:"Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople. Another two or three dozen I take to the crematory to be burned.... I sell caskets, burial vaults, and urns for the ashes.... I am the only undertaker in this town." The speaker is Thomas Lynch, a poet, writer and funeral director in Milford, a small town in central Michigan, where he and his family have cared for the dead and the living for three generations. The words are the introduction to a documentary film which was written, produced and directed by Miri Navansky and Karen O'Connor for PBS Frontline and which is a visual, aural and dramatic companion to Lynch's award-winning collection of essays, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (see this database).
James Coburn turns in a startling comic performance as a psychiatrist with a Cheshire Cat grin, called upon to provide a listening ear to the President. Somewhat flattered to get the job, he accepts, and soon becomes caught up in intrigues as all the other major players in the Cold War want to capture the man who knows the President's secrets.
Summary:Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) lives in the Sun City retirement community in Arizona with Doris, his companion of 20 years. When Doris dies, her children sell their home and Lenny's son and daughter, both in their late 30's, become responsible for his care. Wendy (Laura Linney) is a playwright in New York City. Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater professor in Buffalo. Niether has seen Lenny for many years. He had been an abusive and violent father. The mother is absent, apparently having abandoned the family when the children were young. Both Wendy and Jon seem lost. Wendy is having an unsatisfying affair with a married man and Jon's partner, Kasia, is about to return to Poland because her visa has expired and he is not ready to marry her. Reaquainting themselves with their father forces them to confront the danger of letting unhappy childhood haunt them, and makes them recognize their difficulties being adult (they have Peter Pan names).