Ballast on TCM

I’ve already raved about Lance Hammer’s Ballast, a raw, powerful film from the real American indie scene (the one without stars, budgets or studio backing), in my DVD columns on MSN and on my blog here. A more in-depth review is now up on the Turner Classic Movies website here.

Michael J. Smith Sr. in "Ballast"
Michael J. Smith Sr. in "Ballast"

Ballast, the debut feature by Lance Hammer, is the kind of American independent feature that is becoming increasingly rare, at least outside of the festival circuit. Grounded in a specific place (a small Mississippi Delta town) and centered around the kind of lives that are so rarely seen on screen, this intimate drama is the cinematic equivalent of a miniature, a piece carved out of the stories of three troubled and damaged souls and the culture and poverty of their world. But it’s a highly charged miniature, roiling with rage and regret and sadness and desperation, and Hammer refuses to spell anything out for us. He simply throws us into the middle of their lives and expects us to piece their stories together along the way.

Hammer is a former special effects artist and art director (his filmography includes two of the Batman sequels of the nineties) but the only special effects in this low budget, regional indie drama are the expressive qualities of natural light 35mm film, the lonely atmosphere of the spare locations on the Mississippi Delta and the painful honesty of his non-actor stars. His camera is intimate but restrained, bringing us past their defenses and into their faces and their eyes. He’s attuned to the sounds of their world and there’s no musical score to get between the audience and the beautifully orchestrated soundtrack; every sound that splits the silence becomes music in itself, where it’s the sound of rain spattering into puddles in the yard or the crunch of gravel under Lawrence’s heavy feet as he marches between the homes. You can almost feel the chill of the winter air, or the warmth from the kitchen stove as the adults try to figure out how to turn a small neighborhood store into a shared business.

Read the complete feature here.

DVDs for 11/10/09 – Going Up with Pixar and back to Earth with a little Ballast

The most tender, touching and deftly told love story of the year is in the opening few minutes of Up (Disney), a wordless survey of a lifelong romance that plays out between the meeting of two adventure-hungry children and the lonely sunset years of the widowed husband decades later, the happiness gone with the death of his wife. That’s just the prologue but it communicates the depth of emotion and devotion and need that will continue to reverberate behind the comic comments and outlandish fantasy adventure, a mix Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, the romance of explorers from thirties lore and Boy’s Own Adventures, the bubble-gum colors of a children’s picture book and a bouncy humor, all stirred with memories of childhood dreams.

A room with a view
A room with a view

I review the film, which is another wonder from Pixar (this one directed by Pete Docter, of Monsters, Inc. fame), in detail on my blog here. As for the DVD and Blu-ray release, it’s another excellent Disney disc with well-produced supplements designed to appeal to adults and children alike. There are two animated shorts—Partly Cloudy, which preceded the film in theaters, and Dug’s Special Mission, an affectionate Looney Tunes-esque piece featuring the affectionate and overexcited pup that slowly reveals itself as a prequel of sorts—and a real-life adventure featurette. “Adventure is Out There” follows the production crew’s own trip to South America and the real-life table-top mountains that will become the film’s destination, and it’s a wonderful trip for us. Like the travelers themselves, we marvel at how much the amazing and unreal the actual formations look, and that personal connection makes this documentary into a adventure of sorts for the filmmakers. There’s also commentary by director Pete Docter and co-director Bob Peterson and the featurette “The Many Endings of Muntz,” where the writers and creators discuss how and why they settled on the final exit for the film’s villain and reveal so much about the Pixar storytelling process along the way. There’s a reason they are best storytellers working in animation (and some might say all movies) today.

Continue reading “DVDs for 11/10/09 – Going Up with Pixar and back to Earth with a little Ballast”

New reviews: The Class, Three Monkeys, Ballast

The Class (dir: Laurent Cantet)

Laurent Cantet’s The Class is one of five films up for an Academy Award on Sunday and one of the best films of 2008. Shot like a documentary, structured like a dramatic slice of socio-cultural reality and performed with an authenticity that cuts deep into the fiction, it’s a remarkably observant, effective and affecting portrait of a single group of junior high students over the course of a year in a single classroom. It’s a fictional film based on the memoir of teacher (Francois Bégaudeau, who essentially plays himself in the film) and it has a lot to say, but more importantly it has a lot to observe. Set in one of the poorer arrondissements (or suburbs) of Paris with a vibrant cultural mix (kids of African, Middle-Eastern, Carribean and Asian ancestry, some immigrants, many first-generation French), the environment can seem alien and chaotic as we’re thrown into it. But it’s steeped in specificity, thanks to young actors who bring the weight of very different lives to each of the willful characters. Cantet and Bégaudeau worked with 13 and 14-year-old local students, non-actors all, to create the characters and the improvisational environment for the film. It makes its major points but lets the “reality” of its young characters define itself outside of the constructed events, even through the film never leaves the confines of the school. The complex and at times volatile dynamics of the classroom takes on a life all its own.

The classroom
The classroom

(T)his is not your classic tale of an inspiring teacher who wins the trust and respect of his triumphant class. The young cast, all nonactors who developed their characters with Cantet and Bégaudeau, brings the weight of full lives to each of the students.

Some of them take their street culture into the classroom and turn every interaction into a verbal confrontation, a matter of respect they demand without offering in return. The more articulate students make the case that French grammar and language skills have no relevance to their lives. They’re proud, frustrated, at times insolent and often playful. But they all have an integrity that burns with a conviction that can turn volatile.

I review the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

Three Monkeys (dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Thanks to the vagaries of film distribution and the increasing difficulties of small films and foreign language productions to get theatrical releases, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Turkish drama, which won the Best Director award at Cannes 2008, this one-week Seattle engagement at the Varsity Theatre is the film’s American theatrical debut.

It’s a a beautifully observed film about a family unraveling when the father takes the rap (and a nine-month prison term) for a hit-and-run by his boss, a politician running for election. The son drifts into gangs and the mom approaches the politician for money to buy a car for son, so he can get a delivery job and get off the streets. A lot of films would drift into familiar territory – the car gets wrecked or stolen, the boss (who loses the election) refuses to pay, the boy pulls the family into crime, something that would all spiral into tragedy. And spiral it does, but through bad decisions and worse communication between family members who pull into themselves. The dramatic events that would be the focus of most filmmakers – beginning with the hit-and-run that throws off the orbit of the central family – take place off-screen. At times they are just out of the frame. Ceylan is more interested in the reactions and the repercussions, the human story beyond the headline events. There’s a fourth presence in this family as well, seen in visions of a little boy who haunts them all with his absence.

Continue reading “New reviews: The Class, Three Monkeys, Ballast”