ELEPHANT (2003) / Drama

Running Length: 81 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for disturbing violent content, language, brief sexuality, and drug use – all involving teens.

Cast: John Robinson, Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, Matt Malloy, Timothy Robbins, Elias McConnell
Director: Gus Van Sant
Producers: Diane Keaton, JT LeRoy, Dany Wolf
Screenplay: Gus Van Sant

High school is hell and Elephant understands that, even up to the last couple of minutes. It encourages you to reminisce of your past high school days as the camera delicately weaves through the halls, observing students in their most natural state. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an involving film experience, but by the end, I was surprised how involved I actually was.

Warning: those looking for a plot will be disappointed. The Gus Van Sant of late is not a filmmaker whose work focuses on storytelling as much as it does general meaning. Most people mistake this for pretentiousness. Those same people are not interested by watching real life unfold. Understand that I’m not insulting those kinds of people. Van Sant’s films are not always exciting to watch, and I understand that, but you can’t deny the amount of finesse involved.

Elephant has characters and a setting, but it’s not until about an hour in that any sort of meaningful action happens. There is one student in particular that we are centered on named John (played by John Robinson), even though we don’t necessarily stay with him most of the time. John is the ideal high school student. Not ideal in the sense that he excels in his academics and maintains a regular social life, but ideal in the sense that he is confused, lost, and not sure of where he’s headed in life. This is the most accurate portrayal of a high school student I’ve ever seen in a movie, outdoing any previous attempts from filmmakers like Larry Clark and Richard Linklater, who have both tried but never succeeded quite as well as Van Sant has.

Where Van Sant derives his success from is the slow and deliberate pace he takes to show us all of the events leading up to the finale. I can already picture those of you who will be grinding your teeth in frustration at the ten minute tracking shots that circumnavigate the entire campus. Because of this, Elephant feels thirty minutes longer than it actually is, but in all of that time, it’s never boring. It’s almost captivating in a way, inviting us to watch as a normal day of high school happens.

It’s a watch that is well worth the while, if Van Sant’s style is a style that you are accustomed to. It will leave you stunned and deep in thought, pondering about your old high school days and things you did, good or bad.

Final rating: ★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

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IN THE COMPANY OF MEN (1997) / Comedy-Drama

Running Time: 97 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language and emotional abuse.

Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Matt Malloy, Stacey Edwards
Director: Neil LaBute
Producer: Mark Archer, Stephen Pevner
Screenplay: Neil LaBute

In the Company of Men is one of the funniest films I have ever seen. It also one of the darkest. What makes it such an interesting motion picture is the fact that it keeps such a consistently comedic tone whilst descending into areas so dark and depraved that you begin to get upset with yourself for laughing so hard. It is the kind of motion picture that begs to be talked about and encourages debate and public outcry. One of the more powerful films in recent years, In the Company of Men has an indefinitely lasting impact on its viewers.

Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy star as Chad and Howard, two workaday schlubs employed under the same company. They’re being temporarily moved to another office branch for a few weeks to oversee up-and-coming developments. One night at a bar, Chad expresses to Howard his frustration and bitterness towards the female race due to the fact that he’s had some bad break-ups. Howard’s recovering from a recent break-up as well and agrees, albeit with less enthusiasm. Their conversation about the matter continues along the same lines until Chad comes up with a game for the two of them to play while they’re away from company headquarters.

Within the first day at the new office, Chad finds the perfect girl: Christine, a young deaf woman who is so self-conscious about her hearing impairment that she wears headphones to make others think that she simply can’t hear them when they try to get her attention. She is cute, polite, and sensitive, and soon finds herself dating not only Chad, but Howard as well.

And who’s to blame her? Years without romance have left her feeling alone and unattractive. Now, all of a sudden, not one but two men are falling for her? The odds of something like that happening again are unlikely and, overwhelmed by the opportunity, she seizes it.

The game that Chad comes up with is not about points or rules but rather about who can hurt who the most. The objective is to single out the most insecure woman they can at their new place of work, date her for a while and build her up emotionally, then abruptly ditch her when their time to return home comes, leaving her lost, detached, and disconnected. There is no real ‘gain’ from this game other than feeling like they’ve done to someone what someone else has done to them.

Here the action becomes decidedly more excrutiating to watch. Chad is one of the most malefic kinds of people – sardonic, manipulative, callous, and emotionless. To call him the devil incarnate would serve as a compliment. He is as cruel as they come and takes his pleasure from the pain of others. Howard, on the other hand, is the weaker of the two and follows Chad simply because he guesses that he should. Both actors nail their roles, though Eckhart does the better job.

But while In the Company of Men is often humorous (and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments), it poses serious questions about the actions of others. It less entertaining than it is an experience, and by being overtly misogynistic, LaBute has gotten his message across. Next time, we may think twice about our actions before we do them.

What we have here is a rare kind of motion picture that relies solely upon dialogue to hold our attention. Technically, it is not remarkable, and LaBute’s direction consists of one static shot after another with an occasional pan. But it is his screenplay that involves us in the lives of these three people and it is his blatant honesty that engages to ask ourselves questions. In the Company of Men will outrage many who see it, but it shall never be forgotten.

Final rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

NARC (2002) / Crime-Drama

Running Length: 105 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for strong brutal violence, drug content, and pervasive language.

Cast: Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Chi McBride, Busta Rhymes, Stacey Farber, Lloyd Adams
Director: Joe Carnahan
Producers: Ray Liotta, Michelle Grace, Julius R. Nasso, Diane Naratoff
Screenplay: Joe Carnahan

Not only is Narc a riveting crime thriller, but it is also a fascinating character study. Its characters are mortal and flawed and their choices between morals are depicted not in black and white, but in gritty shades of gray.

The lead here is Jason Patric (Rush, Sleepers), who plays undercover narcotics agent Nick Tellis. The film opens with him in pursuit of a drug dealer. We follow along, the camera shaking vigorously as we do so. The chase ends in the death of the drug dealer, but in the process, Tellis accidentally fires at a pregnant mother, causing her to miscarry. Because of this, he is suspended from the force.

A year and a half later, Tellis is persuaded to come to the force to help in the investigation of the death of another undercover narcotics officer, Michael Calvess. He is promised a desk job if he can convict the killer. Tellis is paired with Calvess’ ex-partner, Henry Oak (Ray Liotta, Goodfellas), who has different reasons for going after the killer. Personal reasons.

Immediately, we connect with the Jason Patric character. Here is a man with past drug abuse, not to mention the case that he botched. He’s not as close to his wife and son as he’d like to be. Of course, this is routine for movies like this. There is always a misbegotten past that the lead character carries around with them like a ball and chain, and they experience the effects of their past every day. But it’s the way that Patric portrays Tellis so realistically that makes this such a tense watch. Up until those final moments, where I sat with bated breath, Patric convinced the hell out of me.

There is another great performance from a man that is not so great in many other movies, and that man is Ray Liotta. Here he plays the trigger-happy renegade cop who spends more than half of the movie foaming at the mouth, either hurling the “f” word twenty times a minute or standing in calm silence until he jumps upon a lowlife and beats the living hell from them. Now, this type of character is prevalent in many movies. There is many an actor that has played this kind of character before and none do it better than Liotta. (Yes, he’s even better than Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast.) From his laugh to his grin to his general demeanor, his portrayal of Henry Oak is incredibly convincing, captivating, and, at times, unsettling.

Joe Carnahan (whom I don’t find very admirable) does a great job with directing and guiding the actors into their places, even through all the financial strain that he, and the rest of the crew, endured while the film was in production. His camerawork is dark and gritty and incomprehensible half of the time, but it lends a feel of realism to the picture, and choppy editing increases disorientation during those rough chase sequences. (Those who are prone to motion-sickness might want to skip this one.)

For those people who grow tired of seeing the same police procedurals show up in the theaters every other month or so, I am on your side. Narc is not one of those movies.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest