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« Cool Girls Don't Look at Explosions | Main | Top Ten Olivias »
Wednesday
Sep112013

Cinematic History Lessons Courtesy of Half Nelson

Back to School Month - Here's Andrew "Abstew" on Half Nelson

What is History?

 

These are the first words spoken by Ryan Gosling in his Oscar-nominated performance in the 2006 film, Half Nelson. (Sadly, his only Oscar-nominated performance to date. I was so blown away by his work in this movie that I thought, for sure, he would have received at least another nomination, if not a win, by now) Gosling plays a Brooklyn middle school teacher named Dan Dunne that happens to wrestle (see where that title comes from?!) with a drug problem. Throughout the course of the film, he's even discovered by one of his students (an excellent Shareeka Epps as Drey) in a girls' bathroom stall, smoking crack – moments after a basketball game he just happened to be coaching.

Dan's struggles with addiction, while striving to be a better person, are the focus of the film and give an added depth to the "Teacher as Savior" genre. But I recently rewatched the film, focusing only on the scenes in the classroom. [more...]

(This is a Back to School month, after all, and not Complex Characters of Addiction month. Although, if we were talking about both, nothing beats that episode of "Saved By the Bell" where Jessie does speed), I discovered how well the film would have worked as a traditional classroom-set movie as well. Hip, young teacher that doesn't play by the rules that somehow isn't full of clichés? What's not to love?

With that simple question addressed to the students, he opens up a dialogue with the classroom (and the moviegoing audience). History isn't just about dates and facts as Dunne says.

Hey, Girl. Ready for a date? No, not that kind...

I wanna know why. I wanna know consequences. I wanna know what it means."

And his unconventional approach ("Have you even opened the Civil Rights Binder?" questions the principal) teaches the students to think for themselves giving them the necessary tools to advance in higher education.

My favorite teaching tool that he uses is when a student insults another student. Instead of detention or getting sent to the principal's office, the person being insulted gives the insultor a date in History. They then must do an oral report on a significant cultural event that occurred on that date. Thus the "punishment" becomes an additional opportunity to learn more. And the four reports in the film (presented below) are not only connected by stories of oppression and hatred caused by differences, but all four have inspired other film makers to "teach" these stories through the classroom of the movie theater.

 * * *

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education, making it illegal for states to segregate public schools. This was a major step forward in the struggle for racial justice and helped begin a flurry of bold and heroic actions known as the Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights movement has been the subject of countless films and made-for-TV movies. Two of the most recent are Best Picture nominated The Help (in which the assassination of Civil Rights activist, Medgar Evers, adds a historical context to the story of maids in rural Mississippi) and Lee Daniels' The Butler in which the son of the titular butler finds himself involved in every historical aspect of the Civil Rights movement (seriously, how did he get around so much?). Both films were huge box office successes. It's hard to imagine that such laws were still in affect in this country as little as 60 years ago.

* * *

On September 13, 1971, 1,200 Attica State Prison inmates seized control of the prison and took hostages to negotiate changes to their inhumane conditions. Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered a military assault on the prison, which killed twenty-nine inmates and ten hostages—every one caused from police gunshots. An official commission later stated, with the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the police assault was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.

 Attica has become synonymous with anything related to police brutality thanks in large part to Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. After police begin to gather outside the bank he is robbing, Pacino's character begins to chant the prison's name, comparing the police presence to that of the jail riots. The incident would have been fresh in viewers minds as it only occurred 3 years earlier. The chant has been parodied in everything from Spongebob Squarepants to Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia. 

* * *


On November 1, 1977, Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He was the first openly gay person to ever be elected to public office. A year later, he was assassinated by another member of the City Council named Dan White. Dan White claimed that he shot Milk because he ate too much junk food that day. This would later be known as the Twinkie Defense. 

 Is that for real?

 

The assassination of Harvey Milk was the subject of not only the Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) but also Gus Van Sant's 2008 biopic Milk, that scored Sean Penn a Best Actor Oscar for his role as the politician and an Oscar for screenplay to openly gay writer, Dustin Lance Black. The film was nominated for 8 Oscar that year, including Best Picture. What I loved about the film is the use of real-life footage cut in with the Hollywood take on it. The scene at the end where the actual candlelight vigil is inserted along the staged version is especially powerful.

* * *

On September 11, 1973, the CIA helped overthrow and murder democratically elected Chilean president Salvador Allende. The military coup led to mass disappearances, assassinations and tortures of thousands of Chilean civilians under the leadership of U.S.-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said of Allende’s 1970 election, quote, “These issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to decide for themselves."

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the event that Drey reports on. Drey's defiant look into the camera is one of anger and disappointment. It seems she is angry at America for making such a decision at the time, in much the same way she is disappointed with Dan Dunne for not living up to her expectations. America, like Dunne, were infallible in her mind. But she soon discovers that her country, like her mentor, are capable of errors in judgement. Learning that lesson can be the hardest one of all.

The 1988 campaign to get Pinochet out of office through a democratic election is chronicled in last year's Chilean Oscar-nominated Foreign Language film, No. The film was shot on the same cameras used for television news in the 80s putting a unique spin on the historically-set film. Not that Dan Dunne is the type of teacher to show movies in the classroom, but part of me thinks he would have enjoyed showing No. 

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Reader Comments (17)

Great piece, thanks for writing it. I always think of Gosling's greatness and Oscar nom (HOW has he missed others) when I think of this, but the reminder about the little projects was great. I LOVED that moment when the guy says "Is that for real?" when I saw the movie.

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDanny Hall

Danny Hall: Drive was too hard, Lars and the Real Girl too weird and Blue Valentine far too raw (Michelle Williams was almost definitely their fifth place and probably neck and neck with Julianne Moore, after all, so what chance did the male lead have), but I'd hazard a guess that that "How to Catch a Monster" thing that he's writing, directing and producing could either be a masterpiece or a disaster. (The plot description is: A single mother enters into a dark lifestyle (could be stripper, could be assassin, could be something else entirely), while her son uncovers a road leading to an underwater utopia. With that plot description, the reviews would have to be...40% or lower on RT for me to dare skipping.)

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Loved this piece. I had totally forgotten about that Harvey Milk moment in HALF NELSON ("is this real?" -- a question that is filled with sanity.) and totally did not make the connection that this movie is now connected to the movie NO which is also so great.

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Fantastic film with a great performance by Gosling who was, until that point, known primarily as Sandra Bullock's pretty-boy beau. But...

Does Gosling really deserve another Oscar nom?

He's had good roles in Lars, Blue Valentine, Drive and Beyond the Pines this year. However, I personally wouldn't give any of them nods. And, among the other contenders those years, who would you jettison? I'm sure he'll win an Oscar eventually, but his screen persona is starting to get a little tired. He can only play the sullen, shiftless (and often shirtless) bad boy for so long.

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterW.J.

W.J: In 2010, it's a slightly tough toss-up between Jeff Bridges performance in True Grit that's on the level of only deserving a nom if he hadn't won yet and Bardem's turn in the relentlessly miserablist (Blue Valentine is only as raw as it is because it DOES have moments where you can hope this relationship will work out) Biutiful. I'd probably lean on the former as less worth it for them to have nominated. In 2011, the easier to pick odd man out (haven't seen Bichir's film) is George Clooney's mismatched and overly charming execution of Matt King (a part built (in a lot of ways) more for a squirrelly and nervous Buscemi than a confident, mostly in control Clooney) in The Descendants. As for 2007, I have to go with Viggo as the weakest, nominated to acknowledge a moment of directorial merit (the single take bathhouse scene) and to make up for not nominating his FAR better A History of Violence work.

Best that could have been hoped for Oscar 2007:

Daniel-Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood
George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd
Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl
Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah

My personal ballot for 2007:

Simon Pegg, Hot Fuzz
Javier Bardem, No Country (nominated in supporting)
Daniel-Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd

Best that could have been hoped for Oscar 2010:

Colin Firth, The King's Speech
Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
James Franco, 127 Hours

My Ballot for 2010:

Christian Bale, The Fighter (nominated in supporting)
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right (nominated in supporting)
Jim Carrey, I Love You Philip Morris
Ewan McGregor, I Love You Philip Morris

Best that could have been hoped for Oscar 2011:

Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Demian Bichir, A Better Life
Ryan Gosling, Drive
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Totally coldly inhuman and more lead through perspective (remember: All these flashbacks are being TOLD TO HIM), technically an unspoken part of 70-80% of the screen time, even if it's technically borderline on a literal screentime level.)
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

My Ballot for 2011:

Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Ryan Gosling, Drive
Brad Pitt, Moneyball
Bradley Cooper, Limitless
Steve Carell, Crazy Stupid Love

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Fantastic piece, Andrew. Makes me want to see this movie again.

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterErik

danny hall, nathaniel, and erik - thanks for the complements! i really appreciate them.

and erik, it's def worth another viewing. i remember loving gosling, but i had forgotten how good epps and the movie as a whole are.

nathaniel - i remember you being such a champion for NO last year/oscar time. finally caught up with it a month ago and loved it. glad i saw it on tv, as the choice to shoot it the way they did plays really well on the small screen

i feel like it's only a matter of time before gosling gets another nomination. true, his work after NELSON isn't exactly oscar-y, but he's still young and there's still time. although, oscar is a hard lady to pin down sometimes. i mean, who would have thought amy adams would have 4 noms?

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterabstew

Great post.

Gosling needs to get back to playing motor mouths. This is still his finest performance.

September 11, 2013 | Registered CommenterMichael C.

Well...I wasn't REALLY asking how he has missed; I think BV was too emotional and painful and LATRG a near-miss with Jones getting too many #1s. More importantly, though, this is an actually strong movie and not just a showcase for Gosling. I had forgotten the promise that Boden and Fleck showed. I'm with Erik, totally makes me want to see this movie again.

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDanny Hall

I really fell hard for Blue Valentine and was shocked that Williams got in but not Gosling. It's a two-hander that got recognized for half of its genius. You can't even use the excuse that the voters didn't see the film; they clearly did. They just chose not to vote en masse for Gosling's turn.

Gosling's not getting in until he does this level of work in a much more high profile film. Had Drive done well at the box office, he probably would have received a nomination. The Place Beyond the Pines is way too small to get traction. Gosling will probably make my own nominations for that performance but there is no way it's going anywhere with major awards.

As for Half Nelson, the school scenes are the part I liked. I thought the drug storyline was totally overplayed by Gosling and it really brought the film down for me.

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I would take Ryan Gosling's minimalist, but highly effective performance in Drive over George Clooney's average performance in the wretched Descendants (and I'm generally a fan of Clooney but I HATED that film and was baffled by the ecstatic reception). I think Gosling would have stood a better chance that year if he wasn't also competing against his other lead turn in The Ides of March (for which he received a Golden Globe nomination). Yet I still don't think he could have edged out those five guys (plus DiCaprio who was certainly running in 6th place and was bested by either Oldman or Bichir).

And he certainly deserved a nomination for Blue Valentine and possibly a win (he and MIchelle Williams have to be one of the most dynamic screen couples this decade, right?). I was not a fan of True Grit and believe that Jeff Bridges has done much, much stronger work so I would replace him with Gosling.

September 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

If Fassbender could not get nominated for Shame that year much less Michael Shannon for Take Shelter, I am not giving any thoughts to Gosling not getting nominated for Drive. It's too perfunctory. Look at Mads Mikelssen or Tom Hardy as NWR leads and then get back to me re: the adulation for that performance.

And nobody's beating Colin Firth that year, although Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network really deserved a shot. I'll also be honest in saying Michelle Williams being that movie's sole nomination is completely fine. Gosling doing a Derek Cianfrance impression the whole movie doesn't really move me either way. I think Wahlberg was running 6th that year. Frankly it is the right kind of subdued performance. I would've nominated it.

September 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

And the other possibly interesting detail is this...could Gosling's project ALSO secretly be the DC Cinematic Universe film for 2014? To me, it would make sense. 1. They have a "one of these a year" business model, even if that means they're lagging far behind. 2. Underwater utopia = Aquaman. I would love to see his introduction. Imagine this: Aquaman slowly rises out of the water, riding on something that looks green. And then, the more it rises up, you quickly realise that what he was riding was Cthulu. At that moment, ALL the pop culture jokes of Aquaman being "useless" fade in a single amazing image.

September 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Volvagia, as good as some of Gosling's performances have been, he's always #7, #8 or #9 on my personal ballots for those years. None of them have been in serious contention for Oscar nods and I've been happy with the "surprise" nominees who allegedly robbed him of a spot in those years (Jones, Bardem and Bichir)

For comparison's sake, here's what I recognized those years:

2007:
Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)
**Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises)
Ulrich Mühe (The Lives of Others)
Gordon Pinsent (Away from Her)

2010:
**Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
Hal Holbrook (That Evening Sun)
Teruyuki Kagawa (Tokyo Sonata)
Tahar Rahim (A Prophet)
Edgar Ramirez (Carlos)

2011:
Javier Bardem (Biutiful)
Robert De Niro (Stone)
Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Brad Pitt (Moneyball)
**Michael Shannon (Take Shelter)

September 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterW.J.

Spectacular post! It's been years since I've seen Half Nelson, but you've reminded me that it's time to re-watch this. Gosling and Epps both give tremendous performances, and I'm hoping to see more big things from Epps. I like what you've noted about teaching too, and how his method of punishment is more effective overall; didn't really think about that when I watched it, but you're absolutely right!

September 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

He was really the golden child. Then came Only God Forgives. The title may be too prophetic. Now, he's got to rebuild his rep. So the next one better be good. Hopefully, he'll reject signing on for The Notebook sequel: The IPad.

September 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I honestly found Gosling just miscast in OGF but also knowing that Luke Evans dropped out last-minute, the project just sounded like a favor to Refn. In the end, I wish Refn buzzed Oscar Isaac or some other character actor he had a history with. That kind of actor fits the role much better. Somebody who you notice in the deep focus shots, making the most of their screen time with every micro-expression. But I at least got to see him get beat up by a karaoke-singing policeman. It's the kind of pretentious, failed art movie that I like.

Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines just felt like a direction I could not abide. I find Cianfrance knowing the beats of melodrama and kitchen-sink realism but not knowing actually about filming it with any real sense of truth. I didn't any of the characters or grand gestures or motivations. People can say Gosling had the best part of the movie but really when he is anonymous and has that bike helmet on is he compelling. At least OGF had the built around pretense of working like a nightmare/fever-dream. The Place Beyond the Pines wanted to be something real, but then be a fable, or a Western, or some mythology story, or some melodrama. It could not decide, or it just wanted to be all things at once. I think Gosling has no idea what Refn really means or offers in his cinema but he gets Cianfrance and may just emulate him as a director. I find that worrying but I find the Cassavetes wannabes more annoying than the Ken Russell/Nic Roeg wannabes.

September 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

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