Decayed urban school drama with some superb acting and questionable direction: “Detachment” (2011)

[Rating: 3.3/5]

Pros: acting

Cons: directing, editing

 

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Considering that British director Tony Kaye is best known for frequent and fierce clashes with Edward Norton during the shooting of  the 1998 “American History X” (for which Norton was nominated for an Oscar), it is surprising that Kaye could assemble the acting talent he did for “Detachment” (2011), starting with Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Marcia Gay Harden, and including tv stars Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, William Petersen, plus old-timers James Caan and Blythe Danner. The latter two are quite funny and I wish there was more of them in the movie. Cranston (only one of whose scenes survived cutting) has said that he and other actors thought that Kaye had botched execution of the terrific script that was written by ex-teacher Carl Lund. (“I felt that Carl Lund, the writer of Detachment, wrote a really beautiful, haunting script. And I didn’t feel that it was honored. I was upset with that. I really was.. And I’m not the only actor on that film to feel that way.” From http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/motion-captured/posts/ZZaxMQkjPLuKr8Ku.99.)

The very messy (think Terry Gilliam-messy) movie includes what could have been a very good movie about a school that is a dumping ground for difficult students and the burnt-out teachers (including the pill-popping Caan character, and Tim Blake Nelson playing a teacher who believes he is invisible) with Harden as the frustrated principle and Liu as the frustrated guidance counselor.

Brody plays Henry Barthes, a roving substitute teacher, hired to teach English for a month. Meredith (Betty Kaye; I don’t know if she is related to the director), an overweight, bullied, artsy female student develops a crush on him. Outside the school, he attempts to shelter and rehabilitate a teenage prostitute played by Sami Gayle. She is effective enough, but the whole good-hearted, tough-exterior prostitute and her savior is hopelessly clichéd and takes time away from the more interesting urban school movie.

Brody plays Henry Barthes, a roving substitute teacher, hired to teach English for a month. Meredith (Betty Kaye; I don’t know if she is related to the director), an overweight, bullied, artsy female student develops a crush on him. Outside the school, he attempts to shelter and rehabilitate a teenage prostitute played by Sami Gayle. She is effective enough, but the whole good-hearted, tough-exterior prostitute and her savior is hopelessly clichéd and takes time away from the more interesting urban school movie.

I hope the out-takes are preserved, though it is probably too much to hope that someone other than Tony Kaye might assemble the potentially great school movie I suspect that he shot and then subordinated to the teacher/teen prostitute movie. (BTW Brody’s Henry shows no erotic interest in either of the troubled teenagers who look to him to save them from despair. If his grandfather was a pedophile, Henry is not following that heritage.)

There are two bonus features with Kaye and Brody, copresent but not interacting (in a studio (5 minutes) and at the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival (3 minutes). Both include clips from the movie, so add little beyond the impression that the producer/star and director/cinematographer don’t like each other but are trying to promote the movie (which barely had a theatrical release and is being dropped from Netflix streaming in another week).

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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“On the Edge” (2006): another pressures-of-being-an-undercover-cop movie

Although he is highly regarded in Hong Kong as an actor (nominated for Hong Kong Film acting awards four times since 2007, winning Best Actor for “Ching yan” (2008)), Nick Cheung (Breaking News, Exiled) seems to me very inexpressive. As undercover policeman Harry Sin, Cheung is onscreen in every scene of “On the Edge” (I think the English title is more apt than the Cantonese one for the 2006 movie “Hak bak do,” which means “black and white route” for a movie about gray areas). I’m sure he does not smile. He looks anguished and depressed in every scene, both the present-day ones after he has engineered the arrest of charismatic triad (gang) leader “Don” (as in Mafia don) Dark (Francis Ng [The Mission, Infernal Affairs II, Exiled]) and in flashbacks to the four years in which he was Dark’s trusted lieutenant and was romancing a bar girl called “Cat” (Rain Li, who is also a cinematographer (she shot “Paranoid Park” ( for Gus Van Sant).

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There are quite a lot of movies from Hong Kong and elsewhere about the pressures of being an undercover park, most notably the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy that Martin Scorsese remade as “The Departed,” “Donnie Brasco,” etc. These generally show the policeman on the job, perceived by other policemen as well as by gang members as a gangster. With (often disorientingly unmarked) flashbacks, “On the Edge” is mostly about Harry Boy trying to function as a regular/open policeman after the big bust.

His former friends, not least his best one, Mini B (Derek Tsang), whom Dark set up in an ice cream parlor after Mini B lost the use of an arm in a fight with members of another gang, consider Harry a traitor to their benevolent leader (Dark). The policemen, not least the aged without promotion, violence-prone Officer Lung (Johnnie To regular Anthony Wong), who had roughed up Harry, not knowing he was a cop, distrust the de facto rookie with lots of gang associations and no friends on the force, having been put into undercover operations right out of the police academy.

Harry still has feelings for Cat, and she for him, though she is not going to marry and settle down: she enjoys her work as a bar girl. Nick has put out word to his followers not to take revenge on Harry. Nick has a measure of respect for Harry having outplayed him… and must be aware that Harry did not report some things to the police, not least the torture and killing of the man who incapacitated Mini B’s arm, but Harry cannot count on support or protection from either his fellow policemen or his former gang friends. He wants to be a good cop, and wanted that from the start of his long undercover assignment. In short, Harry has good reason to be on edge and depressed… so that what I think are Cheung’s limitations (affectlessness, unchanging dour look) fit with the part of the self-loathing character. (I can’t help noticing that Cheung is about ten years older than someone eight years out of the police academy, however.)

My favorite scene occurs early, as Dark has been surrounded by police cars with Harry having a gun to his head. Dark asks Harry how long he has been an undercover cop. “Eight years.” Then, “How long have you been working for me?” “Four years.” Then with mock relief that is at least partly genuine, Dark expressed relief that Harry did not sell him out (he says he’s glad that it was not underpaying Harry that led to his arrest) but was a crime fighter, however covert, before they met. (In a way, as the chases bookend the movie, the scene in which Lung talks to Harry in the end in some ways complements the one with Dark from the start.)

That exchange followed an elaborate car chase, and there is another one near the end, and some fight scenes in between, though most of the confrontations in the movie are not brawls.

It seems to me that, though the only directing credit of the movie is to him, Herman Wau (Untold Story, Ip Man: The Legend Is Born) did not direct the interesting script he cowrote with the panache of Johnnie To. There are no bravura tracking sequences, nor are the images shot by Pucinni Yu (Taxi Hunter) distinguished.

I think the movie coulda and shoulda been better, but the supporting cast, especially Wong and Ng, lift it above the average gangster/triad genre movie.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray