Half Nelson

The nominations:

  • Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

The Black-and-White:

(Review by GKS, 2007.02.20)

Since this film received only one nomination, I’ll keep this short. But let me say the following:

They wuz robbed!

This is an outstanding, wonderful movie. The screenplay is tight, engaging and interesting. Wait for it: the characters are actually sympathetic and they have a story arc, unlike just about every other nominated movie this year (see my rant about this here). Direction was grea, and the performances, oh my, the performers turned in a couple of performances for the ages. I mean: out-fracking-standing (pardon my Caprican).

For those of you who haven’t seen this movie (go see it!!!! It’s available on Netflix), here’s the synopsis from IMDB:

“Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is an eighth-grade history teacher in an inner-city school deep in the heart of Brooklyn. He eschews the provided curriculum in favor of off-the-cuff, but deeply heartfelt lectures about the importance of understanding history, rather than just memorizing it. He speaks primarily of dialectics, the tensions between two opposing forces. He is torn between his desire to change the world and his increasingly desperate realization that he can’t, at least not in the grand, awe-inspiring ways that he envisioned as an eager, idealistic college student. He started using drugs as a way to escape the pain of life, and it has turned into a crutch that bears increasingly heavy loads of psychological weight. In his classroom, which is populated almost entirely by black and Hispanic students, Dan lectures about how the world is structured into opposing forces, illustrating it at one point by arm-wrestling one of his students. His unorthodox approach inspires them during class, but interestingly enough we don’t see its effects outside the classroom. The film focuses on Dan and his relationship with Drey (Shareeka Epps), a 13-year-old student of his who catches him in the bathroom smoking crack after school one day. Drey understands Dan’s frustrations with life; she is the child of an overworked single mother whom she barely sees, and spending so much time on her own has made her self-reliant, but also hard on the edges.”

Should be a tough story, right? How much sympathy should we have for a drug-addict school teacher? Should we expect any levity in such a gritty story?

Turns out you can tell a story like this and actually do the following: entertain, amuse, go on a journey with the characters, be enlightened and give a crap on how it all turns out. Attention Hollywood: pay attention to this movie. This is a model for how stories like “Blood Diamond”, “Last King of Scotland”, “The Departed” should have been. Could have been. But weren’t.

Enough about plot. Here’s the real jewel of the whole thing: the performance by Ryan Gosling. Ohmigod he was fantastic. Watch him carefully and note how he uses his entire body to convey his character. His eyes are alive. His posture, his mannerisms, his thoughtful approach to his dialog. Compare that with, say, Mark Wahlberg in “The Departed” who spews profanities in a somewhat amusing, yet repetitive, robotic way, and you see the contrast. You see what it means to “act”.

I am reminded of a possibly urban legend story I heard involving Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier. When filming “Marathon Man”, Hoffman famously employed his method acting technique to torture himself so that he could display the appropriate amount of haggardness on film.

Olivier regarded him one day, and supposedly said, “My dear boy, why don’t you just act?”

I am conflicted over who should win the Best Actor Oscar. Peter O’Toole was fantastic. Forest Whitaker, the current frontrunner, was also very, very compelling, if not a bit monotonic. Gosling was complete and wonderful.

If any of these three win, I won’t complain (much). But in any case, watch Gosling — he has unlimited potential and I can’t wait to see him again.

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