Postcard from Buenos Aires

Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps

Ryan Gosling stars as a teacher, and Shareeka Epps as his student, in Half Nelson. ThinkFilm hide caption

itoggle caption ThinkFilm

In our last post of the day, NPR film critic Bob Mondello checks in from Argentina and checks out the new genre-bending film, Half Nelson. Coming up, Monday David Folkenflik returns as the host of Mixed Signals.

Si, si... I know. You're sick of hearing about Buenos Aires' Buster Keaton Fest, and except for the Russian print of Nuestra Hospitalidad (Our Hospitality), for which they gave the projectionist a microphone and had her read the original title cards translated into Spanish, it has mostly been uneventful.

So I've been venturing elsewhere for entertainment, too, including the stage, where despite my limited Spanish, I've been able to catch an exquisitely produced version of Shakespeare's Rey Lear (punk hairstyles, futuristic sets and costumes, and all for just eight pesos, which is about $2.65), and a more expensive, and somewhat miscast La Duda (Doubt), where John Patrick Shanley's story of a priest accused of molesting a student benefits mightily from a real-life local court case that echoes its plotline.

Then, in a tiny upstairs cafe seating maybe 100 patrons, I caught 2do Piso Acensor (Second Story Elevator), a spoof of old-time burlesque that doesn't require much in the way of translation. Some of the jokes may have flown over my head, but the fun is almost entirely in a staging that has the show's three divas being played Dame Edna-style, with lip-synched songs and elaborately feathered gowns that wouldn't be at all out of place in a revival of the Ziegfeld Follies.

More expansive in its spoofery is the local, Spanish-language version of the Mel Brooks' musical Los Productores. It features Argentine comedians in the roles originated on Broadway by Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, and the climax is no less sardonic — or hilarious — when the dancing storm-troopers sing a little ditty called Primavera Para Hitler. Great fun.

So that's what's going on in crisp, wintry Buenos Aires. Happily, back in the U.S., where August heat is baking what's left of the summer blockbusters, there's a cool feat of acting to draw audiences into air-conditioned multiplexes in a few select cities. In Half Nelson, Dan's an idealistic teacher and Drey's a smart 13-year-old girl whose family has been torn apart by drugs.

Think you know where this is going? Well, think again. This breath-catchingly smart movie takes the Lean On Me/Dangerous Minds-style crusading teacher saga and turns it so inside out it very nearly creates a new genre. Rescues don't come more compromised than the one in this film. As played by Ryan Gosling in a performance that should catapult him to the front ranks of young Hollywood actors, Dan's the sort of ferociously creative teacher — Marx, basketball and dialectics for eighth graders — who might well make a difference in his kids' lives if he weren't himself a basket-case. Drey finds him plenty engaging in class, but her first real connection with him comes when she rouses him from a crack-induced stupor after a basketball game so he can drive her home.

There will, you gather, be a bit of a double edge to his subsequent efforts to be a white knight, protecting her from a charismatic young dealer (Anthony Mackie) who's helping support her family. Teenager Shareeka Epps makes an attention-getting debut as the wise-beyond-her-years Drey, and director Ryan Fleck, in his first feature, tackles contradictions of politics, history and race that would confound a social scientist with genuinely breathtaking results.

And now back to South America.

A young pregnant woman and her mother are stranded in a desert house that's slowly being buried by shifting sands in House of Sand, an intriguing Brazilian saga of aging and isolation. The woman wants desperately to get back to civilization after her half-crazed husband dies in 1910, but nature, human nature, and eventually even history intervene to complicate things. The northern coast of Brazil offers a gorgeous setting for an idyll that's anything but idyllic, and filmmaker Andrucha Waddington matches stunning visuals with enigmatic performances by using his two leading ladies to play their own mothers and daughters as the story spans several decades. Sands sifting through the hourglass are very much the point, and they're as implacable as the dunes that bury the house.

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