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"Elephant"

Directed by Gus Van Sant.
Written by Gus Van Sant.
Starring Alex Frost and Eric Deulen. 
Release Year:  2003 
Review Date:  11/18/03 

Folks--

The people in my Sunday Night Film Club all wondered the same thing before seeing the new Gus Van Sant film “Elephant”:

“Justin, what are you doing here?  We thought you would never see a Gus Van Sant movie again!”

They were right—it was hard imagining me at a theater just months after seeing the worst film of this and many other years, “Gerry”, also directed by Van Sant.  But, I wanted to give the man a chance...besides, “Elephant” won the Palme D’or (Best Picture) at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, so it must be good for something.

And, Van Sant’s patient style from “Gerry” works in “Elephant” as it is used to set up an ill-fated day at an Oregon high school where about a dozen kids are followed around as they go about their business—going to class, talking to teachers, eating lunch in the school cafeteria, doing exercises during PE, and on and on.  Right around lunchtime, one of the kids is walking outside when Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) approach the school carrying an obscene number of camouflaged gym bags and are decked out in camo from head to toe...and, well, things get worse from there.

This is the first film I have seen since the Columbine shootings to really profile a situation like what happened during that fateful day a few years ago, and as such, “Elephant” is effective in taking you to a place that starts out so peaceful and turns violent in the blink of the eye.  We spend most of the first hour of “Elephant” just quietly following the students around and almost nothing out of the ordinary happens...it’s almost like Van Sant is trying to lull us to sleep as we get little snippets of each student from three different spins on the same chronology.  Elias (Elias McConnell) is working on his photography portfolio, so in his four or five scenes all we get are scenes of developing film, or taking pictures of random students, or saying hi to other students in the hall between classes.  We get to know him just enough to like him...and, when Alex and Eric enter the school, you know that Elias is going to get offed but how?  Will he have the chance to emotionally plead his case before taking a bullet?  Will he have the chance to take cover, or assist another dying student before getting killed himself?

Nope.  He just gets shot, and he’s just gone, and that’s just it, really...no music to accompany his death, no lingering camera shot of his dead body, no nothing.  He’s just dead, and I think that is what I remember most about the Columbine situation—it didn’t seem like the killers really took out kids that they didn’t like, or teachers that gave them failing grades (at least, those weren’t the ONLY targets).  They just shot anybody that happened to have the bad luck of eating lunch at the exact time that a kid with a TEC-9 was firing in the cafeteria.

The ending really leaves you with a sense of incompletion, but maybe that was the point; the other thing that annoyed me was that many of the non-actors in the film (all of the kids seem to be rookies at this film game) had a knack for looking directly into the camera, which is periodically a problem.  Otherwise, I thought “Elephant” was quite good.

Rating:  $9.50 Show

 

Comments?  Drop me a line at justin@bellviewmovies.com.

 

Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too bad...man, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/bellviewmovies.com except where noted
© 1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09