Category: 1996


Before some dumb-ass feels the need to inform me, I’m already wear that Makaveli is Tupac’s stage name. Hence the picture of Tupac Shakur above these very words. Anyways back to the post. As I’ve mentioned on here a couple of times, I had African-American foster siblings growing up. And every night before we went to bed, my brother Darryl would play his 2Pac records as well as his Bone Thugz N Harmony cds. I probably rebelled against his taste in hip-hop at the time, but it had an indelible effect on my taste in music for the rest of my life, and to this day, you can play any classic Bone Thugz or 2Pac and it will transport me back to being a little kid learning about music that I would have never heard (at least until I was older) if he my foster siblings hadn’t come into my life. One of the 2Pac records my brother had was The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory which was 2Pac’s first posthumous record (of several) and it was released under his stage name Makaveli. It’s one of Pac’s darkest records, and I love it. Every time I hear “Hail Mary,” or today’s Song of the Day, “To Live and Die in L.A.,” I get excited and want to party. Usually, I believe East Coast is a lot better than West Coast for hip-hop (and honestly most music) but Tupac is the exception to that rule .

Advertisements

I’m not sure if I can think of a more inappropriate film poster than the one I have above. If you look at that picture, you might think that 1996 British indie dramedy Brassed Off was a light-hearted romantic comedy that peripherally featured music. In fact, the film is a fairly serious and tragic political drama with a peripheral romance, occasional pitch-black comedy, and a harsh subversion of your typical underdog story. It’s been a while since there’s been a movie I wanted to watch so little based on its plot description on Netlflix that I ultimately ended up enjoying so much. As a scathing indictment of the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher and her Tory Parliament in the 1980s (along with John Major in the 90s before Blair and Labour regained control), Brassed Off is one of the most heart-breaking examinations of the destruction of the working class this side of Season 2 of The Wire.

Loosely based on a true story, Brassed Off takes place in the small, fictional mining community of Grimley in South Yorkshire. The local coal mine (or colliery as it’s referred to in England) is under immense pressure from the Tory (or Conservative) government to accept a redudancy offer which is a one time payment in exchange for shutting the mine down. With the threat of immediate unemployment hanging over the town’s head, the town’s only source of pleasure and pride is the Grimley Colliery Brass Band led by by the passionate and demanding Danny (The Usual Suspect‘s Pete Postlethwaite). Along with Danny’s son Phil (Stephen Tompkinson) and his star player Andy (Ewan McGregor), the Brass Band tries to win a national championship and their chances go up with the arrival of the beautiful and talented Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald) but her association with management in British Coal threatens to tear the group apart.

It’s really hard to undersell just how dark this film can be. Yes, the core of the plot is a story of a scrappy brass band trying to win a national championship while two members form a burgeoning (and taboo) romance, but at the end of the day, Brassed Off is about the systematic destruction of the working class that’s been seen all over the industrialized world these last twenty years. This is a film about the consequences of ravaging workers’ rights to collectively bargain (as seen by the complete lack of efficiency the labour union has in defending its workers). It’s about how not being able to provide for your family even when you work yourself to the bones destroys a man’s soul. It’s about how steady jobs are a source of communal identity and by taking those things away, you kill what makes communities great. No wonder the film was marketed differently in the states.

It is a heart-breaking film to the point that I cried on multiple occasions. Families dissolve because they don’t have enough money to stay together and loan sharks repossess their already meager belongings. Wives don’t speak to their husbands because the husband has lost the same sense of fight and resolve that made her fall in love with him in the first place. A man has a heart attack when he realizes (spoiler alert) that the mine is ultimately going to be shut down. Another man tries to kill himself when all of his efforts to stay above water fail. A couple breaks up when the lines of class and labor tear them apart. Even what should be the film’s happiest final moment is used to remind audiences that the whole film is bullshit if the British people don’t protect those who need it the most. This quote (from the film, not Chumbawumba) sums the film up perfectly.

I thought it mattered. I thought that music mattered. But does it bollocks. Not compared to our people matter.”

Unfortunately, the periphery aspects of the film don’t seem to add much to the overall equation especially the romance between Andy and Gloria which contributes nothing to the film besides exploring the class tensions that are hit on in other, more effective ways. The characterizations aren’t always as rich as they should be. Phil and Danny are among the most compelling characters of the film because of both their father/son dynamic as well as how their lives outside the band are fleshed out (or not considering Danny’s obsession). However, leads like Gloria and Andy, which the film’s marketing would paint as being the central part of the film, are unfortunately thin. You have no reason to care about their romance other than some delightfully electric flirtation before their first real romantic encounter.

Ewan McGregor is one of the great talents from across the pond but both the character and his performance leave quite a bit to be desired as does Tara Fitzgerald. However, Pete Postlethwaite and Stephen Tompkinson steal the show as Danny and Phil. Tompkinson especially lends the film its necessary gravitas. He starts the film, and you think he’s going to be a joke character, but as he grows, he becomes the film’s tragic figurehead and Tompkinson is more than up to the task of representing the wrenching consequences of Tory politics. I don’t know enough about smaller British character actors to speak authoritatively (or specifically) on the matter, but the film shored up the weakness of two of its leads with some wonderfully humorous bit parts that lightened the film’s mood when the tragedy became too much to face.

Perhaps I really enjoyed this movie because I whole-heartedly agree with its leftist politics. But what’s not to love about insightful social commentary that shows the truth of the ills plaguing our nation (or in this case, England)?  It has problems, but with great music, occasionally great performances, and an emotional resonance that impossible to deny, Brassed Off is a hidden gem from across the pond that didn’t get the attention it deserved in America perhaps because many American films are afraid to tackle substantive political issues. With an ability to humanize a tragedy that continues to sweep the world, Brassed Off gets my full recommendation.

Final Score: B+

Primal Fear

What does justice truly mean in America? Is the point of our criminal justice system retribution, rehabilitation, or something else entirely? What matters more, ensuring that the innocent are never convicted of a crime or pursuing the guilty by any means necessary? Tragically, far too much of the American populace and those in charge of dishing out the sentences for criminal actions tend to work in the hellfire and brimstone vengeance school of thought and if a couple of innocent people get trampled along the way, well that’s the price to pay to stop evil. Even most movies paint law and order in a starkly black and white perspective. You are either innocent or guilty and you should either face the full weight of the law or absolutely nothing. Most cinema fails to capture the shades of gray that define such antiquated subjects as guilt and innocence. And that’s without getting into cinema’s complete lack of understanding of the way actual courtrooms work which cause nearly every pre-law and law school student to devolve into massive fits of outrage at the screenwriter’s poor research skills. Perhaps that’s why Primal Fear was so interesting. It wasn’t as realistic a crime procedural as Zodiac, but it asked some tough questions about what we truly stand for in our nation’s legal system. It’s a shame the film’s (admittedly brilliantly pulled off) twist ending subverted nearly every question the film answered from beginning to end.

Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is the most successful and famous criminal defense attorney in Chicago. Interested in both the wealth and notoriety of taking on high-visibility criminal cases, Vail also legitimately cares that his clients are afforded the full protection of the Constitution. When a nineteen year old altar boy, Aaron Stampler (Fight Club‘s Edward Norton), is caught running from the scene of the murder of an archbishop covered in blood, his seemingly open-shut case has Aaron on the fast track to death row. Believing that the challenge of at least keeping Aaron off death row will help garner him more fame, Vail decides to take on Aaron’s case pro bono despite the overwhelming evidence of his guilt. Vail finds himself up against his ex-girlfriend (The Savages‘ Laura Linney) as the prosecuting attorney and a vindictive Attorney General (Frasier‘s John Mahoney) as Vail fights to ensure that Aaron gets a just trial. Much of the film relies on a series of perfectly implemented reveals so I’ll refrain from ruining any of the other pieces in this giant legal puzzle.

I’ve never really understood the appeal of Richard Gere before. He was just another Hollywood pretty boy, but he did a great job in this movie (though not as great as Ed Norton). Martin Vail is all about being a rakish charmer, and Richard Gere just oozes charisma in the role. And when it comes time to be angry or torn or confused, he nails all of those emotions as well. However, this was Ed Norton’s film. I feel like I can’t get into too much of what made his performance so phenomenal without ruining the film, but let’s just say that as excellent as he is at the beginning of the film, if you’re concerned that his performance is going to be a little one note, you’re wrong. I won’t say this is the best performance of Ed Norton’s career (that goes to his part in American History X), but he was most certainly better than Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire. Ed Norton is one of the most under-rated actors of his generation, and as far as breakthrough roles go, it’s pretty hard to top this one.

I’m not generally a fan of courtroom dramas. As someone who was actually a student of the law for a while, I know how awful they are, and while even Primal Fear had me tearing my hair out at moments that would have never been allowed to happen in a real courtroom, it still managed to ask enough interesting questions about the very nature of our legal system that I had to forgive its technical flaws. This is one of those films that relies so heavily on twists (albeit twists that don’t feel cheap when you actually think about them because they’re all foreshadowed well enough) that it’s difficult to discuss some of the themes of the film without ruining things. Yet, the notion of guilt and innocence, sanity and insanity, and justice versus a railroaded trial all form the core of this film, and for the most part, the film offers up an intriguing take on these issues that gibed with my political belief system. While I think the ending still cheapened the rest of the film (though its twist was brilliantly pulled off as I’ve said), part of me could also make a case for how it forces you to face the realities of the liberal legal idealism that the movie was wanting you to espouse.

I was shocked by how engrossed I found this film despite not being the typical crime thriller fan. That statement alone serves as the best recommendation I can give to this film. Even for non-thriller/non-crime procedural fans, Primal Fear delivers a cerebral and white-knuckle ride into the heart of our justice system and the hearts and minds of the people at the core of this system. Some elements of the plot are a little contrived/predictable (and some subplots were more left-field than others), but with a film shouldered on the backs of the great performances of Richard Gere and Edward Norton, Primal Fear is easy to recommend even to people who aren’t fans of the genre. It may not be the most unconventional tale ever told (though it has its share of dark and disturbing moments that managed to shock me in their depravity), but it’s a solidly constructed film that I can recommend to virtually all of my readers. I still find myself torn about its ending, but I’m sure after some thought over the next couple of days, I’ll be able to come down one way or the other on whether it hurt or helped the overall film.

Final Score: B+

This will be my shortest song of the day post yet. Just because I totally forgot to do it, and I’m leaving for a dinner/event thing very shortly and I don’t know when I’ll get back from it. I’m going to an Occupy Wall Street album release party, and since that’s near and dear to my very, very liberal (pretty much a socialist) heart, I thought why not pick a great song from the greatest anti-establishment band of all time, Rage Against the Machine. “Bulls on Parade” has basically one of the most BAMF guitar riffs of all time, and there’s a verse that was my “about me” on facebook for years before I finally changed it.  the ” I walked the corner to the rubble, used to be a library, lined up to the mind cemetary now” part (and also the two lines after it). Tom Morello played a concert in Union Square last week that I missed. So, anyways, I’m excited for this dinner tonight. Michael Moore is going to be there tonight which will be awesome. My liberal heart may explode.

 

This is my song of the day for an almost no-brainer reason. I recently (though it was back in January so it’s not that recent) moved to New York City from WV to become a music critic. It’s been the best experience of my entire life, bar none. I made a friend here in the city (who also happens to be from WV and live in the same part of Brooklyn as me) who went through a similar experience as me when she first moved to New York. We saw They Might Be Giants in concert (which you can read about here), and before the show, she recommended their track “New York City” (which they did an awesome rendition of in the concert), a cover of a band called Cub. Ever since hearing the song for the first time and especially after hearing it at the concert, I’ve really related to it, and I know that whenever I hear it in the future, it will remind me of the awesome times I’ve had here in the city.

 

I tend to have ambivalent (at best) feelings towards most historical epics. Whether we’re talking about Lawrence of Arabia (which I still find to be highly overrated) or The Longest Day (which was mind-numbingly long and stale), they just don’t click with me. There are obvious exceptions (The Last Emperor or Empire of the Sun), but far too often, historical epics are all about the spectacle and attention to historical detail (except when they flagrantly ignore it) rather than the elements of drama that make films successful. These types of movies spend far too much time serving as stylized documentaries rather than providing us with psychological insights into what caused these events to occur and what it is about the participants in these historical moments that make them worth caring about. If we’re simply going to get a dry (albeit cinematic) rehash of matters of historical record, what’s the point? Director Neil Jordan was seemingly aware of these hazards when making his biopic, Michael Collins, and while he didn’t always successfully avoid them, he got it right most of the time to paint a (fairly biased) look into one of history’s most intriguing freedom fighters.

In the late 1910’s and early 1920’s, Irish patriots were waging war against the British Empire for control of their own country for the first time in over 700 years. The splinter Irish Republic, led by their President Eamon de Valera (Harry Potter‘s Alan Rickman), were waging a futile conventional war against the British army which led to defeat after defeat at the hands of Britain’s superior numbers and arms. Things began to change when a young Michael Collins (in his 20’s and early 30’s during the film’s action), the minister of intelligence (and self-declared minister of general mayhem) decided to begin a series of guerrilla attacks against collaborators with the British occupiers until they were slowly but surely attacking high-ranking British officials and special agents working in Ireland. Despite growing tension between Collins and de Valera, Collins’ tactics finally force the British to agree to a treaty declaring Ireland a free state (while maintaining control of Northern Ireland as well as forcing the Irish government to swear allegiance to the crown). When the treaty remains unacceptable to certain segments of the Irish people, civil war breaks out with Michael Collins as the new leader of the free Irish state forced to take arms against his former companions while having his name dragged through the mud as a traitor to his country.

Liam Neeson has been experiencing a serious career resurgence as an older action hero over the last couple of years, and going back and watching a film like this or Schindler’s List, we have to ask the question of why he ever went away in the first place. While the first half of the film is fairly ham-fisted in its portrayal of Collins as a heroic figure fighting against the almost cartoonishly villainous British Empire (though I’m sure Neil Jordan was just showing real historic events without providing any counter-context for the British side), the second half of the film where Collins finds himself taking up arms against his own countrymen shows Neeson in a very complex and nuanced role. He is portraying a man torn apart between loyalty to his country and loyalty to the men who helped get him where he is today, and that struggle is written on Neeson’s face in every scene of the last half of the film. It’s not Liam Neeson’s best role but it’s another reminder of how great an actor he is. My only quibble with the film’s cast was Julia Roberts’ absolutely horrendous Irish accent and I have no idea how she managed to get cast for this film in the first place.

As mentioned, there is absolutely no doubt on whose side director Neil Jordan was on in this film. The first hour or so covers the fight for Ireland’s independence and there was an almost jingoistic fervor as we watched this scrappy band of guerrillas take on the British. There wasn’t a single British character or point of view that was painted in a positive light and the only time that the film even seemed to be introspective in terms of the Irish’s tactics was a scene where they methodically executed every single British special operative that had been sent in to take them out. However, the film picked up once the war stopped being against a foreign oppressor but rather a civil war over whether to accept England’s compromise. At that point, the film started to ask serious questions about how high the cost of peace should be, whether it’s right to compromise in the face of issues as serious as sovereignty, does a national leader have the right to turn his guns against his fellow countrymen when they employ the same tactics that he used to gain control in the first place? If the first half is simply a conventional war film, the last half is much more ambitious and thought-provoking. It’s a shame the film felt the need to tack on the unnecessary love story between Michael Collins and Julia Roberts Kitty Kearnan because it distracted from the more engaging material which should have been occupying our time.

For anyone with an interest in Irish history, Michael Collins is an educational and enlightening film, and even though I knew that it was blatantly biased against the British, Neil Jordan still managed to evoke a multitude of emotional reactions from me whenever he showed some of the historically accurate atrocities the British committed (such as driving a tank into a rugby match and slaughtering the audience). However, the film’s obvious bias and the fact that it doesn’t really develop any substance in the last half really drains much of its power. As my formal introduction to Neil Jordan’s work (The Crying Game is probably his most famous film), I could have done much worse, but I am excited to see what the rest of his body of work looks like, and for all those who like some history and truth to their films, Michael Collins may be for you.

Final Score: B+

Here’s something that may shock my readers. While I’m a self-admitted fanatic of William Shakespeare, I am not especially fond of Romeo and Juliet. There’s no denying that the play contains some of his most memorable lines and that the and the violent spiral of events leading up to its ending are suitably tragic, but I’ve never been able to buy into the love story at the center of the play. Romeo is a love-sick puppy dog pining over a woman named Rosaline at the beginning of the play to the point where he’s become depressed over not having her (I won’t even get into Juliet’s complete lack of a personality) but after seeing Juliet, a member of his family’s sworn enemies, he falls heads over heels in love with her (as does she to him), and they are married within a day. Within a week of being together, they are so madly in love with one another that Romeo commits suicide when he believes Juliet is dead and Juliet does the same when she finds her Romeo when she awakens from her self-inflicted coma. It’s hogwash and completely unrealistic to the point of being patently absurd. Shakespeare’s prose was as brilliant as ever, but I’ve never been able to emotionally invest myself in this story the same way I could with Hamlet, Macbeth, or (my favorite) King Lear.

Well, leave it to Baz Luhrmann to take an already problematic play and turn it into an over-stylized and cartoonish mess. Anyone who has seen Moulin Rouge knows that Luhrmann isn’t exactly the most subtle director out there (and don’t get me started on the sin of including “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in that film), but Luhrmann’s modernized adaptation of Romeo and Juliet left subtlety behind in pre-production and went for almost unwatchable camp instead. Luhrmann’s versin of the play takes place in (then) modern America in Verona Beach, California (an obvious play on Venice Beach) while still maintaining Shakespeare’s original dialogue, therefore guns are still called swords and everyone is talking like they just stepped out of the renaissance fair. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes take the roles of the two star-crossed lovers with back-up support from Lost‘s Harold Perrinau as the flamboyant Mercutio, Super Mario Bros‘ John Leguizamo as the villainous Tybalt, Role Models‘ Paul Rudd as Juliet’s betrothed Paris, and many others.

This film is hit and miss, but when it misses, it’s a trainwreck. Luhrmann actually does several things right. Leo and Claire Danes were cast perfectly for these roles, and while Leo wasn’t quite at the prime of his acting ability yet, even at that age, he was still very talented and you could catch glimpses of why he would eventually replace Robert DeNiro as Martin Scorscese’s muse. Claire Danes has been criminally underrated her entire career (where is the love for My So Called Life), and she’s only just now started getting credit for her talent with her award-winning role on Homeland. Despite the fact that Juliet is an absurdly shallow character, Claire Danes makes it work. Harold Perrinau was the real scene-stealer as Mercutio, and he brought a vibrancy and intensity that managed to seem natural for easily the play’s best character and not make it seem absurdly campish like everything else in the film. I’ll refrain from eviscerating the performance of John Leguizamo who was seriously miscast as was Jamie Kennedy in a smaller role. Luhrmann has a Fellini-esque ability to capture faces and use them for optimum aesthetic effect and there are many moments in the film where he is simply able to transform the already gorgeous faces of DiCaprio and Danes into something extraordinarily beautiful.

This film’s opening scene, which is lifted straight from Scene I of Act I of the play (except for the obvious setting switch), is one of the most horrendous things I’ve ever seen in the history of this blog, and that includes Christine and The Girl with the Pistol. Everyone in the scene (but John Leguizamo) are hamming up the material to almost satirical levels, and Luhrmann uses such frenetic and unnecessary cuts and edits that it almost gives you motion sickness. If this were intended to be comedy, it would be one thing (though I doubt I would enjoy it), but instead, it’s meant to be played straight and it’s so terrible that it goes past the point of being hilariously bad. It simply becomes horrendously aggravating. That’s the film’s problem though. You have moments here and there where the cinematography is actually brilliant and Luhrmann just lets the story speak for itself, but then he feels the need to inject this hyper-stylistic element to the film and 9 times out of 10 it simply doesn’t pay off. There’s more mood whiplash in this film than a Joss Whedon production but without any of the charm that makes Whedon so lovable.

I am open to radical re-interpretations of Shakespeare’s work (Akira Kurosawa’s samurai re-imagining of King Lear with Ran remains one of the best films I’ve reviewed for this blog), but Luhrmann’s inconsistent film is an almost unmitigated failure only saved by flashes of brilliance that rarely shine through. If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, don’t watch this. If you’re a fan of Leo or Claire Danes, this should only be seen just so you can know how far they’ve come in their careers. There isn’t a subset of my reading audience that I would subject this film to, and if the score I’m giving it seems too high for a movie I hate so much, it’s because of those flashes of brilliance you see which really are that good. It’s a shame they are suffocated on all sides by almost complete incompetence.

Final Score: C-

Girls Town

Over the last 15 years or so, the term “indie movie” has changed drastically from what it meant when the genre first burst on the scene. These days, the term is taken very literally which means any movie not produced by one of the major film studios. Thus films like Juno or Little Miss Sunshine which feature established Hollywood stars and draws in movies produced on tight budgets relative to James Cameron films (though normally still in the $10-20 million range). The indie film circuit has become the place where established auteurs and respectable actors/actresses go to get back their artistic cred before they return to making mainstream Hollywood movies. I’m not complaining about this trend. There’s been an explosion of “indie” films because the major studios have realized the profitability of the genre, and this means the quality of your average indie film has gotten exponentially higher than the genre’s formative years. It is rare that a true indie film (such as Paranormal Activity which was made for less than $20,000) gains any mainstream recognition. For the first time since the disappointing and aimless Border Radio, I’ve actually gotten around to watching another of those real indie films which was obviously shot for pittance and features the indie hall marks of characters doing virtually nothing more than sitting around and talking about the very everyday nature of their lives. I just watched 1996’s Girls Town, and while it was refreshing to see an entertaining and well-made film made from such meager resources and at times, it was a truly great film, it spent far too much of its short running time being depressingly boring and it’s powerful pro-feminism message was lost in actions that made its heroines far less sympathetic.

Girls Town is about a group of four female friends from the inner city (I was never entirely sure which city) living out the last few weeks of their senior year of high school as they plan to head out into the real world. Nikki (Aunjanue Ellis) has been accepted to Princeton where she is going to study African American Studies and Literature. Emma (Anna Grace) volunteers at a local woman’s shelter and will be attending Columbia in the fall. Patti (Six Feet Under‘s Lili Taylor) is a single mother whose been a senior for half a decade now, and Angela (Bruklin Harris) is an aspiring poet. When Nikki unexpectedly commits suicide, the girls read Nikki’s diary and discover that months before, she had been raped by one of the men at the magazine where she had an internship. The pain of that memory and her inability to share it with anyone (including her best friends) led to a depression which culminated in her taking her own life. The girls that remain are then forced to deal with their own histories of sexual abuse and how the patriarchal system they live under perpetuates the sort of situation that allowed Emma to be raped by a boy she was on a date with after she had said no and how the system made Patti believe the circumstances surrounding the rape (Emma got in the car with the boy to make out) made the incident not rape. What follows is a story where these three girls try to take back some of the power garnered from them, at first through petty vandalism, then theft, and it eventually makes its way to assault. That is essentially the whole film, but plot isn’t the real key here as I’ll discuss shortly.

Anna Grace (who only has two movies mentioned in her filmography for Netflix) was spectacular as Emma in this very fine cast. With some slight riot girl affectations but something more akin of the post-grunge movement, she perfectly nailed the essence of a girl just discovering that she doesn’t have to sit back and let this male run world take advantage of and exploit her at every turn. Emma came off as almost profoundly intelligent (at least compared to her friends) and I have to get behind any film that has women talking about more than boys (at least not talking about them as things to be desired) or fashion. There was just a heartbreaking sincerity to her and when she discussed her rape incident with her friends (and later) with her current boyfriend, it was all very hard to watch. Bruklin Harris was also great as the feisty and defensive Angela. My only complaint from the cast was actually Lili Taylor, who I mostly know as the understated (and incredibly odd) mother of Nate’s child on Six Feet Under. Her performance here was almost cartoonishly over the top and she became more a caricature of the teenage mother archetype than a real breathing and defined character like Emma and Angela. I loved her on Six Feet Under and her small part in Say Anything. I was just disappointed by her turn in this film which was more annoying than engaging.

While scenes like Emma, Angela, and Patti discussing the nature of rape in Patti’s basement were truly top-rate material, the rest of the film fails to live up to those high standards, and at times, it can be downright boring. For a movie that was only 90 minutes long, it certainly felt like it was dragging. Also, by the end of the film, it seems as if our trio are on the verge of becoming small time criminals not strong feminist voices. While I understand their anger at the system that has abused them, I wasn’t especially happy with the direction the film took their characters. All in all though, they really don’t make indie films like this any more (at least not ones that get any sort of attention). For fans of either old school indie cinema or feminist movie making, you should give these a whirl. While I couldn’t stand Lili Taylor’s performance (she was somehow nominated for an Independent Spirit Award), Anna Grace more than made up for it with a powerful breakthrough performance. I still can’t believe she hasn’t had a career since then. I thought she was great. This movie might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can stomach films that are more interested in a portrait than plot, this is a hidden gem you might never have heard of otherwise.

Final Score: B

 I was really excited when Netflix sent me four foreign films in a row to my house because the track record for the majority of the foreign films I’ve watched for this blog has been excellent. However, I’ve gotten two duds in a row which has been sort of disappointing. Shadow was a disjointed and jumbled mess lacking a coherent plot, and now, 1996’s French thriller La Ceremonie was light on the thrills and heavy on levels of class conflict that felt absurd even to me, a self-identified socialist, that was saved from utter mediocrity with a shocking and abrupt ending. I’m really hoping that The Shop on Main Street (which won best Foreign Film at the Oscars) and Kurosawa’s Ran help save the day for foreign films that rival the best that we as Americans have to offer.

Basically, La Ceremonie is Gosford Park in Frnace with a fifth of the cast and French class struggles instead of Anglo-Saxon strife. The Lelievre family (who are the epitome of bourgeois) live in an isolated house in the country side in a near state of idyllic happiness. They only want for one luxury. That is a maid. So, into their lives arrives Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire), a quiet and illiterate woman who desperately hides her illiteracy from her employers. Beneath the facade of tranquility and contentment, the Lelievres are a family bursting with secrets and past torment (although it is mostly alluded to and never shown). The cracks in this seemingly happy family burst when Sophie befriends the local postmistress, Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who is far too interested in the lives of the Lelievres and goads Sophie into acts that compromise her place in the family. Without wanting to ruin the ending (which is the only good part of the film), it all hurtles towards an absolutely explosive and disturbing climax.

The problem with the film was the absolutely tepid pacing present throughout (ending excepted). I can’t expecting something to happen, but all we got were stares and awkward moments. I don’t have a problem with slow films as I thoroughly enjoyed Woody Allen’s similarly veined Match Point, but a lot of the tension from the film was hard to swallow in my opinion. You’re supposed to find the Lelievres as the epitome of bourgeois apathy and decadence but they were pretty decent people for the most part. The patriarch was sort of an ass but that was the extent of it. The moment that sets the entire final act of the film in motion (the daughter discovering that Sophie is illiterate, offering help, and then being blackmailed by Sophie for her kindness) pretty nearly ruined the whole film for me. I guess I just found it difficult to empathize or relate in any way with the main characters and there wasn’t enough style or other diversions to make up for poor storytelling.

Had it not been for the ending which came out of nowhere and colored the rest of the film in an entirely different light, this film’s score would have been much lower. The only other things it had going for it were expert performances from Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bissett, and Virgine Ledoyen who all gave wonderful turns as Sophie, Jeanne, the Lelievre matriach, and the daughter respectively. I can’t remember much of the other French-language films that I’ve reviewed for this blog, and honestly, only Belle de Jour springs to mind which I was similarly disapponited in. Right now, Italy still reigns supreme if for no other reason than being home of Fellini who is a nearly unmatched auteur of foreign art house cinema.

 Final Score: B-

Well, this blog has just completely escaped the original vision that I had for it. Originally, I foresaw this blog as a way for me to continue to write in a way that I enjoyed since my school work was sucking all of the joy that I had for writing away from me, while at the same time exposing me to as wide a variety of movies as humanly possible, since cinema is one of my great passions in life. However, slowly but surely, various other media have slipped inot the fray. From anime to one video game review (that I never finished cause I never finished the game) to television, and now we have our first book review. Ever since I watched the first episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, I knew that it was high time that I actually read the book the series is based on. So, without further ado, my review for the first book of George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, the masterpiece A Game of Thrones.

A Game of Thrones is a fantasy novel, but it is fantasy more in the tradition of historical fantasy such as The Once and Future King more than high fantasy like Lord of the Rings. While the supernatural exists in the novel’s world, it shows up very rarely and is used for some of the bigger shocker moments in the story. At the end of the day, this is a fantasy story where the characters and their motivations shape the plot and universe more than an epic adventure story, not to say that this story is devoid of its fair share of epic moments and is honestly more exciting for me to read than any of the Lord of the Rings books. Not since I descended into the world of Gilead and Roland Deschain in Stephen King’s magnum opus The Dark Tower, have I had so much fun escaping into a fictional universe.

A Game of Thrones is the story of the fictional nation of Westeros as well as the unruled land of the savage Dothraki across the sea. The primary protagonists of the novel are members of the Stark family which are lords of the northern stronghold of Winterfell which forms the barrier with the uncharted and dangerous North which is blocked off by an imposing ancient edifice known as The Wall. The head of the Stark family is Eddard, also known as Ned, who is the Lord of Winterfell. He has 5 legitimate children and one bastard son, Jon Snow. Ned’s life is forever changed (much for the worse) when he gets caught up in the politics, scheming, and back-stabbing of the southern Capital of the nation, when his old friend and the current king, Robert Baratheon, asks him to become his newest advisor after his last one died under mysterious circumstances. What plays out is an epic ensemble piece that sprawls across two continents where life, romance, peace, and the throne hang in the balance.

This book easily has one of the largest casts, if not the largest, of any book I’ve ever read. The main story is told from the point of view of about 10 characters, but you also have to take into account the dozens and dozens of other important characters that appear as well. By the end of the story, one of the most important heroes of the book never even had his own chapters to tell his story. I love books with giant ensemble casts because it leaves me free to choose which characters I actually like the most rather than having predetermined main characters shoved down my throat. My three favorite characters from the book are Tyrion Lannister, a man with dwarfism who is perhaps the most cunning and brilliant schemer in the book, Arya Stark, Ned’s youngest daughter and an irascible tomboy, and Jon Snow, Ned’s bastard son who has as much courage and honor as any of Ned’s natural born children.

A Game of Thrones serves as perhaps the most brutal deconstruction of the fantasy genre that I’ve ever read in my entire life. At every possible juncture, it subverts and turns on their head every single cliche of the fantasy genre. The good guys do not always win, honor and valor do not always save the day and in fact are not always the wisest approach, the beautiful people are not the heroes. One of the point of view characters is a girl who believes she is, in fact, in a fairy tale and Martin uses her part of the story to effectively cut apart such expectations and beliefs, although it leaves her so completely broken by the end of the story that it was heart-breaking. This is a dark and gritty story, and if you require neat and happy resolutions, you should probably look elsewhere.

If you enjoy fantasy novels at all, you should without a doubt check this book out. Hell, even if you aren’t a fan of fantasy, this is simply the cream of the crop of the genre and you should give it a twirl. I found myself ignoring my responsibilities to regularly update this blog in favor of reading at least 200 pages a night of this book, if not more. After, perhaps, a slower beginning, the book quickly develops a break neck pace that never lets up and I immediately jumped right into its sequel, A Clash of Kings. If you can handle a book that nearly verges on being 1000 pages long, you owe it to yourself to give this one a go. I really can’t see you being disappointed.

Final Score: A