Category: Social Issue Drama


Philomena1

If you had asked me when the Best Picture nominees were announced which film I thought I would enjoy the least, Philomena would have easily topped the list. Every year has a movie like that. I knew before I even watched The Help or War Horse that it would be unlikely if I enjoyed those films, and sadly, they were even more disappointing than I thought they would be. Their subject matter seems trite or cliche, and you wonder how they were ever nominated for the highest honor in all of cinema. And from its plot description to its advertisements, Philomena seemed like it was ripped straight out of the cloyingly sweet, artificial school of filmmaking. I am happy to admit that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’ve said it on this blog before, but it bears repeating. There are few feelings as refreshing as  a film lover than when  you go into a film expecting to hate it but find yourself loving it instead. I call that the anti-Les Miserables (a film I expected to love but instead loathed). And Philomena is one of the most pleasant examples of that phenomena for me in a long time. With sharply drawn characters, wonderful acting, a beautiful aesthetic from The Queen‘s Stephen Frears, and a genuine respect for characters who don’t share a compatible world view, Philomena is a grown-up film that serves as shining example of the lost art of understated drama.

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Philomena is the true story of the quest of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced journalist for the BBC, to help Philomena Lee (Skyfall‘s Judi Dench) find her son who she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years prior. When Philomena was a teenager, she was impregnated by a boy she met at the fair. Her father disowned her and dropped her off at a convent/orphanage run by nuns who housed and fed the pregnant women until they had their children and then the nuns sold the kids and used the women as slave labour for four years. And beause of her Catholic guilt about premarital sex, Philomena kept her first child a secret for 50 years.

Martin, who has recently been fired from the BBC because of some vaguely explained connection to Labour, is in a rut of his own. He has no job, and he’s depressed and his only other idea is to write a book on Russian history. And when Philomena’s daughter suggests that he do a human interest story on her mother (because the daughter has only just now discovered that Philomena had a son 50 years prior), he initially balks at the idea of doing such a soft story. But when he realizes that there’s a story here about exploitation by the church, Martin agrees to look into Philomena’s case, and they are both taken on a ride that leads them to America and places they never imagined.

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I don’t want to spoil too many details of Martin and Philomena’s investigation to find her son because the film delivers some twists and turns although, honestly, the quest to find her child is not nearly as important as the journey itself and what it reveals about this odd couple on this journey. Philomena is a devoutly religious Irish Catholic who is kind and not in the least bit worldly. She’s direct and painfully honest, and the whole world is beautiful and wondrous to her. Martin, on the other hand, is a bitter and cynical depressive, an atheist, and tends to look down on those who aren’t as cultured as he is although he’d usually never come out and say it.

The film’s view of the world is somewhere between Martin and Philomena, but the film has the utmost respect for both of them. Just like The Queen, Stephen Frear never forgets that these two are people, and it never belittles either of their worldviews. I’m unsure if I’ve ever watched a film that managed to be so sympathetic to both religion and agnosticism without also being some type of hippie-dippie nonsense. Philomena has her view of the world; Martin has his. And, Philomena is content to let that be. Because, there are moments where, yes, Philomena is hopelessly naive, but Martin is equally bitter and broken, and the film understands that so well about both of them.

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It also doesn’t hurt that the film is beautifully acted and shows restraint from beginning to end to never become overly melodramatic or cloying. Dame Judi Dench is one of the true treasures of the screen, and her performance as Philomena is one of the finest of her career. Much like Helen Mirren in The Queen, Stephen Frears gets a perfectly understated performance out of Dench. You feel Philomena’s hurt and despair but also her endless love of life and optimism, and watching Dench perform, it’s clear you’re watching someone who has mastered the acting craft, and when we lose Miss Dench, it will be a huge blow to acting and the screen.

Steve Coogan, who is primarily a comedic actor, also shines as the more world-weary Martin. Martin is a prick. There’s no easy way getting around that. But, Coogan always humanizes him even at his snootiest. But, he’s got a perfect understated British comedic delivery to give the film its much needed comic levity. That was one of the most surprising facts about Philomena. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, and both Judi Dench and Steve Coogan deliver plenty of laughs. Ony the British could make a film that deals with such serious material as mothers having their children stolen from them but also find time to include the necessary laughs without cheapening the serious material.

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Ultimately, Philomena is about what we believe, why we believe it, and how much pressure our believes can take before they seem outdated and wrong. And, at a little over an hour and a half, it’s the perfect length for this tale. There’s not a wasted second in the script or the film, and I suspect were Philomena any longer, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. But, as it is, Philomena stands as one of the surprise delights from this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. If, like myself, you didn’t see how you could possibly enjoy this film, let me assure you that is far better than any of us had given it credit for. It’s a much watch film for all movie lovers. Just bring some tissues. You’ll need them.

Final Score: A

 

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Serpico1

I harped on this issue for one of the other websites I write for, but we live in the age of the anti-hero. It’s easy to understand why. Morally ambiguous leading men fit our fractured, cynical age. But, at the same time, the world still needs heroes, and we don’t have nearly enough well-written ones today. When heroes do arrive, they are products of trite, melodramatic sentimentality with no grounding in the real world even when they’re based off of real figures. But, when a true story comes of a regular man fighting a monumental fight simply because it’s the right thing to do, and the film is devoid of cliche or obvious manipulation, you must stand up and applaud. And Serpico is one of those films.

Sidney Lumet’s Serpico is one of the rare films that has it all. It has a thrilling story about one cop’s stand against the entrenched corruption of the NYPD. It has an important message about how easy it is for corruption to become institutionalized and how difficult it is to cleanse corruption from major institutions once it gains a foothold. It has a magnetic and charming hero who has more dimensions than you’d expect. You have a firebrand performance from Al Pacino at the prime of his career. And, you have the marvelously understated direction of Sidney Lumet. There is no audience this film isn’t right for.

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Serpico is the true story of NYPD officer Frank Serpico (Glengarry Glen Ross‘s Al Pacino), an honest man in a police department where practically every other cop is on the take. Frank has a college education, listens to opera, speaks Spanish, and takes ballet lessons to impress a girl. He has a long beard and dresses like a hippie and that alone would be enough to garner the ire of everyone else in the department. But, when Frank is placed in the NYPD plainclothesman division, he quickly learns that his fellow cops are as crooked and dirty as the criminals they put behind bars, and the Italian organized crime syndicates have most of his coworkers in their pockets.

And, Serpico’s life becomes a series of intimidations and harassments from his fellow officers. On his first day in the plainsclothes division, another office slips him an envelope full of money which Serpico gives to his commanding officer, and nobody looks into the bribery. Serpico refuses to take money beyond his salary, and every day he feels his life is in danger because his fellow cops think he’s going to get them arrested and that they can’t trust him. Serpico is bounced from unit to unit as no department in the NYPD knows what to do with him, and the corruption is a cancer eating away at one of the largest police departments in the world. And it isn’t until a few of his fellow officers decide to make a stand with him that Serpico is able to make any change, but his life is far from a happy ending.

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Young Al Pacino is as good an actor as any other man that ever lived. Although his 90s/2000s output is a caricature of his early roles, there has never been another actor with such a coiled physical presence. Pacino in this or (a rare excellent later role) Glengarry Glen Ross or The Godfather: Part II has the ability to switch from boiler-plate tension to a controlled explosion. And Serpico’s entire arc is built around feeling his world closing in around him and not being able to trust anyone, and nobody besides Pacino could play that man and make it feel so documentary real.

And, that element of documentary realism is critical to what makes Serpico work. If Serpico weren’t a true story, it would probably border on unbelievable (I want to read the non-fiction book it’s based on to see how closely it hews to the truth). But, Sidney Lumet shoots the film almost like a documentary with a dash of the stylistic touches of the political thrillers of the 1970s (think All the President’s Men). Though there are obvious elements of the film that are spiced up to create a movie, unlike virtually every crime thriller ever made, Serpico feels completely grounded in reality.

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Also, Serpico is clearly a hero, but he is also clearly a man. Serpico doesn’t do what he does because he dreams of glory or being the greatest cop; he just wants to do what he thinks is right. And no one else in the police department wants him to be a good man because it represents the antithesis of how they lives their lives. And that’s what makes a hero. Serpico is doing what’s right with no expectation of a reward, and Serpico refuses to romanticize Serpico’s actions. They just contextualize it as him not knowing any other way to live his life, and that allows the film to make a moral statement without turning Serpico into a Messianic figure (although his hippie beard gives him a visual allegory for Jesus).

I’m at work right now, and I’m training a new hire so I’m going to bring this review to an early close. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Serpico joins End of Watch and Training Day as being one of the greatest cop movies I’ve ever seen. It works as an entertaining tale of one man battling insurmountable odds, but it works on so many other levels, and like Lumet’s best works, it’s a technical marvel. For anyone that loves cop films and the vein of classic cinema that allowed excursions away from the main plot so that characters can breathe, Serpico is a can’t miss classic film with Al Pacino at the height of his career.

Final Score: A

 

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The first “important” book that I ever read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. I read it in middle school long before I could fully appreciate the complexity of Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s examination of what it meant to be a black man in America in the middle of the 20th century, but even as an adolescent, the power of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’s fury and critique of American culture stuck with me in a way that forever changed my life. Although I’m white, I have biracial family members of African-American lineage and, growing up, my family took care of a family of four African-American foster children for many years. And through my immersion in real life to the legacy of institutionalized racism (and the more casual kind that still lingers to this day) as well as my exposure to Malcolm X’s story at such a young age, I was always aware of and sensitive to issues of race in ways that few of my white friends are or ever will be.

Even as a child, I was always astounded by the ways that people in the American South (West Virginia may have technically been part of the North during the Civil War, but we were one of the last states still actively fighting racial integration in the 60s) romanticize antebellum chattel slavery. These are people who have seen Gone With the Wind one too many times, and their idea of slavery are happy Mammy’s and Prissy’s who were glad to serve at their master’s beck and call. Clearly, they never read Roots. It is impossible to read Roots or The Autobiography of Malcolm X and have any romantic feelings towards the factual history of slavery and institutional racism in America. Yet, people do. We can add British director Steve McQueen’s masterful film 12 Years a Slave to the list of must-see works on that dark page of American history.

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The Academy Award winner for Best Picture is easily the darkest and most complex film to win that award since Schindler‘s List although for my money 12 Years a Slave is an entirely different class of filmmaking, and it is easily one of the finest films of this decade so far. In fact, 12 Years a Slave has such a richly faceted point to make about morality and ethics that I’m unsure if the Academy actually understood the subtext of the film because films this fatalistic and cynical don’t generally win Academy Awards. As an examination of the way that society is capable of normalizing cruelty and how the institutionalization of cruelty against marginalized groups robs even victims of their ability to empathize with other sufferers as they simply try to avoid more victimization themselves, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful philosophical treatise at a Bergman level.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York in the 1840s, making a living as a violinist with his wife and two children. Solomon accepts an offer from two men in a traveling circus to play his violin as part of their show, but when they reach Washington, D.C., they drug Solomon and sell him to slave traders. And it isn’t long before Solomon, who was born free and had never been a slave his entire life, is sold to a string of masters in the American South and is exposed to the cruelty and barbarity of antebellum slavery firsthand.

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Upon being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon’s name is changed to Platt, and he is beaten several times within an inch of his life as he protests his new appellation. Solomon must also hide the fact that he can read and write from his new masters because a slave that could read was considered the most dangerous type, even more than runaways. And although Solomon is initially sold to a relatively decent master, Ford (Star Trek Into Darkness‘s Benedict Cumberbatch), it isn’t long before a fight with a cruel overseer results in Solomon’s sale to a brutal and barbaric rapist and sadist, Edwin Epps (X-Men: First Class‘s Michael Fassbender) where he will spend many long years, a witness to not only his own suffering but also that of Patsey (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), Edwin’s favorite slavegirl that he rapes and abuses at a whim.

The obvious “text” of 12 Years a Slave is that slavery was a barbaric, unfathomably cruel system that no civilized nation can ever explain away. The text is likely what 12 Years a Slave won its Academy Award for, and Steve McQueen captures the barbarism in no uncertain terms. Slave women are raped repeatedly. Solomon and Patsey are both beaten towards the point of death, and we are given graphic looks at their backs where the flesh has literally been ripped from the bone. Mothers and children are ripped apart and when the mothers cry, they are beaten for their tears. McQueen ensures that there is no way to sit through this film and think that slavery was anything other than the evil system of exploitation and cruelty that it was.

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But, what makes 12 Years a Slave the masterpiece it is (and easily the greatest Best Picture winner in over a decade) are the nearly countless levels of subtext in the film. There’s a moment somewhat early in the film where Solomon has nearly been lynched by a foreman of the first plantation he worked on, and although the plantation overseer stops the lynching, he leaves Solomon hanging from the tree for hours to make a point. And in a magnificent long take, you start to see other slaves leaving their dwellings and return to their daily routine. Almost none of them so much as look at Solomon (one kind soul gives him water) and slave children play in the background eventually. It shows how in the world of slaves where you can be beaten or killed for one stray look, no one sticks their neck out for one another. You simply try to survive, and because of that, the film resists the temptation to even romanticize the suffering of the slaves by trying to make them too heroic or noble.

On the other level, even the kindest whites (with one major exception) are only able to extend mercy or understanding to slaves to a certain point before it begins to inconvenience them. At that point, they simply revert to believing that the blacks aren’t real people and that they can’t risk themselves to help them. Ford is kinder to Solomon than any of his other owners, but when Solomon tries to tell Ford that he is truly a free man, Ford refuses to hear any of it and sells him to Edwin Epps even though it’s clear that Ford believes Solomon on some level. And a friendly plantation neighbor to Epps allows Solomon to keep his wages for playing his violin, but he still utilizes Solomon for slave labour in the cotton fields. And, one seemingly friendly white quickly sells Solomon out because he thinks it will make him a quick buck.

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But, the kicker to the film’s themes of how systematic repression and cruelty robs victims of their ability to empathize with one another is a scene with actress Alfre Woodward (Primal Fear) as a former slave who was freed when she married her master (the same man who allowed Solomon to keep his earnings for a violin performance). She has been a slave. She was in the same position that Patsey was in. But, now, she lives in the comfort that is provided to her on the back of the forced labour of her former people. She gives a small speech at the end about the karmic judgment waiting men like her husband, but she seems totally unaware of the hypocrisy of her own position. And it’s because her suffering has created a mindset of “at least, I’ve managed to escape the lash for now.”

It also doesn’t hurt 12 Years a Slave‘s case that it has one of the finest ensemble casts in years. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives one of the best leading man performances of last year (in a year overflowing with superb performances) by playing Solomon’s suffering as realistically and with as little melodrama as possible. Solomon is human, and even he becomes tone deaf to the suffering of those around him on occasion, and by simply making him a man (rather than a symbol for all of slave’s suffering), Ejiofor and McQueen turn him into one of the most well-crafted characters of the 2010s.

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Although I’ve yet to see any of the other Best Supporting Actress performances besides Julia Robert’s in August: Osage County (she’s great in that film, but the movie is terrible and also Roberts was the leading lady), I can’t imagine I’ll be at all upset about Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win. Although she spends much of her early moments on screen not actually speaking, Nyong’o’s role eventually blossoms into an example of the suffering slave women (particularly beuatiful slave women) faced at the hands of male master’s who saw them not as people but purely as tools for giving them pleasure. And, one of the most memorable scenes of the film’s involves Patsey begging Solomon to kill her and put her out of her misery and his refusal to do so because he knows how much trouble it would be for him if Epps found out.

Michael Fassbender got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as well (I have trouble believing that Jared Leto was ever better than him in anything but I haven’t seen Dallas Buyer’s Club yet so I can’t judge) as the bordering on psychopathic Edwin Epps. Fassbender makes it clear how brutal and sadistic Epps can be, and his actions in the film are monstrous, but Fassbender never turns Epps into a total monster, and that’s the beauty of his performance. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Sarah Paulson also all shine in smaller roles.

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After a quick scan of the last 20 odd years of Best Picture winners, there seems to be little question that 12 Years a Slave is the best winner of that award since Unforgiven. Although I’ve enjoyed every Best Picture winner of the 2010s, I haven’t thought any of them were remotely Best Picture worthy, and it is beyond refreshing to see a film of this magnificent a caliber finally being rewarded with the highest honor in the film industry. I still have to see most of the other Best Picture winners (the only others I’ve seen so far are Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street), but 12 Years a Slave has set not only a high bar for them to clear but also any other prestige films to come out the rest of this decade. It is a must-see film event for all who love the fine art of film.

Final Score: A+

 

 

 

TheBoxer1

Along with the Cold War (which officially ended the year I was born, 1989), one of the defining historical conflicts of the latter half of the 20th century that I have virtually no recollection of is the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. With the seemingly endless sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics over whether or not Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of Ireland, I can remember reading about it after the violence mostly ended, but I have almost no recollection over any of the events while they lasted. I was nine when the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, but that means I was too young to be an American kid and understand what was happening overseas. And, perhaps it’s because this is my first cinematic exposure to the violence that consumed Northern Ireland, I found The Boxer to be a truly fascinating examination of The Troubles as well as a gripping character study of one man who wants out.

Nominally, The Boxer is a sports movie, but it makes every other boxing movie I’ve watched for this blog seem trite in comparison. Whether you’re talking Rocky or the more recent The Fighter, it seems obvious that The Boxer has more to say about violence, politics, and the human condition than most other sports movies could ever hope to achieve (except maybe the terribly underrated, This Sporting Life). If The Boxer charts one pugilist’s course to redemption, it lays out this man’s path in stark and brutally realistic terms in a world where centuries old hate and violence constantly threatens to undermine any positive steps one man can hope to take. Though the romance at the heart of the film doesn’t carry as much weight as the tale of redemption and political strife, even it cements the senseless and tragic back-and-forth of revenge and violence.

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After serving fourteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, former Irish Republican Army member Danny Flynn (The Age of Innocence‘s Daniel Day-Lewis) is released from prison and wants nothing more to do with the men who let him rot in prison for something he didn’t do. But nothing is ever that simple. As Danny is released from jail, Joe Hammill (Adaptation.‘s Brian Cox) is negotiating a peace treaty with the British government on the grounds that the IRA prisoners of war are released, but Joe’s desire for peace in Northern Ireland isn’t shared by all of his subordinates, particularly the revenge hungry Harry (Gerard McSorley). And to make matters worse, Danny’s old girlfriend Maggie (Synecdoche, New York‘s Emily Watson) is now the wife of an IRA prisoner, and in the minds of the IRA, there’s almost nothing lower than a man who consorts with the wife of a prisoner.

When Danny is released from prison, he meets up with his old boxing trainer, Ike Weir (Ken Stott), whose become a pathetic and homeless alcoholic with nothing to do with his life when Danny wasn’t around to keep him going. Together they pair re-open their old gym, and in direct defiance with the wishes of the most militant members of the IRA, Danny and Ike make the gym non-sectarian, which means both Catholic and Protestant kids can train there. And, if Danny weren’t already hell-bent on pissing off the IRA, he begins to rekindle his friendship and eventually romance with Maggie. As Joe desperately tries to keep the fragile peace that he’s brokered with the Brits, all of the sectarian tensions and violence threaten to erupt again as Danny prepares for a highly publicized fight with a Protestant championship boxer.

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This probably isn’t a controversial stance to take but Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest screen actor that’s ever lived. I’ve reviewed a decent number of films with Daniel Day-Lewis in them, and whether it’s The Age of Innocence or A Room with a View or Lincoln or Gangs of New York, I’ve become convinced that there isn’t any type of role that Day-Lewis can’t play. His range as an actor borders on ludicrous. His performance in The Boxer may not be as iconic as There Will Be Blood, but it’s still one hell of a turn, and Day-Lewis finds all of the rage and resentment and, most importantly, world-weariness that is eating away at Danny’s soul and then forces the audience to recognize the insanity of the world Danny finds himself in. There’s a scene later in the film where Danny is boxing a Nigerian boxer, and it’s one of the most remarkable scenes of Day-Lewis’s career.

And, thankfully, Day-Lewis isn’t the only one with a great performance in this film. Emily Watson is a big name in her native United Kingdom, but she should be a huge star everywhere. She may not have the most conventional leading lady looks, but she’s a hell of a performer. And, similarly to Day-Lewis, the character of Maggie helps to emphasize the film’s themes of weariness with the insanity of the Troubles and how the stubborness and obstinacy of those who can’t let grudges go destroys the lives of everyone around them. And Emily Watson captures how the Troubles have eroded what’s left of Maggie’s soul until Danny steps back into her life. Brian Cox, Ken Stott, and Gerard McSorley all also shine in their supporting roles. Ken Stott’s performance as the alcoholic Ike is one of the more heart-wrenchingly realistic portrayals of alcoholism this side of Leaving Las Vegas.

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The film has some minor structural problems, but they’re marginal complaints in a film this excellent and thought-provoking. Similar to The Return of the King, there were nearly three or four different moments when I thought this film was about to end, but then it kept on trucking on. Every sequence after these false endings worked and enriched the story, but it certainly made me antsy as the film continued. But, as I said, when a film has this much to say about the nature of violence, hatred, and the senseless cycle of revenge, I’ll forgive it for ignoring basic laws of cinematic story structure. Both as a historical document of the last breaths of the Troubles as well as an intimate portrait of one man trying to recapture his soul, The Boxer  is an indisputable triumph of character driven and political storytelling.

If you enjoy Daniel Day-Lewis, there is no excuse for not watching this film. I have seen exactly one film where he played the lead that I did not enjoy (the abysmal musical Nine, and it’s not his fault it was bad. You can’t make a fucking musical adaptation of 8 1/2 and not expect it to be fucking terrible). Daniel Day-Lewis’s insane dedication to craft and character is usually worth the price of admission alone (it’s what made Lincoln a very good if not a great film), and thankfully The Boxer has more than just another superb Daniel Day-Lewis film in its favor. My only word of warning for this film is that if you struggle understand foreign accents, you will have a hard time with the almost indecipherable thick Irish accents that all of the characters employ. And there are no subtitles on the DVD or Netflix versions of this film. Other than that, you owe it to yourself to watch this excellent film.

Final Score: A-

 

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One of the things that I have always loved about foreign cinema is that it opens me up to worlds and cultures that I will never experience first-hand. Great foreign cinema (A Separation, The White Ribbon, Stroszek) can edify me as much as it entertains me. I’m clearly not saying that all enjoyable foreign cinema must have cultural history inside it (Bergman and Fellini care little for that), but it’s always wonderful when it does. 2006’s Rang De Basanti is the first Indian/Bollywood film that I’ve reviewed for this blog, and I felt that I learned more from this film about modern Indian youth culture and India’s history than anybody possibly ever could from Slumdog Millionaire.

It is difficult to characterize Rang De Basanti in simple terms. Running at nearly three hours, Rang De Basanti is the type of multi-generational epic that went out of vogue in America around the time the Godfather films finished up. The film’s emotional core and even genre are just as hard to pin down as the film starts off as a coming of age dramedy that shoots unexpectedly into tragedy for the film’s last hour. The film has a grandness of ambition and purpose that exceeds the actual artistic merits of the film to the point where the film’s themes are subverted (I believe unintentionally) by an insane final act that lessens the ethical value of the film. Rang De Basanti has its flaws, but even despite them, it proved an immensely enjoyable movie.

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An idealistic young British woman, Sue (Alice Patten), travels to India in order to shoot a historical film about India’s revolutionary movement in the 1920s against British rule. Sue finds the young stars of her film when her friend Sonia (Soha Ali Khan) introduces Sue to her group of college friends, including the charming DJ (Aamir Khan), the brooding Karan (Siddharth), the comic Sukhi (Sharman Joshi), and the pensive Aslam (Kunal Kapoor). The Western society-obsessed friends are cynical towards the state of modern India and have trouble relating to the martyred patriots at the center of Sue’s film, until tragedy in their own lives sparks a revolution in their own hearts.

I don’t want to say too much more about the film’s story because part of the pleasure of Rang De Basanti is watching the transformation this film takes. It’s not much of a stretch to say that until a pivotal event took the film into it’s final act, I was convinced that Rang De Basanti was a comedy about cultural diffusion and barriers with some light drama involved. The tone was so light and lively (and the musical numbers but more on that in a second) that when the film switches gears (and boy does it), I was left feeling as if I’d been punched in the stomach by the sharp turns the story takes.

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I may be wrong, but I’m fairly certain that Rang De Basanti is the first Bollywood film I’ve ever watched in my entire life. And, I’m sort of thankful for that because the moviei s a great fusion of Bollywood tropes (doomed romances, insane out of nowhere dance numbers) and more traditional Western storytelling which all fits within the film’s context of young Indian men rediscovering their sense of Indian nationalism. There’s a dance sequence interspersed with bits of historical tragedy from Sue’s film that is immediately followed by the tragic event that sets the films final act into motion, and while that may seem dizzying to American audiences, it seems to mesh within the Indian context of the film.

Ultimately, Rang De Basanti proves to be a film about corruption in the Indian government. When I was an RA, I had several friends from India and Pakistan (both from the Lahore region of the area), and either one was willing to readily educate me on the political corruption of their respective governments. And, Rang De Basanti‘s attempts to bring these issues to light is all well and good and very noble, but the film loses some of its moral authority on these tough issues when it has its heroes behave the way they do towards the end of the film. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but it’s certainly easy to say that the film finds itself muddled by the end.

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Rang De Basanti is centered on a great cast with a natural chemistry, and the interactions between the young male stars reminded me of an Indian spin on classics like Diner. Aamir Khan and Kunal Kapoor really stole the show, and I’d like to see more from practically everyone in the cast though sadly not much Bollywood winds up on my list for this blog. I’ll draw this review to a close with this. Rang De Basanti may lose its footing by the film’s end, but if you can get past the thematic missteps in its closing moments, you’ll be rewarded with an intense and highly emotional look at Indian youth and the problems facing modern Indian society. For lovers of foreign cinema, I highly recommend it.

Final Score: B+

 

American History X

Growing up in rural West Virginia where the African American population is only 3.5% of the overall population (and that’s mostly confined to the population centers of Huntington and Morgantown), you’d be forgiven for thinking that my exposure to American racial tensions was slim to none. Of course, you’d be wrong. Even before my family became the foster parents for a family of four African Americans from Pittsburgh, we were an anomaly in a small town with a lingering history of racial resentment. Philippi,WV, has a small section of the town known as Chestnut’s Ridge where de facto segregation has caused virtually all of the black and bi-racial citizens to live there. People in Philippi often refer to the Ridge as “(Racial Slur) Ridge.” When my grandmother cheated on my grandfather with a black man and had a bi-racial daughter (who in turn would get pregnant when she was very young by a black man herself), my family was thrust into the racial animosity eating away at our town.

Barbour County’s African American population is almost entirely bi-racial. There are few, if any, solely black citizens. So, of course, it would fall upon my family to quadruple the African American population overnight. Although there were never any outright incidences of violence or bullying against my foster brothers and sisters because they were black, I could still hear faint whispers of the “N” word on the school bus and catch hateful stares at my siblings (who I would eventually be as close with as my biological sister) when they weren’t looking. Our bus driver would hold them to different standards of behavior than the other kids, and there was always hesitation by many to let them fully integrate into the community. I’ve spent my entire life being very sensitive to the plight of minorities in America, and I think my biography has given me that perspective a lot of young, rural white people simply never had.

Perhaps, that’s why I’ve always found Tony  Kaye’s 1998 race relations magnum opus American History X so fascinating and so incendiary. If ever there was a film that should have been required viewing in high school’s across the nation when studying racism, it was this (along with Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). Providing no easy answers or any pat solutions, American History X instead chooses to be a stark portrayal of the harsh realities that produce American racism, and the ways that hate and bitterness destroy ourselves and our families. Although the film has some problems, including a supporting cast that simply can’t live up to the standard of Edward Norton’s phenomenal lead performance, few American films have ever been this brutally honest about the state of racism in America (or at least, racism circa 1998).

Told with a liberal dosing of flashbacks, American History X is the tale of a fateful 24 hours in the life of the Vinyard family. The oldest son, Derek (Primal Fear‘s Edward Norton), has just been released from prison after serving time for brutally killing 4 Crips who were trying to steal his car, including curb-stomping one of the gangstas. Before going to prison, Derek was one of the leaders of a Venice Beach gang of white supremacist “skinheads,” but after seeing how hate and violence have only ruined his life and the life of his family, Derek has a change of heart in prison. Now that he’s out, he’s got a mission to keep his brother Danny (Terminator 2‘s Edward Furlong) from suffering the same fate as himself as Danny finds himself sliding deeper and deeper into the world of the skinheads.

Almost everything great about this film rests on the shoulders of Derek Vinyard. Whether it’s Ed Norton’s performance or the writing, Derek holds the film together when some of its less impressive parts threaten to distract. Writer David McKenna’s decision to make Derek an intelligent, charismatic, and articulate figure was wise because it allows Derek to be more than just a caricature of racist ignorance. Yes, Derek ultimately is ignorant, but he is undeniably smart, and the script uses Derek as a mouthpiece for the sort of talking points that show how impressionable youth fall under the spell of racism in the first place. They use Derek to explore how insecurity and fear and economic downturns can be exploited to make stupid kids believe that blacks or Hispanics or Jews are the roots of all of their problems. And the film makes his conversion to grasping how stupid his views were slow, painful, and tragically realistic.

It also doesn’t hurt that Ed Norton delivers the greatest performance of his career. To be able to turn Derek Vinyard into a terrifying figure of your worst nightmare of modern racism and then slowly chip away at his rough edges til what’s left is the compassionate, caring young man he was before his father was murdered by drug dealers is an incredible achievement. Although skinhead Derek is a human figure, he is in no way sympathetic. He’s very clearly a bad, bad person. Yet, the sensitivity and nuance of Norton’s performance (and perhaps the non-linear nature of the story) means you’re always seeing the dichotomy of Derek’s character and the internal battle between hate and love that allows you to ultimately sympathize with this man. I’ve never seen Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful, but his performance must have been beyond stellar to have beaten Edward Norton for this film at the Oscars.

Unfortunately, I can’t generate the same praise for the rest of the supporting cast. Avery Brooks, Elliott Gould, and William Russ shine in smaller supporting roles, but other, major players embarrass themselves to the point where I wonder how I didn’t notice these things when I was younger. Edward Furlong’s performance doesn’t just wilt in comparison to the star turn from Ed Norton. It is simply an objectively awful turn in one of the film’s pivotal roles. His cultural capital was still high at the time thanks to T2, which is how he must have landed the role, but he simply comes off stoned and/or utterly oblivious in virtually every second of his performance. The film is meant to be seen from his eyes. We see Derek through Danny, but Edward Furlong has the emotional range of a toaster oven, and when the lenses are focused on him, the film drags (which is to say nothing of equally bad performances from Fairuza Balk or smaller players in the various racial gangs).

For the most part, the film’s cinematography is superb and really draws you further into the film’s world. While the story told at the present is shot in color (with great hand-held camera work to add the verisimilitude of the scenes), the flashbacks are in a haunting black and white. These moments embrace the cinematic possibilities of the story with a sweeping score, more unconventional and high-concept shots, and a greater willingness to play with perspective. One of the film’s best scenes is a basketball game between the skinheads and a local black gang which, if taken at a completely straight face, is meant to come off like some typical Glory underdog sports match, but it’s the ironic and subversive undertones of the game which make you realize how bad it is that you’re rooting for the skinheads in this game. And of course, there’s the brutal and shocking scenes of violence including a prison rape and the now infamous curb-stomping scene which to this day I can barely watch.

Few films have explored racism with such an eye for the truth. Most of the American films that deal with the problems of racism in this country are told from the point of view of those being oppressed. We very rarely see a story about how the racists and the oppressors wind up in their sorry state in the first place, and that was what made American History X so shocking and controversial when it was released. Time has come down in the film’s favor, and it’s often considered a cult classic of the 1990s. I would have to agree. The film may have its share of problems (in addition to the poor supporting performances, it often tries to awkwardly lighten the mood by playing some of the racist tendencies of certain cast members for laughs, i.e. Ethan Suplee), but they pale in comparison to the raw power of one of the most honest and revealing films of the 90s.

Final Score: A

 

This blog is well over a year old now, but I’ve only reviewed three other films from the 1930s (and only The Birth of a Nation from before the 30s). I have sort of a complicated relationship with movies (specifically dramas) that came out before the mid-1960s. They have their own idealistic, nostalgic beauty, but more often than not, it’s their same idealism and simplicity that I found to be terribly boring and overdone in the face of the more mature and sophisticated narrative and cinematic devices that have come to define top-tier dramas since the 1960s. However, when I find dramas from that era that I love, I form an almost instant attachment with them because their ability to transcend time and space. If their story or message or simple style seems relevant and entertaining despite being over 60 years old, that’s a fairly massive achievement and it signifies their deserved place in the canon of film beyond the simple fact of their age. Casablanca fits in this category. The films of Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder are other notable timeless works. Well, I now have another film that despite its almost Aaron Sorkin-esque romanticism speaks across the chasms of decades (the film is over 70 years old) with a story that is as relevant today as when it first came out. While it suffers from some of the flaws inherent to the biopic genre, The Life of Emile Zola is a striking statement on our civic duty to stand up against injustice and government hypocrisy.

In the mid 1800s, French author Emile Zola (Paul Muni) and his closest friend, artist Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), are starving for their craft in the impoverished streets of Paris. Emile Zola writes by night and works by day as a clerk at a bookstore where his “slanderous” (i.e. true) attacks on the French government and the social injustices inherent in French life mark him as an active enemy of the state and cost him his job. When a random encounter with a French prostitute inspires him to write a novel that also works as an expose on the harsh realities of French working girls, Zola is suddenly thrust into the international literary spotlight and enjoys a truly prolific career as one of France’s most celebrated authors. He is essentially the Dickens of France in the way that he explores the less glamorous side of the exploding Industrial Revolution. However, in his success, Zola becomes content to while away his years in contented satisfaction despite the condemnations of his former best friend Cezanne who continues to pursue art above wealth. Zola finds himself back in the midst of another moral crisis when a Jewish captain in the French army, Albert Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), is falsely accused of being a spy and a massive government conspiracy arises to frame him for the crime rather than face a more politically tumultuous reality of admitting they charged the wrong man. When Zola embarks on his mission to clear the name of Capt. Dreyfus, he risks not only his legacy among the French people but even his own freedom when the French government accuses him of treasonous libel and places him on trial.

Joseph Schildkraut won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film despite the fact that he was only in the movie for at most fifteen minutes or so of actual screen time. Despite the briefness of his presence on camera, he gave a deeply emotional performance that was certainly helped with the effective close-ups of his subtly emotive face. Emile Zola is without question the main character of the film, but the trials of Capt. Dreyfus propel the film’s second half and it’s very important that we care deeply about this unjustly accused man, and Schildkraut aptly garnered my sympathy with his characterization of heartbroken betrayal. However, Paul Muni was the real star of the film, and while I haven’t seen Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous (who beat out Muni for the Best Actor Oscar that year), I can say that Paul Muni gave an all-star performance as the titular Emile Zola. It may have had some of the over-the-topness and emoting that characterized the big screen in the decade following the transition from silent films to “talkies,” but there was a genuine passion and intelligence in his role and Muni captured the moral outrage that any rational and ethical man in those circumstances would feel. I haven’t enjoyed watching a character give speech after speech in a movie like this since the last time I watched To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck’s iconic performance as Atticus Finch. Muni’s version of Zola might seem very old-fashioned by modern standards, but even though I knew his acting didn’t really jibe with the more naturalistic modern conventions, I still enjoyed the theatrics and fire he brought to the role.

For the reasons laid out earlier, I was actually dreading putting this in my DVD player. It sounded terribly boring and the plot description on Netflix made me fear that this was going to be a film with an era-relevant theme that wasn’t going to translate well to the modern era. I was completely wrong. Whether it was Emile Zola’s position as a 19th century Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky/Julian Assange or the way that justice and truth were being railroaded in the vague name of the state, this film is perfectly relevant in the post-Bush era of endless government secrecy. There was a scene during one of the trials where Zola’s lawyer requested the presence of a string of high-ranking army officials to testify, and they all used some imaginary government immunity to not participate. It was like a scene right out of the investigations into torture and inethical spying against the Bush administration. I could just hear Alberto Gonzalez and the rest of the Bush administration saying “I do not recall” over and over again. Similarly, while the film didn’t outright make Dreyfus’ Jewish ancestry the reason why he was being chosen as the scapegoat, the film definitely maintained that subtext (very subtly), and in an era where our government and our nation like to blame one ethnic group or another for our nation woes rather than face harsher truths, it all rang amazingly true. Yes, the script took some liberties with history (though I don’t know how many), and there was a lot of speechifying in this film, but as a product of a day when movies were nearly synonymous with the stage, I thought it was all entertaining and illuminating.

If you’re a fan of classic dramas, The Life of Emile Zola is an obvious pick considering its place as one of the most acclaimed biopics of the early days of cinema. However, if you’re like me and think film noir was the only consistently watchable non-comedy genre from that day, The Life of Emile Zola deserves your attention because of the renewed sense of urgency and relevancy it holds in the modern political climate. The film may paint Zola in the most romantic light possible without exploring any of his potential flaws and so it paints its hero in a very favorable light, but even without getting an entire picture, it’s a fascinating look at a page of history that hasn’t been done time and time again. The acting is excellent (by the standards of theatre anyways) and it was a surprisingly well-shot and well-edited film from this era. If you’ve ever found yourself in a liberal uproar because of social inequality or the government sacrificing justice in the name of a “greater good” that only really profits them, The Life of Emile Zola is an astounding artifact of the dawning of the silver screen to show how some issues have never really gone away.

Final Score: A-

Well, it’s that time of year again. The Oscar nominations came out a week or so ago, and much like last year, I’m beginning my attempts to watch every single film that was nominated for Best Picture. All of the films that received Oscar nominations in these categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor/Actress, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, Best Original/Adapted Screenplay, Best Animated Film, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Foreign Language Film) along with similar awards from the BAFTA’s, Golden Globes, and the Independent Spirit Awards have been placed in the master list for my blog which has been randomized again to take into account this new slew of films. However, the films nominated for Best Picture are so culturally relevant that I try to watch all of them as soon as I get the chance so they take precedence over everything else on my blog. I did the same thing last year and was pleasantly surprised with the quality of films nominated for Best Picture (even when I thought about half of the fim’s nominated for Best Picture were better than The King’s Speech, particularly The Social Network and Winter’s Bone) since the lowest score was a B (The Fighter) and every other of the 9 films scored a B+ or higher. Well, 2011’s crops of film isn’t off to as good a start as The Help is the worst film I’ve watched nominated for Best Picture since The Blind Side, and the only reason it isn’t a completely racist (I’ll explain what I mean there in a second) failure is the strength of its many exceptional performances.

The Help, based off the 2009 fictional (I can’t begin to express how frustrated I was when I found out this wasn’t real) novel of the same name, is the story of aspiring author Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Superbad‘s Emma Stone), who has just finished college and moved back to her hometown of Jackson, Miss., to write for the local newspaper during the 1960s. Assigned to the housekeeping column, Skeeter seeks cleaning advice from the maid, Aibileen Clark (a phenomenal Viola Davis), of a family friend. Witnessing the shame and injustice that these maids are regularly forced to endure (the last straw being her former friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) trying to push through a law requiring separate bathrooms for black housekeepers in everyone’s home), Skeeter decides to write a book from the point of view of the help. The first nanny she’s able to convince to come to her side is the stoic Aibileen, but when local maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) is fired for using Hilly’s mother’s bathroom (rather than go outside during a fierce thunderstorm that claimed over a dozen lives) and accused of thievery so she can’t gain any future employment, it leads to a revolution of local help agreeing to help Skeeter write her book and shed light on the racial injustices occurring in this town.

I’m shortly about to tear this film a whole new asshole, but before I begin ruthlessly eviscerating it, I do want to talk about the one shining light of the film which was its absurdly good ensemble cast. I mostly think of Emma Stone as a comic actress, but she handled dramatic material like an old pro and she was what held the film together. Despite the title of the film, Skeeter was the main character, not “the help,” and Emma aptly carried the weight of this story on her shoulders. Viola Davis has had some smaller parts (Doubt), but this will be the film that likely wins her an Oscar (even if I’d rather see it go to Rooney Mara for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and shoots her to widestream attention. She deserves it. She imbued Aibileen with such nuanced anger and pain in an intensely quiet role that would have been far too easy to overplay. She showed the perfect amount of restraint. Jessica Chastain has been everywhere this year, and she was a scene-stealer as local white-trash Celia Foote who was the only person to hire Minnie after Hilly fired her. There was just an innocence and naivete in her very natural performance. Octavia Spencer was also excellent as the fiery and sardonic Minnie. Playing the villain of the film, Bryce Dallas Howard proved that her career is more than nepotism and she was the perfect embodiment of southern belle racism.

Let’s start off with the film’s biggest problem. Much like Driving Miss Daisy and Dances with Wolves, this film is an incredibly offensive, condescending, and exploitative bit of revisionist history made to make modern bourgeois liberals feel better about themselves. This is not a film about African-Americans overcoming injustice and hardships. It’s about a white woman who helped bring the plight of black maids to the public eye. Except, it isn’t even a true story. It’s completely made up. None of this really happened (except the details of being a maid which the author allegedly stole from someone and never compensated them for). Modern audiences are meant to watch this and congratulate themselves on how far we’ve come since segregation. I think it was Stanley Kubrick who said that Schindler’s List wasn’t a film about the Holocaust (i.e. genocide and the attempted extermination of the Jewish race). It was a film about a thousand Jews that didn’t die and the man who tried to help them. This film doesn’t deal with race relations in any relevant way (unlike say a good Spike Lee or John Singleton film). Instead, it tries to create a white hero that modern audiences can go back and cheer for when in reality, nothing like what Skeeter was doing happened, and the realities of being a maid during these days was much worse (sexual assault was a large problem) than this film portrayed. If this film were a true story or had it come out during the 60’s, maybe it would have been more relevant. Instead, it simply contributes to the list of films that want to paint our nation’s unforgivable past in a more acceptable light so that we can feel better about what epic assholes we used to be as a nation.

It doesn’t help the film’s cause that it was also yawn-inducingly boring and that most of the “emotional” moments simply didn’t ring true (Aibileen’s scenes the notable exception thanks solely to Davis’s acting). People can be forgiven for enjoying this film if they think it’s a true story (which you would have to think because the film really wants you to feel that it’s real), but if you know that none of this really happened, it should be impossible to move past how simply condescending and unintentionally racist this film turned out. This does not shed a good light on the crop of films that I’ll be reviewing from 2011 for the upcoming Oscars. The next one that I’ll view is a new Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris! So that should hopefully get us back on the right track. Don’t just accept this film at face level because you’ll allow yourself to fall for the image it wants to project. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see just how flawed The Help truly is.

Final Score: C

American Gun

If there’s one hot button issue that truly divides America, then it’s gun control. In the wake the outbreak of school shootings in the 90’s and 2000’s, the notion that stricter gun control laws could have saved countless lives has sparked an intense debate between staunch defense of the 2nd amendment right to bear arms against society’s responsibility to protect its citizenry from those that would abuse that right. American cinema (outside of Bowling for Columbine) has never really confronted this issue heads-on in a meaningful or substantial way, and because of this, 2005’s Independent Spirit Award nominee American Gun seems like a relevant and (even six years later) still timely discussion of this pressing American issue. Presenting a realistic look at the violence and tragedy that guns have wrought on our schools and inner-cities, American Gun still manages to present a fairly balanced and rational look at guns in a way that should spark great discussion from open-minded individuals on both sides of the gun issue.

Shot on handheld cameras to increase the visceral emotion of the film, director Aric Avelino’s American Gun is a tale that spans from coast to coast as it weaves together three distinct stories to frame its narrative. In Oregon, we get the tale of a community that still suffers even three years later from the memories of a Columbine-esque shooting at the local high school that claimed many lives. Janet Huttenson (Marcia Gay Harden) is the mother of one of the boys who committed the shooting itself. She has lost her job, her husband, and any friends she had in the community in the wake of the shootings, and now she works double-shifts at a textile factory just to keep her younger son David (Chris Marquette) in a private school so he won’t be forced to attend the same high school where his brother committed a massacre. Simultaneously in this town, local cop Frank (Tony Goldwyn) is haunted by the memories of that fateful day and his inability to stop that tragedy from occurring. This all takes place against the back-drop of the three year anniversary of the shooting and a media frenzy that has descended on the town in the interim.

Another story takes place in and around an inner-city high school in Chicago. Forrest Whitaker plays Carter, the principal of a violence-infested high school where he tries to make whatever bit of difference in these kids’ lives that he possibly can while keeping the school safe at the cost of his relationship with his wife and son. Marcus (Chris Warren, Jr.) is a student at the school who carries a gun to school (but hides it in the alleyways outside during school) but is actually incredibly intelligent and hard-working but simply carries a gun to protect himself on the rough streets where he lives and works. The last (and easily weakest) story is that of a grandfather (Donald Sutherland) and his granddaughter (Linda Cardellini) who work in a gun store in Charlottesville, Virginia on the University of Virginia campus which is meant to show the peaceful and non-violent aspect of gun ownership and also to show how ignorant the grandfather can be to the violence that the weapons he deals in can cause.

With its large ensemble cast, this film’s performances are simply splendid. Marcia Gay Harden fully embodies the tragic bitterness and mental exhaustion that being in Janet’s position would cause someone. When she confronts a group of neighbors who are defacing her lawn and harassing her family, she taps into a level of rage and shame that makes the scene incredibly difficult to watch for its realism. Chris Marquette (The Girl Next Door) also nails a certain level of teenage apathy amongst youthful vulnerability that make him as sympathetic a character as his mother. Forrest Whitaker is a marvel as always, and he too channels a level of world-weary fatigue that shows how dealing with violence day-in and day-out can rob a man of his soul. At the same time, when the film calls for it, Whitaker is also able to ratchet up the intensity to show how he can put the fear of god into his students. While her part doesn’t give her much to work with, Linda Cardellini left me wondering yet again why she hasn’t been a bigger star. While we all know her comedy chops are finely tuned, she shows a heart-breaking dramatic side in this film, and she simply deserves wider exposure.

The film does occasionally use cheap storytelling tricks to play on our emotions, but that almost seems to come with the subject that it’s tackling. High school shootings and gun violence have been so overdone and are such sensitive issues that it’s almost impossible to find any freshness in these stories. However, the film does find its own fresh and original voice; it’s just that many of the scenarios are essentially familiar. Also, virtually the entire storyline with Donald Sutherland and Linda Cardellini seems fairly uneventful and boring compared to the rest of the film. Linda Cardellini’s ennui and angst aren’t given any real explanation except for one event that occurs when she’s already disattached to her job and family. I know why it’s in the film which is to show that the people that sell guns aren’t bad and shouldn’t necessarily be held responsible for the violence committed by the weapons they sell, but it just seems stylistically out of touch with the rest of the film which takes a bolder stance on the topic than this semi cop-out.

Even if you’re a card-carrying member of the NRA, as long as you are capable of having a rational discourse on your beliefs, then I heartily recommend that everyone go out and watch this film. At a perfectly reasonable length, the film tells its stories with efficiency while simultaneously adding dimension to the characters and settings without becoming bloated or especially preachy. As a matter of fact, it would perhaps be a misrepresentation of the film to say that it is an argument for gun control as it much more happy to simply make statements of fact about the violence and tragedy gun abuse can cause and simply allow the audience to draw its own conclusions from this evidence. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s minor flaws should not discourage anyone with an interest in socially-conscious film-making to sit back and enjoy this independently produced gem.

Final Score: A-

I’m a very politically and socially minded person. I’ve made little to no effort to hide my liberal affectations on this blog, and it should be fairly apparent from my reviews for The Corner or Winter’s Bone that I am a big fan of socially conscious film-making. As a matter of fact, cinema verite is probably my favorite genre of film; although I could also make a convincing argument for character studies. Continuing with this whole “great movie” streak I’ve been on lately, I just watched a film that I had never heard of before I rented it from Netflix, 1997’s Nil by Mouth, the directorial debut of actor Gary Oldman (The Professional, Harry Potter, True Romance) who also penned the script. An incredibly personal and intense film, Nil by Mouth won the BAFTA for Best British Film of 1997, and I can easily say that it is one of the most harrowing and emotionally explosive films that I’ve reviewed for this blog.

Nil by Mouth is an unflinching examination of life in London’s South End. More specifically, it is the study of one family that lives in the British equivalent of a housing project. Lorded over by the brutish animal Ray (Ray Winstone in a flawless performance), the family (whose surname I don’t think we ever hear) lives a hard-scrabble existence amongst a never-ending cycle of violence, drugs, and booze. While the film centers on three figures, Ray, Valerie (Katherine Burke as Ray’s battered and tormented wife), and Billie (Valerie’s heroin-addicted brother), we also get a gripping portrait of the neighborhood itself and those that inhabit it. While it would be unfair to say that this film is without a plot (as many explosive moments of startling violence occur), this film is far more concerned about painting the picture of this family in crisis, and over the course of the film’s two hour length, I’m not sure they could have made the picture more vivid.

A lot of times when films try to deal with the realities of drug abuse or alcoholism or even domestic violence, they lose a sense of authenticity by holding back from truly showing the grim truth or (and this is more likely) the scenarios were written by people with no clue of what these realities truly entail. You can not say that about Nil by Mouth. It does not hold back. When violence occurs in this film, it is used for brutal and dramatic effects that are so disturbing I could barely watch the film at times. While plenty of films are willing to show violence, few films show the impact of said violence, and once again, Nil by Mouth paints the whole picture. The same could be said for the scenes concerning drug abuse. Heroin addiction and alcoholism are main themes of the film and I haven’t seen a film handle alcoholism as well as this since Leaving Las Vegas nor has drug addiction been portrayed this viscerally since The Corner and The Wire. One might think the sheer profanity in this film would end up being over the top (it set the record for the most uses of the word “fuck” in any film ever and I’ve never heard the word “cunt” used this often), but it just lends to the authenticity of the film’s blue-collar and working class roots.

In addition to the compelling picture of the film, I now have a new performance to add to my top ten male performances of all time list as well as a superb female performance to round things out. Channeling both Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull and Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire, Ray Winstone turns his character Ray into rage incarnate. This isn’t done in an over-the-top or campy way, but in an incredibly terrifying, makes me scared to watch way. I don’t want to know what dark depths he went to find this character but Ray Winstone was just a million different shades of scary. I can’t remember the last time an actor brought this much sheer passion and intensity to a part. Also, Katherine Burke did a fantastic job as the battered wife. It would have been too easy to over-play the role, and where Ray is a study in passion and intensity in acting, Katherine gives a master class in subtlety and nuance. The fact that neither of these actors were nominated for Oscars the year this film came out is just a sin.

Simply put, if you can handle the film’s extreme profanity (which serves a legitimate artistic purpose and is not gratuitous), you have to watch this film. It’s hard and true life put on the screen. While you may want to look away at times (and Lord knows I wanted to), you owe it to Gary Oldman and yourself to sit through this masterpiece of cinema verite. I don’t give this score out very often. I’ve reviewed almost 120 films and I’ve only given it go 6 other pictures if that paints the picture. So, when I say that this is an “A+” film that really means something. And it is. Even if I had trouble understanding a lot of the obscure cockney slang and the thick south end accents, it did not for one second temper my appreciation of this in-your-face and no-holds-barred bit of film making.

Final Score: A+