Newbie Wednesday – Harry Brown



Harry Brown (2009, dir. Daniel Barber)
Starring Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley, Ben Drew, Jack O’Connell

In the States we call government housing The Projects, in the UK they have the Estates. This is setting of this bleak and tragic story of a man who is alone. The film doesn’t flinch from showing shocking acts of brutality and doesn’t raise up one figure as a champion over another. Harry does what he does, but why? The motives for the killing spree remain vague when you begin to examine things closely. Is it in retribution for his friend? Or is their something much darker going on?

Harry Brown, is ex-marine and pensioner living in the Estates. His wife is living in the hospital stuck in a catatonic state. He has one friend in the world, Leonard, whom he meets at the corner pub for a pint everyday. Leonard is fed up with the way drugs are sold openly and people like himself are harassed by the hoodlums that roam the estates. One morning, Harry wakes up to learn Leonard was found stabbed to death in a pedestrian tunnel. This seems to be the final straw for Harry and he embarks on a crusade to avenge his friend, killing young men where ever he goes.

The film eventually goes down a fairly predictable road with Harry’s action parallel by a police investigation about them. What is more interesting is all the subtext brought to the film, possibly not intentionally. There is a lot of work put into making the world Harry inhabits grimey and flithy and despicable. So we are naturally appalled by the various denizens he encounters. As an audience we are clearly set up to cheer for Harry and boo all those nasty villains (see Gran Torino). However, there is a moment near the end of the film where Harry asks a character to kill him. This immediately caused me to re-evaluate what had gone before. Here’s a man whose wife is gone and has just lost his best friend. He lashes out, presumably because he wants but he then wants to simply die at the end. His entire crusade was a nihilistic one. Harry lost all he loves and now he wants to explode, hitting what ever he can in his path.

If it wasn’t for Michael Caine this would have been a forgettable film. There is something about just his subtle looks that elevates the film. In one scene he sits across from a drug dealer whose girlfriend is overdosing on heroin. The slight glances and looks he makes around the room feed the audience tons of information. While Clint Eastwood seemed one note through Gran Torino, Caine delivers a multi-layered performance. Emily Mortimer is also wonderful as the detective in charge of Caine’s case. By the end, she’s the only virtuous character in the film. She has been devoted to her job and wants to solve the murders. However, we can see the world crumble around her.

Harry Brown definitely wants to be a lofty film, but its very much a continuation of the Death Wish premise. I admit there is some greater emotional depth here. The disappointment for me came from how undeveloped characters are. There is no motive for anyone save Harry and it left me feeling like the picture was very hollow.

Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Blow Out



Blow Out (1981)
Starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz

Alfred Hitchcock passed away in 1980 and with him ended De Palma’s rather blatant homage/ripoffs of his work. With Blow Out, De Palma attempted an American remake of Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blowup. The picture leans much more in the direction of the big Hollywood pictures De Palma would go on to make in the 1980s and 1990s, yet it also marks his move away from the psycho thriller. Here the murders going on are linked to political conspiracy, not a mentally disturbed individual working on their own, though the murderer is definitely mentally disturbed.

Set in Philadelphia during the 100th anniversary of the Liberty Bell’s last ringing, the film follows Jack (Travolta) a sound editor for B-horror/slash nudie pictures. Jack was once in the military and worked as a cop wiring informants to crack down on the mob. The end of his career came when one of the informants was caught and killed because Jack couldn’t get to him in time. One night as Jack is out at a local park recording some samples he sees and ends up recording the audio of a car accident. He rescues the girl inside, who is still alive, and finds the driver dead. Later, at the hospital he learns the driver was a presidential candidate and the police are very eager to make Jack and the girl, Sally (Allen) forget what they saw. Using the photos of a private eye, that happened to be at the park, and his own audio recordings, Jack makes his own film of the incident. What he discovers is that the car’s tire didn’t blow out as the police are claiming but that someone fired from the bushes and shot it out. However, there is a man (Lithgow) who has been hired to kill any and all witnesses to the incident.

The film is chock full of references to other pictures and while it is not one of de Palma’s best it still has those individual sequences that are amazingly put together. The opening of the film is a blatant reference to the popular slasher flicks of the time, in particular Halloween. One long take from the POV of a killer stalking a sorority is slowly zoomed out to reveal Jack and his employer working on the sound for their newest picture. The entire conspiracy set-up is a hodgepodge of real life historical assassination and plot elements from the mid-20th century. The film Jack puts together is a parallel to the Zapruder film. The car crash with the drowning girl inside a direct reference to Teddy Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. And the desperation of the powers that be to cover everything up is deeply linked to the still linger negative sentiments manifested by Watergate in the 1970s.

One of the best parts of the film is that de Palma keeps it simple. When dealing with political conspiracy it could be very easy for the story to spiral out of control as more twists and sinister figures are added. Instead we never really get the specifics of why this potential candidate was killed, we just keep focused on Jack and Sally and really only know as much as they do about what is going on. The cast is fairly small and its only Jack that we learn any real background about. The mysterious hired killer played by John Lithgow is given all the character development we need. His precision and adherence to duty hint at his past as a military man or a member of the CIA but we never need that spelled out to us. There’s no great speech at the end either where everything is spelled out to make sure the audience got it. De Palma seems to trust our intelligence that we picked up on the things he was saying.

While not my favorite of what I’ve seen so far, Blow Out is definitely one of the tightest, leanest pictures of De Palma’s. He delivers just enough of every element that it never sags in the middle. It’s definitely not something you haven’t seen before in terms of the plot but its those elements that have been retread presented by a master filmmaker. It’s also a perfect example of how to remake a film without copying it beat for beat. De Palma takes the almost wordless Blowup, where the murder is kept completely obscured and vague, and makes a truly American version that reflected the current mood towards the upper echelons of power at the time.

Newbie Wednesday – Kick Ass



Kick Ass (2010, dir. Matthew Vaughn)
Starring Aaron Johnson, Nicolas Cage, Chloe Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong

There’s a sort of geek wish deep down in those that read comics that somehow, someway they could don a cape and cowl and fight the criminal element of this world. The superhero idea goes all to the mythological heroes and into figures like King Arthur and Robin Hood to the Three Musketeers and the pulp mystery men and finally into comics. So our protagonist proposes a very legitimate question early on “How come no one has ever tried to be superhero?” It’s obvious that there are plenty of crazy people in this world and it comes as no surprise that there actually *are* people who have tried this. You can check them out at the World Superhero Registry. So how does the hero of our film try to tackle the nuances of masked crime fighting?

Dave is a high school student who is invisible to the opposite sex, but very visible to the bullies and street thugs of his city. After being robbed one to many times, Dave purchases a few essential components and becomes the mystery man known as “Kick Ass”. Kick Ass is immediately sent to the emergency room after his first battle and has steel rods and plates put in him that ironically grant him a certain level of invulnerability. And this is where the film completely goes off the tracks of its premise “What if superheroes were real?” and decides to be no more different than any other comic book flick. The duo of Big Daddy and Hit Girl are introduced, a father-daughter team of armed to the teeth avengers as well as The Red Mist, the son of a local mafia don who suckers his pop into stocking him up. The film goes through a lot of tonal changes and shifts, finally settling into a fairly predictable final battle sequence.

The movie is only shades different than Superhero Movie, a descendant of the Scary Movie parody genre. Whereas that film knew it was a comedy and behaved thusly, Kick Ass seems to want to be aloof and post-modernly ironic, yet still be a “bad ass” super hero movie. I’m not willing to go as far as Roger Ebert in his review, calling the film “morally reprehensible”. After watching the 2006 remake of Hills Have Eyes I think it could serve as a contender for that. I didn’t have a problem with the concept of this young girl, trained to be a super soldier by her father, slaughter masses of mob men on screen.

My problem with the film came from a couple elements that diverged from the comics which actually lent it real world credence. If you know me well, you know that I am not one of those comic book geeks who natters on about minutiae that differs slightly from the source material. I’m a geek who can be reasonable about conceits that have to be made in the process of adaptation. However, the first divergence from the original mini-series that irked me was when Dave reveals he is not truly gay to his love interest, she has mistaken him as such for the majority of the film. In the film, she is unnaturally forgiving and its implied the two have sex, after which they are a couple. In the comic book, she is pissed and eventually has her new boyfriend beat Dave up. That would be the actual real world way the story would play out. So while the film wants to be a wry commentary on the implausibility of superheroes in the real world, through this change it actually invalidated its premise to me.

The second divergence colors the audience’s entire perceptions of a character in a disturbing manner. In the film, Big Daddy was a police officer whose career was ruined by the mob, sending him to prison, while his wife went broke and died on the table giving birth to Hit Girl. Once out of prison, Big Daddy began training Hit Girl. In the comics, Big Daddy raised Hit Girl with this story. In reality, he was a no body, an accountant who had a mid-life crisis and kidnapped his daughter to create this more exciting existence. Once again, the film compromises its original intent for the sake of “superhero-ing” it up. I found the film to be enjoyable, but nothing I would watch again. Because it is too scared to make its characters truly real and give then the downbeat ending that naturally would happen it ultimately fails and ends up being yet another generic comic book movie.

DocuMondays – Kurt and Courtney



Kurt and Courtney (1998, dir. Nick Broomfield)
Featuring Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, and a cast of thousands…of junkies

I was thirteen when Kurt Cobain killed himself, and honestly the front man for Nirvana existed on my periphery. The whole grunge scene has never been a music genre I enjoyed, I’m more of a 90s BritPop fan (Oasis, Blur, The Verve). But I can understand why the movement was so big, as it was a big deviation from the musical norms of the time. This docu, by Brit filmmaker Broomfield seeks to stir up some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Cobain’s death and in the end isn’t really about Kurt or Courtney, but about famewhoredom.

What stands out most about the film is the shoddiness. Made on the cheap, the documentary is narrated by Broomfield who doesn’t do much to play the neutral observer, but pretty much interjects his personal opinions throughout. That doesn’t make the film any less fascinating though, especially with its parade of “friends” of the Cobains. In particular, one young woman who takes Broomfield to a club where Kurt performed during his early days, and whom talks with expertise about seeing the Cobain couple shoot heroin. She promises Broomfield photographic evidence, and when he returns to her apartment later she is anxious and befuddled and has a million excuses as to why she hasn’t been able to provide the photos. The woman is incredibly reminiscent of how Courtney Love is described throughout the documentary.

Broomfield pursues some wild leads, including the claim by S&M band member El Duce that Courtney offered him $50,000 to kill Kurt and “make it look like a suicide”. A less reliable source you couldn’t ask for. There’s Courtney’s former private investigator who now has “scientific” evidence that the amount of heroin in Kurt’s blood made it impossible for him to handle the shotgun. However, Broomfield provides actual scientific evidence proving that it is possible, to which the investigator simply ignores. The most awful of Broomfield’s interviewees is Courtney’s father, a man writing and publishing books condemning his daughter for the murder of Kurt in what he explains as a way to keep in touch with his daughter.

Broomfield reasonably comes to the conclusion in the film’s epilogue that Kurt most likely did commit suicide and that Courtney didn’t pay anyone to kill him. What the documentary revealed to me was that at the end of the day both people came from incredibly messed up homes where a strong parental presence was absent. Kurt seems like a very personable, intelligent guy in some of the interview archival footage, and Courtney seems like a sad woman who made a habit of latching onto local musicians in the hope of grooming them into the next Sid Vicious, as a compliment to her Nancy Spungeon. The person you feel the saddest for is poor Frances, their daughter, whose childhood couldn’t have been an easy one.

Kurt and Courtney is currently available to view on Hulu.com

Import Fridays – Mother (2009)



Mother (2009, dir. Joon-ho Bong)
Starring Hye-ja Kim, Bin Won, Ku Jin, Yoon-jae Moon

The premise of Joon-Ho Bong’s Mother doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary from any other murder mystery flick: A concerned mother whose mentally disabled son is accused of murder decides she will pursue the case the police refuse to and find her son innocent. In the hands of Joon-Ho Bong, whose 2006 film The Host similarly played with genre expectations, this becomes a taught Hitchcock-style thriller.

Mother (she is never given a formal name in the film) is fiercely protective of her son, Do-joon. Do-joon still sleeps in the bed as Mother and relies on her for his day to day survival. His friend Jin-tae manipulates Do-joon and uses him to escape from trouble, knowing the boy won’t understand what is happening. One night, Do-joon arrives home late and drunk, the next morning the police arrest him in the murder of a local teenage girl. Mother makes it her duty to prove her son’s innocence.

Hye-Ja Kim delivers a magnificent performance as Mother. She is small and timid, yet when circumstances call for it she is a force to be reckoned with. Yet she is never unrealistic. The things Mother does are all things a frail middle-aged woman would be capable of. That fragility and humanity is what makes the character so compelling. The audience knows that if she truly comes up against a murderous, powerful force she is not going to get away. In that way, the film offers wonderful counter-programming to American cinema which commonly seeks to mythologize its protagonists by turning them into people capable of supernatural feats. Even in our most “realistic” contemporary cinema, we are commonly given moments that force to ignore their implausibility.

If you have never seen Korean cinema before, then I would recommend starting with this, or The Host even. Joon-Ho Bong is a director who walks that fine line between commercial and artistic film perfectly. He creates enough tension that it pulls us in, and the payoffs to the tension never feel dishonest. The film is also clever, in the same way Mother would have to be to navigate the dangerous journey she is on. The climax of the film and its mystery will leave you stunned and completely flip your perceptions of the characters in the story. A definite must see!

Import Fridays – Un prophete



Un prophete (2009, dir. Jacques Audiard)
Starring Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi

Un prophete is playing at the Belcourt Theater starting today.

Everyone loves a story of “boy makes good”. Nothing better than a young man pulling himself up by his bootstraps and making a name. The only downside is the body count. That story is what French film Un prophete seeks to tell, and colors its story with issues of racial identity, particularly how it can influence other’s perceptions of us. And the film also manages to not miss the simple moments amongst all the crime and violence. It’s in those moments that the picture shines.

Malik has just entered prison after an undisclosed crime. He’s a very young Frenchman of Arabic descent, who is incredibly nervous and introverted now confronted with years in prison. After a chance encounter with Arab inmate Reyeb, he’s recruited by the Corsican mob on the inside to kill this rival. That murder colors Mailk’s existence, Reyeb appearing in his bed in the middle of the night, his garish throat wound still present. The haunting happen in such a subtle way, Reyeb just suddenly there, Malik never jumping but living with this ghost in his mind.

Malik begins taking on more responsibilities with the Corsicans, who still view him as a “filthy Arab”, while the Arabic in prison see him as a “Corsican dog”. It’s evident that this labeling has a strong effect on Malik. Despite this internal conflict, he soldiers on, running errands while on day leave for Cesar, the head of the Corsican prisoners. What Malik doesn’t tell Cesar is that he is starting his own low level operations on the outside, particularly running drugs.

Every thing Malik does is out of an innate sense of survival. He knows he won’t make it long on the inside so he takes the murder job from the Corsicans, spending hours trying to hold a razorblade on the inside of his cheek for preparation. The film lingers on those moment of prep time, letting Malik fester in the anxiousness of what he has to do. As terrible as you know his actions will be, you still root for him, want him to get away with it because of his relative innocence compared to the weathered inmates around him.

One of the highlights of the film comes when Malik flies a plane to meet with Arabs in Italy. This is his first plane ride and, instead of skipping over it to get to the action with the Arab mob, the film pauses and lets us see Malik’s wonder at riding in a plane. He peers over his seat mate for a glance out the window and is surprised when a flight attendant brings him cookies and glass of water. Scenes like this are what make Un prophete stand out from other “rise to power” mob stories. Malik’s tale ends in the way the audience will probably expect, but its not his position as the new boss that is important, its the journey that brought him to it and the person he was that he left behind.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Peeping Tom


Peeping Tom (1960, dir. Michael Powell)

Starring Karlheinz Bohm, Moira Shearer, Anne Massey

Released the same year as Hitchock’s Psycho, critically panned in Britain, pulled from theaters after an incredibly short run, and reviled by its director, Michael Powell. Peeping Tom sounds like it should have been forgotten. However, the film was years ahead of its time and is a masterful piece of commentary on voyeurism and the film audience. Infamous for containing the first nudity in British cinema (a nude model’s bare breasts are glimpsed for a couple seconds), but is about much more than seedy exploitation.

Mark Lewis is film studio cameraman by day, with side job taking nudie pictures for a corner newsagent. What no one knows is ,that from time to time, Mark takes to the streets with his camera and films the faces of women he murders. This is the result of a psychologist father who experimented on the compulsion people have to gaze, or be a peeping tom, on his own son. He fetishistically films young Mark, waking him up in the middle of the night by tossing a lizard in his bed or making him listen to the sounds of women being murdered. Now, with Mark alone in the world he has been lost in the damaged inflicted on him. He befriends a young boarder in his large mansion and fights his urges to make her gaze into the camera.

Peeping Tom  has some very clever camera play, especially during the murders where we see everything through Mark’s camera. And it does a very effective job of getting across the seediness of the world Mark inhabits. At the photo shoot over the newsagent’s shop, one model complains that Mark needs to hide her bruises from the camera, while another is frightened of people seeing her harelip. Powell creates exterior, physical deformities to emphasize the corruption infesting Mark. Are these women truly this scarred? Or it a manifestation of Mark’s psychosis?

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is, that despite Powell’s dislike of the picture, he weaves himself so personally into it. He plays young Mark’s father in old reel to reel footage, cast his own son as young Mark, and his own wife as the body of Mark’s lifeless mother in a funeral scene. In addition, the most elaborate murder is performed on actress Moira Shearer, famous as the prima ballerina in The Red Shoes. Powell and Shearer reportedly could not stand each other, he viewed her as an “airhead”. The film Mark is working on involves a director struggling with a red-headed flighty actress he is having to do retakes of constantly. In addition, Shearer plays the younger actress’ stand-in and is presented as an aging actress on her way out. A rather cruel, yet clever, way of Powell addressing his own problems in cinema.