I’m a big fan of vigilante revenge movies. Harry Brown is a terrific example of an effective genre piece, stripped down to its base elements, shoving a nasty and grim narrative in our faces, and providing for an excellent performance from Michael Caine as a widowed Royal Marine veteran who becomes incensed over the violence and depravity lurking in the shadows of his hardscrabble neighborhood. He gets especially pissed off when his best friend is despicably murdered by a group of thugs. Aggressively directed by Daniel Barber from a ruthless screenplay by Gary Young, Harry Brown lives in the same world as potent flicks like Death Wish and Gran Torino, offering up a nasty set of violent showdowns that pit Caine against a series of young hoodlums, who are slinging drugs, murdering innocents, and showing a casual disregard for human decency. I get a charge out of seeing bad things happen to bad people, so a film like this one is right up my alley, playing to my primal instincts, allowing for amazing emotional catharsis as Caine dispatches one piece of human garbage after another. Emily Mortimer is solid as a local cop looking into the various crimes that feature in the hostile and angry story; there’s a bitterness that permeates almost every scene of this dark, sordid film. If you don’t get a charge out of seeing Caine taking out the trash, and make no mistake – the baddies in this film are ugly and BAD – then I’m not sure what to tell you. Extremely well written with great observations and insights into the damaged male psyche and directed with a violent urgency that compliments the slow-burn nature of Caine’s work and Young’s hard-charging script in general, Harry Brown will make you sit up and take notice, as it’s a film that shows you societal ugliness right up front, never taking the audience out of the grips of a brooding, sometimes nightmarish scenario where anyone is fair game. A pre-Unbroken/Starred Up/’71 Jack O’Connell has an small but impressive role as one of the weaker hoodlums, who becomes prey to Caine’s unrelenting sense of vengeance.
I had an absolutely highlarious time watching the long lost cult classic An American Hippie in Israel. Made without an ounce of filmmaking polish by Israeli writer/producer/director Amos Sefer, this aggressively asinine counterculture relic from 1972 was recently rediscovered, refurbished, and released on Blu-ray by that fine man of cinematic idiocy Bob Murawksi over at Grindhouse Releasing. Clearly, the film was made with a purpose and intent, but the filmmaking chops are so non-existent that you just sit back and groove with the shenanigans, if you’re up for this sort of demented and stony silliness. I kept asking myself throughout the first hour — why is there an echo quality to the dialogue and a laugh track, as I was totally not getting the importance or significance of having a studio-audience-esque laugh track accompanying every scene. Maybe for a stab at satire? Maybe just to be a clown? Then, about an hour into the film, I realized that the disc had booted up with the “New Beverly Audio Experience” special feature, where you get to hear a live audience’s reaction to a special screening of the film. that was recorded in Los Angeles at the famed theater. LOL. Then, I figured, what the hell, I’ll watch the rest with the Hebrew subtitles running at the bottom of the screen, because, well, why the hell not? Was everyone literally blasted while making this film?
There’s blatant amateurish laughter from almost every main performer and extra that the camera passes by, and the film was clearly made with a love for the ideas but without a shred of filmmaking prowess. Honestly, it’s perfectly terrible in every department, with the “narrative” resembling a loose jumble of scenes and ideas, revolving around a 20-something American hippie and Vietnam war veteran named Mike (the impressively horrendous Asher Tzarfati), who travels to Israel after serving time in the war. He hitchhikes a ride with three random strangers, who then take him to an island community of hippies and freeloaders, where they can live a life of peace and harmony, while frequently undressing and ragging on the government, ripping doobies and often times twirling around in place. But the revelers are not without their issues, as a seemingly random set of bullying mimes show up from time to time to inexplicably annoy the crunchies; my guess is that they are supposed to represent “The Man,” who Mike is so agitated with all throughout the story.
There are lots of scenes of people driving in a convertible along the Israeli coast, lots of detours for dirty, unkempt lovemaking, tons of female nudity, with the addition of a live goat spicing up the proceedings for a bit. The film ends in fabulously chaotic fashion with tons of screaming, yelling, phony violence, and arm flailing. It all has to be seen to be believed. It’s wildly funny at times, whether intentional or not, and it’s never boring despite it feeling wholly slapdash and incredibly off-kilter. Ya’ackov Kallach’s cinematography is actually kind of cool to look at despite the budget being obviously low. Tzarfati gives a fabulously terrible lead “performance,” seemingly inventing new wave-lengths of awfulness as his performance “progresses.” Driving in circles seemed like THE thing to do!
Out of all of the films that David Mamet has directed that I’ve personally seen (House of Games, Homicide, Oleanna, The Spanish Prisoner, The Winslow Boy, State and Main, Heist, Redbelt, and Phil Spector), his underrated 2004 effort Sparta is easily my favorite. Mamet has long been one of my favorite writers (ask me about the letter I wrote to him in high school…!) and I loved how ballsy this political action thriller is, and I’ll always be continually fascinated with the i…dea that he wrote pretty much the entire film in code and technical jargon — you REALLY have to listen to what’s being said in this ultra-cryptic film. Not that it’s not coherent, it is, it’s just that nothing is traditionally spelled out, and you definitely have to be up for some back-story digging and you’ll need to be able to make some logic jumps on your own.
The film has a 70’s meets the 90’s vibe, with a pessimistic narrative and slick cinematography; the climatic sequence at a private jet hangar is shot with some seriously awesome lens flare POWER, and I loved how gritty Mamet made the early training sequences, where we see two potential black ops recruits being placed in a room, and being told that only one of them is allowed to leave alive. Val Kilmer, on paper, may not have seemed like a logical choice for Mamet’s brand of staccato and stylized dialogue beats, but he’s right at home in one of his best, most focused performances. The excellent supporting cast includes Ed O’Neill as a take-no-bull-shit government worker, Derek Luke as Kilmer’s partner, William H. Macy as a corrupt government official, Clark Gregg, Steven Culp, Johnny Messner, Tia Texada, the always great Said Taghmaoui, and Kristen Bell as the president’s daughter, who has been kidnapped and potentially sold into the EurAsian sex-slave market, with Kilmer and his team trying to relocate her before the press catches wind of the situation.
The events in this film are often far fetched, but I never cared, because everyone takes it so damn seriously, and with Kilmer leading the charge in a totally committed and visceral performance, any plot contrivances are made up for with the ear-catching dialogue that’s filled with numerous lines worthy of quotation and the propulsive direction that Mamet brought to the table. “Where’s the girl?” POWER.
I love Steven Zaillian’s directorial debut Searching for Bobby Fischer. Zaillian has a nearly flawless track record as a big-gun Hollywood screenwriter, and his directorial efforts have also been excellent (A Civil Action and the underrated All the King’s Men), but his first film is a nearly perfect, humanistic piece that zeroes in on character in a way that few dramas ever dare, especially when considering that the film is told through the POV of a 10 year old chess prodigy, who likely has some developmental and social anxieties, if not outright disorders. I’ve been obsessed with this film for over 20 years. I viewed it in the theater at 13 years of age, it was a go-to film when it endlessly played on HBO back in the day, and throughout the years, I’ve turned to this great, unassuming, patient work at least once every 365 days on my well-worn DVD, because it reminds me of how effective a simple story can be when the acting is extra-precise and when the writing compliments the direction and vice versa. It also helps to have Conrad Hall calling the shots behind the camera; this is yet another beautifully textured and composed piece of work from one of the most legendary of cinematographers ever to grace the medium.
The plot centers around a kid named Josh who is discovered to be a chess whiz by his parents and family members. They encourage his passion and gift, which leads him to an extremely intense and strict instructor named Bruce (played with devilish charm by Ben Kingsley), who pushes young Josh both emotionally and psychologically to be the best chess talent he can be, along with never forgetting how to be a decent person along the way, without sacrificing a competitive edge. Bruce continually hypes up and compares Josh to chess great Bobby Fischer, allowing the youth to develop the idea that one day, he might be as great as that iconic yet mysterious figure. There’s also an affecting subplot between Josh and a speed-chess hustler named Vinnie, perfectly captured with great spirit and flair by Laurence Fishburne. And let’s not forget about the incredibly moving family dynamics between Josh and his parents, played by the brilliant team of Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen, both of whom radiate warmth and respect and support for their son, even under the most trying of situations and circumstances.
And over the course of the film, it’s remarkable to witness Josh become his own person, after so many others have projected what they want him to be or to become, without ever asking Josh what it is that he really wants to do. The lead performance from then eight year old Max Pomeranc is nothing short of sensational; there are adults who have been acting for years who don’t come close to the complexity that he delivered in this challenging piece of work. It’s also interesting to note that Pomeranc was an actual chess player before filming began (even appearing on a Top 100 list for his age group, according to Wikipedia), and that he never went on to act in another substantial film again. But he’ll always have his tremendous performance in this amazing film to hold close to his heart. Zaillian has long been a considerable talent, expertly balancing his artistic sensibilities with the demands of the studios who are always courting him for big adaptations or structural work. It’s not hard to see why. This is a great film and Zaillian is a class act.
The Offence is a deeply upsetting movie, thoroughly downbeat, and anchored by a riveting performance from Sean Connery, who was clearly working overtime to shed the image of James Bond in his first post-franchise starring role. Directed with customary precision and intensity by Sidney Lumet, this is a stagy, depressing film that pits Connery, playing a dogged British detective who has seen one horrible crime too many, going up against a supposed child rapist/killer, played with menace and questionable intentions by Ian Bannen. Most of the action is confined to an interrogation room, a room which is continually made to feel smaller and smaller thanks to the expert camera placement and air-tight editing, which goes a long way in producing a disquieting and unnerving sense of claustrophobia. There were some early visual cues that reminded me of what Roger Deakins was going for in some stretches of the similarly themed kidnapping film Prisoners, and I loved how Connery never wavered from delving into such a disturbing lead role, one that was clearly intriguing to him for being so far removed from the screen-defining role of 007. The early sequence where Connery discovers the narrative’s chief victim is scarily believable and tears-inducing (for me, anyways…), and it was a further reminder of how when a scene is so well directed, fear and tension cab be so well conveyed without ever resorting to gratuitous tricks. But when Lumet wants you to feel the punches and taste the sweat and blood, he’s not afraid to unleash an ass-kicking, but it’s never unimportant to the narrative, or without motivation from the characters, which always makes for a more honest story. The themes of revenge and transference are probingly discussed and the finale, while mildly ambiguous, allows for the viewer to know that nothing will ever be OK for the people within the framework of this relentlessly grim worldview. United Artists released The Offence in 1973, and while it would be a box office disappointment (it was barely given a European release with the country of France skipped entirely), it has gained a reputation for being a unique item in Lumet’s massive filmography, and a challenging piece for Connery, who should have gotten more respect for his work on this film at the time of its release. Also, it must be noted: Connery says the phrase “bloody” a lot in this film. A bloody ton. It’s sort of comical.