Felon is a bitter,and tragic prison drama that’s packed with wrenching injustice, simmering anger and caged animal violence. Loaded with the kind of tough guy elements which make prison films exciting (check out Lock Up with Stallone), it’s also has a tender side brought forth by its extremely thoughtful and well written script, which explores ideas that are both hard to swallow and very sad. Stephen Dorff, a guy who already has the gritty look as soon as he walks into a frame, plays Wade Porter, a simple family man who is just starting out at life along with his wife (Marisol Nichols). Their hopes and dreams turn into a nightmare, however, when a violent intruder breaks into their home one night. Wade strikes out in defence of himself and his wife, accidentally killing the criminal. Because of the backwards ass way the States run things, he is accused of manslaughter and sentenced to serve out jail time. He is then thrown into the dog pit, literally and figuratively. The penitentiary he is sent to is run by sadistic and corrupt Lt. Jackson (Harold Perrineau) along with his brutal enforcer Sgt. Roberts (Nick Chinlund). Jackson organizes vicious fight club style matches between the inmates, totally off the books and beyond any correctional legislations. Wade is forced to adapt, adjust and bring out monstrous aspects within himself to survive, and make it through his sentence with both his life and humanity intact. It’s not an easy turn of events to watch unfold onscreen, but necessary in the sense that this probably happens quite frequently to people in real life, and should be seen. The only solace Wade finds is with his gruff, veteran cell mate John Smith (Val Kilmer) a lifer who once went on a massacre of revenge against individuals who murdered his family. Smith is his guiding light, steering him through the hellish carnage of what he’s forced to do and helping him to keep the candle of compassion alive within him, never losing sight of what is essential in his fight to claim his life once more. Kilmer is a force that will knock you flat in this role, an old bull with dimming fury in his eyes, a man with a bloody history that has forged the weary dog we see in the film. Late in the film he has an extended monologue to Wade, giving him both blessing and advice with some of the most truthful and affecting gravity Kilmer has showed in his career. The writer/director, who appears to be primarily a stuntman, should be commended for such a script, that could have easily been a straight up prison flick without the pathos that drips off its heartstrings. We as an audience view this painfully and prey nothing like this ever happens to us or anyone we know, hoping to see a light of hope at the end of the dark tunnel for Wade. I won’t spoil it, but it’s worth the hit that your emotions will take while watching, and there is hard earned catharsis to be had, and penance for the characters you want to shoot in the face along the way. The extends to brilliant work from Chris Browning, Anne Archer, Nate Parker, Johnny Lewis and a fantastic Sam Shepherd as another seasoned convict. This was correct to video as I recall, which is a crime. It’s up there as my favourite prison set film that I’ve ever seen, a soul bearing piece.
House Of Sand And Fog is an emotional thunderclap in ways you won’t see coming, leaving the viewer gutted after a finale that feels spare and detached yet wracked with emotion in the same moment. You feel haunted after witnessing the story unfold, and I was particularly affected by Ben Kingsley’s determind, tender performance for days after my viewing of the film. He plays an Iranian man, a proud man who was a Colonel in the air force in his home country, and has been forced to work construction labor jobs in America to support his family, and to keep up the appearances of their lifestyle. When neglected taxes force a troubled woman (Jennifer Connelly) out of the house she grew up in, Kingsley sees an opportunity to buy the the property for a fraction of what it’s worth, essentially leaving Connelly homeless. She has a history of alcoholism and instability, and this unfortunate situation really worsens her condition, leading to angry and confrontational behaviour towards Kingsley. He has no ill will towards her, he’s simply trying to make a better life for his family whom he loves very much. His wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is still very much rooted in Iranian culture, and much of what’s going on goes over her head. There’s also a cop (Ron Eldard) who strikes up a reckless romance with Connelly and tries to strong arm Kingsley into selling the house back to her, pretty much reasoning with his dick instead of his brain. This is a film that refuses to take a side, showing us unblinking and compassionate views of both people within the conflict, and never lifting a judging eyebrow. It’s a sad, sad turn of events and the film wants to show us the tragedy, but it does so with the utmost care, and always has a loving hand in presenting it’s two lead characters. Connelly is heartbreaking, showing us the burning humiliation that frays her spirit to the last sinew. Kingsley is flat out brilliant in the kind of performance that holds up for decades to come. He rightly won an Oscar for his galvanizing turn that breaks hearts and opens tear ducts. Ron Eldard is the only piece that doesn’t fit, because he’s usually not fund in this type of stuff. He’s really talented as an offbeat character actor, but just seems out of place here playing it straight, and it also doesn’t help that his character is just damn unlikable. Aghdashloo is the third leg of the acting table, and her work earned her an Oscar as well, she is plain superb. Be careful of what mood you’re in when you give this one a go, it’s pretty devastating. It’s also powerful cinema, and a story that could happen to anyone, anywhere in the world, giving us something real to latch onto and connect with.
Barry Levinson’s Sleepers is a deliberately paced, downbeat look at revenge, and is one of the most brilliant yet seemingly overlooked dramas of the 90’s. Part of it could have been marketing; The cover suggests blistering violence, confrontation and courtroom intrigue. While there are such moments within the narrative, they live to serve the story, which Levinson and his dream cast are doggedly intent on telling. It’s a sombre affair to be sure, slow and methodical as well, but never to be confused with boring. It’s just such a great story, one that unfolds exactly as it needs to. It starts in the 1950’s, where four young rapscallions run wild on the streets of Manhatten. It kicks the story off with a sort of urban Stand By Me vibe, and if you thought that film went to some heavy placed, stick around through Sleepers. When an innocent prank ends in tragedy, the four are sent to an austere children’s correctional facility, where they run afoul of some sadistic and abusive guards, led by Kevin Bacon, who is scummier than scum itself. They endure months of ritual abuse at the hands of these sickos, until their eventual release. Life goes on, as it must, the four boys grow up and follow very different paths from one another. Michael (Brad Pitt) becomes an esteemed lawyer. Shakes (Jason Patric) lives a quiet life, while Tommy (Billy Crudup, wonderfully cast against type) and John (Ron Eldard) take a darker road to drugs and crime. Eventually their past rears it’s head, and they are presented with an opportunity for much delayed revenge. It doesn’t all play out the way you may think though, and half the fun of this one is being surprised by geniunly lifelike plot turns and characters who behave as real humans would. Pitt is the highlight in a performance of quiet torment. Dustin Hoffman is fun as a washed up lawyer who gets involved, Minnie Driver shows up as a tough NYC gal who gets involved with Patric, Robert De Niro has a nice bit as a kindly priest who counsels the boys even until adulthood, and there’s further supporting work from Jonathan Tucker, Bruno Kirby, Frank Medrano, Brad Renfro, Terry Kinney and more. Levinson usually takes on bright, chipper comedies and razor sharp political satire. With Sleepers he deviates into tragic dramatic material, and shows his versitility excellently. This one gets grim, no doubt about it. However, it’s a story not only worth the telling, but worth the watching for us.