Category Archives: Film

“JEFF BECK: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS”— Beck Through the Sixties

jeff beck a man for all seasons

“Jeff Beck ‘A Man For All Seasons’”

Beck Throughout the 1960s

Amos Lassen

In 1964 when Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds, the band was left searching for their first hit and they needed a replacement. Who they got was a multi-talented, technical and sonic pioneer, Jeff Beck. Beck helped move the band forward and it became on of the most daring groups working and playing in the United Kingdom.

This documentary traces Beck’s music and carreer in the 1986s from his formative influences with the Yardbirds and with Mickie Most as a soloist and thea the first incarnation, albeit radical, of the Jeff Beck Group at which time he played alongside Rod Stewart, vocalist and Ron Wood as second guitarist.

We get many interviews and lots of rare performance and studio footage. I love that those who worked with Back contribute and I suspect this is the most complete portrait of Beck that we will ever have. It always seems more real when we see and hear the person speaking. I doubt we will ever consider Beck to be underrated again after seeing this documentary.

Here are some of the highlights: New interviews with: Yardbirds first manager, Giorgio Gomelsky; the man who took over from Gomelsky, colourful music biz impresario, Simon Napier Bell; Jeff’s fellow Yardbirds, Jim McCarty & Chris Dreja; musical conspirators from the early 70s, Tim Bogert & Max Middleton; the ever shocking Pamela Des Barres (aka Miss Pamela of The GTOs); legendary music press scribes, Charles Shaar Murray & Chris Welch; Beck’s official biographer Martin Power and  Uncut Magazine editor, Nigel Williamson.

“SALEM: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON”— Massachusetts, 1692

salem poster

“Salem”: The Complete First Season

 Massachusetts, 1692

Amos Lassen

In Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1600s there were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people (primarily women) who were falsely accused of witchcraft in various towns in the New England state. These trials resulted in the executions of twenty people. Of course, The most famous adaptation/retelling of the Salem Witch Trials are no doubt the various film adaptations of The Crucible by Arthur Miller who a pointed out the ridiculousness and sheer lunacy of the whole situation with no actual magic and curses involved. Salem, on the other hand proposes the question that what if witches did in fact exist?

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The drama is this new series is intense and the portrayals of spirit possession are very disturbing. We see a teen girl contort, writhe in pain, and inflict harm on herself like biting off her own finger. Witchcraft practitioners are doused in blood for group rituals, and capital punishment is exacted by hanging and, in one case, crushing with stones. People are shot, whipped, and branded for various crimes. Sexuality is similarly explicit, showing intense bedroom encounters that obscure only genitalia and breasts, plus hints at masturbation and a link between sexuality and witchcraft. This is not a historical retelling of the events in Salem in the 1690s, but it is based on documented facts which when taken together give us a compelling story for a mature audience.

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The cast is quite large and there are four main characters. Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) is the initial witch of the series. She is Salem’s most powerful enchantress and holds a deep secret and deeper desires that may threaten her position and strength in the town of Salem. John Alden (Shane West) is a hardened war veteran and Mary’s one time love interest who returns to Salem to reclaim his love, only to find it consumed in a witch hunt frenzy. Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel) is a well-educated local reverend who is regarded as the foremost expert on witches and malice, and seemingly lives a life of upholding the law, despite living a private life that can turn his entire world upside down if it became public. Reverend Increase Mather (Stephen Lang) is Cotton’s much more revered father who has spent his life’s work seeking out those who do the devil’s work and shuffles them off this mortal coil. Increase comes to Salem after hearing about Cotton bringing the witch trials back.

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When the first episode begins, Mary Sibley, is making a difficult decision about an unexpected pregnancy, where she loses the baby. Because of this, her lover, John Alden, disappeared to join the war. He comes back to Salem and is hailed as a war hero. He soon learns that Mary has married someone else, a wealthy man, George (Michael Mulheren) who governs Salem. John decides to stay and as he begins to grow accustomed to his new life, he witnesses Reverend Cotton Mather having a woman hanged in public, claiming that she “danced with the devil” by practicing in witchcraft and this created a sense of paranoia in the town of Salem. Over the course of the first 6 episodes of the show, the main conflict is between Cotton and John. While we’re introduced to various characters, each episode has Cotton finding a new woman that he believes to be a witch, John will try to talk him out of it, and Cotton will end up having that person sentenced to death. Cotton and John dominate the story, though Mary begins to make calculated maneuvers to secure her place at the top of Salem.

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This summary gives you a bit of an idea of what to expect from the show. I was really impressed with the chemistry between the actors. The show is actually quite bold and brutal and really goes where others have tried to go. There is nudity and some shocking scenes like people being burned alive, a birth taking place as the mother walks around the house and so on.

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I actually love the show even though the writing is often choppy and filled with cliché. The acting is uniformly excellent, the sets and costumes are amazing. Again I must mention that is not family viewing due to the intensity and brutality that we see.

“DEVO HARDCORE LIVE!”— In the Aftermath of Punk

Hard Core Devo

‘DEVO “Hardcore Live!”’

In the Aftermath of Punk

Amos Lassen

I must admit that I have not thought of Devo in a very long time and when I got the announcement that this new DEVO DVD was coming out, I felt a bit nostalgic. Hailing from Akron, Ohio, DEVO got its start with their hit, “Whip It”. Before that they worked in basements and garages making music together. Last summer (2014) DEVO did ten shows in which they performed the songs they worked on before fame came their way and these songs came to be known as Hardcore DEVO.

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The songs were created between 1974 and 1977 and rarely played since then. This film was shot at the Fox Theater in Oakland, California at an exciting concert that captures these groundbreaking artists performing the songs that started it all, interwoven with interviews revealing the history of the band. In total, these 21 oddities serve as a tribute to departed, original DEVO bandmate, Robert “Bob 2″ Casale.

Bob Casale passed away without life insurance or even a will, leaving his family in severe financial jeopardy. “It was a horrific shock and an explosion in the Devo universe,” his brother and DEVO bandmate Jerry Casale told Rolling Stone. “For a month or so, nobody talked about anything. But then we realized we can still do [the tour] and make it a memorial to Bob and raise money for his family.” A portion of the money made on the recordings will go to his family as well.

Future plans for DEVO are unclear at the moment.        

 

“AI WEIWEI: THE FAKE CASE”— The Struggle

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“Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case”

The Struggle

Amos Lassen

Ai Weiwei, world famous Chinese artist, had a lawsuit thrust upon him by the Chinese government and he has been struggling with it ever since. After 81 days of solitary detention world famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was put under house arrest. He suffers from sleeping disorder and memory loss, 18 cameras are monitoring his studio and home, police agents follow his every move, and heavy restrictions from the Chinese authorities weigh him down. Journalists, the art world and his family all want a piece of him and on top of that he is met with a gigantic lawsuit from the Chinese government, soon to be named ‘The Fake Case’. During the year on probation he found new ways to provoke and challenge the mighty powers of the Chinese authorities in his fight for human rights. Ai Weiwei strongly believes that China is ready for change. And he will do everything to make it happen.

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This Danish documentary is, in effect, a sequel to “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”. When released from confinement, Ai Weiwei was asked many questions by the media and we see that he really tried to practice equanimity in the face of a year of house arrest and a fine of nearly $1.5 million for tax evasion. Now, as before, he sees these charges as a blatant attempt to oppress and humiliate him in the public eye.

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Once he was home, he got the last laugh—he met with reporters and continued to send his art abroad. He has always pushed the limits, as did the rest of his family. While he was serving his house arrest we got to see his imagination at work in this film. We also see how clever he was by confiscating an ashtray and declaring it a piece of art when he sees police spying on him.

What we really see here though is the difficulties that governments face when they cut off the imagination of an artist. Weiwei predicts that if the Chinese government does not change their ways, revolution could be on the horizon.

If you have ever wondered went on when legendary and iconic Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was arrested in China, filmmaker Andreas Johnsen is here to show you. We see Ai Weiwei laid bare during his house arrest that began on June 22, 2011. He was arrested on pretence of being responsible for economic crimes.

His arrest was responded to internationally and political leaders called for his release alongside sustained protests from the art world. Rather than explain the artist, this film chooses to explore him. We get a meditative examination of a man with a mindset that causes him to speak out against injustice and to expose the world of global art. He’s a seminal artist who works in as many mediums as he can. He openly avers that human loss catastrophes are being brushed under the rug of the Chinese governments global policies. His key pieces of work have spoken volumes to modern Chinese society and captured the imaginations of the countries his exhibitions and imagery have traveled. His influential work spans generations of commentary on modern Chinese society and his humanitarian ideals. He was the central architect on the bird’s nest stadium for the 2010 Beijing Olympics but denounced the Olympics in Beijing due to the mass removal of nearby housing for the event taking place. It’s said that his art and his activism crosses boundaries and is often indistinguishable. He uses a great deal of strong imagery so that he can make cultural statements on China’s history.

An earlier documentary that I cited earlier was about his life and his works. Here we see that his life is dangerous and things have become different, more difficult, for him post-arrest. Previously fearless and full bodied in his approach to his art and activism, he now seems to use a sense of caution in his forward planning that hangs like a dark cloud above his head. He has learned that exploring what really happened has consequences. Yet he still has the desire to speak out and create art.

This is almost an unbelievable story as we watch Ai Weiwei in his search for truth. The film takes place mostly behind the walls of his artistic headquarters at 258 Fake in Caochangdi, a walled compound overrun by cats where Ai holds court with foreign journalists and entertains visitors.

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Although Ai has been forbidden from exhibiting his work in China, he carries on making new pieces for exhibition abroad. The film observes as Ai alternates between the daily setbacks of life under constant police surveillance and the ongoing creative impulse, including the preparation of “S.A.C.R.E.D” a massive sculptural project consisting of six boxes representing aspects of his confinement. At one point, he catches the men sent to spy on him, steals their ashtray and repurposes it as a work of art — perhaps the clearest sign that Ai has become the subject of his own art, and a compelling reason for such a behind-the-scenes documentary to exist.

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It indeed seems that Ai Weiwei’s career as an artist is secondary to his role of social activist. He has galvanized China’s younger generation toward reform and perhaps even revolution. Though his bogus arrest was clearly intended to quiet his growing influence, it appears to have had the opposite effect. When he was faced with a fine of nearly $1.5 million, Ai was astonished by the public’s support of his cause, as demonstrated by little pink paper airplanes sent over the walls of his studio (each one a 100-yuan note neatly folded and offered in solidarity), along with a flood of anonymous letters that arrive bearing donations.

Here we him physically transformed, the big belly diminished, his beard longer than before, and yet he is more determined than ever to challenge the fraudulent system in power.

IN THE HOUSE OF FLIES”— Sustained Tension

in the house of flies

“In The House Of Flies”

Sustained Tension

Amos Lassen

 An innocent couple, Heather (Lindsay Smith) and Steve (Ryan Kotack) suddenly found themselves abducted that summer. Who did it and why remain mysteries. The coupled remained alone, isolated and locked in an undisclosed, suburban basement, Heather and Steve found themselves to be pawns in a psychological, mind-game with their diabolical hosts. They were surrounded by several mysterious and locked suitcases – each containing valuable clues to their very own survival. They knew that they had to exploit what remained of their bruised intellects and depleting sanity if they were to escape their unidentified and brutally cruel abductors (Henry Rollins and Ryan Barrett). They also knew that from this day forward, summer would never the same.

Director Gabriel Carrer gives us the story of a couple tormented by an unseen psychopath while locked in a dank basement. The film is set almost entirely within the confines of the insect-laden setting which provides the title, “In the House of Flies”.

It all began with the happy couple enjoying an evening at a carnival. Shortly after returning to their car, they were rendered unconscious, only to wake up in a small basement room containing only suitcases and a telephone. It did not take long before the phone began to ring and there were calls from a mysterious stranger who taunted them

with menacing and often oblique questions These mind games included instructions to do such things as burn themselves and physically assault each other. Revealing a personal knowledge of their captors, including a particular secret, his motives are never spelled out. As time passed the captives began experiencing the effects of having no water or food. But then there was the time that their captor had thoughtfully provided at least a dead rat for their nourishment. Soon their psychological defenses began to crumble and things turned even direr. The screenplay written by Angus McLellan’s is tightly constructed and contains intriguing elements, but it is hard to follow and too amorphous to have an impact. The sluggishly paced proceedings feel disjointed often and I was disappointed in the ending.

Nonetheless, director Carrer succeeds in delivering an atmosphere of sustained tension and the performances are quite good.

 The bonus materials on the DVD include

  • 45 minute Behind The Scenes Documentary
  • - Spanish Premiere Archival Footage
  • - Deleted Scenes
  • - Trailers
  • - Director & Writers Commentary

“PLAYING DEAD”— What a Job

playing dead

“Playing Dead” (“Je fais le mort”)

What a Job!!

Amos Lassen

A has-been actor takes a job playing the victim in homicide re-enactments and sparks are ignited between him and a civil officer investigating a real crime. The film combines the genres of comedy and mystery and the result is fun.

Jean Renault (Francois Damiens) is an actor who is seeing bad times. He had been famous for one role some twenty-five years but because he could not get along with directors, he was constantly being fired from other projects. Since he has been so hard to cast, he finally decides to take the role of a murder victim in the police investigation of a double homicide in a very provincial place. He discovers that it is not as provincial as has been thought. But even with the role of playing dead he has problems.

He had been trained in the classical Stanislavsky method for too long and he takes his training to heart. He dissects every possible move for both the victim and the perpetrator and of course he overanalyzes the whole thing. But this leads the beautiful investigator (who happens to be staying at the same hotel as Jean) to discover the case-breaking clues.

Jean heads to Megève, a small ski resort town in the French Alps, and there he assumes the roles of the deceased in a year-old case with a confessed killer. But when he butts heads with the attractive, first-time magistrate (Géraldine Nakache) over the details of the case, his obsessive committal to the role finds Renault overturning new clues that suggest alternative motives.

Damiens is an egomaniacal, faux-modest actor who other actors find to be hilarious. He’s determined to make light of the situation, consistently referring to the reenactment as a “shoot” despite the total lack of a camera. It’s a bit part, but one typically used for a one-off scene in a comedy – the “hot-headed actor.” Damiens pulls out the laughs of portraying a guy hopelessly alone, but does so with more desperation than self-righteousness. He is completely fun to watch and his attitude seems to come from a refusal to accept or admit failure, so as he becomes our actor-turned-amateur-detective, we cheer him on even though he is attitude is repulsive at first.

Director Jean-Paul Salomé tells the wrong story in “Playing Dead.” In a murder mystery, the reveal comes in the last ten percent of the story, but accounts for more like fifty percent of our satisfaction in experiencing it. Salomé takes the time to lay the groundwork. He inserts clues and introduces various characters as suspects, only to lead to an ultimately disappointing resolution. Nonetheless this is a movie to be seen for sheer enjoyment and as that it succeeds totally.

“A WILL FOR THE WOODS”— Preparing to Die

a will for the woods

“A Will for the Woods”

Preparing to Die

Amos Lassen

Clark Wang is a musician, a psychiatrist and a folk dancer. When he was diagnosed with lymphoma, he began to prepare for his own funeral that was to be green. As he battled the disease, he discovered a movement that uses burial to conserve and restore natural areas, forgoing contemporary funeral practices that operate at the ecosystem’s expense. He knew that he was facing his own mortality and he and Jane, his partner, became passionate about green burial. What compelled them were the environmental benefits and the idea that one can remain within the cycle of life, rather than being cut off from it. Wang and his partner have been able to find a compassionate man who works in cemeteries to agree to use Clark’s burial as a way to save one of the North Carolina woods from being clear-cut. Clark finds great comfort in knowing that his body will be a force for regeneration.

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I doubt that many will want to see a film about death but this is an uplifting documentary that follows a terminally ill person as he battles with his disease and prepares to leave the world. We learn a great deal here and indeed we see the triumph of the human spirit. Because death is something that all of us face, it is never too early to think about the costs involved and how we can benefit the earth.

Amy Browne directed this film after learning about the concept of green burial in 2007 from her sister, Sophie, who was working with Professor Roger Short of the University of Melbourne in Australia. They were searching for and developing future sites in that country for green burials. Sophie had begun her research in 2007, but it was in 2009 that Sophie and Amy were stuck in traffic near the Calvary Cemetery in Queens, that Amy decided to make a documentary. Both women realized that cemeteries are little more than wall-to-wall tombstones, mausoleums and memorials. The grass dries up and there are few trees. They both saw that this was a waste of land and resources.

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Browne then teamed up with three other co-directors—Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale and Brian Wilson and they began to work on the film that took five years to make. “A Will for the Woods.” The film looks at the key figures: Joe Sehee of the Green Burial Council, Kimberley and Dr. Billy Campbell, founders of the nation’s first conservation burial ground and Dyanne Matzkevich who is saving part of a forest in her conventional cemetery in order to make a green burial ground.

Wang and his wife then visit the spots where they will be laid to rest, wondering what a green activist or even green friendly person could do for a funeral. Amy Browne and Kaplan heard about Wang who is a simple, unassuming man. He’s not looking for attention and as we watch film we see that he des find some comfort ion the making of this documentary. No one could be quite sure what would happen, but he loses his battle with cancer. He has some regrets, but he does eventually meet his death with thoughtful preparation.

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 The film shows us the last days of an advocate poignantly and with a touch of humor. We see ass the film follows Clark’s dream of leaving a legacy in harmony with timeless cycles that environmentalism takes on a profound intimacy.

“SALVO”— “Implausible, Impossible, Brutal and Surprisingly Tender”

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“SALVO”

“Implausible, Impossible, Brutal and Surprisingly Tender”

Amos Lassen

Salvo (Saleh Bakri) is a Sicilian hitman who is ruthless and cold. On one assignment he entered a house where he found Rita, a young girl who is blind who witnesses her brother’s execution. Something happened to take the darkness away from her eyes and this happened just as Salvo decided to spare her life. This brief meeting haunted both Salvo and Rita and together they will try to deal with the next danger to be faced but they will do so side-by-side. This is a haunting film that stays with the viewer and this is due to the brilliant performances and the nature of the plot.

 In Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s “Salvo”, we see no morality. Even purely innocent Rita (Sara Serraiocco), whose eyesight seems to be the price she pays for retaining her humanity, can’t escape the literal and figurative encroachment of shadows. This young blind woman is one half of the quasi-love story that makes the film work. Salvo kidnaps Rita and he kills her brother in retaliation for his involvement. Rita, consistently captured in radiant light, is a beacon of decency in a world of criminals, and Salvo comes to see her as a cure for his loneliness and maybe even for his love of violence.

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Rita and Salvo have an odd relationship. Here there romance is soulful as we watch what might be called an existential action film that falls into several cinema genres. We can only wonder if Rita’s acquired ability to see is a part of the Christian prophecy about the blind seeing.

The word ‘salvo” means safe in Italian but our Salvo is anything but safe. He is an enforcer and sometimes chauffeur for a criminal enterprise. After he gets dressed and leaves his “home”, Salvo drives around his unnamed boss (Mario Pupella), an older man who’s riding shotgun. It’s here that we get our first good look at Salvo with a close-up of his eyes. The entrance of two gunmen on a motorcycle brutally breaks the silence and in a rush of violence, Salvo kills two would-be assassins and, despite his boss’s warning to stay put, chases two others. With the camera steadily dogging his every step, he shoots a third and sneaks into the home of a fourth. It is there that he discovers Rita, the fourth man’s sister, who’s home alone, listening to the radio, while tallying large sums of cash. Soon both are creeping around in the dark as stealthily as cats — she intuits a presence.

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Rita and Salvo leave the house and eventually end up at an abandoned factory with a corroded interior and plastic. The factory also functions as a metaphor for the region’s history of economic catastrophe, and its mob and political corruption. There, amid the ruins, Rita and Salvo begin to break free of that legacy and form a bond. It isn’t long after Salvo and Rita arrive at the factory, though, that the movie loses both energy and focus.

Salvo became tired of living in the shadows; his love for Rita made him somewhat human. Herein is the message that the movie relays to the viewers. The film plays with a variety of atmospheres, in which the use of light, sound, and silence, have preponderant roles, at times causing claustrophobic sensations. Its minimal dialogues and decelerated pace can be an obstacle for some viewers, and the love story never transcends itself into something memorable, but in the other hand, the sensorial experience we have here is unlike anything I have ever experienced while watching a film.

“STARRED UP”— Father and Son Behind Bars

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“Starred Up”

Father and Son… Behind Bars

Amos Lassen

Eric (Jack O’Connell) is a violent young offender prematurely who is sent to an adult prison. As he struggles to assert himself against the prison officers and the other inmates, he has to confront his own father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a man who has spent most of his life in jail. As Eric forges allegiances with other prisoners, he learns that his rage can be overcome and discovers the new rules of survival. However, there are forces at work that threaten to destroy him.

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This is not a gay film even though it is set in an all male prison. There is, however, a great deal of nudity and the movie has received wonderful reviews. Almost all prison dramas with raw angry men desperately displaying their machismo just so they can survive the brutality that is pervasive in jails have an underlying tone of homoeroticism in them. ‘Starred Up’ with a brilliant career-making performance from 23-year-old Jack O’Connell is one such movie especially as it has the near-obligatory shower scene that ends in a naked fight. 

Eric Love is moved from a juvenile detention facility became no one there is able to handle him any longer.  Unlike the other inmates in the adult jail, he doesn’t want to get out and the reason he has forced the authorities to send him to an adult prison is because his father, who he barely knows, has been serving time there for the past 14 years. We never really get the back-story on the incarceration of both men but that is not so important. What really matters in the attempt at reconciliation between father and son. At just 19, Eric is a hardened criminal who knows how to work the system, which only serves to enrage the corrupt prison guards who are determined that they will not be beaten by him even if it means actually having him killed. Their undisguised anger is matched by the determination of a do-gooder volunteer social worker that is insistent that he can cure Eric, and maybe even his father, by some simplistic anger-management.

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We see a good deal of violence and Eric feels that he needs violence in order to become an adult. What we do not get from Eric is whether the boy actually loves his father or really wants him dead. Directed by David McKenzie and written by Jonathan Aser, the film is based on Aser’s own experiences as a prison social worker. “Starred Up” is a term used in Great Britain to describe the early transfer of a criminal from a young offender institution to an adult prison. The film opens in a dark anteroom where 16-year-old Eric Love is being processed into a prison for adults, a status he earned because of the violence and the frequency of his crimes. We see Eric as a near-feral survivor of abuse and neglect; his movements are economical and confident. He is like a cat, quick to react to a threat and prone to bursts of ferocity. Soon after arriving, he nearly kills a fellow prisoner who’s done him no harm and then battles the guards who try to subdue him, creating a standoff by taking one man’s penis in his mouth through his pants and threatening to bite it off. We think that this first incident is meant to show how he will keep other prisoners at bay but it actually has the opposite effect. Eric becomes the enmity of powerful alpha dogs like one of the guards who runs the prison and the suave prisoner who unofficially runs Eric’s unit and doesn’t want some crazy kid causing trouble.

Eric’s violence also earns the attention of two men who want him to calm down for his own sake: his estranged father, Neville, a longtime prisoner high in the pecking order, and Oliver (Rupert Friend), a volunteer who leads an encounter group whose members learn to break the cycle of violence they’ve been trapped in. Oliver crusades to give Eric a place to be “just a kid” learning how to be a man but that becomes a battle with the prison brass, who are half-convinced from the start that Eric is beyond redemption. When Oliver loses that fight, we see what’s behind the hints people have been dropping about how unstable Oliver may be, despite his calm façade. Neville struggles with jealousy over Eric’s relationships with men who can mentor him better than he can, acknowledges his cluelessness about parenting, and fumbles his way through to a breakthrough of sorts.

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The film’s realism probably stems from director David Mackenzie’s decision to film the scenes in chronological order and keep his actors on location in a former maximum-security prison in Northern Ireland. He also made sure that even actors with just a few lines could match the intensity and complexity Mendelsohn and O’Connell bring to their roles.

The film isn’t just about life in prison. It’s also about the brutality and neglect in the outside world that made Eric psychotically violent and unable to trust others. Oliver’s group saves the boy’s life, teaching him how to gain control of his emotions and alter the behavior that’s endangering him, yet when Oliver first reaches out, Eric shuts him down with contemptuous rage, pegging him for another predatory pedophile. In essence, this film is asking whether prisons like this can make space not just for containment and further brutalization, but also for rehabilitation and forgiveness. The cautious optimism with which it answers that question is understandable because the characters and setting feel so thoroughly authentic.

“DEAR WHITE PEOPLE”— A Social Satire

dear white people

“Dear White People”

A Social Satire

Amos Lassen

“Dear White People” follows four black students at an Ivy League college where controversy breaks out over a popular but offensive blackface party thrown by white students. Using satire, the film explores racial identity in acutely-not-post-racial America while weaving a universal story of forging one’s unique path in the world.

“Racism is over in America,” says Winchester University’s white president (Peter Syvertsen) to its black dean (Dennis Haysbert). “The only people thinking about it are Mexicans, probably.” This is probably the only completely untruthful and wholly ignorant statement made in Justin Simien’s debut film that seems far too true-to-life to be called a satire, even though it’s billed as such. The movie takes place at a fictional campus setting and it is contrived in ways to support its microcosmic, pseudo-satirical vibe.

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The long-acquainted president and dean reflect racial power struggles that their respective sons, rebellious Kurt (Kyle Gallner) and upright Troy (Brandon P. Bell), campus hotshots defined by their aspirations to adopt each other’s racial norms, pick up on. The film does not try to condemn those who believe that racism in America has ended. Rather what we see is a discussion of how the subject of race—and merely identity—in this country has evolved. The film begins with a news-making frat party with a whites-in-blackface theme and this moves forward by issues with housing on campus—the only all-black residence hall, Parker/Armstrong, is about to be diversified.

Sam (Tessa Thompson) hosts a podcast called “Dear White People,” where she spotlights certain irritating and racially motivated behaviors that reek of desperation. Voted into a position of power at her housing, Sam is forced to expand her message once she discovers that other black students are taking it seriously. Coco (Teyonah Parris) is hunting for a reality show, determined to amplify her personality to compete with Sam and charm a vampiric producer. Troy (Brandon Bell) is the son of Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert), working through an identity crisis when his political career is stalled by Sam, while his relationships with both white and black students cause him tremendous discomfort. And Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is an aspiring journalist kicked around campus, unable to fit in anywhere. Tasked with writing about the school’s ills, Lionel discovers trouble brewing when a white fraternity, led by Kurt (Kyle Gallner), makes plans to host a racially charged Halloween party in response to Sam’s confrontational behavior.

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It all seems to be repetitive—we hear the same old arguments we have always heard and the film touches on stereotypes, power plays, bedroom hopping, and terminology. There are indeed a few moments that “challenge identity and manipulation in a meaningful manner, and the cattiness of the characters has napalm potential, but there’s not enough ambition in the script and direction to cause a scene worthy of the premise. What could have been so powerful lands like a thud as we say, “we have seen and heard it all before. We just did not pay attention.”