★★★ / ★★★★
Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy), born as Michael Peterson, wanted one thing in life: To become famous. But where he lived at the time didn’t offer a lot of opportunities. Despite being raised in a relatively normal family, at school, he bullied other students and attacked teachers. Over time, he learned to rely on his fist instead of his brain. After robbing a post office, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. His term lasted more than thirty years and most of that time was spent under solitary confinement because of Broson’s hunger for violence. He was convinced that he could become famous for being the most violent prisoner in the country. And he was right. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, “Bronson,” based on a true story, was a painful look at a man who couldn’t discern between his true self and his alter ego. Others treated him as a bomb waiting to go off. In most of the scenes in which he was allowed to interact with other people, we felt nervous for the unsuspecting individuals because Bronson was, to say the least, highly unpredictable. We weren’t sure if, when there was a disagreement, big or small, he would decide to walk away from the situation or commit bloody murder. The movie had an interesting technique in telling Bronson’s story. There were times when he talked directly to the camera and made jokes out of extremely serious situations. It worked because while I feared him, I felt pity for him as well. What the man needed was a psychiatric evaluation and to be placed in a stable mental institution, not passing him around from one jail to another like an unwanted rag doll. While Bronson’s proclivity for violence was probably innate, it shouldn’t be a surprise to us that violence, especially in prisons, only led to more violence. Hardy’s performance was completely electrifying (and terrifying). He was fearless in embracing Bronson’s bellicose nature yet there were profoundly quiet moments, like when he would stare at his art, where we were allowed to ponder that maybe there was true humanity underneath his muscular exterior. I also enjoyed that sometimes the film was shot like a fantasy story. A prime example was when he was freed from prison because keeping him inside cost Britain a lot of money. It didn’t feel real and I began to wonder if he really was out in the world or it was just his own way of dealing with being in solitary confinement for so long. “Bronson,” surreal, eccentric, savage, was a strange journey because we ended up right where we started. I admired the way it challenged me as I juggled feelings of fear and sympathy for someone who lost track of reality.
A Prophet (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
19-year-old Arab named Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) was sentenced up to six years in prison. Taken under César Luciani’s wing (Niels Arestrup), a Corsican, Malik slowly gained power in prison as he learned the politics and economics among each group of inmates. I liked that the plot was relatively simple. We had a chance to observe a vulnerable man evolve into someone who was cunning and capable of deceit yet the story was able to hang onto the core of the lead character’s being. That is, despite the difficult decisions he had to make, he was still capable of being sympathetic to those that helped turn him into a kind of person he had become. Those individuals did not always deserve his sympathy but he hung onto them anyway perhaps because he respected them in some way. His relationships with the other prisoners was always at the forefront and the “favors” he had to do were secondary but both are just as gripping. Jacques Audiard, the director, could have easily turned this film into a typical prison movie about a man hardened by hatred over the years but it chose the more insightful and elegant path. It begged the question how far a person was willing to go in order to survive and eventually flourish in a very dangerous environment, it challenged the effectiveness of rehabilitation centers, and it questioned whether a person, when given a chance, could leave behind his criminal life. Rahim was fantastic in portraying lead character. At times the movie would jump forward in time and I found myself unable to recognize Malik at first glance. Surely there were some physical changes but the way he carried himself such as his posture and the manner in which he conversed with another were more interesting to watch. Despite the film not showing us certain periods of time, we still got the sense that the hardships that Malik had to face did not stop. I did, however, have a problem with its running time of more than two-and-a-half hours. I saw no reason for it to last that long. In fact, I thought the last twenty minutes, except for the final scene, were weak and more typical compared the rest of the picture. It became redundant instead of ending it in a place where it left us wondering whether or not he would choose to risk losing everything he worked for over the years. Nevertheless, I believe “A Prophet” is worth seeing because it did not lose its heart despite the violence and drugs. It really made me question what I would have done (assuming I survived in the first place) if I was in Malik’s position. I certainly could not imagine hiding razor blades in my mouth.
Cape Fear (1991)
★★ / ★★★★
Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” was about a man (Robert De Niro) who was recently released from a fourteen-year prison sentence. The moment he got out, he made it his goal to make his former lawyer’s (Nick Nolte) life a living hell by torturing his family (Jessica Lange as his wife and Juliette Lewis as his daughter) and his budding flame (Illeana Douglas). I think I was particularly tough with this film because I expect a lot coming into a Scorsese picture. In trying to analyze things such as motif, consistency of tone, foreshadowing and other elements, I found myself not impressed with the big picture. I thought the storytelling was scattered because there were too many times when De Niro and Nolte would confront and threaten each other and it got old pretty quickly. However, I did like the fact that everything about this film was exaggerated–the soundtrack, the characters’ emotional reactions to certain events, the decisions they chose to tackle–to the point where the film almost felt comical instead of chilling. The style somewhat reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s. The two scenes that stood out to me were when Lewis and De Niro had a “talk” in the theater and when De Niro broke into the family’s home as they tried to trap him. I felt like those scenes had Scorsese’s signature of wit, irony and just enough tension to keep us engaged because we were completely aware of the fact that the antagonist had the upperhand. Those scenes were so powerful, I felt like I held my breath during those times. Unfortunately, I felt like the rest of the picture did not quite hold up to those highs and I was somewhat underwhelmed when it was over. When I look back on it, while it was nice that De Niro’s character brought out a lot of almost repressed issues of the family, I still felt as though the characters were one dimensional. It was so unlike Scorsese’s movies because most of the time he features characters who are complex because they want to redeem themselves. In here, I saw Nolte’s character as a person who was a cheater and only felt bad for his actions because he got caught and problems were quickly proliferating in her life. If I did not know that Scorsese directed this picture, I most likely would not have guessed that it was indeed his work. Granted, one could argue that I shouldn’t compare “Cape Fear” to the director’s other projects as a basis of a film review. And I agree. I just wanted to emphasize the particular mindset I had while watching the movie. Perhaps with a second viewing I’ll be able to enjoy it more. The elements of creating a great thriller were certainly there but I felt like they did not come together as well as they should have had.
Three Dancing Slaves (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Gaël Morel, “Three Dancing Slaves” was about three brothers who tried to cope from the death of their mother. The story started off with the middle child (Nicolas Cazalé) who got caught up with drugs and thugs who want their money. They wanted payback in the most cruel way possible. Also, his ever-growing lack of respect toward his father began to shake the foundation of the family. The middle portion of the picture was about the eldest son (Stéphane Rideau) who recently got out of prison. Unlike the middle child, he was done with partying and hanging out. He actually wanted to turn his life around so he could serve as a model for his brothers and ultimately be proud of himself. Last but not least was the youngest son (Thomas Dumerchez) who tried to keep his secret hidden. He seemed tough at first glance with all his tattoos but he actually turned out to be one of the most sensitive characters. I’ve read a number of critiques about this film and a lot of them mentioned its potential but it didn’t quite deliver. I disagree; I think it did deliver by showing us what each of three characters were going through at specific periods of time. In a nutshell, this was another one of those slice-of-life pictures that most people find difficult to get into because its seemingly lack of strong consistent storyline. It worked for me because it had an emotional core: the death of the mother and how the three brothers responded to it. They may have had other things going on in their lives but it never lost track of that center. I also liked that the tone changed whenever it switched its focus from one brother to the next. The first one felt enigmatic and dangerous, the second felt both depressing and hopeful, and the third felt sensitive and reflective. And justifiably so, the respective tones matched each of the brothers’ dominating personalities. I just wished that the third act could’ve been explored more because it was the shortest. I’m giving this film a strong recommendation because I was interested in it from start to finish. I thought the direction was insightful and I was happy that not everything was spelled out for the audiences.
In the Name of the Father (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a true story, Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Gerry Colnon, an Irishman who was forced to confess and sentenced to jail for life for the bombing that killed five people in England. If that wasn’t enough, three of his friends, father, and his father’s friends were sentenced to jail as well. Emma Thompson plays the lawyer who struggled to expose the truth regarding the injustice that the British police and detectives have inflicted on the Irishmen. Day-Lewis absolutely blew me away. Despite his actions that involved petty crimes shown in the beginning of the film, I could immediately tell that there was something more interesting underneath his persona. Whenever I looked into his eyes, I felt as thought there was a story, which involved a lot of hurt, that he desperately wanted to cover up. A lot of it came out when he and his father (Pete Postlethwaite) shared a prison cell for the first time; Day-Lewis brought up a lot of things that he thought made him the way he was (mainly experiences from his childhood). That particular scene was so revealing and hurtful at the same time so I couldn’t help but connect with it. Yet despite the anger and outburst, I felt a genuine love between the characters. Jim Sheridan, the director, told the story in such a concise manner so I felt like I wasn’t watching a two-hour-plus film at all. In fact, I wanted to know more about certain details of their ordeal, especially the detective work that Thompson’s character had gone through. With such a complex and compellingly human story like this, it could have easily fallen apart with all the Hollywood banalities. “In the Name of the Father” expertly balanced and eventually fused the political battles and personal demons so it offered a very powerful character study. I also think that this is still a very important film today because the issue of torture for information regarding the war in the Middle East is still not settled. While watching this film, I kept remembering (with utter disbelief) the time when I was still young and had complete trust in the government. The movie makes a thesis that sometimes people of power use the law as a mask in order to fulfill their jobs so they can look good in the eyes of the citizens. However, somewhere along the way, they completely lose track of who they are and how to do their jobs with honor so they start digging their own graves and try to take everyone else with them. This is a beautiful but haunting picture that deserves to be seen by anyone interested in human drama.
Out of Sight (1998)
★★ / ★★★★
I just had to see this movie because pretty much all the film critics I respect gave it a really enthusiastic recommendation. I don’t know if it’s because I was anticipating something more serious instead of a caper film with comedy that brings the “Ocean” franchise to mind, or if it’s just one of those movies that critics adored but I never got into. George Clooney stars as Jack Foley, a bank robber who one day escapes from prison. Right off the bat, he’s put into a room (well, more like the trunk of a getaway car) with the splendid Jennifer Lopez as a federal marshall. Eventually, the two realize the chemistry that they have and I thought it went downhill from there. Steven Soderbergh is an undeniably talented director but the way the story unfolded made me not care. While there was complexity in its non-linear storytelling, I felt like a lot of the characters were just running around without some sort of ultimate purpose. They were so blase to the point where I thought the only ingredient that was missing was for them to wink directly at the camera. Actors like Catherine Keener, Isaiah Washington, Steve Zahn, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, and others seem to go in and out of the story and I was left confused because I thought that it would all come together at some point. Unfortunately, it never did and by the time the credits started rolling, the picture left a bitter taste in my mouth. However, I do admit that there were some pretty clever and funny lines from the script. Still, those bits and pieces weren’t enough to save the overall product. I wish that “Out of Sight” would’ve been a straight-up thriller. Perhaps then I would’ve liked it a lot more since it would have found a better footing when it comes to its tone. And while people remain to praise this film’s technical achievements, such as its freeze frame techniques for emotional purposes, I’m going to side with the minority and say that “Out of Sight” is not worth the two hours.