Tag Archives: Edward Norton

American History X (1998)

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It’s natural to be discomforted by the racist language and the violence in “American History X.” After all, what are we if we can’t be rattled and unnerved by terrific fiction? Don’t watch this movie if you’re not prepared for a film about racism where both the blacks and the whites act like absolute animals. This is not a story where the unending compassion of the African-Americans spells redemption for the biased white men. There is startling evil on both sides, just like in real life. And there are good, decent people of both races just trying to get by or to help others, just like in real life.

Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) is the kid the students feel antagonized by and the teachers don’t hold out much hope for. His latest travesty- “My Mein Kamf,” a response to a school assignment championing Hitler as a civil rights hero. However the principal of Danny’s tough inner-city school, Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks,) is determined to help him grapple with his demons and someday, maybe, see the light.

Danny’s neo-Nazi brother, Derek (Edward Norton, in a fantastic performance,) gets out of prison for a sadistic racially-motivated crime a changed man. He wants nothing more to do with the white supremacist existence, and has decided to steer his younger brother, who places Derek on a lofty pedestal, away from the skinhead life. As Danny listens to Derek’s story of his life in prison and his change of heart, he realizes that breaking away from his racist beliefs might be the most important thing he ever does.

But disassociating with old friends and influences might be harder than it sounds, as Derek and Danny soon find out. Meanwhile, Sweeney instructs Danny to write a paper about the events that put his brother in prison and beforehand, led to the Vinyard brothers’ legacy of hate.

Anybody who knows anything about the making of “American History X” knows that the production of the film was a bit of a disaster. Tempers flared, Edward Norton micromanaged the script, and director Tony Kaye eventually wanted his name taken off the finished product and changed, oddly, to ‘Humpty Dumpty’ (hhmm, that’s not weird.) So it might be “American History X”‘s greatest wonder that the movie is not bad at all, despite it’s production woes; on the contrary, it’s very good.

The film does a great job in making you believe in the unlikely premise that Norton could change, after years of being a vicious skinhead and an all-around terrible person. The cycle of hate and of the Vinyard’s beliefs are really well-done. The terrifying thing about Derek’s character (one, of certainly many) is how he runs the gamut from almost rational (saying things that, on the surface make sense, then devolve into racist gobbledygook)) to batshit crazy.

Rather than making Derek a cartoon, he’s written as a terrifyingly believable monster- you can palpably feel the charisma he most hold for frustrated young men who want someone to blame for their screwed-up lives. Edward Norton is an acting powerhouse in this movie. It might still be the best performance of Norton’s career.

Bile and rage and pure adrenaline run through Derek’s veins- he’s scary intense, and you can fully comprehend the fear and even disgust his mom (Beverly D’Angelo) and sister (Jennifer Lien) must have felt before the prison term, simply living with him on a day-to-day basis.

I’ll give credit where it’s due- the whole cast does a great job. But it is Norton who will haunt you for days. Now for the low points. Well, the ending actually worked for me. I’m not sure it was the best way to end the story, but it was overall effective, albeit brutally so. Honestly, the only major problem for me was the music. It was a little too “Oh, let me make you experience major emotions!”

“American History X” is not only worthy for Edward Norton’s performance, although that may be what you remember most about it. It’s a genuinely powerful drama, one of the best of the 90’s. Many movies have preached the power of love over hate and enlightenment over prejudice, but rarely to such a meaningful effect.

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Birdman (2014)

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They say “Everyone’s a critic,” and this seems to be especially true for film fans. What fan-boys and -girls of all ages often seem to forget is that the movie star is a person just like us, with feelings and faults- they eat, drink, shit, screw, and breathe just like us, they are not above being selfish and rude upon occasion (therefore I urge you not to take it personally if they decline an autograph,) and they feel hate and rejection from the audience like a regular person being criticized for they manner in which they do what they love.

However, the internet seems not to take a middle ground on celebrities- either they can do no wrong in the fanboys’ eyes or he cuts them down to size with the ruthless efficiency of a horror-film slasher. And in a society where well-liked actors are respected more than law enforcement officers, men fighting for our country, humanitarians and hospital personnel, the margin for error is small. People cannot believe it when an actor says something unbecoming or adverse to the ‘image’ they are trying to build (consider when Jennifer Aniston used the ‘R’ word and the ensuing backlash.)

When a actor has a certain squeaky-clean persona, people believe in that persona even if that performer seems to be less than who they appear to be. When Bill Cosby was accused of multiple counts of rape, no one would believe it; suddenly the victims were attention seeking ‘hos whereas it might have been considered differently if the accused was Joe-Bob across the street. Certainly some women have been known to lie about rape, but at what point is the evidence just too incriminating?

On the other hand, actors that have been considered to be ‘flops’ can’t catch a break- attacks on celebrities, particularly female celebrities whose figures and faces have been deemed unpleasing to the eye by the masses, often get extremely personal. Actors get defined by that one role that made them famous, look at poor ‘Chandler’ and the rest of the “Friends” alumni (except for a select few that have been able to stake out roles of consequence in other movies.)

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Riggan Thomsen (Michael Keaton) is Birdman. That is the role he is certainly known for; nobody remembers him in anything else, and no one certainly cares to. For Riggan, a mentally disturbed has-been with delusions of grandeur featuring an incarnation of his iconic character, life is a constant struggle to prove that he is capable of diversifying- that he can, and will, rise above his 90’s role that people have learned to love and hate him for.

With an estranged ex (Amy Ryan) and a mouthy daughter fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone,) Riggan’s life is definitely not easy. But while writing, directing, and starring in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, he believes he can rise above what people expect of him. When his costar (Jeremy Shamos) suffers an injury onstage, the pretty starlet (Naomi Watts) offers her narcissistic, impotent douchebag boyfriend, Mike, (Edward Norton) the man’s role.

Riggan and Mike clash immediately, sometimes to hilarious effect. But for the most part, “Birdman” is a dark, depressing (albeit sometimes comedic) look into one man’s delusional wreck of an existence. Most of the movie is filmed in one continuous shot, with the camera following the characters around the broken-down theater. There’s a vibe of intrusion and invasion of privacy, the cast of Riggan’s play packed together like sweaty, discontented sardines and constantly bursting into each others rooms without invitation. This contributes to the films message about the price of fame- suddenly, your life is everyone else’s.

To some extent, Michael Keaton and Edward Norton are playing extreme versions of themselves, or at least the public’s’ image of themselves. Keaton is a bit of a has-been (this movie might change that,) mostly remembered for the title role in “Batman,” playing the character that Christian Bale is now famous for. Norton is known as a bit of a prima donna who micromanages the film he’s performing in’s dialogue, and while hopefully he’s not as much of a major arsehole as his character is, it can’t be an accident that Mike pompously tries to dissect the script at the expense of Riggan’s vision.

“Birdman” has a great ensemble cast which also includes Merritt Wever and Zach Galfianakis (God only knows how to pronounce that man’s name,) as Riggan’s passive and deceitful lawyer. Overall it is a darkly funny yet sad and bleak commentary on entertainment Vs. art, pretension, and the nightmare who to some is family.  However, director Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s 2006 film “Babel” is the much better movie and I think it should have gotten far more attention than it did, the whole thing (especially the plot thread about the deaf Japanese girl) was incredible. “Birdman” was, admittedly, the less compelling work.

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