Tag Archives: Prison

Book Review: Monster by Walter Dean Myers

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Rating: B+/ I was reluctant to read this book because I was afraid it was going to be overly political. I don’t mind stories about racism and racial bias but it feels like that’s all people talk about these days and frankly, I needed a break from all that (I initially thought the same thing about the film Fruitvale Station, which turned out to be an exceptionally fair-minded and thought-provoking movie.) Monster is a very short novel and creatively utilizes a screenplay format, along with excerpts from the main character’s journal, to tell it’s story. Continue reading Book Review: Monster by Walter Dean Myers

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Movie Review: Bronson (2008)

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Rating: B/ Charlie Bronson (Tom Hardy) is a guy who loves to kick the shit out of people. It’s as simple as that, this film carefully avoids wrapping Charlie’s derangement into a neat package or coming up with pat psychiatric explanation for his crazy out of control behavior. As far as we know, Bronson was never molested, beaten with a belt, or locked in a cupboard. Born Michael Peterson to average comfortably middle-class parents (Amanda Burton and Andrew Forbes), Charlie (who picked the moniker from the name of the Death Wish star with the help of his uncle (Hugh Ross,) the proprietor of a sleazy nightclub) just really loves to fight. In fact, he’s famous for it, dubbed ‘Britain’s Most Violent Prisoner’ for his unhinged savagery. Continue reading Movie Review: Bronson (2008)

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

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Rating: B/  Oh, Franklin. you should have worn the damned condom!

Okay, so maybe Eva Khachaturian wasn’t meant to be a mother. But is she responsible for making her son a monster? Society seems to think so. In the wake of a horrific attack orchestrated by Kevin, a sadistic fifteen-year-old psychopath, Eva (Tilda Swinton) is heckled on the street and sometimes outright attacked by people who lost their loved ones in the tragedy.

    In a swirl of fever dream-like memories, past becomes present, and Eva remembers when her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and kids Kevin and Celie (Ezra Miller and Ashley Gerasimovich) were still with her. Eva never seemed to really want Kevin, a vile, evil, perpetually incontinent child turned killer teen who mind-fucked his mother from a very early age, but the real question is whether Eva could stop the direction her son was going.

   Franklin, a happy guy in denial of Kevin’s true nature, condemns Eva for not connecting with her little moppet, and Kevin simultaneously gaslights Eva and turns Eva and her well-meaning but dopey husband against each other. Kevin might seem like a child of Satan or some other supernatural incarnate, but really he’s like thousands of other children in the world who really don’t seem to have a conscience- and who better to blame than the boy’s own mother?

Anyone who has seen filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher knows she has a propensity for both beautiful cinematography and grueling bleakness. We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on the best-selling novel by the same title by Lionel Shriver, is no exception. The film is intensely visual, with a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, especially around the beginning, and benefits from an outstanding performance by Tilda Swinton as the complex Eva.

Eva seems alternately like a bad mother and all-around ice queen and a woman trying to do best by her family, and one must wonder if her memory (and by extension, the whole movie’s narrative) is reliable as she paints a terrifying portrait of Kevin literally from babyhood to present day. The movie asks the question of whether we can always blame the parents of these children for the kids’ evil actions or if some youngsters are just bad eggs.

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The answer to this question is often ambiguous here, but ultimately we decide that no, we can’t ultimately blame Eva for how ‘widdle Kevin’ turned out. It brings up the aged-old question of ‘nature vs. nurture’ in a new and interesting way, and packs a hell of a wallop in the process. This movie will make you think twice about going off the pill and make you wonder if having a little ball of joy of your own is overrated.

The part near the end of the movie at the school when Kevin’s plan goes full circle makes me think of a extra I saw on my parents’ DVD of the original Halloween. Donald Pleasence, who played Sam Loomis, told the director that he could play the sequence when Myers falls out the window after getting shot and somehow escapes into thin air one of two ways; ‘Oh my God, he’s gone’ or ‘I knew this would happen.’ Ultimately they decided on the latter because the former would be, well, too much.

That’s what I think of when I see Eva’s expression as she eyes the bicycle locks Kevin previously ordered in the mail on the doors of the school auditorium. Her expression is less a look of shocked horror as it is a look of resignation. I knew this would happen. On one hand, you wonder why Eva didn’t get her son major psychological help right off the bat, but on the other, could she really of prevented Kevin’s insanity if she had? After all, when you have a blissfully ignorant husband who refuses to believe your son has a problem, how are you going to get an evaluation carried out without his blessing?

All in all, We Need to Talk About Kevin is kind of like watching a train wreck, albeit a visually striking one with a handful of outstanding shots. It makes us women, whether we plan to be mothers or not, wonder how far maternal love goes and if you can be held culpable simply for not loving your child enough. Is it possible to love a monster? I think so. People do it all the time.

But for someone like Eva who obviously didn’t want to be a mother in the first place, her failure to love her son was ultimately ammunition for her evil child to use against her. Eva’s coldness is not an excuse for Kevin’s behavior anymore than Kevin being a difficult baby is an excuse for Eva to make very little effort with her offspring. One persons’ blame does not cancel the others’ out. But that’s not enough for other parent not to convince themselves that they could do better. Given the circumstances, could you?

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King of Devil’s Island (2010)

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‘Scum’ in early 20th-Century Norway. You look into the faces of the boys in ‘King of Devils’ Island’‘s brutal borstal and you see a lack of warmth and hope that approaches a living death. Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgard), the head of this grim correctional program and hard disciplinarian, fancies himself gentler than some. That may be so, but still, none of his actions make you think he cares in the least for his charges. His self-proclaimed righteousness and stern kindness is the method he uses to get himself to sleep at night.

Erling (Benjamin Helstad) is the new kid. He is a burly young tough who immediately tries to buck the system, and who is especially considered a risk to the collective because he is not a thief or a vandal, like most of the boys, but a murderer. He arrives with a split lip from a scrap with the police and a bad attitude, and the staff is determined to break him.

After some deliberation, Erling befriends Olav (Trond Nilssen,) who has been at the center since he was eleven and is determined to be released for good behavior. But how can one maintain poise and dignity when the system is beating free will and individuality out of you? Problems spring up in the form of Bråthen (Kirstoffer Joner) an aide with a predilection for young boys.

Erling and Olav know  Bråthen is molesting Ivar (Magnus Langlete,) thought to be a bit simple by the students and the staff, in the laundry room. But they can’t prove it. When life as the borstal becomes unbearable, and their extended days of hard labor and abuse interminable, Erling decides to fight back. Things can only get so bad before there’s a breaking point, and Erilng rallies the boys and raises a whole lotta hell in a outburst of enraged rebellion that no one will soon forget.

The King of Devil’s Island is a bit standard in layout for prison-slash-social injustice movies, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. All the actors give outstanding performances, incuding Stellan Skarsgard, who chills you as a man who is thoroughly convinced of his own moral superiority. He’ll fix the boys’ bad attitude yet, he insists, but you can’t fix where you destroy.

He also covers up Bråthen’s pedophilic behavior, misuses school funds, and accepts payoffs. On the surface he can seem like a stern father figure, even reasonable, but underneath his guise of a concerned righteous man lies a man who doesn’t give a damn about any of the kids under his care. To him they’re already hoods who have ruined their lives and others’, why should he give a shit?

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The tension escalates and the characters are decently developed to the point where you are actually invested in what happens next, an important facet of any film. The film’s color palate is all bleak blues and greys and dusty off-whites,reinforcing the grim, and more importantly cold, feeling of the visuals and sets. We are in the midst of a savage Norwegian winter, after all, and the boy’s ongoing pain and discomfort is put nakedly on display.

Racism and rampant unfairness is portrayed here, in a very similar way to Alan Clarke’s British Borstal film Scum (one member of staff insists that a young teen can’t wash the ‘Gypsy smell’ from his flesh,) and we really get the oppressive atmosphere here, the sense of being pushed to the edge by terrible  living conditions and sadistic authority figures. You can taste the rancid fish carcasses the boys shove into their mouths out of pure desperate hunger, feel the cruel Norwegian winter on your blue-grey skin. As much as you’d want to, anyway.

The film tells a timeless story (although it’s been told many times before,) and it tells it with powerful performances and visual verve. The lead’s jaw is set in a firm line of pain and hatred within the first few minutes, what have they made him by the ending? What kind of rehabilitation is this, where you beat and deprive someone to the point of starvation? It’s like squashing a flower and denying it sunshine while insisting it will grow.

Don’t let the subtitles frighten you off and deny you the chance to view a thoroughly well-acted,w ell-written, and well-shot foreign film. I hope Stellan Skarsgard’s name will attract more people to this interesting little project, and I hope it will jump start some deserving young actors’ careers. It’s not a pretty story (though how many Borstal films are a sunny affair?) but it’s worthy of the film lover’s time

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A Clockwork Orange (1971)

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So, I just watched Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange for the first time yesterday. For better or worse, it is magnificently unique; you’re unlikely to see anything else like it in your entire life. What really struck me wasn’t the story, though it was good, but the visuals and sets, which were outstanding. The backdrops to this bizarre tale are somewhere between Salvador Dali, M.C. Escher, and 70’s decor from hell.

Alex Delarge (Malcolm McDowell,) the antihero of “A Clockwork Orange,” likes to hurt people. It’s that simple, he rapes, assaults, and kills not for personal or fiscal gain, but simply because he can. What better way for a Ludwig Van Beethoven loving youth with an insatiable appetite for ultraviolence to spend his nights and weekends?

Delarge lives in a dystopian Britain filled with rot, decay, and futuristic gangs that like to rape women and beat the shit out of people. Alex is a proud member of such a gang: the self proclaimed leader of his ‘droogs’ (Alex and his friends speak in a slangy imaginary language which incorporates English and Russian,) he is simply content raising hell and causing trouble.

When Alex’s life of crime finally catches up with him, he is sent to prison (transitioning the film’s psychedelic backdrop, temporarily at least, to a more standard Borstal setting) and eventually winds up participating in a traumatic aversion therapy to cure him of his criminal impulses, winding up as timid as a puppy, an emotional eunuch repulsed by the very thought of violence.

“A Clockwork Orange” is a very long movie, 137 min., but it doesn’t seem to contain a bit of filler. It just has a really long story to tell. Malcolm McDowell (hard to believe he’s in his seventies now!) is chilling and creepily charismatic as a unrepentant sadist. His parents (Philip Stone and Sheila Raynor) don’t beat him or deprive him of his rights, but they really could care less whether he goes to school or what sadistic new pastime he picks up.

Is Mom and Dad’s bored apathy what has turned Alex into a monster? Children pick up quickly on whether they’re cared about or not, whether their teachers and parents legitimately give a shit about them or how they choose to wheedle away their days. But is the ultimate self absorption of parents and authority figures enough to make a psychopath? Alex, ever the charming beast, would be unlikely to care about these matters.

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Furthermore, Alex lives in a spectacularly self absorbed society that mirrors our own. This is taken to darkly comedic heights when the ‘cat lady’ (Miriam Karlin) tussles with Alex with a obscene phallic statue that’s apparently ‘an important piece of art.’ Alas, the poor wretched woman is crushed by it. What is it  Tyler Durden in Fight Club said? ‘The things you own end up owning you.’ And sometimes you’re bludgeoned to death by your own porcelain penis. An absurd demise you’d be unlikely to see in any other movie, ever.

Ironically, the prison chaplain (Godfrey Quigley,) for all his off putting talk of fire and brimstone, is the only one in this world besides the sharklike, predatory Alex himself with any sense whatsoever. It is Quigley’s character who supplies the film’s message; you can’t coerce or manipulate anyone into being good. “Goodness comes from within.” They have beaten and brainwashed Alex into submission; what have they accomplished? You act in a kind and morally generous way because you want to, because you think it’s the right thing to do.

This lesson could be applied to organized religion; even if you tantalize a bad apple with tales of heavens’ spoils and frighten them with stories about a fiery hell, they will eventually show their rotten core. And naturally, Alex gets the last laugh, even while both political parties use him as a puppet for their own personal gain.

“A Clockwork Orange” is a culturally significant work, but it’s not for the extremely sensitive or those with weak stomachs. Furthermore, it’s definitely not for kids or impressionable teens. A triumph of visuals and sound mixing, it can be a little bit disturbing at times and deeply puzzling at others, but it’s become a cultural icon for a reason. Malcolm McDowell’s maniacally inspired performance seals the deal that though “A Clockwork Orange” is not a perfect movie, it’s a pretty damn good one.

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The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence)

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If one thing can be said for the third (and blessedly final) film in the Human Centipede trilogy, it’s that it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Tom Six is a narcissistic, self-congratulatory fucktard with a huge boner for his own presumed ‘edginess’. It’s too bad, since the first ‘pede was passable and the second actually had it’s outstanding qualities (mostly manifested in the superb lead performance by Laurence R. Harvey as ‘Martin’) that this one should be such a train wreck.

Yeah, you’re going, tell us what you really think. So I will, and don’t think for one moment I’m going to spare anyone who participated in this ‘movie”s feelings. I mean, whoever wrote this script needs to be waterboarded and centipeded x20. Oh yeah, that would be Tom Six. But the biggest ‘screw you’ doesn’t belong to Tom Six, but to his lead, Dieter Laser. Laser, in a tooth-grindingly manic film performance, is about as ‘scary’ a baddie as a toddler throwing a tantrum.

Picture a gigantic skeletal looking two-year-old with sunken features jumping about like a moron and spewing profanities, and you’ve pretty much got Dieter Laser in this movie. Laser should be banned from acting indefinitely. His performance makes Adam Sandler look like Sir Ian McKellan. But never mind. Laser plays Bill Boss, a racist, homophobic, misogynistic D-bag who happens to be the warden at George H. W. Bush maximum security prison (oh was that a little retarded political commentary? I never would have got that. Huh.)

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The prison is poorly run, understaffed, and the heat and the prisoners is driving Boss toward an inevitable mental breakdown. See how he jumps around like that and over-enunciates ever-y-thing? That’s the Texas heat getting to him and boiling his brain! Or maybe he’s just a chode. His meek assistant Dwight Butler (Laurence R. Harvey) hates him, the inmates want to rape him and the only thing from which he derives meager pleasures his his secretary and virtual sex slave, Daisy (former porn star Bree Olsen.) Ol’ Daisy’s expected to accommodate Bill in any way he sees fit (i.e. lots and lots of blow jobs, sometimes in front of the visibly uncomfortable Dwight,) and he continually blackmails her by holding her felon father’s prison sentence over her head. So suck my dick, bitch! And fix me a sandwich!

That’s right. The only woman in THC3, and she’s being treated like a dog and raped throughout the entire film. Her purpose is to be beaten senseless and be repeatedly assaulted and objectified. Weirdly enough, I actually felt embarrassed for Bree Olsen throughout this film. There’s a certain point while listening to Laser wheeze “Suck it, SLUT” as she tearfully performs fellatio on him that you begin to feel that Olsen was probably actually less humiliated and degraded in the adult film industry.

One day at the prison nightmarishly fades into the next when Dwight has a light bulb moment- inspired by the first two movies, he will convince Bill to turn the prisoners into a massive human centipede. This installment stands as kind of a film within a film within a film, with nods to the first two and a cast of characters oblivious (apart from a glib in joke at the beginning) that the two leading men look exactly like the antagonists from the first two films. Bill initially rejects the idea, but soon the gruesome twosome join forces to make the biggest human centipede the world has ever seen.

This is the kind of film where a doctor (Clayton Rohner) allows the construction of a human centipede (i.e. God-knows-how-many people sewn ass to mouth) but won’t allow them to be shot and put out of their misery because it’s against the Hippocratic oath. And Laurence R. Harvey, God knows I love the man (he tore up the screen in THC2 as the silent Martin Lomax) but he sports the worst fucking Texan accent I’ve ever heard.

On top of that, the character of ‘Dwight’ is wildly inconsistent.  So, he says he loves Daisy (Olsen) (an unrequited affection, sadly) but he has an opportunity to open the door and save her when she is cornered by the rioting prisoners. He doesn’t. Furthermore, after seeing Daisy’s sad fate at the end he mourns for exactly a minute and a half before gloating the the visiting Governor (Eric Roberts) about the completion of the centipede.

Maybe this is a intentional decision on the part of the filmmaker to show Dwight’s fickleness and amorality. However, it seems like he wants us to like Dwight on some level, as he plays the part of a hang-dog anti-hero, and it’s impossible to invest in him when his character has the emotional consistency of a squid.

“The Human Centipede 3” seems to want you to take it as a comedy, but it’s mix of horrific violence and hellish slapstick (like watching a Saturday morning cartoon from Hell) is about as funny as finding dog poo on the bottom of your shoe. There’s not a scrap of humanity or realism to the proceedings, and in the end THC3 is a thoroughly Schizophrenic, incomprehensible mess with dialogue that sounds like it was written by a thirteen-year-old in a psycho ward. So my advice to you is- even if you liked the first two movies, stay far away from this shit fest. It is to cinema what Hitler is to peace activism.

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Scum (1979)

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“Scum” is an important and controversial example of harsh British realism charting incarcerated teen Carlin (Ray Winstone)’s transformation from wayward kid to brutal thug with the help of a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” style correctional institution. Only this place makes the hospital ruled under the iron fist of Nurse Ratched in the classic film (a mental hospital, not a Borstal, as portrayed here) look like a trip to Disneyland paired with a ride in the spinning teacups.

The movie might as well be called “You Wouldn’t Want to be a Kid in 70’s Borstal.” It’s grimmer than grim. The facility is a horror show that includes sadistic guards with collective hard-ons for harsh discipline (i.e. abuse,) rape, despair, and suicide. The only thing worse than the “Lord of the Flies”-esque ‘Daddies’ that terrorize and sodomize the weaker children are the cruel, hypocritical, and astonishingly uncaring guards. One such ‘screw’ regards a boy of about thirteen getting gang-banged with a look of smug enjoyment on his face.

These guards, ironically, are ‘upstanding citizens’ in the eyes of the public. They go home, kiss their wives on the mouth, play with their kids and sleep easy, unaware or unconcerned that a massive crime against humanity has been  committed. Because who cares if the ‘scum’ get their human rights violated? But if the boys are scum, what does that make the men? These remorseless cogs in a system that spits out it’s incarcerated youth crueler and more disaffected than before.

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Alan Clarke directs “Scum,” and it’s a harrowing experience. No humor to speak of, few scenes of goodwill or humanity, no soundtrack sporting the latest tunes to remind us that we’re watching a movie… there’s only one scene that contains any warmth whatsoever. Resident  wiseass Archer (Mick Ford) reads a note from home to the illiterate Woods (John Fowler,) who is completely obsessed with the pet dog he left behind and her litter of new puppies. Over the moon, Woods begs Archer to read the note again, a lone relic from the outside world.

That’s it. That’s the extent of the sentiment. The psychological torture combined with the physical violence and cruelty make “Scum” a singularly harrowing experience. The lead performances are incendiary, the most impressive turn not coming from Winstone, but from Julian Firth, who plays the ill-fated Davis. Firth is simply outstanding, especially considering his youth and the emotionally painful rape scene and the resulting fallout the director subjects him to. He doesn’t break character once, and he and Toyne (Herbert Norville) are the emotional heart of an unremittingly bleak picture.

“Scum” isn’t a perfect film. It’s point (that a bleak and hopeless prison system is ultimately more destructive to Britain’s youth than just leaving them on the streets to do what they will,) seems to lack subtlety at times, especially in a scene where Archer shares a moment of philosophical discussion with a guard and in the process pretty much provides him with the entire message it’s director is trying to push. But it gets points for being fearless in it’s portrayal of a broken system, gritty as Hell, and carefully researched by Clarke, who interviewed hundreds of guards and prisoners of Juvenile Detention Centers for this film.

In many ways, “Scum” is a historically important film, and it will definitely put your life in perspective for you when you’re filled with unwanted ennui and angst. Yeah, the kids in this film screwed up, but they’re paying for it tenfold in a system that will either destroy them or release them as half the people they were before, hard and lifeless imitations of people unleashed on a world that suddenly seems much crueler and devoid of hope than it did before they went in. The director sometimes flaunts an obvious political agenda, but also has a natural ability with his actors and behind the camera. It’s a dark, dark journey, but also a valuable one.

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