Tag Archives: Sad

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

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Johnny Got His Gun is a cinematic rarity- a motion picture featuring a perfectly likable and sympathetic protagonist who you desperately hope will die by the film’s conclusion. There are some fates worse than death, the filmmaker reminds us. Although novelist/screenwriter/first-time director Dalton Trumbo’s 1971 classic is bound to be controversial for it’s strong pro-euthanasia and equally fierce anti-war statements, it is as important a movie as it was when it first came out over forty years ago, even partially due to the fact that it is willing to make you squirm and think about time-worn issues of patriotism, God, and man’s duty to himself Vs. to his country, In other words, not a light watch. But worth seeing and discussing by serious film goers.

Joe (Timothy Bottoms) is a good looking, All-American kid with his entire life ahead of him. That is, until he fights in the trenches of the first world war and gets mangled beyond all recognition by a grenade attack. An undetermined amount of time later, Joe is trapped in a kind of living death; a blind, deaf, horribly disfigured quadruple amputee imprisoned in his own head. With absolutely nothing to do set out on a steel table like a slab of meet and  confined to a sterile hospital, Joe drifts in and out of a drug-fueled haze and dreams of his past life; his parents (Marsha Hunt and Jason Robards,) his high school sweetheart (Kathy Fields) and his own expansive helplessness and misery.

Johnny Got His Gun is Trumbo’s directorial debut, based on his novel by the same name, and it is notable for trying to get into the main character’s head through dreams, hallucinations, and memories. In this way, it is as interesting and immersive as a novel. Timothy Bottoms plays the doomed soldier, and although I don’t necessarily think he was the best man for the job (he seems to flounder at times in an exceedingly difficult role,) he has a innocent quality that lends credibility to his character. The message is sort pf obvious and states itself in a somewhat didactic way, there’s a not a huge amount of subtlety to a script that all but outright tells you that ‘war is hell’ in a dark and thoroughly depressing manner. That said, the movie has not lost it’s power since it’s release in 1971 and it’s intelligent stylistic choices and primal sense of horror (the horror of being trapped within yourself. unable to see, hear, or communicate and treated by your doctors as brain-dead) still rings true.

Johnny Got His Gun will make you think about a state between life and death where suddenly, being alive isn’t worth the trouble anymore. We see a decent, clean-cut, likable kid in a harrowing situation that God willing, none of us will have to face, and we see the bullshit of war and the hypocrisy of  warmongers and politicians who send kids in to die for a conflict most of them don’t fully understand. In one of the film’s earlier sequences, Joe and his girlfriend Kareen share a sweet moment while a enlistment officer talks a line of bunk about the glory of war.

The scene of the couple’s genuinely sweet moment juxtaposed against the officer’s never ending speel is particularly memorable. For a boy going to war, what is gained? More importantly, what is lost? Potent, raw, and sometimes downright eerie, this movie is worth watching when considering both the Euthanasia and wartime debate. If I myself was in Joe’s position, there’s no question about it. I’d want to be put out of my misery as quickly as possible.  Living for the sake of living, despite horrible quality of life, just isn’t worth it. This isn’t a rousing movie with lots of hyper kinetic battle scenes. It’s a quiet, serious kind of film, and should be viewed as such. It is also one of the most effective ant-war films I’ve ever seen.

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Beasts of No Nation (2015)

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Poor Agu (Abraham Attah.) A young African boy caught up in a war on his own soil that American youngsters can neither understand nor comprehend, he is forced to commit unconscionable acts in order to survive. Fighting as a child soldier against a faceless enemy he has no real understanding of, Agu has little time to mourn the senseless slaughter of his family as he must prove himself to the charming and predatory Commandant (Idris Elba.) As he learns to be a fighter and a murderer, Agu must face the death of everything human in him, and his realization that being reunited with his remaining relatives is becoming increasingly distant and unlikely with each passing second.

Beasts of No Nation is based on a novel by the same title, which I bought on Amazon about a year prior but just couldn’t get into. People talk about ‘first world problems’ so much that it becomes kind of a cliche, but there is still a grain of truth to it. Growing up in America can be hard, unbelievably hard- drugs, mental illness, family strife, gang warfare, bullies, and poverty are just a few of the hurdles many American kids face every day, but there’s a marked difference between us and a kid like Agu. We know with some degree of clarity that we aren’t going to be invaded or have our homes destroyed in all-out war.  We don’t have to worry we will come home and find a crater where are house was, and piles of ash where the people we called ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ once stood.

The film adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s slim novel takes us into a world where safety is excruciatingly uncertain and the only thing between a relatively comfortable childhood and the wreckage of innocence is a group of soldiers keeping up a barrier between ‘home’ and ‘out there.’ This is done with somber immediacy, and held up to scrutiny by Attah’s haunting performance as a boy for whom tragedy becomes a long-standing part of himself. Attah’s astonishing dramatic turn makes his transformation from ordinary goofball preteen to psychologically broken casualty of war completely believable.

The violence in this movie doesn’t have a whole lot of stylized varnish or frills, the difference between this and a Quentin Tarantino movie is daunting, though both are worthy cinematic excursions in their own way. Pedophilia, carnage, wartime rape, and the mass killing of innocents are on naked display, and we see how thin a line there is between a normal person and a person who commits horrific acts is.

Sometimes, all it takes is a push for a everyday citizen, even a child, to act in self-interest and slaughter another human being. We are all just slightly advanced animals. Anyone who thinks we’re morally superior to wild creatures is either a fool or simply mistaken. Agu is not a monster, he does what he needs to to survive and we wonder how many of the men- boys, really- in Commandant’s troupe (many of which are participating in rape, child killing and other wartime atrocities) were just scared little kids unable to hold a gun at the beginning of this long, bloody war.

The script of this movie is incisive and well-written in that like Agu, we are never quite sure what is going on or who is fighting who. This deliberate vagueness gives the film a kind of disorienting feeling that was a good choice on the part of the filmmaker. The only connection to the white journalists and outsiders to this war is the people with cameras who snap pictures of Agu as he walks down a dirt road with an assault weapon. Agu returns their gaze with an appropriately uncomprehending look.

We see the brainwashing process- the pleading man Agu is forced to kill with a machete is obviously responsible for slaughtering his family, because why not? Agu is given drugs and groomed with smarmy words and bullshit political speeches. He is beaten senseless and molested by the Commendant. His only friend, the silent Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) feels for him but is in exactly the same position he is. We also see how the wealthy profit from a boy’s war, though exactly when and how we are unsure- like Agu, we are cast into an unfathomable situation with very little background information.

Beasts of No Nation is a disturbing movie, but it succeeds in making a conflict we hear about secondhand in the papers feel a little bit closer. Appropriately confusing, erratic, and sometimes downright unwatchable (in a good way,) the film will make you think and, cliched as it is, appreciate what we have in this country compared to what those in war-torn regions only dream of. Safety is relative (especially with the number of shootings in this country spiking) but Agu lives in a reality that, God willing, none of us will have to experience first hand.

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Million Dollar Baby (2004)

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Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of boxing. At all. I don’t judge people who like it, but there you are. I just don’t see the appeal in big, sweaty, greased-up guys knocking the piss out of each other, having their remaining teeth flying every which way, and probably acquiring long-lasting brain damage at age thirty. Entertaining? Hell no. Erotic? No, it’s not that either.

So with boxing movies, and by extension all sports movies (football, baseball, basketball, etc.) I need a sort of human interest story to really capture my attention. Well, I can tell you if you’re looking for human drama, pathos, and an extra helping of tragedy,  Clint Eastwood Academy Award-winning film has that and more. There’s guilt, grief, denial, friendship, and major moral dilemmas. I mean big fucking moral dilemmas. The kind that keep you up at night.

Frankie Dunn (Actor/Director Eastwood) is a bit of a cranky old man and well-regarded boxing trainer who doesn’t train girls– period. This moral position doesn’t seem very well thought out- it’s less a legitimate position than a lunk-headed duh... I mean, girls wanting to box. Who’d have thunk it? Next they’ll be asking for equal pay and equal rights in all things.

So, being the kind of crank he is, he turns aspiring boxerette Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) away like a puppy in the rain. “There’s plenty of people who will train girls,” he says. But Maggie’s determined. She’s come from a trash family (when we later meet her selfish and spectacularly ungrateful mother (Margo Martindale) and sister (Riki Lindhome,) we see where she’s from, and why she wants to get out) and she believes that being trained by Frankie Dunn (who seems to have quite a reputation in the boxing world, despite slumming it in a tiny fighting hall) is the best way to get her where she’s going.

Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman) is just the janitor, but he’s inwardly wise and worldly in that quintessential Morgan Freeman (with a smooth as butter voice over and that great voice) and quietly observes the drama between Frankie and Maggie, occasionally sharing a barbed repartee with Frankie and giving him a gentle push in the right direction. Frankie’s heart is rendered stony with personal tragedy, including a long-time estrangement from his own daughter. Will he give Maggie the well-deserved training and fatherly input she needs?

One thing you can say about this movie is it does good by not saddling Maggie with an  unnecessary love interest, rightfully focusing on the paternal relationship between she and Eastwood. The two have good (platonic) chemistry as they somewhat predictably bond, but tragedy lurks just around the corner. I often felt Morgan Freeman was a bit too much of a catalyst to the events rather than a character in his own right.

The thing is, for the first thirty minutes or so I was planning to bitch that the development of the relationships in “Million Dollar Baby” were too trite and predictable (i.e. grumpy old trainer professes his hatred for girls’ boxing, grumpy old trainer is suckered in by girl boxer’s irrepressible enthusiasm, etc.) But then I realized that while these odd couple stories are not the most original premises in the world, they work. They’re compelling. Where would we be without the gruesome twosome in “Up,” or “Men in Black,” or to name a less known title, “Treacle Jr.” (one of my personal favorites?)

If you bawled out every movie that featured a progressing bond by two people who have nothing in common, you’d have no movies left. Which is why I figure, we need our well-worn story lines. To some extent. Because something can be derivative and original at the same time. Well, the acting here certainly can’t be faulted. Outstanding performances all around. Hilary Swank proved her merit as a thespian in “Boys Don’t Cry,” playing trans man Brandon Teena, and once again with tomboyish pluck she shows us why she’s one of the best in the business.

Clint Eastwood is wonderful- he possibly gives an even better performance in this than he does in “Gran Torino,” a top-notch movie in it’s own right. He’s not just a gun-toting Republican tough guy with dozens of Westerns to his name- he shows real range and finesse as a troubled old man who tries to build barriers around his heart and refuses to let himself care about anybody. Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. He plays a role we’ve come to expect from Freeman- wise and pensive, with sage advice for the other characters, and he does a fine job.

I didn’t cry at the end because someone had already spoiled the twist for me, but it might have really gotten to me had I not gone in knowing more or less how things were going to go down. I think the characters came off as a little one-note while watching it under a critical eye (Maggie in particular seeming a little too perfect at times,) but overall “Million Dollar Baby” is just a good, emotional, wonderfully acted drama about allowing yourself to legitimately give a shit about someone again- albeit with tear jerking results.

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Nil By Mouth (1997)

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Holy shit. This film is so… fucking… bleak. But it is a must watch for people who think Ray Winstone can’t act. Keep the rubbish in the trash bin, Britain. And don’t under any circumstances let Raymond (Winstone) near your unborn baby. Rage, alcoholism. The relentlessly grim cycle of domestic violence passing from one generation to the next. This drama takes place in the South London projects, but it is by no means confined to that setting. It’s universal, and it won’t stop unless women stop settling for men who beat the shit out of them.

Raymond (Ray Winstone) and Mark (Jamie Foreman) are two South London bros who are also both pretty horrible people. They hang out in Ray’s apartment, drink and drink, and talk shit. Oh yeah, and Ray occasionally takes enough time off drinking and talking shit to beat his wife, Valerie (Kathy Burke) senseless. Ray’s also a father to a little girl (Leah FItzgerald,) and the kid is all too often a witness to Mommy getting her ass handed to her. Ray’s subhuman, a screaming, emotionally impotent cretin, but he thinks he gets off free because he’s all tormented and complex and shit. To listen to his talks with his friend puts you in mind of witnessing something scintillatingly grotesque, like the dietary habits of wild animals.

Valerie has an exhausted mother, Janet (Laila Morse) and a spirited grandmother (Edna Dore) who doesn’t take bunk from anybody, even when Ray threatens to knock the geriatric old bird out cold. She also has a brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles,) who’s slightly more likable than the other men, mostly because he doesn’t talk much, and also because he’s not a violent criminal or consciously cruel as much as a weak and pathetic loser. Billy also has a methamphetamine habit he supports by stealing and mooching off his mother.

The five characters converge throughout this practically plotless Brit drama, not as much living as surviving, and it soon becomes clear that something’s going to have to give before all fucking hell breaks lose. Because this life they’re living is not as much of a life as a fox trap where they’re chewing their collective leg off.

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The action feels real, like all the best British realism films. The conversations sound like real conversations, and even though the number of curse words is staggering (if you were offended by the bad language in my review, trust me, this isn’t the movie for you) they don’t seem excessive in the context of the film. Writer/director Gary Oldman (yes, that Gary Oldman) has an ear for dialogue, the meaningless yammering bullshit people talk, and the lies people tell themselves to get through the day. Except in his adept hands, the rambling dialogue becomes something really special. Even when Billy’s tattooed hooligan friend Danny (Steve Sweeney) lovingly recites dialogue from “Apocalypse Now” while blitzed out of his mind, the scene has a certain gravity to it, almost touching. It feels like you are seeing something important, something only you are meant to see.

There are a handful of truly amazing scenes in this film, moments so hardcore you forget to breathe, when you see what these fucked-up people’s lives are really about. Several of these involve Ray Winstone monologues, particularly the one about his father where we find out what the title of the movie pertains to. Tight, focused acting there. The kind that takes raw talent. One of the scenes that sticks out to me is the one where Janet, defeated, takes Billy to pick up meth from his dealer. She sits and watches him as he sits in the back of the van doing the drugs,  his expression the shallow smile of a satisfied addict, her’s of exhaustion and resignation.

That, to me, is the epitome of desperation. Watching your son shoot up with the crap that you provide? The thing is, nobody wants to be an enabler to their own kid. Nobody wants to be a beaten wife. But in an absence of hope, people settle for so much less than they could be; so much less than they deserve. It’s an ugly cycle, one that is both self-perpetuating and never-ending.

The only thing that keeps me from wholeheartedly recommending this movie is the ending. The whole thing is just bizarre. Whether it’s a happy ending or another plunge into the Hellish abyss of domestic violence, who can tell? I’ll settle for the latter. Regardless, it just made me mad. “Nil By Mouth” is no more a popcorn  movie than a film by Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier is. However, if you like hyper-realistic kitchen sink dramas with amazing actors, this is the movie for you. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you, the level of domestic violence is daunting. This is a harrowing look at people with nothing left to lose, people for which violence is not a distant thing to dread but an inevitable side effect of being alive.

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Philomena (2013)

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I know I’m probably a little late getting onto the bandwagon, but Judi Dench is an amazing actress! Her eyes are like twin oceans that reflect her character’s feelings, whether stormy or sunny, to an absolute tee. And although some people might find Stephen Frears’ biopic drama Philomena trite or predictable, I thoroughly enjoyed and it’s touching tribute to motherhood. Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) is a simple woman- kind, a little eccentric, and privy to the simple joys that life provides. What she lacks in worldliness she makes up for in good cheer and her big heart.

But something in Philomena’s past haunts her well into her twilight years. As a girl, Philomena had a little boy named Anthony who was taken from her and given to an American couple by the nuns that kept her as an indentured servant to work off her sins as an unwed mother. Not exactly living out the example of Christ, these nuns have refused to tell her over a span of dozens of years what became of Anthony, and despite being the mother of another grown child, a daughter, Philomena’s heart aches to discover Anthony’s whereabouts and to involve him in her life.

That’s where Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan,) a disgraced journalist, comes in. Against his own better judgement, the cynical Martin is recruited by Philomena’s daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) to locate Anthony and reunite him with his aged mother. Thus, begins a funny, sad, and bittersweet journey to Ireland, Philomena’s birthplace, the U.S., and finally, home again (hopefully with son in tow.) On the way Philomena challenges Martin’s atheism and grim viewpoint on life in general, and Martin is gradually buoyed by Philomena’s infectious attitude.

If you enjoy well-acted, gently quirky and sweetly predictable British dramedies that showcase the best humanity has to offer and heart-tugging plots, this movie is for you. I know what I like, and I’ve always enjoyed these kinds of movies, which seem soft and cozy enough to lull you to a peasant catharsis but real enough (compared to their U.S. counterparts) to take seriously. They’re the movie equivalent of comfort food, with laughs and tears along the way.

“Philomena” is sad, but not in the nihilistic soul-crushing way a Von Trier movie is sad. It is funny, but not in the way a crude teen comedy is funny. It has just enough reality to make you think and just enough fantasy (like the prerequisite and entirely fabricated scene where Coogan gives his speech about decency and basic human rights to the geriatric, cold-hearted nun (Barbara Jefford) that sent Philomena’s son away in the first place and not an eye is dry in the house) to be warm and familiar, like a well-worn blanket.

Yet, despite the familiar territory and the paper-thin supporting characters (Including Game of Thrones‘ Michelle Fairley as Martin’s implausibly soulless editor, and Martin’s wife (Simone Lahbib), who appears at the beginning to complain about his emotional unavailability and scarcely seen or heard from again), the movie works, and contains a handful of genuinely touching moments that will move you to tears.

If “Philomena”‘s intent was to move me, it has duly succeeded. If it’s intent was, also, to make me curious about the real Martin Sixsmith’s book, ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,’ it has succeeded in this regard too. “Philomena” won’t rock anyone’s world with particularly innovative filmmaking and storytelling, but can’t us softies have our comfort food to watch as well as to eat and drink? For a taste of bittersweet, heartwarming, and maybe a little formulaic British cinema, look no further.

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Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

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Three childhood friends, reunited in adulthood and all marching toward a shared spiritual and psychological destruction. Sound cheerful? Clint Eastwood adapted this novel, so if you’re a fan of Eastwood’s directorial endeavors you might be familiar with this story of betrayal and revenge. The aging movie star’s filmmaking capabilities are undeniable, but there’s something about reading a novel versus watching it’s film adaptation, you know? Most of the time, anyway.

‘Mystic River’ is a dark read on a plethora of tough subjects (child abduction and the ensuing sexual abuse, latent pedophilic tendencies, a father’s grief over the violent death of his daughter,) but if anyone is up for the job of writing gritty urban realism featuring the tragic mistakes of regular people and their fatal repercussions, it’s Dennis Lehane.

The man has a gift- with dialogue, with character description, with prose so fluid and lush it’s reading is similar to the experience of watching a great movie. His characters never seem unrealistically colorful or contrived. They grab your attention honestly- through the strength of great storytelling. ‘Mystic River’ is about three boys- Dave Boyle, Sean Devine, and Jimmy Markum- who grow up into three damaged men. Where did it all go wrong? For these guys, the proverbial shit hit the fan when 11-year-old Dave was coerced into a car by two men pretending to be police officers as his friends looked on and molested for five days before making his escape, becoming quite the local celebrity in the process.

But Dave doesn’t want lurid, however short-lived fame. He wants his childhood back. Once an eager-to-please schoolboy and a bit of a brownnosing crony to the stronger, more well-liked Jimmy, Dave grows up to be a tormented adult who has experienced a splintering of self- some of him is still in that basement, yearning to escape. Hell, all the boys are haunted by that day, the unresolved questions that reared their ugly heads when that car came to take Dave away. Twenty-five years later, another tragedy occurs. Now-grown ex-con Jimmy Markums’ 19-year-old daughter, Katie, is brutally murdered in the park after a drunken night on the town.

Now, who should come back into Jimmy’s life but Sean- a cop investigating the Katie Markum case- and Dave- a suspect in her violent death. Katie’s death has many suspects, more the further you look from different angles (in classic detective story fashion.) While initially Katie seems like a girl with not an enemy in the world, further inspection produces a different, darker take on those she associated with. Confronting a case that seems increasingly personal the farther he digs forward, Sean must ask the ultimate question- who killed Katie Markum? And will the actual murderer’s insistence on keeping his identity under wraps spell destruction for the three men?

I found ‘Mystic River’ less confusing than the first novel I read by Dennis Lehane, “Gone Baby Gone” but also slightly less compelling. That might have been partially because I already knew the ending to ‘Mystic River,’ having seen the movie beforehand. It was just a matter of getting there. There is no real redemption in either story; if anything, every good thing that comes from ‘Mystic River’s ending is more detrimental that satisfactory- take, for instance, Sean’s reunion with his wife paired with his decision to take all the flack for their break-up. He got what he wanted, but will he really wind up happy?

I don’t think the mystery is too hard to solve if the reader pays close attention to the clues provided along the way. All three men are sympathetic In their own way (despite Dave’s impure, albeit unacted-on, carnal appetites and Jimmy’s astonishing capacity for violence) while still being deeply flawed and troubled. Dennis Lehane’s prose is so easy to fall in love with. It is strong, consistent, and descriptive.  He cares about these characters and he wants you to care about them too, but he doesn’t always make them easy candidates for compassion, if you know what I mean.

In the end, what has been gained? What has been learned? If you say zilch. you’re certainly on the right track. A continuing theme is loss- of innocence, of love, of family, of humanity. We move beyond our past tragedies, if we’re lucky. But do they move past us? More of a psychological study of guilt and grief than a hard-and-dry mystery, ‘Mystic River’ is simultaneously harsh, delicate, and haunting.

Boy A by Jonathan Trigell

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Harrowing. Heartbreaking. Fabulously discussion-worthy. All these are apt ways to describe Jonathan Trigell’s lightning bolt to the nervous system, ‘Boy A.’ It would be pretty accurate to say I loved this book, and even when I hated it, I loved it, because I realized when it was making me edgy and mad it was actually making me think. You don’t have to agree with it’s political viewpoint, but you will have to allow your beliefs and preconceptions to be challenged for the sake of the experience.

Jack is not an orphan, but he might as well be. After years locked away for a ghastly childhood crime, Jack has been reintroduced to society under a different identity, hiding from the media and potential acts of vigilantism. Jack’s Liberal social worker, Terry, believes he is essentially good. But can Jack really start his life over? Can he fall in love? Does he deserve to be given a second chance, considering what he did to another life?

Throughout the book Jack is portrayed to be a bit childlike and naïve, without coming off a saccharine or eye-rollingly idiotic. His romance with Michelle, a more experienced young woman, is touching and real. Finally a love interest with more reason for being than simply saving a troubled young man from himself. Michelle is not a manic pixie dream girl. She reminds me of the character from “Silver Linings Playbook” (the movie.) She’s made up of parts- strength, shrewdness, vulnerability. And she likes all those bits, even the dirty ones.

‘Boy A’, above all, a meditation on growing up, the possibility and unpredictability of change, and the horrors of living under the scrutinizing eye of the media. The writing is incisive and laden with layers of meaning. The ending is bleak, but also leaves us to contemplate how such a pay-off could’ve been avoided.

The only thing I really didn’t like about this book is the snide judgment with which the author portrays Angela, the victim of Jack’s adolescent crime. Angela is ten, but the author seems to treat her as responsible beyond her years, while the blame is displaced from Jack and his unnamed, delinquent friend. Once a bitch, always a bitch, the novel seems to say, which really didn’t sit well with me. I think less time could be spent on portraying Angela as a spoiled princess that ‘bad things just didn’t happen to’ and more time showing the grief of her family at such a senseless crime should have been incorporated. While focusing almost entirely on Jack’s pain is novel, it also seems kind of inappropriate considering the subject matter.

Although I found that aspect of ‘Boy A’ somewhat reprehensible, the rest of the book was so beautifully written and psychologically complex that I cannot help writing a glowing review. The shifting perspectives (though fully grounded in third-person) give a darker, deeper look into the events that make up the book’s chapters. I also highly recommend the film adaptation with Andrew Garfield. Garfield gives a beautifully realized portrayal of Jack, and the most important aspects of the book are retained in the film version. Happy reading!

Room by Emma Donoghue

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Resourceful youngster Jack is the dynamic protagonist of “Room,” a compelling offering from Irish writer Emma Donoghue. The initial premise of “Room” is at once heartbreaking and luridly fascinating- 5-year-old Jack and his mother, known merely as “Ma” for the duration of the novel, are prisoners at the hands of “Old Nick,” the psycho pervert who abducted Ma when she was a freshman in college. Jack has never left the small shed where he lives with his mother and is visited nightly by old Nick. who continually violates Ma while Jack hides in the wardrobe.

Despite his potentially traumatic upbringing (he has never come into contact with another person and believes that the outside world he sees on the television is imaginary,) Jack is sustained by his Mom’s love and manages to be innocent to most of the more horrific implications of his life. He has had a troubled childhood, but possesses a soul both intrinsically healthy and capable of giving and receiving love.

The dynamics shift when Ma starts having a reason to believe that her and Jack’s lives are in danger, and in her desperation,  she calls upon Jack to help carry out a daring escape plan. “Room” is narrated by Jack, who believes in the sentience of inanimate objects. Because of this and Jack’s youth, the book is written in fragmented, often confusing phrases. If you can handle the broken English, however, “Room” is a arresting and heart-pounding piece of fiction.

Emma Donoghue has a way of making potentially horrifying subject matter beautiful rather than sleazy. “Room” reminds me of “The Lovely Bones” in that way, treating the subject with lyricism and compassion rather than ickiness and shock value. I found Jack’s voice to be mostly plausible, with very few exceptions. There were only a couple of moments where I felt he was too precocious for a young child of his situation and the prose tipped me off that it was merely an adult telling the story.

Ma’s the truly remarkable character in this novel though. Building a life for her son under horrendous circumstances could not have been an easy feat, and Ma loves the child of her abductor with an intensity and devotion that is inspirational, to say the lest (although I never expect to find myself in that kind of situation.) Only in the scene where Ma is being interviewed on the talk show does the book get a bit preachy.

Mostly, though, it is Jack’s strong and idiosyncratic voice that propels “Room” beyond general ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ fodder. Grappling with issues of motherhood and media sensationalism,  “Room” is a profound and heart-grabbing read.

Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)

Bloody and brilliant, “Dead Man’s Shoes” is an emotional rollercoaster from beginning to end. The 57% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is both a crying shame and a sacrilege, because this is Shane Meadows’ masterpiece — a film that transcends the revenge genre, delivering a heart-pounding, intense story that lets events unfold in a way that is anything but simple.

Richard (Paddy Considine) returns home from military service with no intention of living a nice quiet life and settling down. The target of his rage: a low-rent drug gang that did some terrible things to his borderline simple brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) some time before.

After Richard threatens a drug dealer and later gives him an unsettlingly twitchy apology, the gang of thugs suspect that ol’ Anthony’s brother might be a few screws short of a tool box, but don’t know how to react. Sonny (Gary Stretch), the most sadistic and smartest (and in a group like this, that’s not saying much), takes charge as best as he is able, but they are no match for Richard’s cool-headed brutality and military training.

This is when things get decidedly more ambiguous. What exactly happened to Anthony? What parts of Richard’s viewpoint are unreliable? When he faces the thug who has broken off from the gang and raised a family, Richard grows less and less sure of himself, leading to a shocking conclusion that rivals the majority of thrillers in its freshness and great writing.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Paddy Considine’s performance here is one of the best acting jobs I’ve seen. He makes Richard thoroughly believable and doesn’t stoop to any tough-guy cliches. What Richard lacks in size, he makes up for in calm, calculated violence. His performance is powerful and a testament to lesser-known actors who seem to slip through the cracks all too often.

Toby Kebbell, who gets overlooked all too often is also very good as Anthony, a simple-minded fellow whose naivete proves to be dangerous as he navigates a rough area without his older brother, who he looks up to, to protect him. He is very believable playing a mentally retarded character, and doesn’t overplay his hand or make his character a ham-fisted caricature.

The other actors never match up to Considine’s ferocious portrayal of a vengeful loner, but they do fine on their own. There’s a scene between the reformed drug dealer and his wife that is very powerful and moving, and the thugs do good job as their drug-hazed obliviousness turns to fear.

There is also some humor (mostly derived from the stupidity of the antagonists) and some tender moments between Richard and his brother. “Dead Man’s Shoes” proves there is still some smarts left in the thriller genre, and boy do I love it for that. It benefits from a smart script and a blistering performance from Paddy Considine. Watch it, and you will not be wasting your time. I didn’t waste mine.

The Living & the Dead (2006)

Not your first pick for Mother’s Day, The Living and the Dead is morbid and horrifying, and I mean that, strangely, as a compliment. It is a family drama, a psychological thriller, a tragedy, an art film, all these things at once, and and despite it’s flaws, it doesn’t overextend.

The film opens with Lord Donald Brocklebank (Roger Lloyd-Pack), a worn-down, silent shell of an old man, pushing an empty wheelchair through a quiet room. The image delivers the same feeling as a dark grey painting, lonely and despondent. He watches, lip quivering, as an ambulance pulls into his massive estate. Cut back an undetermined amount of time. Donald stands straighter. He maintains a kind of pride that must come with being one of the British elite, but he is grieving. He has a lot to grieve about.

His wife, Lady Nancy Brocklebank, is terribly sick and probably won’t be with him much longer. The bills are piling up, and they will soon lose their mansion. His son James (Leo Bill, in an over-the-top performance that works), dashes around the house with little clear purpose.

James is in his mid-to-late twenties. He is stuck in a kind of permanent childhood, the kind of childhood that is made up of nightmares, not whimsy. Although Simon Rumley, the director, describes him as “mentally challenged,” I suspect paranoid schizophrenia.

James is by far my favorite character in the film. He is a complicated movie creation, and his emotional limitations do not hold back his complexity or ambiguity as a person. Donald treats James with the casual cruelty that is most likely inflicted on the mentally ill more often than we think, condescending to him, forbidding him to use the phone or answer the door. James is desperate to prove to his father that he is an independent adult and plans to do so by taking care of his mother.

His father understandably rejects the idea. In an matter of days, James will have locked the door, shut out the nurse, skipped his pills, and may have destroyed the lives of those closest to him. Soon, as his lucidity deteriorates, the viewer begins to wonder if the past events were only in James’ head. This is a film for a patient audience — it’s a while before anything happens and the reality of the events is questionable.

The atmosphere is palpable, and the characters are well developed. There are many plot holes and unanswered questions throughout the film, as the story itself seems on the edge of reality, with its Gothic features and abstract images.

People have had different opinions on whether James is “good” or “bad.” He is a disturbing character, to be sure. He is not a sex maniac, mad slasher, or stony-faced killer, but an exceptionally childlike and deeply disturbed man. This movie might make you feel differently about a crime, in the paper, in which mental illness was a factor. Despite naysayers, The Living and the Dead is an emotional bombshell and thought-provoking film.