Tag Archives: Sexual Abuse

Movie Review: Stuart- A Life Backwards (2007)

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Rating: B+/ Based on homeless advocate Alexander Masters’ biography of his late friend, Stuart Shorter, this movie is an emotional roller coaster. Stuart (Tom Hardy) is the kind of guy people cross to the other side of the street to avoid. Drunk, drug-addicted, physically handicapped and mentally unsound, sporadically homeless junkie and Muscular Dystrophy patient Stuart is a man many would pity, but few would have the inclination to call ‘friend.’ Yet Alexander (Benedict Cumberbatch) reluctantly befriends him, after much initiating on Stuart’s part. The two men campaign together to release two homeless shelter aides wrongfully imprisoned by the courts, and along the way Alexander begins writing a book about Stuart’s troubled life story, which includes physical and sexual abuse, bullying, and early brushes with violent crime. Continue reading Movie Review: Stuart- A Life Backwards (2007)

Movie Review: Dark Places (2015)

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Rating: B-/ Flaws aside, I don’t think this movie is as bad as the critics say. Sure, the characters are fairly unlikable and the plot twist doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny, but I was invested throughout the entire film in what was going to happen next (which is strange, since the lead character actually kind of annoyed me.) Plus, I love Charlize Theron, no matter what kind of fucked-up head case she’s playing (take the Oscar-winning crime drama Monster, for example. ) Continue reading Movie Review: Dark Places (2015)

Movie Review: Puppylove (2013)

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    Rating: C/ Puppylove opens with two 14-year-old kids preparing to have sex. The awkwardness and authenticity of this scene made me think the movie itself was going to be more realistic than it was. But no, the ick factor of this film goes way above and beyond a realistic amount and into a level of ridiculousness. Let me explain. The girl in the movie, Diane (Selene Rigot) is a young teen and looks barely old enough to be weaned off Barbie dolls. She also seems to be in love with her ineffectual father (Vincent Perez) (Freud would be proud.) At the beginning, we see the girl, Diane, befriend Julia (Audrey Bastien,) the remarkably self-possessed nymphet daughter of overbearing intellectual parents who is all too aware of her effect on men. Continue reading Movie Review: Puppylove (2013)

Movie Review: Little Children (2006)

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Rating: B+/ So, is the movie called Little Children because the sex offender played by Jackie Earle Haley has a thing for little children or because all the adult characters in the movie act like little children, self-obsessed and bickering? The jury’s still out on that. While the main plotline concerning extramarital affairs and upper-class ennui in an affluent suburban neighborhood is dark and distressing enough, I found the subplot following a child abuser and exhibitionist moving into his mothers’ house after being released from prison (the superior thread by far) absolutely harrowing. Did this movie really make me feel compassion for a guy who gets his kicks flashing his weenie at little kids? What does that say about the film’s aptitude for puzzling moral ambiguity? Moreover, what does it say about me? Continue reading Movie Review: Little Children (2006)

Movie Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

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Rating- A / Even though it seems fairly tame by today’s standards in terms of violence, language, and sexual content, it’s easy to imagine Midnight Cowboy making waves in 1969. Both controversial and extremely daring for it’s time, the film, based on the novel of the same title by Leo James Herlihy, deals with hot-button issues such as prostitution, rape, homosexuality, and childhood sexual abuse. And it transcends the constraints of time and setting to tell an incredible story of innocence lost and outcasts eking out a hardscrabble urban existence that is both archetypal and vitally original. Continue reading Movie Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane

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For your information, I broke the rules early on and read the fifth book, Gone, Baby, Gone in the Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series before I read his debut novel A Drink Before the War. Comparing the two, I actually like Gone Baby Gone, a teeny bit better than I like this one. I can see how Dennis Lehane developed as a writer between the penning of these two books. Not only is Gone, Baby, Gone more emotionally effective, it doesn’t hit the reader as much with its social issues.

Don’t get me wrong, A Drink Before the War is a well-written mystery. I don’t even generally read mysteries, but even when I’m in a funk and can’t seem to finish anything, I can finish a book by Dennis Lehane. I haven’t read a single one of his books that have let me down or proven difficult for me to complete yet. Although I preferred Gone, Baby, Gone to this, I recommend you read A Drink Before the War first since it is the first book in the series so the timeline will make more sense chronologically if you start there.

A Drink Before the War follows private investigator Patrick Kenzie, a world-weary smart aleck who pulls no punches about his cynicism concerning the human race, and his beautiful and spirited partner, Angela Gennaro, as they navigate a gritty, Noir-ish urban Boston landscape. Some phony politicians recruit Patrick to find a black cleaning lady, Jenna Angeline, who has pilfered some important documents and disappeared.

Immediately the case smells fishy; what exactly do these documents pertains to? And why does Jenna act like her thievery of the papers is a matter of honor when Patrick does manage to find her? The answer lies among a long-time feud between two gangs and a whole lot of political corruption (politicians? Be less-than-ethical? Why I never!)

Meanwhile, Patrick deals with his seemingly unrequited love for Angela, who’s married to an abusive d-bag who smacks her around, and confronts his own prejudices when a lot of racial and socioeconomic issues simmer to the surface of this deceptively simple case. This book is well-written, thoughtful, and exciting, and Patrick’s acerbic mixture of sarcasm and cynicism makes him a dynamite narrator. There’s always something interesting going on or bubbling up in the background of this action-packed book.

I do think Lehane went a little overboard with the hot-button race issues. The book hardly ever drags, but when it does, it is  due to the sometimes didactic exposition on white privilege and race wars the author sprinkles, occasionally excessively, into the prose. I think politics have a place in fiction, even detective fiction, but this was just too much. The story should be able to present it’s issues without beating us over the head with them.

I’ll admit, Gone, Baby, Gone didn’t always use the utmost subtlety when bringing up the perils of the child protective system, but this struck me as more heavy-handed. Maybe it’s partially because everything seems to be riding hard on race issues lately (from Black Lives Matter to the Oscars debate) so I didn’t need another reminder of the hostile racial climate of today.

However, A Drink Before the War benefits from Patrick’s fresh voice and a multitude of memorable characters such as the protagonist’s ticking time bomb one-man army of a ally Bubba Rodowsky and Jenna herself, who’s made some bad decisions in life but ultimately fucks herself attempting to do the right thing for herself and her family.

What I like best about this series is that every book’s a page turner, I can’t wait to get my hands on the second novel in the series, and I recommend Dennis Lehane to anyone with a enjoyment of crime fiction and a pretty strong stomach (his books can get pretty brutal at times.) If thrillers about scandal, corruption, and hard-boiled detective action is your thing, you should do yourself a favor and pick this book up from your local library or bookstore

Monster (2003)

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Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) always knew she’d be famous for something. Who knew that her claim to fame would be as America’s first female serial killer? Life pisses all over Aileen, she’s a sexual abuse victim from a crappy home and a crappy family who turns tricks as a cheap roadside whore for a living. About as white trash as it is possible to get, Wuornos is played by Theron with prosthetic teeth and excess flab in a Academy Award-winning performance born of pure grit.

Monster is a rather eerie and disturbing movie that forces you to sympathize to some extent with a beastly human being with little to no compassion for her victims. Monsters are made, not born. I really believe that 99.9% percent of the time, that’s the case. A woman of limited resources, low intelligence, and poor self-control, Aileen’s first murder is self-defense; shooting a sexually abusive john who tries to rape her. When she gets a taste of that power, though, she embraces the life of a killer.

Aileen has a girlfriend named Selby (Christina Ricci,) a pixyish young lesbian with a crooked smile and an easy way about her. Maybe Aileen is gay. Or maybe she’s just sick of men treating her like shit. Aileen’s only friend is Thomas (Bruce Dern,) a homeless war vet who offers her half a sandwich and doesn’t ask anything in return. This is Aileen’s life. It’s not pretty, but that doesn’t mean it’s a side of America that doesn’t exist. Selby wants to be treated like a princess, and Aileen offers that in the form of murdered johns’ money. Selby doesn’t know, or pretends not to know, about Aileen’s murderous nighttime habits. Aileen wants to quit the life, but every opportunity seems to lead to a dead end for this dim, volatile nut bag of a woman.

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The first thirty minutes or so are oddly touching, a mix of hopeful and even unexpectedly sweet emotions that make the film’s plunge into the abyss of murder and misery all the more jarring. We get to see the halting baby steps in a love affair, one that is skewed but still real and heartwrenching.Theron looks like shit but this lends her some credibility as an ‘ordinary,’ ‘blue-collar’ person. She looks like one of those dodgy types lurking outside of Wal-Mart with a cigarette and a tattoo, and she sells it, too. Christina Ricci also impresses with a deft mix of vulnerability and manipulation. In the end, we don’t know which one is a more fucked-up or unlikable person; and yet we can’t dismiss them entirely. We go on a trip into utter desolation and horror with them, and we cannot hate them as much as we want to; and probably should, their descent into hell seems all too plausible.

As Aileen wreaks destruction on those around her, I admired the film’s refusal to justify or condemn, Aileen’s such a sad little creature that her descent into psychopathy doesn’t shock us as much as it probably should. This is the kind of woman we ignore. This is the kind of woman we avert her eyes from. This is the kind of woman we don’t notice until she turns up on headlines all over the country and we shake our heads in disgust and say, there are some crazy people in this world. We can’t understand Aileen unless we’ve been in her situation, but at the same time, we can’t justify her actions, especially her murder of the particularly unfortunate final victim (Scott Wilson.) This is the kind of movie you view as an outsider, and then you thank God you’re just that.

This movie doesn’t paint a pretty picture of men, women, or society in general, it attempts less to draw a social or moral conclusion and more just to paint a character portrait of some very screwed up people; a woman ugly inside and out, and her manipulative enabler/lover. When Aileen tries to get a job, we see a woman of low morality and intelligence getting by the best way she can. You can’t spin crap into gold, but at the same time, you see a little of the girl who couldn’t do anything right in this broken woman. She wanted to be a star. She got her name out to the press in the end, but not in the way she expected. As Aileen herself says, Life’s funny. Basically, if you like dark psychological character studies starring characters with severe mental illnesses/ personality disorders, this is the movie for you. If you don’t like the idea of a disturbing movie about a sexually abused hooker waxing her johns, you’ve been warned. There’s plenty of crazy to go around here though, for fans of intense character-driven storytelling and abnormal psychology.

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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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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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10 1/2 (2010)

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Whether or not this is what the filmmaker intended, 10 1/2 makes an excellent case for sterilization. Cretin parents spawn a psychotic child, who’s young age belies his appetite for destruction. Said child abuses a younger child and is left to sink or swim in the system. Kind of one of those ‘Life’s a bitch and then you die’ movies, isn’t it? On the plus side, the film is achingly realistic and the child actor playing the demented tyke at the center of this bleak picture gives it all he’s got, so it’s high degree of quality makes it a watchable, if not exactly palatable experience.

The title, 10 1/2, refers to the age of the protagonist. The first five minutes of this movie are as grueling a beginning as you’re ever likely to see. Inspired by a steady diet of pornographic films, an abused boy named Tommy (Robert Naylor) tries to make a 7-year-old perform oral sex on him. He fails, is caught, and he is beaten senseless by the small boy’s older brother. Following this catastrophe, Tommy is relinquished to the system by his desperate foster mother.

Tommy’s explosive temper soon proves challenging (to say the least) for the staff of a home for troubled boys. The majority of them want to pass him on to the psychiatric hospital to deal with. Gilles (Claude Legault) is the one who doesn’t. He’s determined to make Tommy see the error of his ways and get to the bottom of his troubled past. Tommy is pretty much the worst kid you can imagine- kicking, biting, throwing shit around the facility, spewing every manner of expletive he can come up with. Can a heart this wounded be healed? Can Gilles get through to Tommy, or are some people, no matter how young, a lost cause?

‘Harrowing’ is an apt way to describe this film. ‘Intense.’ ‘Infuriating,’ when you see what Tommy’s parents have done to him (although he has apparently repressed and internalized most of his early childhood memories) you will want to kick the ever-loving crap out of them. A child like Tommy has suffered major hurt and trauma at a very young age. I believe only a small minority of sociopaths are born evil. Parents ruin their children and leave them to screw up the next generation, on and on.

Tommy’s only foil is his dad (Martin Dubreuil,) who grooms him with false promises that he will take him in and normalize his life. Ultimately, patient, soft-spoken Gilles is the only one who gives a shit whether Tommy lives or dies. He wants to believe Tommy can be better, but Tommy proves to be an extremely hard child to believe in.

While Legault gives an effective performance as the dedicated social worker, it is Naylor who really impressed me as Tommy, especially given his young age. The part of Tommy must have been extremely hard for any actor to pull off, let alone a child actor. Most of the movie is simply a battle of wills between Gilles and Tommy, with the boy smashing things, displaying inappropriate sexual behavior, attacking staff members, and making suicide threats. It’s morally questionable to let a child play a role like this (it’s clear Canada has more lenient child pornography laws than we do (!)), but Naylor’s handling of his part is nothing less than heroic.

The ending’s ambiguity means we don’t really have an idea what will happen to Tommy at the end of this movie. I waited and waited for some kind of redemptive moment, but that moment unfortunately never came. All I can do is hope that Tommy gets his shit together. Whether (if he were a real person) he becomes a functioning member of society or a hardened sex offender depends so much on those crucial years, and we’ve gotta love Gilles for taking a chance on this frustrating, impossible boy.

10 1/2 is not a popcorn movie, not a family-friendly flick. It’s a dark, disturbing, impossibly grim (did I say disturbing?) look into a child protective system that needs a lot of work, and ‘parents’ who, should they refuse to use birth control or sterilization, would do society a favor by neutering themselves by any means possible. There are thousands of Tommy’s braving the system at this very moment, and I truly fear for them, and what their eventual maturation will mean to us as a society.

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