Tag Archives: Violence

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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Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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This is one of those rare cases where the book can not compare artistically with its movie adaptation. Sure, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s “Let the Right One In” has more detail, and even works to a certain extent. But I actually think the movie was improved somewhat by being stripped down to its bare essentials, and eliminating extraneous subplots. The book is a pretty good read, but it hardly seems to be in league with the masterpiece the Swedish film version was.

Twelve-year-old Oskar Eriksson is a bullied misfit kid who wants to get back in a big way at his cruel tormentors. He is a overlooked resident of Blackeberg, whose surrounding areas have been plagued by a series of ritualistic killings. Oskar is fascinated by the sense of unease and the corresponding murders and even keeps a scrapbook containing clips of violent crimes. Neither Oskar’s fragile mother or his alcoholic, divorcee dad seem to notice Oskar is harboring a Antisocial streak. But when you’re afraid to go to school every day, life can do that to you.

Then Oskar meets Eli, a strange, thin, androgynous child who encourages him to fight back against his bullies. Eli’s frail façade hides an insatiable bloodlust, but Oskar finds himself strangely drawn to her. How far will Oskar go to protect Eli’s secret? “Let the RIght One In” is a compelling take on vampire lore, but I think it tries too hard to scientifically explain vampirism. Some things are better left unsaid.

The book also offers descriptions of what it feels like to be bitten by a vampire and to turn into a vampire, which is pretty cool. However, it also contains too many characters and feels unnecessarily long. Some passages better explain things left ambiguous in the film, like the role of Eli’s caretaker, Hakan, or the relationship between Oskar and his dad.

In the film, Oskar had a certain innocence and vulnerability that mad him very compelling, despite the indisputable fact that he was a very troubled little boy. The child actor gave that innocence creditability. In the book, Oskar is mostly creepy, someone you don’t want to meet in a dark alley despite his youth and small stature. In this novel, Oskar harbors a fantasy of seeing someone executed in an electric chair and even sets some desks in his classroom on fire (okay, his bullies’ desks, but still, that’s a big safety hazard!)

Oskar still certainly isn’t a completely unsympathizable character, but maybe you have more of a propensity to feel for him when you aren’t looking into that troubled little mind of his. Eli, however, is as compelling as ever, and you get a better sense of who she is the novel, as well as get a more complex look into the grey areas in between the elements of her ambiguous gender.

There’s is some interesting further development of the side characters, but mostly the wealth of detail on the supporting players seems a little ‘meh.’ Despite my quibbles, this book may be still worth reading if you want a more complete picture of a story that proves the vampire genre is not dead. The murderous, predatory class of vampires, not the sparkling one.

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God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin (AKA Out Backward)

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The unreliable narrator. How much of what he says is true? What does he hold back? Is there ever a time you should take his word on a given event, or is the wisest thing to do turn around and accept the opposite as given truth? As these kind of characters go, nineteen-year-old misanthropic oddball Sam Marsdyke is a whopper of of an unreliable narrator. Even as his soul turns dark and sour, you want- desperately need- to believe this troubled boy’s story.

Sam swears he didn’t try to rape schoolgirl Katie Carmichael in detention as a teen, but his parents- nay, the whole Yorkshire community, believe different. The incident has made Sam quite the outcast, and, maybe because of it, he has developed a revulsion for his peers and people in general. Sam is the farmer son of a cowed mother and an abusive, gruff father, and he develops a rapport with the animals on the farm- Sal, his sheepdog puppy, and even the livestock.

His conversations with animals and even inanimate objects are offbeat and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. The Yorkshire dialect is difficult to wrap your head around, but it’s not really a very tough read- you can usually riddle out what a word means from the context. When Sam meets Jo, a newcomer to ‘God’s Own Country’ and also an off-limits fifteen-year-old girl, it’s obsession at first sight. Jo and Sam strike up a casual friendship, not so casual for Sam, who is completely enamored with her, but the fun doesn’t last long as Sam becomes increasingly obsessed and volatile.

This book has two main plot threads going for it- the modernization of rural farmlands all over (but specifically in England,) which exasperates Sam and his working man father, and Sam’s descent into madness, culminating in the arrival of Jo and her family. The narrative really reminded me of ‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe, in that you’re sucked into the world of a flippant, charismatic madman. The first-person narration really crackles and the psychology behind the character’s madness is pretty legit too.

The only real issue I have with “God’s Own Country” (re-titled “Out Backward” for its US publication) was it was so grim it left me feeling sucked dry by the end. Sam’s sardonic voice alleviates the misery for a while, but as he goes down the rabbit-hole mental health wise you’re left shaking your head in horror. One Librarything user discussed a ‘lack of redemption,’ and she’s absolutely right.

Sam never really learns anything from his experience, though he does manage learn to adapt to his increasingly horrid circumstances by the book’s end. Which may be realistic, but it’s a lot to swallow. “God’s Own Country” was in also unnerving in that it made me sympathize with an increasingly depraved personality. A very bad person, or a person who does very bad things? You can decide for yourself if an when you decide to read this troubling and brilliant book.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

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First off, I’m an unabashed fan of Tarantino. I’ve liked pretty much all his stuff, from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Django Unchained” to even his segment in “Four Rooms” ( which no one likes.) I think the guy’s brilliant. So it should come as no surprise to you that I consider “Pulp Fiction” a masterpiece of dialogue and plot.

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“Pulp Fiction” tells the interconnected stories of two chatty hitmen (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) who may or may not be on a collision course with fate, an aging boxer (Bruce Willis) who is paid to throw his last fight, and two cheap criminals (Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth, two of my favorite actors) who set out to rob a cafe.Nothing turns out the way it was planned in this ferociously violent, witty, and genre-defying masterwork.

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Don’t go into this movie looking for touchy-feely romance or particularly sympathetic characters, because you’ll get none of that. But as my dad likes to say, “It’s not the violence, it’s the dialogue.” The conversations between various eccentrics is rich in it’s insistent oddness.  I tend to be a little bit emotional, so certain scenes in this got to me (strangely, the rape scene wasn’t among them.)

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One was the scene in which Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) corners the kid, Brett (Frank Whaley) who made off with Jules’ boss Marcellus (VIng Rhames)’s briefcase. The whole sequence was very funny in a way (what ain’t no country I ever heard of!) and my family was laughing throughout, but I dunno. I guess I felt a little sorry for ol’ Brett. It takes a lot of nerve to take a man’s burger and his life the same day.

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The second scene was where Butch (Bruce Willis), the boxer, goes off at his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) for leaving behind a family heirloom. I get it, the girl screwed up, but it seemed so much like something I would do that I felt sorry for her. Uma Thurman also figures into this movie as Marcellus’ girlfriend, Mia, and I had so much of a girl crush on her in this movie

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. I think “Reservoir Dogs” nearly stands up to this in terms of quality, especially since “Reservor Dogs” had a certain emotional quality that “Pulp Fiction” couldn’t copy (“…Fiction” is, like most of Tarantino’s work, cold as ice.) But “Pulp Fiction” has a certain muchness “Reservoir Dogs” can’t beat. The dialogue crackles,  the non-linear timeline is well-conceived, and the cast does a great job as well.

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Everybody who isn’t squeamish about violence should watch this movie to see one of the most influential films of the early 90’s. It’s unique, intense, and in it’s own way, weirdly hilarious. I’ve seen most of Tarantino’s films (sans “Jackie Brown,” “Kill Bill Volume 2,” and “My Best Friend’s Birthday,”) and this is my favorite so far. Modern cinema at it’s most memorable!

Tyrannosaur (2011)

Emotionally devastating and rewarding, a study of desperate individuals with seemingly nothing to lose, “Tyrannosaur” is one to put on your watch list. Now. Featuring electrifying performances from Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, and the criminally underused Eddie Marsan, it is as riveting as it is disturbing and shocking.

Joseph (Peter Mullan) is a man seething with rage and contempt. When we first see him, he is leaving a bar after a fight. Irritated suddenly by the whining of his dog, tied up outside, he gives it a fatal kick in the ribs.

Joseph seems to have this effect on everyone who crosses his path, and he certainly seems incapable of any lasting change, but that doesn’t stop kind Christian charity shop worker Hannah (Olivia Coleman) from trying to help, to Joseph’s great puzzlement.


Hannah, despite her soft and motherly exterior, has a heapful of s**t going on at home. Heartbreakingly unable to have children, she is also saddled with the world’s biggest d**k as a husband – James (Eddie Marsan,) who abuses her in every way possible.

How these two lonely souls find each other is the subject of this discomforting drama, which to me is the most genuinely distressing film since Simon Rumley’s “The Living and the Dead.” “Tyrannosaur” thrives on that stark realism we’ve come to expect from the Brits, but goes deeper than most Brit flicks, let alone American films.

I was in one state of distress or another throughout the film. The violence can be upsetting, especially if you are an animal lover, but don’t let a couple of scenes prevent you from watching what is most certainly one of the best British films of the last ten years.

Writer/director Paddy Constantine (actor/co-writer of the also great “Dead Man’s Shoes”) touches his characters with a little something extra, refraining from turning them into dim-witted caricatures. You get something from this film that you don’t get very often- the feeling that you have watched a truly great movie. And how great is that? Recommended.