While none of the films under review here will make it to my top five of the year list, I can recommend them as having something of interest to real film buffs. Not surprisingly, none were made in the United States, where filmmaking—along with everything else—is going down the tubes.
The first is “Starred Up”, a British film that opens on August 27th at the IFC and at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. “Starred Up” is prison slang for a juvenile offender who has been transferred to an adult facility because of chronic bad behavior.
Wikipedia reports that there have been 239 prison films made since 1929, including such favorites as “Each Day I Die”, “Bird Man of Alcatraz” and “Cool Hand Luke”. Filmmakers keep returning to this genre because it lends itself to the kind of climaxes all blockbuster movies aspire to—a prison break, a riot, a redemption of an unredeemable character, an execution, etc. If there’s a risk of being subjected to a stream of clichés, you have nobody but yourself to blame since probably every plot and character permutation has appeared in the 239 films in this category.
“Starred Up” is far more committed to realism than the average prison film. Indeed, if it weren’t for the very heavy working-class British accents (the film would have benefited from subtitles like Ken Loach’s “Sweet Sixteen”), you would think that you were watching one of those MSNBC Saturday afternoon reality shows set in prison. Filmed in an actual prison, “Starred Up” makes a genuine effort at conveying both the tedium of prison life as well as its stormy violent interludes. In one scene the main character fights off six cops who enter his cell to take him off for punishment, just as occurs on the MSNBC shows. Like the long-running “Cops”, there certainly is drama involved in police or guard combat with the criminal element. While MSNBC and “Cops” never show cops as sadistic lawbreakers, that is exactly what you will see in most prison films that from the very beginning, starting with “I was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, take the side of the victimized prisoner.
Eric Love is a 19-year-old with a hair-trigger temper and a talent for fisticuffs to back it up. Played by Jack O’Connell, Eric is a young man who treats everybody as a potential enemy including his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) serving a long stretch in the same prison.
Anything and everything will set him off. Early on he beats a man half to death over a misinterpreted offense. When the guards come to haul him off to solitary confinement, he fights them to a standstill. Perhaps because of his youth and perhaps because of the challenge of reaching someone who appears unreachable, the prison psychotherapist (Rupert Friend) intercedes and recruits him to his ongoing group therapy sessions.
Eric is at first cynical about the therapist and refuses to take it seriously. But the other prisoners, who are Black and old enough to be his father, manage to get him to lose the attitude. Suffice it to say that this is not a “redemption” tale. Things conspire against such a pat ending, including his out-of-control father and the corrupt prison administration.
The best thing about the film is Jack O’Connell’s performance one—in a nutshell—that is more convincing than any I have ever seen from an actor. The ultimate anti-Jean-Claude van Damme performance, so to speak.
Jonathan Asser, a British poet and performance artist who was asked to do a show at the young offenders prison in Feltham, wrote the screenplay. Once he was exposed to prison life, he transitioned into a career as a therapist just like the character in the film whose methods were the same as the ones he used. Although the screenplay is rough around the edges, the film is a compelling portrait of society’s outcasts. To Asser’s credit and to the credit of everybody who took part in the film, this is one prison film that stands out from the pack.
Salvo opens up tomorrow at the Howard Gilman Theater in Lincoln Center. The title might evoke the gunplay that occurs in this film about a mafia hitman, another well-worn genre, but it is rather the first name of the character we meet in the truly exciting first five minutes of the film.
Salvo Mancuso is the driver/bodyguard for an aging Palermo don who kills five attackers in a bid on his boss’s life. As he stands before the sole survivor, who he has shot in the leg, he demands the name of the man who has organized the hit. Once he has extracted the information by squeezing on the bullet wound, he places his hand over the man’s forehead like a priest giving benediction—and then puts a bullet through it.
The next day he sneaks into the house of the boss’s rival and discovers that the sole occupant is the gangster’s sister, a beautiful blind woman. After he gags her and ties her up, he lies in wait for her brother’s return. After he arrives, Salvo dispatches him with ease—he is a master craftsman at his trade. But instead of killing his sister, he puts her in the trunk of his car and drives her to a hideout in the countryside where he buries her brother. For the next few days, he looks after her intermittently but without anything that would betray his attraction to her. As the film reaches its climax, we learn that he has violated his boss’s instructions to kill her as well as fallen hopelessly in love with her.
The plot owes much to Hong Kong cinema where hitman often have hearts of gold buried beneath a stony demeanor and fists of steel. But this is not a Hong Kong type action film. It is much more like the underrated George Clooney vehicle “The American”, a film in which he plays a moody assassin who would seem far more at home painting nudes in a garret on the Left Bank and drinking absinthe.
The film has an esthetic that is one part classic Antonioni and one part Calvin Klein commercial. There is not much in it that is believable but it is a visual feast with a knack for the unexpected, like a scene in which eats tuna out of can in the kitchen of his temporary host. This is the Sicilian mafia, after all, not the New Jersey nouveau riche.
I have subsequently learned that Salvo was played by Saleh Bakri, a Palestinian. Here is an excerpt from an interview he gave to the Conversations with Palestine website:
LMaDO: Israel calls itself the “Jewish State”, the State of and for the Jews even though more than 20% of its population is Palestinian. You’ve partly answered and it’s very interesting to hear your views, but you’ve received awards from Israel, as an Israeli actor. So are you a Palestinian or an Israeli actor?
SB: I was born a Palestinian and will remain a Palestinian. I don’t believe that I could even be called an Israeli or that any Palestinian could be called Israeli because first of all Israeli is an hebrew name and I am not Jewish, I am Arab. It’s like calling Muhammad-Moshe. It cannot happen. It’s something that is not related to me in any way. Above all, Israel is not something that I feel any attachment to, anything good towards. It destroyed my life, my father’s life, my family, my nation’s life. And it’s still destroying it. I have nothing in common with this destruction, this racism, this separateness, this injustice. It’s the opposite, I care about Palestine as a place for everybody, as a place that was never Islamic, Christian or Jewish. Palestine was always a place for everyone, for every religion. It’s a shame that this place that has so much history and energy can be occupied by one religion. It should remain for everybody.
Finally, there is “The Auction”, a French Canadian film that can be described as a twist on the King Lear tragedy. The main character, a 63-year-old man named Gaby, owns a farm in the Quebec countryside where he raises sheep and lives in splendid isolation with his pet dog. His only friend is his accountant who has just brought over a computer that will help Gaby manage his finances. He has about as much interest in the computer as he does in the modern novel. This is a man close to the roots—at least that is our first impression.
He receives a visit from his daughter Marie who lives in Montreal with her younger sister Frederique resides as well. Like most young people with a hunger for art, culture and wine bars, a farm is a good place to leave behind. Marie has bad news. She is divorcing her husband and will take over their house, where she will live with her two young sons. But there’s a hitch. She needs $200,000 to become the owner. Could Gaby put up the funds, she asks. Since the two daughters never bother to visit or even to phone their dad, you would think that he would tell her to get lost. That is what a modern-day King Lear would do.
But Gaby immediately decides to sell the farm and move into a senior citizen’s complex in the nearby town where he would look for work. Not only will he give up the independence he once enjoyed but the company of his pet dog that he decides to put down.
As a taciturn and expressionless personality, it is hard to read Gaby. Is he doing this out of love for his daughter or is he simply tired of mending fences, shearing sheep, and tending to the never-ending list of chores that comes with farm ownership. It is to the everlasting credit of this remarkable film that you are never quite sure. Long after you have seen the film, you will be thinking about the remarkable main character.
“The Auction” can be rented from FilmMovement.com, one of the “alternatives to Netflix” I wrote about last Friday.