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Kids for Cash (2013)
The Evil That is Destroying What's Left of the American Justice System
Take a good look at this film and be prepared to be shocked and angry. Very shocked and very angry, that is, if you believe in decency and justice. It's an intimate look at two judges who took bribes to send children to jail, often for non-existent crimes or for petty, relatively insignificant things kids do because they're kids. Some of these children committed suicide, the rest all had their lives ruined. And the sick punchline? The crooked judges don't see what they did as wrong but rather just "administrative decisions". Sure, the judges went to jail but I'm sure they just see that as an "administrative decision" as well. Look at them closely. They're faces of the banality of evil. Much like the Nazis operating the death camps during WWII, they justify their actions as merely methods of the time. One of the criminals portrayed, the pompously righteous Judge Ciavarella pretended to be a "law and order" judge when in fact he was a greedy sociopath, not much different than the death camp dentists who ripped the gold teeth from Jews for joyful profit.
But whatever you do, don't see this as an isolated incident that has been taken care of. It still exists today. Most Americans are oblivious to the Prisons for Profit system, the same system that was giving huge kickbacks to these judges to incarcerate children for greed. The real sick thing about this documentary? The Prisons for Profit not only still exist, they're bigger than ever. And the terrible punchline to this story? You likely won't ever hear about judges being arrested for getting kickbacks for sentencing children to jail anymore. Now they can legally own stock and have other financial interests in this Prisons for Profit system that is flourishing. The same prisons they sentence "offenders" to serve long, profitable sentences. The fastest growth industry in the last 30 years in America. And most Americans are still oblivious to it. Your legal system has been sold, America and the blood, sweat, tears, and lives of your children and others who shouldn't be jailed will continue to line the pockets of evil people like these two judges who only saw children as a way to make money, caring not for their ruined - and ended - lives.
Watch this and get angry, very angry. And start talking about the evil that is destroying what used to be a somewhat fair legal system. That is, if you care at all about justice and decency. And your country. And your fellow men, women and children.
Ratchet up the tension to excruciating.
Prepare to get your heart broke, prepare to get really ticked off and prepare to look forward to the next episodes. If you haven't seen it yet: do so as soon as possible. This is tension creating at its best. If you have seen it: you know what I'm talking about, it's painful yet like a horrific car wreck you can't help but look and be terribly haunted and disturbed by what you see. This is the episode, filled with many shocking and decidedly unpleasant twists, that finally pushed this series into the "great" category (one I reserve for very few). I can now forgive its sometime contrived moments in the past. Enjoy, this is turning into a real barn burner.
The House I Live In (2012)
"Free" Enterprise at It's Finest
What's really fueling this law and order hysteria and the draconian prison sentences for relatively minor, innocuous and even non-existent "crimes" is the extraordinarily profitable Prison for Profit system. What's interesting and extremely frightening is most Americans are oblivious to it. Combine this with a large number of the public being largely uneducated and on a continual sadistic hunt for scapegoats, those who profiteer on the modern day slave trade have a willing public as unwitting accomplices.
It's interesting the director, Eugene Jarecki, also did "Why We Fight", one of the best documentaries to expose the crimes being committed by the blood money Military Industrial Complex. The public is also largely oblivious to that evil profiteering monster and also happily supports it to the point it thinks murdering and dying for it is a good thing. Jarecki makes some of the most important and enlightening documentaries of today. It's an alarming shame and tragedy that the predominately ignorant and not very mentally healthy general public aren't watching them, let alone able to comprehend how it hurts everyone except the bank accounts of sociopathic "business" men and women.
Perhaps the common denominator is the same fuel that's driving half of the present day voters in the Presidential election: hatred and the eternal search for scapegoats. It would make an excellent documentary to tie these core driving forces together, a task I think Mr. Jarecki is capable of doing well. It probably won't make much of an impact beyond preaching to the choir but then again none of his other fine offerings have fared much better and those are still greatly appreciated by thoughtful and humane audiences.
Warning: The Following Film Contains Dangerous Truths and Will Lead to Rational Thinking and Outrage.
There are a variety of excellent films available that expose the idiocy, lies, hysteria and underlying self-serving and enormously profitable financial motivations behind drug prohibition in America, specifically the current War on Drugs, of which marijuana is the prime target. This is one of the best as it is one of the most comprehensive as well as nicely edited and thoughtfully produced.
This is not a stoner film, a statement of "I have a right to get to stoned and no one should infringe on this in and of itself", even though this is a perfectly valid argument if you believe at all in real freedom and the US Constitution. Rather, this is a documentary that exposes the horrific, astronomical price the US pays to continue the current marijuana prohibition.
Sadly, this film will be, for the most part, preaching to the choir. Few who have opposing views will watch it and be swayed to examine the fallacies within their belief system. Not because of the presentation or production value of the statements within the film, but rather man and woman's ability to continue to believe the most ridiculous and destructive foolishness regardless of the amount of overwhelming logic and reality that contradicts their beliefs. The billions of those who feverishly practice religions of intolerance and other faith/magic based beliefs as well as many of the horrific conditions in America presently, such as the record setting Prisons for Profit system and other tragedies are ample proof as to the idiotic self and other destructive nature of so-called humanity.
Watch this film anyhow, whether it outrages you or just is another piece of evidence as further proof of man's and woman's squandered opportunity to have a great society. It is quite well done and will provide you food for thought, that is if you dare to think.
We Own the Night (2007)
They must drink quite heavily at Cannes
The audience gave a standing ovation at Cannes for THIS? But I can understand if the audience was three sheets to the wind after a gala luncheon where the bubbly flowed prodigiously. For those of us who have ever had way too many happy refreshments during an exciting, fun filled party with lots of laughs, we know it's rather easy to end up falling in love with some pretty sad characters. Then comes the morning after, the headaches, stomachaches, and the REGRETS, especially when you look at your bed partner and wonder how your judgment got so bad and you swear, you'll never drink so much or be so stupid again. Did any of those who clapped so enthusiastically feel a little like this later, after more thoughtful reflection?
And what about the leads? Were they tipping the spirits a little heavy as they read this script and agreed to do this cliché filled, overly melodramatic, contrived vehicle? I certainly can believe they may have found it necessary to be half tossed just to be able to say the lame, predictable lines they had to speak. I kind of hope they were all in the bag as they filmed this, otherwise I will be forced to look rather dimly at the quality of decision making that Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg and Robert Duvall make regarding the roles they choose. Is there such an enormous lack of good material they have to choose things like this? Perhaps they went in somewhat blindly, thinking if the others are in, it must be decent. I hope they're all not so busy and/or greedy for the cash that they'll go in without reading the script or despite it. Quite frankly, even those who are a little cock-eyed from too much libation would probably be able to see right through this lame material, no matter how much their vision blurred.
Granted it's attractively filmed and these respectable actors give respectable performances, but it's clearly material that is quite sub-par for the quality of the cast and production. What a waste.
A suggestion for those who attend Cannes in the future, stick to ginger ale, you'll feel substantially better the next day and won't have to feel embarrassed the morning after regarding how foolish you were the night before. Besides, you might spare others from having to sit through your recommendations who won't be drunk and will see bad date films such as this for what they are. As for me, what little credit I attributed to your opinion I will withdraw in the future, so you know when I recommend you stay sober I'm really offering you the suggestion strictly as a friendly bit of advice for your own good.
Brad and Juliette were quite good, unfortunately the movie itself was quite bad
For a start the writers needed to look up the definition of serial killer before they started because the main character that is referred to in all the bi-lines and plot summaries may be a murderous psychopath but he is not a serial killer. Killing more than one person does not make one a serial killer. Serial killers are driven by an obsessive psychotic fixation and kill people that tend to share specific characteristics, which may be physical, social, etc. Since there were two writers you would think at least one should know what he's talking about but unfortunately usually the more the writers in Hollywood the greater chance it's going to be bad. They were efficient in this movie, they were able to make a bad script with only two. It's not really nitpicking when discussing definitions because the basic ignorance of the writers also shows through in way too many other poorly conceived clichés and weak character motivations. It's a real shame really, because both Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis are excellent in their roles and they were the only reasons I was able to watch it through. But this lazy script and contrived story insults the performances and badly wastes their talent.
I liked David Duchovny in the X Files and really wanted him to have the substance and material to succeed on the big screen but either he unfortunately just doesn't translate well and/or has not gotten the script that'll be his break through role. He's passable here but his performance appears particularly flat and meek when he shares the screen with Brad, who really captured the red neck/trailer trash creep.
On the other hand, the character Michele Forbes played was not passable, and rather irritating. You know you're watching a film made from a poorly contrived script and a not particularly substantive performance whenever the female lead expresses herself strongly she always resorts to bitching. Since when is complaining a character strength? A strong character, male or female, needs to use intelligence and some semblance of emotional control to not only be likable but believable as someone capable. The cliché Hollywood, reflected way too often in this screenplay, almost always draws strong female leads as two dimensional at best, usually cutesy girls who think their physical appearance and using emotional blackmail whenever they need to "really express themselves" is enough. Maybe it's not solely the script to blame here, Juliette Lewis is superb here and her role in the hands of a lesser actress might have been as annoying as Ms. Forbes.
No point in listing spoilers to demonstrate how silly and not very credible the story is, just suffice it to say that it would be nice if Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis get opportunities to work their acting chops on the characters they created in a substantially better film, because they're sadly wasted in this dog.
6 stars and every one of them are for the excellent Mr. Pitt and Ms. Lewis.
A Real Must See Movie
Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
For those of you who have thoroughly educated yourselves about history, there is not really much new here. You already know about atrocities, including the concentration camps like the one depicted here in Mauthausen, Austria, which were nothing more than slaughterhouses for humans. But this really is not a documentary about a horrible period, place and people of the past that we can neatly define and conveniently cubby-hole as a historical event long ago while we pat ourselves on the back because we're so relieved we've advanced beyond such barbaric monstrosities. This is a documentary about a human condition that is still with us and being practiced this very moment as you read this, perhaps much closer to you than you'd care to admit.
The people that were murdered in Mauthausen are long gone and for the most part long forgotten, other than a reference to some categories we file them under "Russians" "Poles" "Jews" "children". As we think of a vague, generic picture of them (not too much in detail or else it becomes too painfully real and horrifying) we are mostly amazed how man's inhumanity to man could be so systematically orchestrated in such a cold blooded massive effort. This documentary is about the tourists and tour guides of Mauthausen and therefore, if you have the courage, ourselves. Starting with the chattering lively young kids who are shocked solemn the moment their young tour guide starts off immediately by explaining in careful detail life, torture and murder in the camp. The guide does not soften the blow of what happened or use sterile euphemisms, instead he leaves all the life, death, suffering and reality in as he explicitly details the murder and torture that took place. No one was disposed of in Mauthausen nor did unspeakable acts take place, instead they were murdered and the acts are openly detailed. The guides speaks vividly, frankly about their agony and deaths, as he walks the tourists through the same places these acts took place, discussing clearly what happened as they are crammed together in the gas chamber or facing the wailing wall or elbow to elbow in the barracks just like the prisoners who once lived their last moments as they were tortured and murdered there. This film shows a diverse selection of tourists from young international students to shocked elderly Germans and Austrians who never saw or fully admitted what was committed by their relatives, husbands, perhaps even themselves. Surprisingly the filmed responses by the tourists are extremely on target, particularly the young students many of whom say mankind is failing to learn from history because these same atrocities, perhaps in slightly different moderations and form, are going on today, right now. But then again, their responses are not so surprising. These people did not come here to go on a fun ride or eat a double cheeseburger, they came, for the most part, to look at an ugly piece of history and perhaps learn something about the human condition, maybe even themselves. Mostly they're the better part of the general public. The lesser part of the public that commit such acts, or allow them to happen or vicariously enjoy it when they do, usually will never go to such a place. But as one of the guides pointed out at one of the memorial plaques, a picture had been removed and someone has etched in a swastika in the marble. Either a prank in extremely bad taste or, probably more accurately, proof that genocide, war and mass murder are not likely to vanish any time soon.
Perhaps if we showed this film in every school everywhere it would be a start to reducing the frequency and degree of man's barbarism. With such a monumental effort being put into such horrific acts just think of what could be accomplished if that energy and force could be channeled into positive, life affirming deeds. This is a real must see movie. Shelve the blond bimbo parade or boyish shoot em up or whatever "must see" crap and watch this for a change. Change is completely possible here and now all you need is to make some positive moves toward change. Education is the necessary start, we must know who, where and what we are in order to do something about it.
This film was riveting from the beginning. There are very few films I watch in a single sitting as most are either not exceptional or real enough to be truly interesting. I do however wish the film had been edited better, it did lack a seamless flow that such an exceptional effort on such an important subject deserves. Nevertheless there are images I know will stick with me for quite some time. Particularly the young tour guide who so effectively, chillingly led his tour group through the camp and later admitted his grandfather had been an SS officer. As well, the head tour guide, who by his own admission was burned out and alcoholic, being eaten away by the pressure of working at such a place with so many ghosts and terrible karma. He reminded me of a policeman I knew who was all but destroyed by his job yet was inexplicably drawn to it, much like a moth to flame. An exceptionally chilling moment is when he points out that despite the vast size of the camp there are no animals or birds living there, even today. It is as though they can sense it is a place of death, even now. Perhaps these silly little creatures we like to pretend we're so vastly superior to really have a little more sense, and humanity, than we do at times.
Two Hours of Begging for Oscar
Capote seemed bent on presentation for presentation's sake, not trying to construct a picture as a stand alone work. I'm usually a fairly accurate judge of what I will like and dislike and so I had put off watching Capote because way too many people were buzzing about how hip Capote was. Usually whenever the general public talks about how hip or artistic something is they're discussing something that is a cliché, so familiar that it is hip in the cartoon sense, palatable for the general masses. Hardly something that is cutting edge or unique. Very much like the new sirloin burger at MacDonald's, not what I'd call real gourmet cuisine.
The main reason I decided to finally watch Capote was because I had watched Infamous one night a month or so back and was so pleased I watched Capote the next night. The first night I was left surprised and thinking, the next I was left sleepy and disappointed. Capote was so busy with trying to create atmosphere and style it never developed the characters with anywhere near the depth that Infamous did so briefly and elegantly. The solid character development in Infamous was due to much better casting all around as well as a much more alive script with rich, layered dialog. I was impressed by all the performances in Infamous, even the usually commercially thin Sandra Bullock who, sans make-up, appears as real and convincing as I've ever seen her. By the way, who did the singing for Gwyneth Paltrow? If it was her, she may have missed her true calling. Capote on the other hand, most (almost all) of the characters were presented as thin, stock characters used to push the story along, as well as manipulate your emotions and mostly to support the starring role of Hoffman. As a side note, I'm usually a big fan of almost all instrumental soundtracks but the repetitive piano chords replayed over and over in Capote, an obvious and flaccid attempt to create a gloomy, heavy mood, became a distracting annoyance after the umpteenth time. By the end of Capote I was bored and distracted and felt that the obvious attempt to manipulate me as an audience member failed. I also felt detached and uninterested in all the characters, nothing had happened to give me a sense of their unique humanness or that most of them were real. Infamous on the other hand, I found to be one of the most intriguing and touching love stories I have seen in quite a long time. I happen to be a straight male who usually sees most theatrical (and public) displays of love as false, unconvincing and badly clichéd. Toby Jones and Daniel Craig were both very much alive and the love they created fascinating. And though they were of characters that I would not think I could find so interesting and feel so much for, a psychotic criminal and a gay society party boy, I was nevertheless quite touched by their love and seriously saddened by its tragedy. I was finally able to realize very clearly after Infamous why Truman Capote slowly self destructed after writing "In Cold Blood". It did the job of top notch cinema and art, it changed my perspective on many points. To paraphrase the Perry Smith character from Infamous, it had the most important element to writing and a great story and which Capote lacked: kindness.
Granted, Mr. Hoffman does give an admirable performance in Capote but it's just that: a performance. He appears to be acting. To me the essence of great casting is to find someone who so fits the character they really don't need to act. Great acting should never be obvious, it should be invisible. Toby Jones was a much more accurate fit and gave a much more natural (and therefore believable) performance as the real Truman Capote than Philip Seymour Hoffman working so hard to act like Truman Capote.
Capote was not bad but a bit of a moody disappointment, much like it's repetitive soundtrack, striking one chord over and over again in an overdone, calculating fashion. Infamous, on the other hand, was not only surprisingly more entertaining, richer and alive but I think a more accurate picture of the real Truman Capote than the rather one sided, coldly brooding version in Capote. If Mr. Capote were so cold blooded and ruthless I hardly think he would have been the darling of high society everywhere. Capote was adored by the party jet set everywhere when he was still happy and living life with such glee. And even though he could be a vicious gossip and somewhat of a backstabber he still had a tremendous charm and real affection for others, otherwise it's quite doubtful he would have had so many devoted friends. In Capote the charm and affection for others is just not there, certainly not as it is in Infamous, which paints a more human and humane picture of Mr. Capote.
It's true that "In Cold Blood" led to Truman's deterioration. If you want to see the underpinnings that were responsible for zapping his life away I think you'll find Infamous to be more accurate as well as a much more enjoyable motion picture experience.
Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Wonderful Movie about Love, Genius and Great Jazz Guitar Playing
As Woody Allen said of Sean Penn after working with him on this film "(Sean's) a tremendous actor". And he displays his tremendous talent in playing the role of Emmett Ray, jazz guitarist, a genius at his craft, rather a disastrous dope in all other aspects of his life.
Then there's Samantha Morton who is brilliant in her portrayal of sweet, adorable Hattie, a cute mute young woman whose simple needs and wants, along with her lack of narcissism and inability to spew out mind numbing volumes of bulls+t banter obscure her deep strength and savvy intelligence. Those that value pure, sweet, unassuming kindness will find her irresistibly lovable.
Emmett only really knows one thing, how to play guitar like no one else in the world, with the exception of the one person he idolizes to the point of hysteria: Django Reinhardt. He's obliviously inept at just about everything else in his life, especially his feelings, to the point where he doesn't know real, rare, wonderful love when it's right next to him. Sean is able to make Emmett so very likable, even in his worst of behavior. He excels at what he does best, bringing real human depth and qualities to his craft that exceptionally few actors are or have been capable of doing.
This film is much like the character of Hattie, deceptive in its initial appearance and of a substantially better quality than you may first think. It seems like a light, cute little story largely due to its entertaining presentation and lack of dramatic pretense but there is significant texture and reality to this work of art. Emmett is perhaps the greatest guitar player in America and has so many of the essential ingredients for huge success: drive, ambition, presentation, wardrobe, personality, yet he tends to sabotage himself frequently and never gets the lucky break needed to put him at the top. True he could probably do rather well if he didn't p+ss away such volumes of cash but he never gets the type of success that the best supposedly deserve and is so wrought with money it won't disappear in the most extravagant lifestyles.
Emmett also makes the tragically universal mistake of believing bullsh+t, both his and society's. He thinks the money and possessions and trophy girlfriends are what happiness are all about. His one saving grace is his love and respect for his craft but can this alone keep him from making a disaster of his life? He discovers all too painfully that the beautiful woman with the sophisticated, witty repartee, whom all the other men drool over, has an extremely high price tag of impenetrable, cold blooded narcissism. And though Emmett acts for the most part like a shallow dope, trying to hide and deny that besides being a genius he is a painfully sensitive man in desperate need of sweet, nurturing love, he still makes way too many foolhardy decisions. He is blind to the fact that the women who use sweetness merely as a tool of manipulation are the last thing he, or anyone else with a shred of decency, need or deserve.
This is a great film and story and you can also enjoy a very pretty picture of life in the 1940's while you watch it.
Apparently there was an obscure jazz guitarist named Emmett Ray but even if there wasn't, this is not really a fictionalized account. Certainly not in the sense of capturing the essence of character, love and genius. As he has done so marvelously before and since, Woody Allen masterfully captures an immensely watchable slice of life that most of us will only have an opportunity to witness with this fine offering. For the film itself as well as the two stellar leads this is will go into my relatively short list of wonderful, favorite films.
Where the Truth Lies (2005)
HELP! Hollywood's in desperate need of good writers!
One of the most pleasant surprises in movie watching is to see a film you've heard nothing about and discover what a marvelous gem it is. I had that experience with "The Sweet Hereafter", an exceptionally well made movie that was wonderful in many aspects: spot-on acting, artistically beautiful cinematography, flawless directing, and a practically perfect screenplay adapted from an outstanding, important book written by a top shelf author. I liked "The Sweet Hereafter" so much that I've put on my eventually-must-watch-list any other work from the actors that were in it as well as the director, Atom Egoyan. Sadly, so far, no other work by any of them is even in the same ballpark. That's usually quite common when you discover a cinematic masterpiece, very few directors, actors, et al, are ever involved in a great film and if they are it's often just the one and they spend the rest of their careers trying to find another one to match but to no avail. I thought "Ararat" was good but no where near up to par with "The Sweet Hereafter". Okay, so the material's not quite the same quality, let's see what else Mr. Egoyan has done, surely a man who can direct a great, powerful film will eventually put out something that I will find a great cinematic experience. Coppola followed "The Godfather" with the best "sequel" of all time "The Godfather 2" and the mind blowing "Apocalypse Now". Atom Egoyan's got to make something else that's exceptional, right?
Which leads to one of the more unpleasant experiences in movie watching, after discovering a great film, you're never able to find anything remotely of the same merit from the directors, actors, etc. involved. Sometimes it's even a terribly foul piece presented for your cinematic palate, such as "Where the Truth Lies". Do you ever watch a movie and it starts to deteriorate until you end up angry for having wasted your time? Or worse, walked in with high expectations only to be slapped in the face with idiotic drivel? This is one of those films. No matter how great a chef is he can't make great cuisine from dog sh+t. It won't even be edible.
Who wrote this contrived, unrealistic crap? It didn't start off bad, there was even an element that was interesting, where the telethon was just a phony scam for the mob to cash in. But it was right about then that the movie rapidly descended into a very stupidly unrealistic place. What is necessary for really good writing is for the writer to do material he/she knows. What is usually an element of really bad writing is when it so obviously is a thinly contrived piece that is about a subject matter the author knows nothing about but naively thinks they can make it up as they go along and it won't be obviously obtuse. And it doesn't even have to the situation or subject matter itself that the writer needs to be an expert on but rather on character, how people act in a specific situation. When your credibility allowance gets strained as you see a character behave in a way you know is childishly unrealistic it's bad enough but when the other supposedly savvy, worldly characters are attracted to her infantile behavior you know you're watching a real turd transforming.
And this female lead, Alison Lohman, is just plain awful. If this is the extent of her acting ability she'd be wise to save every cent of every paycheck because she'll need it all when her fleeting youth and beauty fade. I know Hollywood and its satellites prefer to use pretty young girls as much as possible, even in place of women; but why does it insist on putting them in places where they would have no business in the real world? At least not behaving the way they do in awful films like this one, preening narcissists who haven't the vaguest clue about anything other than their self centered demands. Sure the world likes to look at pretty young women/girls but usually only sexually insecure boys of various ages will consistently tolerate their infantile emotional demands. That is up until they can finally get a taste of their guarded fruits and most will then realize it's hardly worth the price to continue to be the emotional whipping boy of a nasty narcissist.
There are enough really bad and mediocre films (the vast majority actually) out there that I usually try and forget them as quickly as possible, without wasting any time with a comment. The only reason I chose to mention this soon to be forgotten piece is that Mr. Egoyan is capable of vastly much, much better work. I know it's in him, I've seen the results when he excels. He just needs to be patient and use some decently written material. Maybe Russel Banks could offer up one of his fine novels that has yet to be tapped for film. They did a great, nay fantastic adaptation before together. If not, anyone know any way to sneak a decent piece of writing into Hollywood? I hear they have The Bad Writing Patrolmen who usually only allow the worst crap to get through. If you wonder about this just chose just about any film at random to prove my point.