Brighton Rock, a British Thriller Revitalizes the Noir

If you want to experience filmmaking as it used to be at the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood, then you’ve got to see Brighton Rock. With its palpable atmosphere and impeccably nuanced mise-en-cine, Brighton Rock may well be the most authentic Noir since the Big Studios reigned supreme.

There was a time when the Noir held a place of distinction within the film world. However, over the years the moody and atmospheric genre has fallen out of favor. Some could say it’s because audience’s tastes have changed, but I would have to disagree and place the blame on the filmmakers. After all, it has been proven time and again that if a movie is good, regardless of the genre, people will see it.

Such was the case with the Western, Dances with Wolves, and the Musical, Chicago. Both films bore the stigma of genres that were long considered box office poison, and both films went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year. And now the Noir receives its well-deserved resurrection care of the gritty and stylish Brighton Rock. Not only is it a damn good film that people will want to see, it rejuvenates the genre long considered beyond reviving.

Brighton Rock’s well-crafted world rings true to the aesthetic required of the genre. The film, an update of a 1946 film based on a Graham Greene novel, is set in a picturesque seaside resort full of shady characters and nefarious activities. The year is now 1964, a time when Britain’s Mods and Rockers were often found rioting in the streets. A young punk named Pinkie (newcomer Sam Riley) is entrenched in the world of organized crime, longing to become top man.

When his mentor is suddenly killed Pinkie’s darkest ambitions rise to the surface. And it is a sad twist of fate when a naïve young woman (Andrea Riseborough) ends up an unknowing witness to his act of violence. Easily seduced by Pinkie’s attentions, she falls in love with the mysterious young man, not realizing his motives are sinister at best. As Pinkie becomes more and more ensnared in his web of deceit, he must avoid the police, calm his disgruntled crew, and contend with the mob’s kingpin, while playing cat and mouse with two local proprietors (Helen Mirren and John Hurt) looking for revenge of their own.

Riley (Control, On the Road) gives a stunning performance as the intense and cunning Pinkie. His brooding good looks bring to mind a young Johnny Depp, but darker and edgier, void of any boyishness (other than the kind you might find in Damien from The Omen). Likewise, Riseborough (Made in Dagenham, Never Let Me Go) is thoroughly convincing as the misguided waif whose sincere devotion will make your heart ache as she withstands degradation after degradation, all in the name of love. And with true female bravado,, Helen Mirren serves up one of the juiciest performances ever devised for a mature woman of the screen. Already designated Body of the Year, the 60-plus diva may very well end up actress of the year, reinforcing her title of “The Queen”.

As impressive as Brighton Rock is, what’s particularly noteworthy is the fact that this is director Rowan Joffe’s first feature film. Faced with the temptation of comparing Joffe’s own exceptional debut with that of Orson Welles’, I refuse to claim that Brighton Rock is akin to Citizen Kane. However, this perfectly realized Noir is certainly one of the best examples of its genre, in this or any decade. Its quality and execution hold up to the high standards established by the two most celebrated masters of the genre, Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity) and the previously mentioned Welles (Touch of Evil). Not only is Brighton Rock the best film I’ve seen all summer, it may be the best I’ll see all year.

Battle for Brooklyn: A Fascinating Documentary that Examines the Power of Big Business and the Rights of the Individual

The documentary Battle for Brooklyn is a true David and Goliath story reshaped for the modern age of capitalism. The David in this case is a young man, Daniel Goldstein who at the beginning of the film has recently purchased an apartment in Brooklyn with the intent of starting a family. The Goliath is a huge development company with plans to build a massive sporting facility and surrounding buildings right where Goldstein’s apartment building (as well as many other buildings and businesses) already exist. With the promise of thousands of jobs for the community and armed with the weapon of “eminent domain” the development company takes advantage of the law and public opinion to push their project through.

However, according to the dictionary “eminent domain” is a law that gives a government or its agent the right to expropriate private property for public use. You know, like for highways or parks and such. Since the project in this case was being developed for private use, by a private company it appeared to Goldstein that the intent of “eminent domain” was being misused, regardless of the supposed benefit to the community. So the young graphic designer spearheads a campaign to oppose the development, and sticks with the fight for more than 7 years!

First of all, I found it compelling that any documentary filmmaker would stick with a subject for seven years. You’d think they’d get bored with it. However, once you’re in this story it’s easy to become engrossed, and the filmmakers were very clever about pulling the audience in as quickly as possible. Using the camera almost like Goldstein’s conjoined twin, empathy is developed virtually instantly as the audience experiences his life, the triumphs and the set backs, first hand. And because Goldstein is constantly talking to the camera, the audience is seamlessly pulled into the narrative as a trusted confidant. Therefore, within a short time it is no longer just Goldstein’s cause, but “our” cause he’s fighting for.

Which is exactly the point the filmmakers are successfully making. If the law can be so easily misused, then this exact same thing could happen to any individual property owner, even you. With that in mind, it’s pretty damn compelling to see how a big corporation can come along and literally procure property it finds desirable for its own needs. To be fair, adequate, if not extravagant, compensation was part of the equation, but the scary part is that no one is given the option to decline. Is that legal in America?

The story of Battle for Brooklyn reminds me of another documentary I saw not too long ago at the Los Angeles Film Festival called Paraiso for Sale. It too focuses on the property and homes of individuals being snatched up by big development companies while the government stands by and does nothing. But Paraiso for Sale was set in Panama! I distinctly remember thinking this could never happen in America. Regardless of the potential benefits to a community, and the limited number of people negatively affected, I believed our government would never stand by and let such unfair practices take place. As evidenced here, I was apparently very wrong.

Holding true to Goldstein’s motto, “Develop… Don’t Destroy”, Battle for Brooklyn stands as a fine example of true documentary filmmaking by presenting the facts (albeit from one perspective) as they appear. There is no overt “demonization” of the corporate entity or the people who represent it. Their actions speak for themselves, and one is left with the sense that the developers and their supporters truly believe that what they are doing is for the greater good. But that does not make the ends justify the means. Perhaps, in future, those purposing to take a same tact in development projects should watch Paraiso for Sale and Battle for Brooklyn back to back, and then remember we are not a third world country, so let’s not behave like one.

Amigo, John Sayles’ First Film in Four Years was Worth the Wait

John Sayles’ latest film, Amigo, is the tale of a small Filipino village and its struggles during the Philippine-American War. This beautifully realized historical drama is classic Sayles filmmaking at its best. It satisfies the devoted art house fan by remaining socially minded, while providing the commercial audience an extremely satisfying emotional experience.

I don’t want to give too much away since much of the pleasure of Amigo derives from the suspenseful intrigue that unfolds. I will tell you that like many a taut political thriller, Amigo begins with the depiction of an idyllic day in a quiet little community. However, this community is in the middle of a Filipino Island around the turn of the 20th century. The picturesque scene appears to be a paradise until a small contingent of Rough Riders charges into town and seizes command for no apparent reason except the fact that this place stands between two other points of interest. After a small but chaotic scuffle, the foreigners enforce their authority upon the local leader, Rafael, who vehemently pronounces himself as a friend, or “amigo”. Thus the title, and the central conflict are established.

Despite sincere efforts of cooperation by both Rafael and a disenchanted American Lieutenant (a very compassionate Garret Dillahunt), the situation grows beyond their control. In addition to the inhabitants’ desire to self-govern, peaceful coexistence is obstructed by several other factors including a hostile priest deserted by the Spanish, a band of rebels led by Rafael’s brother, and an overly aggressive Colonel bent on dominating, if not destroying, the indigenous people. Amigo stays true to the authenticity of the historical conflict, ending with a viscerally unsettling and harrowing depiction of the casualties of political unrest.

Like many of his past films (Matewan, Men with Guns) Sayles has created a powerhouse of a film that achieves an admirable task, that of conveying a complicated political scenario in a manner that any audience can comprehend. Case in point: me. Going into the movie, I was concerned that I might not understand it, because (to state it bluntly) I don’t know a damn thing about this specific episode in American history. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter, because the story focuses on the immediate conflicts at hand for Rafael, rather than to the grander objectives of a military commander, a society, or a nation. If only more films of a political nature could be expressed in such basic terms, they’d find wider acceptance and a bigger audience.

Rafael’s responsibilities to his fellow villagers don’t change; it’s just that the scope of his decisions graduate from settling petty differences in the beginning of the film to shaping the course of his people by the end of the film. The stakes are higher and the ramifications are significantly more complicated. So, naturally, the numbers of dissenting voices are greater as well. For Rafael and his fellow villagers, life is no longer a simple matter of black and white, but an increasing array of grays. This painful transition is beautifully conveyed through the expressive face of Rafael, played to great effect by the exceedingly likable Joel Torre.

Torre is a very popular Filipino Soap Opera star who is likely to be seen a lot more on the American screen after Amigo. I wouldn’t be surprised if his heartfelt performance earns Torre some serious Oscar consideration. Likewise, the entire cast is worthy of exceeding praise. Whether it’s the always-exceptional Chris Cooper putting a human face on an extremely unlikable Colonel, or a relatively unknown Ronnie Lazaro as Rafael’s brother and leader of the local guerillas who passionately personifies the communal anguish, the actors in Amigo bring a vitality and strength to their roles that is rarely seen in historical films without sliding into melodrama.

With all its political machinations, human rights issues and astute observations on war and its effect upon the human soul, the most lasting impression Amigo will leave you with is its amazing relevance to the modern world. Because even though the story may be set in another time and another place, the same basic conflicts are being played out today. And therein lies John Sayles’ greatest talent – the ability to hold a mirror to the world and present a palatable reflection. Audiences tend to reject entertainment if a lesson is to be learned, and yet many lessons can be learned if they are engaging. John Sayles has mastered this skill and once again manages to entertain regardless of the worthy message. Lesson learned.

Why the Final Harry Potter Film Failed

I know that current popular opinion holds Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in high regard. However, I cannot subscribe to that assessment. In fact, I find the final installment to the highly successful fantasy series to be hugely disappointing. And I say that as a loving and devoted fan. One who is utterly shocked that there hasn’t been an abundant outpouring of likeminded reactions from fans everywhere. Have people seen the same film I saw? I suspect that fans and critics alike are being far too forgiving toward a beloved franchise either due to loyalty or fear of displeasing the masses with an opinion that, however different from the standard, may actually reveal some sad truths. Let’s face it folks, Deathly Hallows 2 was not the film it should have been, or could have been and there’s just no reason for the filmmakers to have made that egregious error.

Some people will inevitably say that there’s no pleasing everyone, but that’s too easy an excuse. My argument has little to do with faithfulness to the book and a lot more to do with production value. Admittedly, I may be harder to please than the average moviegoer, as I have spent a lot of time on film sets and have an extensive background in film studies, but so what? In this day and age I don’t think that really matters any more. Today’s film fan has a vast amount of ‘insider” access and practical knowledge available to them through various avenues of the media. Which is why I get so annoyed with films that seem to have been produced with the attitude of “oh well, that’s good enough”.

I blame the director, David Yates for all of the film’s shortcomings. Yates has been the director for the last four Harry Potter films, and the many faults of the latest installment have slowly infiltrated the otherwise well-developed franchise while under his watch. When it comes to today’s multi-million dollar productions you shouldn’t be able to get away with diluted story lines, brushed over plot points, second-rate set designs, truncated performances, uninspired cinematography and the reliance of the fan base to get you through. No, you shouldn’t, but Deathly Hallows did.

I guess my greatest complaint is that I feel cheated. We all know that Harry Potter movies are given the time and money to do things right, and yet it didn’t show on the screen in Deathly Hallows. Too often the sets looked cheap, as if they had been built in segments isolated from one another. Most of the scenes are shot in close up, seldom giving any sense of a place in its entirety. Makes you wonder if the producers had difficulty in getting all of the big name British actors in one place as needed, and had to film coverage hodge-podge as people became available. Either way, the result is that the film has a very stagy feeling, which of course dilutes any illusion to a fantasy world.

Regardless of how the performances were captured they seemed rushed. Again, I place the fault with Yates. After all, these are experienced actors, many of whom are Shakespearian trained. All you need to do is let them go and they’ll be great, if not spectacular. That is, unless you mess up their hard work with insufficient coverage and bad editing, both determined by the director. Academy Award winning actress Maggie Smith is given the best consideration, but even her McGonagall is hardly allowed the screen presence her character deserved (no dénouement moment with Harry after the final battle? Really!). It’s bad enough that many of the pivotal characters we’ve come to cherish have been reduced to hardly more than glorified extras (Remus, Mr. & Mrs. Weasley, Fred & George, Slughorn, Trelawney), but to deny Alan Rickman the opportunity of fully conveying a performance that may very well have been Oscar worthy is an absolute injustice. His Professor Snape always possessed the gravitas necessary to impart what was to be a major revelation in an epic journey, one that has taken a decade to tell. But by clipping a shot here, and not lingering a moment longer there, Yates has literally stolen the well-deserved nomination from Rickman’s hands. I consider this to be gross negligence.

As I said before, I feel cheated. But it’s more than that. There is sadness in knowing that this is it, and there will be no other attempt at getting it right. Harry Potter is not like Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes where various attempts will be made through the ages to create a definitive representation. There will be no re-boots or re-imaginings here. This was it, and when it came down to the finale it fell short of achieving its fullest potential. I know that as the years pass, others will feel the same. Because, regardless of the oft-misused declaration of a film being an “instant” classic, it requires the passage of time to truly evaluate the accomplishments of any given film. In this case I think that’s certainly so. Only time will tell.