Wednesday, September 7, 2011

American History X

Let us get this out of the way before diving into some very deep waters. I am a big Ed Norton fan. One of the things I like most about him is he is not afraid to play an unsympathetic character. I admire this because certain actors--Ralph Fiennes after playing the sadistic Nazi commandant in Schindler’s List is a big example--can completely ruin their ability to play morally decent characters in other films as far as I am concerned. No Fiennes here. It really just means he played the commandant very well. What it means for Notton is he is such a fine actor, I can enjou him in anything and believe his character no matter how polar opposite the character might be from other roles Norton has played.

That said, American History X is one of those films I do not particularly enjoy outside of Norton’s performance. Even with that, I think the film features his worst performance ever. I blame it mostly on the material. American History X wants to say something profound, but just does not have the voice. Some elements come off as far too convenient to be believed. Others are far too preachy. The original ending is so cynical, it wound up being dialed down to the tragedy of the main character’s effort to fail. How depressing is that?

Norton plays Derek Vinyard, the older brother to Daniel, played by the just as troubled in real life as his character here Edward furlong. Derek and daniel’s father was a firefighter killed by a black drug dealer when he was battling a blaze in south Central Los Angeles. His father’s murder compels Derek to join the skinhead movement, for which he fully immerses himself. He hates blacks and immigrants of all races, and justifies his racism by rationalizing they are all prone to criminal behavior and mooching off the wealth of whites.

Derek is arrested one night for curtb stomping a young black man who is attempting to steal his late father’s truck. Derek is convicted of voluntarily manslaughter and sent to prison. In prison, he befriends a black0 inmate. Despite some brutal bullying by the white supremacist population, he shuns them for his new friend. He gains a new perspective on life. When he is released, however, he discovers daniel is headed down the same path towards joining the skinheads as he did. Derek determines to stop him.

I can appreciate much of Derek’s struggle and even some of the hokey symbolism. For example, the film is in black and white until Derek abandons his racist philosophy. The remainder of the film is shown in color enter--assuming you have seen the original ending rather than the usual edit--he reverts in the final scene. But I have a tough time accepting his journey as plausible. Derek is a hardcore racist who gives no quarter and is ready, willing, and able--not to mention does--kill a black man for attempting to steal his father’s truck. Yet in a snap, he befriends a black man in prison and eschews his old ways in a snap. What is the catalust for that/ there is not one other than the necessity of furthering the main plot, which is to save his brother.

The main plot is not particularly dealt with other than scattered bits until halfway through the film. This is still Derek’s story to the point I was not as interested in his brother’s turn towards the skinhead movement as I was Derek’s attempt to shed his old life and fit in with his new. It is not a good thing when you are not as interested in the heart of the story as you are the set up that gets you there. It is doublt bad when Derek fails. Daniel is eventually murdered because of his racist activities. That is sad enough, but if you have seen the original ending in which Derek is shaving his head again, obviously in preparation to rejoin the skinhead movement, even the absorbing part wound up meaningless.

American History X could have been a whole lot more than it is with a better script. There is a profound lack of understanding of human nature on display. I do not believe Derek can cast off his hatred as easily as he did. Nor do I think he would shun other imprisoned skinheads, much less befriend a black guy. I am skeptical a black guy would make friends with him, either, particularly in a prison environment in which inmates of various races watch out for their own. It is a far too optimistic development. However, the course correction towards the opposite direction for the ending is jarring to the point of melodrama.

One often disturbing aspect of the film is how often the racist ideology, spoken adamantly by Derek, Daniel, et al, is not always counterbalanced. In the very first scene, Derek offers an a strong speech about how much illegal immigrants are costing the state of California. Then he complains about immigrants taking jobs away from whites before leading an assault on a grovery store owned and operated by minorities. You can almost hear people agreeing with his sentiments before the brutalization of his violent act tears it all down. But that is a rare moment. In many other instances, racist demagoguery goes unanswered outside of the implausibly fast changing of Derek’s mind, which I do not feel is enough to carry the film.

I do not necessarily recommend American History X. There are other films that deal will racial issues in a far more competent, mature manner. If you want to see a good exploration of the absurdity of racism, seek out just about anything else that does not qualify as blaxploitation and you will be better off. Norton is good in this, mind you, and if you are a fan, you should not miss him. Watching the film will leave you longing for a better creative team to have built the film around him, however.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

North Dallas Forty

When it comes to sports themed movies, I am as a big baseball guy as I am when talking about sports in general. Nevertheless, north Dallas Forty ranks as one of my favorite sports movies. The following confession may alienate some, but a lot of my fondness for the film comes from a longtime soft spot for the Dallas Cowboys, whose ‘60’s era team the film is loosely based upon. These days, I home home team loyalty for the Carolina Panther, but I still feel compelled to root for the cowboys when I can.

North Dallas Forty features Nick Nolte as aging wide receiver for the North Dallas Bulls Phil Elliott. He has been brutally battered over his years of playing. As a result, he is forced to do anything he can to drag himself out on the field, including popping painkillers like candy. All he really wants to do at this point is settle down with his new girlfriend while he is still in one piece. His struggle occurs against the backdrop of hard partying football players who drink, do drugs, and use/abuse women as they see fit. They are rich and they are winning, so they run on a long leash barely held by their legendary coach.

The film is loosely based on the semi-autobiographical novel written by former Cowboy’s wide receiver Peter Gent and his experiences playing with the late ‘60’s era team under legendary coach Tom Landry. Characters in the novel are said to closely resemble real members of the cowboys organization of the time, but having never read the novel, I cannot vouch for that or how well the novel translates to the dying disco era of the late ’70’s.

I do find the combination of drama, comedy, and satire generally satisfying. If there is any major flaw, it is that the satirical elements often go overboard. The question of whether football is a game or a business is pondered to the point of melodrama. Elliott struggles with the corrupt system from every angle, from the barbaric behavior of his teammates to how the owners use up players for their bottom line. Perhaps one with a greater emotional attachment to professional football feels Elliott’s plight is more seriously dramatic than I do, but I feel like I am watching something being given a greater degree of importance than it merits. Money runs professional sports, and rich athletes think they are above the law. Did elliott not know this when he signed on the dotted line/

I do not want to be too harsh, however. The over the top elements regarding drama are a small gripe compared to how well the exaggerated instances of players decadence are done. These guys booze it up when they are not drugging it up and cause general mayhem for innocent bystanders. Their behavior is presented as being gritty rather than glamorized, and when you see the toll playing football takes on them physically, you cannot help but sympathize with their emotional issues. Even if you would not want to be in a room with any of them. Making unsympathetic characters sympathetic is the mark of good storytelling.

As I said above, I am confident football fans will like North Dallas Forty better than those who have no interest in the game. There is a lot of football culture that only a fan could appreciate. But for the average movie viwer, there is still of lot of bawdy humor and heart mixed in. Elliot is falling in love, but he really does not know how. It is tough to care for many of his teammates considering their wild behavior, yet when you see them carried off on a stretcher, you do. The moral crusade bits wherein Elliott jousts against greedy owners and their lawyers gets tiresome because of its over the top emotion, but there are enough good points to make up for it.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Monday, September 5, 2011

White Zombie

We have to make a little history here. This 1932 independent horror film is considered to be the first, full length zombie film ever released. Zombies have made a big come back in recent years, but for my money, they often rely too much on gore. Unlike the classics here in which tone suspense make up for a lack of make up know how.

Brother, do not be deceived. The make up and special effects in White Zombie would be ripe for mocking if the rest of the film were not so good. Bela Lugosi does not look like anyone you would want to hang around. His main xombie henchmen pictured above is a frightening looking man mountain, but tell the truth--you would mock him from a safe distance, right? Maybe if he was in chains? While pondering that question, also wonder why all the Haitian natives are white. It certainly has something to do with the racial attitudes of the day, but one wonders why background extras could not have been black.

Two young lovebirds, Neil and Madeleine, have reunited in Haiti of all places with plans to get married. Their plans are complicated when the two are spotted by local voodoo master, Murder Legendre. Geez, a name like that should be warning enough, but this guy is also played by Bela Lugosi. How much proof do these kids need to know they should stay away? Not enough at this point, I suppose.

Neil and Madeleine are staying at the plantation of wealthy Charles Beaumont. Beaumont has a thing for Madeleine. He cannot bare to see her marry Nell, so he strikes deal with Murder to use voodoo to make her fall in love with him. Murder says the only thing he can do is turn her into a zombie. Beaumont thinks that is better than nothing, so he agrees to give Madeleine a potion that will do the trick.

Madeleine drinks the potion. For the sake of utmost drama, it takes effect during her wedding ceremony. She dies and is buried. In Haiti. Where she does not live. Murder and Beaumont retrieve her from the tomb a little later and turn her into a zombie. The distraught Neil begins to see ghostly images of Madeleine. Once he decides it is not the alcohol talking, he visits her tomb to find it empty.

Meanwhile, Beaumont has discovered necrophilia is not as much fun as he thought it would be. Perhaps he had not thought this cunning plan all the way through. He certainly had a lack of foresight in trusting a guy named murder, because when he asks for him to bring Madeleine back to life, he learns he is being turned into a zombie, too. Luckily for him, Neil recruit’s a missionary named Dr. Bruner to assist him in rescuing Madeleine.

The climactic battle is very cool for the time period and low budget. Murder uses Madeleine to attempt to kill Neil, but she is stopped by Bruner. It is not said, but his Christianity gives him an edge against the devilish voodoo. Good thing, too, because he and neil pursue Madeleine right into Murder’s zombie army. Bruner knocks murder out, which releases his hold on them so they run off a cliff like lemmings. But the rules of cinema dictate two things; the villain must die and the love birds must be reunited. Since the Christian Bruner cannot kill Murder, (Heh.) Beaumont rebels and throws Murder and himself off the cliff. Murder’s death (Heh, part deux.) not only un-zombifies Madeleine, but brings her bsck to life. The Christian Bruner has no comment on the spiritual implications, so I suggest just going along with it.

At a scant 72 minutes, White Zombie barely qualifies as full length. However, its short run is a definite plus. The film is surprisingly tense and scary considering some of the goofy elements, not the least of which is the make up effects. Gore fans may not like it unless they have an appreciation for the history of the genre, but as a bigger fan of classic horror than slasher flicks, I am all for it. White Zombie is spooky fun with Lugosi at his evil best.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

(NOTE: I have written a review of The Wild Wild West third season episode "The Night of the Undead," which is something of an homage to White Zombie. Or a rip off, if you are not feeling charitable. Check it out and a lot of other cool stuff over at Eye of Polyphemus)