Category Archives: Troubled Teens

The Tao of duct tape: Gran Torino ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 10, 2009)

Which one of you punks knocked over my John McCain sign?!

Clint Eastwood certainly knows his core audience. Just when you thought that he had ceded his screen persona as one of the iconic tough guys for the more respectable mantle of a sage lion who makes prestige films, Clint Classic is back with a vengeance in Gran Torino, armed with an M-1, a cherry 1970s muscle car and a handy catchphrase (“Get off my lawn!”).

Oh, don’t panic- Clint the Sage Director is still at the helm, and Clint the Actor is smart enough to keep it real and “play his age”. This isn’t Dirty Harry with a walker; it’s more like The Visitor…with an attitude. There’s also a Socially Relevant Message, an Important Theme, and even Redemption (if you’re into that sort of thing).

Look in the dictionary under “cantankerous”, and you’ll see a picture of Walt Kowalski (wait a minute-a 1970s muscle car and a protagonist named Kowalski…Vanishing Point reference?) Kowalski (Eastwood) is a retired Michigan auto worker and Korean War vet who has recently buried his wife, and along with her, any remaining semblance of social grace or desire for human interaction.

When he is not spurning “sympathy visits” from his adult son (Brian Haley) or his late wife’s priest (Christopher Carley) he skulks about his Highland Park house, quaffing beers whilst scowling and grousing to himself about the Southeast Asians moving into “his” neighborhood. He is particularly chagrined about the Hmong family next door; the terms that Kowalski uses to describe them are derogatory racist epithets, which I am loathe to repeat here.

He doesn’t mince words when he reacts to his son and daughter-in-law’s attempts to pump him for his thoughts on estate planning, nor when the tenacious young priest begins sniffing around for dibs on his soul; he informs all the circling vultures that he would prefer they fuck off so he can return to puttering around the house, muttering to himself and fussing over his beloved ’72 Gran Torino.

Kowalski’s mistrust of his neighbors appears to be justified when he surprises a prowler in his garage, and it turns out to be Thao (Bee Vang) the teenage boy from the Hmong family next door. Initially unbeknownst to Kowalski, the otherwise straight-arrow Thao has been pressured by his n’er do well older cousin, a Hmong youth gang leader, into attempting to steal the Gran Torino as an initiation rite.

After Kowalski inadvertently saves Thao from the gang’s retaliation by chasing them off his property with his trusty service rifle (insert catch phrase here) his porch is festooned daily by an unwanted barrage of gifts, food and flowers, which is the Hmong family’s way of informing him that they are forever indebted for his act of “kindness” (to Kowalski’s abject horror).

In further keeping with cultural tradition, Thao is ordered by the family elders to make amends for the attempted theft by offering his services to Kowalski as a handyman for the summer. Thanks to some cultural bridging and good will on the part of Thao’s sister (Ahney Her), Kowalski slowly warms to the family and becomes a father figure/mentor to Thao, teaching him how to “stand his ground” while still retaining a sense of responsibility for his actions.

There is a bit of a “wax on, wax off” vibe that recalls The Karate Kid, but screenwriter Nick Schenk (who adapted from a story he developed with Dave Johannson) delves deeper into the heart of darkness with his variation on the theme. Whereas the aforementioned film was about overcoming the fear of failure, Gran Torino deals with a veritable litany of primal fears, namely fear of The Other, fear of death, and the fear of losing one’s soul.

There is still a surprising amount of levity in Schenk’s screenplay, allowing Eastwood can stretch his proclivity (as an actor) for deadpan comedy. One scene in particular that stands out in this regard involves a parting of wisdom positing that any logistical hurdle you may encounter in your journey can be defeated with a “…pair of Vise-Grips, a roll of duct tape and some WD-40.”

The film’s only flaw (and this could be a major distraction for some) is the casting of non-professional actors in most of the Hmong roles. For secondary or background characters, this is not so much of an issue, but concerning two more prominent (and very crucial) roles, I did find some of the amateurish line deliveries to be a distraction.

Eastwood’s direction is assured, but I think the main reason to see this film is for his work in front of the camera; I would consider this one of his career-best performances and certainly his most well fleshed-out characterization since Unforgiven. All I know is-I should be so lucky to be as convincing as a bad-ass when I’m pushing 80.

‘Board certified: Paranoid Park **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

https://i0.wp.com/images3.static-bluray.com/reviews/2338_1.jpg?w=474

Gus Van Sant’s name has become synonymous with what I call “northwest noir”, and, true to form, his latest film cozies right up alongside some of the director’s previous genre forays like Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Elephant and Last Days.

Dreamlike and elliptical in construct, Paranoid Park is a Crime and Punishment type portrait of a young man struggling with guilt and inner turmoil after inadvertently causing the death of a security guard. A Portland skateboarder named Alex (Gabe Nevins), lives with his brother and their mother (Grace Carter), who is separated from the boys’ father. We get a glimpse of the otherwise taciturn Alex’s inner life through snippets from a private journal, relayed to us in voice-over (a la Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver).

His parent’s pending divorce aside, Alex appears to be a typical suburban high school student. His girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) is a cheerleader; his best friend Jared (Jake Miller) is a skateboard enthusiast as well. The two friends hang out after school at an unsanctioned skateboard course, hidden beneath a freeway overpass and nicknamed “Paranoid Park” by users (the kind of place you don’t want to go to after dark).

Alex and Jared spend most of their time there marveling at the prowess of the hard core boarders. Alex harbors a fascination for the fringe lifestyles of the park’s more feral denizens; a breed he describes in his journal as “gutter punks, train hoppers, skate drunks…throwaway kids.”

Late one night, out of sheer boredom (and against his better instincts) Alex ventures into the park and hooks up with one of the “train hoppers”, a dubious character named “Scratch” (tempted by the Devil?). The resulting incident and its aftermath forms the crux of Alex’s churning moral dilemma and creeping paranoia.

The director’s script (adapted from Blake Nelson’s novel) features the minimalist dialogue we’ve come to expect in his films. This probably works to the young star’s advantage; especially since this was his first acting role (the director picked him out of an open casting call in Portland for extras).

Nevins, a slightly built, doe-eyed teenager who bears an uncanny resemblance to 70s bubble-gum idol Leif Garrett, fits the physical profile of the typical Van Sant protagonist. He and the rest of the largely non-professional cast give naturalistic performances. There is some nifty work from cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Kathy Li, especially in the chimerical skateboarding sequences.

As with many of Van Sant’s efforts (especially those of most recent vintage), your reaction to this film may hinge on your disposition when you watch it. Not for all tastes; but fans of movies like Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge and Francis Coppola’s The Outsiders will likely want to check out this similarly haunting mood piece about youthful angst.

Wanna Be in My Gang? – Eastern Promises (***1/2) & This is England (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 6, 2007)

https://i2.wp.com/ichef.bbci.co.uk/bbcfilms/image/976x549/film/832x468/eastern_promises_armin_mueller_stahl_viggo_mortensen_cast_1.jpg?w=474

This week we’ll take a peek at two powerful new dramas, both set in merry old England,…but dealing with some not-so-merry themes.

Director David Cronenberg brings on the blood and the balalaikas in his crackerjack neo-noir, Eastern Promises. Anna (Naomi Watts) is a London midwife obsessed with tracking down the relatives of a newborn infant, left behind by a 14 year-old unwed Russian who tragically dies on her delivery table. Intrigued by the Cyrillic scribbling in the dead girl’s diary, Anna turns to her Russian-speaking uncle, Stepan (Jerzy Skolimosky) for translation.

Stepan staunchly refuses, citing old country superstitions and admonishing his niece for “stealing from the dead”. Undaunted, Anna follows her only solid lead, a business card for a Russian restaurant that she finds in the diary. Anna soon gleans that she would have been better off heeding her uncle’s warning, because the diary is  a hot potato for some extremely dangerous and scary individuals. Soon,  she is pulled into the brutal world of the Russian mob.

 Viggo Mortensen delivers one of his most accomplished performances to date as Nikolai, the Siberian driver for a psychotic mob captain (Vincent Cassel), the son of a godfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Mortensen, Cassel and Mueller-Stahl  completely disappear into character.

These skilled actors make it easy to forget that they are in actuality American, French and German; you do not doubt for one second that you are watching native Russians, who live and die by the rules of “vory v zakone” (“thieves in law”, a strict code borne from the gang culture of Russian prisons).

 Screenwriter Steven Knight revisits some of the themes he explored in Dirty Pretty Things; namely, how immigrant communities assimilate (legally and otherwise) while still maintaining a sense of their native culture. (I think this is the aspect of the film that has some people drawing comparisons to The Godfather).

The only quibble I had with Knight’s script was a “twist” toward the end involving one of the main characters that doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the narrative.

 Cronenberg, who has built his reputation on Grand Guginol excess, has slouched toward a lean, almost poetic style in recent films. For devotees, not to worry; the director’s propensity for viscerally “shocking” images and squib-happy bloodletting is still on display, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous; these characters live in a brutal world, and it’s par for the course.

As per usual, Cronenberg slips black humor into the mix. One particular scene, involving an attempted mob hit in a steam bath (and a very naked Viggo), is an instant classic.

At once a brooding character study and atmospheric thriller, Eastern Promises rates among the Canadian iconoclast’s finest work.

Image result for this is england film

Oi! It’s time now to break out those old Sham 69 LPs for our next film, This is England, the latest from British director Shane Meadows (Twenty-Four Seven, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands).

A hard-hitting, naturalistic social drama reminiscent of the work of Ken Loach and British “angry young man” films of the early 60s (with a slight whiff of A Clockwork Orange), This is England is set against the backdrop of the Thatcher era, circa 1983.

The story (loosely auto-biographical, based on the director’s Midlands upbringing) centers on a glum, alienated 12 year-old named Shaun (first-time film actor Thomas Turgoose, in an extraordinary performance) who can’t fit in at his school.

Shaun presents a real handful to his loving but somewhat exasperated mother (Jo Hartley), a working-class Falklands War widow who does her best to support herself and her son. After a particularly bad day of being bullied about by teachers and schoolmates, happenstance leads Shaun into the midst of a skinhead gang.

Shaun’s initial apprehension is washed away when  good-natured gang leader Woody (Joe Gilgun) takes him under his wing and offers him an unconditional entrée into their little club. Shaun’s weary working mum is initially not so crazy about his new pals, but after sizing them up decides essentially to leave her son in their care.

Some may feel that this development strains credibility, but I think it’s a pragmatic decision. Her son has no siblings, no close friends, and is suffering from the loss of his father; perhaps this surrogate family will give him what she cannot provide.

The idyll is soon shattered, however, when the gang’s original leader, Combo (Stephen Graham) is released from prison. Combo’s return causes a rift that divides the gang; his jailhouse conversion to racist National Front ideals doesn’t settle well with Woody and his supporters, and they break off on their own.

Shaun decides to stay on after forming an instant bond with the thuggish Combo, who easily parlays the impressionable Shaun’s grief over his father into a blame-shifting hatred of immigrants, with tragic results.

The film works successfully on several levels. Taken ss a cautionary tale, it demonstrates how easily the neglected and disenfranchised can be recruited and indoctrinated into the politics of hate.

As a history lesson, it’s a fascinating glimpse at a not-so-long ago era of complex politics and social upheaval in Great Britain. As a riveting drama, it features astounding performances, particularly from the aforementioned young Turgoose and Graham, who  owns the screen with his charismatic intensity. Not to be missed.

The tutors: The Boys of Baraka ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 21, 2007)

Image result for the boys of baraka

In their 2005 documentary, The Boys of Baraka (now available on DVD) co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have fashioned a fresh and inspiring take on a well-worn cause celebre: the sad, shameful state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the under funded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor, disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers chose to showcase one program that strove to make a real difference.

The story follows a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who attended a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to more personalized tutoring, there was emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered by a “tough love” approach. The events that unfold from this bold social experiment (filmed over a three year period) are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking.

Many of these African-American youth seem to have sprung straight from Central Casting for HBO’s dramatic series The Wire; they are the corner boys, the habitual troublemakers acting out in cacophonous homerooms, kids with junkie mothers who only get to see their fathers during visiting hours at the jail. In other words, most seem destined to lead the kinds of lives that serve to fuel the stereotype of the inner-city poor.

Something amazing happens, however, when these “at risk” kids find themselves in a completely new environment-a place of light, space and none of the distractions of urban living. As cliché as this sounds, they begin to find themselves, and it is a wondrous transformation to observe.

By the time they embark on a day hike to Mount Kenya to celebrate their one-year anniversary at the school, and you realize that they have at that point literally and figuratively “been to the mountain” and gazed over the limitless landscape of their potential, I guarantee you’ll have a lump in your throat. There is no pat, sugar-coated denouement (that’s life) but one is still left with a sense of hope as some of the boys are inspired to push forward and build on their newfound momentum.

Girl, you’ll be a woman soon: Juno (***1/2) & Wish You Were Here (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 22, 2007)

https://i2.wp.com/www.pluggedin.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/juno-1024x553.jpg?resize=474%2C256&ssl=1

Here’s a line you’ve likely never heard in an ABC After-school Special:

“I’m already pregnant, so what other shenanigans can I get into?”

It’s a bullet-proof rhetorical question, posed by a glib, self-aware 16 year-old named Juno MacGuff, played to perfection by Ellen Page (Hard Candy) in the cleverly written and wonderfully acted film Juno, from director Jason Reitman.

Juno is an intelligent and unconventional Minneapolis teen who finds herself up the duff after losing her virginity with her (initially) platonic buddy, a gawky but sweet classmate named Paulie (Michael Cera). Not wanting to be a burden to Paulie, or trouble her loving parents (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) with the news, Juno decides to take sole responsibility for her situation.

After losing her nerve at an abortion clinic, Juno brainstorms with her girlfriend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) who suggests a search in the Penny Saver for couples looking to adopt. Enter Mark and Vanessa (well-played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), a childless yuppie couple with a sprawling house in the ‘burbs, complete with the requisite unfinished nursery. With the blessing of Juno’s supportive dad, papers are drawn up and Mark and Vanessa become the adoptive parents-in-waiting. Everything appears hunky dory- but you know what they say about the best-laid plans.

With such oft-used cinematic fodder at its core, this film could have easily descended into cliché-ridden piffle, but luckily doesn’t pander to the audience. I Page and Cera  convey Juno and Paulie’s growing pains in a genuine fashion, despite the stylized dialog. Simmons and Janney are excellent as Juno’s parents (it’s a kick  to see Simmons inhabit such a likeable character after playing so many heavies).

Reitman (son of director Ivan Reitman) has hit one out of the park with this sophomore effort (his first film was Thank You For Smoking) thanks in no small part to Diablo Cody’s smart script.

https://i0.wp.com/dkanut5j171nq.cloudfront.net/catalogue-images/ti105085.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

Juno and its young star reminded me of one of my all-time favorite films, Wish You Were Here. David Leland’s 1987 comedy-drama centers on a headstrong 16-year-old girl coming of age in post WW 2 England. The story is loosely based on the real-life exploits of British madam Cynthia Payne (Leland also collaborated as screenwriter with director Terry Jones on the film Personal Services, which starred Julie Walters and was based on Payne’s later exploits).

Vivacious teenager Emily Lloyd makes an astounding debut as pretty, potty-mouthed “Linda”, whose exhibitionist tendencies and sexual antics cause her reserved widower father and younger sister to walk around in a perpetual state of public embarrassment.

With a taut script and precise performances, the film breezes along on a deft roller coaster of belly-laugh hilarity and genuine, bittersweet emotion. Excellent support from the entire cast, especially from Thom Bell, who skillfully manages to find the sympathetic humanity in an otherwise vile character. It’s unfortunate that Lloyd never broke big, going on to appear in only a few unremarkable projects and then dropping off the radar.