Monster’s Ball

Dir. Marc Forster, 2001. Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Mos Def. Drama.

It is a treat and a privilege to see the work of actors and directors that are versatile and consistent. Director Marc Forster has had an interesting approach to portraying damage within people, families, and romantic relationships. In movies like Stay, The Kite Runner, and Finding Neverland, we can see examples of his attempts to unify an audience with stories and feelings that no one is exempt from. But when Monster’s Ball was presented, featuring an extraordinary cast and controversial subject matter, I was more than eager to see what all the buzz was about. To say that it did not disappoint would be an understatement.

The story seems simple: two strangers meet and become romantically involved. But here is the not so simple part. Halle Berry gives an Oscar-winning performance as Leticia, a waitress who lives on the brink of eviction with her son who has a lifelong struggle with obesity. Her ex-husband Lawrence, wonderfully played by Sean Combs, is within 72 hours of execution on death row. Billy Bob Thornton plays Hank, a corrections officer specializing in assisting prisoners on death row and currently is assisting Lawrence’s last days. He lives with his son Sonny (Heath Ledger), who is also in the same profession, and his father (Peter Boyle) who retired from the same profession. His life circulates with racism, ritual, unease, bitterness, and abuse. The two meet in the most unconventional way when Leticia’s son is struck during a hit-and-run and Hank later witnesses them in distress and escorts them to the hospital where the boy is pronounced dead. From there a consuming and aggressive romance begins to unfold.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 15, 2010 3:59pm

Ordinary People

Dir: Robert Redford, 1980. Starring: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, Judd Hirsch. Drama.

Back in the day, if there was one historical injustice that could get any red blooded film-geek or cinaphile extremely agitated, it was the fact that Martin Scorsese had not won an Oscar. Of course in 2006, he finally did win for the overrated The Departed, putting that controversy to bed. But before that, film-geeks would foam at the mouth, especially knowing that the Godly director had lost twice to actors making their directing debuts.

In 1990, Goodfellas was robbed by Kevin Costner's goody-goody Western Dances With Wolves. And ten years earlier Raging Bull lost to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 22, 2010 3:41pm

Who’s That Knocking On My Door

Dir: Martin Scorsese, 1967. Starring: Harvey Keitel and Zina Bethune. Drama.

"A broad. You know, there are girls, and then there are broads. A broad isn't exactly a virgin, you know what I mean? You play around with them...You don't marry a broad..." -- Who's That Knocking At My Door

Who’s That Knocking At My Door, directed and co-written by Martin Scorsese, has had various names, influences, and spans of time in which it was filmed. One thing that leaves no question is that for Scorsese and Harvey Keitel’s first feature-film, it is an ambitious and carefully executed debut that will leave you wanting more. Keitel plays J.R., an average Italian-American whose idea of a good time is romping around with his friends and persuing “broads.” All that changes when he meets a beautiful and traditional girl (Zina Bethune) whose purity is so alluring that he cannot help but get involved. His Catholic classification of women to be the “Madonna or the whore” ignites an inspiration not only to be a gentleman, but also to offer up a willingness to settle for such a girl. But when a secret from her past distorts the fine lines he thought every woman could be defined by, J.R. must confront and break down everything he once understood about affection and his convictions.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Feb 16, 2010 2:39pm

Straw Dogs

Dir: Sam Peckinpah, 1971. Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, and T.P. McKenna. Drama.

If you like your ultra-violence with a pulse, you must see Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs—the tale of David and Amy Sumner, played with fervor by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. Unlike Hoffman’s more well-known portrayals of a man with wisdom and/or humor, his performance in the film produces a chill and admiration that could rival with any cold-blooded killer onscreen. He plays a mathematician who, with his wife, decides to take up residency in her native village of rural England. A place that seems peaceful, yet is nothing but—occupied with Cornish thugs, rat-breeders, tyrants and more than one sexual deviant.

While trying to find relaxation and work on their marriage and his profession, the two find themselves in a vicious and animalistic race to restore peace, David’s masculinity, and to survive. After days of passive-aggressive plots, spiteful conversation, and violence against women, a local girl goes missing. The man suspected of her demise, Henry Niles (David Warner), the town metal-handicap, winds up in the Sumner’s custody one evening. While protecting him in his home, a war unfolds between Sumner and the village thugs, unleashing a competition of wit vs. experience that sends more than one man to their graves.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Feb 8, 2010 5:00pm

Bronson

Dir: Nicholas Refn, 2008. Starring: T. Hardy, W. Darke, H. Ross, J. Oldfield, J. Phillips, J. Lance. Drama.

And daddy doesn’t understand it He always said she was good as gold And he can see no reasons 'Cos there are no reasons What reason do you need to be shown? -- Bob Geldof

At age 22, Britain's "most violent criminal" Charles Bronson (né Michael Peterson, who initially took the name for his short-lived boxing career and then had it legally changed; here played by Tom Hardy) began serving a 7-year sentence for armed robbery. The year was 1974, less than 2 years after Stanley Kubrick pulled his movie Clockwork Orange from the theaters due to death threats. With the exception of just over 4 months, Bronson has spent the last 35 years as a ward of the state, all but 4 of them in solitary confinement. This extended sentence has to do with his seeming love of violence for violence's sake, something like the performance art of an evil Andy Kaufman. As such, he's a child of Alex de Large, or an Agent Orange -- that is, one whose real life lends itself to Kubrick's satire. Or, at least, that's how Bronson's director Refn takes it (some of Bronson's victims tend to approach his nature a little less abstractly). Therefore, Refn gives us Clockwork Orange's malevolent juxtapositions of barbarity and high-toned culture, gravitas and cornball pop tunes, with a comic book color palette and told through the wide-angled, symmetrical perspective of a demented narrator in clown makeup. Not exactly original, but like Cape Fear was to Hitchcock, livelier than most other films that don't steal from only one source.

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Posted by:
Charles Reece
Jan 26, 2010 5:16pm

Cradle Will Rock

Dir: Tim Robbins, 1999. Starring: Hank Azaria, Bill Murray, Ruben Blades, Joan Cusack, Susan Sarandon. Drama.

Cradle Will Rock belongs to that class of movies that don’t particularly offend anyone or bomb big enough to become a notorious flop; nor was it greeted with a ton of enthusiasm. Considering the talent involved with the film—Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, John and Joan Cusack, and Susan Sarandon, to name but a few—the mild applause the film seemed to generate upon its release was kind of like damning with faint praise. I never understood this because I find Cradle Will Rock to be a whole lot of fun, while at the same time serving as a pointed critique of the political apathy prevalent in art today.

The film tells the story of one of the most mythologized theatrical events of the 20th century. No surprise that Orson Welles was directly involved then. We’re in New York in 1937 and the city seems to be the epicenter of a massive upheaval in society at large. There is labor unrest, growing unease about global fascism, and a gnawing sense that capitalism has failed the common interests of the average citizen. (Hey, maybe the film is due for a critical re-appreciation after all…)

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Jan 21, 2010 6:43pm

Animal Factory

Dir: Steve Buscemi, 2000. Starring: Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Danny Trejo, Mickey Rourke. Drama.

Animal Factory is the story of a young man (Furlong) who gets prosecuted for drug dealing. He is sent to a maximum-security prison, putting his life and soul at stake.

Edward Bunker and John Steppling’s screenplay is raw to the bone writing—not trying to spice up the dialogue, rather providing a very realistic cadence to the way these prisoners speak and interact. The screenplay is based on Bunker’s novel, which was inspired by his own stints in the penitentiary. Modern audiences mostly know the author as “Mr. Blue” in Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Jul 21, 2009 1:31pm

Elizabeth

Dir: Shekhar Kapur, 1998. Starring: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Joseph Fiennes, Christopher Eccleston. Drama.

Elizabeth is the story of England’s most notorious Queen as she transforms from a free-spirited young woman into an ice-cold leader, battling opposition from enemy states and the Catholic Church.

The tightly plotted screenplay by Michael Hirst (Uncovered) is one of the most dynamic period dramas I have come across. It covers historical truth, while still maintaining a high level of dramatic scenarios and relationships.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Jul 13, 2009 1:35pm

Panic in Needle Park

Dir: Jerry Schatzberg, 1971. Starring: Al Pacino, Kitty Winn. English. Drama.

This is a film that speaks without fringe: no fancy lighting, no overblown plot, no music cues, not even a satisfying conclusion. It is a dark and human depiction of real characters, in a very real situation.

Panic in Needle Park is a story of two people who fall in love in the triangular intersection of Broadway and 72nd St. in New York City’s “Needle Park” – also known today as Sherman Square. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapted the screenplay from James Mill’s novel Panic in Needle Park. In Al Pacino’s second film appearance, he portrays a small-time hustler and drug addict named Bobby who becomes the solace and lover of homeless girl Helen, played by Kitty Winn. The two young lovers become involved in the downward spiral of heroin and betrayal. Heroin invades their passion for each other, yet it becomes their drive to stay together.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Jul 6, 2009 11:46am

Requiem for a Dream

Dir: Darren Aronofsky, 2000. Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans. Drama.

Requiem for a Dream is the story of lives on the downturn, spiraling into desperation and addiction.

Based on the novel by American writer Hubert Shelby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn), Requiem is about the struggle of vice in the existence of four people. Aronofsky writes a tight and interesting screen adaptation with a strange timelessness, keeping much of the slang used decades before. Look for a great cameo by Shelby as a sadistic white-trash prison guard.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Jul 3, 2009 2:55pm
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