Review: Gone Baby Gone

Though I’m not in the habit of review relatively recent and well-known movies (that reason is articulated here), Ben Affleck’s directorial debut in Gone Baby Gone was so unexpected that I couldn’t ignore it. I, like the vast majority of people following along, have at times dismissed Mr. Affleck as a talentless hack who got lucky and didn’t deserve his fame. If Gone Baby Gone accomplished nothing else, it put such thoughts to rest in my mind.

Gone Baby Gone is about ugly things, the seedy underbelly of crime and criminality that so many people and films seem drawn to. But what exists in it is something deeper and more textured not only than I expected, but than I thought a crime movie could be.

Where it’s different than other crime movies is this: rather than giving us a clear resolution of justice or injustice triumphant, it asks baldly what justice means? Is it better, the film asks, for a good outcome that comes through unsavory means or a unsavory outcome that comes through righteous means?

And I’d have to argue, honestly, that neither Mystic River nor The Departed–both set in Boston and dealing with a similarly seedy underbelly–was so adept at raising and dealing with such important philosophical issues. Then, perhaps, they weren’t blessed with the skeptical part of my brain constantly asking if or when Mr. Affleck would make an obvious mistake.

The fundamentals of this whole conflict are hard to illuminate without exposing too much, so I’ll do my best to give you the beginning of the plot and leave aside the ending. Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) is a native of the depressed Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. With his girlfriend, played by Michelle Monaghan, he’s hired to tackle a missing child case. His participation is neither invited nor welcomed by the police, who seem convinced that they knows better how to tackle the case than this renegade private investigator.

But Mr. Kenzie knows his neighborhood and it’s characters better than the police, and he rubs his liaisons the wrong way on that point. Here, I must stop myself from elaborating the rest of the twisting and intricate plot.

I should also offer the warning that I’m a sucker for poetic lines. And the films beginning, a thesis statement of sorts, had me from the first beat. It’s contents:

I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that makes you who you are. Your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in these things, like it was something they’d accomplished. The bodies around their souls, the cities wrapped around those. I lived on this block my whole life; most of these people have. When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks and then fell through. This city can be hard. When I was young, I asked my priest how you could get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to His children. “You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.”

Whether you respect or loathe Mr. Affleck, I must strongly recommend that you make sure to give his directorial debut a try. It’s not an easy or a uplifting film. It’s a questioning one, but these are worthy questions and asked by a well-executed story.


Review: Protagonist

protagonistthemovie.comProtagonist Poster

Having been rather satisfied with “Be Your Own Protagonist,” the movie Protagonist–which seems to be available from Netflix (whose Red Envelope Entertainment holds the rights) and nowhere else–almost necessarily piqued my interest. And though the summary sounded luke-warm, I decided that on the title alone I had to give it a shot.

I’m glad I did. Much as my favorite graffito recommends, the documentary paints its four personages as protagonists in epic Greek dramas. Jessica Yu’s film offers, in my mind, an easy comparison with onBeing. With the chief visual component of both being subjects telling their story to the camera, the comparison is easy and apt.

Protagonist, aside from being longer than the web-project that is onBeing, is much more explicit and methodical. It opens with a dramatic voice saying, in Greek, “Tell it still. There is pleasure in hardship heard about.” Throughout, as the stories told by the film’s subjects unfold, so to does a classic tragedy played by wooden puppets.

If one managed to miss the implication of that play, Ms. Yu clearly delineates each phase of her classic drama. Here, indeed, is my one displeasure with the film. The effort to tell these contemporary tales as Greek drama can sometimes fell clumsy and heavy-handed. An attempt to mold and bend them a little to make them conform to the external structure to which they don’t strictly comply.

But they fit relatively well, and usually effortlessly. And the stories, though none rare or unlikely enough to win their own full length documentary, are all dynamic and interesting. Mark Salzman’s discovery of and rabid fondness for kung-fu as a way to end his stint as a weak and bullied teenager. Hans-Joachim Klien’s embrace of radical violence after he saw police beat a woman. Mark Pierpont’s embrace of his Christian ministry after finding that through religion he could triumph over homosexuality. Joe Loya embrace of a life of crime after finding that retaliatory violence against his abusive father felt good.

These are all interesting story, and all told by people well aware of the grand arc of their lives. Though it’s possible they’ve retrofit their story’s into Yu’s desired arc, they feel so natural and straightforward in their telling that I find the possibility unlikely.

The stories, as your would rightly expect, all have clear resolutions. Clear moment’s when the men’s absolute embrace of a certain mode of living is recognized as unwise and then rejected. Well established end points that seem to say clearly that their stint as classical protagonists ended. Surely, every life traces such an arc. I feel comfortable seeing that as Yu’s message, and I’m chastened to not have thought of it first.


Review: Blame it on Fidel

Foreign films have a reputation for being boring. So, a random line from this one:

Mickey Mouse is a fascist! I said don’t read it!

If that’s doesn’t make you sit up and pay attention, nothing will. The line also succinctly explains the chief struggle in Blame it on Fidel (La Faute à Fidel).

Young Anna is a moderately spoiled and conservative nine year old in France in 1970. Conservative not in a deeply political way, but the casual conservatism of child who rather likes her Catholic schools and the nuns that teach there. And rather likes having a big house with a big yard. And rather likes her family’s housekeeper, a Cuban émigré. And seems closer to the woman, Filomena, than her parents. She also share’s Filomena’s distaste for her visiting aunt and cousin–refugees from Franco’s Spain who the refugee from Castro’s Cuba recognizes as socialists.

When the housekeeper’s suspicions–that Anna’s parents would become socialist crusaders–are proved correct, she’s dismissed. Anna’s parents have found passion for socialist movements and are driven to help Salvador Allende’s ascent to power in Chile. To truly pursue this dream they must give up their home and her father’s high-paying job as a lawyer.

This in the first of many seemingly-unbearable changes with which Anna must contend. The move into a smaller apartment and recruitment of a new childminder–a depressed refugee from Greece–don’t help her chronic dissatisfaction with all the changes in her life. She’s further insulted when her parents take her out of divinity lessons, well aware that her socialist cousin had been removed from them as well.

Told that saving is the only way get the money she sees as necessary for the life she wants, Anna takes to pinching pennies, and sometimes even stealing them outright. She regularly turns off as many lights as possible, as well the water heater. Of course, the results aren’t nearly what she desires, seeming to do little more than make her have cold baths from time to time.

What’s amazing and worthwhile in this strained relationship between Anna and her parents is the extent to which it lays bare the logic of arguments hashed out all over the world between radicals and reactionaries. For example, a conversation between Anna (emphasized) and her father after being tear-gassed at a protest:

I’m hungry. I want to go home.

Me. Me. Me. That was group solidarity! We’re here for your future.

My future?

When you’re older, you’ll see that we were right. In Spain they kill men like Quino [Anna’s uncle, killed by Franco’s men]. In Latin America the poor live in shacks.

Ok. We have to help the poor and be polite to them, but why do all that? Let’s do like Granny [who lives in a big house and sometimes donates clothes to the poor]!

The whole thing is by measures inspired and absurd. And much of it delves into history and cultural references that I can only begin to understand. But none of that’s much of a problem. The films constant understated humor sustains the drama throughout.

On the whole, I think it’s a great and important film that I feel certain more should see.