With Prisoners


Dinner is served.

(2016) True Crime Drama (Times Production Ltd) Neo Yau Hiewk-sau, Kelvin Kwan, Edward Chui, Kimi Chiu, Lee Kwok Lun, Raymond Chiu, Kwok Yik Sum, Amy Tam, Gill Mohindepaul Singh, Han Wan, DreGar, Luk Yuen Yee, Mak Yee Ma, Sham Ka Ki. Directed by Kwok Kuen Wong

Dostoevsky once wrote that you can tell how civilized a society is by how it treats its prisoners. Who am I to disagree with so distinguished an author? In fact, I completely agree; most societies seem to be all about punishment ahead of rehabilitation. It doesn’t seem to be much of a concern that convicts be given the tools to go straight and lead a law-abiding life; the general consensus is that if they come back we’ve always got a cell and if we run short we can always build more. As for brutality, those who are in jail are there because they’re guilty of something and thus they deserve whatever they get.

Fan (Hiewk-sau) is a thug and proud of it. He lives with his Nana (Yee) who disapproves of his lifestyle, but he’s young, arrogant and has a quick temper. He has ambitions of becoming a big crime boss, but after getting into a brawl with a drunk police officer in a bar he ends up convicted of assaulting a police officer and is shuttled to prison in Hong Kong’s “Short Sharp Shock” program, an accelerated boot camp-like environment designed to provide self-discipline for young men who sorely need it.

Immediately he discovers that while there is brutal discipline, it is enforced by cruel and sadistic punishments – at one point Fan is forced to clean the toilet with his fingers and then brush his teeth with those same fingers without a chance to wash them first. And yes, that’s as disgusting as it sounds. He is beaten by the guards, particularly the sadistic Gwai (Lun) who seems to take great pleasure in torturing the prisoners mentally as well as physically.

Things are so bad that he attempts to hang himself on only the third day but is saved by the quick-thinking guard Ho (Kwan) who alone among the guards seems to have any sort of humanity in him. He is the opposite of Gwai – he wants to see the kids rehabilitated and to make productive lives for themselves. He is deeply disturbed by the attitudes and behaviors of the other guards but the Warden (Singh) turns a blind eye so long as nothing negative reflects on him.

Fan eventually makes friends in prison, including the friendly Sing (Ki) and Sharpie (Ma) who has an agenda of his own. When word reaches Fan that his Nana is sick, he strives to become a model prisoner and get released early but will it come in time for him to see his Nana one last time? And once he is free, will he sink back into his old ways?

Based on actual events, the movie never really establishes a “this is the way it happened” feel to it. There are a lot of prison movie clichés that crop up – all that is missing is a prison riot climax – and some of the film actually feels more melodramatic than authentic.

That said, there is also a Scared Straight vibe as well. If you’re going to do the crime, you are likely to do the time and here, ladies and gentleman, is what that time looks like. There is very much a boot camp look to prison in Hong Kong with military-like marching, prisoners shouting “Good morning, sir!” at the top of their lungs every morning during role call and entire companies of prisoners forced to do push-ups and laps for the transgressions of a single guy. While there are beatings administered and sadistic punishments inflicted, there isn’t a ton of blood and the violence is pretty tame by American prison movie standards.

The two leads, Kwan and Hiewk-sau are both strong in their performances. Hiewk-sau goes from a smiling, snarling thug to a disciplined prisoner determined to get out early and see his nana and the transformation is both believable and compelling. Kwan’s character is more of a generic nice prison guard but there is a sub-plot involving his recovering addict wife that gives him more depth.

Hong Kong doesn’t produce a lot of prison movies but when it does they tend to be worth watching and this one is no exception. I would have liked something a little less slick and a little more gritty but I think that the difference in tastes between East and West might have something to do with that. In any case, there is ample reason to check this out should it appear in a festival near you or on your favorite specialty streaming channel.

REASONS TO GO: Hiewk-sau and Kwan give memorable performances. The movie can serve as a warning to those contemplating doing the crime as to what doing the time looks like.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is overly melodramatic in places. The film may be a bit tame for American tastes for this kind of movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Although the movie is fairly mild by prison movie standards, it does contain a brief scene of drug use, some mild profanity, sensuality, brief male rear nudity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mak Yee Ma, who plays the returning prisoner Sharpie, is the former convict whose story the movie is based upon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Violent Prosecutor
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Vampire Cleanup Department

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Hollywood Beauty Salon


Lookin' GOOD!!

Lookin’ GOOD!!

(2016) Documentary (Paladin) Rachel “Hollywood” Carr Timms, Sanetta “Butterfly” Watkins, Darlene Holmes Malone, Glenn Holsten, Crystal Smith, Rashida Herring, Edward Kozempel, Anthony Young, Paris Tyree, Serena Carter, Viola Wilson, Clyde Joelle, Paul Barnes, Cheryl Cobb, Irene Tindal, Margo Chavis, Marva Evans, Diane Daniels, Wilbur Ruhl, Laverne Davenport. Directed by Glenn Holsten

 

As a society we have a tendency to try to funnel the mentally ill, the substance abusers and the poor into places where we can’t see them, where they can languish largely forgotten by the world. The sad thing is that these are all human beings – troubled to be sure, but still just as human as you or I. They have feelings, they have dreams, they have hopes and they have lives. Generally, we don’t give them credit for any of that.

One glimpse of Hollywood Beauty Salon may change your minds. These aren’t drooling, feeble-minded village idiots who can’t dress themselves; at least one of them has a college degree (two of them, at that) and all of them compassion for one another. The stories they have to tell are often horrific; tales of witnessing their mothers commit suicide when they themselves are only five years old and tales of abusive relationships ending in gunfire. These are tales of bullying and foster care, of drug abuse and despair. These people have overcome some genuinely nightmarish pasts and have done so hampered by schizophrenia, paranoia, bipolar disorder and clinical depression. It’s amazing that some of them are here at all.

One of their number, Rachel “Hollywood” Carr Timms, managed to fight through the pain of losing a baby followed in short order by her partner being murdered; suicidal and hearing voices, she got the help she needed and in fact got a license as a certified psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner, enabling her to give back to the community that helped her on the road to recovery. She set up a beauty salon in a mental health recovery complex in the largely African-American district of Germantown in Philadelphia, citing that feeling beautiful helps with the recovery process. Training some of the residents there to cut hair, do manicures and pedicures and apply cosmetics helps give the residents marketable skills they can eventually use to get employment.

But strangely despite the title, this isn’t about the salon, although it does serve as something of a center for the film. It’s about the people in it; their stories, told through dramatic recreations, animated sequences or the old-fashioned way – talking to the camera and/or to each other. Filmmaker Glenn Holsten not only shows us the stories of these people but in a curious meta sort of way, shows us how the documentary itself was put together. For my money, that’s some impressive innovation.

The gist of the film is that under the aegis of Timms, the Salon is about to put on their second annual Hair and Fashion Recovery Show, in which the various clients and stylists of the Salon not only show off their skills but also their tales of recovery. We get to meet Sanetta Watkins, who wants to be known as Butterfly – not only because she loves them and their colorful wings but because they are a symbol of herself, coming out of a self-created chrysalis of loneliness and blossoming into a functioning, social human being. We also meet Edward Kozempel, once a bright and promising flutist who is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and cancer – he loses everything, including his ability to make music and lives out in the streets until the program in Germantown finds him.

Dorothy Holmes Malone tells us a harrowing tale of how she grew up in foster care, always hungry and rarely being allowed to bathe except when social workers were coming for an inspection and endured a childhood full of bullying. She allows her tale to be told through dramatic recreation, her story so affecting one of the child actresses that she bursts into tears to be comforted by Malone herself.

But it is Hollywood’s story that really is at the emotional center of the film; it is hard to imagine losing nearly everything you love in life. She contemplated suicide and only her last remaining child, Cadence, convinced her to stay with the living. “Life is a choice,” she says in typical blunt fashion. She is as compassionate as they come but she can be a drill sergeant when she has to be. To me, Hollywood is the kind of hero America really needs, someone who overcame tremendous odds and gives back to her community in a tangible way. When she is doing some glamour shots for the Show, we get to see some of her inner joy and it is contagious. Everyone needs a little Hollywood in their lives.

Given the headlines of late of terrorism, mass murder and of a Presidential election that is perhaps the most depressing event in American history, it is refreshing to see a story like this one. One might even say it is necessary to our continued mental health to know that there are people out there with the kind of hearts and courage that these people exhibit just to get through their day. Sure, they break down from time to time but for the most part, these people are just like you and me. They have dreams. They have hopes. They have lives. And I’m glad we got to share a little bit in them. It truly made my day a lot better and how often can a movie do that?

REASONS TO GO: This is a movie that shows a whole lot of heart but brings a whole lot of tears. The stories as horrifying as they sometimes are all are triumphant in their own way. The animations truly enhance the story.
REASONS TO STAY: The story jumps around a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: Some very adult themes coupled with some sexual references and allusions to violence and drug/alcohol abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed over the course of four years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life, Animated
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Ghostbusters (2016)

The Last Rites of Joe May


Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

(2011) Drama (Tribeca) Dennis Farina, Jamie Anne Altman, Gary Cole, Meredith Droeger, Ian Barford, Matt DeCaro, Mike Barcella, Chelcie Ross, Rich Komenich, Brian Boland, Kyle Gibson, Peter Defaria, Billy Dec, Jack Bronis, Nydia Rodriguez, Phil Ridarelli, Dennis Sepanik, Ernest Perry Jr., Craig Bailey, Hans Fleischmann, Maureen Steindler, Andrzej Krukowski, Marla Seidell. Directed by Joe Maggio

There are people who hang out on the fringes of society, people who never get a break in life but live as if they make their own breaks. They are the kings of their own domain, so wrapped up in their own fantasies of greatness that they never truly realize how pitiful they are. Joe May is a lot like that.

Joe May (Farina) has just checked out of a Chicago hospital after a bout of pneumonia. He takes a city bus to a local bar where the bartender exclaims “I thought you was dead!” in a tone that suggests he doesn’t really care if he was or wasn’t as long as his tab gets paid. After having a few drinks, Joe heads back to his apartment.

Only it’s not his apartment anymore. The landlord, falsely believing Joe had passed away, had rented it out to a single mom named Jenny (Altman) and her daughter Angelina (Droeger). Joe’s not particularly fond of kids but after sleeping out in the cold streets of Chicago on one winter night is enough to convince him he needs a place to crash in a hurry. Jenny, needing help making ends meet, gives him the spare room in exchange for help with the rent. Bad idea.

There’s nothing sexual about their relationship but Joe slowly becomes involved with the lives of Jenny and Angelina, striking an unexpected bond with the little girl who is street tough beyond her years. Joe is getting dregs jobs from his old boss (Cole), schlepping a side of lamb around to restaurants trying to get them to buy the meat at a cut rate price. Yeah, I wouldn’t bite either if I owned a restaurant.

To make matters worse, Jenny’s boyfriend (Barford) is a cop who once in a while likes to give his girlfriend a beating. For an old school man like Joe, this simply cannot stand. With all the burdens finding their way to his shoulders, Joe decides to take one last shot at redemption.

The late Dennis Farina was one of the great tough guys in cinema for the last 30 years. This was one of his finest roles – many have thought it was THE finest performance of his career. I’m one of those; Farina was never really a leading man during his distinguished career, but he showed here that he could carry a movie on his own. Joe May is a bit self-deluded and more than a bit cynical, but he wasn’t a bad guy really. He just has the kind of fashion sensibilities that Popeye Doyle would have admired, and maybe he was stuck in the 70s a little bit. But beneath the swagger, there was a man who was world-weary and maybe the nagging doubts that he was in fact a loser were beginning to ring that doorbell to his psyche a lot more insistently.

Filmed mostly on the West Side of Chicago, this is the less glamorous side of the Windy City. There are no skyscrapers, no great museum and little of the awe-inspiring architecture of the Loop and the downtown area, nor does it have the unique charm of the South Side. This is a working class neighborhood with squat buildings low against the freezing cold. This is a place you survive, not live in.

The script is pretty well-written with believable dialogue and the supporting cast, while not well-known for the most part, does a surprisingly strong job. If the action is a little bit predictable (hey, the title gives the denouement away) it is still intriguing and having Farina at his best certainly elevates what might have been a pedestrian tale of an old villain looking to redeem himself before he dies. His performance is certainly worth its weight in gold here and even if the movie isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, you’ll rarely see it better.

WHY RENT THIS: Farina delivers one of the finest performances of his career. Shot with an uncompromising eye.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult situations, foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farina was a Chicago cop for 18 years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An interview with director Maggio and an outtakes reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Information not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sling Blade
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Jack of the Red Hearts