From 2000

Animal Factory Reveals the Machinery Within the Beast of a Flawed Prison System

Animal Factory. 2000. Directed by Steve Buscemi. Screenplay by Edward Bunker & John Steppling; based on the novel by Bunker.
Starring Edward Furlong, Willem Dafoe, Danny Trejo, Mark Boone Junior, Seymour Cassel, Mickey Rourke, Tom Arnold, John Heard, Chris Bauer, Rockets Redglare, Jake La Botz, Mark Engelhardt, Edward Bunker, Victor Pagan, Ernest Harden Jr., Afemo Omilami, Michael Buscemi, J.C. Quinn, & Steven Randazzo. Animal Productions LLC/Arts Production Corporation/Franchise Pictures.
Rated R. 94 minutes.
Crime/Drama

★★★★1/2
POSTER
This is my favourite of Steve Buscemi’s work as director. His others, specifically Trees Lounge, are good. Animal Factory is great; an almost perfect work of prison cinema. Perhaps it’s because of the intense, raw subject matter. Edward Bunker wrote the screenplay based on his own novel, also based on his own life in the prison system. Most people know Bunker from his work on Straight Time, as well as his acting gig in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Before his acting and screenwriting career, Bunker dealt in everything from drugs, bank robbery, and extortion to various armed robberies over years. His insight into the world of prison life is what informs all of the emotional connection and intensity of Animal Factory. After Bunker started earning money from the movies he realised that his criminal life had been precipitated by bad circumstances, by the failure to make honest money, and other such things, so he was able to leave a life of crime behind.
In that same vein of circumstances we find ourselves in San Quentin, as Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) is sentenced for a minor bit of drug possession and intent to sell. After arriving at the big house he eventually meets an older, more experienced and hardened convict, Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), who takes the boy under his wing. They develop a genuine friendship. Yet Decker is forced to fight against the waves of injustice, the threats to his physical safety and to his manhood, all the while questioning if anybody is really his friend after all. Most interesting is the way Bunker’s screenplay allows Buscemi to look at a genuine snapshot of what it’s like to actually live behind bars. So many prison movies and television shows augment the reality, which is enjoyable. What we really want to see is something that dissects the prison system, a film and a story that gets under the skin of those who often look at American jails as “just fine” or whatever other nonsense they sell themselves to sleep at night. Animal Factory is a searing hot prison movie, one of my favourite in the genre. The performances and the story are what makes this so worth it. Right until the end you’ll find the characters are what root you most in the heaviness of the life these men lead.
Pic1
The title of the film plays directly into its thematic intentions. Ron Decker goes into prison a young, inexperienced man that got a bit too deep in the world of dealing marijuana. A guy who was likely never violent in his life. However, behind bars the other world into which he falls head first necessitates a violent attitude. Almost becoming victim of a brutal rape (several times), getting slashed with a razor, all these sorts of events start to wear down the morality of the young boy that first went through the prison gates. Bunker’s novel and subsequent screenplay examine how people become a product of the system, how young men wind up in a place where the waste of society gets tossed and is allowed to infect them. Yes, people deserve to pay for their crimes. But a guy like Decker, in for dealing weed, or someone who stole a car or robbed a liquor store without hurting anybody, does not belong in a place where lifers can (and will) abuse, rape, and possibly kill them. It isn’t right. In turn, those same semi-innocent young people that come in contact with a life of crime then go on to transform into animals in their own right. By the time Ron will make his way out of prison he’ll be stained, the imprint of criminality branded upon his brain and soul and on his every thought, every action, every move from there on in. These are the sad, hard realities of prison: not everyone in there actually deserves to be, nor do they need to be subjected to the harshness of serving time alongside men doing a life sentence, never to see the light of day again. Those dangerous men influence so much and so many others outside of themselves – often, their victims end up victimising others, and the criminal cycle goes on rambling.
Pic2
How can anybody fault this movie for its acting? So many excellently on the nose performances. Let’s start with the ever wonderful Mickey Rourke, a man who no matter how bad will always charm me. Luckily, he puts in plenty of solid work here, as he does in many other roles. As Jan the Actress, a gentle transvestite soul locked in the clink, Rourke does a great job in the short time the character appears onscreen. A memorable performance out of a group of them. Seymour Cassel, a veritable classic of independent American cinema, is a proper lieutenant-type, one who is strict but has a slightly relaxed relationship with a guy like Earl Copen. Another guy who makes his character memorable enough within a short period of time. Then there’s the awesome supporting roles out of guys like Mark Boone Junior and Danny Trejo, the latter of whom serves as co-producer and has actual experience in the American prison system (in some of the hardest prisons like San Quentin). MBJ is always a nice addition, a fun character actor whose presence is welcomed amongst the already interesting cast of characters. Trejo helps give the film an authenticity, as he’s got the walk, the look, the insight to make his character Vito so real in a casual way.
Furlong does well as Ron. It’s mostly Dafoe who proves his worth as the foundation of the film. His performance contains some of the hallmarks of the typical prison veteran. Many times he’s completely unexpected, an absolute enigma. But it’s in that we discover Earl is just like Ron, probably why he took on the kid so quickly, so easily; and particularly once we realise he’s not playing Ron and doesn’t plan on raping him or anything of the sort. Earl Copen is a man that ended up in the system, became a product of it, then perpetuated his stamped role in society to the bitter end. Dafoe is an interesting actor I’ve always loved. Here, he proves himself every bit deserving of consideration for one of the greats in his generation.
Pic3
I love this film. Back in 2001 I was almost at the end of high school – I remember picking Animal Factory off a shelf in my local Allan’s Video rental store. The first watch I was sold. Awhile later I found the VHS being sold off; evidently not a popular item there. So I snatched that bad boy up. This is one of the VHS tapes I nearly wore into dust, as I’d watched it too many times to count. Because as far as prison films go, this is one of the grand daddies of them all. Dafoe and Furlong, as well as a cast of other fine actors, make the characters believable, instead of a bunch of literal animals like we so often see in other similar stories. These are genuine human beings with aspirations and dreams, even if they’re skewed or altered by the perversity of the American penal system warping the concept of any American Dream they might see as possible. Nevertheless, Buscemi and Bunker together show off a side of prison life we’re not always privy to in fiction. By doing so, certain issues about the justice system, the various injustices which it inflicts on those who enter it, come to light and are magnified for us to watch – in entertainment, in horror, in a shock that actually isn’t all so shocking because of how desensitised society is nowadays (the fact it isn’t might also be shocking in its own right). You can’t ask more of a film concerning prison than for it to delve into the social implications of the system itself. Far as I’m concerned, Animal Factory is a perfect indictment of how we treat the lives of men deemed guilty and shipped to prison where they’re packed in like sardines and forgotten about until their next court date.

Memento’s Deconstructionist Form

Memento. 2000. Directed & Written by Christopher Nolan; based on the short story “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan.
Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Russ Fega, Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Sansom Harris, Thomas Lennon, & Callum Keith Rennie. Newmarket Capital Group/Team Todd/I Remember Productions.
Rated 14A. 113 minutes.
Mystery/Thriller

★★★★★
POSTER
Christopher Nolan has moved on to bigger blockbuster-type movies. Once his reiteration of the classic Batman character hit theatres, nothing was ever the same for his career. Much as I’m a fan of his Batman trilogy, even a big Batman fan before him, the Nolan I prefer most is the one who did Following, remade Insomnia, and of course the one responsible for this cinematic gem, Memento.
Right at the turn of the 21st century, Nolan gave us an interesting mystery film that defies the expectations of the genre. It’s a thriller that works backward through the chronological order, instead of forward, and in a way is anticlimactic. However, for all its different techniques the movie never feels too much like a try-hard indie, hoping to break the mould with a script that’s beyond quirky. There’s every bit of the independent film spirit within this piece of work. Although, Nolan never goes for the cheap thrill. This is a cerebral thriller, stained with blood and mystery and the shattered frame of a brain’s memories. Guy Pearce puts in a whopping performance in a tough role that effectively put him up there with the best actors of his generation. Every scene is interesting because it not only looks good, they all force you to think forward, backward, every which way. The structure of the movie lends a hand to the plot, the focus on memories and a backward sequence of trying to retrace one’s steps (literally one’s memories). A powerful revenge story that’s fuelled by heart, though ultimately a story that never resolves itself fully. And that’s part of the point, as we take the journey with the main character Leonard (Pearce) discovering there’s no way to fully resolve his situation. At the bottom of it all, there’s the question of revenge itself, and if it would make a difference to Leonard.
While Leonard has no short term memory because of an attack on him and his wife, precipitating his seeking revenge, this is a way for Nolan to ask us: is revenge worth it, even if you could remember?
Pic1
Part of Memento‘s interesting charm overall is the way Nolan challenges how we watch a film. In turn, this calls to mind how Leonard himself recalls memory. We come to like he does in the midst of his day, in places where he doesn’t exactly remember (unless they’re marked on one of his cue cards or tattooed on his body). The writing, the scenes and how they’re edited into one another like stitching, this all initiates us into the experience of Leonard and his memory issues.
So while it may feel like a gimmick to some Nolan employs the backward chronological order for a specific purpose, to replicate those ideas of memory while simultaneously playing with the format of film itself, as well as how the audience watches one. The clerk at the motel (played by the excellent Mark Boone Junior) says it best, that feeling like you’re waking up everyday – how Leonard describes his condition – must have everything feel backwards, literally describing the film and its structure: Leonard thinks he wants to do something, but he’s not sure about what he’s just done. The writing is truly genius. If you don’t admire Nolan’s filmmaking, another aspect in which he excels generally, how can you not find his writing compelling? This screenplay speaks volumes. At first there feels like an intricate-style, labyrinthine weaving to the plot. And to a degree there is. Yet the way Nolan presents it makes the difficulty wear off. Soon you find yourself along with Leonard for the ride, full stop. Something I dig is the fact that this backward order of scenes kind of prevents us from trying to think ahead, it takes away that element of jumping past the story and worrying more about “whodunit” than any of the best parts about the plot, the film as a final product, so on.MCDMEME EC031A moment I love is the first real flashback we get from Leonard, concerning his wife. Because it starts out while he’s in the diner, then when he closes his eyes the sound design takes all that noise out – the other patrons, dishes clinking together, food frying, et cetera – and we fall inside his head with him. The cinematography throughout the entire film is spectacular. In this scene, there’s a beautiful, dreamy quality to the memories, the raw, genuine stuff Leonard can remember. This distinctly divides parts of the movie, as we get this nice sort of washed out look to the regular parts of the present, a sparkling beauty to the memories of his wife, a darkness to the night of her death, and then there are the black-and-white flashbacks to other portions of Leonard’s life, including his old job, Sammy (Stephen Tobolowsky), his conversation on the telephone in the motel room. Nolan seamlessly connects these looks to make a whole, a palette that stretches out over just a little under two solid hours. It’s a rich, interesting tapestry that will captivate any curious audience. The directorial choices from Nolan are what make his screenplay work, proving he’s a solid writer as much as he is a director.
The plot is what makes this movie so unique, yes. Pearce is the soul which drives the story. His voice-over narration is spot on. Moreover, he constantly embodies Leonard, keeping us confused along with him until the pieces fall together. The way Pearce plays Leonard makes us feel for him. At times, we might even get a bit frustrated; both for him and with him. In the more frantic moments Pearce truly wrings out the empathetic qualities, pleading with us to feel his pain, and most times it takes very few pleads. He makes Leonard charming, to the point, he’s an odd man due to his condition yet there is a friendly feel to him. This single performance is why I’ve kept an interest in Pearce, no matter the role he takes. A once in a lifetime performance in a strange, innovative bit of mystery cinema.
Pic3
This is one of the first great movies of the 2000s, right as the new century came about. Memento takes you by the hand, down a bumpy road filled with unreliable characters, an unreliable narrator, and throws you down the corridor of revenge on a trail of broken memories. There aren’t any better films that relay the feeling of memory. Above all, Nolan’s writing and directing – aided by the incredible cinematography of Wally Pfister – takes us through the process of what it’s like to rebuild memory, to have to out of necessity for the revenge of a terrible event. Along the way we spend time with Leonard, who’s most certainly a classic film character that will go down with the greats, and Pearce flesh him out well to the point we’re caught up intricately with his dilemma right to the bitter end. Again, I do love Nolan’s later work – The Prestige is one of my favourites out of his catalogue – yet I can’t help returning to his earliest efforts, such as this treat. Over any plot or character developments, Memento gives us a masterclass in form, allowing the cinematic techniques Nolan brings to the screen to play the lead character even above Pearce. Don’t mistake it: this is not a movie, it’s a defining experience of film.

Chopper: A Storytelling Liar

Chopper. 2000. Directed & Written by Andrew Dominik; based on the books of Mark Brandon Read.
Starring Eric Bana, Simon Lyndon, David Field, Dan Wyllie, Bill Young, Vince Colosimo, Kenny Graham, Kate Beahan, Serge Liistro, Pam Western, Gary Waddell, Brian Mannix, Skye Wansey, Annalise Emtsis, & Johnnie Targhan. Australian Film Finance Corporation/Mushroom Pictures/Pariah Entertainment Group.
Unrated. 94 minutes.
Biography/Comedy/Crime

★★★★1/2
POSTERMany true stories are often a rosy-eyed view of the life of their subjects. Too often they devolve into hero worship or over sentimentality. Really, what a good biography deserves is truth. Even if that truth has many sides.
Chopper is a film about infamous Australian criminal, prisoner, author, vigilante, Mark Brandon Read – a.k.a “Chopper” Read. The tagline NEVER LET THE TRUTH GET IN THE WAY OF A GOOD YARN is one of his personal mantras. So, how can a story about a notorious liar find truth? In its depiction of the central character, whose mantra on truth is a huge focus. Using bits of truth and bits of who-knows-if-its-fiction from Chopper himself, director-writer Andrew Dominik explores an interesting chapter of Mark Read’s life, as Eric Bana crawls into the man’s skin, bringing to life his odd habits, his paranoid mind, and his utterly hypnotic foolishness. It’s hard not to like Chopper at times because he’s a vigilante, he likes to prey on criminals. But he is a paradox – a criminal, a murderer, a pathological liar.
Is Chopper Read a good or a bad man? Is he a product of a nasty environment? You be the judge.
Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 5.56.52 PMScreen Shot 2016-04-11 at 3.46.40 PM
A product of the Australian penal system since the age of 16, Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read (Eric Bana) does a bid in jail for having kidnapped a Supreme Court judge, in order to try getting his old friend Jimmy Loughnan (Simon Lyndon) out of Pentridge Prison. Inside, serving in the notoriously well-known H-Division, Chopper kills off a big time criminal in the hopes of climbing the ranks.  Instead of that happening, Chopper finds everyone turns on him. Even Jimmy tries stabbing him, unsuccessfully. With too many enemies after him Chopper has the tops of his ears cut off by another inmate, which gains him notoriety and also a transfer out of H-Division. In 1986, he’s released back unto the world.
Problem is life moves on. But ole Chop, he’s still living inside even on the outside. He’s paranoid, unable to figure out the line between enemy and friend. And soon, the delusional truths in Chop’s head start to work their way into the real world. Then the line between friend and enemy is no longer of importance because there’s no line anymore to separate dreams and reality.
But a few fibs never stopped Chop from telling a good tale, did it?
Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 3.56.17 PM
First and foremost, Chopper is about appearances; both the film and the man. Everything about Chopper is legit, in terms of his tough guy appeal. At the same time he continually feels the need to pump himself up, one way or another. When he shoots a previous victim after getting out of jail, he brings the guy to hospital, yet then denies it to everyone else who asks. Really, Chop? Well, that’s because he has a specific idea of what and who Mark “Chopper” Read should be to the world. So what’s interesting is how director-writer Dominik decides to tackle the many stories, many of which are true, that Chopper has blown up into half-truths and half-fabrications. We go back through events at a couple points, seeing things as they really are, then through Chop’s eyes – often turned into a more elaborate, more exciting version of events. Because that’s another big aspect of the film, and of the man’s life: Chopper was always, above all else, a storyteller. And this is incredibly clear at the end. Without spoiling the plot and the finale, you can see how Chopper thrives off the social nature of his hardness, of his crazy reputation, because after he’s left all alone, nobody to talk/brag to, Chopper becomes a silent man, full of solitude, and there’s nobody there any longer to listen to his ramblings and his inflated ego.
Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 5.31.39 PM
I often say that a certain performance is great because an actor was the only one capable of playing the role. When I say that here, in the case of Eric Bana as Mark Read it is the truest I’ve ever felt about that sentiment. No surprise even Read himself suggested Bana for the part. Because he fits the bill. It is a real transformation, especially for those who know Bana in recent years for his performances. He gained weight, rocked the fake tattoos and the goatee, beefs up his natural Australian accent into a more lower class sounding dialect. Then there’s simply the fact he strikes me as genuinely loony. Bana gets right into the skin of Chopper Read; the bravado, the paranoia, the odd sense of humour. You’ll find it hard pressed to even take your eyes off him for a second. The raw magnetism of his character leaks from every last scene. He’ll make you laugh, he’ll also make you uncomfortable, a bit frightened at times. And you will constantly be unsure of what’s to come next. Read’s volatile essence is in good hands with Bana, giving him a human side even under all the machismo and ego.
Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 6.08.56 PM
Hands down one of my favourite biographies, ever. Nearly a perfect film, as it takes us inside such an enigmatic persona with both style and substance. Lead by an absolutely captivating performance from Eric Bana, giving us chuckles and chills, Chopper is at times horrific, others hilarious, and always it has the ability to hold your attention. Its little quirks are the best, from a scene depicting the subtle effects of speed to the moment where Chop casually hangs a bit of dong for a woman in the bar. See this if you haven’t yet, and make it a priority if you’re a big Bana fan because this is truly the performance which put him on, and will keep him on, the map. Plus, who doesn’t love a bit of true crime? As true as it can get when concerning Mr. Read.