The Cove (Psihoyos, 2009)

Damning circumstantial evidence floods much of Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove, a superb documentary highlighting the economic, social, and political factors causing the annual slaughter of dolphins by Japanese fisherman. Using a myriad of potent interviews, telling confessionals, and not so civil acts of disobedience, the filmmakers construct a daring plan to document the operation from the inside out. It all leads to a bloody final crescendo confirming the film’s social and political thesis, haunting video footage of fisherman slowly stabbing the dolphins to death.

The images aren’t for the faint of heart, but thankfully their brutality does not define the story. The Cove is more spy film than eco-horror, focusing on undermining the process in question rather than simply illuminating the brutalities at work. Psihoyos and his devoted team get their inspiration from legendary environmentalist Richard O’Barry, who ironically got rich in the 1960’s training the dolphins for Flipper. This dynamic gives The Cove a much needed interior conflict to parallel the exterior danger the crew puts themselves in, staging reconnaissance missions into the titular cove and enduring constant harassment by Japanese police and hooligans.

Arrogance posing as tradition seems to be the root of all evils in The Cove, at least for the corrupt Japanese politicians and businessmen convoluting their message that whaling and dolphin killings are apart of their heritage. This smells like bullshit to a lot of smart, diverse people, and The Cove lines them up to deconstruct and destroy this devastating operation. The Cove presents a one-sided onslaught of information and material, avoiding a journalistic slant in favor of an all out blitzkrieg on behalf of the small cetaceans of the world. Their actions speak louder than words.

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The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Capra, 1933)

The Bitter Tea of General Yen centers around one of those “ahead of its time” romances, an interracial relationship between a white American missionary and a Chinese general/bandit, flung together by chance during the Chinese Civil War of 1927.

But Capra isn’t concerned with romantic foreshadowings leading up to this fateful connection, since the situation stems from a time of war and murder. The disturbing and lovely push-pull comes in a more confined space after the fact, where neither character can move but closer to the other.

Religion, faith, loyalty, and deception play large roles in both reinforcing and reversing stereotypes about Anglo imperialism and Chinese representation, yet the slow attraction between Megan (Barbara Stanwyck) and Yen (Nils Asther) feels genuinely unique, beyond such considerations. When these two gaze into each other’s eyes, the fledgling narrative melts away, Capra quieting the volatile space with the silence of perception and the tragedy of reality.

Even though this connection is born from jealousy, power, and control, both Megan and Yen come to see each other as life-changing forces. There are constant references to the brutality and unpredictability of China and its traditions, but Capra sees these traits in love itself, in the very act of committing to someone or something beyond yourself. The consequences are twofold, damaging to the psyche but completely worthwhile in the long run. The bitter irony of the title might be the greatest aspect of this revolutionary melodrama from Frank Capra, if not its most innovative.

Harry Brown (Barber, 2010)

It’s Death Wish, The Brave One, and Gran Torino, but also so much more. Daniel Barber’s no-holds-barred revenge film Harry Brown transcends its genre ancestors by situating the great Michael Caine front and center, an aged force of brutal morality battling a younger generation of sadists and mongrels terrorizing a London slum. Caine’s anger slowly burns as he watches his wife die, a friend get murdered, and his neighborhood slowly succumb to fear, until finally his vigilance comes to a bloody boil. This violent resurrection is messy and potent, if not completely unbelievable.

Do we root for Harry as he picks these scum-bags off one by one? Yes, since Barber gives his villains no redeeming traits. These teens are savages, leisurely lorded over by an older criminal racket that can’t control them, and must be exterminated to restore civilized order. Not a surprise in films like this. The most interesting element of this familiar arc is how Barber inserts the relationship between violence and entertainment. The opening hook consists of cell phone footage of an unrelated gang initiation, then a horrifying random murder of an innocent single mother. This gives Harry Brown a raw intensity despite it’s polished look.

Barber’s film might not be revolutionary, but it does showcase a multi-faceted Michael Caine performance and a layered variation on the revenge genre, where the worst elements of technology and culture have joined forces and completely rebelled against civilized morality. And in this instance, Harry represents a silent majority of elderly innocents raging against this unpredictable social menace.

A Prophet (Audiard, 2010)

The Prison film depends on a clear thematic dichotomy – long term confinement bleeds out individualism, forcing one to align based on creed and skin color in order to survive. But no matter the locale or level of brutality, these films often end with physical death or mental rebirth, often both simultaneously.

Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, a dynamic crime film charting the six-year prison term of a young French Arab named Malik (Tahar Rahim), slyly subverts these familiar conventions to mask a deeper personal guilt evolving over this specific period of time. The conflict waging within Malik transcends the film’s occasional virtuoso style (slow motion/freeze frame) and meandering plot, deepening the quiet moments inside cells, waiting and longing for something, anything.

During a brilliant opening act, Audiard pushes Malik’s withering body to the side of the frame, painting him into corners, making him ripe for the picking. When a Corsican gang leader named Luciani (Niels Arestrup) needs to kill an Arab snitch, he pounces on Malik and gives him an impossible and iconic choice – kill or be killed. Malik’s clumsy and haunting preparation is only tonally eclipsed by the messy, blood-drenched execution of the murder. Unlike other films of this ilk, it’s an act that literally haunts Malik for the rest of the film.

Most interestingly, Malik begins to see his physical confinement as liberating while his mental framework turns increasingly fragile. But because A Prophet is all about the process of prison life, the ebbs and flows of drug dealing, corruption, and murder, Malik does not wilt under the increasing pressure from all sides. Even though he is seen as a traitor by his Arab brethren and a servant by the Corsican who protects him, Malik begins to understand how to play the game and disavow his demons.

Ultimately, Audiard skirts these character-driven moments for plodding revenge twists and moral comeuppance, diminishing the impact of Malik’s layered journey through hell. But these early indications of guilt and remorse linger throughout the lengthy narrative, ghostly reminders of the prison process and all it’s intricate, tragic machinations.

Machine-Gun Kelly (Corman, 1958)

On the surface, Machine-Gun Kelly (Charles Bronson) exudes a daring confidence, brutally wielding his Tommy Gun without hesitation. But the cracks are beginning to show, and Roger Corman’s hard-as-nails biopic reveals the psychological fragility slowly hollowing Kelly’s gangster persona.

The opening heist is so expertly handled it’s almost shocking when Kelly begins to disintegrate later in the film. Any image of death freezes his cunning reactions and strengths, producing crippling hesitation and doubt. The glaring dichotomy between overarching genre conventions (bank robberies, FEDS) and these personal character flaws makes Machine-Gun Kelly a fascinating beast. Corman’s vision is a bare-bones throwback to Wellman or Leroy, where the antihero’s criminal prowess becomes suspect when challenged by outside forces and interior conflicts.

Even early in his career, Corman understands how the power of particular moments can transcend budget limitations and rough craftsmanship. When an enraged Kelly shoves his machine gun into the belly of an associate and pulls the trigger, the violence is so sudden and jarring the whole scene turns into a slow motion frenzy of panic, for both character and audience. Earlier, Kelly punishes a disloyal partner by shoving his beaten body up against a cage harboring a mountain lion! Talk about making an impression.

But these decisive and exaggerated actions mask the growing insecurity at Kelly’s core, showcasing a diabolical creature on the brink of historical infamy and personal destruction. Corman beautifully complicates the simplistic romanticism behind Gangster iconography by challenging every familiar archetype with seeds of uncertainty and mortality. Kelly’s desperate need to survive eclipses his role as a tough guy, shattering our pre-conceived notions about what it means to be a gangster.

Pit and the Pendulum (Corman, 1961)

Kind of bat-shit crazy unlike anything I’ve seen recently. Vincent Price’s facial contortions, the pitch of his screams, and anguish of his tormented  eyes, all create a form of shredded mania, a personal goblin of guilt walled in by Roger Corman’s exaggerated period-piece decor.

The motif of entrapment plays out in gloriously grotesque flashbacks, splintered by dripping hallucinating color, coming to a head in a diabolical torturous finale. The key to Pit and the Pendulum resides in the shifty eyes of the characters, as their sanity jumps off the ledge into a collective place of lucid horror, each responding to one howl then the next, searching for a phantasm that only exists on the inside.

Yet Corman’s adaptation of Poe feels almost lackadaisical structurally, a fleeting acid trip ahead of its time but too stoned to know it. Aside from Price, the wooden cast sheds bark all over, looking on in horror as their various evils manifest themselves in this morphing vision of anguish and revenge. When the hatchet drops, the pit delivers a seething dose of sin, but it’s too bad Price’s mad dog of a character must be put down to restore order. His improvisational torture chamber seems ripe with possibility, narratively of course.

The Phenix City Story (Karlson, 1955)

Phil Karlson’s striking expose on the corruption and gangsterdom plaguing Phenix City, Alabama in the early 1950’s burns with immediacy, juxtaposing real life accounts of the turmoil against a brutal, politically charged reenactment. The social conflict brimming at the heart of Phenix City stems from the apathy/fear of the townspeople who’ve gradually allowed a local criminal syndicate to grow in power. For Karlson, the devil is in the details of landscape and region.

For all its dramatic flare, The Phenix City Story brilliantly realizes the small human moments of compromise empowering and emboldening this collective evil – a passerby looking the other way, a wife pushing her husband to ignore the conflict, or an influential lawyer towing the political line. Karlson surrounds his lead characters with brooding menace, and initially these good people seem content to ignore the growing problem. But the escalation of violence, from intimidation, to beatings, to murder, roots these themes within a horrific physical context, where the consequences of inaction transcend race and class.

The Phenix City Story reminds of the best American films by Fritz Lang and Sam Fuller, where collective weaknesses and failures produce social blight and political malfeasance. For these directors, the common man holds all the power, but only if they wield it rightfully and justly. Mob violence and vigilantism equate to more of the same, an unacceptable solution when facing generations of inertia.